Killing Us Softly

Richard Eskow

Yesterday some prominent people signed a letter urging the so-called “Super Committee” to “go big” on cuts to the Federal budget. Many of these people would describe themselves as “moderate” and “centrist.” Some would call themselves liberal. I’ve met a few of them casually, both Republicans and Democrats, and they seemed like very nice people.

They’re nothing like the audience members at the Republican Presidential debate who shouted “yes!” when asked if society should let a young man die because he didn’t buy health insurance. They’re courteous and civilized, and were undoubtedly appalled by the shouts from the crowd.

That sort of thing isn’t done in the salons or think tanks of Washington. You wouldn’t catch anyone who signed that letter behaving that way.

But are they really all that different?

Donner, Party of Four

It’s fair game to label today’s Republicans as (in Terrance Heath’s words) “Death’s Own Party.” The GOP earned that name when it filibustered disaster relief for flood and hurricane victims this week, as it did when it passed a budget that slashed funding for lifesaving weather warnings, police, and firefighters.

It’s also reasonable to call the Tea Party’s more blood-crazed members a “Cult of Death” funded by the ultra-rich, as William Rivers Pitt did after the debate. They cheered executions last week, and last night they let us know it’s a death-penalty offense to make the wrong insurance purchasing decision, too.

These responses come from independent critical voices. It’s different when powerful people, whether they’re “moderate” Republicoans and self-described “centrist” Democrats, privately cluck over these Tea Partiers. These insiders are in a position to address their fears and explain what’s been done to them, to channel their outrage constructively.

Instead they’ve formed a mob of their own, so they can urge leaders to “go big” with assaults on services that help average Americans – including those who follow the Tea Party.

Go Big

That phrase is just one more reflection of these Orwellian times. “Go big” really means “go small.” Small government. Small future. Small dreams.

The letter said “we urge you to ‘go big’ and develop a large-scale debt reduction package sufficient to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy.” It called for going “well beyond” the Committee’s $1.5 trillion goal for additional deficit reduction, and proposed “major reforms (a Beltway code word for “cuts) of entitlements” and “reforms” to the tax code (which typically means lower taxes that would increase the deficit.)

The signatories proposed to “restore Americans’ faith in the political system” – by imposing cuts that most Americans in both parties oppose. Now that would be a trick …

The List

Who are they?

Many of the signers are the usual suspects, professionals from both parties who have pushed the same anti-government agenda for decades. They’re functionaries and hired academic guns who have long benefited from the pro-austerity largesse of right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson and like-minded plutocrats. They’re Democrats like Erskine Bowles and Alice Rivlin and like-minded Republicans like Alan Simpson (whose public outbursts make the worst Tea Party dustup look like a meeting of the Emily Post Fan Club) .

The list also includes some of the “bipartisan” architects of today’s economic crisis, people like Robert Rubin. Rubin pushed for the deregulation that crashed the economy, joined the worst of the bloated and incompetent banks and made hundreds of millions, and is now pushing to have middle and lower-income America foot the bill for what he has wrought.

There were one or two disappointments like economist Laura Tyson, who’s attaching herself to a document that any reasonable economist knows is a recipe for economic disaster. It calls for the same austerity that’s decimating Europe and unraveling the social contract which built its postwar prosperity.

The austerity approach pushed in this letter has already shattered investor confidence in the US economy, driving down the stock markets and making them surge up and down like the paroxysmal double-takes of a vaudeville clown. And now they want us to “go big” with it.

And yet none of them, with the probable exception of Simpson, would ever shout anything crude about death in a public place.

Death in Private Places

That’s ironic, since people will surely die as a result of the policies they’re advocating. Somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 Americans die each year because they don’t have health insurance. If the President listens to the people who signed this letter, as many people believe he will, he’ll propose raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67.

One study showed that Medicare reduces mortality for its members by about 13% per year, and lowers the number of days spent in the hospital by about the same percentage. So the austerity economics these people are proposing will lead to death.

It’s true that they’re not shouting in public places. They’re whispering their opinions in the ears of the powerful. You can decide for yourself which form of behavior is more obscene.

Hating the Victim

We’re seeing it all across Washington: The demonization of the victim. It’s in the public hatred for underwater homeowners, which began at the first Tea Party rally (on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) and now reaches to the highest halls of power in both parties, where we told that helping struggling homeowners would be “rewarding the undeseverving.”

(Funny – the word “undeserving” wasn’t mentioned when both parties rescued Wall Street’s megabanks. Rescuing homeowners, many of whom were persuaded to take out bloated loans by those same banks, would help stimulate the economy in a way those bankers have yet to do.)

We saw it in the question that stirred the bloodlust last night, too. Here’s what Wolf Blitzer asked:

“You’re a physician, Ron Paul… Let me ask you this hypothetical question: A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what? I’m not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I’m healthy, I don’t need it. But something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it.

Who’s going to pay if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?

The spin in that question encapsulates the Beltway bias: A “healthy” thirty-year-old “makes a good living” (which is unusual, with youth unemployment at 25%) but cavalierly decides not to spend “200 or 300″ dollars. That’s the common insiders’ picture of the uninsured American as the villain of the piece.

Reality TV

Blitzer didn’t ask this, more realistic question:

“The father in a family of four lost his job, so his wife is working double shifts without health insurance to pay the bills. Premiums would cost at least $14,000 per year (let’s say $7500 under the new law) for insurance that still sticks them with big out-of-pocket costs. They couldn’t come up with the money to pay United Healthcare, and then he had this accident …”

That’s the kind of real-life scenario that doesn’t get portrayed much on television these days.

Now let’s change it again, in one detail: The man is 66 years old. The “go big” crowd is urging the President to exclude that man from Medicare, making him even more unemployable and his insurance even more unaffordable. And he’s much more susceptible to life-threatening questions.

We’ll ask the question again: How different are the people who signed the letter from the audience at the debate?

Civil Discourse

We’re told we can disagree without being disagreeable. I hope so.

I’ve met Tea Party members, and I understand their fear and their anger. I think it’s very misdirected, and at times very ugly. But I understand it. And as I’ve said, I’ve met a couple of the people who signed that letter, too. We had pleasant chats. If we meet again, that chat may be pleasant too.

But as long as we’re talking, let’s talk honestly. The shouters and haters are disturbing, and we face a terrible threat from the big-money financiers stoking their fears. But it’s easy for civilized people in the corridors of power to look down on the shouting rabble. Easy – and cheap.

I worry just as much about the ones who are welcome in the salons of both parties, the ones who are heard at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. They’re the powerful ones. They’re the quiet ones. While we’re looking at the loudmouthed shouters on television, they’re the ones who are killing us softly.

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