• Archive of "#99Percent" Category

    Healthcare: Warren Has No Plan

    November 16, 2019 // 16 Comments »

    Under pressure to fill the blank space about how she would pay for Medicare for All, Elizabeth Warren released a plan built on empty assumptions and fulfilled by unrealistic revenue expectations. It’s bad to the point where it raises questions about whether she is a serious candidate, and that begs the question of what the heck the Democrats are doing less than a year from the election.

    Warren’s revenue plan is 19 pages, describing how she expects to redo the entire healthcare system in America if not the basis for our entire society. Actually the first five and a half pages are introductory, mostly scary stuff about how expensive health care is, and the last page is some cheerleading, which means the actual prescription for acquiring and spending trillions of dollars fits into about a dozen pages. That’s some damn efficient writing, or some pretty thin thinking.

     

    It’s pretty thin thinking.

    Even how much the whole thing might cost, the core underneath everything else, is a fuzzy number. Outside estimates range from $14 to $34 trillion in new Federal spending over a decade; Warren says $20.5 trillion. And yes it is a problem when a program of this size can’t get its actual cost estimate closer than plus/minus multiple trillions.

    Underlying those goofy cost estimates are Mickey Mouse assumptions on savings. Warren’s plan envisions cutting the cost of healthcare dramatically so when the government takes over from private insurance companies it will need less money. While eliminating insurance companies’ profits will have an obvious effect, Warren simply imagines other economies of scale and efficiencies in health care payments ($2.9 trillion) somehow the private sector has failed to realize to its own benefit but a massively expanded Medicare government bureaucracy somehow will.

    Warren also assumes Big Pharma will accept lower profits of some $1.7 trillion based on negotiated drug prices and simply continue to produce the same range of drugs and invest in long term research for new ones. And if they don’t play ball her plan will take away patents on their existing drugs and manufacture them publicly.

    Things will go so well under these assumptions Warren will apparently (the plan is unclear, an example of the kind of detail needed but lacking) do away with payments Medicare users are responsible for today so everything will be free. Currently all but the most basic Medicare coverage requires premiums (for most beneficiaries, previous contributions over a lifetime of work pay about 75 percent of Part B, and the beneficiary pays the remaining 25 percent out of pocket) and many end up buying supplemental private insurance which Warren would outlaw. “High income beneficiaries,” defined as having incomes over $85k, a far cry from Warren’s billionaires, already pay much higher costs. There’s a penalty when an elderly person receives certain capital gains, such as when they sell their home to downsize. Hospitalization coverage under current Medicare has a $1,364 deductible and no cap on co-pay for longer stays. Outpatient coverage leaves one responsible for 20 percent of the actual cost in cash. Medicare prescription coverage has enough gaps in it they are referred to as the “donut hole.” What is already “free” isn’t, and Warren’s plan says little about the shortfalls of existing Medicare even as it promises everything will be OK just over the next hill.

    But Warren’s biggest assumption is the unstated one, that the billionaires she will tax to pay for all this will passively accept their new role in society, buying stuff for the rest of us, and not off shore their money and not order the Congress they own to create loopholes for them. If there is any truth to the idea the wealthy control government via their influence and money (and oh boy is it true) how can anyone assume the rich will allow any of this to come to pass? Amazon paid $0 in taxes last year. Warren’s plan assumes that will jump to 35 percent. She does not explain how she will move them from paying nothing to paying 35 percent. It’s like saying the plan to pay off my mortgage is “earn more of the monies” without anything more complex in mind than that.

    Same for the power of American Medical Association, the cartel which controls healthcare in the United States from med school intake to every detail of practice until a doctor retires. Warren’s plan assumes medical professionals and organizations, all the doctors, nurses, and hospitals, will accept a lower standard of living as their fees will be set by government and payments tied to below-market Medicare rates. Medicine has evolved in a for-profit ecosystem. Remove the profit incentive and it will adapt, adjust, or die off. Many hospitals in rural and underserved areas are already facing insolvency. Other hospitals today lose or make very little money on Medicare patients, and charge insured payers more to make up for it to stay solvent. It’s called cost shifting and Warren’s plan will do away with it. Cost shifting smells bad, but it for better or worse helps fund underfunded Medicare payments. The shortfall may be in the trillions and Warren expects healthcare providers to just, um, deal with it for the greater good.

     

    On the revenue side, after all that cost cutting, Warren still needs $20 trillion in new money, and she says she’ll get it from the rich. That’s a nice argument to throw out to the rube voters she is targeting, people to whom a paid off Visa card is a dream. But a trillion is a really big thing. It is 1000 billions. Warren’s $20 trillion is about the same as the current National Debt, which will still be around as she works this out. The total of all mortgages in America right now is $11 trillion. Warren could pay those off twice for everyone for what her healthcare plan will cost. The Federal government currently spends about $4.4 trillion per year on everything. The current defense budget is $686 billion. Warren’s plan will cost about 30 times the defense budget.

    Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ net worth is only $109 billion (see how that works when we’re talking in trillions?) That’s everything he has, not just the 6 percent tax Warren wants him to pay on it yearly. The net worth of the entire Forbes 400 is under $3 trillion. That’s everything they all own, like if we killed them and took it. If we reach down into the top ten percent of Americans, people whose net worth is a couple of million and who Warren claims she won’t need to bother, we get to $35 trillion in total worth. Taxing them won’t help. We’ll have to kill them too and steal their stuff and even then under some estimates it won’t be enough to cover Warren’s healthcare costs. It is not possible to tax even the wealthy enough to pay for free healthcare for everyone, but it sounds good.

     

    Warren thinks we won’t notice her Medicare for All plan is in fact an attempt to redistribute money on a scale never before seen in America. Under the guise of healthcare, she will systematically reduce the wealth of Americans, effectively nationalize the private healthcare industry (America’s largest employer, surpassing manufacturing and retail, the new steel industry), then parcel out what’s not eaten up by the bureaucracy in a mediocre standard of basic health care. She’ll also do something similar, though the plan is not even as detailed, to provide free child care, free college, and disappear some $2.6 trillion in student loans and too bad about the fat cats who expected their money back.

    If you think people who already have some sort of healthcare (69 percent rate their current coverage as excellent or good), or purple voters who saved for college the hard way, will vote for that once they figure out the grift — the Trade Joe suburbanites know they’ll end up paying while Amazon somehow skates free again — you’re a fool. Even one of the economists Warren cited in her plan has since done interviews reminding everyone he was talking only theoretically and acknowledges the practical problems.

    The hollowness of this plan is a body blow to a candidate who presents herself as a policy wonk. How could she have gotten something so central to her message so wrong? Warren is flirting with the Beto phase of her candidacy, where she says yes to everything (tax churches! impound guns! no borders amigo!) to bully up some support. As Joe Biden fades in front of an electorate that sees him as so negligible a choice, all hair plugs and botox, Warren will likely be pushed aside by someone, maybe Michael Bloomberg, and end up an “issues” candidate like Sanders ver. 2015 or Jill Stein or Andrew Yang, running to influence the discussion, not to win (Warren’s wealth tax may not even be Constitutional.) She’ll join the others in barking like hyenas that the moon is too damn bright and somebody needs to fix it.

    For the rest of us this means after putting up with three years of hashtags, pussy hats, trans-mania, and having every form of culture soaked through with mob-enforced diversity, when it comes down to winning an election in 2020 no one has a real plan to address healthcare. Most have chained themselves to prettied up versions of the weak tea of Obamacare. Sanders is Warren except he admits he’ll raise taxes across a deeper swath of society. They all had years to come up with something and this is what we get. To say the system for producing a viable candidate is broken is to still believe there is a system.

     

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    Posted in #99Percent, 2020, Economy

    Dear People Wishing for Stock Market Trouble

    August 26, 2019 // 20 Comments »


     
     
    NOTE: I’ve been re-running this article every time over the last three years a temporary downturn on Wall Street causes progressive idiots to celebrate. The last run was in January 2019, but here we go again.

     
     

    Dear People Wishing for Stock Market Trouble:
     
    Stock market trouble will not make Trump go away.

     

    You can have fun posting memes though! He’s owned! He screwed up the one thing he says he’s good at! Rich people will abandon him! Hah hah!

    First of all, that is not what is happening. But if people want to panic based on panic journalism, by all means go ahead.

    But for the rest of us from 1929 to 2018 the S&P averaged 8-10% gains. It is up well above that for this year, so declines are expected and normal. Recessions on the other hand are CAUSED by things, they do not happen in cycles per se just because it is time. Or because the MSM wants “recession” to replace “Russia” as the magic bullet to end Trump.

    Everything tangled by US-China can be untangled, suggesting its long term effects are able to be mitigated directly. You can spend as much time as you like blaming/congratulating whomever that the fundamentals are strong, but they are and that speaks better to longer term trends than other factors. Even in the short term there is money to be made; if you bought on Friday’s drop you are already making money on today’s rise.

    If you are learning about inverted bond yields roughly the same way you learned about Emoluments and the 25th Amendment and Russiagate, you are still listening to the wrong people.

     

    But let’s look into what progressives are cheering for, hoping to happen, a real live recession. Any serious downturn in markets will cause more economic inequality. Wealthy people depend on periodic downturns to force middle class people to sell. The rich then buy cheap and wait for the inevitable swing back. They end up owning more stuff, and they got it cheaply.

    About half of all American households own stock, in most cases indirectly through mutual funds, and, more and more via 401(Ks) and whatever company pension accounts still exist. Yet despite that broad base — half of us own something in the stock market — the richest 10% of Americans owned 84% of the total value of the market as of 2016.

    Though those numbers roughly match those of America’s worst period of inequality, the so-called Gilded Age, they are a big change from 2001, when the top 10% owned only 77% of all stocks.

    Today, they have more. You have less. Your part of the market exists because the few wolves need lots of rabbits to eat. You are predator or you are economic prey. Guess where this goes? Think of it as one of those pictures where parallel railroad tracks seem to get closer and closer as they recede into the distance. The theoretical end point is one person owns 100% of everything. But modern wealthy would be happy if .01% owned just 99%, close enough.

     

    In case you missed it, that’s what the 2008 mortgage/housing crisis was all about. Middle class people lost their homes when they could not pay their mortgages. “The banks” then owned those homes and you did not. It took a few years and most prices started back up. You in turn now rent from someone who now owns those homes.

    The inequality of net worth, after almost two decades of little movement, went up sharply from 2007 to 2010, and relative indebtedness for the middle class expanded. The sharp fall in median net worth and the rise in overall wealth inequality over these years are traceable to the high leverage of middle class families and the high share of homes in their “portfolio.”

    What that means is middle class people have most of their net worth embedded in their homes, but see most of that “worth” is actually debt (leverage.) When times get tough, they may lose the home because they can’t pay the debt. People rich enough to spend money in downturns buy up those homes. They have extra money to ride out the tougher years until the government bails out the markets like Obama did in 2008. Same story for the stock market.

     

    It gets worse, because you get money by working for wages. Rich people get money through capital gains, basically stuff they buy cheaply becoming worth more over time. That’s why the downturn is bad for you, ultimately good for most of them. It is math!

    If you like math with letters in it, it is written as R > G. All explained here if you want to understand precisely why you are going to be poorer. And as a bonus, be sure to note the part about how in the U.S. wages are taxed at a higher level than capital gains. You can never have too many advantages.

    Note also that until slavery was ended in the United States, human beings were also considered as part of capital. Meanwhile, because rich people pass on their wealth to their relatives, the children of rich people are born rich and unless they get really into hookers and blow, will inevitably get richer. They almost can’t help it. The gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent must grow. This will create the society reminiscent of the pre-Enlightenment past we are in the early stages of now. You know it from Jeopardy! as “feudalism.”

     
    Downturns are a huge sucking, a redistribution of wealth upward. You’re basically fucked in this process. Poverty is ennobling, so you do have that. Have a nice day!

     

    BONUS: I wrote a whole book about this called the Ghosts of Tom Joad but few people wanted to read it, so this is all kind of a fun secret between us.

     
     

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    Democrats Need to Stop Dry Humping the American Dream

    May 13, 2019 // 2 Comments »


     

    Economic inequality could be the signature issue for Democrats, one that speaks to purple voters, progressives, and maybe even some current Trump supporters. But the Dems do not seem to understand this. They need to decide if they are running as a party of governance, or just one of protest.

    On economics, an issue voters reliably care deeply about, Trump’s approval rating is 58%. Rarely is an incumbent defeated under a strong economy. While many factors affecting the economy are long waves, with decisions made one or five administrations ago rippling forward, the reality is the president in office gets the credit on election day. That payoff is due to be collected by Donald Trump. Throw in his tax changes, that he is the only president since the fall of the Soviet Union to not start a new war, and his red-meat-to-the-base wins on immigration and Supreme Court appointments, all coupled with the whimpering end of Russiagate, and you have a candidate with lots to crow about.

    On the other side, “Not Trump” will be enough for the Whole Foods base. But Democrats appear willing to punt too many other votes for lack of a message about what they might do if elected. The recent Politico headline “Biden Goes Light on Policy, Heavy on Emotion” is not good.

    Meanwhile, economic inequality, the disparity at the heart of our nation, is shaping whether America will remain something of a pluralistic democracy, or complete its descent into a modern form of feudalism where 0.01% of Americans effectively control the rest of us. That’s could be a very powerful anti-Trump message.

    Yet the Democrats’ version is erroneously based on economic inequality being a minority POC issue, maybe something to address via reparations or more social justice programs. Dems scold into deep resentment the vast numbers of white midwesterners stuck in poverty (who lean Trump) as too stupid to vote in their own self-interest. They lean on tell-us-what-we-want-to-believe books like Hillbilly Elegy (due out as a Ron Howard film for 2020) to reinforce the concept of meth-addled yokels.

    The Democrats are simultaneously throwing away an issue that resonates with progressives: economic inequality drives the search for scapegoats, the handmaiden of racism and hate. It has to be someone else’s fault I’m not doing well, because “they” get free food from the government or because of immigration policies which take my job away to give to “them.” Reduce economic inequality and you will reduce its societal ills is a very powerful anti-Trump message.

    Using government money to reduce economic inequality goes against the ethos of many. But we have underestimated the societal disruption economic inequality created in America even as we mark a surge in deaths of despair from alcohol, suicide, and opioids, Robert Merry, writing in The American Conservative, calls our time “definitional” and wonders if the polity will hold. While we wait for everyone to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, we are missing what a volatile people we are, and have ceded our darkest tendencies to those who manipulate them for their own gain. We have become too violent and too well-armed and too goaded by social media to let the market sort this out.

    Yet according to a CNN poll, 71% of Americans still rate the nation’s economic conditions favorably. Democrats must explain to Americans while things are not visibly bad on the surface, they are fundamentally not good for about 90% of us. Silliness like “Trump might still crash the market” or “Obama deserves the credit” simply encourage the short-term thinking that drives that CNN poll. Democrats need to explain the long term — the top 0.1% of households now hold about the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%, and it is only getting worse. The share earned by the top 0.01% rose from 0.5% in 1973 to 3.3% in 2010. Something that threatens the financial life of 90% of us is a majority, not minority, problem.

    Economic anxiety, more than what the left imagines as racial or cultural uneasiness, lies deep in the Heartland. Trump spoke to it in 2016 in the guise of promises to bring back coal mining’s glory days, raise tariffs, and slow immigration. Democrats should speak sense to that anxiety. The answer should be infrastructure.

    Bernie Sanders loves infrastructure. Elizabeth Warren wants to rebuild the middle class. Biden’s liked it since he was VP. Infrastructure underlies other candidates’ plans for guaranteed incomes and assured jobs. It’s hard to find anyone against infrastructure. But no one has presented something sweeping, linear, and encompassing enough to reach at economic inequality. This isn’t about jobs per se – unemployment is at a near-50 year low – but about how we live. Earnings for non-management, private-sector workers reached their peak in 1973, the high water mark of the middle class out there in Youngstown and South Bend, left today dry heaving about what’s still called the American Dream.

    The response comes from the last time economic inequality was this bad. America needs a new version of the 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build roads, bridges, and rail lines. A new WPA to create jobs people can do without significant training (not everyone can learn to code) and which pay living wages with real healthcare. Get echelons of people too used to chronic under-employment used to working for a living again. People working multiple jobs should not need food aid as many do today.

    Almost every community in the United States got a new park, bridge, or school under the WPA, never mind airports, train stations, over 600,000 miles of roads, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Hoover Dam. Upgrading all that after 80 years to improve lives is a powerful message. Fight growing racism and hate with the self-respect work gives. You don’t need to create an enemy if you don’t see yourself as a victim.

    The Democrats flirted with something like this recently, after Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi met with Trump to “agree” on a $2 trillion infrastructure initiative. But peek behind the curtain and it’s just rhetoric. Despite knowing the House controls the budget, Pelosi almost immediately crossed her arms and declared it is Trump’s job, not hers, to figure out how to pay for it. The whole thing appears to be a cynical ploy to claim “Because Trump” we can’t have nice things.

