Monday, November 22, 2010

When Trains Collide

You Lose

Collision Of Two Washington, D.C. Red Line Commuter Trains
June 22, 2009 (Photo: Reuters, via Washington Post)

In his New York Times column this morning, Paul Krugman quoted a recent remark by former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson (who apparently has patterned his mental activity after Abe Simpson's), one of the co-chairmen of President Obama's Catfood Debt Commission.

But a little backstory, first: Every year, the U.S. Congress votes to increase the Statutory Debt Limit of the government -- in other words, how far overdrawn the government can legally be on the national checking account. Without that Congressional approval, U.S. government spending, for anything, technically can't continue. The government wouldn't have to shut down, but a shutdown could be forced -- by the Republicans, say -- as they did in 1995.

The current Debt ceiling, voted into law in February of this year, is $14.3 Trillion dollars. Our current National Debt is $13.8 Trillion dollars, as of today, and it increases each year because of the National Deficit -- the amount the government went overbudget in a single year.

Earlier this year, President Obama issued an Order to create a Debt Reduction Commission of eighteen members (12 current members of Congress, and 6 private citizens) to provide ideas on reducing the National Debt. They were to complete their report and submit it to the President by December 1st. Erskine Bowles (D - Hereditary Wealth) and Alan Simpson (R - Cantankerous) were it's co-chairmen.

Erskine Bowles (Richie Rich) and Alan Simpson (OffLawnDamnKids)
(Photo: Stephen Crowley for the New York Times)

What Obama wanted were ideas to reduce current annual spending in the short term that did not reduce what we collectively consider "The American Dream", and did not manifestly change the policies -- Social Security, and Medicare -- that are the crown jewels of the social contract between America's government and it's citizens. What he got was... something else.

Anti-FDR Cartoon, 1940 (Graphic: Princeton University)

Rumors were that the Commission were discussing ways to destabilize, if not dismantle, Social Security and Medicare. Someone dubbed it the "Catfood Commission", bringing up an image of reductions to the National Debt made by slashing and burning bedrock social programs, which would affect the poor and the income of older, retired Americans, forcing them to live on catfood.

Earlier this month, CNN leaked a copy of the Commission's preliminary report, and suddenly the jokes about catfood weren't so funny. Simpson and Bowles decided to release the preliminary report publicly on November 10th (you can find a .pdf copy here); "It's good it's out there on the table," Alan Simpson said about the preliminary recommendations.

The New York Times reported that the Commission called for
deep cuts in domestic and military spending, a gradual 15-cents-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax, limiting or eliminating popular tax breaks in return for lower rates, and benefit cuts and an increased retirement age for Social Security... It lays out options for overhauling the tax code that include limiting or eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. It envisions cutting Pentagon weapons programs and paring back almost all domestic programs.

The plan would reduce cost-of-living increases for all federal programs, including Social Security. It would reduce projected Social Security benefits to most retirees in later decades, though low-income people would get higher benefits. The retirement age for full benefits would be slowly raised to 69 from 67 by 2075, with a “hardship exemption” for people who physically cannot work past 62. And higher levels of income would be subject to payroll taxes.

For Congress to debate and act on any recommended legislation the Commission makes in its final report, 14 of the 18 commissioners must have voted in favor of it, and Congress was to move on that debate as quickly as possible.

Anti-Obama Billboard, Colorado, 2010

However, it appears that the preliminary findings are just one more Bellwether of the Rethug's political game plan. As Paul Krugman noted,

There’s a legal limit to federal debt, which must be raised periodically if the government keeps running deficits; the limit will be reached again this spring... But Republicans will probably try to blackmail the president into policy concessions by, in effect, holding the government hostage; they’ve done it before...

The fact is that
[the Republican party has] made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it’s doing the governing... the G.O.P. isn’t interested in helping the economy as long as a Democrat is in the White House.

...Republicans ... demand that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent while demagoguing efforts to limit the rise in Medicare costs, which are essential to any attempts to get the budget under control. ... Right now, in particular, Republicans are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits — an action that will both cause immense hardship and drain purchasing power from an already sputtering economy. But there’s no point appealing to the better angels of their nature; America just doesn’t work that way anymore.

This April, debate about raising the Statutory Debt limit will begin in a Congress dominated by braying, addled, manifestly stupid idiots. The other day, Simpson -- who has been nothing short of foul-mouthed in response to criticism of the Commission -- said, "I can't wait for the blood bath in April."

It won't matter whether two [Commissioners] have signed this, or 14 or 18. When debt limit time comes, [the Democrats are] going to look around and say, 'What in the hell do we do now? We've got guys [i.e., new Republican members of Congress] who will not approve the debt limit extension unless we give 'em a piece of meat, real meat, [from the Commission's recommendations].' And boy, the bloodbath will be extraordinary.

Simpson has said openly for decades that he supports rolling back all of FDR's New Deal policies -- and to begin doing this, Simpson is saying that the Rethugs and Teabaggers will force Obama and the (essentially) spineless Democrats left in Congress to agree to whatever changes in Social Security, Medicare, and social spending they want, or they'll shut down the government... again.

Chicago-Tribune Anti-FDR Cartoon, April 21, 1934.
(For a Full Description Of The Cartoon, Go Here)

You agree to begin dismantling the entitlements to the goddamn Peasants that cripple Roosevelt forced down our throats, They say, or the trash bins will overflow at the National Parks before you have to shut 'em down, you socialist Kenyan illegitimate leader -- by the way, we'll do everything we can to make you and the rest of you Defeatocrats look bad between now and 2012 so we can win; it don't matter how many Little People get hurt in the process. It's all about winning, so we can get back to doing what we did to the country ten years ago..

And you can expect Little Rupert's right-wing vomitorium will be spewing 'facts', as they always have, in support of the Rethugs, twenty-four hours a day. The same with Glenn Beck, World's smartest Human; Lard Boy; Lil' Mikey Weiner; and of course, Little Sarah, Plain 'n Tall.

This is only going to get worse, you understand. The underlying cancer at the heart of our financial system -- bad mortgage loans, pooled to make Trillions in near-worthless securities our financial institutions still claim are assets -- is the same as it is in Ireland, or Greece, or Spain, but (as befits the world's largest economy) on a gigantic scale.

The same reductions in standards of living which the Irish and the Greeks now face are about to begin happening here. Have you wondered why the wealthy seem to be retrenching, why paintings at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions have brought record sales levels; or why they fight so hard to keep their Lil' Boots-era entitlements in tax rates? Because they know what's coming; and you can never be too rich.

German-American Bund Rally, Madison Square Garden, 1939

And as things slowly get worse, the political instability of the United States will increase; the siren's call of power, of our own version of Volk und Reich (more likely for us, Volk und Gott) will begin taking shape, and many people will passively allow it to metastasize because they will just want the confusion and anxiety to stop. Crowds respond to ideas that are presented in the guise of national myths and symbols they already accept, ideas which promise safety and purpose -- even if, later, what resulted from accepting those ideas become exhibits in court trials for corruption, aggression, and massacre.

There are people, like Krugman, who see this crisis as a defining moment in the future of America. In 1933, in the middle of an economic crisis as serious as the one we face now (only, we haven't hit bottom yet), FDR took the country in a direction that created a compact between government and its citizens -- one that (nominally, at least) said "You, The People, matter -- You, The People, come first", and programs like Social Security were the result.

The Rethugs and Teabaggers don't believe in a social contract based on the rule of law, social justice, or equality. They believe in the power and dominance of wealth. They intend to continue pressing America backwards, into the Gilded Age, when America's version of Oligarchs ran much of the country; and in politics, graft was a way of life.

The Little People lived and died anonymously, knew their places and respected their Betters, or else. Those who rocked the boat -- labor organizers; 'agitators' for workplace safety, better quality in medical care, safer food and water, racial and sexual equality -- were arrested, ridiculed, ignored.

Of course, the inequities of such a world contributed to the rise of Communism, Fascism, and were triggers behind two horrific world wars, and a long battle for equality on almost every level that isn't over. But change doesn't even have to be that large to have an impact.

This coming spring, the showdown Krugman mentions to force America backwards will be a train wreck. We can already see it coming -- but I'm only a Dog, and no one listens to me.

Krugman closed his column by saying,

My sense is that most Americans still don’t understand ... They still imagine that ... our politicians will come together to do what’s necessary. But that was another country.

It’s hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind. Mr. Simpson may or may not get the blood bath he craves this April, but there will be blood sooner or later. And we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize.

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