Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Another Manufactured Crisis

It has been made clear by many experts, at many sites, for many days, that the issue of the debt ceiling is a complete sham.  It is another political sleight-of-hand -- a misdirection designed to hold your attention here, while they pilfer your wallet there.  The debt ceiling issue need not have been bound up with deficit reductions -- this is the misdirection, where a manufactured crisis was heroically solved by delivering up an austerity package that could never have been won otherwise.  This again proves the Rahm Emanuel dictum that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste" -- even if you have to make one up yourself.

Matt Taibbi of RollingStone summed up the outcome quite nicely in his most recent blog when he said: "Is it possible that by surrendering at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?"

I'll answer loudly in the affirmative.  Obama did not get the best he could under difficult circumstances -- he did deliver exactly what was expected of him. 

Obama has made it clear through his actions and his words that it was always his intention to deliver policies well to the right of centre.  There is not a progressive bone in his body.  And, despite the evidence that has been mounting from the day he took office, this fact continues to astonish his supporters.  It is time to acknowledge the awful truth, Barack Obama came to the Presidency as the manchurian candidate for Corporate America.

The deal is bad for everyone who is struggling in America and, as I demonstrated in my last post, Wealth and Democracy, that includes millions of people.  And, as Paul Krugman said in a New York Times column, it's a bad deal for the American economy.

What prompted Obama to tie deficit reduction to the fake crisis over the debt ceiling?  Most point the finger (middle) at the Tea Party.  It is true that this group of home-schooled zealots came to Washington on the so-called populist wave of the 2010 midterm elections.  Set aside for a moment that these people know absolutely nothing about economics; they also refuse to listen to anyone who does -- their most salient political attribute is that they believe what they believe because they believe it, and therefor they know what they know because they know it.  But this faux populist movement is really a creature of corporate America, and so under the guise of a no-tax reform movement, in the aftermath of the biggest transfer of wealth to Wall Street in history, and in the midst of a financial and economic crisis that may yet push us all into another Great Depression, these people have managed to legislate a reduction in spending and continued tax cuts for the rich.  It is an unprecedented victory for the elite in this escalating class war.

Obama's Deficit Focus

But again I return to the question: what prompted Obama to tie deficit reduction to the fake crisis over the debt ceiling?  Go back to last year's G20 conference in Toronto and you find in the summit Declaration the following: "The advanced economies have committed to fiscal plans that will at least halve deficits by 2013."  At the time of the G20 Declaration, the general consensus among serious economists was exactly the opposite -- that increased employment and wages were the critical need. This remains true today (see the paper from the PERI Institute, Austerity is Not a Solution). 

How, then, has "austerity" become the order of the day in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?  According to Robert Pollin, in an interview with TheRealNewsNetwork, the financial imbalances of the 2008 financial crisis (a real one, by the way) have not yet been solved, and this has been seized upon by Big Business to affect the kind of "serious crisis" that Rahm Emanuel says allows you to do things you couldn't otherwise get done, like gutting America's social programs.

In support of the points outlined above, the excellent analysis by Dean Baker provides real insight:

"The United States is currently running extraordinarily large budget deficits. The size of the annual deficit peaked at 10 percent of GDP in 2009, but it is still running at close to 9.0 percent of GDP in 2011. The reason for the large deficits is almost entirely the downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble [emphasis added]. This can be easily seen by looking at the projections for these years from the beginning of 2008, before government agencies recognized the housing bubble and understood the impact that its collapse would have on the economy.

At the beginning of 2008 the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the country’s most respected official forecasting agency, projected that the budget deficit in 2009 would be just 1.4 percent of GDP. The reason that the deficit exploded from 1.4 percent of GDP to 10.0 percent had nothing to do with wild new spending programs or excessive tax cuts. This enormous increase in the size of the deficit was entirely the result of the fallout from the housing bubble. 

Remarkably, both Republicans in Congress and President Obama have sought to conceal this simple reality [emphasis added].  The Republicans like to tell a story of out-of-control government spending. This is supposed to be a long-standing problem (in spite of the fact that Republicans have mostly controlled the government for the last two decades) that requires a major overhaul of the budget and the budgetary process.  They are now pushing, as they have in the past, for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

It might be expected that President Obama would be anxious to correct the misconception about the budget, but this would not fit his agenda either.  President Obama is relying on substantial campaign contributions from the business community to finance his re-election campaign.  Many business people are anxious to see the major government social programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) rolled back.  They see the crisis created around the raising of the debt ceiling as a unique opportunity to accomplish this goal. [Rahm was right!]

In order to advance their agenda, President Obama also has an interest in promoting the idea of the deficit as being a chronic problem.  Plus, it gives him an opportunity to blame the deficit on the fiscal choices of his predecessor, President Bush.  Therefore, in his address to the country on July 25, he told the public that as a result of President Bush’s tax cuts, his wars, and his Medicare prescription drug benefit, the deficit was on a track to be more than $1 trillion in 2009.

This is more than five times as large as the actual figure projected by CBO.  However, President Obama’s distortion preserved the idea of the deficit as a chronic problem, while also getting in an attack on the Republicans.  It also allows him to avoid talking about the housing bubble. This is a topic that he seems anxious to avoid, since many large contributors to his re-election and to the Democratic Party profited enormously from the bubble.

The claim that the deficit is a chronic problem and not primarily the result of a severe cyclical downturn also opens the door for cuts to the country’s major social welfare programs.  These cuts are hugely unpopular.  All three major programs enjoy overwhelming support among people in all demographic groups, including conservative Republicans.  There is no way that an ambitious politician would ever suggest major cuts to these programs apart from a crisis.

In this respect, the crisis over the debt ceiling is the answer to the prayers of many people in the business community.  They desperately want to roll back the size of the country’s welfare state, but they know that there is almost no political support for this position.  The crisis over the debt ceiling gives them an opportunity to impose cutbacks in the welfare state by getting the leadership of both political parties to sign on to the deal, leaving the opponents of cuts with no plausible political options.

To advance this agenda they will do everything in their power to advance the perception of crisis.  This includes having the bond-rating agencies threaten to downgrade U.S. debt if there is not an agreement on major cuts to the welfare state.

In principle, the bond-rating agencies are only supposed to assess the likelihood that debt will be repaid. However, they showed an extraordinary willingness to allow profit to affect their ratings when they gave investment-grade ratings to hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities during the housing bubble.  Given their track record, there is every reason in the world to assume that the bond-rating agencies would use downgrades or the threat of downgrades for political purposes.

This means that the battle over the debt ceiling is an elaborate charade [emphasis added] that is threatening the country’s most important social welfare programs.  There is no real issue of the country’s creditworthiness or its ability to finance its debt and deficits any time in the foreseeable future.  Rather, this is about the business community in general, and the finance sector in particular, taking advantage of a crisis that they themselves created to scale back the country’s social welfare system. They may well succeed."
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We await the creation of the Congressional Super Committee, and the next shoe to drop in this ongoing charade.  And then we may see the kind of unrest and protest that has recently taken hold in Israel.


Update.  Austerity is a concept that has risen to global consciousness over the last several years, increasingly so in the last few months.  And it has come to the full attention of the public in North America in the last few weeks with the US debt "crisis".  The drive to austerity has been engineered by the monied interests as a protection of their position.  A recent interview with Rob Johnson of the Roosevelt Institute provides some of the history -- and suggests some potential outcomes -- of the new austerity regime.  And it gives another perspective as to why Obama so easily betrayed the Democratic faithful.
   
By David.
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Your musical accompaniment for the day:  Mozart, Requiem in D Minor, K626; Staatskapelle Dresden, Leipzig Radio Chorus.  Enjoy. 


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