In much the same way as a desperate man will accept employment with poor pay and conditions when no decent options remain available, or sign up for inadequate health insurance after years of having none at all, a citizenry tired of apparent political dysfunction will welcome a rare display of bipartisan accomplishment, even if the result is manifestly awful. Thus, the recent passage of a proper federal budget, not just yet another continuing resolution, has been greeted by most of the mainstream media as a positive note on which to end the year, boding well for a return to “normalcy.” According to Scripps Howard elder statesman Dan Thomasson, whose conventional wisdom is regularly channeled by the Leesburg Daily Commercial, neither side got what it wanted: Congress, albeit acting mostly out of institutional self-interest, recognized the need to grow up, put its petty bickering behind it, and compromised. Like a potential rape victim frantically trying to start her car on a wintry night as her assailant’s ominous footsteps approach, we are filled with immense relief when the engine finally fires. The system works; further government shutdowns have been averted for the medium-term; the United States is not a banana republic after all.
The United States may not be a banana republic, but it is most assuredly a plutocracy. Lost in all the jubilation about appropriations committees being able to resume the function described in college textbooks is any serious questioning of for whom the blessed system works. Shortly after the last exciting episode of budgetary brinksmanship, we asked whether the Constitution had been broken by a Tea Party that seemed to have become a Frankenstein threatening the interests of the owners of America. The most striking aspect of the December budget deal is the firm response the American elite has just delivered to that question. Talk of compromise by the political parties should be replaced by talk of victory for the corporate interests they represent. Or, if we must speak of compromise, it should be within the context of how the interests of the people have been compromised by the designs of their masters.
A Very Merry Christmas to the Military-Industrial Complex
Ever since the Budget Control Act of 2011 raised the meat cleaver of sequestration over the heads of defense and non-defense discretionary spending, we have heard constant warnings about a dangerous “hollowing out” of the military that would reduce our “readiness.” The fact that the United States spends more on its military than its next ten biggest rivals combined was never allowed to impugn the credibility of these cries. Nor did the country engage in any serious conversation about what, exactly, we were supposed to be getting ready for. And now, healthy majorities of both houses of Congress have removed most of the sequestration pressure.
DefenseNews.com reported that the Pentagon would see $31 billion of “relief” from sequestration in 2014 and 2015. But that’s not all:
Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, said last week that “DoD should be ecstatic.”
“They are spared sequester, get budget stability, have all the flexibility they need, and have a holiday stocking stuffer nobody has bothered to mention: $80 billion in overseas contingency funds,” Adams said.
The Senate wasted little time in following the budget deal with an 84 – 15 vote in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act (previously passed by the House), setting core DoD spending at $527 billion for 2014. Even before passage of the NDAA, Loren Thompson, a consultant to defense contractors writing in Forbes, explained why the deal was such good news for the defense sector:
The reason this development is such good news for the defense industry is that the Obama Administration has sought to generate a disproportionate share of Pentagon savings both before the Budget Control Act became law and after by slashing weapons accounts. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicated in congressional testimony earlier this year that if the full $52 billion cut to the president’s request required by budget caps contained in the deficit law was implemented in 2014, his department would reduce technology spending by 15-20%, operations and maintenance spending by 10%, and personnel spending barely at all. Sequestration thus would have continued a shift in the composition of military spending away from investment accounts and into what might be called consumption accounts such as military pay and readiness — with negative consequences for industry results.
Andrew Coburn, writing in the Los Angeles Times, sheds light on how this came to pass:
This has not happened by accident. Commenting on his colleagues from the defense industry, a lobbyist for an unrelated cause remarked to me this week: “You see them everywhere these days. Normally different sectors, like healthcare or banking, will have their own separate fundraisers, so you get the pharmaceuticals lobbyists at healthcare and so on. But lately I’ve been seeing the people from Lockheed, Raytheon and the rest at all of them, and it doesn’t matter whether the money is for Republicans or Democrats. This whole budget debate has really been about getting defense out from under the sequester.“[…]
Defense commentators have hailed the agreement as bringing “clarity” to military planning. They are certainly correct about that. We most certainly can see clearly now who is really in charge.
