• Archive of "Economy" Category

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

    October 14, 2014 // 6 Comments »




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

    The Korean Central News Agency Schools You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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




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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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



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    First World, Third World: A Travel Essay

    October 8, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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


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




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    The Great (Re)Training Robbery

    October 3, 2014 // 5 Comments »




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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    Great Crowd at Idea Festival 2014

    October 2, 2014 // 1 Comment »




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


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


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



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    IDEA Festival 2014

    October 1, 2014 // 4 Comments »






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



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

    Louisville IDEA Festival 2014 Speech







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

    September 30, 2014 // 6 Comments »




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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    US Air Travel Snarled by One Guy Not a Terrorist

    September 29, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    Luckily ISIS has never thought to employ psychotic contractors in a bid to mess with America. ‘Cause that apparently works.


    O’ Hare Meltdown

    The problems in America’s creaky infrastructure started Friday morning when Brian Howard, an FAA contractor, wandered into the radar facility in Aurora, Illinois that serves Chicago’s O’Hare airport, one of the busiest in the world. Howard, seen on surviellance video dragging a suitcase and can of gasoline that did not seem to alarm anyone, then set the center on fire in an apparent suicide attempt. Paramedics said a shirtless Howard was in the process of slicing his throat with a knife when they found him in the basement of the burning facility. The fire destroyed 23 of the center’s 29 computers.

    The result was chaos: Massive flight delays and cancellations at one of the nation’s busiest airports could last for up to two weeks. On Sunday, more than 700 flights in and out Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport were canceled, bringing the number of scrubbed flights to 2,000 since Friday’s sabotage. Even as of Monday, three days after the attack, O’ Hare and nearby Midway Airport were running at only 60 percent capacity, mucking up air traffic across the United States and causing millions of dollars and lost revenues.


    It was on Facebook

    The attack did not take place without warning. “Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU (Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center) and my life,” Howard wrote on Facebook. His account has since been taken down. The Facebook message was posted to Howard’s wall a half-hour after he entered the facility, from inside, and one of Howard’s relatives sent the message to local police.

    The incident “is no terrorist act,” the Aurora police quickly announced to the media.


    See Something, Do Nothing

    So let’s sum up a bit while we’re all stuck here waiting for our flights:

    The NSA, who monitors our social media to stop terrorism, misses this. A guy with access to an important radar facility states his intentions clearly and publicly online to take it out. That guy with critical access is just another contractor. Nobody working with the guy notices he seems to be slipping mentally, nobody sees something and says something. The guy then shows up at the facility dragging a suitcase and a can of gasoline, wanders into a sensitive area and proceeds to set a fire. Nobody seems to notice this for awhile. Whatever fire suppression equipment is in place to protect this vital infrastructure fails to save 23 of the 29 computers needed to control air traffic over America’s second-busiest airport, and repairs will take more than two weeks.

    Well, I for one feel safer. ISIS (al Qaeda, Khorasan, the Legion of Doom) really doesn’t have to create massive, complex Bond-level plots. They need only sit back and allow insane American contractors to go about their business. In the spirit of America, we’ll roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves, darn it.




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    Thanks to NAIBA!

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

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


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

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

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

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



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    Once the American Dream

    September 23, 2014 // 3 Comments »

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

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

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


    The View from Ground Zero

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

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

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


    Rent-to-Own

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

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

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


    Cashing In

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

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

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



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    Hah Hah: You are So Poor

    September 19, 2014 // 13 Comments »






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




    You are Poorer Now than Before

    Here’s the story from the CBO:

    — Between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households, compared to only 18 percent for the bottom twenty percent of us.

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

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

    You can read the full Congressional Budget Office report online.


    Shut Up Serfs

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

    The Great Recession of 2008 stripped swaths of the middle class of their most valuable asset. Some five million homes were lost to foreclosure between 2008 and 2013. 8.2 million more foreclosure starts took place in that same time period. Another three million homes in the next three or four years will face foreclosure.

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

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

    GINI

    The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality.

    The Gini for the U.S. is 85; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85.

    Odd company for the “exceptional nation.”


    Serfs All, or at Least 99% of Us

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



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    Yer New iPhone

    September 9, 2014 // 5 Comments »



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

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

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








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    Arguments Against Raising Minimum Wage Don’t Hold Up

    August 27, 2014 // 3 Comments »




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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


    What about small businesses?

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


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

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


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

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


    But can’t every statistic can be argued?

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



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

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




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

    According to Jim:

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

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


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



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    Just Raise the Minimum Wage

    August 7, 2014 // 3 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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    Walmart at the Trough: Billions Scammed from Your Tax Money

    August 6, 2014 // 16 Comments »




    Walmart, which already is profiting mightily from federal, taxpayer paid corporate welfare in the form of food stamps subsidizing its workers’ low wages, as well as billions in direct profits from buyers shopping with food stamps, also takes advantage of tax laws that help it avoid paying federal tax.

    Thanks for Shopping at Walmart, Suckers

    American taxpayers subsidize much of the cost of Walmart’s executive pay. Walmart (and other large companies) uses a loophole in a tax law created by Congress in 1993 (Section 162(m) of the tax code) that allows it to deduct unlimited amounts from corporate income taxes. All Walmart has to do is deduct the cost of executive compensation if it is paid in the form of stock options and other so-called “performance pay” instead of straight salaries. Congress wrote the law to apply only to actual salaries.

