Don’t Sit Back – Push Back

'Disaster capitalism' and its impact on arts and education

Volume 111, No. 4April, 2011

Paul Molloy

The union busting in Wisconsin brought out thousands of protestors. Many are waking up to how bad things have gotten.

How did we get to a place where vilifying teachers, the arts and working families has become an accepted economic strategy to “restore our country’s financial health”?

It didn’t happen overnight. The attacks on organized labor, the arts and teachers are part of a scheme that’s been decades in the making – a political strategy that sees the government as a facilitator for corporate profit above all else.

It goes like this:

  • Manufacture a financial crisis by taking the common wealth (your tax dollars) and redistributing it upward in the form of tax cuts for the very wealthy.
  • Then, revenue that ordinarily pays for things like public education, first responders, social safety nets and food, water, air and other environmental protections is now in the bank accounts of people and entities with no incentive to invest in new businesses or jobs. (Why? Because the government is handing them wealth for free.)

In fact, over the past three decades, these policies created a society where the 400 wealthiest people in the country control more capital than the other 150 million-plus U.S. citizens combined.


How was this possible? After three decades of sheer repetition in the media, the general public bought into the idea that if you give large tax cuts to the wealthy, they will use them to create jobs, prosperity and a healthy economy for all. There’s just one problem: it’s not true.

  • Big tax cuts passed in 1921 and 1925 didn’t help the economy. In fact, wages stagnated, and in 1929 the stock market crashed and gave us the Great Depression.
  • After the 1981 tax cut was passed, the U.S. experienced a recession that lasted nearly two years.
  • Three years after the big tax cuts of 1987, growth slumped, giving us the recession in 1991.
  • The years from 2001 and 2008 saw some of the slowest economic growth in decades.
  • Despite tax cuts in 2001, 2003 and a tax rebate in 2008, the U.S. economy lost 4.5 million jobs between 2007 and January 2009.
  • In 2008, the economy sank into the worst recession since the Great Depression. At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, 25 percent of all American children lived in poverty, official rates of unemployment hovered around 10 percent, but were more like 25 percent for young people and over 30 percent in some minority communities.

When the country is in financial dire straits, it creates opportunities for ideological politicians to use the crisis to go after organizations and segments of the workforce with which they disagree politically in the name of budget balancing.

The attack on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan is one such example. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, only in office since January 2011, declared a $177 million shortfall in the state budget and that painful cuts were necessary.

When public sector unions willingly stepped up to the plate to do their part, Governor Walker insisted they give up some of their collective bargaining rights.

What the governor did not disclose is that when in office just under two weeks, he and his allies in the legislature gave away $117 million in tax breaks to corporations. Neither the collective bargaining rights Walker sought to eliminate nor the public unions had anything to do with Wisconsin’s budget gap.

What’s lost on ideologues like Governor Walker is that economists will tell you that a good way to get out of debt is to increase jobs and GDP.

This too seems lost on the leadership in the House of Representatives. Promises of job-creating legislation during the 2010 election cycle have been shelved in favor of more ideological initiatives.

Three months into the 112th Congress, they have created zero jobs.

(By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the 111th Congress, two months in, created or saved 3.3 million jobs).

However, the current House majority did vote to eliminate funding for National Public Radio (and with it, critical infrastructure for disseminating AMBER Alerts, which have successfully recovered 532 abducted children).


Maintaining this state of emergency mentality allows ideological politicians to insist on deep cuts in taxpayer- funded programs unrelated to the court system, the banking system, defense or commerce.

What does this mean for public schools?

  • The phony arguments for improving public education that gave birth to the “teach to the test” model will only intensify and worsen.
  • When funds are cut from education budgets, existing problems are compounded.
  • Meal programs for the disadvantaged are cut, classroom sizes increase while the number of qualified teachers needed to address the needs of all students decreases.

To add insult to injury, teachers – particularly the most experienced and longest serving among us – will continue to be blamed by many politicians and talking heads in the media for the effects that poverty, hunger, abuse and lopsided distribution of resources have on student performance.

These attacks are currently being used to strip teacher seniority rights, divert public money to charter schools that foster a two-tiered, second-class citizenship system for special needs and second language children and to undercut living wages for teachers.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg wants to transfer $139 million in public funds to charter schools next year and cut $207 million from public schools.

As I said in last month’s Allegro, one might be inclined to think that the emergent model of education in the U.S. is to provide just enough training to supply employers (that benefit exponentially from these tax cuts) with a continuous source of cheap, unskilled and low-skilled labor.


The offensive against the arts occurs on multiple fronts. During the culture wars of the 1980’s, certain religious groups and their political allies in congress assailed certain federally funded works of art as indecent, blasphemous or subversive.

Calls for “decency” and “moral values” – litmus tests for works of art that received public funding – buzzed throughout Capitol Hill.

When the NEA came up for a five-year budget review in 1989, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms introduced an appropriation bill to ban the funding of what he considered “obscene” art.

His bill failed, but the compromise has had a chilling effect on federal funding of free speech and artistic expression ever since.

It required the NEA to adopt obscenity guidelines established in 1973 by the Supreme Court.

While Congress couldn’t directly deny grants to artists whose work it considered obscene, the NEA had to from that point forward.

However, Congress does have the authority to defund the NEA, and depending on which party controls both chambers, threatens to do so in the name of decency, family values and fiscal prudency.

As part of the temporary budget bill passed the first week of March, the House of Representatives voted to cut $43 million in funding for the NEA and kill the Arts in Education programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

(Incidentally, the greatest beneficiaries of this program are New York State schoolchildren.)

In addition, the House also voted to cut significant funding for the National Writing Project ($25.6 million), Reading is Fundamental ($24.8 million), Teach for America ($18 million), National Board for Professional Teaching Standards ($10.7 million), New Leaders for New Schools ($5 million) and many other important arts education programs.

In addition to attacking arts and arts funding from a cultural point of view, anti-intellectualism, a centuries old, divisive propaganda tool which shuns individual expression and independent thought, is deployed to generate hostility and mistrust toward artists and teachers for political gain.

The argument goes like this. Education and expertise are regarded as the arrogant and snobbish products of an elite and privileged upbringing and are therefore out of sync with mainstream American values and the “just folks, wanna-have-a-beer-with” personas we seek to hold office and make major decisions.

As a result, those with backgrounds in the arts, sciences, philosophy or literature are to be regarded with suspicion and contempt (as are their supporters in office and other places of influence).

By delegitimizing these fields, their respective workforces and the skills necessary to work in them, it becomes “acceptable” to cut funding for higher education, despite what people like our president and governor say about helping our kids become more competitive in the workplace through a leaner, more efficient education system.

Since 2008, 43 states have enacted drastic cuts in higher education, making it more difficult for kids from poor and middle class families to get the quality education they need to succeed in life.

In New York, Gov. Cuomo wants to cut aid to State colleges by 10 percent. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett wants to cut funding for state colleges and universities by nearly 50 percent.


Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein coined the phrase “disaster capitalism” to describe “this phenomenon of seizing disasters to push through this radical brand of capitalism . . .” She maintains that such public policies “only work if we don’t know about them.”

The general public is slowly beginning to wake up to the extreme ideological overreach witnessed in recent weeks.

Protesters took to the state capitals in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan to protest their respective governors’ threats to public sector unions and working families.

Demonstrations continue nationwide in favor of collective bargaining rights and balanced tax policies that benefit all Americans, not just 400 of them.

In a show of solidarity, Local 802 members took to the streets and joined with other unions in demonstrations at New York City Hall and the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey.

As for our industry, I’ve said it again and again. Unless we are willing to settle for a dystopian society devoid of curiosity beyond which mall has better curly fries, we cannot sit idly by and allow these deep, harmful cuts in arts and education.

As long we ignore cynical, reverse-Robin Hood public policies that steal from the poor to give to the rich, we can expect more cuts in arts and education spending, more attacks on organized labor and even larger transfers of wealth from the vast majority of the public to a select and powerful few.

If you’re ready to fight, we need you. Please contact my office at or (212) 245-4802, ext. 176.