I was eating in the food court below Grand Central Station in New York. There was a cold rain outside, and a good portion of the people around me appeared to be homeless.
Many were making the rounds of the trash cans and tables, eating the food they found. There were cops nearby, as well as National Guardsmen on terror watch duty. There seemed to be a sort of understanding at work, such that the cops left the homeless alone as long as the homeless left the paying customers alone.
I wasn’t going to finish my meal. There wasn’t much left, but some. What was the right thing to do?
A) Leave the meal. A mouthful for someone hungry is better than nothing;
B) Throw it away. It would have been embarrassing to offer a small amount available only because I’d already gorged myself;
C) Go buy another full meal (I could afford it) and give it to one of the hungry people;
D) Demand my government stop spending 54% of my taxes on war (actually more, if you consider black budgets, paramilitary forces, and intelligence costs) and start taking care of its own people. I have the resources to feed one person, but we have the resources to feed all Americans. If only we were willing. I don’t always know what’s right, but I know what is wrong.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The middle class, which for 40 years has represented a majority of the country in practice, and formed the foundational belief in what has been known as the “American Dream,” is now just half the United States, according to a new report.
Over at least the last four decades, productivity gains have gone largely to the top of the economic pyramid, increasing both their income and wealth. Real income growth has been flat for most Americans, even as the cost of living has increased.
Need it in numbers?
The share of America’s income going to the middle class has fallen from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent now. Today, the majority of our national income goes to the upper class, which reaps a 49 percent share. (by comparison, the share of income going to the upper class in 1970 was just 29 percent). The median wealth of middle class households has fallen by more than one-fourth since the beginning of this century.
Need it in simple terms?
The rich are getting very much richer, seeing their wealth grow exponentially. The middle class is shrinking. Meanwhile, the poor are still poor and their numbers are growing. We are indeed heading toward a society within a society within the world’s wealthiest nation — one percent of “us” now own half of everything.
The implications of this path are dark.
At the point where a handful of people control most of the wealth, and the other money in our nation is so diffuse as to make those individuals in the bottom 99 percent of our society irrelevant except as cheap labor, we live in a modern day version of feudalism. Money is power, and a select handful now can control elections with “donations,” can have laws written and rewritten to match their needs, can keep a lid on the minimum wage more and more of us depend on now to get by, manipulate college loan and mortgage rates to keep people in debt, and secure ownership of the land we live on and the places we live. Hyper-wealthy people through their charitable foundations are free to social-engineer our world, paying to say grow one form of educational system while leaving another to wither on limited funding.
How did the wealthy pull off the greatest peaceful takeover of a nation in human history? Very easily. Their master stroke, however, was not to take predatory capitalism to its extreme, but to do so without sparking more than a whisper of disagreement from the very people they trod upon.
Here is the linchpin of how the rich have taken us: they have convinced average Americans to act and vote against their own interests, in part by manipulating them into opposing any program that has a chance of benefiting black and brown equally or more than themselves. Decent health care and nutrition for everyone? That’s socialism!
Our entire culture is fear-based, from our religion to our media to Wall Street. It drives everything, and fear is the most powerful tool that rulers can use to manipulate people. It is this constant state of fear that really makes us exceptional compared to every other advanced nation.
People, we have been bought. Someone else now, in every effective and meaningful way, owns us. Suckers.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Ghosts of Tom Joad is fiction per se, but fiction based on fact. My story of the intentional destruction of an entire class of people through economic disparity is mirrored in so many people’s lives.
Here is one of those stories, originally submitted to this blog as a comment, but well-worth repeating here (lightly edited):
From 1955 to 1965, my Dad lived near Youngstown, Ohio. He moved up from the Mississippi Delta and worked at Packard Electric and some steel mills to get through college at Youngstown University.
I drove through Youngstown last month for the first time after my Uncle’s funeral (submariner for six years, at Pearl Harbor, worked for 40 years at the General Motors Lordstown plant). Youngstown today reminded me of Detroit (as a firefighter, I tend to notice lots of empty lots where houses once stood).
I graduated from high school in Detroit in 1983. The place has really gone even more downhill since 2008; my old house on the West side has been stripped out (dead dog carcass in the dining room), probably a 25 percent vacant rate.
I don’t see things getting better anytime soon. I’m doing OK as a firefighter, but I’m making less than I did 13 years ago and the powers-that-be have been going after the public unions (now that less folks are in private unions than before the Great Depression).
Here’s another from Comments:
This blog resonates with me as I grew up in Troy, Ohio in the 1960s and ’70s before moving to New Jersey in 1974. I experienced small town America with Soap Box Derby races and Memorial Day parades and watching 4th of July fireworks from the levee on the Miami River. I went to college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where “The Steel” ran the longest continuous steel mill in the world, something like 11 miles. A few years ago I read that the foundry part downtown had been turned into a casino and I knew that the U.S. was dying of capitalist rot.
My long dead friend Joe was the son of the owner of a bar in downtown Lorain. My Polish friends had fathers that worked the steel mills. My high school used to play Admiral King, and my trip there was to the other end of the universe. The last several times in Lorain the major bridge was out for repair and it sure took a long time to fix it. I used to drive 6 and 2 driving to BGSU. Joe commented while dying that he remembered us tooling down that road doing 120 mph in my Detroit iron/389 Pontiac.Both of us were immigrant stock and soldiered for this country. Joe is still buried in Lorain with his parents.
In October 2013 I stayed at Port Clinton and it was depressing. Half the business district was depressed. Tourism is down. A condo in town sold for $20K. Bowling Green town is dull and needs a paint job and new roofs. Cleveland is a slum, as is Euclid where my folks lived.The house I grew up in has been demolished. The inner city is every bit of what you wrote about, but worse. If that’s possible then things are really bad.
There are so many, too many, such stories out there, good people who believed what they had been told only to find themselves discarded when companies found they could make more money somewhere, somehow else. They all are the ghosts of Tom Joad now.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Getting to any major airport not built in the last few years is a disaster. Utter lack of efficient public transportation is the norm. In most cases the best you get is an old, slow city bus with no room for luggage in place to ferry low-wage workers to their Cinnabon for the morning shift. Outside the big cities, you are lucky if you have even that. Either get there by private car, pay for a ride out the nose, or walk. Inside the airport, hah! Filthy toilets, lack of amenities, too hot/too cold/too crowded and usually smells like King Kong’s first dump of the day.
OK, 9/11. So now 14 years later every airport is protected by petty thugs who make up rules that make little sense. We parade around dirty floors in bare feet, pour shampoo into little bottles, don’t bring water aboard but can buy it later for $5 a bottle, remove our laptops and belts, get x-rayed and scanned and whatever new was recently introduced. Or not. You can be randomly selected to just bypass a bunch of that, or if you can pay for some program so you can bypass all of that (nobody ever heard of sleeper agents?) or sometimes nobody checks and you bypass all that by “forgetting” to take your laptop out. Whatever. To avoid accusations of racial profiling while racial profiling, the occasional little old lady in a wheelchair is given the third degree.
Our Apartheid of Money
The airline will treat you less awful if you have money. Have it in the form of more frequent flier miles, the right credit card or the purchase of first class, and you have a shorter TSA line, get seated first, avoid the scrum when everyone else boards, don’t fight for overhead space and have your own elite potty. If all you have done is pay hundreds of dollars for a seat as a customer, to hell with you, get in the back and shut up.
To avoid the checked baggage fee, I am bringing aboard my entire drum kit, two giant stuffed pandas, a live goat and a couple of taped together cardboard boxes with grease stains. If my zone is called before yours, no overhead space for you, so Suck. It. The cabin attendants have no interest in refereeing fights, so back off or swing hard, your call.
Selfishness, Part II
If I want to eat fried snake bladder and garlic aboard, that’s my privilege. If I want to recline my seat into your face, I will. If I haven’t showered in a month and mouth-breathe, too bad. If I am so obese that I literally drip over the armrest, deal with it. If my kids want to kick you, vomit, scream or demand treats unavailable at 40,000 feet, throughout an entire 12 hour flight, I have no obligation to deal with that. And oh yes, waiting until you are on an airplane is exactly when you should clip your nails.
People Don’t Care About Their Job
Here’s a can of soda. Never ask me for anything ever again during this flight or I’ll claim you are disruptive and have security haul you away. Sort out your own carry-on and intra-passenger issues. Just stare straight ahead if your screen does not work. Once we land, fight your way to the front of the plane to get off eight seconds before someone else, I don’t really care what you do. I’ll be in the back complaining to the other cabin attendants about my job and eating Chipotle I brought aboard and which I alone am allowed to microwave.
We hear a lot about the “one percent” and the “99 percent” but what kind of net worth scores you a top slot in the real-life Hunger Games here in America? How much money do you need to be just average? The answers tell you just about everything you need to know about modern day America.
Short answer: Oh, we’re so screwed.
The Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances released in September of 2014 is among the most recent data. The nice folks who compiled all of this waded through massive amounts of data. They caution they did not include 11 ultra high net worth individuals due to identity issues whatever that means, so the very top of this accounting could actually be even worse in reality. And don’t forget, the super-rich have had two whole years to accumulate even more money since this all was tabulated.
Let’s start at the top. The term “one percent” is now semi-meaningless, though you will need about $8 million to join them anyway. What really matters now is the top .1 percent. To crack that level you need to have well over $30 million in net worth.
But I get it, no one here is packing those kind of bucks. We’re all sort of average Americans, right? Maybe. To count yourself in at the 50 percent mark you need to possess some $82,000. How are we doing, students and young marrieds? Keep in mind net worth is what you own minus what you owe, not necessarily how much money you earn. So those students loans and that VISA card debt count against your ranking here, sorry.