    A new report by Americans for Tax Fairness shows:

    Ka-Ching! $104 MILLION: Walmart reduced its federal tax bills by an estimated $104 million over the past six years by paying its top eight executives $298 million in “performance pay” that was fully tax deductible. The tax revenues lost would have been enough to cover the cost of free school lunches for 33,000 children for those six years.

    Ka-Ching! $40 MILLION: Michael Duke, Walmart’s recently retired President & CEO and currently Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, pocketed nearly $116 million in exercised stock options and other “performance pay” during the period 2009-2014. That translates into a taxpayer subsidy for Walmart of more than $40 million— enough to cover the average cost of food stamps for 4,200 people for those six years. FYI: Duke’s total compensation for 2013 was $27.6 million, all wrung out of those everyday low prices.

    Ka-Ching! $50 BILLION: Taxpayers would save $50 billion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, if Congress changed this tax law, even if the new law allowed a generous tax deduction of one million dollars for each employee’s total compensation, with no exceptions for performance pay, as originally intended when the law was first created in 1993.

    Ka-Ching! $14 BILLION: And about those tax-payer funded food stamps. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money is spent at Wal-Mart. That’s about $14 billion.

    Ka-Ching! $7.8 BILLION: Taxpayers spend $7.8 billion a year subsidizing Walmart through public assistance to the company’s low paid employees.

    Ka-Ching! $3 BILLION: The four members of the Walton family, who control almost all of Walmart, shelter signficant amounts of their money from taxes by placing the cash into trusts, allowed by the tax code. To avoid taxes on the dividends generated out of these trusts, those monies are donated to the Walton Family Foundation, a registered charity. When the trusts expire upon the deaths of the elder Waltons, however, their underlying assets, along with any income earned above the amount required to go to the Foundation, will revert to the trusts’ non-charitable beneficiaries, the second or third tier Walmart heirs-in-waiting. The non-charitable beneficiaries of the trusts will likely receive these trust assets entirely free of estate taxes. Cost to taxpayers is estimated at $3 billion in lost tax revenues.


    What it Means

    There are some important takeaways, besides the obvious. The first concerns the minimum wage. It is clear that Walmart could easily pare off a sliver of the billions its owners take in to raise wages without raising prices. They just don’t want to. Even if prices went up, savings in food stamps that would not have to be paid to starving workers would be substantial.

    The other thing to consider is the conservative argument that business growth is critical to broader economic and societal growth. Maybe in some ways, but as shown with Walmart, certainly it does not lead to larger tax revenues; quite the opposite. Somebody has to pay for all those food stamps and trust fund loopholes. That’s you.

    It is important to remember that companies have been enjoying these taxpayer subsidies for their executive compensation since 1993, plus the economic benefits of food stamps to subsidize their profits and low wages. That they exist today, at the phenomenal costs to regular Americans noted above, is no secret.

    So draw your own conclusions from that as to how Congress views all this corporate welfare.




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

    July 30, 2014 // 4 Comments »



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


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

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

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


    Poverty is Profitable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

    July 28, 2014 // 10 Comments »



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


    Poor Doors

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


    Affordable Housing in a Luxury Building?

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

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

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

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

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


    Developers Getting Rich off the Poor

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

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

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

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

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



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    Interview with NHK, Japanese TV

    July 27, 2014 // 7 Comments »




    Japan’s main broadcast station, NHK (similar to PBS here in the U.S.) dropped by for an interview about my new book, as well as a discussion about an event from my past, my brief encounter with chess great turned psycho Bobby Fischer.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is of interest to Japan for two reasons. First, the main time frame in the book, the late 1970s and early 1980s, represents arguably the high point of the Japanese industrial economy. That was the era of Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, the time when Japanese investors poured money into U.S. real estate, including high-profile purchases such as Rockefeller Center and the Pebble Beach golf course. Of course, Japan’s economic ascendancy was fueled in large part by their industrial exports, especially cars and steel to the U.S. One of the factors of American de-industrialization was the loss of jobs to Japan.

    In the way that history loves irony, Japan has interest in Ghosts now also because it is experiencing its own era of de-industrialization. We’re painting in broad strokes here (economists, relax a bit), but much of Japan’s current industrial malaise is due to cheap imports from China and other parts of Asia. Japanese companies are increasingly moving production abroad in search of cheaper labor. Ghosts, to some in Japan, is both a history of Japan’s role in America, and a road map to it’s potential future, with a dash of prophecy.

    BONUS: About Bobby Fischer. Bobby you’ll recall was a Cold War hero in America after beating Soviet chess champ Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. Fischer went on to lose to his mind, as well as play a for-money chess match in what was then Yugoslavia. The latter violated U.S. trade sanctions of the time, and turned Fischer into a wanted man. He avoided U.S. law enforcement for many years by traveling around the world, until by accident, aided by post-9/11 snooping, Homeland Security found him in Japan. My job at the U.S. embassy there included the revocation of U.S. passports. Homeland Security and State, via me, took away Bobby’s passport in a preview of what would later be done to Edward Snowden.



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    Interview with KGNU: Ghosts of Tom Joad

    July 20, 2014 // 1 Comment »




    I recently spoke with KGNU‘s Claudia Cragg about my personal work experience at a store I call “Bullseye,” in the minimum wage Big Box economy and how this led to Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.


    Ghosts looks up close at the drastic effects of social and economic changes in America between WWII and the decline of the blue collar middle class in the 1980’s right up to today.

    Have a listen to the full interview.







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    Media Profile: Defying the State to Publish His Story

    July 13, 2014 // 9 Comments »

    Our Town, a New York City newspaper, recently published this article by Daniel Fitzsimmons, profiling me and my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    Peter Van Buren is an Upper East Sider and a 24-year veteran of the State Department. His experience there – including a one-year deployment to Iraq – led to him write his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (MacMillan, 2011). Even before it was released, the book was frowned upon by higher ups at the State Department and they began proceedings against him for allegedly publishing classified information. He managed to beat the rap and retire with full benefits, with help from the same lawyers now representing Edward Snowden. For several years, however, Van Buren’s pension and the future of his family were at risk.

    During his legal battle with the State Department, Van Buren was forced to work in the low-wage retail sector of the American economy to make ends meet. That experience is the basis for his second book, a novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, published this year by Luminis Books. The book examines the social and economic changes in America between World War II and the decline of the blue collar middle class in the 1980s.

    Van Buren, 53, grew up in New York and now lives at 2nd Avenue and East 93rd Street.

    “I was born in New York, went to college in Ohio, and then moved around the world with my State Department job as a diplomat for 24 years,” he said. “After retirement, I wanted to leave Washington D.C. and re-immerse myself in this amazing city. Best decision I ever made.”


    What would you say the central thesis is of your first book? Why did you decide to write it and what were some of the obstacles you faced?

    We Meant Well’s thesis was two-fold: One, to document exactly how the U.S. failed in its hearts and minds mission in Iraq, the failure on the ground of the counter-insurgency “win over the people” plan of then-general David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condi Rice. The larger point was to offer lessons for how to better accomplish those goals in the hearts and minds campaign in Afghanistan. Given how poorly U.S. efforts are going in Afghanistan, now 13 years and $109 billion of reconstruction spending into the war, I guess no one took my advice. I’m actually thinking of franchising the title, We Meant Well, Too.


    It was published in 2011, how long after its release did you start receiving attention from the State Department? What was their case against you built upon?

    The State Department is a lot like the Mafia: rule number one is that you don’t talk about family business outside the family. I broke omerta and, through my book, pointed out in quite specific detail the things State did and did not do in Iraq that contributed to the failures there. Reaction from State was sharp, and began even before the book was officially published.


    Why did you decide to take a position with your book that you knew would be frowned upon by the administration?

    When anyone decides to blow the whistle and take on the entire resources of the U.S. government, it is motivated by conscience, the idea that what needs to be said is bigger than yourself. My whistle-blowing was nowhere close to what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did, and my punishment nowhere as severe, but the motivations are the same. I saw terrible waste and mismanagement in Iraq, wastes of money and, more significantly, both American and Iraqi lives. No one else was reporting on this; indeed, because of the way State presented itself, no one but someone from the inside could have reported it to the American people. It was on me to step up. I did.


    How, ultimately, were you able to withstand the State Department’s efforts against you and retire with full benefits?

    State tried first to stop the book, then to claim, falsely, that the book contained classified information, then to unsuccessfully prosecute me, then to fire me and take away my pension. I’ll admit, pre-Manning and pre-Snowden, I was naïve. I thought I’d get into some kind of trouble, but never saw the tsunami coming. I prevailed over the government thanks to the efforts of the Government Accountability Project, specifically Jess Radack and Kathleen McClellan. Both of these women now help represent Edward Snowden, by the way. I also was defended by the ACLU, who saw my struggle as a First Amendment issue, the right to publish. I won and the government lost. I went on to retire from State, and collect the benefits I earned from my 24 years of service.


    After your first book, how did you come to the decision to turn to domestic issues in Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent?

    Following State, I went to work in the minimum wage economy, not planning on another book. But what I saw shocked me. In an odd way, I had my first taste of the life of the one percent while in Iraq: unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters) and plenty of Army muscle around to keep the 99 percent at bay.

    I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the one percent for this one. I worked instead in America’s new minimum-wage economy, and saw firsthand what a life based on lousy wages and barely-adequate food benefits adds up to. There were no cruise missiles deployed to create the changes, but the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, decimated unions, the undertow of meth and alcohol abuse pulling at our people, the broad-based loss of jobs and of course wealth inequality on a radical scale was quite familiar. The willful destruction of a way of life in service to the goals of the one percent anywhere was hard to miss, but I still wanted a clearer picture. My research and experiences drive me to write about this all, and the result is Ghosts of Tom Joad.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad is a reimagining of Steinbeck’s classic Grapes of Wrath, brought into our own era. The book traces the dilution of our middle class, their replacement with the working poor, and examines the effects of this not just on our economy, but on our society, our nation, our America. Like Grapes of Wrath, Ghosts is a factual look at ourselves wrapped in fiction, in this case, a single Ohio family touched by the changes in America from the 1950s through today.

    I think of it as a good story, but with a conscience.



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    On the Alex Jones Show: Ghosts of Tom Joad, Iraq and More

    July 11, 2014 // 5 Comments »



    I again join the Alex Jones Show, with guest host Dave Knight, to discuss the devolving situation in Iraq, and my new book Ghosts of Tom Joad. My portion of the show begins about two hours and eight minutes in, so feel free to fast forward to the good stuff below, or jump right to it with this link.










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    Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?

    July 10, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    And Other Critical Questions for Americans

    Last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.

    As the United States slips from its status as the globe’s number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let’s start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what’s happening in America today.

    1) What does Thomas Piketty have to do with the 99%?

    French economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is an unlikely beach read, though it’s selling like one. A careful parsing of massive amounts of data distilled into “only” 700 pages, it outlines the economic basis for the 1%-99% divide in the United States. (Conservative critics, of course, disagree.)

