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     Nov 6, '13


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SPEAKING FREELY
Debt and deficit as shock therapy
By Ismael Hossein-zadeh

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

When Naomi Klein published her ground-breaking book The Shock Doctrine (2007), which compellingly demonstrated how neoliberal policy makers take advantage of overwhelming crisis times to privatize public property and carry out austerity programs, most economists and media pundits scoffed at her arguments as overstating her case. Real world economic developments have since strongly reinforced her views.

Using the unnerving 2008 financial crash, the ensuing long recession and the recurring specter of debt default, the financial oligarchy and their proxies in the governments of core capitalist countries have embarked on an unprecedented economic coup d'état against the people, the ravages of which include extensive



privatization of the public sector, systematic application of neoliberal austerity economics and radical redistribution of resources from the bottom to the top. Despite the truly historical and paradigm-shifting importance of these ominous developments, their discussion remains altogether outside the discourse of mainstream economics.

The fact that neoliberal economists and politicians have been cheering these brutal assaults on social safety-net programs should not be surprising. What is regrettable, however, is the liberal/Keynesian economists' and politicians' glaring misdiagnosis of the plague of austerity economics: it is all the "right-wing" Republicans' or Tea Partiers' fault, we are told; the Obama administration and the Democratic Party establishment, including the labor bureaucracy, have no part or responsibility in the relentless drive to austerity economics and privatization of public property.

Keynesian and other liberal economists and politicians routinely blame the abandonment of the New Deal and/or Social-Democratic economics exclusively on Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics, on neoliberal ideology or on economists at the University of Chicago. Indeed, they characterize the 2008 financial collapse, the ensuing long recession and the recurring debt/budgetary turmoil on "bad" policies of "neoliberal capitalism," not on class policies of capitalism per se. [1]

Evidence shows, however, that the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal economics stems from much deeper roots or dynamics than pure ideology [2]; that neoliberal austerity policies are class, not "bad," policies [3]; that the transition started long before Reagan arrived in the White House; and that neoliberal austerity policies have been pursued as vigorously (though less openly and more stealthily) by the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as their Republican counterparts. [4]

Indeed, it could be argued that, due to his uniquely misleading status or station in the socio-political structure of the United States, and equally unique Orwellian characteristics or personality, Obama has served the interests of the powerful financial oligarchy much better or more effectively than any Republican president could do, or has done - including Ronald Reagan. By the same token, he has more skillfully hoodwinked the public and harmed their interests, both in terms of economics and individual/constitutional rights, than any of his predecessors.

Ronald Reagan did not make any bones about the fact that he championed the cause of neoliberal supply-side economics. This meant that opponents of his economic agenda knew where he stood, and could craft their own strategies accordingly.

By contrast, Obama publicly portrays himself as a liberal opponent of neoliberal austerity policies (as he frequently bemoans the escalating economic inequality and occasionally sheds crocodile tears over the plight of the unemployed and economically hard-pressed), while in practice he is a major team player in the debt "crisis" game of charade, designed as a shock therapy scheme in the escalation of austerity economics. [5]

No president or major policy maker before Obama ever dared to touch the hitherto untouchable (and still self-financing) Social Security and Medicare trust funds. He was the first to dare to make these bedrock social programs subject to austerity cuts, as reflected, for example, in his proposed federal budget plan for fiscal year 2014, initially released in April 2013. Commenting on this unprecedented inclusion of entitlements in the social programs to be cut, Christian Science Monitor wrote (on April 9, 2013): "President Obama's new budget proposal ... is a sign that Washington's attitude toward entitlement reform is slowly shifting, with prospects for changes to Social Security and Medicare becoming increasingly likely."

