The president's budget has just been released, and so has a Republican alternative from the House Appropriations Committee. Reading them is like watching two people play a video game and confusing it for the real world. These budgets don't reflect competing visions so much as they do competing priorities within a commonly-held set of assumptions. They both share an artificial view of today's reality -- both economic and human -- that warps our vision and limits our choices. The president may be playing the game as well as he can, but what he really needs to do is stop playing altogether.
The rules of this video game are: 1) Accept the fact that the ultra-rich will keep accumulating ever greater amounts of wealth, and will continue to exert undue influence on the political process. 2) As a result, accept the fact that we can't resist the fundamental changes to our way of life that will create. 3) Sacrifice a large part of the social programs that gave us 75 years of shared prosperity, since they're incompatible with this change. 4) Preserve and expand your political power within this virtual-reality construct.
Inside this game the Republicans are in full First-Person-Shooter mode, trying to annihilate every humane program that crosses their path. For their part, the president and his team are playing the game as artfully as they can. Sometimes they're trying to slow their opponents down, and at other times they're trying to score points of their own with targeted attacks on vital social programs. Yet they seem to have fully accepted the false premise that they deserve extra points for making artificially-framed "tough choices" -- between giving people their Social Security benefits or going bankrupt, for example, or between creating jobs and reducing the long-term deficit.
But the real solution seems to have escaped them, which is to tell the public the truth: It's a stupid game and we shouldn't play it.
Every video game, even a Cold-War game like Call of Duty: Black Ops , seems to throw a few zombies into the scenario. (My nephew James tells me that Kennedy and Nixon fight zombies together in Black Ops.) The budget game has zombies, too. The Republican response to every government program always seems to be the same: They want to eat its brains. The House Appropriations Committee majority boasts of its budget: "This legislation represents the largest single discretionary spending reduction in the history of Congress."
The House Republicans don't mention the fact that they're cutting government programs in the face of the most severe long-term employment crisis since the Great Depression -- a tragedy that's accompanied by soaring poverty, increased food insecurity, and an entire generation of middle-class Americans who have lost a lifetime's accumulated wealth. The economy needs medical attention, and they're bragging about cutting back on medication.
The president seems to believe he can win by offering more targeted budget cuts that let him score "budget-cutter" points without descending into full zombie mode. As E. J. Dionne describes it, the White House believes that "by showing a willingness to make reductions, [the President's] budget will shift the focus toward the specific programs Republicans would wipe out or cripple." Dionne spoke to an unnamed senior White House official who said they're hoping to frame the argument this way: "They want to cut and spend. We want to cut and spend. Let's compare their cuts and our cuts, their spending and our spending."
In other words, they think they can play the video game against the Republicans and win. That's why they're cutting fuel oil subsidies, some student loans (for the very same students we're told will "win the future"), and a variety of other programs. Some of the programs the president would cut are popular with his base. It's almost as if he feels he can score extra points for sacrificing programs his party reveres. It's not clear how the president thinks he can win by alienating his base and reinforcing the Republican narrative that government is an economy-destroyer, rather than a potential economy-rescuer as it was during the Great Depression.
Once you decide to play the game, as the White House apparently has, the president's moves are well-intentioned, and some are even brave. He's willing to take some of the points he's accumulating and sacrifice them for a certain amount of greatly-needed investment and (dare we use this word?) stimulus spending. Within the virtual-reality world that's been constructed, that's daring. But here's the real problem: By accepting the false premise of the game, he's reinforcing the belief that it reflects reality.
Even if he wins, we lose.
If the president's economic policies have a unifying theme, an "Obamanomics," it seems to be this: The massive upward wealth shift is permanent and corporate control of the economy is unstoppable. We'll try to moderate its harmful effects, but we don't dare even discuss it, much less address it as a social problem that must be addressed. While the rich continue to accumulate more wealth and power under this premise, the rest of us must share the burdens of an ever-decreasing prosperity as fairly and equitably as we can.
In that context, the December tax deal might have been the right move. But if the president wanted to change the rules of the game, he needed to fight harder and more publicly before conceding an extended tax break for the wealthiest Americans. By cutting the deal prematurely, and without debate, he reinforced the illusion that the game is reality.
Many of the president's other moves make more sense in this video-game context than they do in the real world. The health reform bill provides coverage for millions of low-income people -- a brave, point-sacrificing move by the president. But by considering insurance companies untouchable, that coverage was made economically possible in large part through an individual mandate and other measures that place added financial burdens onto the middle class. Similarly, the financial reform bill slowed the acceleration of bank misbehavior. But by refusing to break up "too big to fail" banks or taxing financial speculation, it also took away from any attack on the game's premise.
Gaming has a role to play in society, as I learned when I worked on an online game with the Institute for the Future. But even though my pal Jane McGonigal's game work is terrific and I can't wait to read her book, not all games are worth playing.
Games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty are MMGs -- "massively multiplayer games" with millions of online players. You can play them in "single player" mode, or online with millions of other people.
It will take some massively multiplayer response to break down the videogame rules that are constraining this budget debate. Some politicians are refusing to play, including the Progressive Congressional Caucus and a number of breakaway senators and others. They deserve, and should receive, widespread public support. Other strategies will be needed to push back against the shared reality reflected in today's budget debates.
We'll need to confront our deficit problem after we've recovered from our current crisis, just as a sick patient needs to stop taking medication once he's well. But as we learned in preparing the Citizens' Commission report on Jobs, Deficits, and the American Future, and in our preparation for an upcoming Jobs Summit, budgets like these are a step in the wrong direction. The first step toward reducing the deficit is to rebuild a healthy economy, which means short-term spending for needed social programs and job-creating initiatives.
The Democrats need to understand that they can't win in the long run by accepting a video-game premise that calls for the dismantling of the New Deal, the sacrifice of the poor, or the continued destruction of the middle class -- now, or when its member retires.
Part of a leader's job is to challenge popular illusions, not reinforce them. The fate of the Democrats is sealed if they lose touch with a reality that's shared by the millions of Americans who are impoverished, jobless, or worried about paying their mortgage. For them, this isn't a game.
UPDATE: Robert Reich channels his inner David Bowie to make a similar argument - that, in his words, Obama's putting out a fire with gasoline by accepting the budget-cutting premise at a time when we need government spending.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates