Another month, another spectacle: this month’s political theater is The Fiscal Cliff. The authors are the same Washington "wise men" who were responsible for the Super Committee, the "Gang of Six" and a litany of other proposals for imposing austerity measures on the U.S. public under the guise of deficit reduction and pragmatic fiscal policy. As of this writing the precise final script is still being negotiated behind closed doors. But no version has a happy ending for the 99%.
The specifics pushed by different factions of the U.S political class vary. But one thread remains constant: blind allegiance to war spending. The U.S. is – and has been for over 30 years – guided by a policy of military Keynesianism. Children abroad in occupied territories or regions under drone assault, and children at home (including – but not only – those murdered in Newtown) suffer the consequences of a system that prioritizes weapons manufacturing and remote killing machines over the physical and mental well-being of the next generation.
SCARE THE PEOPLE INTO ACCEPTING AUSTERITY
The Fiscal Cliff is the scare-the-people name given to a series of spending cuts and tax increases set to go into effect January 1, 2013. The Fiscal Cliff was born out of the Budget Control Act of 2011, in which the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the Super Committee, was tasked with creating a deficit reduction plan which would cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget over the next ten years. What they came up with was a method of kicking the can down the road, supposedly with incentives to both parties to come up with a "compromise" plan before the end of 2012. If none was reached, a set of automatic spending cuts and tax increases totaling $1.2 trillion would go into effect. Social services would be slashed, military spending would be cut somewhat, and tax increases would include ending the Bush tax cuts (raising the estate tax, individual income tax, and rates on investment income), raising the payroll tax, and upping the alternative minimum tax. The package – in particular the various cuts, referred to as "sequestration" – was crafted to put pressure on each party to reach a new deal: in theory the GOP would want to avoid cuts in military spending while the Democrats would want to avert reductions in social spending, including Medicare and Social Security.
But that's not the way it's going inside the beltway today. It turns out it's not just the Republicans, but the Obama administration too, that is trying to avoid military spending cuts. For its part the GOP, far from embracing the idea of compromise, remains in attack mode, demanding no tax increases on the rich and a full-bore assault on every social program that serves the poor, communities of color and even the (shrinking) middle class. And the Obama administration, rather than taking those kinds of cuts "off the table" as everyone from liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman leftward advocates, is offering some up, in particular the idea of using a chained consumer price index to cut Social Security benefits.
The conservative House leadership is dug in. They know that despite losing the 2012 election, the GOP has had success in framing the economic debate, employing hysterical language and imagery (like the very idea of a cliff) to suit their policy agenda. In the process they're obfuscating many things and managed to narrow the scope of the conversation to a focus on deficit reduction and supposedly too-high tax rates, pushing human crises like unemployment, rising inequality and the last decade's massive flow of wealth upward out of the conversation.
In face of the right's offensive posture – and also because of its own allegiance to corporate America – the White House has accepted the idea that the solution is a "Grand Bargain." But because the administration and the GOP hard-liners remain far apart on the details of such a Bargain, one may not come to pass. Congress may focus on a smaller deal and tackle the issues individually, for example, repealing the sequestration procedures in the Budget Control Act, introducing legislation to unemployed insurance and then working on the Bush tax cuts. Additionally, as former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich points out the option still exists to “introduce legislation early in the 2013 that gives a tax cut to the middle class retroactively to January 1st (extending the Bush tax cut to the first $250,000 of income) and restores most spending”.
‘NO FUTURE IS THE NEW FUTURE’
What the major parties aren’t presenting is a new vision of how the economy should function. Obama wants to recreate the Clinton years while ignoring the fact that much of the growth of that period was predicated on an economic bubble. The Democrats' current adulation for "big dawg" Clinton also "forgets" that it was Clinton's deregulation policies (including the repeal of Glass-Steagal which regulated banking) that had disastrous consequences for working people and laid much of the foundation for the Great Recession (not to mention his racist, sexist and anti-working class welfare "reform"). The GOP conversely wants to bring back Eisenhower America, without the tax rates or jobs programs through infrastructure development that contributed to the expansion but certainly with the pre-Civil rights era and pre-Women's Liberation movement race and gender arrangements that characterized that time. What the U.S. public gets is revisionist past projected as future, technocrats tweaking programs to the benefit of private industry then selling these half-baked policies as heavenly manna.
WHAT ISN’T DISCUSSED: MILITARY SPENDING RUN WILD
Hidden in all the mainstream discussion is the fact that the military budget can absorb the cuts of sequestration in ways that non-defense discretionary programs can't. Why? Because military spending has exploded in the Post 9/11 era to such an extent that even the sequestration cuts (spread over ten years) would still not bring Pentagon Base budget back to the Cold War average. This is separate from the enormous additional spending provided to fund the numerous wars. The Pentagon claims it is restructuring, adapting to the changing realities of stateless threats and asymmetrical war. But these changes (drawing down the size of the National Guard and army reserve while increasing and not funding particular aircrafts) still amount to the military assuming a substantial amount of the government’s discretionary spending. Moreover, the U.S is left with an economy dependent on subsidizing the defense industry and promoting violence abroad and at home.
