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Roundtable: Assessing Obama’s Budget Plan & State of U.S. Economy with Author Thomas Frank, Rev. Jim Wallis, and Activist/Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs

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To discuss President Obama’s budget talk and the state of the American economy, we are joined by three guests: Thomas Frank, a columnist at Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books, including The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation; Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners Community and editor of Sojourners magazine, who has been on a hunger fast since March 28 to protest congressional budget cuts; and Grace Lee Boggs, 95-year-old activist, author and philosopher based in Detroit. She has been involved with the civil rights, Black Power, labor, environmental justice, and feminist movements over the past seven decades. Her new book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, has just been published. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: To talk more about President Obama’s budget and the state of the American economy, we’re joined by two guests.

In Washington, D.C. is Thomas Frank, a columnist at Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books, including The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation.

We’re also joined here by Grace Lee Boggs, 96-year-old activist, author and philosopher based in Detroit. Her new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, has just been published. She’s been involved with the civil rights, Black Power, labor, environmental justice and feminist movement over the past seven decades.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re joined by Jim Wallis in Washington, D.C., as well, evangelical Christian writer and political activist, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine and with the Washington, D.C.-based Christian community also called Sojourners.

We’re going to begin with Tom Frank. Talk about the state of this country. First, respond to what President Obama said yesterday, and contrast that with his actual actions, what has been approved with the budget that has been presented, the so-called compromise.

THOMAS FRANK: OK. And how are you today, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you.

THOMAS FRANK: So, yeah, I was actually — you know, I’m very liberal, as you know, and I was kind of pleased by what President Obama said yesterday, that he was finally, you know, going to take a stand against the sort of conservative onslaught of the last few years. You know, that was very gratifying to me, that he is going to defend Medicare and Medicaid and that he actually, you know, gave a kind of philosophical defense of the sort of liberal welfare state, which people like me have been waiting for him to do for quite a while. And that was very heartening.

Now, the problem with this conversation that we’ve been having is that, as you know, I mean, over the years, President Obama says all kinds of wonderful things. The man is a — you know, he’s a spellbinder in terms of oratory; he’s one of the greatest speakers I’ve ever seen. But the actions don’t always measure up, you know? He seems to be very willing to compromise with the right wing of the Republican Party and to give them everything they want, you know, when the deals are being made. And we saw a sort of a very disheartening version of that last week on the budget compromise.

But I’ll tell you what — I still think that the President’s rhetoric could change the game, if he went a little bit further, if he actually — and this is what I think he really needs to do: spell out to the American people how we got here in the first place. I mean, the reason we’re having this budget crisis is because we were deliberately driven into budget crisis by the last administration. You remember, these are people that started two wars and cut taxes at the same time, set up, you know, a brand new prescription drug benefit and didn’t come up with any way of paying for it. They were just heaping up expenses, meanwhile outsourcing the entire government in this very expensive manner, you know, and cutting taxes on the wealthy, deliberately defunding the liberal state, deliberately bringing on the train wreck. These guys have spent — the conservative movement, that is, have spent — you know, basically have spent decades trying to run the government into the wall. And they have succeeded. And now they come out and tell us that we have to — you know, we have to cut the programs that they’ve been against all this time. He should expose this sort of card game to the public for what it is.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Tom, how do you reconcile, as you say, the rhetoric of the President, including his passionate defense of Social Security and Medicare, with the reports that keep coming out that the administration is, at some point, going to require major changes in entitlements, that there seems to be a public —- a public perception that the administration is pushing, and then there is the private negotiations that continue to go on over how -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — the administration is going to rein in what many claim, especially among conservatives, is the crisis of Social Security and Medicare?

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. Yeah, and it’s not just private, by the way. I mean, he did set up that — what is it? — the Deficit Reduction Commission, who came out with all kinds of recommendations along the very lines that you just described, and it was all done — you know, that was all pretty much public. And Obama is probably going to — in my view, is probably going to come around and embrace a lot of that stuff as some kind of compromise. How do I explain it? This is what — this is what — I’m really sorry to break this to you: this is what Democrats do here in this town. I mean, they continually cave. I mean, they — I like President Obama. You know, I voted for him. Hell, I voted for Bill Clinton, too. And they always disappoint you in the end.

I mean, this is the power dynamics of this town. You have one party that has this kind of — this very business-like quality to it, this sort of a message discipline to it. And if you go over to one of the other — they even have their own, you know, cable broadcasting channel that’s watched by millions of people, that’s giving a sort of party line. And then you have this other party that’s just — that’s sort of confused and wandering and doesn’t really feel — you know, that’s come completely disconnected from the popular movement that built it up in the first place. And the only thing it really — the only force that it really answers to is the same one as the other party, which is campaign donors. I mean, this is the sort of — the Democratic Party is — you know, there’s a lot of good Democrats in the world, of course, but it’s a — I mean, your previous guest is a guy that I particularly admire, but, you know, it’s a really disappointing, disheartening story. I’m very sorry to tell you that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Wallis is also with us. Jim, you are on an extended hunger fast, Reverend Jim Wallis, evangelical Christian writer, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Why are you fasting?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Good morning, Amy.

We’re on the 18th day now of this hunger fast, because I think the issues around this budget are that serious. And so, about 40,000 people joined this fast, even about 29 members of Congress. And the message is very clear. A budget, whether at a kitchen table or in Washington, D.C., a budget is always a matter of choices. The framework in this debate is just wrong. The Republicans say, “We have no money, and we have to cut everything.” Democrats say, “Well, yeah, but not that much.” And then they fight back and forth and threaten government shutdowns. Really, it’s a matter of choices that we’re making.

They were talking about cutting $8.5 billion from low-income housing, but keeping the same amount of money, $8.4 billion, for deductions on second vacation homes — a different kind of housing. Those are choices. $2.5 billion for cutting home heating oil for poor people, and yet $2.5 billion for offshore drilling subsidies for oil companies — those are choices. Amy, they want to cut, in this budget, 10 million malaria bed nets that keep kids from dying, and yet not one line item of military spending. And so, this is really not scarcity; it’s choices.

And so, the faith community and many of us, beyond the faith community, say this is now a matter of fasting and prayer and action. My mind is a bit fuzzy, but my spirit is very focused, because this really — a budget is a moral document, and the nation needs to understand that it reflects our values — who’s important, what’s important. And that’s really the choice before us now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what are the moral values, in your opinion, that the proposed — the proposed changes of the Republicans and even of the Democratic — the agreement that was reached a few days ago? What is that — what is that moral message that they’re sending?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, Paul Ryan is the Republican champion here. And I want to say, Paul Ryan is not serious about spending cuts. Neither is the Tea Party, because they don’t go to where the real money is. They don’t talk about massive corporate subsidies, corporate welfare, if you will. They don’t talk about military spending, not at all. We spend more on the military — I won’t call it “defense”; it isn’t defense — more on the military than the rest of the world combined. And they can’t find anything to cut. So they’re not budget hawks, they’re budget hypocrites, is what they are.

And then, President Obama yesterday at least finally got off the sidelines and addressed the issue. And he laid out some foundations that could be good, if in fact — his most important line was: “They’re going to cut Head Start for kids, healthcare for seniors, and afford tax breaks for the wealthiest even more. That’s wrong, and it won’t happen when I’m president.” That line, “That’s wrong, and it won’t happen while I’m the president,” is the most important line of his speech. He’s going to have to get used to saying that, over and over and over again.

But Mr. Obama didn’t even mention the war in Afghanistan. The truth is, those of us — many of us have formed — we’re calling it a “circle of protection” around the most critical programs for the poorest people. And the Catholic bishops and World Vision, National Association of Evangelicals, everybody is involved in this. But the President, by withdrawing 5,000 troops from Afghanistan, could protect all the programs that we’re trying to protect. Not a word last night about the wars that have cost this nation so dearly in lives and now in the possibility of a moral budget here. So, neither side is dealing with the real issues here yet. The President began to last night, but I hope he begins to, in fact, act on what he began to say yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the Budget Chair Paul Ryan. Earlier this year, in the GOP response to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, Budget Chair Paul Ryan defended cutbacks on social spending.

REP. PAUL RYAN: We’re in a moment where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency. Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness and wise consumer choices has never worked, and it won’t work now. We need to chart a new course.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Paul Ryan, Reverend Jim Wallis.

REV. JIM WALLIS: To suggest the safety net has become a hammock shows me Paul Ryan has never been around poor people. I’d like to take him on a journey into the inner cities of his own state and around the world. Paul Ryan is acting like a bully. You know, bullies pick on people who have no clout. He’s not picking on the people who have the real money. He’s not asking his rich friends to sacrifice. He’s acting like a bully. And so, this has to be — this has to be said out loud. You know, if you don’t understand the struggles of ordinary people in this country, and you call their life a hammock, you’ve never been any place where there are poor people.