    Just in case you aren’t yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1% of Americans hold 35% of the nation’s net worth; the bottom 80%, only 11% percent. The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet’s kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the U.S. is 85; for Germany, 77; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85. Odd company for the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation.”

    Piketty shows that such inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more of everything (capital), rich people have a mechanism for getting ever richer than the rest of us, because the rate of return on investment is higher than the rate of economic growth. In other words, money made from investments grows faster than money made from wages. Piketty claims the wealth of the wealthiest Americans is rising at 6%-7% a year, more than three times as fast as the economy the rest of us live in.

    At the same time, wages for middle and lower income Americans are sinking, driven by factors also largely under the control of the wealthy.  These include the application of new technology to eliminate human jobs, the crushing of unions, and a decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage that more and more Americans depend on for survival.

    The short version: A rising tide lifts all yachts.

    2) So why don’t the unemployed/underemployed simply find better jobs?

    Another way of phrasing this question is: Why don’t we just blame the poor for their plight? Mention unemployment or underemployment and someone will inevitably invoke the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” line. If workers don’t like retail or minimum-wage jobs, or if they can’t find good paying jobs in their area, why don’t they just move? Quit retail or quit Pittsburgh (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) and…

    Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs — almost six million of them — between 2000 and 2009, and wherever “there” is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25%, the U.S. has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20%, Japan under 15%, and France 11%.)

    One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.

    Moving “there” to find better work isn’t an option.

    3) But aren’t there small-scale versions of economic “rebirths” occurring all over America?

    Travel through some of the old Rust Belt towns of this country and you’ll quickly notice that “economic rebirth” seems to mean repurposing buildings that once housed factories and shipping depots as bars and boutiques. Abandoned warehouses are now trendy restaurants; a former radiator factory is an artisanal coffee shop. In other words, in a place where a manufacturing plant once employed hundreds of skilled workers at union wages, a handful of part-timers are now serving tapas at minimum wage plus tips.

    In Maryland, an ice cream plant that once employed 400 people with benefits and salaries pegged at around $40,000 a year closed its doors in 2012. Under a “rebirth” program, a smaller ice cream packer reopened the place with only 16 jobs at low wages and without benefits. The new operation had 1,600 applicants for those 16 jobs. The area around the ice cream plant once produced airplanes, pipe organs, and leather car seats. No more. There were roughly 14,000 factory jobs in the area in 2000; today, there are 8,000.

    In Louisville, Kentucky, more than 5,500 people applied for what turned out to be just 50 factory jobs in 2013, some of them temporary, paying $15.78 per hour at Ford Motor Company’s Fern Valley Road plant. State unemployment officials sifted through the thousands of applications and forwarded them to Ford staff, who narrowed the field by lottery (which in itself says something about the skill levels of the jobs offered.) The wage offered to new employees is about half what union workers receive.

    In January 2014, Ford announced it would hire another 350 people, to be pulled from an existing pool of 10,000 applicants. State officials in Kentucky approved $290 million in financial incentives, using taxpayer money, to bring those jobs to Louisville. The impact of those jobs is shockingly minimal; unemployment in the area is 8.2 percent, much higher than the U.S. national average. There are some 52,763 people in the Louisville metro area unable to find work, not including those working part-time jobs or who have given up trying to find work at all.

    Also in in Louisville, Kentucky, General Electric’s Appliance Park, once employed 23,000 union workers at its peak in 1973. By 2011, the sputtering plant held onto only about 1,800 workers. What was left of the union there agreed to a two-tier wage scale, and today 70% of the jobs are on the lower tier — at $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be. A full-time worker makes about $28,000 a year before taxes and deductions. The poverty line for a family of four in Kentucky is $23,000. Food stamp benefits are available to people who earn up to 130% of the poverty line, so a full-timer in Kentucky with a family still qualifies. Even if a worker moved to Kentucky and lucked out by landing a job at the plant, standing on your tiptoes with your lips just above sea level is not much of a step up.

    People once called Millinocket, Maine the Magic City. The Great Northern Paper mill, which conjured this town out of the backwoods and sustained it for a century, employed 5,000 people and sustained a way of life. At least until it closed for good in 2008, turning the community into a ghost town. 2014 saw a rebirth of sorts, as new owners repurposed the mill into a wood pellet factory. But only 55 jobs were created. The town hopes to attract tourists now, but they have not come.

    Only a generation ago, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania had a steel mill that employed 31,500 people. They were not alone; in the final quarter of what was to be the American Century, some 1.5 million steelworkers lost their jobs. Including all 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.

    It is common in such circumstances to blame greedy workers, and decry how their fate was tied to selfishness and out-of-control unions. But that would be wrong, or at least only part of the story. The ratio of CEO salary-to-average-worker-salary in 1980 was 42:1, climbing to 120:1 in 2000 and stands at 204:1 today. So indeed among the complex factors that changed America’s economic landscape, greed and selfishness did indeed play a part. It is just incorrect to blame it on the workers themselves.

    Low paying jobs are not a rebirth.

    4) Can’t people just get off their couches and get back to work?

    There are 3.8 million Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. These are the country’s long-term unemployed, as defined by the Department of Labor. Statistically, the longer you are unemployed, the less likely it is that you’ll ever find work again. Between 2008 and 2012, only 11% of those unemployed 15 months or more found a full-time job, and research shows that those who do find a job are less likely to retain it. Think of it as a snowball effect: more unemployment creates more unemployable people.

    And how hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was 8.9%. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than 23,000 applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6%, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell.

    Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.

    5) Why can’t former factory workers retrain into new jobs?

