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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



The political situation changes so quickly that whatever I say today might be ancient history by tomorrow. For instance, right up until the beginning of February, both Republicans and Democrats were screaming about the need to put more people to work–with the Republicans promising that all private business needed in order to ensure this was to have its taxes cut to the bone, while government spending was to be decimated–especially programs designed to help the poor, the children, and the oldsters. The Democrats meanwhile were arguing that not less but more government aid to the economy was called for, or at least more programs to encourage job formation and increase the amount of spendable income available to wage-earners.. Then slowly the NY Times (which takes most of its stories about economic indicators from government handouts & reports by private research organizations) began to run a series of stories about the economy that were more likely to be upbeat than down.

On January 12, it reported that “Dividends Rise in Sign of Recovery.” On January 27, a story that reported a rise in new orders for manufactured goods, as well as a rise in the Conference Board’s “leading economic indicators,” was headlined “Economy Ended ‘11 With More Energy Than Expected" (although the story also reported a fall in new single-family home sales). The next day, the gross domestic product for the fourth quarter of 2011 showed an annualized increase of 2.8 percent; the story was headlined “Economy Grew At Quicker Pace in 4th Quarter.” On January 31, a mixed-signals story reported that although consumer spending was stagnant in December, personal income rose. The next day, a negative story reported that consumer confidence, as measured by the Conference Board, had declined a bit in January, but the day after that, the paper had two positive stories: “Manufacturing and Construction Showing Growth,” and “In a Surprise, Car Sales Start New York Strongly.” Despite this situation, the Times was still apprehensive about the forthcoming employment statistics: its headline on February 3 was “Stagnant Job Growth Is Expected in Report.”

These expectations, however, turned out to be a little unduly pessimistic, for next day’s headline (two columns wide, on page One) was “Jobless Rate Falls to 8.3 %, Altering Face of Campaign.” In the financial section, another story said that the Dow-Jones Industrials, which had ended 2011 at pretty much where it had entered it, had by February 3 achieved a 3-year high. Of course, the stock market can just as easily go down as up, and the same applies to the employment situation, but meanwhile it seems that neither party wants to admit that the economy is getting at least a little better. The Republicans don’t want to admit it because it will make President Obama look good, not only for his pushing the stimulus bill, but also for his role in getting Detroit’s Big Three automakers back into business, and for his other economic policies, which on the whole have been more expansive than reductive. The Democrats, by the same token, don’t want to emphasize the upturn because they are afraid it will make the Republicans in Congress look good, with their hold-the-line policies on spending—though the stalemate between the Republican-dominated House and the Democratic-dominated Senate has effectively prevented the Republicans from any full-force austerity programs, the likes of which are keeping Britain, with its penny-pinching Tory-Liberal government, in the economic doldrums, and forcing poor Greece to shrink its whole economy – which only means that its national debt has become a larger and not a smaller percentage of its gross domestic product. With 21% unemployment, cutting government spending still further is to further hamstring recovery, but Greece’s creditors, in Germany, France, and the rest of the EEC, appear determined to preserve their own economic health at the expense of that of Greece.

Who knows what is ultimately responsible for whatever modest upturn we are now enjoying? It’s not really a full-fledged recovery yet – 8.3% is still pretty high — but at least it means that government receipts are on the upswing, to the point where some states, most notably Michigan, are showing surpluses instead of deficits. As reported in the NY Times by Monica Davey on February 9, this lovely surprise raises the issue of whether to spend a little or save the surplus for hard times ahead. One way or another, it kind of blunts the need for austerity and further budget-cutting, leaving the Republicans with a need for a new campaign issue.


Not that it has taken them so long to find one, or to be more precise, a whole group of them – specifically, what in 2004 were called “social issues,” and in 2008 were more likely to be known as “wedge issues.” The difference between the terms is the difference between the effectiveness of these issues. They were called “social issues” in 2004 because they enabled George W. Bush to retain his hold upon the presidency, by luring independents and Reagan Democrats into the Republican camp. They were called “wedge issues” in 2008 because, although the Republicans tried similar tactics in that campaign, these issues didn’t pry any (or at least enough) Democrats and independents away from the Democratic column. In any event, these issues have little or nothing to do with economics. Rather, so far they concern same-sex marriage, abortion rights and birth control, with the Republicans mostly in effect opposed to all three, and the Democrats, by and large, in favor of all three. At present, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. Will the nation rise up in righteous indignation because President Obama wants to make birth control devices available under the national health bill to women who work for Roman Catholic universities and hospitals? Or will the opposition of an all-male council of bishops to the president’s program merely show how far out of touch the Church is with the real world? After all, it’s estimated that 99 percent of Catholic women have used contraceptive devices at one time or another. From readers' comments posted at the NY Times website, I gather that priests rarely or never preach about it on Sundays from the pulpit, which leads me to believe that this has to be “Don’t ask, don’t tell” on a truly monumental scale. Even in the matter of abortion, the Church seems to be a little out of touch with the electorate – at least, according to a letter to the NY Times by Jack Lechner, published on February 7. He cited the latest Gallup Poll, which found that although 58% of the poll’s respondents opposed abortion in some or all circumstances, 77% also believed that it should be legal in some or all circumstances. In other words, although many people may disapprove of abortion, only 20 percent believe that it should be illegal in all circumstances.


