I’m writing today about President Obama’s jobs bill, a supremely disappointing effort to evade both the necessity and risk this moment demands. I don’t want Congress and the administration to get away with pretending a tax credit to businesses will address the need for job creation. And I think it’s up to us to make that point, before the snow obscures all clarity.
But before I do, I want to urge you to visit another Web site and make a donation. Most of the essays I’ve written on the idea of a “New New Deal” for the arts and economy have been published on the Community Arts Network. (Search the site for my name and you’ll find a long list of essays.)
CAN has been a unique and indispensable resource for people who care about culture and community. It is the creation of two dedicated individuals, Linda Frye Burnham and Steve Durland, who have worked heroically to support and sustain it over the years. With a group of supporters, they are now devising “CAN 2.0,” a new configuration of sponsors who can carry the work forward. Given the economic and political climate, this is a truly terrible time in community arts funding, with projects and organizations struggling to survive. CAN needs short-term help to make a transition to sustainability; and the field needs this resource to survive. Please donate now.
We also need an administration in Washington that puts people before lowest-common-denominator politics. I still find it hard to believe that President Obama’s answer to our scandalous unemployment is a bill, recently passed in the Senate, that prescribes payroll tax breaks for employers who hire people who’ve been unemployed for at least sixty days. Additional legislation now due to come up in the House is described as “extending more than $30 billion in corporate tax breaks and aid to small business.”
In other words, except for the inadequate stimulus package passed more than a year ago, the administration’s response to unemployment is trying to bribe private businesses to hire more people. Private-sector job creation is a fine thing, although it remains to be seen whether this legislation will have that result. Most economists think not: the benefit amounts to forgiveness of the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax, plus an additional $1,000 in tax credit if the employee is retained for a year. This equals a fraction of the cost of hiring someone. It ought to be called the McDonald’s-Wal-Mart bill, because it will primarily benefit low-wage, high-turnover businesses. Hire someone for minimum wage, keep him or her for a year, collect the benefits (then do it again if the provision is renewed): as the New York Times pointed out:
“The design of the Senate bill passed today is particularly beneficial to high-turnover companies, like restaurants, which in a typical year might replace fully half of their work forces,” said John H. Bishop, an economist in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. “To get the hiring subsidy, it doesn’t require that a company actually grow.”
I’ve been writing and speaking everywhere I can about the importance of a new public-sector employment program. (See upcoming dates here and download talks and essays here.) Although my focus is on jobs for artists who work in community, the same need exists in other sectors, where social and physical infrastructure are in bad shape, and no private job-creation will help because the common good is not a profit center.
Seventy-five years ago, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President, this country faced down crippling unemployment with a New Deal that included a constellation of jobs programs for artists, putting into practice a deep understanding that sharing our stories through art supports the resilience, imagination and empathy that helps us surmount crisis. WomenArts has a concise Web feature on women of the WPA in honor of SWAN Day 2010 ( Support Women Artists Now), coming right up. Next Monday night, I’ll be speaking at a play reading and panel discussion in New York to mark this event.
I really like the way Miles Mogulescu writes in the Huffington Post about the need to hold the administration accountable. In a postscript to a rather sobering articles about Obama’s willingness to trade away the public option in healthcare reform, Mogulescu (a former independent filmmaker himself), states that
My goal is to shine a light on these backroom deals in order to embarrass Obama and Congressional Democrats to put the interests of the voters over the interests of special interests so that Republicans can’t play at being faux populists and use that to take back Congress in order to enact even worse corporatist policies.
Progressives need to have a sophisticated and nuanced relationship with elected Democrats. After the 2008 elections, too many progressive organizations demobilized believing their job was simply to take orders from the White House to support Obama’s agenda, whatever it was. That was a mistake. It’s equally a mistake for progressives to overreact in the opposite direction and think they can abandon electoral politics and do nothing to prevent the Republicans from regaining power. What’s needed is a powerful grassroots progressive movement to force elected officials to do the right thing more often and to counter-balance the power of big money in politics. The periods of progressive change in American politics, like the Progressive Era, The New Deal, and the Great Society, have come when strong progressive movements have forced elites and elected officials to enact somewhat progressive legislation.
Read the whole thing, including the links, especially if you are feeling too discouraged to protest.
I’m focusing my energy right now on finding the best possible vehicles to communicate the public interest in art. I see a new WPA as the flagship issue, because it would embody that interest in day-to-day work right in people’s own communities. I’m starting work on a new book that pulls together the many ways I’ve discovered to tell this story across years of writing, speaking and thinking about the issues. And at night, I’m dreaming up Technicolor PSAs. What do you think of this one?
I see an old woman sitting on a porch swing or an overstuffed couch with a youngster, a great-grandchild. “That’s right,” the woman is saying, “when I was your mother’s age, I had a job working on plays with something they called the Negro Theater Unit, right here in Oklahoma. And the government paid for it!”
“The government paid for you to be in the theater, Grandma? Are you kidding?”
The woman shakes her head no. “Why?” asks the youngster.
“Those were bad days for everyone,” the woman says, “and black people were hit hardest, right in the middle of the Dust Bowl. They knew we had to tell our stories, that would help us get through it and figure out what to do. They knew we had to pass our stories along.”
“What do you mean?” asks the youngster.
“It’s like in slavery times,” says the woman. “Sometimes, when things are hardest, all people have is their stories. The memory of better days, the hope of a future.”
“And artists give them that?” asks the youngster.
The woman nods. “Artists give them that, and they are ready to do it again.”
“Maybe you should tell the President about it,” the youngster says. “I think he forgot.”