Decade in Review: American History, 2011

By Michelle Railey


Just-World Phenomenon: Earning a Living and Being American

March 2, 2011

Somewhere in the past, when you were a kid, you learned about America. You learned that history with a capital “H” began with Columbus-ish and ended with the Great Depression. In November, you dressed up as either a pilgrim (good) or an Indian (somehow, not so good, though you did get feathers, which almost made up for it) and you ate something together while feeling really positive about the whole thing and what good people the old Puritans were for being so darned inclusive. In February, you heard the story about the cherry tree and you colored a big construction paper face that sort of looked like either Lincoln or Washington (this was prime, because you usually got cotton balls to glue to it, which was totally awesome). Whichever president you had was then added to the much bigger hearts-for-Valentines-day project you had going. And, of course, a huge section of the year was devoted to July, which was funny since it wasn’t technically during school, but July equals Revolution and Constitution and the Founding Fathers, which were like American versions of Santa Claus and Jesus or something. And the way all of that made you feel, and can still make you feel now that you’re grown up, especially when you hear violins and/or canons while looking at fireworks and/or the flag and/or the big bell and/or Lady Liberty, was what it meant to be American.

And it was good.

Better than that, you learned that you could be anything you wanted to be. If that failed, so long as you worked hard and weren’t too wasteful, you learned you would be alright. That, in America, hard work paid off. You could afford to eat. To live under a roof. To wear clothes. To go to a doctor. To have what you needed. That you would work hard and it would result in a living wage and that your children, if you did all of that, would do at least as well. A house and a good future for the kids was the American dream, but a decent, dignified, solid sort of life was the American promise.

And that was really good. Only…

Somewhere along the line, something bad has happened. The Great Recession highlighted it. Recent protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana over “right to work” legislation underline it. The highly-charged atmospherics surrounding “the vanishing middle class” put it all in neon. But really, since about 1979, wages have been falling in this country and income inequality has become turbo-charged. More than that, there is a huge—and growing—proportion of Americans who have been so completely shut out of the middle class that the American promise they grew up with has become an American dream: the stuff of Other People’s lives, gossamer-thin and utterly out of reach. And that wasn’t what they were taught that being American meant.

We define poverty in this country at roughly $10,000 of annual income for one person, at $23,000 for a family of four. And we’re still, thankfully, providing some support for people living at these levels. But what of the people who are not middle class at about $40,000? Who receive no help because they are considered not to be in poverty because they earn at least $10K? Who are we kidding? What is a living wage in 21st century America? And if someone doesn’t earn that, how can they not be considered impoverished? And how, oh how, can we possibly justify the fact that people can work 40 hours a week and not earn a living wage in the richest country in the world, the last remaining superpower, America, the Exceptional?

When kids are dressing up in their little Pilgrim and Indian outfits in today’s classrooms, do we have the audacity to recite to them Article 23-3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection?” And then, are we honest enough, like construction-paper-Abe, to whisper in their little ear “so long as you don’t work at a socially ignorable job, dear?”

When this new generation is being torn away from their mobile devices long enough to hear about the Declaration and the Revolution, the Mayflower and the Greatest Generation, do we quote Article 25-1: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being…, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” and then clarify that we mean “well, maybe 60 percent of everyone?”

Do we teach our youngest to be technologically proficient from the earliest possible age so that they can be doubly disappointed when they grow up and can’t afford the connection fees? So that they can be shut out of participating in the local, national, and international conversation (and the opportunities that accompany those) in violation of Article 27-1 because technology prices and monthly rates are not considered necessary to “life,” though “living” and “betterment” are other things entirely?


We don’t do any of these things, and not just because we are too exceptional to ratify the silly little Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We don’t tell the truth about the working poor in America because only scary people (read: liberals) are saying these things. Because the Declaration of Independence includes “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not the right for a dollar earned to cover a dollar of shelter, food, energy, and a coat. It also mentions nothing about dentistry (teeth are for elitists. Also, for the rich).

But most of all, we don’t educate our young about the truth that they can go to college, work hard, and still not be able to afford to live because the working poor deserve what they get—or don’t get, rather. Otherwise, how can the U.S. be fair, be great, be exceptional? And how can we, as citizens, stand by and observe the injustice of it when someone tries like hell and busts it 40 hours a week and still can’t make it? It’s so uncomfortable, it just can’t be true. Left over from our Puritan work ethic, the belief of our forbears, material gain is a sign of God’s favor, of desert. Or the vestiges of Social Darwinism: the fittest survive, and thus are the ones who somehow were able enough to deserve to make it. Those that “fail” were and are less able, less deserving. They just have to be. So if these working people struggle, well, somewhere along the line they did something to deserve it. They’re not like normal people; they’re miscreants and misfits. It’s their fault because the world is just, America is more just because it’s democratic.

“Democracy can be cruel to misfits. The reason it’s cruel is you’re told you can be anything, and there’s enough evidence around you of people getting ahead that you believe it’s true. So when you don’t, it’s crushing. The more democratic a society, the more humiliating the failure” (Charles Peters).

And we’re the most democratic there is. And to hear the politicians talk, to watch people sleeping in the statehouse in Wisconsin; to hear the powerful privilege zygotes over the currently living, or bankbooks over access to health care; to hear concern over the “privileged elites”[i] working for moderate income in public service; or to hear the suggestion that people earning $35K have more benefits than other people and so should lose them[ii]–well, that’s a Race to the Bottom that’s so democratic, it’s Exceptional.

It’s so democratic, it’s supercalidemocratic.

And won’t that be fun to fit in to the Social Studies curriculum of the future?

[i] Mitch Daniels, PBS NewsHour and The Diane Rehm Show.[ii] Several politicians this week, seriously, employing the most ridiculous logic ever. And, incidentally, when President Obama suggested “taking” greater taxes from the top 1% and elevating the top rate from 36% to 39% , these same politicians decried it as socialist redistribution. So, logic when applied to the public sector is valid, when applied to the wealthy, it is unpatriotic? Logic doesn’t work that way.

Raise the Roof

April 16, 2011

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) speaking last weekend about her determination to vote against raising the debt ceiling stated that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to, in effect, raise the limit on its credit cards. She said the government shouldn’t and couldn’t continue to spend borrowed money because families can’t do that; her husband and she couldn’t “last a month that way.”

Ms. Bachmann, never one to let a bad analogy go to waste, perhaps has forgotten that she and her husband don’t have 310 million dependents. Or that governments and families don’t share the same teleological functions: the role of the government and the role of the family are not identical. When’s the last time your family was in charge of regulating an airplane, providing national security, building a nuclear weapon, or instituting and enforcing national law? Families and governments do not have the same reasons for existence and do not have comparable responsibilities. So what’s up with the perpetual expectation that the government operate financially in the same way an American family would? And, incidentally, between personal bankruptcies and foreclosures, there are private citizen economic consequences that would equal the collapse of the United States if the analogical translation were extended that far. The government, thankfully, doesn’t share comparable consequences if they exercise deficit spending.

However, in this bad analogy, there is one lesson politicians, pundits, and the government could learn from families regarding budget issues. “When families are really broke, they try to raise revenues first. Somebody looks for a job, a second job, or a raise.”[1]

Government spending constitutes about 38-45% of our GDP, so if the government really tightened their belts as families do, or worse, slipped through the economic cracks as do too many other families , the entire economy would stumble and falter. This isn’t something I think we really want when the recovery from the Great Recession is still at risk, housing prices are still undervalued, food commodity and oil prices are spiking, and the U.S. is still engaged in two—some say three—wars. Of course the government must reduce the national debt over time. Yes, it should probably reduce the percent of spending that comes from borrowed money. In the long run. Just not now.

Besides, on this next congressional battle on raising the debt ceiling, it needs to be remembered that if we don’t, it sends a very strong message to our creditors that we are not to be trusted, that the American people will honor their financial obligations only to a point, that American promises aren’t as good as their word. We’ve already incurred the debt: how can we justify not owning up to it by raising the ceiling to match? [2]

An American family couldn’t tell their creditors that their debt is less than the lenders think it is. The government shouldn’t do it, either. But that may be one extension of the perpetual bad analogy that I’d bet Michele Bachmann and those who agree with her wouldn’t accept.

[1] Melissa Harris-Perry, Twitter, 10 April 2011.

[2] Timothy Geithner’s opinion is here; And Ben Bernanke, who calls the effects of defaulting by not raising the ceiling “catastrophic”, and Nouriel Roubini, who says it could result in a dump of U.S. bonds by holders which would raise interest rates for existing and future government financing, in another PBS NewsHour segment that’s worth watching: here.

Grand Bargains and Great Pumpkins

July 21, 2011

In April I wrote about the debt ceiling, never dreaming for a second that the U.S. government would be so dysfunctional, so self-destructive that the debt ceiling would still be an issue in late July.

I should have known better. It’s like I don’t even know my own government.

But the wacky folks in D.C. have taken the lifting of the debt ceiling, what Mitch Daniels once called “routine housekeeping” back when he was in charge of money under Bush the Second, what had always passed before and turned it into an opportunity to: make hay, put on a show, run for president, be on TV, make a barbaric yawp. And multi-task!

Yes, multi-task (which is French for “doing many things half-assed;” See also: antonym, accomplishment). Because what better way to deal with every single problem (real or imaginary; short, medium, and long terms) than by simultaneously tackling them alongside an essential, necessary bill-payment procedure?