    Janesville, Wisconsin, had the oldest General Motors car factory in America, one that candidate Obama visited in 2007 and insisted would be there for another 100 years. Two days before Christmas that year and just before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because you either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. The new president and Congress quickly paid for a two-million-dollar Janesville retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools built to teach new immigrants the skills needed by that Janesville factory a century ago.

    This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs simply became trained unemployables rather than untrained ones. It turned out that having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” did not automatically lead to a job in the field. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees. And those who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36%. This, it seems, is increasingly typical in twenty-first-century America (though retraining programs have been little studied in recent years).

    Manufacturing is dead and the future lies in a high-tech, information-based economy, some say. So why can’t former factory workers be trained to do that? Maybe some percentage could, but the U.S. graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014, many of whom already have such skills.

    Bottom Line: Jobs create the need for training. Training does not create jobs. 

    6) Shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?

    At some point in any discussion of jobs, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate people to find jobs — or starve. Unemployment money and food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) encourage people to be lazy. 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% 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.

    Why do so many of the employed need food stamps? It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive. All in all, 47 million people get SNAP nationwide because without it they would go hungry.

    In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad, 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%) and the District of Columbia (30%) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16% of SNAP benefits, while 9% go to households with senior citizens.

    Almost 22% of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012; for those under age five, it’s more than 25%. Almost 1 in 10 live in extreme poverty.

    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.

    7) Why are Walmart and other businesses opposed to SNAP cuts?

    Public benefits are now a huge part of the profits of certain major corporations. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line:

    “Our business operations are subject to numerous risks, factors, and uncertainties, domestically and internationally, which are outside our control. These factors 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 do such businesses make from public assistance? Short answer: big bucks. 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% of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart.

    Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied for food stamps, an indication of how much they rely on the money. The CEO of Kraft admitted that the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because users were “a big part of our audience.” One-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps. 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, while companies like Coke and Pepsi pull in four billion dollars a year in revenues from SNAP money.

    There is another side to big retail and fast food’s support for food stamps.

    There is much talk about the minimum wage. What was once a way for teenagers and college kids to earn a little pocket money has devolved into the take-home pay for a vast swath of America. Defenders of a low minimum wage insist that most of us benefit from workers being paid very little; lower wages mean lower costs for Walmart and others, and so lower prices for us.

    Makes sense, except that it is not true.

    The difference between what Walmart pays the majority of its employees and what those employees need is made up by taxpayers in the form of food stamps and other assistance. Walmart is America’s largest private employer, so we’ll use them here for most of the examples, but this applies across the board.

    Choose your statistic to understand the problem: about 25% of all employed people in the U.S. receive some form of public assistance; in the fast food industry, it is 53%. About 1 out of every 3 retail workers gets public assistance. In sum, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance.

    Let’s break it into a smaller piece: After analyzing data released by Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that a single 300-person WalMart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per Walmart associate in public assistance paid.

    What about higher prices? The quick answer should be obvious by now. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart due to those lower wages, you as a taxpayer are paying anyway in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If store paid a living wage, step one would a lessening in demand for public assistance. Ka-ching, lower taxes!

    But let’s follow the money. Walmart consistently pays the lowest wages they possibly can, and claims that keeps prices down. Walmart is not alone in this practice; the average family’s income is lower today than at any point in the last ten years, income inequality more extreme than at any point since before the Great Depression. The U.S. now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world. The fall in wages parallels another trend line: in January of 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership had reached a 97 year low in America.

    Poverty is big business.

    8 ) Should we raise the minimum wage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In many ways, the debate over raising the minimum age mirrors what was said about unions in the 1970s. Many at the time, especially pro-business economists and politicians as they do today, claimed the high wages fought for by unions hurt American competitiveness and cost jobs. How could a business survive paying $25 an hour? If wages were cut, and profits went up as costs fell, more jobs would be created. So how’d that work out? The demise of unions did certainly help raise corporate profits, but it clearly did not create jobs, at least not jobs at a living wage. Quite the opposite. Want more minimum wage jobs, maybe? Keep the wage dirt poor low.

    9) Profit Before People

    Where could the money to pay workers a living wage come from, except of course by raising prices?

    The top one percent of income earners garnered 93 percent of income gains in the recent recovery. In the third quarter of 2012, corporate profits reached $1.75 trillion, their greatest share of GDP in history. During that same quarter, workers’ wages fell to their lowest share of GDP on record. The top six members of the Walton family (owners of Walmart) own as much wealth as 48 million other Americans combined. Meanwhile, among 35 economically advanced nations, the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty, 23%, just slightly better than Romania.

    Yes, raise the minimum wage. Double it or more. We can’t afford not to.

    10) Okay, after the minimum wage is raised, what else can we do?

    To end such an article, it’s traditional to suggest reforms, changes, solutions. It is, in fact, especially American to assume that every problem has a “solution.” So my instant suggestion: raise the minimum wage. Tomorrow. In a big way. And maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart.

    But while higher wages are good, they are likely only to soften the blows still to come. What if the hyper-rich like being ever more hyper-rich and, with so many new ways to influence and control our political system and the economy, never plan to give up any of their advantages? What if they don’t want to share, not even a little more, not when it comes to the minimum wage or anything else?

    The striking trend lines of social and economic disparity that have developed over the last 50 years are clearly no accident; nor have disemboweled unions, a deindustrialized America, wages heading for the basement (with profits still on the rise), and the widest gap between rich and poor since the slavery era been the work of the invisible hand. It seems far more likely that a remarkably small but powerful crew wanted it that way, knowing that a nation of fast food workers isn’t heading for the barricades any time soon. Think of it all as a kind of “Game of Thrones” played out over many years. A super-wealthy few have succeeded in defeating all of their rivals — unions, regulators, the media, honest politicians, environmentalists — and now are free to do as they wish.

    What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart “associates” do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future — and yours.

    Feudalism

    If I had a crayon I’d draw you a picture, but I think you don’t really need that at this point. None of this is accidental, some sort of invisible hand at work.

    The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline. For the top 5 percent of Americans, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years.

    Companies will continue to demand Federal, state and local governments keep the minimum wage as low as possible. The same corporate entities will then continue to have those low wages subsidized by the taxpayers. Companies will continue to spew out propaganda to convince those same taxpayers that people on public assistance are lazy cheats, and that low wages mean low prices. Capping wages at 2009 levels assures that any broad rise in societal prosperity will not reach low-wage workers, and there is no broad upward path for retail workers and fry cooks. It’s not about education, either: the percentage of low-wage workers with at least some college education has spiked 71 percent since 1979, to now encompass over 43% of all low-wage workers. Meanwhile more and more money will be hoovered up by an ever-concentrated group of the super wealthy, squeezing their workers tighter and tighter. Hey, how many miles can you drive on a gallon of blood?

    In today’s America, even working full-time, at most jobs you can’t earn enough to live with government assistance. More and more of everything is owned by fewer and fewer people. If you look that stuff up in a reference book, it is called feudalism. It is our future, and, of course, thank you for shopping at Walmart!



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    Interview: I Go to Hell Again

    July 9, 2014 // 1 Comment »






    “Our rights are subject to the government’s desire to allow us to exercise them.”


    This is Hell! is a fascinating talk radio program on Chicago’s WNUR 89.3 FM, and podcast online. I spoke with them recently. Here’s what they had to say about the conversation:

    From real life battlefields in real life Iraq to metaphorical battlefields in fictionalized Ohio, Peter Van Buren‘s books detail lives caught up in failing systems, both real (We Meant Well) and imaginary (his first novel: Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.)

    In Peter’s third appearance on This is Hell!, he discusses how his years in Iraq inform his ideas about the current violence wrecking parts of the nation, how government surveillance in the U.S. has radically changed the character of American democracy, and the real world ghosts haunting the protagonist of his new book.


    Have a listen to the full interview.



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    The Case Against U.S.-Arms Sales (and Iraq)

    July 2, 2014 // 10 Comments »




    Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne (whose excellent book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails was reviewed on this blog) and Abigail R. Hall, a second year Mercatus PhD Fellow, have come up with original research that shows the dangers of America’s unfettered global arms sales:

    — Policymakers cannot know the outcome of supplying new arms in an attempt to influence foreign affairs in one manner or another because there are a series of unpredictable consequences that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.

    — It is nearly impossible for the U.S. government to monitor how arms it has sold for a particular purpose are latery used or transferred. These weapons may ultimately be used to achieve ends which may be at odds with the original goal.

    — An expansion in the global arms market creates new profit opportunities funded by international political entities leading domestic arms producers to direct additional resources to lobbying both domestic and foreign governments. An increase in the size and scope of the global arms market for domestic producers increases this lobbying and the associated deadweight loss brought about by rent seeking.

    — It is unclear if the U.S. government were to scale back its control of the global arms market, the result would be more total global arms. This is because a decrease in U.S. subsidies of weapons to other countries would increase the price of weapons and decrease the quantity demanded by foreign governments; a sharp decrease in the supply of arms would drive the price of weapons upward; many foreign governments face diseconomies of scale leading to a lower overall volume of arms.


    U.S. Dramatically Leads in Global Arms Sales

    Coyne and Hall explain just how big a player the U.S. is in the world arms market: Between 1970 and 1979 the U.S. arranged more than $74 billion in weapons sales. Between 1980 and 1989 the U.S. would agree to sell over $97 billion in arms to nations abroad. This number would rise again between 1990 and 1999 to $128 billion. Between 2000 and 2010 the U.S. arranged to send more than $192 billion in arms to countries all over the globe.

    That makes America responsible for at least 68.4 percent of all global arms trade today. The next highest countries, Russia and Italy, account for only nine percent each. U.S. share in the arms market to developing nations is even higher, 78 percent. Russia, number two, accounts for just under six percent.

    Do Arms Sales Facilitate Diplomacy and Secure National Security Objectives?

    The most prominent U.S. government argument in favor of all these arms sales is that they facilitate diplomacy and secure national security objectives. For example, the line goes, countries that receive U.S. weapons want better all-around ties with the U.S. As for national security objectives, the idea is supposedly, as in Iraq at present, weapons sold allow some other country to fight for what the U.S. supports. But is any of that actually true?

    Well, no, not really, according to Coyne and Hall. Successes in foreign policy bought with weapons sales assumes U.S. policymakers can determine the correct mix of weapons and recipients needed to achieve these goals. But the real world is messy; send arms to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan to kill occupying Russians in the 1980s and inadvertently help create al Qaeda in the 1990s, that kind of thing. Influence one thug leader somewhere with shiny weapons, and then hope like hell he stays within U.S. boundaries, does not transfer the weapons for his own purposes (illicit small-arms sales are a big business for some governments, constituting more than an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues), and does not lose control of the weapons entirely in some future coup, revolt or invasion. In short, as the report puts it, “system-type thinking matters because it implies that attempts to influence foreign affairs through arms sales can never simply do one thing, even if this is the intention, because there are a series of unpredictable consequences over time and space that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.”

