Thursday, April 28, 2011

Budget in Context

What's the budget debate about? Obama put the question of "how to balance the budget" in the context of "what kind of country will we be?"

The GOP puts the issue as entirely a matter of "living within our means"; it is strikingly silent on what kind of America will come out of the process. Despite Obama's recent speech, the predominant approach from the Democrats has also not really come to grips with what's happening to America and what to do about it.

The America of 2011is not the country some thought it would be a decade ago when Washington and Wall Street prematurely laid claim to a "New American Century". Far from triumphalism, the mood and reality today define a country that is deeply troubled. The stock market is back and profits are at record highs, but the economy is very sick. No remedy is emerging to deal with chronic high unemployment and underemployment; disparity in wealth distribution has never been as great; health care costs are galloping out of sight and poverty is expanding apace; educational opportunity is eroding and the infrastructure of the country is descending into potholes.

The structure of the economy has undergone drastic changes: its manufacturing base has been decimated, unions have shrunk, jobs have gone overseas and multinational corporations are evading taxes on a grand scale. On top of all this is the cruel burden of unending and unwinnable wars, the unbearable cost of maintaining a gargantuan military establishment with thousands of overseas bases policing the world.

America remains powerful on the world stage, but it is not the superpower whose strength can dominate the course of international developments. There are self-confident rivals who act with independence in economic and political affairs. Moreover, in a world that is undergoing epic economic and environmental crises, we are failing even to face up to the existential problem of climate change.

All in all, our problems are not a matter of a temporary glitch that can be resolved by cutting social programs or waiting for an upturn in the economy. Any meaningful remedies require taking account of the dimensions of the crisis and decline that grips the country. It also requires, as Obama said, a vision of what kind of America will be shaped by the way in which our crisis is confronted.

The Ryan budget ignores everything about the present crisis but the federal deficit. The GOP says absolutely nothing about what America would look like if it were to get everything it’s asking for: slashing education and basic services at every level, gutting Medicare and Medicaid, while shrinking revenue by cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

There may be no magical solution to all our problems, but we can achieve a great deal by practical and humane alternatives in the way we budget and allocate the government’s resources. There is no mystery to the essential approaches that would both improve life for most Americans while reducing the federal deficit. (What’s not simple is how the people can overcome the obstacles to progress manipulated by corporate wealth with all its lobbyists, politicians, and largely controlled media.)

The “People’s Budget” put forward by over 80 members of the Progressive Congressional caucus points the way. It shows how to reduce the deficit while dealing more effectively with the nation’s crucial needs. The remedy is threefold: increasing revenue by raising (rather than lowering) taxes on the wealthy, especially the extremely wealthy, and closing tax loopholes; gaining control of and reducing the costs of heath care; getting out and staying out of wars, and sharply reducing the bloated military establishment. How far we go in dealing with these three problem areas will influence what we can do to stimulate the economy, generate jobs, expand education, renew infrastructure, and become serious about developing alternative energy and confronting climate change.

Rightist and corporate resistance to both healthcare reform and significant retrenchment of the military-industrial complex threatens to dig the nation into an ever-deepening hole. On healthcare, necessary control over costs is impossible without placing the public interest over the profits of the mega health insurance and drug corporations. Medicare for all, cutting out the role of private greed, is the ideal solution, but at least some significant measures to strengthen the public’s hand are essential.

As for the colossal “defense” budget, it was shaped by exploiting the exaggerated paranoia that marked the Cold War and it has continued to expand out of any reasonable relationship to present reality. As Defense Secretary Gates recently acknowledged, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Particularly irrational and dangerous is the hugely costly nuclear weapons arsenal. Beyond that, the vast network of bases abroad serves no worthwhile purpose since notions of “policing” the world prove illusory as well as provocative.

So there is an effective and humane way forward. Ryan’s corporate backers tout his “courage” in putting on the table so-called “entitlements”, the privileged set’s euphemism for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that meet fundamental human needs. The courage that’s needed is what the Congressional Progressive Caucus has urged. One has to hope that the negative public response to the GOP-Ryan Plan, the overwhelming nationwide opposition to gutting Medicare, will encourage a demand to go after the real “entitlements” of the corporate world: tax evasion, profiteering at the expense of public health, and the sacred cow that is the military-industrial complex.

Better than hope, what’s called for is a lot more of the outpouring of anger and protest that Governor Walker has encountered in Wisconsin. It’s time for the people to get into the debate.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


A week or two ago, the most urgent and contentious question was whether or not the US and its Western allies should intervene militarily in Libya. Now the missiles have rained down and a “no fly” blanket covers Libya. The possible massacre in Benghazi that Qaddafi threatened may have been averted, but events quickly made it clear that US/ NATO military power is not a solution for Libya any more than “shock and awe” was for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now the urgent question is, can the course of events be altered soon enough to prevent another prolonged war of intervention in the Middle East. How, for the sake of the Libyan people and a war-weary world, can we avoid sinking deeper into the morass of unending wars?

What’s called for, it seems to me, is international intervention, but intervention of a different kind than has been the sad pattern of the past. The UN has been bullied and bribed time and again into providing “sanction” for interventionist “holy” wars. Can that be different now? Can there be intervention for a cease-fire that protects the ability of the Libyan people to pursue their own democratic struggle as part of the “Arab Spring”? I think there are reasons why it can be different now.

Before looking at the reasons, a positive change in the character of international response to the Libyan crisis would have to involve urgent diplomacy efforts by the UN, shifting initiative toward members of the Security Council that abstained from supporting military action. The immediate aim would be a cease-fire that would halt Qaddafi’s military assaults and bombing by NATO. The longer-range outlook would be to secure conditions in which the Libyan people can bring about social change on their own terms without the tragic consequences of foreign military intervention and another prolonged war. However events develop, world opinion and effective international solidarity will be a force in support of the Libyan people against Qaddafi’s tyranny, as it was in the heroic struggle of the South African majority that finally ended the Apartheid regime.

Circumstances are far different today than they were when a triumphalist Bush Administration invaded Iraq in defiance of opposition at home and abroad. Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed the conceit that the US government can determine outcomes and force “solutions” by virtue of its overwhelming military superiority. The American people, like people everywhere, want no part of a third war in the Middle East. Moreover, Barak Obama and Robert Gates have shown great reluctance about being drawn into another disastrous military adventure. (While they are decidedly leery of more land wars, their reluctance does not extend to the widespread use of missiles and drones, as well as the CIA, Special Forces, and killer contractors.)

While views on the intervention in Libya have differed widely, including on the left, UN Resolution 1973 cannot be ascribed primarily to “same-old, same-old” imperialist motivation. Humanitarian concerns about Qaddafi’s brutality were real, regardless of mixed and ulterior motives among “Western” and Arab governments. Strong public support for prompt UN intervention came not only through the pleas of Libyan rebels facing imminent massacre, but from veteran anti-imperialists like Uri Avreny, Israeli leftist, and Juan Cole, analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore the dangers inherent in unleashing US and NATO military power in Libya and possibly wading into another hopeless quagmire. The important governments that abstained in the Security Council vote had good reason to worry about potential “humanitarian” considerations as a formula for intervening militarily in the internal affairs of nations.

As for the United States, its greatest contribution to peace and democracy in the Middle East would be to sharply curtail its military presence. That should be the demand, in the interest of the beleaguered American people as much as in support of new generations of Arabs striving courageously to shape their own democratic destiny. The weapons that we sell and supply are the main instruments of tyranny and violence in country after country in the Middle East.

The uncertainty about Libya and what is happening in the Middle East brings America’s changing place in the world into focus. The US is powerful, but it is not the almighty superpower Bush and Cheney thought it was. The McCann and Lieberman hawks still cling to the deadly illusion, but reality is beyond denial. The serious economic and political decline, pushed into a deepening spiral by the political right and its corporate bosses, limits US influence despite the fact that we still have far more weapons of war than all other nations combined. Ending wars and keeping out of new ones is the imperative for any improvement in the lives and fortunes of most Americans. It would also be the biggest boon to worldwide aspirations for peace and democracy. That’s the big picture, the goal that shouldn’t be compromised in Libya or anywhere else.