The good news is that if you own nothing, have no savings or investments but also have no debt — you are precisely at zero — you are in the 11.8th percentile of net worths. Yep, that means about 11 percent of us have negative net worths. About a third of us have a net worth of only $15,000, not exactly a significant bumper against some bad luck, like losing your job or getting sick.
It’s a pretty bleak picture, but here it is:
But rich people have problems, too. Luckily, a group of brave psychiatric professionals, dubbed “wealth therapists,” have emerged to come to their aid.
The UK Guardian (America’s best newspaper) profiled Clay Cockrell, a former Wall Street worker turned therapist, who spends his days helping New York’s wealthiest people.
So what issues are America’s One Percent struggling with? Cockrell tells us there is guilt over being rich in the first place, which makes the rich feel that they have to hide the fact that they are rich. And then there is the isolation – being in the One Percent, it turns out, can be lonely.
And the problem is growing. According to Oxfam, the richest One Percent have seen their share of global wealth increase from only 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014. It will break 51 percent by next year.
The wealth therapists also say things have only gotten worse for their clients since the debate over income inequality that has been spurred on by movements like Occupy Wall Street.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement singled out the One Percent and painted them globally as something negative,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, another wealth psychologist. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but it really is making value judgments about a particular group of people as a whole.”
Traeger-Muney specializes in the unique issues inheritors face. “You can come up with lot of words and sayings about inheritors, and not one of them is positive: spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in their mouth, trust fund babies, all these things,” she said, adding “I am shocked by things that people say. If you substitute in the word Jewish or black, you would never say something like that.”
Hyper-wealthy, we all feel your pain. Thus, today, we are all part of the One Percent. #WealthyLivesMatter (say the wealthy.)
About the Democratic debate last night on CNN: Is this it? Is this the best the Democratic side of America can offer?
I have to admit, by not screwing up, Hillary did well.
She clung to her talking points tenaciously, brushed off any scandals (aided by CNN’s Anderson Cooper lobbing her softballs on the tough issues, and of course, Bernie absolving her of any email problems, the FBI investigation be damned), invoked her dead blue collar mom several times to the point where we were looking for the ghost to appear on stage, and absent a weird and untrue story about her and Barack chasing down some Chinese fellas to yell at them about climate change, told no apparent whoppers. She even made a funny about how long it takes us ladies to pee pee between commercials.
She did muff on Wall Street, claiming oddly she “represented Wall Street” as Senator. That line will live on in a thousand Republican attack videos. In that same little speechlet, Hillary also mentioned in 2007 she went down to Wall Street and told them to “cut it out,” in relation to the massive financial crisis dumped on American a year later.
Her statements about how well Libya worked out, and how she personally took down bin Laden with a rusty switchblade, were utterly false, but whatever, she’s said all that before. She did not shapeshift into her lizard form, and thus was the debate’s big winner.
Bernie. Oh Bernie.
Bernie played to his loyal base and left the vast pool of others disappointed. At times he sounded like your drunk old hippy uncle, ranting about revolution. His most salient points, about climate change and the one percent, were often shouted. One could imagine the spittle that some poor stagehand had to swipe off the lectern afterwards. It is very unclear how many voters Bernie persuaded to switch over to him. He instead cemented his place in history as an “issue” candidate, one who runs to push some ideas further into the mainstream with no hope of actually winning.
Bernie’s ideas are good. But he needed to show enthusiasm, righteous anger, and instead we just got a lot of bitching. See ya, Bernie, you have achieved footnote-in-the-history-books status for all time.
The others really should have just stayed home. They were the equivalent of the Star Trek red shirts, background actors filling out scenes, handy to have around when a scriptwriter needs to kill someone off.
Martin O’Malley was running for something, maybe Hillary’s foot massager come 2016, but stumbled to make any real points. He sounded desperate about his turn as Baltimore’s mayor, saying things were actually pretty good then. Come on Martin, we’ve all seen The Wire.
Lincoln Chafee — brother, it is over, if it had ever begun. When you explained you flubbed an early vote in Congress because you were new and your dad had died, you sounded like an undergrad begging his Psych 101 prof for extra credit.
Then there was Jim Webb, the man who has overnight spawned a million Tweets. Webb was angry. Webb whined about not getting called on. Webb didn’t seem to remember his kids’ names. Webb dragged his wife into this, twice, the only family member pictured out the audience unless someone was related to the Santa Claus guy. But Webb saved the best for last, playing out his PTSD live on stage, grinning manically while explaining how he killed a man in Vietnam. Get some help, Jim, we’re worried about you, man.
And no props to CNN. A full thirty minutes of trash and commercials before the debate proper started? Why not bring out some Vegas showgirls? Letting Obama do a full-on promo piece saying “Vote Democrat?” Having their Official Black Guy Reporter Don Lemon ask one and only one question about #BlackLivesMatter? Then having the Official Hispanic guy (“Gracious, Anderson”) do the questions about weed and illegal immigration? And no questions at all about Israel, the Palestinians, the current war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Planned Parenthood?
The only question left: what was Joe Biden, watching this all at home, thinking?
In another step in the long political tradition of imposing bombastic, faux populist, hate-mongering solutions to problems that don’t really exist, Maine Governor Paul LePage announced he is tired of able-bodied food stamp recipients zipping around on jet skis instead of looking for jobs that do not exist.
His state thus proudly announced it will disallow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the official term for food stamps) benefits for childless households with certain assets worth more than $5,000. A home equity and a person’s primary vehicle (but what if that vehicle is a $1.5 million Ferrari?) won’t count against the limit, but the state has issued a list of things that could: “bank accounts, snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, recreational vehicles, campers” and other valuables.
“Hard-working Mainers should not come home to see snowmobiles, four wheelers or jet skis in the yards of those who are getting welfare,” LePage said in a statement. Left out of course is how those “hard-working Mainers” know exactly how is getting welfare among jet ski owners, but, whatever, when you are inciting hatred you don’t sweat the details.
OK. So if you are poor, you need to become poorer to get food assistance, because, sure if you have more than $5,000 bucks worth of whatever you are rich enough. The, after those one-time sell offs of your assets for pennies on the dollar to richer folks, you are then poor enough for welfare. Circle of life kinda stuff.
Of course all this righteousness begs the question of how many SNAP recipients in Maine have jet skis in their yards. Exactly how many?
“We hear examples and concerns from clients and constituents quite frequently,” a spokesperson for the governor replied. He declined to give a number, or an estimate, or to cite even one specific case.
He also declined to answer the “So what?” question; so what if someone who needs food assistance has minimal assets. Is the idea that one needs to sell off everything one owns, down to the walls, and only then ask for something to eat? How the f*ck mean of a society are we?
Federal law imposes resource limits for SNAP eligibility, but states generally waive the limit for applicants if they already qualify for even modest assistance from another means-tested safety net program. It’s a policy called broad-based categorical eligibility, and most states offer it.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, almost all states also waived time limits on food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents, and those limits are coming back now that the unemployment rates are falling. LePage’s administration imposed the time limit — billed as a “work requirement” — ahead of schedule, ending benefits for 9,000 Mainers this year.
Oh, and about those jobs. Minimum wage in Maine is $7.50 an hour. Most minimum wage jobs offer 29 or fewer hours a week. So, even before taxes, that works out to $217 a week. Assuming a full 52 weeks of employment, that adds up to $11,310. So hah hah, the poverty line in Maine for one person is $11,945.
“What’s next? Grandma can’t buy groceries until she sells her engagement ring?” said Representative Drew Gattine, a Democrat who co-chairs the state legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. (Answer: No. For no apparent reason, jewelry will not count toward the asset limit in Maine.)
Now, one more question.
How much in free food benefits are those lazy ass jet skiers in Maine sucking up? In other words, how much money will the new system in Maine save those angry tax payers, especially given the bureaucratic infrastructure needed to discover who has assets such as jet skis, and then to process them out of the SNAP system, lousy free-loaders?
The average person in Maine receives all of $122.79 a month in food benefits.
There is a myth that welfare is a good deal, money for nothing.
Maybe to some it works that way, but in Kansas a family of three gets a maximum of $429 a money in cash, about $35 bucks a person a week. I don’t know, I guess that is one way to live, but not a way too many people want to live.
But if you are one of the people who thinks that is still too generous, boy has Kansas got some new laws for you.
Haters Gonna Hate Once Elected
Kansas welfare recipients will be unable to withdraw more than $25 per day in benefits under a new law sent this week to Governor Sam Brownback by the state legislature. Like most states, Kansas distributes benefits via a debit card.
The bill also prohibits welfare recipients from spending their benefits at certain types of businesses, including liquor stores, fortune tellers, swimming pools and cruise ships.
“We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” one state representative said. “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”
Under the new rule, a family receiving the maximum benefit would have to go to the ATM more than a dozen times to get the full benefit, which would be whittled away by an 85 cent fee for each withdrawal after the first one. And since many recipients do not have bank accounts, they will pay an ATM fee on top of that for each withdrawal. If you figure $3 (+.85) a transaction, times 12 pulls, that’s about $46 a month, a de facto reduction of benefits of more than ten percent for no real reason whatsoever.
The federal welfare reform law of 1996 gave states significant leeway to design their own programs. Missouri, for example, is considering a bill to forbid food stamps from being spent on steak or seafood. No more cheap fish heads for you! But even welfare advocates were taken aback by the $25 daily limit in Kansas, something that has not been implemented in any other state.
“This provision makes it nearly impossible for a recipient who does not have a checking account to pay rent,” said Liz Schott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Kansas provision originally would have limited daily benefits to $60, but that was reduced through an amendment.
We’re left with some questions.
