The Coming Liberal Austerity Program

State and local government budgets for the upcoming fiscal year are a mess.  Most states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets every year no matter the economic climate, so a budgetary process that resembles a kabuki dance in fatter years will probably be more like a mosh pit this time around, as legislators and interest groups battle over who gets what from increasingly empty state coffers.

Republicans are typically seen as the party of austerity, and the teabaggy right has been screaming itself red about deficits and other supposed portents of socialism at every opportunity.  But since Democrats control all branches of the federal government as well as the governorships and/or legislatures of many states in serious budget trouble, the push for retrenchment in government spending during the lead-up to next year’s elections will sport a noticeably blue tinge.

Even though he correctly rejected John McCain’s nutty advocacy of a government spending freeze during last year’s campaign, it looks like that’s exactly what President Obama is planning to do.  “The budget freeze was planned before Democratic setbacks in last week’s elections,” an AP article notes, but recent Democratic election losses “appear to have added urgency to the deficit-cutting drive.”

It’s bad enough that the administration is giving in to conservative paranoia over deficits when government spending is the main thing preventing a full-blown depression, but the apparent fact that they were planning on doing so even if they hadn’t suffered major electoral setbacks is even more depressing.  This doesn’t bode well for hopes that the administration will pony up the cash necessary to support strapped state governments in a time of extreme need.

In my own state of New York, the situation is similarly bleak.  “I will mortgage my political career” on making massive cuts to education and healthcare programs, said Democratic governor David Paterson just last week.  And yesterday, the liberal lions at the New York Times editorial page seconded the call for austerity, singling out New York’s public sector unions for particular scorn: “Democrats are going to have to say no to the unions, especially those representing health care workers, educators and state employees.  It is past time for a less-extravagant pension system that is fairer to taxpayers.  It is also time to consider layoffs or furloughs of state employees, as other states have done.”  How bold!

It’s obvious that something needs to be done to fix state budgets, but the slash and burn approach advocated by conservatives and too many liberals is not just cruel but also economically unsound.  There are far better ways this can be done.  Time to start organizing, even (especially!) if the people making the cuts have a D next to their name.

Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter.  He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn.  This article was published by The Activist on 16 November 2009 under a Creative Commons license.

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