Economist Robert Pollin, in his thoroughly-researched The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities: 2011, argues that spending on the military is “a poor source of job creation relative to spending on the green economy, health care, education, or even personal household consumption”. His study, like others, shows the benefits of investing in a work program not centered around weapons manufacturing but on developing infrastructure and investing in more environmentally friendly technologies.
This ought to be a "seize the time" moment for that kind of program. The country is experiencing high unemployment and there is a profound need to stimulate the economy. Further, polls show more U.S. people favor cuts in military spending than key social programs. So now is an ideal time to make cuts to the Defense budget real and substantial. There are proposals, like the Project on Defense Alternative’s Reasonable Defense: A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation which save substantially more than current proposals advocated by the Pentagon and move the country in the right direction in regards to war spending. The priority in Washington should be stabilizing the economy, strengthening the social safety net and ideally moving the country towards a full employment economy. Alternatives to cutting social services as a way of balancing the budget exist; attacks against Social Security can be called out for what they really are and urgent campaigns are underway demanding dramatic shifts in the country's priorities. (See For Love of Neighbor: Social Security and Fiscal Cliff by my fellow War Timers Nathan Paulsen; Eric Mann's call for a Social Welfare State, Not a Police State, and join up with the Jobs Not Wars campaign now endorsed by over 130 organizations.)
WINTER IN AMERICA
The prayers, the hopes, the sympathies of much of the world resided with Newtown Connecticut this month. After unimaginable tragedy struck the town, grief hit the nation and soon the world. Life always seems frailer, the world that much smaller, after events like those at Sandy Hook.
After the tragedy, President Obama visited Newtown to address the nation and comfort the survivors and families of the fallen. Shortly afterwards Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggested that she would reintroduce sweeping gun control legislation designed to curb the sale of assault weapons.
Then on Dec. 21, NRA President Wayne LaPierre addressed the media and after condemning violent video games and movies advocated for guns and armed guards in schools as a way of curbing the violence. Forgetting, as many have pointed out, that Columbine High School had a police officer and Virginia Tech had its own police department; three days later one of the men killed in an ambush of firefighters in New York was a police officer. LaPierre's comments also ignore that fact that the killings in Wisconsin this year occurred in a temple, the murders in Colorado where in a movie theatre and the office shooting in New York occurred at work. By his logic the solution to the Newtown tragedy would be for absolutely everyone everywhere to be armed at all times.
Mr. LaPierre, though completely incorrect in his proposed solution, was right that there are deeper and wider problems in this country than a ban on assault weapons can solve. As a nation, the U.S. exalts state sanctioned murder. It does this through glamorization of the military and specific policies from the President’s unconstitutional “kill list” to the use of drone strikes, the occupation of other nations to the cultish reverence given to Generals, from the massive sale of weapons to other nations to use of the death penalty "at home." Presented as ways to ensure self-defense and justice, the real reasons lie in the upkeep of Empire.
TIME FOR A NEW COMMON SENSE.
Addressing the families in Newtown an emotional President Obama asked:
“Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
The President, and the nation, should reflect on that question in light to the violence the U.S. inflicts on countless children in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Yemen and many other countries. Drone killings may reduce U.S. military casualties but certainly not child murders. Joe Klein of Time Magazine recently declared, in an exchange with Joe Scarborough of MSNBC:
“The bottom line, in the end, is: Whose four-year-old gets killed? What we're doing is limiting the possibility that four-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”
The profound darkness in that statement, disguised as real world pragmatism, is only the shadow of a collective murderous philosophy. Even following Klein’s “logic” in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, can anybody say our society is even “limiting the possibility that four-year olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror”? Albert Camus once demurred that “we kill and are killed by proxy. What is gained in cleanliness is lost in understanding.”
The point is not to demonize Klein, Klein’s comments are all too honest, all too indicative of what passes for common sense. The problem is that it is common sense, it is the reasoning bred out of a culture which relentlessly promotes militarism and mass scale violence, whose economy is dependent on war spending and weapons manufacturing. U.S. weapon sales abroad tripled in 2011 to $66.3 billion last year (and that was just what was disclosed.) Weapon sales at home skyrocketed with background checks for gun purchases reaching historic levels. In the most narrow and self-interested sense, the military culture and the military economy is affecting not only who is killed abroad, but who is killed at home.
It's long past time to put an end to that kind of common sense, and replace it with recognition of our common humanity with people all around the world.