March 25, 2012

The Box, Thinking Outside Thereof

Despite frequent wailing and gnashing of teeth from conservative politicians, I don't think that Social Security and Medicare are really in immediate danger of any wholesale modification. It is true that the current charlatan and talented actor occupying the White House, Barack Obama, has proved more right wing than even most Republicans with respect to Social Security, since reports have it that he has always been willing to "compromise" on this granddaddy of all social welfare programs in the course of "budget" talks with Congress. But that's just Barack being Barack, since he always bends over backwards to please the Republican authority figures in his life (such as the ghost of Ronald Reagan, whom he venerates above all others). I don't think, however, the Republicans are going to take him up on it.

My reasons, naturally, are pretty cynical. Any sort of major curtailment of the two big entitlement programs would, in fairly short order, cause massive numbers of Baby Boomers, and the generation born within, say, ten years of the cutoff Boomer birth year (1964), to ask themselves a gnarly question: just what the hell is the federal government good for then?

The people in Congress, who have very good, well-compensated jobs, especially with respect to their actual skill levels in comparison to people in the country who are genuinely educated and talented, do not want the American voters ever to ask this question. If Medicare and Social Security become so attenuated that they are no longer interesting to the general public, then Congress (and Washington, D.C. generally) are only going to have one excuse for existing: keeping America "safe." Given the general public attitude about all of these nonsensical wars America keeps starting, maintaining, surging and never ending, that won't get the job done. Americans put up with the insanity of imperial wars and the crushing burden of the military-industrial complex because these seem to be the counterweight to the freebies the government hands out in the form of Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, welfare and unemployment. The "transfer payments" among these programs account currently for about 20% of total "income" of the American people; in other words, a full one-fifth of what appears to be "earnings" of the American commoner is actually just recycled money.

Not that the federal government can actually afford all this stuff. Let's look at the current numbers for the fiscal year 2012, which began on October 1, 2011. The first 5 months are now available (October through February) and they tell the usual story. Rounding off (which is reasonable, since much of the accounting is fake anyway), the feds have taken in about $900 billion and have spent $1.5 trillion. Taxes, in other words, continue to furnish about 60% of what the federal government actually spends, and it has been this way for about 5 years. This is not Obama's fault, although the Republicans, of course, try to blame it on him. The real "culprit" is the American economy: it doesn't produce enough to finance the federal government at its current cost, which continues at pre-crisis levels despite the obvious lack of wherewithal to do so.

The problem could be mitigated (but far from solved) by raising taxes on high income earners, but the oligopolic nature of American politics makes this a nonstarter: the wealthy owners of Congress, in other words, are not going to increase their subsistence payments to the commoners. With that 20% income figure noted above, and the 45 million Americans on food stamps, the rich feel as though they've done enough, especially when one considers that the top 20% of all taxpayers are already funding about 2/3rds of all income taxes. Neither party will cut defense for fear of being branded "soft on terror" by the other party, plus it is the MIC which offers the wealthy a return on their investment in the federal government.

It has become fairly obvious that all the new "jobs" being added to the American economy are not the sort of occupations which we traditionally thought of as "real" jobs in the bygone era of American prosperity. Rather, they tend to be temp service jobs which barely move the needle on government revenue and do nothing to improve the labor participation rate, which remains stuck at the same level as ten or fifteen years ago.

This is a picture of a completely dysfunctional system, economically and politically. The Media-Military-Industrial Complex continues to set the agenda concerning (a) what can be talked about and (b) how the issues can be framed, but increasingly this agenda has little or nothing to do with the well-being of the vast majority of American citizens. Since the citizenry cannot think cohesively (that is, as a political force) outside of this frame of reference, the creaky, unwieldy contraption staggers forward under its own momentum, and its fate will be determined by Reality rather than by conscious choice. The political operatives of the Republican and Democratic Parties, the well-connected corporations which benefit from government largesse (Wall Street, the defense industries), and the mass media which control the national conversations (cable news talking heads on Fox and MSNBC, the two big newspapers, TV networks and their Sunday talk shows) will continue to dominate all discourse. Thus, in the fall the American citizens will see their fate as being determined by whether they vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and whether they check the box for a D or an R on the Senate and House ballots. None of these choices will have the slightest effect on the underlying problems described above.

I keep awaiting the visionary genius who can fully elucidate the interplay between human consciousness, electronic media and the anomie of modern life which produces this bizarre, stagnant impotence in the face of impending disaster, but the problem must be even bigger and more complicated than I can imagine, because no one has done it yet.

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