Buddy, We Can’t Spare a Dime

December 8, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

By Marie Burns:

In his New York Times column Friday, Paul Krugman exploded the conventional wisdom of Washington's Very Serious People: “America is not facing a fiscal crisis,” he writes. “It is, however, still very much experiencing a job crisis.”

To help explain why Washington's elites are breathlessly obsessing about the so-called “fiscal cliff” while barely acknowledging the jobs crisis (now that it is no longer an election talking point), Krugman notes that “there is a whole industry built around the promotion of deficit panic.” The “deficit-scold movement,” as Krugman called it it in his November 25 New York Times column, is “a hydra-headed beast, comprising many organizations that turn out, on inspection, to be financed and run by more or less the same people; dig down into many of these groups’ back stories and you will, in particular, find Peter Peterson, the private-equity billionaire....” Peterson and a host of corporate executives are backing a new public outreach organization, founded by the curmudgeonly Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. This group, called Fix the Debt, is busy frightening/hookwinking ordinary Americans into signing up to demand “cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even while making lower tax rates a 'core principle.'” As Krugman wrote in November, “That last part [lowering tax rates] makes no sense in terms of the group’s ostensible mission, but makes perfect sense if you look at the array of big corporations … involved in the effort and would benefit from tax cuts. Hey, sacrifice is for the little people.”

What has made these deficit scolds so successful is that – since President Obama won election in 2008 – the entire Republican party and too much of the Democratic party has had their backs. It isn't that the Republican leadership actually agrees with deficit hawkery; rather the party uses deficit scares during Democratic administrations as a bludgeon to cut spending on social safety net programs. As economist James Galbraith wrote in AlterNet a few weeks ago,

Stripped to essentials, the fiscal cliff is a device constructed to force a rollback of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as the price of avoiding tax increases and disruptive cuts in federal civilian programs and in the military. It was policy-making by hostage-taking, timed for the lame duck session, a contrived crisis, the plain idea now unfolding was to force a stampede.

And if you take a look at the charts here, you'll see that the deficit rose under Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush I, that it fell – actually became a surplus – under Democratic President Clinton, and it ballooned under Republican President Bush II. The fact that the deficit continues to rise now is largely a reflection of the slowness of the economic recovery – and the continuation of bad tax policy, policy which Republicans and their friends at Fix the Debt are trying exacerbate.

Want more proof? What is making Republicans crazy right now is not a looming increase in the deficit – it is a looming decrease in the deficit. If the Congress and the President don't reach a deal, the Bush tax cuts will expire, driving revenues way up, and the so-called “sequester” will kick in, forcing automatic spending cuts. The “cliff” we may fall over at the end of the year would indeed slow the economy because American taxpayers would have less money to spend on themselves, but the federal government would have substantially more income and less outgo. As Krugman – here and here and here – and others have noted, all this has confused the American people: “... by a margin of almost four to one, people think that going over the fiscal cliff will cause the deficit to increase.” Krugman rightly blames Washington's Very Serious People for the confusion. They have even confused themselves. As Dean Baker and Krugman pointed out, the headline writers at the Washington Post – where Pete Peterson's opinions pass for news – have it backwards, too. Even more hilariously, one of the GOP's leading “intellectual” politicians – Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana – wrote an opinion piece in Politico in which it was pretty evident that he thought going over the fiscal cliff would lead to higher deficits.

So forget all that. The fiscal cliff is fairly fake, as Galbraith explained. What isn't fake, as Krugman wrote in his Friday column are “the forgotten millions” of Americans who can't find work:

long-term unemployment remains at levels not seen since the Great Depression: as of October, 4.9 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months, and 3.6 million had been out of work for more than a year.... The Congressional Budget Office estimates that what we are actually producing falls short of what we could and should be producing by around 6 percent of G.D.P., or $900 billion a year. Worse yet, there are good reasons to believe that high unemployment is undermining our future growth as well, as the long-term unemployed come to be considered unemployable....

In other words – and Krugman elaborates on this – we can ill-afford to fix the crisis nobody in Washington is talking about. Why the silence? According to Krugman,

in the end it’s hard to avoid concluding that it’s about class. Influential people in Washington aren’t worried about losing their jobs; by and large they don’t even know anyone who’s unemployed. The plight of the unemployed simply doesn’t loom large in their minds — and, of course, the unemployed don’t hire lobbyists or make campaign contributions.

But that's not the half of it. Krugman's hypothesis does explain how Democrats in Washington could be so callous. It explains why Obama economic advisor Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner could go on the Sunday shows in 2009 as unemployment numbers soared and coolly remark that oh, well, that's unfortunate, but job growth always lags behind economic recovery. It explains – at least partially – why Geithner could purposely privilege banksters over homeowners and refuse to put in place an effective mortgage refinancing program. It explains why it took President Obama two-and-a-half years before he pushed for a comprehensive jobs bills, an effort he certainly knew would fail to move Republicans who had gained control of the House in the interim.

