• Archive of "#99Percent" Category

    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 »

    education


    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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    Here in Youngstown

    December 12, 2015 // 12 Comments »

    mill overgrown

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is fiction per se, but fiction based on fact. My story of the intentional destruction of an entire class of people through economic disparity is mirrored in so many people’s lives.

    Here is one of those stories, originally submitted to this blog as a comment, but well-worth repeating here (lightly edited):

    From 1955 to 1965, my Dad lived near Youngstown, Ohio. He moved up from the Mississippi Delta and worked at Packard Electric and some steel mills to get through college at Youngstown University.

    I drove through Youngstown last month for the first time after my Uncle’s funeral (submariner for six years, at Pearl Harbor, worked for 40 years at the General Motors Lordstown plant). Youngstown today reminded me of Detroit (as a firefighter, I tend to notice lots of empty lots where houses once stood).

    I graduated from high school in Detroit in 1983. The place has really gone even more downhill since 2008; my old house on the West side has been stripped out (dead dog carcass in the dining room), probably a 25 percent vacant rate.

    I don’t see things getting better anytime soon. I’m doing OK as a firefighter, but I’m making less than I did 13 years ago and the powers-that-be have been going after the public unions (now that less folks are in private unions than before the Great Depression).


    Here’s another from Comments:

    This blog resonates with me as I grew up in Troy, Ohio in the 1960s and ’70s before moving to New Jersey in 1974. I experienced small town America with Soap Box Derby races and Memorial Day parades and watching 4th of July fireworks from the levee on the Miami River. I went to college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where “The Steel” ran the longest continuous steel mill in the world, something like 11 miles. A few years ago I read that the foundry part downtown had been turned into a casino and I knew that the U.S. was dying of capitalist rot.


    …And another:

    My long dead friend Joe was the son of the owner of a bar in downtown Lorain. My Polish friends had fathers that worked the steel mills. My high school used to play Admiral King, and my trip there was to the other end of the universe. The last several times in Lorain the major bridge was out for repair and it sure took a long time to fix it. I used to drive 6 and 2 driving to BGSU. Joe commented while dying that he remembered us tooling down that road doing 120 mph in my Detroit iron/389 Pontiac.Both of us were immigrant stock and soldiered for this country. Joe is still buried in Lorain with his parents.

    In October 2013 I stayed at Port Clinton and it was depressing. Half the business district was depressed. Tourism is down. A condo in town sold for $20K. Bowling Green town is dull and needs a paint job and new roofs. Cleveland is a slum, as is Euclid where my folks lived.The house I grew up in has been demolished. The inner city is every bit of what you wrote about, but worse. If that’s possible then things are really bad.



    There are so many, too many, such stories out there, good people who believed what they had been told only to find themselves discarded when companies found they could make more money somewhere, somehow else. They all are the ghosts of Tom Joad now.




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    How Much Money Do You Need to be Rich?

    November 10, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    scroogemcduck


    We hear a lot about the “one percent” and the “99 percent” but what kind of net worth scores you a top slot in the real-life Hunger Games here in America? How much money do you need to be just average? The answers tell you just about everything you need to know about modern day America.

    Short answer: Oh, we’re so screwed.


    The Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances released in September of 2014 is among the most recent data. The nice folks who compiled all of this waded through massive amounts of data. They caution they did not include 11 ultra high net worth individuals due to identity issues whatever that means, so the very top of this accounting could actually be even worse in reality. And don’t forget, the super-rich have had two whole years to accumulate even more money since this all was tabulated.

    Let’s start at the top. The term “one percent” is now semi-meaningless, though you will need about $8 million to join them anyway. What really matters now is the top .1 percent. To crack that level you need to have well over $30 million in net worth.

    But I get it, no one here is packing those kind of bucks. We’re all sort of average Americans, right? Maybe. To count yourself in at the 50 percent mark you need to possess some $82,000. How are we doing, students and young marrieds? Keep in mind net worth is what you own minus what you owe, not necessarily how much money you earn. So those students loans and that VISA card debt count against your ranking here, sorry.

    The good news is that if you own nothing, have no savings or investments but also have no debt — you are precisely at zero — you are in the 11.8th percentile of net worths. Yep, that means about 11 percent of us have negative net worths. About a third of us have a net worth of only $15,000, not exactly a significant bumper against some bad luck, like losing your job or getting sick.

    It’s a pretty bleak picture, but here it is:




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    Wealth Therapists Now Exist to Help Super Rich Cope with Hardships

    October 24, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    scroogemcduck
    Sure, 99 percent of us have problems: Can we feed our kids? Will we lose our home to predatory lending? How can we access decent healthcare? That sort of thing.

    But rich people have problems, too. Luckily, a group of brave psychiatric professionals, dubbed “wealth therapists,” have emerged to come to their aid.

     

    The UK Guardian (America’s best newspaper) profiled Clay Cockrell, a former Wall Street worker turned therapist, who spends his days helping New York’s wealthiest people.

    So what issues are America’s One Percent struggling with? Cockrell tells us there is guilt over being rich in the first place, which makes the rich feel that they have to hide the fact that they are rich. And then there is the isolation – being in the One Percent, it turns out, can be lonely.

    And the problem is growing. According to Oxfam, the richest One Percent have seen their share of global wealth increase from only 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014. It will break 51 percent by next year.

    The wealth therapists also say things have only gotten worse for their clients since the debate over income inequality that has been spurred on by movements like Occupy Wall Street.

    “The Occupy Wall Street movement singled out the One Percent and painted them globally as something negative,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, another wealth psychologist. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but it really is making value judgments about a particular group of people as a whole.”

    Traeger-Muney specializes in the unique issues inheritors face. “You can come up with lot of words and sayings about inheritors, and not one of them is positive: spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in their mouth, trust fund babies, all these things,” she said, adding “I am shocked by things that people say. If you substitute in the word Jewish or black, you would never say something like that.”

     

    Hyper-wealthy, we all feel your pain. Thus, today, we are all part of the One Percent. #WealthyLivesMatter (say the wealthy.)

     

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    Maine Outlaws Jet Skis for Welfare Recipients

    October 10, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    oliver-twist-please-sir-can-i-have-some-more-begging-bowl

    In another step in the long political tradition of imposing bombastic, faux populist, hate-mongering solutions to problems that don’t really exist, Maine Governor Paul LePage announced he is tired of able-bodied food stamp recipients zipping around on jet skis instead of looking for jobs that do not exist.


    His state thus proudly announced it will disallow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the official term for food stamps) benefits for childless households with certain assets worth more than $5,000. A home equity and a person’s primary vehicle (but what if that vehicle is a $1.5 million Ferrari?) won’t count against the limit, but the state has issued a list of things that could: “bank accounts, snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, recreational vehicles, campers” and other valuables.

    “Hard-working Mainers should not come home to see snowmobiles, four wheelers or jet skis in the yards of those who are getting welfare,” LePage said in a statement. Left out of course is how those “hard-working Mainers” know exactly how is getting welfare among jet ski owners, but, whatever, when you are inciting hatred you don’t sweat the details.


    OK. So if you are poor, you need to become poorer to get food assistance, because, sure if you have more than $5,000 bucks worth of whatever you are rich enough. The, after those one-time sell offs of your assets for pennies on the dollar to richer folks, you are then poor enough for welfare. Circle of life kinda stuff.

    Of course all this righteousness begs the question of how many SNAP recipients in Maine have jet skis in their yards. Exactly how many?

    “We hear examples and concerns from clients and constituents quite frequently,” a spokesperson for the governor replied. He declined to give a number, or an estimate, or to cite even one specific case.

    He also declined to answer the “So what?” question; so what if someone who needs food assistance has minimal assets. Is the idea that one needs to sell off everything one owns, down to the walls, and only then ask for something to eat? How the f*ck mean of a society are we?

    Federal law imposes resource limits for SNAP eligibility, but states generally waive the limit for applicants if they already qualify for even modest assistance from another means-tested safety net program. It’s a policy called broad-based categorical eligibility, and most states offer it.

    In the aftermath of the Great Recession, almost all states also waived time limits on food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents, and those limits are coming back now that the unemployment rates are falling. LePage’s administration imposed the time limit — billed as a “work requirement” — ahead of schedule, ending benefits for 9,000 Mainers this year.


    Oh, and about those jobs. Minimum wage in Maine is $7.50 an hour. Most minimum wage jobs offer 29 or fewer hours a week. So, even before taxes, that works out to $217 a week. Assuming a full 52 weeks of employment, that adds up to $11,310. So hah hah, the poverty line in Maine for one person is $11,945.

    “What’s next? Grandma can’t buy groceries until she sells her engagement ring?” said Representative Drew Gattine, a Democrat who co-chairs the state legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. (Answer: No. For no apparent reason, jewelry will not count toward the asset limit in Maine.)


    Now, one more question.

