The US is currently in the midst of a semi-political crisis. The so-called “partial government shutdown” was put on a temporary hold on Friday as the Congress and the White House resume their negotiations over funding for a border wall. During the shutdown, which lasted for 35 days, the Democrats and the Republicans engaged in a tug of war to show the American people who has more power. Now, for three weeks, the battle will continue but on a different turf. The president promised to shut down again if necessary unless the Democrats offer him the resources he is looking for.
To recap, the crisis started when the Democrats in Congress refused to allocate USD 5.7 billion for a border wall along the US border with Mexico which President Trump argues is needed for border security and to enable the Department of Homeland Security and the border guards to keep illegal immigrants trying to cross over from Mexico.
The border wall was promised by President Trump in his 2016 election manifesto, but the source of funding of the project was never clear. The president has repeatedly maintained that the Mexican government would eventually pay for the wall, in one form or the other; but it is the Congress that has to initially appropriate the funds before the construction of this wall can begin.
Earlier this month, to check on the pulse of the rest of the country, particularly in warm and sunny southern California, I decided to venture out from Boston and boarded a flight to Los Angeles. It is difficult to gauge the overall impact of the shutdown on people's everyday life in Boston where I live. It is basically an academic and cultural centre, and the economic activities are based on commerce and industry, particularly information technology and biotechnology research.
Boston was thriving even during the shutdown and the cold weather since the new academic semester started in January and saw an influx of more than 200,000 students and visitors from all across the globe drawn by its first-class academic and research centres. While almost 25 percent of economic activities in Greater Boston are supported by the federal government in the form of student loans, research grants, and government contracts for the military, these monies had previously been allocated. Thus, the economy does not rely on the whims of budgetary allocation.
Before my flight out of Boston, I feared that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was affected by the shutdown, might be closed or understaffed causing a long line at airport security. So, we started out early and reached the airport three hours before departure, even though this was a domestic flight. To our surprise, we found that the TSA workers, who screen passengers and their bags, were manning their stations and we passed through all the checkpoints without any delay.
My trip to LA was revealing for many reasons. Besides being a cosmopolitan city with a mix of multinational and multi-ethnic population, it is also a very liberal and avant-garde city. As they used to say in the olden days, what Bengal thinks today, the rest of India does tomorrow. In the same vein, it can be said that what California thinks today, the rest of the US does tomorrow. Californians' commitment to a cleaner environment and social policies to protect the vulnerable is well-known. The price of gasoline is almost 40 percent higher than what we pay in the east, and that is because California has a higher tax on fossil fuel to discourage driving. While I was in LA, the city had just announced on January 22 that it will introduce “congestion tax” to mitigate the effects of traffic congestion and smog. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is behind the move to convert carpool lanes to toll lanes, tax drivers based on the number of miles they travel or charge a fee to enter certain neighbourhoods and business districts. Recently, it was revealed that authorities are in the process of taking a major utility to task for causing the destructive forest fires in October and November last year, and harming the environment.
It is a very Democratic state and it recently elected a Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, who “defined himself with progressive crusades on issues from same-sex marriage to gun control.” The new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, another Californian, is leading the effort to block the Republican juggernaut on a rampage in the last two years.
I spent Martin Luther King Day on January 21 glued to the TV watching US Senator Kamala Harris of California announce that she will run for the presidential race in 2020. She is an African-American and chose MLK Day to attract national attention to the influence of racism on US society as well as to warn the incumbent president that Californian women are at the forefront of the new “Stop Trump” movement.
Indications of the social consciousness of California's businesses are evident everywhere. Shops in Long Beach, south of LA, have signs indicating that they are offering free services to federal employees who are going without a paycheck. While the US border with Mexico—south of LA—is a major entry point for drugs, there was not a lot of support for the shutdown. I have heard that there are a few federal contractors and furloughed staff working on part-time jobs including driving for Uber, although I have not come across any. However, I personally experienced the anxiety, hardship and adjustments that federal employees are facing to cope with the absence of paychecks, and the possible damages that families with children are worried about.
My trip to LA lasted less than a week and as I was getting ready to leave the balmy weather for the frigid northeast, I recalled that when we were students at Dhaka University in the 1970s, the song “It never rains in Southern California” was popular and it was often played in the World Music programme of Bangladesh Betar. I understood the significance of these lyrics having lived for almost four decades in Boston, which, in contrast, usually has a wet and snowy January. After having enjoyed a few days in a relatively warm and pleasant California, as I headed back to wintry Boston, I remembered a quip from a recent column in The Daily Star: “Home…for here, now and forever.” In the same vein, I chant: “Cold Boston is where I belong, and that is my reality, my home.”
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist, and Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA. His new memoir Fairy Tales: Stories from My Life will soon be published by Jonantik.