    Let how to pay for it become part of the Democratic platform. But the message better be more sophisticated than “were gonna tax the rich” because voters have been burned too many times, when “the rich” ended up being themselves paying higher taxes while the benefits fell to those below. The real rich, the 0.01%, seem to always have a loophole. This simplistic message is particularly dangerous in 2020 when many purple voters fear what progressives might do unfettered (Free medical care! No more college loans! A pony for everyone, just look under your seats!)

    The thing is the money is already there, or at least has been when we wanted it to be. The WPA over eight years used about 6.7% of the era’s GDP to pull the nation out of a full-blown depression with some 20% unemployment. Currently the U.S. spends about 3.3% of its GDP on military.

    But we don’t need that much. The U.S. spends $70 billion a year on food aid for 40 million Americans; repurpose some of that into living wages so people can earn their supper. During the last few wars, reconstruction and the building of infrastructure for Iraqis ate up $60.45 billion. The total for the same failures is more than $154 billion in Afghanistan, with the counter still running at about $9 billion a year on such projects. Only the most inane pundit could call such re-appropriation “anti-military” instead of pro-American; no much-needed bridge for you, Middleton, Ohio, we’re gonna build it in Helmand Province instead. The Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with its more modest goal of a short-term stimulus not intended to address inequality, spent $105.3 billion on infrastructure. Unemployment is obviously much lower today, and the goal – better jobs to nudge economic inequality – is different. Those numbers would make an accessible start.

    Some 64% of Americans agreed with an earlier Trump proposal to improve U.S. infrastructure (75% support spending federal money to improve infrastructure when the idea was polled without Trump’s name.) Infrastructure spending also has bipartisan support: 78% of Republicans and 54% of Democrats agree with the need for more.

    Democrats must tell voters what they’ll do, instead of just saying one day it may be Not Trump in the White House. Infrastructure has bipartisan support, will reach purple voters and progressives, and address fundamental problems. The impact of the WPA is long, a bright moment in our history when government raised people out of depression. Imagine the power of owning that legacy.

     
     
    BONUS:

    The Gini coefficient is a measurement of the income distribution within a country which shows the gap between the rich and the poor. Zero represents perfect equality (everyone has the same income) and one representing perfect inequality (one person earns the entire country’s income and everyone else has nothing.) A higher Gini coefficient number means greater inequality. America overall (GDP) earns money in the same range as most European nations, but has a Gini number more in line with Russia, China, and chunks of the third world. That is an unique situation globally. Here are some more hard numbers.

     
    This article by Paul Krugman in the NYT goes to great lengths to create the spurious argument it is Republicans who despise the slack jawed yokels even more than the Democrats do.
     
    Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way put it clearly “There are things about this economy that are very popular — low unemployment, a lot of jobs, there’s been some real wage increase. We attribute zero of that to good Trump policy. But he will claim credit. What that means is that [Democrats] need a very clear economic narrative that resonates deeply with the voters that we have to win, and we better not be caught up in our own blue bubble world.”

     
     

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    Economics, POC, and Who You Should Support in 2020

    March 23, 2019 // 15 Comments »


     

    “See, in America we have this thing about ‘people of color.’ POC. I think you’re one.” I was explaining things American to a visitor. He was actually from Spain, so he was Spanish, not Hispanic. We were trying to figure out if he was a POC.
     

    This was not some sort of intellectual Sudoku to pass the time; core Democratic strategy is based on this POC idea. The U.S. is poised to become a non-majority nation (“minority white”) within 25 years, meaning about half of us will be POC. The Democratic party believes these POC will vote for their candidates, while the Republican party will wither away cherry picking voters from the dwindling cesspool of deplorable whites.

    My Spanish friend considered himself European. “So I guess I am white, yes?” he offered. But his skin was clearly a few shades darker than mine, though he pointed out that was only because my relatives came from the cold part of Europe and he came from the sunny part. But he spoke Spanish. At least in America my new friend qualified as a POC.

    His Seamless order arrived. He said gracias to the delivery guy and handed over a one dollar tip. “What do I have in common with him?” the Spaniard asked, “except the rudimentary ability to speak the same language, same as 560 million others.” I rolled my eyes at the delivery guy, a universal gesture of “people don’t tip, right?” solidarity.

    I noted to my friend as I pulled into traffic, headed back to his hotel, the Democrats in 2020 would likely have at least POC vice presidential candidate who “looked like him.” But the whole POC thing did not sit well. Why did Americans, he asked, want leaders who physically looked like them? “Didn’t it used to be wrong to judge people by the color of their skin,” he said. “Why is it OK to choose someone because they’re black but racist to choose someone because they aren’t?” I shared in 2019 a candidate named Richard who graduated from Columbia needed to go around saying “call me Beto” to lighten his whiteness.
     

    Things really got confusing when I explained the Democratic strategy of it’s-our-turn when white people drop below 50% seemed to be based on the idea that a newly arrived Chinese migrant and a 70-year-old Mexican-American CEO and people from Trinidad, Ghana, and the Bronx with three different levels of education all had something inherently in common. And something inherently not in common with everyone tainted various shades of pink.

    I mentioned reparations; until slavery was ended in the United States, human beings were legally considered capital, just like owning stocks and bonds today. But the Spaniard knew enough about history to wonder what reparations would be offered to the thousands of Chinese treated as animals to build the railroads, or the 8,000 Irish who died digging the New Basin Canal. Or the whole families of Jews living on the Lower East Side of New York who were forced to employ their children to make clothing for uptown “white” stores. Later in the same century, wages were “voluntarily” cut to the bone at factories in Ohio to save jobs which disappeared anyway after the owners wrung the last profits out.

    The more we talked, the more it all seemed to be about labor, low paid or never paid, and less about the C of the P doing the work. Inequality unequally distributed by race changes little about the base reality that for about 90% of us it is the controlling factor in our lives. It was like we were missing the thing behind the thing. Or someone was trying to hide it.

    “I think,” my friend said, “Americans spend so much time worried about race they miss what we Europeans understand in our bones. It is class which divide societies. Look at Britain, once nearly 100% white, yet a person just had to say a few words and you’d know who worked for who by the accent. Or India, where everyone is a POC as you Americans would say, and where they created a caste system that survived the departure of the white people.”

    It did seem silly to think a Caucasian on food stamps in West Virginia had more in common with a Caucasian in L.A. producing multi-million dollar movies than a black person on food stamps in say, West Virginia again. Blacks are lazy and get free welfare, whites don’t have to try because of free privilege. “No, your Democrats are drawing the lines the wrong way,” said the Spaniard. “It is about money not melanin.” We had to look up the last word from the Spanish melanina.

    We’d been driving for awhile, since right after the Seamless guy first met us. We’d arrived at The Plaza. My Spanish friend paid me for the ride through the Uber app, but with a generous cash tip. Privilege, I guess. I pocketed the $10.
     
    As I set off to my other job, it started to make more sense about money even as the idea of POC made less sense. Color masks the lines that really matter, and those lines are all colored green.

    Since 1980, incomes of the very rich (the .1%) grew faster than the economy, about a 400% cumulative increase. The upper middle class (the 9.9%) kept pace with the economy, while the other 90% fell behind. Race? You can be confident the .1% are mostly white, likely the 9.9%, too. But the other 90% of America is every color. Whether your housing is subsidized via a mortgage tax deduction or Section 8, you’re still on the spectrum of depending on the people really in charge to allow you a place to live.

    The birth lottery determines which of those three bands we’ll sink or swim together in, because there is precious little mobility. In that bottom band 81% face flat or falling net worth (40% of Americans make below $15/hour) and so aren’t going anywhere. Education, once a vehicle, is mostly a tool now for the reproduction of current status across generations and worth paying bribes for. Uplifted by virtue of a choking mortgage, the indentured servitude of college loans, credit cards, pay day loans, and the hope of lottery tickets, is still poor. Class is sticky.

    Money, not so much. Since the 9.9% have the most (at least the most the super wealthy do not yet have) they have the most to lose. At their peak in the mid-1980s the managers and technicians in this group held 35% of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that fell 12%, exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1% rose. A significant redistribution of wealth – upward — took place following the 2008 market collapse as bailouts, shorts, repossessions, and new laws helped the top end of the economy at cost to the bottom. What some label hardships are business opportunities to those above.

    See, the people at the top are throwing nails off the back of the truck to make sure no one can catch up with them; there is a strong zero sum element to all this. The goal is to eliminate the competition. They’ll have it all when society is down to two classes, the .1% and the 99.9% and at that point we are all effectively the same color. The CEO of JP Morgan called it a bifurcated economy. Historians will recognize the endstate as feudalism.
     
    You’d think someone would sound a global-climate-change level alarm about all this. Instead we divide people into tribes and make them afraid of each other by forcing competition for limited resources like healthcare. Identity politics sharpen the lines, recognizing increasingly smaller separations, like adding letters to LGBTQQIAAP.

    Failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, herself with presidential ambitions, is an example of the loud voices demanding more division. Contrast that with early model Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention pleading “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

    The divisions can always be jacked up. “My opponent is a white nationalist!” and so he doesn’t just think you’re lazy, he wants to kill you. Convince average Americans to vote against their own interests by manipulating them into opposing any program that might benefit black and brown equally or more than for themselves. Keep the groups fighting left and right and they’ll never notice the real discrimination is up and down, even as massive economic forces consume all equally. That consumption is literal as Americans die from alcohol, drugs, and suicide in record numbers.
     
    Meanwhile, no one has caught on identity politics is a marketing tool for votes, fruit flavored vape to bring in the kiddies. Keep that in mind as you listen to the opening shouts of the 2020 election. Listen for what’s missing in the speeches about inequality and injustice. The candidate who admits we created an apartheid of dollars for all deserves your support.

     
     

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    State to Be First to Build Government-Funded Shanty Towns!

    March 15, 2019 // 13 Comments »


     
    It’s a Hooverville revival, now better with pretty sunsets and nearby beaches!
     
    With its homeless problem veering out of control, Hawaii has come up with the wave of the future crashing onto its beaches: build shanty towns on the outskirts of its better neighborhoods, warehousing the homeless in vast communities no one will ever have to see the inside of. Except homeless people! This urban feature is a third world mainstay, with rings of such “communities” around Nairobi, Manila, and Delhi. Now it will be All-American for the first time.

    Hawaii is experiencing a 12% growth in the number of unsheltered homeless. Owing to its year-round warm weather, general cool attitude toward overly aggressive enforcement, and plenty of park space, many unhomed people have created tent cities around the islands. Parks on the Windward side, near places like Waianae and Waimanalo are more or less unavailable to homed people just looking for a day in the sun. It can look like this:

     

    Many of these folks will not move into regular shelters. In addition to the crime in those shelters, they do no accommodate families, pets or the large amount of portable refuse many beach dwelling homeless prefer to tote around. In addition, many of the homeless suffer from untreated mental illness and/or serious drug and alcohol problems and don’t “fit in” to the shelter lifestyle.

    Hawaii’s answer is to build shanty communities. Sorry, no, not shanties, they will be “tiny houses” without toilets or kitchens. Those “amenities” will be communal, along with tidy gardens for the homeless to tend and meeting places for their book clubs. You can see the illustration, above.

    But best of all, according to delusional Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, these communities of up to 300 mentally ill homeless drug and alcohol addicts will be self-governing. “The communities would make their own rules,” said Green. “It will be accepting people whether they come with their dogs or if they are in a relationship or single.”

    There is no chance these communities could become loci for crime, disease, or sanitation problems. Hawaii has no rabies on the islands, so that’s cool. What could go wrong?
     
    The first community is expected to open in 2020. Next month, leaders from both the city and the state will meet to pick the parcels of land. No doubt the project will be popular enough that nearly ever city in Hawaii will be bidding on the chance to have 300 self-governing homeless people set up shop. Each village is expected to cost between $2 and $5 million which could not possibly be spent better anywhere else.

    Protip: in the real third world, most shanty towns are located near the city dump for convenient scavenging. Keep that in mind, Hawaii.

    The idea of these government-build shanty towns has come up in Seattle, but it looks like Hawaii is going to implement it first. The shanty idea may or may not be better than something tried in the past, literally flying homeless people out of Hawaii and dumping them on the mainland U.S. of A. Or a 2015 plan to build “tiny homes” out of old shipping containers on an island off Oahu and export the homeless there. Maybe the next idea will be a two-fer: require each already hated AirBNB owner to house a homeless person one week a year as a kind of tax.
     
    So pay attention, America. As the distribution of wealth continues to strangle 99.9% of us, the need for the super-wealthy to get us out of the way will only grow. We’re currently only allowed to live sort of near them as a source of cheap labor and perhaps soylent green. But someday soon enough AI will take care of that and we’ll all be mentally ill and sucking the pipe on a beach somewhere. It’s nice to know they have plans for us.

    Aloha!
     
    BONUS: For those unfamiliar with the term, a Hooverville was a shanty town built during the Great Depression by the homeless in the United States (below.) They were named after then-president Herbert Hoover. There were dang near hundreds of Hoovervilles across the country during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of people lived in these slums. In Steinbeck’s famous The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family briefly settles into a Hooverville in California. So bringing the idea back in modern times is a neat olde timey thing, like Colonial Williamsburg.

      

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    New York Reverting to 19th Century Housing Standards, for the Poors!

    March 6, 2019 // 10 Comments »

     
    Certain basement apartments in East New York (for you out-of-towners, that’s code for “da’ po’ parts o’ town”) will be able to become legal under a city pilot program intended to provide affordable form of housing.

    new law to authorize the pilot Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program (BACPP) was signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday. The legislation creates a three-year initiative overseen by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development during which low- to middle-income homeowners in East New York and Cypress Hills can apply for low or no-interest loans to convert their basements and cellars into legal dwellings.

    Budding Fred Trumps, take note: homeowners outside of those crappy neighborhoods may also seek legalization on their own, albeit without city funding. The areas where the city plans to pay for the experiment with human beings living in basements previously considered uninhabitable are largely black and hispanic. East New York’s rate of violent crimes per capita is greater than the city as a whole, as is the incarceration rate. So the place has that going for it to attract tourism if this basement things doesn’t work out.

    The new law amends things like minimum ceiling heights, the requirement to have windows in all bedrooms, and some fire safety rules such as multiple ways to get out of the building. It is a real pain in the neck to have only one front window to escape through when the fire is in that room, you know.

    Converting basements into sweatshop look-a-likes is not cheap. The city will allocate $12 million to cover program staffing costs, implement, and manage the program, along with loan amounts for the construction of 40 homes. The maximum loan per homeowner is $120,000. So, math: about $7 million in administrative costs to fund less than $5 million in loans. And the loans will be low or no-interest, or “possibly forgivable” to help create new slum lords. Seems socialism-y enough for me!
     

    According to the city, it is all supposed to look like this, with bright colored graphics substituting for actual daylight:

    But the best part of all this is that the laws NYC is seeking to change to allow for these basement apartments were enacted in large part around the turn of the century to prevent the abuses of tenement housing shown, for example, in Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives — lack of light and air, no windows in bedrooms, etc.

    One of the reforms of the last time we barked about having a Progressive Era, the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901, was also one of the first laws to ban the construction of the dark, poorly ventilated apartments occupied then primarily by immigrants we did not care about. The law required new buildings to have among other things exterior windows in every room and ceilings of a minimal height. Indoor toilets were also mandated, and for now at least New York does not seem to be pulling back that part of the law. Do standby for the measles epidemic, last seen in these parts in the early 20th century, as anti-vaxx cosplayers seek to keep up with these new city standards.
     
    To claim to create affordable housing, New York is literally reverting to some of the 19th century standards it was shamed into fixing once upon a time. Those charting the course of capitalism, make a note of it!

     
     

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    Poor Folks

    February 24, 2019 // 21 Comments »


     
    A guy on Facebook I don’t know wrote a version of what has become a kind of set-piece article in today’s America. Here’s a portion:

    Losing The War of Attrition or How To Turn Any Normal Person Into A Broken, Angry Radical

    You are one of the millions who are employed at minimum wage. Or you are one of the millions who are euphemistically called underemployed, or you are one of the millions with no job and no prospects. You are retired- how did that happen?- or disabled- why did that happen?- and trying to survive on Social Security.

    You reach a point when you realize that getting ahead is no longer possible. After that you reach a point when you realize that holding on to what you have is no longer possible. Then you reach a point when you realize that replacing what has been lost or depleted is no longer possible.

     

    I wrote a book about this five years ago called The Ghosts of Tom Joad. No one read it. Publishers in the process of turning me down mocked me for writing about “poor people” and seemed surprised there were poor people in America who weren’t black and living in ghettos. Well, hell, then Trump happened. Because people watching a way of life — a middle class existence where the rich have more but we had some — fall away are easy targets for demagogues. Always have been. Because before we dismissed things as whataboutism we used to study them as lessons from history. Other people’s’ mistakes. History shows very clearly this economic game we’re playing ends with everyone but a small handful at the top losing badly.

    I concluded five years ago the game was already decided. Our society was already then like those photos of railroad tracks, where in the distance it seems like the two rails come together in a single point. That point is essentially feudalism, where a tiny minority owns almost everything and everyone else lives off whatever scraps they let us have. Like in the Middle Ages, where everyone farmed for the king as serfs. It’s worse than slavery, because slaves at least know they’re slaves and have the possibility, however small, of freedom. Maybe for their kids if not for themselves.
     
    We are not at the singularity, but we are inexorably headed toward it. Five additional years of data has only made that clearer; five years ago we spoke of the 1%. That number no longer matters. The new figure is .1%, an even smaller group who owns even more.

    And no, none of this is new Because Trump. Since 1980, the incomes of the very rich (the .1%) have grown faster than the economy, for about a 400% cumulative increase in wealth. The upper middle class (the 9.9%) has kept pace with the economy, while the other 90% of us, the middle class and the poor have fallen behind.

    By the way, it is these numbers which sent Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign to both use $250,000 as the upper limit of the middle class. They sounded misguided, but it was sort of true. They just were still lumping what we’re calling here the “Upper Middle Class” and the “Middle Class” together. Just words. At present in the U.S. we have three-and-a-half classes: The .1%%, the 9.9%, everyone else hanging on, plus some people way at the bottom with basically nothing.

    But bad news for the 9.9% Since the they the most (the most the .1% does not yet have) they have the most to lose. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35% of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12%, exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1% rose. And do understand the people at the top are constructing walls and throwing nails off the back of the truck to make sure no one can catch up with them. The goal of .1% is to eliminate the competition, the 9.9% below them. They’ll only effectively have it all when the ratio is down to two classes, the .1% and the 99.9%

    We are kept in place via shiny objects (500 channels, more movies and Apple watches and drugs!) and curated divisions. The ever-increasingly sharp lines between say blacks and whites are a perfect tool. Keep the groups fighting left and right and they’ll never notice the real discrimination is up and down. Some groups just found down earlier and harder, but as long as a poor white man in south Kentucky thinks he has nothing in common with a poor black man in the South Bronx they will never work together, never even see the massive economic forces consuming both equally. Forces are even now hard at work to tell us the Republican party is for whites, POC head Democrat, and any third party is a Russian shill in place to hurt the candidate you favor.

    Whether your housing is subsidized via a mortgage and that tax deduction or Section 8, you’re still on the spectrum of depending on the people really in charge to allow you a place to live. I do not see a way out of this, only maybe steps that can slow it down or cause it to speed up.
     
    Very short version summary: People like you and I fell through the cracks; we weren’t supposed to end up here but the .1% hadn’t worked out the details so they got as much as they do now and we basically ended up with bigger crumbs than we should have, especially me lucking into a “career” with no real skills.

    Our own kids may do OK with what we leave for them, but only if your son is a medical doctor will he have a decent shot at our lifestyle and only because of the “cartelization” of the profession by the AMA. The rest of our kids are unlikely to have any shot at what we ended up with.

    Sorry, I’m not a more cheerful guy but these conclusions are based on a fair amount of honest study.

     
     

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    Seeing the Promised Land: Springsteen on Broadway, a Review

    December 18, 2018 // 10 Comments »

    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show finished its 236 performance run in New York, and arrived on Netflix December 16.

    It is extraordinary. It is an autopsy of us, a public service, a political rally, a tally of what we need to do next as a nation. A man confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, tells us about an America we still might be able to become, and opens his heart about what it means to be closer to the end than the beginning.

    I saw the show live, an early winner of the ticket lottery. The Netflix version of the same show (and album, DVD, etc.) is a simple recording of what we all saw in the theater. No backstage footage, no interviews, no B-roll of Bruce grimly driving around his hometown. Someone was smart enough to focus the cameras and get out of the way. Over the year and a half run, Bruce moved a few things around a bit ,a nd added two songs, Long Time Coming and Ghost of Tom Joad. Otherwise, the show stayed pretty much the same.

    Politics is missing from the show and politics is present in nearly every line. While there are references to “the current state of affairs” and admonishments against giving in to those who probe at our differences for their own benefit, you don’t hear the name Trump, same as you didn’t hear Reagan, or Bush, or much of Obama during Bruce’s long career. Instead, you hear about the people those presidents left behind, those once the American Dream and now just what happened to it.

    Bruce signals early it is time to make amends, via spoken passages pulled from his autobiography interlaced with his music. I’d heard something like this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs admitted what they’d done, the people they’d hurt, and sought redemption. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem. Bruce is pissed off now singing, no, shouting the lyrics. He seeks amends by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away.

    So he took the song back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and later, politicized by Ron Kovic, wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial who was sent in his place.

    Springsteen’s politics are bigger than one passing president, same as his vision for us. He professes we need a conscience, not a party affiliation, to make America great. So the words of a nation turning its back in the 1980s on those who built it double for the words of a nation turning its back on some of its most vulnerable citizens in 2018.

    The lack of empathy which caused us to abandon factory workers in the Midwest isn’t all that different from the lack of empathy that causes us to abandon people in need today. Some manipulative politicians tell us it is all different, that we don’t need to care about old white laborers, same as others tell us we don’t need to care about poor immigrants of color. There are no deplorables here, just Haves and Have Nots, and some who Took It All. Springsteen channels, mimics, and echoes the poets who came before him and understood it, too: Whitman, Guthrie, Steinbeck, Agee, Debs, Dylan, alongside a little Holden Caulfield and Joe Dirt.

    Land of Hope and Dreams captures all this, with its signature line about a train called America carrying saints, sinners, whores, and gamblers borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed it from John Steinbeck. We can be better, even if we never were better before. America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed; we always pushed back against immigrants, always sent men and women to die for the wrong reasons abroad. This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be a finite place. And so Bruce amends a key line from Promised Land to warn, changing “I believe in a promised land” from his records to “I believe there is a promised land.” The danger is always in thinking we cannot be better.

    Promised Land thus is an unexpected highlight of the show, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first trip across the great western deserts. Springsteen makes no secret the promise he saw in America then remains unfulfilled, and the answer is us. He finished the song aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so.

    Yet for its intimacy, much of what happens doesn’t seem like it was for us at all. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. Bruce’s adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring. You could imagine if it was somehow possible, he would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    A lot of this hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an eight-year-old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, the pain was as involuntarily present as the sweat on his forehead.

    The evening was as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowing him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now to take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. Everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time since it came out in 1975, but now, 43 years passed, we had grown old together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment. We heard it on 8-track, bootleg cassette, LP, CD, MP-3, DVD, YouTube, and Netflix and had to face, together, the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Age is omnipresent – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the song list; it’s telling a 69-year-old Springsteen chose about a third of the set from his youthful period forty years earlier. As he said on stage, there’s less blank paper left for us to write on. Maybe as a person, maybe as a nation. Maybe they are the same thing if we think on it right.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, the Broadway show is short, tight, maybe even a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    The weight of it all – the love lost, the hate and pain collected, a nation wavering on itself and its promise – feels heavier than it used to when there was more time. Now, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of. In a way, they always were.

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    Flying Over the Purple Midterms

    September 22, 2018 // 18 Comments »


    That slack-jawed yokel look on my face is because I just came back from a wedding and some visits in flyover country, turning the last few days into a highly unscientific survey of old friends and new relatives who’d talk politics with me.

    It was easy, as the media had already slugged my pickup line into the same category as weather, local sports, and whether the buffet chicken was any good: whattya think, is Trump’s craziness gonna lead to big gains for the Democrats in the November midterms?


    I grew up in Ohio, and have written about the flyover voter ahead of the last election, and in a book. Now once again these voters matter. As a bug-eyed Doc Brown preaching from his stool at the open bar would put it, 2020, and the future itself Marty, depends on 2018! If Democrats flip the House by taking 23 seats away from Republican incumbents, they can block appointments, investigate everything in a Benghazi-like loop, and even impeach Trump, paving the way for Elizabeth Warren’s victory dance.

    But for that Blue Wave to reach shore, a bunch of Republicans need to vote Democrat and the New Democratic Base, young people and a list of minorities longer than a CVS receipt, must vote in numbers never before seen. That second part of the plan has its own questions. But my recent travels make it pretty clear depending on a wave of Republicans to vote Democrat, primarily because they no longer support Trump, is out to sea.

    It’s not that Trump is so popular. I met plenty of people as ideologically committed, albeit 180 degrees to the right, as their East Coast vegan socialist cousins. But most of the people I spoke with would be better described as light purple voters. More than a handful enthusiastically voted for their first-ever Democrat in 2008, then backed away from Obama in 2012, before returning to the Republicans, albeit Trump, in 2016. The idea today is Trump’s boorishness will send them back to Democratic candidates.


    Or maybe not. The endless stream of Trump atrocities large and small talked about on Sunday morning TV is not what voters were talking about. Everybody knew Stormy but nobody cared; they had processed Trump’s affairs in 2016 and that makes that old news even if it’s still on Maddow every night. It seems like a new low is declared every day. In response to the daily bombing run of hall monitor gossip, one person said “I get it, I don’t like what he says all the time either, but let the man try and do his job, enough already.” It’s like buying outrage in bulk at Costco; at some point you realize a five pound shaker of nutmeg is too much to deal with and you hide it in the garage.

    Out here candidates are not described as fierce or nasty. Social media is for kids and cats, marches for folks who don’t have to work a weekend second job. Racism and pronouns matter, but only after figuring out how to pay for healthcare. Anything else stinks of elite indifference from people whose pensions didn’t disappear in the last merger. There is a sense being black, brown, gay, Muslim or female is not by itself a qualification for office. There is uncertainty over too easily excluding men, old people, straight people, entire regions of the country, until most everyone was, or cared about someone who was, deemed unworthy. Not status anxiety, more a sense of what used to be a difference of political opinion now making someone illegitimate as a person – “deplorable” came up more than once.


    So it’s not all about Trumpism. And where it is about him, most support a part of Trumpism that hits them financially.

    Democrats campaigning against the economy? It matters, however modest and fragile, that median household income rose 1.8% and poverty declined .4% under Trump. Anything that brings a nose above water is really good for that voter. Economists misunderstand it as a bad thing most middle income families are only now clawing back to 2008 levels, while most middle income families see that as a pretty good thing, finally. I heard the word “results” a lot. “Optimism” is about the future same as voting, and it counts as much as “hope” once did.

    Telling people economic progress is a result of the former administration is a punch line. It is hard to overstate how deeply these Americans despise the Obama response to their 2008 financial crisis. Many saw the value of their homes, the largest investment they will ever make, dramatically decrease. They don’t own much stock outside of a flaccid IRA, and so benefited little from a recovery that bailed out Wall Street. Obama’s decisions are still not done with them ten years later, because their retirement is based on home prices rising enough so a downsizing sale will cover late-in-life costs.

    When people are excluded from the most important decisions affecting their basic livelihood, they lose faith. That bitter lived experience fueled distrust and an ideological drift that manifested itself in electing Trump. I didn’t hear that distrust has dissipated enough for many who did first voted Democrat in 2008 to do it again in six weeks. Many of the people of color I met felt the same way as their white neighbors. Having started at the same place in the factories, and fallen together into being poor and white, or poor and black, they ended up in the same ironic state of equality. A big difference however is black frustration often shows up as low voter turnout, while whites vote Republican.


    These are a practical people, who in one Kansas author’s words “speak a firm sort of poetry, made of things and actions.” It wasn’t racism or Russian Facebook ads; ask and these people will give you the specifics. While darkly certain all politicians will always hand them some version of the dirty end of the stick, the people I spoke with at least felt they understood what the Republican candidates would give them. With an eye on the 2008 bailout, they seemed less sure of the Democratic side.

    I didn’t see what the New York Times thinks it sees, “Democrats Embrace Liberal Insurgents.” I didn’t find many people looking for the local version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though I found a lot of people who asked me “Alexandria who?” People said if someone promises Medicare for all, they need to also hear how she planned to deliver. Because unlike folks who tweet about it from Brooklyn, these are the people who still try, or in some cases, tried and failed, to get healthcare instead of just insurance out of Obamacare. They remember not fixing that system was part of the Democratic platform and question changes of heart that coincide with changes in polling.

    You don’t have to always understand it but you have to realize there are ground truths present. Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and housing assistance are a way of life now. One can accept food stamps but still think handouts are for lazy people. People can feel cheated working for minimum wage at a Walmart full of junk made overseas without being anti-immigrant racists. Trump understands all this viscerally better than many Democrats now speaking for their party, and people in return ignore a lot of other things. People seem likely to vote Republican even if they don’t support Trump in 2018. Democrats used and lost the “better of two evils” argument in 2016.


    So polls asking if a midterm voter supports Trump, or approves of his performance, may be asking the wrong question. If Democrats insist on November being Trump vs. Trump, a referendum on the first half of his term to see if he gets to play out the second half, all without themselves bringing something new and real forward, they may not like the answer voters give.



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    I Have Become An Old White Straight Male (OWSM)

    August 2, 2017 // 5 Comments »

    angry-old-men

    I can’t help it. I was born this way.

    When I was hiring and managing people, I worked hard to choose the most qualified candidates whoever/whatever/however they were. When I managed I tried to judge only performance. I acted as I did because it was the right thing. Please don’t dismiss me by saying “well, good for you, you at least had that choice.” To me it was not a “choice” but a part of who I am. I never used racial slurs, and am pretty sure the last time I referred to a person with a gay slur was at age 13 in a Midwestern junior high school. Got me there.

    Am I telling you all this because I seek your approval? Mansplaining? Defensive much? Looking for a white-guilt laden liberal high-five (which used to be a gesture reserved for urban Blacks until appropriated by everyone)?

    Nope. Because I am not your stereotype, here for you to make yourself feel woke by telling me I’m not.



    And that’s by way of introduction to me recently becoming an Old White Male (OWM.) I did not know I was this until recently, but I guess it’s true.

    Built into that OWM label is the implication that I am also straight, er, cis. I am also implied to be boring, which I concede. I guess you can look at me and see I am old, white, and male, but I’m not sure how anyone knows my sexual orientation. But let’s call it Old White Straight Male (OWSM.) I know we’ll soon enough get caught up in nomenclature during this essay, but let’s try and forestall that as long as we can.

    Whatever, I am so many people’s enemy now, part of so many people’s problems. At one place I recently worked, people who looked like me were referred sotto voce as “red hats,” for the invisible #MAGA caps we were all assumed to be spiritually wearing.

    I guess I am supposed to be shamed, and/or ironically awareness-raised that I am being judged by the color of my skin, my gender, my age, and my (implied) sexuality.

    Here’s an example of what people say now (written online, but I’ve been told things very much the same):

    But as a white woman, it would be tone-deaf of me to assume that there’s nothing problematic about me taking a black person’s lived experience and making it cutesy and palatable for a mostly-white audience. Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” isn’t about Trick or Treating with his family; the song is about Snoop’s teen days in Long Beach, which belong to him — warts and all. De-contextualizing his music and obscuring the history behind it is a form of erasure and, let’s be honest here, a form of racism. Similarly, adopting the mannerisms, dress, and slang of black artists, like the white rappers in popular YouTube parenting raps — that’s racism as well. It’s little better than contemporary blackface.

    For the record, I have made no rap videos. Unlike about 99% of the white people I see on Facebook and Instagram, I have never posed for a photo making exaggerated kissy lips throwing what I imagine is a gang sign with “my boys/my bitches.”

    Some good news is as an OWSM I do have one tiny carve-out exception available.

    And that’s if I can tie myself to someone younger, less white, less straight, and/or less male. So, if say my spouse is Black I’m “allowed” to comment about Black stuff more. I think. I think it works the same way as if someone has never served in the military but can kind of inherit military vet dry humping cred by saying stuff like “You can’t say that, man, ’cause my cousin fought in Iraq (I’ve heard it as “my dad in WWII” as well) and it’s disrespectful to our troops!”

    A big problem I recently discovered is that as an OWSM I do not belong to any “community.”

    I am not part of the Hispanic community, which does include the 55 million persons of Hispanic ethnicity in the U.S., and maybe the millions more in places like El Salvador and Argentina though I don’t think we count them. Not part of the gay community (I said it, yes, I am straight, but you already supposed that.) About the best I could do to join a community is get some disease, and thus be a part of the liver cancer community but there’s not much future in that.

    I get “privilege” and do not in any way imply our society is not chock-a-block with prejudice. But note more than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute. Also, a bit of history. Before we were a monolithic heap of “white men,” we were Paddys, Kikes, Hillbillies, Wops, Hunkies, Polacks, and all the other forms of prejudice and discrimination.

    A big messy part of all this is Trump, who has been anointed the leader of the OWSM “community.”

    Trump is an OWSM. He does not represent me, and I do not support him or what he stands for or the way he acts. FYI, I also did not support Hillary Clinton, who is by the way an OWSF, three-quarters of what I am. And don’t dismiss my deeply-thought political choice of whom to vote for as misogynistic.

    Yet I’m pretty sure a decent number of people stopped reading this essay a few paragraphs above thinking Trump and me have a lot in common.

    One thing I can say about being the old part of being an OWSM is after 57+ years (full disclosure: some of that in diapers and before I could read) of following the same basic set of liberal, trying always to be fair and reasonable, trying to treat all people with respect, things, I am pretty sure I’m going to ride those values into my grave. No deathbed conversion to hate crimes planned. I have proved myself to myself.

    So why do my fellow liberals have to be such boring but self-righteous stereotypes in treating me as an OWSM? Such scolds outrage me, offended warriors so quick to dismiss whatever successes I’ve had to privilege. It’s not nice to use any large group as a punching bag. As my personal needs system is in pretty good shape, I will sum it up as less offended than saddened.



    Maybe I’ve been too harsh, so let me end in a way to make you feel better about boxing me in as an OWSM: Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

    Even that doesn’t work. I don’t have a lawn, I live in an apartment. Dammit.



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    I Am a Fictional Author

    June 8, 2017 // 18 Comments »

    As regular readers know, my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, is a work of fiction, by which I mean I acknowledge that I made up more of it than a typical journalist will admit to.

    “Fiction” also allows me to pretend that pathetic episodes from my own life that are in the story didn’t happen, and allows me to mock obvious real people by simple saying “All characters are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is merely coincidental” (Lawyers: Kidding!)

    Since my personal goal this time around is to involve fewer government agencies than got involved with book one, We Meant Well, I can’t believe I didn’t stumble on to this fiction thing a long time ago except for my resume.

    That said, I have come to learn that fiction writers are expected to be different. As a non-fiction writer about the failed reconstruction of Iraq, I just showed up and wrote down what happened. I could have hired a stenographer to follow me around Iraq, and just signed off on the text. Again, you mature, you grow, it’s a journey.

    Fiction writers it turns out are supposed to be characters in their own right, quirky, fascinating people you want to spend time with drinking inexpensive but marvelous wines in Brooklyn, saying words like “quirky” and “robust” (the wine, not the author.) Apparently being a fat, bald old guy with a chip on his shoulder isn’t enough to sell fictional books.

    So, some changes will need to happen.

    Though I overpaid for LASIK a few years ago, I henceforth shall wear the thick black glasses that made everyone in the 1950s look like a dork. It seems the whole thing is based on living a life of total irony, without ever letting on you actually know what irony is.

    I’ll wear only black shirts with old jeans, and a twenty foot scarf wrapped a bunch of times around my neck, ’cause nobody’s done that look. I’ll look like Yassar Arafat with a bad cold.

    Or black turtlenecks.

    Or black t-shirts. Unironed.

    Perhaps a fedora, or, when I’m feeling especially plucky, a jaunty beret.

    Tattoo in Chinese characters whose meaning I do not know. I will later learn the giant thing permanently inked on my arm actually only means “table.”

    I will use more foreign words. For example, I will use the French tableau frequently, which actually does mean “table,” to describe pretty much whatever the hell I want and you’ll nod.

    I will be seen with someone, such as Lindsay LohanMiley Kardashian Cyrus, who is edgy. (Miley, tweet me up, you got the digits. Payment in blow, like before.)

    I hate smoking but I will often smoke. A pipe for author photos, hand-rolled tobacco in public.

    I will listen only to bands so obscure that they haven’t even formed up yet.

    Sell the dog, get an exotic cat. Say “animals are so pure, unlike people, they just know love.”

    When out to dine with other self-important people, we shall order only “small plates.” I don’t know what that is– are they what used to be appetizers? Are they just tiny portions of the stuff that used to come on big plates? No matter.

    Other things I will say often: Amazing, take it to a new level, my passion, pivot, robust, my journey. I will go out for a coffee while you go out “for coffee.” I will refer to other famous people as “the new Gatsby” (I have never been able to finish reading anything by Fitzgerald but I saw most of that movie and was sober for the first half.)

    I will raise false modesty to an art form. When people ask what I do, I’ll say “Oh, I scribble down some things for people. Perhaps you’ve seen them– in a little paper called the New York Times?”

    I will refer to obscure artists as “the best ____ of his generation” not only to sound douche, but in hopes that someone will do me a reach-around and refer to me as the best of my generation.

    I will claim to do all my writing on some cutting edge Apple product you can’t buy yet, or with a special 19th century pen on hand-crafted paper, or maybe (quirky!) on a reconditioned Selectric typewriter. I will refer to the crap I write as “my craft.” I will “practice it.”

    I will refer to my fictional characters as if they were real people. Not in the Seinfeld way, but as if they were actually people I could see and talk to. Though I do something like this now when on an Everclear-Oxy bender (Law Enforcement: Kidding!), it will be cool because those characters are me, man. So tableau, oui?

    I will write blog posts like this:

    Up early. Enjoying free range, gluten-free coffee, watching the street scene unfold. Life. So much suffering– I feel it all– but you can’t get cut off. Felt a breeze, a whisper, a feeling, a kiss, in my hair, across my face. Then spilled my coffee, but f*ck society, I don’t care.

    Do cool people still say “ciao?” No? I will restart the trend.

    I will only consume products that are described as artisanal. The electricity in my green lifestyle will be generated by unionized Peruvian shamans whom I visited (well, flew over enroute to Colombia to score Miley’s blow) to appreciate their indigenous lifestyle first. I will feel a relationship to all I encounter, starting with Cyrus once she’s coked again.

    I will start saying my children are adopted, or refugees, or maybe rescues, and make them wear makeup so they look “foreign.” Sorry kids, it’s for daddy’s job. Pretend it’s Halloween. You will see photos of me mentoring third world children on one of my many give-something-back foreign tours. Nobody does this crap with kids in the U.S., so it’s important that the Instagrams have some foreign props or backgrounds. You can Photoshop that if I don’t have time for the travel, right?

    All my media interactions will be meta. I will slouch. I will mumble. I will say publicity does not matter to me, I just want to get my real message out. I will turn the tables and ask questions of the journalists. I may refuse to talk about my book at all and just focus on my concern for the dying tribes of Peruvian shaman electricity generators. Like it seems every modern male author, I will have to work into my book some faux-humble reference to my sexual prowess and/or gifts.

    I will go to rehab. Not because I need to, but because that is where you make the right connections in the business. I will say things like “the business.”

    I will often discuss my favorite writers, but I will not say “favorite,” I will say meaningful. You will not know any of them and will not have heard of their work. I will name one writer you do know, but in a pretentious way, such as “I find Ernest’s later work such a mind blow.”

    I will acquire an agent I only speak to by phone but refer to as my best friend and artistic soulmate. S/he will be one of the 2,367 agents in New York who have turned me down now through three books. My agent will wear thick black dork glasses. Um, any agents reading this, seriously, I’m still at the same number. OK to call late or early or on Sunday.

    I will be a fictional writer. You will love me for it.



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    An Entire Generation is Likely to See Its Standard of Living Regress

    April 14, 2017 // 24 Comments »

    pigs_trough
    It is modern feudalism, happening in a slow motion crash as we watch, aware of what is coming down, but at first unwilling and likely now unable to stop it.
    Welcome to the Third World

    We are living in so-called first world societies where economic disparity is trending toward developing world levels. Some numbers you can argue about individually if you like (and how does your head feel buried in the sand?), but the aggregate situation is beyond debate:

    — The one percent holds 35.6 percent of all private wealth, more than the bottom 95 percent combined.

    — The 400 wealthiest individuals globally have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

    — Between 1983 and 2009, over 40 percent of all wealth gains flowed to the one percent and 82 percent of wealth gains went to the top five percent. The bottom 60 percent lost wealth over this same period.

    — A significant amount of the redistribution of wealth, redistributed upward, took place following the 2008 market collapses in the United States as bailouts, shorts, repossession of home and land, and new laws helped the top end of the economy at cost to the bottom. More and more of government is controlled directly by corporations.

    — The world’s one percent own $42.7 trillion dollars, more than the bottom three billion residents of earth.

    — A rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans do not own any stock at all. The wealthiest of Americans own over 80 percent of all stock, and 40 percent of America’s land.

    It’s Getting Worse

    Now add to that grim tally new information that shows the problem of gross income and wealth inequality is getting worse.

    report from McKinsey finds that in developed economies such as the United States two-thirds of all households experienced “flat or falling” incomes over the past decade, from 2005-2014. In the U.S., the portion was even worse: 81 percent.

    “While the recession and slow recovery after the 2008 global financial crisis were a significant contributor to this lack of income advancement, other long-run factors played a role — and will continue to do so,” McKinsey notes. “They include demographic trends of aging and shrinking household sizes as well as labor-market shifts such as the falling wage share of GDP.”
    Capital Beats Labor Every Time

    As predicted by economists from Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty, this is the natural progression of capital (making money by owning things) over labor (making money by working.) It represents the same basic economic world of the Middle Ages, land-owning kings and serfs who have no option but to work the fields.

    It is statistically likely that you won’t live a better life than your parents did. The economic world of your parents and grandparents was an aberration, a one time exception that was called the American Dream. And even that was largely limited the white people.

    Do enjoy that gig economy youngsters, and hope Uber doesn’t put you out of an income by flooding the market with more drivers.

     

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    So Yeah, Here’s America, 2017

    April 9, 2017 // 71 Comments »


    As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.

    Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1%. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of U.S. Army muscle around to keep the other 99% at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my 24-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”

    I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1% for this one. Instead, I ended up working in the new minimum-wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs, and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life in the service of the goals of the 1%, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad.

    Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now, and (heaven help us) where we’re going.

    On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

    Drive in to Atlantic City on the old roads, and you’re sure to pass Lucy the Elephant. She’s not a real elephant, of course, but a wood and tin six-story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after suffering fire, neglect, and storm damage. Along the way, she was a tavern, a hotel, and — for most of her life — simply an “attraction.” As owning a car and family driving vacations became egalitarian rights in the booming postwar economy of the 1950s and 1960s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of oddities, and spectacles like the world’s largest ball of twine. Their growth paralleled 20 to 30 years of the greatest boom times any consumer society has ever known.

    Between 1947 and 1973, actual incomes in the United States rose remarkably evenly across society. Certainly, there was always inequality, but never as sharp and predatory as it is today. As Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography chronicles, in 1932, Detroit produced 1.4 million cars; in 1950, that number was eight million; in 1973, it peaked at 12 million. America was still a developing nation — in the best sense of that word.

    Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy and her roadside attraction pals. By one count, from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% of Americans saw their income grow by 281%. They came to control 43% of U.S. wealth.

    You could see it all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For most of its early life, it had been a workingman’s playground and vacation spot, centered around its famous boardwalk. Remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City. However, in the economic hard times of the 1970s, as money was sucked upward from working people, Boardwalk and Park Place became a crime scene, too dangerous for most visitors. Illegal drug sales all but overtook tourism as the city’s most profitable business.

    Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City in the mid-1980s, it looked like the place was starting to rebound in the midst of a national economy going into overdrive. With gambling legalized, money poured in. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants. Local business owners scrambled to find workers. Everyone and everything felt alive. Billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

    Visit Atlantic City in 2017 and it’s again a hollowed-out place. The once swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers has more stores shuttered than open. Meanwhile, the “We Buy Gold” stores and pawnshops have multiplied and are open 24/7 to rip off the easy marks who need cash bad enough to be out at 4 A.M. pulling off their wedding rings. On a 20-story hotel tower, you can still read the word “Hilton” in dirt shadow where its name had once been, before the place was shuttered.

    Along the Boardwalk, there are still the famous rolling chairs. They are comfortable, bound in wicker, and have been a fixture of Atlantic City for decades. They were once pushed by strong young men, maybe college students earning a few bucks over summer break. You can still ride the chairs to see and be seen, but now they’re pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the city. Lots of tourists still take rides, but there’s something cheap and sad about paying workers close to my own age to wheel you around, just a step above pushing dollars into the G-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk.

    One of the things I did while in Atlantic City was look for the family restaurant I had worked in 30 years earlier. It’s now a dollar store run by an angry man. “You buy or you leave,” he said. Those were the last words I heard in Atlantic City. I left.

    Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

    The drive into Weirton from the east takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. You cross rivers and pass through the Cumberland Gap along the way and it’s easy going into the town, because the roads are mostly empty during typical business hours. There’s nothing much going on. The surrounding beauty just makes the scarred remains of Weirton that much more shocking when you first come upon them. Take the last turn and suddenly the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River.

    In 1909, Ernest T. Weir built his first steel mill next to that river and founded what later became the Weirton Steel Corporation. In the decades to come, the town around it and the mill itself were basically synonymous, both fueled by the industrial needs of two world wars and the consumer economy created following the defeat of Germany and Japan. The Weirton mill directly contributed to wartime triumphs, producing artillery shells and raw steel to support the effort, while Weirton’s sons died on battlefields using the company’s products. (A war memorial across the street from the mill sanctifies the dead, the newest names being from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

    At its peak, the Weirton Steel Corporation employed more than 12,000 people, and was the largest single private employer and taxpayer in West Virginia. The owners of the mill paid for and built the Weirton Community Center, the Weirton General Hospital, and the Mary H. Weir Library in those glory days. For years the mill also paid directly for the city’s sewers, water service, and even curbside garbage pickup. Taxes were low and life was good.

    In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, costs rose, Asian steel gained traction and American manufacturing started to move offshore. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the country became a net importer of goods. Some scholars consider the mid-1970s a tipping point, when Congress changed the bankruptcy laws to allow troubled companies an easier path to dumping existing union contracts and employee agreements. It was then that Congress also invented individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, which were supposed to allow workers to save money tax-free to supplement their retirements. Most corporations saw instead an opportunity to get rid of expensive pensions. It was around then that some unknown steelworker was first laid off in Weirton, a candidate for Patient Zero of the new economy.

    The mill, which had once employed nearly one out of every two people in town, was sold to its employees in 1984 in a final, failed attempt at resuscitation. In the end, the factory closed, but the people remained. Today, the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn’t even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.

    Most of the retail shops on Main Street are now abandoned, though I counted seven bars and two strip clubs. There’s the Mountaineer Food Bank that looks like it used to be a hardware store or maybe a dress shop. The only still-thriving industry is, it seems, gambling. West Virginia legalized “gaming” in 1992 and it’s now big business statewide. (Nationally, legal gambling revenues now top $92.27 billion a year.)

    Gambling in Weirton is, however, a far cry even from the decaying Trump Hotel in Atlantic City. There are no Vegas-style casinos in town, just what are called “cafes” strung along Main Street. None were built to be gambling havens. In fact, their prior history is apparent in their architecture: this one a former Pizza Hut, that one an old retail store with now-blacked out windows, another visibly a former diner.

    One sunny Tuesday, I rolled into a cafe at 7 A.M., mostly because I couldn’t believe it was open. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness before I could make out three older women feeding nickels into slot machines, while another stood behind a cheap padded bar, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, another stuck to her dry lips. She offered me a drink, gesturing to rows of Everclear pure grain, nearly 99% pure alcohol, and no-name vodka behind her. I declined, and she said, “Well, if you can’t drink all day, best anyway that you not start so early.”

    Liquor is everywhere in Weirton. I talked to a group of men drinking out of paper bags on a street corner at 8 A.M. They hadn’t, in fact, been there all night. They were just starting early like the cafe lady said. Even the gas stations were stocked with the ubiquitous Everclear, all octane with no taste or flavor added because someone knew that you didn’t care anymore. And as the state collects tax on it, everyone but you wins.

    Booze is an older person’s formula for destruction. For the younger set, it’s meth that’s really destroying Weirton and towns like it across the Midwest. Ten minutes in a bar, a nod at the guy over there, and you find yourself holding a night’s worth of the drug. Small sizes, low cost, adapted to the market. In Weirton, no need even to go shopping, the meth comes to you.

    Meth and the Rust Belt were just waiting for each other. After all, it’s a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Unlike booze or weed, it makes you feel smart, sexy, confident, self-assured — before the later stages of addiction set in. For a while, it seems like the antidote to everything real life in the New Economy won’t ever provide. The meth crisis, in the words of author Nick Reding in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, is “as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.”

    The effects of a lifetime working in the mill — or for the young, of a lifetime not working in the mill — were easy enough to spot around town. The library advertised free diabetes screening and the one grocery store had signs explaining what you could and could not buy with SNAP (food stamps, which have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2008). The local TV channels were chock-a-block full of lawyers’ ads urging you to call in if you have an asbestos-related illness. A lot of health was left behind in those mills.

    There are some nice people in Weirton (and Cleveland, Detroit, or any of the other industrial ghost towns once inhabited by what Bruce Springsteen calls “steel and stories”). I’m sure there were even nicer parts of Weirton further away from the Main Street area where I was hanging out, but if you’re a stranger, it’s sure damn hard to find them. Not too far from the old mill, land was being cleared to make way for a new Walmart, a company which already holds the distinction of being West Virginia’s largest private employer.

    In 1982 at the Weirton mill, a union journeyman might have earned $25 an hour, or so people told me. Walmart pays seven bucks for the same hour and fights like a junkyard dog against either an increase in the minimum wage or unionization.

    The Most Exclusive Gated Community: U.S. Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

    I grew up in a fairly small Ohio town that, in the 1970s, was just crossing the sociological divide between a traditional kind of place and a proper bedroom suburb. Not everyone knew each other, but certain principles were agreed upon. A steak should be one inch thick or more. A good potluck solved most problems. Vegetables were boiled, faith rewarded. Things looked better in the morning. Kids drank chocolate milk instead of Coke. We had parades every Memorial Day and every Fourth of July, but Labor Day was just for barbecues because school began the next day and dad had to get up for work. In fact, that line — “I’ve got to get up for work” — was the way most social events broke up. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s history.

    In 2014, you could travel significant parts of the decaying Midwest and not imagine that such a place had ever existed. But turn south on Interstate 95 and look for the signs that say “Welcome to U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune,” in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Actually, welcome to almost any U.S. military base outside of actual war zones, where a homogeneous military population and generous government spending (re)creates the America of the glory days as accurately as a Hollywood movie. For a first-time visitor, a military base can feel like its own living museum, the modern equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

    Streets are well maintained, shaded by tall trees planted there (and regularly pruned) for just that purpose. Road, water, and sewer crews are always working. There are no potholes. There is a single school with a prominent football field, and a single shopping area. The restaurants are long-time Department of Defense franchise partners and there’s always a pizza place with a fake-sounding Italian name. Those creature comforts on such bases in the U.S. and around the world come at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars a year.

    Some of the places employ locals, some military spouses, some high school kids earning pocket money after school. The kids bag groceries. Everybody tips them; they’re neighbors.

    The centerpieces of any base like Camp Lejeune are the Base Exchange and the Commissary. The former is a mini-Walmart; the latter, a large grocery store. Both are required by law not to make a profit and so sell products at near wholesale prices. Because everyone operates on federal property, no sales tax is charged. When a member of a Pentagon advisory board proposed shutting down some of the commissaries across the U.S., a step that would have saved taxpayers about $1.4 billion a year, World War III erupted in Congress and halted the idea.

    Over in officers’ housing areas, everyone cuts their lawns, has a garage full of sports equipment and a backyard with a grill. Don’t keep up your assigned housing unit and you’ll hear from a senior officer. People get along — they’re ordered to do so.

    The base is the whole point of Jacksonville, the town that surrounds it. The usual bars and strip clubs service the Marines, and Camp Lejeune is close to being the town’s sole employer like that old steel mill in Weirton or the gambling palaces in Atlantic City. The base shares another connection to places like Weirton: as men lost their health in the mills thanks to asbestos and other poisons, so Camp Lejeune’s drinking water was contaminated with trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen, between 1953 and 1987.

    There, however, the similarities end.

    Unlike the archipelago of American towns and cities abandoned to shrivel and die, the “city” inside Camp Lejeune continues to thrive, since its good times are fully covered by taxpayer money. The 23% of the national budget spent on defense assures places like Camp Lejeune of their prosperity.

    The Department of Defense, with 3.2 million employees (albeit not all in uniform) is the world’s largest employer. It makes up more than two percent of the American labor force.

    And the military pays well; no scrambling for a minimum wage at Camp LeJeune. With combat pay more or less standard since 9/11 (the whole world being a battlefield, of course), the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average active duty service member receives a benefits and pay compensation package worth $99,000. This includes a livable pension after 20 years of service, free medical and dental care, free housing, a clothing allowance, and more. In most cases, dependents of service members continue to live on a base in the United States while their husbands or wives, fathers or mothers serve abroad. Unlike in the minimum-wage jobs many other Americans now depend on, service members can expect regular training and skills enhancement and a clear path to promotion. Nearly every year, Congress votes for pay increases. The arguments for military benefits may be clear — many service members lead difficult and dangerous lives. The point is, however, that the benefits exist, unlike in so many corporate workplaces today. The government pays for all of them, while Atlantic City and Weirton struggle to stay above water.

    Small Town America in the Big Apple: Spanish Harlem

    The number of Americans who have visited Harlem, even for a quick stop at a now-trendy restaurant or music club, is unknown but has to be relatively small. Even many lifetime New Yorkers riding the uptown subway under the wealthy upper east side are careful to hop off before reaching the 116th Street stop. Still, get off there, walk a few blocks, and you find yourself in a micro-economy that, in its own way, has more in common with America of the 1950s than 2014.

    There are, of course, no shaded areas along the block I was visiting in what has traditionally been known as Spanish Harlem, no boyish Little League games. But what you do find are locally owned stores with hardly a franchised or corporately owned place in sight. The stores are stocked with a wondrous hodge-podge of what people in the area need, including South American root vegetables, pay-as-you-go cell phones, and cheap school supplies.

    These stores could not exist in many other places. They are perfectly adapted to the neighborhood they are in. While the quality of goods varies, prices are wondrously below what similar things cost a half-dozen subway stops away in midtown Manhattan. In the stores, the employees of these family businesses speak the same languages as their mostly Dominican immigrant customers, and those who work there are eager to make suggestions and help you find things.

    People actually chat with each other. Customer loyalty is important, so prices are often negotiable. When he discovered that his customer was also his neighbor, one shop owner helped carry purchases upstairs. Another store informally accepted and held package deliveries for neighbors.

    The guy selling frozen ices on the sidewalk nearby did not work for a conglomerate and doled out healthy-sized servings to his regulars. He told me that he bought his raw materials in the very grocery store we were camped in front of.

    Even at night, the sidewalks here are full of people. I never felt unsafe, even though I obviously wasn’t from the neighborhood. People seemed eternally ready to give me directions or suggest a local eatery I shouldn’t miss. The one established mega-corporate store in the area, a Rent-a-Center charging usurious prices for junk, had no customers inside on the day I visited. The shop next to it, with an impressive array of used TVs and small appliances from unknown Chinese manufacturers, seemed to be doing gangbuster business. The owner shifted among English, Spanish, and some sort of Dominican creole based on the needs of his customers.

    Few things here are shiny or new. There are vacant lots, an uncomfortable sight at night. Homeless people, some near naked despite the weather and muttering to themselves, are more prevalent than in Midtown. The streets have more trash. I saw drug deals going on against graffiti-scarred walls. There is a busy methadone clinic on a busy street. Not everyone is the salt of the earth, but local businesses do cater to the community and keep prices in line with what people could pay. Money spent in the neighborhood mostly seems to stay there and, if not, is likely sent home to the Dominican Republic to pay for the next family member’s arrival in town — what economist John Maynard Keynes called the “local multiplier effect.” One
    study found that each $100 spent at local independents generated $45 of secondary local spending, compared to $14 at a big-box chain. Business decisions — whether to open or close, staff up or lay off — were made by people in the area face-to-face with those they affected. The businesses were accountable, the owners at the cash registers.

    The stretch of Spanish Harlem I passed through is a galaxy away from perfect, but unlike Weirton, which had long ago given up, Atlantic City, which was in the process of doing so, or Camp Lejeune, which had opted out of the system entirely, people are still trying. It shows that an accountable micro-economy with ties to the community can still work in this country — at least in the short run. But don’t hold your breath. Target recently opened its first superstore not far away and may ultimately do to this neighborhood what cheap foreign steel imports did to Weirton.

    Looking Ahead

    I grew up in the Midwest at a time when the country still prided itself on having something of a conscience, when it was a place still built on hope and a widespread belief that a better future was anybody’s potential birthright. Inequity was always there, and there were always rich people and poor people, but not in the ratios we see now in America. What I found in my travels was place after place being hollowed out as wealth went elsewhere and people came to realize that, odds on, life was likely to get worse, not better. For most people, what passed for hope for the future meant clinging to the same flat-lined life they now had.

    What’s happening is both easy enough for a traveler to see and for an economist to measure. Median household income in 2012 was no higher than it had been a quarter-century earlier. Meanwhile, expenses had outpaced inflation. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the income gap between rich and poor had widened to a more than four-decade record since the 1970s. The 46.2 million people in poverty remained the highest number since the Census Bureau began collecting that data 53 years ago. The gap between how much total wealth America’s 1% of earners control and what the rest of us have is even wider than even in the years preceding the Great Depression of 1929. Argue over numbers, debate which statistics are most accurate, or just drive around America: The trend lines and broad patterns, the shadows of our world of regime change, are sharply, sadly clear.

    After John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he said he was filled with “certain angers at people who were doing injustices to other people.” I, too, felt anger, though it’s an emotion that I’m unsure how to turn against the problems we face.

    As I drove away from Atlantic City, I passed Lucy the Elephant still at her post, unblinking and silent. She looks out over the Boardwalk, maybe America itself, and if she could, she undoubtedly would wonder where the road ahead will take us.

     

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    Poor People, Don’t You Know You Have Jobs?

    January 6, 2017 // 59 Comments »



    It’s not Trump you have to worry about. You’re thinking short-term.

    As people struggle to find third-parties to blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat (pick one or more: Putin, Bernie Bros, Comey, The Media, Electoral Collegians, the Racist/Misogynist Hordes), an amorphous group has emerged as a popular domestic target: stupid poor white people who do not understand how much better they have had it over the last eight years.

    These slack-jawed yokels just can’t seem to grasp that they have great jobs in a growing economy. The numbers prove it: the U.S stock market is at record highs and unemployment at its lowest level since the Great Recession.

    “Anyone claiming America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama said in his 2016 State of the Union address. He said his team has created a “more durable, growing economy” with “15 million new private-sector jobs since early 2010.” Tim Kaine also used the 15 million jobs talking point in the vice presidential debate.

    But the problem isn’t jobs per se, it is income inequality.

    This is the basis of the sense of economic disenfranchisement that drove many voters to seek change this past election, even if after seeing Sanders pushed out of the race that change meant overlooking Candidate Trump’s many shortcomings.

    A big part of this inequality is while more Americans are working, more are working part time without benefits. Since 2007, the number of Americans involuntarily working part time has increased by nearly 45 percent.

    Coupled with that is what many of those workers see as the failure of the Affordable Care Act (ACA; Obamacare) to live up to its promises. ACA was supposed to be the government supplying a key benefit employers refused to offer to part-timers. People may indeed now have access to insurance, but with high deductibles, they may not have access to healthcare. These are not people with ideological problems with Obamacare. They need help for their families and want the ACA changed.

    In addition, because larger employers have to start paying into the ACA fund for each employee who works more than 29 hours a week, employers who offer the most jobs, retail, hospitality, and fast food, have cut most part-timers to 29 hours a week, down from the once-standard 39 hours a week that kept them outside of overtime.

    Wages saw their biggest jump this year since 2008 — 2.9%. However, most of that increase came only in states that chose to raise their minimum wages independent of the stagnant federal minimum wage. And with inflation running about 2%, most of any increase was washed away. And what is .9% of minimum wage anyway? Pretty close to not a helluva lot.

    Higher costs and less money. And of course for part-timers, vacation days, sick leave, pensions, child care, and other benefits remain elusive at best. The result is a workforce making up the gaps with multiple jobs, food benefits, and opioids. And they voted against the candidate that made a talking point out of saying she would maintain the status quo that was killing them.

    Trump, of course, is unlikely to change much, but he represents change and that apparently was enough for a very large number of voters who still believe government may yet help them.

    Their inevitable disappointment is likely to lead one of two ways: a complete giving up, a sad resignation they should be happy they get anything at all, or a rage that will seek out a true demagogue.

    For despite all of the apocalyptic prose spewing out of cranky Clinton supporters and all the newly-minted, New York-based, Midwestern blue collar experts, Trump is not the antiChrist of American politics. He is a minor celebrity who stumbled into a stream of history, a classic case of being in the right place at the right time.

    But keep an eye out in eight years for the next guy. That’s the one to fear.



    BONUS: Here’s another opinion on all this, titled “It was the racism, stupid: White working-class ‘economic anxiety’ is a zombie idea that needs to die.”

    And if Dems, progressives, liberals, whoever, keeps insisting poor whites are racist-sexists who voted for Trump primarily because he encourages their hate vibe, then the next Democratic candidate will lose their votes again. Given the drift of the economy, there will be more of them next time, too. This election was a pay-attention-notice to the Democratic party, and it is so far not just ignoring it, it is saying the whole notion is wrong.




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    I Don’t Like Trump or Racism

    December 2, 2016 // 23 Comments »

    blm


    (Please relax; some of this is satire. I don’t like Trump or racism.)

    I was talking to the African-American guy at one of the places I work. He’s about my age, and a janitor. He makes minimum wage, I make double that, but neither of us get any benefits and the only paid sick days either of us have are the few mandated by state law. We talk.

    He seems less worried than I am about what will happen under the Trump administration to people of color. I’ve been reading Huffington Post and watching SNL, and there’s a lot to be worried about. I mean, Twitter much? It’s happening.

    My janitor says I should be OK, but he’s “been f*cked for a long time.” While I was in college, he was in the Army, where the job skill he acquired was to drive a truck. Still, after the Army, he worked for Ford as a welder, the only job he ever had where he made more than minimum wage, at least until the factory closed down, sending him into a janitorial career. He can’t remember how many times he’s been hassled by the cops walking to and from work during the last eight years alone.


    Anyway, we talk like this because I am a woke person (I studied that in grad school instead of working at Ford.) Some things we don’t have time to talk about because, well, he’s pretty busy cleaning up after all of us at work include, as the new administration takes office:

    — From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled, from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million. The U.S. is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners. One in every 31 adults in America is under some form of correctional control.

    — African-Americans constitute nearly one million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, locked up at nearly six times the rate of whites. African American and Hispanics comprise 58% of all prisoners, though only about one quarter of the U.S. population.

    — One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. About 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons are Black.

    We also didn’t have time to discuss that the reason Black Lives Matter exists right now is because unarmed Black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015. On average, two unarmed Black people a week are killed by police. Only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only two of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved. In only a small handful of those killings did the current administration order the Justice Department to look into federal civil rights charges.

    I had to get going (birthday party in the breakroom, but none of my millennial colleagues remembered to invite the cleaning staff, except maybe to sweep up afterwards), so we didn’t talk about African-American voter suppression in elections from 1869-2016, or mention that those Black people in jail, the ones inside the wall for felonies, are by and large denied the right to vote even after they get out.

    He shared some thoughts as the term of America’s first black president ends.

    He said he kinda wished Obama had worked harder to raise the minimum wage (last time on the federal level was 2009, but it was voted on by Congress in 2007 under Bush) and made available health insurance that had a deductible he could afford, but I quickly explained that that was all the Republicans’ fault, and pointed out the number of people of color Obama had appointed in his administration, as well as his many inspiring and heartfelt speeches after each mass shooting in America.

    Anyway, there’s a lot of worry about come January, we agreed. He thanked me for standing with him in solidarity, changing my Facebook photo to reflect awareness, and asked that I pass along to the others at work that they please make sure their used paper towels end up in the trash can instead of next to it.


    BONUS THE POINT: The setting is made up. So’s the janitor. That is satire, sarcasm, a fictional construct to say the problems of people of color will have under Trump are sadly nothing new. They are institutional — American — to our nation’s racist core. If anyone who cares tries to say the real issues are all part of one guy, Trump, they will imagine everything will be better when Trump goes away (Recount!) Well, Trump has “been away” for a very long time and look what’s happened. We have to fix a system now hundreds of years old in the U.S., fix ourselves, or nothing good will come of a Trump presidency, or any other.



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    How Did Donald Trump Win?

    November 9, 2016 // 22 Comments »

    unemployment

    It’s not about left and right anymore, not about Black and White. It is all about up and down. And it elected Donald Trump via a bumpy road. The next candidate to really figure it out will sweep into power.


    And what it is is stated succiently by former McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt: jobs, specifically the loss of jobs to technology and globalization, and the changes to our society that that is causing.

    The defining issue of our times, says Schmidt, is the displacement of workers, particularly those who traditionally held working class roles. America is watching a leveling down unprecedented in its history, a form of societal and economic devolution.

    “I think that’s going to be the new fault line in American politics,” Schmidt said. “And the voters, the Bernie Sanders voter and the Trump voter — like fish netting, the fish can swing through the netting from left to right very, very easily.”

    Schmidt focuses on Silicon Valley. “Let’s look at the Silicon Valley wing of the Democratic party and be clear about the partisan nature of all of these companies. We have these arguments about minimum wage — $12, $15. We’re 18 months away in this country from a robot in the window at the McDonald’s handing you your cheeseburger.”

    “The number one job for not-college educated men in America is driving something somewhere. So when we talk about an era now of driverless trucks, driverless cars, where do those jobs go? Where’s that displacement?” Schmidt continued.

    In essence, the growing irrelevance of American workers.

    What started with the globalization of the 1980s, the literal export of jobs to places abroad chasing cheaper labor, is transitioning into its next phase, the “export” of jobs into the hands of automation. Traditional employment once considered secure (albeit low paying) that cannot be physically exported because it needs to happen at a specific geographic location, such as with service tasks, is doomed as sure as those jobs that used to be done by steelworkers in Ohio but now are performed in Shenyang.

    Of course someone reading this will be mumbling something about to hell with those workers, let them get an education, retrain, whatever Darwinian crossed with dystopian curse they can conjure. The problem is long after you take away the jobs the people are still going to be there.

    And while no one in Washington really cares about what happens to those workers per se, as long as they can vote they will matter to politicians.

    It takes a special kind of demagogue, one with even more cynicism than usual, to fully exploit those workers’ literal fears for their lives, but s/he will emerge. Think of Trump as version 1.0, a kind of beta test. Trump likely never knew what he had within grasp, and spoke to this displaced group largely cluelessly and without the sophistication of a proper strategy.

    But the next Trump will have the “advantage” of another four years of economic displacement, a slicker media profile undistracted by Trump’s crude buffoonery, as well as advisors like McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt, whispering lines in his or her ear that sound like bastardized versions of Springsteen lyrics. The hate mongering, racism, and name calling will be toned down for wider appeal.

    Now there’s something to be afraid of.



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    Trump Versus Clinton: How the Hell Did We End Up Here?

    November 1, 2016 // 37 Comments »

    trump-clinton
     

    You hear the expression “lesser of two evils” when people talk about how they will vote in November.

    Poll after poll shows a growing number of voters saying they will vote negatively – they’re against Hillary, so they’ll hold their nose and vote Trump, and vice-a-versa.

    It is also likely a large number of discontented voters will simply stay home on Election Day. Both candidates are among the most unpopular and least trusted in American history. One of them will end up in the White House.

    How did we get here? How is it the only two mainstream candidates left standing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?


    Hillary Clinton: All Appetite

    Hillary Clinton is the archetypal 21st century candidate’s candidate, a fully formed tool of the oligarchy. Whether she wins or loses in November, she is the model for the next era of American politics.

    Clinton sees The People as some mass to be pandered to and manipulated. She is simply a machine to gain power for its own sake (and money.) The One Percent tagged her early as exactly who they want to see in charge, someone who could be bought off, and she was nice enough to create her own vehicle to allow them to conveniently do that — write a check to the Clinton Foundation. As a bonus, it was also tax-deductible.

    If Hillary did not exist, it would have been necessary for the wealthy who control most of America to create her.


    The Once and Future Hillary

    That wasn’t necessary, as Hillary Clinton had spent her entire life preparing for this.

    By all accounts an intelligent, committed, feminist coming out of law school, she quickly fell into the TV classic 1950s role of dependent spouse, as “first lady” of Arkansas when Bill was governor, and of course, in the White House. Sure, she was given health care to mess around with during Bill’s first term, but when the issue crashed and burned, her role was reassigned to make safe speeches calling for more rights for women and girls. Safe in that she was allowed to pound the pulpit for those ideals in enemy territory like China, but not in countries like Saudi Arabia.

    She was the good wife. And good wives look the other way when hubby strays a bit, even to the point of having sex in the Oval Office. And that’s because Hillary knew the Democratic Party would owe her for not blowing things completely apart in a messy divorce certain to reveal even more bad news.

    First up was a Senate seat, a springboard for her presidential run.

    In November 1998 four-term incumbent Democratic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced his retirement, opening a seat in a Solid Blue state. In early 1999 the Clinton’s bought a house in Chappaqua, New York (with “donated” money), all so that by September she was eligible to run as a “New Yorker.” While in the Senate Hillary was served up prime committee slots, and voted the safe votes (the Iraq War vote was safe at the time, of course, as everyone wanted to go to war. Nobody foresaw that one bouncing back the way it did.)

    By the time the George W. Bush era finally gave up, everyone on earth knew the next president was going to be a Democrat.

    So 2008 was going to be Hillary’s big moment, the first woman president, the one to clean up the Bush wars, who knows, maybe even score a Nobel Prize. But Hillary misread the degree of change Americans wanted, and in return for putting her plans on hold for another cycle or two, she settled in for four years as Secretary of State as a consolation prize. And have you heard? She sat in the Situation Room the night bin Laden was killed!


    Taking No Chances

    As the 2016 election approached, the Clinton’s took no chances.

    The favors Hillary accrued as Secretary of State via the Clinton Foundation were transformed into money and support. As she pretended not to run, Clinton packed her campaign war chest with big-money speeches. A happy “listening tour” (remember the Scooby Van?) was created to show everyone how human Hillary was. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz lined up the Democratic Party machinery. Designated schulp Martin O’Malley was set up as the loyal opposition so Hillary could create the appearance she was running against someone in the primary.

    Then, oops, Bernie.

    When Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere (as had Obama in 2008), Clinton again misread or did not care about how much change many Americans sought. As many long-suspected, and as we all now know after the hacks of the Democratic National Committee servers, the Party machinery was brought to bear against Sanders. The mainstream media was lined up to belittle, marginalize and ignore him. The millennial vote Sanders inspired was largely written off by Clinton. Bernie was reduced to a sad, little old man helping nominate someone at the Democratic Convention he clearly loathed.

    Add to that the flood of disdainful remarks talking points-prepped Democratic pundits spewed forth, announcing as one support for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein is near-treason. A voter’s well-reasoned, act-of-conscious decision to support one of the two is held as nothing less than support for the Dark Lord.

    The Democrat machinery and the people who control it made Clinton the inevitable candidate. There was no one else who ever had a chance. America was told to suck it up and vote for her, whether they liked it or not.


    Trump Stumbles into His Role

    The Republican Party fully misunderstood its constituency, thinking one of a spray of robo-candidates would be good enough to simply run as Not Obama, Not Hillary.

    Each candidate on offer fell into the mold of ultra-mainstream, such as the why-am-I-here Jeb Bush, or the nut case category with Ben Carson. Ted Cruz couldn’t make up his mind, and vacillated between the two options. The plan was likely to meld the two wings into a ticket and scoop up as many conservative votes as possible.

    Whatever Trump may have really been thinking when he started his campaign, he stumbled on to something hiding in plain sight. Large numbers of Americans, mostly white and formerly middle class, were angry. They were really angry. They had been left behind as the country changed, left like an audience at a magic show who saw the trick done, but couldn’t for the life of them figure out how it had happened. These people knew they were getting poorer, they could not find decent jobs, and they wanted someone to blame.

    Enter Trump.

    He told them it was not their fault. It was because of Obama, it was the Chinese, it was the Muslims, the Blacks, the Democrats, NAFTA, immigrants, refugees, whoever they feared and hated, whatever they wanted to hear. He told them their racism and hate was valid, and gave them a place to express it as no one in the mainstream had ever before done in a modern campaign.

    Trump became a predator sniffing the wind. When he sensed people fed up with Hillary’s scamming for donations, he said he was self-funded. When he sensed people wanted change, he said he was an outsider. When voters tired of Hillary’s lawyerly answers and outright lies, Trump came out as plain spoken, even rude and crude — what candidate before had ever spoken of his penis size on the national stage?

    Weakness overseas? Bomb the f*ck out of them. Worried about China? Renegotiate. Tired of terrorists? Torture them, maybe kill their families. Problems with the economy? I can fix it, says Trump, and he didn’t need to explain how because while no one really believes it, they want to believe.

    Whole races and religions were condemned. People were bored with long think pieces and empty political language. Trump dished things out in 140-character Tweets. Voters made up their minds with the same tool they use to follow Beyonce.


    Trump Ascendant

    As a sign of Trump’s populism, and his popularity, he has garnered more small-dollar donations for the GOP than any other Republican candidate in history, and all that only since he seriously started asking for contributions in June. “He’s the Republican Obama,” Politico quotes one operative about Trump monetizing his Republican supporters.

    Like nearly every person in the media, and the Democratic and Republican parties, I suspect when he first started out Trump never expected the ball to bounce as it did. Running was an ego thing, an elaborate prank, performance art, something maybe good for business. No such thing as bad PR.

    But as others wrote him off, including the oligarchy, Trump learned.

    Every time someone said “well, that’s the end of Trump” after some outrageous statement, Trump learned he needed only to top himself in the next sound bite. People wanted him to be racist, they wanted him to be larger than life, and they didn’t care if he lied or exaggerated. Most of the media, still reporting his latest statement (birther, debates are rigged) as a bad thing, still don’t get it.


    Face It: They Are Us

    America will have Trump or Clinton in the White House for the next four years because they are us.

    Clinton is the ultimate end product of a political process consumed by big money. She is the candidate of the One Percent. She believes in nothing but the acquisition of power and will trade anything to get it. The oligarchy are happy to help her with that.

    Trump is the ultimate Frankenstein product of decades of lightly-shaded Republican hate mongering. He is the natural end point of 15 post-9/11 years of keeping us afraid. He is the mediagenic demagogue a country gets when it abandons its people to economic Darwinism, crushes its middle class, and gives up caring what happens to its minorities.

    Both candidates are markers of a doomed democracy, a system which somewhere in the past reached its apex and has only now declined enough that everyone, not just the boiling frogs, can see where we are. They’re us, people. We watched this happen, and we’ll be stuck trying to live with the results.

     

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    What Are The NAFTA and TPP Trump and Clinton Fought About in the Debate?

    October 20, 2016 // 20 Comments »

    Detailed_Triangle_Trade



    In the presidential debates, Trump and Clinton referenced the NAFTA and TPP trade deals. What are they and are they good, or bad, for America?


    What Are NAFTA and TPP?

    The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are international trade agreements.

    Trump is unambiguously, totally, absolutely, hugely opposed to both deals and any others in the future. He has held that position from Day One.

    Clinton, less so. NAFTA was pushed through by Bill, and Hillary continues to defend it. As Secretary of State she strongly advocated for the TPP. She continued that advocacy during the first part of her campaign, right up until Bernie Sanders started to score points against her by opposing it. Hillary then shifted to also opposing it. No one knows what her stance will be if she is elected.

    Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still hoping to force TPP through a lame duck Congress following the election. Hillary would then be free to shrug her shoulders come January and claim the TPP is not her responsibility.



    The Basics Of Trade

    International deals like NAFTA and the TPP are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”

    So, if widgets made at a higher cost in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit into Hanoi’s supermarkets.

    Looking at You, NAFTA

    NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.

    You wish.

    There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.

    You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, the value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect like NAFTA is tough. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.


    Cui Bono?

    The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.

    NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. That’s the good part (for a few.)

    However, allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or cheap moves jobs out of the United States. A current case cited by Trump is Carrier. Carrier sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Mexican workers typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s former Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.

    Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They put Americans out of work.

    The Losers

    Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like a modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.

    Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all.

    The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, even if all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.

    Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us

    Economist Robert Scott claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.

    In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens showed increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.



    A Broader View

    If one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.

    Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for America.


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    Let’s Understand Why We’re So Finished Economically

    August 3, 2016 // 26 Comments »

    krugman

    How ya’ doing? I mean money-wise. Too much? Maybe not enough?


    So let’s listen to economist Paul Krugman explain why we are so screwed. Not we will be screwed, or maybe things will go that way, or we will in the future. Nope, it already happened, though most of us haven’t yet figured it out.

    Krugman, and the economist he discusses, Thomas Piketty, paid attention in math class, and the other classes, too. That’s why they understand this stuff and I’m still trying to suss out why no matter how many hours I stay on the job and how much I save, it is never enough.

    In case you’re reading this on your 15 minute break at Target, I’ll try to summarize.



    The American Dream (Patrimonial Capitalism)

    The myth of the American Dream is the dominating factor in keeping people mostly complacent in the United States. You know it — work hard, and your life will improve. Well, maybe not your life, but your kids’, or at least your grandkids’. If that doesn’t work, it is the fault of the Irish immigrants, or the darn Chinese, or those welfare freeloaders. Ask Donald Trump how it all works.

    The thing that makes the myth so powerful is that the tiny percent that is true sounds better than the 99 percent which is a lie. As long as near-constant growth could be assured, enough pieces would fall to the the lower and middle classes to make the Dream seem real. It helped that a kindly media would promote the heck out of every exception, whether it was the shoeshine boy in the late 19th century who went to college, or the plucky guys who invented some new tech in their garage and became billionaires. See, you can do it too, just like if we run hard enough, everyone can be in the Olympics. It’s just a matter of wanting it, believing in yourself, having passion and grit, right?



    The Undeniable Reality of the Now

    The bulk of the industrial jobs are gone and never coming back; ask Detroit, or the people in Youngstown and Weirton. People have been talked out of most union jobs, convinced somehow that organizing was not in their own interest, and now they find themselves accepting whatever minimum of a wage they can get. Food stamps and other need-based programs are finding more and more middle class users, as suburban people who once donated to charities are now lining up out front of them. Health care paid for by our own taxes is seen as a give away to lazy people. This is the stuff Bernie Sanders talked about.

    Like with gravity, the universe doesn’t care if you “believe” it or not; it is just true, independent of what you “think.” That you have been taught this all is something you can choose to believe or not is the weight that holds us all down.



    Drilling Down Into Our Miserable Lives

    In case you have a few more minutes on your break, or if you’ve been laid off since starting this article, here are some more things happening out there whether you believe in them or not. You can read more about all of this in Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twentieth Century.

    — Our income inequality rate is higher than it ever has been in our own history, is growing, and is higher than in countries in Western Europe and Canada.

    — The inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more and more of everything (capital) rich people have a mechanism to keep getting richer, because the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth. This is expressed in Piketty’s now-famous equation R > G. The author claims wealth is growing at six-to-seven percent a year, more than three times faster than the size of the economy.

    — Wages are largely stagnant, or sinking, driven by factors in control of the wealthy, such as automation that eliminates human jobs and the not-adjusted-for-inflation minimum wage more and more Americans now depend on for their survival.

    — All of this is exacerbated by America’s lower tax rate on capital gains (how the rich make their money) versus wages (how the 99 percent make their money.)

    — Because rich people pass on their wealth to their relatives, the children of rich people are born rich and unless they get really into fast women and cocaine, will inevitably get richer. They can’t help it. The gap between the one percent and the 99 percent must grow.

    — Social reforms, such as increased education opportunities and low-cost health care, are incapable without tax changes significantly affecting income equality. The only people who can change society are those who profit from it not changing. That’s the big reveal on why we are in so much trouble.

    FUN FACT: Until slavery was ended in the United States, human beings were also considered capital, just like owning stocks and bonds today.



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    Capitalism Without the Das Capital: Welcome to Uber’s Gig Economy

    April 28, 2016 // 8 Comments »

    uber

    One of the defining aspects of traditional capitalism is that the Capitalist, that one percent guy from the Monopoly game with the top hat, spats and monocle, invests capital. That investment, in land, a factory, an oil well, creates value (the monies) for him, and jobs for the rest of us.



    Capitalism 101

    The idea is that because the Capitalist risks his money/capital, he is assuming the greater risk and thus deserves the greater gain. This has been the way things have worked since feudal lords controlled land and allowed sharecroppers to keep pennies on the dollar they earned for him, on through to when people built factories and opened stores.

    Traditional capitalism is that stuff you slept through in Econ 101. Risk gain, employment, jobs, whatevers unless you live off an allowance from Daddy.

    Until the arrival of the gig economy.



    The Gig Economy

    For those who are living off an allowance from Daddy, or are one of the eleven Americans who still hold a traditional “job” where you do stuff, get paid a regular salary not tied to how many sneakers you sew each day, and receive those “benefits” you once heard grandpa speak of, the gig economy is where you work piecemeal, get paid a few table scraps and have no benefits or job security because you really don’t work for anyone.

    These “gigs” are almost always performing low-level services, such as delivering food to or driving around people much wealthier than you. Those people cannot be bothered to walk to a restaurant or pilot a motor vehicle or clean up their kids’/doggies’ poo, so you do it because you don’t have many other options in hope of earning something more than minimum wage.

    The gig economy is sometimes also known as the 1099 economy, after the IRS form used to report non-employee earnings, or the on-demand economy based on the way people get or don’t get opportunities to work. No one knows how big this shadow economy is, given the shifting nature of the work and the cash payments sometimes involved. But it is big and it is growing.

    The less-discussed game changer of the gig economy is that traditional capitalists no longer need to put much money at risk at all. In fact the companies behind the gig economy, the people who run Uber and the others, are economically viable because they offload their cost of capital — the investment and depreciation on cars and the cost of keeping a driver fed and healthy — onto the drivers, who are only willing to accept such a bad deal because the labor market sucks. See how that works?

    And if that’s not problem enough, the cheaper wages paid (for example, by Uber) to drivers, and thus the cheaper rides, also drive business with capital structures which make social sense out of business. They can’t compete with “drive your car into the ground, make whatever you might get along the way while we cash in.”

    And when you talk about driving these days, you’re talking about Uber.



    Uber Costs

    Uber has succeeded in almost completely pushing its operating costs (absent the relatively small investment needed to run the app and backoffice) down to people who often can’t afford it but are lured into trying because the alternatives seem even lower paying.

    To drive for Uber, you need a late model car, in great shape, with four doors. It doesn’t have to be a black sedan, but if it isn’t Uber will exclude you from a number of ride requests.

    So where does someone without a lot of money get a late model black sedan? If they can afford it, they buy one, but that means laying out a lot of money and taking on some heavy credit up front. More than likely, however, what a budding Uber driver does is lease his black sedan from an Uber-suggested third party contractor. You’ll find them right on the Uber website. They’ll take an average $500 deposit to sign you into a three year lease running $300 a month. So that all adds up to a capital investment by the driver of $11,300 over three years.

    Next capital cost to the driver is insurance, expensive insurance, because the cheap minimum stuff you buy off the TV ads is not going to cover you driving passengers around. Don’t worry, though, as Uber will sell you just what you need, albeit at $4,600 a year. That works out to $13,800 for three years.

    And, hey, driver, you need to pay for licensing, gas, maintenance, fines, regular car washes, depreciation of your vehicle and all the other stuff. Over three years, let’s call it $5,000.

    So overall, the cost for you to get a job with Uber is about $30,100 over three years. If you don’t have the cash on hand, and need to borrow it, add on 13% interest or more if using a credit card, maybe more for second-level sources for people who don’t qualify for good credit.

    But wait — many jurisdictions are now demanding additional licenses from Uber drivers, claiming they are operating a business. One of the more extreme plans under consideration is in Newark, New Jersey. The city is looking at a $500 annual fee to operate in the city, $1,000 additional license to pick up and drop off passengers at the airport and Newark Penn Station, and a $1.5 million insurance coverage requirement.

    If the driver fails to make any of those payments, s/he instantly becomes unemployed, unable to pay enough to have a job to earn enough to pay for that job. This is, in economic terms, an extractive process — a third party takes profit, leaves the true costs of capital to the workers, and when they fail, to society who will need to step in and provide food benefits as a last resort.



    Uber Risks

    In addition to having to raise their own capital to essentially buy themselves a job driving for Uber, drivers face risks far above the simple “risk” associated with any “investment.”

    In addition to the obvious risks of accidents, bad reviews, and good/bad weather that cuts the number of people seeking rides, perhaps the biggest financial risk to any driver is Uber itself.

    Imagine a situation where there are 10 riders in a city, and ten Uber drivers. For argument’s sake, let’s say each driver gets one fare a night. Uber makes money on its 27% share of 10 rides. Now, increase the number of Uber drivers to 100 (which makes getting a ride easier and faster for quicker profit for Uber and protects Uber when drivers quit) while the number of rides stays at 10. That means 90 drivers make nothing each night. Independent of the number of drivers, Uber still makes the same money on its share of 10 rides.

    In 2015, Uber doubled the number of drivers in the U.S. As of October 2015, the company had 327,000 active drivers, more than doubling the 160,000 that gave rides in 2014. Some of the new drivers are absorbed by growth in ridership, some are not.

    The other risk is that Uber sets prices, which vary even though the driver’s costs do not. For example, in order to theoretically boast ridership, Uber lowered prices in New York City such that individual drivers saw an average decline in payouts of 15%. The company also experimented with rate cuts in 99 other North American cities.



    Uber Pool

    UberPool is a new service where multiple customers headed the same way can “share” a car.

    Imagine two Uber drivers each carrying a single passenger along the same route which results in a fare of $11. After Uber takes its brokerage cut as well as its “safety fee” (even though the company still has the poorest driver background checks in the taxi industry), each driver ends up with $8 each in pocket, while Uber ends up with $6, a 27% commission for Uber.

    Now along comes UberPool, and these same two serial riders get picked up by a single driver. Since UberPool offers passengers a substantial discount for sharing a ride, that means each passenger now pays $6 (in this example). After Uber takes its commission, including the safety fee, the payout to the driver is $4 for each passenger, or a total of $8. So the driver makes the same amount, but Uber’s take of the overall $12 for this ride is also $4 – a 33% overall commission. So Uber makes a higher percent on UberPool rides, yet the driver makes about the same amount.

    Money

    The other side of financial risk is financial return, what you get after investing capital. For Uber drivers, there is no realistic average. Take a look at one of the many online driver forums and you’ll see a range of claimed payouts so wide (from sub-minimum wage to thousands a week) that it is of no real value. Here is at least one reasonable breakdown of costs and payouts.

    Leaving aside the forum posters who are just lying for whatever reason, the variables of driving for Uber are such that averages are not really possible. One of the few variables under the driver’s control is number of hours worked, and many of those who claim high weekly payouts also claim to drive 12 or more hours a day. Leaving aside the not inconsequential question of whether you feel it’s safe to catch those guys 11.5 hours into their shift, it leaves the economic question of how many hours a week it takes in the gig economy to earn a decent living.

    The New World Order

    Unlike conventional labor, where one starts at zero on day one and begins earning money, or traditional self-employment where in return for capital investment one keeps 100% of the profits, the gig economy’s main point is that people working for places like Uber start behind, maybe $10,000 in the hole after they secure a car, insurance and all the rest. Uber, however, begins profiting from the driver’s labor immediately, and loses nothing when the driver is pushed aside.

    All of the gain, none of the risk, in the New Economy where people pay for their own jobs.

    What other business is there where the Capitalist takes almost no risk, invests no capital, and pushes all that down on his workers alone, while raking in money? Oh, rights, pimps. Welcome to the gig economy.




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    City Council Passes Law Limiting Homeless People’s Belongings to What Can Fit in Trash Bin

    April 14, 2016 // 5 Comments »

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    Like every American city in the Age of the 99 Percent, Los Angeles has a significant homeless problem.


    Full-on shantytowns are now a feature of LA’s urban landscape, with colonies of desperate men and women setting up camps, and building shelters out of tarps, wherever they can find safe space to do so. The city’s homeless population rose 20% over the last two years, now estimated at 26,000 human beings, fellow Americans.

    What to do about such a problem? Build affordable housing? Increase shelter outreach? Provide mental health and substance abuse counseling? Job training? Compassion for those less fortunate?

    No.

    The Los Angeles City Council approved a law Wednesday that limits the possessions of homeless people to what can fit in a 60-gallon trash bin. The measure spoke to the will of the people, passing on a 13-1 vote, with some hippie councilman opposing. Another city councilman, who voted for the law, said the measure “balanced the city’s need for safe and clean streets with homeless people’s personal property rights.”

    As long as those personal property rights are limited to what the LAPD, acting on behalf of the well-to-do, can easily throw away.


    But some good news: the council backed off even stricter rules that would have limited homeless people to what they could carry in a backpack. But the law allows the city to clamp down in this way in the future without further public discussion.

    Under the new measure, the city can impound homeless people’s “excess personal property” after providing 24 hours’ notice. The city will store the items for 90 days, during which time the owners can claim them. But they cannot evade further confiscation by moving the items to another public area, the ordinance says.

    With no advance warning, the city can seize and impound a tent that has not been taken down during the day. Bulky and contaminated items can be seized and discarded without warning. Wheelchairs, crutches and walkers are currently exempt.

    “We recognize this is just one step forward to address the homelessness crisis,” said the president of the Central City Association of Los Angeles.

    Why, next thing you know the LAPD will just start putting rounds downrange and deal with the homeless in what will no doubt be called the final solution, of freedom.


    (FYI: The photo above is my own, taken in New York City’s Washington Square Park; the one below, of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, was taken by someone else)






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    Poor People Should Just Go Die

    April 9, 2016 // 17 Comments »

    Poorich

    Despite advances in medicine, technology and education, the longevity gap between high-income and low-income Americans has widened sharply. You want to talk inequality? Talk about this.


    The poor are losing ground not only in income, but also in years of life, the most basic measure of well-being. In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. By 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.

    New research offers even more horrifying numbers. Economists found for men born in 1920, there was a six-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. For men born in 1950, that difference had more than doubled, to 14 years.

    The serfs are dying. The castle-owners are buying themselves more years.

    Poor health outcomes for low-income Americans have dragged the United States down to some of the lowest rankings of life expectancy among industrialized nations. The Social Security Administration found, for example, that life expectancy for the wealthiest American men at age 60 was just below the rates in Iceland and Japan, two countries where people live the longest. However, for Americans in the bottom quarter of the wage scale, their life expectancy is closer to that in Poland and the Czech Republic.

    The gap in life spans started widening about 40 years ago, when income inequality began to grow.

    Earlier in the 20th century, trends in life spans were of declining disparities, because improvements in public health, such as the invention of the polio vaccine and improved sanitation, benefited rich and poor alike. The broad adoption of medication for high blood pressure in the 1950s led to a major improvement for black men, erasing a big part of the gap with whites. But medical improvements can also drive disparity when they disproportionately benefit affluent Americans; for example, cutting-edge cancer treatments.


    Imagine that — in one of the world’s richest countries, people die simply because we can’t find a way to provide them good healthcare as does the rest of the civilized world.


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    ‘Please do not feed the animals’: Oklahoma GOP Compares Food Stamp Recipients to Park Animals

    April 8, 2016 // 7 Comments »

    Bear_approaching_vehicle_in_Yellowstone_National_Park_1967

    In America, we have a very crude understanding of social welfare programs. For most Americans, anything the government gives to its people (i.e., us) to keep us healthy, fed and educated, is a “handout” to lazy people who don’t deserve it.

    Helping each other, using our tax money for us, as does most of the civilized world, is somehow wrong. In America, we’d prefer you starve to death, quietly if possible, as the rest of us are binge watching Netflix whilst eating Doritos.

    Doritos we worked for, dammit. Albeit at our minimum wage jobs at Walmart, but whatever.

    And with that, welcome to that rotting greenish boil head otherwise known as Oklahoma, where the Republican Party compared Americans receiving food stamp benefits to park animals fed by the public.

    In the since-deleted Facebook post, the Oklahoma GOP offered a “lesson” by comparing the distribution of food stamps to 46 million Americans to a policy of the National Park Service to discourage the public from feeding animals “because the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.”

    Party Chairman Randy Brogdon offered a faux-apology in another Facebook post: “I offer my apologies for those who were offended – that was not my intention.”

    Which is hilarious and clear proof he was dropped on his head as a child by his alcoholic mother, because of course it is obvious that comparing needy people to animals is offensive to absolutely everyone. Even a park animal could see that.

    This also isn’t the first time the GOP has compared Americans to animals. In 2014, South Dakota Senate candidate Dr. Annette Bosworth’s posted a nearly identical post to her Facebook campaign page:





    FUN FACT: A very large percentage of food stamp recipients are children (“cubs”), the elderly, and disabled people. Maybe it’s time to thin the herd.



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    Job Totals Trail Pre-Recession Levels in 10 U.S. States

    April 7, 2016 // 5 Comments »

    depression-photo-jobless-library-of-congress


    Every candidate shouts about job creation, and some talk about the recovery from the last recession. Every month the Department of Labor releases new statistics about how many jobs have been created, improvements in the unemployment rate, and on and on.


    There are parts of the society and the country where some of that is even partly true. But for about 20% of our states, it is not even partly close. An awful lot of the good news is just a numbers game.

    Data compiled by the Associated Press shows ten U.S. states still have not regained all the jobs they lost in the Great Recession, even after six and a half years of “recovery,” while many more have seen only modest gains.

    The figures are one more sign of the economic inequality, the one field America remains the undisputed global leader. The on-the-ground reality of negative job growth is why many Americans feel the economy has passed them by, and fuels support for angry candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.



    Who Lost

    Wyoming has three percent fewer jobs it did when the recession began. Alabama’s job total post-recession is -2.7 percent, followed by New Mexico at -2.6. New Jersey (Chris Christie!) has one percent fewer jobs than it did at the end of 2007, and Missouri is just below its pre-recession level. The other five losers are Mississippi, Nevada, Maine, Connecticut, and West Virginia.

    Among the other states, several show only small gains past pre-recession job totals. Illinois, statewide with a population of over 12 million, has only 8,600 more jobs than it did in December 2007. Arizona’s job count is up just 9,200 with a population of six million (not counting illegal aliens.) And Ohio (Kasich!!!) has added just 58,100 jobs with its population of almost 12 million. Those gains are more or less (it’s less) statistically insignificant.

    Who Won

    The states that saw the highest rates of job growth tell the story of the last few years. Some of the biggest gainers include:

    Washington DC is a big, big winner, with significant growth from America’s largest employer, the federal government, all fueled significantly by the very profitable War of Terror.

    The oil and gas drilling boom lifted North Dakota’s job count by more than 20 percent, though falling energy prices have caused significant layoffs in the past year. Need to check back with North Dakota in a year or two.

    Texas has also benefited from the energy boom, as well as greater high-tech hiring in cities like Austin.

    Utah and Colorado have also benefited from fast-growing information technology companies. Colorado especially has a large aerospace (read: defense) industry, so good for them.




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    Restaurants Demand State Freeze Servers’ Wage

    February 25, 2016 // 12 Comments »

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    More Americans work for less than minimum wage than work for minimum wage. They are the people who occupy tipped positions, mostly working as servers in restaurants.


    They fall outside the minimum wage, and thus do not have even the weak assurances of an income the minimum provides. And those tips — they are great at some swanky joints, weak at lesser ones. Tips ebb and flow, depending on the weather (rain and snow can keep customers home), cheapo patrons and which shift one pulls; daytime Tuesday is not as good as Saturday night. Or a four top who orders wine with each course, or that family on vacation who “just wants ice water.” Your income depends as much on luck as anything you do with your time and labor.

    Or here’s one strategy that does not depend on luck: encourage your waitresses to dress sexy, such as at Hooter’s, to pull in more tips, mixing sexual exploitation with exploitation of wages.

    And save the speech about how all these folks should go out and get a different job if they don’t like the system. Almost two million Americans work below minimum, and they do not have access to two million currently available, better paying, jobs.

    But from the restaurant owner’s side, the deal is sweeeeeeeeeet. They get to pay subminimum wage, and leave it up to the customers to make up their payroll. And if the customer stiffs the waiter, that’s no skin off the owner’s nose. And of course some owner’s skim the tips, and/or require servers to share their tips with the back of the house kitchen staff, diluting a small amount of money further.



    The owners have no interest in having the government mess with that solid gold system if it can be helped.

    As an example, New York state’s hourly minimum wage for tipped workers rose from $5.00 to $7.50 on January 1 (standard, non-tipped, minimum wage is $9.00 an hour in the state), much to the dismay of the New York State Restaurant Association. The restaurant owners lobbying group sent a letter to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo demanding that he freeze the tipped wage for five years. This letter comes just weeks after the National Restaurant Association filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court, claiming that Cuomo’s plan to raise the minimum wage further by 2018 is part of a longstanding pattern of discrimination “against the hard working men and women that own New York’s restaurants.”

    Implied is a hearty “up yours to the working men and women that work in New York’s restaurants.”


    Oh, and by the way, want to know if your favorite restaurant owner supports the freeze? You can’t. The Restaurant Association’s letter had more then 100 restaurant owners included as signatories. However, the Association will not release the names of the signatories because restaurateurs who have taken “political stances” in the past “have received death threats.” So it’s a safety issue. Right.

    Employers should be responsible for paying their own employees, not relying on customers to hand over cash just to keep serfs servers on the job.



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    You Can’t Earn a Living on the Minimum Wage

    February 20, 2016 // 17 Comments »

    child


    When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?

    Whether they know it or not, it’s something like this.


    My Working Life Then

    A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort to food benefit programs and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn’t afford childcare. (As it happens, 29% of low-wage employees are single parents.)

    At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a whistleblower. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about twenty-first-century America.

    I was lucky. I didn’t become one of those millions of people trapped as the “working poor.” I made it out. But with all the election talk about the economy, I decided it was time to go back and take another look at where I had been, and where too many others still are.


    My Working Life Now

    I found things were pretty much the same in 2016 as they were in 2012, which meant — because there was no real improvement — that things were actually worse.

    This time around, I worked for a month and a half at a national retail chain in New York City. While mine was hardly a scientific experiment, I’d be willing to bet an hour of my minimum-wage salary ($9 before taxes) that what follows is pretty typical of the New Economy.

    Just getting hired wasn’t easy for this 56-year-old guy. To become a sales clerk, peddling items that were generally well under $50 a pop, I needed two previous employment references and I had to pass a credit check. Unlike some low-wage jobs, a mandatory drug test wasn’t part of the process, but there was a criminal background check and I was told drug offenses would disqualify me. I was given an exam twice, by two different managers, designed to see how I’d respond to various customer situations. In other words, anyone without some education, good English, a decent work history, and a clean record wouldn’t even qualify for minimum-wage money at this chain.

    And believe me, I earned that money. Any shift under six hours involved only a 15-minute break (which cost the company just $2.25). Trust me, at my age, after hours standing, I needed that break and I wasn’t even the oldest or least fit employee. After six hours, you did get a 45-minute break, but were only paid for 15 minutes of it.


    The hardest part of the job remained dealing with… well, some of you. Customers felt entitled to raise their voices, use profanity, and commit Trumpian acts of rudeness toward my fellow employees and me. Most of our “valued guests” would never act that way in other public situations or with their own coworkers, no less friends. But inside that store, shoppers seemed to interpret “the customer is always right” to mean that they could do any damn thing they wished. It often felt as if we were penned animals who could be poked with a stick for sport, and without penalty. No matter what was said or done, store management tolerated no response from us other than a smile and a “Yes, sir” (or ma’am).

    The store showed no more mercy in its treatment of workers than did the customers. My schedule, for instance, changed constantly. There was simply no way to plan things more than a week in advance. (Forget accepting a party invitation. I’m talking about childcare and medical appointments.) If you were on the closing shift, you stayed until the manager agreed that the store was clean enough for you to go home. You never quite knew when work was going to be over and no cell phone calls were allowed to alert babysitters of any delay.

    And keep in mind that I was lucky. I was holding down only one job in one store. Most of my fellow workers were trying to juggle two or three jobs, each with constantly changing schedules, in order to stitch together something like a half-decent paycheck.

    In New York City, that store was required to give us sick leave only after we’d worked there for a full year — and that was generous compared to practices in many other locales. Until then, you either went to work sick or stayed home unpaid. Unlike New York, most states do not require such a store to offer any sick leave, ever, to employees who work less than 40 hours a week. Think about that the next time your waitress coughs.


    Minimum Wages and Minimum Hours

    Much is said these days about raising the minimum wage (and it should be raised), and indeed, on January 1, 2016, 13 states did raise theirs. But what sounds like good news is unlikely to have much effect on the working poor.

    In New York, for instance, the minimum went from $8.75 an hour to the $9.00 I was making. New York is relatively generous. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and 21 states require only that federal standard. Presumably to prove some grim point or other, Georgia and Wyoming officially mandate an even lower minimum wage and then unofficially require the payment of $7.25 to avoid Department of Labor penalties. Some Southern states set no basement figure, presumably for similar reasons.

    Don’t forget: any minimum wage figure mentioned is before taxes. Brackets vary, but let’s knock an even 10% off that hourly wage just as a reasonable guess about what is taken out of a minimum-wage worker’s salary. And there are expenses to consider, too. My round-trip bus fare every day, for instance, was $5.50. That meant I worked most of my first hour for bus fare and taxes. Keep in mind that some workers have to pay for childcare as well, which means that it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which someone could actually come close to losing money by going to work for short shifts at minimum wage.

    In addition to the fundamental problem of simply not paying people enough, there’s the additional problem of not giving them enough hours to work. The two unfortunately go together, which means that raising the minimum rate is only part of any solution to improving life in the low-wage world.

    At the store where I worked for minimum wage a few years ago, for instance, hours were capped at 39 a week. The company did that as a way to avoid providing the benefits that would kick in once one became a “full time” employee. Things have changed since 2012 — and not for the better.

    Four years later, the hours of most minimum-wage workers are capped at 29. That’s the threshold after which most companies with 50 or more employees are required to pay into the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) fund on behalf of their workers. Of course, some minimum wage workers get fewer than 29 hours for reasons specific to the businesses they work for.


    It’s Math Time

    While a lot of numbers follow, remember that they all add up to a picture of how people around us are living every day.

    In New York, under the old minimum wage system, $8.75 multiplied by 39 hours equaled $341.25 a week before taxes. Under the new minimum wage, $9.00 times 29 hours equals $261 a week. At a cap of 29 hours, the minimum wage would have to be raised to $11.77 just to get many workers back to the same level of take-home pay that I got in 2012, given the drop in hours due to the Affordable Care Act. Health insurance is important, but so is food.

    In other words, a rise in the minimum wage is only half the battle; employees need enough hours of work to make a living.

    About food: if a minimum wage worker in New York manages to work two jobs (to reach 40 hours a week) without missing any days due to illness, his or her yearly salary would be $18,720. In other words, it would fall well below the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s food stamp territory. To get above the poverty line with a 40-hour week, the minimum wage would need to go above $10. At 29 hours a week, it would need to make it to $15 an hour. Right now, the highest minimum wage at a state level is in the District of Columbia at $11.50. As of now, no state is slated to go higher than that before 2018. (Some cities do set their own higher minimum wages.)

    So add it up: The idea of raising the minimum wage (“the fight for $15”) is great, but even with that $15 in such hours-restrictive circumstances, you can’t make a loaf of bread out of a small handful of crumbs. In short, no matter how you do the math, it’s nearly impossible to feed yourself, never mind a family, on the minimum wage. It’s like being trapped on an M.C. Escher staircase.

    The federal minimum wage hit its high point in 1968 at $8.54 in today’s dollars and while this country has been a paradise in the ensuing decades for what we now call the “One Percent,” it’s been downhill for low-wage workers ever since. In fact, since it was last raised in 2009 at the federal level to $7.25 per hour, the minimum has lost about 8.1% of its purchasing power to inflation. In other words, minimum-wage workers actually make less now than they did in 1968, when most of them were probably kids earning pocket money and not adults feeding their own children.

    In adjusted dollars, the minimum wage peaked when the Beatles were still together and the Vietnam War raged.


    Who Pays?

    Many of the arguments against raising the minimum wage focus on the possibility that doing so would put small businesses in the red. This is disingenuous indeed, since 20 mega-companies dominate the minimum-wage world. Walmart alone employs 1.4 million minimum-wage workers; Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) is in second place; and McDonald’s takes third. Overall, 60% of minimum-wage workers are employed by businesses not officially considered “small” by government standards, and of course carve-outs for really small businesses are possible, as was done with Obamacare.

    Keep in mind that not raising wages costs you money.

    Those minimum wage workers who can’t make enough and need to go on food assistance? Well, Walmart isn’t paying for those food stamps (now called SNAP), you are. The annual bill that states and the federal government foot for working families making poverty-level wages is $153 billion. A single Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance money, and Walmart employees account for 18% of all food stamps issued. In other words, those everyday low prices at the chain are, in part, subsidized by your tax money.

    If the minimum wage goes up, will spending on food benefits programs go down? Almost certainly. But won’t stores raise prices to compensate for the extra money they will be shelling out for wages? Possibly. But don’t worry — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would mean a Big Mac would cost all of 17 cents more.


    Time Theft

    My retail job ended a little earlier than I had planned, because I committed time theft.

    You probably don’t even know what time theft is. It may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, but minimum-wage employers take time theft seriously. The basic idea is simple enough: if they’re paying you, you’d better be working. While the concept is not invalid per se, the way it’s used by the mega-companies reveals much about how the lowest wage workers are seen by their employers in 2016.

    The problem at my chain store was that its in-store cafe was a lot closer to my work area than the time clock where I had to punch out whenever I was going on a scheduled break. One day, when break time on my shift came around, I only had 15 minutes. So I decided to walk over to that cafe, order a cup of coffee, and then head for the place where I could punch out and sit down (on a different floor at the other end of the store).

    We’re talking an extra minute or two, no more, but in such operations every minute is tabulated and accounted for. As it happened, a manager saw me and stepped in to tell the cafe clerk to cancel my order. Then, in front of whoever happened to be around, she accused me of committing time theft — that is, of ordering on the clock. We’re talking about the time it takes to say, “Grande, milk, no sugar, please.” But no matter, and getting chastised on company time was considered part of the job, so the five minutes we stood there counted as paid work.

    At $9 an hour, my per-minute pay rate was 15 cents, which meant that I had time-stolen perhaps 30 cents. I was, that is, being nickel and dimed to death.


    Economics Is About People

    It seems wrong in a society as wealthy as ours that a person working full-time can’t get above the poverty line. It seems no less wrong that someone who is willing to work for the lowest wage legally payable must also give up so much of his or her self-respect and dignity as a kind of tariff. Holding a job should not be a test of how to manage life as one of the working poor.

    I didn’t actually get fired for my time theft. Instead, I quit on the spot. Whatever the price is for my sense of self-worth, it isn’t 30 cents. Unlike most of this country’s working poor, I could afford to make such a decision. My life didn’t depend on it. When the manager told a handful of my coworkers watching the scene to get back to work, they did. They couldn’t afford not to.




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    Majority of U.S. Public School Students Live in Poverty

    February 19, 2016 // 14 Comments »

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    For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

    The Southern Education Foundation reports 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches, a common indicator of food at-risk students living below the Federal Poverty Line.


    Bottom Feeders Not Fed

    “We’ve all known this was the trend, that we would get to a majority, but it’s here sooner rather than later,” said Michael A. Rebell of Teachers College at Columbia University, noting that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. “A lot of people at the top are doing much better, but the people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school.”

    Free, universal public education was a cornerstone of America’s growth, seeking to assimilate waves of immigrants and to provide them with the basic education needed in their day to participate in the economy, i.e., first an elementary education only, enlarged to include high school as demands changed. Things stalled out there.

    The trend toward majority-poor students in that public education system suggests further sorting out, at very early ages, of our once semi-egalitarian society into Haves (the one percent) and Have Nots (the 99 percent; the numbers are not that sharp yet, but definitely aimed that way.)

    Stupid people can’t get good jobs. But stupid people also do what they’re told to do, especially if they depend on you to keep their kids just barely out of starvation.


    We Don’t Need No Education

    In addition, the majority-poor schools are sliding away from their educational function and are becoming simply extension of the social services net.

    “When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe,” said Sonya Romero-Smith, a veteran teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary School in Albuquerque. Fourteen of her 18 kindergartners are eligible for free lunches. She helps them clean up with bathroom wipes and toothbrushes, and she stocks a drawer with clean socks, underwear, pants and shoes.

    Romero-Smith, 40, who has been a teacher for 19 years, became a foster mother in November to two girls, sisters who attend her school. They had been homeless, their father living on the streets and their mother in jail, she said. When she brought the girls home, she was shocked by the disarray of their young lives.

    “Getting rid of bedbugs, that took us awhile. Night terrors, that took a little while. Hoarding food, flushing a toilet and washing hands, it took us a little while,” she said. “You spend some time with little ones like this and it’s gut wrenching. These kids aren’t thinking, ‘Am I going to take a test today?’ They’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be okay?’”



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    Do the Math: American Economy and Society

    February 16, 2016 // 34 Comments »




    When most people talk about economics there are lots of statistics, as if economics is about math. Economics is really about people. It shows who we are as a nation and tells us what we will become. In 21st century America, our hope now is that we’ll someday better people than we have become. But do the math; it’ll be a hard road.

    In its most individual definition, jobs and work earn people money. They can feed themselves and their families, live inside and all the rest.

    But at a more societal level, a broader, more fundamental level, work is more. Work can define a person, work can give purpose, make someone feel useful, engage the resources of a society, create goals. You could almost call it a soul, knowing that work saved more lives than any preacher.

    The absence of work does just the opposite. People may be saved from starving by public assistance or charity (a vital part of society, caring for one another), but without purpose, they become cynical. They turn to drugs, legal like alcohol or illegal like meth, to replace the purpose and to fill the time. Without work, people give up. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for a nation to build on.


    So here’s what is happening in our America. See if you can figure out where this all leads to.


    Manufacturing was until the late 1970s the source of unprecedented wealth, spread proportionally across the economic spectrum in America. There were super rich people, and there were poor people, but there was also a thriving middle class that accounted for a huge section of our society. Without those jobs, economic apartheid, the one percent and the 99 percent, are inevitable.

    As just one example, since the 2009 taxpayer-paid bailout, General Motors has cut high-paid workers for cheaper labor, hiring. The automaker hired around 18,000 hourly production workers, allowing the company to remove skilled trade jobs. The Center for Automotive Research says General Motors Company saves approximately $57,000 a year per worker when it replaces a skilled $32 per hour union worker with a $15 per hour less-skilled, temp or non-unionized employee. These were once the “good jobs” that sustained a growing economy. They are gone. They have been replaced with…

    Service jobs. Service jobs do not create anything. They simply move some money from one hand to another, with a larger company taking a cut and sending the cash off to another city, another state, or another country. In 2014 America, manufacturing employs 1/10 of Americans. Services accounts for nearly 90%. America’s largest single employer in 1960 was General Motors. In 2014, it is Walmart. The “occupations” that account for the most jobs now are retail salespersons, cashiers, and restaurant workers. Those jobs pay minimum wage or less (for restaurant workers who can get tips), rarely offer any benefits and are rarely full-time.

    Working for subsistence wages, supplemented with public benefits, does not create value for humans. It is a modern-day form of feudalism, or perhaps more similar to raising livestock than growing a society.

    My book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentconfronts these issues head on. The book is fiction, in that it wraps the economics and societal changes of the last fifty years into the story of one family. The book is all true in that what happens to that family, and in particular the main everyman character Earl, happened to millions of American families that believed the myths of growth, hard work and a sustainable middle class even as the super wealthy were pulling the money right out of their hands in front of their eyes. Ignore the rising waters, until you feel them up to your Katrina-like lips.

    Choosing to not believe something doesn’t make it go away.

    My book is set in Ohio, but the stories in it can be taking place today anywhere in the United States outside a few pockets of affluence centered on a few major cities, or a handful of growth industries such as government and defense.

    If you want to know where the 99 percent came from, this is part of the answer. Think of it as a good story, with a conscience.




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    Christmas Spirit

    December 25, 2015 // 12 Comments »

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    I was eating in the food court below Grand Central Station in New York. There was a cold rain outside, and a good portion of the people around me appeared to be homeless.


    Many were making the rounds of the trash cans and tables, eating the food they found. There were cops nearby, as well as National Guardsmen on terror watch duty. There seemed to be a sort of understanding at work, such that the cops left the homeless alone as long as the homeless left the paying customers alone.


    I wasn’t going to finish my meal. There wasn’t much left, but some. What was the right thing to do?

    A) Leave the meal. A mouthful for someone hungry is better than nothing;

    B) Throw it away. It would have been embarrassing to offer a small amount available only because I’d already gorged myself;

    C) Go buy another full meal (I could afford it) and give it to one of the hungry people;

    D) Demand my government stop spending 54% of my taxes on war (actually more, if you consider black budgets, paramilitary forces, and intelligence costs) and start taking care of its own people. I have the resources to feed one person, but we have the resources to feed all Americans. If only we were willing. I don’t always know what’s right, but I know what is wrong.





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    Goodnight American Dream: The Middle Class Is Now a Minority

    December 14, 2015 // 7 Comments »

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    The middle class, which for 40 years has represented a majority of the country in practice, and formed the foundational belief in what has been known as the “American Dream,” is now just half the United States, according to a new report.

    Over at least the last four decades, productivity gains have gone largely to the top of the economic pyramid, increasing both their income and wealth. Real income growth has been flat for most Americans, even as the cost of living has increased.


    Need it in numbers?

    The share of America’s income going to the middle class has fallen from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent now. Today, the majority of our national income goes to the upper class, which reaps a 49 percent share. (by comparison, the share of income going to the upper class in 1970 was just 29 percent). The median wealth of middle class households has fallen by more than one-fourth since the beginning of this century.


    Need it in simple terms?

    The rich are getting very much richer, seeing their wealth grow exponentially. The middle class is shrinking. Meanwhile, the poor are still poor and their numbers are growing. We are indeed heading toward a society within a society within the world’s wealthiest nation — one percent of “us” now own half of everything.


    The implications of this path are dark.

    At the point where a handful of people control most of the wealth, and the other money in our nation is so diffuse as to make those individuals in the bottom 99 percent of our society irrelevant except as cheap labor, we live in a modern day version of feudalism. Money is power, and a select handful now can control elections with “donations,” can have laws written and rewritten to match their needs, can keep a lid on the minimum wage more and more of us depend on now to get by, manipulate college loan and mortgage rates to keep people in debt, and secure ownership of the land we live on and the places we live. Hyper-wealthy people through their charitable foundations are free to social-engineer our world, paying to say grow one form of educational system while leaving another to wither on limited funding.


    How did the wealthy pull off the greatest peaceful takeover of a nation in human history? Very easily. Their master stroke, however, was not to take predatory capitalism to its extreme, but to do so without sparking more than a whisper of disagreement from the very people they trod upon.

    Here is the linchpin of how the rich have taken us: they have convinced average Americans to act and vote against their own interests, in part by manipulating them into opposing any program that has a chance of benefiting black and brown equally or more than themselves. Decent health care and nutrition for everyone? That’s socialism!

    Our entire culture is fear-based, from our religion to our media to Wall Street. It drives everything, and fear is the most powerful tool that rulers can use to manipulate people. It is this constant state of fear that really makes us exceptional compared to every other advanced nation.

    People, we have been bought. Someone else now, in every effective and meaningful way, owns us. Suckers.



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