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Starving the Beast

Jonathan Judd Jan 19

Republicans might not want a government shutdown (it’s bad for Wall Street) but, as December’s tax bill illustrates, they certainly intend to starve the beast by stripping away the last raw sinew of funding that allows the government to function — even at the current feeble and stunted level. Their goal is to bring the country to its pre-New Deal state — a capitalist wilderness, a desperate contest in which only the financially fittest survive.

Economists across the board agree that the tax bill will add over $1.5 trillion (potentially $2 trillion) to the federal deficit and shift the bulk of the tax burden onto the shoulders of the poor and working class. Giving millions in tax cuts to the corporate donor class, the tax bill will succeed in sucking the lifeblood from the government and the economy, while ensuring that heirs to billion-dollar fortunes aren’t encumbered by estate taxes.

The massive spike in the deficit, which the Republican bill will soon produce, will necessitate the virtual strip mining of the social safety net — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security among other entitlements will shrivel to a defunct status. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and their cohorts on Capitol Hill are salivating at the possibility of continuing the Reaganite agenda to render the federal government an impotent shell.

The Republican agenda is broadly unpopular amongst the majority of Americans and may even cost them their majority in Congress, yet they carry on. That’s because the GOP holds two allegiances and two allegiances only — to the warped free-market ideology of unfettered capitalism and to the elite donor class that funds their re-election campaigns.

By its very name, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) performs a kind of linguistic deception: Invoking the conservative ideology of trickle-down economics by sandwiching “tax cuts” next to “jobs” is a tidy bit of propagandistic manipulation. The Reaganite ideology that tax cuts for the wealthy precipitates a downward movement of wealth to the masses has been categorically proven false since the 1980s. Republicans have taken this model even further by claiming that the bill cuts taxes for all Americans (it does not) and that trickle-down economics will not only redistribute wealth but also create jobs (it will not). There is no incentive for corporations to use the millions they accrue from the tax cuts for anything other than larger bonuses for top executives and share buybacks that artificially boost stock prices.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Maine’s Susan Collins strategically held out their endorsements of the bill. Rubio demanded an increase in the child tax credit while Collins attempted to negotiate greater subsidies to stabilize Obamacare in the upcoming spending bill. Both gestures, intended to distance the senators from the bill, were directly followed by conformity to the party line, putting politics before people.

The bill’s cruel logic is revealed most saliently in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) comments on the disparity between its benefits for the wealthy and the working class.

“[N]ot having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies,” Grassley told the Des Moines Register.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Credit: John Taylor.

Grassley’s remark is illustrative of the capitalist myth of an undeserving working-class and poor majority that finds itself in its position due purely to inherent moral failings. The myth shifts blame from the larger system to the back of the individual, essentializing class hierarchy by sidestepping the complex effects of the larger socio-economic system that works to disenfranchise the worker. This bait-and-switch is endemic of the larger foundational myths that structure our political realities — the American Dream and the rugged individualism of the Protestant work ethic.

As far back as 1859, Karl Marx parodied this originary myth, noting how it functioned to suppress the reality of economic oppression:

Long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals [Lumpen], spending their substance, and more, in riotous living… Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labor, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves…

By moralizing class disparities, the Republican Party justifies their corporatist agenda and masks the radical reactionary nature of their policies. One only needs to follow the foundational ethos of atomized self-interest, work hard and employ individual agency to seize the opportunity of the American Dream and resulting upward mobility. Those that have built great empires of wealth have done so by their own individual savvy and superiority. They deserve all their earnings and to pass them down to their rightful heirs.

This logic runs throughout the history of the 20th century. Noted by many historians of the inter-war period in America (1918-1941), the post-WWI era was marked by a fervent resurrection of the altar to American business, where businessmen were cast as shamans of wealth and posterity. The corporate tax rate plummeted from the wartime rate of 77 percent down to 25 percent — a reward to corporate and industrial interests that foreshadowed the Great Depression. Though income inequality grew at a staggering rate in the 1920’s and many continued to struggle, it took the stock-market crash and the mass impoverishment of millions to discredit the consecrated altar of business.

Unemployed men queued outside a Depression-era soup kitchen opened in Chicago, Feb., 1931. Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Even in the ‘Red Decade’ of the 1930’s, when socialism and communism rose to the fore as real alternatives to the status quo, Americans continued to equate economic failings with a personal sense of failure and shame. Oral histories of the Depression provide painful stories of individuals more apt to starve than reach out for assistance and neighbors afraid to help each other for fear of losing the small financial foothold they had. It was only after years of devastation that the nation’s working and middle classes rallied behind a larger understanding of their misfortunes as part of the failings of capitalism.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt reinforced the growing ethos of mutual aid, collective welfare and solidarity that grew out of this understanding. As he put it in 1933: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

With a massive wave of reforms passed under Roosevelt, Americans were given a greater sense of stability against the titanic forces of scarcity brought on by the Depression. Roosevelt policies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Glass-Steagall banking bill and massive spending campaigns for a national infrastructural overhaul allowed the country to recover. Social security, part of the larger social safety net Roosevelt erected during this period, granted the elderly the opportunity to retire with financial confidence, opening up the workforce to younger generations.

The Republicans have sought to discredit and dismantle this social safety net since its inception.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the first major step towards the completion of the long Republican struggle to obliterate the small slice of economic security promised by the New Deal. With President Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, an attack on the New Deal legacy fair was launched in earnest. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan told the American people, rejecting government as a democratic vehicle and embracing the radical individualism that has come to undergird the neo-liberal agenda.

It was and still remains the success of the few and the aspirations of the many that allows for the continuation of trickle-down economics.

As the tax bill goes into effect the middle-class and independent contractors will be thrown breadcrumbs. These small gains will work to disguise the broader reality of a corporate welfare system grinding into place for the long term. The burden will fall to the working class to fund the emaciated form of an American government in decline.

Republicans will continue to beat their drum of social Darwinism and moral scapegoating, insisting that no one is entitled to the simple securities of health, disability or unemployment insurance — tearing at the social safety net, thread by thread. It will be up to a popular resistance movement based on an ethos collective solidarity to rise up and defeat them.  

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Photo credit (top): Jomar Thomas.