March 16, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
The cry of the common Yellow-bellied Deficit Hawk is a long, hoarse, rasping scream, described as kree-eee-ar, which begins at a high pitch and slurs downward. The Yellow-bellied Deficit Hawk frequently vocalizes while attending symposia or writing op-eds, but vocalizes loudest in annoyance or anger, in response to a rival’s threat to protect the young, old and infirm. At close range, it makes a croaking “guh-runk.”
‘Tis the season for common deficit hawks to emerge from their nests and start dropping guano on all the newsprint in the land. Tom Friedman appears to be the lead bird. (Who knew hawks flew in formation?) In his Sunday column, Friedman let loose his raptoresque scream for the “grand bargain,” a fictive scenario in which patriotic Republicans set aside their personal interests and partisan differences with patriotic Democrats and set about crafting bipartisan reform of our egregiously unfair tax code. The last time anything akin to this occurred was in 1986, back in those halcyon days when certain Democrats and Republicans maintained polite working relationships and did not – even in the heat of campaigns – accuse the other party’s candidate of treason, “palling around with terrorists” or being a foreigner. (The 1986 bipartisan agreement occurred a decade before Newt Gingrich produced his list of “powerful words … to apply to the opponent.” Gingrich advised Republicans to use these words “in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media…. Memorize as many as possible.” Among the words Gingrich suggested to describe “the opponent”: bizarre, cheat, corrupt, disgrace, greed, incompetent, liberal, lie, pathetic, radical, sick, traitors.)
Aroused by Friedman’s hawk squawks, David Brooks, who has been on sociological sabbatical for a while, revives his inner kree-eee-ar. After spending half his New York Times column describing President Obama as “cagey,” Brooks gets to the point: “there will be an immediate need to cut federal deficits…, no matter who is elected” in November. Brooks, who is an original thinker, has dropped the “grand bargain” for the “grand project,” an endeavor he describes as “reforming the basic institutions of government ,” an effort which “will consume the first two years of the next president’s new term.” Brooks’ “grand project” sounds an awful lot like Friedman’s “grand bargain”: it will require, Brooks writes, “shared sacrifice,” “entitlement reform” and “spending cuts everywhere.” The only difference between Brooks’ “vision” and Friedman’s is that Friedman sees a need for small revenue increases while Brooks does not. For Brooks, the “vision thing” is spending cuts.
Brooks suggests that Obama’s cageyness has prevented him from “displaying an inner passion” to set his “life mission,” to “bear the pain” and to “go All In” to – to destroy what remains of the social safety net that gave the nation its greatest days. I would remind Our Mister Brooks that President Obama spent more than a year in Brooks’ messy nest. The results were disastrous for the economy. Once the short-term effects of the stimulus fell off, so did the growth in private-sector jobs; meanwhile, states were hemorrhaging public-sector jobs, Republican-led states were reducing public employees’ salaries, and President Obama made the jobs-killing decision to freeze federal employees’ salaries and reduce the number of federal jobs through attrition. The only people who “recovered” during the “recovery” were the top one percent, and those who really recovered were the top one-tenth of one percent. As Tim Noah, who now writes for The New Republic, wrote a couple of weeks ago, “In the first year of the recovery , 93 percent of all income gains went to the top one percent. As of 2010, recovery was a luxury item. You had to be in the one percent to get any.”
The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs. The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security – they can buy all these things for themselves…. They also worry about strong government – one that could use its powers to adjust the balance, take some of their wealth, and invest it for the common good….
One big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way. The most obvious example involves tax policy. Lowering tax rates on capital gains, which is how the rich receive a large portion of their income, has given the wealthiest Americans close to a free ride…. Lax enforcement of anti-trust laws, especially during Republican administrations, has been a godsend to the top 1 percent. Much of today’s inequality is due to manipulation of the financial system, enabled by changes in the rules that have been bought and paid for by the financial industry itself – one of its best investments ever. The government lent money to financial institutions at close to 0 percent interest and provided generous bailouts on favorable terms when all else failed. Regulators turned a blind eye to a lack of transparency and to conflicts of interest….
The Supreme Court, in its recent Citizens United case, has enshrined the right of corporations to buy government, by removing limitations on campaign spending. The personal and the political are today in perfect alignment. Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent…. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.
Since September of last year, President Obama has adopted more populist rhetoric and modest efforts to reduce income inequality. Perhaps Dave the Deficit Hawk was slumbering over the winter and didn’t notice. On the other hand, Obama’s populist turn is a pretty safe – or as Brooks would say, cagey – tack to take in an election year when there is no danger populist legislation will get through the Republican Congress.
David Brooks is not deterred. He thinks he can goad a Democratic president into cutting deals that will increase economic inequality and slash programs that help ordinary Americans. Brooks might be right. President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress began the financial deregulation that has led us down this slippery slope. Bill Clinton supported the repeal of Glass-Steagall – the last line of defense against Wall Street excess – and the enactment of NAFTA, the anti-worker free trade agreement. It would not be surprising to see the centrist Obama fall into line with Friedman-Brooks & Co. again. Obama too is a member of the One Percent, and his own post-presidency fortunes will only improve by catering to those who would sponsor highly-paid speaking engagements, seat him on boards of directors and contribute to his presidential library.
Brooks writes that “It will be interesting, over the course of this campaign, to see what’s underneath [Obama's] cageyness.” We will not see much “over the course of this campaign” because shilling for the One Percent is bad election-year politics. Even Republicans pretend that’s not what they are doing. What will be interesting to see is what Obama does in December, when the Bush tax cuts are due to expire, and even more interesting will be to see how a second Obama term plays out.
At the center of President Obama’s Oval Office rug is the Great Seal of the United States, with its stylized bald eagle holding a scroll which reads, “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”). Around the perimeter of the Oval rug are five sayings, including a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us,” and a citation (incorrectly) attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Whether President Obama cares more about the eagle’s “many,” Roosevelt’s “welfare of all of us” and King’s “arc of the moral universe” than he does about accumulating a personal fortune will determine his legacy – and the nation’s future. We can hope today that Obama will bend toward the calls of the eagle, Roosevelt and King. But he has leaned precipitously toward Brooks’ deficit hawkery before, and he may do again. Guh-runk.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com