But “don't know any unemployed people” does not fully explain Republican indifference to out-of-work and underemployed Americans. Not only did House Republicans balk at a spending bill to increase employment, they have fought/are fighting every single effort to help poor and middle-class Americans. They overwhelmingly opposed the 2009 stimulus bill – which the Congressional Budget Office credits with creating some 3.3 million jobs. They oppose extending unemployment benefits. They passed budgets slashing all the other social safety net programs. They opposed the Affordable Care Act designed to extend healthcare insurance to millions of uninsured Americans. They even opposed extending health and disability coverage to 9/11 rescue personnel. They were ready to vote against providing FEMA with adequate disaster relief funds. And many were willing to destroy the credit of the U.S. government. (The 2011 debt ceiling crisis of the Republicans' making cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1.3 billion, according to the Government Accounting Office.) The conventional wisdom is that Republican opposition to all of these programs was nothing more than an all-out effort to destroy the Obama presidency. Here again, the convention wisdom is partially right. But there has to be something more that motivates such disastrous Republican policies.

There is. Republicans hold the American people in contempt. We see overt evidence of this in remarks by their standard-bearer Mitt Romney, who before the election described 47 percent of Americans as “irresponsible” people who wanted the government to give them “free stuff.” After the election Romney explained his loss as the result of Obama's giving voters “gifts.” We see it in his running mate Paul Ryan's warning that soon a majority of Americans will be “takers,” people dependent upon the government.

It isn't just top Republicans who feel this way. The lowliest GOP backbenchers in state legislatures across the nation are itching to deprive workers of a right to collective bargaining, to deprive them of a fair wage, and to strip away laws that guarantee humane working conditions. These same backbenchers would deprive young people of access to quality public education, they would deprive women of access to contraceptive health measures, they would deprive Democratic-leaning people of even the right to vote. This cannot all be explained away by racism and sexism. There is something even more elemental at work: contempt for ordinary people.

This all came home to me in a remark Dana Perino made this past week. Perino, formerly Bush II's press secretary, is now a talking head at Fox “News.” She was participating in a roundtable discussion in which the other panelists were arguing for the merits of women owning guns to protect themselves. Driving the discussion was the gun murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then himself. Perino did not blame Belcher; she blamed the girlfriend: to avoid being the victims of violence, she said, women “should make better decisions.”

I had to think about what would make a woman blame another woman for being murdered while lying in her bed. Krugman's argument does apply here: Perino doesn't know anybody who shot his spouse or girlfriend. Her assumption is that people of her “class” have more self-control than “those women” who make bad decisions. She's right. Richard Florida wrote in the Atlantic this week,

While one would think gun violence would be higher in states with higher levels of economic anxiety related to unemployment or inequality, we found no association to either at the state level. My colleagues and I did, however, find gun deaths to be higher in states with higher levels of poverty and lower incomes, as well as in red states and those with more blue-collar working class economies. Conversely, we found gun deaths to be less likely in states with more college graduates and stronger knowledge-based economies.

This is something we might have guessed. It's why we are shocked when a wealthy woman or a prominent man murders a spouse, but we shrug our shoulders when we hear of another teenaged gang killing. The rich woman is acting “out of character” or “against expectations.” The teenaged killers are doing what “those people” do. The Republican party, I realized, is invested in a “blame the victim” theory of everything. Perino carries that to extremes. She would blame the lady sitting in her living room who gets hit by a stray bullet for making a “bad lifestyle decision.” The people Perino knows do not live in neighborhoods where gunshots are a nightly norm. They make “better decisions.” This belief is behind the mentality that allows Republicans and ConservaDems to remain true to the National Rifle Association: yes, people who own guns are much more likely to be the victims of gun violence (or to be successful suicides), but “responsible people” these politicians know will be more careful.

This carelessness about other human beings may be partially class-based, but it is grounded in contempt for the “other” of every class. Republicans want to deprive all women of the right to have abortions, not just poor women. It is true that when women they know need to have abortions, they can probably afford to fly to Canada or wherever. (Sometimes, alas, the legislators themselves have to pay for the abortions. It seems they occasionally choose lovers from the moocher class.) When Republicans vote to take money out of public education and put it into for-profit and religious schools, many are taking that money from themselves or their neighbors. Those backbenchers do know people who send their kids to public schools. Most of the legislators probably attended public schools. Their goal is to change that, to physically separate their own children from the children of the riffraff whom they hold in such contempt. When Republicans vote to liberalize gun control laws, they don't care if members of other groups maim and kill each other. That's just the price of “liberty” for the legistators' group. It doesn't matter with what socio-economic class these Republicans identify; what matters is that they privilege their group over other groups.

