Our Fraudulent Debt Ceiling Debate

07/27/2011 01:49 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

The current high stakes political standoff over the debt ceiling and America's budget deficit is a fraud. At the end of 2010, President Obama and the Democrats caved in to GOP demands to extend the Bush tax cuts for two more years. Had those cuts expired on schedule, the projected savings over the next ten years would have been at least four trillion dollars. Instead, the deal brought forward the date on which the United States government would hit its debt ceiling. Republican leaders were already wringing their hands with glee last December about using the ceiling to force through deep spending cuts, naturally targeting the most vulnerable Americans. President Obama has, disastrously, given this highly cynical game of brinkmanship legitimacy by agreeing that we need to live within our means "just like families do." In other words, government -- a.k.a, ordinary Americans who rely on that government for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, government jobs, public education and so on -- must tighten their belts to pay, in part, for the extension of those tax cuts.

This is all being debated within the perverse frame that people aren't already doing that belt-tightening. In fact, most Americans are already making do with less, while the richest Americans continue to accumulate evermore lavish and ostentatious wealth for themselves. On the heels of a three-decade long explosion in inequality, recent data show that since the "recovery" began in 2009, corporate profits have accounted for nearly ninety percent of the growth in real GDP, while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than one percent of that growth.

So that no one misunderstands me, it would be entirely reasonable to have a far-reaching conversation about the resources our country consumes relative to the rest of the world. Americans make up less than five percent of the world population, while we use up to a quarter of global energy resources. Given the growing pressures of resource consumption on the planet's carrying capacity and basic notions of global justice, it would certainly be appropriate to talk about living within our means in a global context.

But that is not the debate we're having. Instead, we are being subjected to the perversity of wealthy elites in a nation of vast inequity -- elites whose economic security bears no resemblance to the insecurity faced by the great majority of Americans -- lecturing to the rest of us about how we can no longer expect to live high on the hog.

Without any apparent shred of embarrassment or self-reflection, elite pundits and wealthy office-holders have argued that Americans' sense of entitlement -- older Americans have been particularly targeted lately -- is unsustainable and that they can no longer expect the kind of public largesse to which they've become accustomed. To take one of countless examples, the New York Times' Thomas Friedman recently opined that our fiscal deficits could be laid substantially at the feet of baby boomers who've squandered an "incredible bounty" by living too lavishly at the expense of future generations. It's worth noting that Friedman, in addition to having attained great wealth through his own best-selling writing, married a billionaire heiress, with whom he lives in an eleven thousand -- you read that right -- 11,000 -- square foot house.

The hypocrisy of Republicans and obtuse detachment of elite punditry in these matters follow all too familiar patterns. But the president has also played a central and insidious role in framing the budget debate in such distorted terms. The United States government is not like a household (nor is it like Greece) and it's a fundamental abdication of economic and moral responsibility to re-cast government in such simple-minded terms.

In fact, the government lives in perpetuity, can print its own currency and, despite all of the hysterical warnings about reckless and out of control spending, is still able to borrow money at low interest rates, due to the fact that our treasury bonds are considered among the safest investments in the world. To the extent that there is nervousness about our credit rating, that is a consequence of political shenanigans, not the inherent fiscal position of the United States. Government's responsibility during an economic crisis is, first and foremost, to fill the gaps left by the lagging private economy and to provide the social safety net necessary to get people through difficult periods. Contrary to the blather about deficit spending and debts, we have the means to do this. What we lack is political will, undermined in no small part by the increasing sense of entitlement of the super-rich that their increasingly disproportionate wealth is more sacred than any larger sense of the public good.

If we were having a remotely sane debate, we would not be arguing over how the government should slash the social safety net when we face record long-term unemployment and incomes for most Americans have been stagnant or declining. There is a simple, inescapable fact about our long-run deficits -- they are substantially attributable to our bloated private health care expenditures. We spend double per capita what the rest of the advanced industrial world does. Those expenditures aren't paying for better outcomes -- they're paying for the extraordinary enrichment of our health-industrial complex, including the parasitical private insurance industry and Big Pharma. Cut our health expenditures down to the level that other wealthy countries pay, and we would have large projected surpluses, not deficits.

The incoherence of our debates in these matters is evident everywhere you care to look. For example, proposing to raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67 -- bandied about by the president during the current budget negotiations -- will only add to the costs of health care in the United States. It will leave 65- and 66-year-olds in the clutches of the more expensive, less efficient private insurance market for two years longer. It will prompt older Americans to postpone care and treatment until they're Medicare eligible, leading to exponential increases in the cost of their care once they do have the adequate coverage that Medicare provides. Raising the eligibility age may save the Federal government money in the short run, but it will add expense to the health care system as a whole. It is as depressing as it is predictable that what so-called serious people consider a serious proposal for cutting our deficits is to funnel more Americans from the cheaper, more efficient Medicare program into the more bureaucratic, expensive and wasteful private insurance market.

So this is where the current debate stands. Wealth has been rushing up the income ladder for three decades, while taxes on the rich have been sharply reduced. Our economy was brought to its knees three years ago in significant part by an orgy of reckless Wall Street gambling, most of which ended up being backstopped by the full faith and credit of the United States government -- the taxpayers. And in the face of this plunder and the price that everyone except those responsible is paying for it, we are told that we must live within our means.

To repeat, the current debate about debts and deficits is a fraud, a distraction from the relentless consolidation of wealth and power at the top of the American social order.

This article originally appeared in the Independent Weekly of North Carolina.

Jonathan Weiler co-authored Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, with Marc Hetherington.