Let's Have a Grand Debate, Not a Grand Bargain

The clock is ticking down until the US engages in yet another round of budget blackmail. The first milestone hits on January 15th 2014, when the continuing resolution runs out, and the second will hit in early February when we again rub up against the debt ceiling.

The clock is ticking down until the US engages in yet another round of budget blackmail. The first milestone hits on January 15th 2014, when the continuing resolution runs out, and the second will hit in early February when we again rub up against the debt ceiling. Last year, the Treasury was able to continue operating for five months using "extraordinary measures" such as not paying into retirement accounts. This time around there won't be as much wiggle room.

So, once again, we will be treated to another spectacle where government holds a gun to its own head and threatens to shoot itself if we don't start carving off limbs. Shades of Blazing Saddles.

To be fair, it's Republicans who hold the gun, but Democrats have basically limited themselves to running around wringing their hands like a bunch of chicken littles screaming "the sky is falling ... what can we do?"

All too often, the answer for the screaming ninnies is a "Grand Bargain," which essentially sabotages New Deal and social programs, while leaving tax and other benefits for the uber rich in place.

Never mind that this approach is opposed by the vast majority of Americans; never mind that austerity at the expense of the poor and middle class is bad for the economy; never mind the deficit is shrinking at record rates; never mind that Europe has shown how devastating austerity budgets are. The screaming ninnies say it's necessary to keep the Republicans from pulling the trigger.

Fact is, the screaming ninnies are joining the Republicans in a Confederacy of Dunces.

Here's an idea: Instead of a Grand Bargain, let's have a Grand Debate.

Let's expose the real issues underlying this whole budget Kabuki Dance: The role of government in a modern society.

Since Ronnie "government-is-the-problem" Reagan, Republicans have been fostering twin myths: 1) big gubmint' cain't do nuthin' right; and 2) the market will accomplish all good things by pure serendipity - featuring the trickle down fantasy.

Because the policies flowing from this take on government have been very unpopular, Republicans have shrewdly made the budget a proxy for this debate, enabling them to frame the discussion around values such as thrift, freedom of choice, equity (as in not rewarding freeloaders), while throwing up flack in the form of social wedge issues.

What's been missing from this "debate" is a counter argument. Clinton and the DLC democrats basically ceded the fight in terms of policy, although they paid lip service to liberal values. Obama has basically been to the right of him, except during election campaigns when he cranked up the progressive rhetoric for a month or two. Congressional Democrats? With the exception of the progressive caucus, who, so far have folded on demand, they've been the chorus of screaming ninnies.

OK. Enough. Let's talk about the Elephant dung in our collective national living room.

Nothing's trickled down, but a great deal has trickled up. And absent policies that redistribute wealth more equitably, that is the natural and inevitable endpoint of unconstrained capitalism.

That's the dirty little secret Democrats have been running from for thirty years now.

Unconstrained capitalism destroys the environment, and causes catastrophic economic meltdowns. Period. The magic market doesn't work. Modern economies need to be managed to keep from self-destructing.

Not a popular idea. But there are values embedded in this position, as well. Here's a few, in no particular order:

  • Wealth should be shared in proportion to the contributions and efforts of labor and management, not according to power;
  • Government shouldn't be run by an army of paid lobbyists - each American should have an equal voice and equal access to elected representatives;
  • Elections shouldn't be turned into a garage sale - unlimited campaign contributions, extreme gerrymandering, voter restrictions - these are all essentially undemocratic and represent a form of tyranny that is anathema to a democratic form of governance;
  • Private interests shouldn't trump public good. Things like education; crime and fire prevention; healthcare; a viable infrastructure; and a living environment are a right, not a commodity to be bought and sold.

Fact is, government is inherently more efficient than the private sector in providing public goods. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, all operate at lower costs with better outcomes than comparable private sector programs. The difficulties occurring in Obamacare are a direct result of adopting the Republican playbook and ceding the game to private insurance companies, rather than pushing for a single payer system. Would such a proposal have won? Not the first time, but at least we'd be having the right debate and that would likely assure that single payer was ultimately adopted.

Finally, there are some things that must be done, and only government can and will do them. Exhibit A has to be climate change. That's the real gun to our heads and we all hold it.

As the Conference of Parties grinds on in Warsaw, it appears likely that whatever they come up with will be woefully inadequate to prevent wholesale destruction of our climate and economy. One of the reasons this incredible failure continues - beyond a well-funded corporate denier campaign modeled on the one mounted to defend cigarettes -- is the "market uber-alles" mentality of the free-marketeers.

Don't look for your elected representative to initiate this Grand Debate. The chances are he doesn't represent you, he or she represents vested interests with deep pockets and a stake in unconstrained capitalism.

But the time is right to start this debate ourselves, and the machinery is in place. Public disgust at the government shutdown has created a groundswell of support for progressive policies and politicians with the backbone to advocate for them.

Sign up, get vocal, seize control of your representatives. Let them know it they don't represent us there's a movement forming out beyond the Beltway and we'll kick them out.

If we have the courage, wit, wisdom and commitment to hang together, their days are numbered.

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