"The great austerity shell game; Here's how the capitalist scam works: let government borrow for crisis bailouts, then insist cuts pay for them. Guess who loses"
2013-11-04 by Richard Wolff from "theguardian.com" [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/great-austerity-shell-game]:
Center-right governments in Britain and Germany do it. So do the center-left governments in France and Italy. Obama and the Republicans do it, too. They all impose "austerity" programs on their economies as necessary to exit the crisis afflicting them all since 2007. Politicians and economists impose austerity now much as doctors once stuck mustard plasters on the skins of the sick.
Austerity policies presume that the chief economic problems today are government budget deficits that increase national debts. Austerity policies solve those problems mainly by cutting government spending, and secondarily, by limited tax increases. Reducing expenditures while raising revenues does cut governments' deficits and their needs to borrow.
National debts grow less or drop depending on how much each government's expenditures decrease and its taxes increase. Obama's austerity policies during 2013 started 1 January, when he raised payroll taxes on everyone's annual incomes up to $113,700. Then, on 1 March, the "sequester" lowered federal expenditures. Thus, 2013's US deficit will drop sharply from 2012's.
Obama will likely impose more austerity: cutting social security and Medicare benefits to compromise with Republicans. Similarly, European governments maintain their "austerity" programs. Even France's government, officially "anti-austerity" and "socialist", has a new budget with typical austerity cuts in social expenditures.
The accumulated evidence shows that austerity programs usually make economic downturns worse. Why, then, do they remain the preferred policy for most capitalist governments?
When capitalist economies crash, most capitalists request – and governments provide – credit market bailouts and economic stimuli. However, corporations and the rich oppose new taxes on them to pay for stimulus and bailout programs. They insist, instead, that governments should borrow the necessary funds. Since 2007, capitalist governments everywhere borrowed massively for those costly programs. They thus ran large budget deficits and their national debts soared.
Heavy borrowing was thus capitalists' preferred first policy to deal with their system's latest crisis. It served them well.
Borrowing paid for government rescues of banks, other financial companies, and selected other major corporations. Borrowing enabled stimulus expenditures that revived demand for goods and services. Borrowing enabled government outlays on unemployment compensation, food stamps, and other offsets to crisis-induced suffering.
In these ways, borrowing helped reduce the criticism, resentment, anger, and anti-system tendencies among those fired from jobs, evicted from homes, deprived of job security and benefits, etc. Government borrowing had these positive results for capitalists – while saving them from paying taxes to get those results.
Nor is that all. Corporations and the rich used the money they saved by keeping governments from taxing them to provide the huge loans governments therefore needed. Middle- and lower-income people could lend little if anything to their governments. Corporations and the rich, in effect, substituted loans to the government instead of paying more in taxes. For those loans, governments must pay interest and eventually repay them.
Government borrowing rewards corporations and the rich quite nicely. It amounts to a very sweet deal for capitalists.
Yet, that sweet deal raises a new problem. Where will governments find funds, first, to pay interest on all the borrowing, and second, to pay back the lenders? Corporations and the rich worry that they might still be taxed to provide those funds. They are determined to avoid such taxes – just as they avoided being taxed to pay for stimulus and bailout programs in the first place.
Austerity is thus capitalists' preferred second policy, a second way to avoid higher taxes as governments struggle with economic crises. Corporations and the rich promote austerity by loudly insisting that today's key economic problems are not unemployment, lost job security and benefits, home foreclosures, and record-breaking inequalities of income and wealth. Rather, the key problems are government deficits and rising national debt. They must be cut.
To do that, taxes should be raised modestly or not at all (to avoid "hurting" the economy). The key solution is thus to cut government outlays on jobs, social benefits, and providing social services. Money saved by those cuts should be used instead to pay interest on the national debt and reduce it.
Capitalism's way of dealing with its recurring crises is thus a remarkable two-step hustle. In step one, massive borrowing funds stimulus and bailout programs. In step two, austerity pays for the borrowing.
This hustle shifts most of the costs of capitalist crises onto the backs of middle- and lower-income people. The shift occurs through the higher unemployment, lower wages, and reduced government services achieved by austerity programs. It occurs as well in the sustained minimization of tax increases – especially on corporations and the rich.
With few exceptions, major political parties everywhere have imposed capitalism's two-step hustle. Only when mass opposition from middle- and lower-income people is sufficiently organized to possibly threaten capitalism itself do capitalists waver and split over borrowing and austerity. Some capitalists then collaborate with that opposition to support "New Deals", instead of austerity.
Even then, once past the immediate crisis, capitalists revert to their preferred policies of borrowing and austerity. US history from 1929 to the present teaches that lesson well.
Capitalists know their system is unstable. They have never yet prevented recurring crises. They rely instead on policies to "manage" them. The two-step hustle – borrowing for stimulus and bailouts and then austerity – usually does the job. Keynesians promote the borrowing and then seem surprised, even outraged, when austerity follows.
Corporations and the rich should not have escaped taxation in the first place because they helped to cause the crisis; they enriched themselves the most in the decades before the crisis; and they can best afford to pay to overcome the crisis. Had they been taxed to pay for stimulus and bailout, no need would have arisen for borrowing or austerity.
