Friday, April 6, 2012

An American Education, or Why Peter Beinart is Wrong

I choose to believe, given Peter Beinart sends his own children to a Jewish day school, that his recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is well-meaning. Beinart’s angst seems heartfelt and altogether sincere when he observes that parents who elect to send their offspring to privately-funded Jewish schools in the United States “are often asked to pay top dollar for schools with makeshift gymnasiums and antiquated science labs”.

In order to plug the funding gap which philanthropy alone cannot fill so that religious schools might “flourish”, Beinart’s solution is for the federal government to provide “substantial aid to religious schools”, picking up “pick up part of the tab” for those who wish to give their children a Jewish or indeed any sort of religious education. This approach strikes me has highly irregular, counterproductive, and in the longer term a grave threat to the unique American separation between church and state.

Beinart praises the Jewish schools of Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, here in the United Kingdom we do possess many first-rate Jewish schools, such as the Jews’ Free School in north London or Beis Yaakov High School in Manchester, which receive government monies (38 in number as of 2011, or 0.19% of all state-funded schools in the country). The schools cited are labelled as voluntary aided schools, where the state employs the staff and sets admissions criteria, but the buildings are owned by the charitable foundation which has a great deal of influence regarding how the institution is run – a model I sense Beinart may favour.

In the United Kingdom, faith schools are largely Christian in character: 22.88% of state schools for run by the Church of England; 10% by the Roman Catholic Church. Places in these schools are oft in great demand in catchment areas across the country. Regarded for their academic attainment and educational rigour, the phenomenon of competitive secular parents appearing at Sunday Mass for the sake of their kids is sadly not uncommon.

But above-average levels of accomplishment or an ostensible sense of religious pluralism does not make the funding of faith schools by national governments correct or just. The very notion of state funding for religious schools is antithetical to the basic principles of public education, which ought to be accessible to and actively encourage interaction between children of different races, religions, and social strata. By their very nature, faith schools are exclusionary, since they discourage admission of those who do not share in the faith of that institution.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012 Monday, January 30, 2012 Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Seven Notes on the State of the Union

  1. Obama’s State of the Union was crammed full of minor policy tweaks, mostly on the form of tax breaks or tax hikes designed to stop jobs leaving the United States, and encourage those that have already left to return home. My underlying thought throughout the entire address was that, given the calcification of Congress, little or none of his address will actually get passed. See the American Jobs Act for reference, if you catch my drift.
  2. In its tone, and in its agenda, Obama’s speech was rather conservative. Charles Krauthammer commented on Fox that the President’s scope for change has narrowly significantly since Election Day 2008 — forced in no small part by the aforementioned do-nothing Congress. In terms of substance, the speech focused on American manufacturing, lowering the corporate tax rate for entities which create jobs in the United States, domestic energy production, and free trade agreements.
  3. The zeitgeist at present centres around the corrosive state of Washington, and the disproportionate influence of monied interests in politics. Obama offered up nothing to solve either: only a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress, which I thought was illegal anyway.
  4. America’s other hot button topic at this time, income inequality, was directly tackled by the President. He proposed that, “Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes”. There was no indication as to how this might be implemented, and in order to get it done, Obama would have to engage in battle with the Republican House of Representatives. It will likely have to wait until after November 2012.
  5. It occurred to me during the speech — particularly seeing as the whole thing was bookended by the story of Seal Team Six — that President Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments really are untouchable. In sum he removed Gaddafi in six months with no boots on the ground; located and killed Osama bin Laden; opened up relations with Burma; has helped to coordinate sanctions on Iran; cemented ties between Israel with greater economic and military cooperation; and concluded the liberation of Iraq. Beat that, President Gingrich!
  6. This from Andrew Sullivan: “This notion that a country, a democracy, should have the same attitude as troops fighting a war is preposterous and slightly creepy. Yes, we should put aside our differences to get important things done, put aside ideology to focus on solving problems. But we are not a military and the president is not our commander. He is our president. We have every right to argue with one another and to distrust one another at times. The whole idea of getting each others’ backs in a boisterous democracy is deeply undemocratic. I do not want to be a citizen trained like a member of the Navy SEALs. Nor should anyone. This isn’t Sparta. It’s America. And to use the raid on bin Laden as the model of our future cooperation struck me as too easy and trite an analogy”.
  7. In comparison with this previous efforts, this speech was particularly nationalist in that threatening-but-sort-of-okay American fashion. Obama spoke of bringing jobs and wealth home and sticking it to other nations — particularly China. Addressing the Republicans, he said, “Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home”. I understand the sentiment, but I hope this does not signal some awful isolationist turn in an election year.
Thursday, September 22, 2011 Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve

“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace,” John Adams proclaims to the audience after the curtain lifts on the musical play 1776, “that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!”

Though often attributed to Adams, this turn of phrase – always a winner with patrons – is entirely the invention of the author of the musical’s libretto, Peter Stone. It captures with great humour the frustration of a man trying to accomplish something ambitious in the face of a hostile, self-interested legislature.

The American people, it would seem, feel the same way about the 112th Congress, whose approval rating has hit an all-time low. A slender 12pc of voters favour the work the legislative branch is doing at the moment (and one can’t help but wonder who those 12pc actually are). In California, the approval figure drops into single digits at 9pc.

In terms of party politics, fewer now would select the Republicans over the Democrats, less than one year after the former were swept into power in the House of Representatives on the back of a crude, anti-establishment sentiment. In this regard, and speaking as an external observer of (and aspiring participant in) the American political process, the most frustrating thing about the decline of the legislature is that it is, in many regards, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For, we are aware of two things when it comes to the Obama-era Republican Party. First, it was the intended aim of the GOP as opposition to make Barack Obama, to quote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a one-term president. Second, the Republican caucus in the House is made up in no small part of representatives who do not believe in the idea of an operative federal government.

It is hardly surprising therefore that between January 2009 and January 2011, Republicans in the Senate used the filibuster to an extent unprecedented in the history of modern American governance. Democrats were forced to use procedural motions to evade the ridiculous 60-vote threshold and pass their healthcare legislation, after a protracted and petty eighteen-month dispute with the opposition.

And, since taking over leadership responsibility in the House, John Boehner and his caucus almost shut down the government during budget negotiations, and brought the United States to the brink of technical default during the debt ceiling debacle. Republicans have largely wasted their majority by passing unilateral measures like the so-called “Cut, Cap and Balance Bill”, which had then and has now zero chance of ever becoming law in the United States of America.

 “We piddle, twiddle and resolve/not one damn thing do we solve”, Adams sings appropriately of Congress, for the Republicans method of proving the federal government’s incompetence is to block the president’s plans and stymie any efforts at bipartisan progress. Congress isn’t working because the people running the institution don’t want it to succeed, and don’t believe it should either.

It is this last aspect which is unique to the Tea Party era. Acrimony between the parties is not a new phenomenon, nor the attempts to hinder each other’s progress. But whilst Democrats and Republicans both maintained different conceptions of the role and scope of the federal government, they did at least both believe it had a right to exist and function, and provide a most basic welfare for its citizenry.

Confidence in Congress is also being slowly put down by the ever-present but ever-worsening relationship between representatives, special interests, and their own self-interest. In 1776, a cabal of delegates led by John Dickinson block Adams’ efforts to break away from the British Empire: “Come ye cool, cool conservative men/The likes of which may never be seen again/We have land, cash in hand/Self-command, future planned”.

With fiscal and social security, wealth and status, their politics thus move, “To the right, ever to the right/Never to the left, forever to the right/May our creed, be never to exceed/Regulated speed, no matter what the need”[1]. Today’s conservatives remain slavishly submissive to wealthy benefactors, namely corporations who donate large sums in the form of campaign contributions, with the expectation that, say, taxes might be lowered or regulations removed.

This is not to say that Democrats aren’t emissaries in government for their own moneyed interests. The recent scandal surrounding the appropriation of $500 million of federal stimulus funds to the now-bankrupt solar panel production company Solyndra – one of whose investors, George Kaiser, was a fundraiser for Barack Obama during his election campaign – demonstrates that corruption is existent at all levels of the United States government.

But this Congress, and specifically the Republican Party, has achieved something new and altogether worse. In the space of just under three years, the GOP has totally decimated for a good number of Americans the idea that government can accomplish anything good or noble at all. Obama’s future will depend on whether he can recapture the imagination of those currently ambivalent towards him and Washington in general, and make them believe once more that the United States need not be a regulation-less tax haven to succeed in a multipolar world.


[1] When 1776 was be performed for Richard Nixon at a gala performance in the White House, he requested to Peter Stone that the song, “Cool Cool Considerate Men”, be removed from the running order due to its depiction of Revolutionary War era conservatives as power-hungry and focused on maintaining wealth. It was also later cut from the film version of the show, due to similar pressure from the president.

(Source: hackeryblog.wordpress.com)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Obama on Jobs: Bouncing Back

Three things to note on Obama’s speech to Congress tonight, save just how wonderful and rousing it was. First, it was good to see the President actually propose a Bill — a legitimiate criticism the Republicans have made in the past. President Obama asked for $105 billion in infrastructure spending, to be bid for by state and local government and awarded on a needs basis — a sensible scheme. $35 billion is allocated for putting teachers back to work (clearly part of Winning the Future), and other monies are set aside for payroll tax cuts, middle class tax cuts and the sorts of things Republicans can’t technically vote against.

It’s a solid Bill: one that ought to be discussed, debated and passed with haste. I fear this may not happen, since the GOP won’t feel up to voting for the stimulus programmes included in the President’s Bill. And, of course, not only junior but leadership Republicans including Mitch McConnell have spoken openly of wanting the President to fail. Let’s wait and see…

Second, Obama really took it to the Republicans tonight. John Boehner looked extremely annoyed at the repeated suggestion that he, as Speaker, should “pass this Bill right away” — a refrain repeated often throughout the speech. The President used the podium as, dare I say it, a bully pulpit, taking the Opposition to task on tax cuts, their various pledges, and government as a national good. Few points, as such, gained a crossbench standing ovation.

Finally, the most important thing about Obama’s speech, really, was just how good it was, uplifting and inspiring. For the first time, as far as I recall, the President gave a really spirited defence of the role of government in America’s history, and on the importance of Social Security and Medicare to the nation’s future. Addressing the Republicans, and in particular the Tea Party directly, Obama said:

But what we can’t do – what I won’t do – is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades.  I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety.  I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients.  I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy.  We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards.  America should be in a race to the top.  And I believe that’s a race we can win.

Winning the Future. Race to the Top. Rhetorical flourishes, sure, but there was real substance to the speech too, a solid programme of tax cuts and targetted spending. The President ended with a call to action, one far better than the disastrous “call your Congressman” plea during the debt ceiling debate:

President Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made – therefore they can be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.” These are difficult years for our country.  But we are Americans.  We are tougher than the times that we live in, and we are bigger than our politics have been.  So let’s meet the moment.  Let’s get to work, and show the world once again why the United States of America remains the greatest nation on Earth.

It’s a refrain that goes back to the inaugural speech, that the country must pick itself up, dust itself off, and get down to the work of remaking America. In theory, then, Obama is back. But let’s see how Congress digests this Bill, for the political climate is toxic, and they may just spit it all back out in his face.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ronald Reagan: A Republican, Now As Always

Democrats in Washington have a new plaything: quoting Ronald Reagan. As the nation edges its way towards August 2 – the day when the United States will hit its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling – liberals have found a fresh appreciation of the Gipper, taking it upon themselves to reference him whenever possible, as a way one might suppose of embarrassing obstinate Republicans who are blocking efforts to craft a compromise agreement that would raise said limit whilst cutting spending and finding savings in the tax code.

The passage Democratic legislators seem particularly enamoured with comes from a letter Reagan wrote to then- Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker in 1983, at a time when the United States was again coming up against its debt ceiling. It says in part:

The full consequences of a default – or even the serious prospect of default – by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus took it upon themselves to draft their own memo to colleagues from across the aisle around this quote:

We hope you will take President Reagan’s message to heart and put what’s best for America’s economy ahead of gaining a short-term political advantage. Let’s not hold the jobs and economic security of the American people hostage to an agenda that will only cause long-term harm to our great nation.

Such appropriations of Reagan’s musings have led some commentators to assert that, in today’s environment, the former President both would not have been nominated on the Republican ticket and in fact would probably have been a Democrat. Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank argues that the present class of Republicans have “little regard for the policies of the president they claim to venerate”. “Half a century after he left the party,” Milbank concludes, “the Gipper is winning one for the Democrats”.

By and large, all of this is absurd. Ronald Reagan raised the debt ceiling, and indeed he even raised taxes on more than one occasion when faced with a ballooning deficit. But primarily Reagan was a small government conservative who believed steadfastly that government was the problem and not the solution to the nation’s ills. Now, as always, Ronald Reagan would be a Republican.

The fatal mistake Milbank makes in particular is to compare Reagan to the Tea Party Republicans. In his op-ed, he goes to great lengths to point out that not only did Reagan elevate tax rates, but also expanded the size of government via increased spending in on defence and Medicare to the stage where federal outlay was “as high as 23.5pc and never below 21.3pc of GDP”. The House’s most recent pet project, the “cut, cap and balance” Bill, mandates that government spending be permanently set at 18pc.

It is true that Reagan probably wouldn’t be a member of the Tea Party, but the flaw in Milbank’s line of argument is to compare the actions of an official who was forever an executive, in Sacramento and in Washington D.C., with a bunch of fringe legislators. The presidency in its scope and accountability demands a certain level of moderation, which causes whoever enters the office to introduce and support proposals and initiatives which might be incongruent with their most basic philosophy or indeed the manifesto on which they were elected.

Would we, for example, call the most recent President Bush a Democrat because he signed into law the Medicare prescription drug programme? or No Child Left Behind? At once, are we likely to see down the road Republicans wrestling from the left the legacy of President Obama because he reneged on his promise to close Guantanamo? or his opposition to same-sex marriage?

By contrast, legislators of both parties have always distinguished themselves from their presidents in the way that they are able to maintain rigid orthodoxies, and cast votes according, without the prospect of having to account of their decisions later to the American people. In this regard, the Tea Partiers of 2010 bear some resemblance (though only if you squint) to the Class of ’94, who led by Newt Gingrich blocked President Clinton at every turn to the point of a government shutdown.

The Reagan of 1983 who wrote the letter to Sen. Baker even noted this phenomenon in his diary. His entry from November 1, 1983 reads:

Last night the Republican Senate very irresponsibly refused to pass an increase in the debt ceiling which is necessary if we’re to borrow and keep the government running. I sounded off and told them I’d veto every d—n thing they sent down unless they gave us a clean debt ceiling bill.

Mike Huckabee perhaps phrased it most clearly in this regard. “People speak of Reagan as if he was absolutely steadfast,” he told Fox News’ Bill Hemmer. “He was in his convictions, but you have to govern in a way that is different than the way you campaign”.

At this time, as Republican leaders in the House such as John Boehner and Eric Cantor obstruct progress on a resolution to America’s debt crisis, a select band of merry men in the Senate including “Dr. No” Tom Coburn are attempting to drag the GOP in the other direction towards a compromise. Were Reagan alive today, it is evident that he would stand, as a Republican, with the latter, those who possess clear principals but operate in accordance with that great cliché of government that politics is the art of the possible. Reagan indeed would not be a Tea Partier – the record shows that he wouldn’t be a Democrat, either.

(Source: hackeryblog.wordpress.com)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bibi goes to Washington: What he said and what it means

Here follows a glance at Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech which he delivered in a joint session of Congress earlier today. Suffice to say, his statements garnered much appreciation from the attendees, and at times he appeared to own the room, even going so far as to lean jauntily on the podium as if he were at a roast for Joe Biden, brushing off a heckler with casual ease. His address offered a number of statements on peace and the Palestinian state, which are worth a closer look.

And you have to understand this: In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. …This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.

