Last night I returned from a nearly month-long trip to Africa. It's profoundly unsettling to suddenly find oneself immersed in a primitive and superstitious culture -- a culture dominated by taboos and rituals, a culture whose primitive beliefs could lead to its downfall, a culture whose members inhabit a flickering and illusory world of light and shadows.
I'm speaking, of course, about my return to the States.
I'd been tracking the budget debate and other events from the other side of the world but, aside from one or two YouTube clips, I hadn't seen any television for nearly four weeks. As I caught up on my viewing, it was downright jarring to be confronted by so many people so deeply disconnected from reality.
Liberals in Limbo
Paul Ryan's turgid recycling of failed economic Flat Earth-ism is surreal enough, but it's equally unsettling to see the budget plan from the Congressional Progressive Caucus -- which is the only practical proposal out there -- given a shunning worthy of a witch-haunted New England village from the 18th century.
You'll barely find a mention of the CPC budget in any mainstream news outlet, even though this budget represented the views of 75 House members. By contrast, statements from the House's Tea Party Caucus receive much broader coverage even though it includes only 49 Representatives.
Maybe it would help if the CPC took another name to give it the centrist sheen that passes for depth in the Beltway crowd these days. I propose that it be renamed "The Dwight D. Eisenhower Institute for Fiscal Responsibility."
Eisenhower would be a good choice. The Republican Ike expanded Social Security, built the Federal highway system, and boasted of the increase in union membership that took place during his Presidency. (They don't make Republicans like they used to.)
On the rare occasions when it has received coverage, the CPC budget has quickly been dismissed as "marginal." That's false, both politically and economically. The vast majority of economists, include the austerity-minded economic team at the International Monetary Fund, believes we need short-term stimulus spending to create economic growth. The CPC budget provides that spending, at a more meaningful level than can be found in "pre-compromised" proposals from the White House and Senate Democrats.
What's more, polls show that most Americans want the government to do more to create jobs and increase middle-class prosperity. The CPC budget does create jobs - nearly seven million of them, according to some analyses - while the Ryan budget would devastate the economy.
So why the shunning? That topic's worthy of an anthropologist's Ph.D. thesis.
Economist Dean Baker calls the CPC budget "a serious budget that serious people won't take seriously." The ritualized rules of Washington demand that politicians, especially Democratic ones, prove their "seriousness" by gutting popular and practical programs on the altar of 'fiscal responsibility.'
That's shortsighted, misguided, and - with any sort of reasonable perspective - downright primitive. What's more, it's tragic. Behind the false bravado over jobs numbers, this country is still mired in a long-term jobs crisis with no end in sight. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the CPC budget would create 6.9 million jobs - jobs which are desperately needed. Increased employment would tighten the labor market, too, which would help alleviate the wage stagnation which is slowly crippling and killing the American middle class.
Baker notes that the CPC budget would "stimulate now, cut later, and result in a deficit that is just over 1.0 percent of GDP by the middle of the decade and a debt to GDP ratio that is on a clear downward track."
Ike would be proud.
Nevertheless, the CPC budget isn't being covered in the mainstream press. Part of the problem is cognitive dissonance - the plan doesn't echo DC's conventional (and deeply misguided) 'wisdom,' so for many political journalists it simply doesn't compute.
The other reason it's not receiving coverage is because nobody believes it could ever get passed. As Slate's Matt Yglesias notes,"Obviously this isn't going to be enacted and it's in that sense not a 'serious' budget. But people should take it seriously."
The horse-race approach to policymaking strangles the chance for change. And it's indefensible for news outlets to ignore a voting bloc that could spell victory or defeat for any budget deal.
Democrat vs. Democrat
Ezra Klein broke the media near-blackout to report on the CPC budget, but some good analysis is burdened by the contagious effects of false equivalence. Klein labels their effort a "fantasyland, no-compromise effort is the illustrative position of a group of minority progressives," without noting that many of its positions are popular across the political spectrum. What's more, it's too easy to dismiss House progressives as irrelevant. In a budget showdown, their votes could hypothetically make or break any deal.
