Skip to main content

During Part One of this series, I approached the end of my post with this paragraph.

Apart from the political opposition from the insurance companies that Medicare for All would have engendered, I think the main justification for abandoning Medicare for All and switching to the PO and eventually the PO-less ACA, was actually neoliberalism. The President, his main advisers, the Democratic leaders in Congress, and most progressives working for Washington progressive organizations were steeped in neoliberal doctrine. They viewed the Bush tax cuts and the two Wars as unpaid for. The ARRA stimulus Act was similarly unpaid for and added to deficit spending and to the debt-subject-to-the-limit. They believed and most believe today that the Federal Government can have solvency problems if the debt-to-GDP ratio increases too much, and interest rates on the national debt are driven up by the bond vigilantes.

A Medicare for All Act would have required Federal spending on health care to rise by $800 - $900 Billion per year over present levels. They were not ready to cover that with higher tax revenues, and they were not ready to deficit spend it because they viewed that as fiscally irresponsible, and believed then and still believe now that it's necessary to decrease the debt-to-GDP ratio over time.

So, they wouldn't consider spending for Medicare for All. They wouldn't look seriously at the hundreds of thousands of lives they were consigning to oblivion, at the bankruptcies and divorces they could prevent, or at the obvious fact that while HR 676 would have cost the Government $900 Billion more in money annually that the Government can create at will and at zero real cost; it would have saved the people who have to pay for health insurance, and health care out of pocket and in the form of “co-pays” $1.8 Trillion annually, thus providing a marvelous boost to the economy. Instead, they just said to everybody, that it was impractical and that the United States couldn't afford it; but that it would be able to to afford a self-supporting PO bill, and later when that was taken off the table, a deficit neutral insurance bailout like the ACA.

My friend Lambert Strether liked Part One and cross-posted it at Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism site. But the above statement bothers him because he thinks that using the label neoliberalism alone without explaining what aspects of that paradigm provided the justification for taking Medicare for All off the Table, and who the political actors are who adhere to this, makes my treatment incomplete. Even though I agree with the view that it's easy enough to google “neoliberalism” if someone doubts what I mean by the “term,” I also agree with Lambert that it would add something to Part One for me to be more specific about my thinking and show the connections between neoliberalism and the decision to take Medicare for All off the Table. Hence, this Part Two.

What is Neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is an evolving ideological paradigm which can be traced back to the work of Hayek and von Mises in the 1920s and even earlier than that. I won't however, do a historical survey here of the various developments and nuances. Instead, I'll just rely on the definitions and specifications of this body of thought that seem to me to be the clearest statements of the current state of the paradigm. Let's begin with this contemporary definition and characterization of neoliberalism by Thorsen and Lie (2007):

Neoliberalism is, as we see it, a loosely demarcated set of political beliefs which most prominently and prototypically include the conviction that the only legitimate purpose of the state is to safeguard individual, especially commercial, liberty, as well as strong private property rights (cf. especially Mises 1962; Nozick 1974; Hayek 1979). This conviction usually issues, in turn, in a belief that the state ought to be minimal or at least drastically reduced in strength and size, and that any transgression by the state beyond its sole legitimate purpose is unacceptable (ibid.). These beliefs could apply to the international level as well, where a system of free markets and free trade ought to be implemented as well; the only acceptable reason for regulating international trade is to safeguard the same kind of commercial liberty and the same kinds of strong property rights which ought to be realised on a national level (Norberg 2001; Friedman 2006).

Neoliberalism generally also includes the belief that freely adopted market mechanisms is the optimal way of organising all exchanges of goods and services (Friedman 1962; 1980; Norberg 2001). Free markets and free trade will, it is believed, set free the creative potential and the entrepreneurial spirit which is built into the spontaneous order of any human society, and thereby lead to more individual liberty and well-being, and a more efficient allocation of resources (Hayek 1973; Rothbard [1962/1970] 2004). Neoliberalism could also include a perspective on moral virtue: the good and virtuous person is one who is able to access the relevant markets and function as a competent actor in these markets. He or she is willing to accept the risks associated with participating in free markets, and to adapt to rapid changes arising from such participation (Friedman 1980). Individuals are also seen as being solely responsible for the consequences of the choices and decisions they freely make: instances of inequality and glaring social injustice are morally acceptable, at least to the degree in which they could be seen as the result of freely made decisions (Nozick 1974; Hayek 1976). If a person demands that the state should regulate the market or make reparations to the unfortunate who has been caught at the losing end of a freely initiated market transaction, this is viewed as an indication that the person in question is morally depraved and underdeveloped, and scarcely different from a proponent of a totalitarian state (Mises 1962).

Thus understood and defined, neoliberalism becomes a loose set of ideas of how the relationship between the state and its external environment ought to be organised, and not a complete political philosophy or ideology (Blomgren 1997; Malnes 1998). In fact, it is not understood as a theory about how political processes ought to be organised at all. Neoliberalism is for instance silent on the issue of whether or not there ought to be democracy and free exchanges of political ideas. This means, as Harvey (2005) indicates, that policies inspired by neoliberalism could be implemented under the auspices of autocrats as well as within liberal democracies. In fact, neoliberals merely claim, in effect, that as much as possible ought to be left to the market or other processes which individuals freely choose to take part in, and consequently that as little as possible ought to be subjected to genuinely political processes. Proponents of neoliberalism are therefore often in the “critical literature? portrayed as sceptics of democracy: if the democratic process slows down neoliberal reforms, or threatens individual and commercial liberty, which it sometimes does, then democracy ought to be sidestepped and replaced by the rule of experts or legal instruments designed for that purpose. The practical implementation of neoliberal policies will, therefore, lead to a relocation of power from political to economic processes, from the state to markets and individuals, and finally from the legislature and executives authorities to the judiciary (cf. Østerud et al. 2003; Trollstøl and Stensrud 2005; Tranøy 2006).

Thorsen and Lie's view of neoliberalism as an encompassing system of thought with the above characteristics is the best account of it I've seen. This view is a general statement about neoliberalism. And it lets us see how dangerous and anti-humanistic neoliberalism is in its broad implications for many spheres of life. But, of necessity, it can't cover the finer points, and isn't specified to economic neoliberalism's take on the role of, and constraints on, Government policy in its relations with the economy. So, we need to go more deeply into the economic side of this. That further specification of one aspect, the economic side of neoliberalism, is called the Washington Consensus.

The Washington Consensus

Wikipedia offers a good statement of the 10 points in the Washington consensus specified by John Williamson, of the Peter G. Peterson funded Institute for International Economics. The points were used by the World Bank, the IMF, and other financial institutions to guide  their relations with developing nations, and also as a set of principles or guidelines to inform the policies of Eurozone central authorities.

-- Fiscal policy discipline, with avoidance of large fiscal deficits relative to GDP;

-- Redirection of public spending from subsidies ("especially indiscriminate subsidies") toward broad-based provision of key pro-growth, pro-poor services like primary education, primary health care and infrastructure investment;

-- Tax reform, broadening the tax base and adopting moderate marginal tax rates;

-- Interest rates that are market determined and positive (but moderate) in real terms;

-- Competitive exchange rates;

-- Trade liberalization: liberalization of imports, with particular emphasis on elimination of quantitative restrictions (licensing, etc.); any trade protection to be provided by low and relatively uniform tariffs;

-- Liberalization of inward foreign direct investment;

-- Privatization of state enterprises;

-- Deregulation: abolition of regulations that impede market entry or restrict competition, except for those justified on safety, environmental and consumer protection grounds, and prudential oversight of financial institutions;

-- Legal security for property rights.

It's  said by many that the Washington Consensus is dead now because of the Crash of 2008 and events since then. But I think it's plain that its influence lives on in the thinking of people like Erskine Bowles, Peter G. Peterson, David Walker, President Obama, media organizations such as CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and The Washington Post, many media commentators and reporters, think tanks around Washington such as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, The New America Foundation, AmericaSpeaks, The Brookings Institution, so-called non-partisan organizations formed to influence the two major parties and even spawn a third party, such as Americans Elect, and No Labels, and many in Congress including the “Gang of Eight,” which Virginia Democratic Senate candidate and former Governor Tim Kaine says he will immediately join, if elected.

I think it's influence is felt even in liberal or progressive organizations, and among progressive commentators and writers, who all share, or at least constantly give lip service to, ideas like fiscal policy discipline, and tax reform, as well as more specific ideas derived from these principles which we will turn to now.

The Washington Consensus and the drive for Fiscal Sustainabiity/Responsibility Interpreted as Austerity and Long-term Deficit Reduction

The influence of the Washington Consensus is reflected in the myths and fairy tales being told by the continuing Fiscal Sustainability/Responsibility/Austerity political movement being driven by the above groups and people and many others. This movement has developed a more specific “Washington Consensus” in the form of myths and fairy tales derived from further specifying Williamson's Washington Consensus.  In another place I've listed and debunked them. Here, I'll simply list them, so that their relationship to more general neoliberal principles and  the original Washington Consensus can be seen:

-- The Government is running out of money

-- The Government can only raise money by taxing or borrowing

-- We can't keep adding debt to the national credit card

-- We need to cut Federal Government spending and make do with no more money

-- If the Government borrows more money, the bond markets will raise our interest rates

-- If we continue to issue more debt, then our main creditors may refuse to buy it, an event that would lead us to insolvency and severe austerity

-- Our grandchildren must have the heavy burden of repaying our national debt

-- There is a deficit/debt reduction problem for the Federal Government that is not self-imposed.

-- The Federal Government is like a household and that since households sacrifice to live within their means, Government ought to do that too.

-- The only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it.

-- We should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations

-- We face a crushing burden of Federal debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead

-- The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country

-- The United States is in danger of becoming the next Greece or Ireland

-- Fiscal Responsibility means stabilizing and then reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio and achieving a Federal Government surplus.

-- Federal Government austerity will create jobs.

Each of the links provided refutes a claim offered by the more specific fiscal sustainability/responsibility/austerity version of the Washington Consensus. That version began to gather urgency in Washington soon after President Obama assumed office, and became a major force early 2010 with the President's appointment of the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.  After nearly four years of the Obama Administration, these myths and fairy tales dominate the Washington conversation about fiscal responsibility, fiscal sustainability, and deficit reduction, and still push these issues to the center of our concerns, even after years of high unemployment, and the destruction of 40% of the accumulated wealth of middle class Americans, the continuing decline in the quality of our schools, our collapsing infrastructure, the continuing decline in social and economic mobility in the United States, the continuing subversion of the political system by monied elites, both personal and corporate, the continued failure of our health care system to deliver health care that works to all Americans, and doesn't economically devastate those who enter the health care system, and the continued exacerbation of many of our other problems. Why do the neoliberal partisans of austerity and long-term deficit reduction say that the fiscal responsibility problem is a more important problem than all of the others, or even a problem at all? Why do they prioritize fiscal discipline over everything else?

It's because they say that the US Government is constrained in its spending by its need to raise revenue from taxing and borrowing, and its dependence on the bond markets for reasonable interest rates when it borrows. This is the Government Budget Constraint (GBC) which is at the very center of their story, and which drives their reasoning to the conclusion that unless we get the national debt under control, so that the debt-to-GDP ratio stops growing and stabilizes at some reasonable level, our financing from the bond markets will carry prohibitive interest rates. And that if we continue borrowing beyond that our credit will finally collapse preventing us from funding many of of our essential programs and even our common defense.

All the claims, I've reviewed here, except perhaps for the last, are based on the idea that this GBC exists. There's plenty of evidence that it exists, they say. Look at households, look at private businesses, look at non-profit organizations, look at state Governments, look at Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc. They all have GBCs don't they, and since the Government is just like an enormous household, it has a GBC too, right? Wrong!

Modern Money Theory (MMT) says that for a Government with a non-convertible fiat currency, a floating exchange rate, and no debts in a currency not its own, there is no GBC. That claim is at the heart of the counter-narrative asserting that the US has no budget constraint except for self-imposed ones.

Some rightly point out that even though the Constitution allows creation of financial wealth without limit, a GBC does exist in the US because Congress has imposed it, by locating the power to create money “out of thin air” in the Fed, and by requiring that the Fed not extend credit to the Treasury, by either allowing it run a negative balance in its accounts, or by monetizing Treasury debt by buying it directly. However, these claims don't hold up because 1) Congress can always remove these constraints since they are political rather than economic, and 2) they ignore the 1996 legislation allowing the Secretary of the Treasury to mint proof platinum coins of arbitrarily high face value, e.g. $60 Trillion.

Treasury can use that law to fill the public purse, pay off all debt subject to the limit, and cease to issue any new debt. Since this capability exists, even without Congress removing its constraints on Treasury money creation, Treasury can still create whatever it needs  to close any gap that might appear between tax revenues and Federal spending of Congressional Appropriations.


So, here we are, a Government without a GBC that can never run out of money involuntarily, and we're facing a persistent, well-funded and powerful neolliberal consensus in Washington that wants to impose austerity on all of us in the name of a non-existent GBC that it passionately asserts will cause the nation to “go broke,” if we give priority to all of our major problems, while forgetting about their fantasy that we are doomed if we don't reach some entirely arbitrary level of debt-to-GDP ratio, that they have no way of even deriving in any rigorous way from their neoliberal theory of government fiscal responsibility.

With increasingly grave warnings of doom they try to make us believe that we are facing a national crisis that must be met with a bipartisan solution that will be impervious to the inevitable protests that will arise from most people when their solution causes suffering -- as it inevitably will, since as MMT shows, deficit reduction and government surpluses, in the presence of trade deficits, and desires to save in the private sector will inevitably cause destruction of private sector financial assets. Since the elites are in a better position to protect their financial assets than other Americans, the burden of austerity and the resulting hardships and fatalities will inevitably fall on most of us.

We will be sharing the sacrifices. They will be getting richer from their efforts in the international gambling casino, and from seizing everyone else's property when austerity renders debtors unable to repay their debts.

Negotiation of that “grand bargain” they are seeking will probably use Bowles-Simpson as a framework, even though that framework was never adopted by the “Catfood Commission,” and even though it has received great resistance in Congress since it was published by the two Chairs in the absence of agreement needed to make it a commission product. In any event, the main thrust of the austerians/deficit hawks: that fiscal policy should focus on a long-term deficit reduction plan cutting back the social safety net, is still very much alive politically in Washington, DC and another attempt to implement it is likely either in the lame duck session, or early next year in the new Congress, barring an implosion in Europe before then that could derail the neoliberal deficit hawk drive for austerity.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  What is simply known as liberalism in Europe. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    psyched, David Futurama

    When your talking about liberalism in Europe (excluding Great Britain which seems to have the same meaning to the word as the US) we speak is called neoliberalism in the united states.

    The Dutch Liberal party for example is a right wing party which is pro business, pro-privatization, individualistic and in favour of small government.

    Difference with the American Conservative movement is that liberal parties in Europe tend to be more focused on austerity and compared to American Conservatives less on tax breaks.

    Another difference is that while European liberals are on the same page as US conservatives when it comes to economic issues, they are very much to the left on social issues, so the separation between church and state for example are or where) pillars of the (neo)liberal European movements.

    Religious conservative parties also exist, but they are actually to the left of the liberals in Europe on economic issues and often labelled centrists being much closer to the socialists then the liberals are.

    Card-carrying member of the Illuminati.

    by DarkOmnius on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 11:11:29 AM PDT

  •  I have seen it many times referred to as (0+ / 0-)

    classical liberalism. As opposed to socialism (pre and post Marx). There are many economic theories out there but we tend to ignore all of them except neo-liberal "free market" theory. I would highly recommend the book Bad Samitarians by Ha-Joon Chang, a student of Joseph Stiglitz. We never played by the rules we impose on other countries and we never really practiced neo-liberalism. Not that we should, the closest to real free markets caused the Irish Famine. But this kind of thinking favors the wealthy and powerful and makes them feel good about themselves, or at least allows them to excape responsibility.

  •  This is an important diary, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thanks for writing it.

    Unfortunately, it will get no traction here. Because, although most here are plenty smart enough to understand neoliberalism and the active threat it poses, there are either willfully blind to it or just plain blind to it.

    They don't want to see it. And they certainly don't want to fight it, because that would mean fighting Team D as well as Team R. It would mean seeing Bill and Barack as bad men championing bad things (free trade agreements), as well as W. and Cheney. They just can't go there. Perhaps the need to belong, mixed with the fear of ostracism, is too great.