Netanyahu’s use of the term “Judea and Samaria” is telling: above all, this reference to the Hebraic terminology for the West Bank and his overtures to the ties between religion and land are to be read as reassurances to certain members of his coalition. Parties like Shas, and other religiously-orthodox parties who do not believe in the two-state solution, are essential to Netanyahu to keep him in power and his rightist coalition together.

I stood before my people — and I told you it wasn’t easy for me. I stood before my people, and I said, “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, “I will accept a Jewish state.”

One of two instances whereby Netanyahu defined the preconditions for fresh talks, it signifies a further shifting of the goalposts. Previously, it had always been required of the Palestinians to accept Israel’s right to exist. This was achieved in 1993, when as an addendum to the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin in a letter: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”. Now, Netanyahu demands (again, as an act of appeasement) that the PA recognises the right to exist as a Jewish state. This had not been required prior to his premiership.

The vast majority of Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighbourhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and greater Tel Aviv. Under any realistic peace agreement these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel.

This is a poorly-veiled code for the desire to see annexed into the State of Israel, once the borders are defined, the major Israeli settlements in the West Bank that lie close to the 1967 borders. For ‘suburbs of Jerusalem’, read Ma’ale Adumim in particular, and places like Har Homa and Gilo. ‘Greater Tel Aviv’ likely refers to Ariel and the towns in the northern-central area. In terms of ‘places of critical strategic importance’, this refers probably to the Seam Zone, the area in between the Green Line and the Security Barrier, which Israel asserts is key to the security of the State. This would involve the incorporation of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem.

In any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.

The central West Bank is dotted with smaller settlements that would be given up in any peace agreement. This statement perhaps refers to those who reside around the major Palestinian localities, in particular Hebron where violence has flared up in the past and there is clear delineation between Jewish and Arab areas of the city. Any final agreement would have to deal with some security arrangement for these settlers.

Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state. And here’s what this means: It means that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel.

The right of return was referenced repeatedly throughout the speech, making it clear that Palestinian would not have the ability to return to the old villages of the Mandate. This was the position of President Clinton set down in his Parameters, which allowed for Israel to pay restitution to some refugees and assist in finding residence for them in the new Palestinian state.

Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.

Previous sketches of agreements have allowed for a rump East Jerusalem in Palestinian control, but this has been the position of every Likud Prime Minister since Menachem Begin, who made this very same point in a speech to the Knesset during negotiations of the Camp David Accords. And, it is the position of the city’s mayor today.

Netanyahu later stated that: “I know this is a difficult issue for Palestinians, but I believe that with creativity and with goodwill, a solution can be found”. Thus, Netanyahu wills a united Jerusalem, but would be prepared to allow for limited Palestinian sovereignty or self-governance in predominately-Arab areas of the city they call Al-Quds.

It’s absolutely vital, that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized. And it’s absolutely vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.

The desire for a demilitarised state echoes the position President Obama took in his address on the matter last week. In terms of the Jordanian border, this has been something Netanyahu has sort for a long time, however it would if implemented severely undermine the sovereignty of any Palestinian state if the Israelis were to control access of all land borders. One suggested compromise has been for a neutral force (the UN, the EU) to patrol the Israel-Palestine-Jordan border.

I say to President Abbas, “Tear up your pact with Hamas, sit down and negotiate, make peace with the Jewish state. And if you do, I promise you this: Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as the new member of the United Nations. It will be the first to do so.”

The second precondition, and a further change in the Israeli position. Prior, Israel had always said that it could not negotiate with the PA, because it did not represent the will of the Palestinian people. Following the Fatah-Hamas reunion, Netanyahu is now saying we cannot speak with you, precisely because of this pact with Hamas. Abbas has sought to reassure Israel and the United States that the current negotiating team will remain and will not alter to involve Hamas. This may not be enough. Hamas would have to alter its charter radically first, as the PLO did in 1988 before negotiations can begin in earnest.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Elephants in the Room

Whether you live in the United States or not (or whether you just act like you do), everyone regardless of nationality should be concerned with the debate ongoing in Washington with regard to the federal budgets for this year and the next.