It is not true, as Krugman writes, that “Influential people in Washington aren’t worried about losing their jobs.” Maybe they are not “worried,” but influential people in Washington lose their jobs all the time. Journalists regularly get fired or laid off, especially now that the print media are contracting. When you see a prominent journalist move from one paper or magazine to another, you are not always witnessing a move up. Teevee pundits get the boot. Ask Dick Morris and Karl Rove. And what is Keith Olbermann doing now? Politicians lose elections. It is true that many of them have fairly safe transitions to LobbyLand or think tanks, but few of them ever hope to lose an election. Their staffs, many of whom are influential people in their own rights, must scramble to find new employers. There is constant career shuffle among the Very Serious People in Washington. Only the wealthiest among them are not “worried” about job security. In fact, almost all of the legislation that passes through Congress is larded with clauses and amendments that reflect some Congressmembers' concerns about keeping their jobs. Backroom deals are all about Congressional job security.

Republicans in particular make overt attempts to define themselves as “regular Americans” and their opponents as arrogant snobs. They portrayed President Obama as an elitist who got his financial backing from “Hollywood elites.” They call many in the media the “East Coast liberal elite.” These Republicans may be the “Washington elite,” but they won't admit it. Since Congress is so unpopular, those running for Congress – including sitting Congressmen – often run as “Washington outsiders.” If they are practicing class warfare, it is of a different stripe from the sort that Romney and his rich backers feel. Romney himself ran as a Washington outsider and once said of himself – to actual unemployed voters – “I'm also unemployed.” House Speaker John Boehner starts sniffling and bawling each time he recalls his humble origins.

Washington – like New York and other big cities – is full of people who, like President Obama, made it despite long odds. These people do, sometimes rightly, have a sense that they are “special” because they excelled on their merits and beat expectations. This can – and does – often make a person full of himself. So if the Very Serious People belong to a class, it is apt to be one that values meritocracy over heredity. That they cater to the American aristocracy is often just a matter of self-preservation: members of the aristocracy are paying their bills. The rich don't just fund Congressional campaigns; they also fund those so-called think tanks.

Romney himself opined that 47 percent of Americans considered themselves victims. Just like Perino, he finds fault with these “victims.” They “believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them.” Even conservatives can recognize the contempt Romney has for ordinary Americans. Daniel Larison of the ultra-conservative American Spectator wrote in September, “Romney ... holds at least half the country in contempt, including many of the people that normally vote Republican.... What makes this stand out as exceptionally arrogant is the fact that he clearly has contempt for many of the people who were likely to vote for him.” Romney's mistake of course was saying out loud what every Republican official – and many a Washington insider – secretly thinks of the public. Romney blew their cover.

By implication, of course, Romney suggests that the real “victims” are he and his wealthy donors – and other “responsible” Americans – who have to foot the bill for the millions of dependency-addicted freeloaders. No wonder Romney despises the average American. Presumably most of his audience despised “those people,” too. The New York Times (here) and the Los Angeles Times (no longer available online, but here's a quote from the article) both ran hilarious pieces last summer that highlighted the prejudices of wealthy attendees of one of Romney's fundraisers in the Hamptons.

Krugman is right that there is a sort of class warfare that undergirds some of Washington's blindness to the millions of Americans who are out of work. But the typical economic class consciousness is not what motivates them. Instead, it is the expression of contempt for those they left behind. The comedian Jay Leno used to say that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. What it is (Washington legacies excluded) is a place for people who make it on their own through some particular talent, charisma, and/or fierce ambition. Some of those talented people – almost all of them Democrats – don't forget the people who sent them there to do the people's business. Others of those talented people – including almost all Republicans – revile the ordinary men and women who sent them to Washington.

If Republican policies seem cruel to you, they are. Sometimes Republicans use their power to control and invade the personal lives of Americans; in other instances, they mean to deprive Americans of the support and security that is the central purpose of government. What drives their inhumane policies is not, as Paul Krugman suggests, some passive naïveté. It is not even depraved indifference. Rather, Republican brutality is intentional aggression.

Marie Burns blogs at

Update: edited for clarity.


Readers Comments (1)

  1. carlyle says:

    Some part of every single dollar of spending reduction by federal, state or local governments comes from the pay check of some working American. Most people were able to understand the stimulus program. Why do they not understand that a “grand bargain” of one two or three trillion dollars in spending reduction over the next decade guarantees our joining Europe on a downhill economic path.


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