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Don’t Listen to the Deficit Squawks

Corporate and far-right special interests incite deficit fears by manufacturing an artificial crisis around debt. This has consolidated wealth and power in predominantly white corporate hands—and at the expense of Black and brown communities—for decades.

“I think it’s time to take a look at our national debt.”

That was the all-too-predictable response of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as President Biden introduced proposals that begin to make up for decades of disinvestment in Black and brown communities. The American Jobs Plan and American Family Plan propose funding for physical and care infrastructure, including clean energy, safe drinking water, equitable workforce development and job training programs, expanded college opportunities and support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, universal preschool, accessible childcare, and critical paid family and medical leave. While the packages don’t yet measure up to the nation’s pressing economic, social, and climate needs as fully as the THRIVE Agenda that Demos and many others have embraced, they are a vital step.

Yet right on cue, the cries of the deficit squawks ring out.

Corporate and far-right special interests incite deficit fears by manufacturing an artificial crisis around debt.

We’ve seen the politicians wring their hands about excessive spending and worry that making the investments to address the scope of the nation’s problems will make them appear fiscally irresponsible. But these worries have a source, and it’s far from neutral or objective: Corporate and far-right special interests incite deficit fears by manufacturing an artificial crisis around debt. Behind a mask of impartiality and responsibility lie the same trickle-down economic policies that have consolidated wealth and power in predominantly white corporate hands for decades.

The deficit squawks were silent when politicians rammed through trillions of dollars in tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefitted corporations and wealthy families, but policies that would shift power or wealth and set the country on a more equitable path reliably trigger warnings of fiscal recklessness.

The ploy has worked for more than a century.

The ploy has worked for more than a century. In a recent article in Dissent, Vanessa Williamson traces the roots of deficit fearmongering to the racist and anti-democratic backlash against Reconstruction. “When the former Confederate elite mobilized to successfully overthrow the multiracial Reconstruction-era governments in the South 150 years ago, it was under the banner of fiscal conservatism,” she writes. Working to associate Black political power with corruption and wasteful spending, white supremacists “paint[ed] themselves as staid and respectable fiscal conservatives, [even as] they were simultaneously engaged in a radical plan to subvert democratic elections across the South… After the Reconstruction governments fell, a new fiscal state served to reinforce white supremacy and strengthen antidemocratic institutions.”

Now the same moldering playbook is being dusted off again, from the anti-democratic pushback to popular policies to the demonization of Black political power. A new coalition—including Demos—aims to stop the deficit squawks, highlighting how, far from being impartial, “corporate-funded deficit squawks are pushing a narrative that benefits wealthy C-suite executives at the expense of everyone else.” It’s past time we got wise to their gambit.