The Perverse Policy Math of the GOP’s Sequester

The Republican strategy for the sequester is finally coming into focus.

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So we're 10 weeks in, and the GOP's sequester strategy is coming into sharper focus. If a cut affects Americans residing at the higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, move heaven and earth to make it right. But if it affects folks who may have less means ... crickets.

So while everyone knows about the heroic efforts of Republicans to rein in flight delays and restart White House tours, we hear a lot less about those who are losing the assistance they need to send their kids to school, eat a hot meal or just make it until they find their next job.

And one is left to wonder: How did a country like America ever get here? The answer is that it's all part of the GOP's long game against government.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

It starts with a perverse kind of policy math that says if a government cut creates an inconvenience we should do something about it. But if a cut takes away something that's critical to your survival today or the life trajectory of your kids, well, you're out of luck.

And the way the sequester plays out – moving slowly across the land, knocking a handful of people out of Head Start here, reducing unemployment checks there – is the perfect way to effectuate a plan as brutal as the one Republicans conceive. Spreading out the impacts keeps the outcry at manageable levels, and ensures that there is no one critical mass of objectors – until it's too late.

And in the mean time, the GOP gets what it's long wanted: The slow withdrawal of government from the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Government will continue to do many expensive things if the sequester plays out as intended: protect the country; administer justice; subsidize some industries and not others. But it will be out of the "help people go as far as their hard work and talent will take them" business. That just won't be its role anymore.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

We can certainly have a society that operates that way. There's no rule against it. But what will America look like if the GOP gets it way?

On the one hand the amount of taxes some pay should go down. And those who are fortunate enough to be born into good life circumstances will have less competition to fear from those who are less well off – they simply will have less ways to get into a position to compete. Presumably that means wealth continues to collect at the upper ends of the socioeconomic structure, while more families fall to the bottom.

That's not how the GOP would describe their approach, of course. But at some point we have to move past hysterical rhetoric about big government and get to the nuts and bolts of the policies they are attempting to effectuate under that banner. Now would be a good time to have that discussion.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Loses Politically With Sequestration?]

It's not only happening on the federal level. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has made headlines by calling on his state's universities to find a way to provide a college education for $10,000. Now I suppose we could conclude that the governor really is concerned about people who can't afford a more expensive education, though there's little in his record to support that notion. More likely, this is his semester sequester. Rather than finding ways for less wealthy students to get the same quality education as their more well heeled counterparts, Perry's putting the onus on the universities to dumb down their educational offerings for a less wealthy track.

All of this, of course, turns the way most of us think about government entirely on its head. When elected officials run for office, they do so by articulating a philosophy about how to address the problems we face – as a community, town, city or country. We vote for them when we conclude their prescriptions fit with the way we would like to see the problems we care about approached. Over the history of this country, that process – electing people who's views align with our own – has resulted in the construction of a state that is more muscular in some areas, less so in others.

Another way of saying: Head Start didn't just emerge like some kind of algae bloom on the national treasury. We, citizens, saw a problem, that disadvantaged kids weren't getting a very good education. We asked our representatives to do something about it. Head Start was one of the solutions they came up with. If public polling is any indication, we like it. And if research is any guide, it works.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the GOP's Problem in its Strategies or its Policies?]

But the sequester means Republicans don't have to debate the merits of Head Start. Instead, they keep the debate squarely in the frame that suits them best: that government is too big, it doesn't work, we can slash away and no one will be the worse for it. But of course they will.

So where does this all end up? My guess is programs that people rely on sustain deep cuts, which becomes an argument to cut them even more: Look! Their performance is inexplicably worsening! And in some cases we get back to a place approximating where we were when the programs were first initiated. Over time, news reports and research bubbles up showing the deplorable circumstances under which some folks live, go to school, etc. Stirred by our conscience and the better angels of our nature we decide something has to be done. And we turn to government. Because that's what its there for.

And at that moment, a cycle of absurd sequester stupidity will have finally run its course.

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