A vicious, savage, axe-wielding killer stalks the political landscape, yearning to draw blood, slash victims, and amputate limbs. That's not my description of austerity economics -- that's how its fans talk about it.
"Austerity" is defined as "the trait of great self-denial (especially refraining from worldly pleasures)." Austerity economics, on the other hand, is the practice of denying others things that they need while at the same time ensuring your own continued privilege and comfort. This practice is usually accompanied by a round of self-congratulation for showing such courage and discipline. Its usually sinister spell has seduced Republicans into aiding and abetting felons with budget cuts that would make them de facto accomplices to a thousand crimes. And what the president's about to do will literally send chills down a million spines.
Anne Applebaum nearly worked herself into a case of the vapors when Austerians got elected in Great Britain, when she palpitatingly repeated the phrases used by journalists there to describe the new government's budget. The new British leaders, said journalists, were "axe-wielders" who were inflicting "vicious," "savage," and "swingeing [sic] cuts." (Is that what "bangers and mash" really means?)
"Articles about the nation's finances are filled with talk of blood, knives, and amputation," Applebaum gushed, before adding enviously: "And the British love it." What does she do for relaxation, watch autopsies? (We discussed Applebaum and other austerity-fetishist pundits in greater length here.) Vicious, savage, amputating, bloody cuts. Why do Brits get all the fun?
They don't -- not anymore. While Ms. Applebaum takes a cold shower, let's take a walk through an austerity-haunted nation, where terror lurks behind every policy proposal, and your best friend might turn out to be your worst enemy.
I wish I were joking.
Felony Friday: The New Republicans' Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card for Criminals
Tony Montana, this is your lucky day! The fictional drug czar Al Pacino played in Scarface would love the list of cuts that Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee just proposed. They range from the needlessly vengeful (why focus on eliminating a tiny amount like $2 million from the Minority Business Development Agency -- just to keep 'em in their place?) to the potentially catastrophic.
Case in point: Why cut $30 million, an insignificant amount in overall budget terms, from the fund for "Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies"? According to the National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration (NOAA), damage from coastal floods and storms costs an average $11.4 billion per year, which is nearly 400 times as much as the cuts would save. NOAA also reports that there's a roughly 1-in-20 chance of a $50 billion event occurring in any given year. In what alternate universe does it make sense to cut $30 million from a fund that helps reduce costs of much greater magnitude, and which helps save lives in the bargain? Good thing NOAA is there to collect the data we need to plan for future disasters.
Oh, wait. They want to cut $336 million dollars from NOAA, too.
This is exactly the kind of anti-government thinking that gave us Katrina and "heck of a job, Brownie." The other cuts on the list are pretty disastrous, too, but it's the "Tony Montoya cuts" that really caught my eye: $74 million from the FBI. $256 million from "State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance." $600 million from COPS, another program that gives grants for state and local policing. And more than half a billion from the IRS. That won't just help tax cheats and money launderers. It will also impede the government's ability to collect much larger amounts in revenue than these cuts will save, resulting in a bigger deficit than ever.
The Republicans even want to cut $330 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund, which isn't even an expense item. It's revenue. That's the fund that administers all the assets seized by U.S. Customs, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the IRS Criminal Investigation unit, and the Coast Guard. Watch some old Miami Vice episodes if you want to picture the sorts of things they collect during a smuggling bust or drug raid: cash, yachts, cars, planes -- even the long, sleek "cigarette" boats that Don Johnson somehow managed to drive at full speed without getting a single drop of water on the rolled-up sleeves of those pastel Armani jackets.
What are they going to do with all that stuff: Give it back?
Oh -- they want to cut the budget for "food safety and inspection services," too. Want some fries with that e. coli?
We are all Sistah Souljah now -- especially you, Mom.
Sistah Souljah was the rapper and writer against whom Bill Clinton "triangulated" so successfully in 1992. Democratic Senators, including Dick Durbin and Kent Conrad, seemed to invoke the same spirit when they met with their Republican counterparts this week for a budget-cutting party. That led to some nostalgia for the welfare cuts that Clinton "successfully" supported four years later.
These Democrats are pushing hard to revive the economically discredited and wildly unpopular Simpson/Bowles deficit reduction proposals -- a set of suggestions that Politico, like so many others, mistakenly describes as "the recommendations of last year's presidential debt commission." (The Commission was deadlocked and failed to issue any recommendations.)
Digby highlighted an important passage in the Politico piece, about proposals that include Draconian cuts to Social Security: "For Obama it could be the equivalent of Bill Clinton's famous welfare reform deal -- only on steroids." Even worse, now there's a report that President Obama is doubling down on the "Grandma Souljah" strategy by slashing the energy assistance fund for low-income people (from $5.1 billion to its 2008 level of $2.57 billion.) The administration's arguing that energy costs are down from their 2008 highs, but this isn't a bloated program, and oil costs won't stay lowered. Poverty has reached record highs in this country -- largely thanks to the executives that the president so assiduously courted at the Chamber of Commerce last week -- so more people need fuel assistance.
