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Governance by Abstract Assumption



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While I have not kept a formal count, I suspect that Princeton University professor and New York Times Nobel Prize-winning columnist Paul Krugman has written at least a dozen commentaries in the last year seeking to understand why a share of America’s political leaders are taking policy actions that work to slow the nation’s economic recovery and thereby materially hurt its citizens, rather than taking steps to assist them. More, these officials are doing so in the face of a persistent stream of thoughtful government and academic reports calculating the often extraordinary and cruel costs of their course. Krugman has struggled to comprehend how this remarkable situation could obtain. He has lately concluded that these patently harmful steps, taken in the face of mounting evidence of their wrongheadedness, are born largely of ideology and a quest for power that exploits public fear as its lodestone. My own emerging sense is similar, but before offering that argument it is useful to review briefly just what has occurred to create this situation.

Perhaps easiest to recall is the recent nearly three-week long partial federal government shutdown, engineered by GOP lawmakers originally seeking to force the President to support repeal of the Affordable Care Act on broad grounds that it is far better for millions of Americans to lack health care than to use government authority and programming to help alleviate that situation. This stance essentially demands that access to medical services be viewed as neither a right nor a public good, but as any other commodity or consumer item and therefore allocated by ability to pay. When their initial gambit failed, these critics of health system reform shifted course and demanded draconian cuts in social service spending on grounds of the equally abstract (and completely erroneous) claim that the nation cannot afford its current accounts deficit or debt. Ironically, the shutdown accomplished none of its advocates’ hopes and imposed economic costs in excess of $28 billion and, perversely, added consequentially to the nation’s debt, not counting the significant human price it also exacted.

In addition to this deeply misguided governance action, there was the crisis in April 2011 concerning a possible national government shutdown that arose from the same arguments as the recent imbroglio and, like that scenario, evolved when House GOP lawmakers used the threat of the costs of a national government closure and default to pressure the President and his party to enter into negotiations concerning federal (especially social program) expenditure reductions and policy changes. When that effort failed to achieve the Party’s aims, the sequester, which was supposed to dissuade lawmakers from allowing just such an outcome, imposed sharp across-the-board budget cuts that all nonpartisan analysts have since suggested have measurably slowed economic recovery (by 1-2 percentage points) by reducing government expenditure when it is most necessary to stimulate aggregate demand.

Earlier still, in 2009, GOP lawmakers in Congress strongly and steadfastly opposed President Obama’s efforts to obtain a fiscal stimulus package when he entered office, on the same announced grounds that prompted many of those officials later to embrace national default: the polity’s alleged inability to bear any additional debt burden. When the stimulus package nonetheless passed, they continued to oppose it vigorously as a needless and heedless policy course. When the initiative appeared to succeed, Republicans did not temper their overall criticism or their policy course. Instead, the Party redirected its critique and issued sweeping demands for reducing federal social services spending especially, on the supposed grounds that it was unsustainable.

In each of these episodes GOP leaders have embraced the view that the deficit and increased debt, hugely increased during Republican George W. Bush’s Presidency by the prosecution of two self-initiated wars and passage of substantial tax cuts, all financed with borrowed funds (Bush inherited the first federal surplus since 1969 when he entered office), require sharp reductions in national social assistance programs immediately, and ideally the wholesale marketization of the largest of those, the nation’s Social Security program. In short, the very Party now crying wolf concerning the deficit and debt—Krugman calls them deficit scolds—was responsible for leading efforts to secure the policy agenda that created the largest share of the purportedly dangerous situation they highlight. They are also keen supporters of banking deregulation, a course that permitted the rapid evolution of the financial meltdown that was key in creating the recent near depression and which deepened the nation’s deficit and debt as well.

Meanwhile, the ongoing costs of this GOP position are almost astonishing. A new paper co-authored by the Director of Research and Statistics at the Federal Reserve and recently presented at the annual research conference of the International Monetary Fund estimates that our nation’s failure to deal aggressively with its continuing unemployment challenge and to use government expenditure to do so is now costing the nation approximately 7 percent, or roughly $1 trillion, in economic potential each year that the current scenario of relatively high unemployment, weak demand and sluggish hiring, is permitted to continue. And this situation will persist as long as the GOP continues its insistent position that allowing the government to assist the recovery will somehow place intolerable burdens on the nation’s population. In short, the cost of Republican Party dogma is well known and is deep, but it can be corrected in both the short- and long-term with appropriate policy choices. There is little evidence, however, that the GOP will undertake any material change in its view in the foreseeable future. In consequence, the harsh economic and human costs the Party’s perspective imposes may be expected to continue.

Krugman rightly attributes this Republican orientation to several factors. First, as a political strategy, it often works. Most Americans are not economists and when told that public debt and deficits are terrible and when these are falsely likened to their own household situations, they fear that both are unsustainable. Second, most citizens do not follow politics closely, do not have long memories concerning it and do not recall that the GOP has twice in recent memory created huge budget deficits, through a combination of fiscal and other policy actions, in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies. Reagan and his successors raised taxes to address the difficulties resulting from that stance when they became clear. Bush did not and the operatively dominant faction of his Party is now rigidly committed to never doing so in any circumstance. Third, and the product of a fervent ideological embrace of the market as social panacea, the GOP now aggressively seeks to reduce support for the poor and other vulnerable groups, despite the difficult economic situation the nation now confronts. Study after study reports how many Americans are food and housing insecure and how many citizens are hungry as a result of cutbacks in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and continuing high unemployment. Deaf to these realities, the Republican Party in the House has recently called for additional major reductions in the nation’s nutrition assistance program especially. GOP officials in 26 states have also refused to extend Medicaid to the poor under the new health care access law, despite the fact that the national government will fund nearly all of the costs of that expansion. What drives this attitude is not deficits or debt, but the belief that if one cannot succeed in the private economy, one is lazy or otherwise undeserving. In this view, virtually any public assistance to the poor is unwarranted since those citizens are as a group morally irresponsible and untrustworthy. It is worth noting that there is no evidence for this breathtakingly expansive abstract claim. Finally, many in the GOP have assumed an aggressive anti-immigration stance that blames those “others” for the economic difficulties a share of their supporters are experiencing in a classic example of scapegoating to secure voter mobilization. For their part, many Republican Party supporters are content to blame the government and “others” and to fear the nation’s changing demographics as an explanation for their own long-term economic woes. GOP officials have proven only too keen to fuel those perceptions and doubts in order to secure power.

While I certainly agree that all of these factors are at play and all help to explain current Republican Party policies, it seems to me, too, that a share of responsibility for our current pass rests with our press and judiciary. Many in the mainstream media, especially and most notably, television journalists, continue to treat these issues as if they were the product of partisan differences among equivalent actors and of little consequence beyond the contest in which they are enmeshed. I believe this is not a question of “he said, she said,” partisan squabbling, but instead a much deeper crisis of democratic governance. The GOP has for decades attacked the legitimacy of self-governance in favor of hypothetical claims for the market as a supposedly superior substitute. It has recently, meanwhile, ideologically opposed all forms of government action aimed at assisting a broad swathe of the nation’s residents, including millions of its own supporters, hurt most deeply by conditions its policies have done much to create. The country’s citizenry is being ill served by ongoing media reporting by many important broadcast outlets that this situation is somehow politics as usual and the two parties’ positions are equivalent. It is not typical for any American political party to embrace the national government’s shutdown and potential default or to seek relentlessly to remove social supports for poor children and their families on grounds of ideological assumptions that are unrelated to any empirical reality.

Finally, the nation’s courts bear a substantial responsibility for unleashing this set of trends by their willingness to permit gerrymandered districts, voter suppression strategies and unfettered campaign spending. Of course, those federal judges reflect the ideology, in many instances, of the Presidents who nominated them, so these must bear a large share of the responsibility for our current governance situation as well. We are in a scenario that amounts to the continuing deepening of a self-inflicted national wound. One can only hope that Americans collectively will begin to listen to reasoned arguments and take steps at least to stanch the bleeding.

Publication Date

November 17, 2013