Reframing the debate

One of the bigger con jobs in history has been the Republican effort to frame the national debate in terms of the budget deficit. Many Americans are worried about jobs, or the diminished value of their homes, or a general feeling we’ve lost our roots and are drifting. Party hacks that are skilled at manipulating mass attitudes have locked onto the budgetary deficit as a theme that can tie into all these discontents. Pundits and talk show hosts and other media personalities have parrotted the party line ad nauseam, until a majority of American voters have swallowed the absurd notion that somehow all our woes could be blamed on the deficit. Then they heaped more manure on the pile by insisting that government was the problem and the solution lay in cutting government discretionary spending, except for defense, down to the bone and beyond even that. Meanwhile the sensible notion that to overcome a deficit, you needed to raise more revenue, was treated with suspicion, and the idea that some of that revenue could be raised by taxing the very rich was labeled heresy.

Why was the idea the deficit was the single root cause of our woes accepted in the first place? And why this silly freakonomics about not taxing the wealthy? Who was behind this mountain of quarter-truths and lies? Basically, it was the people who stood to profit the most financially. It was certain banking interests, captains of the military-industrial complex, and a few other individuals who, already very wealthy, stood to profit enormously through their increased influence over Congress and the executive branch of the government. As their influence increased, their personal fortunes expanded outrageously, far beyond the point where it could meet their personal needs, even if they chose to live like oriental pashas. Some of them turned much of that surplus wealth, as it accumulated, into instruments that reinforced the trends that had enriched them in the first place. The more they consolidated their influence over the levers of national power the richer they got, and the richer they got the more wealth they channeled into efforts to move from influence to outright control.

This is a gross oversimplification, admittedly. Not all very wealthy individuals participated in this obscene feedback loop, and there were all sorts of complicating factors along the way. But the fact is that during the last couple of decades the gap between the very rich and the rest of us has widened quite spectacularly. There’s been a kind of explosion in the way our society has lurched from a faltering democracy to an incipient oligarchy, and something like this loop has to be there to explain it.

The loop theory can explain why there has been such a heavy investment in activities aimed at molding and controlling public opinion, and that can explain in turn why the freakonomic theory for the “no new taxes” slogan has had a run of acceptance that belies common sense. It isn’t just gross investment in newspapers and TV networks, though that is a part of it. It is the subsidies for certain programs in our universities, the creation of think tanks, and the nurturing of whole schools of thought in economics and the social sciences. It isn’t just the spawning of new hordes of lobbyists who bend Congress’ ears on matters of direct concern, it is the increasing influence over Congress itself through penetration of both political parties, particularly the Republicans. All of this finely orchestrated activity climaxes during the runups to our national Presidential elections, for control of the White House, as opposed to influence within it, is the ultimate goal.

Years ago when I was trying to explain the factors behind the run-up to our war in Iraq to a skeptical audience, and I touched on some of these factors, someone asked me, if all this was inevitable, where did it end? My snap answer was that the French had found a way and it was called the guillotine. I felt then and I still believe that while the ultimate answer to an unwanted despotism is revolution, there has to be a better way. And I think that perhaps, in the last couple of months, our society may have found it.

The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon that has spread to so many of our cities is one of the best things that ever happened to our country. We have been laboring under a spell cast by the oligarchs, that the deficit is the key issue. By dramatizing the gulf between the “one percent” and the rest of us, the spell has been broken. For us the issue now has become much simpler, and much more central: it is fairness.

I await the next Presidential election with much more confidence than I felt a year ago.

Carl Coon 11/23/11

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