Thursday, June 2, 2011

Playing Chicken With the World’s Economy

I’ve watched enough movies and TV to know that usually, when people play chicken, someone winds up driving off the road and into a ditch (or over a cliff), often with severe injuries or even death. Thus, it seems to me that a game of chicken probably isn’t the best way to resolve a dispute over who has the bigger cojones. But a game of chicken is precisely what Congressional Republicans have decided to play with the debt ceiling. The GOP is threatening that it won’t raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats give in to Republican plans to kill (or at least substantially modify) Medicare.

The choice that Democrats have is fairly straightforward. They can vote for a GOP-sponsored massive change to Medicare (framed as an attempt to reduce the deficit, but largely a method of paying for still further massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans) or they can refuse and see if Republicans will really drive the American economy (and maybe even the entire world economy, if some economists are to be believed) into the proverbial ditch (or even off the proverbial cliff). Given the extensive backing of the GOP by large banks and multinational corporations who do not want the economy to crash, it seems highly unlikely that the GOP won’t blink and back off of their position.

Thus, I think that Democrats should stand firm and refuse to agree to changes to Medicare tied to raising the debt ceiling. I think Democrats should be equally firm that they are willing to discuss changes to Medicare, but that those changes should be debated on their own merits and not as a part of the debt ceiling vote. And I think that Democrats should stand firm in their belief that changes in Medicare should not shift burdens to Americans least able to afford them in order to provide tax breaks to the wealthy. Republicans have said that tax increases are off the table; I think that Democrats should be equally firm in stating that everything must be on the table, including entitle reform and tax increases. In the meantime, I think that Democrats should — in fact must — spend their time educating the public on just what the ramifications are if we fail to raise the debt ceiling and precisely what the Republican plan to “reform” Medicare really means.

Republicans rode a wave of anger to victory in November 2010, a wave that was, in large part, a product of lie-based fear-mongering (death panels and government takeover!). Well, perhaps now, it’s time for the Republicans to get a dose of their own medicine, only with truth and facts rather than lies. Joe the Plumber was upset about “wealth distribution” from the rich to the poor; I wonder how he’d feel about wealth distribution from the elderly to the wealthy or from the poorest to the richest?

There is one more analogy that I’d like to draw (though I’m sure that I’ll catch some flack for this analogy and I recognize that some might see it as a violation of my repeatedly expressed disgust over the use of violent rhetoric): Many countries have an expressed policy not to negotiate with terrorists. When a terrorist (or criminal) is holding the detonator for a bomb, we don’t negotiate for fear of encouraging other terrorists to engage in similar behavior. When the terrorist claims that unless some “political prisoners” are released, a building/dam/bridge or airplane will be blown up or a hostage killed, we may look for other ways to resolve the crisis, but we don’t usually release the prisoners. Now think of those prisoners as Medicare reform and, instead of a building, airplane, or hostage think of the world’s economy. Congressional Republicans are holding a detonator and threatening to blow up the economy if they don’t get the changes that they want in Medicare. The question, I suppose, is whether those Congressional Republicans are willing to martyr themselves for their cause? Are they really willing to risk a global financial meltdown, following which the US economy and currency will, most likely, no longer be the base upon which the world’s economic system is built?

And if the Congressional Republicans win what might they demand next time? We won’t raise the debt ceiling unless we get a Constitutional Amendment to ban abortion and gay marriage? We won’t ratify this arms control treaty unless we repeal health care reform? We won’t pass a budget unless President Obama resigns? The politics of high-stakes chicken may lead to some frightening results.

One more point about which I think Rachel Maddow was precisely right earlier this week. Why are Republicans so intent on playing this particular game of chicken at this particular time? Congressional Republicans have voted overwhelmingly in support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan that would gut Medicare and give those tax breaks (10%) to the wealthiest. Not surprisingly, both polling and evidence from constituent town hall meetings have shown Republicans how unpopular this plan is (even among Tea Partiers). So how can Republicans shed themselves of this albatross around their collective necks before the 2012 elections? Simple: Force Democrats to vote in favor of that same plan. If both parties have voted for the plan, then its potency as a political weapon is nullified. The GOP recognizes that they’ve made a very, very unpopular decision and, in order to keep that decision from being used against them in 2012 — quite successfully, in all likelihood — Republicans have decided to play a high-risk game of chicken. If they win, they may be able to keep power in Congress and their wealthy supporters will gain a huge financial windfall; but if they lose (and by lose, I mean take us over the cliff by refusing to back down from their position) then America and the world may be in for a very dark period, indeed.

Call your Members of Congress and tell them that our economy — the world’s economy — is too serious to gamble with; tell them to do what needs to be done now and then to try to have an adult conversation about appropriate long term reforms. But tell them that playing a game of ultra-high-risk chicken with the economy will be met with sharp disapproval in November 2012.

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