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SPOTLIGHT
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The agony of watching our nation on its knees

Published on -1/1/2013, 12:28 PM

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My favorite part of the budget negotiations is when a glum-looking John Boehner -- backed by the vulpine Eric Cantor, eyes blazing -- steps in from of the cameras and accuses Barack Obama of "not negotiating in good faith." And he does it with a straight face.

Apparently, good faith negotiation to a Republican consists of demanding unconditional surrender and an apology for disagreeing in the first place. This qualifies as theater of the absurd. Republicans can't even negotiate in good faith with each other, for crying out loud, let alone with the president of the United States.

I had high hopes. I admit it. The economy was starting to revive, we had beaten the barbarians back from the gates of the city in the election and Mr. Obama seemed informed by a new resolve.

I was encouraged by Obama's tough talk at the onset of the budget negotiations. He was prepared to cut the size of government and gradually reduce Social Security benefits through a complicated formula, yes. But he was also going to let tax rates rise by a few percentage points on income of more than $250,000 to even things out.

That wasn't good enough for the Republicans. They kept holding out for no rate hikes on the rich, instead leaning heavily on taking money and benefits from the sick and the disabled to balance the budget.

Then Obama offered to raise the tax threshold to incomes of $400,000 or more.

"Oh no," I said to myself. "He's starting to negotiate with himself again. He always does that and he always loses."

But then John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of House, started to negotiate with himself too. He offered to accept a tax rise for incomes of $1 million or more.

This, of course, was unacceptable to Democrats but, as it turned out, the Republican knuckle-draggers in the House wouldn't go along either.

So, at this writing, there we are, on the very edge of the fiscal cliff with no easy way back. (Republican conservatives have an ancient Greek warrior streak in them. They stake out a position, then burn the boats they came in.)

One thing the Republicans were able to agree on was to cut out the cuts in military spending that were coming as part of the cliff deal and apply them to other spending in the budget -- frills like subsidies for higher education, public housing for the poor, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter put it: "Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side." And not a very good insurer at that.

Every once in a while, the question arises of whether the United States of America constitutes "the greatest country in the world." Most Americans, say: "Sure we are."

Really?

I've always had my doubts about that. Whenever international rankings of nations come out -- categories like infant mortality, educational achievement, even overall "quality of life" -- the U.S. seldom cracks the top ten.

The one place where we have absolute, undisputed supremacy is the percentage of our people who are locked up. With just 5 percent of the world's population, we've got 25 percent of the planet's prisoners. We rank No. 1 in this regard, well ahead of the much-larger China, which also happens to be a police state, and Russia, where they put singers in jail for making fun of Vladimir Putin.

Those just don't seem like the kind of statistics the greatest country on earth should generate.

Nor would it put up with a political system where a determined group of informationally challenged zealots could bring the nation to its knees on any pretext that struck its fancy.

We're a pretty good country -- don't misunderstand me. I'm glad I live here. But the greatest on earth?

I'd like a second opinion.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul is a retired Des Moines (Iowa) Register columnist who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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