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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



The last two weeks have been blissfully free from partisan acrimony, as Congress has been on its two-week Easter vacation. And, since this column last looked at politics, some few things have been accomplished. In early April, Democrats and Republicans in Congress reached agreement on a budget deal for the coming six months that averted the government having to shut down for lack of funds. Spending was cut by $38 billion, less than the Republicans wanted but more than the Democrats had originally been willing to stand for, and a number of provisions demanded by Republicans were not included, such as the restriction of financing to Planned Parenthood and environmental regulation. How long this tenuous balance of power will last is anybody’s guess, as many if not all Republicans are determined to reinstate those same demands when next year’s budget is proposed, later this year, and even before then, when legislation to raise the federal debt limit comes before the Congress (in mid-May). Having the United States default on its bonds and other financial obligations – which could happen if the debt limit is not raised --- would cause incalculable damage to the country’s international financial reputation, and could even cause a flight from the dollar to more stable currencies --- such as the euro. However, some of the more ideologically-minded Republican members of Congress don’t seem to care about that as much as they do about holding to their promises to cut the budget.

One can hope that their buddies in Wall Street will be able to talk sense into them, but what bothers me about some of our electorate (and some of its leaders) is the element of fantasy that seems to pervade their thoughts, and their consequent unwillingness to listen to reason. I am thinking here particularly of the “birther” issue, with supposedly sane and intelligent people perpetuating the notion that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and is therefore ineligible to be U.S. President. Often, it has been reported that Obama was born in Hawaii, and various documents have been presented in support of this fact, yet Donald Trump, who has declared himself a bankrupt no fewer than four times since 1991, recently began fueling his own campaign for the Presidency by perpetuating this myth.

Obama finally gave to the press a copy of the long form of his birth certificate, but all that will probably do for people who hate him is lead them to say that it’s a conspiracy between him & the state of Hawaii. Already, I understand, some of them are saying that the Administration used computer manipulation to create a false birth certificate. This last piece of information comes from an article in today’s New York Times by Kate Zernike on how prone Americans are to conspiracy theories of all kinds, including the fantasies that aliens landed at Roswell NM, that JFK was assassinated by a conspiracy, not a lone gunman, and that “the Jews” were responsible for 9/11. Zernike quoted Kenneth D. Kitts, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, who has written about presidential commissions exploring popular conspiracy theories, saying “It almost becomes an article of faith, and as with any theological belief, you can’t confront it with facts.”

There are two factors that may return a measure of reality to Capitol Hill, after Congress returns from vacation. One is the presence of the so-called “Gang of Six,” a group of three Republican Senators and three Democratic Senators who together want to offer a budget proposal that will combine both Republican and Democratic ideas about reducing the budget deficit --- possibly by combining spending cuts with increasing revenues --- not (Heaven forefend) by raising taxes, but by closing loopholes in the Tax Code. One also likes to think that some spending cuts would involve not the “social compact” programs that have been part of the U.S. understanding of government since the 1930s, and which the Republican have been doing what they can to downgrade, but spending on the military, which has increased by 50 percent since 9/11 and now accounts for 50 percent of all discretionary federal spending (as opposed to entitlements, like Social Security & Medicare).

It would be nice if the Democrats had the guts to do something about that, even at the risk of being accused of being “soft on terrorism.” But Obama’s foreign policy has not been too encouraging. I myself think that his domestic policy – including the enactment of health care reform, increased regulation of the financial markets, and stimulus spending --- has been admirable (in fact, far more admirable than many of his onetime admirers give him credit for). But his foreign policy and his “war on terrorism” has amounted to nothing more than a continuation of the policies of George W. Bush. True, he has (largely) gotten us out of Iraq, but more than compensated for that by getting us even more deeply mired in Afghanistan, a war that goes nowhere despite vast expenditures of men and materiel. Obama has done nothing to palliate the excesses of the Patriot Act, and --- however one may feel about accused terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo --- there is no excuse for allowing them to languish without trials in prison for years upon end. The latest disaster seems to be our getting involved in Libya, for which I blame Hillary Clinton as much as I blame Obama. She is the real hawk in this Administration, I think (just as she was the one who persuaded her husband to wade into the conflict in Bosnia all those years ago). Before cheering us into the fray, she could at least have done what she could to find out just how strong Qaddafi was, and how well organized the Libyan rebels really were & how good a chance they had of unseating him.

Obama’s biggest coup to date is the death of Osama bin Laden, also announced today, but the way in which crowds of cheering Americans are gathering to celebrate this death shouldn’t be taken as evidence that the terrorist threat is ended. Rather, in my opinion, they bear testimony to the pent-up anger and frustration felt by so many Americans in the face of continued failure by the U.S. to bring any of its other --- and far broader --- military activities to successful conclusions.

