Our Homemade Horror Show

Everyone likes a good scare – it keeps Hollywood in business – but no one likes the real thing. Any Texas Chainsaw Massacre – they must be on the sixth or seventh movie in that franchise now – turns a tidy profit. But there will not be any similar Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre franchise – or even an initial movie – unless it’s a somber and sobering documentary. Splatter movies have to be about what you can imagine happening, not about what you don’t have to imagine at all, because it just happened, for real. And as for that somber and sobering documentary, Michael Moore already gave us Bowling for Columbine. It’s been done. Moore’s movie was scary enough – particularly that bizarre interview with Charlton Hesston. There’s little more to say about the NRA – or about movie heroes.

It’s not just the movies. There are people who like to scare themselves, to work out ways to risk it all, for the thrill of the adrenaline rush. They bungee jump from impossible heights, or free-climb sheer cliffs in the middle of nowhere, or run with the bulls in Pamplona, or marry a woman half their age. They’ve got a bit of Hemingway in them, forgetting that he blew his brains out one sunny morning in Idaho. That doesn’t matter. Face the massive and mindless malevolent bull and show grace under pressure. It’s all about living on the edge, which, they say, provides the only moments worth living – because that’s the only time you really feel alive. The rest of us, not so inclined, actually feel quite alive, thank you very much. Thrill-seekers are an odd lot.

The question is how, in the years since Obama was first elected, we ended up with a government filled with thrill-seekers. Everything now comes down to the wire – like last year’s vote to raise the debt ceiling, so the nation could pay its bills, for all the stuff that Congress had actually authorized and had been done. As always, we sold treasury notes to cover the costs – we borrowed the money and spent it, just as Congress wanted, and now our creditors wanted to be paid, even if it was just interest charges, not the principle amount. We had to borrow more to do that and the Republicans in Congress said no – we should default on our debts, throwing the world into economic chaos as the last safe haven for capital would be gone and no one’s money would be safe anywhere. That’s living on the edge – the collapse of the world economy for generations is a big deal, and there was only one way to avoid it. Republicans said they’d agree to allow America to pay its bills, and not, in effect, declare bankruptcy, if Obama would agree to massive spending cuts in everything but the military, and agree the government would make no effort ever again to raise revenue, particularly by having the wealthy go back to the tax rates of the Clinton years. This would be the first step in dismantling FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society – the dream of the Republican Party since the day Herbert Hoover left Washington, carried forward by Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan, and now the dream of Paul Ryan. They had Obama by the short-hairs. This would be the end of the world as we know it, unless he did something, at the edge of the cliff.

That didn’t work out. Obama agreed to a grand bargain on spending cuts and revenue with John Boehner, but when Boehner took that back to his crew in the House they told him he was a fool – he could get much more. Boehner was stuck. He wouldn’t even return Obama’s phone calls. What was the point now? All that both sides could come up with then was the sequestration idea – let Obama pay the bills, on the condition there’d be massive automatic across the board spending cuts at the end of the year if both sides didn’t work out some kind of bargain.

It was a poison pill. This was brutal and crude – draconian as they say – but no one took it seriously. The Democrats didn’t want every social and educational program crippled or destroyed, and surely the Republicans didn’t want the military eviscerated. The idea was that the prospect of such cuts would get each side to talk to the other side and work something out – no one wanted Armageddon on these matters. But it didn’t work out that way – no one really talked at all, except to endlessly sneer at each other, which is what one would expect in an election year. Thus we were at the edge of that cliff at the end of the year, at which time everyone agreed to put the whole thing off until March. That’s when we’d be living dangerously again, on the edge. The only thing that came out of the debt limit fight was the credit-rating agencies downgrading our treasury bonds. That was a warning to investors. Maybe you don’t want to invest your money with thrill-seekers. Adrenaline junkies are a poor risk.

Then there was this New Year’s Eve and all that business about the fiscal cliff. At the stroke of midnight all the Bush tax cuts were set to expire, so everyone’s taxes would jump up immediately and a whole lot of buying power would disappear from the economy instantaneously, plunging us back into a severe recession, or worse. And all those automatic deep across-the-board spending cuts would kick in too – decimating the already meager social safety net, hobbling the military horribly, and also putting a lot of government contractors, even those who just supply paperclips, out of business. Millions would be unemployed in an instant, and the Republicans held the gun, ready to shoot.

