HARDLY A DAY goes by that Congress doesn't discover something new that the nation "can no longer afford," and the list has become so extensive as to suggest a country close to bankruptcy.
We can't, we are told, afford straightforward fee-for-services medical care for the aged population, something most major nations provide citizens of all ages.
Ditto a welfare system that is already providing inflation-adjusted benefits sharply reduced from levels of 20 years ago.
Forget about a comprehensive high-speed intercity rail passenger system. In the United States, alone among the leading industrial nations, this has become frivolous luxury.
A U.S. Department of Education? Who can afford it? So what if we become the only serious nation without a ministry dedicated to the education of its children.
Subsidies for public television and the arts have become such a huge target you'd think we were pumping billions into them. They'll have to go even if they represent a sliver of the budget so minuscule as to suggest an already Philistine level of public commitment to culture.
In the private sector, things are just as bad.
We "can't afford" to raise the minimum wage even enough to keep pace with inflation.
We "can't afford" the present level of environmental protection.
We "can't afford" to be too zealous in the regulation of industry's freedom to endanger the health and safety of workers and customers.
And we certainly "can't afford" measures that would give frightened workers a greater measure of job security, things like a law prohibiting the permanent replacement of lawfully striking workers.
This is because, heaven forbid, all these things might make us less competitive in the global economy.
What we haven't been told is just who has done the arithmetic that shows we're broke. We're never told the measure by which the national cookie jar has become empty or why about the only new thing new we can afford seems to be a tax cut that will disproportionately benefit those with the highest incomes.
Taxes, supposedly, have increased to levels beyond which they would strangle the economy, even if applied selectively to those who can best afford to pay.
But the truth is that federal taxes, as a percentage of the gross domestic product, are virtually the same as they were 10 or 20 years ago and are, in fact, lower than in almost any other industrial nation. Congress could raise taxes enough to balance the budget tomorrow and we would still be a lightly taxed nation by global standards.
We can afford profits
In the private sector, healthy levels of corporate profits, the explosion of compensation for senior executives, the growth of key export sectors, revival of the domestic automobile industry and the strength of the stock market all suggest a corporate economy perfectly capable of paying decent wages and providing greater job security while coexisting happily with high, even higher environmental, health and safety standards.
In a nation where excessive luxury is so conspicuous and ill-distributed, it's astonishing the number of simple things -- like breathable air or a living wage -- that have become excessive luxuries.
Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.