Starving

On the night the health-care bill passed, I had gotten home from work at ten, and I was starving; on the nights of my evening class, I tend to eat a frozen vegetarian gluten-free dish that tastes like cardboard with tomato sauce.  I guess that’s why I kept flipping back and forth between C-SPAN and the Food Network.  The Food Network was showing an Iron Chef episode dedicated entirely to ricotta cheese, and C-SPAN was showing endless rounds of voting, and then some yelling that I couldn’t quite make out.
 
It was clear, I think, that the blonde woman who made the ricotta sponge cake was in the lead, but the health care bill was definitely a nail-biter at times.  According to the judges, the cake was “like eating a cloud,” whereas the health care bill was often alleged to be an expensive luxury that we simply cannot afford.  Whenever anyone tried to point out that the current health-care situation in this country has spiraled out of control, is already costing scads of dollars, and is killing people, they were accused of liberalism or worse.
 
But somehow, a watered-down version of the health care bill that we actually need, i.e., one with a public option, squeaked through, and while the Republicans immediately threw some kind of weird Hail-Mary-pass technicality, I had flipped back to the Food Network by that point and still don’t really understand what went on.  At one point, I heard so much booing and yelling on C-SPAN that I could have sworn I was watching “The Prime Minister’s Question Time,” and apparently someone called Rep. Bart Stupak a “baby killer.”  Last I heard, Stupak was ardently anti-abortion, but I guess all’s fair in love, politics, and the bizarro-world of today’s GOP.
 

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In fact, nothing about the health care brouhaha has made much sense to
me.  In addition to the craziness about “death panels,” much of the
debate has been in terms of whether or not we can afford health-care
legislation, which will evidently cost the taxpayers nearly a trillion
dollars over a period of ten years.  True, this does seem like a lot of
money.
 
Just for the heck of it, I tried Googling to see how much the Iraq War,
which everyone now realizes was waged on false pretenses and basically
a disaster, has cost us so far.  Surprisingly, it’s a bit hard to find
a reliable number on this, but let’s go with the National Priorities
Project
‘s current estimate of $713 billion and counting.   Even if this
is a wildly inflated figure, I think we can all agree that we have
spent a pretty penny over there.   
At this point, perhaps there’s no reason to rehash the sordid details
of the war, though it’s impossible to discuss it without noting that it
has cost the lives of 4,390 US soldiers and wounded upwards of 31,000
of them.  Thousands of Americans continue to serve over there in “the
desert,” and their bravery astounds me.  I think we can all agree that
talking about costs when it comes to human lives is repulsive.

Which brings us back to health care.  Clearly we can’t afford much of
anything at this point because the surpluses of the ’90s are long gone,
but I can’t help noticing that when we talk about war, no one mentions
the costs (and as I recall, the costs of the Iraq War were not even in
the Congressional budget), but when we talk about any kind of social
services, suddenly everyone is all about fiscal prudence.

Last month, I wrote about Grover Norquist, the anti-tax,
anti-government conservative who said, “I don’t want to abolish
government.  I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it
into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  The more I thought
about that, the more it seemed to me that this philosophy, known as
Starve the Beast, has been wildly successful.  Using a combined
strategy of cutting taxes and spending lots of money, the Bush
administration managed to bleed America’s coffers so dry that we’re now
haggling about the costs of things that didn’t use to be controversial;
budgets have been cut for everything that government used to pay for
routinely, and these cutbacks have trickled down into every aspect of
our lives.  For example, I heard someone say on WTOP the other day that
local roads are not being repaired as often as they have been in the
past: thus, the burden of expense shifts to the individuals whose axles
are broken in potholes.
All this time, I’d been under the impression that Bush’s handling of
America’s economy was a case of bad management, and that although he
was clearly no rocket scientist, perhaps in his own weird way, he meant
well.  But the more I contemplate the Starve-the-Beast agenda, the more
I wonder if in fact he did it on purpose.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would deliberately take the richest
country in the world and run it into the ground, but in the course of
my Googling, I ran into a New York Times article from August of 2001
that suggests that Bush shared Norquist’s philosophy: “President Bush
said today that there was a benefit to the government’s fast-dwindling
surplus, declaring that it will create ‘a fiscal straitjacket for
Congress.’ He said that was ‘incredibly positive news’ because it would
halt the growth of the federal government.”

Perhaps no one took notice of Bush’s remark that day, and as we all
know, we soon had our minds on other things.  But it was not long after
Bush made this statement that he decided to wage war on Iraq, and one
can only wonder if he cackled to himself as he contemplated the
“positive news” that the war would create as it gobbled up that surplus
and roared for more.

What Bush and his ilk appear not to realize is that when they starve
the beast, they are injuring the country they purport to love.  In the
recession that President Obama has inherited, all around us, people are
losing their jobs, their houses, and their health insurance, and their
lives are falling apart.  Even if some of us are doing all right–and I
personally have nothing to complain about–we have probably all seen
these things happening to people we know, people we love.  In this time
of financial crisis, the government (which arguably should have
prevented that crisis) should be trying to save lives by reducing the
costs of health care, as well as creating jobs.  I’d rather see
President Obama create a WPA-style jobs program than commit more troops
to Afghanistan; in fact, I’d rather see him put a chicken in every pot,
or at least a Tofurkey, and put solar panels on all our houses.  The
government is here to serve us, the people–we are the government. 
Starve the beast and you starve us.

Anyway, at least the bill passed, which was, as the Vice President
noted, a big effing deal.  And over on the Food Network, the blonde
chef with the cloud-like sponge cake won, and her rival congratulated
her and conceded defeat with a classy bow.

About the Author

Abby Bardi
Takoma Park expatriate Abby Bardi explores the wickedness of modern life in her Voice column, "Sin of the Month." Born and raised in Chicago, Abby has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England’s country and western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College. Author of "The Book of Fred," (Washington Square Press: Simon & Schuster 2001), she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.