John Nichols on Paul Ryan, Barry Schwabsky on Ai Weiwei and George Zornick on a budget cut for the EPA


TASTE OF YOUR OWN… Paul Ryan pulled a bottle of fiscal snake oil off the shelf of his hero, Ronald Reagan, and started peddling it several years ago. The Congressman from Wisconsin got plenty of takers in Washington, where Republicans in the House gleefully bought into his claim that the best way to deal with budget deficits is to hollow out Medicare and Medicaid, begin privatizing Social Security and cut taxes for corporations. Even some Democrats sipped from Ryan’s medicine. But the people of Ryan’s own district—and other Congressional districts across the country—are having none of it.

In a twist on the 2009 Congressional town hall meetings where Tea Partisans packed rooms to raise questions about healthcare reform (and to object to any tinkering with Medicare), House and Senate Republicans who headed home for this year’s spring recess walked into meetings packed with citizens shouting, “Hands off our Medicare!”

Ryan got the worst of it. At crowded events in towns like Milton and Kenosha in southern Wisconsin, he was grilled by seniors who demanded to know: “We are supposed to give up our insurance [Medicare] for vouchers. Are you going to give up your gold-plated [Congressional] insurance for vouchers?” Ryan danced around that question and a lot of others at the Kenosha session. But it didn’t work. The star of the afternoon wasn’t Ryan but retired insurance man Bill Schroeder, who read a list of proposals for balancing budgets. “Do not renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy!” he began, to loud applause.

The cheers continued as Schroeder proposed ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. From throughout the room came cries of “Let’s elect him instead of Ryan!”   JOHN NICHOLS

FREE AI WEIWEI: The phrasing may not be perfectly idiomatic, but the idea rings loud and clear: “Once you discuss about art, you can’t really avoid to talk about individuals and freedom of speech.” That’s what Ai Weiwei said at the Tate Modern in London this past October, at the debut of his installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. “Why aren’t you in jail?” asked the British sculptor Antony Gormley, from the audience.

That’s no longer the question: China’s most famous and outspoken contemporary artist was detained by police April 3 and has not been seen or heard from since. That arrest was just the latest of Ai’s troubles with the authorities: his blog was shut down in 2009 after he published investigations into the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake because of shoddy construction; he was also beaten by police and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Earlier this year, his newly built studio in Shanghai was demolished under the pretense of planning irregularities.

But the disappearance of Ai—and several members of his staff—is not an isolated case; other Chinese intellectuals and activists have been arrested and held incommunicado in recent months. It’s part of a broader crackdown on dissent. There has been no official word of the charges against Ai, although at one point he was said to be under investigation for “economic crimes.” Unverifiable reports suggest that torture may have succeeded in extracting a “confession.”

The flouting of any appearance of legality in Ai’s treatment may be a deliberate signal by authorities, mindful of the current wave of uprisings against authoritarian governments, that fundamental criticisms will not be tolerated; their choice of someone who might have been thought relatively well protected by his international reputation suggests they want to make it clear that no one is safe, and that they are indifferent to protests from abroad. Or it may be that Ai’s arrest is just an ancillary effect of infighting among bureaucratic factions in the run-up to next year’s National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

In either case, Western protests are likely to have little bearing on Ai’s fate. But protest we must. Ai, more than anyone else, would want us to use our freedom of speech.   BARRY SCHWABSKY

BUDGET DEAL SLASHES GREEN GOV: When a government shutdown was averted in early April with the passage of a spending agreement that cut $38 billion from the budget, the Obama administration was quick to note that the deal avoided serious reductions to environmental protection.

It’s true that measures intended to severely hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency were avoided. Republicans had pushed a $3 billion reduction to the agency’s budget—a 29 percent spending cut—and a provision that would have stripped the agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Although these proposals were not in the final compromise, the EPA still got a $1.6 billion haircut—a 16 percent reduction. Moreover, the measure contains $3.25 billion in additional cuts to other environmental initiatives outside the EPA, which more than doubles the total harm done to environmental protection.

For example, funding was blocked entirely for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Service, which was to allow the NOAA to “provide a reliable and authoritative source for climate data, information, and decision support services.” The compromise also defunded the Interior Department’s “wild lands” policy, a new program designed to prevent unclaimed land from being used for oil and gas drilling. Other reductions include $438 million from the Energy Department’s renewable energy and energy efficiency programs; $119 million from the Agriculture Department’s wetlands protection efforts; and nearly a billion dollars taken from Interior’s clean drinking water initiatives.

Funding for these programs can be reinstituted later, but activists worry that even temporary delays will slow the environmental agenda. “A $1.6 billion cut coming just at the time the EPA is finally waking up and starting to adopt basic safeguards is going to have a significant impact,” Gabe Wisniewski of Greenpeace told Bloomberg News.   GEORGE ZORNICK

SOME OF THE PEOPLE, ALL OF THE TIME: According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, just 38 percent of Americans believe that President Obama was “definitely” born in the United States. That same poll also found that only 43 percent believe that Donald Trump, the birther movement’s new guru, was “definitely” born in the country. Both men have released their birth certificates online.

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