by Alexander Cockburn, July 27, 2011
In these scandal-sodden weeks it’s been tough to write passionately about the fight over deficit reduction. I look up from some wearisome bulletin on the latest maneuvers of the Gang of Six and here’s Tristane Banon’s mother admitting to consensual, albeit “clearly brutal” sex with Dominic Strauss Kahn amid the filing cabinets in an OECD office and telling the French cops that DSK is a predator comporting himself with “l'obscénité d'un soudard.” Before that it was Weiner. Last week it was Murdoch’s comeuppance. One distraction after another.
But, back to dreary business and the fight over the deficit. Here we have the supposed specter of Uncle Sam turning into a dead-beat rather than the best credit-risk on the planet. On August 2, the United States could start defaulting on its obligations as the Tea Party crowd in the House of Representatives refuse to raise the debt ceiling.
On August 3 the lights might start to go out: the US government is scheduled to send out $23 billion in social security checks to 56 million people. If the checks don’t arrive, within a couple of days America’s old folk are going without food and can’t make the rent. US Treasuries will lose their top rating and the entire credit structure of the planet starts to come unglued. Goldbugs will be crazed with triumph as the precious metal soars to $3,000 an ounce and hyperinflation roars into life. Next thing you know, greenbacks are being tossed in the trash and we’re heading back to a barter economy.
America is in love with Apocalypse. It always has been. Every couple of years someone says the End is Nigh. When I came to America’s shores in 1972 Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth had just been published and sold 30 million copies over the next 20 years. Lindsey wrote, rather presciently, that Antichrist would rule over a ten-nation European Community through the 1970s until the Rapture – scheduled for the 1980s – and the Second Coming.
The next big rendezvous with Apocalypse I remember was New York’s brush with bankruptcy in the late 1970s. The air was thick with what-ifs, and remained so till the arrival of the third Christian millennium and a tremendous burst of alarm at the notion that the world’s computers would shut down. They called it Y2K and it was a bust. From there it was a brisk transition to Global Warming, the non-believers’ version of the End Times.
Not many people here really think the US government will shut down on August 3. As former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts wrote last week on our CounterPunch site : “The US government will never default on its bonds, because the bonds, unlike those of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, are payable in its own currency. Regardless of whether the debt ceiling is raised, the Federal Reserve will continue to purchase the Treasury’s debt. If Goldman Sachs is too big to fail, then so is the US government.”
The fight over the deficit is one of those American ceremonies, as embalmed in ritual speech and gesture as an English coronation. I came to an America about to writhe under the lash of Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter comminations about living beyond our means and the need for “zero-based” budgeting and fiscal prudence.
Nearly 40 years later here we are listening to Obama lofting the battle standard of austerity, calling on Republicans to find common ground. Here comes Pete Peterson with yet another bipartisan report calling for the evisceration of entitlement programs. Here are the Gangs of Five, Six, Seven marshalling bipartisan support for evisceration of social programs, balanced by tax fakery. At the end of the day there are real, dead bodies – decent programs tossed to the wolves, food and energy costs taken out of measurements of inflation. The ship settles a bit lower in the water and on we go.
The essentials of the long-term crisis are simple. For a generation now, the only essential plank for any Republican candidate is a pledge not to raise taxes and to roll back even the modest sums that the rich and corporations are supposed to send to the US Treasury each year. The second plank is an equally vehement pledge, proclaimed by both parties to keep America strong by throwing money at the Pentagon. Right now the total military/security budget is in the vicinity of $1.1-$1.2 trillion, or 70-75% of the federal budget deficit.
The Republicans would like to erode and ultimately privatize Social Security and Medicare. Not so secretly many Democrats are of the same disposition but know that they may depend for political survival on the votes of poor and middle income citizens who see them as the defenders of social programs. Hence the complex rituals, the dancing at the edge of the cliff. Can Obama coax Cantor or Ryan into even more ferocious demands for cuts in social programs, before calling the Republicans’ hand?
In this latest ritual enactment the Republicans are faring badly, losing in the opinion polls because many of them are insane and increasingly perceived as such by the American electorate, magnificently tolerant in such matters. There’s nothing like hearing that you might not get your Social Security check next Wednesday to concentrate the mind.
Meanwhile the left legitimately fears that Obama’s unceasing public tributes to bipartisanship and the spirit of compromise will end up with him giving away the store. It’s a fake question. It’s the historic mission of the Democrats to give away the bits of the store that the Republicans don’t dare torch directly. It’s a gradual process but an unceasing one. It’s scant use now to call for a new Progressive Party, for the militant secession of organized Labor from collusion with the Democratic Party. It’s way, way too late.
Don’t look for Apocalypse. These are familiar rituals and no one really has the nerve to toss a bomb onto the dance floor, however much they may swear that the time has come for brutal measures. It seems we have to turn to Dominique Strauss Kahn for that kind of commitment.
The summer has offered consolations, not least the implosion of Murdoch’s standing in the UK. We’re at the stage of the scandal when the high-ups suddenly realize that yes, they too might actually end up in prison, and figure that if they finger an even higher-up they might get a reduced sentence. Corrupting a police officer with bribes – one of the News of the World’s activities, as vouchsafed by Rebekah Brooks to parliament a while back and more recently confirmed, is a serious offense. Andrew Coulson, former editor of the News of the World and subsequent media chief for Prime Minister David Cameron, could pull seven years if things go badly for him.
As for any renaissance in British political life amid the shrinking of Rupert’s shadow, I liked what Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked Online, had to say:
“Of course it’s true that Murdoch is influential, … Yet the notion that he exerted an authoritarian ‘malign influence’ was simply a way for left-wing thinkers to dodge getting to grips with some profound shifts in the British political landscape at the end of the twentieth century. It wasn’t Murdoch who stole working-class tabloid readers from Labour and handed them to the Tories; Labour had been losing working-class support for years before the ‘Murdoch invasion.’ Labour’s support amongst the manual working classes (many of whom read tabloids) fell from 62% in 1959 to 38% in 1983. Bashing Murdoch became a way for Labourites to avoid analyaing their own disarray. …
“Remove [Murdoch] from the picture and those various profound problems — the emptying out of both left and right ideologies, the aloofness of the political class, the transformation of politics into a purely elite pastime — will still exist. Our politicians will still have nothing of substance to say, just fewer tabloids in which not to say it.
“So Ed Miliband’s apparently brave decision to cut his party’s ties with Murdoch is really a recognition on his part that he no longer even has to maintain the pretense of trying to connect with the public through the tabloids, as Blair attempted…. This is now something akin to a ‘Diana moment,’ except we are implored to shelve our critical faculties in the name of collectively hating a mogul rather than collectively loving a princess. The end result could well be the further shrinking of the political sphere and the more thorough expulsion of everyday people from public debate.”
Now the FBI is investigating whether Murdoch’s employees here tried to hack into the voicemails of families of those killed on 9/11. That dastardly Murdoch! Let’s leave such trespasses on privacy to the cops and snoops empowered by Bush and Obama to listen to our phone calls, snoop into our computers, disregard Fourth Amendment protections and in Obama’s case, declare that he holds the power to execute us without trial in the event he construes us to be among America’s foes.