    And Then There’s Iraq

    Professor Coyne, in an interview with me, brought the whole academic point down to the very practical in applying his and Ms. Hall’s work to the current situation in Iraq:

    “The situation in Iraq provides an excellent, albeit sad, illustration of some of our main points. The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware (Humvees, trucks, rifles, ammunition.) ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.

    “Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?”



    Comment

    There are many more well-argued such examples in a report that should cause U.S. policymakers to rethink their global arm sales policies, but likely won’t. The U.S. remains committed to a chess-board based view of foreign policy in general, and arms sales in particular. We make a move that we think affects only one square on the board, or maybe one piece or at the most one opponent. That opponent then makes a counter move. The U.S. plays multiple boards at once– Iraq, China, Venezuela– under the illusion that the games are not fully interconnected. Coyne’s and Hall’s work shows, in the specific case of global arms sales, how very wrong such a thought process is.

    The world is complex. Countries’ interests intertwine, alliances are multi-dimensional, and you can’t assume a move on one board won’t affect another, or all of the others. That is why in lay terms, as Coyne and Hall demonstrate academically, in anything but the shortest term thinking U.S. global arms sales are doomed to neither facilitate diplomacy nor secure national security objectives.

    The whole report is worth your time. Download a copy here.




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    Interview with Jordana Green, CBS Radio

    June 29, 2014 // 1 Comment »



    I recently sat down with Jordana Green of CBS radio’s WCCO 830AM, Minnesota, to talk about working in the minimum wage economy, whistleblowing and my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.

    Here’s the whole show. My portion begins at 20:56 in.









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    Good News: Supreme Court Rules Against Sweeping Drug Tests

    June 25, 2014 // 5 Comments »

    You don’t win them all, but once in awhile you win one. And in this case, it really matters.

    The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Florida Governor, Republican and presidential-candidate wannabe Rick Scott. Scott, since 2011, has been trying to mandate random drug tests for some 85,000 state workers because, yeah, drugs are bad or something. Scott’s executive order did not apply only to employees, such as drivers or pilots, whose duties might in fact be severely affected by drug use. Everybody, from receptionists to scuba divers, would be subject. By refusing to reopen the case, the Supreme Court agreed that Scott’s order was so broad as to violate Constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure.

    Scott issued a statement saying state employees “should have the right to work in a safe and drug free environment, just like in any other business.” The governor noted that portions of the case are still being debated in Miami federal court and that he would “continue to fight” for expanded employee drug testing despite the Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case.

    How Did the Supreme Court Get Involved Anyway?

    The interesting thing is that this issue was put on the Supreme Court’s doorstep at all. A lower court already conclusively said no, sweeping random drug tests are not Constitutional. Done, next issue please. The state of Florida didn’t want to let the tests go, and sought to appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping they might say yes when all the lower courts had already said no. The thing is that lots of people want their cases heard by the Supremes, and so there is a weeding out process. Basically, you have to first ask the Court to take your case. Such asking is done quite formally, via a petition, called a writ of certiorari, or simply a cert. Through the cert process, the court sets its own agenda. Some 10,000 certs are submitted in a typical year.

    Typically, fewer than 100 of those 10,000 petitions are chosen to move forward for a possibly precedent-setting decision. However, only a tiny number of all the certs filed are initiated by the government; on average, just 15 in a Supreme Court term. Tough odds. The bottom line is if the Supreme Court chooses not to hear from case, the lower court decision stands. That’s what happened with Florida, and Scott lost. Again.

    It’s undoubtedly a measure of the importance the Scott administration gives to random drug testing above all else that it chose to take such an aggressive stance, especially given the desperately low odds of success. In fact, Scott pressed the appeal despite a warning from U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro — who first ruled against the program in April 2012 — that there was “probably about zero” chance of success.

    Keep in mind that putting together an appeal isn’t cheap, but Scott won’t say how much taxpayer money it cost. So, the ACLU has filed a public records request seeking how much the state has been spending on the case. Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said it’s likely to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money.

    You may thus not be surprised to learn Scott is up for re-election this fall.

    You’ll be equally not surprised that of all the state employees Scott wanted to randomly drug test, he did not include the Florida legislature or any Florida judges. He also did not include himself. You think if Floridians might want one employee to have a clear head at work, it’d be the top guy.

    Money

    Small world, huh? Rick Scott, the guy who just can’t seem to find enough excuses to try and drug test more people in Florida, owned a $62 million stake in the Soltanic Corporation, a chain of urgent care centers that, among other things, specializes in confidential drug testing. He transferred the shares of the company to his wife in January of 2011 just three months before both mandating that state employees would be tested and signing another law (below) for welfare testing into effect. Scott in fact founded the company himself in 2001, but claims due to the transferrance of shares to his wife he no longer as any connection to its business.

    Interestingly, during the brief period of time the random testing program was actually in force in Florida, the state actually lost money on the deal. Florida required people to pay upfront for their own tests, and then reimbursed those who passed. Since such a small number of people did indeed test positive, the state actually lost $45,780 because of the program.


    Welfare and Drugs

    This isn’t the first time that a federal court has had to step in against Scott’s drug test fetish. A judge in December refused to hear an appeal to overturn a previous ruling requiring applicants for welfare benefits to undergo mandatory drug testing. That decision made it clear that Florida could not require drug tests as a precondition for public benefits someone was otherwise entitled to receive. Scott also seeks to appeal that case, and has until a May 5 deadline to file with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Scott does love him some random drug testing, yes he does.

