He pointed to a looming federal deficit of $1.2 trillion this year, with more to follow, as urgent reasons to deal with "entitlement spending." Given the hundreds of billions of dollars that the Bush Regime has already given away in its no-strings bailout of selected corporate cronies, and the hundreds of billions that Obama plans to spend on "economic stimulus" (a large portion of which is going to "tax breaks" that will give, at most, a few hundred dollars to people losing their jobs and homes and medical insurance), it is imperative to get government spending under control, said the president-elect. The New York Times described Obama's remarks as an effort to offer "some soothing words to Republicans and the financial markets" – two groups who certainly need special comforting in these trying times.
The Times goes on to tell us helpfully that there is a threat that these "entitlement programs" might "grow so large as to be unsustainable in the long run." This is of course the same argument that George W. Bush made after the 2004 election, when he sought to sell off Social Security to those same "financial markets" that Obama is now trying so assiduously to soothe. No doubt, we will soon see the old scare stories that filled the media then trotted out once again, this time in "progressive" garb. But the truth remains the same: the programs are essentially sound and can be maintained with only relatively small adjustments for many decades, as far as one can reasonably project into the future.
Yet it is here, on "entitlements," that Obama wants to make a "tough stand" on government spending. It will be a "central part" of his entire economic program. Getting "entitlements" under control will be one of the first major campaigns of his administration, he says, promising plans in February, just days after he moves into the White House.
At the same time, he promises to expand – to expand – the multitrillion-dollar war machine that has literally bled the nation dry. He wants to expand a military-industrial-security complex that already devours more money and resources than every other military force on earth combined. He wants more troops, more weapons, an ever-increasing "global strike capability," an escalation of the endless, pointless "War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Pakistan (for starters). He has never said a single word about "curbing government spending" on this vast conglomerate of death and destruction. He has not said a single word about rolling back even a few of American military outposts that in their several hundreds now cover the entire globe. At every point, it seems, government spending on the war machine – including the tens of billions of dollars spent in secret each year on the various tentacles of the "national security" apparatus – will be increased under the Obama administration.
No "cutbacks" here then. No concerns that spending in this area might "grow so large as to be unsustainable in the long run." Spending on death and domination is sacrosanct, the true "third rail of American politics," and Obama is not going to touch it – except to augment it. Instead, he will let the great budget axe fall on what he and political and media establishments are pleased to call "entitlements" – a weasel-word that conjures up images of welfare queens and lazy bums living large and easy, in the belief that the world owes them a living. It is strange how this description of the programs has gained such universal currency. Or rather, it's not strange at all; think how differently we might perceive them – and their recipients – if we spoke of them more straightforwardly, as, say, "old-age pensions," "family support programs," "medical assistance programs," and so on. Instead, the use of such a bland and abstract term distances us from the intent, and the reality, of the programs. They are not helping sick people with medical bills, they aren't supporting a widow or an orphan, or helping a retired couple or an injured worker attempt to live with a modicum of dignity; no, they are just this opaque, abstract thing out there, some kind of political football up in Washington, to be "dealt with," "tackled" and "curbed" by "efficient managers." Nothing human about them at all.
It's true that the United States government is facing a severe and prolonged budget crisis. But what does it say about the underlying moral philosophy of an administration when its first target for budget cuts are programs designed to help ordinary people – including the weakest among us? When it will not cut a penny from a war machine that has only made the nation more and more insecure over the long decades of its ascendancy, involving the American people in an endless series of conflicts in which they have no business, and no genuine national interests at stake? If urgent cuts in government spending are needed, why would you not look first to this gargantuan swamp of waste and corruption and dangerous meddling? Instead, Obama proposes to pour even more money into it, and to increase the dangerous meddling.
The president-elect has made his fundamental priorities clear – for anyone who wants to see them. The war machine and the financial markets will continue to be gorged and comforted in their wonted manner. Programs to help ordinary citizens, programs to enhance the quality of life for individuals and the well-being of society, will be the first – perhaps the only – areas to feel the budget axe. Whatever you may think of the efficacy of such programs, this ordering of priorities -- war and profits over people -- bespeaks the same depraved sensibility that has prevailed for generations in Washington. It is the same old rancid swill in a stylish new container.
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This story was published on January 8, 2009.