Shutting out the progressive agenda

Published : Oct 16, 2013 12:33 IST

Furloughed federal workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the government shutdown, on October 4.

Furloughed federal workers protest outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the government shutdown, on October 4.

IN yet another stand-off between the Republicans and the Democrats, the United States government has been pushed into a partial shutdown, with a range of services withdrawn and 800,000 employees furloughed. At the time of writing, the shutdown had entered its second week and no immediate end to the standoff was in sight. If this continues until October 17, the U.S. government will default on its debt payments, triggering as yet unforeseen consequences. Any default on payments by the U.S. government could lead to a significant sovereign debt downgrade, a fall in bond values and damage to the balance sheets of banks, institutions and high-net-worth individuals holding such debt. That would have economy-wide repercussions, which make the standoff-to-shutdown difficult to understand since none would gain if it continues, and it should not have occurred if it is to end soon.

There are two proximate reasons for the current U.S. predicament. The first is a senseless law that has been in its books for close to a century. Under a rule introduced in 1917, the U.S. Congress has to set an absolute ceiling on federal government borrowing, which only Congress can revise. Since the government’s borrowing requirements inevitably rise with changes in economic circumstances, the ceiling has to be raised periodically. The U.S. government had hit that ceiling by September and needed it revised upwards in order to continue meeting its expenses and servicing its debt.

Under normal circumstances this would have been routine, but for the second reason that led to the shutdown: the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which subverts the majority the Democrats command in the Senate. A large group of Republican representatives, belonging to the extreme-right Tea Party mobilisation, has chosen to use that significant House majority to prevent a vote on raising the debt limit unless the Democrats offer them a concession in return. Having failed in 2010 to prevent the passing of the Affordable Care Act, the health care law which aims to give more widespread and better insurance cover for U.S. citizens, they are now demanding that it be substantially scaled down in terms of government support.

The objections of the Republican Right to the health care system—often termed Obamacare—are part of its larger case for lower taxes, lower public spending and lower deficits. In fact, in 2011, when the last increase in the debt ceiling was due, they converted the debt ceiling discussion into an attack on the government’s “excessive” budget deficit financed with that debt and demanded spending cuts that would reduce the deficit over time. A last-minute deal prevented that standoff from triggering a shutdown. This time around the standoff has not just led to the shutdown, but the issue under dispute appears less substantial.

In fact, the health care law that the Republican Right opposes is only a small step forward in repairing a miserably inadequate health security system. What it does is to insist that an insurance company that wins the bid to be part of the scheme must, for the premiums it charges, insure all those who choose to join, irrespective of their health condition, and continue to do so even if they lose the jobs through which they were earlier insured. Earlier, for example, a sick person found it impossible to get insurance, and those out of jobs found the individual insurance available to them unaffordable.

The change does mean an increase in the number of people in the U.S. below the age of 64 who will be insured and an improvement in the kind of insurance that will be available. But in most States it also means an increase in premium, only a part of which will be met by the State for a section of people. And even at these higher premiums they may not get access to hospitals that offer the best care for a specific illness because those hospitals may not be enrolled in the network signed up by the insurance agency concerned because they are costlier. Moreover, only around 70 per cent of potentially required health services are covered by insurance plans that have a subsidy component.

Fundamentally, Obamacare does not do away with private insurance purchased by the insured. All it does is pave the way for higher premiums for private insurance made affordable for more citizens by providing billions of dollars in subsidies to the private insurance companies. It neither guarantees truly affordable insurance, on the basis of the net premiums actually paid by citizens, to all those eligible, nor does it ensure that the care that the insurance buys is good or better.

Not surprisingly, the progressive demand has been for much more than Obamacare in the form of a single-payer system, or universal medical care paid for by the state and in large measure provided by the state to keep health care costs down. This is seen as achievable for a number of reasons. To start with, single-payer would halve administration costs of the health care system, which is estimated at about 30 per cent of every dollar spent on care. That would save a few hundred billion dollars. And private providers, from doctors to hospitals, inflate their charges under the current system, which in turn leads to higher premiums. A well-managed single-payer system would, it is argued, mean lower cost and higher quality health care for far more people.

There are two reasons why the Right dislikes this. First, it privileges public provision and undermines private insurance. Not surprisingly, huge sums are spent to lobby against the adoption of this system. Second, it could imply higher aggregate spending because it results in larger unrecovered expenditure that either contributes to the deficit or must be financed with taxation. Neither of those options is acceptable to private capital, especially the finance capital that accounts for a large and rising share of corporate profits and election financing. The pressure not to move to a publicly run, single-payer system comes from this section that is influential not just among the Republicans but also among the Democrats.

Thus, Obamacare, which implicitly declared single-payer, publicly guaranteed universal care an impossibility and a patchwork system ridden with flaws and uncertainties as the maximum achievable, reflected the submission of the Obama administration to this section. While the Affordable Care Act is a step forward relative to what prevails, it is a small step that merely helps record the Obama administration’s concern about poor health care. In all probability it will soon emerge that the revised system when implemented does not deliver what the American public expect, that a significant section will still find the system unaffordable, and people will still be bankrupted when accessing unavoidable care. But even that faulty system was opposed before it finally went through. The current opposition to the system, just before its launch, implies that finance capital and the Right that fronts its case have not given up even after having won the main battle.

Suicidal approach Many consider the Tea Party legislator group’s willingness to shut down the government over this matter suicidal since it could result in a loss in popular support. The sight of a government under siege by its own parliament in the world’s most powerful democracy, whose government never tires of preaching good governance to others, is ridiculous enough. But fears of turmoil and job loss because of a standoff over spending a few billion dollars in an economy struggling to recover from a crisis that has lasted for five years must indeed exasperate much of the public, barring the deeply ideological. That the Republicans are conscious of this danger is evident from their willingness to pass piecemeal legislation that relaxes spending in an increasing number of areas. About half of government workers, especially those relating to defence, were back at work within a week of the initial shutdown. Yet, a standoff as ridiculous as the one currently under way was seen as essential.

One reason is that these battles that present extreme views in an extreme fashion help ensure that the climate of opinion is largely in favour of the policy regime favoured by Finance. Every battle sends out the message that government intervention in support of the poor is unaffordable, that the private sector would do better what the public sector has been or is being assigned to do, and that some measures are bound to lead to unsustainable deficits and debt that would hurt those that are being supported. A practical consequence of such strident messaging is that progressive demands have weakened in response. Single-payer is replaced by Obamacare since what is good is unachievable and some progress is better than none. Pension reform is seen as inevitable, only its substance is to be changed. Tax increases that affect the rich are presented as the growth-damaging, soft option adopted by profligate governments. And public spending to protect or expand employment is a no-no.

Creating such a climate of opinion is a big victory for Finance and the Right that represents it, especially after decades over which income gains have been concentrated with and the distribution of income has been shifted massively in favour of the rich. In the process, it may happen that the chances of a Republican victory in the next presidential election or a Republican majority in the next round of congressional elections may be sacrificed. But that does not matter if, meanwhile, Democrats begin to talk and act more like moderate Republicans. Popular support is delivered not to a progressive, let alone radical, Democratic caucus but to one that does little to fundamentally threaten Finance. That suits the conservatives since it delivers the required result. It possibly explains, for example, why the opportunity that the crisis of 2008 offered to change the nature of capitalism was used rhetorically but never exploited practically by the first and this Obama administration.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment