Thursday, February 17, 2011

Life As A Political Abstraction

As a preemptive corrective to populist backlash and as a means of insulating their arguments from the meaning of their arguments, austerity debates maintain an air of constant euphemism. They're entirely open about the presence of debt and a deficit. They're open about their belief that it's a problem that needs to be addressed now - often with apocalyptic undertones. They're open about their solutions primarily involving cuts to education, social safety nets, scientific research, infrastructure and regulation. Why, they're even open about how much will be cut and from what - sometimes with the benefit of figures. It's just simple math, isn't it? If we spend more than we make, we run a deficit. If we have to borrow money to offset spending we can't afford, we're in debt to whomever or whatever we borrow from. We have a fiscal obligation to pay it back with whatever means necessary, as soon as possible - or else we invite economic instability as our creditors lose faith in our ability to compensate them.

And that is exactly how the euphemism works.

I spent an entire paragraph describing a series of problems and solutions that would cause the labor market to implode (resulting in mass job loss), prices to go up (resulting in mass unaffordability), further weaken our already weakened infrastructure/job creation/social safety net and lower our overall standard of living. In this scenario, people would lose their homes, their credit, their basic means of survival, and even the regulations we use to test the viability of our food/water. A solution was outlined that would encompass all of that without ever informing you about the broad, human effects of such proposals; and that's the function of our austerity euphemisms. If this becomes a matter of "responsibly" cutting money, you avoid the discussion about the effects of cutting livelihood.

They shape a reality that doesn't just evade the presence of human repercussion; it goes out of its way to remove the idea that humans are being discussed when we propose defunding the FDA, social security and medicare/medicaid. If we're just numbers and the measures to handle our finances are just numbers, then whatever suffering we endure as a result of their "responsibility" would also just be a number. By divorcing their proposals from the face of what those proposals look like, they evade the very concept of consequence.

It's easier to avoid outraged protests when the people living from inadequate pay check to inadequate paycheck are spoken of in clinical "x out of every x are y" terms, and the reasons for that are simple. It's one thing to watch a mother describe her failure to feed and educate her kids because of newly enacted budgetary measures. But if she becomes a faceless, nameless number - indistinguishable from any other - the empathy elicited from her avoidable plight vanishes, and she becomes just another statistic to forget when you find the next shiny thing. The discussion is as much contingent on erasing the possibility of thinking about economic matters on these terms as it is about persuading you to reach their conclusions.

The human dimension to their solutions isn't to be gravely discussed and contemplated. You're not supposed to measure the morality of starving someone against sitting on an eventual surplus in 5-10 years. You're not supposed to wonder if our obligation to provide shelter for aged American workers outweighs our obligation to pay debt to foreign countries. No. Their first goal is to make pain invisible. Their next is to make it a statistic. After that, it's status quo.

A charitable reading would assume that this is another expression of the class disparity between the aristocratic Washington Beltway culture and broader American culture, and I can see how that's arguable for some of the dimmer, more sycophantic careerists and yes-men. But much as I'd like to attribute this to elitist indifference and ignorance, I can't. There's something painfully deliberate about the perspectives that have become canon in all discussions about American fiscal policy. The push to be "serious" about the budget and to "be the grown up" and "make the tough decisions" is too pervasive. Not simply for what it says about their superficial grasp of economic affairs, but for what they leave almost intentionally unsaid.

You rarely hear that revenue derived from taxes and economic growth (which can come from investment) are also deficit reduction measures (that worked in the Clinton years, no less). In fact, taxes doesn't exist at all for them as a "serious" solution. You never hear about the centrality of health care to the deficit, and how measures to address that with reform are amongst the most revenue-saving solutions attempted. You never hear about the bottom 50% of America owning only 2.5% of the wealth in this country. You don't really see them getting self-righteous about 20% of the country owning a whopping 85% of the wealth. In fact, a tax deal that shifted even more wealth toward the top 1-20% was widely supported by the beltway as a brave, bipartisan compromise (despite drastically increasing the deficit for limited material gain). One can spend hours documenting the incoherence of beltway rhetoric. At least until you understand that when you're talking about "tax cuts for the rich" you're talking about "tax cuts for politicians, their donors, and the media who covers them", and that when they talk about, they're talking about themselves. You can only call them indifferent or ignorant to the implications of their rhetoric if you think they don't know that.

They're activists posing as prophets, and their posture shapes everyone who isn't them into sponges that absorb the hardship of their proposals. The consequences become invisible because it's in their favor to make them that way. As long as they can avoid being counted amongst those who feel the burn caused by their fire, they can always go to someone else's neighborhood and have a teary-eyed interview with a homeless person before winding down for a hot bath in their mansion after work. The tonal and rhetorical shift to austerity serves to cleanse all gruesomeness from the reality they advocate. This is what they do. And the power of euphemism transforms the more we allow them to do it.

It evolves from a mechanism to say what they want to say without saying it, to a tool that erases the very thought that dissent is necessary. You think too small when you assume their goal is to manipulate your self interest. Their goal is much more elegant: they want self interest to be utterly foreign to any political interest you have. When you're characterized as figures; as part of a lingering, amorphous unemployment rate or a sympathetically discussed but swiftly glossed over foreclosure rate, or as "living in poverty", you become less than faceless. You become dehumanized. Ignorable. Immune to empathy. And easily forgotten.

As long as we think of "consequences" as something happening to an undefined and indistinct "them" or "other", we can avoid the chilling conclusion that such consequences will eventually extend to encompass us. But just us. As Yglesias insightfully pointed out, the politicians don't just insulate themselves from such a calculus, they make sure that the specific nature of our suffering is just enough to hurt us, but not enough to make us notice immediately. And they make sure their supporters are just as insulated from suffering as the politicians and media themselves are:

But if we are going to cut Social Security benefits, I think it doesn’t make sense to do what the Obama administration has done and make “No current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced” one of the bargaining points.

