The Real Significance of the Debt Ceiling Debate

By Dave Cohen


It is mid-July, and the debt ceiling hysteria is peaking. What is the significance of this debate? What is its real meaning for ordinary Americans? These questions can be answered at two different levels, from inside the consensual reality box and from outside that box (and see here).


Why Engage in the Farce?

Although I don’t agree with Dmitry Orlov’s dystopian visions of the near future, he framed the answer from outside the box in this quote:

Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power?


Orlov has hit the nail on the head. The debt ceiling debate is a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those in power. Bill Hicks (a pseudonym, not the dead comedian) described how The Farce typically works in his post America’s Plutocrats are No Different than the Leaders Who Ran the Soviet Union into the Ground.

Social issues are merely a distraction to keep the plebes fighting with one another so they won’t notice that the likes of Lloyd Blankfein are stealing their country right out from under them. The dynamic usually works something like this.

Step 1: Some wingnut commentator says something outrageous, or some far right Republican Congressman introduces an outlandish piece of legislation that has no chance of ever passing.

Step 2: Mainstream liberals and progressives get themselves all in a huff about it—maybe Jon Stewart lampoons the originator on The Daily Show or Keith Olbermann does a Special Comment about it.

Step 3: The overwrought liberal and progressive reaction causes an equal and opposite supportive reaction on Fox News and right wing talk radio.

Step 4: Both sides send out fundraising letters citing the issue and imploring their supporters not to let the other side “win.”

Step 5: Rinse and repeat.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Blankfein and his Wall Street buddies quietly keep writing huge campaign checks to candidates of both parties so that none of them will oppose their agenda, which is continued government support for big business, war and empire. Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter whom you choose. The result is the same either way.

The Farce is Merely Distraction

This is an accurate description of how the game is played. The Farce as distraction is our society’s usual mode of operation. The debt ceiling, the raising of which used to be routine for both political parties, has become The Biggest Farce to come down the pike in quite some time. This makes sense, because the size of The Farce is directly proportional to the size of The Problem from which we must be distracted. Here’s only a small part of The Problem, from The Economist.

As Congress wrangles over spending cuts, surging numbers of Americans are relying on the government just to put food on the table…

Take food stamps… Participation has soared since the recession began (see chart, right). By April it had reached almost 45m, or one in seven Americans. The cost, naturally, has soared too, from $35 billion in 2008 to $65 billion last year.And the Department of Agriculture, which administers the scheme, reckons only two-thirds of those who are eligible have signed up…

Advocates for the poor consider [cuts to food stamps] unconscionable. Food stamps, they argue, are far from lavish. Only those with incomes of 130% of the poverty level or less are eligible for them. The amount each person receives depends on their income, assets and family size, but the average benefit is $133 a month and the maximum, for an individual with no income at all, is $200. Those sums are due to fall soon, when a temporary boost expires. Even the current package is meager. Melissa Nieves, a recipient in New York, says she compares costs at five different supermarkets, assiduously collects coupons, eats mainly cheap, starchy foods, and still runs out of money a week or ten days before the end of the month.

If cuts were made to last year’s $65 billion far-from-lavish food stamps program, millions of Americans will starve. That’s a Big Problem. A problem that big requires a Big Distraction. Hence the debt ceiling farce.

You Are Not a Player in This Game

A second thing to notice is how undemocratic these debt ceiling/spending cuts negotiations are. Part of The Farce says that you are represented in the room where the negotiations take place. You are not. Here’s Paul Krugman, who as usual does not understand the full import of what he’s saying:

A number of commentators seem shocked at how unreasonable Republicans are being. “Has the G.O.P. gone insane?” they ask.

Why, yes, it has. But this isn’t something that just happened, it’s the culmination of a process that has been going on for decades. Anyone surprised by the extremism and irresponsibility now on display either hasn’t been paying attention, or has been deliberately turning a blind eye…

Let’s talk for a minute about what Republican leaders are rejecting.

President Obama has made it clear that he’s willing to sign on to a deficit-reduction deal that consists overwhelmingly of spending cuts, and includes draconian cuts in key social programs, up to and including a rise in the age of Medicare eligibility. These are extraordinary concessions. As The Times’s Nate Silver points out, the president has offered deals that are far to the right of what the average American voter prefers — in fact, if anything, they’re a bit to the right of what the average Republican voter prefers!

Yet Republicans are saying no.

Hang on! Did you catch that? The President, representing the Democrats, has made concessions far beyond what the average American voter prefers, even the average Republican voter. And Republicans have rejected it! If you doubt the peremptory, oligarchic nature of this process, I want you to be explicit—who exactly in the room pictured above represents your interests? No one does, and Krugman just unwittingly demonstrated it.

Polls and Elections are Part of the Farce

It’s an important part of The Farce that pollsters ask ordinary Americans what they think ought to be done. Unfortunately, nobody in Washington is obliged to care about what the voters think, for all such election issues will be resolved by a TV propaganda blitz the likes of which has never before been seen on this planet. The blitz will come later, in 2012. It will cost billions of dollars.

And just think, you’re going to get another chance to vote for The Hope And The Change next year. What an awesome prospect! Pretty exciting, isn’t it?

Paul Krugman, who is firmly ensconced inside the box, is playing out his crucial role in The Farce by labeling the Republicans as recalcitrant beyond all reason, and therefore insane. Krugman’s hysteria—he must be passionate about The Farce—and that of many, many others (like Salon’s Andrew Leonard or liberal economist James Galbraith) is required to make the distraction seem real.

It seems clear that the Powers That Be have decided that government must shrink, that the size of the public debt is inimical to their interests. You can watch it happen, but never, ever think even for a moment that you have a hand in the decisions to be made. You don’t. Why would you want to play a puppet’s role in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those in power?

The debt ceiling distraction will blow over in a few weeks. But it will be necessary to invent even bigger phony debates in the future to prevent you from (to paraphrase George Carlin) “sitting around the kitchen table figuring out how badly you’re getting fucked by a system that threw you overboard 30 fucking years ago.”

The Farce is always with us. Or we might say may the Farce be with you

That’s the real significance of the debt ceiling debate. Φ

Dave Cohen writes a blog called “Decline of the Empire.”


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