If you want to cut government spending, legalize pot, plus more pearls on government spending (or lack thereof) and the Austin Film and Green festivals.
Austin's cup truly runneth over in events and culture, but in terms of film, it's almost getting ridiculous. The Austin Film Festival kicks off Thursday, Oct. 9, and runs for eight days. This was the first national film conference and festival to focus on the screenwriter, and, though now there are a number of imitators, it is still the best. The panels feature an impressive lineup of many of the best writers in the business. The festival is equally impressive. Films include Mystic River (presented by scriptwriter Brian Helgeland), Prey for Rock and Roll (with actress Gina Gershon), Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Girl With the Pearl Earring, Off the Map (with the always great and often underrated Sam Elliott), and Pieces of April. Local films include Clark Walker's directorial debut, Levelland, and John Schultz's When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Two other screenings are of special interest. Hearing Neil Young talk about the various manifestations of his Greendale project -- music, performance, and film -- recently at the Toronto Film Festival was a revelation (at AFF he is presenting the film). Young was smart, passionate, funny, and articulate about his creative process. Regardless of what critics say about Greendale, positive or negative, the way Young lit up when he commented on how great it was to be able to play 10 new songs in a row in concert was inspiring. He really loves making music and taking chances. I'm also really looking forward to Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, a documentary directed by Lisa Gay Hamilton and produced by Neda Armian and Jonathan Demme.
The consequences of budget-cutting are yet to be even close to fully felt, with many of those most gleeful about cutting back on government services soon to face how these actually impact their families and themselves. The cutting is mostly going to affect social welfare, health, and education. Given budget shortfalls in this state, massive cuts were unavoidable. Nationally, shortfalls aren't such an issue because the government can easily go into debt, but with massive tax cuts and steep spending increases (mostly related to security, defense, Afghanistan, and Iraq), the federal debt is massive. Right-wing conservatives have abandoned their long-cherished hatred of debt, knowing that the only way this deficit will be dealt with is by limiting government. This administration certainly isn't going to raise taxes or cut military spending, but will instead even further gut social welfare services, education, and health. Those deliriously dancing around the tax-cut, smaller-government bonfire should consider that much of what is now being cut will be restored, because these programs deal with ongoing problems. We are witnessing a hard-right drunken bender, and in the grip of delusion and in the name of redecorating, the house is being kicked in and vandalized. The long-term effects of current budget cuts and record-setting deficits are being dismissed rather than seriously considered. Unfortunately, after the evening's merriment comes the dawn's harsh light.
There are some ways that budgets could be quickly cut, but they won't be because of ideology. Decriminalizing marijuana would be a great place to begin. Republicans, conservatives, successful businesspeople, and elected leaders smoke it, and yet we're still busy arresting hundreds of thousands of Americans for possessing it each year. Cutting out the enormous cost of the arrests, prosecutions, and jail time would be relatively simple. If you believe in God, creationism, and/or intelligent design, you should be pro-pot. It's there growing in the wild. Look at any natural vegetation on your lawn and imagine that picking weeds is illegal; it makes as much sense. Alcohol has to be distilled, pharmaceuticals manufactured. Pot grows (please spare us the inappropriate example that pretty flowers can be poisonous). Keeping pot illegal is outrageously expensive for government and damaging for individuals and families. We don't want to pay for our poorer neighbors' health care or education, but we're happy to dig into our pockets when it comes to wrecking lives?
Screw the medical-uses waltz, just decriminalize and tax it. Given the outrageous street markup of pot (compared to what it costs to grow), wouldn't you rather have that money go to the government than the underground, outlaw economy?
Conservatives celebrate Ashcroft's dismissal of plea bargains, support harsh mandatory sentences, and are thrilled that the House is planning on reviewing judicial sentencing, despite the separation of the branches of government. They argue that too many criminals are going free and that these measures deter crime (meanwhile, the United States' prison population is massive and growing). All those methods of judicial tampering are also very, very expensive.
Think about judge-proof mandatory sentencing. First, it negatively impacts true justice, as judges are deprived of considering circumstances. If you scoff at that, then consider the economics. A 50 year old gets a 25-year mandatory sentence. He deserves it, right? Well, when that prisoner is 65, he'll still be in prison. The recidivism rate for senior citizens is negligible. The health costs are astronomical and rising. Criminals usually don't have healthy lifestyles to begin with, and no one has argued that prison time constitutes a good health regime. Medication, doctors' care, operations, transplants, X-rays, and on and on are paid for by the state.
Again, you don't want to help the underemployed with health care, the poor with education, but you don't mind paying for 15 years of health care for a prisoner who, if released, at worst poses a marginal risk to society?
There are certainly excesses in government that withstand any trimming, even as necessary services are cut through the bone. Nationally, there is no better example of this than the defense budget. No wimpy "war is bad for flowers, children, and other living things" attitude here. Just kill the military projects the Pentagon doesn't want. Only politicians prevent that from happening, because that money goes to their districts and creates jobs. At least that's what they say; the reality is that, not only does social spending create even more jobs, but it is a method of dispensing funds that better serves the community. Only social spending is regarded as money wasted on fraud, worthless government workers, and lazy citizens, while defense is praised as one of the few legitimate responsibilities of government. In reality, social spending is very cost-effective; military spending is not. Contractors are allowed to make a 15% profit -- think how creative bookkeeping or market forces might raise that rate. Preserving jobs allows for great PR spin, but the reason defense spending is so hard to kill, even on projects the military doesn't want, is that it is so damn profitable. This money finances lobbyists and funds politicians. Dependent on it, they are going to do everything in their power to preserve it. Social spending boasts no such excesses and mostly serves the disenfranchised, so it's easy to cut, even when it's necessary. Don't buy the job subterfuge: Politicians aren't doing much about jobs hemorrhaging overseas.
The U.S. economy is undergoing a basic and profound shift. We are becoming less a producing, manufacturing country, and more service-, media-, and entertainment-oriented -- although even service jobs are now beginning to go overseas. Some argue that the jobless rate is deceptive, that for a number of reasons it is nowhere near as bad as it seems. I would suggest the reality might well be in the other direction: Many now have jobs where they make less, with fewer benefits, while even some of those who haven't changed jobs have lost benefits. In order for the Bush administration's tax cuts to work, they must spur the economy to late Nineties heights, which were artificially inflated by investment out of proportion to income. The economy is likely to grow, but not at those rates. The best thing the government could do would be to create jobs. Instead, it's cutting them. Unfortunately, any rhetoric in that direction has lost legitimacy. This is one of the reasons Democrats are in such disarray; they have no way to potently express core issues. It will be interesting to see how the Republicans semantically frame it when they finally get around to job creation, as they almost inevitably will.