Is the president a bad negotiator, or did he get the deal he wanted all along, as Rep. Dennis Kucinich suggests?
Also on this week’s Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: the phony Social Security scare, teaching Shakespeare in Iraq and more.
With health care, extending the Bush tax cuts and, now, the debt ceiling deal, President Obama has developed a reputation for giving away the store—but maybe that’s been his intention all along.
On Wednesday’s Truthdig Radio (airs Wednesdays at 2 p.m. on 90.7 KPFK Los Angeles), Kucinich said: “I don’t think the president of the United States ever accepted a deal he didn’t want.”
He also revealed that the compromise to raise the debt ceiling passed more easily than expected in Congress because of an unwillingness among Democrats to further weaken the president.
And despite all the fuss over defense cuts, Kucinich says that the legislation, with the help of a little creative accounting, will leave the Pentagon with more money than it wants.
Listen to the full episode, play individual interviews or continue reading the full transcript below.
Listen to the full episode:
Kevin Pollack on prospects for the economy
Virginia Reno on the phony Social Security scare
Peter Friedrich teaches drama in Iraq
Rep. Dennis Kucinich challenges our perception of Obama’s politics
Peter Scheer: Welcome to Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK. I’m Truthdig managing editor Peter Scheer. Today on the show, we hear about teaching drama in Iraq; with social security on the chopping block, Robert Scheer gets a reality check from Virginia Reno; and later, Dennis Kucinich gives us the inside scoop on the debt deal. Stay with us.
* * *
Peter Scheer: We’re back with Truthdig Radio. Before we get to the rest of the show, we’re lucky to be joined by Ethan Pollack and Robert Scheer in studio. Welcome to Truthdig Radio.
Ethan Pollack: Good to be here.
Peter Scheer: So, you know, we got word of this debt deal earlier in this week. And we’d heard so much about the debt ceiling, but what we’re really wrapping our heads around this week is the idea that we’ve killed the recovery in the crib, if the recovery was even … had much of a chance to begin with. So, dad, why don’t you kick it off?
Robert Scheer: Yeah. I mean, basically, your pieces have been quite pessimistic—that we’re going after a very small part of the domestic discretionary budget. And I was wondering, they are putting some of the defense budget on the table; does that impress you? Do you think that’s significant?
Ethan Pollack: It certainly could be. We need to remember that, first off, the caps … you know, so the first gauge has broad, top-line discretionary caps. But it only has a firewall between the security and non-security portion of the budget for two years. And I think we should also remember that it will be easier for Congress to—I think just because the military-industrial complex plays a much better inside game than the rest of us little people—and so I think it’ll be … it’s more likely for Congress to break the kind of either defense or security caps than it will be for them to exceed the caps on some of the other levels. So I think generally it impresses me a little bit to see them at least commit to making these cuts, but whether these cuts actually materialize—or at least to the extent that they’re supposed to materialize—I’m a little bit skeptical.
Robert Scheer: Your basic point is that we’re doing exactly the wrong thing, I guess—that we’re not dealing with the recession, we’re not dealing with the job creation, and we’re cutting programs that actually might help counter the recession. Is that still your view after the signing of this debt-ceiling increase?
Ethan Pollack: Absolutely. You know, one of the … the piece talked first about, the immediate job loss in 2012, which would be about—against what would otherwise happen, which we’re not sure—but that this would lower employment by about 1.8 million jobs. And that’s just in calendar year 2012. And then it talks about kind of the impact on cutting public investments, which really just transfers debt to future generations. What we really should be doing is increasing public investments. The cost of financing is so low; generally speaking, it costs more to repair a bridge now than to wait until it’s collapsed and rebuild it. So there’s cost savings there. And then, of course, we need the jobs right now, too. So there’s so many reasons why … the case for more public investments right now is overwhelming, and yet what we’re seeing is Congress moving in the exact opposite direction—not just cutting spending, but cutting spending in ways that actually make us poorer today and poorer tomorrow.
Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute. You were also a staff economist for President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. What was it—what’s the attitude like in the, or the prevailing attitude like in the administration?
Ethan Pollack: You know, I don’t know. The commission was very separate from kind of the administration; the administration took a pretty hands-off approach to kind of the commission’s work …
Peter Scheer: Did you feel like your work was taken seriously?
Ethan Pollack: I think that, you know [laughs], I wouldn’t want to take ownership of the entirety of the fiscal commission package. And if I were in Congress, I would have voted against it. I think that there are certain elements of it that are positive and certain ones that aren’t. And I think that, generally speaking, it turned out … I think it was a centrist package, and I think that the real shame here is that the budget debate has moved so far to the right that, at this point, the fiscal commission’s package is seen as left. Which is really sad, because if anything, it was probably a little bit center-right. And certainly if we had a Republican Party of the early ’90s or ’80s, then I think it would definitely be considered to the right. So I think it more just represents the sign of how much the debate has moved to the right.
Robert Scheer: Speaking of that, there was Richard Nixon, who actually accepted Daniel Moynihan’s idea of a guaranteed annual income for all Americans. Just give us your basic take on this, though: Have we been sold out by this debt-ceiling thing? Because on my reading of it, it looks like they’re not going to really be able to do anything very much about foreclosures, about jobs; we’re pretty much dependent upon the Fed to do it through some kind of quantitative easing, and that hasn’t worked for anybody but the banks. What is your basic summary of where we are?
Ethan Pollack: Again, it’s hard to say. I think that there’s two unknowns here. One is, the administration really hopes that if … that now they can pivot back towards jobs. And they’re going to be pushing an infrastructure bank; they’re going to be pushing an extension of unemployment benefits in the payroll tax holiday. And if they are correct in reading that political mood—I’m a little skeptical about that—but if they are correct, then it might have been at least somewhat worth it. I don’t know. But there might be a silver lining to this, where they actually do get somewhat of a jobs package.
Peter Scheer: We’re going to—sorry, we’re going to have to leave it there. But we’d love to have you on. This is really enlightening. Speaking with Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute. Thank you for joining us.
Ethan Pollack: Thanks. It was fun having you.
* * *
Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer from Truthdig Radio and Truthdig online. I’m interviewing Virginia Reno, a person who has spent her whole life, basically, adult life, in the world of Social Security. She was on various national commissions; she actually worked for key agencies. And she’s now vice president of the National Academy of Social Insurance. And let me begin with, to my mind, the key question: Has Social Security just been used as a political football here in this current debate about the debt ceiling?
Virginia Reno: Well, people do get confused about Social Security and its relationship to the rest of the budget. In truth, Social Security is the most fiscally responsible part of the entire government. Over its entire life, which spans more than 75 years, it has collected more in revenues than it’s paid out in benefits, and it has large reserves of about $2.6 trillion. So the big deficits that worry policymakers are exclusively in the non-Social Security part of the budget. That’s where the deficits are. Last year, Social Security ran a surplus of about $69 billion; the rest of the budget ran a deficit of nearly $1.4 trillion. So that’s where the deficits are.
Robert Scheer: So what in the world are we talking about with Social Security, a program—I looked at the audit, that most recent audit—that can fund at a hundred percent for the next quarter of a century? There are very few corporations, certainly government agencies, that can make that guarantee. You know, what is this baby boom issue and why is it coming up now?
Virginia Reno: Well, when people lump Social Security into the rest of the budget, they say, oh, look—it’s big. Well, it is big. But it’s also paid for by the American workers and employers who have been paying in over the past 75 years. So it’s big, and it is really a separate kind of social compact between workers, employers and beneficiaries.
Robert Scheer: So is there any issue—as I look at it, they say in the audit that 25 years from now, because of the baby boomer burden, that Social Security will only be able to pay 75 percent, not a hundred percent. And yet you look at the cap—I think the cap right now is $106,000? I may be wrong on that …
Virginia Reno: Yes, that’s the amount of earnings that workers and employers pay a Social Security tax on.
Robert Scheer: So beyond $106,000—even if you make $20 million a year, as some of the investment bankers do—you’re not paying Social Security. So if we have a problem with Social Security 25 years up the road, we could easily increase that cap. And those people probably wouldn’t even notice, much, the increase. Is that … ?
Virginia Reno: Well, certainly one of the most popular proposals on the table is to lift that cap. The only question is, how much? And it is true, if you lift the cap, it simply means that people making above the cap would pay the Social Security contribution—that’s 6.2 percent for workers and employers each—they’d pay it longer during the year. Right now they stop paying as soon as they reach the cap.
Robert Scheer: So this is a nonproblem? I mean … even 25 years from now, it’s a problem that could be addressed by increasing that cap on the wealthier people …
Virginia Reno: That certainly is an option, and even the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommended lifting that cap. And it’s something that could start fairly soon, because it affects a fairly small segment of the workforce; only six percent of workers make more than that cap of $106,000, but it could bring in a big part of the shortfall.
Robert Scheer: Right. And when you say only 6 percent, I mean, 2 percent of income earners have 40 percent of the wealth and 40 percent of the income. So we do have this skewing. There are whole categories of people that are exempt from any Social Security obligation, right? Like hedge fund operators and so forth. Is that another area where we could get funding for this program?
Virginia Reno: Well, Social Security is financed by the taxes levied on earnings and self-employment earnings. And so if people’s income comes in forms other than earnings, wages and self-employment, then that is not subject to the Social Security tax.
Robert Scheer: Yeah. So we could …
Virginia Reno: But one could …
Robert Scheer: Yeah, we could decide to include hedge fund operators.
Virginia Reno: … or income from wealth.
Robert Scheer: Income from wealth, and you know, it’s just a social contribution. The other question I have—you know, I have to tell you, I’m really furious about this because I think there’s so much misinformation. And as a senior myself [laughs]—I’m 75 years old—it is annoying to me to think, you know, I’ve paid in all my life and I’m still paying, because I’m still working …
Virginia Reno: Well, good for you! Congratulations. [laughs]
Robert Scheer: … no, but I mean, people forget—people forget that a lot of us older people are never able to retire. And we have to keep paying. And the other part that drives me crazy is I remember my mother collected Social Security, and I kept thinking, how would I have been able to stay in graduate school if I had to support my mother to that degree? And you know, she’d been a garment worker. And it’s always left out—it’s put as a generational thing. The fact is, if we didn’t have Social Security and if we didn’t have Medicare, the burden would fall on the children of those people, and the grandchildren, to take care of them.
Virginia Reno: Absolutely. Absolutely, and people without children or grandchildren, or with children or grandchildren who didn’t take care of them, would be in dire straits.
Robert Scheer: Yeah. So … I guess I’ll get to … you’ve been around Washington; you’re around politics. How did Social Security come into play? We know that the Social Security fund has been, they’ve borrowed from it to cover the Treasury obligations. How did it get put on the table, and is this some sort of red herring issue?