Exactly. So now, holding the entire country hostage, holding our creditors hostage, the government will now, please, tackle the debt, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security[1], a little tax reform (maybe), and jobs, jobs, jobs. If they can just strike a deal, a grand bargain.

Which looks likely, ‘cause they’ve shown so much promise in the areas of compromise, working well with others, and deal-making in the past.

As any good test-taker will tell you, SAT Prep 101 dictates that one answers the obvious questions first to get them out of the way before tackling the objects requiring more time and effort. A fruit-picker will say similar. Turns out it’s a pretty practical strategy for other areas of life as well. So, if Capitol Hill had any appreciation for practical management, it would (1.) Raise the debt ceiling (grumbling and grandstanding about it are optional). (2.) Then it would do something else: tax reform OR debt reduction OR entitlements OR…you get the picture. (3.) Then it would do something else again. Preferably, for the sake of the nation, steps 2 and 3 would be things the majority seems to agree with: simplifying the tax code, means testing for Medicare/Medicaid, and authorizing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug and care prices with pharmaceutical companies and health care providers, just as the VA does.[2]

Of course, following this sort of plan would definitely require better time management skills in order to fit in the usual rounds of television appearances. Legislators might have to sacrifice Really Important Things—like writing bills that have zero chance of passage just to make a point and/or create more drama (because there’s so little of that in our lives). And House of Representatives, this goes double for you. You knew that your Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment/debt ceiling FrankenBill would never pass the Senate and would face a presidential veto even if it did. So that was an entire day plus. Do you need more to do? Too much time on your hands? Such an egregious waste of time and your constituents are aging here just waiting on you to get your collective act together.

But waiting on The Hill, the federal government, to get its collective act together, to raise the debt ceiling is like waiting for businesses to create jobs, jobs, jobs. They’re sitting on financial resources but not hiring because of lack of demand (and, oh, there’s demand but people don’t have jobs or living wages and damn-the-demand, they’ll just do without. Again.) and “uncertainty”—which, as sure as God made little green apples, is self-perpetuated by the failure to hire (and hire at a fair wage), which creates lack of demand, which creates uncertainty.

It’s like waiting for Godot or waiting for the Great Pumpkin. The American People have now been reduced to little Linuses, clutching our little blue blankets in a pumpkin patch, waiting for something that never comes while we contemplate our existence in this great big world.

Don’t know about you, but I’m getting impatient. Raise the damn roof, kids. (And then for goodness’ sake, pass an actual budget– not another continuing resolution.) This pumpkin patch is cold and the ground is hard and my blankie needs washed.

[1] Although, as smarter people than I have pointed out, Social Security is not technically a problem: it’s a closed-loop system and can technically only pay out what it brings in. Had Congress not borrowed from the surpluses of the Social Security fund, it would be self-sustaining. So now there is a problem to solve: there needs to be a plan to pay back the Social Security Administration for funds loaned. Or will we default on that debt too?

[2] There’s an episode of The West Wing where Toby asks Bruno how to make an obvious but politically tricky thing palatable. Bruno says something like “You mean all this time this thing’s been a problem and the other guy didn’t fix it?” I think of that line every time I think about Medicare and Medicaid not negotiating the prices they pay when, clearly, they’re buying in bulk. $100 billion could be saved annually by doing, yet again, the painfully obvious thing.

Simi Valley After-Party! 

September 10, 2011

Oh, how I love presidential debates! Now, I was all fired up to take the transcript and write up a blog post that both fact-checked and countered the candidates’ comments with my own questions/comments/responses. The reality, though, is this: it is three days after the debate at the Reagan Library and the fact-checking has already been done (here and here, for two) and besides being tragically late to that party, I just don’t have time to pretend to do the thing up right. So, from one list and from memory, my impressions of debate night, in no certain order and not to the standards of fact-checking, source-listing, and precision I would like to have presented.

Y’all ready? Here we go.

1.) Flag pins are so 2008. While at one point, it seemed you weren’t even allowed to participate in a debate without visibly demonstrating your membership in the Patriot Club, flag pins are apparently now démodé to the point of irrelevance. Great. So what distraction from substance will we find now?

2.) Looks like Michele Bachmann has lost the petting zoo advantage. Perhaps in a game-changing mood, she’ll reincorporate them into her campaign staff and cart them along to the next debate. Possibly couldn’t hurt.

3.) Or, she could continue playing the mommy card. As she is wont to do, Ms. Bachmann used some of her very limited time to reiterate her five-children-of-my-own-and-twenty-three-foster-children as an important piece of her argument about why she should be president. Motherhood is many things and it could very well be too honorable (when you get it right) for politics. It arguably could make one a better president but it definitely doesn’t qualify one to be president. Ms. Bachmann’s mothering resumé is an important piece of biographical information but we can now already recite it from heart. So why did she give up a minute of her time on it and not something–anything–else? (More on global caliphates, for example! Or does she or does she not also “give propes” to capital punishment, science, the number 9, and/or Galileo?) Besides, it’s a safe bet that the other GOP candidates also stand for “Motherhood, America, and a hot lunch for orphans.”

