Piercing the Veil

            The radical members of the GOP who led the recent 16-day partial shutdown and near default of the national government relentlessly told Americans they were doing so to address the alleged awful effects that providing access to health care for millions was going to produce. These shrill advocates almost never say much that is more specific than that the Affordable Care Act will wreak havoc and travail. It is important to note that there is absolutely no evidence for this claim whatsoever. As but one indicator, private insurance companies will reap handsome profits from their role as participants in this alleged “tragedy,” as its detractors call it. Whether good, bad or indifferent, the law does not create socialism or economic destruction, or anything even remotely resembling those outcomes. In any case, when the President rejected the House GOP’s efforts to repeal the statute outright, that caucus then ran through a range of other demands, including a return to talks over a grand bargain to address the nation’s “huge debt and unsustainable current accounts deficit,” implicit in which was a fervent Republican desire to gain large reductions in major entitlement programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and other citizen assistance efforts the party’s radicals claim are unsustainable or misused or both. It is worth inquiring into the sources and current implications of this claim.

            Former Harvard University President, Chair of the United States National Economic Council and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers asked the right question in an interview with Charlie Rose recently:

I don't know why the obsession should be with entitlements—like the test of a country is did we scale back entitlements? No! The test of the country is did we have a stronger economy for our children than we had for ourselves. That’s what is in doubt and that’s what we should be focusing on.

            Nobel Prize winning Princeton University economist Paul Krugman addressed the consequences of the GOP’s single-minded insistence on reductions in federal spending generally and entitlements particularly, in a column in the New York Times on October 18:

It’s important to recognize that the economic damage from obstruction and extortion didn’t start when the G.O.P. shut down the government. On the contrary, it has been an ongoing process, dating back to the Republican takeover of the House in 2010. And the damage is large: Unemployment in America would be far lower than it is if the House majority hadn’t done so much to undermine recovery. A useful starting point for assessing the damage done is a widely cited report by the consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, which estimated that “crisis driven” fiscal policy—which has been the norm since 2010—has subtracted about 1 percent off the U.S. growth rate for the past three years. This implies cumulative economic losses—the value of goods and services that America could and should have produced, but didn’t—of around $700 billion. The firm also estimated that unemployment is 1.4 percentage points higher than it would have been in the absence of political confrontation, enough to imply that the unemployment rate right now would be below 6 percent instead of above 7.

            And finally, Krugman noted:

The main driver of their (Macroeconomic Advisers) estimates is the sharp fall since 2010 in discretionary spending as a share of G.D.P.—that is, in spending that, unlike spending on programs like Social Security and Medicare, must be approved by Congress each year. Since the biggest problem the U.S. economy faces is still inadequate overall demand, this fall in spending has depressed both growth and employment.

            The single-minded House GOP majority’s desire to cut federal expenditures (via the broadsword of the sequester, most recently) and, if possible, dismantle social support programs, has worked against the very population that elected these officials and also has harmed many millions of other Americans who did not support them. Krugman does not argue (nor do I) that our nation’s entitlement programs do not require policy changes or that our current deficit and debt do not require vigilance; the question is timing and the character and scale of needed changes. The GOP rush to attack these programs and governance wholesale has only hurt United States citizens since 2010. In a continuing weak economy that trend is set to endure, following the large economic costs associated with the shutdown, and should further national expenditure reductions occur. The radical House Republicans, of course, continue to call for just such expenditure cuts, at least in social services. They have notably sought to protect tax expenditures and subsidies for the wealthy as well as favored defense programs.

            Krugman contends that all of this arises from a GOP decision to wage class warfare from the top-down. Similarly, Matt Taibbi and others have argued that what is occurring is nothing short of an attempt by a small group of the nation’s most wealthy citizens to hobble government and hollow out governance. In this view, those pressing the claim believe themselves advantaged by such a turn and/or they ideologically support such a perspective (the Koch brothers, for example). Such may be true. I am not prepared to dismiss the possibility out-of-hand that such interests have captured the GOP fringe, given the party’s all out assault on entitlements, on the voting rights of the poor and vulnerable, on benefits for the unemployed, on immigrants and on the poor more generally. Nevertheless, I do wonder if what is afoot is less a plutocratic plot than a deeply misguided and often cynical effort to bring other voters to the polls using government and minorities and the poor as scapegoats for the nation’s continuing economic woes and for cultural change. In a social landscape suffused with fear, with charlatanism and demagoguery rising fast in Congress and in the culture more generally, and with an extraordinarily complex form of governance that often resists ready understanding, many Americans are vulnerable to leaders who supply simplistic shibboleths and offer up the government for blame. The opportunists among the radicals in the GOP have been only too happy to supply these scapegoats, empty slogans and “others” for vilification.

            It may be that whatever the origins of the Republican Party’s continuing attack on our regime’s legitimacy—economic interests, libertarianism, nihilism, cynical electoral positioning and posturing to voter fear and prejudices or doctrinaire ideological allegiances—or perhaps a combination of all of these, the real question is how to address them. That is, how can the origins of these beliefs be unmasked for what they are, not only for those subscribing to them, but also for those offering them? Is this simply to be addressed via a war of whose 30-second television or radio spots, or hoarse or crude oratory, or staged events no matter how hypocritical, can gain the most salience, or are there as yet untested means by which Americans of all partisan persuasions who now so often are the prey of demagogues can come to gain a more informed understanding of their nation’s politics and challenges? None of this is to say that debate should not continue concerning the reach and character of government services at all scales, or the efficacy of specific public initiatives and strategies or indeed concerning whether government should provide particular programs at all. It is instead to call for piercing the veil of ideology, fear and ignorance that now allows so many people to support actions that continue to hurt their loved ones, themselves and millions of other Americans in the name of a supposed self-righteously angry nativism aimed at delegitimating the regime itself. It is to call once more for something resembling a civil and reasonably well-informed and honest discussion of the public weal and how to advance it. This nation cannot continue to war with itself concerning whether it is appropriate even to govern and expect to enjoy in the future the advantages that the freedom that permits that deluded debate confers.