Virginia Reno: Well, it is a real confusion, between the fundamental separate purpose of Social Security and its separate status and separate funding. And historically, throughout most of the 75 years of Social Security, when it needed attention there was appointed an advisory council on Social Security, and its job was to look at Social Security and say, what do we need to make this a good retirement, disability and life-insurance program? Does it cost too much, are the benefits adequate or inadequate, is the coverage right, do we have it right? It was never discussed as part of ‘we have to reduce budget deficits in the rest of the budget.’
Robert Scheer: So this is just a political football right now?
Virginia Reno: Well, it’s become a different framing of the issue, and one that confuses many policymakers, and I think the American public is very confused by it.
Robert Scheer: Well, you were a senior adviser to the 1983 Greenspan commission; you’ve been around this issue, and as close as we’re going to get to an objective expert. What do you make of this proposal they float of a different way of calculating the cost of living increase and so forth? I’ve seen criticism of it that it will hurt people on Social Security. Do you have a take on that?
Virginia Reno: Well, it is argued that it’s a more accurate measure of the cost of living for consumers on average. But the evidence from the same sources shows it is not more accurate for seniors, or for people with disabilities, because they spend a larger share of their budget on health care. And health care is rising faster in price than most other consumer goods. So in fact, if you had a special consumer price index just for the elderly—and there is one, on an experimental basis—it rises faster than the index that’s used for the cost of living adjustment.
Robert Scheer: So what is presented as a neutral, obviously scientific thing to do by some economists, by some politicians, talk show people—oh, no, this is just a more accurate way of measuring the cost of living increase—in fact it’s not. It doesn’t really, it’s not fair …
Virginia Reno: It’s not more accurate for the beneficiaries.
Robert Scheer: No, and that’s who we’re talking about [laughs] …
Virginia Reno: Right.
Robert Scheer: … after all, the whole point about cost of living increase is how are prices affecting the people that we’re talking about. So let me ask you, do you feel a sense of frustration that this program, this incredibly successful program, is now being questioned in this unscientific way?
Virginia Reno: Well, I think the more important question—it’s good to hear that some people are asking the right questions. And I guess I find a sense of optimism only in the sense of when we ask the American people what they think, the good news for policymakers is that Americans value Social Security and they’re willing to pay for it. That’s true across party lines—Democrats, Republicans and Independents say they don’t mind paying for Social Security because they value what it does for their families and for millions of other people that depend on it. And across age groups, when workers are posed a choice—would you rather pay more than see future benefits cut—they say we’d rather pay more. That’s large majorities in both cases. So the American people are behind the program; they understand it, and it is unfortunate that it’s getting tangled up in the budget-deficit debate when in truth, it should be set aside and evaluated so that it remains in balance as a solid system without getting tangled up in the rest of the budget.
Robert Scheer: Right. And for the very reason you mentioned—people know it’s a great program; they know it helps every family; as I’ve said before, it helps the young, because you don’t have to worry so much about your grandparents; it helps their children …
Virginia Reno: Absolutely.
Robert Scheer: So people know that across the country. The way that they’re attacking Social Security, though—and this unfortunately includes even the White House, includes the Democrats, there’s some Democrats as well as Republicans—is they’re saying they’re saving Social Security by doing these things. And I, for the life of me, don’t understand what needs to be saved at this time, when the Treasury still borrows from the Social Security trust fund rather than the other way around.
Virginia Reno: Well, Social Security can’t borrow; it has no legal authority to borrow. So it’s absolutely true that changes will be needed over the long term to keep it in balance for 75 years, but even as you pointed out, the 75 year forecast—it’s 100 percent solvent for the next 25 years, it’s 90 percent solvent for the next 50 years, and it’s 87 percent solvent for 75 years. So it’s a long way there, but some modest changes—if the forecasts don’t change in the next decades—some changes will be needed.
Robert Scheer: Well, Virginia Reno, I want to thank you. I wish we could get you on prime time television to make this clear. I mean, I just think it’s one of the most unfair attacks on the most successful program we’ve ever had in this country, and I applaud you for trying to enlighten us on that. So thank you, again, for Truthdig Radio and Pacifica.
Virginia Reno: Well, thank you for inviting me. It’s been great talking with you.
* * *
Howie Stier: This is Howie Stier, reporter for Truthdig.com. Faced with diminishing productions and fewer roles in Hollywood, one visionary actor decided to create his own role: part Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s crackpot visionary who was bent on building an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest, and part Mr. Keating, the role Robin Williams played in “Dead Poets Society,” the teacher who exhorted his students to make their lives extraordinary. Our guest today has produced the first Shakespeare production in Iraq—and arguably, in doing so, has done more for American cultural diplomacy than the U.S. State Department programs have. We have in the studio today Peter Friedrich of L.A.’s Circle X Theatre, and now head of the drama and film department and senior lecturer in fine arts at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Thanks for being here, Peter.
Peter Friedrich: Thanks, Howie.
Howie Stier: You decided to give up L.A. and acting and the life of an actor, and access to all the bars and restaurants, to go to Iraq.
Peter Friedrich: [laughs] Yeah, you know, I was looking at different things; my friends know for a while I was doing a little career roulette. In the years after 9/11 I was on the eligibility list for the fire department; I was, I guess one acting role I was hanging on to is trying to be a member of Blue Man Group, and went to New York a few times for that, but never quite could close it out. And then I started reading about this new university in Iraq; there was an article in The New York Times. And a couple months later, off I went.
Howie Stier: Now, you went to the university after pitching the academics there with the notion of teaching drama. You’ve spent your whole life studying drama, teaching drama; you were teaching drama at City College of Los Angeles.
