Wednesday, December 8, 2010

(No.126) Fox News, Obama & U.S. fantasists

Recently I revisited the U.S. cable news network Fox News including the program The O'Reilly Factor, one of that network's "fair and balanced" programs -- to cite the Fox slogan, one that turns the meaning of that phrase upside down in the view of this Canadian.

Fox News is a major media home for right wing political fantasists and indeed its status can be described as the unofficial broadcast arm of the Republican Party. That reality is underlined by the fact that it currently employs all but one of the current leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination for 2012: Palin, Huckabee and Gingrich.

I was a bit surprised to hear Bill O'Reilly actually deprecate the intense partisan political divisions in the U.S. and the promotion of hatred of the other side. If one grants that his comments were sincere and not merely disingenuous then one can only assume that he exists in some parallel universe. O'Reilly's program on Fox and even more so those of his colleagues like Sean Hannity and Glen Beck do exactly what he says should not be done: promote intense political division.

For example: Beck's conspiracy fantasies involving prominent individuals like financier George Soros and what Beck refers to as the financier's "surrogates" (apparently including President Obama). This silliness would be funny if it did not appeal to the credulity of too many right wingers and feed paranoia. For me Beck's style recalls the late Senator Joe McCarthy and his witchhunting comments of the 1950s about communists in the U.S. State Department.

I also heard O'Reilly attribute a major part of the massive US government deficit problem to the funds paid by the US federal government to help operate PBS, the American non-commercial Public Broadcasting System. I heard no reference to the hundreds of $billions on the American credit card paid by President Bush and the Republicans to fight two wars while lowering taxes paid by those with the highest incomes. But then PBS has long been a favourite target for the American right because of its 'liberal/leftist' programming, all the more so if it can be coupled (as part of opposition to tax reform) with rhetoric about the top 1% or so of taxpayers paying 40% of American taxes.

There was an interesting article in the Nov. 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine: "Truth Lies Here -- How can Americans talk to one another let alone engage in political debate when the web allows every side to invent its own facts?" It referred to the comment by the American Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that each of us is entitled to our opinions but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. Nowhere does that admonition seem more relevant than in the U.S. today as political arguments from the left and right play out in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, with Fox News as a leading example.

The sort of 'facts' asserted by Fox's commentators to their American viewers will not include, for example, that the top 1% of Americans own 34% of America's private net worth while the bottom 90% own 29%. Or that 57% of U.S. wealth created since 1976 has gone to 1% of the population. Or that the U.S. has the biggest income disparity of any industrialized country. Such facts do not fit into the cloud-cuckoo-land into which far too much of American political discourse has descended in recent years.

Instead, assert as 'facts' threats to American "freedom and values" from the actions of President Barak Obama; call him a fascist or a communist or a socialist. However be sure to ignore the fact that he has been trying to deal with the colossal mess left to him by President Bush based on Republican spending and the favoured tax treatment of the wealthy and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to prevent the U.S. financial system from melting down. Why? Because of Wall Street pirates and incompetents being able to take advantage of ample opportunities for illegitimate financial gain provided by elected Republicans' sustained and disastrous worship of deregulation icons, genuflection that began with the first President Bush.

The analysis of American political and economic reality offered nightly by Fox News' talking heads may perhaps be most aptly likened to something written for them by Lewis Carroll if Alice in Wonderland had a contemporary American setting.

Barak Obama assumed the presidency in Jan 2009 inheriting gargantuan accumulated deficits and financial bailout commitments already in place from the Bush years (President Clinton left Bush with a substantial surplus). Now Obama is a carrying a political can filled with financial excrement deposited there in large measure by his Republican predecessor and Republican congressional majorities in both houses of the American congress for 6 of Bush's 8 years in office.

The U.S. political system is dysfunctional. Whether it will regain equilibrium in the near future is very much in doubt -- all the more so as one looks at the volume of absolute nonsense that marked the 2010 U.S. mid-term congressional election campaigns.

The Republican electoral gains in November -- control of the House of Representatives and de facto veto power in the Senate -- means that any attempts by Obama to address pressing issues in a substantive way will go nowhere during the next two years. For example: allowing Bush tax cuts to lapse at the end of 2010 for those earning $250,000+.

As this is written it is being reported that a deal has been reached between the White House and the congressional Republicans which will continue all the Bush tax cuts for another two years in return for, inter alia, an extension of long term jobless benefits for another 13 months (financed by borrowing rather than spending cuts), the whole deal at a cost in the hundreds of $billions.

Thus the U.S. continues to move ever closer to the financial precipice with continued deficit spending and levels of foreign borrowing at unsustainable levels -- all in the cause of allowing Americans to maintain a national economic regime they are unwilling to pay for with necessary levels of taxation. The fact is that few American politicians of any standing now in office (including President Obama) will tell the American public clearly and forthrightly that they and their governments must face up to reality: the only way back from the precipice is sharply reduced spending by government AND significant tax increases for taxpayers, not just at top levels but also in the broad middle class.

How likely is it that any realistic political action will occur? One of the many discouraging indications: President Obama appointed a bipartisan Deficit Commission to recommend how this challenge might be dealt with, i.e., to look hard at the fact that government debt is now at 60% of GDP and rising. The Commission had 18 members, including Republican and Democratic co-chairmen, and if its recommendations were endorsed by 14 of the 18 members then they would have to be considered by Congress. It has just reported and only 11 of its members would support their own report's substantive recommendations for action on government spending reductions combined with tax reform and higher taxes.

A majority of American voters as well as their political leadership plus their media profess alarm about the fiscal mess (as cable news talking heads and the Tea Party demonstrators repeated ad nauseam in the run-up to the Nov. 2010 mid-term elections). Yet many actually seem to prefer living in a financial, economic and governmental dream world. While there is great upset because of the huge growth in government deficits (federal and state) with widespread calls for reduced government spending -- not, it seems, if it really addresses the biggest political elephants in the room: the rising costs of social security (govt. pensions) and medicare/medicaid (govt. health care).

There is as yet neither sufficient political will nor enough strong elected leadership required to address substantively the U.S. fiscal crisis -- as Canada did under Finance Minister Paul Martin and Prime Minister Jean Chretien and as Prime Minister John Cameron's U.K. coalition government is trying to do now with its draconian spending cuts and tax increases.

If President Obama is re-elected in 2012 for his second term -- and the Republicans' nominee for president may be the best guarantee of that -- and if his re-election were to be combined with Democratic congressional majorities we may see him provide the sort of leadership the United States will need even more desperately two years hence.


Alastair Rickard