Sunday, April 10, 2011

Making a Fetish of the Deficit

It is widely assumed in political rhetoric and newspaper articles that there is some intrinsic value that attaches to "balancing the budget" or "reducing the deficit". Some even go so far as to argue that this should be the fundamental goal of policy right now. That is flatly incoherent and irrational. Let me show why even the most hardened right-winger cannot coherently claim that deficit-reduction is an intrinsic good.

If the need to reduce the deficit is, as some say it should be, the most pressing and important task of policy makers, then it should trump all other concerns. Such deficit-hawks should have no qualms whatever about cutting services, closing public schools, letting bridges crumble, and so forth. But, even as hard-line as many of these right-wingers are about austerity, the question still remains: if deficit reduction is a goal that trumps all else, why not immediately end all spending on law enforcement, prisons, airport security, not to speak of the enormous amount of money spent on "national defense"? Why not shut off all public water utilities, turn off all traffic lights, and cut off all electricity in every publicly owned building in the country? Why not, in effect, plunge the country into complete chaos for the allegedly fundamental goal of generating a budget surplus?

Because nobody, not even the most hardened right-wingers, actually thinks that the mere existence of a budget surplus is necessarily a good thing. Nobody thinks that utter social collapse is an acceptable trade-off for a balanced budget. Because what good is a "balanced budget" if the government can't even fulfill its basic functions? What good is a budget surplus if society is in in complete disarray and the vast majority of people are made very badly off by it?

Thus, if pressed, nobody actually believes that deficit reduction is good-in-itself. At best, it is merely a means to some other goal (whatever that is). Even the ruling class has goals apart from balanced budgets; they could basically care less about balanced budgets themselves. So to fetishize deficit-reduction as an allegedly intrinsic good makes no sense, no matter what your politics are. Such fetishism is irrational because it puts the cart before the horse, it imputes value to something that simply couldn't have the kind of value imputed to it. It confuses means and ends. It is incoherent, because the fetishism of deficits clashes with other commitments that any rational person (yes, even right-wingers) has (e.g. the belief that the function of the state is to create the conditions for ruling class profitability, or that the function of foreign policy is to expand U.S. influence and hegemony abroad, etc.).

Thus deficit-hawking is seen for what it is: window dressing for other goals which are neither defended with argument nor made explicit. It is a red herring that distracts us from issues worth discussing (e.g. should taxes on the rich be increased? what is the basic goal of government in a just society? should the economy meet human needs or should it focus on profit?). In the Marxist tradition, we call such bundles of ideas "ideologies", since they have the function of making unequal power appear legitimate by some unsavory combination non-rational and rational means.

What deficit-hawks would really like to say is the following: we should cut social spending because it does nothing toward restoring profitability to the system and does nothing toward furthering dominance abroad. Whereas bank bailouts and foreign wars are good things, jobs and education spending is not. Thus, since corporate welfare, big ruling class tax breaks, and imperialist foreign policy do fulfill these aims, at very high costs to taxpayers, they are not criticized. But, of course, making an explicit case for imperialist war and corporate handouts is not an easy sell, since these goals plainly brush against the grain of the interests of the majority. Hence it is better to focus our attention narrowly on marginal questions of little significance (e.g. whether the government is "in the red" or not... because who is it that thinks, other things being equal, that going into the red is good?). Better to ask us to fetishize whether the "government is paying its bills like American families are asked to do" than to actually reflect on where revenues come from and where they are best spent.

This ideology is no less dominant in the Republican Party than it is in the Democrat Party. Obama is the most visible proponent of it in the US right now. His debate with Republicans is, basically, over who has the "best" plan for reducing the deficit. It is assumed on both sides that this irrational, incoherent fetishism is a good thing. Any rational progressive movement would challenge these basic assumptions, rather than falling in line, self-censoring and perpetually sending checks to candidates who reproduce these abysmal conditions.


Anonymous said...

one important thing to mention about the deficit is that its primary role is not to finance social spending but to act as 'corporate welfare'; during boom times when capitalists tend to have a large amount of surplus capital and relatively few areas where it can be profitably invested government bonds act as a very safe and profitable way to absorb this excess liquid capital.

Deficits thus play a dual role for the ruling class: during booms they help to mitigate the surplus capital absorbtion problem, and during recessions they act as a handy bogeyman for restoring class power.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to consider top marginal rates alongside imperialist ventures abroad. It seems like the top marginal rate increased to finance the war effort in WWII, and, as many have also pointed out, there were also taxes associated with financing the Vietnam War as well.

Of course now, in a period of almost unmitigated neoliberalism, it's interesting that the top marginal rate is not higher to help better finance the imperialist ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I suppose that can be chalked up to a shift in ruling class theory and praxis from managed Keynesian capitalism to neoliberal capitalism.