Taxing corporations and the rich would have consequences too, but they would generate far fewer social costs and fall mostly on those best able to cope with them.
But any organized opposition strong enough to make corporations and the rich pay for capitalism's crises would likely also question capitalism itself. Emerging from nearly six years of crisis, the question "can't we do better than capitalism?" pushes forward, demanding discussion, debate, and democratic decision.
"US Republicans make the poor pay to balance the budget; The impetus to cut food stamps is ideological not fiscal, and low-wages mean work provides no guarantee against hunger"
2013-11-03 by Gary Younge from "The Guardian" [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/us-republicans-make-poor-pay-budget]:
During a discussion at the University of Michigan in 2010, the billionaire vice-chairman of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway firm, Charles Munger, was asked whether the government should have bailed out homeowners rather than banks. "You've got it exactly wrong," he said. "There's danger in just shovelling out money to people who say, 'My life is a little harder than it used to be.' At a certain place you've got to say to the people, 'Suck it in and cope, buddy. Suck it in and cope.'"
But banks, he insisted, need our help. It turns out that moral hazard – the notion that those who know the costs of their failure will be borne by others will become increasingly reckless – only really applies to the working poor.
"You should thank God" for bank bailouts, Munger told his audience. "Now, if you talk about bailouts for everybody else, there comes a place where if you just start bailing out all the individuals instead of telling them to adapt, the culture dies."
In the five years since the financial crisis took hold, people have been sucking it in by the lungful and discovering how pitiful a coping strategy that is. In Michigan, the state where Munger spoke, black male life expectancy is lower than male life expectancy in Uzbekistan; in Detroit, the closest big city, black infant mortality is on a par with Syria (before the war).
As such, the crisis accelerated an already heinous trend of growing inequalities. Over a period of 18 years, America's white working class – particularly women – have started dying younger. "Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare," wrote Monica Potts in the American Prospect last month. But this was a war on the poor. "Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages and healthy food isn't just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It's killing them."
This particular crisis, however, has also accentuated the contradictions between the claims long made for neoliberalism and the system's ability to deliver on them. The "culture" of capitalism, to which Munger referred, did not die but thrived precisely because it was not forced to adapt, while working people – who kept it afloat through their taxes and now through cuts in public spending – struggle to survive. Given the broad framing of economic struggles in the west exacerbated by the crisis, this reality is neither new nor specific to the US. "Over the past 30 years the workers' take from the pie has shrunk across the globe," explains an editorial in the latest Economist. "The scale and breadth of this squeeze are striking … When growth is sluggish … workers are getting a smaller morsel of a smaller slice of a slow-growing pie."
A few days before the bailout was passed, I quoted Lenin in these pages. He once argued: "The capitalists can always buy themselves out of any crises, as long as they make the workers pay." What has been striking, particularly recently, has been the brazen and callous nature in which these payments have been extorted.
Last Friday, 47 million Americans had their food stamp benefits cut. These provide assistance to those who lack sufficient money to feed themselves and their families. Individuals lose $11 (£7) a month while a family of four will lose $36. That will save the public purse precious little – bombing Syria would have been far more costly – but will mean a great deal to those affected. "Before the cut, it was kind of an assumption you were going to the food bank anyway," Lance Worth, of Washington state, told the Bellingham Herald. "I guess I'm just going to go $20 hungrier – aren't I?"
The cut marks the lapse in stimulus package ushered in four years ago. But while the recession is officially over, the poverty it engendered remains. Government figures show one in seven Americans is food insecure. According to Gallup, in August, one in five said they have, at times during the last year, lacked money to buy food that they or their families needed. Both figures are roughly the same as when Obama was elected. This negligence will now be compounded by mendacity. Republicans propose further swingeing cuts to the food-stamp programme; Democrats suggest smaller cuts. The question is not whether the vulnerable will be hammered, but by how much.
The impetus behind these cuts are not fiscal but ideological. Republicans, in particular, claim the poor have it too easy. "We don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency," claimed former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. "That drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives."
The notion that food "drains the will" while hunger motivates the ambitious would have more currency – not much, but more – if the right wasn't simultaneously doing its utmost to drive down wages to a level where work provides no guarantee against hunger. In last week's paper for the Economic Policy Institute, Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon, revealed the degree to which conservatives have been driving down wages, benefits and protections at a local level after their victory at the 2010 midterms.
He writes: "Four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labour, and 16 imposed new limits on benefits for the unemployed. With the support of the corporate lobbies, states also passed laws stripping workers of overtime rights, repealing or restricting rights to sick leave, and making it harder to sue one's employer for race or sex discrimination."
That's why 40% of households on food stamps have at least one person working. And the states most aggressive in pursuing these policies, Lafer points out, had some of the smallest budget deficits in the country.
Immediately after Obama's election in 2008, his chief of staff to be, Rahm Emanuel, said: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." The crisis didn't go to waste. But it is the right that has seized the opportunity. Not content with balancing the budget on the bellies of the hungry, it is also fattening the coffers of the wealthy on the backs of the poor.