The Vile Maxim, the Deficit Fetish, and the Unelected Dictatorship

First published at ZNet on December 13, 2012. It’s useful to step back from the dominant terms in political play to examine what’s really going on behind misleading language. An excellent if hardly novel case in point is the evocative phrase “Right to Work,” used by right-wing politicians like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to provide friendly cover for legislation that viciously weakens workers’ political and economic power by permitting employees covered by union contracts and collective bargaining agreements to withhold union dues. The legislation (the latest state-level version was rammed through the Michigan state assembly two days ago over and against public opinion at the end of a lame-duck session) has nothing to do with granting anyone employment rights and everything to do with increasing the economic and political leverage of the employer class. [1]   

Another case study in the Orwellian manipulation of language and the citizenry is the political drama surrounding the so-called fiscal cliff, which replaced the personalized quadrennial electoral extravaganza (Noam Chomsky’s excellent phrase[2]) as American mass media’s top leading domestic news story the day after the presidential election. Reflecting their common servility and allegiance to a highly organized and class-conscious section of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of corporate and financial power, the United States’ political and media class is outwardly obsessed with U.S. government debt – with “the deficit.”  

The fiscal fixation is childish and irresponsible in a country plagued by mass unemployment, endemic job insecurity, and related widespread poverty. As numerous liberal economists citing Keynes and led by the Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz point out, deficit spending is required as a stimulus to recovery and deficits are overcome with the growth that follows. This occurred after World War II, when the deficit was much larger. 

But that’s not all that gets lost in the current mass-mediated deficit mania. Let’s assume that “the deficit” is a genuine problem with grave long-term implications for the U.S. economy (i.e., crippling interest payments, loss of national sovereignty, and more). Two obvious solutions are to (1) cut U.S. “defense” (really empire, to make another counter-Orwellian correction) expenditures and (2) initiate serious health care reforms on the model of the health insurance systems that prevail in other industrial powers. The $1 trillion-a-year-plus Pentagon System, which accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and supports more than 1000 military bases across more than 100 countries, makes up nearly half the deficit. It is a massive taxpayer-financed subsidy to high-tech global corporations (e.g. Boeing, General Electric, and Raytheon) that are highly proficient at the technical displacement and global out-sourcing of American jobs. At the same time, economist Dean Baker has shown that the mammoth medical cost reduction that would result from introducing Improved Medicare for All (basically single-payer health insurance on the model of Canada and other leading industrial states) would abolish the deficit and likely create a U.S. budget surplus.  

But neither a serious peace dividend nor a serious health reform dividend is considered remotely possible in Washington, thanks to the entrenched power of the corporate military-industrial and medical-industrial complexes and the financial sector.  

Another related and even more obvious solution to “the deficit” would be to restore the progressive levels of taxation levied on rich Americans during the post-World War II level, when the U.S. economy was the envy of the world. No small amount of “the deficit” could easily be found in the fortunes of the American 1 percent, which possesses as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans, including the 400 richest Americans, who together possess as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent.  

This, too, is “off the table,” It does not merit serious discussion in official circles. This is despite the fact that the public supports significantly increased taxation of America’s obscenely wealthy Few. That public supports serious health care reform (something rather different than the corporatist version passed by Obama and the Congress in 2010) and significant reductions in “defense” spending. For what it’s worth (not much in America’s money-soaked dollar democracy), it also believes that the jobs crisis, not “the deficit,” is America’s leading economic problem at present.  

The fact that none of these three basic methods for deficit reduction (peace dividend, socialized health insurance, and anti-plutocratic taxation) are considered worthy of debate in the circles that matter (including the potent opinion-shaping corridors of corporate media power) amidst the latest outbreak of “deficit fetishism” (Stiglitz’s excellent phrase more than two years ago) suggest two very important points. First, the great state-capitalist “deficit hawks” aren’t actually serious about slashing “the deficit.”  Representing multinational corporations and investment houses who possess no particular commitment to the United States (its economy, society, or government) as such, they see the deficit fetish in its latest incarnation – the “fiscal cliff” (heir to last year’s equally elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis) – as a useful weapon with which to assault social programs for poor and working class Americans and to undermine the notion that government has a positive role to play in providing comfort and security for ordinary Americans.  

Second, the biggest deficit in America today isn’t the fiscal one. It’s the democracy deficit [3]– the gaping chasm between the nation’s claim to be the global homeland and headquarters of popular governance and the harsh reality of how its politics and policy are coldly subordinated to a “hidden senate” of concentrated wealth and power.  

Elections aside, this unelected upper chamber is currently determined to rollback everyday Americans’ sense that they deserve decent treatment now and in their senior years, after decades of hard work and contribution to public retirement programs “You’re going to have to do something,” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently told CBS News, “to lower peoples’ expectations of what they’re going to get, the entitlements and all people think they’re going to get, because you’re not going to get it.” A fascinating if garbled comment from a super-entitled $16 million-per-year arch-plutocrat who sits atop a leading financial firm that helped push the national and global economy (and the federal budget, it’s worth noting) over the cliff – and then profited handsomely from that collapse with help from billions of dollars in federal taxpayer bailout money. He is a leading member of “Fix the Debt” (FTD), a coalition of 95 leading corporate and financial CEOs that calls for “shared sacrifice” to “prevent disaster and renew America’s economic strength.” FTD has raised more than $60 million to lobby for a “debt deal” that makes significant long-term cuts in “entitlements” (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid).[4]

Why are these hyper-elite “deficit scolds”[5] going after Social Security, a well-managed and widely popular program that doesn’t feed the deficit since it is self-funded?  Beneath all the deceptive bluster about the system’s supposed crisis (a longstanding Wall Street propaganda myth), the financial overlords don’t want to pay taxes for lesser Americans’ pensions[6] and (more importantly) want to cash in the privatization of the masses’ retirement accounts, which promises to provide a fee and investment bonanza for those expert at raking super-profits from others’ savings.  

There’s vicious self-interest behind the “millionaires’ movement” for what Blankfein and other FTD leaders call “fiscal responsibility” and “shared sacrifice.” It all harkens all-too-perfectly back to what Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind: ‘All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.’”[7] Resistance starts with de-coding and deflating deliberately mystified rhetoric to see the real interests behind the masters’ false and frankly socio-pathological[8] claims of benevolent national concern.  

Paul Street ( is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at 

Selected Endnotes

1.Norman Hill, “The Double-Speak of Right to Work,” AFL-CIO American Federationist (n.d., Publication No.P-B 16-0592-10), read online at

[2] Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 96-100. 

[3] Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 214-250. 

[4] For more details, sources, and commentary, see Paul Street “Rising Above With Disdain: On Class Rule and ‘the Fiscal Cliff,’ ZNet (December 8, 2012), 

[5] A more accurate term than “deficit hawks” when it comes to describing the powerful Washington lobbying and propaganda complex that purports to be obsessed with the federal deficit. The complex has never been serious about slashing the deficit, as is clear from its longstanding attachment to cutting government revenues b slashing taxes for the wealthy few. As Krugman observes, “recent events have…demonstrated what was already apparent to careful observers: the deficit-scold movement was never really about deficits. It was about using deficit fears to shred the social safety net.” Paul Krugman, “Hawks and Hypocrites,” New York Times, November 12, 2012, A29. 

[6] This even as the FTD CEO’s own pension plans are well-stocked and as they have savagely under-funded employee pension plans in their own corporations. See Christie Wilkins, “’Fix the Debt’ CEOs Underfund Employee Retirement, Demand Cuts for Elderly,” Huffington Post, November 27, 2012. 

[7] Adam Smith quoted in Noam Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” Boston Review (September–October 2009), at and Noam Chomsky, World Orders Old and New (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 5.  

[8] Joel Bakan, The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004). For the legal artificial person that is the modern corporation as a sociopath, see 56-57.  

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By | 2012-12-13T19:50:03+00:00 December 13th, 2012|Articles|