Bread and Circus—but hold the bread
It’s difficult to locate a single act that better exemplifies the right’s ideological incoherence than the current farm bill. Larded with billions for the huge and predominately white agribusiness firms, the GOP tried to balance their largesse at the billionaire’s table by stripping another 20 billion in food security from our poorest citizens, doubling down on their previous SNAP reduction. Because apparently the previous 20 billion cut just wasn’t enough.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the bill would deny SNAP to approximately 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade.
The individuals who would lose basic food assistance under the House provision are among the poorest people in the nation and they are a diverse group. More than 40 percent are women. One-third are over age 40. Among those who report their race, about half are white, a third are African-American, and a tenth are Hispanic. They are your neighbors, and some may even be your friends.
Questions naturally occur. Does the right honestly believe that hundreds of thousands of poor people are living the high life on SNAP, an assertion flying around the right-wing echo chamber utterly un-backed by either facts on the ground or reason? (David Darden shows how specious the ‘free loader’ argument is here … or you can check out The Center On Budget Policies and Priorities here.)
What to say to such Scrooges? Sometimes I’m afraid there is no chain that can be rattled loudly enough.
It appears the only thing the far right fears more than libertine sexual mores or strangers with strange skin color is the thought that someone, somewhere might be able to get something for nothing in this ridiculous economy. The notion of community isn’t just ignored with this latest rounds of cuts; it’s taken out back, stripped, whipped and then shot through the skull for good measure. It’s as though the right is vigorously trying to define themselves as the worst pack of jackals to ever inhabit Congress—and, if you know the history of that peculiar institution, you know that’s saying something.
Panem et Circenses was the old adage from the failing days of the Roman Empire. Bread and Circuses. The bread in question was actually a grain dole, or an ‘Annona’. It was a necessary ‘dole’ because the consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in the hands of a few noblemen had pushed landless peasants into the city, where they could not find jobs—a rather interesting parallel. Under the Roman grain law established by Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC, a portion of the grain collected as revenue for the state was sold at a subsidized rate to citizens.
I imagine many conservatives today would line up to denounce this activity, ignoring the historical precedents, naturally, and the brute fact that there were no jobs for those peasants whose land formed the basis for the Roman nobleman’s wealth. After all, to channel Paul Ryan, dependence on any form of public assistance “erodes the moral fiber” of the poor. Like morality is a set of jeans that somehow gets threadbare in the ass. No word yet if that same morality applies to agribusiness firms and their privileged helping of government subsidies. If you’re rich, you are apparently absolved of the need to ‘fend for yourself’, ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’, or of even possessing ‘moral fiber’, much less wearing it out. Jon Chait makes a point in the NY Times magazine that the Republicans are probably aware of the blatant hypocrisy of their position, but so fearful of losing elections, they try to bury it. Specifically, “The ultraconservative Republican Study Committee recently banned the Heritage Foundation from its meetings because Heritage denounced the GOP’s farm subsidies. There is a grim hilarity here: Republicans punished Heritage for its one technocratically sane position.”
So now the far right has offered themselves up as a kind of inverted moral circus, lined with the usual measure of hypocrisy, deciding to keep bread from those who most need it. No doubt, their deluded base approves, and the leadership certainly doesn’t suffer. Paul Ryan helped quaff a 350 dollar bottle of wine with like-minded economists last week while SNAP was being cut, one of two $350 bottles consumed that evening. That’s a total of $700 in wine consumed over the course of a 90 minute dinner or more than the entire weekly income of a couple making minimum wage. When confronted by a Talking Points Memo reporter, Paul Ryan said he had no idea how much the wine cost when it was being ordered.
TPM: So you wouldn’t do it again?
Ryan: Well, of course not, because I think it’s too much money to pay for wine. Yeah, I don’t really know what exactly it cost. It was expensive. But um, 250 maybe it was 250, I don’t really remember.
Besides a faulty memory his remark rather misses the point about the hypocrisy. He seems genuinely irritated at the cost, but not the incredible disparity between his life and the millions of others his actions seek to make worse. So here’s a historical parallel that might offer a note of caution for the right. The last time thousands asked for bread and didn’t receive it, a royal dame, equally clueless, suggested the starving peasants should simply “eat cake.”
We all know how well that turned out.
‘Death’ and the Austerity plan
(Death Of A Salesman, Opening Set Rendering by Jo Mielziner, 1949)
Last night I saw the Richmond’s Fire House Theatre production of Death of a Salesman—a riveting performance by a nearly flawless caste. This morning I woke to news that the ‘Washington consensus’ was forming around a compromise for the so-called fiscal cliff that will involve raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67.
That means while the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans will have to pay a bit more from their slush funds, millions of Americans will be required to work an extra two years in order to retire without fear of losing their savings or home because of an unanticipated illness. They could have retired at 65, using early retirement, but without affordable healthcare how is that feasible? Where does a person turn if they are 65 years of age and Medicare eligibility age is 67?
Perhaps for those with desk jobs or a relatively untaxing work life, those extra two years won’t mean that much, but for many Americans, this is an extra two years of hard labor, arbitrarily tacked onto a lifetime of sweat and struggle—and an extra two years can amount to a life sentence when you’re over sixty. Ask Willy Loman.
In the political calculus, let’s not forget him. Our Willy Lomans are still out there. Hammering in nails, petitioning on the street corners, working in the grocery stores and fast food restaurants, waking up sore with headaches from the night before, not sleeping well, worried about their children’s future, worried about their own. Many are not salesmen in the traditional sense any longer. The jobs and the demographics have changed since Arthur Miller’s play debuted nearly 70 years ago. Today our Willy Lomans are poor parents, single fathers or single mothers (in fact, females make up the majority of Medicare recipients), stretching to make ends meet when the car breaks down and they have to use their grocery money for repairs. Shall we make them work an extra two years so that a millionaire may preserve a bit more of his on hand cash?
Many others are immigrants who work all day landscaping our corporate scenery or toil in our fields to bring us cheap lettuce, tomatoes and grapes. They sweat under the sun, survive in crowded corners of our cities, or further out in dirty shacks provided for day laborers, stacked one on top of the other, far from our eyes and our thinking. Those are our Willy Lomans, too. With this deal, we’re telling them to work another two years in the sun, digging ditches, pounding nails, living like animals so that our millionaire congress can ‘save face’… That’s fair, right?
At the heart of Miller’s play is the cry of the dispossessed, of those who do not ‘make it’. Willy goes to his manager, exhausted beyond words, tells his young boss—who he helped name as an infant—that he just can’t continue traveling anymore. But there’s no place in the system for a Willy Loman who doesn’t travel 700 miles in a day, wearing holes in his shoes, lugging his valise. The young boss blows him off at first, and then finally fires him. The moment breaks Willy’s heart, and ultimately his mind. The question Miller asks is still with us: what do we do with our used up citizens, our jobless, our elderly, our permanently poor who will be shunted aside and ignored once again, our perennially homeless? They will find no new hope in this deal. Rather, what little help they might have received will be bartered away on the altar of an ill-timed austerity fix. Hundreds of thousands are still without work, millions who work must take jobs they find both demeaning and demoralizing because their chosen career path is no longer viable. Yet we will require two more years of their service; and no extra help for anyone who can not manage to be so lucky. That’s fair, right?
Death was the only escape Willy saw out of the cruel necessities of the system in which he was immersed. “What’s the secret Ben,” he asks his brother plaintively in one of his dream locutions before the end of the play. Ben, ever the adventurer, answers with a non-answer, “You go into the jungle and you come out rich. You go into the night, Willy and you come out with diamonds.”
It’s a nice thought, a romantic thought, probing the heart of the American dream, but in the end it’s the idea whose dissolution dooms Willy—and millions of Americans like Willy every day. The question is: do we as a society soften the lives of those who will never find diamonds in the jungle? Or do we tack two more years onto their already hard existence in the name of a meretricious austerity that benefits no one but the very wealthy? It’s an important question that defines us as a society. Attention must be paid.
~ Jack Johnson
There is no fiscal cliff and Erskine Bowles helped to create it.
