Weiner’s roast, Palin’s belligerent ignorance, Gingrich’s implosion captivate Washington. Posturing over deficits and playing chicken over lifting the debt limit dominate the economic conversation. The reality facing Americans gets lost in the hubbub.
It is as if an impenetrable fog separates Washington’s follies from America’s agonies. In Washington, the economy is said to be in recovery. Restaurants are full; housing prices are going up. Republicans think it’s time to replay old conservative favorites: Curtail aid to the unemployed, roll back financial and health-care reforms, repeal what left’s of the stimulus while pushing to slash spending and taxes. The Obama administration wants to brag on the 2 million jobs created over the last 15 months, despite “bumps in the road.” The Democrats are so cowed by the elite’s focus on deficits that they are afraid to put forth a jobs plan. Outside of the scandal du jour, the city is fixated on how much and what to cut.
But out in the rest of the country, the damage wrought by the Great Recession worsens. Twenty-five million people are in need of full time work. Teenage unemployment is at 24 percent; among black male teenagers the figure approaches 50 percent. Home values are down one-third from their peak in May 2006 and sinking. Millions of families face foreclosure. Wages aren’t keeping up with prices, particularly for basics like food, gas and medicine. Schools are laying off teachers and shutting down services. College costs are soaring.
Washington offers no answers. The administration wants to “win the future” while getting credit for saving the economy from free-fall. Republicans gleefully obstruct any government action, confident that Obama will get the blame for the struggling economy. Inaction becomes routine. As Paul Krugman put it, “policy makers are sinking into a condition of learned helplessness on the jobs issue: the more they fail to do anything about the problem, the more they convince themselves that there’s nothing they could do.”
For the unemployed and underemployed, and for the sinking middle class, the daily struggle to stay afloat consumes most of their energy. As former labor secretary Robert Reich put it: The jobless “lack the political connections and organizations that would otherwise demand policies to spur job growth. There’s no National Association of Unemployed People with a platoon of Washington lobbyists and a war chest of potential campaign contributions to get the attention of politicians.” This in stark contrast to the billionaires and Beltway elites currently orchestrating the austerity campaign.
Only one thing will change this: Citizens must mobilize and call Congress and the administration to their senses. To help make that happen, starting this week, ProgressiveCongress.org is joining with the Congressional Progressive Caucus to hold speakouts in 11 cities across the country.
These are speakouts, not teach-ins. ProgressiveCongress.org and the CPC are launching Speakout for Good Jobs Now! Rebuild the American Dream Tour not to bring their message to working people, but to bring the message of working people back to Washington. The legislators want to hear from working people about the challenges they face. They pledge to bring that message back to wake up Washington. The first event will be this Saturday in Minneapolis, timed in conjunction with the Netroots Nation gathering of progressive bloggers from across the country.
It’s not that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mich.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the CPC co-chairs, lack an agenda. The People’s Budget put out by the CPC lays out a clear, common-sense course for America. It would invest more money now to put people to work — with expanded spending on modern infrastructure financed through a national infrastructure bank, with investments in education and clean energy, with assistance to state and local governments to keep police officers, teachers and nurses on the jobs, and with a jobs corps for young people, to ensure they don’t turn to despair or drugs at the dawn of their work lives. In addition, it offers a far more just and plausible plan for getting our books in order than the alternatives that receive so much media attention. It does so by combining progressive tax increases and cuts in corporate subsidies with ending wars and weapons systems we can’t afford and don’t need. Its sobriety contrasts sharply with the fantastical growth promises of Tim Pawlenty’s economic plan or the fanciful spending projections of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fraudulent budget.
With this tour set to run through the summer, ProgressiveCongress.org and allies such as Moveon.org, Change to Win and the Campaign for America’s Future hope to remind Washington not only of the agony but of the anger of working families that are being left behind. Voters punished Democrats in 2010 for their failure on jobs, but they didn’t elect Republicans to gut Medicare and Medicaid and lower taxes on the rich.
Now, conservative economists and Wall Street analysts are starting to argue that mass unemployment is the new normal. Corporate profits are up; CEO salaries and banker bonuses are up. Wall Street profits even as America’s middle class declines and income inequality grows.
Reps. Ellison and Grijalva don’t believe Americans will accept this “new normal.” By asking people to speak out, they are looking to spark the citizen’s movement we’ve been waiting for.