A top economist informed me the other day that it could take 10 years for our economy to rebound if an active economic policy isn't in place. Unfortunately, neither our president nor the Congress have been able to offer coherent ideas for dealing with any of a whole host of issues, instead apparently choosing to continue operating in "fly-by-the-seat-of-our-collective-pants" mode, flitting from one crisis to another. Congress still won't come together to forge constructive plans to revitalize our moribund economy and create jobs. Unemployment has increased to 9.2% during the July reporting period, and in many communities around the country the unemployed numbers remain stuck between 30%-50%, according to Democracy Now.
It is no surprise, then, that one in four children in this country are hungry, and one in six adults face the same struggle. These stories sound like they come straight out of the dust bowl of the 1930's, but they indeed are being faced by many Americans today. Our "leaders" -- from the president on down to every governor and state legislator across the nation -- should hang their heads in shame for wasting so much time and energy squabbling over the tax rates of the filthy rich and the size of giveaways to multi-national corporations while this unmitigated disaster unfolds before us.
45 million Americans are now on food stamps, a program that emerged, like so many others, under FDR in the 1930's in the face of another major economic meltdown, the Great Depression. Our leaders' response then was to create The New Deal, and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) helped to create over eight million jobs and kept millions more from starvation. These shining examples of an effective, pro-active government helping the most vulnerable and needy among us, while at the same time rebuilding America, remain pinnacle achievements in our nation's history.
Strong leadership by FDR and a determined Congress turned our country around, lifting all boats with bold solutions that were crafted into sound policy. As a result, our country rebounded as it headed into World War II. In comparison, no one today, in Congress or the White House, is really doing anything to address the appalling economic statistics we see on a daily basis. Ten years after its publication, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenreich is still so relevant, as is Michael Harrington's The Other America, which brought to the attention of JFK the appalling contradictions of American life and shocked the nation. Unfortunately, in the years since their publication, it appears that little has changed. We can also add to that literary list John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as another example of what happens when the land -- and the American Dream -- dries up.
Our president must use his bully pulpit in his upcoming post-Labor Day speech to offer some big ideas and a cohesive agenda. His tinkering around the edges with small, uncoordinated proposals just won't cut it. Milquetoast, quick-fix offerings such as extending unemployment aid to a small number of the unemployed will not create jobs and is little more than a band-aid on a broken leg. Nor will both parties' suggestions to cut Social Security COLAS (Cost of Living Adjustments) or raise the age of eligibility really help us deal with the crisis at hand. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in an impassioned speech last week in Las Vegas to a group of union members, said that he would write legislation to raise the cap above the current $106,800 on earned income to be taxed, shoring up the program for 75 years. Cutting Social Security is the wrong approach, especially cutting COLAS, which haven't even been delivered for a third year in a row. If anything, they should be raised and tied to inflation.
Another desperately needed solution is a stimulus package for our seniors, who are struggling to get by on limited fixed incomes. What an effect raising the COLA could have on the economy, as Social Security money stays in the community and is spent locally on food, shelter, medical care, prescription drugs, and so much more. Fighting for such legislation would be difficult sledding for the President, for sure. The agenda has already been firmly seized by the right-wing lunatics (or "terrorists," if you prefer) in the Tea Party, forcing him to kowtow to their warped delusions just to keep the boat afloat, rather than taking bold positions and driving the debate. Of course, the president didn't inspire much confidence in his ability to lead even when the Dems controlled all three houses. You must use that bully pulpit, Mr. President. The American people would embrace your courage and give you an overwhelming win in 2012, but only if you can rekindle that passion and desire to see real change in DC you so successfully ran on once upon a time.
When a bailout was needed for Wall Street and the automotive industry in Detroit, stimulus money was found -- our money. Now it is time for a bold agenda for working Americans and a Main Street bailout that would have a positive effect on the entire country. You have mentioned rebuilding infrastructure of late, but on what scale? The estimate from a group of civil engineers is that we need to invest $2.2 trillion in our crumbling infrastructure. Think of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt a devastated Europe in the post WWII years as a model for the kind of large-scale proposal that would put people to work and secure our nation's infrastructure.
We need forward thinking planning and comprehensive programs to achieve long-term success. Look to how the WPA and the CCC created millions of jobs during the 1930's and saved a generation of young people. The photojournalism that documented that era so vividly showed in stark black and white the poverty, hunger, unemployment and a desolate landscape of the dust bowl in the 30's, driving a nation to act. Great photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and so many other enormous talents were given jobs under the brilliance of Roy Stryker, who headed the Farm Security Administration, which produced 80,000 photographs that were reproduced in the major magazines of the day, informing the public and Congress about those government programs and what they were trying to accomplish. So many of those iconic photographs still inform us today about those dark days in American history, the work continuing to resonate 75 years later, as we find ourselves facing similar conditions.
I attended a WPA art class as a child and grew to love all forms of art and eventually picked up the camera myself and spent many years professionally shooting similar subjects here and in Europe. My inspirations were Walker and Dorothea, and I remember that one of my childhood friends in that art class, Richard Izquierdo, became a doctor who went on to build three health clinics in the South Bronx, for which he received the nation's highest civilian medal for service by the Surgeon General. These are just two stories that came out of those government programs that helped so much during the Depression. Imagine how many new stories would be created with resurrecting those programs once again.
We saw how the Debt Ceiling debate diverted any discussion and action on job creation. In the coming months it would be inspirational to see the president seize the opportunity to talk up what should have been a part of the deficit debate from the beginning: bold action in creating jobs as a means to kick-start the economy. This could be set in motion with an Independent Jobs Creation and Economic Recovery Council, with only one restriction: no former or current members of Congress need apply, avoiding any connection to special interest influence. Bring in outside voices and visionaries, creative thinkers from many disciplines who could lay out a grand plan for a new America.
The country would support such a bold plan, Mr. President, and you would finally give those "ordinary" Americans who supported you in 2008 a reason to vote for you again in 2012.
-with Jonathan Stone
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