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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/28/13

The ABCs of Sequester with William Rivers Pitt

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My guest today is author, political activist, Truthout editor and columnist, William Rivers Pitt. Welcome to OpEdNews, Will. This week, you wrote "The "Fix' is In: Laying Bare Some Sequester Lies" .  With the sequester due to kick in shortly, this is a golden opportunity to bring our readers up to speed. Let's begin at the beginning. What is this much ballyhooed sequester? 
William Rivers Pitt
William Rivers Pitt
(Image by Michael Nashawaty)
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To put it bluntly, the sequester was created to engender the heightened sense of urgency one feels when someone is holding a gun to your head.

It was determined that $4 trillion in deficit reduction is required to get the nation's economic house in order. Through a series of quasi-apocalyptic showdowns - the recent "fiscal cliff" farce was one such - the president and Congress have managed to reduce the deficit by $2.5 trillion through a series of spending cuts and tax increases on wealthier Americans. In order to cross the $4 trillion finish line, however, the sequester was created as a kind of doomsday device: an automatic $1.25 trillion in deep, traumatizing cuts to the military, and to social programs across the board, would take place if the $4 trillion goal was not met by March 1st. The argument for creating the sequester was simple: the looming cuts are so deep, and apply to so many different areas beloved across the ideological spectrum, that no one in Washington would allow it to happen, and would be forced to do a deal.

The reality of modern American politics, however, has brought us to the brink of this self-inflicted doomsday. The GOP, controlled in large part by the Tea Party majority in the House and by dead-enders like Sen. Mitch McConnell, would rather see these cuts take place than accept the creation of new tax revenues. The idea that "Government is bad and must be destroyed" has become part of the DNA of the Republican Party, and so they are prepared to cut off the nation's nose to spite its face. Whether this is smart politics on their part or mass political suicide has yet to be determined, but every available metric shows the president and the Democrats holding a far stronger hand, and as the sequester approaches, the stresses within a deeply divided GOP are becoming more and more evident. The clock runs out on Friday, and unless the GOP has a Come-To-Jesus moment in the next 48 hours, the sequester cuts will take place, and all kinds of Hell will soon after break loose.

The specific impact of the sequester on my home state of Massachusetts: nearly $14 million in cuts to primary and secondary education, with an additional $13 million in cuts to school programs for disabled children; more than a thousand children will be thrown out of Head Start programs; more than $4 million in cuts to environmental protection programs; $300,000 in cuts to law enforcement and crime prevention; almost $800,000 in cuts to employment search and placement programs; more than $600,000 in cuts to public health programs that protect the public from infectious diseases and natural disasters; $535,000 in cuts to programs that provide meals for senior citizens; and 7,000 civilian Department of Defense employees will be furloughed with no pay.

That's one state out of fifty. The cuts will be felt most dramatically in urban areas, and areas with a high military presence. Interesting side-fact: rural areas will not feel the impact of the sequester cuts for a long time, so rural-based GOP congresspeople - of which there are a great, great many - are feeling no great pressure to avoid the sequester. That will change rapidly, however, if the nation as a whole sees the GOP as the authors of their sequester misery.

There's a lot to wrap our minds around here, Will. Let me make sure I understand what you're saying. if this is really not what either the president or the Dems want, and is probably not what most people want if they were to understand what it all meant, where is that "far stronger hand" that the Dems supposedly hold? What good is that stronger hand if they don't act on it? And is this just a giant game of Chicken with all of us going over the cliff to "prove" that it was a stupid idea altogether?

It is a generationally important game of chicken, and the president is using his strong hand by playing it. We are dealing here with phenomenally unreasonable people in the House GOP. If they get what they want, it will be the end of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and virtually the whole New Deal. In its place will be vast, permanent cuts to vital social services, along with massive tax breaks for the wealthy.

Blaming the president for this is an absurdity. House Speaker Boehner concocted the sequester idea with the specific intention of forcing the White House to accept the annihilation of the social contract. The president is not going along and will allow these cuts in the short term to save what is most important in the long term. This is what happens when you are forced to negotiate with crazy people.

The GOP will fold, and may well destroy itself in the process.

With the economy and employment less than robust, how has the military been able to keep various boondoggle projects going for years? We're talking about big money, too.

