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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."



Here's a link to a website that my readers may find interesting. Seems that Mitt Romney, who is running against President Obama, doesn't just want to cut back funding for PBS, Amtrak, NEH & NEA. He wants to cut out funding for them altogether. That, on top of cutting back almost every other program that might benefit the middle & lower classes, from President Obama's Affordable Care Act to aid to beleaguered local governments to food stamps & not excluding a special way of messing up Medicare.

According to the budget that Mr. Romney's running mate, Paul D. Ryan, got accepted by the House, Medicare is scheduled to be turned over to private enterprise and voucherized in 2023--in other words, everybody's benefits would be capped at a certain modest figure, and if they got really sick, they (or their families) would have to pay the rest of their medical expenses in full.

This could wreak untold havoc with the budgets of anybody who suffers from any longlasting illness in their old age. Not everybody pops off with a heart attack or a stroke. It can take years and even decades to die of cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, and the fact that Medicare payments would be limited in such cases in effect would set up rationing -- with cost the determining factor, and the rich able to provide their relatives suffering from longterm illnesses with medical care, while the poor and the middle class would simply get to watch while their relatives died off. Yet Mr. Ryan and other Republicans are telling voters that Obama's Affordable Care Act is really the one that endangers Medicare!

True, the Affordable Care Act is intended to reduce the cost to the government of Medicare, but only by weeding out fraud and waste, cutting back on payments to providers, and reducing subsidies for private H.M.O.'s like Medicare Advantage, which cost more than traditional fee-for-service programs. Fee-for-service payments to recipients won't be reduced, nor payments to recipients in general, nor will any monies be diverted from Medicare into care for those under 65--as the Republicans are also claiming. At least, this is the way that the Democrats currently see the situation (though I myself wonder whether it will be possible to reduce payments to providers, without too many of those providers opting out of the program -- in the past, these payments have always been maintained).

The Republicans managed to hijack the Medicare issue very successfully in 2008, making it appear that they were the program's saviors when in fact they were not--being just as committed then as they are now to blanket cutbacks. Will they be able to create the same misleading impression in 2012? Well, they are certainly going to try, by blanketing the airwaves with campaign commercials, and engaging in other ploys.

Mr. Ryan, for example, introduced the public to his aged mother (who conveniently lives in a swing state, Florida), telling everybody how much she benefits from Medicare, and piously claiming that he wouldn't do anything to hurt her--but how about his three children? His plan to voucherize Medicare would affect everybody under the age of 55, including little Elizabeth Anne, Charles Wilson, and Samuel Lowery -- all born since Mr. Ryan married the independently wealthy Janna Little in December 2000.

Then again, those three children will presumably be able to manage without Medicare--since, according to Mr. Ryan's financial disclosure form, the couple's net worth is between $2.1 million and $7.8 million, much of which is in Ms. Ryan's trust, which is valued at a $1 million to $5 million.

The argument Mssrs. Romney & Ryan make is that all this budget-cutting on the part of the federal government is necessary because the deficit has grown to such an unmanageable size, and that if it is increased any further, the government will have to default and plunge the entire world-wide monetary system into chaos. Sounds awfully scary, no? It would sound a lot scarier to me if I hadn't been hearing Republicans saying pretty much the same thing for the past 60 years or so.

Back in the 50s and/or 60s, there was an economics professor named Robert Lekachman (1920-1989) who used to point out in the media how dumb this was, and how unlikely. Considering that it is now half-a-century later, and the federal government has still not defaulted, Lekachman (who used to teach at my alma mater, Barnard) may conceivably have been right. However, the situation among the electorate has changed drastically since those days, and a certain class of voter which believes this Republican message has become far more numerous.

Who is this class? Well, back in the 19th century, Karl Marx used to talk about the lumpenproletariat. By this term, he meant members of the working-class (proletariat) who would never be able to develop class-consciousness, and, because of this, become easy prey for power-hungry politicians to exploit. Marx maintained that it was this class which helped elect Louis Napoleon to the presidency of the Second French Republic after the revolution of 1848. Louis Napoleon thereupon used this position to stage a coup d'etat in 1851, end the Second Republic and make himself into Napoleon III, ruler of the Second French Empire.

I would suggest that whatever mass support is enjoyed by the Republican plan to slash the budget comes from what I might call the lumpenpettybourgeoisie--which is to say, those members of the US middle class who can't see how they're being exploited by the haut bourgoisie (the top 1 percent of our population, as measured by income statistics).

To Marx, the lumpenproletariat was composed of most undesirable characters--con men, brothel keepers and so forth. I wouldn't say that the new lumpenpettybourgeoisie consists of equally undesirable characters. On the contrary, I would suppose that most are upstanding members of their communities, living with their spouses and children in pretty little houses -- maybe even with white picket fences to border their neat green suburban lawns.

They may not have a lot of money, but they have enough so that they don't identify with the folks who have less than they do, and they can fantasize that one day they'll have lots more. It's this fantasy that drives them to disdain any sort of government activity that might cut into their incomes, any sort of government activity that might benefit anybody but themselves .

They tend to ignore the many activities that may be partially or wholly supported by the government, and that they -- like everybody else -- benefit from, such as police, firefighters, garbage pickup, water supplies, education (primary, secondary & often on a college and university level), museums (not only art but also scientific & historical), postal delivery, airports (& air traffic control), trains (not only Amtrak but also subways and many commuter lines), municipal and suburban busses, roads (from country lanes to twelve-lane highways, and including lighting, traffic control & sidewalks as well as road beds), parks (from local to national), disease control, statistical collection and analysis, and so on and on. Conservatives may call this creeping socialism; I see it merely as fulfilling the needs of a vastly complicated contemporary society.

True, there have always been a number of people who qualified as lumpenpettybourgeoisie, but the point I wish to make is that over the decades, these people have become a lot more numerous, in terms of the occupations they represent. A large proportion of them belong to that huge class of white-collar workers who are in either clerical or sales jobs. This is a class that has increased far more in numbers than those members of the working class in traditional manufacturing jobs. And for decades it has been known that people in sales or clerical jobs aren't particularly class-conscious.

Because most of them work in offices and in salesrooms, they are in close proximity with their bosses, and they dress more or less like them, too, all of which may be what causes so many of them to identify with those above them on the socioeconomic ladder. They believe that if they can think like their bosses, they may be promoted into the ranks of management, and become as rich as those bosses are--and this fantasy comes true just often enough to keep all the poor suckers who aren't elevated from the ranks dreaming on.

Historically, at any rate, sales & clerical workers have been divided about equally into three sets of allegiance, with one-third of them each committed to a) Democrats, b) Republicans and c) neither party. What is different now is that there are so many more of them. This is the nucleus of what I'd like to call lumpenpettybourgeoisie--especially those in the categories of b) and c).

Added to these people in clerical & sales jobs, of course, are senior members of the working classes who have made their little pile over decades of labor and now prefer to see themselves not as workers, but as members of the middle class--to say nothing of the millions of people in various forms of self-employment, who -- however marginal their incomes may be -- prefer to see themselves as "employers" and "businessmen." (Perish the thought that any of them will admit they're the nearest thing to being unemployed.)

To all these people, Mssrs. Romney & Ryan may look good when they oppose raising taxes on really wealthy people (like the candidates themselves) to help pay for federal programs, instead of eviscerating them. Mssrs. Romney & Ryan argue that taxes should be kept low -- or even eliminated altogether -- for the upper classes, because they're "job creators." Really? The upper classes have had 11 years of cut-back taxes, ever since the days of George W. Bush, and if they were really serious about creating all those jobs, they should have done so by now.

Oh, but Mssrs. Romney & Ryan claim that taxes haven't been cut ENOUGH. What's needed is not only to reduce income taxes on the wealthy, but also slash corporate taxes, taxes on dividends, and capital gains taxes(all of which are already lower than personal income taxes) This of course would balloon the federal deficit by trillions of dollars. Mssrs. Romney & Ryan have so far managed to avoid admitting that, but their siren song that the budget deficit is a problem has enlisted so much popular support that the Democrats have been unable (or rather, unwilling) to enact any more stimulus measures

True, President Obama has managed to bring the Big Three automakers in Detroit back from near-death, and keep the banks solvent. Even the stock market is (at the moment) relatively healthy, but the housing market is just beginning to wobble back to health, and the unemployment rate still hovers at unsatisfactory levels. The only thing which is pretty clear is that cutting back on government spending is only going to make the situation worse. The time to economize is when the economy is going full blast, not when it's limping along. The fact that government employees (especially on the state and local levels) are already being laid off has escalated the unemployment rate, for employment in the private sector has been rising , at least a bit.

