Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Emancipation Proclamation Turns 150 + Fiscal Leap Averted

Proclamation, p. 1
Happy New Year!

150 years ago President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a largely symbolic document that accelerated, in word if not in deed, the process of ending chattel slavery in the United States of America. By 1863 nearly all the formerly slave-holding northern states, save those on the border with the Confederacy (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), had ended slavery by statute, and though slaveholders had attempted to implant the seeds of their infernal system in the West, bringing enslaved people to what is now Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and other territories, it was on the wane, throughout the Western Hemisphere (Haiti had extinguished slavery in 1804) and in rapidly industrializing and culturally diversifying America.

The Proclamation affected only those "states" and territories of said states "in rebellion," and none of the border states or northern states like New Jersey, which still had people living in bondage. It would take two more brutal years of war, the Union Army's defeat of the Confederate military, and Republican Congress's passage of the 13th Amendment in December 1865, to stamp out slavery de jure and de facto, but, as I need not tell any J's Theater readers, African Americans' struggle for freedom and social, political and economic equality continues.  Nevertheless one of the Proclamation's tangible effects is our 44th President of the United States, the recent re-elected Barack H. Obama.

Beginning yesterday and continuing through today, the National Archives will display the original 5-page document, written on paper instead of the longer-lasting, conventional parchment and thus extremely fragile, at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.  If I were in DC I'd be beating a path there, as this document represents and embodies even today, as it did when Lincoln drafted and signed it, an alternative view of what this country, our country, might be, and where we might go. We are not there yet, but we have this document always to remind us that the seeming impossibility of freedom and equality is a possibility if we are willing to engage in the often hard and painful, but also joyful and exhilarating work of making it possible.


VP Biden and President Obama announce House passage
of the bill to avert the "fiscal cliff"
Surprise, surprise. The last minute, eleventh-hour scramble by the Congress averted shoving most of the country down the fiscal slope, and setting off the austerity bomb. Or did it? The Senate, by 89-8, passed a bill brokered by the Vice President, sent it to the House, which after a bit of petulant kabuki, passed by a 257 (172 Democrats with 85 Republicans) to 167 vote a concurrence of the Senate resolution, meaning that the bill could go to the President's desk to be signed. The particulars of the deal look decent, at least superficially. Among the bill's details the president's marginal federal income taxation rate threshold of $250,000/year unfortunately rose to $400,000 for single people and $450,000 for couples; there will be slightly higher capital gains, dividends and estate tax rates; it includes an alternative minimum tax fix; it extends unemployment insurance for 2 million people; it addresses the Medicare provider cuts that were to take effect; and, perhaps most beneficial for middle-and-working class families, it continues the 2009 tax credits for five years. The compromise bill avoided any cuts, of any sort, to the earned benefit and social safety net programs. The payroll tax, however, did return to 6.2% of all workers' first $113,700 of income.

It did not address other issues, such as the debt ceiling fight which still looms, or the GOP's likely demands for further spending cuts as part of the sequester. It also was perhaps a less effective bill than the President and Democrats might have gotten had they allowed all the Clinton era rates to return, which would have put the onus on the Republicans to agree to tax cuts for those under to $250,000 in exchange for less burdensome taxes on those above that cutoff, while also agreeing to better terms for nearly everything else this deal brought. Perhaps "the markets" might have freaked out, but we would have gotten past this blip soon enough. The US's finances, despite all the doom and gloom, is quite sound. Instead, we are still zooming towards legislating more austerity, which has proved disastrous in all the other places where it has been implemented (the UK, Spain, Germany, etc.), with the next battle royale to occur around March 1, 2012.

A pyrrhic victory, then? It's better than that, but if the President and Democrats, whose numbers in both the Senate and House will grow, cannot stand strong, we could facing far worse than the usual drang and drama, and the past 4 years offer only tepid confidence. As I always say, though, we shall see. 

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