By all indications, the US ruling class of Wall Street financiers is determined to follow Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain down the road to drastic austerity. The financiers of lower Manhattan are thus ignoring the evidence offered by these other countries showing that austerity policies reduce employment, lower production, cause severe mass privation, introduce powerful elements of chaos into society, and actually increase the government budget deficits in future years -- meaning that austerity fails even in its own terms.
Since the 1930s, it has been widely recognized that a policy of deflation with severe cuts in government spending and in expenditures for social services will plunge a country deeper into depression. Once the depression has hit, usually as the result of the collapse of a speculative bubble like the $2 quadrillion derivatives mania of 2000-2008, the private economy shrinks rapidly, leaving government spending as the principal form of economic activity. If the government budget is nevertheless cut, this lowers the overall rate of economic activity; working people paying taxes are turned into recipients of public assistance, and the budget deficit grows rapidly. The classic case is the German government of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning in 1930-32, whose brutal austerity policies shrank the national economy by about 25% over the course of two years, but still could not prevent the German budget deficit from growing.
Despite all this, there is today a consensus between Wall Street and Washington that draconian austerity must be imposed in the United States. This will be the case no matter whether Obama or Romney wins the upcoming election. Romney has been very open about his determination to rule in the name of the top 1% of financiers and oligarchs, while imposing hardships and sacrifices on the rest of the population. Obama is somewhat more discreet, but he also has clearly signaled his desire for a sweeping austerity program to be agreed on by the two major US parties as soon as possible, probably before the end of this year.
Observers have noted that Obama and Biden, in their three debates held so far with their Republican rivals, have never mentioned the traditional Democratic Party platform planks of raising the minimum wage; preserving the funding of the food stamp program (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of the US Department Of Agriculture) which keeps some 50 million Americans alive; maintaining and extending unemployment insurance payments to the jobless; or making it easier for trade unions to organize.
Obama and Biden ignore waitress moms
This failure by Obama and Biden to even mention these concerns of lower middle class working people and the working poor does not represent astute politics. On the one hand, it is true that the Democratic Party has almost entirely lost its earlier base of support among white male workers. But the Democratic Party still has a sizable constituency of working women, often single mothers, who have no college education. These are the so-called “waitress moms,” for whom the economic issues are very important. But the Democratic Party ignores them, since promises of this type might get in the way of delivering the austerity demanded by Wall Street.
Intelligent trade unionists have not forgotten that, when the entire state of Wisconsin was gripped by a de facto general strike against the fascist Governor Walker in February-March 2011, Obama refused to lift a finger to help them. Obama could have sent in Vice President Biden, who pretends to be a populist, to support the strikers. He could have sent Attorney General Eric Holder to frighten the Walker gang with the prospect of federal indictments. He could have sent Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to investigate violations of the labor law. Obama could even have gone to Wisconsin himself, something he had promised to do in his 2000 campaign. But Obama did nothing. Nor did he help unions and other residents in Ohio, who were able to fight off a union busting campaign by their own fascist Governor Kasich, or in Indiana, where a union busting plan largely succeeded, or in Michigan, where the fascist Governor Snyder has kicked out the democratically elected mayors and city councils and replaced them with austerity dictators in cities like Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, and Ecorse, and in the Detroit public schools.
Obama needs the members of trade unions to mobilize in his support during the final phases of his reelection campaign, but he offers nothing in return but killer cuts. When Obama ran for president the first time, he promised to institute a reform known as Card Check, which is simply a way to facilitate the establishment of union representation in workplaces. But Obama never did anything to get this law through Congress, and he has not mentioned it for years.
The ideological atmosphere in Washington, DC is heavily in favor of severe austerity, reflecting the elite consensus. Many news commentators are demanding that Obama implement the recommendations of the so-called Simpson-Bowles Commission, which favored three dollars worth of cuts in entitlements and the social safety net compared to one dollar in increased revenue, with only a tiny fraction of the latter coming from taxes on the super-rich. Former Senator Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chair of this commission, is no humanitarian, but is on record saying he hates senior citizens and also that he hates his own grandchildren, among others. Simpson Bowles is often called the cat food commission, since the entitlement cuts it demands would reduce many elderly people to eating cat food because of their poverty. In the first presidential debate, Obama endorsed the murderous program of Simpson-Bowles.
In the United States Senate, an effort for savage austerity supported by an alliance of both major parties is being mounted by the Gang of Eight, sometimes called the Crapo Commission by its critics in honor of the reactionary Idaho Mormon Senator Mike Crapo who is one of its prominent members. Crapo is joined by Republicans Alexander, Coburn, and Chambliss, plus Democrats Bennett, Warner, Durbin, and Conrad in discussions over how to flay the American people alive.
The essential unifying ideology of the Democratic Party is the defense of the progressive economic reforms of the New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society. Depending on the specific program, polls show that between 65% and 80% of the American people want these social programs preserved in their current form, with no cuts. But Obama and other leaders see the Democratic Party as a confederation of social groups, each of which wants to practice its own brand of identity politics. By pandering to each of these forms of particularism and parochialism, postmodern Democrats like Obama hope to sell out the traditional entitlements and still survive politically. But it is quite possible that a massive betrayal by Obama of his own base on these issues would lead to a permanent weakening of the Democratic Party, conceivably a fatal one.
During the current pre-election phase, Obama is pretending to take a principled position on the coming austerity deal, sometimes referred to as the “Grand Bargain.” According to the Washington Post of October 18, Obama is sending out word to the Congress that he will veto any December-January budget deal that does not contain some tax increase on the rich. This posturing is hollow, for at least three reasons. First, Obama would be more than willing to barter a tiny tax hike on the super-rich for massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare. These cuts would leave the luxuries of the superrich untouched, but would cut deeply into the amenities of the middle class and the necessities of the working poor. Secondly, the Obama White House refused to say whether this veto threat will apply in case Obama loses the election. The implication is that, if he becomes a one term president, Obama will want to secure his place in history - as an austerity enforcer, given his neoliberal mentality -- at the expense of the weakest, oldest, sickest, and most defenseless elements of US society. A third problem is that the cowardly Obama has surrendered so many times that few take his threats seriously now. “Some Republicans, noting that the president has backed off demands for higher taxes twice in the past, are skeptical that he will stand firm now,” commented theWashington Post.
Another group which Obama has sold out is the college students who did so much to put him into the White House in 2008. Two thirds of the US college graduates of 2011 were groaning under student loan debt, with an average of $26,000 per bachelor’s degree student, plus more for advanced degrees, and much more for degrees in law and medicine. The student loan burden has now topped $1 trillion, about as much as consumer and credit card debt. Student loan debt is interfering with the normal process of human life, since the indebted young people are less likely to find apartments of their own, less likely to get married, and less likely to have children.
Because the US government is operating under multiple states of emergency, a real president could easily use the existing provisions of the Defense Production Act to declare a five-year freeze on all payments of interest and principal on these crippling student loans. He could use the same law to impose a 10% ceiling on all interest rates in the United States, thus reviving the usury laws of the pre-Volker era. But Obama is determined to serve Wall Street to the bitter end, even if the financiers are now channeling significantly more money to Romney than to the current tenant of the White House.