The Tea Party, or Thanatos Economics

Sigmund Freud theorized that a death instinct opposed all life-promoting impulses and capacities within the individual human being.  His successors call this death instinct “Thanatos,” after the Greek mythic spirit of death.  The death instinct would push a human being to regain the inorganic state that would come about from dangerously aggressive behavior.

What is important is that Congressional Republicans, in the form of the Tea Party animus, seem to have given over to an economic death instinct in their current handling of our looming risk of default on the national debt.  (Note: I make no pretense of psychoanalyzing Republicans.  I am neither qualified to do such in principle, nor do I believe that enduring psychological drives can explain the timing or nature of the current rightward tilt of American politics as well as the interacting determinants of partisan politics, prevailing unemployment and our unique American cultural inheritance.  As a good Liberal Ironist I agree with Nietzsche’s premise that “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” and Thanatos makes a better metaphor than anything else for the blithe way many Congressional Republicans have recently discussed our impending risk of default on the debt.)

Maybe all the trouble started when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty tried to out-Conservative all the other Republican Presidential hopefuls with an op-ed in the January 21, 2011 Washington Post arguing that May didn’t constitute a hard-and-fast deadline for an aggreement to raise the Federal debt limit, and that Republicans should instead use their power to authorize more Federal debt to instead force President Obama to force drastic spending cuts on entitlements.  This is playing with fire, as it completely circumvents a Constitutionally-established process of budgeting and tries to use the prospect of government default on its debt to try to compel another branch of the Federal Government to radically reduce the social safety net.  Along with proposing drastic reductions to entitlements without first taking that message to the public, Pawlenty proposed what would be a potentially-damaging 2nd round of budgetary brinksanship without knowing whether the President would cave in to Republican demands.

While Congressional Republicans have taken Governor Pawlenty’s advice in using the vote on the Federal debt limit much the way bandits would fell a tree across a road, they have essentially given up on using this juncture to extract entitlement cuts (to Pawlenty’s chagrin).  Still, at least a few Congressional Republicans don’t seem even remotely worried about failure to raise the debt limit at all, as Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank demonstrated most-disturbingly in the case of freshman Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA).

This isn’t a clever gamble; this is an ill-conceived and illegitimate form of confrontation that could damage the economy.  Paul Krugman made the risk Congressional Republicans are running quite clear: Since the United States Federal Government is a huge debtor that has so far paid its bills on time, a default on its debt would injure many creditors at once–and leave them once bitten, twice shy.  Interest rates would rise for everyone, and fewer loans would be available for private citizens, institutions and governments alike.

On top of this, the Federal Government would be far-short of the revenues it would need to fund government programs; we would face the Government shutdown that was narrowly-averted in early April.

A few of my friends think the Republican Party knowingly colludes with corporate taskmasters and are attempting to impose a unitary agenda on the country throughout the States and the Federal Government.  The Liberal Ironist doesn’t really think anyone is at the helm of the Republican Party right now; the “Tea Party” movement that began in 2009 and proved its electoral force in 2010 (its billionaire financing aside) represents a real upsurge in Conservative populism by both longtime Republicans and ideological Conservatives with little prior political experience.  The national party infrastructure didn’t start the Tea Party, and it sure as hell didn’t prompt the Tea Party to nominate the Senate candidates who won the primaries in Alaska, Nevada, Colorado, Kentucky, West Virginia, Delaware, or Florida.  I really think John Boehner’s September 2010 “Pledge to America” was his commitment to try to capture a limited-government animus that even he hadn’t anticipated more than a year before then.  As Speaker of the House, in practice John Boehner leads the Republican Party right now–but he continues a dangerous game of budgetary brinksmanship with President Obama which suits neither his style nor what I suspect are his own policy goals, because he fears the prospect of a leadership challenge from the right.  He may not be enthusiastic about the Republican push to radically trim Federal spending, but the will in the rank-and-file to achieve it is real.

The Liberal Ironist agrees with the standard Liberal take that Republican Party is in practice the benefactor of corporate America and the rich, but the Tea Party’s strict pursuit of limited government doesn’t always work out to the benefit of either.  The Republican Party’s anti-tax fanaticism worked in the Senate to protect tax deductions for oil conglomerates that are swimming in cash while its skepticism of Federal spending currently endangers lucrative Defense contracts and billions of dollars in farm subsidies to agribusiness.  The New York hedge funds’ massive swing of campaign contributions from a recent Democratic advantage to a truly massive net contribution to Republicans in 2010 has backfired as comically as it may catastrophically, with Republican debt limit brinksmanship causing stock market hysterics.  If the Federal debt limit isn’t raised by early August the United States will default on its debt, forcing the Treasury Department to decide what to fund (which ironically means the few remaining cards will be in the Obama Administration’s hands, not Congressional Republicans’) and causing a massive rise in the interest rate for everyone due to general doubts about the viability of prospective debtors.  This wouldn’t benefit the rich, either; actually, it would ruin some of them–as the 2008 Financial Crash did.


4 thoughts on “The Tea Party, or Thanatos Economics

  1. J-Doug

    The rise in interest rates wouldn’t even be the real problem. The problem would be the irreparable damage done to the US Dollar in the wake of a default. Central banks worldwide would dump US currency, causing the dollar to plunge. IOs like OPEC and the IMF would reduce the Dollar’s share of their basket of currencies and replace it with the Euro and Renminbi, permanently reducing demand for the Dollar.

    This is something that will happen in the long run anyway, but it will be worse if it happens drastically rather than gradually, and if it happens now rather than later.

  2. Leigh

    “He may not be enthusiastic about the Republican push to radically trim Federal spending, but the will in the rank-and-file to achieve it is real.”

    I’m a little confused about what exactly are John Boehner’s policy goals, if not limited government…

    1. liberalironist Post author

      I don’t know if the admission of confusion was rhetorical or not. What I mean is that John Boehner is definitely not in personal ideological agreement either with the Tea Party rank-and-file or even freshman Republicans with “Tea Party” credentials. His “Pledge to America” was, as I previously discussed on the blog, a more-workable version of a similar document that Tea Partiers only had signed onto but which they never could have hoped to accomplish. Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan have generally followed-through on implementation of major Pledge items, but in clear contrast with their own rank-and-file they have exhibited a willingness (and until they began to face regular pressure from the rank-and-file, even eagerness) to work-out compromises with President Obama, just so they could have some policy victories in-hand.

      If you want someone to compare John Boehner with, look at Paul Ryan (R-WI), Jim DeMint (R-SC, now a Senator, then in the House), Steve Chabot (R-OH) or Dick Armey (R-TX). Armey actually outranked the reliably-vicious partisan Tom DeLay while he was still in the House; all of these men except Boehner and DeLay complained about George W. Bush’s expansion of Federal programs. It may be that confusion about John Boehner’s policy goals is appropriate; he may even like it that way.

  3. Pingback: Pickett’s Charge on Entitlement Ridge | The Liberal Ironist

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