War is a Pretext for Austerity

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The war in Iraq is being used by the American ruling class as a pretext to ram austerity measures down the throats of the working class. The attacks on the workers’ standard of living were actually initiated by the Bush administration last year, and have escalated sharply this year, constituting the most significant degradation of working class living conditions in more than twenty years. Patriotism and war propaganda are being used to push through these cuts with only minimal opposition. Not only is the working class paying for the war with the lives and physical well being of its young men and women in uniform on the battlefield, but it is being forced to endure a permanent decline in its standard of living to finance US imperialism’s war mongering policies.

Military costs are escalating at a feverish pace for American capitalism, which more and more feels compelled to employ brute force to defend its imperialist hegemony throughout the world. Forty-seven percent of federal spending goes to military related costs. The $2.2 trillion federal budget proposed by the Bush administration for the next fiscal year increases military spending yet again, while at the same time introducing drastic cuts in spending on social programs, through sharp cuts in funds turned back to the state and local governments. According to the Los Angeles Times, measured in real dollars, Bush is spending more on the military than Johnson did during the Vietnam war. “In 2003 dollars, defense spending would peak at $451.9 billion, compared with the peak during the Vietnam buildup of $439.9 billion, according to analysis of administration figures by the generally liberal Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (LAT March 12, 2003). And these figures do not include the costs incurred in waging the war in Iraq, occupying that country for at least six months, and reconstructing the Iraqi infrastructure, which has originally been estimated at $80-100 billion, but which many expect will run even higher. As we go to press, the war in Iraq is costing $12,000 per second, $366,000,000 per 8-hours, or a staggering $1.1. billion per day!!! (Figures computed by War Resisters League, based on published federal budgetary data.)

The cuts in social programs proposed by the Bush administration are planned as long-term measures to permanently shrink the social wage – that portion of the cost of the reproduction of the working class provided by the state in the form of social services rather than in money wages paid directly by employers to workers. For example, over the next ten years, the budget plan will cut $470 billion from medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. On the immediate level, “federal spending on poverty alleviation, science, environmental protection, transportation and health care would be cut below current levels” (Washington Post, March 13, 2003).

One of the remarkable strengths of American state capitalism is its ability to mask the imposition of austerity by means of its federal structure, and apparently decentralized power. Rather than announce a uniform national austerity program imposed by the central government in Washington that might risk provoking a working class uproar, the American ruling class uses its federal structure to decentralize the attacks. A key element in this sophisticated approach is the control of tax levy funds that are distributed to the state governments, and through them the distribution of these funds to municipal level governments. The cutoff of federal funding puts pressure on local governments to slash programs, raise taxes, or a combination of the two – any of which constitutes an attack on the workers’ standard of living. Each state and municipality cobbles together its own spending plans, producing all manner of diverse austerity measures, which obscure the fact that austerity is a direct result of national policy decisions made in Washington, and foster a climate that encourages useless local struggles against this or that particular program cutback in this or that locality, rather than against the attacks at the national level.

So for example, the New York State government will be cut 12.7 billion in funding for Medicaid programs over the next ten years, $2 billion for Supplemental Security Income, $1 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit, $1.8 billion for food stamps, and $1.2 billion for welfare. New York Gov. George Pataki has proposed cutting public education funds by $2.1 billion next year alone. In Cleveland, Ohio school officials have proposed canceling summer school sessions. Portland, Oregon school officials plan to raise the student-teacher ratio from 30 to 1 to 42 to 1. California state officials warn that they may have to lay off 30,000 teachers. In Massachusetts, where the 180-day school year has been in place for generations, officials are considering cutting the school week to four-days.

New York City, site of the Twin Towers disaster, is particularly hard hit by the austerity program. The city government faces a $4 billion budget deficit, and has already announced 5400 public sector layoffs, and these are expected to eventually reach 15,000. At the same time, property taxes have soared by 27 percent, public transit fares will increase by 33%, and the city will begin charging tolls on bridges across the East River that bring traffic into Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens, which have always been free since they were constructed a century ago.

The impact of these layoffs and austerity measures on the working class standard of living is devastating. These layoffs don’t simply signify the number of people being thrown out of work – which is devastating in itself – but they also represent a degradation in the standard of living. On the economic level, these layoffs will have a cascading effect, as unemployed workers reduced to surviving on unemployment benefits will spend less on goods and services in the areas where they used to work, and where they live, and will eventually lead to layoffs in businesses that depend upon their patronage. Workers lucky enough not to be laid off will face pressure to work harder and produce more. On the level of social conditions for the entire working class, these attacks will mean a deterioration in fire protection, education, sanitation, health services, and the physical infrastructure – which means a degeneration in the health, safety and future of the working class. But in the meantime, as the suffering of the working class increases, the government will have no difficulty or compunctions about appropriating more and more funds to finance its imperialist military operations abroad. — JG