All That Used To Be Solid: Obama’s Raw Deal


I turn 65 this month and so my primary health insurance shifts from a private policy to Medicare.  I also have an appointment this morning to talk with an agent of the Social Security Administration about beginning to claim the benefits that have been piling up since I got my job at one of the first fast-food outlets – New Jersey’s Dutch Hut, which briefly, back in 1963, was competition for the McDonald’s that had just opened up across town.  That was after having started work two years earlier, when I was 14 years old and got my working papers, as a caddy at the local country club, a job that didn’t involve contributions to Social Security. 

So I paid my dues for over 40 years and am just about to collect.  I know the benefits will be there – up to a point – as Social Security isn’t yet quite melting into air.  (Though as I begin to re-read Marshall Berman’s excellent book of that title, it’s the phrase that comes most readily to mind.)  But Obama’s answer to the New Deal and the Great Society that enacted Social Security and Medicare, respectively, will begin chipping away at these hard-earned benefits, misleadingly – and cynically – labeled “entitlements.”

I owe the phrase Raw Deal, by the way, to Showdown In America, http://showdowninamerica.org/, a “national bank accountability campaign coordinated by National People’s Action (http://npa-us.org/), a network of community power organizations from across the country that work to advance a national economic and racial justice agenda.”  Mike Whitney (http://www.counterpunch.org/whitney08012011.html) , Dean Baker (http://www.counterpunch.org/baker07052011.html), Robert Reich (http://robertreich.org/post/8331408301), Paul Krugman and others have pointed out why the Raw Deal is a ripoff as well as terrible economics.  For my part, I want to say what I think is so fundamentally, morally and politically wrong about it – and, to be frank why it bothers me so much.

My household needs Social Security and Medicare, but we are not yet living on the edge as so many now are in the increasingly Third World United States.  But in addition to the privation it means to inflict on hapless millions, what is so evil about the Raw Deal and the other attacks on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the safety net generally – such as it still is – is the real animus behind these attacks:  hostility to the idea of the common good, the notion that we should care about and for one another, the very idea that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization.  That we need not and should not be engaged in a perpetual war of each against all.  That core idea is what has been under relentless attack for several decades now, culminating (so far) in Obama’s Raw Deal.

So what is to be done?  As Noam Chomsky frequently points out, we do still have enormous freedom to agitate, organize, protest and struggle for change. The ballot box isn’t useless, it just isn’t being used nearly enough. But we still have it. And for its use to be more effective, we need a great many more people who recognize our real problems and demand that our political structures and players address them. It isn’t yet quite true, as Leonard Cohen said so long ago, that “the cities they are broke in half, and the middlemen are gone.” So “let me ask you one more time, O children of the dust: All these hunters who are shrieking now, do they speak for us?”

But it won’t be enough to ask just one more time. We need to keep asking, nagging, agitating, informing, sharing information and analysis – in a word, organizing – to build a sufficient and sustained opposition to the evils of our time, and to regain and defend the commons and the common good.  Obama’s “bipartisan, bicameral” Raw Deal should be an excellent organizing vehicle.  

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