Klein's argument about multipliers (bear with us here) assumes a healthier economy than the evidence warrants. It's true that government spending creates less growth in a more robust economy, but this economy is only robust for a very few - and not in a way that's creating jobs or growth. He also relies too heavily on the thinking of economists like Larry Summers, whose past track record is, shall we say, spotty on stimulus as well as regulation.
In papers like the Washington Post, however, that's as good as it gets. After all, in Washington's self-reinforcing culture, logic dictates that the CPC budget can't pass and therefore isn't "serious."
But Seriously, Folks
And yet the GOP's radical Ryan budget is taken seriously by many observers, even though it will never pass either. That's how political perceptions are changed, slowly but surely, from what works for the economy to what works for wealthy and powerful interests: lower taxes, less regulation, and devastating austerity cuts.
As conservative economist Peter Morici observes, Ryan's budget isn't even a serious conservative document. As Morici pithily puts it, "Seniors would confront large insurance companies armed with too little information, and limited choices or monopolies when they purchase drugs and hospital care. That's not a fair fight--like individuals with bows and arrows vs. B-52s."
But the entire nouveau-conservative mythos is built on the premise of a 'free market' dominated by the mega-corporations who fund their campaigns (and many of the Democrats' too). Behind their promise of budget-cutting privatization is an entire economy where individuals with bows and arrows are forced to engage in asymmetrical warfare with corporate B-52s.
The Ryan budget radically lowers taxes for the already-coddled wealthy, on the (by now thoroughly disproven) assumption that undertaxed millionaires will shower the downtrodden masses with a rain of job-creating golden coins. The plan would repeal Obamacare, on the mythological presumption that health care coverage would be obtainable from market-based alternatives that have never worked in real life.
The GOP budget guts programs in education, health, and government services - programs that drive economic growth. As austerity budgets shatter the economies of Europe, Ryan is offering Austerity on Steroids. Sequestration's strangling what little growth we've had, and this budget would plunge the economy back into full-scale recession.
With so many tax giveaways to the wealthy and corporations (yup, that fat tax break for oil companies is still there) that you have to raise the somewhere, so Ryan and the Republicans have targeted the drowning middle class for backdoor hikes that would be enacted by eliminating their most-used deductions.
Most poignantly, the GOP's education cuts deal the final blow to the aspirations of the millennium generation and those that will follow them. In this tribe's rituals the young, like the elderly, are prime candidates for human sacrifice.
If you're saying to yourself that the GOP budget sounds like an unholy mess, you're not alone. A group of religious leaders feels the same way and has condemned the plan.
"Every pastor knows that a budget is both a moral document and a financial document," wrote Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton, senior pastor at The Open Church, Baltimore, Maryland, and Lois Craddock Perkins, professor of homiletics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
They added that the Ryan plan "would ... call into question the very moral fiber of this nation."
Breaking the Spell
Thanks to the Great Depression and the Roosevelt-era programs that followed, as well as our experience in a number of recessions since then, we've learned exactly how to fix problems like those we face today. And after Europe's painful experiences, we've learned that Ryan-style austerity doesn't work. Neither does Austerity Lite of the kind being peddled as preludes to a Grand Bargain.
But reality doesn't intrude on Washington's anti-growth dream world, a place where Republican fairy tales are treated with solemnity while Democrats must sacrifice practical and popular programs - along with children and old people - on the blood-soaked altar of false gravitas. That's why the CPC's very sensible and mainstream budget, the only working document in Washington that tackles job creation and economic growth, is marginalized and condemned. Apparently jobs and economic growth just aren't "serious" enough.
The problem isn't that we can't fix our economy. The problem is we won't. And until we change the primitive culture of our politicians and media, our citizens will suffer the consequences.