Thursday, June 29, 2017

Signs of quid pro quo: The right-wing donor class mob is pissed! They want their tax cuts, and they want them now!

"We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob."

--President Franklin Roosevelt, October 31, 1936, Address at Madison Square Garden 

 Above: "Mob," a lithograph by W. Leroy Flint (1909-1991), created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1936-1938. This artwork reminds me of today's right-wing donor class - a group that is soulless, angry, and drunk on the teachings of Ayn Rand. Photo courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

It was recently reported that some wealthy right-wing donors are threatening to withhold campaign contributions unless congressional Republicans scale back health care for the poor (thereby giving tax cuts to the rich) and pass "tax reform" (i.e., tax cuts for the rich). (See, e.g., "GOP donors threaten to withhold funds unless their agenda is passed," Salon, June 26, 2017, and "GOP donors close checkbooks, frustrated with lack of progress on taxes, health care," Fox Business, June 26, 2017.)

Many on the political right, including Supreme Court justices, tell us that large political donations are a form of speech, and not quid pro quo expectations that particular laws will be passed or repealed. This claim is, of course, ridiculous (as we see, for example, in the stories above), but it keeps the cash flowing in and provides lots of well-paying jobs for politicians, political operatives, and judges. It's a sinister and circular system, where politicians provide tax breaks, judges provide favorable rulings, and the rich reward them with a cut of the money they've kept through such legislation and kangaroo court "justice." And the bought-and-paid-for politicians & judges use that money to start a new round of favoritism for the rich... and round and round it goes. (Note: Some judges are appointed, and some go through elections; but they're all beneficiaries of political donations from millionaires & billionaires, in one way or another.)   

Let's be frank: Millionaires & billionaires give large political donations because they want big tax cuts; because they want to pollute with impunity; because they want to charge enormous amounts of money for medicine; because they want a criminal justice system that gives them preferential treatment; and because they don't want to work for a living - they like the current rigged system, where they can lead lazy & luxurious lives by moving investment money around, by passing their fortunes down from generation to generation, and by keeping middle and low-income groups in perpetual debt. And they've been very successful at purchasing all of the above.

To put it another way, millionaire & billionaire donors pay politicians to legislate in a way that maintains and solidifies the American caste system. Super-wealthy donors want us under their thumbs, just as the wealthy southern landowners of the 1800s wanted slaves under theirs. Further, they want our children to be subjugated to their children in the future. That's the nature of a caste system, and that's why they want the estate tax repealed, while lower-income Americans get mired in debt, stagnant wages, and pitiful retirements. It keeps them in a position of unearned power, while the rest of us work harder and harder - not to get ahead, but simply to slow our descent. 

Only when we realize that the super-rich are not our friends, and only when we demand public financing for high political office, will we free ourselves from the disastrous policies that are causing us to be stressed, depressed, and suicidal. The right-wing donor class mob, especially, must be brought to heel, if we have any hope of improving our quality of life.

"We need to revive the traditional understanding of corruption, overturn Citizens United and continue the long American fight for freedom from powerful interests."

--Zephyr Teachout, Professor of Law, Fordham University, in "How the Supreme Court gets corruption totally wrong," Washington Post, May 5, 2016

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Social Gospel Christianity behind the New Deal, and the right-wing Christianity that abuses the poor and worships the rich

"... a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

--Jesus Christ, Matthew 19:23-24

"In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity."

--President Franklin Roosevelt, June 27, 1936, Acceptance Speech for the Renomination for the Presidency
  
Above: In 1936, perhaps in a nod to the Social Gospel movement, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Christian Values and American Government

Officially, there is a separation of church and state in America. But this wall of separation does not completely prevent policymakers from applying their belief systems to their government work. Sometimes it's done openly, for example, when members of Congress quote scripture to justify cutting off food assistance to the poor, but more often it's done in a subtle, even imperceptible manner, for example, when a policymaker makes everyday decisions based on his or her internal moral compass - a compass directed by religious upbringing. And since Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, it's important to know what strain of Christianity is behind our national policymaking.

I grew up attending the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church. And though I found some of the practices rather frightening, for example, "speaking in tongues" and a constant obsession with the "End Times," I'll give credit where credit is due: They followed the teachings of Christ fervently. For example, there was an aversion to exorbitant material wealth, empathy for the poor, and zero racism (we had many black congregants, and I'm certain that played a role in my own feelings of racial equality).

There are many great Christians and Christian churches today, but there's also been a rise of a type of Christianity that is completely alien to me. A Christianity that scolds the poor, praises money, and backs vulgar authoritarians like Donald Trump, thereby sanctioning racism and xenophobia. This type of Christianity turns the morality I was taught in church on its head. For example, when I was in church, we would sing, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight..." We were also taught to treat others as we would like to be treated, and to love our neighbors and even our enemies. And we were taught that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

I thought these were fairly basic teachings, uniform among all Christian denominations. How is it then, that so many Christians today have given their support and devotion to a man like Donald Trump - a man who says he's "very greedy" and "loves money"; promotes violence at his rallies; implies that low-income Americans are incompetent; and demonizes poor migrant workers from Mexico (while saying little or nothing about the wealthy whites who hire them)? 