Cockburn’s observation on the “lopsided” vote in the House is particularly telling: “former contenders for the Republican congressional soul, deficit purists and entitlement hawks, have been crushed.” Equally telling is Speaker Boehner’s sudden discovery of a backbone. After years of appeasing the upstart Tea Party faction that was happy to take the credit for delivering the House to the GOP in 2010, Boehner’s denouncement of such groups as Heritage Action provided another indication that the (most important) owners of America have grown weary of childish games. The casino magnates of Las Vegas have been outgunned in every sense of the word.
The Vain Search for Dissent
To the extent that the mainstream media found something negative to say about the budget deal, the loudest complaint concerned the cut to veterans’ pensions through an erosion of their cost-of-living allowance (COLA). Naturally, this complaint was not expressed in terms of people having to sacrifice in order to pad the profits of corporations; rather, we were treated to yet another dose of support-the-troops patriotism. Without troubling themselves to consider the possible doctrinal inconsistency of calling for more big-government spending, numerous Republican legislators facing re-election in 2014 availed themselves of the opportunity to cast protest votes against the deal on the presumptively popular grounds that our brave troops shouldn’t get the shaft. (Fortunately for them, no similar dilemma presents itself in the case of shafting poor people on food stamps or unemployment benefits. There is nothing patriotic about rewarding people who sit on their front porch all day, is there?) Thus, Senator John Nobody-Can-Ever-Impugn-My-Patriotism McCain (R-Az) acted as bad cop, talking about the magnitude of veterans’ lifetime benefits, while his best-friend-forever Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was freed to play good cop and curry favor with Georgia conservatives by plucking at their warped little heartstrings.
All of this misses a far more interesting opportunity to underscore the completeness of the legislative consensus that makes the United States the glorious military empire all the world knows and loves. At the supposed other end of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who claims to be a socialist, has made a name for himself as a champion of economic equality but has also drawn considerable attention to the magnitude of the country’s military spending. Ron Paul’s website published the speech Sanders gave explaining his recent vote against the NDAA, which included an appropriate (if predictable) invocation of President Eisenhower’s warnings about the folly of directing excessive resources to the military-industrial complex (see video below for Eisenhower’s original), and a more surprising citation of a Cato Institute report that condemned U.S. military spending as excessive (almost as much as the rest of the world combined) and unrelated to actual threats to our security.
But Bernie Sanders has another, less-public face. When viewed against the backdrop of his voting history, Sanders’ vote against the NDAA smacks of a gesture that could easily be afforded (both by himself and the system of which he is a part) given the overwhelming majority in favor. While Sanders lodged his protest against the NDAA, he voted for the Ryan-Murray budget deal, invoking a classic “lesser-of-two-evils” defense. This sort of equivocation, it turns out, is emblematic of Sanders’ behavior, for he has long demonstrated a remarkable propensity to vote in favor of the massive defense spending he now decries. As long-time Vermont critic Ron Jacobs observed back in 2003, even though (then-Representative) Sanders had voted against the resolution granting the Bush Administration authority to use whatever measures it deemed necessary in Iraq, he contradicted himself by voting for the defense-spending bill that made Bush’s adventure possible. Jacobs was not surprised, since Sanders had previously been a staunch supporter of Bill Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo and Yugoslavia in 1999.
Writing in 2011, Professor Thomas Naylor described Sanders as “a technofascist disguised as a liberal, who backs all of President Obama’s nasty little wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.” To support this contention, Naylor notes the unbridled enthusiasm with which Sanders (and Vermont’s other federal legislators) greeted the prospect of the Air Force stationing its ultra-expensive joint-strike fighter, the F-35, at Burlington International Airport. (Ron Jacobs reported recently that this decision has now been finalized, despite much opposition within the state.) Naylor adds that Sanders seems keen on the idea of a drone base being stationed in the Green Mountain State, has “done everything within his power to keep the myth of Islamic terrorism alive,” and consistently curries favor with AIPAC by never condemning Israeli aggression against the Palestinians. Finally, Sanders encouraged the government-owned Sandia National Laboratories to open a satellite laboratory in Vermont. Sandia, as it turns out, is operated under contract by Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of drones and the F-35.
It would seem that when Senator Sanders urges his colleagues to reappraise their priorities, he ought to begin with his own. If Sanders and others who claim to oppose the national-security state could stage a government shutdown a la Ted Cruz, we might be able to take them more seriously (not that Ted Cruz can be taken particularly seriously). But in the American empire, even the theatrics are circumscribed. Sanders’ little speech is as meaningless as the last meal of a death-row inmate.