I’m pretty sure no one thinks it would be right for welfare recipients to spend benefits designed to feed hungry people at liquor stores, fortune tellers, swimming pools or cruise ships. One wonders, however, at the codification of that into law. Do the Kansas benefit cards even know they are in an ATM on the Love Boat versus one at the grocery store? Is there in fact even one case of a welfare receipt spending his money on a cruise? At a maximum of $429 a month, it seems hard to save up the thousands of dollars cruises cost, especially given the airfare from Kansas to the nearest ocean. And since you can withdraw cash and then spend it on booze or fortune telling if you really want to, isn’t the whole thing pointless?
The $25 daily limit is also a bit unclear. That amount of money doesn’t get you very far at the grocery store, so it translates into little more than multiple trips each week plus the costs of ATM fees. That alone is at variance with trying to find or work a job, and child care. It does not seem to benefit anyone.
So what is the point? Well, politics for sure. Nothing says Republican in Kansas apparently like being needlessly mean to poor people. A lot of votes in that hater demographic. Right along side that is the idea that poor people deserve to suffer somehow.
So, Kansas, why not go for it? Why not just have welfare recipients publicly have to beg for money? Maybe something on TV, like American Idol, where the best beggar as voted on by the home audience gets an extra jar of peanut butter, or, as a special reward, a quick trip to the fortune teller?
“The magic cards tell me your future looks… very bleak…”
In my last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent two characters are talking, Earl, the main guy, and his friend, Preacher Casey.
What Casey said is pretty close to a lot of the things the Pope tried to say while he was in the U.S. last week, so I thought it might be worth reading here while the American media focuses ever-so-briefly on the plight of our poor, and the economy that made them that way.
We understood that getting along meant you could only be so selfish, that only watching out for yourself just would not work in a place where we had to live together. Sermon on the Mount said all that Casey told me, but we did it on our own in a practical way. I guess you can make a life outta not getting along if you only read one book, hating on certain people because one page of the Bible says to, while ignoring the rest of what it says, which is pretty goddamn clear about love.
Casey was still laughing on the bus when I remembered telling him that.
Casey and me ended up talking a lot as we became friends. Casey read a lot of books. He seemed to understand things that had happened around me and my life in a way that made it clear that Reeve was not an island like we thought it was. In fact, what had happened to us here had happened to a lot of places. A “hollowing out,” Casey said, in a kind of sermon of his own:
“Earl, money isn’t spread around like it used to be. After the war, until about the time you were in junior high school, incomes rose at the same level for everyone. But then things changed—you saw it, your mom and dad for sure. The top one percent of Americans watched their income grow dozens of times more than the rest of us, until that same small group of people held forty percent of all the
wealth in the U.S.”
“Look at Detroit,” Casey went on, “my old hometown. The U.S. emerged from the Second World War with Heaven’s only functioning army, with more than half of the industrial capacity in the world and as banker and creditor to allies and enemies. That was the highest hill our country climbed, and Detroit sat at the summit. Detroit was looking into a future where the rising prosperity was going to fuel a demand for cars unlike any consumer demand in human history. There was so much money and growth and potential that everyone ate well.
“When it rains like that, people can’t help but get wet. My own father started as a toolmaker’s apprentice right after high school and ended up making $35 an hour, with a pension, health care, employee discounts on the cars he helped build and a union picnic every Fourth of July.”
“Detroit rode that all up until about 1973, when everything went over the hill, not just in Detroit, but most everywhere — wages fell, benefits fell, production fell, population fell, home values fell. You can buy a house in Detroit for $6,000 today. Greatest generation and all, no, they were the greatest exception. It all happened quickly, in only the course of a few decades, two or three generations. My dad got out okay, but my older brother didn’t. He told me he felt thrown away, that he never thought this was so fragile. I hate to say it so crudely — God forgive me — but America lost its balls.”
“C’mon Casey,” I said, “that’s what business does, even I know that. It’s their job to make as much money as they can for them, not for us. A dog can’t help being a dog, so you don’t kick at him for peeing on a tree, right?”
“Earl, I’m not talking about anything radical here. I’m talking about a little bit of a balance. Those fights between your mom and dad over money you told me about, they were real. They were talking to each other about what was happening in America, all around them, without even knowing it. A very few people were choosing for them. Business became all appetite.
Now we are reaching for a zero-sum point where wealthy people believe that to gain anything requires them to take it from someone else. Wal-Mart already makes billions, but it fights even tiny increases to the minimum wage. If McDonald’s doubled its employees’ salaries to $14.50 an hour, a Big Mac would cost only 68 cents more.
“Actually, even all this talk about minimum wage is missing a big point: more Americans work for sub-minimum than for minimum wage. People who might get tips only have to be paid $2.13 an hour in some places. And that $2.13 has not changed by law in twenty-two years due to lobbying by the restaurant business. Owners are doing okay, as restaurant prices have gone up in the last twenty-two years. Just like in Roman times, the lion’s share beats the Christians’ share any day.”
“This is where my religious and political views meet up, Earl. Most wealthy folks say they’re religious people, but when the churches are rich and the regular people poor, you gotta wonder who is serving who. Most of those wealthy ignore one of the highest ideals from the Sermon — caring. Those words aren’t just some more poetry of hopefulness that passes for Christianity. He said quite clearly, ‘they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they should be satisfied.’ But it ain’t just about handing over a few crumbs, saying it’s better than no bread at all.
“Getting into Heaven isn’t about earning merit badges, here’s one for those canned goods you didn’t want anyway at Christmas or another for tossing change into a cup. It’s about how you live a life in total, what you do 99 percent of the time, what you make of the world you live in. It isn’t religion that’s wrong, same as it isn’t business that’s wrong. It’s greed and selfishness that’s wrong, no matter what channel you’re watching.”
I always thought the Bible was like the dictionary, all the words was inside and you could scramble them around to mean anything you like, but Casey made sense.
“Look Earl, even though the original Owner was barefooted, what happens upstairs in my church is that as soon as some expensive shoes hit that floor it seems like the place loses its purpose. Me, I preached for the Lord a long time, but some days I think God’s the laziest man on earth. What I want is to be able to look out over my congregation and say to them forget most of what I’ve said but go out and be kind to each other, help each other and walk humbly when you have something others still need. When they hear someone cry in America because they’re hungry, I want that to be louder in their ears than any sermon.”
“So okay, Preacher, when’s it going to get better? When are we going to be able to live like our grandparents did?”
“Earl, nostalgia isn’t history. This is a story about change, and it’s important for you to know how that happened. Here we are forty years on still talking about recovery like it was as real as an election year promise. Prosperity is not something that will follow if we simply wait long enough. Like my friend says, cut through all the lies and there it is, right in front of you: America used to be a developing nation, in the best sense of that word.
“Almost in spite of themselves, the robber barons built prosperity through jobs. We had to get past the horrors of enslaving other human beings, past making children work in factories, past killing men in mines and machines. There were dark times, criminal times, but people had a sense of ‘we’ll get past this.’ Then we crossed a line. Manufacturing in America became expensive. Businesses sought lower costs and higher profits. String
that out as far as it goes and it means paying workers as close to zero—or zero if you somehow could like with slavery — and pulling in as much profit — as close to one hundred percent — as you somehow could. The question seemed to have become, ‘How many miles can you drive on a gallon of our blood?’
“We watched a reversal of two hundred years. American workers never earned as much again as they did in 1973. It was soon after that someone laid off a steelworker who became Patient Zero of the new economy.”
“The numbers are too consistent, the lines too straight. This was no accident, no invisible hand. Earl, we changed from a place that made things —radiators, cash registers, gaskets, ball bearings, TVs — into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers. It’s math. The money that went up had to come from somewhere. That was right out of your father’s pocket.
“The deal makers don’t care because they don’t live here, hell, they don’t live anywhere. We live here.”
Just don’t die in the street where we have to step over your body on the way to the nail salon.
Oh, and by the way, this is a wholly made up problem created by frightened politicians. According to a study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, differences between the proportion of welfare and non-welfare recipients using illegal drugs are statistically insignificant.
But that did not stop Arizona.
Arizona proudly claims it spent $1.7 million dollars to test 87,000 people on public assistance for drug use. The total number of drug cheats caught in the first three years of the program, 2009-2012, was exactly one — a single positive result, which saved the state precisely $560, minus the $42 cost of the drug test itself. But oh my, since 2012, they got two more of the danged varmints.
Luckily, the Arizona drug testing is being done in a scientific way. The state asks new welfare recipients whether they’ve used drugs in the past 30 days, and only those who answer yes are tested.
Now the goody-goodest news of all is that Arizona apparently has got them some cheap drug testing. The ACLU estimates that an average drug test costs $42, bringing the total cost as high as $3.65 million if all of the Arizona welfare recipients were subjected to the full-price tests. But who knows,maybe there was GroupOn.
And luckily the money being spent on these drug tests is not going to feed hungry people, so it’s not being wasted on American who are wasted.
It is not just Arizona who wastes taxpayer money to solve a non-problem. Have a look:
Applicants for benefits that required drug screening, March 2013–September 2014: 69,587
Total required to take follow-up drug test at additional cost: 1,646
Disqualified due to a positive drug test: 69
Applicants for benefits that required drug screening, August 2012–July 2014: 9,253
Total required to take follow-up drug test at additional cost: 1,878
Disqualified due to a positive drug test: 29
Applicants for benefits that required drug screening, July 2014–December 2014: 11,300
Total required to take follow-up drug test at additional cost: 273
Disqualified due to a positive drug test: 24
Applicants for benefits that required drug screening, July 2014–December 2014: 4,044
Total required to take follow-up drug test: Unknown
Disqualified due to a positive drug test: 108
The neat thing is that Florida used to (they were stopped by court order) requires welfare applicants, who have little money hence the application, to pay for their own drug tests up front. If they passed the test, they eventually had their money refunded.