Obama has since turned that "likelihood" of undermining Social Security and Medicare into reality. He did so by taking the first steps in turning the budget crisis that led to government shutdown in the first half of October into negotiations over entitlement cuts. In an interview on the second day of the shutdown (October 3rd), he called for eliminating "unnecessary" social programs and discussing cuts in "long-term entitlement spending". [6]

Five days later on October 5th, Obama repeated his support for cutting Social Security and Medicare in a press conference, reassuring congressional Republicans of his willingness to agree to these cuts (as well as to cuts in corporate tax rates from 35% to 28%) if the Republicans voted to increase the government's debt limit: "If anybody doubts my sincerity about that, I've put forward proposals in my budget to reform entitlement programs for the long haul and reform our tax code in a way that would ... lower rates for corporations". [7]

Only then, that is, only after Obama agreed to collaborate with the Republicans on ways to cut both the entitlements and corporate tax rates, the Republican budget negotiators agreed to the higher budget ceiling and the reopening of the government. The consensus bill that ended the government shutdown extends the automatic across-the-board "sequester" cuts that began last March into the current year. This means that "the budget negotiations in the coming weeks will take as their starting point the $1 trillion in cuts over the next eight years mandated by the sequestration process". [8]

And so, once again, the great compromiser gave in, and gave away - all at the expense of his (unquestioning) supporters.

To prepare the public for the long-awaited attack on Social Security, Medicare and other socially vital programs, the bipartisan ruling establishment has in recent years invented a very useful hobgoblin to scare the people into submission: occasional budget/debt crises and the specter or the actual pain of government shutdown. As Sheldon Richman recently pointed out:
"Wherever we look, there are hobgoblins. The latest is … DEFAULT. Oooooo.

Apparently the threats of international terror and China rising aren't enough to keep us alarmed and eager for the tether. These things do tend to wear thin with time. But good old default can be taken off the shelf every now and then. It works like a charm every time.

No, no, not default! Anything but default!". [9]
Economic policy makers in the White House and the Congress have invoked the debt/deficit hobgoblin at least three times in less than two years: the 2011 debt-ceiling panic, the 2012 "fiscal cliff" and, more recently, the 2013 debt-ceiling/government shutdown crisis - all designed to frighten the people into accepting the slashing of vital social programs. Interestingly, when Wall Street speculators needed trillions of dollars to be bailed out, or as the Fed routinely showers these gamblers with nearly interest-free money through the so-called quantitative easing, debt hobgoblins were/are nowhere to be seen!

The outcome of the latest (2013) "debt crisis management," which led to the 16-day government shutdown (October 1-16), confirmed the view that the "crisis" was essentially bogus. Following the pattern of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 budget/debt negotiations, the bipartisan policy makers kept the phony crisis alive by simply pushing its "resolution" several months back to early 2014. In other words, they did not bury the hobgoblin; they simply shelved it for a while to be taken off when it is needed to, once again, frighten the people into accepting additional austerity cuts - including Social Security and Medicare.

The outcome of the budget "crisis" also highlighted the fact that, behind the apparent bipartisan gridlock and mutual denunciations, there is a "fundamental consensus between these parties for destroying all of the social gains won by the working class over the course of the twentieth century". [10] To the extent there were disagreements, they were mainly over the tone, the temp, the magnitude, the tactics, and the means, not the end. At the heart of all the (largely contrived) bipartisan bickering was how best to escalate, justify or camouflage the brutal cuts in the vitally necessary social spending.

The left/liberal supporters of Obama, who bemoan his being "pressured" or "coerced" by the Tea Party Republicans into right-wing compromises, should look past his liberal/populist posturing. Evidence shows that, contrary to Barack Obama's claims, his presidential campaigns were heavily financed by the Wall Street financial titans and their influential lobbyists. Large Wall Street contributions began pouring into his campaign only after he was thoroughly vetted by powerful Wall Street interests, through rigorous Q & A sessions by the financial oligarchy, and was deemed to be their "ideal" candidate for presidency. [11]

Obama's unquestioning followers should also note that, to the extent that he is being "pressured" by his political opponents into compromises/concessions, he has no one to blame but himself: while the Republican Party systematically mobilizes its social base through offshoots like Tea Partiers, Obama tends to deceive, demobilize and disarm his base of supporters. Instead of mobilizing and encouraging his much wider base of supporters (whose more numerous voices could easily drown the shrill voices of Tea Partiers) to political action, he frequently pleads with them to "be patient," and "keep hope alive."

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