If he were still alive, I would want to ask Karl Marx a question about his clever, but enigmatic old saw that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
Dr. Marx’s phrase comes to mind as I read the reaction of the news media to the naming of the members of the Congressional debt panel charged with addressing our self-inflicted fiscal wounds. Self-inflicted, because the primary cause of the growing federal debt is a conscious policy to keep taxes at historically low rates for the wealthy. (We could also label the secondary cause—spending for two foolish, goalless wars—as another self-inflicted wound.)
My question for Dr. Marx is, What about if it’s a farce the first time?
The original farce was the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, put together by President Obama to balance the budget. Like the new debt panel, the National Commission membership comprised ultra-Conservatives or establishment types who tended to look rightward from a centrist position. And like the new debt panel, many members had a long record of advocating political actions that take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy.
The National Debt Commission farce ended last November, when it published its report, which advocated a number of tax moves having nothing to do with balancing the budget but which would have lowered taxes on the wealthy while raising taxes on everyone else. The report also advocated draconian cuts to most programs that create jobs or help the poor, elderly, young and disadvantaged. The final clownish pratfall of the report was the realization that if we followed every suggestion, the rich might be richer and everyone else a whole lot poorer, but we would still have a deficit!
If the first time is a farce, is the second time tragedy? Of course, we could go from farce to “gross-out film,” which is a farce heavily dependent on jokes about bodily functions. Or perhaps, we’ll repeat the “Perils-of-Pauline” cliffhanger of the recent debate on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling? Or maybe a quiet Chekhovian drama in which nothing seems ever to happen. I can only imagine Pat Toomey, Jon Kyl and Jeb Hensarling sitting around the parlor sewing and moaning in despair over the loss of the temporary tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 as if it were the family cherry orchard.
All discussions of genre aside, I think that the debt panel is a bad joke from the start, since it focuses on lowering our debt instead of focusing on fixing our economy and helping the millions of people suffering because of 30 years of a free-market, no-tax regime. The awful punch line of this bad joke is that the very action that will create jobs and lower debt—raising taxes on those who haven’t been paying their fair share—is off the table for so many Republican members of the new debt panel.
The news media is presenting the naming of the debt panel members as if it were the final act of a drama of reconciliation. The central question posed in the coverage in the mainstream news media is, Will people compromise? Most of the stories look for hopeful signs that the members have demonstrated their willingness to compromise in the past, including those in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Arizona Republic and San Francisco Chronicle. The Journal, for example, wrote, “Republican House and Senate leaders named six conservative diehards Wednesday to the new deficit-cutting committee, but the appointees’ histories suggested they might be open to striking a deal with Democrats.” The tone was wary but positive, similar to the calming and reasoned approach affected by financial experts whenever the stock market declines a few hundred points.
Some mainstream mass media, such as the Associated Press and Miami Herald, were more pessimistic. For example, here is a quote from the Associated Press story, the one that most newspapers in small towns and rural areas will use: “Members of both parties said the job of whittling down the government’s enormous debt was urgent, yet critics expressed little hope that the bipartisan panel would be able to overcome stark political divides.”
For the most part, though, the mainstream news media reflects an unwarranted cautious optimism. I see little coming out of the debt panel or other special committees until our elected officials on both sides of the aisle resolve the inherent contradiction that drives their actions: The good of the country and the will of the people tell them to raise taxes and create jobs, but the large corporations and ultra-wealthy that feed their campaigns and provide their incomes after their political careers want them to keep taking more from the poor and middle class to give it to the already well-heeled.