Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt-Limit Ceiling Blues (Or Obama the Moderate Republican, Revisited)

Though the looming disaster of the US Congress's failure raise the debt-limit ceiling, a procedural vote that has been fairly routine in the past, has been a topic I've debated writing about for weeks now, what provoked today's post was seeing yet again in a New York City MTA station--23rd St., at 6th Avenue to be exact--a young mother, with children (this young woman had both a 5-6 year old and an infant who could have been no more than half a year old) begging for cash to feed herself and her children. That, and thinking about the ongoing US 9-16% unemployment/underemployment rate, and reading in yesterday's New York Times about the extremely disturbing racial and ethnic wealth gap, caused to a huge degree by the 2008 economic collapse, the bursting of the housing bubble, and the subsequent explosion of joblessness and underemployment, guided me to today's entry. Seeing yet another young woman, with a child in tow, begging for money to feed herself and her child, on top of reading about the grim economic statistics particularly facing Black and Latino Americans, during this ongoing Great Recession (though it's allegedly "over") and then watching this sickening Grand Guignol play out in Washington, DC over the debt-limit ceiling vote, the deficit and the debt, is enough to make me want to go Robespierre.

Yes, I know the contemporary Republican Party is far to right even of its most recent White House incarnation, George W. Bush, let alone its icon, Ronald Reagan, and includes a raft of fantasists, nihilists and anarchists who would make William Godwin or Mikhail Bakunin jealous. Yes, I grasp that even with a near filibuster-proof majority, the Democrats in the Senate were too fractious to pass much of the legislation that their counterparts in the House, under Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), pushed through over and over. And yes, I know that almost immediately upon taking office President Barack Obama cast himself as a "centrist," hovering above the fray and rejecting what liberal, progressive and even some conservative economists argued were policies to address the employment crisis and rebuild the country after the bursting of the housing bubble and the gross dereliction of the Federal Reserve, ratings agencies, and Wall Street. His approach initially was more of the neoliberal same. Yes, I know that we have an establishment, mainstream media consisting of millionaires and millionaire wannabes, the children and heirs of millionaires or friends thereof, who are insulated from the problems millions of Americans face, and are more eager for "centrism" and "consensus" and splitting the difference and never calling the GOP out, even if these same media types vote for Democrats or call themselves "liberals" in secret.

But even taking all of these things into account, I find myself coming back to a basic question, and it centers on the president: was there any need whatsoever for Barack Obama to yoke the necessary, usually "clean" debt-ceiling limit vote to a crazy attempt to ram through "Shock Doctrine" style deficit cuts, including to vital social safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, when before and since the 2008 economic collapse two basic economic facts have always been apparent: 1) creating JOBS would have the effect of lowering the deficit and government spending, because more jobs mean more tax revenues AND in the absence of jobs, people necessarily draw more on the invaluable social safety net, thus increasing the deficit and requiring more borrowing; and 2) by allowing all the Bush tax cuts to expire--ALL OF THEM--resetting them to the marginal tax rates under Bill Clinton and with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in place, the country would plug a $4 TRILLION deficit hole over 10 years.  At almost no point since he took office, and certainly at no point whatsoever since the Republicans won the House in 2010 in part by terrifying seniors over claims that Obama had cut Medicare (!) through implementation of Obamacare, has the president made either of these facts clear. The first is so self-evident that it would likely have only needed to take root with a little nurturing, while the second definitely needed to be restated by every liberal in Washington, though it's increasingly clear that neither will get much airing, because the endgame of the current and future circuses involving Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans is to permanently lower taxes on the rich, gut social safety net programs, and transfer more of society's burdens onto the middle-class, working class and poor. Ancien régime, c'est nous!

Back in January 2010, after a year of exasperation at our then-new president, whom I not only enthusiastically voted for but helped to elect (both to the presidency and to his prior seat, as the junior US Senator from Illinois), I posted a blog entry, "Is Barack Obama Really Colin Powell," asking whether in effect we had elected a moderate Republican--Colin Powell--rather than a liberal Democrat to the nation's highest office. As is often the case with these blog posts, it merited little response, but that did not surprise me.  Since Barack Obama's election, I have often felt loath in criticizing the president, and family members and most of my friends have not wanted to hear any criticism from me or anyone else of the president, certainly not from his diehard opponents on the right, nor from those who, appealing from the left and having supported him, have felt great disappointment what portended to be a transformational presidency rapidly slips away.  Despite some early positive signs, such as his appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, which remains, I think, one of the most important achievements of his presidency; his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009; and decision to bail out of General Motors and Chrysler, again and again whenever Obama has tended to choose neoliberal or sometimes even conservative options over liberal or progressive ones, and the former tendency has grown stronger over the last year, particularly after the Republican assumption of the House in 2010.

