Deficits Are the New Iraq
May 2, 2011 - 2:57pm ET
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Before President Obama announced Bin Laden's death the big topic in Washington was the deficit. Pundits and politicians alike eagerly anticipated a possible "bi-partisan" budget-cutting deal forged by "selfless" Republicans and Democrats. Deficits will be the hot topic again after the excitement dies down. But Bin Laden's death is a timely reminder of what happened the last time Washington's leaders and pundits reached a "bi-partisan consensus."
Then, as now, we were told that their consensus viewpoint was clearly and objectively correct. Then, as now, dissenting voices were marginalized, mocked, or ignored. Then, as now, the media credulously took the biased statements of interested parties for the objective voice of reason. Then, as now, many politicians were either too fearful or self-serving to speak the truth. And then, as now, we were told that the consensus idea was bigger than the petty distinctions of "left" and "right."
What did we get for all of that? The war in Iraq. And then, as now, the ones being celebrated for their "courage" and "sacrifice" won't be the ones to pay the price.
Politicians must be toughening their palms with rock salt to get ready for all the high-fiving they'll do if there's a deficit deal. But before we read any more gushing stories about the Gang of Six or watch any more fountains of self-congratulation erupt from the lips of self-serving "centrists," let's remember some lessons from recent history. The President and other Democratic leaders might want to take special note of one such lesson: At least two people who are not named Barack Obama might have become President if they hadn't gone along with the crowd.
A good starting point for reflection is this weekend's editorial from New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller. It's so chock-full of naivete and misinformation that it's hard to know where to start, but the Gang of Six is as good a place as any: "The popular culture tends to treat 'politician' as a synonym for 'craven.'" Keller writes. "But I think the Gang of Six is the kind of undertaking that should give politics a good name."
I'd quote more, but I'm afraid I'll be accused of "aggregating." Let's just say that by the time he compares the Gang of Six to Nelson Mandela (Really! he's self-aware enough to try backtracking afterwards, but really!) ,and then suggests they're engaged in "thankless, bet-your-career work," tiny shreds of credibility lie scattered at his feet like so much "Mission Accomplished" confetti. (Uh-oh. There goes my shot at replacing Bob Herbert.)
I don't know if you've been to the Senate Dining Room, but Robben Island it ain't.
This just in: These six senators represent Washington's conventional wisdom. And conventional wisdom is a kind of safe house, a place to hunker down when you're tired of fighting for what you believe in. The Self-Serving Six have clear and selfish goals: to become power brokers, snag huge chunks of air time (a politician's oxygen), open the spigot for a gushing flow of campaign money, and secure prosperous futures filled with board memberships, foundation directorships, and the leadership of many "bipartisan commissions" to come.
Think the pianist at Lounge 201 on Mass Ave knows how to play Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika?
It was the New York Times, of course, who brought us the false "news" of Iraq's WMD , thanks to Judith Miller and her anonymous source "Curveball." And the Times editorial page accepted the false premises behind the invasion of Iraq just as unequivocally as Keller accepts the false premises behind austerity economics.
What are those false premises? That we can cut the deficit without first addressing our jobs crisis. That Social Security contributes to the deficit. That it's "braver" to shift Medicare costs to the elderly than it is to face the dragon of for-profit healthcare. That tax increases should come in the form of 'expenditure' cuts that target the middle class and protect the wealthy.
These ideas are the "WMD" of austerity economics. Alice Rivlin and the other handful of Democratic economists pushing these ideas are its Curveballs. And on any given day, half a dozen prominent journalists are its Judith Millers.
Some more parallels:
We're attacking the wrong enemy: Saddam Hussein was a horrible human being and a terrible dictator, but he wasn't our most immediate threat. For national security in 2002, the most urgent threat was (and still is) a stateless network of fundamentalist terrorists.
For the economy in 2011, our urgent problems are unemployment, wasteful war spending, extravagant tax cuts for the wealthy, and a real economy that's locked in stagnation. Note to upscale Times readers: The real economy is the one you enter when your subway train passes Fulton Street on its way north from Wall Street, or through Bowling Green station on its way to Brooklyn.
(Who am I kidding? Subways? Just tell the driver to point out Fulton Street on your way back to the Upper East Side.)
We've forgotten that our economy was shattered by reckless, under-regulated banks. Our government just took a step toward protecting us from Al Qaeda. When will it protect us from Goldman Sachs? It doesn't take smart bombs, just smart laws. And we don't need terminators, just regulators.
We're making the real problem worse: When we attacked Iraq we gave Al Qaeda a rich vein of recruiting material, and made the world's terrorism problem much worse. Worldwide incidents of terrorism rose exponentially after we invaded Iraq, from 165 in 2003 to more than 11,000 in 2005.
Economically, premature budget cuts will costs us hundreds of thousands of jobs when we should be spending to create more jobs. And those tax "increases" will probably take the form of reductions in tax "expenditures" that help people to keep their homes and their health insurance. They'll devastate the middle class, and the ripple effect will be destructive to the whole economy.
The bi-partisanship fetish ignores the people we should really listen to: non-partisans.
Most reasonable economists agree that we should have more investment in jobs and growth, and address the deficits afterwards. Similarly, nonpartisan experts like Reagan's former chief Social Security actuary say benefit cuts aren't needed and would be counterproductive.
That's the non-partisan consensus. But "bi-partisans" like the Gang of Six rule the media and policy worlds right now. They're politicians, not experts, and they rely on campaign contributions in a post-Citizens United world. They're united more by self-interest than they are divided by party. Personally, I'd rather rely on people who don't have such a huge personal stake in the outcome.
Deficit cutting, like the war in Iraq, was "a solution in search of a problem" long before the crisis came.
The invasion of Iraq came straight from the shock-doctrine playbook: Exploit a crisis, and the resulting fear and confusion, to do what you already wanted to do. Neocons in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) had been planning the invasion of Iraq for years. 9/11 was their their chance.
The government-haters behind today's austerity economics push have also been planning their moves for a long time, too. Billionaire Pete Peterson proposed a government-downsizing scenario in the early 1990s that's virtually identical to those we'llbe seeing from the Gang of Six and other servants of the new Beltway consensus. The Peterson Foundation is the PNAC of deficit reduction.
The consensus will damage careers - including political ones.
Austerity economics won't work. When that becomes obvious there will be hell to pay. When the suffering really starts, people will look for someone to blame.
Going along with the status quo seemed like the smart career move in 2002. Just ask Phil Donohue, or General Shinseki, or Bill Maher, or anyone else who didn't and paid a price. But in the long run, many of those who followed the herd suffered a loss in credibility. The entire field of journalism took a severe hit to its credibility during those years.
The political blowback was even worse. Most people agree that John Kerry would probably have become President if he had voted against the war in Iraq. Same with Hillary Clinton. But a progressive-led House minority was able to take control of that chamber in 2006, largely based on public frustration with the war in Iraq. Will the White House and Senate Democrats remember these painful lessons?
Barack Obama probably wouldn't be President today if he had been in a position to vote for the war back then, and had done so. Who will play Obama's role in 2014, or 2016 - or 2012? Who will prosper politically because she or he didn't go along with the crowd? Political expediency may have some short-term gains, but in the end it isn't worth it. It isn't worth it for your career, it isn't worth it for your conscience, and it certainly isn't worth it for the country.
Let's hope that our leaders understand that the death of Bin Laden isn't just a historial moment. It's a teaching moment, too - if anybody's willing to learn.
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