    Tribalism has successfully captured the segment of the population that is not politically apathetic. Just as it was designed to do.

    Distractions, bread and circuses, have worked well. Just as they were designed to.

    Two party elections and collusion have worked to limit real choice at the voting booth away from neoliberal outcomes.

    Debate has been limited. The media has been switched nearly 100% to the Propaganda model.

    Opposition to all this has largely been criminalized and certainly been marginalized. While actual crime has been immunized at the highest levels.

    Not sure there is much we can do about any of this. Read Greenwald, Chomsky, Hedges, Naked Capitalism, etc. Stay informed, sure. Get involved where we can and where it will make a difference. But most people around here are only concerned with getting the neoliberal incumbent re-elected over the other, even worse neoliberal. There are no voting options away from the Washington Consensus, which I would argue only reflects Elite Consensus and concerns, at the expense of the masses.

    •  Thanks, DF, for your cogent analysis (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      David Futurama

      What you say is true, but we can't give up. We must keep trying.

      Once the election is past, people may have more time and inclination to listen to how we can improve things overall.

      Then we can start repeating these progressive ideas and promoting MMT, the progressive outlook on economics.

      For the first time in human history, we possess both the means for destroying all life on Earth or realizing a paradise on the planet--Michio Kaku.

      by psyched on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 03:40:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Couldn't agree more (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      David Futurama, psyched

      DF. But there's another reason why this diary won't get much play, and that's the timing. The election's sucking up all the oxygen.

      Anyway, we've got a hard fight ahead of us against neoliberal austerity, including the upcoming fight over the grand bargain. Maybe people here will care more about neoliberalism when our neoliberal politicians are closer to selling them out with "the grand bargain."

  •  Thank you, Joe (0+ / 0-)

    As DF said, this is an important diary.
    You have spelled out clearly what constitutes neoliberalism. It's important that folks know the nature of the errors they are operating under before they can fully accept the realism of MMT.

    For the first time in human history, we possess both the means for destroying all life on Earth or realizing a paradise on the planet--Michio Kaku.

    by psyched on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 03:44:22 PM PDT

  •  Tipped and recc'ed for the wealth of information. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    David Futurama

    Thanks especially for the passages on neoliberalism which I am going to share with my friends who have a very basic idea of what it is about.  And I consider this as the mother of all posts on deficit terrorists i have seen.  Thanks much.

    "The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”. - George Carlin

    by Funkygal on Wed Oct 24, 2012 at 11:03:17 PM PDT

  •  Your contributions to this community far exceed... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    David Futurama, Funkygal

    ...the response they're receiving (at least during "the silly season"). Please do not let this discourage you as far as your participation in this community is concerned. If there's one thing I've learned in more than six years here, it's that persistence pays! Thanks again for these extremely IMPORTANT posts!

    "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

    by bobswern on Thu Oct 25, 2012 at 07:36:54 AM PDT

    •  Thank You (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Bob. I'm not discouraged. I know the value of persistence. I blogged for 6 months here on Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage before it got some mind share. And the people who blog at Money and Public Purpose have been blogging for close to two years now on MMT, and we are now seeing recognition of MMT's importance from Meteor Blades and other well known people here.

    •  Seconded. Thanks for your persistence lets (0+ / 0-)

      and hope you will keep at it.

      "The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”. - George Carlin

      by Funkygal on Thu Oct 25, 2012 at 07:33:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  My conception of money (0+ / 0-)

    in our sovereign monetary is that there is a different relationship of dollars to private transactions and their effects on the economy as a whole (which I do not understand well) and the demand a dollar can place on the government. Public debt is all eventually resolved into dollars, and dollars presented to the government can only demand they be accepted in payment for something owed like taxes, etc.

    So it seems to me that the "government" the fed, the treasury, the blurred line between them, is immune to money in terms of how it all functions. The money dangers must all lie in the weakness of our leaders, and in the machinations of private sector.

    A nation's money should be a blessing to its people, promoting commerce and value. It is perverted by debt. But how do you make the banks work without debt? Has the Islamic world got a paradigm for that?  

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site