Note that if you can afford your own food, take all the drugs you want. Smoke up, Arizonians, and order that pizza delivered when you get the munchies. Damn hippies.
It wasn’t just a business, it was a way of life– what residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania referred to simply as “The Steel”– a mill once America’s second largest steel producer with 31,500 souls working in a single facility.
The mill made the steel for the Empire State building and the Golden Gate Bridge, and for WWII warships. After cheap imports flooded the United States in the 1980s, the Bethlehem Steel facility closed, leaving behind a mile-long scar of rusted out buildings people call the brownfields, along the Lehigh River. Allentown, Billy Joel’s bitter saga of industrial decline, name-checked the town.
The Promise of Legalized Gambling
So as soon as Pennsylvania legalized casinos in 2004, Bethlehem scrambled for one of the first, and won. Symbolically, Las Vegas’ Sands corporation would build right on top of the old mill. Everyone hoped the casino would replace a decent portion of the jobs lost when The Steel left. But by 2014, there were only 2,200 positions at the casino, plus 700 at leased businesses inside. Was a casino really the answer?
Even those new jobs didn’t come for free. Roads, some $10 million worth, had to be built or repaired to make it easier for out-of-towners (New York is only 75 miles away) to reach the casino. The city added to its police force. Since the casino was located outside the downtown business district, the city paid for a shuttle bus to try and draw players to their shops. But the casino had its own retail mall competing with anything local. No one should “plan on a casino to bring about urban renewal,” said a Wynn Casinos property manager in nearby Philadelphia, “because that’s not what casinos do.”
The House Always Wins
Still, there was money to be made in Bethlehem. Casino profits, of course, were repatriated to the owners in Las Vegas. Pennsylvania requires casinos to pay a 55 percent tax on revenues, but only four percent of that goes to the host community. For Bethlehem in 2013, that totaled $9.5 million, not game-changing money for an area so economically devastated for so long. Baltimore, an early adopter of casino gambling as an economic resurrection strategy, has seen similar results. In Atlantic City, the first major destination outside Las Vegas to feature legalized gambling, four major casinos closed in the past year.
Bringing in a casino is about jobs and money. Jobs created statewide in Pennsylvania via gaming do not even equal the number lost in Bethlehem alone. As of 2013, Pennsylvania casinos directly employed only 17,768 people, leaving significant questions about the role of gaming in lifting America’s devastated rust belt towns out of unemployment-driven malaise.
As for money, a report notes that after some initial successes, revenues in Pennsylvania from gaming declined by 2013. Statewide, casinos did contribute about $81 million in taxes last year. However, it is unclear how much of the revenue behind those taxes came from local residents, what might be called churning rather than creation, a back-door tax on those ill-prepared to lose money at the slots (affluent people visit casinos less often than poorer people do.) One group of frequent visitors who have found a way to beat the house come from New York’s Korean community; they sell the promotional meal vouchers from the casino on the black market.
Competition is a serious problem, as new casinos open in surrounding states. For example, New Jersey is considering a casino at the Meadowlands, only 30 minutes outside New York City, which will pull many away from Bethlehem’s new bright lights. Pennsylvania is also among the states with the highest casino tax rate in the nation, raising further the question of market cannibalization should gaming corporations seek out lower rates in adjoining states. Casino revenues nationwide have not recovered their 2007 peaks, and Moody’s projects a drop through 2015, cutting industry earnings by as much as 7.5 percent.
Don’t Gamble if You Can’t Afford to Lose
Only a generation ago, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania had a steel mill employing tens of thousands of people at good wages. Including benefits, an average union steelworker made $26.12 per hour then, the equivalent of $40.66 today. It was enough to create one of the most powerful economies on earth, supported by a robust middle class driving demand for housing, cars, everything. They could afford to gamble a bit on yearly vacations, too.
The typical casino worker today in Bethlehem makes $10-12 an hour. Many are part-time. They labor in the shadow of the mill that helped build the Empire State building and the Golden Gate Bridge, a new way of life that may flounder on a bad roll of the dice.
There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don’t know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here’s a part of my own story I’ve not talked about much before.
At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I’d earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I’d worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.
My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way — toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.
And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.
Old World/New World
The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.
At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we’ll call “Bullseye.” I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I’d show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, “well qualified.”
Before I could start, however, I had to pass a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of the anonymous agencies processing the checks could have vetoed my employment and I would never have known why. You don’t have any idea what might be in the reports the store receives, or what to feel about the fact that some stranger at a local store now knows your financial and criminal history, all for the chance to earn seven bucks an hour.
You also don’t know whether the drug tests were conducted properly or, as an older guy, if your high blood pressure medicine could trigger a positive response. As I learned from my co-workers later, everybody always worries about “pissing hot.” Most places that don’t pay much seem especially concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, since you can trade bonds and get through the day higher than a bird on a cloud. Nonetheless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a we’re-all-in-it, what’re-ya-gonna-do look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.
Now a valued member of the Bullseye team, I was told to follow another employee who had been on the job for a few weeks, do what he did, and then start doing it by myself by the end of my first shift. The work was dull but not pointless: put stuff on shelves; tell customers where stuff was; sweep up spilled stuff; repeat.
It turned out that doing the work was easy compared to dealing with the job. I still had to be trained for that.
You had to pay attention, but not too much. Believe it or not, that turns out to be an acquired skill, even for a former pasty government bureaucrat like me. Spend enough time in the retail minimum-wage economy and it’ll be trained into you for life, but for a newcomer, it proved a remarkably slow process. Take the initiative, get slapped down. Break a rule, be told you’re paid to follow the rules. Don’t forget who’s the boss. (It’s never you.) It all becomes who you are.
Diving straight from a salaried career back into the kiddie pool was tough. I still wanted to do a good job today, and maybe be a little better tomorrow. At first, I tried to think about how to do the simple tasks more efficiently, maybe just in a different order to save some walking back and forth. I knew I wasn’t going to be paid more, but that work ethic was still inside of me. The problem was that none of us were supposed to be trying to be good, just good enough. If you didn’t know that, you learned it fast. In the process, you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.
Patient Zero in the New Economy
One co-worker got fired for stealing employee lunches out of the break room fridge. He apologized to us as security marched him out, saying he was just hungry and couldn’t always afford three meals. I heard that when he missed his rent payments he’d been sleeping in his car in the store parking lot. He didn’t shower much and now I knew why. Another guy, whose only task was to rodeo up stray carts in the parking lot, would entertain us after work by putting his cigarette out on his naked heel. The guys who came in to clean up the toilets got up each morning knowing that was what they would do with another of the days in their lives.
Other workers were amazingly educated. One painted in oils. One was a recent college grad who couldn’t find work and liked to argue with me about the deeper meanings in the modern fiction we’d both read.
At age 53, I was the third-oldest minimum-wage worker in the store. A number of the others were single moms. (Sixty-four percent of minimum-wage employees are women. About half of all single-parent families live in poverty.) There was at least one veteran. (“The Army taught me to drive a Humvee, which turns out not to be a marketable skill.”) There were a couple of students who were alternating semesters at work with semesters at community college, and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because another big box store had driven his small shop out of business, he had to take a minimum-wage job. He was Patient Zero in our New Economy.
State law only required a company to give you a break if you worked six hours or more under certain conditions. Even then, it was only 30 minutes — and unpaid. You won’t be surprised to discover that, at Bullseye, most non-holiday shifts were five-and-a-half hours or less. Somebody said it might be illegal not to give us more breaks, but what can you do? Call 911 like it was a real crime?
Some good news, though. It turned out that I had another marketable skill in addition to speaking decent English: being old. One day as a customer was bawling out a younger worker over some imagined slight, I happened to wander by. The customer assumed I was the manager, given my age, and began directing her complaints at me. I played along, even steepling my fingers to show my sincere concern just as I had seen actual managers do. The younger worker didn’t get in trouble, and for a while I was quite popular among the kids whenever I pulled the manager routine to cover them.
Hours were our currency. You could trade them with other employees if they needed a day off to visit their kid’s school. You could grab a few extra on holidays. If you could afford it, you could swap five bad-shift hours for three good-shift hours. The store really didn’t care who showed up as long as someone showed up. Most minimum-wage places cap workers at under 40 hours a week to avoid letting them become “full time” and so possibly qualify for any kind of benefits. In my case, as work expanded and contracted, I was scheduled for as few as seven hours a week and I never got notice until the last moment if my hours were going to be cut.
Living on a small paycheck was hard enough. Trying to budget around wildly varying hours, and so paychecks, from week to week was next to impossible. Seven hours a week at minimum wage was less than 50 bucks. A good week around the Christmas rush was 39 hours, or more than $270. At the end of 2013, after I had stopped working at Bullseye, the minimum wage did go up from a little more than $7 to $8 an hour, which was next to no improvement at all. Doesn’t every little bit help? Maybe, but what are a few more crumbs of bread worth when you need a whole loaf not to be hungry?
Working to Be Poor
So how do you live on $50 a week, or for that matter, $270 a week? Cut back? Recycle cans?
One answer is: You don’t live on those wages alone. You can’t. Luckily I had some savings, no kids left in the house to feed, and my wife was still at her “good” job. Many of my co-workers, however, dealt with the situation by holding down two or three minimum-wage jobs. Six hours on your feet is tough, but what about 12 or 14? And remember, there are no weekends or holidays in most minimum-wage jobs. Bullseye had even begun opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons.
The smart workers found their other jobs in the same strip mall as our Bullseye, so they could run from one to the next, cram in as many hours as they could, and save the bus fare. It mattered: At seven bucks an hour, that round trip fare meant you worked your first 45 minutes not for Bullseye but for the bus company. (The next 45 minutes you worked to pay taxes.)
