I used to live in Seattle’s Georgetown – the city’s last affordable neighborhood, historical locus of a robust bar and brothel economy, prior to its maturation into the heli-pad headquarters of Bezos and Gates. It’s wedged between the noise and pollution of the private airport, Boeing Field, the noise and pollution of I-5, the charming Duwamish “Superfund” River, and the noise and pollution of Marginal Way, a thoroughfare for semi-trucks and commuters connecting to jobs downtown and west at the Port. It’s been described as the armpit of Seattle. It’s also a tight community of raucous block parties, fantastic vegetable gardens and loud music to drown out the louder pangs of industry and gentrification. It’s still working class – almost a myth in a West Coast city these days.
Twice, Air Force One flew President Obama just 700 feet above my apartment to land at Boeing a block away. Families with flags lined the road to greet his entourage. These were simply private engagements, exclusive fundraisers for venerable senators and nubile reps – seats the Dems needed to attempt, yet again, to dominate DC. My neighbors – immigrants who live in motels, Boeing workers worried about their jobs, young families who can’t afford to buy a home elsewhere in the Emerald City – all were eager to hear from the president, but they were satisfied to wave the Stars and Stripes at him through tinted glass. And after dinner, with Obama sated and retreating East, I heard, “Look, there’s the president – in the sky!”
My daughter and I shared a school bus stop with a 10-year-old kid who lived in one of those bleak motel rooms on Marginal Way. After three months, he and his dad stopped showing up. They were homeless, after all. A statistic. And, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is basically tied with Mexico, Chile, and Turkey with the distinction of having the highest child poverty rate in the “developed” world.
Poverty statistics are the rage in the media these days. It’s been 50 years since Lyndon Baines Johnson gave his revered State of the Union Address, promptly outlining a full slate of social welfare programs – like food stamps and unemployment insurance – that he obsessively, and, some say, ruthlessly, pushed through Congress. “This administration today,” he said, “here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
Obama, presaging this anniversary of the dawn of the Great Society, recited his own lines on December 4, with the invigorating title, “Speech on Economic Mobility,” at the grand tank of thinking, The Center for American Progress (for more on CAP’s merits, see Ken Silverstein’s sizzling piece in The Baffler, “They Pretend to Think, We Pretend to Listen”).
POTUS, looking weary, sounding atypically bland, swallowed the first portion of his remarks thanking CAP for providing him with staff, and praising John Podesta, his advisor and the tank’s brilliant designer. Then, it morphed into a Nate Silver blog on acid – vague stories and statistics – rather hallucinogenic. If you fast-forward YouTube to the last quarter of the speech, you hope to find the poet-president’s Action Plan. Instead, we hear about a “growth agenda,” with a smattering of “competitiveness and productivity,” and a dash of “responsible budget.” Oh, lest I forget the congratulations to fast-food workers, unions, and community activists for leading the charge to increase the minimum wage. Because, Lord knows, our president hasn’t done a god-damned thing.
Where were the practical, bullet-pointed, public works programs, like LBJ’s plan of action? Why not echo the stem-winding defenses of all the poverty-fighting laws that LBJ demanded from our government with his fist banging on the podium, his head in his hand?
LBJ strove to be the great father of a great society, now Obama plays the great victim to great political failure, avoiding fault at all costs. So much for the War on Poverty. Now it’s a position paper on “economic mobility.” The political elite employ euphemisms like drones, with vague story-telling and a barrage of statistics, to evoke the appropriate emotional response, pre-polled.
Back in Seattle, in Obama’s flyover neighborhoods, a $15 living wage ordinance passed by 66 votes at Sea-Tac, the home of the public airport, a bleak land of motels, rental-car lots, and fast food. On January 4, the brand-new mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, proposed a $15 minimum wage for city employees, the more than 600 who now presently garner $9.29 an hour – the highest minimum wage in the country.
And, the city elected the first Socialist to the nine-member City Council since 1922 – Kshama Sawant, an Indian immigrant and professor of economics at Seattle Central Community College. Perhaps Seattle’s fun history as a fortress of Wobblies, Panthers, and anarchists is not yet over.
Maybe our task today is to replace DC’s despair with our own calloused, battle-fisted opportunity, planting Victory Gardens like those I loved in Georgetown, picketing along the highway at the local KFC with the women who fry up the Double Downs, and thinking outside the think tank.
I mean, seriously, people. According to a recent CBS Poll, 57 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of moderates support a hike in the minimum wage.
With the spirit of Seattle in us, we can refer to what LBJ said 50 years ago, “America cannot afford to stand still. … Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
Published in the January 2014 issue of CounterPunch magazine.