Nothing but austerity is the policy that Britain and the Eurocrats on the Continent have been following. This is what they think in Europe will pull them out of their slump, but the result has been just the opposite: they are in worse shape than we are, even with the very minimal Keynesianism that President Obama has been able to enact.

One curse of being as old as I am is that I can remember the days when even some Republicans were liberal. Take Dwight David Eisenhower, for example. I turned 21 in '56, old enough to vote, and I didn't vote for Ike myself, I wanted to go "all the way with Adlai" (Stevenson, the Dems' candidate for President). Still, as I've learned since, when Eisenhower was president, between 1952 & 1960, he was all in favor of the 52 percent corporate income tax -- and corporations paid that full amount, too; every annual report listed before tax income & after tax income, the latter always 48 percent of the former.

Even the official rate now, of 15 to 35 percent (depending on the size of the corporation) is less, and the big corporations find ways to avoid paying it, so the effective rate is even lower. According to an article of February 6 by Christopher Matthews at the Time magazine website, the most recent effective corporate tax rate was only 12.1 percent (Mr. Matthews was quoting a Wall Street Journal study of figures from the Congressional Budget Office).

Then there's personal income tax. In the 50s, the top tax bracket was over 90 percent. Nowadays Mr. Romney boasts that he actually paid 13 percent, and Mr. Ryan boasts that he actually paid 20 percent -- wow!

Of course, a lot of Mr. Ryan's income wasn't from his salary as a congressman from Wisconsin & chairman of the House Budgetary Committee According to a story by David Kocieniewski in the NY Times for August 18, in 2011, only half of it did. In addition, he and his wife had income of more than $116,000 in inc0me from rental property, capital gains, dividends, and royalties from leasing land and mineral rights to energy companies. When this income is added to his salary (his wife is currently playing the role of stay-at-home mom, though she has also worked as a lobbyist & aide to "Blue Dog" Democrats), the total comes to an adjusted gross income of $323,416, upon which the couple paid federal income taxes of $64, 764. According to my arithmetic, this still left them with $258, 652 to play around with.

As I pointed out before, according to Mr. Ryan's financial disclosure form, the couple's net worth is between $2.1 million and $7.8 million, much of which is in Ms. Ryan's trust, which is valued at a $1 million to $5 million. I realize that I'm repeating myself, but I think these statistics bear repeating, since the media-- including the New York Times-- are making such a big deal out of his underprivileged childhood.

In terms of income, then, Mr. Ryan only ranks in the top 3 percent of the national pyramid. In terms of assets, though, it looks to me like he may conceivably belong in the top 1 or 2 percent, just like Mr. Romney--who still refuses to make public any income tax returns except the one from 2010--which showed that he paid 13.9 percent of his adjusted gross income of $21.6 million. And that's just his income, for gosh sakes. What do you suppose his total assets must be??

But I allowed myself to be sidetracked by all these dazzling statistics from the other point that I wanted to make, which was that in the 1950s, when both corporate and personal income taxes were so much higher, the country still managed an almost unbroken stretch of high employment & prosperity. Seems like one didn't have to truckle to the rich to get them to be "job creators." They did it all by themselves.

I wouldn't want the 50s back again in terms of social issues, but that is where Romney & Ryan do want to turn back the clock. Out with Planned Parenthood. No to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. Equal pay for women? Nuts to that. Outlaw same-sex marriage. Is there anybody left in this country who can't see any difference between the two parties?

But Republicans want to turn back the clock even further than the 50s when it comes to voting rights. Back in the early 19th century, we had property restrictions on voting rights--if you didn't own property, you couldn't vote (which left the least affluent members of the community out of the democratic process).

