The Depressing Phony War in Washington

Robert Borosage

There were three of us on Warren Olney’s “To the Point” public radio program, one of the more enlightened shows on NPR. But the program, addressing the coming debate on spending cuts, quickly descended into Beltway babble.

Stephen Moore, the gleeful right-wing propagandist, billed as a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, started ticking down conservative talking points: President Obama’s stimulus plan didn’t produce any jobs, cutting federal spending will produce jobs, repealing health care reform saves money.

Matt Bennett of the Third Way, one of a gaggle of groups representing the Wall Street wing of the party, argued that Republicans are wrong to focus on domestic spending cuts; we should be looking to cut entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security – where the money really is. Raise the retirement age, reform Medicare. Both parties, he started to say, support that. But since I was on the phone, he caught himself, and said parts of both parties support it.

A bit short-tempered, I did my bit, which didn’t elevate the discussion. We’ve got 25 million people in need of full-time work. We’ve lost 8.5 million jobs in the economic collapse. One in three homes with mortgages is underwater. Americans have lost trillions in savings or assets they thought they had. We’re close to one in four children raised in poverty.

Worse, the economy is crippled by long-term, growing and unsustainable disparities. The global trade gulf, driven by the mercantilist Chinese and our corporate trade policies that contributed directly to the collapse, is growing again. A dangerous imbalance remains between finance and the real economy, with the financial casino headed back to capturing from 30 to 40 percent of profits. A staggering concentration of wealth and income, with the top 1 percent pocketing nearly a quarter of all income while the middle class struggles simply to stay afloat, endangers the promise of the American Dream. Yet we’re stuck with a phony debate, between well-honed, dial-tested right-wing tripe and an elite consensus in favor of premature deficit reduction, focused on spending cuts, with all the wrong targets.

We need a fundamental transformation of our economic strategy. We have to balance our trade, seeking international coordination in the transition, but starting unilaterally to send clear signals to global companies and other nations. We need progressive tax reform that generates greater revenues to invest in areas vital to our future, and reforms to curb the distorted compensation plans that give CEOs multimillion-dollar incentives to cook the books. We need measures to empower workers to capture a fair share of the profits and productivity they help produce. We need to shrink finance, curb the casino and make banking once more a servant to the real economy.

In the short term, we need more spending to deal with real problems – aid to states to avoid layoffs of cops and teachers, job corps to employ young people, a massive program to rebuild America at a time when the construction industry is prostrate and interest rates are low. And then, once the economy gets going, we need to move in common-sense ways to bring our budget into balance.

With Gilded Age inequality, and the wealthy paying lower tax rates then their secretaries, progressive tax reform comes first. With the U.S. spending as much as the rest of the world combined on its military, withdrawal from the Afghan folly, cuts in our empire of bases and baroque weapons systems come next. With health care costs the source of long term deficit projections, taking on the private entrenched interests that drive up health care costs is essential.

Instead, we are cutting bone from programs for the weak and the vulnerable, while extending tax cuts for the rich. We are hiking military spending, sustaining an endless war and cutting domestic investment. We’re turning to forcing seniors and the poor to pick up more of their health care costs, rather than taking on the insurance companies, the drug companies, the private hospitals that make our costs per capita the highest in the industrialized world. We’re talking about raising the retirement age and cutting Social Security benefits, when our retirement benefits are among the weakest in the industrial world.

When President Obama came to office, he put some of the real agenda before Americans. He called for investment in education, infrastructure and research and development. He challenged the G-20 to cooperate to end unsustainable global imbalances. He moved financial reform and passed health care reform. But the interests organized, they weakened already modest reforms. The old economy began to reassert itself. And worse, we lost – some would say never waged – the argument about a new direction.

And now, instead of pushing forward on another round of reform, we have to fight a phony war against a wingnut right and a compromised elite. Has to be done, I suppose, but it surely is aggravating.

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