Tagged: Economic Justice

How to Live in an Oligarchy

oligarchy-1

A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite.  They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy.  Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.

I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?

But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd.  When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.

The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics.  What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter.  But organized people do.

In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.

Here’s what the study actually says.

Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:

  1. “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”:  The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
  2. “Economic Elite Domination”:  Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
  3. “Majoritarian Pluralism”:  There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
  4. “Biased Pluralism”:  There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent.  Monocles and feather boas abound.  Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.

They describe our political system as both #2 and #4.   They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.

The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today.  The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.

But then this begs the question:  Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist?  Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs?  Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them.  But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?

The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking.  According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.

Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves.  In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.

As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion.  In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues.  But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.

The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter.  The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.”  However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered.  They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.

And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades.  With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.

Note that the very rich don’t need to organize.  The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account.  Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.

But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations.  None.  Period.

There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy.  Organize.  Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think.  Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals.  Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams.  Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before.  Organize the hell out of everything.  We can’t afford not to.  Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.

 

Advertisements

Playing the Inside Game as an Outsider

HCAN-Lower-Senate-Park

 

This week I read two of the most interesting articles I’ve seen in a while.  The first is an interview with the founder of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the alliance of major organizations created to pass healthcare reform, easily the biggest public policy change in a generation, which closed its doors at the end of 2013.  The second is a profile of the Working Families Party (WFP), which many credit with the surprise victory of Bill de Blasio, the populist mayor-elect of New York, who ran on a message of fighting economic inequality and is seen as a symbol of a new era in America’s largest city.  You should really read them both yourself, it’s hard for me to do them justice.  But both pieces made me reflect on the idea of “the inside game” and “the outside game” in politics

Some activists believe only in the inside game (lobbying, legislative analysis, running for office), while some believe only in the outside game (organizing, protesting, moving the public through mass communications).  Like many others, I believe social change is only possible with a combination of both.

But more importantly, I believe that it must be the same people, the same organizations, at the same time, that play both the inside game and the outside game.  We cannot be content to have some people within our movements doing electoral politics and others doing grassroots organizing.  The inside players will become out of touch and unaccountable to the grassroots, while the outside players will become marginalized, ineffective and powerless.  We have to build organizations that can play the inside game as outsiders.  Organizations that engage with the Democratic Party and have the weight to sway elections, but that maintain independence and don’t take marching orders from Democratic elected officials.

From the profile on the WFP:

“Like many who came out of the 1960s left, Cantor came to realize that community organizing and movement building were both indispensable and insufficient to win lasting change. He still identifies with those movements, but his distinctive aptitude has been to find ways in which the electoral process can advance progressive goals. “I feel we’re in a long line of people going back to the abolitionists: the populists, the suffragists, the labor activists, the civil-rights workers,” he says. “These were all extra-parliamentary movements. We strive to be like them, and we recognize we have to contest for these values through the state, through elections. That’s what most people think politics is. That’s our role.”

But of course elections don’t lead movements, movements precede elections.  HCAN began building the momentum for healthcare reform in 2007, while the presidential election was over a year away.  They managed to bring all the Democratic candidates together around roughly the same healthcare plan.  Edwards’, Clinton’s, and Obama’s policy proposals on healthcare were surprisingly similar, and this was no accident.  Even the differences between candidates disappeared once it came to actually passing the law (Obama opposed the individual mandate as a candidate, but ended up adopting it and fighting for it as president).

However, when movements and elections are timed well, they provide a point of access for millions who would never otherwise participate in movement-building activities like attending rallies.  An electoral win becomes a symbolic moment, a turning point that gives people the feeling of an inevitable tide turning.  Bill de Blasio’s stunning election in New York City may have been the first time average people felt like the momentum created by the Occupy movement had led to a real victory.  After 15 years of building the infrastructure to win progressive victories at the ballot box outside of the Democratic Party establishment, the WFP was perfectly positioned as public outrage over economic inequality had finally begun to take hold.

The hard part is that movements depend on perfect timing.  Movements must be sustained by organizations, but it’s immensely difficult to start a new organization in time to capture a movement’s moment of opportunity (at least an organization of the size necessary to have real power).  So perhaps the most effective large-scale movement-building organizations are those like HCAN and the WFP, which emerge by bringing together coalitions of existing community groups and labor unions in order to scale up rapidly.  These organizations had membership bases, relationships with key local players, experienced staff, and a fundraising machine before they even launched.

Yet simply getting all the key players in the same room is not nearly enough.  Some of the biggest failings in the campaign for health care reform (loss of the public option, inadequate subsidies to make insurance plans affordable) came from the Obama administration dismissing the value of the outside game.  Despite Obama’s community organizing background and his team’s talking the talk about everyday citizens getting involved, in practice the administration has taken a very insular, inside game approach to governing.  With HCAN taking a subdued approach and all the outside game action coming from the Tea Party, there was virtually no pressure on the left to hold firm to the principles of healthcare reform.

From the profile on HCAN:

“This was a huge misunderstanding by the Obama folks about power and political dynamics, just a fundamental miscalculation and blindness that was really destructive.  The president’s personality is to be conciliatory. Until the summer of 2011 and the grand bargain collapsed, he always wanted to be conciliatory. He also had people like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina in the White House who wanted to totally control everything and did not want any on the left pushing them. But power works differently. They would have been in a much stronger position if they could say, “We’re being pushed really, really, really hard from the left, and so this is the best we can do.”  And then cut final deals when they had to.”

Without the outside game holding a hard line, those playing the inside game are impossibly weak in negotiations.  But being an ideologically pure and independent outsider is not enough either.  Frederick Douglass famously said “power concedes nothing without a demand”.  Yet too often our lists of demands are empty noise shouted from outside the building, barely heard by smirking suits inside the halls of power.  Demands are only demands when they come with credible threats to their targets.  One of the most credible threats is an electoral machine that actually has the capacity to end the career of a politician that crosses it.  That was the source of the Tea Party’s power, and is similarly the source of the WFP’s power.

Maybe the biggest lesson from these two stories is that our work is never done.  A few weeks ago, Health Care for America Now closed its doors, declaring its mission accomplished.  Of course it’s difficult to keep a coalition together after the campaign that created it is won.  But even with the Affordable Care Act, the US healthcare system will likely continue to lag behind most industrialized nations in affordability, access and quality.  If the Working Families Party had gone home satisfied after their signature victory of ending New York’s harsh drug sentencing laws in 2004, they would have never made it to their golden opportunity last year in the aftermath of Occupy.  But this speaks to the fundamental difference between the WFP and HCAN: The WFP grew from a vision of an organization, not a vision of a campaign.  An organization that can play the inside game and win a seat at the table of power while maintaining its independence and values through an authentic grassroots base on the outside.

We don’t need more inside game organizations or more outside game organizations.  What we need are organizations that can do both, that can stand on power and on principle.

Who Jacked the Word “Responsibility”?

Conservative politicians use the word “responsibility” a lot, especially to sell policies that punish people—for being poor, for being immigrants, for being sexually active women, etc.  If you’re poor, it’s your individual responsibility to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get more money, it’s not our social responsibility to give you food stamps so you don’t like… die and whatnot.

Effective political messaging taps into the universal values we hold like freedom, fairness, compassion, etc. that go deeper than our political affiliations.  That’s how you move people who might otherwise disagree with you.

Responsibility messaging resonates strongly with me.  Responsibility was the single most important value I was raised with.  If I could magically create a wordcloud of everything that came out of my mother’s mouth when I was a child (after removing some heavy cussing) “responsibility” would probably be the most commonly uttered word in my formative years.

2067_60796846042_1067_n

My mom’s friend Dana babysitting me and my brother at our home in Oakland in the 90’s

But I was taught a different kind of responsibility than the right wing likes to talk about.  I had a single mom who was working, going to school, and raising children all at the same time.  I admired her individual grit and determination, but also the responsibility of her circle of friends who all pitched in to collectively help raise me and my little brother because my mother gave birth earlier than they did.  Now my mom owns her own home and has an empty nest, and it seems like every month she’s letting a new friend crash at her house until they get back on their feet.  My understanding of the word responsibility comes from the incredible women I was raised by.  It means stepping up to care for our communities in times of need.

The kind of responsibility I learned growing up was not my responsibility to myself, but my responsibility to others, to my family, to my community.  In elementary school I was packing my own lunch, doing my own laundry.  These are things you can reasonably expect a 9 year old to do, the basic tasks of taking care of oneself to not be a burden on others.  But by the time I was a teenager, greater responsibilities were expected of me.  I was cooking dinner every night for the family, making sure bills were paid on time every month.  I stepped up because my family needed me.

I think the right-wing is stuck in what I would call Elementary School Responsibility.  It’s a worldview where responsibility is not about community, but about the individual.  Or as my mom would say, “How to wipe your own ass”.  In their worldview, responsibility is about taking care of yourself alone.  It’s making sure you personally go to a good college, get a job where you make a lot of money, own things like houses, and don’t end up in jail.  Apparently if you get any help doing any of these things, you’ll never learn the true meaning of responsibility.

Unfortunately, this definition of the word “Responsibility” has become the dominant one in America.  But it wasn’t always this way.  On a hunch I looked up historical trends in the usage of the phrases “Your responsibility” and “Our responsibility” in American texts using Google NGram.

YourResponsibilityNGram

“Our responsibility” was the more common usage through most of our history.  The phrase suggests collective action to care for the needs of a larger community.  It grew gradually over time, with spikes during national crises like WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII.    “Your responsibility”, meaning taking care of yourself, takes off suddenly in the early 1970’s and becomes the dominant usage at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.

Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011What’s fascinating about this graph is that it mirrors historical trends in income inequality, union membership, the real value of the minimum wage, and other economic data that shows that sometime in the early 1970’s there was a change of direction in America.  Something snapped, where average working families’ incomes no longer grew along with the nation’s economic productivity, as they had throughout American history until that point.  For the last 40 years we’ve been moving rapidly away from a “We’re in this together” economy and towards a “You’re on your own” economy.

 

Those terms were coined by economist Jared Bernstein, but we could just as easily call it an “Our Responsibility” economy and a “Your Responsibility” economy.

This didn’t happen naturally.  Somebody jacked the word “responsibility”.  Or more accurately, a whole generation of right-wing politicians, academics, lobbyists and media commentators did, intentionally and effectively, as part of a comprehensive effort to slash the social safety net, gut regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy and lower wages.  Words matter.  As a people, we’ve allowed our language to be corrupted, and have abandoned “our responsibility” in favor of “your responsibility”.

Now I think making sure over 30 million people can see a doctor when they get sick even if they can’t afford it is the definition of responsibility.  I also think the Republican idea of responsibility these days looks like this:

But we can take back the meaning of responsibility, just as we can correct our course after four decades driving down the path of widening inequality and cold individualism.  We can provide education for our children, take care of our loved ones when they’re sick, and allow our elders to rest.  We can, and in fact, we must.  It’s our responsibility.

Why is a Kid in Seattle 4 Times as Likely to Escape Poverty as a Kid in Memphis?

mobilitymap

On Monday the NY Times covered a fascinating new study on social mobility.  As you can see from the map above, there’s huge variation in the likelihood a kid from a low-income family will end up making it out of poverty depending on where they live.

Despite popular misconceptions about the “American Dream”, kids who grow up poor in the US are less likely to climb into the middle and upper classes than their counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, etc.  This is a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”— countries with high levels of inequality also have low levels of mobility– i.e. if the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb the ladder.   Poor kids in the US suffer from a weaker social safety net, worse health care and nutrition, more unstable housing, limited access to childcare, preschool, and college, and have to compete with rich kids who are even richer than kids in other countries (and have the resulting advantages in life).

Now let’s assume the American Dream  is not just some bullshit platitude and we really do care about opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth.

We might be feeling pretty hopeless right now.  Fixing America’s crisis of inequality sounds overwhelming, and this useless Congress has a snowball’s chance in hell of creating any costly new social programs like universal preschool.

But what this study says to me is that it’s possible to make a significant difference at the local level.  The trap of intergenerational poverty in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Charlotte might be worse than any country in the industrialized world.  But places like Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle have social mobility comparable to places like Norway and Denmark.

What explains the differences?  Why are rags-to-riches stories in Chicago much less common than its rival metropolises of NY and LA?  Why is a poor kid in San Francisco twice as likely to become successful as a poor kid in St. Louis?  Can growing up poor in Seattle really give you four times better of a chance in life than in Memphis?

When you look at the map, the worst regions are clearly the Deep South and the urban industrial core of the Midwest.  I associate these areas with entrenched black-white patterns of inequality and segregation.  But the article notes that in cities like Atlanta, while opportunities to rise in society are scarce for poor blacks, they are just as scarce for poor whites.  Maybe communities like Atlanta are more likely to see poverty in racialized terms (“Those people are not like me”), weakening their support of attempts to advance opportunities for poor folks of all races.

But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

correlationswithmobility

Simplified list of factors correlated with social mobility in the study

The authors were looking for proof that tax credits aimed at reducing child poverty like the EITC lead to better social mobility.  But unfortunately they found that local tax policies had only a small correlation with class mobility.

So what can we do to at the local level to increase opportunity?  Which of these factors is most easily and clearly impacted by public policy?

It’s interesting to note that the factors that most strongly correlate with lack of opportunity are things you might associate with a social conservative policy agenda:  promoting traditional family structures, community ties, and religious participation.  So why then is the South, the heartland of social conservatism, the huge red swath on the map with the least opportunity?  I’d argue this is because social conservative policies are extremely ineffective at actually accomplishing things like reducing teen birthrates, and often counterproductive (see: birth control, sex ed).

I don’t think anywhere in America we’ve actually developed effective policies to make people have stronger family ties or be more active in their communities.  (I do think we could mitigate some of the negative effects of widespread single motherhood with things like universal preschool and paid maternal leave though.)

Unfortunately the factors most directly tied to government policy (college tuition, local public spending, etc.) are at the bottom of the list.  Seems like if state/local governments want to raise social mobility the best thing they can do is increase per-pupil school funding, but even that has a pretty weak correlation.  Clearly the focus should be on reducing high school dropouts, but how exactly policymakers should do that is the tougher question.

I think the most interesting part of this study is the link it establishes between social mobility and segregation along racial and economic class lines.  In a sprawled out, highly segregated city like Atlanta, people in poor black neighborhoods are much more isolated from decent job opportunities, good schools, social networks and other resources.

File:Atlanta cityscape 032008.jpg

Cities and counties should be paying close attention to this.  Plan dense, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods.  Provide quality public transit connecting low-income communities to job and educational opportunities.  Focus economic development and infrastructure spending on the urban center, not just on the suburban outskirts.  Don’t allow wealthy NIMBYs to block affordable housing in the suburbs and don’t allow developers to gentrify poor people out of revitalizing urban neighborhoods.  Smart growth is not just about sustainability and hippy shit.  It’s about the goddamn American Dream.  It’s about everyone having a fair chance to make it.  Bald eagles and apple pie and all that.

Last but not least, for the community organizers out there:  Notice that “Social Capital Index” there at the top?  That measures people’s civic engagement and level of involvement in community groups.   Whether you’re organizing community activists to increase school funding, provide subsidized childcare or better public transit, the act of organizing people itself enhances economic opportunity as much as any policy change.  Helping strengthen people’s ties to each other and to their community is one of the key foundations of social mobility.  The best thing we can do is organize from the grassroots to make this American Dream a reality.

Was the Fiscal Cliff Deal, Weirdly Enough, Occupy’s First National Victory?

 

My reaction to the final fiscal cliff compromise was something along the lines of an exhausted sigh and shrug. Seems fine I guess. The whole manufactured crisis thing is hard to get worked up about after a while.

But I began to think… maybe there’s something being overlooked here: In an odd way, this could be seen as the first national policy victory of the Occupy Movement.

Like the fiscal deal or not, in 2013, the 1 Percent will pay the highest tax rate they’ve paid since 1979.

 

Average_Federal_Tax_Rates_Top_1_Percent.PNG

 

At the movement’s peak, although I was excited about its potential, I was kind of a pessimist about Occupy. I wrote then that without institutionalizing itself, it would dissolve before achieving the kind of national policy victories that the Tea Party had won.

But there is something to be said for the more intangible impact of social movements. They shape the thinking of everyone from your everyday dude on the street to professors, journalists, leaders of organizations and even presidents.

During Occupy Wall Street’s initial explosion onto the scene in 2011, I was in DC interning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. It was fascinating to see how think tanks, economists, columnists, even the great global institutions of capitalism like the OECD and the IMF all felt it necessary to respond to Occupy and start talking about income inequality and how to address it.

Then one day the chief economist at the CEA brought all of us into her office to watch on TV as the president gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. It didn’t create much media buzz, but she insisted this was an extremely important speech. And it was. It was the moment where Barack Obama publicly shifted to the strategy and message that won him re-election a year later.

Since the Tea Party’s rise and the miserable beatdown congressional Democrats had taken in 2010, the president had spent the past year moving his rhetoric to the center and trying to appease the right wing. Although in 2008 he originally campaigned on letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire for those making over $250k a year, he had outraged progressives like me in 2010 when he compromised with House Republicans to fully extend them for two more years (which would eventually lead to the fiscal cliff).

But as we saw in his shift on gay marriage, presidents, like any human being, change their minds sometimes. I believe it’s safe to say Occupy changed Obama. After that speech in Osawatomie, when for the first time he talked about the 99% and the 1%, he took a combative approach, with a clear emphasis on one issue: economic fairness. That was the message he used to successfully define the choice between him and Mitt Romney, and what ultimately won him the election a year later.

And in the first major political battle after the election, negotiating with congressional Republicans, he drew a line in the sand back to his original campaign promise that the Bush Tax Cuts must expire on incomes over $250k. Of course, being Barack Obama, he then crossed his line in the sand and offered a new threshold of $450k. But this one he held firm to. And interestingly enough, this is roughly the income level that puts you in the richest 1% of Americans.

 

So the One Percenters will pay the lion’s share of the tax increases in the fiscal deal. Meanwhile, thanks to the almost-impressive vicious stubbornness of the GOP, the incredibly-rich-but-not-quite-obscenely-rich Two Percenters (roughly incomes between $250k-450k) got the best deal. In fact, the downright impoverished will see a larger tax hike than they will next year. But at least in the Occupy frame of the world, the Two Percenters are still part of the 99%.

If anything this deal shows the sticking power of Occupy’s successful framing of our political economy as a conflict between the 99% and the 1%. This frame has, maybe for the first time, made its way into something written into law.

I’m sure if you asked most of the folks who participated in General Assemblies at the height of the Occupy Movement they would not be jumping with joy about this slight increase in the top marginal tax rate. But even if it wasn’t exactly their dream, in a way this is their victory.

How Come We Don’t Have Bestselling Novels About Class Struggle Anymore?

lesmiserables

Like millions of others looking for a relatively stress-free holiday family activity, I watched Les Miserables this weekend.

I was struck by an unshakeable feeling of the story’s old-ness.  Maybe it’s the way characters can fall absurdly in love with each other on sight or decide to die after performing tragic monologues.

But to me the clearest sign this story was written in a different time is its unapologetic political statement.  Les Miserables is not about economic inequality in 19th century Europe, it’s about a man’s struggle with personal transformation while being trapped in the sins of his past.  And yet it recognizes that the personal is political and the political is personal.  The suffering Jean Valjean experiences is wrapped in the context of the political and economic system he lives in and the villain is this system, even more than it is Javert.

This all made me wonder: Why don’t we have bestselling novels about class struggle anymore?

The original Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, despite political criticism, was a huge financial success in the western world of the 1800’s.  But today our popular culture seems to shy away from placing characters within a political context.

I want to focus on Hollywood here.  Novels and plays were the medium for popular culture consumption in the 19th century, but today movies and TV are the way regular people interact with storytelling.  (Also if I start talking about books I’d end up revealing, through my complete ignorance, the fact that I mostly stopped reading them at the age of 16.)

I did some research (okay, it was Wikipedia) on the top grossing movies of the 1990’s and 2000’s.  (1990 is the beginning of the After Lucas era, before which nothing is relevant).  Pretty much the closest we’ve got in the A.L. era is The Matrix, which gets points for symbolism.  Maybe at best some sort of vague, fuzzy critique of organized religion in the Da Vinci Code.  Avatar I guess says something about environmentalism and respecting indigenous people?
batman

If anything we’ve moved into the superhero movie era—where our heroes are individuals who seek not to change society, but to maintain law and order.  Perhaps the perfect counterexample to Les Miserables is the latest Batman movie.  Here the masses, discontent with inequality, are easily swayed by manipulative demagogue villains and can be whipped into a dangerous corrupt mob unless fought by a multi-billionaire heir of a military contracting corporation who can use its sheer firepower to restore the status quo.  The political statement is only that social change is at best irrelevant, or at worst an illusion, a convenient backdrop for the epic battles of heroes and villains.

So the more important question: Why?

Is the medium of film, with its badass special effects, simply more suited to the empty-headed action movie?  Or are writers and producers, or at least the most talented ones, becoming more politically apathetic?  Maybe consumers just don’t want to watch political stuff, so political critique is reserved for niche indie film festival audiences and never makes it to the mainstream.

Whatever the reason, this is a problem for those of us in political work.  Social movements cannot exist without artistic and cultural works to win the hearts and minds of the public.  A blockbuster movie is worth a thousand press releases and a bestselling novel is worth a million petitions.

This is a political organizer’s cry for help to the storytellers of the world:  Can we get some movies about the modern-day 99% up in here that don’t involve us getting our asses kicked by Bruce Wayne in a bat costume?

The Fiscal Cliff: Why American Politics is Completely, Tragically, Indefensibly Fucking Crazy

319674_397456310331383_459589497_n

There is no better story to explain the true insanity of American politics than the fiscal cliff.

The Media is Ignorant and it’s Making Everyone Else Ignorant Too

An explanation of the strangeness of this whole debate has to start with pointing out that the name itself is wrong.  It’s the product of the 24 hour news cycle which has produced a shockingly ignorant TV press corps that cannot possibly go several months without running around screaming about the latest invented apocalyptic crisis.  There is no “cliff” of economic doom we’re about to plunge over on January 1st like Wiley Coyote.  It’s really a gradual slope.

But slowly going down that slope would still be bad.  Why?  Basic economics says governments are supposed to run deficits during economic downturns.  They borrow rather than raising taxes to spend money on things like bridges, schools, the military, creating jobs for construction workers, teachers, and death-machine manufacturers.  The “fiscal cliff” is the large increase in taxes and cuts in spending scheduled to happen in 2013, which could put us back into recession.

File:Deficit or Surplus with Alternative Fiscal Scenario.png

Yet the media has created the perception among people that this is some kind of “debt crisis”, and we therefore need take this moment to deal with our national debt.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  Going over the fiscal cliff will almost completely eliminate the deficit (graph on right).  Yes, that’s right.  We could literally lock Congress in a big cage for the next year and the deficit would pretty much go away.  But that’s a bad thing, because it would tank the economy.

The Tea Party is Seriously Insane

So why aren’t the Tea Party crazies who are so obsessed with reducing the deficit cheering about the fiscal cliff?

If, as they’ve bizarrely insisted, the deficit under Obama is what’s been holding back job growth, shouldn’t the fiscal cliff be the Biggest Stimulus Ever?

In fact, a large part of the fiscal cliff is because of the automatic trigger budget cuts that they demanded when they held the debt ceiling hostage and almost caused the US to default.

So did they stop believing in austerity and suddenly become true believers in Keynesian economics?  No, apparently they don’t really believe anything and are just fucking crazy and angry about anything Obama does.

Congress Either Doesn’t Know or Doesn’t Care What Regular People Want

The truth is, right or left, no one wants to go over the cliff.  In fact, normal people (read: not members of Congress) are mostly in agreement.  A wide majority supports allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire on schedule.  And although Republicans like spending cuts in theory, when you ask them about the specific cuts their congressional representatives are talking about, they no longer support them.

The fiscal debate has featured all kinds of ridiculous antics from Congress.  We may have officially entered the Twilight Zone, when Senate Minority Leader McConnell (who has led more filibusters than anyone in history) I shit you not, filibustered his own  bill.

But at a deeper level, this shows who Congress is really accountable to.  Even though Congress agrees on tax rates for 98% of Americans, the debate is stuck because House Republicans are holding the whole thing hostage over tax cuts for the richest 2%.  And although the fiscal cliff cuts to the military are much more widely supported than cuts to Medicare, Congress is stumbling over themselves to protect the defense budget and fairly willing to throw grandma under the bus.  Why?  Because death-machine manufacturers have really good lobbyists and old poor people don’t.

Not Just the Tea Party, but the Republican Party in General is Seriously Insane

Clearly a significant portion of our country has become utterly unhinged from reality.  Not only were they convinced there was no way Obama could win, they still have trouble believing it even after the election is over.  

You don’t get to lose elections and then make demands.  Especially because Obama can get what he wants by doing nothing, letting all the tax cuts expire on January 1st, then asking Congress to vote for a tax cut just for the lower 98%, which they’ll all vote for.

Truth is, people are tired of the GOP’s shit.  That’s why Obama won.  That’s why in polls Americans overwhelmingly say they will blame Republicans in Congress if the fiscal cliff happens.

But here’s the best part.  If they don’t get their way, Republicans are threatening to start a whole new hostage situation over the debt ceiling.  The only thing that could make this more crazy is if as a compromise for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans demand another Supercommittee, which fails again, leading to automatic budget cuts that become another fiscal cliff that needs to be averted.

Maybe we’ll just be trapped in an infinite loop until we die.