Poverty as a Profit Center
Many low-wage workers have to take some form of public assistance. Food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — were a regular topic of conversation among my colleagues. Despite holding two or three jobs, there were still never enough hours to earn enough to eat enough. SNAP was on a lot of other American’s minds as well — the number of people using food stamps increased by 13 percent a year from 2008 to 2012. About 1 in 7 Americans get some of their food through SNAP. About 45 percent of food stamp benefits go to children.
Enjoying that Big Mac? Here’s one reason it’s pretty cheap and that the junk sold at “Bullseye” and the other big box stores is, too: Those businesses get away with paying below a living wage and instead you, the taxpayer, help subsidize those lousy wages with SNAP. (And of course since minimum-wage workers have taxes deducted, too, they are — imagine the irony — essentially forced to subsidize themselves.)
That subsidy does not come cheap, either. The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. McDonald’s workers alone account for $1.2 billion in federal assistance annually.
All that SNAP money is needed to bridge the gap between what the majority of employed people earn through the minimum wage, and what they need to live a minimum life. Nearly three-quarters of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs involve working families stuck in jobs like I had. There are a lot of those jobs, too. The positions that account for the most workers in the U.S. right now are retail salespeople, cashiers, restaurant workers, and janitors. All of those positions pay minimum wage or nearly so. Employers are actually allowed to pay below minimum wage to food workers who might receive tips.
And by the way, if somehow at this point you’re feeling bad for Walmart, don’t. In addition to having it’s workforce partially paid for by the government, Walmart also makes a significant portion of its profits by selling to people receiving federal food assistance. Though the Walton family is a little too shy to release absolute numbers, a researcher found that in one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. One Walmart Supercenter in Tulsa, Oklahoma, received $15.2 million, while another (also in Tulsa) took in close to $9 million in SNAP spending.
You could say that taxpayers are basically moneylenders to a government that is far more interested in subsidizing business than in caring for their workers, but would anyone believe you?
Back in the Crosshairs
Some employees at Bullseye had been yelled at too many times or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were not only broke, but broken. People — like dogs — don’t get that way quickly, only by a process of erosion eating away at whatever self-esteem they may still possess. Then one day, if a supervisor tells them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’ll be too afraid of contradicting the boss not to do it.
I’d see employees rushing in early, terrified, to stand by the time clock so as not to be late. One of my fellow workers broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d be fired on the spot. And what a lousy way to live that is, your only incentive for doing good work being the desperate need to hang onto a job guaranteed to make you hate yourself for another day. Nobody cared about the work, only keeping the job. That was how management set things up.
About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. These situations are not unique to any one place or region. After all, Walmart has more than 2 million employees. If that company were an army, it would be the second largest military on the planet, just behind China. It is, in fact, the largest overall employer in the country and the biggest employer in 25 states. When Walmart won’t pay more than minimum, it hurts. When it rains like that, we all get wet. This is who we are now.
I Was Minimum
It’s time to forget the up-by-the-bootstraps fantasies of conservative economists bleating on Fox. If any of it was ever true, it’s certainly not true anymore. There is no ladder up, no promotion path in the minimum-wage world. You can’t work “harder” because your hours are capped, and all the jobs are broken into little pieces anyone could do anyway. Minimum wage is what you get; there are no real raises. I don’t know where all the assistant managers came from, but not from among us.
I worked in retail for minimum wage at age 16 and again at 53. In that span, the minimum wage itself rose only by a few bucks. What changed, however, is the cast of characters. Once upon a time, minimum-wage jobs were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2014, it’s mainly adults struggling to get by. Something is obviously wrong.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama urged that the federal minimum wage be raised to $9 an hour. He also said that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America.
To the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is nine bucks an hour going to go? Are so many of us destined to do five hours of labor for the cell phone bill, another 12 for the groceries each week, and 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours are we going to work? How many can we work?
Nobody can make a real living doing these jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage, not in the way Americans once defined raising a family when our country emerged from World War II so fat and happy. And you can’t build a nation on vast armies of working poor with nowhere to go. The president is right that it’s time for a change, but what’s needed is far more than a minimalist nudge to the minimum wage. Maybe what we need is to spend more on education and less on war, even out the tax laws and rules just a bit, require a standard living wage instead of a minimum one. Some sort of rebalancing. Those aren’t answers to everything, but they might be a start.
People who work deserve to be paid, but McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson last year took home $13.7 million in salary, with perks to go. If one of his fry cooks put in 30 hours a week, she’d take in a bit more than $10,000 a year — before taxes, of course. There is indeed a redistribution of wealth taking place in America, and it’s all moving upstream.
I got lucky. I won my pension fight with my “career” employer, the State Department, and was able to crawl out of the minimum-wage economy after less than a year and properly retire. I quit Bullseye because I could, one gray day when a customer about half my age cursed me out for something unimportant she didn’t like, ending with “I guess there’s a reason why people like you work at places like this.” I agreed with her: There is a reason. We just wouldn’t agree on what it was.
I’m different now for the experience. I think more about where I shop, and try to avoid big places that pay low wages if I can. I treat minimum-wage workers a little better, too. If I have to complain about something in a store, I keep the worker out of it and focus on solving the problem. I take a bit more care in the restroom not to leave a mess. I don’t get angry anymore when a worker says to me, “I really can’t do anything about it.” Now I know from personal experience that, in most cases, they really can’t.
Above all, I carry with me the knowledge that economics isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. I know now that it’s up to us to decide whether the way we pay people, the work we offer them, and how we treat them on the job is just about money or if it’s about society, about how we live, who we are, the nature of America. The real target now should be to look deeply into the apartheid of dollars our country has created and decide it needs to change. We — the 99 percent, anyway — can’t afford not to.
Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the “most foreign of foreign countries.” Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.
The Explainer Industry
Almost all books “about Japan” (I’m leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.
The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.
Berman asks: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?
A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle
The book’s argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan’s cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something — a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.
Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.
Japan Went Insane
As the Tokugawa (for simplicity’s sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan’s Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.
And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960’s put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.
A Post-Capitalist Society
If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman’s part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to “fill the hole” in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.
The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman’s last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.
It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope “only in Japan” could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.
Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.
I make no secret of my respect for Morris Berman’s body of work; read more here.
As the handful of multi-millionaires running for president threaten to pretend to make “economic disparity” a campaign meme, and then forget they ever heard of it once in power, four out of five adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives. Here’s the new American dream.
Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to a widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.
The survey defines “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.
The findings come even as Obama is claiming in recent speeches his highest priority (it has only been seven years+ so no hurry) is to “rebuild ladders of opportunity” and reverse income inequality.
No Longer a Race Thing
Poverty is often defined — by many whites — as a minority problem.
While minorities are still more likely to live in poverty, race disparities have narrowed substantially since the 1970s. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press. Pessimism among whites about their families’ economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987.
More than 19 million whites now fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.
Sometimes termed “the invisible poor,” lower-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs and small rural towns, instead of being concentrated in urban areas more common to people of color. As an example, Buchanan County, in southwest Virginia, is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty at 24 percent. The county is 99 percent white.
America is indeed becoming a more equal place, but through a gross process of leveling down, not growing up.
The issue of denial is the key to a tiny one percent of Americans getting away with this in what, overall, is still a very wealthy society.
People think because they and their neighbors have a TV, they are fine. Or they are divided into antagonistic groups by race, with one believing the other has all the money and power, while the other sees their urban neighbors as lazy welfare cheats. It does work well to keep people divided, fighting with one another, and thus ignoring that narrow band of upper, upper class folks who really do hold all the cards.
Inside that 80 percent of America slipping into poverty, people pay little attention to the quality of the food they can afford, the (lack of) healthcare, their poor schools and potted roads, the lack of forward opportunities for them and their kids and so forth. Short-sighted viewpoints, coupled with clever politicians who make each election about guns, gays and abortion, mask the obvious, even from the people boiling like froggies.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a scathing report showing the Department of State gave a staggering 87 percent of all Afghan reconstruction funds to only five recipients.
In fact, 69 percent of all taxpayer money spent went to just one contractor.
Much Money into Few Hands
SIGAR tells us the top-five recipients of State Afghanistan reconstruction awards by total obligations accounted for approximately $3.5 billion, or 87 percent, of total State reconstruction obligations. State awarded the remaining 13 percent of obligations to 766 recipients, who averaged about $676,000 each in total obligations.
Dyncorp International Limited Liability Corporation (Dyncorp) was the single largest recipient of State department funds, receiving $2.8 billion in contracts, or 69 percent of total awards. Dyncorp contracts dealt principally with training and equipping the Afghan National Police and counternarcotics forces. Dyncorp contracts included police trainers, construction of police infrastructure, and fielding police equipment and vehicles. Dyncorp played a similar role, with similar results, in the Iraq Reconstruction.
Next in line at the trough were PAE Government Services Incorporated at $597.8 million, Civilian Police International Limited Liability Company with $53.6 million, the Demining Agency For Afghanistan at $28.3 million and Omran Consulting Company, in the number fifth slot, with only $22.8 million in taxpayer funds awarded.
Including all the smaller awardees, between 2002 and 2013, State dropped about $4 billion on Afghan reconstruction. That sounds bad enough given the near-complete lack of meaningful progress in
Iraq Afghanistan, until you realize Congress appropriated $96.57 billion in that same time period for Afghanistan reconstruction spread among the Departments of Defense, State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The Bigger Picture
The implications are three-fold.
The smallest issue seems to be the massive hemorrhaging of money into just one corporate pocket. Given the amounts, one looks forward to future SIGAR reporting about how this came to be. How many non-competed contracts? How many insider deals? How much unaccounted for money? The appearance of corruption, as well as the opportunities for corruption, are evident.
The next issue of course is what, if anything, was accomplished with all that taxpayer money absent enriching a few large corporations. Pick your trend line, and it is hard to find much bang for the buck(s) in Afghanistan. Here are some examples to get you started.
