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Hyping Hawks and Circling Vultures

Rep. John Spratt has joined the chorus of deficit hawks warning us that “massive debt” could bankrupt the nation. (Charlotte Observer, July 17) He and fellow members of the Obama administration’s debt commission are considering ways to cut federal spending to reduce the national debt. Spratt says the commission is committed to “finding a solution” to Social Security insolvency.

This is political fear-mongering, and we should call it what it is. Independent economists tell us that the program is not insolvent and can meet its obligations for the next 33 years. Even then any potential shortfall could be remedied by taxing income above the current limit of $106,000. But the free market crowd see a chance to reduce Social Security benefits, raise the eligibility to age 70 or, worst case, privatize the program.

There’s a lot of money involved and Wall Street’s finest are salivating at the prospect of getting a piece of it. Social Security is a trust fund. To maintain the trust, the president should remove the program from efforts to lower the national debt. While at it, he should tell the financial vultures to stop circling.

Debt reduction is important in the long term, but there are more immediate problems facing the nation. The most pressing is massive unemployment. Factoring in those who have stopped looking, and part-time underemployed, the rate is around 20-25 per cent and holding. It’s difficult to imagine that the public will accept this as the new normal, but there’s no relief in sight.

It’s odd that neither the Democrats in Congress not the president is willing to take on this issue. Instead of job creation we get political passivity while a stalled economy continues to bleed jobs. Extending jobless benefits is essential, but it does nothing to reduce unemployment or to create new jobs. And unemployment compensation, which literally puts food on the table for millions of Americans, is itself now being linked to debt reduction.

Wall Street tells us – through the discredited verbal monotone of Alan Greenspan – (the man who worshipped the free market until it exploded in his face) that the huge national debt is bad for business. But record profits from some of the biggest corporations belie this bit of propaganda. The debt is not causing the stalled economy. Banks are sitting on their assets (your tax dollars not at work), indifferent to the plight of small businesses that can grow and create jobs only when they can access capital.

Despite claims to the contrary, corporate leaders remain fixated on the bottom line, and – recession or no recession – care little about the common good. Anyone who doubts that has only to look at the sordid behavior of BP, before and after its preventable oil hemorrhage in the gulf. Vital national issues such as Social Security, decent jobs, education, health care, the environment, and even the nation’s crumbling infrastructure are of interest to the corporate crowd only when they can profit from them. And they rig the system to do just that.

Corporations use two highly effective ways to advance their welfare through public policy. First they, in effect, purchase votes through campaign contributions to sympathetic elected officials of both major parties. Second they hire lobbyists to ensure passage of legislation that serves their interest and to weaken or kill legislation that does not. In some instances, corporate representatives actually write the bills that most closely affect their companies. This is not representative democracy. It is corruption pure and simple.

Budget deficit or no budget deficit, free-market fundamentalists can always be counted on to obstruct or dismantle progressive legislation. They are nothing if not predictable. But they reek with hypocrisy when they vote for tax cuts for the wealthy and then vote against health and education programs for children because of a deficit they created. What form of madness makes anyone think that the country can conduct two wars and cut taxes on the wealthiest without creating a deficit?

What author Tony Judt calls “the worship of the private sector and… the cult of privatization” are leading us down a perilous path. We have now reached the point where effective policies and programs are being squeezed out by the bad, all in the name of “tax reform” and “budget deficits.” We are proactively choosing to downgrade the quality of American life. The cost is apparent: we no longer have first-rate schools, health care (except the wealthy) or infrastructure.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, leave the country and travel abroad. On return you may be struck by how ragged around the edges things look. What used to be commonly referred to as the richest nation in the world is tired and worn. Timothy Garton Ash writes, “Every time I come back to the United States, the airports, the roads, the public spaces look to me more tattered, battered, old-fashioned. Modernity is no longer self-evidently here.”

Neglect at home and counter-productive wars in two countries over eight years are taking their toll. To be blunt, a civic and physical rot has set in, and it won’t be simply wiped away. Yet even minimal efforts to stop the downward spiral are denounced as socialistic or worse. To get beyond this impasse, the corporate choke hold on the political economy must be broken. Accomplishing that is the greatest challenge facing progressives, and now is an opportune time to start.

The political and corporate elite made a strategic blunder by placing debt reduction on the backs of average Americans. Social Security, unemployment benefits, free public education, and access to basic health care are not privileges. These are fundamental rights that have been won through years of struggle and sacrifice. Politicians, corporate leaders, and free market fundamentalists, however, won’t reverse course voluntarily. They need proper encouragement. An aroused, angry public, calling for their heads on Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street, might get their attention.

WAYNE CLARK lives in South Carolina. He can be reached at waclark@comporium.net

 

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