Over in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, I had a piece looking at one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, a charge that his opponents want to “balance the budget on the backs of [insert key demographic here].”
He has accused the GOP of wishing to “balance the budget on the backs of” veterans, the middle-class and working people in this country, the very people who have borne the biggest brunt of this recession, seniors, and students.
Of course, so enormous is our $1.6 trillion deficit and $14 trillion debt that you couldn’t balance the budget on the backs of any of these groups, or even those of Obama’s favorite target, the rich. Nor do many of the plans he’s denouncing actually “balance the budget” instead of merely making the deficit somewhat less appalling. Yet the claims of budgetary targeting are ubiquitous:
Sometimes, users of the back-burden metaphor fail completely, forgetting that their definition of those whose backs are being broken extends well beyond their particular interest group. In a Washington Post article about states facing immense crises with their pension funds for state workers, J. Michael Downey, a plumber and president of Rhode Island Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 8,000 state and local government workers, said: “They are going to fix this for Rhode Island on the backs of people who have worked their entire lives.”
First, it’s not remarkable that these public employees have worked their entire lives; they’re public-sector workers, so they’ve never seen mass layoffs such as those their peers in the private sector have endured in recent years. Second, if budget-balancing efforts should spare “people who have worked their entire lives,” how about all of those taxpayers?
Third, here are the radical moves that have stirred the ire of Downey’s union: lowering retirement payments, replacing part of the guaranteed pensions with 401(k)-type accounts, and reducing automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increases enjoyed by retirees. (Since 1975, the Social Security Administration has calculated the cost of living to be 3 percent or higher in four of the last 18 years; in 2009 and 2010, the COLA remained flat.) For new hires, the retirement age has been raised from 60 . . . to 62. To most private-sector workers, that still looks like a pretty sweet deal.
There’s a spectacular narcissism to the complaint that one’s own group is being asked to shoulder the entire burden of balancing the budget. The broken-back metaphor is the mark of the political drama queen, hoping for mass public sympathy.
Unsurprisingly, I heard from some Inquirer readers insisting that “the crooks” should pay for it; I would urge all of those with knowledge of “the crooks” to call their local U.S. Attorney’s office.