In addition to the Gang of Six, another reason that we can at least pray that Congress will be more accommodating when it returns from its Easter recess is the findings of a poll jointly sponsored by CBS and the New York Times, and published in the Times on April 22 (in a story by Jim Rutenberg and Megan Thee-Brenan). The poll indicated that Americans were more pessimistic about the economic outlook than they have been at any time since shortly after President Obama took office, but more to the point here were the attitudes toward the Democratic Administration and the Republican Congress: essentially, the American public said “a plague on both your houses.” Disapproval of the way that Obama was handing the economy has never been higher – at 57 percent of Americans; moreover, 59 percent specifically disapproved of the way he was handing the budget deficit. On the other hand, 63 percent disapproved of the way that the Republicans in Congress were handling the budget deficit, and 75 percent disapproved of the way that Congress was handling its job. The idea of raising taxes across the board, in order to pay for current government programs, didn’t appeal, but there was a lot of support (even among Republicans) for raising taxes on households earning $250,000 a year or more.

When the new House of Representatives charged into Washington after New Year’s, its Republican majority was full of confidence that its program had the full endorsement of the U.S. public. They may not feel quite so confident this time --- not least because some of their “town meetings” with constituents during the recess were disrupted by people accusing them of seeking to dismantle Medicare while providing tax cuts to corporations and rich Americans. A story in the Times for April 27 by Jennifer Steinhauer and Carl Hulse described a few such meetings, suggesting that liberal organizations, such as MoveOn.org, were largely responsible for the complaints. Seeking to deal with them, one Republican Congressman in Fort Lauderdale, Allen B. West, took only written questions submitted by the audience at his meeting. When some people spoke up about Medicare, and accused him of making misleading remarks, he had them “escorted’ out by what the Times called “security.”

West’s way of dealing with his opposition rose to my mind when I read the lead editorial in the Times for the same day. It discussed the numerous states where Republicans are now seeking to revise the voting laws by requiring citizens to submit various forms of photo ID and proof of citizenship before they’re allowed to vote. This, as the Times said, will make it harder for the young, the poor and African-Americans --- groups that typically vote Democratic —- to cast a ballot. The editorial cited a study by the Brenan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law which found that 11 percent of the population, 21 million people, do not have a current photo ID. The fraction increased to 15 percent with low-income voting-age citizens, 18 percent of young eligible voters and 25 percent of black eligible voters. The rationale for these new laws is that they’re designed to do away with “voter fraud.” But voter fraud is a largely imaginary phenomenon (see remarks above about fantasy). Kansas, which has just enacted one of these laws, has had exactly ONE prosecution for voter fraud in the last six years. But because of this, the Times observed, “an estimated 620,000 Kansas residents who lack a government ID now stand to lose their right to vote.”

What some Republicans might like to do, I think, is reinstate property requirements. That’s what we used to have in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries (the last state to abandon property requirements was North Carolina, which did so in 1856). As long as we had property requirements, we could ensure that the moneyed classes would be running things, and poor people could be ignored altogether (after all, if they’re poor, it’s their own fault, isn’t it?). Somewhere along the line, the U.S. decided that “universal suffrage” was a better idea, and, since we adopted that principle on a national level in 1856, suffrage has been extended to include women as well as men, African-Americans and Native Americans as well as European-Americans. But even so—and even in states without onerous burdens placed on registration---the higher income, better educated people still vote more often than poorer and less educated people (especially in off-year elections). This creates an imbalance that continues to exist, regardless of all we can do to set it aright.

To top it all off, fantasy again comes into the equation and promotes the moneyed interests, for who among us doesn’t like to think that at some future date, we will be rich, too? Who wouldn’t want to be like Donald Trump, with hotels & casinos & TV shows & an income guesstimated at $50 million a year? And, if we were as rich as he is, would we want to have to pay any more than we absolutely had to in taxes? Definitely not—so why should we penalize him? Because Trump is such a culture hero, he – and rich people in general --- have for the past 30 years anyway, enjoyed something of a free ride in U.S. public opinion. Back in the 1930s and 40s, the shoe was on the other foot, and being rich was equivalent to being an enemy of the people, but in the 80s and even the 90s, more people sifted into the upper middle classes. Those left on the lower levels found fewer and fewer opportunities to make their voices heard, with the result that those in the middle middle (the swing vote) were persuaded to think like the upper uppers. Whether all that has really changed in the past few years --- and since the bottom fell out of the stock market in the fall of 2008 --- remains to be seen. As recently as December 2010, our leaders in Washington concluded that the U.S. public didn’t want to raise taxes on the rich, and so they perpetuated the Bush-era tax cuts on the very rich. Has voter sentiment changed since? I wonder.

The economy isn’t in such great shape. The gross domestic product inched upward by only 1.8 percent in the first quarter. The housing market is still in the dumps, and, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his NY Times column for April 29, 14 million Americans were technically unemployed – which is to say, out of work & seeking it. Millions more, he added, were in part-time jobs though they wanted full time work. But still – look on the bright side – an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent implies that nine out of ten Americans are working. And the stock market hasn't been doing too badly, and corporate profits are up. So how do most Americans really feel? Is the glass half empty or is it half full?

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