The real economic problem – which the current modest upturn isn’t yet solving–has become how the very small number of rich people at the top of the economic pyramid are claiming an ever-larger share of the country’s wealth, leaving less and less for the rest of us to divide amongst ourselves, and impoverishing --in particular--- the middle class, as well as depriving it and its children of the opportunity to better themselves. Four stories in the NY Times have highlighted aspects of the problem, all based on studies or reports by governmental bodies and/or privately-financed research institutions. The first article, based on a study by the Congressional Budget Office, was by Robert Pear and published on October 26, 2011. Its headlines: “It’s Official: The Rich Get Richer; Top 1 Percent Doubled Share of Nation’s Income, Report Finds.” The second article, by Jason DeParle, was entitled “Harder for Americans to Rise From Economy’s Lower Rungs,” and appeared on January 5, 2012. It reported that “At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations.” A third story, on January 12, was by Sabrina Tavernise, and based on a study by the Pew Research Center. It reported that “Survey Finds Rising Strain Between Rich And the Poor.” A fourth, also by Sabrina Tavernise, was entitled “Poor Dropping Further Behind Rich in School,” and cited four scholarly studies on the problem, as well as a handful of other scholars. It appeared on February 10.

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has publicized this problem, talking about the 1% and the 99% until these numbers are part of the political dialogue. As nearly as I can tell, the movement developed out of frustration with both the two big political parties. To begin with, its future members seem to have been angered by how Congress — and President Obama — refused to allow the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich to expire, in 2010, even though at that point the Democrats still had a majority in both House and Senate. But, once the Republicans took command of the House at the beginning of 2011, its lack of sympathy for the 99% became even clearer. Nor has the President really set himself up in outright opposition to the Republicans’ cheese-paring ways–fearful as he seems to be of the right-wingers in his own party who insist that slashing government spending is necessary. True, nobody has heard much lately from the Tea Party, with its demands for cutting taxes & slashing budgets. And Congress’s approval ratings appear to be at an all-time record low—10%, according to Gallup. The President is doing a bit better, though at 46% he’s not exactly Love’s Young Dream. But he evidently doesn’t feel radical enough to go out and beg Occupy Wall Street to help him get re-elected, nor do any or at least many of its members seem so far to feel any desire to work within the political system. Obama’s efforts to conciliate moderate & independent voters have offended "progressive" pundits like Paul Krugman and "progressive" lobbyists like MoveOn. They are doing little but complain and petition the President to endorse their agenda, much of which he doesn’t seem to feel it would be possible to do – and still get re-elected


My feeling is that if he does get defeated, it will be because the "progressives" who so enthusiastically supported him in 2008 sat on their hands this time around. But to elect a Republican president in 2012 would be a particular disaster for women. This case has been most cogently put by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents my own district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but recently contributed an article on January 26 to The West Side Spirit, which (as its name implies) services the Upper West Side. The article is entitled, “For Roe v. Wade Supporters, Silence is No Longer a Choice, “ and in it, Maloney chronicles the various efforts in the Republican House of Representatives to hamstring government support of all sorts of health care for women, measures that only failed because the Senate didn’t act on them or defeated them (what she doesn’t say is that the Democrats have only a very slim margin of control in the Senate, which could easily go down the tubes in 2012 ). She does, however, point out that all of the four Republican presidential candidates remaining in the race have promised to select Supreme Court candidates who will overturn Roe, and have pledged to sign legislation that could restrict women’s access to basic health care. She continues that, if Roe falls, the issue will be turned back to the states, and “NARAL has identified 69 separate anti-choice measures adopted by the states in 2011, even with Roe. Five states have gone so far as to ban abortions entirely after 20 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest or to protect the health of the mother.....This year could prove pivotal in the fight to protect reproductive rights. For those of us who support Roe, silence is no longer a viable choice.”


I think there is a lot of sympathy in the electorate for the more liberal positions on the “social issues,” more sympathy than the Republicans realize, but whether or not it will translate into a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President in 2012 remains to be seen. It may be that the election returns fail to reflect the true feelings of the country, for the very simple reason that the Republicans are doing everything they can to disenfranchise Democratic voters. They are doing this by getting legislation in the various states passed that, by putting up unnecessarily stringent requirements for voting, will disproportionately disenfranchise the student vote, the elderly, the poor and the minorities – in other words, precisely those parts of the electorate most likely to vote Democratic. The Republican claim is that they are pushing these measures in order to prevent “voter fraud,” yet neither they nor anybody else has yet been able to document more than a minuscule number of proven examples of voter fraud. Another reason that the vote in 2012 may not reflect the true feelings of the nation is that Republicans control a disproportionate number of the state legislatures, and most of them are getting to redraw the boundary lines between Congressional districts on the basis of the 2010 U. S. Census. It would be nice if gerrymandering were an out-of-date concept. Alas, it ain't.

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