Lastly, we are left with what economists call “waste and mismanagement” the concept that money spent in one way precludes other spending that might have been more beneficial. What might have happened if instead of the U.S. spending extraordinary amounts of money to hire police, build roads, schools and factories in
Iraq Afghanistan, that money would have been spent here in America on roads, schools and factories?
If I’d made a documentary film about the scars left on America through industrialization, instead of writing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent about it, what I would have likely ended up with is “Braddock, America.”
“Braddock, America” is a feature length documentary now in limited release set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town now left to literally rust away to hell. Like so, so many other towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and throughout the Midwest, Braddock began life in the 19th century as just a place along a mighty river, surrounded by coal. Then Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela River. For the decades that followed, the Monongahela valley was the industrial pulse of a growing America. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation, steel for train tracks, cars, the girders of the then world’s tallest skyscrapers, was made in places like Braddock.
Workers were granted some share of the profits, protected by the strong unions they had fought for. There was once a rough kind of social contract: work hard for the mill, and in return you’d make enough to raise a family, have health care, retire on a decent pension. The system was not perfect, but it fueled the greatest economic boom and consumer society known.
Then, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, everything changed. Steel was imported, manufacturing across the U.S. declined, and the unions were broken. Soon enough, the mills went away, leaving the people. The Rust Belt lost a manufacturing empire but never found a new role. Braddock is a place that capitalism discarded, a victim of America’s apartheid of dollars.
A Well-Made Documentary
“Braddock, America” is a well-made documentary that weaves together the past (the film begins with archive footage of the glory days), the present, and pokes at an uncertain future that haunts the whole town. There is no narrator or off-screen voice; the people left in Braddock (90 percent of the population has escaped over the years since the mills shut down) tell their stories alongside images of the near-ghost town in which they live. It is a gentle, touching portrait of good people trying to pick up the pieces, after their livelihoods were taken away by larger processes they do not even now fully understand. They display a sad stubbornness, and you watch the film both admiring them and wanting to shout at them to get out.
One scene shows a city official walking down a deserted street designating empty homes for demolition. Another one shows kids playing in a deserted school building. The town can no longer support a grocery store. A worker looks back at the mill, and calls what he and his father did there “sacramentel.” Town officials discuss their hope that additional money will come from the state to help them demolish more derelict buildings. An outside job/career coach’s presentation falls apart when none of the people in the room have any previous work experience to cite; one asks if his labor in prison counts. Abandoned homes can be bought for $3000, unless they have already been stripped by thieves of their aluminum siding and copper wiring, in which case they are worthless.
The image above, from the film, tells the rest of the story.
A Few Issues
The film suffers from a few things. Persons being interviewed are not identified, leading to some confusion. The historical clips are used in many places as filler, and disrupt the flow of the film. The film lacks a clear narrative arc; people talk– and they are interesting– and then the film ends. A touching scene in a bar where local musicians play the song “American Pie” is cut short. One key historical event discussed, a violent labor strike, appears to have taken place in nearby Homestead and not in Braddock.
Hope is Not a Strategy
The people of Braddock still express hope, or perhaps are left only with hope, as the only strategy for a way out. But like nearly every town in the Rust Belt that has tried to dig itself out, the optimism often seems misplaced and misguided over time. “Things got broken here,” says a two-year old ad for Levi’s also filmed in the town, “maybe on purpose, so we could get to work.” That did not happen. A New York Times video features Braddock’s then-mayor explaining how the town will “rise from the ashes.” He said that in 2009, and it did not happen. By the time this film was shot in 2012, that mayor was already gone himself.
The filmmakers have created a sensitive memoir to a place and time that once described America to the world, and, with some irony, now, ironically, again describes America to the world.
You can see trailer for “Braddock, America” online.
Data released by the Census Bureau Wednesday showing a staggering 16 million children in the U.S., about one out of five kids under the age of 18, received food stamp assistance in 2014.
Overall, more than 46.5 million Americans were on food stamps last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Food stamps are officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP.
More and More Hungry Kids in America
The census numbers show while one percent of Americans wallow in obscene, record-setting amounts of wealth, large swaths of the country remain in real trouble. In 2014 more American kids relied on food stamps than at any time since the 2008 economic crash. In raw, hungry mouth numbers, nine million children received food stamps in 2007 compared to 16 million now, and 26 million Americans of all ages received assistance compared to the 46.5 million now. It’s a new personal best, a new record and thus a new low for America.
These statistics come from the 2014 Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has collected statistics on families and living arrangements for more than 60 years.
Congress: Parents are Lazy
“The spike in food stamp spending has caught the attention of Congress, and House Republicans tried to cut the program by around $4 billion a year in 2013,” the Associated Press reports. “In an eventual compromise, Congress agreed to cuts of around $800 million a year. The food stamp program will be under scrutiny in the new Republican Congress.”
But really, lazy is what lazy does. Why shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?
So Cut the Damn Handouts
At some point in this kind of discussion, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate parents to find jobs or watch their kids starve. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won’t work for it? “If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said discussing food stamp cuts.
The problem with such statements is 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families — just in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance per year. It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive.
In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or EBT, which, recipients will tell you, stands for “Eat Better Tonight.” EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.
A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than $189 a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn’t exactly luxury fare.
Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost two-thirds of SNAP children live in single-parent households. Twenty percent or more of the child population in 37 states lived in “food insecure households” in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6 percent) and the District of Columbia (30 percent) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16 percent of SNAP benefits, while nine percent go to households with senior citizens.
What’s for Dinner?
So, to recap. In a time when some 20 percent of our own children need help just to be fed, Congress wants to cut further the thing that stands between those kids and malnutrition. Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they’re hungry. Many are already there.
Yep, that’s us today in America.
BONUS! A 2013 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, shows the United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. We
love could care about our kids!
As part of the 2014 Louisville Idea Festival, I spoke with Bill Goodman of KET, Kentucky Educational Television, the PBS station in Louisville about both of my books, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.
My current book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentis a complex novel telling the story of America from the end of World War II through the present day.
You’ll travel through the economic boom years and the rise of a robust middle class, fueled by union wages and industrialization, peaking in the mid-1970s. The decline of all those factors is the second half of the book, the story of how we became a nation defined by the working poor, the 99 percent.
Here’s what one reviewer said:
I wasn’t ready for this one. I guess I was expecting something a little more MSNBC. You know, the kind of book that contains nothing but glowing praise for the Occupy movement and endless tirades about how shopping at Wal-Mart makes you an evil person. The kind of book that you can almost tell was written on an iMac computer over three weeks in a Starbucks café by a dude wearing those thick hipster glasses.
Man, I wasn’t even close. “Ghosts of Tom Joad” is a heartbreaking tale of one man against the world, or rather the world against one man. I don’t think you can call it an epic since it takes place almost entirely within a small town in rust-belt Ohio, but it’s definitely raw, gritty, and painful. The narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing his downward spiral into underemployment and homelessness, and the novel that results is heartbreakingly authentic.
The beginning of the book shows a simpler time for the main character, Earl. His boyhood is not idyllic, however, and the scene excerpted below foreshadows the problems he will experience in the New Economy.
Excerpt from Ghosts of Tom Joad
Jeff’s old man kept a small boat. It had seen better days, floating as much out of stubbornness any more than anything else. Seats two safely. Rides low in the water. We’d take it out on the river from time to time, drinking beer when we could, horsing around.
It was a heavy, humid Ohio night, still then soft around us. Car sounds far off. The current was light and the river half dry in summer, so we figured loading the four of us into a boat made for two wouldn’t be a problem. Then we met Pam, this girl Tim sort of liked and Tim made us take her along. Tim had it on good authority she had lost her virginity already and was willing to lose it some more. She had a Farrah ’do, as this was the late 1970s.
We got the boat into the water and climbed in well enough. Pam devoted herself to worrying about five people in a boat that might safely hold two. Pam was right, like girls then usually were about those kind of things. The boat drifted along with the current, ending up in the center of the river two beers later. We could see a few lights reflecting off the water, pretty, and I guess that’s what inspired Tim to try and put his arm around Pam, who was less inspired by the romantic scene and shrugged him off a bit too hard. The boat rocked and water came over the shallow sides. I was laughing, and so was Jeff, when the whole thing flipped over, dumping the five of us into the river. I couldn’t touch the bottom, but it was easy enough to doggy paddle over to the far bank. I looked over, laughing, at Tim, Rich and a really unhappy Pam. Her Farrah ’do was ruined. The boat was gone.
So was Jeff.
Tim and Pam went off looking for him down the river bank, thinking maybe he swam off that way. Rich heard him first – Jeff, in the water, shouting for us. I figured he was kidding around like always, pretending to drown in eight feet of warm water, when I saw Rich dive back in. I went right after him, and we reached Jeff in a few wet splashes. Rich grabbed him first, and we pulled him over to the bank. He was crying, snot all down his face, white as Wonder Bread. He had been wearing his heavy work boots, lace-ups, and they’d filled with water, pulling him under. Jeff was a strong kid back then, and was able to claw his way up to the surface and shout, but if Rich had not gone in after him, he’d have drowned that night while we watched.
It was either Jeff’s earlier laughing or Jeff’s recent shouting that brought out the cops. One fat one came up to me and said, “Son, how many kids were in that boat?” And I said, truthfully, “Sir, there were five of us.” Me, Jeff and Rich were right there. Tim and Pam hadn’t come back, likely seeing the cop car lights and running. Five of us, just like I said.
