Cry About the Real Wolf l Real Danger in the Sequester l Charles Blow

OP-ED COLUMNIST

Cry About the Real Wolf

By CHARLES M. BLOW

 

The White House horribly botched its messaging on the sequester.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Charles M. Blow

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The Obama administration desperately wanted to define the sequester’s immediate job casualties and calamitous disruptions.

In a way, Obama’s strategy was understandable, and may well have worked on a different group of Republicans from the present crop, which is constitutionally opposed to anything that this president supports.

It’s like one of those Warner Brothers cartoons where Bugs Bunny argues with Yosemite Sam and then takes Sam’s position only to have Sam continue to disagree out of spite and anger and ignorance. In our version, Sam then threatens to blow the economy to smithereens. It would be funny it weren’t so tragically real.

The White House wanted to cause enough outcry that it would pressure Republicans into a deal that would avert indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts.

But the outcry never came. Republicans gambled that it never would. They called the White House’s bluff.

The public had grown numb with the sky-is-falling hysterics in Washington, so much so that few were paying close attention to the sequester. A CBS News poll issued this week found that only 28 percent of Americans said that they were paying very close attention.

Many Republicans played down the sequester’s potential fallout, while fact checkers castigated the White House for exaggerating it.

This seems to have won some converts among the tangentially engaged electorate.

Sure, most people preferred some balance of spending cuts and tax increases, and a plurality blamed Republicans in Congress for not coming up with a deal, according the CBS News poll. But the percentage of people who said that the sequester would either be good for the country or wouldn’t have a real impact was equal to the percentage of people who believed that it would be bad for the country.

And, since the country didn’t fall apart during the first week of the sequester, many Americans may be even more open to the argument that the administration was crying wolf. In fact, the Dow Jones industrial average hit a record high this week, and there were no long lines at airports for any reason other than a brewing snowstorm.

But remember that in the story of the boy who cried wolf, ultimately, a real wolf does show up after all the false cries, and that very real wolf destroys a vulnerable flock.

The lesson, as applied to our present dilemma, is that alarmism erodes credibility, but real danger can still lurk.

The pain of the sequester is that kind that lurks: a slow, creeping disaster mainly affecting those Americans on the fringes who are barely inching their way back into a still-bleak job market — or hopelessly locked out of it — and poor Americans too old or too young to participate in it.

That is how the effects should always have been framed: not as a danger to air travelers and contractors, but as a prowling danger to the most vulnerable in our flock.

Not framing it this way harkens back to a larger problem in our culture: a failure, or outright unwillingness, to acknowledge America’s poor — both working and not — and to appreciate their struggle.

When I think about the effects of the sequester, I can’t help thinking about the people in my hometown in rural north Louisiana and in places like it.

In my hometown, the median family income is less than $30,000, and poverty rates are staggeringly high, according to the American Community Survey. This isn’t necessarily because people don’t take work if they can find it, but because much of the work they can find doesn’t pay a living wage.

So they supplement their salaries with the public benefits they’re eligible to receive.

The town is also home to the Head Start program for the area, and some of the only professional jobs available are at the school.

It is in places like this, places full of the working poor who don’t take airplanes or own stock, that the effects of the sequester will be all too real.

The director of the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the sequester could cost 750,000 jobs this year. Those are not likely to be lost from the top down but from the bottom up. And the estimate of job losses isn’t simply a factor of government pink slips, but the blow to the private sector when billions of dollars are withdrawn from the larger economy.

Pundits and politicians have mocked the cuts for being small in the grand scheme of an enormous national budget, but those are the callous waggings of tongues that have never given voice to the fear of poverty or tasted the bitterness of hunger.

For the rest, the less fortunate, those trying their best to feed their families and praying that illness passes over their houses, these cuts will be no joke.

Those are the people the White House and Congressional Democrats should highlight: good people dealt a poor hand and trying to make good of it.

There is another America, unseen and uncelebrated, where the wolf is ever sniffing at folks’ heels.

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