You know, the faith community, all the time — my brother in Detroit runs an organization that takes care of vulnerable people. His budget is being cut every day by the governor there. He’s losing staff every day. In my hometown of Detroit, the river of pain is rising. He goes home at night to a house, his own house. It’s under water and where the police don’t even come 'til the next day if there's a burglar alarm. So, men with guns are stripping houses, drinking their Budweiser, while the alarm goes off, and people like my brother live in fear. Paul Ryan doesn’t even know that world. He lives with rich people. You know, bullies pick on poor people. If he’s a budget hawk, he should go to where the money is. But he won’t, because he doesn’t have any courage.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Detroit, we’re also joined by Grace Lee Boggs, who has just published her umpteenth book. It’s called The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Grace is 96 years old, here in New York, though headed back to Detroit, legendary activist. Grace, talk about where we are today and where we need to be. I mean, certainly, Detroit is ground zero for the economic downturn.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I think that we are at a very critical time in the history of the world. And I think that there’s a sense out there to which the President and the others do not speak, that this is a time when we have to make very deep changes. I think people understand that the empire is dying, that the welfare state that it made possible is also no longer possible, and therefore that we have to begin recreating our relationships with one another and with the rest of the world. And it’s a very troubling time for most Americans, but it’s only, I think, a relatively small number who understand that we have to create the world anew and that we have to call upon the powers within ourselves to do that. It’s a huge moment, and we’re very privileged, actually, to be part of that moment, and to speak to it, not from the White House, not from D.C., but from our sense of what people are searching for.

The first chapter of our new book is called “These Are the Times to Grow Our Souls.” I think people — some people recognize — I’m not saying all people recognize that, but this is really the time to grow our souls, to begin making a life and not just a living, to begin talking about things not just in terms of budgets and how we can use this sum of money and that sum of money for that purpose. People are suffering economically, but I think they understand that the issue is not an economic issue. It’s a question of, how shall we live? How shall we continue the evolution of human beings? What does it mean to be a human being at this time on the clock of the world? And I think we have to speak to that. I don’t expect President Obama to speak to that. And that’s why I don’t think demonstrations and protests are that meaningful. From the White House, you talk about history in a different way: you try and tell people that the American Dream is not dead, that we can re-bring it back to life. And people know, in a sense, that it is dead, that we have to create a new American Dream and that the opportunity to do that is a great privilege, a great challenge.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Grace, you’re 96 years old. When you got your Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president. He was someone who saw the need — the moral issues of political leadership, as well, and really sought to indict those who had created the crisis of the Depression. But now you’re saying that you believe that the real revolution is not a political one, but is a cultural one, or, as you’re saying, in terms of reshaping our relationships with each other. But how do you respond then to the millions of Americans who are out of jobs, who say that they may want to change their relationships to other people, but they also have to be able to make a living to support their families?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, let’s — that business of making a living, I think, is what we need to challenge. I think that in Detroit, because of the devastation of deindustrialization, we recognize that we have to reimagine work, that we have to reimagine how we relate to one another. We have to see that the jobs that paid us income also turned us into consumers and robbed us of some of our creativity, and robbed us also of our obligations to one another and robbed us of our relationships to community, and that we have to restore those. And that’s part of what human beings have done through the ages, and that it’s a privilege to do that. It’s difficult, but it’s also a challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’ll come back to this discussion. I want to ask you, Grace Lee Boggs, about Detroit, about to be taken over, possibly. Grace Lee Boggs is with us here in New York. Generally she lives in Detroit, a legendary activist. Reverend Jim Wallis with us in Washington, D.C., in the midst of a many-week fast protesting budget cuts against the poor in this country. And Thomas Frank is with us. He’s a columnist at Harper’s Magazine, his most recent book, The Wrecking Crew. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew. We’re also joined by the Reverend Jim Wallis in Washington, D.C., on the 18th day of a hunger fast that tens of thousands of people have joined all over the country, as well as a number of members of Congress, protesting budget cuts. And we’re joined by the legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs.

Grace, the latest news out of Detroit, Mayor Dave Bing warned that the state could appoint an emergency manager to oversee Detroit if his budget isn’t approved. Detroit is ground zero.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I think that’s the problem, is that the Governor of Michigan, the Mayor of Detroit think that it’s a financial issue. And there are — I mean, there are huge financial issues in Detroit, but you can’t look at a time like this mainly in terms of finances. You have to ask yourself, if 10,000 students are dropping out of school every year, creating a huge fiscal crisis, is it a financial question, or have the schools failed? And were they created at a time when people were thinking an industrial society and preparing children for a job in a society that no longer exists? And do we have to begin looking at our children and our educational system in terms of how children can become a part of the solving of our city’s problems, and not isolated in classrooms to be given information that they regurgitate so that they can get jobs which don’t exist?

AMY GOODMAN: You’re in a desperate situation in Detroit. I mean, you have, for example, the population is at its lowest point in a hundred years. It has declined by 25 percent in the last decade.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: So, what’s so wonderful about a huge population? When I came to Detroit over 50 years ago, the population was two million.

AMY GOODMAN: Your parents were Chinese immigrants here in New York, and you ended up moving with your husband, Jimmy Boggs?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, I moved from New York, where I had lived a good deal of my life and where I went to school, to Detroit, because I thought that the working class in Detroit was going to rise up and restore, reconstruct the city. And I arrived at a time when the population was beginning to decline, when the working class was shrinking. And I had to begin learning from what was taking place. And that learning process is something that a lot of people are undergoing.

And I think it’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t live in Detroit to say you can look at a vacant lot and, instead of seeing devastation, see hope, see the opportunity to grow your own food, see an opportunity to give young people a sense of process, that’s very difficult in the city, that the vacant lot represents the possibilities for a cultural revolution. It’s amazing how few Americans understand that, even though I think filmmakers and writers are coming to the city and trying to spread the word.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Thomas Frank, what about this issue of not concentrating solely on the political aspects of the crisis, but seeing a general need for Americans to refashion their relationship with each other? You’ve written recently at Harper’s Magazine about all of the uprisings in Wisconsin, the protests that have been spawned over the government cuts. Your sense of this relationship between the political movement and the social relationships or cultural development among the American people?

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, I want to say two things about this. And the first one is — is a little bit depressing, but I think I’m right about this. And I was very struck by what Grace was saying about a cultural revolution, people have the sense that the welfare state is kaput, you know, that we’ve come to the end of something in America. And this is the really strange thing, is, as I — you know, I spent the last couple years following the Tea Party movement, writing about them, going to their rallies, reading their books, that sort of thing. They have that exact same sense, but it comes from this completely different political perspective, right? But they’re out there right now calling for the end of the welfare state: “We can’t afford it anymore. We have to get back to, you know, the fundamental truths that this country was founded on,” by which they mean complete laissez-faire private enterprise. And they see themselves really as overturning everything, going back to Franklin Roosevelt, or even, in some cases, a guy like Glenn Beck, going back to Woodrow Wilson. That’s what they’re — that’s what they’re after. But they see it in this same apocalyptic way. And there is something — there is something that is really, really powerful about that image and that way of looking at things, you know? And, you know, we have our own way of speaking about it, and Grace put it very eloquently, but the right has their own way of talking about those things. And so far, they’ve been massively successful with it. OK, which brings us to — and I’m sorry, that is — it’s depressing, but it’s true. That is what’s happening out in the streets of this country.

The other thing is Madison, Wisconsin. So I was out there for some of the protests, not — I wasn’t there for the big ones where they had 100,000 people, which actually happened, 100,000 people in a state capital, you know, in a Midwestern state, protesting the war on organized labor in that state. But what was really amazing, when I was out there, you know, on ordinary protest days — you know, a couple of thousands of — thousand people there — that there’s this amazing solidarity. It’s like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime. I mean, I’ve covered strikes before. I’ve written about, you know, all manner of labor disputes, but I’ve never seen anything like this, where you’ve got people from all over the city — in fact, from all over the state — including farmers, showing up to protest Governor Walker’s war on collective bargaining. I mean, the right, I think — and this very interesting — I think they may finally have picked a fight that has — you know, they have aroused the other side, finally, you know? I have never seen anything like this in my entire life. And it was — I went to a small town. And I describe this all in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, or it’ll be on newsstands tomorrow or the next day or something like that. But I went to a protest in a small town in Wisconsin, a small Republican town in Wisconsin. And I grew up in a state with a lot of small towns, right? In Kansas. I have never seen an organized labor protest in a small town before. This was just — this was an astonishing thing to me. And I think it should be astonishing to all of us. This is — all those myths of red states and blue states, all of that stuff, if we keep on down this road, all of that stuff will be tossed overboard. It’ll be irrelevant. I hope it happens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Reverend Jim Wallis, your final comments in terms of how you see this whole relationship between the need to continue to change the policies of the government and the need for Americans to have a renewal of their relationships with each other, a cultural revolution, as Grace Lee Boggs says?

REV. JIM WALLIS: Being from Detroit, I’m always glad Grace is there. I’m always glad that she’s there to be saying what she’s saying. What the President said yesterday that I do agree with, he said the outcome of these debates will determine what kind of country we want to be, what kind of people we want to be. As the conversation has turned here in this discussion, it shows us that, finally, Washington is not the arena where change takes place. We are fighting terribly bad choices around the budget. We’re saying a budget is a moral document.

But I’m also saying that, finally, it is social movements that change things the most. It’s never what happens in Washington. It’s always the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, the labor movement. It’s movements that really change history and force Washington to change. So, our real hope is a new generation coming of age and saying, “We want to live differently in our relationship to each other, in our relationship to economy, to political power.” And I think the hope is really going to come from social movements. And so, you know, it’s movements that always make change, time and time again. And my hope is not with the government, not with the economy. My hope is with those social movements.

But there are battles we have to fight right now, and we have to make it clear that we’re making choices about people’s lives here. And we have to make sure — we almost need a national referendum on the choices. And that’s, I think, the task before us right now.

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Grace Lee Boggs on Detroit and “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century”

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