Below I discuss the Social Gospel movement behind the New Deal, and then the current right-wing trend towards a less sympathetic and more materialistic form of Christianity. Again, this history is important because Christianity plays such a large role in our culture and public policy.  

Harry Hopkins, the Social Gospel Movement, and the New Deal

Above: WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins (center, with no hat), at a Louisiana State University football game, 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Harry Hopkins played an enormous role in the New Deal, arguably the largest. He was head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, head of the Civil Works Administration, and head of the Works Progress Administration. In these programs, he presided over hundreds of thousands of infrastructure, service, and art projects. He was also involved in other New Deal programs, for example, serving on the advisory committee for the Public Works of Art Project and serving on the board of directors for the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation. Furthermore, he was one of the top members of the Committee on Economic Security, the group whose work resulted in the Social Security Act. And perhaps most importantly, he was a close friend and adviser to the president, and thus had a tremendous influence on Roosevelt's policy positions. FDR's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, emphasized this in her 1946 book The Roosevelt I Knew:

"Hopkins became not only his relief administrator but his general assistant as no had been able to be. In many ways he filled the gap left by Louis Howe's death, but he had a much larger grasp of national and international affairs than did Howe. There was a temperamental sympathy between the men which made their relationship extremely easy as well as faithful and productive. Roosevelt was greatly enriched by Hopkins's knowledge, ability, and humane attitude towards all facets of life" (p. 191).

And so where did Hopkins get this "humane attitude towards all facets of life"? Well, the moral development of people comes from a complex mix of factors, of course, but one of the strongest influences on Hopkins' development was the Social Gospel movement of the late1800s / early 1900s, especially as it was taught at Grinnell College, the school he graduated from in 1912. Adherents to the the Social Gospel movement believed that Christian values could be applied to all aspects of life, even, for example, government policy. June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins' granddaughter, explains that "The intertwining of theology and ethics with politics and sociology at Grinnell College, so distinct in progressive reform, suggests a religious framework for Hopkins' social conscience" (June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, p. 17).

The link between the Social Gospel movement and the New Deal seems clear: (a) Hopkins was taught (and also raised by his mother) in the Social Gospel movement, (b) he enters government service (as do other adherents to the Social Gospel), (c) he becomes a friend and adviser to the president, and (d) the New Deal begins in 1933 and develops over several years, strongly influenced by Hopkins. We can see how Christianity, especially the Social Gospel strain of Christianity, contributed to Social Security, massive infrastructure development (the WPA gave jobs and hope to millions of unemployed Americans to work on roads, bridges, airports, and more), federal unemployment insurance, laws against oppressive child labor, and much more (also see, "Social Gospel," Encyclopedia Britannica).

Social Gospel Christianity--specifically, its influence on the New Deal--went a long way towards making America a more civilized nation, and also contributed to the development of a strong middle-class. But in modern America, we've seen large portions of the Christian community reject many of the most important teachings of Christ, and then demonize the poor and create roadblocks to government solutions to poverty. Even worse, some Christian opportunists have targeted the poor for financial exploitation.

Right-Wing Variants of Christianity: Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and Cult of Personal Responsibility

Above: "The Worship of Mammon," a painting by Evelyn De Morgan, 1909. In the Bible, Matthew 6:24, it says, "No man can serve two masters... Ye cannot serve God and mammon." On the 1932 campaign trail, Franklin Roosevelt quoted a rabbi, and said, "Once the cry of so-called prosperity is heard in the land, we all become so stampeded by the spirit of the god Mammon, that we cannot serve the dictates of social conscience... We are here to serve notice that the economic order is the invention of man; and that it cannot dominate certain eternal principles of justice and of God." Image courtesy of Wikipedia

"Christofascism" is a term created by Dorothy Solle (1929-2003), a German scholar and theologian. It is--as the name makes clear--a mixing of Christianity with fascism. Fascism has different meanings to different people, but it's essentially an authoritarian form of government (and, I would argue, culture) where the rich and powerful control lower-income groups with oppressive laws and, if need be, violence. An example of fascist policy can be seen in modern American bankruptcy law (put into place by the political right, their wealthy donors, and also neoliberal Democrats like Joe Biden) where student loan debtors are frequently barred from bankruptcy relief, while wealthy Americans, like Donald Trump, can utilize bankruptcy multiple times for their type of debt. And many Christians in America not only stand by and let it happen, despite biblical teachings against usury and oppressive debt-holding, but actively support politicians who make these types of laws.

