And Now: Forgive Us Our Debts!

This post has been updated –Eds.

The president’s re-election and the remarkable Senate gains speak for themselves. Many breathe easier. I do.

I am not here to parse the election result but to say just a word about the Next Big Thing: the coming lame duck session and the “fiscal cliff” and the prospect of a not-so-grand bargain in which Democrats will yield yet more ground to Pete Peterson’s baleful “austerity for you but not for me” proposals. The immensely powerful Peterson machine pushes a dishonest, cunning narrative that has entranced far too many Democrats and that wages vicious war on workers by other means—by paring away all forms of social insurance and by punishing older workers and unionized workers for the sin of still having defined benefit pension plans. Theirs is a program that increasingly normalizes the gross imbalance between wage income and rentier income in the United States. 

If President Obama wishes to honor his pledge to support what remains of the middle class and to ensure dignity in later life for working people, he must resist the enormous pressure he will face—including pressure from elements in his own party—to cut a very bad deal with Boehner, Ryan, Cantor, and McConnell: a deal that will mark the beginning of the end of our signature New Deal-era social insurance programs: Social Security and Medicare. 

A particular danger is that Obama and Congressional Democrats will accept a deal in which the Republicans compromise slightly on marginal tax rates for the top 2 percent in return for Democrats giving too much ground on so-called “entitlements.” Those wily Republicans know how much the White House craves a victory on the high-income tax question; they will try to use that craving to their advantage. They will seek to have their way with Obama by skillfully manipulating the Big Bad Debt to scare the bejeesus out of everyone. 

Big Bad Debt: it’s an unformed threat, a Golem-like creature, that manages to enthrall and intimidate otherwise intelligent people along with the woefully ignorant. Without the assistance of a fear factor, lawmakers would need to admit the obvious: that there are readily-available ways to fix a relatively minor funding challenge facing Social Security, whereas implementation of the Affordable Care Act will soon begin to address Medicare’s problems—many of which relate to fraudulent billing by piratical health care providers. But Peterson and his henchmen don’t want fine-grained practical solutions: they want to repeal the New Deal. 

I could cite the practical and historical reasons why demonizing public debt is demonstrably loony in current circumstances – and I could point to a national economy that has often thrived by strong applications of Keynesian medicine. But if I did that I would clearly reveal myself as out of step with a tea-infused national sentiment. I would also reveal myself as an apostate in relation to a cardinal tenet of Austerity Religion, because  – in the end – the deep loathing of debt shared by so many Americans is a religious loathing. 

The moral reprehensibility of the “national debt crisis” is, of course, extrapolated from what is thought to be the reprehensibility of personal indebtedness. But even the widespread abomination of personal indebtedness is theologically mistaken and ass-backwards. In the revolutionary accounting system we receive from the Hebrew Scriptures, owing money – borrowing of necessity in order to live – does not represent a moral blot for the individual debtor but is rather a moral blot for the creditor who loans the money – and for the society in which so many workers really are forced to borrow. 

On Election Night I could not achieve complete ebullience because I could not stop worrying about the way the Big Bad Debt will now be used to hammer the social contract. I am sickened by the prospect of an agreement on deficit reduction that needlessly mauls our deeply ethical and (at least in the case of Social Security) highly efficient social insurance programs. I am terrified that the super-elites’ Plot Against America will succeed in its devilishness thanks in large part to bad religion’s reinforcement of an antisocial ideology.