“Fix the Debt” bankroller Pete Peterson. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

There is a great deal of talk about how Republican senators have gone off the rails in their opposition to the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to serve as Secretary of Defense. And there have been some bizarre deviations, with senators making pronouncements based on internet rumors and unfounded speculation.

But none of the fantastical filibustering of the Hagel fight can compare with the delusional dialogue regarding the federal budget.

To hear the billionaire proponents of austerity tell it, America is teetering on the brink of economic ruin. America, we are told, is broke. And the only answer is to “Fix the Debt” with deep spending cuts followed by the radical reordering of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But America is not broke.

America has broken priorities.

That’s what the billionaire proponents of cuts-at-any-cost economics won’t acknowledge as they advance a “Fix the Debt” agenda that imposes austerity on everyone else, while stacking the deck in their favor.

It is vital to understand that there is an economically and socially viable alternative to austerity cuts. It’s a growth agenda that addresses waste, fraud and abuse while finding new revenues to invest in job creation, education and expansion of access to healthcare.

The growth agenda, as proposed in the “Balancing Act” advanced by leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, asks billionaires to pay their fair share in order to expand employment and opportunities.

The austerity agenda asks everyone but the billionaires to pay: via cuts not just to benefits and services but to jobs.

The anticipated March 1 sequestration, which proposes across-the-board cuts, is an example of austerity.

It continues a two-year-long process of slashing federal programs that are of value to Americans.

But it demands nothing new of billionaires and corporations that are on the winning end of rapidly expanding income inequality.

If we have learned anything from cuts in Europe it is that with austerity comes unemployment.

Even Barack Obama’s critics tend to shy away from arguing against the reality that the president was right when he said: “These cuts are not smart, they are not fair, they will add hundreds of thousands of people to the unemployment rolls. This is not an abstraction. People will lose their jobs. The unemployment rate might tick up again.”

The only place for quibbling is with the word “might.”

Austerity, in the form of the sequestration of federal spending that is set to begin March 1, will result in job losses.

Austerity in the the form of a renewed push by Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles and the billionaire-backed “Fix the Debt” campaign to assault Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, has the potential to lead to even more significant job losses.

How many jobs? The most hopeful estimates begin in the range of the 700,000 losses predicted by the Macroeconomic Advisers research group. But they could go much higher, according to an October report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service.

But the sequestration is not the worst of it.

The sequestration is the start, not the finish, of a process that undoes economic recovery and causes job losses to spike by even greater numbers.

Simpson and Bowles are back, promoting schemes such as “chained CPI,” the slashing of cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients that will squeeze the buying power of seniors and people with disabilities and further impede economic growth.

That will cost even more jobs. And why?

In the case of the sequestration fight, to preserve tax loopholes that benefit millionaires and billionaires and multinational corporations that shift jobs overseas.

In the case of Simpson-Bowles, to lower top marginal tax rates that benefit millionaires and billionaires and multinational corporations that shift jobs overseas.

This is what austerity is all about: exploiting fiscal challenges in order to redistribute the wealth upward.

Louis Brandeis argued in another era of wrangling over economic and fiscal policy: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Today we may say, extending upon the wisdom of Justice Brandeis, that “we must make our choice. We may have a measure of economic democracy and with it job growth, or we may have austerity with the purpose of further concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Sequestration? How about ending childhood poverty, Greg Kaufmann asks