A Hollowed-Out Country
In order for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) to claim that the deal he reached with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) reduces the long-term budget deficit by some $23 billion, something or, rather, someone, is going to have to pay for the Pentagon’s Christmas present. Andrew Cockburn summarizes the result:
[W]hile some sequestered nondefense cuts have theoretically been restored, federal employees get soaked for higher pension contributions, military veterans (including the wounded) lose part of their projected raises, airline passengers have to fork out higher taxes — a total of $26 billion. Including the “savings” from not extending unemployment benefits ($25 billion), the nondefense sector suffers a net loss of $20 billion.
In a pathetic attempt to maintain his standing within his party, Ryan described the cost imposed on airline passengers as a fee, not a tax. Some of the calmer voices on the right have suggested that this was a tacit admission of the fact that trying to govern without raising revenue has finally been recognized as insane. But it is no more appropriate to celebrate an onset of sanity in Washington than it is to celebrate compromise, at least if one cares about who bears the burden. No meaningful tax loopholes, such as the carried-interest loophole that allows hedge-fund managers to report their earnings as capital gains instead of ordinary income, were closed. Said fund managers have no more reason to fear a financial-transactions tax on their speculation than Pfizer has to fear being required to include its foreign profits in current earnings. However, former homeowners who had their houses foreclosed upon will now have a much harder time excluding cancelled debt from income, thanks to the little-mentioned expiration of the Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act. While it is true that America’s fictitious people did not secure their long-sought corporate tax-holiday on this go-round, they – the great winners in our current dispensation – can easily afford to wait. America’s real people, on the other hand, have no reserves upon which to draw – and a commensurately diminished voice in society’s allocation of costs and benefits.
Interestingly, Ryan and Murray do not seem to have bothered attempting the argument that higher spending on the implements of death will stimulate the economy in any useful way. Their silence is well-advised, for most observers with a passing knowledge of public policy understand that unemployment benefits deliver by far the best bang-for-the-buck in this department, since every dollar is put right back into local economies. Perhaps the thinking here is that having 1.3 million people drop off the unemployment rolls is the quickest and easiest way to report a reduction in unemployment and therefore claim, pace Rick Scott, that “it’s working.” Such logic no doubt makes perfect sense to those who characterize taxes on consumers as “non-tax” revenue. Why waste money rebuilding crumbling, New-Deal-era infrastructure or investing in job-creating, public-works projects when you can simply declare victory and walk away?
Empire Uber Alles
When the U.S. Congress had to produce a budget to prove that it was still a viable institution, the choices it made told the rest of the world what kind of country the United States really is. It is to be hoped that future historians will take note of these choices, made at a time when humanity is hurtling toward a cliff of self-destruction. In the midst of a great extinction event, with species being lost thousands of times faster than the natural background rate; with anthropogenic climate change creating positive-feedback loops that could easily spiral out of control; with the Pacific Ocean being poisoned by radiation from Fukushima’s devastated nuclear power plants; and with the human population still rising toward an utterly unsustainable nine billion, the highest priority of the United States – the self-styled, last, best hope of mankind – was the profitable production of weapons systems designed to inflict death and destruction with maximum efficiency.
When America’s poor wonder where they might be living next week and how they are going to put food on the table, perhaps they can feed their hunger with the immense spiritual satisfaction that comes from knowing that the country they are privileged to call home possesses sufficient firepower to obliterate all life on earth many times over. In this season of good will to all men, they can feel connected to the Holy Land by knowing that Israel will be able to punish evil Palestinians with depleted-uranium munitions developed right here in America. Perhaps, when they go to sleep at night, they will dream of one day being deserving enough to own stock in Northrup Grumman, and reaping the financial rewards of investing in America’s greatness. If they have a little money for Christmas presents for their sons, they will be sure to purchase toy guns, model fighter planes, and combat video games, all the better to prepare the next generation for imperial service, even if the empire will simply use them up and spit them out. And, if they know what’s good for them, they will not question the empire. They will believe in America; they will believe in profits; they will believe in death.
And then they will celebrate the birth of Christ.
An Extract from Eisenhower’s Cross of Iron Speech