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The "Permanent Interests" Budget
The debate over coping with the alleged surplus
What James Madison in the Federalist Papers referred to as the "permanent interests" of societyi.e., property owners, or Veblens "substantial citizens"are doing extremely well in the New World Order. They underwrite elections, so that the two party system is one in which both parties and their candidates must first sell themselves to sets of investors, then worry about getting ordinary folks to vote for them. As Tom Ferguson points out in Golden Rule, where most of the investors substantially agree on a policy or policy complexlike the need for large armed forces, and trickle-down economic policiesthe candidates and parties wont compete, the corporate media will maintain the appropriate silences, and the general public will have no choices on such matters.
On the other hand, with the permanent interests all agreed that the welfare state must be cut back to "empower" poor people, both major parties have competed to "end welfare as we know it" and to deal with the mythical "crisis" of the Social Security system. At the same time, the permanent interests (and thus the main investors in the political system) are hardly bothered by the increasing inequality of income and wealth, the huge luxury excesses of the elite, or the shrinking tax liabilities of business corporations, as they are the beneficiaries. These interests never have enough for themselves: competition presses them ever onward toward increasing profit margins and personal net worth. If this requires supporting political scoundrels and causing misery for large numbers, ideological rationalizations are brought to bear and media normalization and support will follow.
The Mythical Surplus and its Capture
This is all clear in the ongoing debate over the budget and how to cope with the alleged forthcoming "surplus." Just as the Social Security crisis is based on dubious assumptions and extrapolations 32 years away to justify cutbacks in a successful government program benefitting many citizens, so the "surplus" debate rests on questionable assumptions that are being used to fuel another round of the corporate/right-wing attack on the welfare state.
Two-thirds of the next decades projected $2.9 trillion budget surplus will accrue from Social Security tax collections in excess of outlays. Neither political party suggests lowering the payroll tax, which would be a relatively progressive tax cut. Instead, both agree that all or much of this part of the surplus should be used for debt reductionwhich can help alleviate future Social Security tax burdens only insofar as the debt reduction reduces interest rates and thereby stimulates growth. But using the surplus to finance the rebuilding of U.S. schools and other infrastructure and to invest in human capital (education, job training, health, child care, housing) would almost surely increase productivity and growth rates more than any interest rate effects of debt reductions. But this route is not even discussed as it runs counter to the elite consensus that the government must be scaled down, in its civil if not military/police/prison functions.
Aside from the Social Security surplus, it is not generally appreciated that much of the remaining surplus rests on the Clinton-Republican agreement to scale back future discretionary spendingby $129 billion over the next three fiscal years, and by reducing overall discretionary spending from 6.6 percent of GDP in 2000 to 5 percent in 2009 (it was 10.2 percent in 1980). As these figures include "defense" spending, which is already on its way up by two-party consensus, they assume a virtual liquidation of the civil functions of the federal government over the next decade. This degree of cutback is not going to happen; the budget agreement on spending is already being violated. But the pretense of a surplus is being used to justify tax cuts and debt reductions that will put pressure on the civil spending opposed by the permanent interests, just as Reagan used the huge tax cuts of 1981-82 to force spending cutbacks on the ground of threatening deficits.
The Republican party proposes to use up some 80 percent of the "free" (non-Social Security) surplus with a massive ($792 billion) and regressive tax cut, including estate and capital gains tax adjustments, along with a $100 billion direct business tax gift. Much of the press has been critical of the "huge benefits to the rich" (New York Times) and a plan that can "warm the heart of many a Washington lobbyist" (Philadelphia Inquirer), but the media rarely tie the overall Republican proposals to election funding and the Republican party is not denounced as a brazen agent of "special interests." Thus David Rosenbaum notes that tax cuts are important to Republicans because "two main strands of the party, business interests and religious conservatives, agree" on them (NYT, July 19).
If a major party served labor organizations with the crassness of the Republican partys service to "business interests," the media would be hysterical over its capture by a "special interest"recall the editorial indignation of both the New York Times and Washington Post at organized labors lobbying in opposition to NAFTA, and their contrasting complete silence at businesss role in both writing the NAFTA agreement and lobbying on its behalf. When the dominant societal power does the capturing, this is treated as acceptable, especially where the only other major party is trying as hard as it can to be taken prisoner itself.
