Just another skirmish in the Civil War

I have written about this before,[1] but as the United States veers toward a possible default on its debts,

In a letter to his Republican colleagues on Friday night, Mr. Boehner said, “A deal was never reached, and was never really close.” He added: “In the end, we couldn’t connect. Not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country.”[2]

One vision seems to be that the rich own the country and its decision-making process, and that this should not be resisted but encouraged, that the rest of us exist for their ends, and when that doesn’t work, well that’s just too bad, but the rich have no obligation to anyone else. This view predominates in the political process:

The speaker [John A. Boehner] said [President Barack] Obama wanted to raise taxes too high and would not make “fundamental changes” to entitlement benefit programs like Medicare.

But according to a White House official, Mr. Obama had agreed over the coming decade to cut $250 billion from Medicare spending and $310 billion from other domestic entitlement programs, like farm subsidies and education programs. And Mr. Obama was willing to change the formula for Social Security cost-of living adjustments, which many economists say would more accurately reflect inflation, for savings of about $125 billion more.

All of Mr. Obama’s concessions on the benefit programs were contingent, however, on Mr. Boehner and Republicans agreeing to higher taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations.

At the news conference, Mr. Obama said Republicans were forfeiting an “extraordinarily fair deal” to trim the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. “I have gone out of my way to make compromises,” the president added.

“Essentially what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense,” Mr. Obama said. “We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. We believed that it was possible to shape those in a way that preserved the integrity of the system, made them available for the next generation and did not affect current beneficiaries in an adverse way.”

Republicans, though, said that the White House pushed for more revenue midway through the talks. “The White House moved the goal posts,” Mr. Boehner said in a news conference.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Mr. Obama continued to press the idea that it was “not right to ask middle class families to pay more for college before we ask the biggest corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.”[3]

House Speaker John Boehner’s new budget proposal would essentially require, as the price of raising the debt ceiling again early next year, a choice between deep cuts in the years immediately ahead in Social Security and Medicare benefits for current retirees, repeal of health reform’s coverage expansions, or wholesale evisceration of basic assistance programs for vulnerable Americans.[4]

Observe that Obama and Boehner agree that the social safety net, already devastated by welfare so-called “reform” passed under a previous Democrat, Bill Clinton, will be cut further. The putative disagreement is over whether further revenue will be raised to lessen the impact on the poor. But the poor will, under either Obama’s or Boehner’s proposal, suffer even more than they already do—the real question is over how much more they should be punished for a crisis precipitated by banks.

It is as if the poor weren’t already suffering, as if 31 million people were not underemployed or unemployed. Indeed, it is further evidence that for politicians, the poor do not matter.[5] Kevin Baker pointed out in 2009, in words still true today, “The most appalling aspect of the present [economic] crisis has been the utter fecklessness of the American elite in failing to confront it.”[6] And Baker had other choice words, again still entirely applicable today, about the Democratic faction’s performance in power:

Instead, we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These are men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for “trying to do too much,” as if he were as old and as indolent as they are.[7]

The other vision blames Wall Street for the financial crisis that created the recession.[8] In such a light, it is bizarre that the poor should face additional austerity when the banks that precipitated the crisis have been bailed out and are now fabulously profitable and the system remains at risk from “too big to fail” banks,[9]

Joan Walsh argues that Obama is combating intense polarization, that in his remarks about Abraham Lincoln’s failure to avert the Civil War, he recalls a history in which repeated attempts at compromise failed. And,

The president sincerely believes that the intense polarization of American politics isn’t merely a symptom of our problems but a problem in itself – and thus compromise is not just a means to an end but an end in itself, to try to create a safe harbor for people to reach some new common ground. I actually have some sympathy with that point of view. But having now watched two smart Democratic presidents devote themselves to compromise with Republicans, only to be savaged with increasing intensity, I’ve lost faith that compromise itself holds some healing magic. Maybe it just emboldens bullies.[10]

When one considers the demographics of poverty, the demographics of the Tea Party movement, and the inescapable racism of birtherism, the analogy between Obama and Lincoln deserves a broader exploration. First, a chart (fig. 1) based on the Census Bureau data on race and poverty[11]:

Poverty and Race
Fig. 1: Whites and non-whites, as proportions of the overall population, and as proportions of the population in poverty

For this exercise, I have purposely conflated racial categories into a white/non-white dichotomy. The top line (fig. 1) in blue, shows whites making up a declining share of the population. If so-called nativists feared a loss of influence in the late 19th century, following the Civil War, at the same time as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, were passed—abolishing slavery; guaranteeing due process to everyone and citizenship to everyone born in the country; and guaranteeing suffrage to all males, including blacks—it is apparent they have no fewer grounds for their concern today. Below that, in yellow, is the proportion that whites make up of all people in poverty. In green, is the proportion that non-whites make of all people in poverty, illustrating in contrast to the bottom line, in orange, showing the proportion that non-whites make up of the entire population, that while whites are disproportionately above the poverty line, people of color are disproportionately below it.

Live in Washington long enough and you’ll hear someone mention “east of the river. That’s D.C.’s version of “the other side of the tracks,” the place friends warn against visiting late at night or on your own. It’s home to District Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods with a long, rich history. Once known as Uniontown, Anacostia was one of the District’s first suburbs; Frederick Douglass, nicknamed the “Sage of Anacostia,” once lived there, as did the poet Ezra Pound and singer Marvin Gaye. Today the area’s unemployment rate is officially nearly 20%. District-wide, it’s 9.8%, a figure that drops as low as 3.6% in the whiter, more affluent northwestern suburbs.

D.C.’s divide is America’s writ large. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for black workers at 16.2% is almost double the 9.1% rate for the rest of the population. And it’s twice the 8% white jobless rate.

The size of those numbers can, in part, be chalked up to the current jobs crisis in which black workers are being decimated. According to Duke University public policy expert William Darity, that means blacks are “the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there’s a downturn, they’re the first to be released.”

That may account for the soaring numbers of unemployed African Americans, but not the yawning chasm between the black and white employment rates, which is no artifact of the present moment. It’s a problem that spans generations, goes remarkably unnoticed, and condemns millions of black Americans to a life of scraping by. That unerring, unchanging gap between white and black employment figures goes back at least 60 years. It should be a scandal, but whether on Capitol Hill or in the media it gets remarkably little attention. Ever.[12]

The jobs landscape is bleak for any unemployed American, but for black men it’s virtually a desert.

For them, the Great Recession not only led to the largest increase in unemployment for any category of American worker, but it also is pinching a lot longer. About 1 in 6 black men over age 20 in the labor force is jobless – and that number has barely improved since the economic recovery officially began two years ago.[13]

While the fact that Tea Party supporters tend to be white, male, and relatively wealthy[14] does not prove that they are racist, it is certainly evident that they have a diminished interest in protecting the poor and especially poor people of color from the vicissitudes of capitalism. And it seems virtually inconceivable that white John McCain—born in Panama[15]—would have received the kind of scrutiny devoted to black Obama’s origins. But here is David Broder, closing a column in late 2008:

The Southern domination of the congressional Republican Party has become more complete with each and every election. This year, Republicans suffered a net loss of two Senate and three House seats in the South, but they lost five Senate seats and 18 House seats in other sections. No Republican House members are left in New England, and they have become ever scarcer in New York and Pennsylvania and across the Midwest.

[Ray] LaHood, who witnessed but did not welcome the Gingrich “revolution” in the House, has watched with growing alarm the decimation of the GOP in Illinois and surrounding states. As point man for Obama’s stimulus spending, he now poses the dilemma for his own party in the sharpest possible terms: Will congressional Republicans again sacrifice their political interest to satisfy their Southern-baked ideological imperatives?[16]

Broder isn’t the only one to make this connection. In October 2009, the Daily Kos analyzed its Obama approval ratings by geographical area, and found that in the South, Obama faced a 27 percent approval rating, compared with a 68 percent disapproval rating. For the entire rest of the country, Obama enjoyed 67 percent approval and 24 percent disapproval. The South didn’t just run contrary to the rest of the country, but almost precisely opposite.[17]

Shortly after the Civil War the south underwent a process of democratization that was awe-inspiring and utopian, although tragically short-lived. Union troops were stationed in the South to make sure that blacks would be protected while going to the voting polls. Blacks were elected as senators. Schools were opened. A vibrant black public sphere began to emerge. This short-lived period came to be known as the “Reconstruction.” Within a decade, however, the reconstruction had been halted and a process of retreat back towards slavery began. White legislators mandated a series of laws that forced black freed men to become indentured servants by criminalizing them. The prerogatives of former white slave owners were legislated and legalized in the infamous “Blacks laws.” Once in prison, convicts were leased or rented for absurd fees to the private entrepreneurs of the new South. This process became known as the convict leasing system, and historians have gone so far as to say that it was “worse than slavery.”[18]

We are, to all appearances, still fighting the Civil War, with one side seemingly determined to preserve white privilege over others, even at the expense of poor whites, many of whom Republicans have persuaded to vote against their own interest.[19] It’s been over 150 years now, since Fort Sumter fell in April 1861. Ongoing physical violence may be limited to the occasional right-wing “extremist”—rarely labeled a terrorist except by the left—but the legacy of Jim Crow, the acrimony of the Civil Rights Movement, and the polarization of present-day politics leaves little doubt that Robert E. Lee’s surrender settled nothing but that southern states—at least for the moment—would not form a separate country.[20]

I don’t imagine that descendants of Civil War soldiers will be happy to learn that their ancestors suffered and died in vain. Nor would I imagine that African-Americans would welcome the perpetuation of slavery in the Confederacy. But,

There is, I believe, a clear relationship between the rise of the prison-industrial-complex in the era of global capitalism and the persistence of structures in the punishment system that originated with slavery. I argue, for example, that the most compelling explanation for the routine continuation of capital punishment in the U.S.—which, in this respect, is alone among industrialized countries in the world—is the racism that links the death penalty to slavery.[21]

We are fooling ourselves if we imagine that in a capitalist system, slavery has ended. Rather, in today’s economy, workers cannot be guaranteed that end of the month, they will have earned enough to pay rent, even if they work full time. People perform hellish jobs, not because they enjoy scrubbing toilets, working with hazardous materials, or even going to war, but because it is impossible to separate the need to pay for human necessities from the master’s whip. They do not accept nonunion jobs because they believe their employers’ anti-union propaganda, but because union jobs have become rare, and organizing increasingly impossible.[22] Indeed, it is no coincidence that the South has been so vigorous in resisting unions. We should consider instead that with pitiful wages, abusive working conditions, and an attitude that workers should be infinitely replaceable, that the institution of slavery is alive, well, and bigger than ever before. It might be Robert E. Lee’s signature on the surrender, but it is the South that has nearly conquered the North.

And that, even more than the urgency of paying off the banks that hold U.S. bonds or of preserving their credit ratings,[23] is what the debt limit fiasco is really about.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “A divorce for the United States,” DisUnitedStates, December 14, 2009, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=994
  2. [2]Jackie Calmes and Carl Hulse, “Debt Ceiling Talks Collapse as Boehner Walks Out,” New York Times, July 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/23/us/politics/23fiscal.html?_r=1
  3. [3]Calmes and Hulse, “Debt Ceiling Talks Collapse as Boehner Walks Out.”
  4. [4]Robert Greenstein, “Statement: Robert Greenstein, President, on House Speaker Boehner’s New Budget Proposal,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 26, 2011, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3548
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The respectability of ‘worthiness’,” DisUnitedStates.org, July 9, 2011, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=4034
  6. [6]Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again,” Harper’s, July 2009, http://harpers.org/archive/2009/07/0082562
  7. [7]Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama.”
  8. [8]David Weidner, “Why no jail time for Wall Street CEOs?” MarketWatch, May 31, 2011, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-no-jail-time-for-wall-street-ceos-2011-05-31
  9. [9]Marcus Baram and Grace Kiser, “Too Big To Fail, Too Small To Survive: Small Bank Failures Mount, While Big Banks’ Profits Soar,” Huffington Post, October 29, 2009, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/29/too-big-to-fail-too-small_n_338387.html; Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, “FDIC-Insured Institutions Earned $29 Billion in The First Quarter of 2011,” May 24, 2011, http://www.fdic.gov/news/news/press/2011/pr11091.html; Josh Rosner, “Dodd Frank is a Farce on Too Big to Fail,” Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith, ed., March 31, 2011, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/03/josh-rosner-dodd-frank-is-a-farce-on-too-big-to-fail.html
  10. [10]Joan Walsh, “The president wins another round,” Salon, July 22, 2011, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2011/07/22/obama_liberal_support_slips/index.html
  11. [11]Census Bureau, “710 – People Below Poverty Level and Below 125 Percent Of Poverty Level by Race and Hispanic Origin,” 2011 Statistical Abstract, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/income_expenditures_poverty_wealth.html
  12. [12]Andy Kroll, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Jobs,” TomDispatch.com, July 5, 2011, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175413/tomgram%3A_andy_kroll,_the_60-year_unemployment_scandal/
  13. [13]Ron Scherer, “Recovering US job market is leaving black men behind,” Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2011/0726/Recovering-US-job-market-is-leaving-black-men-behind
  14. [14]Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated,” New York Times, April 14, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/us/politics/15poll.html
  15. [15]Carl Hulse, “McCain’s Canal Zone Birth Prompts Queries About Whether That Rules Him Out,” New York Times, February 28, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/politics/28mccain.html
  16. [16]David S. Broder, “The GOP Goes South, While Waging Ideological Warfare,” Washington Post, December 28, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/26/AR2008122601129.html
  17. [17]kos, “GOP looks great in South, not so much in the rest of America,” Daily Kos, October 21, 2009, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/10/21/795220/-GOP-looks-great-in-South,-not-so-much-in-the-rest-of-America
  18. [18]Eduardo Mendieta, introduction to Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, by Angela Y. Davis (New York: Seven Stories, 2005), 9.
  19. [19]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (New York: Holt, 2005); Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992).
  20. [20]Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Sandra McNair Hawley, Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998); Stephan Salisbury, “Extremist Killing Is as American as Apple Pie,” TomDispatch.com, January 16, 2011, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175342/tomgram%3A_stephan_salisbury,_the_right_wing_of_killing; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003).
  21. [21]Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories, 2005), 35.
  22. [22]Noam Chomsky, interview by Peter Jay, “The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, ed. (Edinburgh, Scotland: AK, 2005), 133-148; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Donaldo Macedo, Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know, Expanded Edition (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2006).
  23. [23]Daniel Indiviglio, “Another Casualty of U.S. Downgrade: Too-Big-to-Fail Banks,” Atlantic, July 15, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/07/another-casualty-of-us-downgrade-too-big-to-fail-banks/242016/

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