After all, this isn’t how any other kind of benefit cuts work. When Obama proposes cutting oil and gas subsidies, they propose cutting them right away. When Obama proposes a nominal freeze in federal pay, he’s proposing a real cut right away. When LIHEAP gets the ax, it gets the ax right away. When Arizona cuts Medicaid, people can’t get organ transplants right away.

And on the politics, it’s a mess. Right now we have conservatives simultaneously calling for huge spending cuts and also getting the line’s share of old people’s votes even while the vast majority of non-security spending is on old people. In essence, by first separating the domestic budget into “discretionary” and “entitlement” portions and then dividing the entitlement programs up into “what today’s old people get” versus “what tomorrow’s old people will get” the political class has created a large and vociferously right-wing class of people who are completely immune from the impact of their own calls for fiscal austerity.
Isn't that a daisy?

What we've found in this debate is the ease with which people can demand that others sacrifice for the greater good. All taking place in a system where the nature of that sacrifice is rarely talked about and never seen.

As an aside, I just want to again note that the least regarded, the least discussed, the least understood and the least respected segment of America's electorate is forced - without so much as a say, or a request for an opinion - to act as a crutch for many of the incoming demands for austerity. They're not talking about cutting their own social security in their demands for budget cuts. They're talking about cutting mine. And while the lacking mention of taxes, jobs, economic growth and health care can all be attributed to the force of conservative rhetoric and the media's acceptance of it, it can equally be attributed to the continued marginalization of my generation.

It's common for us to get wide-eyed, passionate mentions as the "future of America" while President's verbally ruffle our hair. Equally common are the vague sentiments expressing the need to invest in us. But the truth is that as long as we don't politically organize and as long as we're seen as electorally negligible, we're the rug that the rest of the country sweeps its dirt under. Something tells me that in a situation where America's overwhelming amounts of youth are organized, tax increases for an upper class that can take them would like slightly better than losing a whole age demographic of voters by slashing any prospect of them getting retirement benefits. Our exclusion from the political levers of authority doesn't simply continue the stagnancy of our institutions, it makes us and our political repression just another story that's successfully erased from America's political consciousness. Doesn't that sound familiar?

Edit: The segue at the end of this essay was a recurring theme for many of last year's posts, such as this one:

We're politically positioned in a way that encourages, forces and creates our political impotence while rhetorically calling it our fault. They've internalized the "out of sight, out of mind" narrative while never wondering why we're out of sight or even recognizing that we are. Wilkinson's position comes from a place of ignorance that's not only fundamental to his exposure, but fundamental to politics generally. Younger voters can be caricatured precisely because they have little control over how they're presented. Politicians and pundits can give disproportionate favoritism and power to older generations without recognizing that as what they're doing, and they can infantilize younger voters because beyond detached studies, it's not an issue they're informed about. And due to the impotence they've fed, it's not an issue they have to be informed about. Who, afterall, is going to react to a group of teenagers, young adults and college-age, inexperienced hippies complaining that someone was unfair to them?
And of course, there's this astute observation from an actual economist:

The answer, once you think about it, is obvious: sacrifice the future. Focus the cuts on programs whose benefits aren’t immediate; basically, eat America’s seed corn. There will be a huge price to pay, eventually — but for now, you can keep the base happy.

If you didn’t understand that logic, you might be puzzled by many items in the House G.O.P. proposal. Why cut a billion dollars from a highly successful program that provides supplemental nutrition to pregnant mothers, infants, and young children? Why cut $648 million from nuclear nonproliferation activities? (One terrorist nuke, assembled from stray ex-Soviet fissile material, can ruin your whole day.) Why cut $578 million from the I.R.S. enforcement budget? (Letting tax cheats run wild doesn’t exactly serve the cause of deficit reduction.)

Once you understand the imperatives Republicans face, however, it all makes sense. By slashing future-oriented programs, they can deliver the instant spending cuts Tea Partiers demand, without imposing too much immediate pain on voters. And as for the future costs — a population damaged by childhood malnutrition, an increased chance of terrorist attacks, a revenue system undermined by widespread tax evasion — well, tomorrow is another day.

Not to criticize Krugman since I wholly agree with this, but these debates - and the observations they produce - are really jarring in their omission of Millennials as active political entities. For us, "tomorrow" isn't some distant abstraction that takes place 10 years before or after we're dead. It's going to metastasize in the prime of our professional lives, and while it's not intentional, the fact that the actual people affected by that - who are alive and who vote - weren't so much as mentioned is a damning indictment to the generational imbalances in our press corps and political cultures. There are obvious details involved that are not at all obvious to these people, and that's because the debate rages by parties who are nominally deemed "adults". We're probably young enough to be the children of a vast majority of the figures talking right now, and it's with that misguided perspective that we're seen.

What they're doing to the poor and elderly potentially affected by these cuts has already been to us. We've been wiped from the conversation unless some rare soul seeks to mention us as a stray side note - and always from an angle that relates exclusively to boomers and their antecedents. "These cuts are for your children and grandchildren" etc, etc. I again emphasize that this is not Krugman's fault, but there's something pernicious about a blindspot that fails to mention us - as liberals often do, or that claims to speak for us and think about us without ever representing anything that we'd do or want - as conservatives often do. It's endemic to the beltway's political culture and not a single person in it - including what few prominent Millennials it has - seems to be saying anything.

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