Fiscal Cliff: Are We Really Going to Do Surgery With An Ax?

By Lily Eskelsen, NEA

We’re all in trouble when I start a sentence with, “… and reasonable people in Congress will find a way get this done…” and the room explodes with laughter.

Because we’re in this mess for lack of a sufficient number of reasonable people. When this soap opera began, there was a standoff between Democrats and Republicans in Congress over how to balance the budget, and with the clock ticking, if they didn’t get agreement it would mean (again) the shutdown of the Federal government.

Since neither side actually wanted to see that happen with an election coming up, they agreed to put it all off until now. They said things would be different because they agreed to come back … with axes.

The deal with the devil was that if they couldn’t agree on how to balance the budget, all the Bush tax cuts – some of which helped the middle class and some of which helped the rich – would expire (as the law requires unless they are extended) AND practically everything in the national budget would be chopped by 10%.

They would just start swinging axes blindfolded at everything from funding for hurricane emergencies to after-school programs for poor kids. Chop!

Both sides saw (and see) this as a very bad thing. For entirely different reasons. Some don’t want the tax cuts to expire, especially on the richest 2% of Americans. Some don’t want drastic cuts in help for college students and school lunches.

Some want to keep the mystifying tax breaks for mega companies moving U.S. jobs to China. Republican and Democratic mayors and governors and legislators don’t want cuts in federal transportation dollars that help fund road repair and cancer research or state universities.

So, no one actually wants the ax to fall, at least not indiscriminately. To get this done in a purposeful way that protects the middle class and protects communities, we will need a critical mass of reasonable people who have to see that you cannot hack your way out of this. Across the board, blind cuts will be devastating to children and their families.

We need balance. We need focus. We need more money.

It’s a matter of fairness. The richest 2% of the country got the lion’s share of the Bush tax cuts. Way back then, the country was told that giving huge tax breaks to the richest of the rich amongst us would improve the economy and create more jobs and it would trickle down like mana from heaven on the rest of us as they shared their wealth with workers. There is no evidence that has ever happened.

Ending the Bush tax cuts for the biggest wealth, closing tax loopholes for large corporations and ending the policy of rewarding businesses who ship jobs and profits offshore would raise a trillion dollars. That’s just fair.

And it’s just smart to take off the blindfold and really look at the federal budget and use common sense to balance our revenues with our national priorities.

I’m an elementary teacher, so I see the world through children. I know that a first grader only has one chance to be a first grader. I know a high school senior only has one chance to be a high school senior. You can’t tell them to wait for a better Gross National Product to get the Special Ed teacher they might need or reading tutor in a Title One school that serves our poor families, or the band class or basketball team or AP Chemistry course that could have earned them a scholarship.

We have to prioritize our children – their health, education and safety – in any reasonably balanced budget.

They are 100% of our future. It’s not a cliché. It’s real.

Reasonable people will understand that we have to protect children, and we’ve got to protect senior citizens and their retirement security. Older people who depend on that modest Social Security check and the ability to get to a doctor when their health becomes more fragile, would spiral into poverty without receiving the middle class benefits that it took a lifetime for them to earn.

How does it help the economy for them to be destitute and bankrupt from medical bills? It’s not a balance to have our seniors see cuts in Medicare or Social Security and not ask millionaires and billionaires step up and do their fair share.

This is more than math. This is a moral obligation. It will take the thoughtful precision of true patriots to find the balance; to find the needed revenue to avoid over-the-cliff cuts in health, education, retirement security and essential infrastructure; to find the way out of the wilderness of the financial mess from which the world is still recovering.

To charge into surgery wielding sharp axes is an irresponsible act of irresponsible people.

You do not swing axes around children.

This article was first published in Lily’s Blackboard.

Lily Eskelsen, an elementary teacher from Utah, is Vice President of the National Education Association. She is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and one of its most influential Hispanic educators.

[Photo by Liz (]

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