Empower the People to Govern and Decide
Congress recently passed a budget that includes overall spending levels for the next two years. The agreement will restore the automatic cuts to the Pentagon from the sequester. It further increases war funding by about $31 billion, to more than $600 billion and closer to $1 trillion if -funding on nuclear weapons and wars are included.
The bill, the Bipartisan Budget Act passed the House 332-94 and the Senate 64-36. It is being presented as an example of Congress now being able to function, with Democrats and Republicans joining in passing the measure. What it actually represents is the reality that Congress is not only dysfunctional, it has collapsed as a public authority defending the public interest. Powerful private interests dictating the affairs of state — like war and budget matters — have overwhelmed the public authority. Private interests, including the financiers and military and energy monopolies, are demanding that the entire public treasury be handed over to them while social programs and pensions are brutally cut. The public right, in a modern society, to govern and decide is to be completely eliminated, while monopoly right to trample on the public fully unleashed.
In conditions where there is growing unemployment, growing poverty impacting more than one in five children and levels far higher in cities, growing hunger and a general decline in living standards, Congress passed a budget that continues to increase funding for war while attacking the unemployed and federal workers. The deal includes $25 billion in cuts to the unemployed. As well, cuts to food stamps are planned, ranging from $24 billion-$54 billion. It is expected that $8-10 billion in food stamp cuts will occur in 2014-15 alone. One in eight households now require food stamps to survive and it is these vulnerable families that are being targeted.
In addition, federal workers are being forced to accept another $6 billion in pension cuts and another wage cut while younger retired veterans (62 and younger) will also face pension cuts. As well, there will be increased fees for airline passengers.
Even a minimum reflection of defending the public interest, such as providing unemployment compensation and food stamps for the most vulnerable, has been eliminated. At the same time, in direct opposition to the broad anti-war stand of the large majority of people, Pentagon funding is being increased. And actual appropriations of funds was also passed with the National Defense Authorization Act, 2014.
Unlike the Pentagon, funding included in the budget for social programs, said to be $31 billion but actually much less, has not yet been appropriated. This means the amount can still change and where the funds go can also change, with more cuts to social programs expected.
Congress is not functioning in the public interest and it must be held to account for this failure. Public institutions and the public treasury belong to the public and must be organized to serve the public -interest. Monopoly interests, with their demand to trample on rights and seize the public treasury, must be restricted.
Far from showing Congress can now function, the budget passed shows that this public institution has been completely overwhelmed by private interests. It shows that a new direction for political affairs is needed. Such a direction puts the rights of all in first place. Such a direction means a collective battle by workers, women and youth to defend the rights of all. It means fighting for a project of our own, to build a modern country with a modern democracy that guarantees the rights, well-being and security of all and contributes to the same abroad.
A new direction means NO! to war and monopoly right and YES to public right! It means stepping up the organizing efforts today to empower the people to govern and decide and to do so in the course of defending pensions, public educational institutions, and workplaces from the wrecking by the monopolies. The private monopoly interests must be deprived of power to wreck the economy and public institutions while the right of the people to govern and decide must be strengthened. Let the New Year bring stepped up resistance to defend the public and its rights!
The Budget Deal of December 2013
This past week the U.S. House of Representatives voted 332 to 94 in favor of changes to the federal budget for 2014. The House vote in effect adopted the proposals of the “Joint Congressional Committee,” chaired by Tea Party House leader, Paul Ryan, and Senate Democrat, Patty Murray, and set up in October as part of the interim agreement between the two parties to end the more than two week shutdown of the federal government that month.
The October interim agreement called for the Ryan-Murray committee to provide budget change proposals by December 2013 for a Congressional vote by December 13, 2013. Last week 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats in the House voted for the Ryan-Murray proposed changes to the 2014 budget; 62 Republicans voted no, as did 32 Democrats. The measure [known as the Bipartisan Budget Act then went to the Senate, which adopted it on a 64-36 vote]. In January it goes to the Congressional Appropriations committees, which are supposed to pass an appropriations bill in time for the mid-January 2014 deadline date agreed to last October. […]
The deal represents not the reversal of ‘austerity,’ as is claimed, but rather a clever restructuring and continuing of austerity in new forms. It reflects a ‘grand bargain,’ but a bargain achieved in stages, piecemeal, rather than in an ‘all in’ form that might generate more severe and resentful public political reaction. […]
Domestic Non-Defense Spending: Smoke & Mirrors
While the proposed sequester defense cuts have been essentially restored for 2014-15, and effectively removed from further deficit spending cuts in the future (as had tax hikes on the rich with last year’s fiscal cliff deal), the cuts to discretionary non-military spending programs have not fared as well.
The budget deal calls for restoring $63 billion in total scheduled sequester cuts for the two years, 2014-15. Non-defense program spending restoration is reportedly $31 billion of that. It thus appears that a $31 billion increase in non-defense spending is part of the deal. But domestic spending the past two years, 2011-2013, has declined from a total of $514 billion to $469 billion, or $45 billion. The budget deal raises that to $492 billion. That is $23 billion, not the reported $31 billion.
Moreover, the $31 billion restoration is predicated on the continuation in the budget of the [$1.4 billion] spending cut in payments to Medicare doctors and health providers. If the reductions in payments are rescinded, as they have been every consecutive year thus far for more than a decade, then the $31 billion non-defense spending restoration might very well also be taken away or significantly reduced. […]
Apart from the possible $31 billion reduction, what Congress and Obama appear to restore in the $31 billion discretionary social spending on the one hand, they are taking away — plus more — with the other. This will occur two ways: first by raising $26 billion in fees (i.e. de facto taxes) on consumers and by taking money from federal workers’ and veterans’ pensions; second, by taking $25 billion from the unemployed. So the net effect is a reduction of $20 billion, not a restoration of $31 billion.
The budget deal directly includes increasing ‘fees’ by $26 billion. $6 billion of that comes in the form of raising federal employees’ pension contributions and another $6 billion by cutting military cost of living increases for military pensions. Another $12.6 billion comes from raising government taxes on airline travel. Thus retirees, government workers, and middle class households will pay $26 billion more as part of the budget deal. But that is not all.
The budget deal cleverly does not -include the $25 billion in cuts to unemployment benefits in its calculation of spending $31 billion more in domestic spending. When deducted from the $31 billion, it is only a net $6 billion in domestic spending. And when the $26 billion in fees (taxes) are added in, that is a total of -$20 billion in domestic spending. […]
More than 1.3 million workers will immediately lose their unemployment benefits on December 28, 2013. Another 1.9 million who were projected to continue benefits in 2014 will also now lose them. Emergency benefits that up to now included extended benefits from 40-73 weeks, will now revert back to only 26 weeks. This occurs at a time when 4.1 million workers are considered long term unemployed, jobless for more than 26 weeks. […]
The budget deal conveniently disregards in its calculations the refusal to extend unemployment benefits. But it is clearly part of the deal. The failure of the budget deal to extend unemployment benefits, and the net -$20 billion in unemployment benefit cuts plus fee hikes, is an indication of the budget deal’s continuing ‘austerity’ focus. But that is not all.
Another ‘off track’ discretionary spending cut about to occur involves cuts to food stamps for millions of recipients, scheduled to occur by February 2014. Today one in eight households now receive food stamps, the result of the deep decline in jobs since 2008, the failure to create jobs at a normal rate since then, and the fact that jobs that have been created since 2008 are predominantly low paid. The cost of the food stamp program, SNAP, has doubled to $80 billion during the so-called Obama economic recovery and the abysmal record of job creation the past five years.
[Congress is now] proposing cuts to SNAP, ranging from $24 billion for the Democrats to $52 billion for the Teapublicans (traditional Republicans + Teaparty faction). An increase in food stamps that was scheduled for November 1, 2013 has already been put aside. Further reductions are being negotiated that will conclude by February 2014 that will likely reduce food stamp [funding] by $8-$10 billion over the two year period, 2014-2015, of the budget deal. As in the case of the $25 billion in cuts to unemployment benefits, the $8 billion more in food stamps spending cuts are conveniently ignored in the budget deal calculations.
The real budget deal thus amounts to [a possible] $31 billion in domestic spending cuts restored from the sequester — offset by $26 billion paid for by government workers, retirees and vets, by another $25 billion paid for by the unemployed, and still another $8 billion by the poor and working poor in food stamp cuts. What the budget deal gives (+$31 billion) with one hand, it takes away double (-$59 billion) with the other. The net result is a -$28 billion reduction for workers, retirees, vets, and the unemployed. […]
Restoring the Sequester Defense Cuts
In 2011 House Republicans and the Obama Administration agreed to cut $1 trillion in discretionary social spending programs, mostly education, plus another $1.2 trillion of discretionary cuts deferred until 2013 called the ‘sequester,’ about half of which represented defense spending cuts. […]
Beginning March 1, 2013, the $1.2 trillion ‘sequester’ spending cuts were allowed to take full effect for non-defense spending, while defense spending cuts were shielded and offset in various ways by the Obama administration, with the concurrence of Congress, during 2013. Pentagon spending this past year continued at the $518 billion level (not counting another $100 billion or so for ‘overseas contingency operations’— i.e. direct war spending). […]
The just concluded Ryan-Murray budget deal is also primarily about addressing (and reversing) defense spending cuts and continuing to shield defense from current and future spending reductions. Were the sequester defense spending cuts allowed to go into effect in 2014, Pentagon spending would have declined from the current $518 billion in 2013 to $498 billion in 2014. The Ryan-Murray budget deal sets Pentagon spending for the coming year at $520.5 billion.