Here we went again, but once again we were saved at the last instant. New Year’s Eve, the Senate, after much turmoil, passed their bill that would keep the country from going over that fiscal cliff – the Bush Tax cuts would not expire and make everyone pay through the nose and crush the economy. Only those who made over four hundred grand a year would go back to the old tax rates, and there’d be no massive automatic across-the-board spending cuts either, stopping a third of all economic activity – that’s when they decided those would be put off for two months. In addition, long-term unemployment benefits would be extended for a full year, so more than two million people would not suddenly be penniless. Republicans didn’t like much of this – no one should go back to the old tax rates, especially the noble rich who made this country great, and the long-term unemployed were lazy moochers who should just get off their lazy asses and get a job – but the downside risk of arguing those two points was too great. They gave in and the bill passed easily and was sent to the House. It stalled there on New Year’s Day, but after much nonsense about Evil Obama and True Tea Party Conservatism, it passed, barely. We had dodged a bullet at the very last minute. The recovery, such as it is, could continue.

This is no way to run a country, where there’s always a scary cliff or a charging bull, or a masked villain with a chainsaw, and if there isn’t one, we invent one, just like in Hollywood movies. This is real life where real people get hurt and Obama decided to remind people of that:

Conjuring up the specter of fired teachers, furloughed FBI agents, idled Border Patrol agents, sidelined firefighters, criminals freed by cutbacks and “hundreds of thousands” of lost jobs, President Barack Obama pressed congressional Republicans on Tuesday to agree to increase tax revenues as part of a plan to avert “brutal” across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect one week from Friday.

“If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness. It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research,” Obama warned in a speech at the White House, flanked by emergency workers. “It won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day.”

It seems Obama has no use for adrenaline junkies. There’s a reason people call him No-Drama Obama. Thrill-seekers just hate that about him, but he has a point:

“These cuts are not smart, they are not fair, they will hurt our economy, they will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls,” Obama said. “This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs.”

Obama again urged Congress to pass a short-term budget fix in the absence of a complete budget resolution.

“I am willing to cut more spending that we don’t need, get rid of programs that aren’t working” and pare down entitlement outlays while boosting government revenues by overhauling the tax code, Obama said. That kind of “balanced approach could finish the job of deficit reduction.”

But “at a minimum, Congress should pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms … not to kick the can down the road, but to give them time to work together on a plan that finishes the job of deficit reduction in a sensible way,” he said.

The Republicans were having none of it. Cut taxes on the rich, or at least agree to no new revenue ever, or the sequestration cuts happen – and people will get hurt badly, and it will be your fault, all your fault. They like life on the edge.

It’s a plan, but Michael Tomasky argues here that Republicans will get hammered politically if these sequestration cuts go into effect:

It sure isn’t going to be looking very responsible to people, as the March 1 sequestration deadline approaches, for Republicans to be going before the cameras and saying that the cuts are unfortunate but necessary medicine, or whatever formulation they come up with. They’ve wanted these spending reductions for two years. It hardly matters much who invented the mechanism for the cuts. What matters, as the Republicans will find out, is that the people don’t want them.

Andrew Sullivan adds this:

I believe that is indeed Obama’s long game here. The precedent is the Gingrich government shutdown, which stopped his revolution in its tracks and gave Bill Clinton new political life. When cops are furloughed, when scientists complain about research cuts, when the military-industrial complex revs up its lobbying engines, I just don’t see how the sequester works politically for the GOP. It exists entirely because of their fixation on immediate austerity – despite the awful consequences that policy option has spawned in Europe.

But I don’t particularly like the Dems’ and Obama’s approach either. It may be politically savvy – they are going to target all sorts of populist tax loopholes for the very rich as an alternative to cuts, without making a serious effort to reform the insanely complex tax code as a whole.