Maybe this is another front in the "welfare reform on steroids" war, to use Politico's phrase. Cutting fuel subsidies to 2008 levels would accomplish several goals for the White House: It would further distance it from core Democratic values, allow it to triangulate against the nation's poor (many of whom are also elderly), and enable it to slavishly mimic Republican rhetoric yet another time. (That's an accomplishment that seems increasingly precious to the administration.)
Incidentally, common side effects of steroids include increased and uncontrollable aggressiveness, acne, high blood pressure, hair loss, and shrinkage of the testicles.
Whatever you thought of Clinton-era "welfare reform" -- I didn't think much of it -- its perceived popularity came from the fact that many white Americans continue to think that welfare recipients are different, frightening, undeserving -- the Other. It's madness to think that Social Security cuts will be equally popular with those voters, since most of the folks on the receiving end of those cuts are people who seem just like themselves -- and who, in fact, will be themselves someday. What's more, voters will remember that they've paid for those benefits all their lives, so it's absurd to expect that they'll think of themselves as "undeserving." Poll after poll has confirmed that the public opposes Social Security cuts by enormous majorities.
And in a nation where nearly two-thirds of the public thinks that the federal government doesn't do enough to fight poverty, Obama's move to cut oil assistance for poor people isn't just cynical. It's also politically foolish. Cutting fuel subsidies? Even Mubarak backed down from that idea.
This has been coming for a long time. According to a Reuters report, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that "a deal between Republicans and Democrats at the end of last year to extend tax cuts helped spark more confidence among (business) firms." That deal will add $700 billion to the federal deficit (and more than half of its benefits will accrue to the richest 5 percent of Americans.) But wait... Secretary Geithner said last August that the private sector needs to be given "confidence" that "the United States (will) cut its deficits over time." So which is it? Does confidence go up when the deficit is reduced, or when it's increased?
Back in 2009, Geithner joked about being a "fiscal hawk" while adding that "the President explicitly rejects [emphasis mine] the notion that Social Security is an untouchable politically... " And while the administration has insisted that its Social Security "reforms" would only be used to stabilize the program itself, the administration's decision to suspend Social Security payroll taxes blurred the line between Social Security and general taxation for the first time in history. The Simpson/Bowles plan actually cuts taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, supposedly in the name of "deficit reduction," while at the same time slashing Social Security benefits.
This is Bizarro-World economics, the exact opposite of what's needed. Studies show that the wealthy will save most of their new-found riches, while Social Security beneficiaries will spend most of their benefits. It would have made much more economic sense to end tax breaks for the rich and use the money to give Social Security recipients a multi-hundred-billion dollar benefit increase instead.
It's not too late to do something sensible. Any government program that provides income to lower- and middle-income people will lead to increased consumer spending. That, in turn, is the only thing that will persuade U.S. businesses to release the two trillion dollars of cash they're holding, which they'll need to hire new employees and purchase raw materials to meet the increased demand.
More consumer spending = more jobs = more growth = real confidence. We should jump-start job growth now and deal with the deficit later. (The taxes paid by all those newly-employed workers will help with that.)
To be fair, Geithner went to the World Economic Forum at Davos and tried to hold back the pack of well-heeled wolves that's always baying for deficit reduction -- except, of course, when deficit reduction is against the pack's self-interest. So let's give him points for nerve, and for fighting the good fight on behalf of short-term stimulus spending while he was there. But Geithner's "confidence" logic is pretzel-shaped. And neither President Obama nor senators Durbin and Conrad will thrive, either politically or morally, by deploying a "welfare reform on steroids" plan against their own people.
Perhaps Geithner, the president, and these Senate Dems see themselves as the last line of defense against the real fiscal zealots, making deals with devils to ease the suffering of the angels. But there's a time for peace, as Ecclesiastes says -- and, as he does not say, a time to open up a can of common-sense, economic whup-ass on your political opponents. Instead, these Democrats are repeating right-wing talking points with so much fervor that it's increasingly hard to tell if they're defending us from the killer, or if we're in that scene from Scream where we find out the killer is more than one person.
Feinting to the right doesn't seem like a smart strategy for Democrats, since it means alienating their core voters while abandoning popular programs. But if they insist on making "bipartisan" gestures or want to act like they're having a Sistah Souljah moment, then hey: knock yourselves out. Problem is, they don't seem to be acting. They're reading their lines with a little too much conviction. Maybe they should remember Tony Montoya's famous rule: Don't get high from your own supply.
People could freeze to death next winter. There's a killer afoot, all right - a misguided economic fad that's could have deadly consequences. Republicans no longer feel they need to hide their lust for killing government with the death of a thousand cuts. And something has gone seriously wrong inside the Beltway when so many Democrats can convince themselves that their path back to popularity lies in cutting Social Security and leaving poor people freezing in the dark.
That's not just horsesh*t. It's horsesh*t on steroids.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates