On the day that the Senate voted on the mis-named “Fiscal Responsibility Act”––the deal that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the White House struck so that the House would stop holding the debt ceiling hostage––Seed the Vote and Convergence Magazine co-hosted this panel. “Debt Ceilings, Federal Deficits and Shutdowns––Oh My!” brought political and historical context to the three months of budget brinksmanship that brought the US economy to the point of default. Jason Negrón-Gonzales, Seed the Vote’s incoming political director, laid the groundwork for a conversation between San Francisco Rising Co-Director Emily Lee and Columbia University economist Eric Verhoogen.
Negrón-Gonzales’ PowerPoint included details about the national debt and deficit spending, as well as an overview of competing budget proposals. President Biden’s, which would increase investments in childcare, care work, and green technology while raising taxes on the super-rich, pointed toward mostly progressive priorities (except for the proposed 3% increase in military spending). After threatening to hold up the debt ceiling, the Freedom Caucus made their own proposal that included deep cuts in every social program (except Medicare and Social Security), a reversal of green investments, and more tax cuts: an austerity budget that Verhoogen noted would likely halt economic recovery from the pandemic and hasten a recession. Holding the debt ceiling hostage was the Freedom Caucus’ weapon of choice for forcing cuts that would be unpopular if they tried to win them through the democratic legislative process.
Controlling the narrative about debt, deficits, and taxes
The MAGA right has the power to weaponize the debt ceiling because of 40 years of neoliberal narratives about national debt, deficits and taxes. The Right’s messaging sounds like commonsense: “debt is always bad; we must live within our means and get spending under control.” This narrative is backed up with dog-whistles about who is “taking” from taxpayers, leaning heavily into white resentment. They want us to believe the national debt is just like your personal, or family debt. But this is misleading. Unlike a household, the federal government issues its own currency and finances its spending through secure treasury bonds.
An honest conversation about debt would recognize how vital these bonds are for providing the services that our society needs, like infrastructure, public health, clean air and water, safe food and drugs, occupational safety, and much more. During a crisis, like the recent recession and the pandemic, increases in federal spending are vital for our recovery. Deficit spending, which happens when yearly revenues are lower than yearly expenses, is necessary at a time like this. If the Right really cared about deficit spending, they would raise revenues.
What does MAGA want?
Confusion about debt and deficits, as well as anti-tax sentiments and racist dog-whistles, serves the Right’s agenda. Now that the MAGA forces have power in the House, we are up against opponents who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
What do they want? To radically redefine government and impose austerity on our communities, weakening progressive power and discouraging collective action. Austerity would reverse the small, but steady gains we’ve made over the past two years. It also would weaken our communities and further erode people’s faith in the government’s ability to address our needs. Austerity helps promote authoritarianism.
What we can do
The discussion between Emily Lee and Eric Verhoogen pointed toward some actions progressives can take over the next two years:
- Get rid of the debt ceiling. It serves no purpose, other than to give the Right another weapon in the budget wars. Progressives should look for ways to get rid of it well before the next manufactured crisis, which will likely happen during the lame duck session of Congress in late 2024.
- Get control of the narrative about the national debt. Cut through the misinformation, explain the role debt plays in stimulating our economy and investing in our communities. Call out the Right’s hypocrisy about deficits, and their unwillingness to take the most basic measures to decrease deficit spending: They refuse to raise taxes on the rich, and cut funding to strengthen Internal Revenue Service enforcement, which would help collect billions in taxes already on the books . We can use the appropriations fights and the upcoming elections to test out new narratives.
- Support progressive candidates up and down the ballot and work to re-elect President Biden even as we criticize his deal-making. The outcomes of the 2024 elections may determine whether we can position progressives to craft a budget that better addresses our community’s needs, transitions us toward a greener and more caring economy, and encourages more democratic participation.