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The Stimulus and Wealth Inequality

Keynes in Handcuffs

by NORMAN POLLACK

I am not an expert on Keynes, nor even—thank God—an economist (!), but the malarkey tossed around about how the Obama stimulus prevented another Great Depression and is responsible for the present prosperity we now allegedly enjoy (if only those churlish Republicans would stop complaining, and trying to sully St. Barack’s image), is one more sign of the political-economic-moral bankruptcy of liberalism as the guardian of societal welfare. First, two points: Both parties are contemptible in their shoring up an hierarchical order of widening class-differentiation in all decisive areas, including income, wealth, and power, via bipartisan consensus on deregulation, war, taxation, humongous military budgets, hegemony in all things pertinent to the global structure, and not least, the assault on civil liberties (surveillance on a massive scale) self-checking the individual’s critical thinking and expression of dissent.

In this climate, it would be impossible to expect economic policy to be other than invidiously charged, to the detriment of working people. Second, the stimulus is wrongheaded, not because, as Paul Krugman and The Times suggest, it did not go quite far enough (more spending, more prosperity), but because its whole purpose and orientation focused on vitalizing a status quo—the financialization and militarization of capitalism—at a still higher level, perpetuating the chicanery, abuses, and inhumanness characterizing the System in its advanced stages and responsible for the financial crisis in the first place.

The much-vaunted stimulus leaves everything otherwise intact, at best, juicing the trickle-down theory and framework of wealth distribution, structural organization, government-business interpenetration, and the political culture of militarism-corporatism trumping any and all ideas of democracy, economic or social in inspiration. Whether this falsifies Keynes (the current model, “military Keynesianism,” which even liberals applaud, i.e., the equation of defense spending and economic growth, together somehow constituting the welfare dimension of capitalism) I cannot say, because Keynes possibly left himself open to public spending per se as the basis for saving capitalism.

If so, then—anything goes—capitalism is not worth saving, because the military sector has proven inexhaustible and interventions promoting regime change, now standard practice, opens vistas of simultaneous confrontation with China and Russia, so that measuring rate of growth becomes identical to the nation’s powers of destructiveness. A drone missile for targeted assassination is an economic plus of g.d.p. It is hard to believe that Keynes was as callous as are his present-day followers, and his oft-quoted remark, “In the long run, we’ll all be dead,” may have been an uncanny anticipation of what Marxists would see as capitalism’s inner logic.

But one need not invoke Marx, tempting as that might be, to criticize the stimulus. The public spending embodied in the stimulus is “public” in name only, because beyond the defense sector, quintessentially public in America (a shameful admission when one sees how it directly depletes the social safety net and makes a mockery of what should be solemn governmental obligation in its myriad functions), monies go to repairing the private economy, from bailing out criminal conduct to granting subsidies to favored and pampered industries, businesses, and agriculture. The stimulus reinforces wealth-concentration, further nailing down the all-embracing ideological theme of privatization, coloring the definition of government itself and casting working people as entirely dependent on the fortunes of those above them in the class system (at this point fast approaching an economic-political caste system).

If we could strip the stimulus of its welfare-pretentions and look at Keynesian application as found in the New Deal (still far apart from Marx, because the overriding goal, clearly understood and applauded by FDR, was to save capitalism), the public nature of government appropriation is seen loud and clear, and has nothing to do with Obama-Democratic stimulus. What a time, a time when America did for itself as America, not strewn with corporate logos, a time of infrastructure improvement in which gigantic dams were built and the land was restored and reforested, a time of revival for the human spirit, where the arts were subsidized, theater flourished, poets had food in their stomachs, a time where “public” meant exactly that, the nation caring for its own. Today’s stimulus, in contrast, has been directed ever upward, the sole end of maximizing profit to the already privileged, influential, well-connected. I think Keynes, even in the context of saving capitalism, would have asked for more, authentic public spending, in which trampling on working people was not to the System’s advantage.

My New York Times Comments on Krugman’s article, “The Stimulus Tragedy,” (Feb. 21), and editorial, “What the Stimulus Accomplished,” (Feb. 23), comments same dates, follows:

I
“In other words, the overall narrative of the stimulus is tragic.” No, I beg to disagree; it was farcical opportunist, misconceived, but hardly tragic. Why focus on size, when the real question is substance or content? PK finds positive aspects of the stimulus, yet does not mention the larger picture which the stimulus as conceived by the administration not only fails to address, but directly contributes to intensifying and worsening: the growing maldistribution of wealth, evidenced in the widening class-differentiation in wealth, income, and power, perhaps the greatest wealth-concentration in American history. And this under the Obama banner of liberalism!

US democracy is being sucked dry by militarism and the defense budget. The financial and housing crises are mere derivatives of all that has gone wrong under a BIPARTISAN consensus: deregulation, global intervention, drone assassination, all with a hefty price tag, which, under different principles and goals, could have been assigned to job creation, a truly vibrant safety net, repair of crumbling infrastructure.

America is a faltering giant, reeling because the phrase “public investment” has been utterly falsified from its New Deal meaning. Reliance on a private sector proven noxious in its peddling of toxic instruments, its obsession with m & a, etc., all because of the ingrained fear of “socialism” (all stringent regulation is labeled thus) has gotten us to this place, and not merely an inadequate stimulus.

II
It requires courage to face the truth. Neither Republican criticism nor the Democratic stimulus can be defended. Both are bad, and because the stimulus perhaps less so is no reason to praise it. Under Obama we have the greatest disparities in wealth, income, and power in American history, i.e., wealth concentration, along with, and related to, the largest military budget ever, fueled by two major interventions, nuclear modernization, and an overseas network of bases. Why protect Obama, a POTUS personally engaged in targeted assassination? Why defend Obama, a POTUS who does little for job creation or mortgages foreclosures? Why, especially, look the other way, when Obama is responsible for massive surveillance–the greatest abridgment of civil liberties yet?

NYT can rail against Republicans all it wants, but that merely deflects criticism and analysis from what remains bipartisan continuity on essentials. Neither party demonstrates concern for, literally, the bottom one-half of American society, and Democrats, in particular, display a sophistication that combines liberal rhetoric with permanent war (e.g., drone assassination), and close ties to the financial community. Until you take the measure of Obama, ranging from deregulation to abridgment of civil liberties, to a confrontational stance vis-a-vis China and Russia, it will be hard to accept the impartiality of your news gathering and opinion. I say this as a Times reader for 65 years!

Norman Pollack has written on Populism.  His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.