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On Friday, 10 December, one of the most remarkable instances of civic responsibility was televised on C-Span. Bernie Sanders, Junior Senator from the state of Vermont and the longest-serving congressional Independent in the nation’s history, commanded the floor of the US Senate for a marathon talk in opposition to the recently implemented tax bill. The figures in question here are so fantastical that they seem meaningless, well beyond the ken of anything we could ever really imagine—that 858 billion dollar addition to the federal deficit over the next few years, though, will reverberate over the long haul, critics say, and generations to come will feel it in the pocketbook. What we know for sure is that the bill will extend Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthiest two percent among us for two years vs. thirteen months of unemployment benefits to Americans out of work, not counting the 99ers, or those persons already unemployed for 99 weeks, which represent the maximum amount of time that the unemployed can receive federal benefits. The two-year extension will apply to all tax brackets, including a 35 percent tax rate (as opposed to 55 percent under Clinton) for individual estates that exceed 5 million dollars in value and all over the first 10 million dollars in value for estates of couples.
President Obama dubs the proposal to execute a year-long moratorium on Social Security taxation a “payroll tax holiday,” but some observers believe that it is the first ding-dong of doom for Social Security as we know it. Concocted by the President and Republican negotiators, the tax bill rather resembles the product of a committee that tries to satisfy every constituency, but the real question is whether or not the concessions granted to the super rich will yield a balance of advantage to the less well off among us, including us. Supposedly, tax breaks for the wealthy will lead to job creation and the attendant loosening of credit. But how many times have we heard that one? The President promises to fight to impede the continuation of cuts to the wealthiest in two years’ time—during an election year, no less—just as he vowed on the campaign trail to take a principled stance against them in the first place. But does anybody really believe that an incumbent President, with an election looming, is going to campaign to pull the plug on the greedy guts?
Bernie Sanders doesn’t think so either. He said as much and more in eight grueling hours of what amounted to an address to the nation. The main lines of his argument are quite familiar: the unimpeded trend of wealth concentration upward to an ever smaller percentage of beneficiaries. But to hear it said so emphatically and urgently in the halls of Congress is new. Since the Reagan era, the tax cuts mantra has been so insistent among Republican lawmakers that it is as if the GOP has no ideas concerning governance beyond this single obsessive fiction; it was not for nothing that George Bush, the elder, once referred to “trickle-down” economics as “voodoo economics.” And even though the elder Bush was at the time attempting to strike out against his then competitor, Ronald Reagan, it seems clear that for Republicans in general and without cessation, the tax cut appears to be the magic elixir that will translate into a cure for all the nation’s ills. Much of what we were told by Sanders about the numbers remains astonishing, even though economists repeat them with virtually religious zeal—that, for example, slightly more than 23 percent of the nation’s income goes to 1 percent of the population; that the national debt currently stands at a whopping 13.7 trillion dollars, and that the Clinton surplus (remember that?) has been exhausted by wars, tax breaks, and new medicare protocols on prescription drugs. Sanders is convinced that the tax breaks could be more advantageously poised for investment in infrastructure, education, alternative energy sources, and public transportation systems, among other benefits. It is hard to fathom what the counter arguments to these sensible claims might be, yet one entire television network and several radio franchises are devoted to doing just that.
But the real power of Senator Sanders’ impassioned address rests on his faith in the efficacy of truth and its deployment as an instrument of political courage; during his long ordeal, Sanders read from letters sent to him by some of his constituents, as many of the letters’ authors were apparently female. Even though the Senator did not emphasize the gender dimensions of US poverty, the letters, at least to my ears, would suggest that the face of poverty in our national context is that of a woman, often older. We are confronted here with statistics that are at once clear and contradictory: one set of facts points out that the gender gap between female and male poverty rates is widest in the US.1 According to Sara Lichtenwalter, the “US Census, which uses a comparatively conservative absolute poverty measure, reported in the last decennial census that overall 17% of females, compared to 13% of males, age 18 to 64, living in the largest US cities, had income below the poverty threshold. . . .” Regarding the 99ers, however, a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics contends that 61.3 percent of this cohort of workers is male, compared to 58.1 percent of the total unemployment population in the second quarter of 2010.2 This percentage is set over and against 38.7 percent of the 99ers cohort represented by women. In any case, the numbers of 99ers have significantly increased from 645,000 reported in the second quarter of 2007 to 4.5 million in the second quarter of 2010. Though male workers statistically outnumber women in this category of the unemployed, it is notable to me that in personal narratives that come to our attention, three out of four stories are reported by women.3 At least this is the case at Megan Cottrell’s website, as also attested by certain television interviews. We might well wonder in this case how many women and children are impacted by that 61.3 percent of men out of work. Certainly it is not unreasonable or unwarranted to imagine that the invisible empire of suffering beneath those overwhelming numbers of millions is made up of a disproportionate share of mothers and their children—in short, the American family about whom our politicians are so prone to crocodile tears. Yet, their deeds and their words belong to our anemic public discourses, so invested in lying and fantasy and shallowness, and they come nowhere near the truth that Sanders so heroically attempted to convey.
Perhaps that vaunted “anger” that so many Americans are allegedly feeling today has something to do with what we miss, women and men alike, and that is to say the terrible absence of truth about the state of the nation. For eight hours one December day, one essentially lone man confronted another version of that awful deficit.
1 The CBS Interactive Business Network: Reference Publications (from Sara Lichtenwalter in The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, June 2005)
2 Issues paper prepared by Thomas Luke Spreen, economist in the Division of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Labor Statistics: Office of Publications and Special Studies—Issues in labor Statistics Summary 10-10 October 2010
3 Megan Cottrell, Poverty in America: change.org.