For, if the European Union is discounted, and in spite of astronomical Chinese growth, the United States by a distance has the world’s largest economy, with a GDP of over $14.6 trillion. When a dove flaps its wings in the Capitol, the wind currents can be felt for thousand of miles across the oceans. We all have a stake in the nation’s long term fiscal stability and potential for growth – what’s great for America is good for us all.

Citizens of the world have just reason to worry, then, given the current size of their national, or external, debt (a combination of public debt and intragovernmental holdings). At the time of writing, it stands at a level 97pc of GDP, some $14.2 trillion. While it is certainly common for industrialised nations with welfare mechanisms to run up large deficits, and although America’s external liabilities as a percentage of GDP is not as large as some of her European allies (Great Britain’s, for example, stands at 398pc of GDP; Norway 861pc), it is evident that the weight of such a large debt around a nation’s neck will hamper chances of economic recovery now and prosperity into the future.

What is more troubling than the size of the national debt, however, is the petty and pathetic nature of the debate surrounding what is to be done to smite the beast. At this time, the Republicans control the purse strings in a manner of speaking, being as they are in control of the House of Representatives. The freshman class of 2010 in particular were elected on a Tea Party mandate, which if it is anything at all stands for taking a serious look at the size of government and the deficit.

Yet during the initial months of this Congress, the GOP has used concern over government debt as cover to defund public programmes they consider to be ideologically heterodox. The House has voted to defund public broadcasting, including NPR, and Planned Parenthood, which provides vital health services to women across the country including breast cancer screenings (and abortions, for which it received no federal funding). Moreover, the Republican budget for fiscal year 2010-11 proposes cutting legal aid and home heating oil for the poor. When totalled, these vital services equate to a miniscule proportion of federal outlay.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to ignore the three great juggernauts with constitute the majority of non-discretionary expenditure: social security, Medicare/Medicaid, and defence. The root to smashing the national debt lies in serious reforms to entitlements programmes (43pc of the budget), and taking a sledgehammer to spending on bombs and F-22s (20pc). Instead, Republicans are wasting the American people’s time with such ludicrous ideas as a Balanced Budget Amendment, which Bruce Bartlett has deemed ‘stupid’ and Ezra Klein ‘dangerous’.

To focus entirely on expenditure, however, is to only see half the picture. The federal government doesn’t only have a spending problem, but a revenue issue too. Thanks to two successive rounds of tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration, which were then renewed under the deal cut with the GOP by President Obama over the winter, the top rate of tax was slashed from 39.6pc to 35pc. As a result, over the course of the past ten years, as federal spending increased, individual income tax revenue decreased as a percentage of GDP from over 10pc in 2000, to around 6pc by 2009. Simply by letting the Bush tax cuts expire, federal intake would increase to such an extent that the Centre on Budget and Public Priorities project the deficit would be cut in half by 2021.

These are the elephants in the room that the some of the elephants in Congress don’t want to discuss. As Bill Maher has framed it, if the national debt is a plate of food, then lawmakers are ignoring the chicken, potatoes and rice, and are playing with the sprig of parsley on the side of the plate. Republican Congressman and Senators are too bound by corporate interests and the wants of wealthy party donors such as the Koch brothers to even discuss tax increases, and ideological dogmatism stops them from touching the sacred Pentagon.

The United States has real and immediate problems to confront. On midnight Friday, the federal government will in effect shut down if the legislature and executive cannot reconcile over the aforementioned piecemeal cuts proposed for the budget fiscal year 2010-11. Republicans have passed their punishing budget with $67 billion in cuts to vital services; the Democrats are seeking a deal at around $33 billion, but Speaker of the House John Boehner has yet to endorse such a compromise.

For now, the two parties need to come together to forge an agreement close to the $33 billion in cuts to allow the work of the federal government to continue, so unemployment cheques can be issued and payments of veterans made. But in the long run, this garnish-based approach, rooted in doctrine and bigotry, cannot continue. America’s elected officials must – for the sake for the nation, its people and the global economy – make a studious, careful and honest appraisal of the national debt, and examine ways to increase revenue and decrease spending which won’t take the axe to, and kill the effectiveness of, essential welfare services.