Even when I wrote my earlier post, was still willing to give Obama an opportunity to show that in fact he was not what I feared, someone seeking not only to extend Bill Clinton's neoliberal economic approaches (i.e., Rubinomics, which was exactly the route he took, appointing as Treasury Secretary Wall Street agent Timothy Geithner and as his chief economic advisor former Harvard University president and notorious bully and deregulatory guru Larry Summers), but many of the worst supply-side economic theories of Ronald Reagan and the neoconservative geopolitical and military approaches of George W. Bush. Well, one year later, I think it's clear that my worst fears have not only been confirmed but exceeded. In that earlier post, I even mentioned that Obama had thus far avoided Herbert Hoover's approach, in 1929, of tepid governmental approaches coupled with austerity, volunteerism, and market-based boosterism, and that a president Powell might very well have taken the earlier Republican president's model as his own, but as of July 27, 2011, it's fair to say, as The New Republic's John Judis argues, that President Obama has doubled down on Hooverism, not only adopting his predecessor's rhetoric, but intensifying the failed economic policies such that he has called for greater spending cuts and inadequate tax increases that exceed even the expectations of the average Republican voter! Obama's Deficit Commission, also known as Simpson-Bowles, was unable to agree on a recommendation because several of its clearheaded Democratic members and more obstinate Republican ones refused to be railroaded into buying into the economically problematic approaches that have long been pushed by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Foundation, and similar right-wing and libertarian propaganda outfits, whose endgame is, as I suggested above, lower personal and corporate federal marginal tax rates  (Peterson is a billionaire so he benefits handsomely, as would his heirs), privatization or gutting of social safety net programs (privatized Social Security would benefit Peterson, a hedge funder, and also flood Wall Street with cash), and increased economic burdens on middle-class, working-class and poor people (because in the absence of a safety net, we're on our own).

President Obama & House Speaker
John Boehner, R-OH, on the
first green as they golf
at Andrews AFB, MD
Saturday, June 18, 2011.
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
Now, I read enough blogs and websites (via fastnewsReader and other apps!) to grasp that I was not alone in my appraisal of Obama back in January 2010.  Since then, though, I have read more and more folks coming to a similar conclusion and level of dismay. One of my favorite bloggers (and public intellectuals), who has been repeatedly proved right in his assessments and predictions, is Nobel laureate and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman, who, I should note, was critical of Obama's centrist stances during the primary season. (Krugman has, at the same time, praised Obama when praise is due.) Today, Krugman simply posted on his New York Times Conscience of a Liberal blog, "Obama, the Moderate Conservative." Krugman linked to a Fiscal Times piece by former Reagan economic advisor Bruce Bartlett asking, "Barack Obama: The Democrats' Richard Nixon." There is Salon writer Michael Lind's persuasive "Why the GOP Should Nominate Barack Obama in 2012," which walks through some of the same points I made back in 2010, though we all know that would never happen. Another online writer I regularly read, the brilliant gadfly lawyer Glenn Greenwald, posted months back that in fact Obama was not being forced to push such extreme plans--let's note again, to the right of even average Republican voters--but that he wanted to: "Obama's 'bad' negotiating is actually shrewd negotiating." And, to be fair, as Greenwald notes, some commentators, like Digby of Hullabaloo, warned even before Obama took office that he was pushing for that hideous "Grand Bargain" establishment Washington and New York's elite want so badly: cutting Social Security and Medicare, and lowering personal and corporate taxes to ensure the social safety net can never be adequately funded again. I could go on, but I'll stop here because it's numbing to continue.

So what about that young woman and her two children, seeking money just to eat, or the others I've written about on here, or the millions I haven't mentioned, all around us, barely hanging on? Well, they're nowhere in mind among those participating in the Washington carnival as it's unfolding. All the "fiscal austerity" we're being subjected to means things will get even worse for her--and everyone else, except the billionaires, bondholders, corporate execs, etc.--before they get better.  We may have a something akin to a budget default if the President cannot persuade the two houses of Congress to pass one of the two competing horrid bills they've submitted, or, in the absence of such, refuses to invoke the 14th Amendment to honor the nation's debts. (We should never forget that the Treasury very well could print money until forever if it wanted to.) We may or may not get some of the severe cuts-coupled-with-inadequate revenues that the President/Republicans/Washington establishment/Wall Street are jonesing for, but it's unlikely we're going to see him or any other major Democratic politician (Bernie Sanders, I-VT, is an independent) not only call for a major jobs program but vocally defend the social safety net at the very moment when its existence is proving invaluable. It's unlikely Barack Obama will face a third-party primary challenger from the left or even a viable left-leaning third-party candidate in the general election, since the various third-party organizations now being touted are just more center-right establishmentarianism seeking tax cuts and a gutted safety net, i.e., failed GOP policies. Would I vote for someone primarying Barack Obama? I don't know. Would I vote for a 3rd party candidate like Ralph Nader? I didn't in 2000 and I'm not sure I would in 2012. Would I just not vote at all? On top of this, and I gather the people in the White House just don't care, are clueless or have some hidden strategy I just can't grasp, the possible GOP nominee may run on an economically populist program given the president's intransigence on addressing the unemployment problem, she or he will very likely be even worse, since current GOP plans would do even more severe damage to the fragile US economy, as conservative policies are demonstrating in the UK right now.  In terms of Obama's GOP challenger, I still think John McCain would have been worse on every issue, but then again, other than Justice Sotomayor, can I be sure of that?

Right now, we're stuck, and liberals and progressives might want to think very carefully about how to proceed, given the lack of any channels to anyone running anything in Washington these days. I hate to end on such a down note, but we're in a very ugly place right now, and that young woman and her two children, and millions more like them, will be hanging on by a wing and a prayer and the beneficence of others, while the people in Washington, including the President himself, fight their damnedest to give even more of what's left of this country to those who already have almost all of it.

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