Bringing home the debt ceiling fight.

In the midst of the debt crisis in Washington, D.C., Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building that is on a strip of motels and pawnshops in Tampa, Florida. He had been laid off by a packaging plant during the financial crisis of 2008, had run through his unemployment benefits, and had then taken a part-time job stocking shelves at Target in the middle of the night, for $8.50 an hour. His daughter had developed bone cancer, and he was desperate to make money, but his hours soon dwindled to four or five a week. In April, Hartzell was terminated. His last biweekly paycheck was for a hundred and forty dollars, after taxes. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen into that non-climbable-out-of rut,” he said. “If you can’t climb out, why not move?”

On the afternoon of July 1st, Hartzell was loading the family’s possessions into the rental truck—and brushing off the roaches that had infested the apartment, so that the bugs wouldn’t make the move, too—when a letter arrived from the State of Florida. Four days earlier, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, had signed a law making it harder for Floridians to collect jobless benefits, and the letter informed Hartzell that he was ineligible for new benefits after losing his job at Target. “I guess it’s just all water under the bridge at this point anyway, being that we’re going to stake a new claim,” Hartzell told his fifteen-year-old son. “Right, Brent?” Then the Hartzells drove ten hours north, to rural Georgia, where no job or house awaited them—only an old friend Hartzell had reconnected with on Facebook, and the hope of a fresh start.

On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn’t counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the “marginally attached”—the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.

…Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. …Among other drastic cuts to domestic spending, the President proposes a ten-year, hundred-billion-dollar reduction in federal contributions to Medicaid, a program that helped provide new sets of teeth for Danny Hartzell and his wife just before their move.

…Some Republicans have also proposed that any deal require Obama to repeal the country’s new health-care law, which, had it been in place last year, would have provided the Hartzells with medical insurance, instead of forcing them to rely on charity hospitals for their daughter’s cancer treatment. Representative Paul Ryan’s ten-year budget plan, which remains his party’s blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-per-cent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells’ only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street.

In his Talk of the Town piece from last week’s New Yorker, George Packer tells the story of Danny Hartzell and his family, and in so doing, connects the politics of the debt ceiling debate with the economic reality that Americans experience.

I’ve read a lot of complaints on the Internet about how political journalism is over-obsessed with the procedural dramas in Washington, and should instead focus on explaining policy and the substance of political conflicts. I think this is one of those rare, good examples of the latter. Packer does a great job of illustrating the consequences of the current debate, and at a personal scale that is far easier to comprehend than the billion- and trillion-dollar cuts over ten years that are reportedly being debated.

In the particular case of the debt ceiling debate, it’s rare that I come across any mention of what the huge cuts in spending would mean for the many programs and services providing actual benefits on which Americans rely. In part, of course, that’s because the actual negotiations haven’t reached that level of specificity. But I think it’s important and useful to give some perspective, especially since most Americans are probably fortunate enough as to have never looked at a Congressional budget in their lives.

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Art is also for upsetting and annoying.

The Guardian has a better picture of it, but the NYT’s Green blog has the better headline about it: “Coal-Themed Sculpture Annoys Lawmakers”.

Carbon Sink by UK artist Chris Dury at the University of Wyoming. The sculpture has upset the local coal industry. Photograph: Chris Dury

The sculpture, by British artist Chris Drury, is made of logs from lodgepole pine trees killed by pine beetles, along with lumps of Wyoming coal. According to the Guardian, beetles were still infesting some of the logs in the sculpture! I wish I could get a better look at that.

The piece, installed on the University of Wyoming campus and independently funded, is evidently meant to draw connections from coal-fired electricity generation to climate change-caused warming and its effect on pine beetles. Warmer temperatures mean that pine beetle populations are experiencing less die-off during the winter, increasing numbers at an alarming rate, and decimating pine forests across North America.

Unsurprisingly since Wyoming is the country’s leading coal-producing state, once local politicians found out about the sculpture, they were “annoyed.” The money quote is from state legislator Tom Lubnau, who says:

While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.

Or, in other words, “Nice university you got there. It’d be a shame if anything ever happened to it.”

To its credit, the University of Wyoming is standing by Drury’s work and has no plans to remove it. But I’m disappointed that the art museum’s director backpedaled by saying, “Chris Drury makes connections within nature. He’s not a political artist in any way.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean exactly; it seems to me that any work commenting on “nature” and humanity’s relationship with it, particularly in the realm of climate change, has to be “political” in the sense that policies (about energy) are implicated. Drury clearly intends this piece – entitled “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” – to be about climate change and the human hand in it with relation to coal as a fuel source.

What’s more, it’s unfortunate that the art museum director didn’t take the opportunity to affirm that making political statements is an age-old, historically legitimate and valuable role of art – especially public art. Although that might not really be up for debate in Wyoming, where opposing legislators have apparently “suggested that a sculpture of energy workers be built on campus.” Yes, let’s discuss coal mining!

More Deaths From Black Lung Than Mine Accidents. Source: NIOSH 2007 report for CDC. Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR

Such a dialogue seems exactly in line with Drury’s intentions: he’s quoted as saying he hopes the sculpture will cause people to “have a conversation.”

Drury also has some really interesting pictures and commentary of installing the piece at the University of Wyoming on his blog.

Relatedly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just issued a finding that whitebark pines merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the FWS declined to place it immediately on a federal protection list due to limited resources, it has assigned the whitebark a high priority for future listing. You can read more about the whitebark pine and why protecting it matters in this blog post by Matt Skoglund of NRDC, the group that filed the 2008 petition spurring the FWS’ finding.