Yes, the title is a wee paradoxical, but so is the logic behind the so called ‘fiscal cliff.’ A little history: the term ‘fiscal cliff’ was first used this year by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke when he warned of a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” that would hit us on January 1, 2013 due to a deal cut by Republicans and Democrats to raise the debt limit last year. But, as Paul Krugman has suggested, contrary to the way it’s often portrayed, the looming prospect of spending cuts and tax increases isn’t really a fiscal crisis. It is, instead, a political crisis brought on by the Republican’s attempt to take the economy hostage.
Last year the Republicans essentially extorted congress to agree to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by holding the (usually automatic) rise of the debt ceiling hostage. Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson (who headed up the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform a.k.a. The Cat Food Commission because its recommendations would lead to our seniors eating cat food) and other ‘deficit scolds’ enabled them by beating the drums for ‘deficit reduction’ at a time when deficit reduction was the last thing our economy needed. Central to their ideas was a conservative framework for limited government. They proposed three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar increase in taxes, instead of splitting savings equally between the two. Simpson and Bowles also appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss their proposals and at one point, Simpson explained his view that balancing the budget would require going “to where the meat is. And the meat is health care, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.” They were both in favor of cuts, either explicitly, using privatization or implicitly, by raising the age limit to enter Social Security to 69. They also favored lower tax rates across the board as a ‘guiding principle’… They didn’t get their way, but Republicans were able to use the deficit reduction fervor they helped to generate as cover to negotiate their draconian ‘fiscal cliff.’
So now, on January 1, about $400 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts will take effect. That’s $600 billion, or 4 percent of GDP, and that—everyone agrees– would be a drag on the economy.
Like most economists, Bernanke thinks that serious budget reduction in the middle of a recession / depression is a bad idea. In fact, turns out MOST rational people on Earth think budget reduction in the middle of a recession is a bad idea, too. Except folks who have another dog in the hunt, folks who aren’t so much interested in deficit reduction as they are in so called ‘entitlement reform’ (that would ultimately translate into the privatization of Social Security) and corporate tax relief; folks like Erskine Bowles.
Here’s something we need to understand –there is a Wall Street Wing of the Democratic party, and one of its most eager representatives is Erskine Bowles. According to Bill Black, noted economist and blogger at Naked Capitalism, Bowles along with Alan Simpson is allied with Republican Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson who has pledged a billion dollars in the effort to privatize Social Security called “The Third Way”.
Black writes, “The Third Way represents the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party and has pushed successfully for the worst domestic failures of the Obama administration, including continuing the Bush administration policy of granting the elite banksters whose frauds drove the crisis de facto immunity from criminal prosecution. … Third Way is also useful to Wall Street’s pursuit of other major priorities, including austerity and gaining access to tens of billions of dollars in freebie profits from beginning to privatize social security. Third Way’s specialty is spreading the faux “moral panic” that the safety net is the great threat to America.”
But here’s the thing. The safety net is no threat to America. The great threat to America is gutting our safety net, or, to put it more simply, the Third Way itself.
In fact, according to Jon Chait, the hazards of the fiscal cliff are greatly over rated in the short term. Going over the fiscal cliff and then doing nothing for another year would mean a huge tax hike and spending cut. But waiting until January would mean extremely gradual tax increases and spending cuts, ones that would not even begin to take place immediately, because Obama has the ability to delay their implementation. And even after they’re implemented, the effect would be gradual, and could subsequently be canceled out. “It’s like saying if you go three weeks without food you’ll die so if dinner isn’t on the table at 6 o’clock sharp terrible consequences will follow.”
So here’s how this could play out. On January 1, the Bush tax cuts disappear and everyone’s taxes automatically revert to the higher Clinton-era rates. At that point, the conversation changes: Suddenly we’ll be talking about cutting taxes on the middle class and maintaining them where they are now on the rich. And Obama can basically go on TV every single day and say that he’s ready to sign a middle-class tax cut any time, but Republicans are refusing to agree unless their rich pals also get a tax cut. Exit polls show that the public—both Democrats and Republicans– DO NOT want to give the rich a tax cut, and they are going to be angry that the GOP is holding their tax cut hostage unless Donald Trump gets a tax cut too.