4.) Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution! This one keeps coming up and it got some play at the debate. To which, for the love of all things Brian Williams, will someone please ask the follow-up questions? To wit: “Many states with balanced budget amendments now find themselves in critical shortfall emergencies, resulting in a lack of liquidity to deal with short-term crises and the loss of thousands of teachers, firefighters, and public servants from employment despite the continuing demand for their services. How would the nation and its jobless rate benefit by adopting this as a permanent policy?” Or: “When states with this requirement run out of funds and into trouble they turn to the federal government for assistance. To whom will the federal government turn when it, under a balanced budget amendment, runs out of funds and encounters a national security situation or natural disaster that requires an immediate outlay of funds?”

5.) I’m not generally one for psychoanalyzing people based on use of language. However, anyone count the number of times Governor Perry used the word “liar,” “lie,” and “lying?” At the very least, it demonstrates an unwillingness to temper one’s speech. And that could present a problem when governing. (I picture Mr. President leaping over a table to grab Other Foreign Leader’s tie, while repeating “You Lie!” Great theatre, Yosemite Sam, but Bad Foreign Policy.)

6.) The biggest applause line of the night wasn’t one of the candidates’ answers. It was Brian Williams asking about capital punishment. He couldn’t even finish the question to Gov. Perry about difficulty sleeping before the applause started. It’s possible that some of us in TV Land found that difficult to sleep on.

And most of all:

7.) I admit my bias. It’s no secret that I’m a pretty safe vote for President Obama to remain president. (However, I don’t rule out the possibility of ever voting for a Republican, some day in some other election.) And, on the chance that my vote doesn’t take the day (Hello, 2000), I still want someone in the oval office who is well-informed and makes reasonable, careful decisions. So here’s the problem: there were too many moments on the stage in Simi Valley that left me wondering if these candidates were chronically under-informed or just plain inattentive; or if they hadn’t chosen their information and policy staffs wisely.

Examples abound. Be against Obama Care all you want but don’t then argue against it by saying you support things that are accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Huntsman, the ACA does put things in to address cost-cutting, cost overruns, and the harmonization (digitization) of medical records. Gov. Perry, the ACA is not one-size-fits-all: if, as you believe, the states can do it better, they are absolutely empowered to come up with a plan of their own so long as it accomplishes the objectives of the bill. Too, dear GOP candidates, I understand you are against the mandate but object to the “forced to” language of your argument. No one will be flogged for failing to obtain insurance. A citizen will have to choose whether to purchase insurance or pay a penalty. There’s plenty of room left for debate on that, including the ideological issue of being asked by the government to purchase from private corporations. But since the ACA is not socialized medicine, it is a choice, perhaps unpalatable, but it is still a choice, somewhat similar to taxation: one must either pay taxes or pay the fines, interest, and consequences. I am always left wondering in these discussions if the candidates (or anyone on their staffs) has actually read the legislation.

Similarly, on energy: it seems ill-informed to me to pretend that energy prices and policies depend mostly on the United States’ actions and energy production. To discuss energy and not mention the growing demands of India or China seems almost absurd. To pretend the U.S. has control it’s just not exercising borders on irresponsibility. On the economy and jobs, it’s the same deal. This is not something that can be solved by a better president or, in fact, any president. There are so many things tangled up and causing this situation from housing markets, global economic instability, uncertainty with the euro and the valuation of foreign currencies, and the policies of international banks that no one person can just shout it down or legislate it back to Leave it to Beaver and Mayberry. I hate that the debates end and I’m wondering if our potentially next president understands that.

And it gets worse. One can take a defensible position on immigration and border security. But to suggest that if President Obama were serious he’d put drones on the border when drones are, in fact, being used on the border, well, I don’t know what to say to that. I’m Joe Schmoe, Joe the Plumber, the Average American. And I’ve known that for months thanks not to “the poorest intel” but to the likes of CNN, NPR, and PBS NewsHour. Too, I got no sense from the candidates on this topic that they realized that deportation of immigrants has actually increased under President Obama; no sense, either, of an understanding that our drug and arms policies figure into the violence of the Mexican cartels, despite the mentions of those cartels and their guns.

And I suppose you just can’t top “Please name one scientist you find credible” and the inability to even, say, name a scientist, one scientist, any one will do, hell, make one up. At least former Governor Palin could come up with the answer “All of ‘em.”

I just want the next candidate for president to be able to do better than that.

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