As the Washington Post indicated in a lead article on December 12, with the recent budget deal the U.S. House has temporarily retreated from deficit cutting “in favor of Republican concerns about the Pentagon budget,” with the Wall St. Journal adding on December 13 that the budget deal is “nearly erasing the impact of sequestration on the military.” […]
Collapse of a Public Authority that Defends the Public Interest and Public Right
Entering the New Year is a good time to reflect on the challenges the working class faces. The working class has a duty to itself and the country to take up the mantle of nation-building, of building the nation in the image and interests of the working class and people. The federal government and those in the states are depriving the people of a public authority that can defend them from the rapacious monopolies. Powerful private interests dictating the affairs of state have overwhelmed the public authority.
The existing public authority defends dominant private interests and monopoly right. This is seen in the wrecking of the economy with impunity, the seizure of public resources to pay the rich, the privatization and downsizing of social programs and public services, including public school, the entering into free trade arrangements controlled by global monopolies, and the elimination of regulations and rules that restrict the actions of the predatory monopolies and permit the usurpation of political power by private interests.
The well-being and security of the people and their social and natural environment are at great risk because of their disempowerment and the wrecking of their political, social, cultural and organizational cohesion. Not a week goes by without announcements from global monopolies of closures, bankruptcies and attacks on pensions and working -conditions, like those at military monopoly Boeing. Not a week goes by without news of an environmental disaster or risk to the people’s health from pollution. The same is the case with announcements of bills and retrogressive legislation, such as the recently passed budget bill, or those imposing “right-to-be-slave-labor” legislation.
The working class is the only social force large enough and with the determination, aim and social consciousness to reverse the wrecking and chart a new direction for the economy. The interests of the working class are served by moving the country forward to new arrangements that harmonize the individual interest with the collective interest and the individual and collective interest with the general interest. With its decisive position at the center of the production of goods and services, the working class through organized actions with analysis can forcefully raise the banner of public right and nation-building in opposition to monopoly right and nation-wrecking.
A serious challenge facing the working class under today’s conditions is how to organize the collective defense of wages and benefits commensurate with the work performed. The claims of workers on the value they produce should reflect the high level of productivity the modern socialized economy has reached. The duty of the working class also encompasses a struggle to defend the pensions workers have won, and the right to pensions for all so that seniors can live in dignity. Importantly, it requires a defense of work and workplaces to stop the monopoly wrecking of the production of goods and services and the loss of value that comes to the economy with shutdowns and layoffs, and to overcome the scourge of unemployment and underemployment.
The working class is tackling how to become effective in carrying out its social responsibility to fight for modern and safe working conditions that allow workers to produce goods and services of the highest quality. The working conditions of rail workers are the safety conditions of passengers and entire communities through which rail traffic passes. The same is the case for airline workers in terms of passenger safety, as well as food production workers when it comes to the quality and safety of the food the people eat and their collective food security. The working conditions of teachers and education support workers are the learning conditions of students, the country’s most precious resource. Working conditions in hospitals, nursing homes and seniors’ residences are matters of life and death for patients, seniors and all those who need public care for their well-being. The work and working conditions of the working class in general are the bedrock of the socialized economic base upon which the people and country depend for their well-being and security.
With the collapse of a public authority that defends public right and the public interest, the unions which are part of that public authority are themselves tackling their inability to fulfill the role they were created to play. The working people must discuss this serious problem. How are they to renovate the role the unions must play as defense organizations at a time the unions are being criminalized for playing their role, or threatened with liquidation as a result of anti-union legislation? This task requires an organized conscious approach. In the collective battle to defend the rights of all, workers can succeed in finding a way forward. Within that struggle, workers can and must uphold their own dignity and affirm the dignity of a modern country that guarantees the rights, well-being and security of all its members and humanizes the social and natural environment.
To accomplish this, the working class must take stock of the situation and fight to preserve its unity against the attempts of the state to sow doubt in its ranks. The workers must guard against those agents of the state who when the working class is confronted with a failure to provide historic problems with historic solutions revert to recriminations against those fighting to organize and find the required solutions.