“Don’t worry son, we’ll find your friends.” The cop put me in the back of his car with a blanket, right before that fire truck came and all those men waded into the shallow part of the river. Flashlights were swinging criss-cross over the water and the men would yell for a bit, then tell each other to “Be quiet and just listen for a minute dammit, there’s two kids out there somewhere. We ain’t gonna let them die for no reason –”
I figured out the reason. When the now tomato-faced fat cop came over to see how I was doing, I told him that Tim and Pam probably weren’t coming back. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Not if I can help it, son.” I told him Tim and Pam weren’t in the river. Nobody drowned. Nobody was missing. Tim and Pam had just run away. When he asked me how many in the boat a first, I didn’t want to lie and so I said, “Five officer, honest.”
We heard Tim never got to make out with Pam that night, but he walked her home and she said maybe she’d think about it. It was the first time I realized you could die without getting old first, and that stuck with me.
Walmart, who pays its workers so little and/or gives them so few hours, that they cannot feed themselves while the Walton family rakes in billions, does have its sense of humor. Either that or they could just care so little about what anyone thinks that they are just like, whatever, what are you going to do about it anyway except buy more junk you don’t need from us on Black Friday?
As it did to national scorn last Thanksgiving, Walmart raised a smiley-faced middle finger to its own “associates” by asking some of them to dig deep into their low-wage pockets to give to each other. An Oklahoma City Walmart is asking employees to donate food to help their coworkers make ends meet during the holiday season, according to a photo posted by the labor-backed coalition Making Change At Walmart. A sign on the collection bin reads, “Let’s succeed by donating to associates in need!!!” In 2013, the same thing happened at a Walmart store in Canton, Ohio.
Technically,the food drives are not Walmart corporate policy, so hey, all is forgiven, amiright? Though hey, a Walmart spokesperson did characterize the Ohio effort as “part of the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships.” And Walmart checked, ’cause it cares you know, and the Oklahoma food drive is just for two associates who don’t have health insurance because Walmart doesn’t provide any to its hourly workers, so it is not like the whole freaking store is starving or anything. You can have it both ways apparently at Walmart.
And who wants to subsidize freeloaders with our hard-earned tax dollars anyway? Oh, wait. Actually Walmart hauls in a monster truck load of public assistance for itself. Those low, low daily wages are subsidized by your taxes. The company’s low wages leave huge numbers of its employees on public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. By one estimate, a single Walmart superstore requires up to $1.7 million in public assistance spending every year. The company eats up a total public assistance cost of $6.2 billion per year. That’s how Walmart can “afford” to pay its associates so little and yet they don’t pass out from hunger in the aisles during your Black Friday orgy of consumerism. Neat!
But Walmart loves its food stamps as more than just fodder to feed the work animals. Walmart loves selling to stuff to the food stamp people of America. A lot of stuff.
How much profit does Walmart make from public assistance? In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.
But maybe all is not lost. Protesters left a huge food bin outside of Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s $25 million Manhattan condo. Alice has a net worth of $35 billion dollars. Alice made $100 million this past year, so at least she is doing OK this Thanksgiving.
It can’t get any plainer than this friends: Walmart’s owners make profits on an amazing scale by giving workers as little as possible while scooping up as much government money as possible.
Do your soul a favor and stay out of Walmart this holiday season.
On a recent trip to Oklahoma, I ran into some of the Ghosts of Tom Joad, and the places they live. Have a look.
Lovin’ It: Food Stamps
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the current name for food stamps) is often thought of as something for the unemployed, though nothing could be further from the truth. Actually 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are from working families, just stuck in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. The United States now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world, most of whom receive only the minimum wage (the federal standard is $7.25 an hour) and typically are capped by their employers well below 40 hours a week so they won’t qualify for benefits. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. The math: even full time at $7.25 is only $290. How do you live on that?
You don’t. You turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to make up the gap between minimum wage and a living wage. Which is just what large minimum wage employers count on you doing.
Fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people; McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance each year. About one out of every three retail workers gets public assistance. After analyzing Medicaid data, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated a single 300-person Walmart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per associate in public assistance paid. Overall, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance. Those dollar amounts are what low prices actually cost you.
Profits Before Poverty
Why else do many large companies like food stamps? Because poverty is big business.
Public benefits are now a huge part of corporate profits. The CEO of Kraft admitted that the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because beneficiaries were “a big part of our audience,” as one-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied against SNAP cuts, an indication of how much they rely on the money.
Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, allowing companies like Coke and Pepsi to pull in four billion dollars a year in SNAP money revenues. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried unsuccessfully to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps.
In a January 2014 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line. Walmart’s business risks, the filing said, include: “changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”
How much profit does Walmart make from public assistance? In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars, more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.
Others also profit well from food stamps. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT (some recipients claim the acronym really means “Eat Better Tonight.”) JPMorgan Chase holds the contracts in half the United States to handle the transactions. In Florida, JPMorgan’s contract is worth $83 million, and in New York, it’s worth more than $112 million. Meanwhile, until recent changes, customer service for the JP Morgan EBT program was done via offshore call centers in India and Mexico who paid far below domestic wages.
So don’t believe anyone who says raising the minimum wage will automatically drive prices up. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart (or at McDonald’s, KFC, Target…), you are paying in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If the business paid a living wage, there could a lessening in demand for public assistance. At the same, give some thought to how much tax money is ultimately finding its way into the hands of a few large corporations via SNAP sales, another form of welfare, albeit the corporate kind.
Higher prices? You’re already paying more than you think.
Luckily, if you’re among the 1 percent, you are not alone. Repeat that: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people ready to help you with the complications of owning more than 99 percent of your fellow citizens.
One such resource in your time of need is Bessemer Trust, a “Private Client Wealth Management” company. As a way of reaching out, they ran this print ad in the Sunday New York Times:
At Bessemer Trust, we believe maintaining wealth from generation to generation is the true art of wealth management. So we have a team of specialists targeted at precisely that… Our client advisory team helps prepare the next generation to responsibly guide your wealth… Our tax strategists help fend off a significant threat to your wealth… Let’s face it, history is littered with family names once associated with great wealth that now are mere footnotes. Everything we do is designed to keep you from becoming one of them. Call us. Minimum relationship $10 million.
Bessemer Trust is There for You
Indeed, on the company’s website, they do warn “Ironically, the more wealth one accumulates, the more complicated life can become.” So, here are some of actual quotes from the company about easing those complications:
— “Whether you are interested in creating a Family Mission Statement, setting up trusts, or establishing a foundation, we can work with you to reflect your family’s core values in your legacy plan.”
— “Reducing the erosion of wealth by implementing planning techniques designed to minimize taxes.”
— “Raising children with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to be financially independent is a complex task for any parent, but wealthy families face a unique set of challenges… Do your children have the ﬁnancial knowledge to manage wealth? Do members understand the family’s wealth plan?”
— “Engaging and educating the next generation on wealth management issues can be a powerful way to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities life may offer.”
— ”Naming the potential risks to your family and property can be uncomfortable. But not taking the steps necessary to minimize your exposure can prove more onerous in the end.”
— “For many wealthy families, concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.”
The company also arranges “intimate gatherings with other families who face common issues” and has a special advisory service on Yachts and Private Aircraft to “help you understand and assess your personal travel options.” They can also “assist in evaluating the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.”
One Percent Problems
See, while you struggle with simple problems like paying the rent and scavenging dented cans of hobo beans to feed your feral children, the One Percent have real issues.
Apparently one of the most pressing issues for the wealthy, while admonishing the rest of us to work harder, stop being lazy and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, is how to make sure their money gets passed on to their kids, so those kiddies do not have to work harder, stop being lazy or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This assures that while most of us struggle against glass ceilings of one sort or another to rise, rich kids are held safe by marble floors that prevent them from falling. And all thanks to folks like Bessemer Trust!
And kids today, amiright? While many of us hope to pass on skills to our own like how to kite a check and where to redeem aluminum cans for scrap value, the rich face the task of teaching their off-spring how to stay rich.
Another issue for the rich is making sure they and their children don’t have to actually work. That’s the whole idea cited above about “concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.” That means owning stuff, primarily stock. You most likely don’t have this problem, because less than half of Americans don’t own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock. Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock.
However, it is Bessemer Trust’s special services that really get to the heart of why being super rich is such a grind. I mean, who really has time to personally evaluate “the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.” Daaady, can you help me with my homework? It’s not fair, I have to evaluate all these club and resort programs by tomorrow and they’re so stupid and complex!!!
I for one am glad I don’t have to deal with stuff like that, and worry about whether my kids are prepared to continue my exploitation of the workers I
own employ. What a load off.
BONUS: All of the above is what companies like Bessemer Trust say without shame in public. Imagine what goes on behind their closed doors: “Welcome Mr. Van Buren. Please just leave your satchels of bullion over there next to the complimentary blood of virgins bar. Let me introduce Klaus, who will guide you through the ever-increasing and complex programs for acquiring fresh human organs for your next transplant. Oh, and I understand your daughter would very much like to see a poor child ritually slaughtered for her eighth birthday party. That would be Marie, who sorts those things out for our clients. Refreshment? We feature today a chilled glass of orphan tears.”
While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.
The Korean Central News Agency Schools You
North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.
So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:
Model for Human Rights
As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See “a shining city on a hill” claims by presidents from Obama back]
Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]
At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]
The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]
The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low– the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]
All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here’s a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]
The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don’t make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]
Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here’s the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here’s one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]
The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]
Hail to the Chief
Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.
About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.
Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.
(Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)
(North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)
Please join me at The Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space on Thursday, October 9, for an evening of reading, signing, and conversation in connection with my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.
The whole thing is just a small part of an exhibition called 25 ON HIGH: A Photographic Journey. My presentation, along with the exhibit, is part of Paging Columbus’ monthly reading series, which features literature about High Street and urban life. Selections for October 9 include Charles Dickens’ American Notes, Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, read by Dale Sparlin, Tracy Zollinger Turner and Jim Coe.
