With everything that’s going on – the likely imminent cancellation of abortion rights and the revelation that Donald Trump knew he had tested positive for coronavirus prior to his debate with Joe Biden, among many other things – I don’t know how many readers will be aware of that the Administration of the United States was on the verge of being forced to close this weekend. A last-minute agreement avoided that crisis, but there is another one in sight for a couple of weeks: the Executive is expected to reach its debt ceiling in the middle of the month, and if it does not manage to raise it, the consequences will not only for governance, but also for America’s financial reputation, will be catastrophic.
The point is, the federal government has no problem getting money. In fact, you can borrow at rates well below the rate of inflation, so the real cost of servicing the additional federal debt is actually negative. All of this has more to do with politics. Both continuing to finance the government and raising the debt limit are subject to filibustering, and many Republican senators will not support either of the two unless the Democrats meet their demands.
And what is it that has Republicans so concerned as to be willing to endanger the operation of our Government and the financial stability of the country? Whatever they say, they are not acting on principle, or at least on any principle other than the proposition that not even properly elected Democrats have a legitimate right to rule.
In a way, we’ve already seen this movie. Republicans led by Newt Gingrich partially shut down government in 1995-1996 in an attempt to win concessions from President Bill Clinton. GOP lawmakers sparked a series of funding crises during President Barack Obama’s tenure, also in a (partly successful) attempt to win political concessions. Causing budget crises every time a Democrat occupies the White House has become the normal operating procedure for Republicans.
However, the current extortion attempts by the Republican Party are more overt and less rational than those that took place in the Obama era. Under Obama, the Republican leadership claimed that their fiscal maneuvers were motivated by concerns about the budget deficit. Some of us argued, back then, that the self-proclaimed deficit hawks were phonies who were not really concerned about the public debt – a view that was verified by the silence of the aforementioned when the Trump administration shot up the deficit – and that what they wanted was to see the economy suffer during Obama’s term. But they maintained a veneer of responsibility enough to mislead many analysts.
This time around, the Republican filibusters aren’t even pretending to be concerned about the red numbers. Rather, they threaten to shut everything down unless the Biden administration abandons its efforts to combat the coronavirus with mandatory vaccination.
What is that all about? As many observers have pointed out, claims that the stance against compulsory vaccination (as well as the similar opposition to compulsory mask wearing) has to do with preserving individual liberty does not stand up to scrutiny of any kind. There is no reasonable definition of freedom that includes the right to endanger the health and lives of others because one does not feel like taking basic precautions.
Moreover, the measures of the governments of the states controlled by the Republicans, such as Florida and Texas, reveal a party not so much in favor of freedom as of the covid. How else to explain the attempts to prevent private companies – whose freedom of decision was supposed to be sacrosanct – from demanding that their workers be vaccinated, or the offers of special unemployment benefits for the unvaccinated?
In other words, it does not appear that the Republican is a party that tries to defend freedom; it looks like a party trying to block any effective response to a deadly disease. Why does he do this? To some extent, his attitude surely reflects cold and cynical political calculus. Voters often blame the White House party for everything bad that happens while at the helm, providing an incentive for a ruthless enough political establishment to engage in blatant sabotage. And of course, the Republicans who opposed all efforts to contain the coronavirus are now attacking the Biden government for not having been able to end the pandemic.
But trying to shut down the Administration to block vaccination is going overboard, even in the case of inveterate cynics. It is striking that Mitch McConnell, whom no one could call a benefactor, is not part of the anti-vaccine clique. However, what appears to be happening goes beyond cold calculation. As I pointed out some time ago, Republican politicians today behave like party officials in an authoritarian regime, competing to adopt the most extreme positions as a way of demonstrating their loyalty to the cause and the leader. Fueling the anti-vaccine hysteria and doing everything possible to prevent the pandemic from ending has become a Republican practice to preserve the good reputation in the party. The consequence is that one of the two main political formations in the United States is not only refusing to help the country deal with its problems, but is actively helping to make it ungovernable.
I hope that the rest of us have not lost the ability to be properly horrified by this spectacle.
Paul Krugman He is a Nobel Prize in Economics. © The New York Times, 2021. News Clips translation.
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