March 13, 2011

“We’re broke.”

You can practically break a search engine if you start looking around the Internet for those words. They’re used repeatedly with reference to our local, state and federal governments, almost always to make a case for slashing programs — and, lately, to go after public-employee unions. The phrase is designed to create a sense of crisis that justifies rapid and radical actions before citizens have a chance to debate the consequences.

Just one problem: We’re not broke. Yes, nearly all levels of government face fiscal problems because of the economic downturn. But there is no crisis. There are many different paths open to fixing public budgets. And we will come up with wiser and more sustainable solutions if we approach fiscal problems calmly, realizing that we’re still a very rich country and that the wealthiest among us are doing exceptionally well.

Consider two of the most prominent we’re-brokers, House Speaker John Boehner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“We’re broke, broke going on bankrupt,” Boehner said in a Feb. 28 Nashville speech. For Boehner, this “fact” justifies the $61 billion in domestic spending cuts House Republicans passed (cuts that would have a negligible impact on the long-term deficit). Boehner’s GOP colleagues want reductions in Head Start, student loans and scores of other programs voters like, and the only way to sell them is to cry catastrophe.

Walker, of course, used the “we’re broke” rationale to justify his attack on public-worker collective bargaining rights. Yet the state’s supposedly “broke” status did not stop him from approving tax cuts before he began his war on unions and proposed all manner of budget cuts, including deep reductions in aid to public schools.

In both cases, the fiscal issues are just an excuse for ideologically driven policies to lower taxes on well-off people and business while reducing government programs. Yet only occasionally do journalists step back to ask: Are these guys telling the truth?

The admirable Web site PolitiFact.com examined Walker’s claim in detail and concluded flatly it was “false.”

“Experts agree the state faces financial challenges in the form of deficits,” PolitiFact wrote. “But they also agree the state isn’t broke. Employees and bills are being paid. Services are continuing to be performed. Revenue continues to roll in. A variety of tools — taxes, layoffs, spending cuts, debt shifting — is available to make ends meet. Walker has promised not to increase taxes. That takes one tool off the table.”

And that’s the whole point.

Bloomberg News looked at Boehner’s statement and declared simply: “It’s wrong.” As Bloomberg’s David J. Lynch wrote: “The U.S. today is able to borrow at historically low interest rates, paying 0.68 percent on a two-year note that it had to offer at 5.1 percent before the financial crisis began in 2007. Financial products that pay off if Uncle Sam defaults aren’t attracting unusual investor demand. And tax revenue as a percentage of the economy is at a 60-year low, meaning if the government needs to raise cash and can summon the political will, it could do so.”

Precisely. A phony metaphor is being used to hijack the nation’s political conversation and skew public policies to benefit better-off Americans and hurt most others.

We have an 8.9 percent unemployment rate, yet further measures to spur job creation are off the table. We’re broke, you see. We have a $15 trillion economy, yet we pretend to be an impoverished nation with no room for public investments in our future or efforts to ease the pain of a deep recession on those Americans who didn’t profit from it or cause it in the first place.

As Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) pointed out in a little-noticed but powerful speech on the economy in December, “during the past 20 years, 56 percent of all income growth went to the top 1 percent of households. Even more unbelievably, a third of all income growth went to just the top one-tenth of 1 percent.” Some people are definitely not broke, yet we can’t even think about raising their taxes.

By contrast, Franken noted that “when you adjust for inflation, the median household income actually declined over the last decade.” Many of those folks are going broke, yet because “we’re broke,” we’re told we can’t possibly help them.

Give Boehner, Walker and their allies full credit for diverting our attention with an arresting metaphor. The rest of us are dupes if we fall for it.

ejdionne@washpost.com