The 25 ON HIGH exhibit is well-worth the trip by itself. For over a year, 25 local photographers have traversed Columbus’ main thoroughfare, High Street, documenting faces, landmarks, overlooked alcoves and affairs of the street. Marshalled by Ohio State University Associate Professor Emeritus Clay Lowe, who walked the same stretch of road with his camera 40 years ago, this team exhibition tells the unique story of High Street as it lives and shifts through this moment in history.
The event is Thursday, October 9, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm at the Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., Suite 130, Columbus, OH 43215. The Space is in downtown Columbus, and not on the Ohio State campus.
Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.
Since this will be my only chance to speak in Columbus, please come join me at the Urban Space!
You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.
Streets, laid out in the 19th century, are jammed with traffic that was never anticipated. Not just more cars; Americans traveled on foot or by horse the last time these were thought through. After moving two miles in 45 minutes, we cross a bridge built in 1901.
The bridge handles the traffic decently; it was built quite wide for the trains that used to transport Americans. The over-engineering on the bridge, common in the days before computers, would prove prescient as it would be several decades before the city, the richest in America, would build modern ones, and the last of those opened in the 1960’s.
The infrastructure is old and tired but can’t be fixed it seems. Too expensive. Though the current Iraq/Syria war has already cost over one billion dollars, and the previous one over two trillion dollars, somehow there is never enough money.
The subway might be faster, but the segment I’d use for part of the journey was first opened in 1904 and is a hodge-podge of patches and repairs today. The girders holding up the street have been painted by generations of workers over the last hundred years such that when a chip appears, it is deep and noticeable, a sort of archaeological find. Theodore Roosevelt was president when the first coat of paint was applied.
The subway isn’t really an option anyway. Public transportation to the airport, one of America’s busiest, is limited to a single bus that runs irregularly, with limited space for the luggage of the poor souls who need to check something, and drops off at stops at the airport equally convenient to no one. The bus isn’t yours anyway; it is designed for persons commuting out of the areas it passes through headed to work at the airport, staffing your Cinnabon. Some smiles there that don’t reach eyes. At least remember to say thanks.
On your way you pass through their crumbling neighborhoods where the open businesses are often check cashing places, we buy gold cubbies and pawn shops. Some fast food places, who pay minimum wage in the neighborhood while exporting profits to midtown banks. You can actually see over the roofs into Manhattan where the money goes, and where the morning newspaper has an article on “affordable” condos priced at over two million dollars.
The airport, originally built in 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President and WWII was just starting for the Greatest Generation) and randomly added to over since, is chaotic at best. At security, foreign tourists look around for validation as they are yelled at to remove their shoes. It all seems inexplicable to many from Third World places the U.S. can’t bully into following America’s security theatre script. The floor we walk on in our socks is still a bit sticky from some spill. Everyone holds their hands over their head inside the scanner, a position of submission prisoners assume. The analogy is only slightly an analogy. But people either believe in it for their freedom as they are told, or just put up with it to avoid the bullying that follows displays of even quiet resistance. Be glad you are allowed to fly at all and have not been put without your knowledge on the No-Fly list for some Josef K. offense.
Everyone on the plane, which departs late without explanation offered to you, is sorted into class. Those with the right credit card, or those who paid more, are treated one way, right down to a silly scrap of red carpet at check-in that to be fair does seem to validate something to some of them, judging by the smiles and the glances back into the lines. The other people are pushed onto the plane in a scrum of unintelligible “groups” to struggle against one another for the limited resources of space to sit, or to store giant amounts of luggage they are forced to carry to avoid usurious fees. The fee has nothing much to do with the airline’s biggest cost, fuel, as the weight is the same in or under the plane. The fee just is there. It’s a kind of modern icon, in other places called disingenuously a “convenience fee,” a fee you pay to buy something else.
On the plane everyone speaks in a bully’s (that word again) passive-aggressive verbiage. Sit down or we won’t take off, and it’ll be your fault, and God help you if the other flyers turn on you. You can’t congregate near the restrooms, even though there is only a tiny space anyway, because supposedly 13 years ago that’s what the 9/11 hijackers did. You are not passengers, or customers. You are all potential terrorists and will be treated as such. Here’s half a Diet Coke as a reward for being compliant.
Flying over the Midwest, even at 25,000 feet midday on a Tuesday, you can’t miss the huge factories and warehouses, all surrounded by empty parking lots. No jobs it seems, even at this altitude. On the ground, in three different cities over a week, you see neighborhood after neighborhood that has been “gentrified” as part of what seems like a last gasp to salvage the hunk of America that isn’t New York, the L.A.-San Francisco corridor or wherever the federal government is still hiring.
In these neighborhoods tens of thousands of skilled blue collar jobs that once paid a living wage have been replaced by only hundreds of minimum wage, part-time jobs for baristas and waiters, many serving a few. A lot of people now in America don’t really make anything, besides a few apps maybe, so they serve a very few who only make deals. See it all the time. Did you enjoy your meal sir (please tip, I don’t get paid much)?
The people on the ground still hope it might work. They are not stupid and this is not to mock; they know they have been handed the dirty end of the stick in the long con and are trying what they hope might work, though hope takes time and that is another thing they don’t have. You don’t have to be an economist to see how it can’t really work, do the math, but you’ll enjoy a decent cup of coffee on the way down.
There are exceptions, good ones. The young mayor of Louisville has dedicated himself to attracting companies to his city. He talks like a man running for his city’s life, in about the best way you can run for your life. But it is a tough race.
Oh, these are “first world problems.” That’s the point, true to a point, but indeed America claims to be the most exceptional nation in the first world, so the problems are worth talking through. And this all isn’t nostalgia; it’s history.
America also has its third world problems– lack of equitable health care (The U.S. ranks 56th internationally in infant mortality, worse than Cuba, Poland, Bosnia, and Serbia), malnutrition among the poor (one of five kids in America is food-at-risk), homelessness, murder and drug abuse rates rivaling any outside of combat zones, the highest percentage of a population in prison in the developed world, acts of random violence in our schools and workplaces, racism and inequality that regularly erupt into violence suppressed by militarized police.
First world, third world, you see them all and you wonder what happened, now, to us.
Barack Obama told Americans every worker deserves to know “if you lose your job, your country will help you train for an even better one.” A nice sentiment,and politically safe; it’s just the wrong answer. Those “better jobs” don’t exist, and training doesn’t create jobs. Despite all that, every year the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on job training, with little impact. What’s the right answer?
In 2007 then-candidate Obama visited Janesville, Wisconsin, location of the oldest General Motors plant in America. Echoing his current promise to support unemployed Americans with job training, Obama proclaimed “I believe that, if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.” However, two days before Christmas and just about a month before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because most residents either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. Congress paid for a $2 million retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools, a century ago, to teach new immigrants the skills they needed to work at GM.
This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs for the most part simply became trained unemployed people, rather than untrained ones. Having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” or training in new welding techniques did not automatically lead to a job in those fields. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees (the United States graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014.) Of those that completed some form of training, nearly 40 percent did not find work. And those in Janesville who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36 percent. A look at Craigslist job ads for the town shows one ad for heating and ventilation work, with a demand for three years experience. Under “General Labor” the work is for janitors, newspaper delivery and things like light manufacturing at $8.50 an hour.
Obama’s calls for job training also belies the fact that the government already spends approximately $18 billion a year to administer 47 job training programs. The actual value of those programs remains unclear. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only five programs assessed whether people who found jobs did so because of the program and not some other cause. In addition, the GAO learned that almost all training programs overlap with at least one other training program. “Federal job training sounds like something that should boost the economy,” writes the Cato Institute, “but five decades of experience indicate otherwise.”
The panacea myth of job training crosses party lines. The GAO reported that in 2003, under the George W. Bush administration, the government spent $13 billion on training, spread across 44 programs. Job training may again be on the GOP agenda, even if the parties differ on the details. Politically, some sort of job training just sounds good. The problem is that it won’t really help America’s 10.5 million unemployed.
So the $18 billion question is: if training is not the answer, what is?
Jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. The 2008 recession wiped out primarily high and middle wage jobs, with the strongest employment growth in the recovery taking place in low wage employment, to the point where the United States has the highest number of workers in low wage jobs of all industrialized nations.
There are many possible paths to better-paying jobs in America whose spending power can spark a “virtuous cycle.” That would mean more employment leading to more spending and more demand, followed by more hiring. One kickstarter is simply higher wages in the jobs we do have. For example, recent Department of Labor studies show that the 13 states which raised their minimum wages added jobs (at higher wages of course) at a faster pace than those that did not. On a larger, albeit more contentious scale, are options such as a WPA-like program, changes to tax and import laws to promote domestic manufacturing, infrastructure grants and the like. There’s $18 billion to work with for a start.
No matter the path forward, the bottom line remains unchanged: Training does not create jobs. Jobs create the need for training. Anything else is just politics.
My thanks to the organizers, sponsors and especially the 400-some people who came out to hear me yesterday at the Louisville Idea Festival 2014. Thanks also to Kris Kimmel for inviting me, and to Ellen McGrit for handling the Q&A.
Talking about economic disparity, the myths of our economy that encourage people to act against their own self-interest and the Great Game that allows a tiny percentage to own– and control– the remaining 99%– can be heavy going, and often less than pleasant conversation. My hat’s off to the people of Louisville for working through it with me, challenging my conclusions with good questions and most of all, hearing me out.
I hope to see you all again next year for Idea Festival 2015!
Following my discussion about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, at the always-excellent IDEA Festival in Louisville, Kentucky for 2014, I promised links to the articles and statistics mentioned. This will allow anyone who heard my talk to fact check what I said, and comment below.
Here they are, along with the written text of the speech.