• Archive of "Economy" Category

    New York Dies for Your Sins

    July 25, 2020 // 5 Comments »


    With Elderly Caucasian Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate, November 3 will be less about the Rise of Progressive politics than the noise of the last four years would have you believe. But while the media shine of AOC and her kind winds down, progressive thought will find at least a petri dish to fester in in a Biden administration, and perhaps even a second media wind if Trump wins.

    Since it’s not going away, seeing what would happen if progressives escape the lab and go really viral is important. For that case study, welcome to COVID-laced New York, baby.

     

    COVID is supposed to be, finally, Trump’s white whale, the thing that will bring him down after he wriggled out from under the Russians and the Ukrainians and Stormy. Unlike the made-up thousands not killed by the hurricane in Puerto Rico, these were going to be real. Not enough ventilators! Not enough tests! Mass graves in Central Park! And it is all Trump’s fault. (see “Donald Trump is the Most Successful Bio-Terrorist in Human History.”) That set the stage for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to craft a response far more political than medical. New York today is a laboratory for what happens when progressive ideology combined with political opportunism displaces reality.

    But first a quick reality check: For every death in this global epidemic, it is critical to remember the virus did not strike masses down in the streets like the Black Plague, and did not create hideous sores like the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s that tore through this city to the point where one hospital was informally called Fort Apache. It is unlikely to infect a third of the world’s population like the Spanish Flu. In fact, it looks like an overwhelming number of those infected never even know they have it, surprised by an antibody test months later. Most infected people do not pass on the virus. The hospitals never overflowed and the military was never needed. As of July 12 New York had zero virus deaths for the first time since the pandemic started even as the lockdown continued. But keeping the emphasis on “cases” and not conclusions keeps the fear alive.

     

    But enough of reality, we’re talking progressivism here. That lockdown has left New York economically devastated, mired in “the worst economic calamity since the 1970s, when it nearly went bankrupt.” The unemployment rate nears 20 percent, a figure not seen since the Great Depression (nationwide unemployment averages 11 percent; in NYC during the 2008 recession it was about 10 percent.) By decree, policy described as a “pause” in March to allow medical facilities to ramp up morphed into a semi-permanent state to keep things bad ahead of the election. While de Blasio authorized nail salons to reopen, he’s kept the city’s core sectors, the stuff that symbolizes New York to the world — Broadway, tourism, conventions, restaurants, hotels, and museums — shut, sacrifices to The Cause. The newly unemployed then strain food banks and soup kitchens. Look what Trump wrought!

    So people are leaving. More than 10,000 Manhattan apartments were listed for rent in June, an 85 percent increase over last year. The super wealthy neighborhoods have seen 40 percent migration out. The biggest outward migration is from the once economically strongest neighbors of midtown and the Upper East Side. Enough rich New Yorkers have left that it is affecting the census. That mirrors the outflow of population in the 1970s which decimated the city’s tax base and lead to landlords torching buildings to collect the insurance because they could not collect rent.

    So in 2020 it matters that 25 percent of New York tenants have not paid their rent since March. These overdue payments have left 39 percent of landlords unable to pay property taxes. A new NY law prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants facing pandemic-related financial hardships will help on the micro level while contributing to the destruction of the greater economy which of course will eventually devastate everyone. Progressive zeal will create an economic tide to sink all boats.

    The mayor, who by decree threw his city out of work, also banned large gatherings through September. He did however say Black Lives Matter protests would be allowed, claiming “the demonstrators’ calls for social justice were too important to stop.” The mayor himself, maskless, took time off to help paint “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower. The central thoroughfare in Manhattan was then closed to traffic to let the paint dry. De Blasio stated (inaccurately) “black people built Fifth Avenue” so it was all quite appropriate. Some are more equal than others; the mayor criticized Trump for putting politics first in coronavirus response.

    De Blasio is also allowing an “occupation” to continue at City Hall, where several dozens of people, a mix of activists and the homeless (attracted by donated food) live in makeshift tents. It stinks, a throbbing health hazard island of human feces and drugs and food scraps even before you get to the COVID part but the city allows them even as, until recently, it sent goons to chase unwoke citizens in twos and threes from playgrounds. About half the occupying people had no masks. A woman asked my preferred pronouns while behind her a half-naked homeless man screamed. A reporter was assaulted. A few cops stood in front of a graffitied courthouse and laughed, at some part of all of it, I did not ask which. Maybe they just like graffiti; it is back across New York to add color to the chaos.

    So what are cops doing? The former police commissioner criticized city and state leaders for abandoning cops (de Blasio pushed through a $1.5 billion cut to the NYPD on BLM demand) and for helping create a “crime virus” to go along with the coronavirus. Amid defunding elite NYPD units in spite of a 205 percent rise in shootings this year, so many NYPD officers are applying for retirement the department has been forced to slow-walk and otherwise limit applications to get out. One of the most recent shootings was a one-year-old caught in gang crossfire; a 12-year-old was shot separately the same night. Meanwhile, the state legislature is proposing a new law to hold cops personally responsible for any liability occurred on duty. New York City made the use of certain restraints by cops a criminal act. Here’s video of a thug who was not arrested using one of the same illegal restraints on a cop.

    De Blasio and Cuomo found other ways to have both fewer cops and more criminals. New York state recently eliminated bail for many misdemeanors and minor felonies, claiming alongside BLM it was unfair to POC without resources to pay. Adding to the criminal population, Mayor de Blasio supported the release of some 2,500 prisoners from Rikers Island due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus there. At least 250 of those released have been re-arrested 450 times, meaning some have been re-arrested more than once. Since they cannot be held for bail, most of those re-arrested are returned to the street almost immediately under Governor Cuomo’s fairness policy.

    The next battleground will be the schools. With only weeks to go in summer, the mayor announced the nation’s largest public school system will reopen with an unspecified mix of in-person and online classes. Teachers say crucial questions about how schools will stay clean, keep students healthy, and run active shooter drills while maintaining social distancing have not been answered. There have been no directives on how to handle online classes, no published best practices, not much of anything. Quality of education, like quality of life, is not on the agenda.

    One certainty is that New Yorkers will have fewer options — 26 Catholic schools will not reopen due to low enrollment and financial issues. That affects more than religion. Many of those schools represent the only neighborhood alternative to the failing public system. Closures will drive middle class flight.

    And there’s always something more. With indoor restaurant dining prohibited, many places are setting up ad hoc tables and sidewalk tents outside. In addition to adding to the third world Hooverville atmosphere, all that food has brought out the rats, who are attacking patrons.

     

    There is no sense we will ever end this. It’s easy to criticize places that have moved too fast but they had the right underlying idea: we can’t live like this forever. People need to work, not just for money (but they need the money) but to have purpose. So much of what has been done in the name of justice feels more like punishment, suck on this bigots! racial score settling under the guise of social justice.

    A lot of people are just sitting around like the Joad family waiting for something to happen. Thing is, we’re not sure what we are waiting for. The lockdown in March was, we were told, to flatten the virus curve. We did that. COVID hospitalizations and actual deaths in NYC are at their lowest levels since March. But the lockdown is still here and nobody seems to know when to declare victory — is the end point zero new cases before we can re-open Broadway? A vaccine? We just wait, the days hot, thick, and liquid. De Blasio and Cuomo are waiting, too, but for November 3 to free us. No need for a continuing crisis after Biden wins.

    But maybe the New York case study will serve as a different turning point in the election. Imagine enough purple voters who look at New York and become frightened of what the Left will do with unrestricted power in Washington. They want to work. They want their kids in school. They might just hold their nose and vote Trump.

     

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

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    Posted in 2020, Economy, Trump

    The Neverending Trump Story

    June 6, 2020 // 5 Comments »


     
    If you get to the end of this and think all it’s doing is defending Trump, you’ve missed the point.

    For the first time in months there is no front page COVID story. The replacement is the police killing in Minneapolis and chaos everywhere else. But the repurposing is familiar: blame Trump for the tragedy to defeat him in November.

    For months there were ran charts and tickers of COVID infections, deaths, missing ventilators, anything countable that made things look bad. When the stock market was hemorrhaging money those numbers were in red up front. Today, if it’s COVID info you seek, look for it where it started, before it was rebooted from Wuhan’s Virus to Trump’s Virus, back in the business section. Somebody else’s blood is going to have to rescue Biden.

     

    The precipitating news peg is the death of another black man at the hands of another white cop under another set of dubious circumstances. If 100,000 COVID deaths can’t shake your faith in Trump, maybe one more of these will. In the eyes of the media, it is of course all Trump’s fault. The problem with that is former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, now charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, previously shot one suspect, was involved in the fatal shooting of another, and received at least 17 complaints during his nearly two decades with the department.

    Nobody prosecuted him for any of that, including never-gonna-be-VP Amy Klobuchar, as a county prosecutor. Klobuchar also did not criminally charge other cops in the more than two dozen officer-involved fatalities during her time as prosecutor. She punted those decisions to a grand jury. Current Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was a lawyer and state legislator when Klobuchar was prosecutor, defended Klobuchar’s record as “a practice that was common at the time.” That’s another way of saying systematic.

    One person Klobuchar systematically declined to prosecute was today’s villian Derek Chauvin. In 2006 he was one of six officers who shot Wayne Reyes after Reyes aimed a shotgun at police after stabbing two people. Small world. And that’s before anyone looks again at Biden’s own record on these things, from Cornpop on forward.

    See, this week happened before. George Bush had Rodney King. Under Bill Clinton it was Amadou Diallo shot 41 times, remembered in the Springsteen song American Skin (41 Shots). For George W. Bush, it was Sean Bell. Eric Garner was strangled by police during the Obama term, alongside the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

    Barack Obama said what happened last week in Minnesota “shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America” when in fact it has been normal for some time now, including under his watch. After the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland in 2015, Obama called the protesters “criminals.” Oops. But the media has him covered now; Vox jumped in this round with “being a former president is different. Now that he is out of office, Obama is more free to try to lead the social change his candidacy once promised.” Change? Leadership? Obama’s Justice Department did not prosecute Eric Gardner’s killer. Obama’s Justice Department did not prosecute Michael Brown’s killer. So today there is still no justice, no peace. Blame Trump.

    If that Minnesota cop was a violent racist, he certainly didn’t take the red pill from Trump’s hand, not with two decades of personal complaints and two decades of signature national violence and two decades of prosecutorial somnolence behind him. Remind us again, who was the black Democratic president of the United States during most of that time? Who was his black Democratic attorney general? And someone is trying to use racism in 2020 to take down Trump?

    Wait, breaking news! Trump is threatening to kill Americans! In what the New York Times characterized as “an overtly violent ultimatum to protesters,” Trump tweeted the phrase “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and threatened to deploy the National Guard to Minneapolis.

    Now of course the Times knows but didn’t let on to the rubes it knows that it is very, very close to impossible for the president to federalize the National Guard for domestic law enforcement (we slogged through the explanations two years ago in another faux-panic Trump was going to order the Guard to enforce immigration laws.) The Guard generally answers to its state governor, and in the case of Minnesota, Governor Walz already called for full mobilization. It was just a tweet, carrying the weight of a feather. So it’s fitting the punishment is a tagged violation of Twitter rules and not impeachment this time.

     

    The problem with COVID as the Trump Killer was the wrong people ended up dying, and not enough of them. Had the early predictions of millions of deaths sweeping across the nation had any truth in them, that would be hard to ignore. Had the early predictions of COVID zombies using their last strength to fight  over the remaining ventilators come to pass, that would have landed a knockout punch.

    COVID also killed the wrong people. One can imagine Democratic strategists shouting “Find me some white cheerleaders in Wisconsin who will never realize their dreams, dammit!” Instead, the dead were a majority poor and black, with about half of all COVID deaths in the U.S. in ravaged and neglected parts of the New York City area no one really cared much about before all this. You can see some of those areas on TV today, filled with protesters fighting cops. A few efforts at trying to tie COVID into a greater tapestry of economic inequality didn’t get very far; nobody had much concern for Amazon warehouse workers when they themselves were out of work and waiting on packages of Nutter Butters.

    COVID was fundamentally a crisis of economic inequality; the bodies in New York City are the proof. If it was a failure of leadership, then that failure must be traced back some 50 years, and has less to do with a lack of PPE in 2020 than it does with a lack of national healthcare and a living wage contact traced from Nixon to whoever the next guy turns out to be, because both candidates have promised to do nothing new enough to fix those things.

    It is sad and cruel and horrible to say no one cared in the end enough for the virus to beat Trump but that is what happened. Remember it in a few weeks when the news has forgotten George Floyd.

    The failure of Trump not failing as a leader during COVID, or with police violence, follows a long string of similar stuff, beginning even before his inauguration. For three years we were told the president was literally a Kremlin agent doing Putin’s business out of the Oval Office based on blackmail. Then there was something about the Ukraine that rose to the level of actual impeachment that is still hard to explain and seemed to implicate Biden as much as Trump. Trump will kill us all was a meme Democrats threw against the wall multiple times, with various North Korean and Iranian wars and of course the virus. And now, forget all that. It’s racism, stupid.

     

    Former cop Derek Chauvin didn’t wait for Trump to send out a tweet, or even take office, before becoming violent. He’d been at that for two decades. The systematic racism in Minnesota has roots deep into (d/D)emocratic governance, and wasn’t enabled by a few tweets. This is the same answer for the virus; the economic inequality which drove the virus in places like New York City has very little to do with Trump or his supposed lack of leadership, same as it had nothing to do with the made-up ventilator shortage. It is no surprise in 2020 two leading causes of death among the poor and black are police shooting and COVID.

    These things run deep within our society. How obvious does it need to be, it’s not Him, it is Us. The media trying to bundle the latest crisis up and slap a “Trump” label on it, like before with Russia, Ukraine, war, and COVID, will do little to hurt his election chances, and do much to make it clear everyone continues to look the other way. If it is just a Trump problem (or a he’s on Twitter problem), it lives and dies with Trump, whenever that is. That assures us following Biden or Trump this year, or Donald Duck in 2024, there will be another virus which reapers through the poor, and long before then another street killing in a place that should be as far away as Minnesota.

    If all we do is play politics with tragedy that’s all we’ll ever do toward resolving tragedy. Resolution lies in looking forward to seeking fundamental solutions over looking backward to assign blame. People in the comments below will claim this is defending Trump. That is as wrong as it is irrelevant. If anyone thinks more violence is the answer, or that this will elect Biden, or that his administration will change things, you’re missing the most important point: the revolution has been televised. You’ve watched it already, you just don’t realize which side won.

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    Posted in 2020, Economy, Trump

    Fear and the Virus: We’re All Momo Now

    May 2, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     
    The COVID-19 virus turned us into a nation of Momo’s.
     

    Momo is my old rescue dog. She has BB-like pellets embedded under her skin. She jumps at noises and shivers uncontrollably when I pull my belt from my pants at night. She didn’t have to tell me that story but she did. She invents new fears all the time; like out of nowhere today it was a spray can rattle, last week it was the the coffee machine beep. Momo never gets back to normal.

    I don’t think most dogs are self-aware enough for suicide, but Momo might be. Before we got the right kind of leash she would slip off and dart into traffic. There were some close calls. For a dog afraid of everything she has no fear of being run over, so you tell me, because one definition of suicide seems to fit: fearing the consequences of living above those of dying.

    Momo knows there are bears in the woods. But her fears have gotten the better of her and she can’t separate real dangers from the rustle of leaves in the wind. Soon enough the grass near the woods has gotten too close and before you know it better to just stay on the couch, alongside the rest of America.
     
    We have been practicing to be Momo. With 9/11 we took one terrible day and turned it into a terrible decade. There were real threats, we all saw the Twin Towers fall. But that was… it? We faced a collection of bumbling terrorists with underwear bombs that didn’t work and shoe bombs that didn’t work and dirty bombs that never existed, plus of course the handful of successful homegrowns closer to disgruntled and mentally ill than Islamic and jihadi. If things to be afraid of didn’t exist we’d be forced to invent them. That might help explain how fast all that terror stuff just kinda faded away when it wasn’t needed anymore. ISIS who?

    But before that we convinced ourselves of threats abroad that needed lashing out at (Momo has never snapped at anyone. It’s a flaw in this analogy.) That is handy, the lashing out justified by fear, because it means we don’t have any obligation toward self-examination for killing millions of civilians, torturing people to madness, upending nation after nation, yadda yadda. We were scared, you guys! Sure, maybe we’re a little embarrassed for jumping under the table mid-Iraq War when Mom dropped the plate in the kitchen but nobody is going to tell the U.S. of A. it wasn’t justified at the time.

    We entered the Age of Trump in the worst of circumstances. Not only were we Momo-ized by 15 years of color-coded smoking guns being a mushroom cloud (and kudos to the author of that Bush-era catch phrase for the retro invocation of the Cold War) but we had honed social media to allow Momo’s across the country to encourage each others’ fears – “Hey, you guys afraid of the smell of pencils? I’ll just leave that here.”

    We reprogrammed into one big Crisis News Network, every story reported with a flashlight held under the announcer’s chin. Throw in Americans’ seeming need to be the victim, a nation of special needs people who all have to board first. If you live every day certain you’ll die if they serve one gluten it is easy to get spooked about something actually real. And don’t forget how over-protected we want to be, wiping down the gym like prepping for surgery and reading trigger warnings and dressing like cosplayers with ineffectual soggy cloth masks — this fetish of imagined fears doesn’t stop reality as much as it leaves us poorly prepared to deal with it.

    Then we get this Trump guy as a Bond-level super villain who was going to end democracy, make us speak Soviet, send the economy into a tailspin, trigger wars with China, Iran, and North Korea when he wasn’t trying to make peace with them which was somehow just as dangerous. Anyone who wasn’t a Nazi was a Russian ‘bot. Clearly a guy like this is to blame for not stopping cold a global pandemic at our shores. Social media allowed us to micro-personalize fear. Trump was going to end my rights (LGBT, abortion, something about toilets, guns, religion, concentration camps, fill-in-the-blank based on what is hiding under your bed.) We could have signature fears.

    You can actually watch it happen in real time. Over on Twitter people noticed Trump retweeted something about liberating Michigan, and using their online law degrees, determined that was the commission of an actual crime of “inciting violence.” A dozen others then tattled to Twitternannyman @jack saying Trump should be banned to save us all. That brought out the historians who decided Trump was trying to start a civil war, which was the trigger for the Constitutional experts to demand the 25th Amendment be used to remove Trump from office that afternoon before the war began. From a retweet to the apocalypse in under three minutes. UPDATE: Nothing happened. All the fears were pointless.
     
    But anyway Nothing Would Ever Be the Same Again and that was just for mostly made up stuff. Now we have enough of a real thing. Will we recruit Rosie the Riveter to beat the Nazis? No, we’ll just quarantine until our skin will become translucent for lack of sunlight. The face of this is Karen telling someone self-righteously they need to wear a yellow HAZMAT suit to Safeway or they’ll have her kid’s blood on their hands. People always find a new way to fear not enough — not enough tests, not enough ventilators, not enough beds, not enough food, whatever’s next. It doesn’t matter the fatal shortages did not materialize yet. The virus could mutate! There’s a second wave coming! Best to stay tense, dog, you will never get back to normal.

    C’mon, just between us, forget about Trump for a minute. Does a virus falling well behind super killers like car crashes and cancer really really really demand upending literally everything in our life? Shutting down schools? Throwing 22 million people out of work? Stopping down our most basic rights? And if anyone says yes, explain why we didn’t do it for past pandemics like H1N1. Imagine George W. Bush deciding post-9/11 no one could go to work or school for “national security reasons,” that we could not protect all those locations from the terrorists or something. It seems silly in retrospect but we’re doing it today. We’re so afraid we no longer can distinguish between prudence and over-reaction. It just seems easier to stay at home than to see if the woods really have bears in them.

    We are somewhat lucky. The most powerful people in our nation just want money. Jeff Bezos has no inherent desire to harm us directly. We still have some value to him, as temporary workers until the robots come and of course to order things. A mild uptick in the market saw Jeff’s net worth leap $24 billion dollars in one day. Fear is currency, and profiting off the pandemic the new status symbol.

    Politically, more luck. The next president has limited ambitions. Trump seems content thinking he’s in charge and busting chops, and Joe Biden’s ambition is to um, something. They’re not the kind of people who would really run with this fear thing. They seem content with the status quo of fear, enough to make people compliant, but not so much that they end up chasing each other with pitchforks. But imagine a bad boy in charge like Dick Cheney, Richard Nixon or John Brennan, a strong man to protect us, an evil man who understands the power of fear.
     
    I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a number of different countries. They have problems, sometimes serious ones similar to ours. But they don’t seem to have Momo-ized, where they can no longer tell the real dangers from the shadows, or judge the right amount of caution from the panic that shuts down the point of living.

    Maybe this is because less is uncertain for them. Most have health care, social nets, pensions, day care, stuff like that. Their people start the day worrying less in general than most Americans. Maybe that has something to do with this. For now, it’s hard to feel excited living in a nation of paranoid agoraphobics passing their remaining time slathered in Purell scolding their neighbor for forgetting his mask when out walking Momo. It’s not a healthy way to live.

      

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    Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

    April 18, 2020 // 11 Comments »


     

    The talk in New York is about when to return to normal. But that misses the point; normal never really left, it just changed clothes. We traded economic disparity expressed through poverty for economic disparity expressed through viral death. The real problem isn’t when we’ll return to normal, it is that we will.
     

    All the energy that made this city more than livable, made it desirable, is gone. It’s just a big, empty place now, all the seams showing. The closed stores still have St Patrick’s Day decorations. Time stopped in March. I am a native New Yorker by birth, seven years now returned. I don’t know how many times we can all stand on the ledge and not jump. From 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Super Storm Sandy. This feels more like the gray of post-war East Germany than the white hot panic of late WWII Berlin.

    New York state has more corona cases than any other country in the world. About half of all U.S. deaths are here in the broader New York area. Sure, there are other hot pockets but while NYC counts the bodies in the thousands there are some states still in single figures and most others in the hundreds. The stars may soon again hold benefit concerts for us, echoing post-9/11’s “ferocious tenderness of how desperately America loves New York.” When the city talks in its sleep what many remember most is the kindness people showed toward one another that blue September, little courtesies of holding doors and allowing someone to cut the line, half smiles from total strangers in a place where such vulnerability could previously have made you prey.

    Not with the virus. We snap at each other, enemies now, each a potential carrier. This is a not a city which lends itself to personal space without a flash of aggressive eye contact. Walk without a mask and someone will snap at you. Two guys hissing something in Spanish at an Asian woman. Lines to enter the food store with everyone watching like North Korean border guards for sneaks. SNL and late night never mocked Bush in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. If we ever were one we are not now. Because we are for certain not all in this together as Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “Everyone is subject to this virus. I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are.”

    That is not true. The virus is highly concentrated in the poorest Hispanic and black neighborhoods of Queens and the Bronx. The viral death rate for Hispanics is 22 people per 100,000; for blacks 20 per 100,000 while the rate for whites is 10 per 100,000. For whites even that is deceptive, given the hot spots in the isolated Hasidic Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn versus the paucity lack of white deaths in the high-income areas. Poorer people are more likely to die at home than in a hospital, and so the surge in at-home deaths, most never tested, suggests the death rate for the virus is being under-counted. Overall the virus is twice as deadly for Hispanics and blacks than whites in NYC.

    In New York we speak hundreds of languages but not to each other. A map of viral cases neighborhood-by-neighborhood tells the tale. America’s most diverse city, America’s most sanctimonious city about that, is also one of her most segregated on the ground.

    New York City is also the most economically unequal city in the country. It is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. Living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the largest homeless population of any American metropolis. The number of New Yorkers who live below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia or Phoenix, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. The billionaires fund the social services and the poor clean the homes and scavenge the trash of the billionaires.
     

    The reasons are the same reasons. Poor neighborhoods are served by the city’s miserable public hospitals, not its world-class private ones. A virus patient in the ravaged Bronx is twice as likely to die as one in a “nice” neighborhood. The problem is the quality, not the quantity, of healthcare. “We are watching, in real time, racial disparities and the pandemic of poverty,” one assemblyman said.

    Poor people suffer from comorbidities (86 percent of the dead have one), particularly the ones of bad diets like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Hypertension is 3x more prevalent, and diabetes 5x more, in the South Bronx than in well-to-do lower Manhattan. Influenza, which has already killed about twice as many people this season as COVID-19, follows a similar pattern.

    The Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens is “the epicenter within the epicenter,” according to the mayor. Some 64 percent of its residents are Hispanic, and the median household income is three-quarters of that of the metro area. Nearly 11 percent of households there are multigenerational. The grouping of young (who carry the virus without symptoms) and elderly together helps drive the higher infection rates.

    Park Slope, Brooklyn, has some of the city’s lowest rates of COVID-19, 56 percent below average. Two-thirds of its population is white and the median household income is one and a half times greater than average. Less than two percent of households are multigenerational. But when the Surgeon General specifically admonished people of color to stop drinking and using drugs during the pandemic to power up their immune systems he was called a racist.
     

    This is the normal. The economic disparity driving the viral load in NYC was here long before the virus; COVID-19 was superimposed on that sordid base. What is happening now, the deaths, was always happening, albeit slower. This mocks what pundits are calling the big question, how to balance the city’s health and the city’s economic needs, when to re-open for business. Economic inequality has been killing people all along, and keeping poor people from working by decree only makes them poorer and eventually sicker. It is a slow death as opposed to the quick countable deaths from the virus.. Tom Hanks will thank the food delivery guys for their service on SNL but we still won’t pay them a living wage.

    One of the things blamed in NYC was the late decision to close the public schools. Many wealthy private schools closed on their own in early March. The mayor kept the massive public school system open until the middle of the month not for educational reasons, but because it doubles as a social service center for poor children, including 114,000 who are homeless.

    More than half of all public students get their meals at school, and for the homeless kids it is the only place they can wash clothing and clean themselves. Birth control and STD testing for kids from strict Hispanic Catholic homes mostly happens surreptitiously through the schools. The schools provide daycare so poor people can work, and are the last hope to keep a few children out of gangs and offer them a break from abusive homes. “Given the alternatives, schools are a safer place for many kids,” one teacher said. Closing the schools was a “last resort,” judged a better option than hiding from the virus at one point. The uptick in child violence and domestic violence in general New York is experiencing now was understood to be coming, collateral damage.

    The city made up its mind a long time ago. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which killed 30,000 New Yorkers, the Health Commissioner demanded public schools be kept open, believing the risks of gathering kids together were outweighed by the benefits of giving them a break from their crowded and unsanitary tenement apartments. The Commissioner also noted working immigrant parents had no time to care for their kids, better to have them looked after at schools. As he put it, sick people don’t go to the theater when they feel bad but they do go to work.

    Same for the subway system, still running 24/7, a remarkably effective way to spread the virus. As in 1918, poor people can’t work remotely. NYC kept the public schools open, and keeps public transport running, then and now, knowing it would spread the virus, because the alternative hardships seem worse.
     

    I’ve lived in the developing world and you get used to this. You have and they don’t, way it is, beyond one man’s blame and seemingly any man’s fix. The biggest barrier to some sort of “re-opening” in NYC is to figure out how to express that in palatable terms for 2020. Not that we weren’t already already doing it for the last hundred years, but now we need to make rules to govern our apartheid of dollars that sound OK in the Sunday Review section. The rest is just logistics.

     

    BONUS

    New York is not alone. In Chicago, more than 70 percent of the deaths related to the coronavirus were among black residents, though blacks make up only a third of the city’s population. In Michigan, black residents make up just 14 percent of the population, but over 40 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.

    It was always sort of this way, but maybe a slightly better version of it. Up until the 1970s or so, New York had always been about The Deal. You put up with the filth, the crowding, the lack of empathy, and she’ll throw you a bone. If you really make it, the luxuries of the world are available at your fingertips. In the middle, for the plumbers and the clerks, a spring afternoon at the stadium with a hot dog and a beer (or nowadays more commonly, a churro) reached at heaven. For the immigrants, from the 19th century Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians to today’s Dominicans and Vietnamese, work until you’re running, burned, and near blind, and we’ll educate your kids so they don’t have to.

    We did away with The Deal when we switched to more disposable workers. A janitor I know tells the tale. His father came to New York from Puerto Rico a few Americas ago. Dad worked nights until he bought a house in Queens. Miguel’s brother is out of work with a high fever, but the real worry is dad, diabetic and elderly and living downstairs. Miguel cleans for rich people and “can’t get sick” because he’s now holding the family purse. He’s angry his kids have to “online school,” because he wants them to make the move, third generation, up and out, and online isn’t going to be enough.

     

     

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    Looking for Jim Jones Amid COVID-19

    March 30, 2020 // 12 Comments »


     
    I’m not worried about the guy coughing next to me. I’m worried about the ones who seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
     
    Jim Jones was the charismatic founder of the cult-like People’s Temple. Through fear-based control, Jones took his followers’ money and ran their lives. He isolated them in Guyana, where Jones convinced over 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool Aid. Frightened people can be made to do literally anything. They just need a Jim Jones.
     
    So it is more than a little scary Never Trumper and MSM zampolit Rick Wilson wrote Twitter to his 753k Twitter followers “People who sank into their fear of Trump, who defended every outrage, who put him before what they knew was right, and pretended this chaos and corruption was a glorious new age will pay a terrible price. They deserve it.” The Tweet was liked over 82,000 times.

    The NYT claims “the specter of death speeds across the globe, ‘Appointment in Samarra’-style, ever faster, culling the most vulnerable.” Others are claiming Trump will cancel the election to rule as a Jim Jones. “Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public,” opined the Washington Post, which suggested they should be placed on hiatus. And the rest of you, drink the damn Kool Aid and join in the panic enroute to Guyana.

    In the grocery store in Manhattan just after the announcement of the national state of emergency was pure panic buying. I saw a fight broke out in one aisle after an employee brought out a carton of paper towels to restock the shelf and someone grabbed the whole carton for themselves. The police were called. One cop had to stay behind to oversee the lines at the registers and maintain order. To their credit the NYPD were cool about it. I heard them talk down one of the fighters  saying “You wanna go to jail over Fruit Loops? Get a hold of yourself.” Outside New York, sales of weapons and ammunition spiked.

    Panic seems to be something we turn on and off, or moderate in different ways. Understanding that helps reveal what is really going on.

    No need for history. Right now, in real time, behind the backs of the coronavirus, is the every-year plain old influenza. Some 12,000 people have died, with over 13 million infected from influenza just between October 2019 and February 2020. The death toll is screamingly higher (as this is printed corona has killed just 69 Americans.) One does not hear much about that. Why?
     
    Bluntly: more people have already died of influenza in the U.S. than from coronavirus in China, Iran, and Italy combined. Double in fact. To be even more blunt, no one really cares even though a large number of people are already dead. Why?
     
    The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency seven months later, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months Obama had no HHS secretary or appointees in the department’s 19 key posts. No commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no surgeon general, no CDC director. The vacancy at the CDC was especially important because in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later (sound familiar?) The politically-appointed DHS secretary, not a medical doctor, led the federal effort. Some 66 percent of Americans thought the president was protecting them. There was no panic. Why?

    Of course Trump isn’t Obama. But if you really think it is that black and white, that one man makes that much difference in the multi-leveled response of the vast federal government to a health crises you don’t know much about the federal bureaucracy. In fact, most of the people who handled the swine flu are now working the coronavirus, from rank and file at CDC, HHS, and DHS to headliners like Drs. Andrew Fauci (in government since 1968, worked Obama-ebola) and Deborah Brix (in government since 1985, prior to her current role with Trump-corona was an Obama-AIDS appointee.)

    Maybe the most salient example is the aftermath of 9/11. Those who lived through it remember it well, the color threat alerts, the sneaky Muslims lurking everywhere, the sense of learned/taught helplessness. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and we had no way to fight back. We panicked like never before. But because the Dems and Repubs were saying basically the same thing, there was a camaraderie to it (lead by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, where are they now?), not discord. But the panic was still very real. Why?
     
    Why? We panicked when people took steps to ensure we would. We were kept calm when there was nothing to gain by spurring us to panic (the swine flu struck in the midst of the housing crisis, there was enough to worry about and it could all be blamed on the previous administration.) The aftermath of 9/11 is especially clarifying. A fearful populus not only supported everything the government wanted to do, they demanded it. Nearly everyone cheered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not believing the government meant you were on their side, either with “us” or against us. The Patriot Act, which did away with whole swaths of the Bill of Rights, was overwhelmingly supported. There was no debate over torture, offshore penal colonies, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and all the other little horrors. The American people counted that as competent leadership and re-elected George W, Bush in the midst. Fear and panic were political currency.

    Jump to 2020. Need an example of how to manipulate panic? Following fears of a liquid bomb, for years after 9/11 TSA limited carry-on liquids to four ounce bottles. Can’t be too careful! Yet because of corona they just changed the limit for hand sanitizer only (which with its alcohol content is actually flammable, as opposed to say shampoo) to 12 ounces. Security theatre closed down alongside Broadway tonight.

    False metrics are also manipulative because they make fear seem scientific. We ignore the low death rate and focus on the number of tests done. But whatever we do will never be enough, never can be enough, the same way any post-disaster aid is never delivered quick enough because the testing is not (just) about discovering the extent of the virus. For those with naughty motives, it is about creating a race we can’t win, so testing becomes proof of failure. Think about the reality of “everyone who wants one should get a test.” The U.S. has 331 million people. Testing 10 percent of them in seven days means 4,714,285 individuals a day for seven consecutive days while the other 90 percent of the population holds their breath. Testing on demand is not realistic at this scale. Selective decision-based testing is what will work.

    South Korea, held up as the master of mass testing, conducted at its peak about 20,000 a day. Only four percent were positive, a lot of effort for a little reassurance. Tests are valuable to pinpoint the need for social distancing but blunt tools like mass social distancing (see China) also work. Tests do not cure the virus. You can hide the number of infections by not testing (or claim so to spur fear), but very sick people make themselves known at hospitals and actual dead bodies are hard to ignore. Tests get the press, but actual morbidity is the clearest data point.
     
    There will be time for after-action reviews and arguments over responsibility. That time is never in the midst of things, and one should question the motives of journalists who use rare access to the president to ask questions meant largely to undermine confidence. If they succeed, we will soon turn on each other. You voted for him, that’s why we’re here now. Vote for Bernie and Trump wins and we all literally die. You bought the last toilet paper. You can afford treatment I can’t. You’re safe working from home while I have to go out. Just wait until the long-standing concept of medical triage is repackaged by the media as “privilege” and hell breaks loose in the ERs. We could end up killing each other long even as the virus fades.

    At the very least we will have been conditioned to new precedents of control over personal decisions, civil life, freedom of movement and assembly, whole city lock-downs, education, public information, and an increasing role for government and the military in health care. More control by authorities over our lives? Yes, please! Gee, it’s almost as if someone is taking advantage of our fears for their own profits and self-interest. Teachers who just digitized their classes at no cost to their employers and created the online infrastructure to eliminate classrooms, don’t be surprised if less of you, and fewer actual classrooms, are needed in the virus-free future.
     
    There are many reasons to take prudent action and not downplay the virus. There are no good reasons for fear and panic. The fear being promoted has no rational basis compared to regular influenza and the swine flu of 2009. We have a terrifying example in 9/11 of how easily manipulated fearful people are. Remaining calm and helping others do so is a big part of what your contribution to the disaster relief is going to be. As John Kennedy said, “We cannot expect that everyone will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
     
    That’s one way to see this. Too many right now however seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
      

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    Propaganda and the Coronavirus

    March 9, 2020 // 30 Comments »


     
    “Um, is it Colonel Vindman in the Russian Tea room with the coronavirus?”

    “Very funny. Now everyone settle down. Welcome back to Propaganda and the Death of Media 101 in case you’re in the wrong class, and its, um, March 15, 2024. Now we were discussing the role of propaganda and the media in trying to influence the re-election of Donald Trump by tying his leadership to a global pandemic. Propaganda in these cases seeks to diminish people’s view of a leader’s competence. The ultimate goal is to get you to vote him out.

     

    For those of you in the back holding up those tattered Bernie signs, God rest his soul, let’s start with the question of whether the media engaged in propaganda at all. Contrast the sense of panic in 2020 whipped into place with how things played out in 2009 under Obama. The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency that fall, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months of the disease, Obama had no Secretary of Health and Human Services or appointees in any of the Department’s 19 key posts. No Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no Surgeon General, no CDC Director. The gap at CDC was particularly important, as in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t enabled until later. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a medical doctor, lead the federal effort.

    The first real H1N1 cases appeared in Mexico. The border was not sealed, Mexicans were not forbidden to enter the U.S. Though CDC recommended against travel there, the primary danger cited was kidnapping for ransom. Yet 66 percent of Americans, supported by the media, thought the president was protecting them. Some 4,000 Americans were dead before a vaccine was first distributed.

    The emergency proclamation it took Obama seven months to declare was issued by Trump within 30 days of the current virus being found abroad. He announced a temporary suspension of entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus (CNN criticized “the travel ban could stigmatize countries and ethnicities.”) And yes, Trump encouraged everyone to wash their hands.

    Anybody here remember the media freaking out over Obama’s initial response, which was hand washing was pretty much what was needed? Anyone who did the reading find evidence of national panic throughout the crisis? No. Why did the media cover essentially the identical story so very differently for two presidents? The question is the answer.

     

    Look at the timing in 2020; the crisis came when the media decided it was time for a crisis. Though the virus dominated headlines in Asia since mid-January, American media first relegated the story to the business news. In late February the main “Trump” story was Russiagate II, the revelation (which quickly fell apart) the Russians were meddling again in the election. The Democratic debate at the end of February invoked Putin many times. The virus barely came up.

    Then the NYT sent up the Bat Signal for the new crisis on February 26, the day after the Democratic debate, with an article titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” (subtlety is not required for propaganda.) An effort was born overnight to blame Trump personally for the virus, and essentially declare his chances of reelection done. The critical change was not anything to do with the virus itself, simply with the decision by the media to elevate the story from the business section to the front page. Even a week after that, with American sanity in a tailspin, only two Americans had died, and about half the known U.S. cases arrived with the evacuees from Japan. Of course the numbers quickly went up (that’s why we use the expression “going viral” for your Instagram blowups, kids) but imagine what a graph of actual cases would look like versus a graph measuring panic.

     

    You’ll see in your textbooks another example which shows how propaganda works, the reporting of initial problems with the CDC coronavirus test kits. One typical headline claimed “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as the stories were written; 15,000 testing kits were released within 48 hours of that story with plans to send out an additional 50,000. Each kit can test 700-800 patient samples.

    The follow-on stories screamed about Trump funding cuts to the CDC, most of which were actually only proposed. Then the stories were merged — Trump cut CDC funding and thus not enough kits were available. Not only were both pieces largely untrue individually (few cuts were made, kits were available), the merging of the two was grossly false. Instead of examining these things for lessons learned in the midst of an unfolding crisis, the media treated them as new bits to mock Trump with, like late night comedians trolling the news for material for their monologue.

    No room was left for people making errors in novel decisions under time pressure, just the jump to “Trump incompetence” instead of doing the real work of looking into the questions. The problem with the testing kits was a highly technical one involving chemical reagents and factory contamination. CDC is a massive institution. Who if anyone there made any “bungled” decisions? Would they have likely made a better decision with different funding? If so, then Congress can act and drop some money on that office. If not, move on, there is work to do. It is how the media acts when they seek to fix the blame, not the problem.

     

    The propaganda surrounding how the government initially handled the coronavirus was also obvious in the false “who is in charge” question the media asked. The vice president was given the role heading up the task force. This is the kind of thing VPs do, bring gravitas, make sure a whole of government approach has the bureaucratic firepower it needs, and so on. The propaganda instead hyper-focused on Mike Pence’s “disbelief in science,” itself more of a chanted mantra than anything established by fact. For “proof” the stories settled on Pence supposedly creating an HIV epidemic while governor of Indiana. The reality is much different. Pence took office opposed to needle exchanges. When dirty needles shared among opioid users in rural Scott County, Indiana were linked to 71 cases of HIV transmission, Pence responded to the new information (sad to see people die, but 71 deaths is all it was and many would have died from their drugs soon enough) by changing his policy and authorizing needle exchange in Scott and four other counties. The reality seems much closer to seeing an ideological stance changed by science than the opposite.


    Pence said at the time “I’m going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first. It’s a commitment to law and order, but it’s a commitment to compassion.”

    Meanwhile, the media largely ignored those Pence chose for the taskforce. One was Dr. Deborah Birx, a career medical professional nominated by Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at CDC, was an immunology researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and an Army colonel. You want to inspire confidence you profile Dr. Brix; you want to sow discord you misrepresent Mike Pence’s decisions years ago.

     

    There’s so many more examples, but our class time is short. Here are a few.

     

    You can report on the elimination of Obama’s pandemic czar but leave out that the position was just a coordination job on the National Security Council with no real power. It sounds scary (one outlet called it sabotage) to see that job go, but in fact the coordination duties within NSC were reassigned to others.

    You can focus on every coronavirus case as proof efforts are failing while ignoring providing perspective by reminding 12,000 people died, with over 13 million infected, from the regular influenza (the one with the vaccine) between October 2019 and February 2020.

    You can focus on time will take to develop a full-on vaccine and ignore the treatments already now in human testing trials.

    You can purposefully confuse accelerating public health measures already underway with America’s lack of universal individual health care. We have plenty of the former, not enough of the latter. But the pandemic is not a solid argument for the latter as it is a problem of public health policy. That’s why even countries with good, free care systems are suffering the virus. Medicare for All would not have changed anything in 2020.

    You can cover the virus as you did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Everyone was gonna die there until they didn’t. You can follow the now-standard Trump propaganda template: say he won’t do enough, then say what he does isn’t being done fast enough, predict everything will collapse (with Katrina references) and then move on to a new crisis as the reality of the response takes hold.

    You can report on panic selling on Wall Street, or explain how global supply chain problems are not caused by the virus, but by traders’ reaction to the unknowns of the virus. China’s factories closed because the government enforced social isolation, not because the workers were dead. Soon enough Apple products flowed back into our greedy hands, and the stock market found its way back to a new normal.

    You can report store closings, but not their reopenings. By March 1 Starbucks had reopened 85 percent of its stores in China. Apple, over 50 percent. You can emphasize how many Chinese factories were closed in February, or report on their reopenings in March.

    You can misrepresent the use of words like hoax to make the president appear weak.

    You can ignore the drop off in cases inside China. Only a few days after the first cases appeared in the U.S., new ones inside China dropped to 200.

    You can avoid reporting how viruses follow a bell curve. Case counts first rise quickly, the virus claims the “easy” deaths among the elderly, and then environmental factors (viruses must live inside a host; they have limited life outside on surfaces`, typically less and less as temperatures climb. This is why you can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat) and public health measures kick in. Treatment emerges and the virus fades. You can explain to calm people where they are in what looks like a 10-12 week cycle to or you can ignore it to stoke fear of the unknown.

    The bell curve template is clearly illustrated by a look-back to how HIV/AIDS went from a massive public health crisis in America to a manageable problem. As the virus became known, panic took hold. False reporting outran reality. But the bell curve took over; the virus’ transmission became well understood, better testing protocols developed, excellent preventive medicines became available, and treatment regimes now exist which ensure long lives in remission. Knowns displace unknowns. None of this is to minimize the suffering enroute to the current state, but to show there is an established path even for a virus far more deadly than corona.

    Class concluded.

    “Hey professor, is all this gonna be on the test?”

    “No, but it may influence an election. And don’t forget to wash your hands before lunch, something is going around.”
      

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    Democratic Narrative: No Morning in America for You

    March 6, 2020 // 4 Comments »

     

    The chaos of the primaries, the lack of a clear party vision in the last debate — are Democrats a progressive party, a party of moderates, a plaything for billionaires or just people sniping each other for virtue points? It is time for concern.

    Politics is always about the biggest story you tell and how voters see themselves in that story. If the Democrats lose in November one of the main reasons — and the competition is strong — will be getting trapped inside a set of false narratives. Or, in the words of  James Carville, “Losing our damn minds.”

    Think how powerful the narratives of “Morning in America,” or “Hope and Change,” were, and contrast those with the Dems’ “things suck more than you realize, people” and you see where this is headed.

     



     

    At the top of the list is the economy. The Democratic narrative is the economy is bad, with a recession just around the corner (or maybe the corner after that, keep looking.) Yet outside the debate hall 59 percent of Americans feel they are better off than a year ago. The overall quality of life is satisfactory for a massive 84 percent. Unemployment is at historic lows. Wages are up a bit.

    The reality is bad enough for Dems. But the narrative problem is the Democrats are confusing a strong economy with economic inequality. The economy does benefit everyone, but it benefits a small percentage at the top much more. They have not gotten this message across to an electorate that is happy to have any job, content with some rise in wages, and for the half of Americans who own some stock, see some growth in their 401(k) to suggest maybe at least part of retirement won’t be dependent on canned soup being on sale. The Dems are running on a narrative that the economy failed; Americans believe if it failed, it failed less than before and that’s good enough.

    Holding Democrats back is their false narrative of all-you-can-eat white privilege. Economic inequality across America is not primarily racial, though it has a racial component. But Dems are still telling the old story, as if whites across the midwest still have the union factory jobs that raised them and blacks never did. The powerful message of “we’re all in this together” is being thrown away to capture black victimization narrative votes. Dems also insist on lumping blacks, Hispanics (30 percent of whom support Trump), Chinese, and everyone non-lily into “People of Color,” a classic case of one size fits none. It would be an award-winning SNL skit to watch Larry David’s Bernie try to convince a Chinese friend, a medical doctor with kids in the Ivies, that as a “POC” his personal concerns had significant crossover with what was happening to a guy uptown as played by guest host Samuel L. Jackson. It’s about money, stupid, not color.

     



     

    Dems seem to be working this narrative into the ground in an effort to alienate as many voters as possible. Poor whites, too meth-addled to see Trump making false promises, deserve to be replaced by driverless delivery trucks. Poor blacks, it’s not your fault, because racism. Everyone else not white, whatever, go with the black folk on this one, ‘kay? An issue that could unite 90 percent of Americans gets lost. And if you don’t agree racism is the root cause of everything, from “top to bottom” as Bernie says, well, you’re a racist! James Carville says for the Democratic Party to win it has to drive a narrative that “doesn’t give off vapors that we’re smarter than everyone or culturally arrogant.” Instead, the strategy seems to be Dems turning from criticizing ideas to criticizing voters.

    Much of the rest is a mighty credibility issue for the Dems. They have stuck with so many proven false narratives so long no one believes them if anyone is even still listening. Trump did not work with Putin to get elected, yet Maddow on MSDNC is still pushing something similar even today. Do we really need to talk about how few Americans cared so little about impeachment? Trump did not start WWIII. Roe v. Wade is still firmly the law.

    But the transpeople! Dems have clung to the narrative transrights are somehow a major issue among voters; Biden tweeted “Let’s be clear: Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” While most voters want to see transpeople treated decently, there is no national election issue here. Same for all the other virtuous baggage Dems drag around the social media they take way too seriously — for example, rights and benefits for illegal immigrants. It makes them seem out of touch with mainstream America, a particular liability in an election likely to hinge on Purple voters in swing states.

    Dems also cling too hard to the narrative of Barack Obama. Maybe he deserves accolades for this or that, maybe not, but that the guy who seems to be the talk of the Democrat party isn’t one of the people on the ballot is not a strong thing. Barack and Michelle’s formal portraits are touring the nation, apparently so Democrats can worship them like artifacts from some lost cargo cult, a “communal experience of a particular moment in time,” according to the National Portrait Gallery. Five equally desperate candidates, with Biden in the lead Art Garfunkel role, are airing ads featuring St. Barack.

     



     

    Healthcare is a kitchen-table economic issue. A majority of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, rank cutting health care and drug costs as their top priority. That polled as far more important than passing a major health system overhaul like Medicare for All. Americans are not interested in converting the entire economy to some flavor of socialism just so they can see a doctor. The bigger the change Dems sell it as the more it frightens people away. Same for all the other free stuff Dems are using to troll for votes (college, loans, reparations.) Each good idea is wrapped in a grad school seminar paper requiring America to convert its economy from something people have grown to live with into something they aren’t sure they understand. It is a helluva narrative to sell at home, Democrats making an election against Trump into a sub-referendum on socialism lite at a time when Americans’ personal economic satisfaction is at a record high.

    Everybody’s great grandma was a wonderful immigrant, salt of the earth. But for much of the nation the narrative is no longer about whether immigration is a moral responsibility. Immigration for vast swaths of the nation is another kitchen-table economic issue. Dems are telling the wrong story — land of the free, huddled masses, yada yada — and seemingly ignoring pleas about opportunities lost. Their narrative cuts short the needed conversation about skills-based immigration policy as is standard in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere for the 21st century instead of dragging forward a 19th century legal relic. People concerned about immigration as a pocketbook issue are thrown into the garbage dump by Dems as racists, as if Democrats instinctively cleave to the narrative that alienates the most voters.

    James Carville summed it up saying “We have candidates talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration. You’ve got Bernie Sanders talking about letting criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells. It doesn’t matter what you think about any of that, or if there are good arguments — talking about that is not how you win a national election… By framing, repeating, and delivering a coherent, meaningful message that is relevant to people’s lives and having the political skill not to be sucked into every rabbit hole that somebody puts in front of you.”

     



     

    WaPo wrote  “The 2020 election is no ordinary contest. It’s an emergency. If you’re being driven off a cliff, you don’t need to find your favorite Formula-1 driver. You just need someone to take the wheel and stop the impending carnage… Trump’s reelection would constitute an existential threat to our republic. He has already tried — repeatedly — to subvert our free and fair elections.” Among all the others, this is the fundamental flawed narrative which may get Trump re-elected. The Dem vision that we are either already in the abyss, or standing damn close to the edge. Many hard-core Dems feel this way because Trump, but I am far less sure that it is broadly felt outside the media/NYC/Hollywood world. Twitter is not real life. While few would go as far as “morning in America,” most are pretty sure it is not an emergency out there, and are pretty sure the majority of Americans will find it hard to support and trust a candidate who says it is.

    Where you once had hope and change, there’s instead the always exasperated Warren, the out-of-breath grumpy Bernie, that frozen Pete grin, Yang and Steyer once onstage giving their TED talks, all the lost governors remembered as well as the other guy from Wham!, Biden looking like the last surviving member of an 90’s rock band playing a Holiday Inn gig remembering when he and Barack once filled arenas, man. And now Mike Bloomberg, cosplaying a Democrat. Oh well, the Beto revival of 2024 isn’t that far away.

    If I were writing ad copy for the Republicans, I might try this: “Voters, do me a favor, look out the window. Do you see chaos? A Republic on the edge of collapse, Weimar, Rome, the U.S. in 1860? Is your life controlled by an authoritarian? That’s what Democrats say is out there. But you don’t see that, do you? You see more people with jobs. You have a little more. And more kids down the block are home from war then gearing up to fight in places like Libya and Syria none of us really care about, at least not enough to give up a son or daughter. So when you go to vote, think of whose story about what you see you believe. Your choice is pretty straightforward at that point. Have a good night, and a good day at work tomorrow.”

     
     

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    Navigating the Homeless and Mentally Ill

    February 24, 2020 // 12 Comments »

     

    New York, America’s richest city and Ground Zero in how economic inequality is reshaping every day of our lives.
     
    NYC is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. One apartment building alone, 740 Park Avenue, is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the United States. Yet living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the highest homeless population of any American metropolis, close to 80,000 and growing. The homeless numbered 24,000 during Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration some twenty years ago. Three years after that the homeless population swelled to almost 38,000 under Michael Bloomberg. The number of homeless single adults today is 142 percent higher than it was ten years ago, the highest level since the Great Depression.
     
    The city shelters about 64,000 on any given night. Another 3,000 people make their full-time home in the subway system. Their belongings and their defecation crowd out morning commuters on the platforms. In the winter many never emerge above ground. A visitor from outer space would be forgiven for thinking they weren’t even human, recognizable as just a head emerging from a urine-soaked bundle of clothing, not living really, just waiting. The ones who prefer to ride the trains 20 hours a day or more are like one-celled amoebas that react to heat or light by moving out of the way, in the specific case a transit employee whose inquiry causes some physical shift but no sign of sentient action.

    Don’t be offended — what did you think runaway economic inequality was gonna end up doing to us? Macroeconomics isn’t a morality play. But for most New Yorkers the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created.

    Navigating income inequality is not a problem for the rich. Public transportation, once the great melting pot, is less so as Uber plays a bigger role. The new super apartments, with their city-required handful of “affordable” units, have separate entrances based on wealth. A someone goes and gets the coffee, does the shopping, delivers the food. Armored cars for personal use are seeing a boom in sales. NYC’s newest mega-development, Hudson Yards, (Jeff Bezos is a fan) has been dubbed the Forbidden City, a mean snub as it is self-contained, literally walled off from the environment around it (there are “service” entrances for workers, and the stores have their primary doors opening into the gated courtyard, not on to Tenth Avenue.) NYC helps its wealthy pay for all this with a generous 40 percent incentive tax break. The city also built Hudson Yards its own subway line and park network for a total expenditure of six billion (the city spends only half that total on the homeless.) Elsewhere private restaurants, private clubs, private entrances, members only-everythings and VIP sections at public events keep the homeless beyond arm’s reach.
     
    For the rest, stuck between middle class and the abyss, navigating the world of economic inequality is more of a contact sport.

    Public libraries are in various degrees off limits, at best shared, with the well-behaved homeless. They are among the tens of thousands who live in the gulag archipelago of NYC’s vast shelter system. Most of the shelters (there some exceptions for women with small children) are only open at night, leaving the residents to find somewhere to physically exist between 7am and 11pm, after which the city cares about them again. There is no daytime plan for this population, so in bad weather they take over the libraries. Regular patrons are on their own if the staff don’t manage it well; the signature main library with the stone lions has guards to send the homeless across the street to a branch, where the homeless are more or less curated like the oversize books on to one particular floor. At the 96th street branch, the library serves no other purpose than homeless daycare, except for a brief period after school when bodies are moved around for an hour or two to accommodate story time.

    How do the non-homeless navigate this? They buy books on Amazon. They buy quiet workspace and WiFi at coffee shops. They buy their way around the homeless same as others buy their way around via ride sharing services.

    Economic inequality is part of life for many New Yorkers. Not homeless but damn poor, 400,000 reside in taxpayer-paid permanent (permanent as in multi-generational, grandmas passing squatter’s rights to grandkids) public housing. Conditions are literally toxic in these “projects,” as well as crime-ridden and just plain Third World crumbling. And yes, New York’s public housing authority is the world’s largest. There are probably fewer no-go zones than in the dark times of the 1970s, but maybe more “why would you want to go there anyway” places.

    Housing prices for who can pay their own way are such that 40 percent of adult renters live with a roommate. The city even has a program to help elderly renters share their homes. Hanging on to the middle in times of economic inequality means shared or public housing, juggling multiple jobs which often pay less than minimum wage (Taskrabbit, Fiverr, who background check their employees and then send them into anonymous homes), living with life-crippling debt, skating on the edges of no healthcare, and snubbing your nose at people who aren’t living that Big Apple dream.

    In a society constantly creating more poor people and depleting its middle class, spending more money on shelters won’t work. Look to Honolulu. It has been overwhelmed with some 7,000 people who became newly homeless in 2019. That number erased the 616 homeless people per month, on average, who were placed into “permanent housing.” They’ll really not ever stop building until, in theory, shelters house about 99 percent of everyone.

    To lighten things up, New York loves irony. Many of the cheaper apartments for young Millenials are in the same parts of town which once housed new immigrants in the early 20th century, that now golden-hued era of open borders celebrated as a democratic ideal when a more accurate vision would realize it was just a massive labor pool for the wealthy to exploit. That’s also a reminder that modern immigrants, particularly from Central America, form the exploitable, discardable labor pool that undergirds New York’s food service and day labor industries, and staffs car repair shops, butcher and delivery businesses.

    Hey, businesses, too, still have to navigate, especially around the homeless. I used to work at a Barnes and Noble near the bus stop out to the main homeless shelters on Randall’s Island. The B&N was open late and in bad weather the homeless came in to wait for their ride. There was actually a store policy created, and the regulars were trained: don’t interfere with commerce, no bathing in the restrooms, no sleeping, use the electrical outlets in the back to charge phones, don’t panhandle in the coffee shop and you can stay. A kind of Darwinian process kept some warm inside while security moved others out into the weather.

    An ecosystem in balance, same as at most Starbucks. People here sometimes refer to the place as a public toilet which also happens to sell coffee because, following charges of discrimination, the chain now claims its space and toilets are open to all, not just customers. Of course in some marginal parts of town those toilets are forever closed to all “under repair,” but in most places the homeless are trained to navigate us, staying out of the way, taking a cup out of the trash to set on the table and pretend they are buying something. Being seen as being nice is important to Starbucks’ customers as they mentally navigate their own place being able to afford expensive coffee alongside those who have less. Awkward!

    As a woke company catering to woke customers who want nice things without guilt, Starbucks has a whole corporate page up about how kind they are to the homeless. Something similar at the new food court at Essex Market (called the “anti-Hudson Yards”), which has full-time staff assigned to monitor the public toilets, allowing the homeless in and nudging them into the boundaries the Market deems acceptable. Essex market, like Starbucks, seems to see faux-humanitarian gestures towards the homeless as part of its marketing plan to Millenials who don’t want to see bag ladies dragged into the street whilst sipping artisanal Tibetan tea. It’s pretty much all just undergrad-level socialist theatre. Different rules and rougher play at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, where the more delicate suburban ladies and fragile tourists still shop pretending like it is 1968. At the end of the day, however, the homeless are still homeless at each place and night comes the same for all.
     
    The urban stories above are only about one part of the homeless population. There are two overlapping populations: those outside capacity of existing systems who depend on businesses and us to navigate, and those so far whacked and gone nothing exists to help them.

    It’s inevitable in a society that is constantly adding to its homeless population while simultaneously lacking any comprehensive way to provide medical treatment, all the while smoothing over the bumps on the street with plentiful supplies of alcohol and opioids (I was in line behind a homeless guy in liquor store paying with sock full of coins. He was 67 cents short for a bottle of no-name gin. What’s the right thing to do? I probably drink as much as he does most nights but it’s OK because I work for my money instead of begging? There are moral hurdles to navigate as well) are the severely mentally ill. These people exist outside the vast shelter system. They live outside, discarded, driven out of the overnights and the daytime Starbucks by violent or paranoid delusions. Even the recent killing of four homeless men by a fifth mentally ill homeless man failed to shock anyone into action.

    Navigating these people requires something more than a benign balancing of company profits and makeshift humanitarian gestures. At the Fulton Center subway station, problems with the mentally ill homeless reached a point where wire rope was installed alongside a made-up “no sitting” law to eliminate places to rest. A team of angry rent-a-cops make the homeless stand, wandering through the space waking up those who tumble, and chase away the worst. The sole working men’s room remains a kind of demilitarized zone, and it is not uncommon to see one man washing his clothes in the sink while another talks to himself as a third vocally struggles with his defecation. Most of the city’s such privately owned public spaces employ guards not against crime per se, but to enforce rules about how much baggage the homeless can bring in, whether they can sit, sleep, or have to pretend to buy something, and act as not gentle referees when a tourist snaps an unwanted photo and angers someone, or a homeless person otherwise becomes too aggressive with himself or another homeless person.

    There are of course other, more profitable, ways to navigate. San Diego created a “toolkit” to help businesses benignly wrangle the homeless without needing to involve the cops. NYC stores are told to invest in barbed grates that homeless can’t lay on comfortably (the hostile architecture of bars, protrusions and spikes that make it impossible to lie down on a park bench or wall are pretty much sculpted into the architecture of the city, markers of the struggle for public space. The idea even has its own Instagram account.) A private security firm offers more comprehensive solutions: advice about restricting access to sidewalk overhangs, alcoves, or other areas protected from inclement weather, remove handles from water spigots, and keep trash dumpsters locked when not being filled or emptied. If things get too bad, the company, for a price, will deploy “remote cameras integrated with military-grade algorithms capable of detecting people in areas they shouldn’t be in.” There are other ways to make money off the homeless, of course. Many of the shelters in NYC are contracted through private companies (fraud criss-crosses the system) , who charge the city about $80 per adult per night for an SRO room without its own indoor plumbing. 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 New York that’s worth more than $112 million. But hey, Amazon now accepts EBT online in New York and you don’t even need Prime!

    A concise fable of what economic inequality has done to this city lies in canning, a nice term invented to describe the underground economy of returning aluminum cans for the five cents deposit. What was started in 1982 in hope the deposit would encourage consumer recycling alongside kids picking up cans to supplement their allowances, has become way to make a sort of living for an estimated 8,000 human beings. As the value of a nickel to many faded over the years, the need for a few bucks among the city’s growing homeless population grew. They started picking up cans for the money wealthier people set out as trash. The recycling centers in most food stores, however, hoping for return shoppers, did not want the homeless in their stores. Most set $12 daily redemption limits, often broken up in per can lots that forced the homeless to return two or three times. Streetside automated drop off points devolved into social centers for the homeless, including the infamous Pathway site at 125th Street that was renown as a drug market and dumping spot for the near-dead until it was closed down.
     
    Unable to redeem their cans, the homeless moved on, replaced by highly exploitive canning crews which buy cans in bulk from elderly pickers (many are retired or on disability) for about a $30 nightly haul per person, and who then deal directly with the bulk metal recyclers uptown. A five cent can might be worth only three cents on the street; competition among the people living off my garbage is sharp, where on a late night dog walk just before the bulk trucks arrive can crews run by Chinese organized crime (rumor is those who can’t work off human smuggling fees otherwise work the can routes) tussle with individuals for turf. The cops are uninterested and some local doormen try and intervene but often tire of the guff. It’s not a proud thing to witness.

    We’re a society built around economic inequality. We’ll all just have to learn to navigate our way through.
      

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    Healthcare: Warren Has No Plan

    November 16, 2019 // 16 Comments »

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

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

     

    It’s pretty thin thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

     

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    Looking for Trouble (and Answers) in Berlin

    September 16, 2019 // 11 Comments »


     

    I went looking for trouble in Berlin.

    Traveling in Germany as an American I was left with one thought: why can’t we live this way? Of course modern Germans have their problems, but it seems wherever you go it is clean, safe, organized. They pay taxes, sure, but receive nearly free healthcare, college, and federally-mandated vacation time. The trains run on time. They have trains everywhere.
     

    But there had to be more to it. So I went looking for trouble, asking Berliners where I shouldn’t go, where the off-limits parts of town are, you know, the places I wouldn’t be safe. It turned out to be a difficult question. OK, there were some areas where I might be pickpocketed at night, and a few parks where if I went in search of someone to sell me drugs I might find him. Prostitution is legal and sin is orderly. The closest I saw to a fight was four drunk non-German tourists hassling passers by. I went to an immigrant area which was statistically Berlin’s highest crime zone, and saw lots of graffiti and received some close looks but nothing more threatening than that. I couldn’t find a really bad part of town, and I tried.

    A similar quest in nearly any major American city would be a lot easier. We run our lives, never mind plan a tourist’s itinerary, around the bad parts of town. I live in New York City, where we play a kind of parlor game about which areas are not as bad as they used to be. In Alphabet City where they filmed Taxi Driver in the 1970s the former crack houses now rent out tiny apartments for over $3,000 a month. There is a moderate push-pull between the border of the Upper East Side and Harlem as gentrification drives up housing prices.

    The police presence around the areas in Harlem where tourists venture — the legendary Apollo Theater, the soul food restaurants — is effective even as the area still retains its snap. I was savagely beaten not far away, near the White Castle which serves as a kind of Checkpoint Charlie between zones. I wandering into five black teenagers pounding the life out of a much smaller Hispanic kid and yelled for them to stop or I’d call the cops. They quit, but circled around the block and attacked me, all at 4pm in the afternoon, you know, just after school.

    So at age 60 I threw my first punch in anger since maybe 8th grade. After the cops came and the attackers scattered (and nobody nearby saw nothing) I was told I was likely part of an initiation, as no one made any attempt to rob me or the Hispanic kid. The cops said almost certainly a gang member was taping it all, so I should check online. It made me remember how the insurgents in Iraq would also have a video guy nearby when they set off an IED.
     

    Pray for the tourist who alights at Hunts Point in the Bronx. The neighborhood has the highest reported crime rate in New York City, including the most violent crime. And given the poor relations between residents and the police, you can be assured reported crimes represent only some sliver of what really happens. Over 50 percent of the area lives in high or extreme poverty. Unemployment is among the highest in the state. It’s all just eight subway stops from Jeffrey Epstein’s old mansion.

    Hunts Point is split between blacks and people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but race is less the criteria for victims than familiarity. Very, very few people on those streets don’t already live there, and as a stranger of any hue you are unwelcome except as prey. Daytime, in and out of a roast chicken joint, okay, but stay off the side streets, keep your eyes down, avoid displays of gang colors (and you better know what they are) and, well, just don’t go there.

    A good friend spent a couple of years in a Hunts Point high school under Teach for America, our national service program designed to destroy the souls of liberal arts graduates, and was told her most dangerous days would be her first, until the beast that is the neighborhood adjusted to her presence. Luckily she he was quickly subsumed as a neutral element, and by the end of her tenure probie gang members in her classes would even graciously suggest she not hang around after school certain days when trouble was expected.
     

    New York is also awash in hate crime, centered in parts of Queens and Brooklyn formerly considered “safe.” Hate crimes reported this year show an 83 percent rise over the corresponding period last year, what the governor calls a “growing cancer.” In one recent incident, Heil Hitler, a swastika, and the words “gas chamber” were spray painted on a predominantly Jewish club which counts many Holocaust survivors among its members. The hate crime wave is under-reported, however, in that the majority of the incidents are anti-Semitic, and the perpetrators often black, as once-separated neighborhoods grow together, all counter-narrative to the national white supremacy meme.
     

    On the S-Bahn train trip back into Berlin center from another not-so-bad bad neighborhood I was preoccupied with the people around me. None of them were really poor, or even could become poor. Under Germany’s social system, there is only what they call “relative poverty,” with the lowest levels of households receiving about 60 percent of the average German income. So everybody eats.

    And everybody gets medical care; the healthcare system in Germany is funded by statutory contributions ensuring healthcare for all. You can also choose private insurance. The system can be complicated, but basically takes about 7 percent out of everyone’s paycheck, matched by their employer. Absent yearly copays of maybe $50, that’s it. If you make below a minimum wage, you pay nothing and still get the same healthcare as others. The system also covers long-term nursing care.

    College is free. At work, there are maternity benefits, a cash child allowance, and laws ensuring expectant mothers stay home for six weeks before birth and eight weeks after. Child mortality rates are almost twice as good as in the U.S. overall, and staggering compared to forgotten places like Hunts Point. The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave.

    For every German there is a national pension plan, work-related accident insurance, and welfare for extreme situations. No one lives homeless except by choice. The U.S. is also the only advanced economy not guaranteeing workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, European Union nations guarantee workers at least four weeks paid vacation. Among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage.

    In Germany there are plenty of rights. Free speech and freedom of religion all you want, elections at all levels. Even with restrictions Germany has one of the highest global rates of gun ownership. And none of that gets mixed up in questions of whether to provide everyone healthcare, because it has nothing to do with providing everyone healthcare, or a college education, or maternity leave.
     

    I’m sure there are downsides beyond what a short term visitor can see. But look around Germany: whatever the tax rates, it works for a very broad range of people. Not perfectly, but it works and it’s better than what we have in what we unironically and constantly otherwise remind ourselves is the Greatest Country in the World. You can’t get past that. I don’t know how to twist every detail to make it work in America, and I’m not sure Bernie or Elizabeth or whomever we could elect can try hard enough (Trump and Biden are campaigning on not trying), but there it is, in Germany. And in the UK, Japan, China, Canada, etc. To an American, it all sounds too good to be true.

    I write with a certain desperation, not wonderment. I’m not an undergrad who just took his first trip overseas, amazed at the great big world. I lived abroad for 24 years, used national health care in three nations, and traveled to many others. I’ve been a Democrat, voted Republican and third party, been called a fascist and a liberal, had long hair and short, lived in my car and paid off a mortgage.

     

    In Germany I had some sense of what life would be like freed from the burdens which define American life: no worries about healthcare, or old age care. Money enough to really live on if I lose my job or become disabled. No decades-long burdens to get my education, followed by more to help pay the rising costs of my kids’. No worries about outliving my savings, or having a carefully crafted retirement plan blown to shreds by a recession, or being struck down illness my insurance won’t pay for. To never have to wonder how to pay for their spouse’s life-saving medications or watch them whither. What would life be like absolved of those fears?

     

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    Is America’s Answer to Its Immigration Assimilation Problem in Germany’s Mistakes?

    August 28, 2019 // 5 Comments »

     

    Too many Americans think immigration is about arguing over head scarfs. Many simplistically demand or oppose the diversity migrants bring. But they’re all using the wrong words, maybe because the right word – heimat — is in German.
     

    The Marzahn neighborhood is way out of town, near the end of the S-Bahn train line, in what used to be East Berlin. There aren’t many obvious signs of the heady Cold War days except the most obvious ones, endless rows of Stalinist apartment blocks. They’re plattenbau, housing constructed of prefabricated concrete slabs. From a distance they look like the greatest set of Legos ever made, and are much more colorful than the brown-gray public housing people in New York live in. The Marzahn area was historically farmland, but in the 1970s and 80s these housing estates were the largest in East Germany, mass scale showcase socialist living.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall sent the sharper residents west and the Marzahn area was populated for many years by Germans who could not or would not leave, East Germans left behind by the new demands of capitalism. The population fell from 170,000 about 12,000. In 2015 the near-empty neighborhood was called on to house a large number of Muslims flooding out of the Middle East and North Africa. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to bypass the orderliness of the Dublin Convention and expeditiously take in more than one million migrants (with more to come; the backlog of asylum applications is still well over 400,000) brought the challenges of assimilation to the fore in German politics. With the new additions, today every fifth person in Germany comes from an immigration background.

    Initial enthusiasm gave way to fear amid rising numbers of new immigrants. Violent protests hit the eastern city of Chemnitz, leading Merkel’s interior minister to call immigration “the mother of all political problems.” Populist politician Thilo Sarrazin published Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) about the end of a majority race in the nation as more and more Muslims arrived, apparently with the sole goal of reproducing. One conservative Christian Social Union politician announced “Islam doesn’t belong in Germany.”

    The Germans in places like Marzahn who awoke one day to find themselves living among immigrants became known as some Euro version of the characters in Hillbilly Elegy. They reacted by registering some of the strongest support for the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), helping AfD finish third in the 2017 elections. Marzhan’s reputation for crime, especially what we might call hate crime and what the Germans label “politically motivated crime,” rose.

     

    Things are quieter now, but the area today has one of Germany’s highest unemployment rates at 20 percent. About 45 percent of families with kids use government benefits. Like in Marzahn, in 43 percent of Berlin’s elementary schools the majority of children speak little or no German at home. More than 80 percent of Muslim migrants see themselves as “very religious” or “true believers.”

    Walking around Marzahn, I never found trouble. Some graffiti. A lot of suspicious looks. But stores were open with the cashiers not hidden behind protective glass, women in hijab pushed baby strollers while chatting on cellphones, and men smoking shisha in mid-afternoon returned the least of an obligatory nod. None wanted to talk, but none objected to me asking. They weren’t going anywhere, but they also weren’t going anywhere.

     

    The other 88 percent of the people in the area are German.

