SENSELESS CONVERSATIONS SURROUND MAKE-BELIEVE PROBLEM

by E.C. Fish on February 25, 2013

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“The blaaaaaaaaaaame game…
Your fault!
Your fault, your fault, bo bore fault,
Bo-nana fana fo for fault
Fee fi mo more fault
Your fault!”
— not Shirley Ellis

“Who’s to blame when situations deteriorate?
Disgusting things you’d never anticipate?”
— The B-52s

That what has become known, supervillain-fashion, as The Sequester has been the subject of a great deal of hype in no way prevents it from being a major historical event. On March 1, for the first time in American and perhaps world history, a nation will be laid low by an abstract political construct — one designed to be so completely nonsensical as to be insupportable, so as to force the wrong action on a decidedly false premise that has already been rejected by the majority of citizens. This paragon of absurdity was meant to serve as a kind of doomsday device, a legislative weapon that would mean mutually assured destruction to both sides, and thus would force them to play nice lest it go off — in this case, so badly goring the oxen of so many Democratic and Republican constituencies as to presumably bring both parties to the hallowed table on the overblown issue of long-term budget deficits.

Of course, the problem with doomsday weapons is the same as the problem with foolproof schemes: fools. But we’ll get to that in due time. For the moment, as befits a poorly informed reaction to a ridiculous made-up crisis, the national conversation on The Sequester has focused not on the macroeconomically devastating consequences of its meat-cleaver austerity, but on the twin irrelevancies of who is to blame for the situation and how it will affect the unending game of Beltway horse-race politics. Fortunately, as befits such an all-encompassing political clusterfuck, there is plenty of blame to go around, right, left, and center.

First up, our national usual suspects, the Right, whose culpability for the situation is obvious to anyone who considers the origins of this mess. This ridiculous self-inflicted crisis is the result of a game of kick-the-can, played to avert a past ridiculous self-inflicted crisis that was entirely of the Republicans’ making — the vote to raise the debt ceiling back in 2011 — wherein they opportunistically sought to turn the routine business of authorizing the allocation of money they’d already spent into an exercise in political terrorism: do what we say, however unpopular and unsupported by fact, or the full faith and credit of the US government gets it. Both that crisis and this one were designed to further a Republican austerian economic agenda that has both failed in every particular and been rejected by the majority of Americans. Both represent particularly weaselly Republican attempts to give this unpopular and unsupported agenda the force of law by fundamentally undemocratic means. Both were negotiated in what has become the Republicans’ patented brand of bad faith.

For those of us who don’t see the sense in turning all our mental artillery to fighting the last battle, it should be noted that the reason the current crisis continues is down to just that bad faith, carried in this case to ridiculous extremes. Republicans have divided their time equally between bewailing the devastating effects of the required cuts — devastating effects the acknowledged existence of which cut the cold, greasy heart clean out of their economic philosophy — and refusing to consider replacing them with anything other than more devastating cuts, all the while so completely rejecting the explicitly presented plan of the administration as to deny its very existence. Both the dire Republican warnings over the national security threat represented by The Sequester’s military cuts and their unwillingness to compromise any part of their agenda to keep them from happening show that Republicans don’t really give a rat’s ass about national security — just as surely as the Ryan budget, which balances after the year 2040, shows they don’t really give a rat’s ass about balanced budgets, either, and further begs the question of what (beyond the economic interests of the wealthy) they do give a rat’s ass about.

They’re doing this because they think the American people will blame Obama and the Democrats — you know, like they did in 2012 — thus giving them a temporary boost in the Beltway horse race. Because these numbers can’t be right, and hey, so what if they are?

Lest any right-wingers who may have stumbled into this blog by accident think this a typical left-wing hatchet job, I’d like to acknowledge an equally obvious (if not actually equal) share of blame for Obama and the Democrats, while stipulating that they actually represent the Left to a much lesser degree than Republicans represent the Right (as a cursory glance at this eminently sensible document makes painfully clear). While the Republicans are guilty of proceeding on false premises, the Democrats are equally guilty of failing to refute, and indeed of adopting, those premises. While the Republicans are guilty of taking hostages, the Democrats are guilty of paying the ransom and responding with shock when all it got them was a severed ear and an increased ransom demand. And while Republicans voted overwhelmingly for The Sequester and sang its praises when it passed, it was the administration who devised The Sequester as a means of paying that ransom. The Sequester is of a piece with — and perhaps the last piece of — an entire presidential term’s worth of really lousy negotiating on the part of the administration that valued bipartisanship (best understood as “minority approval for policies that are already supported by a large-enough majority of the people and the Congress to pass without them”) and the perception of compromise over empirical truth and sound policy.

In short, if the Republicans are guilty of being bastards, the Democrats are guilty of taking the bastards seriously, well past the point where that had any possible positive outcome. They did this because they thought it might give them an advantage in the Beltway horse race, which seems pretty embarrassing now that they’ve demonstrably won it.

This brings us inexorably to the folks staging that horse race: those members of the Beltway commentariat who owe their reputations and careers to their supposedly Solomonic ability to determine the exact point on the national political baby that allows them to cleave it in twain. Their value-blind devotion to centrism and the “grand bargain” established a standard of false equivalency that has allowed the phony premises that coalesced in The Sequester to continue. In reality, there is no acceptable midpoint between verified data and flat-out nonsense (between, for instance, Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough), and there is no excuse for judging political action on any other basis than its actual effect on actual citizens. Shame on them for building careers by pretending otherwise.

Which brings us to the final dirty culprit: us. This show continues for no other reason than the fact that we continue to buy tickets to it, and these particular emperors continue to strut proudly in their new clothes because so many of us continue to ignore their nakedness. While it is heartening that a majority of Americans strongly support a sensible and balanced alternative to The Sequester, the extremely high threshold Americans seem to have for actually translating that support into action continues to perplex me — in most other countries, we’d be taking to the streets.

Listen: The Sequester — as real as its effects are likely to be — is make-believe, and can be solved with a one-sentence statement of repeal. The longer we spend as spectators to pointless rounds of blame-casting and jockeying for political position, the more likely those effects are to take place. Seriously, folks, this shit has a body count, and we really need to do something besides applaud and boo.

* * * *

E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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