Then for a yet longer time, clear up to the 1960s, there were poll taxes in the South, "literacy" tests that eliminated potential African American voters, and other ways to keep them from voting.

And now---in the 21st century-- we are getting a rerun of these policies, as outlined in two recent editorials in the NY Times (for August 15 and August 16). One way it is being done is through legislation -- for example, in Pennsylvania---that demands voters show a government-issued voter ID if they want to vote-- when there are millions of people who were born & raised in this country & still don't have government-issued photo IDs. Not everybody in the US owns a car (though it sometimes seems that way). Particularly inner city residents are more likely to use public transport & not have cars, hence no drivers' licenses either.

Or how about in Ohio? There local governments find that they can't keep polling places open in evenings or on the weekends in those center city areas where Democrats predominate, but hey--in the suburbs, where there are lots of Republicans, the polls are open on the weekends or in the evenings. (Since this situation was first publicized, and my entry was first posted, I understand that Ohio has had second thoughts, and some amelioration on this subject has taken place . Who was it that said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance?)

Then there is Florida, where more than half of black voters went to the polls early in 2008 largely to support Mr. Obama. So last year, Republican lawmakers severely curtailed the early voting period.

In fact, all of these policies disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos and other working-class people who have worked so hard to become part of the democratic process. And does this rather systematic elimination not constitute a rather flagrant violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? But what can you expect from the 1 percenters, or the (predominantly white, predominantly male) middle-class voters whose particular folly is that they identify with the 1 percenters, and confuse the interests of the 1 percenters with their own?

Damn few if indeed any of these people have been in the situation of belonging to an underprivileged minority themselves, so they can't understand the reasons such people have for voting as they do--Democratic. Instead, those members of the lumpenpettybourgeoisie believe what they're told by Republican politicians-- that there's a lot of "voter fraud" about. They assume that only themselves are virtuous. As far as I'm concerned, all of this empty bombast about "fraud" is exactly that -- empty, with only very, very rare cases to substantiate it. But the 1-percenters (& their misguided followers) don't really care how they get their candidates elected, so long as they can get them into power. Legal technicalities, such as the Voter Rights Act, it seems, don't bother them.

If you're as irked as I am by all of this, don't forget to vote in November -- and if you can get out & ring a few doorbells, or spend a few bucks before then to support your candidate(s), all the better. Mitt Romney & his super-rich friends are raising lots more money these days than Obama & the Democrats, and those excesssive dollars will go to blanket the airwaves with anti-Obama & anti-Democratic campaign commercials for which "misleading" would be the kindest possible adjective.

Obama & the Dems have to rely on millions of small donors to combat such smear techniques, but at the moment those small donors aren't rallying to their cause as eagerly as they did four years ago. Complacency -- and a false sense of security-- may be the problem: according to an AP-GfK poll released on August 22, 58 percent of US adults polled thinks Obama will be re-elected, and only 32 percent thought Romney would win, This may be responsible for the fact that so many Obama backers feel no pressing need to do anything beyond voting (if even that).

The reality is a lot nastier: according to the same poll, 47 percent of registered voters said they'd vote for Obama--and 46 percent said they'd vote for Romney. A margin of one percent, while the poll, if like other polls, has a 3 percent plus-or-minus margin of error. That's too close for comfort, particularly when you bear in mind that in the weeks just before the election, the Republicans will overwhelm all the swing states with an avalanche of attacks in the media.

So consider becoming one of those millions who gives a tiny percentage of your income to Obama or the Democratic party--if you aren't one of them already; if you are, consider upping your contribution a bit. And/or join MoveOn.org, a very energetic liberal online lobbying organization---it has a lot of constructive suggestions about how to reach persons beyond your immediate circle (sure, some of its ideas are kind of silly, but you can easily refrain from participating in them, and focus on using the organization when it really is acting sensibly). Get out and ring a few doorbells yourself--or use the telephone to counteract Republican propaganda among the undecided (not your personal friends, most of whom probably share your point of view anyway). Plus, of course, on election day itself, vote -- and if you can help anybody who shares our opinions get to the polls, too, DO SO.
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