Peter Friedrich: I was teaching English at City College of Los Angeles.
Howie Stier: But your background is in the theater…
Peter Friedrich: Yes, it is.
Howie Stier: You’re a Shakespearean?
Peter Friedrich: Yeah, I went to American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I’ve done classical and contemporary plays, here in L.A. mostly, with Circle X Theatre Company.
Howie Stier: So what was the reaction when you proposed this idea of teaching?
Peter Friedrich: There was a lot of interest. The pitch went great. They wanted to start right away.
Howie Stier: Now, you go to Iraq, and then what happens?
Peter Friedrich: They had no memory of what I was talking about.
Howie Stier: They needed an English teacher.
Peter Friedrich: I’m pretty sure they did.
Howie Stier: So how did you develop interest, then, in the theater, and how did it go forward?
Peter Friedrich: Well, I guess at first it was just about hanging on and, you know, doing the job that was really needed as opposed to my own sort of Dead-Poets-Society-in-Iraq dream about what I’d be doing there. And then eventually, you know, you start bonding with the students; you start becoming a family; and then, actually, the part about cultivating interest—that’s not hard at all. But getting something physically on its feet once it’s really crunch time, to get in front of everyone on stage—that’s, that was unbelievably hard.
Howie Stier: Now, who are your students at the University of Iraq?
Peter Friedrich: Students come from all over the country; they’re all Iraqis. They come from the north, the south; there’s rich and poor; it’s a very, very diverse student body.
Howie Stier: But many of them are very affluent …
Peter Friedrich: I would not say—I would say the majority are not; there are certainly some who are. If you were at the university with me tomorrow, I don’t know … I guess in a class of 20 you’d probably think three or four were really wealthy, 10 were really poor and the rest were in the middle.
Howie Stier:OK. But these are the future leaders of Iraq, and …
Peter Friedrich: I certainly think so, yeah.
Howie Stier:… and it’s a very selective college.
Peter Friedrich: Yes.
Howie Stier: You told me earlier, their idea of American theater is “Titanic.” They like “Titanic.”
Peter Friedrich: Yes. [laughs] Anything with acting or drama or even love, yeah—you know, “Titanic” … the theme to “Titanic” is playing in every taxi around town.
Howie Stier: Now, though they’re not in a professional drama program to be actors—this is sort of an extracurricular program.
Peter Friedrich: Yeah, it’s sort of—I sort of shoehorn it in any class that I can. And I have some who are convinced that this is what they want to do with the rest of their lives. But for us in the meantime, it’s just…it’s just a way of self-expressing, standing out from the crowd, taking a stand and really learning something about, and teaching something to other people about, the human experience.
Howie Stier: Now, in that process, you had said that they quickly developed the mannerisms and characteristics of actors here in Los Angeles.
Peter Friedrich: Oh, every one of them, yeah. Yeah.
Howie Stier: If you could tell us about that …
Peter Friedrich: Well, it was all fine at first, and then about a month before the big show, when they know they’re on stage, every stereotype of every actor you’ve seen in Los Angeles just manifested itself in every single student. You know, you had the tough guy; and the tortured intellectual one; you know, the flirty one; the complainer … I don’t know … the “network,” super-hip guy; gosh, what else is there? They’re actually all described in “An Actor Prepares.” And it was true then, it was true here in L.A., and it’s definitely true in Iraq: There is something about the pressure of being onstage in front of everybody that releases these same character types. It’s very funny.
Howie Stier: You decided to put on a production of “Macbeth.” How did that go?
Peter Friedrich: It was going great until about that time—a month before production—and then it just fell apart like a bad cookie.
Howie Stier: So how did you resolve it? How did you make the show go on?
Peter Friedrich: You know, I don’t know. We were definitely, maybe, not going to have a show at all; I had someone say to me, ‘Well, you know, I just can’t do the show anymore because I’m not playing Macbeth.’ And I said, ‘You’re playing Macduff! It’s a fantastic, fantastic role; I actually like it better than Macbeth!’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s OK; I mean, let me know if you want me to play Macbeth; I’ve had enough.’ You know, at this point, everyone’s memorized lines and that sort of thing, but there is no changing anybody’s mind about that. So finally, I had to throw a Hail Mary and convert everything to an L.A.-style showcase, where we just did scenes from different plays that were tailored to each actor’s strengths.
Howie Stier: So in L.A., that’s sort of professionally looked down on, the showcase—that I constantly get invited to by writers and actors, ‘come see my showcase’; it’s not ideal …
Peter Friedrich: I know, I know. I get—my friends tell me I brought, like, the worst we have to offer to Iraq. But [laughs], you know, they showcased the first production.
Howie Stier: But how did it go over?
Peter Friedrich: It was fantastic. People were crying in the audience; there were parents coming up from Baghdad who didn’t speak a word of English, and through a student who spoke English said that was the proudest they’d ever been …
Howie Stier: I’ve got to interrupt you right there; we have to explain to the audience where your university is.
Peter Friedrich: Right. It’s in Sulaimani; it’s in the northern, Kurdish part of Iraq. It’s a pretty quiet, spread-out, dusty town.
Howie Stier: How far away from Baghdad?
Peter Friedrich: One hundred fifty miles northwest.
Howie Stier: And 50 miles from the Iranian border?
Peter Friedrich: Yeah. That’s about right.
Howie Stier: So you have families coming up. … This was a big production? You had a big theater?