The current Republican attempts to scale back Medicaid, in order to give super-wealthy Americans massive tax breaks, and the refusal of conservative Christians to come out strongly against these efforts, is another example of Christofascism.

A sibling to Christofascism is Prosperity Gospel. Prosperity Gospel rejects Christ's teachings regarding wealth and materialism. Whereas Christ said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Prosperity Gospel says God wants us to be materially wealthy, and that it's a sign he likes us. If you're not wealthy? Well, something is probably morally wrong with you and, if you fix your immorality, you'll find a well-paying job and get rich. Many evangelical leaders have become extraordinarily wealthy preaching Prosperity Gospel because a key component of the faith, very conveniently, is funding the pastor's extravagant lifestyle (see, e.g., "High-living North Carolina 'prosperity gospel' pastor indicted for bilking church in massive tax fraud scam," Raw Story, June 25, 2017 - the indicted pastor lived in a "$1.5 million condo" and had "three BMWs, two Ferraris, a Maserati and a Land Rover"). 

Prosperity Gospel is similar to Christofascism, insofar as it exalts wealth and power and, to one degree or another, frowns upon poverty. It's easy to see how Prosperity Gospel looks at someone like Donald Trump or the Koch brothers, and says, "See, God has smiled upon them!" and then looks at the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed, and says, "They've strayed from the moral light [and if they would just purchase my book & DVD set for $29.99, by calling the number above within the next 30 minutes, they'd find the path to riches and salvation!]."

Above: "Church at Pigeon Cove," a watercolor painting by Prescott Jones (1904-1981) created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1936. There are many great churches and churchgoers across America, but seeing so many Christians abandon the teachings of Christ, in obeisance to Donald Trump, right-wing billionaires, and Republican politicians who routinely cast the poor as "takers" and "parasites" has left a very sour taste in my mouth. I don't think I'll ever view the Christian community, as a whole, the same way I did when I was growing up. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Overarching much of Christofascism and Prosperity Gospel is what I like to call the Cult of Personal Responsibility (although I'm sure I'm not the first to use that terminology). This is a group of people that have the firm, fanatical, and ultimately absurd belief that if an individual is morally good, makes the right decisions, and works hard, everything will work out just fine. To the Cult of Personal Responsibility, market failures, job outsourcing, bad public policy, financial fraud, unforeseen health problems, and various other complexities of life, matter very little, if at all. It's always the individual who is at fault for his or her problems.

In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain summed up the philosophy of the Cult of Personal Responsibility by saying, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself." To Cain and other members of the Cult of Personal Responsibility (for example, Christofascists, Prosperity Gospel enthusiasts, and disciples of Ayn Rand), it mattered little that the big financial institutions profited from job outsourcing, or engaged in mortgage & securities fraud, insider trading, interest rate rigging, money laundering, price fixing, etc., before and during the Great Recession - it was still the individual's fault. They seemed to be saying, "It doesn't matter how much fraud is perpetrated, you simply have to adapt to it and work harder." This ideology ties in nicely to Christofascism and Prosperity Gospel, because it exalts and exonerates those with money and power, while placing all the burden and suspicion on those without money and power.

There is, of course, something to be said for personal responsibility. If we willfully do something wrong, there should be some sort of consequence. But when the burden of personal responsibility is disproportionately (or solely) placed upon lower-income Americans, in order to divert attention away from institutionalized unfairness or white collar crime, or to forever withhold assistance from those who need help, it becomes cruel and preposterous.

The Right-Wing Christian myth that churches, charity, and philanthropy will sufficiently replace government assistance programs

  Above: "Governmental Aid to the Needy," an oil painting by Tom Lea (1907-2001), created while he was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Many followers of Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Cult of Personal Responsibility tell us that the government doesn't need to help the downtrodden and, indeed, has no business doing so. They tell us that once they do away with government assistance programs, churches, charities, and philanthropy will pick up the slack. There are a few problems with this line of reasoning:

First and foremost, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to tax and spend for the general welfare (Article 1, Section 8), and the Supreme Court has firmly established the principle that it's up to Congress to determine what the general welfare consists of.

Second (and ironically), charitable giving tends to decline during recessions - the very time it's needed the most.

Third, super-wealthy Americans, on average, give less to charity, as a percentage of their income, than non-wealthy Americans. This is an especially big problem during the present era of extreme income & wealth inequality, where more and more money has been vacuumed into fewer and fewer hands. The money has shifted from those who give more to those who give less.

Fourth, the super-wealthy are so insulated from the problems of middle and low-income America, that they really don't know how to give their charitable dollars away for maximum impact, at least with respect to human needs.

Fifth, churches and charities have already proven that they cannot fill in for government neglect. When millions of Americans needed jobs during the Great Depression and more recently, the Great Recession, churches, charities, and philanthropists didn't hire them in any significant numbers. Why not? And when hundreds of millions of Americans have needed health insurance over the past many decades, churches, charities, and philanthropists could not (or would not) provide it - hence the development of Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and the Affordable Care Act (and hopefully, someday, Medicare-for-All).

Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger organization, recently calculated that every religious congregation in America would have to raise about three-quarters of a million dollars to offset proposed cuts in the Trump budget. Reverend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said: "There is no way our country's 350,000 religious congregations can make up for the cuts in the services that help hungry, poor, and other vulnerable people. Congress should not justify budget cuts by saying that churches and charities can pick up the slack. They cannot... The notion that is often repeated by members of Congress, and by some conservative church leaders, is that [churches] are going to fill in, that they're going to take over for government. It's just nonsense."   

What's healthier for our culture? Social Gospel? Or Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Cult of Personal Responsibility?

Above: A WPA poster, rallying the nation to help stop the fascist powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the introduction to Inge Scholl's book The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943, Dorothy Solle, the scholar behind the term "Christofascism," explained that "The conservative Christian parties smoothed Hitler's path to power. Ten years later Germany was a hotbed of robbers and rapists who waged war against all of Europe, while specifically targeting Eastern Europe for their more gruesome atrocities" (p. xi, 1983 reprint).

Solle's observation should serve as a cautionary tale, and indicates that Social Gospel, as practiced by New Dealers, is a far more healthy Christian approach to government & culture than Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, or the Cult of Personal Responsibility. Social Gospel promotes healthy interactions between government and the governed, and between the citizens themselves, while Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Cult of Personal Responsibility abuse the poor, and also promotes division and contempt, between the so-called "worthy" and the so-called "unworthy," or, as Congressman Paul Ryan and other conservatives like to put it, between the "makers" and the "takers."     

Hopefully, over the coming decades and centuries, we can take the most empathetic principles from all religions and ethical codes, and apply them to government, as well as to our daily interactions with each other. This would be, if you will, a sort of Social Gospel of all positive human beliefs.

In any event, we must get away from the right-wing versions of Christianity that ridicule and damn the poor. Our nation, and our souls, depend on it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

New Deal Art: "The Pied Piper"

Above: "The Pied Piper," a lithograph on ivory wove paper, by Albert James Webb (1891-1958), created while he was in the WPA's art program, ca. 1935-1942. There is very little information on the Internet or in newspaper archives about Webb; but according to the website Art of the Print, he was a "talented New York City painter, etcher and lithographic artist" and "studied at the Art Students League." Also, Find a Grave shows that he was a private in the U.S. Army. Perhaps he served during World War I, and perhaps his memories of the war motivated his Grim Reaper-style Pied Piper. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Kansas City Colossus, courtesy of the Public Works Administration

Above: A PWA-constructed auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri, ca. 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

 Above: The PWA-constructed auditorium in 2008. Photo courtesy of "Charvex" and Wikipedia.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

New Deal Grandeur in Indiana

From an era of proud American infrastructure and a government for the people, both so completely absent today, here's a little New Deal grandeur in Indiana. (Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of the National Archives.)

Above: A New Deal field house at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal war memorial in Indianapolis, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal dorm for women at Purdue University, in Lafayette, Indiana, for the people.

Above: Another New Deal dorm for women, this one at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, for the people.

Above: A New Deal school for African Americans in Indianapolis, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal firehouse in Avilla, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal courthouse in Shelbyville, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal disposal plant in Gary, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal training building for teachers, at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, for the people.

Above: A New Deal naval armory in Indianapolis, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal power plant in Columbia City, Indiana, for the people.

 Above: A New Deal medical building at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, for the people.

Above: A New Deal civic center in Hammond, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal administration building at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, for the people.

Above: A New Deal art building at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, for the people.

Above: The New Deal art building today, still serving the people as an art museum. Photo courtesy of Ball State University, used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

New Deal Magnificence in Nebraska

In this dark age of bland architecture, infrastructure neglect, and Republican tax cuts for the nation's super-wealthy money-hoarders, it's nice to look back at a time when policymakers actually cared about the country as a whole. Look at some of these splendid buildings & structures in Nebraska, built by the New Deal between 1933 and 1943, for the people. You're highly unlikely to see anything like these built today, as the modern emphasis is on cheap and boring (if anything at all) - I mean, let's face it, our rich CEOs & celebrities MUST have their private compounds, private islands, and private jets, and we MUST plutocratize nations around the world with our endless & highly expensive military adventures. And so, after all that, there just isn't much left for the common good. (All photos courtesy of the National Archives.)

 Above: A New Deal bandstand in Kearney, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal auditorium in Freemont, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal swimming pool facility in Kearney, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal building for the University of Nebraska, in Omaha, for the people.

Above: A New Deal powerhouse and surge tank in North Platte, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal bridge in Omaha, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal airport hangar in Grand Island, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal bandstand in Stanton, Nebraska, for the people.

Above: A New Deal war memorial at Antelope Park, in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the people.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

In their worship of the rich, and adherence to so-called "limited government," conservative voters are raising our taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates

Above: President Franklin Roosevelt had a "moral commitment to progressive taxation. When it came to taxes, Roosevelt simply believed that rich people should pay more than poor people" (Joseph J. Thorndike, Their Fair Share: Taxing the Rich in the Age of FDR, Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press, 2013, p. 45). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Conservative voters are directly raising your taxes

In 2010, conservative voters in Kansas elected Republican Sam Brownback to be governor, and they've elected other Republicans to lead them in the Kansas legislature. As a result, taxes were cut for the rich and increased on the middle-class and poor (see, e.g., "After cutting taxes on the rich, Kansas will raise taxes on the poor to pay for it," ThinkProgress, June 16, 2015).

In 2014, a conservative talk-show host and public works board member pushed for a sales tax increase to pay for infrastructure in Los Angeles. Sales taxes are regressive: lower income people, who are least able to bear the burden, must pay a higher percentage of their income to satisfy the tax than rich people who are better able to bear the burden.

In 2014, conservative voters in Illinois elected Republican Bruce Rauner to be governor, and they've elected other Republicans to lead them in the Illinois legislature. As a result, taxes were cut for the rich (including a $750,000 yearly tax break for Governor Rauner - a mere coincidence I'm sure). And, to "fix" the budget, Illinois Republicans are now proposing regressive taxes on the middle-class and poor, for example, laundry taxes, Netflix taxes, and higher property taxes, even though Illinoisans "already pay the highest property taxes in the country" ("7 Reason the Illinois Republicans' Budget Plan Fails Taxpayers," Illinois Policy, June 16, 2017).

By worshiping and pampering the wealthy, conservative voters are also indirectly raising your taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates

Conservative voters keep putting Republicans into high political office. In turn, Republican politicians keep cutting (or trying to to cut) taxes on the rich. They want to reduce top marginal taxes, corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, and they want to fully repeal the estate tax (a tax which only applies to the super-rich). Yes, after decades of trickle-down economics wreaking havoc on our nation (e.g., crumbling infrastructure and a ballooning national debt), conservative voters want to double-down on these disastrous tax policies.

When taxes are cut for the rich, at the federal level, the nation's revenue burden inevitably falls on the middle-class and poor, in the form of increased taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates at the state & local level. Why is this the case? Because when the federal government is taking in less money than it otherwise would, it is less willing and able to assist the states. And the states are loathe to increase taxes on their rich residents, for fear of scaring them off to competing states. This drives the revenue burden down, in a crushing blow, on top the heads of the middle-class and poor. And the middle-class and poor are largely captive populations; they can't easily move. They're tied to their jobs, or retired on a fixed income where the financial burden of moving is a major deterrent. (By contrast, the super-wealthy can get up and move more easily because they don't live paycheck-to-paycheck or, in many cases, don't work at all - they can sip martinis by the pool, and whimsically move investment money around, just as easily in Florida as in Wyoming).

And so what's the result of our decades-long tax-cuts-for-the-rich experiment at the federal level, promulgated by conservative voters? According to a 2015 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, "Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families... The lower one's income, the higher one's overall effective state and local tax rate. Combining all state and local income, property, sales and excise taxes that Americans pay, the nationwide average effective state and local tax rates by income group are 10.9 percent for the poorest... 9.4 percent for the middle... and 5.4 percent for the top 1 percent."

That was the 2015 finding, and the trend is showing no sign of slowing down. Consider the following stories (all are from 2017, except for the commentary about law enforcement fines), and realize that they are being replicated hundreds, even thousands of times across the country, every year.

Higher Bridge Tolls: In the San Francisco Bay Area, large bridge toll increases are being considered. Note: Bridge tolls are regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor

More Expensive Toll Roads: In the nation's heartland, "Many Indiana Toll Road Drivers Seeing Big Rate Increase." And in the Republican headquarters of Texas, "The North Texas Tollway Authority announced Thursday that it will increase toll rates for TollTag users from 17.06 cents to 18.01 cents per mile, effective July 1. That adds up to about $40 more per year for people who travel about 20 miles round trip to work. The change is part of a toll rate schedule that calls for increases every other year." Note: Road tolls are regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor. (They're also a pain in the ass.) 

Emergency Service Fee Increases: In Mineral County, West Virginia, 9-1-1 emergency call fees are being increased. (Many West Virginia counties also have aggressive personal property taxes, e.g., taxing your dog, and also taxing your lawn mowers, trailers, golf carts, and car, every single year). Note: Emergency fees are regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor.

Revenue Generation Through More Aggressive and Menacing Law Enforcement (Fines, Arrests, Court Fees ): When state and local governments need money, they're reluctant to tax the rich, many of whom they're politically indebted to. Instead, they often go after the people who can't easily afford legal protection - the middle-class and poor. This was recently and prominently seen in Ferguson, Missouri, where the U.S. Department of Justice found that "the Missouri municipality funded itself by harassing and fining its residents for trivial offenses." Note: Criminal justice fines are regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor.

Water Rate Increases: In High Bridge, New Jersey, the town council voted to make huge increases to the town's water bills, as much as doubling one resident's bill. The increases were needed, it was said, to maintain the water lines. Note: Water charges are usually regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor

Sewage Rate Increases: In Jefferson County, Kentucky, sewer rates may go up by about 24%. Yes, not only is the water being taxed more as we drink it, but it's also being taxed more when we pee it out - taxes in, taxes out. Note: Sewer rates are usually regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor.

Car and Fuel Tax Increases: In California, fuel taxes and car registration fees are going up to pay for infrastructure improvements. Note: Fuel taxes (despite hand-wringing to the contrary) are regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor. DMV fees are also regressive, disproportionately burdening the middle-class and poor.


Above: In this short video clip (with colorful language), George Carlin says we shouldn't blame politicians. Though I don't agree with his entire bit, he makes some good points. At 0:47 he says, "If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're gonna get selfish ignorant leaders." Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFDND9SRJbs.

Super-wealthy Americans are laughing at our stupidity

As we're being nickel-and-dimed to death, with endless tax increases, toll increases, fee increases, fine increases, and utility rate increases, the super-wealthy are enjoying record wealth. And they will soon (thanks to conservative voters) receive another round of gargantuan federal tax cuts. And we can be sure that these tax-cuts-for-the-rich will be marketed as tax cuts for the middle-class, i.e., "tax cuts for hard-working', God-fearin' families!" Unfortunately, most conservative voters will fall for it, hook, line, and sinker - as they always have, and probably always will. Americans have become, as liberal commentator Thom Hartmann is fond of saying, the "village idiots." We pay more for health care than people in other developed countries, but die younger. We pay more for Internet service than people in other developed countries, but receive slower service. And when politicians give massive tax cuts to the wealthy, we smile goofily and think, "surely, it was for us!"

The New Deal points to a better way

Instead of handing out tax cuts to the rich like candy, and instead of blocking and cutting infrastructure funding (as Republican love to do), there is, believe it or not, a better way. During the New Deal, taxes were significantly raised on the wealthy, and an enormous amount of infrastructure work was done, putting millions of American back to work - many hundreds of thousands miles of roadwork, tens of thousands of bridge projects, thousands of water, sewer, and utility projects, and much more. We're still utilizing many of these infrastructure projects today, as documented by the Living New Deal.

How was this done? Well, let's take the WPA for example. During the 1930s and early 40s, local governments assessed their infrastructure needs and submitted construction plans to federal WPA officials. If the plans were sound, and if the local government could raise about 20% of the needed funds, the WPA would kick-in the rest. To put it simply, the federal government gave massive infrastructure assistance to local communities during the New Deal era. Doesn't that sound better than higher bridge tolls, higher property taxes, higher sales taxes, traffic-congesting toll booths, and the police bearing down on you more and more for revenue-generating fines?

We could do another New Deal, of course, if conservative voters stopped worshiping the rich, if they stopped making empty-headed calls for "limited government" (when it's really good government, and a government for the people, that we truly need), and if they stopped raising our taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates with their peculiar and self-defeating voting habits.

And maybe, just maybe, the Democratic Establishment could do its part by rediscovering its New Deal roots, challenging its corporate donors, and giving at least some of the nation's conservative voters a better choice next time - a choice that doesn't include a big bank marionette like Barack Obama or a military-industrial puppet like Hillary Clinton. Never forget - many rural areas, like West Virginia, were Roosevelt Democrats before they were Trump Republicans.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

After wrecking the Democratic Party, and helping elect Donald Trump & Goldman Sachs, Barack Obama is cashing in - big time


Above: In this short video clip, from Inside Edition, we see former President Obama kitesurfing with billionaire Richard Branson in February 2017. Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGMSAgaYFTM.

In 2009, President Obama entered office on a wave of populism. The American people were hungry for change. They were sick and tired of the banks and the super-wealthy rigging the economy with all manner of greed, fraud, and white-collar crime. By the time Obama left office, however, his uninspiring, weak-kneed, and corporate-submissive approach to public policy helped leave the Democratic Party in shambles. The White House was lost, the Congress was lost, the Supreme Court was lost, and about 1,000 state-level positions were lost (e.g., governors, state senators). It wasn't all his fault, of course, but his role in the devastation was substantial (see my blog post, "15 reasons why pseudo-progressive Barack Obama is the worst president in U.S. history," for many of the reasons he left progressives, independents, and liberal Democrats in a state of disillusion).

Make no mistake about it, President Obama and his neoliberal mindset helped set the stage for what we have today: a maniacal Donald Trump & Goldman Sachs presidency; a mean-spirited Republican Congress; an increasingly backwards Supreme Court; and a shift in state-level politics that is putting our Constitution at risk of being re-written into a radical right-wing manifesto that may, among other things, see the general welfare clause and the separation of church and state removed. If you're not frightened, you should be. If things keep going the way they've been going, you may soon be forced to take an oath of fealty to the likes of Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Jay Sekulow, and other arrogant, obnoxious, and overbearing religious radicals. You think Trump is bad? You ain't seen nothin' yet if right-wing extremists open up a constitutional convention (see, "A Billionaire-Backed 'Movement' Is Dangerously Close to Calling a Constitutional Convention," Alternet, June 14, 2017).

But all of this matters little to former President Obama. He's been cashing in - big time. And, short of a nuclear war, he'll suffer not a bit under right-wing rule. In fact, right-wing voters and politicians who say they don't like Obama are almost certainly going to lavish him with massive tax breaks.

President Obama receives a luxurious $200,000+ yearly pension. He's also, very predictably, going on the infamous Wall Street speaking circuit, collecting even more cash (see, e.g., "Obama’s $400,000 Wall Street Speech Is Completely In Character: Ask all the bankers he jailed for fraud." Huffington Post, April 26, 2017). But that's chump change. You see, he and Michelle recently inked record-setting book deals worth $60 million. And this, we can be sure, is just the beginning of the Obamas' post-presidential lottery haul.

So, let's get this straight: Obama kitesurfs with billionaire Richard Branson (see video above); schmoozes with billionaire David Geffen (as well as Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Hanks) on Geffen's half-a-billion dollar yacht; and is collecting large sums of cash from the public coffers, and also from his post-presidential deal-making, while the rest of us are left to be persecuted by corporations and governments--federal, state, and local--who want to keep our wages low and shred our social safety net. In sum, the Obamas cash in and we suffer.

Does that seem right to you? Is that the outcome you were hoping for, from an Obama presidency?

Instead of cronyism, nepotism, economic elitism, and post-presidential "lotteryism," wouldn't it be great if we had another, even stronger New Deal for everyday Americans? Wouldn't true progressivism, as opposed to pseudo-progressivism, be better?

(By the way, President Franklin Roosevelt--also very rich--was so committed to greater economic equality that he gave his beloved home in Hyde Park, New York, to the American people. I'll be holding my breath, waiting for Barack Obama to do the same with his book proceeds, or for Donald Trump to do the same with Trump Tower.)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

New Deal Fairy Tale, Nursery Rhyme, and Story Art (10/10): "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"

Above: "Goldilocks," a ceramic sculpture by Emilie Scrivens, created while she was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1935-1938. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library.

Above: "Three Bears," another ceramic sculpture by WPA artist Emilie Scrivens. There is hardly any information about Scrivens on the Internet, or in newspaper archives, but according to one art vendor, Scrivens "began an intensive study of pottery, sculpture, and mold-making as a WPA artist in the Federal Art Project of Cleveland, under Edris Eckhardt [see my blog post here]. Over time, her skills improved sufficiently that she won awards from the annual May Show of the Cleveland Museum of Art." Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library.

Above: A National Youth Administration (NYA) worker reads a story to nursery school kids in Los Angeles, 1941. During the New Deal, the NYA hired millions of teens and young adults to do useful public work. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Friday, June 16, 2017

New Deal Fairy Tale, Nursery Rhyme, and Story Art (9/10): WPA posters, WPA theatre

Unless otherwise noted, the images below are from the George Mason University Library, used here for educational, non-commercial purposes. The production information comes from the 1940 book Arena, by WPA Theatre Director Hallie Flanagan.

Above: A WPA poster for Treasure Island. The WPA performed Treasure Island in New Jersey from November 11 through December 30, 1937; put on a puppet show in Miami on March 10, 1939; and another puppet show in New York City from July 12, 1935 through March 26, 1936.

 Above: A WPA poster for Jack and the Beanstalk. This WPA performance ran from August 17, 1937 through March 10, 1938.

Above: A costume design for the WPA production of Aladdin. The WPA performed Aladdin in Los Angeles, from March 11 through July 22, 1938.

Above: A WPA poster for Robin Hood. This WPA musical played at the Emery Theatre in Cincinnati from December 27, 1937 through January 8, 1938.

Above: A WPA poster for Pinocchio. In addition to this production in Boston, the WPA performed Pinocchio in Los Angeles from June 3, 1937 through December 3, 1938.

Above: A set design for the WPA production of Robinson Crusoe. The WPA performed Robinson Crusoe in Gary, Indiana, from May 22 through August 18, 1937.

Above: A WPA poster for Alice in Wonderland. The WPA performed this puppet show from April 9 through April 20, 1938. Also, WPA actors performed Alice in Wonderland in Portland, Oregon, from December 26, 1938 through January 14, 1939, and in New Haven, Connecticut from March 16 through April 28, 1936.

Above: A WPA poster for Revolt of the Beavers. The WPA performed Revolt of the Beavers in New York City from May 20 through June 17, 1937. Revolt of the Beavers was written in 1936 by Oscar Saul and Louis Lantz and caused a controversy when it was performed by the WPA in 1937 (see next caption).

Above: A scene from the WPA production Revolt of the Beavers. In her 2008 book, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times, writer Susan Quinn explained how the play created a brouhaha: "Revolt was a fairy tale with a message: It told the story of a cruel beaver chief who keeps the underling beavers busy turning bark into products but shares none of the proceeds from their labor. A hero beaver named Oakleaf organizes the beavers and leads them in a revolt. They shoot down the company's police, using revolvers and machine guns concealed in their lunch boxes, then gleefully send their oppressors into exile" (p. 160). Children loved the play, especially the parts where the actors moved around on roller skates. However, political conservatives were less-than-happy. Revolt of the Beavers added to their suspicion that the WPA Theatre was spreading subversive communist thought, and was a dangerous challenge to plutocracy, economic hoarding, and institutionalized oppression. (Also see, Brooks Atkinson, "'The Revolt of the Beavers,' or Mother Goose Marx,  Under WPA Auspices," New York Times, May 21, 1937). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

*****

In addition to the stories above, the WPA Theatre also performed drama or puppet shows of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Tom Sawyer, Beauty and the Beast, Cricket on the Hearth, The Emperor's New Clothes, Rip Van Winkle, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and more.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

New Deal Fairy Tale, Nursery Rhyme, and Story Art (8/10): The Mother Goose mural that children saved, but cultural apathy lost

Above: This grainy black & white photo of Bernice Cross's color WPA mural (see discussion below) is from the December 2nd, 1937 edition of the McComb Enterprise-Journal newspaper (Mississippi). It may be the only photo of Cross's mural, and was featured in many newspapers across the country, after a government official insulted it in 1937. (The photo is used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.)

The WPA mural that was called grotesque, saved by children, and then lost by cultural apathy

WPA artist Bernice Cross (1912-1996) painted the above Mother Goose mural--featuring Old King Cole, Humpty Dumpty, and other nursery rhyme characters--for the children's ward at the Glenn Dale Hospital (Prince George's County, Maryland), ca. 1935-1937. The mural caused a national sensation in 1937 when a Washington, D.C. health official called it "grotesque" and ordered its destruction. However, in response to the condemnation, a jury of six children was formed to judge the mural and determine its fate. 

The first child-juror brought in to judge the mural was asked, "Are you interested in this?" to which she replied, "Yes, it's very pretty." An African American child, whose eyes were transfixed on "the king about to eat a blackbird pie" said, "I think it is very nice." The other children agreed and the mural was saved (see, e.g., "Jury Of Children Saves Mural On Mother Goose," The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), November 25, 1937). 

Unfortunately, Cross's mural was later lost, as explained in a Maryland Historical Trust form: "The mural was described as being located on the left side of the lobby as one entered the children's hospital building, covering the whole wall above the wainscoting. It is no longer there and it is not known if it was painted over or removed" ("Glenn Dale Hospital," Individual Property/District, Maryland Historical Trust Internal NR-Eligibility Review Form, 1997, section 8, p. 7).

Cross's Mother Goose mural is not the only New Deal artwork to be lost or forgotten. Many thousands are unaccounted for, and many others are not on display. However, there are quite a few organizations, e.g., the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Living New Deal, and the federal government's General Services Administration, that are trying to find, inventory, display, or preserve these national treasures. Hopefully, a large New Deal Museum will one day house and display New Deal paintings, sculptures, wood carvings, lithographs, and more.

Above: The Mother Goose mural in this WPA photograph (taken at a children's hospital in Portland, Maine, ca. 1935-1939) was most likely painted by a WPA artist (see, e.g., "Children's Hospital Mural - Portland ME," Living New Deal, accessed June 15, 2017). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A closer look at the mural, showing Mother Goose, Little Bo Peep, and others. The idea behind these murals was to provide a more cheerful atmosphere for convalescing children. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: "Little Jack Horner," a ceramic sculpture by Edris Eckhardt (1905-1988), created while she was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. Little Jack Horner is a famous Mother Goose nursery rhyme (however, the fictitious boy apparently dates back to the 1700s). The rhyme goes like this: "Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating a Christmas pie; He put in his thumb and pulled out a plumb, and said "What a good boy am I!." Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library.