So there’s no real reason to fear the fiscal cliff, at least not in the short term, unless, of course, you listen to the loud drum beating by folks like Erskine Bowles who recently wrote a hand wringing op-ed in the Washington Post deeply concerned about jumping off the cliff.
“Going over the fiscal cliff would mean allowing a massive and immediate cut to nearly every major government agency and activity, including those vital to our national security or economic growth. It would mean a large and immediate tax increase on nearly all Americans, not just the highest earners. It would mean a double-dip recession at a time when the economy is still very weak and many Americans are struggling to find work.”
Some of this simply isn’t true—the cuts would not be immediate. They would be gradual. The tax increase wouldn’t be paid until taxes were due and much could change—in fact would change— if the political calculus is handled correctly. The double-dip recession isn’t likely to occur, again, unless the Republicans remain intransigent on tax cuts for the middle class—which would be political suicide. But even if Bowls hyped paranoia was the case, why not simply punt on the fiscal cliff and continuing to add to the debt? Who exactly says the debt is such a great problem that it has to be dealt with NOW in the middle of a recession? Not Ben Bernanke. Not Paul Krugman. Not Joe Stiglitz. Not Bill Black. Not the vast majority of respected economists out there. Not anyone I know of reasonable intelligence. In fact, it’s only Erskine Bowls and his Wall Street buddies that think this is so important it has to be tackled right now.
Says Bowls: “simply punting on the fiscal cliff and continuing to add to the debt would be an even bigger mistake. It would show markets we cannot put our financial house in order.”
Did you catch that? The ‘markets’ –that is Wall Street brokers– might get nervous. I’m wondering at this point, how many friends in the broader community these Wall Street brokers currently have. One suspects Bowles has an interest in shading the truth. He was an investment banker before he entered politics, and he currently serves on the board of directors for both Morgan Stanley and GE. He was chief of staff under Clinton from January 1997 to October 1998, during which time he tried to broker a deal on Social Security with Newt Gingrich and would have succeeded if it weren’t for the Lewinsky affair. Opening up a grand bargain on what he refers to incorrectly as ‘entitlements’ is one of the fevered dreams of Wall Street denizens—and Erskine Bowles, both for profit and personal legacy. So Erskine may not be exactly impartial on this matter.
Luckily, we also have such noted impartial parties as the Wall Street Journal itself wailing about the dangers of the ‘fiscal cliff’ and opining that the President should take John Boehner’s generous offer “ to maintain the Bush tax rates for at least another year, ease the sequester for defense in particular, and in return GOP House leaders will be open to giving the President new revenue.”
Got that? Accept Bush tax cut for another year on the promise of ‘being open to… new revenue’ from….somewhere…but where? Apparently, that’s to be figured out later.
Sounds like quite the bargain.
The Journal also offers some advice to Obama as to how he can prove his good faith — by appointing a well-respected figure to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. You’ll never guess who the Journal has in mind:
“On the other hand, the choice of someone like Erskine Bowles, who led Mr. Obama’s deficit commission in the first term, would signal a desire for serious negotiations. Especially after the fiasco of the “grand bargain” talks of 2011, Mr. Obama needs a point man whom Republicans think isn’t a political hit man.”
But, in his own way, Bowles is certainly an opportunist, if not a political hit man. He’s a close friend of Peter Peterson, and the entire Third Way movement see him as key. That’s exactly the person you don’t want in office, or anywhere near these negotiations.
One of the most important reasons why more Americans support the Democratic Party than the Republican Party is the conventional wisdom that the Democrats guard our social safety net. If Obama and the Democrats, led by the likes of Erskine Bowles or other so called ‘centrist’ offer a grand bargain in which paid benefits programs like Social Security are in play it will be more than a political disaster; it will amount to a betrayal of all those who have elected him. The only people who win in such a ‘grand bargain’ are the denizens of Wall Street and their Third Way lackeys.
~by Jack Johnson
One Washington Devouring the Other
“So here’s a question at a moment when financial mania has Washington by the throat: How would you define the state of mind of our war-makers, who are carrying on as if trillion-dollar wars were an American birthright, as if the only sensible role for the United States was to eternally police the planet, and as if garrisoning U.S. troops, corporate mercenaries, and special operations forces in scores and scores of countries was the essence of life as it should be lived on this planet?” ~ Lowering America’s War Ceiling?
Tom Engelhardt makes a good case for two faces of Washington vying for the control of our decline – each with the same master and ultimately working in tandem. Comparing the dilemma first to a stage production – and then a mental illness, he suggests the game “What’s Wrong With This Picture” as if we are overlooking something very elementary.
Separating Americans into those willing to watch “the show” through the last act, and those who see the “insanity” of war profiteering and want to do something about it, is an inevitable part of the solution when “one Washington is devouring the other”.
The power behind our military and political dysfunction is draining the life out America. At this point everybody should be ready for less game playing and better leadership.
Greeted as if World War II had been won, the killing of Osama bin Laden should have been a reminder of the success of the Global War on Terror for a man with few “troops” and relatively modest amounts of money who somehow managed to land Washington in a financial and military quagmire.
U.S. Political Handbook
Eric Cantor – the “Weasel”
Apparently there are many Republican members of the House who do not understand the ramifications of not raising the debt limit.
“At a closed-door meeting Friday morning, GOP leaders turned to their most trusted budget expert, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, to explain to rank-and-file members what many others have come to understand: A fiscal meltdown could occur if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling.”
At least someone seems to have learned something from Ryan. “He said if we pass Aug. 2, it would be like ‘Star Wars,'” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a freshman from Tennessee. “I don’t think the people who are railing against raising the debt ceiling fully understand that.” L.A. Times
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor does not need these lessons. He knows full well the damage that failing to raise the debt ceiling could do to our economy. Yet he has chosen his own political future over our country’s future. Kudos to James Fallows of The Atlantic for shining a light on Cantor’s dangerous inflexibility on the debt ceiling debate. Fallows describes Cantor’s walking out of the debt ceiling talks: “…as clear an example of petty-ambition-over-national-interest as we’ve seen in public life in quite a while.”
More from Fallows:
“Cantor is putting personal power before country here, and in a very dangerous way. If Boehner actually does manage to cut a decent deal despite Cantor’s effort to throw him under the bus, he may not hold on as leader of his party, but unlike Cantor, he’ll deserve to.” ~~Ezra Klein
“The prospects for an agreement now are worse because of Rep. Cantor’s presence in them. That’s not because he’s a conservative — so, obviously, are Boehner and McConnell.” It’s because he’s acting like a weasel.”
Friday Grab Bag
“…the military is pursuing a new strategy….” Pentagon discloses largest-ever cyber theft:
“Does the administration agree? Or does it have a different plan?”
How to Shave a Bundle Off the Deficit: Spend Less on Nukes
Kevin Drum at MotherJones thinks having the debt ceiling is “goofy”.
“Why wasn’t it repealed long ago by a majority party tired of the opposition using it to score political points?”
Remind me again why we have a debt ceiling:
Here’s a February DailyKos on means testing that still works today. Our less than creative options have been downsized and consolidated – which always reminds me of my bedtime way back when. “Which book for tonight … this one or that one?”
The case against means testing Social Security:
Means testing is expensive and it’s not the agreement we had when we paid for the policy. Integrity counts. I personally would like to try a voluntary “patriotic” opt-out for those in the upper echelon thoughtful enough to refuse social security because -they -don’t -need -it. Wouldn’t a list of their names be telling? That’ll never happen ….
Ralph Waldo Emerson ~
We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.
Think about it. Once they start, our kids are in public school about 16,380 hours (P – 12). That only leaves 5.72 years out of 13 for them to experience life awake and not in school before they graduate. Ouch.
540 hrs – preK public school 1 yr
16,380 hrs -180 days in public school per year @7hr k-12
33,215 hrs – sleep @7hrs x 13 yrs
=50135 hrs or 2,089 days or … 5.72 years
Here’s my favorite video about teaching. Toshiro Kanamori is teaching a class. REALLY teaching a class.
And finally this one. Have a nice weekend.
speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class
by Bernie Sanders
art: “Morning In America”, June 18, 2011
video: …A THOUSAND CUTS
music: composer/violinist Michael Galasso