The B-2 bomber is made in all 50 states. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which doesn't work, which nobody wants, and which costs $400 billion, is made in 42 states. This is deliberate; 42 states where these things get made gets you 84 votes in the Senate to appropriate the money. These boondoggle projects get funded because they are spread out all over the country, and are in essence jobs programs for people in those states. Senators and House members vote for them so they don't get accused of being job-killers...oh, and because the defense industry throws money at Congress like frat boys at a strip club, thanks to the institutionalized system of broad-daylight bribery we call the "campaign financing" system.

Clever strategy, actually. So, how does anyone ever get the upper hand with the military establishment? It looks like the deck is stacked against the taxpayers, wherever we may live.

It is, and will be for the foreseeable future. Add to all this the sad fact that military spending has replaced things like manufacturing as an underpinning of the economy; a couple of months ago, a small, temporary cut in military spending had a measurable impact on overall economic numbers. Gaining the upper hand? Well, some will argue that Mr. Obama wants to cut military spending, which is why he nominated former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel to be Defense Secretary; Hagel is a Republican who also wants to cut military spending, so he was nominated under the theory that "only Nixon can go to China," i.e. only a Republican can get away with proposing deep cuts to the "defense" budget.

Whatever all that turns out to be, the simple fact of the matter is that the "defense" gravy train has been running since World War II. The Cold War was a cash cow for military contractors that lasted until the Berlin Wall fell, Vietnam was a 25-year payday for military contractors, and both established the "defense" lobby as the biggest monster on the block next to the oil lobby...and just when it looked like we were approaching a level of fiscal sanity after President Clinton managed to create a budget surplus, along came George W. Bush, who used two tax cuts and two long wars (also known as "paydays for military contractors") to deliver all that money to his friends.

A small number of people have gotten very very very very very very rich off the fact that the United States has been fighting a war or preparing to fight a war every single day since the attack on Pearl Harbor. The dollar amounts involved are absolutely astronomical, and the muscle they have in Washington DC is massive after 70+ years of profiteering. Overcoming that advantage will take strong, steady pressures over a long period of time. There are many signs, however, that the American people are hip to the scam. Just because the DC insiders in the "mainstream" news media never mention cuts to military spending doesn't mean the folks back home aren't thinking about it long and hard. They are, as many surveys and polls have clearly indicated.

Even President Eisenhower only cautioned about the danger of the military industrial complex when he was safely on his way out of office. Let's talk about the "mainstream" corporate media that doesn't touch all kinds of topics with any degree of seriousness, if at all. What used to be the watchdog for democracy has morphed into a lapdog for the corporatocracy. How can the public fight back against a system which does not acknowledge anyone who doesn't have a large lobbying budget?  Especially if we're being kept in the dark in the process. Why won't journalists just do their job?

The website for the Columbia Journalism Review has a database feature titled "Who Owns What" that details which corporations own what media outlets. There are many outlets, and few owners. Journalism, after this consolidation, has become an exercise in what isn't said instead of what is said; the omission of military spending in our national "discussion" of budget priorities is one of many areas where real conversation is derailed by the deliberate narrowing of the conversational framework.

Want to fight back against the system? Support organizations like Truthout, like OpEdNews, support the alternative news media, which is where the real journalism in America is being practiced. Fifteen years ago, we were struggling to be heard; today, the alt-media has real power and real reach, and that is only going to grow. This is one of the few things that gives me real, genuine hope for this demented 21st century. The alt-media isn't just a flash in the pan. It's as real as the internet, and is growing every day. Read it, use it, spread it, support it.

Thanks for the plug, Will!  So, where does this leave us? I get that the sequester was a political ploy. It became a means to an end. But what about the whole fiscal cliff concept?  Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, among others, think of it as a beltway construct that doesn't reflect reality.  So, if both the sequester and the fiscal cliff are artificial at their core, why do they still have the power to screw the 99% over so badly? And is the only question whether the safety net we've come to depend on will be dismantled slowly or all at once? And how can we not see this as a clear victory for all the Republicans who favor privatization and profitization?