Peter Friedrich:Yeah, a 600-seat theater.
Howie Stier: Tell us about that theater.
Peter Friedrich: You know, I don’t know much; all I know is that it had everything you needed, and for the most part it was sitting empty. And that’s a really strange phenomenon up there right now. I mean, there’s a lot of—there’s a lot of tension; there’s a lot of politics and intrigue; not outright violence as there is, obviously, as we all know, in other parts of the country. But there’s a lot of tension between different parties and different groups, and when it comes to using a big theater space, people are afraid to loan it to the wrong person. So I had to drink a lot of tea and spend a lot of time with a lot of Ministry of Culture folks, and eventually they let us use it. And now it’s great, because nothing bad happened, so now we’re off to the races. We’ve got a theater space; we’re good to go next year.
Howie Stier: So you’re ready for another production. Are you going to have more students in the program next year?
Peter Friedrich: Oh, yeah [laughs]. Yeah, we have an army at this point, since we did that play.
Howie Stier: So if you could explain that—you started out with a handful of students …
Peter Friedrich: Yeah, like 10 committed to the show, I think I had, maybe … we do other things; we have an improv troupe; we have filmmakers; we have a huge elocution contest ... and there’s also a lot of other volunteer faculty that help with all of this stuff. But the Shakespeare stole the show of the whole year, which is amazing.
Howie Stier: What was it like to be there in an Iraqi theater—a place that had never seen a Western theatrical performance before; a lot of the audience members did not speak English, and the performance was in English … ?
Peter Friedrich: Yeah. I wish I could have turned a camera on the audience the whole time. I’m a moron for not doing that; I really should have done that. But I can tell you, I don’t know which is better—to see Shakespeare for the first time, or to watch an audience seeing Shakespeare for the first time; it’s just, it’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, or a grizzly bear, or something. It just … from the moment the first actor walked out, arms outstretched—this actor in particular moved too quickly, and finally I had to just say listen, you’re on the moon, just space-walk …
Howie Stier: Well, why … could this have been any play? Why is Shakespeare the relevant production?
Peter Friedrich: Even if you only get half of what’s being said, the universal, timeless themes of love and jealousy—you know, war and loss—it just, it speaks to everyone, anywhere; it speaks to every human being.
Howie Stier: Now, this is a nation that is at war. You are teaching in an area of Iraq that has long had sectarian violence. And you have students from different factions in your school.
Peter Friedrich: We do.
Howie Stier: Could you explain some of that dynamic?
Peter Friedrich: Well, there’s a long shadow of history; discussing problems doesn’t seem to do much good, I’ve found. It’s better just to embark on projects together and learn things about each other, that all the discussion about racism or prejudice…you know, you won’t get anywhere. You’ve got to get past the discussion and start doing something.
Howie Stier: Did your drama training evoke some feelings about the war, about the previous wars and the ongoing conflict, among the students?
Peter Friedrich: More than half of our students have lost a parent or both, certainly several relatives, from one of the many wars. And if you think about that too much as a teacher or a director, it’s sort of paralyzing. I just prefer, actually, not to think about it. To me it’s like climbing a mountain and looking down the whole time, if that makes any sense. You’ve got to just keep your focus. And I don’t think they much like being talked to like they lost a parent; I think they like being talked to like an actor who’s trying to play a role.
Howie Stier: What’s on the bill for next season, for the next semester?
Peter Friedrich: [laughs] Well, we’ve got a theater. You know, we’ve written a couple of plays; it’ll be interesting to see if we can expand that into full play form. I certainly have had an open invitation for any acting company who wants to come out, to let me know, and let’s talk about it. The tough thing about theater, or really anything, out there is that they’re isolated; you know, they don’t get to see other … they don’t get to see another Shakespeare company perform. Imagine what that would be, for them to have that kind of bridge. So I would love to find a group of actors—and, of course, the grant money—to make something like that happen.
Howie Stier: Now, again, you’re visiting Los Angeles for a few days, visiting your colleagues from your theater group. You’re going back to Iraq. How are you feeling? Are you looking forward to this?
Peter Friedrich: I really am. I really am. At this point, I don’t … I love, obviously, coming back to Los Angeles; I’m having a fantastic time. But yeah, at this point, I feel like they’ll have to carry me out of there for me to quit. It’s just amazing, and I wish everyone could have that experience.
Howie Stier: What is the most satisfying thing about teaching these Iraqis?
Peter Friedrich: I think just watching them discover—watching them discover, and I’m discovering it too—the nature of theater again. That it’s the most dangerous safe thing you can do. You know, at the end of the day, no one’s going to die from doing a show. But it is so absolutely terrifying. And people watching can’t believe it, you know; for all these people in the audience—and for these guys, they’re basically performing in front of every single person they know—and you just think of the stakes of that and what it brings out in people. And afterwards, everyone’s in tears, and just … you know, that’s pretty cool.
Howie Stier: The curtain comes down.
Peter Friedrich: Yeah.
Howie Stier: And with that, we have to say goodbye and thanks for coming in.
Peter Friedrich: Thank you, Howie.
Howie Stier: Peter Friedrich, senior lecturer of fine arts and head of the drama and film department of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
* * *
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Robert Scheer, and we’re speaking with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio’s 10th District—I think it’s safe to say our favorite congressman. And we’re getting the inside scoop of what happened with this debt compromise, which will lead to trillions in cuts from the budget, mostly from social programs. So, Dennis, fill us in.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, you know, when the House passed this, Democrats were split on the vote 95-95. But I can assure you that any Democrats who voted for it had great misgivings, and many of the ones who did so did it only because they had a perception that to not vote for it would have been to cause a severe political problem for the president of the United States.