    How much in free food benefits are those lazy ass jet skiers in Maine sucking up? In other words, how much money will the new system in Maine save those angry tax payers, especially given the bureaucratic infrastructure needed to discover who has assets such as jet skis, and then to process them out of the SNAP system, lousy free-loaders?

    The average person in Maine receives all of $122.79 a month in food benefits.




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    Kansas Bans Poor People from Spending Welfare on Cruise Ships

    October 3, 2015 // 17 Comments »

    child

    There is a myth that welfare is a good deal, money for nothing.

    Maybe to some it works that way, but in Kansas a family of three gets a maximum of $429 a money in cash, about $35 bucks a person a week. I don’t know, I guess that is one way to live, but not a way too many people want to live.

    But if you are one of the people who thinks that is still too generous, boy has Kansas got some new laws for you.


    Haters Gonna Hate Once Elected

    Kansas welfare recipients will be unable to withdraw more than $25 per day in benefits under a new law sent this week to Governor Sam Brownback by the state legislature. Like most states, Kansas distributes benefits via a debit card.

    The bill also prohibits welfare recipients from spending their benefits at certain types of businesses, including liquor stores, fortune tellers, swimming pools and cruise ships.

    “We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” one state representative said. “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”

    Under the new rule, a family receiving the maximum benefit would have to go to the ATM more than a dozen times to get the full benefit, which would be whittled away by an 85 cent fee for each withdrawal after the first one. And since many recipients do not have bank accounts, they will pay an ATM fee on top of that for each withdrawal. If you figure $3 (+.85) a transaction, times 12 pulls, that’s about $46 a month, a de facto reduction of benefits of more than ten percent for no real reason whatsoever.

    The federal welfare reform law of 1996 gave states significant leeway to design their own programs. Missouri, for example, is considering a bill to forbid food stamps from being spent on steak or seafood. No more cheap fish heads for you! But even welfare advocates were taken aback by the $25 daily limit in Kansas, something that has not been implemented in any other state.

    “This provision makes it nearly impossible for a recipient who does not have a checking account to pay rent,” said Liz Schott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Kansas provision originally would have limited daily benefits to $60, but that was reduced through an amendment.


    The Questions

    We’re left with some questions.

    I’m pretty sure no one thinks it would be right for welfare recipients to spend benefits designed to feed hungry people at liquor stores, fortune tellers, swimming pools or cruise ships. One wonders, however, at the codification of that into law. Do the Kansas benefit cards even know they are in an ATM on the Love Boat versus one at the grocery store? Is there in fact even one case of a welfare receipt spending his money on a cruise? At a maximum of $429 a month, it seems hard to save up the thousands of dollars cruises cost, especially given the airfare from Kansas to the nearest ocean. And since you can withdraw cash and then spend it on booze or fortune telling if you really want to, isn’t the whole thing pointless?

    The $25 daily limit is also a bit unclear. That amount of money doesn’t get you very far at the grocery store, so it translates into little more than multiple trips each week plus the costs of ATM fees. That alone is at variance with trying to find or work a job, and child care. It does not seem to benefit anyone.

    So what is the point? Well, politics for sure. Nothing says Republican in Kansas apparently like being needlessly mean to poor people. A lot of votes in that hater demographic. Right along side that is the idea that poor people deserve to suffer somehow.

    So, Kansas, why not go for it? Why not just have welfare recipients publicly have to beg for money? Maybe something on TV, like American Idol, where the best beggar as voted on by the home audience gets an extra jar of peanut butter, or, as a special reward, a quick trip to the fortune teller?

    “The magic cards tell me your future looks… very bleak…”



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    Meet You in Atlantic City: An Economic Fable

    July 21, 2015 // 4 Comments »


    As the New Economy starts to look more and more like the Depression Economy of the 1930’s, the divide between rich and poor clearer as businesses fade and fail, Atlantic City provides a layers of urban archaeology pointing where we’ve been and maybe where we’re going.

    We All Love Lucy

    Driving in on the older roads, there’s Lucy the Elephant. Not a real elephant of course, Lucy is instead a freakish 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 fire, neglect and storm damage. Along the way, she was used a tavern, a hotel, and for most of her life, simply an “attraction.” As owning a car, and the family driving vacations that accompanied ownership, became egalitarian rights in the 1950’s and 60’s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of freaks, and spectacles such as the world’s largest ball of twine.

    Lucy—and Atlantic City—set the trend well into the early 1970’s. Between 1947 and 1973 actual incomes in the U.S. rose at the same level for everyone, more or less evenly spread across the societal spectrum. In 1932 Detroit produced 1.4 million cars, in 1950 it rose to eight million, then peaked at twelve million in 1973. America was 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. From 1973 to 1993 the top one percent of Americans saw income grow eighty percent, and by 1989 the one percent owned forty percent of U.S. wealth. Atlantic City hurt. The famous Boardwalk (remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City) became a crime scene, too dangerous for casual tourists, and drugs took over for tourism. It wasn’t different than the rest of America, just more intense.

    Atlantic City Rolls the Dice on Legalized Gambling

    Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City, some thirty years ago, things had again started to change. It was in the midst of a hyper national economy that gambling was legalized, and money poured into the area. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants, and local business owners scrambled to find workers even as they considered early retirement based on the soaring value of the land they had held for generations. Everyone and everything felt alive, and billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

    Thirty Years Later, Does the Bet Pay Off?

    Thirty years later, a visit to Atlantic City once again reminds that life there isn’t any different than the rest of America, just more intense. On a twenty-story hotel tower, you can read the words “Hilton” in dirt shadow where the sign was removed as the place slammed shut. Trump Plaza, nothing if not a monument to excess and hubris from someone once admired as a business magician and pathetically now a presidential candidate, even before it closed was much of a caricature of elegance as the man himself. When I stayed there, the pillows smelled of sweat, the corner of doors were chipped, many areas needed paint and most of the bars and restaurants were as lonely as the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People who appeared homeless harmlessly wandered in and out of the casino, itself tawdy and too dimly lit to inspire fun. It was like the air had been let out of the place.

    Outside along the Boardwalk, the famous rolling chairs are pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the City. Lots of people still took rides, but it seemed that paying the workers to push you while you sat felt cheap and sad, just a step aside of pushing dollars into the g-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk. It felt too much like buying and discarding someone’s self respect to be considered fun. The swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers had more shuttered than open stores. The family restaurant I worked in thirty years ago is now a tiny dollar store run by a man angry that I was just looking for old times’ sake. Plenty of “We Buy Gold” and pawn shops nearby, however. Though touted as a nouveau cuisine destination in ads, the only lines I saw were for people challenging the economics of the $7.98 all-you-can-eat buffet.

    Where to Lucy?

    There are always things that hint at optimism. Atlantic City survived Hurricane Sandy with little damage. The Hard Rock was doing good business with three dollar Miller Lite’s. Caesar’s had set up a glitzy room for Asian gamblers, complete with Chinese-speaking dealers and table games from Macau. Everyone turned from the old guys pushing the rolling chairs to see where the young guy running across the hot sand carrying two ice creams cones was headed.

    The average American worker never earned as much again as in the peak year of 1973. Poverty rates also reached a historic low in 1973 and have risen steadily thereafter. One out of five American kids now lives in a household that cannot feed itself. Aside from it all, Lucy the Elephant still stands her post, unblinking and silent. She looks out over the Boardwalk, maybe America itself, and wonders where we are all headed.







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    Homeless Guy’s Sign, Four Blocks from Koch Brothers’ Apartment

    July 11, 2015 // 7 Comments »

    2014-10-20 20.45.22

    There’s a homeless man I see from time to time near where I live. He sometimes begs for money. Sometimes people give him food, sometimes he forages in the trash. There’s his sign, written on the lid of an old cooler.

    In America’s richest city, four blocks from where the Koch Brothers live, in a nation that has allocated $1.57 trillion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including $92.3 billion in fiscal year 2014, we don’t have much to offer this guy.

    There are about 3,357 unsheltered people living on New York’s streets, like the guy who wrote the sign shown here, a six percent rise from 2013 to 2014. There are luckier ones. New York has 53,615 people who live in homeless shelters.

    At the same time, overall property values for those who have places to live rose 10.4 percent across New York. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of New Yorkers with a net-worth of over $30 million rose higher than any other city in the world besides Singapore and Hong Kong,

    We are willing to send humanitarian aid to Iraq and Syria, but not to our homeless in America. There’s your story for today.




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    Does Income Inequality Matter to the Richest Americans?

    June 24, 2015 // 8 Comments »

    Scrooge McDuck



    Does income inequality matter to the richest Americans? Not very much. Here’s why. And it’s more than just greed-is-good; the rich will just get richer.

    A study by economists at Washington University in St. Louis tells us stagnant income for the bottom 95 percent of wage earners makes it impossible for them to consume as they did in the years before the downturn. Consumer spending, some say, drives the U.S. economy, and is likely to continue to continue to dominate, as the decomposition of America’s industrial base dilutes old economy sales of appliances, cars, steel and the like. That should be bad news for the super-wealthy, us buying less stuff?

    But that same study shows that while rising inequality reduced income growth for the bottom 95 percent of beginning around 1980, the group’s consumption growth did not fall proportionally at first. Instead, lower savings and hyper-available credit (remember Countrywide mortgages and usurous re-fi’s?) put the middle and bottom portions of our society on an unsustainable financial path which increased spending until it triggered the Great Recession. So, without surprise, consumption fell sharply in the recession, consistent with tighter borrowing constraints. Meanwhile, America’s the top earners’ wealth grew. The recession represented the largest redistribution of wealth in this century.

    The gap between most Americans and those few who sit atop our economy continues to grow. For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top five percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate, about four percent a year. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases only half of that of those at the top.

    This leaves the very real issue for the rich of who will buy all the stuff their big corporations make? But don’t worry. They’ve got it handled.

    Taxpayer Subsidies to Big Corporations

    Don’t worry about the big guys; they have figured out how to profit off poverty. Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger have made profits of $75.2 billion off food stamp purchases, even setting a new record in 2012.

    And never mind how food stamps and other benefits are used by those same retailers to subsidize the low wages they pay their workers. Meanwhile, the same bill in Congress that would cut food stamps pays out farm subsidies to America’s billionaires, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab and S. Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A.

    The American Beverage Association, a lobby group that includes Coca-Cola, strongly opposes restricting soda purchases by food stamp recipients. Why? Recipients spend from $1.7 to $2.1 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages. While alcohol and other unhealthy items are restricted for purchase with stamps, soda stands available.

    Government Defense Spending

    About the only manufacturing-industrial sector of the American economy left prevailing over all foreign competition is defense. America buys its military hardware almost exclusively from domestic corporations (with a few crumbs tossed to allies like the UK and Israel) and fills the job ranks of the industry, contractors, and military with Americans.

    In 2011, the U.S. government spent about $718 billion on defense, including arms sales and transfers to foreign governments. Hardware alone accounted for $128 billion. The total figure does not veterans benefits of $127 billion in 2011, or about 3.5 percent of the federal budget. America’s newest aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, not including development costs.

    The Stock Market

    The stock market (which set record highs in 2013) is a significant source of wealth in America. Indeed, what could be easier than placing money into an investment and, with no sweat or effort of one’s own, seeing it grow. A rising market lifts the national economy, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

    The truth is closer to a rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. Less than half of Americans own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock.

    Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock. At the same time, the lowest 90 percent own the leftover 20 percent.

    So Don’t Worry about the Rich

    These examples– and there are more– see tax write-offs, use of trusts to limit inheritance tax, offshore banking, large scale real estate (the top ten percent own about 40 percent of America’s land) show that income inequality is not a problem for the rich, and it is not a problem for America’s “economy” per se. The huge concentration of wealth in a small number of hands, and the methods by which those few acquire and maintain their wealth, means that the 99 percent of us edge closer and closer to playing no significant role in the economy anyway. We are becoming merely the collateral damage of income inequality.



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    The New Apartheid is Dollars, Not Color

    June 23, 2015 // 5 Comments »



    In the U.S. forty-seven million people get SNAP (food stamps, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so you can sound odd while starving; it also uses a debit card system now, not actual stamps or coupons anymore.)

    In Ohio, like most places, they pay out the whole state on the first of the month, millions of people, Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. “Their kind” of stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day, kind of mini-economic boom, or maybe more like a bear waking up in the winter to eat before going back to sleep. It’s the government keeping families— and businesses— alive, thirty days at a time.

    A single person with nothing to her name in my old state of Virginia would qualify for about $200 a month in SNAP. We’ll assume by now she’s pretty skinny but fifty bucks a week for food is hard, hard. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she does. However, in our America, something like ten percent of families with kids don’t have enough to eat. Our system is trending toward telling those kids to go to hell if they’re hungry.


    Trick question; they’re already there.


    Attempts to provide healthcare to more people, however flawed or hesitant, are opposed by too many of us. The quality of education kids get depends on how much money you have. Buy a nice house in a good neighborhood, or settle for whatever is nearby staffed by whoever they can get for whatever they are paying. Worse for college, where it is just all about the Benji’s. Same for safety. There’s no surprise that six of the ten most dangerous cities in America are decayed industrial towns— Flint and Detroit and Cleveland top the list. If the cops show up at all in those bad neighborhoods it’s to stop and frisk, or, to shoot. They’re not there to protect you, but to protect them.

    While much of the disparity has been along racial lines, the new apartheid is one of dollars, not color, suburbanized.

    So Get a Job

    Unlike many other first world nations, we in America equate minimal life standards that benefit society as a whole and make a place more worth living in– eating, healthcare, education– with a certain level of employment. So, don’t like what you got? Go get a better job loser. Lazy, dumb people get what they deserve. I work for a living. Sound familiar? Dickens had his character Scrooge say back in Victorian England that hungry children might best “starve so as to reduce the surplus population.”

    OK, I’ll go get a job. But then our society creates a significant portion of our available jobs to fall under the level of livable employment. More and more jobs tumble into minimum wage (or less; any employee eligible for tips does not have to be paid even the minimum) and limit the number of hours available each week to keep everyone below “full time” so no benefits need be paid. This creates the Working Poor, a permanent underclass.

    The system also allows ignorant people to blame the working poor for their own suffering (and the ignorant people can then content themselves “knowing” it is not their responsibility to help) when in fact there is no way out. Not everyone can get or afford an education (see above), and of course even with an education the number of “good” jobs is limited. Education and training do not create new jobs. New jobs create the need for training and education. Without those jobs, all you are doing is making trained unemployed people out of untrained unemployed people.

    Welcome to the Jungle

    Having lived and traveled in the real Third World, it is clear where the lines meet out in the future distance. In many of those countries, two worlds exist in proximity. Out “there” are shanty towns where life expectancy is short and life is mean and hard, where kids die of diseases easily fixed with common vaccines and medicine, where access to clean water is a daily challenge and where scavenging through the garbage of wealthy people counts as a job. The real 99 Percent.

    Meanwhile, the smaller one percent group of wealthy people literally wall themselves off inside compounds. They send their children to private schools, they shop at exclusive stores and they either fly out for medical care or import doctors in. Other than household servants (paid as little as possible by people who keep as much money for themselves as possible) or perhaps some poverty tourism, the two worlds rarely meet. And don’t talk about guns and some mythical American Spring. The rich are well-armed, up to private paramilitaries in some parts of the world. Opiates of all flavors work to destroy will. Poverty creates it’s own sense of weakness, and in most cases the poor come along to too-quietly just accept their fate. Medieval serfs and Confederate slaves mostly did the same.

    Future’s Now

    Absent a change in America, that’s our future. Actually, some parts of America are ahead of the curve. Go to any large American city and we are mostly there; a few miles from some of the highest-priced real estate in the world in midtown Manhattan you fall into the free-fire zone of the South Bronx.

    Prefer numbers? Between 1947 and 1973 actual incomes rose percentage-wise at the same level for about everyone. But from 1973-1993 the top one percent of Americans saw income grow seventy-to-eighty percent and today the one percent own forty percent of U.S. wealth. They own the jobs, the businesses, the stock, the land, maybe the people themselves.

    We have created what is essentially a growing third world inside of our shrinking first world society.




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    Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy with the Ghosts of Tom Joad

    June 20, 2015 // 3 Comments »

    There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don’t know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here’s a part of my own story I’ve not talked about much before.

    At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I’d earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I’d worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.

    My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way — toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.

    And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.

    Old World/New World

    The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.

    At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we’ll call “Bullseye.” I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I’d show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, “well qualified.”

    Before I could start, however, I had to pass a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of the anonymous agencies processing the checks could have vetoed my employment and I would never have known why. You don’t have any idea what might be in the reports the store receives, or what to feel about the fact that some stranger at a local store now knows your financial and criminal history, all for the chance to earn seven bucks an hour.

    You also don’t know whether the drug tests were conducted properly or, as an older guy, if your high blood pressure medicine could trigger a positive response. As I learned from my co-workers later, everybody always worries about “pissing hot.” Most places that don’t pay much seem especially concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, since you can trade bonds and get through the day higher than a bird on a cloud. Nonetheless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a we’re-all-in-it, what’re-ya-gonna-do look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.

    Now a valued member of the Bullseye team, I was told to follow another employee who had been on the job for a few weeks, do what he did, and then start doing it by myself by the end of my first shift. The work was dull but not pointless: put stuff on shelves; tell customers where stuff was; sweep up spilled stuff; repeat.

    Basic Training

    It turned out that doing the work was easy compared to dealing with the job. I still had to be trained for that.

    You had to pay attention, but not too much. Believe it or not, that turns out to be an acquired skill, even for a former pasty government bureaucrat like me. Spend enough time in the retail minimum-wage economy and it’ll be trained into you for life, but for a newcomer, it proved a remarkably slow process. Take the initiative, get slapped down. Break a rule, be told you’re paid to follow the rules. Don’t forget who’s the boss. (It’s never you.) It all becomes who you are.

    Diving straight from a salaried career back into the kiddie pool was tough. I still wanted to do a good job today, and maybe be a little better tomorrow. At first, I tried to think about how to do the simple tasks more efficiently, maybe just in a different order to save some walking back and forth. I knew I wasn’t going to be paid more, but that work ethic was still inside of me. The problem was that none of us were supposed to be trying to be good, just good enough. If you didn’t know that, you learned it fast. In the process, you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.

    Patient Zero in the New Economy

    One co-worker got fired for stealing employee lunches out of the break room fridge. He apologized to us as security marched him out, saying he was just hungry and couldn’t always afford three meals. I heard that when he missed his rent payments he’d been sleeping in his car in the store parking lot. He didn’t shower much and now I knew why. Another guy, whose only task was to rodeo up stray carts in the parking lot, would entertain us after work by putting his cigarette out on his naked heel. The guys who came in to clean up the toilets got up each morning knowing that was what they would do with another of the days in their lives.

    Other workers were amazingly educated. One painted in oils. One was a recent college grad who couldn’t find work and liked to argue with me about the deeper meanings in the modern fiction we’d both read.

    At age 53, I was the third-oldest minimum-wage worker in the store. A number of the others were single moms. (Sixty-four percent of minimum-wage employees are women. About half of all single-parent families live in poverty.) There was at least one veteran. (“The Army taught me to drive a Humvee, which turns out not to be a marketable skill.”) There were a couple of students who were alternating semesters at work with semesters at community college, and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because another big box store had driven his small shop out of business, he had to take a minimum-wage job. He was Patient Zero in our New Economy.

    State law only required a company to give you a break if you worked six hours or more under certain conditions. Even then, it was only 30 minutes — and unpaid. You won’t be surprised to discover that, at Bullseye, most non-holiday shifts were five-and-a-half hours or less. Somebody said it might be illegal not to give us more breaks, but what can you do? Call 911 like it was a real crime?

    Some good news, though. It turned out that I had another marketable skill in addition to speaking decent English: being old. One day as a customer was bawling out a younger worker over some imagined slight, I happened to wander by. The customer assumed I was the manager, given my age, and began directing her complaints at me. I played along, even steepling my fingers to show my sincere concern just as I had seen actual managers do. The younger worker didn’t get in trouble, and for a while I was quite popular among the kids whenever I pulled the manager routine to cover them.

    Hours were our currency. You could trade them with other employees if they needed a day off to visit their kid’s school. You could grab a few extra on holidays. If you could afford it, you could swap five bad-shift hours for three good-shift hours. The store really didn’t care who showed up as long as someone showed up. Most minimum-wage places cap workers at under 40 hours a week to avoid letting them become “full time” and so possibly qualify for any kind of benefits. In my case, as work expanded and contracted, I was scheduled for as few as seven hours a week and I never got notice until the last moment if my hours were going to be cut.

    Living on a small paycheck was hard enough. Trying to budget around wildly varying hours, and so paychecks, from week to week was next to impossible. Seven hours a week at minimum wage was less than 50 bucks. A good week around the Christmas rush was 39 hours, or more than $270. At the end of 2013, after I had stopped working at Bullseye, the minimum wage did go up from a little more than $7 to $8 an hour, which was next to no improvement at all. Doesn’t every little bit help? Maybe, but what are a few more crumbs of bread worth when you need a whole loaf not to be hungry?

    Working to Be Poor

    So how do you live on $50 a week, or for that matter, $270 a week? Cut back? Recycle cans?

    One answer is: You don’t live on those wages alone. You can’t. Luckily I had some savings, no kids left in the house to feed, and my wife was still at her “good” job.  Many of my co-workers, however, dealt with the situation by holding down two or three minimum-wage jobs. Six hours on your feet is tough, but what about 12 or 14? And remember, there are no weekends or holidays in most minimum-wage jobs. Bullseye had even begun opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons.

    The smart workers found their other jobs in the same strip mall as our Bullseye, so they could run from one to the next, cram in as many hours as they could, and save the bus fare. It mattered: At seven bucks an hour, that round trip fare meant you worked your first 45 minutes not for Bullseye but for the bus company. (The next 45 minutes you worked to pay taxes.)

    Poverty as a Profit Center

    Many low-wage workers have to take some form of public assistance. Food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — were a regular topic of conversation among my colleagues. Despite holding two or three jobs, there were still never enough hours to earn enough to eat enough. SNAP was on a lot of other American’s minds as well — the number of people using food stamps increased by 13 percent a year from 2008 to 2012. About 1 in 7 Americans get some of their food through SNAP. About 45 percent of food stamp benefits go to children.

    Enjoying that Big Mac? Here’s one reason it’s pretty cheap and that the junk sold at “Bullseye” and the other big box stores is, too: Those businesses get away with paying below a living wage and instead you, the taxpayer, help subsidize those lousy wages with SNAP. (And of course since minimum-wage workers have taxes deducted, too, they are — imagine the irony — essentially forced to subsidize themselves.)

    That subsidy does not come cheap, either. The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. McDonald’s workers alone account for $1.2 billion in federal assistance annually.

    All that SNAP money is needed to bridge the gap between what the majority of employed people earn through the minimum wage, and what they need to live a minimum life. Nearly three-quarters of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs involve working families stuck in jobs like I had. There are a lot of those jobs, too. The positions that account for the most workers in the U.S. right now are retail salespeople, cashiers, restaurant workers, and janitors. All of those positions pay minimum wage or nearly so. Employers are actually allowed to pay below minimum wage to food workers who might receive tips.

    And by the way, if somehow at this point you’re feeling bad for Walmart, don’t. In addition to having it’s workforce partially paid for by the government, Walmart also makes a significant portion of its profits by selling to people receiving federal food assistance. Though the Walton family is a little too shy to release absolute numbers, a researcher found that in one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. One Walmart Supercenter in Tulsa, Oklahoma, received $15.2 million, while another (also in Tulsa) took in close to $9 million in SNAP spending.

    You could say that taxpayers are basically moneylenders to a government that is far more interested in subsidizing business than in caring for their workers, but would anyone believe you?

    Back in the Crosshairs

    Some employees at Bullseye had been yelled at too many times or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were not only broke, but broken. People — like dogs — don’t get that way quickly, only by a process of erosion eating away at whatever self-esteem they may still possess. Then one day, if a supervisor tells them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’ll be too afraid of contradicting the boss not to do it.

    I’d see employees rushing in early, terrified, to stand by the time clock so as not to be late. One of my fellow workers broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d be fired on the spot. And what a lousy way to live that is, your only incentive for doing good work being the desperate need to hang onto a job guaranteed to make you hate yourself for another day. Nobody cared about the work, only keeping the job. That was how management set things up.

    About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. These situations are not unique to any one place or region. After all, Walmart has more than 2 million employees. If that company were an army, it would be the second largest military on the planet, just behind China. It is, in fact, the largest overall employer in the country and the biggest employer in 25 states. When Walmart won’t pay more than minimum, it hurts. When it rains like that, we all get wet. This is who we are now.

    I Was Minimum

    It’s time to forget the up-by-the-bootstraps fantasies of conservative economists bleating on Fox. If any of it was ever true, it’s certainly not true anymore. There is no ladder up, no promotion path in the minimum-wage world. You can’t work “harder” because your hours are capped, and all the jobs are broken into little pieces anyone could do anyway. Minimum wage is what you get; there are no real raises. I don’t know where all the assistant managers came from, but not from among us.

    I worked in retail for minimum wage at age 16 and again at 53. In that span, the minimum wage itself rose only by a few bucks. What changed, however, is the cast of characters. Once upon a time, minimum-wage jobs were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2014, it’s mainly adults struggling to get by. Something is obviously wrong.

    In his State of the Union Address, President Obama urged that the federal minimum wage be raised to $9 an hour. He also said that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America.

    To the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is nine bucks an hour going to go? Are so many of us destined to do five hours of labor for the cell phone bill, another 12 for the groceries each week, and 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours are we going to work? How many can we work?

    Nobody can make a real living doing these jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage, not in the way Americans once defined raising a family when our country emerged from World War II so fat and happy. And you can’t build a nation on vast armies of working poor with nowhere to go. The president is right that it’s time for a change, but what’s needed is far more than a minimalist nudge to the minimum wage. Maybe what we need is to spend more on education and less on war, even out the tax laws and rules just a bit, require a standard living wage instead of a minimum one. Some sort of rebalancing. Those aren’t answers to everything, but they might be a start.

    People who work deserve to be paid, but McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson last year took home $13.7 million in salary, with perks to go. If one of his fry cooks put in 30 hours a week, she’d take in a bit more than $10,000 a year — before taxes, of course. There is indeed a redistribution of wealth taking place in America, and it’s all moving upstream.

    I got lucky. I won my pension fight with my “career” employer, the State Department, and was able to crawl out of the minimum-wage economy after less than a year and properly retire. I quit Bullseye because I could, one gray day when a customer about half my age cursed me out for something unimportant she didn’t like, ending with “I guess there’s a reason why people like you work at places like this.” I agreed with her: There is a reason. We just wouldn’t agree on what it was.

    I’m different now for the experience. I think more about where I shop, and try to avoid big places that pay low wages if I can. I treat minimum-wage workers a little better, too. If I have to complain about something in a store, I keep the worker out of it and focus on solving the problem. I take a bit more care in the restroom not to leave a mess. I don’t get angry anymore when a worker says to me, “I really can’t do anything about it.” Now I know from personal experience that, in most cases, they really can’t.

    Above all, I carry with me the knowledge that economics isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. I know now that it’s up to us to decide whether the way we pay people, the work we offer them, and how we treat them on the job is just about money or if it’s about society, about how we live, who we are, the nature of America. The real target now should be to look deeply into the apartheid of dollars our country has created and decide it needs to change. We — the 99 percent, anyway — can’t afford not to.




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    Review: Morris Berman’s New Book on Japan, “Neurotic Beauty”

    June 13, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    neurotic beauty

    Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the “most foreign of foreign countries.” Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.



    The Explainer Industry

    Almost all books “about Japan” (I’m leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.

    The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.

    Berman asks: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?



    A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle

    The book’s argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan’s cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something — a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.

    Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.



    Japan Went Insane

    As the Tokugawa (for simplicity’s sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan’s Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.

    And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960’s put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.



    A Post-Capitalist Society

    If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman’s part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to “fill the hole” in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.

    The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman’s last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.

    It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope “only in Japan” could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.

    Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.

    I make no secret of my respect for Morris Berman’s body of work; read more here.




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    Governor Says No to $11mil for Education, Yes to $30 mil for Children’s Prison in Baltimore

    June 4, 2015 // 3 Comments »

    Larry_Hogan

    Maryland governor Larry Hogan was elected to make the tough choices. In this case, to spend less taxpayer money on schools, and more on prisons for underage offenders from Baltimore.



    Not for Schools

    These good deeds began after Maryland’s state legislature earmarked $68 million for education, $11 million of which was tagged for troubled Baltimore city schools alone. Governor Hogan, however, on his own just cold labeled the money “extra money” and shoved it into the state’s underfunded pension funds, saying “it would be irresponsible not to, and it will not happen on my watch.”

    “Given how the needs of our children have been highlighted by the events of the past few weeks, I hoped that the governor would have agreed with the General Assembly that these dollars are critical for expanded educational opportunities,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, supported by the teachers union, said in a statement.

    Hogan accused the teachers union of launching “a heavily financed smear campaign” against him.

    Money for Youth Prison

    The now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t education money was part of about $200 million lawmakers set aside for their top priorities: school funding, preventing a pay cut for state workers and paying for a range of health-care initiatives that include Medicaid coverage for more pregnant women and funding for heroin addiction.

    Governor Larry Hogan, in addition to cutting out that $11 large directly from education funding, also made the tough choice to spend $30 million on a 60-bed jail for Baltimore teenagers who have been charged as adults.

    And who but Larry Hogan, the guy who declared a state of emergency and used the National Guard to place Baltimore under siege following the police murder of Freddie Gray, would know more about Baltimore’s need to lock up more kids?



    Youth Prison Even Needed?

    Actually, Larry Hogan knows very little about Baltimore’s need to lock up more kids. The city’s rate of youths jailed as adults dropped in recent years. State officials said in March that the city detention center holds fewer than 20 minors on any given day.

    But don’t think Larry Hogan isn’t for education:

    A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the jails, said even though the number of youngsters who would use the youth jail facility has declined, his “department is committed to housing juveniles charged as adults in a new building that will include classrooms, program space, and medical and recreation areas. It’s a facility that’s vastly superior to the current location.”

    See how great that is? Rather than providing for better schools that holdout at least the possibility of reducing youth crime, Governor Larry Hogan will instead create more classrooms inside jails.

    BONUS: Hogan’s campaign slogan was “Change Maryland.”



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    Terrorist Sleeper Cell Crushed by Pay Day Loan Debt (Satire)

    May 26, 2015 // 6 Comments »

    sleeper

    Islamic State (IS) announced that its primary terrorist sleeper cell in the United States has been crushed by payday loan debt. Homeland Security and the FBI, actively trying to convince several fourth graders to “make a terror club” so they could be arrested, were unavailable for comment.

    “It all began well enough,” said IS spokes-jihadi Abdullah. “We sent five brothers into the decadent hell of the United States with ten thousand dollars and some AK’s and rocket launchers.”

    “Sh*t started to go wrong from almost day one. It turns out 99 percent of Americans are much better armed, so right away they had to go to Walmart and pick up some assault rifles. Well, you know, you can’t just go into Walmart for one thing, and next you know, they laid out for Sam’s Club memberships and bought freaking patio furniture. We had them in a $20 a night motel with orders to keep a low profile and they show up with patio furniture.”

    “Next thing that happened was after I sent them out to buy some burner cellphones, you know, those cheap ones they could use once and then throw away. I don’t know what kind of salesperson they encountered at Best Buy, but next thing I know IS is on the hook for five iPhone6’s. Plus five year contracts. Plus those idiots bought the full maintenance plans. Oh, and get this — their contracts had limited data, so after a couple of 30 gig HD beheading video downloads, we were racking up overage charges.”

    “We had told the brothers to eat most meals at Chik-fil-A. We’d read online that the restaurant hated gays, independent women and most of the other tenets of Sharia, so that seemed safe. But next thing you know, two of the brothers are too fat for their suicide vests, and one now has diabetes. If he loses his foot like the doctor thinks, he can’t drive the suicide bomb van. Please.”

    “But the real killer was running out of funds. We lost thousands of dollars to ATM fees we did not anticipate, so we had some of the martyrs seek out part time work. Do you know it’s impossible to live on minimum wage in America? The best those dumbasses could do was work at the Dollar Store and Wendy’s, then their hours got cut. They had no choice but to turn to the payday loan shop in the same strip mall where they pawned the AK’s. It seemed like a good deal — money was deposited overnight to their checking account — but now we’re up to like 234 percent interest, and these two huge guys named Vito and Sal are knocking on the motel room door at 4 am demanding their money back.”

    “We just gave up. I have ordered the brothers to dismantle the sleeper cell. Now that we know what a useless, poor, rapacious society America is, thinking we can hasten its demise with a few terror acts is a joke. You people are doing it to yourselves.”




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    Poverty is Good Business: The Economics of Food Stamps (SNAP)

    May 9, 2015 // 9 Comments »

    The Republican House and Democratic Senate reached a compromise last year that cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; what food stamps are now called.) Republicans initially called for $40 billion in cuts, kicking millions of people out of the program altogether, including 170,000 veterans. The compromise cut $8 billion, which affects 800,000 households, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

    Dollars and Sense

    Dollars first. That $9 billion saved on SNAP would have paid for only 12.5 days of the Iraq War. For the Afghan War, $9 billion would pay for about one month (and that war is now in its thirteenth year, do the math.) America’s newest aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, not including development costs.

    And now sense, or lack of it. A typical family on SNAP/food stamps gets $133 monthly. For three meals a day, $133 breaks down to $1.47 per meal; it is from that amount that the cuts will be taken. Almost 22 percent of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012. The percentage of children under age five living in poverty is over 25 percent. Almost 1 in 10, or 9.7 percent, live in extreme poverty. Number of Americans on food stamps doubled in the last ten years. 47 million Americans now live in poverty, the highest number in two decades.

    Cheaters? A Department of Agriculture report on “trafficking” in the food-stamp program found that only 1.3 percent of benefits were traded for cash.

    Your takeaway: We have the money. We just don’t want to spend it on feeding Americans.

    Poverty is Good Business

    Cops investigating a crime often refer to the Latin term, cui bono, or, “who benefits?” The idea is to find out who has the most to gain from Colonel Mustard’s death in the Drawing Room and start the hunt there.

    So if most Republicans, and many Democrats, want to cut food stamps, who does not want to see the cuts?

    The food business loves food stamps. Wal-Mart, Target and Kroger have made huge profits of $75.2 billion off of food stamp purchases, setting a new record in 2012. And that’s not counting other purchases recipients may make with their own money.

    Never mind how food stamps and other benefits are used by those same retailers to subsidize the low wages they pay their workers. Or how the same bill that would cut food stamps pays out farm subsidies to America’s billionaires, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab and S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A.

    The American Beverage Association, a lobby group that includes Coca-Cola, strongly opposes restricting soda purchases by food stamp recipients. Why? Recipients spend from $1.7 to $2.1 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages purchased in grocery stores. Never mind that while alcohol and other unhealthy items are restricted for purchase with stamps, soda stands available.

    Pepsi, candy-maker Mars and the Snack Food Association all registered to lobby the House of Representatives on food stamp restrictions.

    Your takeaway: Mega-corporations are profiting off poverty, with their profits heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars.


    So who benefits? Not hungry people. Do the math. It’s all about dollars and cents.



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    America! 80 Percent of Adults Face Near-Poverty

    May 6, 2015 // 8 Comments »

    tulsa_man

    As the handful of multi-millionaires running for president threaten to pretend to make “economic disparity” a campaign meme, and then forget they ever heard of it once in power, four out of five adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives. Here’s the new American dream.



    The Numbers

    Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to a widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.

    The survey defines “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.

    The findings come even as Obama is claiming in recent speeches his highest priority (it has only been seven years+ so no hurry) is to “rebuild ladders of opportunity” and reverse income inequality.



    No Longer a Race Thing

    Poverty is often defined — by many whites — as a minority problem.

    While minorities are still more likely to live in poverty, race disparities have narrowed substantially since the 1970s. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press. Pessimism among whites about their families’ economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987.

    More than 19 million whites now fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.

    Sometimes termed “the invisible poor,” lower-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs and small rural towns, instead of being concentrated in urban areas more common to people of color. As an example, Buchanan County, in southwest Virginia, is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty at 24 percent. The county is 99 percent white.

    America is indeed becoming a more equal place, but through a gross process of leveling down, not growing up.

    Boiling Frogs

    The issue of denial is the key to a tiny one percent of Americans getting away with this in what, overall, is still a very wealthy society.

    People think because they and their neighbors have a TV, they are fine. Or they are divided into antagonistic groups by race, with one believing the other has all the money and power, while the other sees their urban neighbors as lazy welfare cheats. It does work well to keep people divided, fighting with one another, and thus ignoring that narrow band of upper, upper class folks who really do hold all the cards.

    Inside that 80 percent of America slipping into poverty, people pay little attention to the quality of the food they can afford, the (lack of) healthcare, their poor schools and potted roads, the lack of forward opportunities for them and their kids and so forth. Short-sighted viewpoints, coupled with clever politicians who make each election about guns, gays and abortion, mask the obvious, even from the people boiling like froggies.




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    Small Town America Uptown in New York: Harlem

    May 2, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    As part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent, I visited many American towns and cities to learn how people live now in our New Economy. Here’s one portrait.

    How many Americans have visited Harlem, even including quick dashes in for a now-trendy restaurant or music club, is unknown, but it is a small number. Even many life-long New Yorkers riding the Lexington Avenue subway through the wealthy upper east side are careful to hop off before reaching the 116th Street stop. But walk three blocks over to 119th and 3rd Avenue and you find yourself in a micro-economic world that has more in common with America’s economy of the 1950’s than 2013.

    There are of course no shaded streets on this block in Harlem, no boyish Little League games. But what you do find are locally-owned stores that appear committed to serving the community. Not one place was franchised, not one corporate owned. The stores were full of what people in the area needed, and while the quality of the goods varied, prices were wondrously below what similar things cost a half dozen subway stops away in New York city. Everybody in the stores spoke the same language as the customers, and as family businesses, people were eager to help find things and to make suggestions. People held conversations. Customer loyalty is important, so prices are negotiable and when he found a customer was a neighbor, one shop owner helped carry things upstairs. The guy selling frozen ices outside did not work for a conglomerate and doled out healthy-sized servings to his regulars; he told me he bought his raw materials in the food store we stood in front of.

    Even at night the sidewalks were full of people; I never felt unsafe even though I obviously was not from the neighborhood. People talked to each other, and were ready to give directions or argue over where to tell me to eat. The one mega-corporate store near the area, a Rent-a-Center charging usurious prices for junk, was empty. The guy next to it, with an impressive array of used TVs and small appliances from unknown Chinese manufacturers, was doing great business, shifting among English, Spanish and some sort of Dominican Creole.

    Few things were shiny and new. The block had vacant lots, uncomfortable to walk past at night. Homeless people, one near-naked and muttering out loud, were more prevalent than in Midtown. The streets had more trash. I saw likely drug deals taking place against graffitied walls. Not everyone was a nice guy or the salt of the earth. Some, as they said, were just hanging dull in somewhere low. At the same time, local businesses catered to their community, and adjusted prices in line with what people could pay. Money spent in the neighborhood seemed to mostly be staying there. Decisions the businesses made, to open or close, staff up or lay off, were made by people in the area face-to-face with the people they affected.

    There were far fewer men and women than in the decayed steel mill town of Weirton, West Virginia obviously drunk or on drugs; I had to walk further in Harlem to find a liquor store than in Weirton, and there were no strip clubs or bars in my part of Harlem. More families walked the streets than I saw off the Boardwalk in Jersey. More sad-looking people asked me for spare change in Atlantic City than in Harlem. Harlem is a galaxy away from perfect. But unlike Weirton, which had given up, Atlantic City, which was in the process, and Leavenworth, which had opted out of the system, Harlem was still trying. It shows how a micro-economy with ties to its own community can still work in America, at least in the short run: Target is building its first super store not far away.

    Harlem is a galaxy away from perfect, but shows how a micro-economy, with no Walmart, and with ties to its own community, can still work in America.



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    Interactive Guide to Corporate Donors, Political Favors and the Clinton Charities

    April 6, 2015 // 15 Comments »

    clinton9

    We’ve shared with you that of the 425 large corporate donors to the Clinton Foundation, the Wall Street Journal found 60 of those donors lobbied the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure.

    We’ve shared with you how Candidate Clinton, who cites the rights of women as a cornerstone of her campaign, accepted millions through her charities from governments who oppress women.

    We’ve also shared how Clinton lied about her promise to disclose her donors, and how she would have the State Department review things and then did not.

    We have even offered up Bill’s explanation about why all this was somehow “OK.”


    Meet Your Little Sis

    But you said “Oh, pish-posh.” You wanted someone to draw you a picture. And now someone has.

    Little Sis is a database detailing the connections between powerful people and organizations. Their goal is to bring transparency to influential social networks by tracking the relationships among politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, financiers, and their affiliated institutions. In other words, they try and follow the money.

    So here’s the Little Sis interactive graphic of the flow of money between corporations that lobbied the State Department, contributions to the various Clinton charities, and the nice things Hillary did as Secretary of State on behalf of those generous donors. It’s just like when you give $25 to PBS; you get a tote bag and they buy up more episodes of Downton Abbey.

    Use the + and – buttons in the upper left hand corner to scroll around. If the graphic is too small as it is embedded here, jump over to the Little Sis site and see it full-size.



    But He Does it Too!

    Someone out there is saying “But ________ does it too!”

    There is probably some, or even a lot, of truth there. Politics in America is controlled by money in America. But of course none of that, however accurate, makes it right.

    I think also that since everyone does it, it may then be important to look another level deeper, to how they do it. What is clear is that the Clinton candidacy is built on a global network of organizations (“charities”) that act as fronts and cut-outs to move large sums of money between wealthy corporate and foreign government donors who benefit from being nice to one or more of the Clinton’s. Apart from any good work the Clinton charities may or may not accomplish, they seem to have at least a secondary purpose as a huge money funnel.

    See, there’s crime, there’s organized crime, and there’s big league, global organized Bond-villain crime. That might help in sorting out how to think in an age when everyone commits crimes.




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    Movie Review: “Braddock America”

    February 14, 2015 // 9 Comments »

    braddock-america

    If I’d made a documentary film about the scars left on America through industrialization, instead of writing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent about it, what I would have likely ended up with is “Braddock, America.”

    History

    “Braddock, America” is a feature length documentary now in limited release set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town now left to literally rust away to hell. Like so, so many other towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and throughout the Midwest, Braddock began life in the 19th century as just a place along a mighty river, surrounded by coal. Then Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela River. For the decades that followed, the Monongahela valley was the industrial pulse of a growing America. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation, steel for train tracks, cars, the girders of the then world’s tallest skyscrapers, was made in places like Braddock.

    Workers were granted some share of the profits, protected by the strong unions they had fought for. There was once a rough kind of social contract: work hard for the mill, and in return you’d make enough to raise a family, have health care, retire on a decent pension. The system was not perfect, but it fueled the greatest economic boom and consumer society known.

    Then, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, everything changed. Steel was imported, manufacturing across the U.S. declined, and the unions were broken. Soon enough, the mills went away, leaving the people. The Rust Belt lost a manufacturing empire but never found a new role. Braddock is a place that capitalism discarded, a victim of America’s apartheid of dollars.

    A Well-Made Documentary

    “Braddock, America” is a well-made documentary that weaves together the past (the film begins with archive footage of the glory days), the present, and pokes at an uncertain future that haunts the whole town. There is no narrator or off-screen voice; the people left in Braddock (90 percent of the population has escaped over the years since the mills shut down) tell their stories alongside images of the near-ghost town in which they live. It is a gentle, touching portrait of good people trying to pick up the pieces, after their livelihoods were taken away by larger processes they do not even now fully understand. They display a sad stubbornness, and you watch the film both admiring them and wanting to shout at them to get out.

    One scene shows a city official walking down a deserted street designating empty homes for demolition. Another one shows kids playing in a deserted school building. The town can no longer support a grocery store. A worker looks back at the mill, and calls what he and his father did there “sacramentel.” Town officials discuss their hope that additional money will come from the state to help them demolish more derelict buildings. An outside job/career coach’s presentation falls apart when none of the people in the room have any previous work experience to cite; one asks if his labor in prison counts. Abandoned homes can be bought for $3000, unless they have already been stripped by thieves of their aluminum siding and copper wiring, in which case they are worthless.

    The image above, from the film, tells the rest of the story.

    A Few Issues

    The film suffers from a few things. Persons being interviewed are not identified, leading to some confusion. The historical clips are used in many places as filler, and disrupt the flow of the film. The film lacks a clear narrative arc; people talk– and they are interesting– and then the film ends. A touching scene in a bar where local musicians play the song “American Pie” is cut short. One key historical event discussed, a violent labor strike, appears to have taken place in nearby Homestead and not in Braddock.



    Hope is Not a Strategy

    The people of Braddock still express hope, or perhaps are left only with hope, as the only strategy for a way out. But like nearly every town in the Rust Belt that has tried to dig itself out, the optimism often seems misplaced and misguided over time. “Things got broken here,” says a two-year old ad for Levi’s also filmed in the town, “maybe on purpose, so we could get to work.” That did not happen. A New York Times video features Braddock’s then-mayor explaining how the town will “rise from the ashes.” He said that in 2009, and it did not happen. By the time this film was shot in 2012, that mayor was already gone himself.

    The filmmakers have created a sensitive memoir to a place and time that once described America to the world, and, with some irony, now, ironically, again describes America to the world.

    You can see trailer for “Braddock, America” online.




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    Congrats America! One Out of Five of Your Kids Needs Food Stamps

    January 30, 2015 // 11 Comments »



    Data released by the Census Bureau Wednesday showing a staggering 16 million children in the U.S., about one out of five kids under the age of 18, received food stamp assistance in 2014.

    Overall, more than 46.5 million Americans were on food stamps last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Food stamps are officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP.



    More and More Hungry Kids in America

    The census numbers show while one percent of Americans wallow in obscene, record-setting amounts of wealth, large swaths of the country remain in real trouble. In 2014 more American kids relied on food stamps than at any time since the 2008 economic crash. In raw, hungry mouth numbers, nine million children received food stamps in 2007 compared to 16 million now, and 26 million Americans of all ages received assistance compared to the 46.5 million now. It’s a new personal best, a new record and thus a new low for America.

    These statistics come from the 2014 Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has collected statistics on families and living arrangements for more than 60 years.


    Congress: Parents are Lazy

    “The spike in food stamp spending has caught the attention of Congress, and House Republicans tried to cut the program by around $4 billion a year in 2013,” the Associated Press reports. “In an eventual compromise, Congress agreed to cuts of around $800 million a year. The food stamp program will be under scrutiny in the new Republican Congress.”

    But really, lazy is what lazy does. Why shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?


    So Cut the Damn Handouts

    At some point in this kind of discussion, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate parents to find jobs or watch their kids starve. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won’t work for it? “If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said discussing food stamp cuts.

    The problem with such statements is 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families — just in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance per year. It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive.



    Mother’s Day

    In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or EBT, which, recipients will tell you, stands for “Eat Better Tonight.” EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.

    A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than $189 a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn’t exactly luxury fare.

    Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost two-thirds of SNAP children live in single-parent households. Twenty percent or more of the child population in 37 states lived in “food insecure households” in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6 percent) and the District of Columbia (30 percent) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16 percent of SNAP benefits, while nine percent go to households with senior citizens.



    What’s for Dinner?

    So, to recap. In a time when some 20 percent of our own children need help just to be fed, Congress wants to cut further the thing that stands between those kids and malnutrition. Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they’re hungry. Many are already there.

    Yep, that’s us today in America.

    BONUS! A 2013 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, shows the United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. We love could care about our kids!



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    U.S. Economic Inequality at Highest Levels in 100 years

    January 21, 2015 // 12 Comments »

    yellen


    Unless you are very, very rich, you are getting poorer. Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen warned that the gap between the rich and poor in the United States is widening and has reached a near 100-year high.

    The One Percent of the One Percent

    Not sure? Between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households, compared to only 18 percent for the bottom twenty percent of us. Back in 1980, 0.01 percent of the population owned three percent of national wealth. Today that top 0.01 percent, only about 32,000 people, owns 11 percent of national wealth. That’s a staggering increase from an already high base. It suggests even the one percent no longer are that big of a deal in the economy. We need now to pay attention to the one percent of the one percent.

    “By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years,” Yellen said, noting the gap has grown steadily over recent decades, despite a brief pause during the 2008 crisis when pretty much everyone got whacked.

    About the 2008 Recession

    “But widening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded,” Yellen said, noting that “wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.”

    If you read that carefully, it means that the rich, who earn their money in significant part via capital, owning stock and things like multiple pieces of real estate, have done just fine recently.

    The rest of us, who work for wages as our primary income, are still in trouble. If your home, assuming you still own it post-2008 (and that’s a huge assumption. Some five million homes were lost to foreclosure between 2008 and 2013. 8.2 million more foreclosure starts took place in that same time period. Another three million homes in the next three or four years will face foreclosure), is not in a high-growth area, then the value of the one piece of capital you do have, then it does you little good.

    None of this is new or shocking. Economist Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century laid out the very simple math: R > G. R is capital and G is wage growth, and the value of capital, stuff the rich own, always, always grows faster than wages. Thus the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

    Student Loans

    The Fed chief also warned of the burden of student loan debt, which quadrupled between 2004 and 2014. In a bit of an understatement, she added “I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

    Americans owe over $1.2 trillion in college loans. Many students will work as essentially indebted servants for many years to pay them off. Or maybe their parents will. Or both. Yellen said that the trend in recent years in the United States has seen “stagnant or falling living standards for many families.”

    The One Percent of the One Percent of the One Percent

    Yellen offered no remedies for decreasing the rich-poor gap, because why should she. She works for the wealthy.

    With the concentration of wealth, 132 people in the U.S. essentially control elections. They do so by donating, just that handful of people, over 60 percent of the SuperPac money. Those 132 people represent 0.000042 percent of the total number of voters; most other contributions to candidates are small, many below $200. How much is your vote worth?

    Yellen went on to say two “cornerstones of opportunity” are resources available to children and access to higher education, and added that ownership of a family business and inherited wealth can also be important sources of economic opportunity.

    Let’s look at that. Poor people have no resources available to their children. Rich people can pass on robust inheritances. Result: kids of the rich get richer. Wouldn’t life be easier if you knew you’d be a billionaire once daddy kicked it? And as for that access to higher education, please refer back to Yellen’s earlier statement about student loan debt. Escalating tuition costs that have contributed to a dramatic increase in student loan debt — the outstanding balance quadrupled from $260 billion in 2004 to $1.2 trillion this year. Of course the rich pay cash for college, so this debt is disproportionately, and increasingly, affecting poorer families and may put college and graduate degrees out of reach.

    Global, But Worse in the U.S.

    Globally, the gap between the haves and have-nots has reached levels not seen since the 1820s, the OECD said earlier this month, in a report that looked at trends in health, education, inequality, the environment and personal security.

    The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the U.S. is 85; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85.

    Odd company for the self-proclaimed most powerful nation on earth.



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    I Wonder What Dr. King Would Say

    January 19, 2015 // 9 Comments »

    martin luther king


    There will be many, many articles today speculating what Dr. Martin Luther King would say about this event or that. There is much to talk about — the police killings of young black men, crippling economic inequality (today the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion combined), the use of gerrymandering and election day tricks to disenfranchise people — the list is a long one.

    Dr. King’s most powerful message revolved around freedom. Freedom for blacks, freedom for whites, freedom for Americans, freedom. Writing from jail, in his famous letter from Birmingham, King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King was rightly focused primarily on the injustices of segregation. But his concept of freedom extended far beyond simply race. He understood the word in the broadest possible sense, and so I’ll add one more article to the stack today putting words into Dr. King’s mouth, seeking to bring his message forward.



    Following a singular day — one day — of terror attacks, we set fire to the whole world. Willingly, almost gleefully, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the former on the promise of bloody revenge and the latter based on flimsy falsehoods that today seem as real as childhood beliefs. We reinvaded Iraq in 2014, and brought war to many other places. But we want to believe and so it is easy to lie to us, just like with the Tooth Fairy.

    Worse yet, we turned on ourselves. With a stroke of a pen, we did away with 226 some years of bitterly fought for civil rights — silence the First Amendment and do away with critics and whistleblowers, cow journalists and use the police to break up the peaceful assembly of citizens seeking to address their government, rip open the Fourth Amendment and allow the government to spy into our lives. Plumbing for the depths of evil, we as a nation torture men, create an archipelago of secret prisons and make excuses to keep them still open, build a regime of indefinite confinement and rendition to feed our concentration camps, hungering for flesh. When even that was not enough, we unleashed death from the sky, smiting people who bothered us, maybe occasionally threatened us, often times simply people who were near by or looked like our possible enemies. In the calculus of the day, we kill them all without a concern that any deity would sort the bodies out later. How much would be enough for revenge?

    That our nation can be both vengeful and impersonal at the same time horrifies. I wonder what Dr. King would say.


    We thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead were proven again to be just dupes and amateurs. He could have turned it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. I wonder what Dr. King would say.

    Today, this day, we are left with only ironic references to where we were and what we had been. We now today go through the motions of a celebratory day like an old married couple dutifully maintaining civility where joyous lust once was. We are raising a new generation who accept that their nation tortures, invades, violates and assassinates, all necessary evils requiring us to defame democracy while pretending to protect it.

    On this same day we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote to us all from a jail cell in sweltering Birmingham. King’s guidance in that letter was that the “means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” We cannot fight wrongs by committing wrongs. For what noble crusade do we allow the torturers to walk free? To claim the right to kill people, even Americans, anywhere in the world simply because we can do so? Why do we prolong wars, long ago not just lost but rendered pointless, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere? For what crusade do we keep our enemies in Guantanamo? These are the features and questions of Post-Constitutional America. I wonder what Dr. King would say.


    I’ve been accused of over-romanticizing America’s Constitutional Era, 1789-9/11/2001. Indeed, didn’t the worst of the abuses Dr. King fought against take place during that time, as King describe them “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity.”

    The horrors ranged from those depths to the smallest of examples; again, from Birmingham, King wrote “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people.”

    America’s Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern times’ irony, Hope. Dr. King believed in Hope, and indeed based the soul of his movement on it — things could be made better, saying “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.” I wonder what Dr. King would say today about America.


    Lots of talk today, Martin Luther King Day. But those are some of the questions Dr. King would demand answers for from his grave.



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    Book Review: Methland, The Death and Life of a Small American Town

    December 27, 2014 // 12 Comments »



    Methland: The Death and Life of a Small American Townby Nick Reding is one scary book. It is the only book I’m aware of that understands at a fundamental level meth isn’t a drug problem, it is a symptom of our current societal and economic problems. The meth epidemic isn’t about a drug, its about the economy, and so Reding’s book is as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.

    Left Behind

    For those looking for a Breaking Bad experience, or another drug-porn description of whacked-out meth addicts, this is not your book. Instead, Reding, after returning to his hometown of Oelwein, Iowa, chronicles the descent from a thriving agricultural-based economy into a desperate place where cheap, easy to obtain drugs like meth were just waiting to move in. Along the way Iowa’s story parallels the changes in our broader national society and economy, focused here on Big Agra moving in, first destroying family farms and local meat packers, then replacing the workers in its new mega-facilities with cheap, disposable labor from south of the border. Such changes, whether wrought by Big Agra businesses, Chinese steel or Walmart, take away the life of the town but leave behind the people.

    Just like Big Agra destroyed a way of life in Iowa, Big Pharma profited off the remains. Reding details how the pharmaceutical industry spent heavily and lobbied successfully to not limit the import of pseudoephedrine into the U.S. The drug companies needed that chemical to be available and cheap for their cold medicines, and were without care that that same chemical, distilled out of those same cold medicines, fueled the meth epidemic. Hey, it was just business, a perfect metaphor for the rise of profit above all else, the leaving behind of the 99 percent.

    And Then There is Meth

    Reding touches on how easy the drug is to cook up in small batches, although a small mistake in the chemistry can result in horrific burns and explosions. Meth wasn’t a social drug, and so you didn’t need to hang around with old juicers in a dark bar. Meth came to you. Your friends were using it, if not selling it or cooking it, and the angry, speedo high it gave fit the young guys better. Meth wasn’t only for boys, either. Girls liked it too, and because you never thought about eating on a meth cruise, they called it the Jenny Crank diet.

    As part of research leading to my upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, I spent some time in the Rust Belt of the Midwest, where meth is as popular as in Iowa, and for the same reasons. Reding’s descriptions and conclusion ring true.

    But most importantly, meth just isn’t cheap and easy, it is a Midwest drug. Instead of the flighty high of weed or the dulled feeling of alcohol, meth at first offers a powerful feeling of self-worth, of energy, that is the perfect antidote for the crushing depression and lack of hope the space around the user represents. For a world stuck in crap, meth was the answer. This was a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Of course the drug is a false front, as users quickly suffer from the debilitating health problems we are all familiar with. But that’s a tomorrow kind of problem, and the lost users in Iowa and elsewhere know they have no tomorrow anyway.

    Criticisms of the book are few. Reding includes far too much information on the personal lives of the few good people in town trying to better things, and about himself. These do little to support the central ideas and often detour the narrative. The book tries perhaps too hard to end on a positive note, focusing on the progress made but losing sight of how little winning one battle in rural Iowa means in the larger war for our America.

    Rock Bottom

    But don’t let those points stop you from looking into this book. Skim the filler and focus on the important point: People without jobs, without hope, without tomorrows, will turn to things like meth to ease the pain. It’s human nature. As Reding writes, rock bottom is not a foundation to build on. And unless we as a nation figure out a better way forward– jobs that pay a living wage for more Americans, the reining in of big interests that rip apart the fabric of the nation around them– methland will be our land. We can’t fix America’s meth problem without fixing America.

    Methland: The Death and Life of a Small American Town



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    TV Interview on PBS Kentucky: Iraq, and Ghosts of Tom Joad

    December 13, 2014 // 4 Comments »

    bill goodman




    As part of the 2014 Louisville Idea Festival, I spoke with Bill Goodman of KET, Kentucky Educational Television, the PBS station in Louisville about both of my books, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.

    Have a look at the video!




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    Walmart Again Holds Food Drive for Own Underpaid Workers

    November 26, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    walmart-food


    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Walmart, who pays its workers so little and/or gives them so few hours, that they cannot feed themselves while the Walton family rakes in billions, does have its sense of humor. Either that or they could just care so little about what anyone thinks that they are just like, whatever, what are you going to do about it anyway except buy more junk you don’t need from us on Black Friday?


    As it did to national scorn last Thanksgiving, Walmart raised a smiley-faced middle finger to its own “associates” by asking some of them to dig deep into their low-wage pockets to give to each other. An Oklahoma City Walmart is asking employees to donate food to help their coworkers make ends meet during the holiday season, according to a photo posted by the labor-backed coalition Making Change At Walmart. A sign on the collection bin reads, “Let’s succeed by donating to associates in need!!!” In 2013, the same thing happened at a Walmart store in Canton, Ohio.

    Technically,the food drives are not Walmart corporate policy, so hey, all is forgiven, amiright? Though hey, a Walmart spokesperson did characterize the Ohio effort as “part of the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships.” And Walmart checked, ’cause it cares you know, and the Oklahoma food drive is just for two associates who don’t have health insurance because Walmart doesn’t provide any to its hourly workers, so it is not like the whole freaking store is starving or anything. You can have it both ways apparently at Walmart.


    And who wants to subsidize freeloaders with our hard-earned tax dollars anyway? Oh, wait. Actually Walmart hauls in a monster truck load of public assistance for itself. Those low, low daily wages are subsidized by your taxes. The company’s low wages leave huge numbers of its employees on public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. By one estimate, a single Walmart superstore requires up to $1.7 million in public assistance spending every year. The company eats up a total public assistance cost of $6.2 billion per year. That’s how Walmart can “afford” to pay its associates so little and yet they don’t pass out from hunger in the aisles during your Black Friday orgy of consumerism. Neat!


    But Walmart loves its food stamps as more than just fodder to feed the work animals. Walmart loves selling to stuff to the food stamp people of America. A lot of stuff.

    How much profit does Walmart make from public assistance? In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.


    But maybe all is not lost. Protesters left a huge food bin outside of Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s $25 million Manhattan condo. Alice has a net worth of $35 billion dollars. Alice made $100 million this past year, so at least she is doing OK this Thanksgiving.




    It can’t get any plainer than this friends: Walmart’s owners make profits on an amazing scale by giving workers as little as possible while scooping up as much government money as possible.

    Do your soul a favor and stay out of Walmart this holiday season.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage