Political Culture: Greetings, Fellow Hostages!

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

President Obama may have given up the store on tax cuts this week, but at least he coined a useful metaphor in the process. Still, is it the GOP holding the recovery hostage, or is it their corporate sponsors?

For an unreconstructed liberal (now redefined as “socialist”) like myself, it’s been difficult watching the Republican bullshit machine steamroll once again into Washington, firing pistols into the ground like Yosemite Sam and making all kinds of noise about “listening to the American people” as they give away the store to millionaires and billionaires. It’s been even more difficult watching President Obama begin his makeover from “transformative figure” into Bill Clinton, capitulating quickly to GOP demands that those millionaires keep their tax cuts before they’ll even consider any other legislation during this lame-duck session – legislation they’re sure to filibuster in the Senate anyway.

At least Obama got in one nice shot as he bent over earlier this week. “I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed; then people will question the wisdom of that strategy,” Obama said on Monday. “In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”

Rough language – for a Democrat. It’s a nice metaphor, though, and it perfectly suits an opposition party that has the audacity to say, “Because we’re so concerned about the nation’s debts, we have no choice but to deny America’s millions of long-term unemployed their last scrap of subsistence-level aid … unless, of course, we’re allowed to bust the budget and keep the Bush tax cuts for people making over $1 million a year.”

Obama was right to make this shitty deal, as a matter of politics if not policy. I hate the fact that his cave-in might lend new credence to the already-discredited fallacy that trickle-down economics are a viable salve for tough times. But I believe in the art of compromise. And even though Republicans have spent two years pissing all over that art, if I can demand (pointlessly) that they do it, then I mustn’t complain (too much) when Obama does it as well. Moreover, Obama calculated, correctly, that the lackluster economy has robbed Democrats of the ability to compete intelligently with the streams of bluster and trickeration emanating from the GOP.

In the current climate, there’s no way Dems would win the argument that letting all the tax cuts expire, rather than continuing them for millionaires, would be better for the economy – even though they’d be correct. And there’s no way they’d convince Americans that Republicans, through their intransigence, were hurting the middle class by holding their tax cuts and unemployment insurance hostage to the conservative obsession with helping the wealthy. After all, if last month’s election proved anything, it’s that voters haven’t noticed the Teafoxlican knives in their backs; they’ve only noticed that they’re in pain, and that the Democrats haven’t done enough to make them feel better.

Of course, it’s not just right-wing politicians and talk-radio/TV blowhards who have been pushing the nation’s head under the water the past two years – though they’ve been doing an excellent job of it, whether it’s trashing the (insufficient) stimulus, fighting tooth and nail against health-care proposals that were once their own, dunderheadedly denying the expertise of economists and climate scientists, or portraying the pragmatic-to-a-fault Obama as a fascist/socialist/Kenyan/Muslim monster. These morality-free efforts have undermined public confidence and done much to keep the economy down – all in the name of achieving precisely the electoral outcome we got last month.

What concerns me, in the wake of the tax-cut compromise, is that other group of connivers who have swallowed the key to America’s economic handcuffs: the Chamber of Commerce set, and the corporate elites (both executives and shareholders). Over not just the last two years, but the last 10, they have dispensed with the indispensable bond that makes capitalism work – the balance between the people’s financial fortunes and their own. Throughout the 20th century, the status of workers (in terms of wages and standard of living) climbed and plunged in relative concert with the financial health of those for whom they worked. But that link has now been severed: Corporate profits and shareholder earnings have soared since the end of the 2000-01 recession, while workers’ wages have remained flat and barely more than a million jobs have been created (even as the working-age, products-and-services-consuming population has risen many times that number).

Much of that discrepancy, of course, is due to globalization and the advent of cheap, accessible foreign labor. But there’s no denying that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs have been eliminated to serve no higher purpose than the demands of executives and shareholders for ever-higher salaries, stock prices and dividends. One can argue that this is just another step in capitalism’s maturation – that as American companies learn how to maximize profits and maintain production with less manpower … manpower that is increasingly overworked and underpaid, or else outsourced … workers will just have to find another way to keep themselves afloat. One can also argue that there’s nothing government can or should do to intervene in that process.

But those are ugly arguments to make, as far as I’m concerned – particularly when, even as the business elite are handing out pink slips and toasting their profits, they’re also pushing for tax breaks and spending cuts (like those pesky unemployment benefits) and fighting against universal health coverage that might make losing one’s job less catastrophic. I don’t know exactly what government might do to reverse the trend – perhaps lessening the general tax burden on businesses, but making it more costly to reap large profits or dividends without sufficiently re-investing in people and equipment.

Wherever you come down on these arguments, one fact is well-documented: Corporate America and some small businesses currently are sitting on (or distributing to those shareholders) billions of dollars in uninvested profits – and for months now, corporate leaders have been deflecting criticism of their stagnant ways by whining, “We just can’t purchase new equipment or hire new employees, because we don’t know what our tax rate is going to be next year.”

Well, now they know. And now maybe we’ll find out whether their whining was just a dodge, a smokescreen to hide the possibility that they never plan to restore that essential link between the fortunes of the ownership and working classes under capitalism. Unfortunately, because Obama and the Republicans decided to kick the tax can a couple years down the road, rather than deal with it conclusively, it would be no surprise at all to hear a Chamber of Commerce mouthpiece whine during the coming weeks – after it’s too late to undo the compromise, of course — “How can you expect us to spend the next two years adding payroll when we don’t know what our tax situation will be in 2013?”

Should that happen, you can bet that a GOP-led House of Representatives will refuse to lift a finger to force the hand of business leaders who funneled $800 million into last month’s Republican victory. And you can bet that Teafoxlicans, instead of helping to find ways to circumvent business’s obduracy and improve the economy, will spend the next two years insisting that the continued poor employment numbers are all Obama’s fault … in an effort to force a 2012 election result that builds on 2010’s.

“America Held Hostage.” Where’s Ted Koppel when we need him?

A year ago in this space, I spent a couple months fulminating my way through a reading of Ayn Rand’s steaming heap of Objectivist sludge, Atlas Shrugged. In her far-right fantasyland, the federal government’s efforts to regulate commerce creep inexorably (and ridiculously) toward Communism, leading the nation’s manufacturing giants – fed up with the notion that they should care about anyone or anything besides their own achievements and profits – to go on strike in protest. While the industrialists fiddle in their Shangri-la of selfishness, the nation burns, building to a denouement in which an airplane load of magnates look down as the lights go out all across Baghdad New York City. And they celebrate.

Astonishingly, that’s pretty much the situation in which we find ourselves now (minus the Communism — or a respectable John Galt type, for that matter). “See all this cash?” the corporate titans (and their Teafoxlican allies) tease. “Keep our taxes low, and give us everything else we could possibly want – deficits and debt be damned — or we’ll never spend a dime of this money to put Americans back to work.” Obama has already caved to the first demand, and the new Congress won’t even be sworn in for another month.

Watch carefully as the Teafoxlicans now begin pressuring Obama with demands that he act more like that great compromiser Clinton – the same guy they rewarded for his moderation by accusing him of rape and murder, then impeaching him for receiving blow jobs. It’ll be quite the spectacle. Meanwhile, We the Hostages will stay in the corner, angry and fearful, wondering whether we’ll ever find a way out of this predicament. Or at least get a bathroom break.