One thing you have to understand about the last few years is the unprecedented nature of the right-wing obstructionism going on. GOP voters have been sending people to Congress for several years now who, quite literally, consider it their mission to destroy the government - if not outright, then for all practical purposes in terms of how government can serve the citizenry. They voted against disaster relief money after Hurricane Sandy, even though a whole pile of them are from districts that got all kinds of aid money after Katrina. They held hostage the full faith and credit of the United States - an act of utter madness that bottomed out the economy for half a year - because they think old people get too much money from the "entitlement" programs they've been paying into their whole lives.

Yes, things like the fiscal cliff and the sequester are nonsense concepts that don't represent reality. This is the kind of crap that happens when you have hostage-takers in positions of great power, dead-ender zealot absolutists who think Jesus is a supply-side capitalist and that poor people are poor because they are lazy. They represent the triumph of anti-intellectualism in America, they are incredibly dangerous, and they have the power to screw the 99% because ours is a representative government, and enough voters out there believe in that kind of crap to elect these people to office.

I am not interested in dealing with anyone who thinks this fight is already over, who think the end of the New Deal will come sooner or later definitely and for sure. That is defeatist "Why bother?" nonsense to me, and anyone who espouses it has already given up, and is therefore an impediment to progress. Describing the current situation as a victory for Republicans misses the point entirely: this is a moment of brinksmanship upon which much depends. If the president and the Democrats blink and give these GOP bombthrowers what they want, the grim reality you describe will indeed be upon us. But if they hold the line on these vital issues, it is entirely possible the disparate wings of the GOP will eat each other in a public immolation that will light up the sky...and then we have a good chance at ending the GOP majority in the House, after which we can start putting the country back together for real.

But one thing at a time.

Good point, Will. You were press secretary for Dennis Kucinich when he made his presidential run. How different might things be if he were president? Or, would we still be stuck because of the GOP extremists?

That's a big question, because you're asking me to figure out an alternate history. I can say this much for sure: if Dennis Kucinich had won in 2004, we would not be sitting here in 2013 dealing with the Koch Brothers concoction called the "Tea Party." Understand this, and understand it well: the "Tea Party" is the GOP base with a coat of very white paint slapped over it. It was created in an orgy of racist outrage over the election of an African American to the highest office in the land, and tapped that deep vein of American racism to make something very old look new.

If Rep. Kucinich had won in 2004 and immediately proposed stripping down every American weapon of war into scrap metal, he still would not have earned the insanely furious response from the right that Mr. Obama has gotten since first being elected...because Rep. Kucinich is a White male, and however liberal his policies might have been, he would not have offended the White male base of the GOP by his very existence the way Mr. Obama does merely by breathing. The subterranean lava of racism in America spewed through the crust of the Earth when Obama was elected, and has been the elephant in the room every day since. Whatever else may have happened had Kucinich won, that eruption would not have taken place.

Interesting perspective.  In our goal of educating our readers on the sequester, what have we left out, Will?

About the sequester? That it is just another part of the wider con game being played to make it seem as if the American economy is anything other than a sham. Without military spending at or near the level it currently stands, the economy will collapse like a dying star. This is because many years ago, powerful rich businesspeople who hated unions destroyed America's manufacturing base, the natural home of unions and the source from which all union power flowed. As our manufacturing base shrank, our weapons-making base grew larger and larger, and is now holding the economy together with both hands and barbed wire.

America is not broke. 53 cents of every dollar collected in taxes goes to the "defense" industry (link: ). The economy is addicted to this spending, in the absence of anything to replace it. In order to fix this in the long term, that spending must be funneled elsewhere, and always with the fact in mind that cuts in military spending actually do translate into lost jobs in all 50 states. We need massive national road and bridge infrastructure repair, the development of alternative energy infrastructure in the manner that Germany has pursued with solar, transnational high speed rail, and so much else...all of this will cost a lot of money, and provide a lot of what we need is a reorganization of our national priorities that allows us to take all that "defense" money and all those "defense" jobs and put them to work making the country we know we can be.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Will. I understand the underlying dynamic a lot better now and hope our readers do, too. Let's do this again soon! 
Thanks to Meryl Ann Butler for technical and moral support.
more articles on the sequester:
George Lakoff, "Why Ultra-Conservatives Like the Sequester"
Jeff Spross, VIEWPOINT: The Debt Everyone Is Freaking Out About Does Not Exist Sequester Impact On States Detailed In New White House Reports

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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