National misery, despair, and suicidal self-destruction, and nothing will be done about it

Debt-ceiling crisis: The debacle revealed that politics is broken in every possible way, and that there is no point in explaining complicated matters to the American people. – By Jacob Weisberg – Slate Magazine


It is hard to remember a more dismal moment in American politics. The debt-ceiling crisis and the agreement that ended it point to deep dysfunction in our system. In a variety of ways, the episode portends continued short-term economic misery and long-term national decline. It’s as if the United States chose at the last minute not to commit financial suicide—but only out of preference for a slower, more excruciating form of self-destruction.

The crisis has, however, been clarifying in several respects. To begin with, we can now say with some confidence that Washington will be doing nothing more to help the ailing economy. President Obama is trying to push a jobs agenda. But for the federal government to spur growth or create jobs, it has to spend additional money. The antediluvian Republicans who control Congress do not think that demand can be expanded in this way. They believe that the 2009 stimulus bill, which has prevented an even worse economy over the past two years, is actually responsible for the current weakness. Their Hooverite approach—embedded in the debt-ceiling compromise—demands that we address the risk of a double-dip recession by cutting public expenditure now rather than later.

So instead of trying to pull out of the stall, the economy simply will have to absorb whatever blow is coming. Some of the congressional Republicans who are preventing action to help the economy are simply intellectual primitives who reject modern economics on the same basis that they reject Darwin and climate science. Others are obviously cynical, desiring the worst possible economy as an aid to recapturing the White House and Senate in 2012. Still others simply do not believe that government action can ever be a force for good at any time or in any way. Whatever their motivations, there is something terribly sad about desperate and unemployed Americans looking for rescue to a party that lacks any inclination to alleviate their misery.

A second lesson is that Washington will not be doing anything to address the fiscal imbalance that threatens America’s long-term economic vitality and global power. The deal that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tentatively agreed upon in early July was far from perfect, imbalanced in favor of spending cuts over revenues by a ratio of 4-to-1. But that $4 trillion “grand bargain” would have constituted a serious down payment on the deficit, and sent a strong signal to financial markets that our political establishment took the problem seriously.

Instead we got this week’s sad bargain—a much smaller, deferred, and contingent reduction in spending projections. This sends quite a different signal: that our political system cannot, in its current configuration, cope with difference between what comes in and what goes out. The quandary is now doubly insoluble, because closing that gap, by all sensible accounts, requires both higher revenues and reductions in entitlement spending. Faced with Republican intransigence on taxes, Democrats are less likely than ever to give ground on Social Security or Medicare.

We now also understand that we’re not going to make meaningful investments in our economic future. The conservative position that all spending is evil obliterates any distinction between investment and consumption, between the long-term and the short-term. The United States suffers with an increasingly third-world level of infrastructure, a third-tier education system, and enormous gaps in the preparedness of its workforce. The debate has now ended: Money to upgrade those faltering systems will not be forthcoming. And by the way, the United States isn’t going to take on any other major problems either—immigration, tax reform, or climate change, for example. It isn’t going to do so for the same reason it has failed at sensible economic management: because the Tea Party has a veto.

Some lessons of the crisis have added significance beyond our shores. One is that America now regards its most solemn financial obligations as flexible commitments. The problem isn’t just that some members of Congress were willing to contemplate national default. It was that some of them clearly desired default as a kind of ultimate weapon against social spending. The precedent has been set for using America’s credit rating as blackmail. The issue comes up again in less than a year and a half, at which point the masochistic drama of recent weeks could be repeated with a different outcome. This is the way in which the United States resembles Greece—not in its underlying creditworthiness, but in making the matter of paying its debts a political question.

At the level of political culture, we have learned some other sobering lessons: that compromise is dead and that there’s no point trying to explain complicated matters to the American people. The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed. It has been astonishing to watch Obama’s sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there’s no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.


12 comments on “National misery, despair, and suicidal self-destruction, and nothing will be done about it

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  1. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

  2. @ miguel cervantes:
    Gee you left out some of the best parts of that article – like the alternative 2009 Inaugural:

    “I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them.”

    Or the conclusion that follows the comparatively rather trivial paragraph you selected:

    A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

    But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

  3. That is one explanation, the other is Dr. Westen is a fool of immense proportions, who didn’t consider the enormous implications of elevating
    this hack politician of sundry ways and meager achievements, and worse yet encouraged others in this hairbrained quest.

  4. @ miguel cervantes:
    You need to get your story straight. Most of the time for you, Obama’s a secret Islamo-socialist who “thrives on chaos,” thus his diabolical plot to trick the Republicans into taking the debt limit hostage, or whatever it was you were trying to say.

  5. He is as I’ve said all along ,’The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ playing Alinsky,
    and Cloward and Piven, like a child playing with matches or scissors, one endeavors to keep him away from both,

  6. miguel cervantes wrote:

    He is as I’ve said all along ,’The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ playing Alinsky,
    and Cloward and Piven, like a child playing with matches or scissors, one endeavors to keep him away from both,

    Thanks. The combination of superior pose and rote recitation is hilarious, and I especially like the irony of a completely clueless individual accusing someone else of manipulating tools he doesn’t understand. Now, what do you really think?

  7. There was a cute interview on the Bill Mahr show I saw. I think it’s spelled M-a-h-r. I’m not a fan of Bill but he had a very sweet, almost grandma-type economist on. She was a prim lady who was a college professor of economics. Apologetically, Bill told her about the old bit they had on the show called, “How fucked are we?” This very Mayberry type conservative lady blushed at the question and then sad, “Darned fucked.”

  8. @ CK MacLeod:
    Nope. Don’t know. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s actually a familiar face because they did mention she had a whole public persona. She just didn’t look like that. She looked so innocent.

  9. IMO, she’s always come across as a genuinely gentle person, not the least bit depraved, possibly not suited to politics. Don’t know if she had a conservative upbringing…

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