    “No, no, nobody is going to burn down the mosque,” sighed one German. “But none of us are friends with them.” Another interrupted to point out Muslims don’t wait in line, and don’t try to speak German. They don’t work hard, he said. He had been a bricklayer. His generation had its first Christmases in the ruins of WWII. They’d seen the massive 1960’s and onward diaspora of Turkish guest workers, gastarbeiters, frustratingly still not fully assimilated. Someone who might have been second? third? generation Turk swept the floor around us and another who looked like a sibling tended bar. Every German has a favorite late night doner kebab joint run by a faux-friendly Turkish guy with a funny accent. Fewer have a Turkish best friend.

    “There are always those who will take advantage of this problem, for politics,” said one German. “But no one seems to understand what we feel.” It didn’t take long for the word heimat to come up. It is often mistranslated as “homeland” or even “fatherland” by American progressives desperate to connect everything to some creeping Nazi resurgence, but a definition truer to this conversation would be a place allowing someone to experience safety in the form of predictability, a place of reliability of existence. A place where you know where you are and what is around you, and what is around you supports your sense of heimat. It tells you you are in the right place. Rooted. The opposite is feeling rootless in your supposed home, a foreigner in what once was your country.

     

    Heimat was what this was about, creating it somehow or suffering when you don’t, something evolutionary, not revolutionary, progress or lack of, not to be judged by one election or two. It was about the longer term, politics vs. assimilation vs. stubbornness vs. time cheating away anyone who remembered it differently. Historical-time scale change, the kind that took from WWII through the Cold War through Reunification in these German lives here.

    Maybe that only can happen once a generation. But time alone doesn’t seem to be an answer either. The Turks, Germany’s largest minority group today at four million, remain largely segregated from mainstream culture. They earn lower wages than Germans, and their children are less likely to attend university. Generations in, mostly citizens now, many still work the “immigrant jobs.” As one writer put it, “We asked for workers, and human beings came instead.” Nobody had a plan for that.

    But somebody somewhere tried to raise awareness, told everyone to change, or refuse to change, or that the other side should change, or they are racist not to change, or that change is antithetical to who they are. Anti-racism morphed into anti-whiteness. You are a lesser person because of the way you vote. Every group’s goal should be to create their own Wakanda. Expecting migrants to blend in to a homogeneous society nullifies the benefit of multiculturalism. Expecting a homogeneous society to simply accept the changes and challenges of multiculturalism as a “value” ignores millennia of human nature. Anger and fear are always exploitable. The dinosaurs didn’t live forever but unmanaged they stomped a lot of mammals on the way out.

     

    It would have been easy to move the discussion from Marzahn, Berlin to Akron, Ohio. There are always people who see it as Brown and White. Their answers are simple and will fail as simplistic. More/less immigration. Progressive/racist. Build the wall/abolish ICE. Asylum for almost none/asylum for almost all and let the ones denied stay anyway. #Families/#None without skills.

    The better of the Germans eschew hashtags to ask themselves what their heimat will look like in five and 50 years, and likely so on the Muslim side as well. As on both sides of the Atlantic, it is easy to guess everyone would agree the government will continue to not bother to solve the problems arising out from the lack of integration. In search of a modern answer, one person introduced a term, societal diversity management, currently missing from the polarized conversation.

    Politicians decide how many and how fast for their own short-term election goals. Whoever was already there and whoever just arrived are left to work it out. People stand across the street from one another, one side despairing their rootlessness because they won’t change to assimilate the newcomers, the other facing multi-generational marginalization because they won’t adapt. They think they’re arguing over head scarfs when in fact they are arguing about the need to create a livable version of heimat.
      

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    Dear People Wishing for Stock Market Trouble

    August 26, 2019 // 20 Comments »


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

     
     

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

     

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

     
     

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    Democrats Need to Stop Dry Humping the American Dream

    May 13, 2019 // 2 Comments »


     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     
     
    BONUS:

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

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

     
     

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

    March 15, 2019 // 13 Comments »


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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      

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

    March 6, 2019 // 10 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     
     

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    Poor Folks

    February 24, 2019 // 21 Comments »


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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     
     

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    Seeing the Promised Land: Springsteen on Broadway, a Review

    December 18, 2018 // 10 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    So Yeah, Here’s America, 2017

    April 9, 2017 // 71 Comments »


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

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

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

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

    On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    There, however, the similarities end.

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

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

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

    Small Town America in the Big Apple: Spanish Harlem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

     

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    Quick Update, End-of-the-World

    March 29, 2017 // 36 Comments »



    Well, just checking in from my bunker. After taking inventory of my canned goods and ammunition, I thought I’d look into how some of the media’s predictions have been playing out over the first weeks of the new administration.

    — No nuclear wars.

    — No wars with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Same wars Obama started or escalated still going strong.

    — No diplomatic breakdown because of Taiwan. No change in U.S. “Two China Policy.”

    — No new wars anywhere.

    — NATO and alliances with Australia, Japan, etc. still intact.

    — No mass resignations among government employees. CIA, NSA, and State Department still open for business.

    — No coups.

    — 1st Amendment, and others, still in place.

    — No impeachment, no invocation of Emoluments Clause, 25th Amendment, formal charges of treason.

    — Congress has approved Cabinet nominees.

    — No roundups of POC, women, journalists, LGBTQ, deportations are still below Obama-era headcount of 2.5 million deported, highest under any presidency.

    — Stock market did not crash.

    — No psychological break down by Trump leading to anarchy, war, etc.

    — No signs of capitulation to Putin.

    — U.S. justice system and courts still open and functioning.



    I will keep an eye on all this, and update as necessary.

    BONUS: I don’t like Trump. This post is a criticism of his critics and the media for all their idiot fear-mongering.

    BONUS BONUS: Someone will respond “Yes, but it’s only been _____ weeks, so you never know.” This is true because no one knows the future, but it is also irrelevant because I am writing about what has already (not) happened.




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    Advice for Trump: It’s All About the Infrastructure

    March 21, 2017 // 25 Comments »



    Dear Donald:

    I didn’t vote for you and generally don’t support what you do, but hey, we both live in this country for now, and I don’t want to see you mess things up more than they are. So, as a public service, here’s some advice. I don’t see a lot of this in the media; mostly they just write articles mocking you. I’m pretty sure if you came out against poop the media would demand sh*t sandwiches for everyone in response.

    But we’re Americans, we look forward not behind where the poop comes out, so here goes.

    You need a grown up in the White House right away. Your team clearly hasn’t figured out how to work Washington when you need to do so. So go get yourself a James Baker. Baker was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. He may still be alive (check Wikipedia) but if not, someone like him. Not an ideologue, but someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, trusted by most in Congress, calm and steady but still enough of a conservative that he’ll fit in at meetings. He’ll be, what can we call it, a kind of Chief of Staff-concierge combo. That will also be very reassuring to your own party members.

    Next up is a new Secretary of State, in a few months. I get that Tillerson is there to debone the Department of State, and it is good that he do so. Let him get that done, make all the enemies, do the heavy lifting, and then get someone new in there who can take over the hassles of day-to-day foreign policy. It’s clear, Donald (if I may) that you don’t like the photo-ops and glad-handing with foreigners. OK, we’re not all good at everything. So outsource that part of the job, same as you’ve done pretty successfully with James Mattis over at Defense (see how that no-drama appointment thing can work out?) Get a SecState who can play nice with allies and let you be you on other stuff. C’mon, you know how to do this. As a businessman you delegated tasks all the time.

    With that team in place, get your plate clear of the ideological things you owe your base. Pass your healthcare, throw a bone to immigration reform, whatever The Wall, stop messing around too much with arts funding, just get that stuff off the front pages except in areas of the country where it being on the front pages is to your benefit.

    Then move on to the big deal, the thing that should be the signature event of your term, rebuilding infrastructure. You promised jobs, America needs jobs, the Democrats can’t be against jobs (well, they can, but at that point they’ll join the Whigs in political party trivia answers.) Don’t spend a lot of time at first sorting things out, just get money into the economy. Cut Retire one aircraft carrier, something. Have states send in proposals, or just start. Build a bridge. Fix an airport. Put people to work in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, places that really have been hit hard.

    Make it fast, make it visible, show (pardon the pun) concrete results.

    ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW: “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”

    Or from NY Magazine’s Frank Rich “Maybe they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. ”

    BONUS: For the Democrats, don’t chase away the man or woman who feels like a third party candidate. Don’t push a hack forward who you think you’ve dressed up to look like a third party candidate; it’ll just come off fake, like when Dad tries to look “cool” around the teenagers. Stop acting smug about how all those Trump voters won’t get the change they sought. You don’t have the best record there, either. Don’t tell people who have really been living with Obamacare in its imperfect form that it is not imperfect.

    Imagine yourselves taking control of the healthcare debate. Imagine saying “Obamacare has problems. We’re going to fix them, and yeah, it means working with the Republicans, but people before party.” Now there’s something to take into the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, especially if you do fix Obamacare.

    And for the love of Gawd, find something more to be in favor of. “We’re not Trump” and “Trump’s a stupid jerk” were the policy positions that cost you the election. Nobody besides your own paranoid base bought deeply into the Putin controls Trump line, and the longer you stick to that the more it will end up looking like the endless Benghazi hearings.

    See, people outside your base will see through your current war cry: July Comey bad, March Comey is good. July investigations mean nothing, March investigations are the end of democracy. Saudi money into the Clinton Foundation had no proof of quid pro quo, Some Trump guy appearing on RT.com is proof that the Kremlin controls Washington DC.

    Understand that you have to build your base out from the coasts; you will not lure middle-of-the-road voters back with #resistance. Resistance is just blunt opposition and you tried that and the result was President Trump. Don’t make it President Pence down the road.

     

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    A Brief History of Hope (and How Trump Won)

    February 16, 2017 // 61 Comments »




    Nobody has a lot of hope left, so we got Trump.


    I’ve taken to doing this thing Kurt Vonnegut used to do, semi-randomly calling people I haven’t spoken to for awhile. No emails, a phone call, the numbers I can track down online. The phone rings on their end and announces I am demanding to talk with them. It’s selfish. I want to know what’s going on in America. I ask them that.



    The way things work, these people have dispersed themselves all over America. Most of the people I speak with are in their 50s, nobody younger than about 35. They are representative only of “people I still sort of know.” The whole thing is about as scientific as the smell off a pile of dog crap.

    I’ve found nobody with a lot of hope left. They seemed to have used it up.

    I haven’t run across anyone who voted for Trump who said “Well, that’s that, time to sit back and watch things get fixed.” A lot of these people voted for Obama, at least in 2008, and not because he was going to be America’s First Black President but because they really believed in his promise of Hope. The Bush years had worn out. We stayed scared enough, but then no post-9/11 attack came, the wars dragged on, and most of the stuff that was supposed to make us feel safe just ended up somewhere between inconvenient and bullying.

    People have no sense of being in control of their lives. They know they have a lot less money than they used to, they don’t see their kids doing better, but they see on TV that some few seem to have most of everything. They can figure if they have less and someone else has more where that more came from.


    “Hope” means different things but it one way or another meant change for the better and that didn’t happen. Depending on who you were and where you lived, things stayed about the same or they got worse. The news said another 20,000 jobs were created but they still worked at Target. The news said solar and coding and Internet of Things and self-driving cars and they still made $7.25 an hour when their grandfathers made $23.50 with benefits. In 2017 they could not afford health insurance, stuck between not having enough money to buy it and not having too little enough to get subsidized. And they know health insurance and healthcare are not the same thing, as in high deductibles and Bronze plans that never seemed to cover things, or cover them fully. They know that, and deeply resent anyone who tells them it’s not really that way and they are better off.

    You can’t tell a person soaked in water they aren’t wet.

    Having been fooled, prepped for years, they looked at the 2016 election and saw a choice between a guy who was so cynical about providing hope he didn’t even bother to offer anything beyond a vague exhortation to be great on a cap, and a women who didn’t even bother with that, just a selfish demand for affirmation, “I’m With Her!” going through the motions enroute to what she thought was hers already.

    They knew Trump was a bully, a cheat, someone mean, and did not need to be told. They resented being seen by Clinton as too dumb to get that on their own and needing a lecture. Same now for the endless late night mockery and Washington gossip by “sources” that passes for news. Nobody cares about Nordstrom’s or who the spokesperson is when they’re hungry, and they resent the people who do not get that.

    Economist Thomas Piketty found the share of U.S. national wealth claimed by the bottom 50% of the country dropped to 12% from 20% in 1978, along with a drop in income for the poorest half of America. That level of change will not go unreacted to.

    It wasn’t that most of them hated Blacks and gays and the people of so-called identity politics, it was just that they did not care all that much about them either way. People in smaller places all know about Mr. Saunders the “confirmed bachelor” and while he couldn’t hold hands with his “roommate” around town, really, otherwise, who cares, I’m down to canned tuna and cereal the last week of the month when my food aid money runs out waiting for the first of the next month. Sorry equal rights for everyone isn’t in place, but let’s fix some other things first. We’ve all taken a beating.

    You don’t have to like it, but that’s what a lot of people think. And unlike a fair number of other voting blocs who need to be made to show up on election day, these people turn out. They don’t need buses, they drive themselves.

    So to hell with it they said, I’ll vote for the guy, being fooled knowing I’m being fooled. It doesn’t matter if Trump pisses off the Prime Minister of wherever. My kid will fight that war, like he fought the last war, because he can’t find another job and joins the Army, and Cory Booker’s nephew or niece won’t and if they does somehow join the service they’ll be a pilot or work intel or some other clean hands job and won’t be up on the line. Can my other kid go to college? Maybe, but she’ll eat debt for 20 years for a throwaway degree that isn’t worth much. We want our daughters empowered because we know that offers them a good life, but we first want them fed and employed.

    We were promised that. Didn’t happen.

    None of those people are going to have their minds changed by pussy hat marches or Lady Gaga at the Superbowl which just brings an eye roll from the men and women at the bar, and they don’t appreciate being called racists, nazis and fascists by millennials who have never really met one and fling those words around to enrage each other into shaking their heads at each other. They are unaffected by protests not against some policy, but against the idea that the candidate they voted for won.

    Meanwhile, if someone who is a real nazi or fascist offers the people at the bar even a touch of hope they’ll put up with some of the rest even though they don’t care for it personally. Most people really don’t want to live like it’s the 1950s Deep South again, but they’ll take a cleaned up version of 1969’s economy.

    See, “resistance” is part of the long-failed stay negative Democratic policy, the same one that lost the 2016 election. Find something to be for, Dems, or you’ll lose in 2018 again.



    So if you want to really throw up a wall between America as we want it to be and the America you’re afraid it will become, shut the hell up and create some jobs. Just do that, dump some money out of the pot and build some bridges and highways. Start. People who wear black shoes and white socks don’t really care whether you fund the National Endowment for the Arts as long as you also fund a new water plant for every Flint, and there is or will be one in every state. That’s a big gulp of what stopped real fascism from catching hold in 1930s America.

    But right now people out there are heading toward accepting an awful lot of hateful things because they want to believe someone will help them.

    Every year we wait makes it harder and less likely we’ll get out from under this blue dusk. The party or candidate that can really do this — create some jobs, give people back their pride, allow them to take care of their families, throw out a little hope — will win every election they want to run in.

    We’re not headed into authoritarianism per se. We’re headed into giving up. That’s the demon that’ll destroy us. There’s the weight of emptiness out there and something’s gonna fill it up.



    I know I can’t keep “we,” “you “and “they” separate in the essay above and after spending a lot of time trying to fix that I realized it was meant to be that way.




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

    January 6, 2017 // 59 Comments »



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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




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    I Don’t Like Trump or Racism

    December 2, 2016 // 23 Comments »

    blm


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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    Here’s Your 2016 Election Explained from 2013

    November 17, 2016 // 106 Comments »

    weirton street

    Here’s an excerpt from my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. I wrote the passage below in 2013. Nobody wanted to read it then, nobody thought it meant anything. Well, maybe it makes more sense now. And, yeah, I’m a little bitter about that.

    “Yep. Thirty years on the big bucket, pouring out two hundred tons of steel a day. Lookit my right arm—muscle’s twice as thick as on the left ’cause of that lever I pulled every day. I got that job right after Korea in fact. My old man sent me to see the foreman while I was still wearing my uniform.”

    “How’s it up there now? I heard the president say he’s creating more jobs, so I was considering moving up.”

    “Moving on isn’t a bad idea. I wished I had done it at your age. Hell, I wished I’d done it last month.”

    “So there’s work where you’re from?”

    “Same there as it was four years ago and four years before that. Every four years the president comes back into western Pennsylvania like a dog looking for a place to pee. He reminds us that his wife’s cousin is from some town near to ours, gets photographed at the diner if it’s still in business, and then makes those promises to us while winking at the big business donors who feed him bribes they call campaign contributions. I’m tempted to cut out the middleman and just write in ‘Goldman Sachs’ on my ballot next election.”

    Another cigarette.

    “Smoke?”

    “Nah.”

    “Meanwhile the coast reporters will write another story about the ‘heartland’ and then get out as fast as they can, acting as if something might stick to them if they stood still too long. We got so few families in town anymore we can’t hardly come up with a football team. I had to drive thirty miles last week to find a dentist, nobody closer still in business. The new mayor has this idea of encouraging art galleries and boutiques to take up in vacant buildings to revive the economy. So that’s us now, building a country on boutiques.”



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    How Did Donald Trump Win?

    November 9, 2016 // 22 Comments »

    unemployment

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


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

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

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

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

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

    In essence, the growing irrelevance of American workers.

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

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

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

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

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

    Now there’s something to be afraid of.



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

    November 1, 2016 // 37 Comments »

    trump-clinton
     

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

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

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

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


    Hillary Clinton: All Appetite

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

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

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


    The Once and Future Hillary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Taking No Chances

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

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

    Then, oops, Bernie.

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

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

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


    Trump Stumbles into His Role

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

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

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

    Enter Trump.

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

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

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

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


    Trump Ascendant

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

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

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

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


    Face It: They Are Us

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

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

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

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

     

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

    October 20, 2016 // 20 Comments »

    Detailed_Triangle_Trade



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


    What Are NAFTA and TPP?

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

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

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

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



    The Basics Of Trade

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

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

    Looking at You, NAFTA

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

    You wish.

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

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


    Cui Bono?

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

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

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

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

    The Losers

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

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

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

    Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us

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

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



    A Broader View

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

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


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    How Trump May Win Ohio and Pennsylvania

    September 18, 2016 // 52 Comments »

    weirton looming13


    The every-four-years parade of east coast journalists trooping out into the Rust Belt of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and their neighbors has begun.

    Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run their stories. You can Google them (fine, here’s one), and the articles from smaller outlets that will follow, but I can save you some reading time, because they are all basically the same:

    Oh my God, the Midwest is a freaking mess. Nobody has jobs, middle-aged white people are doing heroin and meth, and everyone is on food stamps. These people are angry as hell at, well, they say the government.

    Trump and Hillary have been through (name the one small town you stopped in) and promised to bring back the old industrial jobs (Trump) or some hi-tech something (Hillary.) I stopped by a (diner, bar, waffle house, VFW hall) and talked to (name of the one guy you talked to.) He told me times are tough, but these people are tough. They built the mills, they pulled America up by its bootstraps. They’ll make it. Quote some Bruce Springsteen song you heard that afternoon driving east as fast as you could. Done.

    The reporter then rushes back to New York to bathe in Purell and drown his/her disgust in warm PBRs and Starbucks spiced lattes. Next story is about a new start-up in Brooklyn that is creating a social media platform for dogs or something.


    Understanding the Heartland

    Most reporters act shocked to find people “out there” so angry. They can’t understand why the “folks” take food stamps but think handouts are for lazy people. They can’t understand why someone without health insurance, coughing up chunks of the asbestos they breathed in every day at the factory, opposes Obamacare.

    The people the reporters speak with feel they got cheated. They worked hard, they paid taxes, they sent kids off to war (every small Midwest town has a memorial stone, if not three, to the local people who died in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq…) Then they got screwed by, well, someone. The lucky ones now work for minimum wage at a local Walmart full of junk made overseas. The rest visit the charity pantries and spend their food stamps not because they are lazy like “those people” (a code word for urban African-Americans; the few people of color in these towns tend to feel the same way), but because they are hungry. They wait like a cargo cult for the boom years to return, someday, somehow.

    Trump gets this at a visceral level. He tells them it is not their fault, or his, though both share blame. It was the Japanese, or the Chinese, or some mythical Big Government, or regulations, or even the unions that gave the same workers higher pay and good benefits. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to play to a crowd angry and confused looking every four years for some answer, and some hope.



    I Saw Them, The Ghosts of Tom Joad

    I grew up in Ohio during the 1970s and 80s, and watched the industrial heartland fall apart in front of my eyes. Our town had a huge Ford plant. It was sold to Toyota, who cut jobs by half before closing it all down because they got better tax incentives in Kentucky. I don’t know what happened in Kentucky, but I can guess.

    I wrote a book about all this, the last fifty years of the Midwest. When you look at it as a historical event, today’s state of things is as inevitable as sunset.

    The book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent. Close to four years ago I tried to sell it to a couple of the larger publishers in New York. No literary agent wanted it, no publisher was interested. As one put it, declining me, “You’re saying there’s poor people in Ohio?” Another was clearer: “Who wants to read a book about unemployed whites?”

    The first publisher outside of New York I approached, one located in Indiana, immediately took the book.



    How Trump May Win the Swing States

    I fully doubt Donald Trump has read my book, or many books at all for that matter. Someone on Trump’s team, however, is very aware of the unfocused anger in the Midwest I wrote about, and is working hard to use that to get some votes. If Trump takes the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, it will be because of that staffer’s insight. Maybe s/he’ll write a book about it.

    Until then, here’s more about my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent:

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    U.S. Added 177,000 jobs in August, All of Them in the Service Industry

    September 9, 2016 // 7 Comments »



    In portraying herself as a virtual Barack Obama third term, Clinton ties herself not only to a foreign policy that continues to inflame the Middle East, but also to his domestic economic record. A key element is job creation, the cornerstone of any real growth.


    For example, during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton praised Obama’s efforts to steer the nation’s recovery.

    “Now, I don’t think President Obama and Vice President Biden get the credit they deserve for saving us from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes,” she told the crowd in Philadelphia. “Nearly 15 million new private-sector jobs… And an auto industry that just had its best year ever.”

    Leaving aside some fuzzy math to get to that tally of 15 million new jobs, Clinton purposefully passes off quantity with what we’ll call quality.

    A quality job is one that is sustainable, with full-time status and benefits, the kind of work that both rebuilds America’s soul while at the same time makes work more profitable than unemployment benefits and aid. Most importantly for the greater economy, a quality job is one that allows the worker to put money into society. Rising tide lifting all boats.

    The latest job statistics show that is not what is happening.


    While the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the U.S. added some 177,000 jobs in August, all of them were in the low-paying service industry. Fast food, store clerks, that sort of thing. Basically Americans not making anything, but simply passing existing money around in some zero-sum game. A cashier earns a dollar which she turns over to the dry cleaner who later buys a Big Mac. At some point a corporation pulls that dollar out of the hands of its workers as “profit,” perhaps to offshore it to avoid taxes.

    And if the job stats reporting only new service jobs were not dismal news enough, Bureau results show that in the same time period some 2,000 construction and 5,000 goods-producing jobs evaporated. In July, mining and logging companies dumped 7,000 positions. Those thousands of workers were thrown into the pool seeking employment.

    No one is saying we should revive so-called dead industries, or that America revert fully to a 1950s style heavy iron economy. But economics is about people, and those people need jobs they can earn a living doing.


    BONUS: Clinton’s solution? Hillary claims during her first 100 days in office she will launch “the biggest infrastructure and jobs program that we’ve had since World War II.” That mirrors the huge stimulus program that President Obama signed into law in 2009, during his own first 100 days in office.

    Clinton’s plan would see $300 billion in spending on transportation projects spread over five years, $60 billion per year. She plans to raise the money via new taxes on the wealthy that Congress is highly unlikely to agree to.



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    Let’s Understand Why We’re So Finished Economically

    August 3, 2016 // 26 Comments »

    krugman

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


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

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

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



    The American Dream (Patrimonial Capitalism)

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

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



    The Undeniable Reality of the Now

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

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



    Drilling Down Into Our Miserable Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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