What if there isn’t a “crisis” in America’s debts and deficits? What if all this Beltway wailing and rending of garments is just political theater, best suited to amusing the swells and agitating the riffraff? Maybe this is all just Shakespeare-in-the-rotunda.
I noticed the word “crisis” — by its absence — during President Obama’s budget speech on Wednesday. He rattled off a lot of fiscal problems, but only uttered the word “crisis” once, not in reference to current troubles, but to the 2008 collapse of Wall Street.
Even in that more obvious crisis, there were economists and some politicians, including Obama, who were saying, “Wait a minute!” While the Bush administration assembled a $700 billion CARE package for Wall Street, Obama modestly suggested that some rules be written, and some strings be attached, to that epic bailout.
But there wasn’t a minute, said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, to wait. Quickly, Congress and George Bush threw all that dough, willy-nilly, at AIG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Citigroup and other Wall Street mendicants. Some of the bailout — intended to be used for small-business loans, consumer credit and mortgage rescues — trickled down to real people. But a lot of it simply disappeared into interest-bearing accounts that did nothing to promote the general welfare. Most bankers just ratholed it, waited ‘til the heat was off and paid it back as fast as they could — at a profit.
Yet, despite $700 billion mostly down the toilet, the U.S. economy began gradually to come back to life. And I started thinking that maybe Obama and those “Wait a minute!” economists were right. The Great Embezzlement of ’08 wasn’t such a catastrophe that we couldn’t have taken a little more time, thought a little longer and figured out a way to keep all that money out of Lloyd Blankfein’s mattress.
The politicians — mostly Republicans — who’ve dusted off the word “crisis” to describe our current dilemma are fond of comparing the federal budget to a “household.” They say your typical American family has to “balance its budget” and so, by God!, the same rules should apply to Washington.
But wait a minute! Let’s do the math. Is there any household in America that actually balances its budget? There are 610 million credit cards out there. The average family owes $14,000 on those cards, while saving less than 1 percent of its income.
The “household” parallel also tends to falter when you note that most Americans don’t keep a fleet of $200 million fighter jets in the backyard. And there isn’t one family in my neighborhood with even half a dozen armed troops — much less 1.5 million of ‘em — deployed overseas, shooting at Arabs and launching drones into Pakistan.
Another homespun metaphor favored by the GOP is to see the federal deficit as a “hole.” Alarmed at “welfare state” spending, the Republicans cry out, “Stop digging!”
But wait a minute. We’re in this hole because, for the first time ever, the U.S. went to war — no, wait a minute! Two wars — without funding either war with tax increases. No, wait a minute! We cut taxes!
Now, the Republicans, who love both of our wars and all of our tax cuts, are bewailing a “crisis” so bad that we have to — what? End the wars? Raise taxes on, say, millionaires? No, they want we should cut back on services for poor children, college students, old folks and sick people — none of whom have any money.
OK, you remember the joke about the drunk crawling around under the streetlight?
Someone asks what’s the trouble and the drunk says that he can’t find his car keys.
“Did you drop them around here?” is the logical question.
“No,” replies the drunk. “Over there, in the parking lot.”
“Well, shouldn’t you be looking in the parking lot?”
“Yeah. But the light’s so much better here.”
Alas, the Republicans aren’t really drunk. There is method to their misdirection.
“Crisis” is a fearful word. It makes people think they don’t have time to think. Republicans say there’s a Medicare crisis. They don’t say that Medicare, although its funds are running low, is still solvent ‘til 2017. That’s six years to think of a solution. Indeed, the Obama health care plan includes reductions, by $500 million, in Medicare costs, without cutting coverage. Obama has proposed more reforms, focused on the fee-for-service medical groups who scam Medicare, Medicaid and the insurance industry by ordering thousands of unnecessary, but incredibly expensive, tests every year.
Republicans say there’s a Social Security crisis, although today the SSA surplus is comfortably in the black ‘til 2037. This nest egg could be extended indefinitely by lifting the payroll-tax income ceiling above its current maximum of $106,000. We could do this trick any time in the next 26 years, thus ending another mythical “crisis.”
By 1932, the Great Depression had become the greatest real crisis in U.S. economic history. FDR said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In that speech, uttering the word “crisis” only once, FDR also said, “Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence…”
Obama, like FDR, has avoided talk of “crisis.” He asked us to save as much as we can while spending what we must to hold together the American family. He said, like FDR, that we will all make it together if everyone pitches in with his or her fair share.
Back to Shakespeare, who, in “Coriolanus,” had FDR-like counsel for Americans who’ve been spooked by Tea Party hysteria and the weird arithmetic of Paul Ryan.
“Do not cry havoc,” quoth the Bard, “where you should but hunt with modest warrant.”