Robert Scheer: But Dennis, I mean, how bad is this? And when I interviewed you yesterday, when I was writing my column, you said “This is Clinton triangulation, but unfortunately in a time of Hoover.” What did you mean by that?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I think that this idea that somehow the White House was forced into a bad deal is politically naive. When we saw the White House signal early on that it was ready for cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by actually setting aside bedrock principles that the Democratic Party has stood on for generations, that signal indicated that they were ready for a deal that would involve massive cutting of social spending, and increasing or locking in increases for war, and helping further the ambitions of the Defense Department, not touching the Bush tax cuts. And that’s exactly what happened.
Robert Scheer: The media is making a big deal about the defense cuts that seem to be factored in here. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that? Because I think you think this has been exaggerated or is a phony.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, you have to get below the numbers. And when you get below the numbers, the Department of Defense is actually going to end up with something like $50 billion more than they had actually bargained for. So the impression was that somehow there was going to be cuts in defense, but a report by Nancy Youssef at McClatchy points out—here’s what she says: Rather than cutting $400 billion in defense spending through 2023, as President Obama proposed in April, the current debt proposal trims $350 billion through 2024, effectively giving the Pentagon $50 billion more than it had been expecting over the next decade. In addition to that, the Congressional Budget Office has pointed out that there were no caps put on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me explain to you the significance of that. The Pentagon can continue to load money into wars which we are told are winding down, and at the same time as they do that, money that is not spent on those wars can be backfilled into the Defense Department budget. So they’re going to benefit twice. Not only are they getting $50 billion more than they had been expecting over a decade, but they’re going to be able to plus their base budget by an accounting trick that lets spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or any overseas contingency operations, continue beyond any discretionary caps in the budget.
Robert Scheer: Dennis, let me cut in for a second. I want to cut to the chase here. Who are these people in the administration that many of our listeners voted for, had hopes for—beginning with the president? You’re sitting there with the Democrats in the House, half of whom vote against their own president; you’ve been around the block a lot of times; you know what’s going on. Who is this guy, who are these people, and you know … you don’t have to be Keith Olbermann to recognize that they’ve betrayed us. Even a New York Times editorial called it a disgrace.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, we have to … OK, let’s cut to the chase. The chase is that the American people are having impressed upon them an IMF-type structural adjustment in the guise of a deficit-cutting initiative. This is being done, quote, “voluntarily,” unquote. If you look at what’s happening all around the world, the IMF is using a punishing structural-adjustment regimen that is creating a backlash in countries like Greece, where people are facing sharp reductions in their standard of living—reductions in social spending for health care and retirement security, among other things. And why is this being done? In order to further the interests of an investor class. And frankly, I think this same … you know, the bottom line with respect to the United States of America—the bottom line is: Protect the investment class to the detriment of the rest of the country. It’s bailout politics 2.0, and it’s a continuation of a governmental structure that’s set up to accelerate the wealth of America upwards.
Peter Scheer: Let me ask you, Dennis—because that seems like what we keep hearing every time we have one of these negotiations, whether it’s on health care or this—that the president is just a terrible negotiator, and he gives away the store before negotiations even begin, or before he really has to. And what you’re suggesting seems to be that he wants to give away the store, that he …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I don’t think the president of the United States ever accepted a deal he didn’t want.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Dennis Kucinich: And in this case, I think that the telltale sign was when he put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the table—which, by the way, when the commission, the super Congress commission comes into effect, will become extremely vulnerable. So the idea of President Obama somehow being incapable of negotiating—excuse me. He knows exactly what he’s doing. If he had been in a political trap here, he would have immediately, as a constitutional scholar, resorted to the 14th Amendment. It says in section 4, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” And it goes on. But the 14th Amendment, section 4, basically empowered the president, if he had been put in a box by the Republicans, to play a trump card. He didn’t do that, and he never intended to do that. He got the deal he wanted. And that’s something that people need to think about, what the implications are of that.
Peter Scheer: Well then, do we—if Barack Obama really is this new Democrat who has so disappointed the left, then is Bernie Sanders right in that he needs a primary challenge?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I think you have to first of all define terms. I don’t know if you can define what it means to be a Democrat anymore—or, for that matter, Republican, or labels like liberal conservative. I think it’s an appropriate time for all of us to begin to question the utility of labels which seem to defy the performance of public officials. And what’s conservative, for example, about extending the Bush tax cuts—which by the way will cost, through 2020, $2.56 trillion—what’s conservative about blowing billions of dollars on wars? On the other hand, what does it mean to be a Democrat if you’re willing to put social programs on a chopping block—put the cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s social ethic, which includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, on a chopping block—not come up with a massive jobs program, knowing that signing this deal would limit your ability to create jobs—what does that mean? What does it mean to be a Democrat? What does that mean? So we have to define terms. We’re trapped in a system where we somehow believe that all we have to do is change the players and we’re going to get a different outcome. Maybe not. Because within the logic of this system, now supported or buttressed by Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, is a system of corporate governance which impresses itself upon the people of the United States for its own benefit, to the people’s detriment, and has helped to create in government very efficient mechanisms to accelerate the wealth of the nation upward.
Robert Scheer: But, Dennis—this is …
Dennis Kucinich: So if then you’re going to ask me who’s going to be the next president, that assumes that we really are identifying who’s making the decisions right now.
Robert Scheer: Dennis, this is Robert Scheer. And I think I know you as well as just almost anybody does. I interviewed you for the L.A. Times when you still were the mayor of Cleveland, and for Playboy magazine, which didn’t sit so well with some of your …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, which ended my career.
Robert Scheer: … ended your [laughs]…but, Dennis, you know, everything you’re saying now is something you knew back then. Not because you were a Democrat or a liberal or any of those things, but because as mayor you tried to save the public power …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, we did. I did.
Robert Scheer: You did save it, I know. And it put you up in Cleveland. You saved public power, and they still have it, and that’s a check on gouging people. But you came smack up against the big banks, the big companies, the big utilities, when you were mayor. And somehow you survived, and you had a political career after that. But that’s a wisdom you had, what, almost 40 years ago, 30 years ago, right?
Dennis Kucinich: Right.
Robert Scheer: And so what I’m asking you—and the reason I really wanted to get you on our Truthdig show, and on Truthdig today—is what is different that’s going on, and why are people being bamboozled? And you have a crazy situation where the only people who seem to be in touch with the pain of people losing their houses and not being able to find jobs, and fighting in wars that make no sense at all, are some of these libertarian tea party people. Where is the progressive caucus? Where is the progressive voice? And why has it been so stifled?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, first of all, when you have a member of a party in the White House, there is an unspoken rule to not make his—and in the future, I suppose, her—life more difficult. So the Democratic Party has, unfortunately, as a party, been muted. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been traveling the country on a jobs tour trying to identify what is, correctly, the No. 1 issue in America, which is unemployment and slow economic growth that goes with it. And there are people speaking out. But the White House has the biggest megaphone on the planet. It set the agenda, and when it has cooperation, as it does, in its policies, with members of the other party, it actually has a kind of relationship that seems to work for the White House’s politics but not necessarily for the politics of the Democratic Party.
Peter Scheer: We were told to expect a lot of resistance to this bill, this compromise, this debt-ceiling compromise, in both the House and the Senate. And in both chambers, it passed, apparently, very easily. Forty-five Democrats in the Senate voting for it, even though some raised some objections, particularly to the Social Security and Medicare threat. Why?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, again, I think that there were concerns among people of both parties about seeing the president further weakened, even though this is actually—he got the deal he wanted. We’ve got to go to a larger question here: Where are we in America right now? This was a fake crisis. And it was a phony solution. When you have 14 million Americans out of work, 9.2 percent unemployment, plus at least another 12 million Americans who are underemployed; when you have a gross domestic product at—I think GDP growth is like 1.3 percent; when you have manufacturing slowing, when you have the stock markets through a period of eight days in decline—which, you know, they had eight straight days of decline, which was the first time since 2008, when the system was headed towards severe straits … you know, the solution that was offered through cutting spending made no sense at all. So we have to create millions of jobs to get America going again. We’re not doing that. The private sector’s not going to create the jobs, so what’s happened is that the president is actually—well, he’s now telling the country that he’s going to turn to creating jobs. Did he read the legislation? I mean, of course he did; he knew. You can’t … you know, it’s putting his …
Peter Scheer: Well, how is he expecting to get re-elected if he’s …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, it’s a good point. That’s where we got into the discussion about using Clinton triangulation tactics, but with a Hoover economy.
Peter Scheer: Right, because Clinton had the tech sector booming when he was triangulating. I mean, he had that advantage.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, yeah. There’s a different economy now. You could compare what has happened to … when you put your foot on the accelerator of cutting—you know, on the budget hawks’ accelerator, cutting spending—you’re also simultaneously putting the brakes on the economy. You don’t have to be a genius to figure this out. And when you do that, you’re going to have enormous stress on the system, which will result in stagnation. And that’s where we’re headed. We are looking towards a double-dip recession. And when you’ve got people in the White House who famously came to office under a banner of behavioral psychology—check it out—what are they thinking now? What are they … if you say jobs, you’re going to create jobs? Is that it? It’s like, you just invoke the word “jobs” and suddenly jobs appear? No. You have to, government has to … Roosevelt understood this. If you look at the Democratic platform, the platforms in ’32 and ’36, they understood the role of government. They understood that the private sector isn’t providing jobs, that the public sector has a moral responsibility to do that. And what this deal does—and there’s so many layers to it, but when you go deeper into this deal, it actually rejects the role of government. It is part of an effort to nullify the presence of government in our society. Which is really a collective expression of the practical aspirations of people being nullified here.
So as you go deeper and deeper, unpeel one layer after another, what you have here is a fundamental attack on the entire basis of polity and a rejection of the principal philosophical concept in Democratic governance of government of the people and for the people, and a willingness to substitute corporate principles for managing public affairs. We’re seeing state and local government cut; we’re seeing an acceleration of privatization; we’re seeing this tranche of wealth going on at a time when people are told, well, we just have a limited amount of money. Let me go deeper, one layer deeper: Why in the world should we even have to get into a discussion of borrowing money from banks, or getting our debt financed by outside investors? Why do we have to do that? I mean, we—the United States is sovereign. You look at the Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8, the Congress has the ability to coin money, create wealth. Now, it’s not just the province of libertarians; when you look at the Federal Reserve and the fact that in 1913 our monetary system was essentially changed. And when the Federal Reserve has the ability to issue, through quantitative easing, over a trillion dollars, and give it to the private sector, including to banks, that can park money at the Fed and gain interest out of that—at the same time, we’re being told that the government doesn’t have the money to create jobs. The government has to reclaim that. I mean I actually have a bill in that would put the Fed back under Treasury, and that would enable the government to invest, to create jobs, to rebuild America’s infrastructure, which right now has over $3 trillion in needs that are not being met, that cannot be financed, that aren’t going to be met under this current fiscal discipline. So you go deeper and deeper into this, and you can discover that everything about this bill is wrong; that it collides with … it’s not just about it colliding with the New Deal; it collides with the preamble of the Constitution of the United States.
Robert Scheer: You know, Dennis, I want to ask you one last question, because I think we’ve now gotten to really what is the key point. And I wrote a column today for Truthdig saying, you know—I used the phrase “the new Democrats”; I put Clinton and Obama in that. And they have tried to throw the New Deal overboard. And they consider it unnecessary baggage; they consider it outmoded. And by the New Deal, I really mean the very thing you described: the notion of government stepping in when it’s needed, as a progressive force to help people who are jobless, losing their homes, set the economy straight. And what this bill does is it leaves us with the Fed as the only agency that can act now, because government spending is really off the table. And one could argue what should have been done is actually to make the states whole, you know? Get rid of the state debt, keep the firemen and teachers; those people will spend the money, they won’t pocket it. And instead, as you point out, we’re going to be left with the Fed being able to make the banks whole once again, and make big corporations … and they’re sitting on trillions of dollars, and they’re not investing it in jobs; we know that.
And so really, what I think—the point here that has to be made is that without a strong labor movement, without a strong consumer movement—which we don’t have, with maybe the exception of AARP—we don’t have a countervailing force in the Democratic Party or anywhere else. Even somebody that I was once critical of, Scoop Jackson—they called him the senator from Boeing; you know, old-fashioned Democrat, you know, from the state of Washington—but my god, Scoop Jackson would be shocked. Richard Nixon would be shocked! Ronald Reagan, whose father—you know, Ronald Reagan in his autobiography said were it not for the New Deal his family would have starved. His father worked for the New Deal. He always said ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.’ And what you have now is people parading as Democrats who really are just at the beck and call of Wall Street. The reason this bill passed was the Wall Street lobbyists descended—The New York Times had a very good story—they just descended that last week and said ‘Get it done.” You know, there was a threat from the very rating agencies that had screwed up our economy by giving the OK to those mortgage packagers. So I just wonder, where are we going to get that voice? Peter before said that you’re our favorite—well, we’ve got Bernie Sanders, also; we’ve got a few others—but you know, is everyone else on the take? Have they all sold out? Don’t they see this?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, you’ve got to look to the writings of Peter Berger to figure this out. He wrote a book that had to do with the social construction of reality, and what happens in Washington is that the K Street lobbyists, the Wall Street forces, the corporations helped to construct a political reality inside the beltway, which creates imperatives for a few at the expense of the many. And when you go outside the beltway and you see massive unemployment, people losing their jobs, their homes, their retirement security, their children not being able to go to the schools they want to—you come to experience an America that’s a little bit different than that which exists inside Washington. When you have Standard & Poor’s as a rating agency, which actually was selling its ratings to the … its rating marks, threatening the United States of America—look, I would have run them into the Justice Department so quick that they would have had their heads spinning and had the FCC cancel their ability to give ratings. But we don’t do that here. And as far as labor—you’re right; labor is what’s left. I’m going to be speaking this week to the Washington State Labor Council about the exact issues that you raised. Labor, ultimately, is the force. Because when you talk about the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike—those are part of the pulleys of a Democratic society. And those are under attack right now; the National Labor Relations Board is under attack. And the attempt to unionize is under attack more than ever, even though labor constitutes an increasingly smaller percentage of the workforce …. at least, unions constitute an increasingly smaller percentage of the workforce. So we have to reorganize the effort to bring about transformative change. And it has to be done at a grassroots level.
It’s really worth mentioning, Bob and Peter, that right after the attack, in 2002, when people massed across the country anticipating that there could be an attack on Iraq—they were objecting to it—that we felt like the percolation of civic commitment, and of a demonstration of civic power in the United States and, for that matter, around the world. Then the war started, and it basically stopped. We are now at the other end of this tunnel of post-9/11, and that is finding an economy that is stagnant, a country that is still fearful, a nation that is at wars that make no sense. And this is the time for us to sound the tocsin again and create for this country—in neighborhoods and at the precinct, the ward, the city level—a whole new level of discussion which inevitably is going to have to go out to the street, where people demand a different direction for America, a more just society economically. Where they demand jobs for all, health care for all—not corporate health care, but health care for all, education for all, retirement security for all, a clean environment, clean water—those things should not be beyond our reach. Today they appear to be. As badly used as this mechanism of government has been, as much as it has been a vehicle to assault the basic economic interests of the people to deny their practical aspirations, so too that structure still exists that enables a fulfillment of the dreams that appear to be out of reach. But that can only come through mass action. We’re really at that stage.
Peter Scheer: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Dennis.
Dennis Kucinich: Thank you very much.
Peter Scheer: We’ve been speaking with Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. He’s our favorite congressman.
* * *
Peter Scheer: That’s it for Truthdig Radio this week. Find us next Wednesday at 2 or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Thanks to our guests Ethan Pollack, Virginia Reno, Peter Friedrich and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of course. Our producer is Joshua Scheer. Our board-op today is D’Angelo Jones. Jee engineered the show, and Alan Minsky is our spirit guide. For Robert Scheer, Howie Stier and Peter Scheer, thanks for listening.