Whether he’s protesting bad legislation or the Fed’s monetary policy, Ady Barkan boils the issue down to its moral essentials.
WASHINGTON ― What mattered was that he showed up — that he put himself in front of the people whose opinions on the arcana of U.S. fiscal policy would have a direct and immediate impact on his weakening body. The point was for them to see his frailties, hear the catches in his voice and the kludginess of his diction.
Perhaps then they would understand that they were voting on the question of whether to kill Ady Barkan.
The massive Republican tax bill that sped its way into law these past few weeks has at times seemed like a blur of obscure details ― rates, deductions and exemptions ― decipherable only to accountants and seasoned policy wonks.
But in two face-to-face conversations with key Republican senators, Barkan, a 34-year-old progressive activist diagnosed just over a year ago with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, managed to boil the technocratic debate down to the straightforward life-and-death questions at its center.
Days after a Dec. 7 airplane conversation about the bill with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that quickly went viral, Barkan flew back to Washington, D.C., from his home in Santa Barbara, California, to take one last shot at killing the legislation ― this time with the help of his wife, Rachael King, and their 18-month-old son, Carl.
Barkan was once an energetic young dad who took runs on the beach and hiked in the mountains, but ALS, a terminal illness that paralyzes its victims over time, has slowly deprived him of his strength. He can’t pick Carl up, and his movements have become more awkward and constrained, his voice softer and more slurred than it once was. He usually just needs a cane to walk, but on Dec. 13, a day of activism against the Republican tax bill on Capitol Hill, he opted for the extra support of a wheelchair.
Barkan and hundreds of like-minded activists had centered their opposition to the tax bill on the cuts it could generate to essential social programs. They feared the tax bill’s addition of $1.4 trillion to the debt would trigger pay-as-you-go, or “Paygo,” rules ― resulting in across-the-board spending cuts to programs like Medicare that Barkan will depend on as his disease progresses. Specifically, Barkan will need an expensive ventilator and the near-constant help of professional medical staff in the coming years.
While Congress wound up waiving Paygo, critics believe that the budget hole created by the tax cuts will generate enormous pressure to cut Social Security, Medicare and other public benefits. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said that slashing these programs is next on his agenda.
And the tax bill’s elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is due to destabilize insurance markets and add 13 million people to the ranks of the uninsured.
The chasm between elites and ordinary people is really about the extent to which elite people make decisions without really consulting with the people who are affected by those decisions.Andrew Levin, Dartmouth College
Upon his return to Washington, Barkan rolled into the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), accompanied by a delegation of the state’s activists, for a meeting they broadcast live on Facebook.
When Collins arrived, Barkan grew solemn. Each member of the group went around the table describing his or her acute health care needs and fears about the changes the massive tax cuts could set in motion.
Collins listened intently. When pressed about Paygo, she repeatedly reassured the activists that she had secured a written promise from Republican leaders in Congress that Paygo rules would be waived.
Barkan and the other activists argued that Republican leaders could break their promise, much as they did the promises to hold the middle class harmless in the tax bill and not add to budget deficits. (Reducing tax deductions, including the state and local tax deduction, in the bill is expected to result in a net tax increase for millions of middle-class households.)
“I believe the commitments that I’ve received,” Collins responded when challenged.
That’s where Barkan lost it. Up to that point, he had been speaking in a gentle timbre, but the thought of entrusting his well-being to a pinky promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was too much.
“I know,” he said, the strain audible in his voice, “but it’s my life on the line!”
The meeting ended without a resolution. Collins wound up voting “yes.”
It was a defeat, but at least Barkan had made the stakes of her decision plain, both to the senator and to the many Americans following the run-up to the vote. This was a vital sort of activism in every sense of the word. Not for the first time, Barkan had reduced the dispassionate interplay of American politics to its moral essentials.
Introducing The Experts To The People They Serve
In the United States, technical expertise is rightly prized. But just as a doctor must consult a patient and patient’s family before performing an important procedure, so too must the experts who run the American government and economy listen to the feedback of the people whose lives they are shaping.
The present populist moment in American politics reflects the fact that ordinary Americans on the right and the left no longer feel that the doctors are listening to the patients. All too often, they are not even sure how to start a conversation.
“The chasm between elites and ordinary people is really about the extent to which elite people make decisions without really consulting with the people who are affected by those decisions,” said Andrew Levin, a Dartmouth College economist who has collaborated with Barkan and was a longtime economist at the Federal Reserve. “And that chasm not only includes people on Wall Street and in the financial system, but also people in academic institutions and think tanks, as well as government officials who make decisions behind closed doors.”
Barkan’s personalized style of activism, which centers on the stories of individual people as opposed to the abstract possibility of a policy’s fallout, is one way of addressing that alienation. And he honed it by innovating an entire field of advocacy around an institution far more secretive than Congress, and an issue far more arcane than taxes.
The principal accomplishment of Barkan’s career has been to turn the Federal Reserve, a central bank whose far-reaching influence few Americans understand, into a major battleground for progressive ideas. It’s a feat he managed much in the same way that he turned his Capitol Hill lobbying into a national news story: by educating people about the impact of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy on their lives, and mobilizing them to confront the elites who craft that policy.
As a new staff member at the New York-based Center for Popular Democracy, Barkan conceived of, built and nurtured the Fed Up campaign, a grassroots movement to pressure the Fed to enact monetary policy that reflects the needs of all workers, especially low-income workers and people of color. Veteran progressive activists and economists now consider Fed Up one of the most effective economic justice initiatives in a generation.
“Fed Up is trying to push for real engagement and push for real transparency and accountability,” said Levin, who was a special adviser to Fed chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. “They call it grassroots because it is engagement between real people, ordinary people, and elite leaders who aren’t used to having that kind of engagement very often.”
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