Monday, February 11, 2013

It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On-- Guest Post From Jonathan Tasini


Unfortunately, this all seems so familiar: lies that lead to death and misery for millions of people. We’ve seen it with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars-- and no one reading this needs a recounting of that travesty.

To me, the domestic economic equivalent of a purely absurd, immoral policy is the obsession over the debt and deficit “crisis.”

There is not “crisis.” Not even a little one.

Yet, here we are, two years down the road of a bi-partisan chorus about the need to “tighten the built,” to cut spending, the eviscerate social programs-- all in the name of some made-up crisis.

Two years ago, I wrote an e-book with the subtle title It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis. On the eve of the president’s State of the Union address, I’m releasing an updated, expanded version of the book (one and only direct promo: you can find out information on buying here).

Because this is pegged to the SOTU, one has to say just this: the president has played a big role in this foolishness so all his promises about focusing on the “middle class” won’t mean much if he doesn’t get off the bandwagon of a policy that is our social Armaggedon. It was the president, after all, who created the debt commission, formerly known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform-- the tale of which is part of the revised edition of the book.

Do you like sports? Most people do. So, think about this: let’s say you started a new baseball season with everyone, as usual, looking to capture the ultimate prize: winning the World Series.

You start out the season with the Commissioner of Baseball announcing the following ground rules: everything is on the table, everyone is a part of this race and every option is available to your team.

Except any team that has a stadium within 25 miles of an ocean can’t qualify for the World Series.

And every team with any hint of blue in their uniforms has to spot the other team five runs before the game starts.

And the five richest teams get to use performance-enhancing drugs while everyone else has to eat McDonald’s three times a day (yes, you could argue that eating McDonald’s is like consuming a dangerous drug but let’s save that for another day).

Of course, the outcome would be obvious-- and no one would believe that the playing field was equal, or in tune with the traditional rules, or, certainly, those rules would not leave all options open to all.

The game would be fixed. Unfair. Bogus.

That’s the upshot of the game that went on with the debt Commission.

It was a fixed discussion.

The rules determined the outcome before the Commission ever met.

The rules were fixed because there was a basic agreement among virtually all the Commission members, with the possible exception of one or two people.

It wasn’t a written agreement laying out the rules.

Everyone knew the rules because they shared an unstated worldview.

That worldview was simple: there is a fiscal crisis. And that worldview clearly stated the main reason for the “crisis”: government was “spending too much.”

There would never be a report from the Commission concluding that the vast greed of a very tiny elite had, slowly but surely, butchered the country’s infrastructure-- physical, social, and human.

The Commission would never describe the crisis facing the country as an utter failure of the “free market,” which had, slowly but surely, shifted huge wealth into the hands of a few, putting more of the burden on working Americans to carry the responsibility of paying for a decent society.

The outcome was pre-ordained by the president who created the Commission, a president who accepted the “crisis” rhetoric and, then, tapped two men to lead a Commission who were cut from the same ideological mold: Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.

Erskine Bowles is a product of the world of the financial elite. He pulls in millions, partly serving as a director on various corporate boards; for his service with Morgan Stanley, one of the world’s leading financial services companies, he pocketed a nifty $345,000 in 2011, another $618,000 to serve on the Board of Facebook and a tidy $285,000 to serve on the board of Norfolk Southern Corporation.

Now, that corporate service isn’t illegal.

But, it does tell us a very important thing: Erskine Bowles is a diehard adherent to the “free market.” He would never fundamentally question the “free market” that has rewarded him so well, with influence, power and money. He would, first and foremost, find fault with government regulation and preach “fiscal prudence."

Alan Simpson’s views on the deficit “crisis” are well-known, as is his fondness for Social Security. It isn’t just his most talked-about description of Social Security as “ a milk cow with 310 million tits.” For years, he has had a mission to turn Social Security money over to Wall Street. In 1994, as a member of Bill Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform (there is that word “bi-partisan” again-- which was as phony then as it was now: there were not opposing world views on that Commission duking it out), he pushed for benefit cuts and partial privatization.

Aside from the two corporate-minded Commission co-chairs, Bowles and Simpson, the deck was stacked with people who shared that basic worldview.

I tortured myself and watched the video of those hearings. Honestly, it’s not worth your time. But, there was one moment of clarity courtesy of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who was a hero on the Commission-- the only person who consistently carried the banner for the people.

During the Commission’s fourth public meeting on July 28th, Schakowsky asked the inconvenient question: “To what extent do the proposals that have been made take into account the income inequality in our country?” She continued, citing a study which showed that, “.01 percent, 14,000 American families hold 22.2 percent of the wealth and that the bottom 90 percent of households, that’s over 133 million families, hold just 4 percent of the nation’s wealth… we talk about joint sacrifice but a lot of people have been sacrificing for a long time.”

That inconvenient question momentarily threw off track the witness who was testifying, Maya MacGuineas. And it’s worth pulling out the relatively short exchange-- “relatively” in the vast waste of time eaten up by the Commission-- because MacGuineas is the kind of Trojan horse that makes possible the annihilation of a decent society possible.

Perhaps no one has made more of a career pushing the phony “crisis” than MacGuineas. She comes from the cream of the elite: She completed a Masters in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, which is the assembly line for minting out conventional wisdom-thinking people who, then, seep into every crevice of the policy machine in Washington, D.C.

MacGuineas was no different, doing stints at, of course, the Brookings Institute-- the cathedral of policy wonkery of conventional, uninspired, elite thinking-- and serving on the editorial board of the Washington Post, the media organ of conventional, elite thinking and the megaphone for institutional power.

Her real break came, though, in seizing the debt “crisis” as her own personal crusade. And finding her patron saint, Pete Peterson, to fund a large staff to create her media presence-- the ubiquitous talking head on the topic. (I devote a whole chapter to Peterson, with the subtle title: “The Man and The Lie: Peter Peterson Pees On The People,” in which you’ll be amused by a little back-and-forth between him and yours truly).

MacGuineas cocked her head and looked at Schakowsky: “We have to protect the people who are most vulnerable…by shared sacrifice [it] means everybody has to sort of be involved and there can be no sacred cows but it also can’t be balanced on the backs of people who can’t afford have it happen…”

Schakowsky interrupts: “Which is a slightly different question… because it seems to me that .01 percent versus the 90 percent you might want to make sure we not cut safety net programs. But should we be concerned about this distributional difference in our country?”

MacGuineas: “I don’t see how anybody could not be concerned about it. I think that there are legitimate differences, I suppose, on economic policies on what you do to deal with it... There are short-term re-distributional programs that can help and there’s long-term investment programs that can help and I would say we have to look at both. We certainly have been shortchanging the investment piece of our budget for a long time because we overemphasize consumption spending. We put I believe it’s about 84 cents on the dollar of our budget goes to consumption programs rather than investment programs so of course these income inequality problems are being perpetuated over time… That’s why I think it’s so important also that we do make something like Social Security solvent for 75 years, a long-term solvency of a program that we know so many low income people depend on for retirement income…”

So, several important things happened in that exchange that are so indicative of the political crisis we face.

MacGuineas’ brain activated the “I need to look compassionate” synapse, and expressed perhaps a genuine sentiment that the vulnerable have to be protected. But, that impulse was dispatched in a nanosecond, quickly replaced by the “shared sacrifice” mantra-- a weak attempt at recovering ground seized and shaped by Schakowsky’s observation that “we talk about joint sacrifice but a lot of people have been sacrificing for a long time.”

The mumbo-jumbo about investment versus consumption is entire nonsense-- though because MacGuineas is treated, in that crowd as an oracle, nobody bothered, with the exception of Schakowsky, to point out the nonsensical patter. MacGuineas wants to tell a story, using wonky obfuscation, that somehow inequality in America is, principally, a result of a lack of “investment” in favor of “consumption.”

But, inequality in America is largely a result of the 40-year corporate assault on wages and the robbery of the Treasury by a small elite. Period.

It would be a nice story to sell that we cut Social Security and Medicare for higher income elderly and invested in educating poor children, which would certainly make a small difference in wealth distribution. But, don’t hold your breath on that one. There is not a long history of transferring savings from Social Security to programs for helping poor people. The opponents of Social Security and Medicare tend not to be very friendly to poor peoples’ programs.

It is easy to excoriate people like Alan Simpson, Paul Ryan, and Peter Peterson-- their lifelong dream has been to eviscerate social programs. They see it as a national weakness, a cancer, to spend money on people who they believe don’t deserve it.

But, they could never sell the unraveling of society on their own, particularly to a country that is rapidly changing in complexion-- racially, in the main-- and becoming less hospitable to their harsh Darwinian vision.

No, for that the elite need people like MacGuineas: self-professed “liberals” who act as the standard bearers for abhorrent policy. And that’s the critical insight: how a decent society has been crippled with the help of a whole raft of people who probably pull the Democratic lever on Election Day.

If you want a single hero in this entire scam it was Schakowsky. Though an early backer of Obama, she did not follow orders, or sugarcoat the truth or use her reputation to add a veneer of respectability to the president’s creation. She was the only consistent voice of sanity.

The entire debt and deficit “crisis,” then, presents a moment of truth. What we do about it another matter.

People know something is wrong. They feel the country is coming apart.

We know we have been robbed. People across the political spectrum are right to be angry: they’ve been ripped off. I actually think this phony “crisis” is a thread-- perhaps, thin-- that connects the anger from Occupy Wall Street to the non-racist elements of the Tea Party.

That said, I do not think it is worth spending all our energy pointing fingers at various political leaders-- or waiting for them to save our butts by turning their backs on a “crisis” that they have invested a lot of energy in and political capital to create.

They won’t.

We have to demand from leaders that they take risks-- which may make them unpopular among their foundation funders or rich donors-- and most of them sat by as the crisis unfolded and had virtually no response, other than to offer up proposals to cut “responsibly.”

But, if they won’t take risks, they should get out of the way and resign so others can seize the moment.

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