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Fiscal cliff and sewer lines

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Dec. 12, 2012, 9:59 a.m. | Op-ed — by Boris Danik

Boris Danik writes that the American oligarchs will have a tougher time under U.S. President Barack Obama than Ukrainian ones will under Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
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Boris Danik

Boris Danik is a retired Ukrainian-American living in North Caldwell, New Jersey.

 A crystal ball question was considered in an op-ed in the Kyiv Post not long ago: Who would be better for Ukraine, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama?

An easier question could be: Which one of the two would be better for Ukraine’s oligarchs? And for American oligarchs, of course.

Answers are coming in an avalanche from positions taken by Obama, Romney and his Republican Party on the issues of U.S. economy, in which America’s oligarchs are deeply enmeshed. Their role in the USA may not be as glaring as that of their counterparts in Ukraine, but they are among the key players in the corridors of power. 

Although the U.S. presidential and congressional elections are over, the debate about taxes and budgets --  the centerpiece of election politics --  continues unabated in Washington.

The all-absorbing media attention is now on “the fiscal cliff” – the approaching date (Dec.  31) of expiration of tax cuts enacted by former U.S. President George W. Bush, and the spending cuts going into effect at the same time, as agreed by a specially empowered commission earlier this year.

This fiscal cliff is dreaded by all sides, because, according to the media and everybody of any standing, the country will plunge into recession.

Only a compromise between the president and the Republican Party on taxes and spending can avert the inevitable, according to pundits and political heavyweights. But the Republicans remain intransigent in their determination to extend all tax cuts beyond the scheduled expiration date, while the president insists that tax cuts must expire for the wealthiest Americans.

On the spending side, the Republicans oppose meaningful cuts for military, and demand means testing for Social Security and Medicare recipients -- a devious way of downgrading these earned benefits into welfare programs. The Social Security Trust Fund is financed by payroll tax. It is not the cause of US budget deficits, and in fact it has been lending trillions of dollars to the government by investing in US Treasury bonds over many years now. And Medicare needs mainly a change in legislated ground rules to reduce its excessive payments to pharmaceutical cartels and conglomerates. 

To complicate matters, the fiscal policy debate in the USA fails to address a very major issue -- the deplorable state of the country’s infrastructure.   

When fiscal debates and sewer lines belong in a single sentence, it is not that they are physically or figuratively connected. They are not, although they should be.

Here is why. The 80 years old sewer lines that are emptying into the Hudson River in upstate New York after treatment in sewage plants cannot last forever. And yet, replacing or renovating them has not been high on the public priority list.

It is not pretty when sewage treatment plants leak or pipes break and disintegrate. It happened twice in year 2012 (prior to the super-storm Sandy), with millions of gallons of raw sewage emptying into the river and causing havoc around the New York City periphery.

By a coincidence, a brand new US Navy $1.2 billion destroyer was having its maiden voyage in the Hudson Bay at the same time at the beginning of October.

All of this is about money. Should the nation’s wealth continue to be spent on private jets, Mac-Mansions, wars, and stashing of billions in private off-shore accounts of the oligarchs and the upper crust, or should it be taxed at a fair rate? This is the perennial question of public interest vs private indulgence.

Over the last two years, Obama has been attempting to get funding through Congress for major repairs of America’s rusted infrastructure. Over 2,000 bridges in the country are near collapse, not to mention the ancient electric grid with its blackouts, barely able to keep up with the modern day requirements, and promising the USA  a banana republic status. 

Equally important, committing public funds for infrastructure work would be a powerful, and in the ongoing recession the only realistic rapid stimulus for jobs creation.

The president was stopped cold by the Republican party- controlled Congress. It is no secret that the Republicans have engaged in obstructionism because they needed a bad economy to make Obama a one-term president.

In contrast, ritual spending for the Pentagon – at the current clip of $2 billion every 24 hours according to Brian Williams on the NBC Evening News – seldom meets serious objections. We must “stay the course in Afghanistan”, advised the Financial Times editorial of March 13, 2012.  Getting out by 2014?  Maybe, or maybe the date will slide if more U.S. soldiers are killed by friendly Afghan government troops. That’s how it goes in “the graveyard of empires.”

It doesn’t get better as nearly one-half of American veterans of the two unaffordable wars are applying for disability compensation for multiple physical and psychological injuries. The Veterans Administration is swamped. It is one year behind in processing one million applications each year (per The New York Times on Sept. 27), and has received no funding from Congress to handle the huge cost that was not expected (you got it right) by politicians.

And then came the punch from the super-storm Sandy at the end of October that exposed big time the neglect of waste disposal facilities in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area.

The New York Times account (Nov. 29) has it: “Hurricane Sandy crippled treatment plants in New York and New Jersey, revealing problems in the region’s wastewater infrastructure that could take years and billions of dollars to fix.”

After a tax-cutting binge in 2001 alongside the two semi-permanent unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US tax revenues have been grossly inadequate relative to spending. The deficit has grown by five trillion dollars during the eight years of George Bush’s presidency, with no rumblings from the Republican Party, which suddenly became fiscally super-sensitive when Barack Obama became president.

The Wall Street financial meltdown in 2008 and bank bailouts that followed added another several trillion to the deficit, while the Republicans have been pressing for more tax cutting and gutting of social programs. America’s big-time oligarchs have been financing the overall Republican full-court press as well as presidential campaigning.

Is it not incongruous to preach and rail against fiscal deficits and at the same time to

cringe in horror in the face of “the fiscal cliff” that would be the first real step toward budgetary discipline since Bill Clinton left the White House? And blaming Obama, as the Republicans are doing daily, for “not doing something” to avert it?

Also, the prolonged Afghan war has now entered the inevitable scandal phase, in which the only lasting victory by the commanding general David Petraeus was the one scored with his easy on the eye female biographer. For an encore, his successor, General John Allen came close to a long-distance stunt with a voluptuous Tampa socialite, which sparked an FBI investigation and put on hold his putative appointment as commander of US troops in Europe. This came after shattering WikiLeaks revelations about less than honorable conduct of US troops toward civilian population in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s re-election is a much bigger blow to America’s oligarchs than acknowledged by the mainstream media or understood by most people (except in Western Europe, where Obama is a favorite of both the liberals and conservatives).

Obama’s exuberance is muted by his deliberate avoidance of overplaying his hand. He cannot afford to antagonize the secretive national security state within a state, that since the late 1940s sometimes attempted to conduct its own foreign policy -- as it tried during the Cuban missile crisis. The more self-confident presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were able to put their foot down, but the latter paid for it dearly with his life  -- the crime was subsequently covered up by a high-level whitewash committee, and a dead patsy was blamed, as no one could stomach the ugly truth of something that admittedly can happen only in a banana republic.

Wall Street, with its tooth-and-nail resistance to new financial regulation laws, is perhaps the principal loser in Obama’s re-election. The Street, accustomed to absorbing over 70 percent of all business profits in the USA, is now trimming its work force.

And what about Ukraine’s oligarchs?

Are they not cozy in the exclusive lounges in London, Cyprus and Amsterdam?

Are they not shaking sleazy hands with the gentlemen in Geneva?

 Were they not applauded, as owners of the Regions Party and of most of Ukraine, by the big business East and West when Viktor Yanukovych was elected president?

If the answer is yes, they are not exactly winners with Obama’s re-election.

Boris Danik is a retired Ukrainian-American living in North Caldwell, New Jersey.

 

 

 

 

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