Still, Sullivan calls that the least-worst option at the moment. He’s not impressed with adrenaline junkies either, but at the same time those two old men were all over television again. That would be Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Their comprehensive deficit-reduction proposal failed to catch when it was released in December 2010, but the two are still at it, with Version 2.0 offered in a new op-ed piece at Politico – where they called the year-end tax deal “pitiful,” and called for serious, long-term reforms. ABC’s Chris Good had more:

Counting the 2011 budget talks and the recent tax deal as steps one and two, Simpson and Bowles issued a call for two more big steps – which include measures like lowering the growth of Medicare and Medicaid payments to providers, lowering drug costs, enacting Social Security reforms, adopting a “chained CPI” to reduce the growth of Social Security payments and other spending tied to inflation, and reforming the tax code. Those proposals (or, at very least, proposals like them) were included in the original plan approved by President Obama’s fiscal commission, which Simpson and Bowles led. That plan offered more specifics on how to achieve the goals laid out by Simpson and Bowles this morning.

Ezra Klein covers the specifics – such as they are – and Kevin Drum untangles them:

I’m happy to see them agree that deficit reduction should be done slowly. I’m happy to see them agree that low-income workers and retirees should be protected from benefit cuts. I’m happy to see them agree that the federal tax code should remain at least as progressive as it is now. I’m happy to see them focus on healthcare costs, which really are the driver of most of our future budget problems. And I’m happy to see them name check farm subsidies and highway funding. But without details, it’s impossible to say anything further.

Except for one wee thing… Despite their brave talk about both sides needing to “put their sacred cows on the table,” they’ve apparently decided that conservatives should put a whole lot fewer of their sacred cows on the table than they suggested in their first plan. In SB 1.0, deficit reduction was moderately evenly divided between spending cuts and tax increases. In SB 2.0, they’ve suddenly decided it should be 75 percent spending cuts. That’s despite the fact that spending cuts have already been 75 percent of the deficit reduction we’ve done so far. …

I guess they figure that conservative sacred cows are a little more sacred than liberal ones – or something. But even if you take deficit reduction seriously in the first place, this sure makes it hard to take Simpson-Bowles 2.0 seriously as a plan.

With software, Version 2.0 is often a pain in the ass as Version 1.0 worked just fine, and in Hollywood sequels are often hopelessly lame compared to the original, and here, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson sees the same thing:

I always thought that the most admirable element of the first Bowles-Simpson plan – whether or not you consider yourself a deficit hawk – was the brutal honesty that fulfilling our promise to medically insure the poor and old, while protecting the working poor, while building better roads and broadband, while paying for a military, while doing everything else we’ve come to expect from the government would require tax increases beyond the top two percent. This plan all but gives up on the idea that balancing the budget requires a roughly equal mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent adds this:

Simpson and Bowles were trying to locate a compromise position that is achievable, given political realities. Perhaps that’s understandable; perhaps Dems are even partly to blame for the fact that the “possible” has been pulled so far in the GOP’s direction. But let’s not call this a “middle ground” or “centrist” position. It isn’t one, unless public opinion and the election’s outcome are to be disregarded entirely in the quest to establish it.

Yeah, we did have an election about such things. The nation rejected severe austerity for everyone but the rich. Romney didn’t win, so we shouldn’t always be at the edge of a new cliff. The enraged bull shouldn’t always be charging. There should be no madman with a chainsaw. Simpson-Bowles is not the name of a manufacturer of chainsaws after all.

Still that’s where we are, and Andrew Sullivan argues the problem actually may be structural – as capitalism sort of creates a welfare state:

The two concepts are usually seen in complete opposition in our political discourse. The more capitalism and wealth, the familiar argument goes, the better able we are to do without a safety net for the poor, elderly, sick and young. And that’s true so far as it goes. What it doesn’t get at is that the forces that free market capitalism unleashes are precisely the forces that undermine traditional forms of community and family that once served as a traditional safety net, free from government control. In the West, it happened slowly – with the welfare state emerging in 19th century Germany and spreading elsewhere, as individuals uprooted themselves from their home towns and forged new careers, lives and families in the big cities, with all the broken homes, deserted villages, and bewildered families they left behind.

Sullivan recommends Daniel Bell’s famous book on the cultural contradictions of capitalism, and adds this:

The turbulence of a growing wealth-creating free market disrupts traditional ways of life like no other. Even in a culture like ours used to relying from its very origins on entrepreneurial spirit, the dislocations are manifold. People have to move; their choices of partners for love and sex multiply; families disaggregate on their own virtual devices; grandparents are assigned to assisted living; second marriages are as familiar as first ones; and whole industries – and all the learned skills that went with them – can just disappear overnight (I think of my own profession as a journalist, but it is one of countless).

