• Archive of "#99Percent" Category

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    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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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    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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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    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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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Excerpt from Ghosts of Tom Joad

    November 10, 2014 // 1 Comment »

    0100025-R1-E009


    My current book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentis a complex novel telling the story of America from the end of World War II through the present day.

    You’ll travel through the economic boom years and the rise of a robust middle class, fueled by union wages and industrialization, peaking in the mid-1970s. The decline of all those factors is the second half of the book, the story of how we became a nation defined by the working poor, the 99 percent.

    Here’s what one reviewer said:

    I wasn’t ready for this one. I guess I was expecting something a little more MSNBC. You know, the kind of book that contains nothing but glowing praise for the Occupy movement and endless tirades about how shopping at Wal-Mart makes you an evil person. The kind of book that you can almost tell was written on an iMac computer over three weeks in a Starbucks café by a dude wearing those thick hipster glasses.

    Man, I wasn’t even close. “Ghosts of Tom Joad” is a heartbreaking tale of one man against the world, or rather the world against one man. I don’t think you can call it an epic since it takes place almost entirely within a small town in rust-belt Ohio, but it’s definitely raw, gritty, and painful. The narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing his downward spiral into underemployment and homelessness, and the novel that results is heartbreakingly authentic.

    The beginning of the book shows a simpler time for the main character, Earl. His boyhood is not idyllic, however, and the scene excerpted below foreshadows the problems he will experience in the New Economy.

    Excerpt from Ghosts of Tom Joad

    Jeff’s old man kept a small boat. It had seen better days, floating as much out of stubbornness any more than anything else. Seats two safely. Rides low in the water. We’d take it out on the river from time to time, drinking beer when we could, horsing around.

    It was a heavy, humid Ohio night, still then soft around us. Car sounds far off. The current was light and the river half dry in summer, so we figured loading the four of us into a boat made for two wouldn’t be a problem. Then we met Pam, this girl Tim sort of liked and Tim made us take her along. Tim had it on good authority she had lost her virginity already and was willing to lose it some more. She had a Farrah ’do, as this was the late 1970s.

    We got the boat into the water and climbed in well enough. Pam devoted herself to worrying about five people in a boat that might safely hold two. Pam was right, like girls then usually were about those kind of things. The boat drifted along with the current, ending up in the center of the river two beers later. We could see a few lights reflecting off the water, pretty, and I guess that’s what inspired Tim to try and put his arm around Pam, who was less inspired by the romantic scene and shrugged him off a bit too hard. The boat rocked and water came over the shallow sides. I was laughing, and so was Jeff, when the whole thing flipped over, dumping the five of us into the river. I couldn’t touch the bottom, but it was easy enough to doggy paddle over to the far bank. I looked over, laughing, at Tim, Rich and a really unhappy Pam. Her Farrah ’do was ruined. The boat was gone.

    So was Jeff.

    Tim and Pam went off looking for him down the river bank, thinking maybe he swam off that way. Rich heard him first – Jeff, in the water, shouting for us. I figured he was kidding around like always, pretending to drown in eight feet of warm water, when I saw Rich dive back in. I went right after him, and we reached Jeff in a few wet splashes. Rich grabbed him first, and we pulled him over to the bank. He was crying, snot all down his face, white as Wonder Bread. He had been wearing his heavy work boots, lace-ups, and they’d filled with water, pulling him under. Jeff was a strong kid back then, and was able to claw his way up to the surface and shout, but if Rich had not gone in after him, he’d have drowned that night while we watched.

    It was either Jeff’s earlier laughing or Jeff’s recent shouting that brought out the cops. One fat one came up to me and said, “Son, how many kids were in that boat?” And I said, truthfully, “Sir, there were five of us.” Me, Jeff and Rich were right there. Tim and Pam hadn’t come back, likely seeing the cop car lights and running. Five of us, just like I said.

    “Don’t worry son, we’ll find your friends.” The cop put me in the back of his car with a blanket, right before that fire truck came and all those men waded into the shallow part of the river. Flashlights were swinging criss-cross over the water and the men would yell for a bit, then tell each other to “Be quiet and just listen for a minute dammit, there’s two kids out there somewhere. We ain’t gonna let them die for no reason –”

    I figured out the reason. When the now tomato-faced fat cop came over to see how I was doing, I told him that Tim and Pam probably weren’t coming back. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Not if I can help it, son.” I told him Tim and Pam weren’t in the river. Nobody drowned. Nobody was missing. Tim and Pam had just run away. When he asked me how many in the boat a first, I didn’t want to lie and so I said, “Five officer, honest.”

    We heard Tim never got to make out with Pam that night, but he walked her home and she said maybe she’d think about it. It was the first time I realized you could die without getting old first, and that stuck with me.


    You can buy Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent from Amazon now, in hardcover, paperback and Kindle formats.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Photos of the Ghosts

    November 8, 2014 // Comments Off on Photos of the Ghosts

    On a recent trip to Oklahoma, I ran into some of the Ghosts of Tom Joad, and the places they live. Have a look.














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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Walmart (Hearts) Food Stamps

    October 16, 2014 // 1 Comment »




    How expensive are those everyday low prices? How much do things really cost on the dollar menu? The answer is more than you think, but maybe not for the reason you think.

    Lovin’ It: Food Stamps

    The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the current name for food stamps) is often thought of as something for the unemployed, though nothing could be further from the truth. Actually 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are from working families, just stuck in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. The United States now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world, most of whom receive only the minimum wage (the federal standard is $7.25 an hour) and typically are capped by their employers well below 40 hours a week so they won’t qualify for benefits. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. The math: even full time at $7.25 is only $290. How do you live on that?

    You don’t. You turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to make up the gap between minimum wage and a living wage. Which is just what large minimum wage employers count on you doing.

    Fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people; McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance each year. About one out of every three retail workers gets public assistance. After analyzing Medicaid data, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated a single 300-person Walmart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per associate in public assistance paid. Overall, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance. Those dollar amounts are what low prices actually cost you.

    Profits Before Poverty

    Why else do many large companies like food stamps? Because poverty is big business.

    Public benefits are now a huge part of corporate profits. The CEO of Kraft admitted that the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because beneficiaries were “a big part of our audience,” as one-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied against SNAP cuts, an indication of how much they rely on the money.

    Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, allowing companies like Coke and Pepsi to pull in four billion dollars a year in SNAP money revenues. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried unsuccessfully to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps.

    In a January 2014 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line. Walmart’s business risks, the filing said, include: “changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”

    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, more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. 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.

    Others also profit well from food stamps. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT (some recipients claim the acronym really means “Eat Better Tonight.”) JPMorgan Chase holds the contracts in half the United States to handle the transactions. In Florida, JPMorgan’s contract is worth $83 million, and in New York, it’s worth more than $112 million. Meanwhile, until recent changes, customer service for the JP Morgan EBT program was done via offshore call centers in India and Mexico who paid far below domestic wages.

    Corporate Welfare

    So don’t believe anyone who says raising the minimum wage will automatically drive prices up. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart (or at McDonald’s, KFC, Target…), you are paying in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If the business paid a living wage, there could a lessening in demand for public assistance. At the same, give some thought to how much tax money is ultimately finding its way into the hands of a few large corporations via SNAP sales, another form of welfare, albeit the corporate kind.

    Higher prices? You’re already paying more than you think.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Pigs: The More Wealth One Accumulates, the More Complicated Life Can Become

    October 15, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    Don’t we all know it? The more wealth one accumulates, the more complicated life can become.

    Luckily, if you’re among the 1 percent, you are not alone. Repeat that: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people ready to help you with the complications of owning more than 99 percent of your fellow citizens.

    One such resource in your time of need is Bessemer Trust, a “Private Client Wealth Management” company. As a way of reaching out, they ran this print ad in the Sunday New York Times:

    At Bessemer Trust, we believe maintaining wealth from generation to generation is the true art of wealth management. So we have a team of specialists targeted at precisely that… Our client advisory team helps prepare the next generation to responsibly guide your wealth… Our tax strategists help fend off a significant threat to your wealth… Let’s face it, history is littered with family names once associated with great wealth that now are mere footnotes. Everything we do is designed to keep you from becoming one of them. Call us. Minimum relationship $10 million.


    Bessemer Trust is There for You

    Indeed, on the company’s website, they do warn “Ironically, the more wealth one accumulates, the more complicated life can become.” So, here are some of actual quotes from the company about easing those complications:

    — “Whether you are interested in creating a Family Mission Statement, setting up trusts, or establishing a foundation, we can work with you to reflect your family’s core values in your legacy plan.”

    — “Reducing the erosion of wealth by implementing planning techniques designed to minimize taxes.”

    — “Raising children with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to be financially independent is a complex task for any parent, but wealthy families face a unique set of challenges… Do your children have the financial knowledge to manage wealth? Do members understand the family’s wealth plan?”

    — “Engaging and educating the next generation on wealth management issues can be a powerful way to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities life may offer.”

    — ”Naming the potential risks to your family and property can be uncomfortable. But not taking the steps necessary to minimize your exposure can prove more onerous in the end.”

    — “For many wealthy families, concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.”

    The company also arranges “intimate gatherings with other families who face common issues” and has a special advisory service on Yachts and Private Aircraft to “help you understand and assess your personal travel options.” They can also “assist in evaluating the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.”

    One Percent Problems

    See, while you struggle with simple problems like paying the rent and scavenging dented cans of hobo beans to feed your feral children, the One Percent have real issues.

    Apparently one of the most pressing issues for the wealthy, while admonishing the rest of us to work harder, stop being lazy and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, is how to make sure their money gets passed on to their kids, so those kiddies do not have to work harder, stop being lazy or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This assures that while most of us struggle against glass ceilings of one sort or another to rise, rich kids are held safe by marble floors that prevent them from falling. And all thanks to folks like Bessemer Trust!

    And kids today, amiright? While many of us hope to pass on skills to our own like how to kite a check and where to redeem aluminum cans for scrap value, the rich face the task of teaching their off-spring how to stay rich.

    Another issue for the rich is making sure they and their children don’t have to actually work. That’s the whole idea cited above about “concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.” That means owning stuff, primarily stock. You most likely don’t have this problem, because less than half of Americans don’t 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.

    However, it is Bessemer Trust’s special services that really get to the heart of why being super rich is such a grind. I mean, who really has time to personally evaluate “the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.” Daaady, can you help me with my homework? It’s not fair, I have to evaluate all these club and resort programs by tomorrow and they’re so stupid and complex!!!

    I for one am glad I don’t have to deal with stuff like that, and worry about whether my kids are prepared to continue my exploitation of the workers I own employ. What a load off.


    BONUS: All of the above is what companies like Bessemer Trust say without shame in public. Imagine what goes on behind their closed doors: “Welcome Mr. Van Buren. Please just leave your satchels of bullion over there next to the complimentary blood of virgins bar. Let me introduce Klaus, who will guide you through the ever-increasing and complex programs for acquiring fresh human organs for your next transplant. Oh, and I understand your daughter would very much like to see a poor child ritually slaughtered for her eighth birthday party. That would be Marie, who sorts those things out for our clients. Refreshment? We feature today a chilled glass of orphan tears.”




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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Fact-Checking North Korea Propaganda about America (They’re Right)

    October 14, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.

    The Korean Central News Agency Schools You

    North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.

    So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:

    Model for Human Rights
    As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See “a shining city on a hill” claims by presidents from Obama back]

    Racism
    Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]

    Unemployment
    At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]

    Housing Prices
    The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]

    Poverty
    The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low– the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]

    Crime
    All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here’s a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]

    Surveillance
    The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don’t make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]

    Murder
    Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here’s the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here’s one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]

    Prisoners
    The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]

    Hail to the Chief
    Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.

    About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.

    Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.

    (Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)



    (North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)




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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    I’ll Be at the Ohio State Urban Arts Space in Columbus Thursday!

    October 9, 2014 // Comments Off on I’ll Be at the Ohio State Urban Arts Space in Columbus Thursday!

    Please join me at The Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space on Thursday, October 9, for an evening of reading, signing, and conversation in connection with my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    The whole thing is just a small part of an exhibition called 25 ON HIGH: A Photographic Journey. My presentation, along with the exhibit, is part of Paging Columbus’ monthly reading series, which features literature about High Street and urban life. Selections for October 9 include Charles Dickens’ American Notes, Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, read by Dale Sparlin, Tracy Zollinger Turner and Jim Coe.


    The 25 ON HIGH exhibit is well-worth the trip by itself. For over a year, 25 local photographers have traversed Columbus’ main thoroughfare, High Street, documenting faces, landmarks, overlooked alcoves and affairs of the street. Marshalled by Ohio State University Associate Professor Emeritus Clay Lowe, who walked the same stretch of road with his camera 40 years ago, this team exhibition tells the unique story of High Street as it lives and shifts through this moment in history.

    The event is Thursday, October 9, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm at the Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., Suite 130, Columbus, OH 43215. The Space is in downtown Columbus, and not on the Ohio State campus.


    Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.

    Since this will be my only chance to speak in Columbus, please come join me at the Urban Space!



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    First World, Third World: A Travel Essay

    October 8, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.


    (I)
    Streets, laid out in the 19th century, are jammed with traffic that was never anticipated. Not just more cars; Americans traveled on foot or by horse the last time these were thought through. After moving two miles in 45 minutes, we cross a bridge built in 1901.

    The bridge handles the traffic decently; it was built quite wide for the trains that used to transport Americans. The over-engineering on the bridge, common in the days before computers, would prove prescient as it would be several decades before the city, the richest in America, would build modern ones, and the last of those opened in the 1960’s.

    The infrastructure is old and tired but can’t be fixed it seems. Too expensive. Though the current Iraq/Syria war has already cost over one billion dollars, and the previous one over two trillion dollars, somehow there is never enough money.


    (II)
    The subway might be faster, but the segment I’d use for part of the journey was first opened in 1904 and is a hodge-podge of patches and repairs today. The girders holding up the street have been painted by generations of workers over the last hundred years such that when a chip appears, it is deep and noticeable, a sort of archaeological find. Theodore Roosevelt was president when the first coat of paint was applied.

    The subway isn’t really an option anyway. Public transportation to the airport, one of America’s busiest, is limited to a single bus that runs irregularly, with limited space for the luggage of the poor souls who need to check something, and drops off at stops at the airport equally convenient to no one. The bus isn’t yours anyway; it is designed for persons commuting out of the areas it passes through headed to work at the airport, staffing your Cinnabon. Some smiles there that don’t reach eyes. At least remember to say thanks.

    On your way you pass through their crumbling neighborhoods where the open businesses are often check cashing places, we buy gold cubbies and pawn shops. Some fast food places, who pay minimum wage in the neighborhood while exporting profits to midtown banks. You can actually see over the roofs into Manhattan where the money goes, and where the morning newspaper has an article on “affordable” condos priced at over two million dollars.


    (III)
    The airport, originally built in 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President and WWII was just starting for the Greatest Generation) and randomly added to over since, is chaotic at best. At security, foreign tourists look around for validation as they are yelled at to remove their shoes. It all seems inexplicable to many from Third World places the U.S. can’t bully into following America’s security theatre script. The floor we walk on in our socks is still a bit sticky from some spill. Everyone holds their hands over their head inside the scanner, a position of submission prisoners assume. The analogy is only slightly an analogy. But people either believe in it for their freedom as they are told, or just put up with it to avoid the bullying that follows displays of even quiet resistance. Be glad you are allowed to fly at all and have not been put without your knowledge on the No-Fly list for some Josef K. offense.

    Everyone on the plane, which departs late without explanation offered to you, is sorted into class. Those with the right credit card, or those who paid more, are treated one way, right down to a silly scrap of red carpet at check-in that to be fair does seem to validate something to some of them, judging by the smiles and the glances back into the lines. The other people are pushed onto the plane in a scrum of unintelligible “groups” to struggle against one another for the limited resources of space to sit, or to store giant amounts of luggage they are forced to carry to avoid usurious fees. The fee has nothing much to do with the airline’s biggest cost, fuel, as the weight is the same in or under the plane. The fee just is there. It’s a kind of modern icon, in other places called disingenuously a “convenience fee,” a fee you pay to buy something else.

    On the plane everyone speaks in a bully’s (that word again) passive-aggressive verbiage. Sit down or we won’t take off, and it’ll be your fault, and God help you if the other flyers turn on you. You can’t congregate near the restrooms, even though there is only a tiny space anyway, because supposedly 13 years ago that’s what the 9/11 hijackers did. You are not passengers, or customers. You are all potential terrorists and will be treated as such. Here’s half a Diet Coke as a reward for being compliant.


    (IV)
    Flying over the Midwest, even at 25,000 feet midday on a Tuesday, you can’t miss the huge factories and warehouses, all surrounded by empty parking lots. No jobs it seems, even at this altitude. On the ground, in three different cities over a week, you see neighborhood after neighborhood that has been “gentrified” as part of what seems like a last gasp to salvage the hunk of America that isn’t New York, the L.A.-San Francisco corridor or wherever the federal government is still hiring.

    In these neighborhoods tens of thousands of skilled blue collar jobs that once paid a living wage have been replaced by only hundreds of minimum wage, part-time jobs for baristas and waiters, many serving a few. A lot of people now in America don’t really make anything, besides a few apps maybe, so they serve a very few who only make deals. See it all the time. Did you enjoy your meal sir (please tip, I don’t get paid much)?

    The people on the ground still hope it might work. They are not stupid and this is not to mock; they know they have been handed the dirty end of the stick in the long con and are trying what they hope might work, though hope takes time and that is another thing they don’t have. You don’t have to be an economist to see how it can’t really work, do the math, but you’ll enjoy a decent cup of coffee on the way down.

    There are exceptions, good ones. The young mayor of Louisville has dedicated himself to attracting companies to his city. He talks like a man running for his city’s life, in about the best way you can run for your life. But it is a tough race.



    (V)
    Oh, these are “first world problems.” That’s the point, true to a point, but indeed America claims to be the most exceptional nation in the first world, so the problems are worth talking through. And this all isn’t nostalgia; it’s history.

    America also has its third world problems– lack of equitable health care (The U.S. ranks 56th internationally in infant mortality, worse than Cuba, Poland, Bosnia, and Serbia), malnutrition among the poor (one of five kids in America is food-at-risk), homelessness, murder and drug abuse rates rivaling any outside of combat zones, the highest percentage of a population in prison in the developed world, acts of random violence in our schools and workplaces, racism and inequality that regularly erupt into violence suppressed by militarized police.


    First world, third world, you see them all and you wonder what happened, now, to us.




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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    The Great (Re)Training Robbery

    October 3, 2014 // 5 Comments »




    Barack Obama told Americans every worker deserves to know “if you lose your job, your country will help you train for an even better one.” A nice sentiment,and politically safe; it’s just the wrong answer. Those “better jobs” don’t exist, and training doesn’t create jobs. Despite all that, every year the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on job training, with little impact. What’s the right answer?

    In 2007 then-candidate Obama visited Janesville, Wisconsin, location of the oldest General Motors plant in America. Echoing his current promise to support unemployed Americans with job training, Obama proclaimed “I believe that, if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.” However, two days before Christmas and just about a month before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because most residents either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. Congress paid for a $2 million retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools, a century ago, to teach new immigrants the skills they needed to work at GM.

    This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs for the most part simply became trained unemployed people, rather than untrained ones. Having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” or training in new welding techniques did not automatically lead to a job in those fields. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees (the United States graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014.) Of those that completed some form of training, nearly 40 percent did not find work. And those in Janesville who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36 percent. A look at Craigslist job ads for the town shows one ad for heating and ventilation work, with a demand for three years experience. Under “General Labor” the work is for janitors, newspaper delivery and things like light manufacturing at $8.50 an hour.

    Obama’s calls for job training also belies the fact that the government already spends approximately $18 billion a year to administer 47 job training programs. The actual value of those programs remains unclear. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only five programs assessed whether people who found jobs did so because of the program and not some other cause. In addition, the GAO learned that almost all training programs overlap with at least one other training program. “Federal job training sounds like something that should boost the economy,” writes the Cato Institute, “but five decades of experience indicate otherwise.”

    The panacea myth of job training crosses party lines. The GAO reported that in 2003, under the George W. Bush administration, the government spent $13 billion on training, spread across 44 programs. Job training may again be on the GOP agenda, even if the parties differ on the details. Politically, some sort of job training just sounds good. The problem is that it won’t really help America’s 10.5 million unemployed.

    So the $18 billion question is: if training is not the answer, what is?

    Jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. The 2008 recession wiped out primarily high and middle wage jobs, with the strongest employment growth in the recovery taking place in low wage employment, to the point where the United States has the highest number of workers in low wage jobs of all industrialized nations.

    There are many possible paths to better-paying jobs in America whose spending power can spark a “virtuous cycle.” That would mean more employment leading to more spending and more demand, followed by more hiring. One kickstarter is simply higher wages in the jobs we do have. For example, recent Department of Labor studies show that the 13 states which raised their minimum wages added jobs (at higher wages of course) at a faster pace than those that did not. On a larger, albeit more contentious scale, are options such as a WPA-like program, changes to tax and import laws to promote domestic manufacturing, infrastructure grants and the like. There’s $18 billion to work with for a start.

    No matter the path forward, the bottom line remains unchanged: Training does not create jobs. Jobs create the need for training. Anything else is just politics.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Great Crowd at Idea Festival 2014

    October 2, 2014 // 1 Comment »




    My thanks to the organizers, sponsors and especially the 400-some people who came out to hear me yesterday at the Louisville Idea Festival 2014. Thanks also to Kris Kimmel for inviting me, and to Ellen McGrit for handling the Q&A.


    Talking about economic disparity, the myths of our economy that encourage people to act against their own self-interest and the Great Game that allows a tiny percentage to own– and control– the remaining 99%– can be heavy going, and often less than pleasant conversation. My hat’s off to the people of Louisville for working through it with me, challenging my conclusions with good questions and most of all, hearing me out.


    I hope to see you all again next year for Idea Festival 2015!



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    IDEA Festival 2014

    October 1, 2014 // 4 Comments »






    Following my discussion about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, at the always-excellent IDEA Festival in Louisville, Kentucky for 2014, I promised links to the articles and statistics mentioned. This will allow anyone who heard my talk to fact check what I said, and comment below.



    Here they are, along with the written text of the speech.

    Louisville IDEA Festival 2014 Speech







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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    New Review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: “He makes it real”

    September 30, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).

    Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.

    I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.

    Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.

    He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.

    In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”

    Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.

    Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.

    I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.

    My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”

    Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.

    Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Thanks to NAIBA!

    September 24, 2014 // Comments Off on Thanks to NAIBA!

    My sincere thanks to the nice folks at the North American Independent Bookstore Association (NAIBA) for hosting me at their 2014 Fall Conference September 20 in Northern Virginia.


    I was able to meet A LOT of independent bookstore owners, and am grateful for the time they gave me to talk about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.

    Independent bookstores have been a big part of the success of my books, and I look forward to working with you all in the coming months.

    My thanks also to the friendly people of Chesapeake and Hudson for helping me throughout the day to sign books.

    I hope to see many of you again, either in your stores, here online or at next year’s NAIBA conference!



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Once the American Dream

    September 23, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    We were once the American Dream, and now we’re just what happened to it.

    The people I am talking about in my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent seem illusive here on the East Coast; in New York, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.

    In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. Ok as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.


    The View from Ground Zero

    The story is different when I talk in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory that closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”

    I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.

    But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.


    Rent-to-Own

    Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.

    Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at 12 to 15 percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.

    Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.


    Cashing In

    Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting 20 percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.

    This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two-year-old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter — feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol — and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms without cash would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handlebars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.

    The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Booklist Namechecks Beckett for Ghosts of Tom Joad

    September 20, 2014 // 2 Comments »




    From Booklist, here’s the newest review of Ghosts of Tom Joad, with a generous comparison to Samuel Beckett:


    As Earl takes an endless bus ride around his hometown of Reeve, Ohio, we witness the downwardly spiraling events of his life as he tries to make sense of how a boom town went bust. It’s the twenty-first century, and the factory that founded and funded this Rust Belt town is gone, taking with it the livelihood and lives of hardworking and hard-drinking men like Earl and his father before him. Men who were duped into bartering their dreams of glory for what would turn out to be the empty promise of a steady wage.


    In a device that could well be employed in a Beckett drama, Earl’s mythical bus teems with a constant parade of unearthly visitors from his past—family, friends, and fellow downsized derelicts who, in their unreal way, convey the painful reality that erodes society when the American dream turns into a nightmare. A seasoned State Department diplomat, stalwart Iraq War whistleblower, and author of We Meant Well (2011), Van Buren turns his keen eye to the shameful treatment of the nation’s unemployed and homeless.


    More reviews for Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent




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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Hah Hah: You are So Poor

    September 19, 2014 // 13 Comments »






    BREAKING: According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the rich are getting richer while the poor in America continue to get poorer. And the government is contributing to all this.




    You are Poorer Now than Before

    Here’s the story from the CBO:

    — 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.

    — In 2007, federal taxes and transfers reduced the dispersion of income by 20 percent. The share of transfer payments to the lowest-income households declined. “The equalizing effect of federal taxes was smaller” in 2007 than in 1979, as “the composition of federal revenues shifted away from progressive income taxes to less-progressive payroll taxes,” thus doing less to reduce the concentration of income, the CBO said.

    — The most affluent fifth of the population received 53 percent of after-tax household income in 2007, up from 43 percent in 1979. In other words, the after-tax income of the most affluent fifth exceeded the income of the other four-fifths of the population.

    You can read the full Congressional Budget Office report online.


    Shut Up Serfs

    Just to make sure the point is clear, the top ten percent of wealth holders own roughly 70 percent of everything in the United States. The bottom half of us have roughly five percent, and falling, because…

    The Great Recession of 2008 stripped swaths of the middle class of their most valuable asset. 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.

    The value of those homes and their real estate migrated into the hands of those who controlled the banks. Many homeowners were turned into renters, shoving more money upward to those who controlled the property. America’s the top earners’ wealth grew even as those responsible for the collapse were never punished and the companies involved received federal bail-out money to cover losses, being too big to fail. In a neat closing of the circle, the money came from taxes paid in part by those destroyed in the Recession.

    This was one of the largest single redistributions of wealth in American, perhaps world, history. Cool– you were around to witness history in the making.

    GINI

    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 “exceptional nation.”


    Serfs All, or at Least 99% of Us

    Thanks for reading this. I hope it distracted you briefly from the daily hunger pangs you face. If you don’t complain, we’ll allow you 30 minutes of TV tonight. Now back to work serf.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Yer New iPhone

    September 9, 2014 // 5 Comments »



    Apple unveils their new iPhone today. Here’s your 2014 America in a nutshell:

    Be poor, Black, Muslim or expressing a political opinion and the cops will run you off the sidewalk (if not taser or kill you.)

    Wait overnight on the sidewalk as a good consumer to buy the new iPhone and the cops’ll watch over you like guardian angels.








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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    September 5, 2014 // Comments Off on Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    Look at any list of popular books and you’ll see it obsessively packed with self-help manuals, Chicken Soup for Teens, How to Be a Better Whatever, books about having better sex, better relationships, better jobs. At the same time, we live in a world under attack from advertising that cleaves to a single theme: whatever you have now, it is not enough. You need to buy something new! to smell better, look better, have a bigger TV, a bigger penis, a faster car. Buy a Model II today! and see it overwhelmed by the new must-have features in the Model III, three months later. With all that need for personal and material improvement, it can be darn hard to just be… happy. So you get back on the circle and read some more self-help books.

    Repeat. Want more? Desire less.

    Morris Berman Writes to Us

    Morris Berman, whose prescient work detailing the decline and literal deflation of the American economy forms much of the philosophical underpinning of my own upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has written a new volume, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times.

    Unlike his previous books, which focus on society and economy in decline, Spinning Straw is different. Maybe.

    Actually, maybe not. The themes here are indeed about society, and economy, but zoomed out then into a very personal view. Berman reflects on his own life, with mention of a failed marriage, his decision to move to Mexico, all part of tracing his personal journey away from a world based on I Want into one where one’s happiness and contentment is divorced from more material things. But this is no hippie trip, and Berman’s book is no feel-good experience with a happy ending. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:

    I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)… Life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.


    Old Kyoto

    In reading Spinning Straw, I was reminded of my chance encounter in old Kyoto with an elderly man who was one of the last makers of hand-crafted wooden buckets for use in a Japanese bath. He worked slowly, and seemed to make very little money, selling his product to mostly other elderly people. I asked him why he did what he did and he said “Because wooden buckets are good,” turning away from me. It was up to me to discard the simple truth– he did what he did because it was right– or learn from it. The old guy could care less what I thought, he had buckets to make. So it is with Spinning Gold; the author is not selling seats at a seminar or a CD collection of his happy talk; there are no “steps” or Five Most Important Things to Do Now. Indeed, you walk away with the feeling that while the author has much to say, if you’re too stupid to listen he could probably care less. There are buckets to make.

    If the author was however forced into making some sort of list, it would be short. Slow down. Think more, purchase less. Look for meaning more than Wikipedia-ized facts. Enjoy the dance. The journey’s all we have until we get there, then that’s that. Hell, the whole book’s only 90 pages.

    Those 90 pages are packed with stuff to think about. The need to break a cycle of what the author calls “stuckness,” the focus on elevating little things into big things where you end up screaming at a minimum wage worker because your coffee isn’t right or the Bubblicious is out of stock. There is the danger of buying (!) too deeply and quickly into a “narrative,” a way of life dictated to you where you falsely think you’re picking up safety and security but instead fall into a trap. Choosing competition over community isn’t like deciding caff or decaff, it is a philosophical “vector” that shoots you down a very different life path.

    Blended into the pages are inklings of the “old” Berman. Obama’s seemingly overnight transformation from Hope and Change into a nightmare of drones and perpetual war is offered as an example of what happens when one doesn’t care about one’s soul. Power and influence require you to “inject poison into culture’s veins on a daily basis.” But if instead you follow the fairy tale of making straw into gold, you have a chance at a life that is full, meaningful and pleasantly finite– you can be happy and content once and for all. As Berman says, life is over faster than a blink, and then all you are is dead for a really long time.

    You get it. The book is brief, the lessons long. In the time it took to read this review you could be well-stuck into Berman’s thoughts. Better to put this down and pick those up before another blink goes by.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    I’ll Be at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore August 29!

    August 28, 2014 // 15 Comments »




    I am excited that The Tattered Cover, Denver’s best independent bookstore (with its own coffee shop) will host me for an evening of reading, signing, and conversation in connection with my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    I’ll be at the LoDo store in historic Lower Downtown, at the end of the 16th Street Mall, near Union Station and Coors Field. The event starts at 7pm.


    The store is at 1628 16th Street at Wynkoop in Denver, in the restored Morey Mercantile Building, directly across Wynkoop Street from the new EPA building next to Union Station just blocks from Coors Field. Hourly parking lots are located near the store and street side parking is also available. The zip is 80202 for your GPS, or you can call old-school to 303-436-1070 for directions.



    Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.


    Since this will be my only chance to speak in Denver, please come join me at The Tattered Cover!


    If you can’t make it to the event but would like an autographed copy, email books@tatteredcover.com and we’ll get one set up for you.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Arguments Against Raising Minimum Wage Don’t Hold Up

    August 27, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    The arguments against raising the minimum wage don’t hold up to facts.

    Aren’t most people who work for minimum wage teens?

    No– 88 percent are adults, with more than a third over age 40. These workers earn half of their families’ incomes. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.


    C’mon, you don’t get an education, it’s your own fault you work for minimum wage, right?

    Wrong. The percentage of low-wage workers with at least some college education spiked 71 percent since 1979, to 43.2 percent today. You didn’t ask, but adult (re)training programs don’t seem to help much.


    O.K., I feel for those people. But won’t higher wages cause higher prices?

    The way you functionally subsidize companies paying low-wages to workers– ponying up the difference between what McDonald’s and others pay and what those workers need to live via taxpayer-paid SNAP (food stamps) and other benefits– is a hidden cost in plain sight. You’re already paying higher prices via higher taxes; you just may not know it.


    But even if taxes go down, won’t companies pass on their higher labor costs?

    Maybe, but they are unlikely to be significant. For example, if McDonald’s doubled the salaries of its employees to $14.50 an hour, not only would many of them go off public benefits, but so would the company– and a Big Mac would cost just 68 cents more (another study says only 14 cents.) At Wal-mart, increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost the company only about one percent, so that made-in-China $10 item would run you all of $10.01.


    So maybe prices won’t go up so much. But won’t companies, facing higher labor costs, cut back on jobs?

    Companies hire for business needs, such as surge Christmas help, not out of societal largess. The Los Angeles Economic Round Table concluded raising the minimum to $15 locally, and thus putting more cash into the hands of consumers, would generate an additional $9.2 billion in annual sales and create more than 50,000 jobs. A Paychex/IHS survey, which looks at employment in small businesses, found that the state with the highest percentage of annual job growth was Washington, which also has the highest statewide minimum wage. Nationwide, even a small hike to $10.10 an hour would put some $24 billion a year into workers’ hands to spend and lift 4.6 million Americans out of poverty. Consumer spending drives 70 percent of our economy.


    What about small businesses?

    Two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are not employed by small businesses. Better yet, one survey shows three out of five small business owners favor raising the minimum wage; their profits depend on a strong local economy, which requires more money in local consumers’ hands. Most small businesses cannot off-shore jobs, or export their way to profit, so micro-economics matter. Sad to say, 50-80 percent of most small businesses already fail for various reasons, even with a minimum wage that has not kept up with inflation (wage costs are actually lower now than in the past; in 1968 the federal minimum was $1.60 per hour, approximately $10.70 in 2013 dollars.) Factors other than labor costs seem far more significant.


    Don’t these anti-minimum wage arguments sound a lot like the old anti-union arguments?

    Yep. Many opponents at the height of union employment in the 1970s claimed high wages cost jobs. How could a business survive paying $25 an hour? If wages were cut, they said, and profits went up as costs fell, more jobs would be created. The demise of unions did certainly help raise corporate profits, but it clearly did not create jobs, at least not jobs at a living wage. One in four U.S. employees are low-wage workers. That is 20 percent higher than in the United Kingdom, and the highest percentage among industrialized nations. So how’d that all anti-union stuff work out?


    If there are no clear arguments against raising the minimum wage from our perspective, why are companies so opposed?

    While wages have fallen, from 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation, inflation-adjusted, increased 937 percent. Funny how the two arguments to keep wages low, unions and minimum wage, track one another. It’s almost as if there was a pattern of finding ways to lower wages while keeping CEO compensation high in America, societal costs be damned.


    But can’t every statistic can be argued?

    Sure. However, at some point, assuming one seeks more than simply a hyper-wealthy dominating a working poor, economics is about people. People who can afford to feed themselves in meaningful jobs earn not just money, but self-respect. The connection between working and taking care of yourself and your family has increasingly gone missing in America, creating a society that often no longer believes in itself. Raising the wage so many Americans now depend on for their livelihood benefits us all.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    On The Jim Bohannon Show: Why Walmart (Hearts) Food Stamps

    August 21, 2014 // Comments Off on On The Jim Bohannon Show: Why Walmart (Hearts) Food Stamps




    Following my Reuter’s piece on how Walmart, McDonalds and others profit from food stamps, I joined radio host Jim Bohannon to discuss food stamps, the minimum wage, and more.

    According to Jim:

    When you slide into the drive-up lane at your local fast-food place and decide which of the ‘value menu’ items you choose, do you ever think about how the restaurant chain manages to keep those prices down? The fact is, you’re paying a higher price than is on the menu board. While you may get a quick, cheap burger and a dollar soft drink right away, on April 15 your tax dollars are going to pay for assistance programs helping the people who cook and serve your ‘cheap’ lunch.

    Employees in the fast-food industry, many of whom work at the minimum wage, are heavy recipients of Federal and state assistance, especially taking advantage of SNAP, the Federal food stamps program. According to our guest tonight, columnist and author Peter Van Buren, fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people. In effect, the corporations running the fast food chains are reaping big profits while the taxpayer foots the bill for the assistance programs allowing those corporations’ employees to survive. ‘Think everything on a dollar menu costs a dollar? Think again.’


    Here’s the whole interview. My portion starts at 40:10 in.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Just Raise the Minimum Wage

    August 7, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    Raise the minimum wage. The arguments for are strong, and the arguments against don’t hold up to facts.

    You still think everything on the dollar menu really costs only a dollar? Better read this. One important reason to raise the minimum wage to a living one is that people who can afford to feed themselves will not need food stamps paid for by taxpayers. Companies who profit off their workers’ labor will be forced to pay a fair price for it, and not get by on taxpayer-subsidized low wages. Just as important, people who can afford to feed themselves earn not just money, but self-respect. The connection between working and taking care of yourself and your family has increasingly gone missing in America, creating a society that no longer believes in itself. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for building anything human.

    But won’t higher wages cause higher prices? The way taxpayers functionally subsidize companies paying low-wages to workers — essentially ponying up the difference between what McDonald’s and its ilk pay and what those workers need to live via SNAP and other benefits — is a hidden cost squirreled away in plain sight. Sky-high company profits are based on the in-flow of federal tax money to keep low wages manageable. You’re already paying higher prices via higher taxes; you just may not know it.

    Even if taxes go down, won’t companies pass on their costs? Maybe, but they are unlikely to be significant. For example, if McDonald’s doubled the salaries of its employees to a semi-livable $14.50 an hour, not only would most of them go off public benefits, but so would the company — and yet a Big Mac would cost just 68 cents more. In general, only about 20% of the money you pay for a Big Mac goes to labor costs. At Walmart, increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost the company only about one percent of its annual sales.

    What about job cutbacks? Despite labor costs not being the most significant factor in the way low-wage businesses set their prices, one of the more common objections to raising the minimum wage is that companies, facing higher labor costs, will cut back on jobs. Don’t believe it.

    The Los Angeles Economic Round Table concluded that raising the hourly minimum to $15 in that city would generate an additional $9.2 billion in annual sales and create more than 50,000 jobs. A Paychex/IHS survey, which looks at employment in small businesses, found that the state with the highest percentage of annual job growth was Washington, which also has the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation. The area with the highest percentage of annual job growth was San Francisco, the city with the highest minimum wage in the nation. Higher wages do not automatically lead to fewer jobs. Many large grocery chains, including Safeway and Kroger, are unionized and pay well-above-minimum wage. They compete as equals against their non-union rivals, despite the higher wages.

    Will employers leave a state if it raises its minimum wage independent of a nationwide hike? Unlikely. Most minimum-wage employers are service businesses that are tied to where their customers are.  People are not likely to drive across state lines for a burger. A report on businesses on the Washington-Idaho border at a time when Washington’s minimum wage was nearly three bucks higher than Idaho’s found that the ones in Washington were flourishing.

    While some businesses could indeed decide to close or cut back if the minimum wage rose, the net macro gains would be significant. Even a small hike to $10.10 an hour would put some $24 billion a year into workers’ hands to spend and lift 900,000 Americans above the poverty line. Consumer spending drives 70% of our economy. More money in the hands of consumers would likely increase the demand for goods and services, creating jobs.

    In many ways, the debate over raising the minimum age mirrors what was said about unions in the 1970s. Many at the time, especially pro-business economists and politicians as they do today, claimed the high wages fought for by unions hurt American competitiveness and cost jobs. How could a business survive paying $25 an hour? If wages were cut, and profits went up as costs fell, more jobs would be created.

    So how’d that work out? The demise of unions did certainly help raise corporate profits, but it clearly did not create jobs, at least not good jobs at a living wage. Quite the opposite. Want more minimum wage jobs, maybe? Keep the wage dirt poor low.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    U.S. States Revive Debtors’ Prisons

    July 31, 2014 // 13 Comments »

    A sordid feature of 19th century Victorian life was the debtor’s prison.

    People who could not pay their financial debt simply went to prison, punishment for not being wealthy. The point was often muddied, as from inside jail a person could most certainly not earn any money to pay off the debt, though one supposes the rich chortled knowing those who stiffed them suffered for the act. It was kind of a thing to do back then. The prisons, chronicled most famously by Charles Dickens among other Victorian crimes against a just society, were a step from Roman and Greek days when debtors could become the actual bonded slaves of the people to whom they owed money.

    Debtor’s prisons were from Colonial days through the early 1800s a feature of American life, until enlightened societal views (yeah, slavery took a bit longer to sort out) and new bankruptcy laws pushed them from the scene. State-by-state the practice of locking people up to punish them for owing money generally faded; Kentucky did away with it in 1821, still-business friendly Virginia dragged its feet until 1849. Between 1970 and 1982, in a series of cases, the Supremes did away with the practice once and for all as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Until now of course.

    Until Now of Course

    More and more states have revived the debtors prison, albeit in a specific form, locking people up for failure to pay court costs and fees. Like so many other things in America, shortfalls in budgets are made up not by raising taxes (or heaven forbid, fiscal prudence) but by new arrays of costs and fees paid by people in the criminal justice system. We are not referring to fine or penalty (ex. speeding ticket=$250) here, but to that thing the judges say on TV– “Guilty, with a fine of $300 and court costs. Next case please.”

    The new costs can be dizzying. The Brennan Center at New York University reports:

    Some jurisdictions have haphazardly created an interlocking system of fees that can combine to create insurmountable debt burdens. Florida has added more than 20 new fees since 1996. In 2009, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that a “sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package. In 2009, North Carolina instituted late fees for failure to pay a fine, and added a surcharge for being placed on a payment plan. Jurisdictions in at least nine states charge people extra fees for entering into payment plans, which are purportedly designed to make payments easier.


    The Problem(s)

    Leaving aside the not insignificant question of the morality of imprisoning people for debt (an issue that was supposedly resolved years ago), we note that no country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. At 716 per 100,000 people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. tops every other nation in the world (insert “American Exceptionalism” comment). The United States has about five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Prisons are already overcrowded in most places, so on the face, creating new reasons to put people in jail seems a bad idea.

    Of course the idea of debtor’s prison also impacts more exactly the people who need more impacting less, the poor. People with money pay the fees and go home. People without money go to jail. In hard-hit Huron County, Ohio in 2012, twenty percent of all arrests were for failure to pay fines. By coincidence, Huron County has a poverty rate above twenty-six percent.

    But Shouldn’t People Pay Their Debts?

    The governments’ case is as predicted. “When, and only when, an individual is convicted of a crime, there are required fees and court costs,” said Pamela Dembe, of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. “If the defendant doesn’t pay, law-abiding taxpayers must pay these costs.”

    She’s right of course. When people don’t pay their fees and court costs, it is indeed the taxpayer who ends up paying. But not in the way you might think. Locking up debtors costs money. The U.S. as a whole spends some $39 billion a year on locking people up. There are also incalculable collateral costs, such as families left without a parent. But really, it is about money. The costs to states of locking people up are significant– it costs an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate someone in California.

    Now sure, Charlie Manson in Super Max and Poor Old Joe in the county lockup do not cost the same, but then again, logic isn’t always the winner: The Brennan Center reports that there are inmates in Pennsylvania who are eligible for release but are kept in prison based on their inability to pay a $60 fee. The daily cost of confinement is nearly $100 per day. In 2009, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina jailed 246 debtors who did not pay for an average of four days. The county collected $33,476 while the jail terms cost $40,000 — a loss for the county.

    Stop Making Sense

    So we are left with the question of why. Debtors’ prisons in the U.S. were declared unconstitutional, but states have re-implemented them anyway. A person locked up can’t earn money to pay the debt. And most significantly, it ends up costing many jurisdictions more money to punish someone for not paying than they would have “spent” just forgetting the debt. So why do states do this? To be fair, many states do not, and some that do often try and work out some sort of payment plan first. OK, good enough.

    Now this may all be for the best. On the streets, nobody is overly concerned about providing food, medical care and shelter to poor people; outside they’re lazy, don’t want to work, nip at the public tit and all. Why, it would be socialism to help them after all. However, inside the prison system they all get food, medical and dental care, all tucked in a warm bed. Our society is apparently more ready to care for a criminal than for a citizen down on his luck.

    The reality in America is that far too many people go to jail as punishment for not paying the fees and court costs incurred finding them already guilty of something else. One is left with a tough conclusion: we are more and more a crude, course society on path towards some sort of feudalism, where the rich (if ever brought to court at all) pay their money and walk out, while poor people are punished for no valid reason. We as a society want to set examples, clear the streets of our lowers, punish those who aren’t able to pay the government for giving them their day in court. That’s who we are now. And you better pay your bills.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    Poverty is Profitable: 1 out of 3 U.S. Consumers in Debt Collection

    July 30, 2014 // 4 Comments »



    A new report by the Urban Institute and Encore Capital Group’s Consumer Credit Research Institute shows 77 million Americans– 35 percent of those with files at a major credit bureau– have a debt in collection.


    Nevada has the worst record, with 47 percent of consumers with a credit file showing a debt in collections. In twelve other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia as well as the District of Columbia, more than 40 percent of residents with a credit file have a bill in collections. In some smaller areas, the in-collection number is as high as 61 percent.

    The report also shows that 1 out of 20 Americans hold debt that is “past due,” i.e., more than one month delinquent, though not yet in the collection process. Collection usually kicks in after 180 days past due.

    Meanwhile, about 22 million Americans make so little money that they do not have credit files.


    Poverty is Profitable

    But as you can expect, there is always someone profiting from poverty.

    For example, in another area of debt, writing checks that exceed the amount in an account (bouncing a check), often in hopes of creating faux credit planning on money to flow in before the check is actually cashed, American banks collect $30 billion a year in overdraft fees.

    Collection companies can be seen as a great investment. The companies buy debt cheap and collect high. For example, Bank A itself has no interest in chasing a person for, as an example, a $1000 overdue payment. That’s not the bank’s core business, banking is. So they sell it to a collections company for say 10 percent, or $100. If the company can get back from the consumer anything more than the $100, that’s profit. It can be a lot of profit– one hyper-successful company boasts of a 239% return. A more typical return on investment for a collections company is 20 percent, a nice profit in itself.

    In 2010 agencies collected about $40 billion from consumers. Business seems good: there are 4,100 debt collection agencies in the United States, employing nearly 450,000 people, and the industry expects to grow by 23 percent over the next three years. The Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, the industry’s largest trade association, spent more than $660,000 on Congressional lobbying over three years.

    So Stop Spending. You Don’t Need that Big Screen

    The average American holds $15,000 in debt, about half of that on credit cards (though others put the credit card number at about $4000.) But more significantly, the national averages for mortgage debt are $154,365 and for student loans, $33,607.

    A common statement at this point regarding those credit cards is “So stop buying things you can’t afford, especially with high interest rates. Duh.” While there are no doubt people who misuse their credit to buy frivolous things, credit cards are to many in the middle class what pay day loans and pawn shops are to the poor: easy to access money for daily needs when there are no alternatives.

    However, according to an analysis of spending from First Data, a major payment processing company, Americans increasingly used credit to purchase food and other everyday necessities. “During the month studied we saw consumers reducing the growth of their discretionary spending at retail merchants and increasingly resorting to credit for necessities,” said a statement. Spending in clothing stores, restaurants and bars declined, while credit spending at general merchandise stores, including value retailers and discount stores, increased.


    BONUS: Some 46 million Americans receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, what food stamps are now called. Hmmm… More than 1 out of 3 Americans are indebted, and about 1 out of 6 are dependant on the government to eat. Why, you’d almost think that was a strategy of control or something. But, naw, couldn’t be.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America

    The Poor Door: Building has Separate Entrances for Rich and Poor

    July 28, 2014 // 10 Comments »



    Not that America has become a divided, classist society or anything. Oh wait, it has.


    Poor Doors

    New York City approved plans for a new 33-story luxury high-rise at 40 Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that will include a separate entrance for tenants in “affordable” housing, what some have called the “poor door.” The high-rise has both super-luxe units worth millions, and some affordable housing units. Rich residents come in the front door. Poor residents enter through the side door. The expensive units overlook the Hudson River waterfront. The affordable units are in a “building segment” that faces the street. “Affordable” folks cannot enter the rich side of the building and are prohibited from using any of the building’s amenities. The way the architecture was specifically designed, the two groups will never mingle.


    Affordable Housing in a Luxury Building?

    Why does such a luxury building have affordable housing units in the first place? Well, so the rich can manipulate New York’s housing laws for their own benefit.

    Including some affordable housing units in your new construction buys you two distinct advantages in New York. The first is that the developer is allowed to build a much taller building (and thus having more apartments to sell), skirting zoning laws and claiming valuable “air rights” for the benefit of the poor, of course. The air rights the developer will claim are worth millions in crowded Manhattan. The benefits even apply if you build your luxury tower in one part of Manhattan and your affordable units “off site,” maybe in a nasty part of town.

    A developer can also qualify for the program by building condos on “areas of Manhattan of underutilized or unused land,” wherever those may be on some of the most densely populated land in the world.

    The biggest advantage of including the affordable units in a luxury building is the massive tax breaks all residents share. New York waives or significantly lowers property taxes, meaning the rich, who need never see or interact with their poor neighbors, make money off their presence. It’s all called the “Inclusionary Housing Program,” or officially, the 421a program.

    Here’s an example of how significant these tax breaks can be drawn from another super-luxury building in midtown Manhattan that included some affordable housing units. On an apartment purchased in 2007 for $1.5 million, the owner paid just $35 a month in property taxes. That creeped up to only $374 a month in 2011. When the exemption expires in 2018, the actual monthly tax bill will be an estimated $1,629. Note also any that real estate taxes paid are tax-deductible from one’s income.


    Developers Getting Rich off the Poor

    Another New York developer, who has built “poor door” buildings, summed things up quite succinctly:

    No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations. So now you have politicians talking about that, saying how horrible those back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.

    The developers of the poor door building under discussion have done well with tax breaks. Five of the luxury firm’s other apartment towers cost the city $21.8 million in tax revenue in their first year alone. Overall, as of 2012, property tax abatements in New York City totaled $2.9 billion, about 20 percent of actual property tax collections in the city.

    So what’s the problem, some say, with poor folks gettin’ some uptown housing from the swells? History: Separate but equal favors the separate but never the equal part. It did not work as a solution for racial inequality and it won’t work as a solution for economic inequality. Indeed, one wonders if the building caught fire which door the fire department would go through first?

    And there you have it, another tidy example of how taxes and laws are rigged to favor the people who already have the most money. Go ahead, work as hard as you like; this game, friends, has already been decided.



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    Posted in #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America