I never thought I'd write these words, but here goes: Thank you, John Boehner. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for finally admitting on national television that all the fiscal cliffs, sequestrations and budget battles you've created are, indeed, artificially fabricated by ideologues and self-interested politicians and not the result of some imminent crisis that's out of our control.
America owes this debt of gratitude to Boehner after he finally came clean on yesterday's edition of ABC's "This Week" and admitted that "we do not have an immediate debt crisis." (His admission was followed up by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who quickly echoed much the same sentiment on CBS' "Face the Nation").
In offering up such a stunningly honest admission, the GOP leader has put himself on record as agreeing with President Obama, who has previously acknowledged that demonstrable reality. But the big news here isn't just about the politics of a Republican House speaker tacitly admitting they agree with a Democratic president. It is also about a bigger admission revealing the fact that the GOP's fiscal alarmism is not merely some natural reaction to reality, but a calculated means to other ideological ends.
Before considering those ends, first remember that Boehner (like Obama) is correct on the facts.
As Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, "Even if we do run deficits, federal debt as a share of GDP will be substantially less than it was at the end of World War II" and "it will also be substantially less than, say, debt in several European countries in the mid- to late 1990s." It is also lower than the 80 percent of GDP level that many economists say starts to put countries in a precarious position. Additionally, citing Congressional Budget Office data, the Center for American Progress notes that the long-term debt outlook is only dire because the projections simply assume without question that "future Congresses will enact huge new deficit-increasing tax cuts and spending hikes."
"The debt outlook is bad (but) we’re not looking at something inconceivable, impossible to deal with," writes Krugman. "We’re looking at debt levels that a number of advanced countries, the US included, have had in the past, and dealt with."
So yes, we should start dealing with the long-term debt in a pragmatic and sober way, but we shouldn't pretend it is some sort of imminent crisis worthy of draconian austerity measures.
If we could somehow do that, then there would be plenty of gradual steps that could be taken right now -- steps that deal with the debt in measured ways that do the least harm to the overall economy. Those include starting to phase out the Bush tax cuts, which show no correlation with job growth and yet are the single largest driver of annual deficits; starting to reduce defense and war spending, which, job-creation-wise, is one of the least effective ways for the government to spend money; starting to move the United States toward the least costly, more efficient, and more effective single-payer healthcare system that most industrialized countries have, and that lowers overhead for employers; and starting to spend more money on social programs that fight economic inequality, with the understanding that driving down such inequality tends to boost macroeconomic growth and consequently boost public revenues (this is the Reagan-esque idea of growing one's way out of debt).
But, of course, we aren't having a sober and measured discussion about such pragmatic solutions. Instead, the national conversation about the budget is dominated by debt demagogues with ulterior motives. Taking a page out of the shock doctrine playbook that says every crisis is an opportunity, these alarmists have sought to create the perception of an immediate crisis in order to quickly manufacture opportunities to legislate their otherwise politically impossible agenda items.
In practice, that means Wall Streeters and conservative ideologues citing the supposedly imminent crisis to successfully nudge the political establishment to endorse cuts to Social Security, even though the program has almost nothing to do with the debt crisis. It also means a GOP budget that targets most of its cuts at the social programs that the poor and middle-class most rely on (this, at the same time most of these same alleged budget hawks supported an extension of most of the deficit-expanding Bush tax cuts; decry any cuts to the defense budget; and either outright oppose a single-payer system or support the Obama healthcare law that while certainly expanding coverage, nonetheless buttresses the private health insurance industry and, thus, arguably makes such a single-payer system more out of reach).
From Boehner to Ryan to the Bowles-Simpson tandem to an unending parade of television pundits, the last year has been marked by the most prominent political voices ignoring the more prudent way forward, and instead claiming that these shock doctrine prescriptions -- i.e., Social Security/Medicare cuts, social program cuts, etc. -- are all required. And not just required, but required immediately, because of the supposed urgency of the debt crisis.
Using that supposed urgency as a rationale to create fiscal cliffs, sequestration battles and debt ceiling crises, their talking points have lately assumed a similar tenor to that of the old Thatcherites' "There Is No Alternative" mantra, the idea being that because the emergency is supposedly so imminent, there is simply no other way forward than the conservative neoliberal path of profligacy for the rich (tax cuts, continued corporate subsidies, etc.) and austerity for everyone else.
But suddenly, thanks to yesterday's declarations by Boehner and Ryan, the charade's most sacred lie has been exposed. In acknowledging that "we do not have an immediate debt crisis," GOP leaders are admitting that there is, in fact, an alternative. They are also admitting that their longtime claims to the contrary were ends-justify-the-means tactics to manufacture an unnecessary panic -- one that they hoped would scare America into abruptly accepting the kind of draconian policies polls show the public opposes.
Now that the truth is out, maybe a more reasoned debate can begin and more pragmatic policies can finally take center stage.