Capitalism is in this sense anti-conservative. It is a disruptive, culturally revolutionary force through human society. It has changed the world in three centuries more than at any time in the two hundred millennia that humans have lived on the earth. This must leave – and has surely left – victims behind, which is why the welfare state emerged. The sheer cruelty of the market, the way it dispenses brutally with inefficiency (i.e. human beings and their jobs), the manner in which it encourages constant travel and communication: these, as Bell noted, are not ways to strengthen existing social norms, buttress the family, allow the civil society to do what it once did: take care of people within smaller familial units according to generational justice and respect. That kind of social order – the ultimate conservative utopia – is inimical to the capitalist enterprise.

Which is why many leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conservatives as well as liberals, attached a safety net to such an unsafe, bewildering, constantly shifting web of human demand and supply. They did so in part for humane reasons – but also because they realized that unless capitalism, red in tooth and claw, were complemented by some collective cushioning, it would soon fall prey to more revolutionary movements. The safety net was created to save capitalism from itself, not to attack capitalism.

If so, then all of this end-of-the-world brinksmanship might not be thrill-seeking at all. It might be that our conservatives just don’t understand capitalism:

One reason, I think, that Obama’s move toward a slightly more effective welfare state has not met strong resistance – and is clearly winning the American argument – is that the sheer force of this global capitalism is coming to bear down on America more fiercely than ever before. People know this and they look for some kind of security. In other words, it is precisely capitalism’s post-1980s triumph that has helped create the social dependency so many conservatives bemoan today. And this time, there is even a sense that whole industries are disappearing faster than ever before – not simply because of outsourcing but because of technology itself, tearing through old ways of life like acid through iron.

It is unstoppable. I fear its power – given that it relies on emitting carbon in vast quantities – will soon make the world less habitable for large numbers of people. I fear it may kill so many species we will have become God on our own earth. And I think an understanding that the state will have to step in to blunt the sharper edges of this newly creative extra-destruction is emerging slowly in the public at large.

Then there’s despair:

In my bleaker moments, I wonder whether humankind will come to see this great capitalist leap forward as a huge error in human history – the moment we undid ourselves and our very environment, reaching untold material wealth as well as building societies in which loneliness, dislocation, displacement and radical insecurity cannot but increase. It seems to me this is not the moment for Randian purism.

Do we not as conservatives have a duty to tend to the world we helped make?

Perhaps so, and that means it’s not the moment for Ayn Rand or Rand Paul or Paul Ryan purism – but the adrenaline junkies think it is, because they like the thrill of living at the edge. Everything will be a crisis, but while everyone likes a good scare, that’s only in the movies. Real life is a different matter. These thrill-seekers should just go to Pamplona and run the bulls and leave the rest of us alone, to work out the best way to run things for the common good, making sure no one gets hurt. They’ll like it there. They understand bull.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Our Homemade Horror Show

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Thanks again for staying up late and preparing this grand roundup on this subject. You really are good at this!

  2. Madman says:

    Great analysis, as usual! There is just one aspect that troubles me — your outlook on the expiring of the Bush Lite tax cuts: “…so everyone’s taxes would jump up immediately and a whole lot of buying power would disappear from the economy instantaneously.” It seems you have accepted the official Republican outlook on this matter, with which I disagree. My evidence is straightforward: since those cuts did NOT stimulate the economy as promised, losing them should also have minimal impact. Their greatest benefit occurred at the top brackets, which is why the wealthy have done extremely well for the past 10 years, while incomes of everyone else has stagnated. I say ALL of those cuts should have expired — resulting in SERIOUS additional revenue in a broadly-based manner. Trillions of additional revenue, instead of only billions. Paul Krugman has noted that those cuts produced a “structural deficit,” which could have been erased by ending ALL of them. Your thoughts?

    • Alan says:

      Agreed. I knew as soon as I wrote that there was something wrong with my thinking. I just couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. You did. You’re right and I was wrong.

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