The Clinton Non-Alternative
The key media trick that lends the system credibility is the portrayal of Clinton and the Democrats as the presumably liberal or even left alternative, who offer a more and perhaps even extravagantly people-oriented option, but who may eventually compromise with the Republicans to yield a "moderate" or "centrist" budget resolution. In this way the people are made to appear to have a real choice, and as the New York Times explains in a sub-head to an article on "Tax-Cut War Games" (August 6), "Voters will have the final word on who was right." Business Week even has Clinton engaging in class warfare in his desire for "vivid campaign issues," in contrast with "moderates" who "want to make policy, not war" ("The Surplus: Is Clinton Torpedoing The New Democrats," August 16).
This is a fraud. Having abandoned his plan to remedy the "two deficits"in people and infrastructureback in 1993, Clinton now pushes U.S. exports, a balanced budget, and higher military spending. "The people" have had to wait for a trickle-down, and the infrastructure deficit has grown in size. Clinton is continuing in the same pattern, which to their political discomfiture puts him very close to the Republicans. Having achieved budget balance he plans on using most of the surplus to reduce the total debtin the alleged interest of protecting Social Security, but partly to fend off Republican efforts to encroach on Social Security surpluses for tax reduction. Clinton also joins the Republicans in tax cutting ($250-300 billion), increasing the military budget even further, and continuing the attrition of the welfare state. Even with its proposed enlargement of Medicare to include payment for prescription drugs, the Clinton budget calls for cuts of $200 billion in non-defense discretionary spending over the next 10 years (while the military budget will be increased by $110 billion).
During his July "poverty tour" Clinton offered his deepest sympathies to the forgotten poor, along with peanuts in cash (less than $1 billion over five years). This follows a $5 billion cut in childrens nutrition and $25 billion from food stamps in 1996. It is paired with a "New Markets Initiative" that features his "innovative approach to community empowerment," which relies on the "enlightened self-interest of the private sector to bring new capital and jobs to communities that the prosperity for the past six years has passed by" (White House Press Release, July 2). Clinton will propose tax incentives to induce business to search for opportunities in these neglected areas, but it is not clear why these are needed when "people who have done well feel a moral obligation to help those who were less fortunate" (Clinton at Pine Ridge, July 7). This is tokenism and hypocrisy, designed to obscure Clintons continuing role in dismantling the safety net.
What Clinton has done once again is to position himself only slightly to the left of the Republicans. By failing to offer an alternative that protects and rehabilitates the public sector and safety net, he helps push the entire political spectrum rightward. His Third Way is the corporate/anti-people way, with minor sops to the majority as he pursues an agenda that does nothing for most of them and harms large numbers.
The Irrelevant Public
It is difficult to establish exactly what the general public wants, but there are compelling indications that neither of the two major parties serves their interests. Only a tiny minority (6, 9, and 11 percent in recent polls) put tax cuts first and a recent poll found that two-thirds believe the rich pay fewer taxes than they should. For years most polls have found that a majority of the public favors spending on public purposes like education, health care, infrastructure, and protecting the weak. But in one CBO estimate, based on Clinton administration budget projections, the shortfall in public investment in education and training, physical capital (schools, bridges, water-sewage facilities, mass transit, and roads), and research and development, will rise from $68 billion in 1998 to $173 billion in 2007. There is no reason to believe that this shortfall and its prospective further enlargement are in accord with public desires and priorities. Furthermore, as noted, Clinton and the Republicans agree on a larger military budget. But except in periods of war and intense war propaganda the general public has wanted smaller military expenditures. In a detailed opinion survey in 1995, Steven Kull found only 7 percent agreeing that the United States "should spend twice as much on arms as its potential enemies combined" (as it does); an "overwhelming majority" opposed the $7 billion addition passed in 1995; and the public wanted military budget cuts and would have supported deep cuts. A 1991 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 84 percent of the respondents favored a spending shift from defense to education.
But the permanent interests want a larger military budget, so thats it, for Clinton as well as the Republicans; and while he assails the Republican proposals for their effects on education, Clintons own planned reduction of non-discretionary spending helps us understand why his own educational spending agenda remains vague. In their proposed use of the budget surplus both parties will continue to weaken the safety net, fail to address areas important to ordinary citizens, and pour resources into the military-industrial complex.
At this historical juncture there is no real political option for the majority of U.S. citizens; there is a greater and not very different lesser evil. Because the difference may still be of some consequence, people who hate both will often choose the lesser evil. But this does not alter the fact that the democratic system is not serving the majority and is a de facto plutocracy. By its virtually unrestrained service to the permanent interests, it is systematically widening every social gap in the countrynotably the overlapping ones of income and race. Z
Edward Herman is professor of Finance, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and the author of numerous books on political economy and the media. In press now is The Myth of The Liberal Media: An Edward Herman Reader (Peter Lang, 1999).