We’ve been in this position before: On the verge of economic ruin. For our oldest generation of pre-boomers, those hungry days and cold nights of the Great Depression left scars for a lifetime and forged what became “The Greatest Generation.”
It was a generation that built us into a manufacturing empire. It was a generation that pulled us out of the worst economic collapse in our nation’s history. It was a generation that won World War II. It was a generation that banded together with a sense of unity and shouldered those enormous burdens.
More than half a century after that generation defined what it is that makes our country great, we have our own fiscal quagmire, we have two wars of our own, but something big is missing: the sense of unity and collective destiny that lifted us all.
Enter the scene on the U.S. Senate floor at noon on Aug. 2 as senators pushed for a 74-26 vote that many openly lamented: raising the debt ceiling to prevent a catastrophic credit default but at the cost of massive cuts in spending that would see thousands of jobs lost.
A number that’s nearly invisible in its effect upon the daily lives of Americans was used as a bargaining chip to give a pink slip to thousands of government workers. The rationale: Surely they’ll soon rejoin the work force in the private sector. But that hasn’t been happening. The average length of time a laid-off worker remains unemployed: 40 weeks — an all-time high. In the depths of the worst economic recession since the Depression, the jobs just aren’t there.
And that comes despite the fact that no taxes were raised during the Legislature’s “compromise” to help cut the deficit. The richest of the rich would pay no more than the current 80-year low in taxes they currently enjoy. Yet, strangely, they’re not creating any jobs to offset the slashing of government payrolls.
“The richest of the rich have contributed nothing to this,” Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said. “The burden is on the middle class. It’s really unfair for billionaires and multimillionaires not to be contributing to this, but they’re not.”
During the Depression, we treated things differently. The deficit, in terms of priorities, took a back seat to getting America back to work. Despite President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cries for fiscal conservancy during his campaign in 1932, he would create some of the most effective job stimulus programs in our nation’s history.
And despite a massive jump in taxes to the wealthiest Americans, the jobs grew anyway. We went back to work, and for the next four years following the first dip of the Depression in 1933, America’s economy steadily grew, despite a deficit. And even with the high taxes, the rich stayed rich.
Then came the “1937 mistake,” in which Roosevelt tightened the fiscal reins, slashed the government budget and watched the economy collapse into the second dip of the Depression the following year. Supply-side economics, the champion of low budgets, won out, and working Americans lost.
Despite having the benefit of numerous historic examples of what works and what doesn’t during the current debt ceiling debate, fiscal conservatives, who drove the debate on compromises with the bill, didn’t even bother addressing the idea of raising taxes on the super rich instead of cutting payrolls.
That’s because a concerted effort to freeze the debt ceiling at an entirely arbitrary limit isn’t a brave move by Congress to finally rein in an out-of-control budget; it’s a political hostage negotiation that has one outcome: Americans will lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room — the richest 1 percent of Americans who already pay absurdly low taxes — once again stood looking over the shoulder of everybody who voted yes, and looked the other way while even more Americans marched toward the unemployment office.