The need for modern organization based on modern consciousness is a matter of activating the human factor/social consciousness. This is another way of saying that what is required is to involve the rank and file in the discussion of problems so that they can elaborate the agendas they want to implement to resolve the crises in a manner that favors them. The organized striving to deprive the monopolies of their power to wreck the economy and deprive the people of their rights must be recognized and nurtured. It must be encouraged and developed in the coming year.
All Out to Hold Governments to Account!
(Based on material from TML Weekly, cpcml.ca)
On December 12 at 5pm outside the WNED studios in Buffalo there was a demonstration opposing the exclusion of the public from New York State Education Commissioner John King’s forum on the Regent’s Reform Agenda and in particular the Common Core regime. In an email sent out notifying the public of the event, organizer Eric Mihelbergel said: “We have been provided with a sound system and microphone, and we will be allowing people to speak their minds about education. We hope to see you there.” Compare this democratic spirit to the anti-democratic spirit of state authorities. [Commissioner King’s meeting was by invitation only, with seats limited, audience members not allowed to speak and questions had to be submitted in advance, were screened and then read by the event moderator — VOR Ed. note.] It should be noted that legislators from the New York State Assembly and Senate were in attendance at the rally.
While previous forums have placed numerous limits on public expression, and while they have revealed that John King has no intention of working with the public to sort out the problems associated with the Regents Reform Agenda, educators and parents nonetheless have made it clear that there is broad opposition to high-stakes testing, data sharing and the Common Core in New York State.
Possibly as a result of this broad and growing opposition, a change in approach to defending the Core regime for the New York State Education Department is apparent.
The December 10th forum held in Brooklyn, New York was described as follows by this blogger: “Unlike previous Common Core forums held in New York State, the Brooklyn forum was dominated by Common Core supporters, namely representatives of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst movement, including teachers, and members of Families for Excellent Schools. Former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown, whose husband, Dan Senor, is a board member of StudentsFirstNY, was there as well.
Indeed: “Specials interests descend[ed] on Brooklyn’s Common Core forum.”
These two developments raise an important question: are we at a turning point in the battle between those who wish to renew public education and those who wish to destroy it?
The Public and the Battle for Democracy
The battle for democracy is as varied as it is long. One feature of the battle for democracy is the role of public space, public expression, and public opinion in how society is governed and how government actions are legitimated. It is important to recall that a public independent of royal power, a public that both limits and legitimates authority, is a historical development, and the result of many struggles. This struggle for public right, which began even before the time of Shakespeare, continues today. I think we are at a crucial point in this struggle.
A key premise of this emergent pubic is that members of the public are, for the purposes of discussion and deliberation, equal in status when it comes to determining who can speak. Truth and legitimacy rest not with the social standing of the speaker, but with the speaker’s argumentation. The parents and educators at these forums have acted in line with this premise of the public and its role in democratic life. John King and Regent Merryl Tisch have acted as those who defended royalty against the march of democracy. As parents argued in Jamestown, King and the State Education department will ultimately lose to the will of the public.
Public Forums Are Means for Public Education
Another key feature of this public is that public deliberation, itself, teaches. It teaches the public not only about the issue of the day, but it also teaches the public about how to advance participation and deliberation about key social issues, what aspects require more discussion, and so on. In other words, public forums are means by which the public comes into being, educates itself, and sustains itself as a social, cultural and political agent through establishing common facts and thinking. Public forums are thus educative: they develop the ability to argue out a view, and they serve to inform the public about an issue, while presuming a hitherto unheard of degree of political equality among participants. Public forums develop and strengthen public conviction. Public forums serve to transform public speech into collective will, what is understood as the common interest or public good. The common or public interest is not worked out alone by political philosophers, but in the public spaces were public deliberation takes place, where all the interests and facts are laid bare, and contradictions sorted out.
What Has the Public Learned from King’s Forums?
One thing is certain: King and those he is aligned with have at present no intention of meeting the demands of the public. Instead of listening to parents and educators, he has chosen instead to limit the public forums further [...] Thus, while the public forums have proven spaces for the formation of public opinion, they have not as yet served as means for transforming this public will into legal will.
But the question of what has been learned is even larger. What have we learned about parents and educators, and their collective ability to act independent of powerful propaganda disseminated by the likes of corporations operating in more than fifty countries, who now organize Core-like regimes for all countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (which includes the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia)? What have we learned about the fight against disinformation, and the role of public engagement in that fight? What have we learned about alternative sources of information? What have we learned about the source of legitimate authority, the role of direct experience and authoritative knowledge? These questions point to the need in the coming months for public work to sum up the experience over the last two months. These questions point to the need for the public to consciously assess its direct experience as a collective agent representing the interests of families and educators and enlightenment against a narrow politicization of private interests who are now usurping power. This is the high-stakes test of democratic education.