Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Don't let it fool you

This is justly derided as reactionary filth.

But the inference that we're asked to draw is that Obama and the Democrats have a "sharply contrasting vision" that must, insofar as the GOP's plan is so bad, be much better. This is irrational.

I've got an idea: Let's not draw any inferences about the Democrats stand for merely by looking at the Republicans. If you want to understand what the Democrats are about, look closely at their policies and compare them to any plausible conception of social justice. What becomes obvious upon doing this is that the Democrats are only disagreeing with the Republicans about how deep to cut, how far to push the regime of austerity. The parties aren't disagreeing about whether to cut. That question is proscribed at the onset. The "debate" among the two parties is entirely internal to the ruling class policy of austerity.

As I've argued elsewhere, the entire discourse surrounding budgets makes it appear impossible that we could do anything but cut. I call this budget-cut fatalism. This is an ideological blinder that shifts our attention away from what matters and instead focuses us on marginal questions friendly to austerity.

In order to see that this is so, we have only to ask two questions. First, why is there a budget crisis? Second, what is the full range of options available to deal with it?

The first question is easily answered: deficits and budget shortfalls are cropping up in states, municipalities, and counties all over the country because of the global economic recession (brought on by the reckless gambling of investors in the financial sector). Accordingly, as in any recession, tax revenues have fallen off a cliff, while unemployment and demand for social services has soared. Moreover, regressive tax policies have (for decades now) have slowly starved public coffers of much needed funds by in large measure exempting the rich and powerful from paying their fair share. . At the Federal level, the deficit is a combination of these factors, such as economic meltdown and big tax breaks for the rich (I note that the Bush tax breaks, which Obama extended, has cost $2.74 Trillion over 8 years) but others as well, namely, the ultra-expensive wars our government has been bankrolling since 2001.

Though this is obvious and basically uncontroversial, it is shirked by the defenders of austerity. They act as though the budget shortfalls were caused by "reckless government spending". Thus they are able to appear credible in claiming that the government must learn to "live within its means". But for that to be true, we'd have to ignore all of the above evidence while also believing that governments (at the municipal, state, Federal level, in various different countries from Greece to the UK to the USA) suddenly decided to dramatically increase spending between 2008 and 2009. Of course, that's not what happened. As everyone knows, budgets weren't in the awful shape that they're in now only 2-3 years ago, so we have to explain the sudden change from then to now. But anyone who's been conscious the last 2-3 years also knows that this thing, the global economic recession, has kinda been a notable economic event. To say that "reckless spending" is the culprit is ad hoc and unjustifiable. Budgets are in the dumps because the floor dropped out when the recession hit, causing tax revenues to drop dramatically.

Having answered the first question, the answer to the second is rather obvious. Our options are as follows. One is to severely cut the living standards of the majority of Americans through austerity, thus forcing them to pay the price of the crisis they didn't cause, the wars which they oppose, and the tax give-aways to the rich which don't benefit them. That's the option pursued enthusiastically by Democrat and Republican alike.

But there are clearly other feasible options. For example, we could end the wars and occupations right now, thus saving trillions of dollars over the next 10 years (we could also drastically reduce the Pentagon budget). Moreover, we could easily raise taxes on the rich to cover the budget shortfalls: chop from the top, as they say. We wouldn't even have to raise them very much (though, I'm for raising them much more). For starters, we could ask G.E. to pay some taxes at all. We could easily institute a windfall tax of 2% on profits, which makes sense given that the ruling class made record profits (amidst a recession!) last quarter. Similarly, we could institute luxury taxes of various kinds, we could reinstate the estate tax, and we could raise the top marginal rate for income taxation. We could increase corporate taxes and sharply increase funding for enforcing the existing tax laws by cracking down on rich tax evaders. There are lots of options here.

All of these options would have no impact whatsoever on 99% of the population's tax rates. Moreover it would hardly "cripple the economy" or anything like that at all; it would simply tap into the vast, unproductive surpluses of the rich (who have become so at the expense of the vast majority of us). The unjustified dogma that high marginal rates of taxation are incompatible with economic growth is just that: unjustified dogma. From 1945-1973, the longest most sustained economic boom in US history, marginal rates of taxation were twice as high as they are now. They were even as high as 90% at times. So it's just false to say that high marginal rates slow economic growth and its groundless to complain that such rates would "hinder the recovery". What recovery? There has been no recovery yet for working people. Taxing the rich would be a way of stopping the lot of the rest of us from getting worse.

This is all a way of saying: if you want to support the Dems merely because they are the lesser evil, then fine. But don't pretend that they're not an evil. Don't talk as though they actually represent a progressive force in the US. Don't pretend that they are looking out for the interests of the vast majority of us. They are a party dominated by ruling class interests and their policies and actions in government make this painfully obvious. If the best you can muster is the lesser-evilist argument, then fine. But you've got to admit that that's thin gruel. So refrain from buttering the Dems up and pretending that lesser evils are something more than what they are. If you, like me, aren't satisfied with the lesser-evil... the answer isn't to project your political ideals onto them. This is wishful thinking, a paradigmatic failure of rationality. The answer is to get up and organize, mobilize, and be part of rebuilding the Left in this country.


Sheldon said...

Of course you already know this. But there is one area in which "reckless govt. spending" is valid, and that is for the wars.

Great post!

t said...

I agree with you about the wars and occupations being reckless spending. Still, I want to make sure that we on the Left are constantly poking holes in the general right-wing complaint that municipal/state budgets are in the hole because of spending. As I'm sure you'll agree, they're in the hole because of the recession, which was caused by ruling class recklessness. I think it's crucial to undercut pro-austerity arguments by point out that state budget crises are the result of regressive tax policies and recession. Of course, at the Federal level I think you're absolutely correct. The demand must be: tax the rich, end the wars. Thanks for reading the blog!