    In the decision to stay the drug testing, Judge Mary Scriven issued a 37-page order saying the law could violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on illegal search and seizure. Scriven issued a scathing assessment of the state’s argument in favor of the drug tests, saying the state failed to prove “special needs” as to why it should conduct such searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, as the law requires.

    “If invoking an interest in preventing public funds from potentially being used to fund drug use were the only requirement to establish a special need,” Scriven wrote, “the state could impose drug testing as an eligibility requirement for every beneficiary of every government program. Such blanket intrusions cannot be countenanced under the Fourth Amendment.”

    The judge went on to say “there is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a concrete danger that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use.”

    During the time the law was in effect, only 2.6 percent of recipients tested positive for illegal drugs, mostly marijuana. The failure rate was well below that of the general population. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found in a 2009 survey that about 8.7 percent of the population had used illicit drugs in the previous month.

    But Should My Tax Money Go to Dope Heads?

    Now about this point in these discussions, someone (I see a hand in the back there, you sir) asks: Why should my tax dollars go to giving welfare to drug users? Shouldn’t state employees not be using drugs?

    So let’s figure out why people who say those things are dumbasses.

    Welfare to Drug Users. Sure, nobody wants to encourage illegal drug use. But benefits go to people who are hungry (yes of course there are welfare cheats, maybe not as many as tax cheaters on Wall Street, but there are indeed always cheats no matter what.) 73 percent of enrollments in America’s major public benefits programs are from working men and women. They work in jobs that pay wages so low that their paychecks do not generate enough income to provide for life’s basic necessities.

    An awful lot of people who receive benefits are also children, who are dependents of the adult claiming the need. Cut off the (drug using) adult and you cut off the kid. Indeed, about 45 percent of food stamp benefits go to children. Maybe cutting them out is what Governor Scott wants. Many public benefits recipients are elderly. Anyone want to take food from them? Anybody want to mandate they travel for drug tests? Anybody want to tangle with the range of medicines they may take that can trigger false positives? Oh, don’t want to test the elderly? Not much random in that is there, just profiling.

    Drugged out state employees are bad. Sure. But does Rick Scott have any stats to even suggest there is a drug problem among his employees he needs to solve with a complex and expensive random testing program? Isn’t random drug testing just a politically-neat solution to a problem that may not exist? Doesn’t it matter that some of the employees who may do drugs do them on their own time in a way that has no effect whatsoever on their day jobs? Isn’t Rick Scott equally worried about drunk employees? Nope, apparently not. No testing for booze. Nothing in Scott’s plans that mentions mandatory breathalyzer tests.

    Why It Matters

    Since Supreme Court rulings create precedent for lower courts to follow throughout the United States, the Florida decisions are very important. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which challenged both drug-testing plans as unconstitutional, said federal courts have clearly rejected blanket mandatory drug testing by the state.

    “The question of whether the state has the power to compel all employees to submit to suspicionless searches without good reason is settled and the answer is no,” said the lead ACLU attorney in the state employees case.

    But the most important reason sweeping drug testing (or sweeping electronic surveillance) is wrong is because we have a Constitution. The Fourth Amendment of that beautiful document assures Americans that they have a right to privacy that excludes unwarranted searches. You don’t have to decide if you want the right, it is the default and the government can’t just take it away from you simply because you happen to live in Florida.

    That’s what really is at stake here, and why efforts like that of Florida Governor Rick Scott are so wrong. They are, in fact, un-American.



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    The Hyper-Wealthy Own Us (Literally)

    June 19, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    When people talk about income inequality in the U.S., it often involves big, big numbers.

    For example, last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum wage workers combined. The median CEO pay in America for large corporations is $10 million per year. A chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, a tiny one percent of Americans own over a third of America’s wealth.

    Math is Hard

    Still, the numbers are hard to grasp, to understand at a ground-truth level. When folks want to talk about how big a place is, the often-used measure is football fields; the crash site covered an area the size of two football fields. That makes it easier to understand.

    So, here’s our America measured in sort of the same way, courtesy of the real estate site Redfin. They figured out the value of all the homes in some of America’s better known cities, then compared that number to the known wealth of some of America’s better known one percenters. It turns out people like Bill Gates, the Waltons and the Koch Brothers literally own us. They have enough money to buy whole cities. Here’s a partial list:

    Walton Family, owners of Walmart, have $154.8 billion. They could buy all of Seattle, value $111.5 billion.

    Koch Brothers, holding $86.0 billion, could buy all of Atlanta, valued at $78.1 billion.

    Bill Gates, with his $77.5 billion, could buy Boston, for $76.6 billion.

    Warren Buffett, packing $63.5 billion, is able to purchase Charlotte, NC, for $56.1 billion.


    Also rans:

    Michael Bloomberg, only worth $31.8 billion, could still pick up Anaheim for $31.4 billion.

    Larry Page of Google, $30.8 billion, is able to buy Boca Raton for $29.5 billion.

    Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com, has $30.5 billion and could own Napa for $29.5 billion.

    Mark Zuckerberg, your best Facebook friend, saved up $27.7 billion and could buy Saint Paul, MN, at $26.8 billion.

    Phil Knight, who started Nike, has only $18.3 billion, but could still be the owner of Washington DC suburb Falls Church for only $18.0 billion.


    Equal Time

    Balance is important in these sorts of things, so it is only fair to add that some five million homes were lost to foreclosure between 2008 and 2013. 8.2 million foreclosure starts took place in that same time period. Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi estimates foreclosures will strike another three million homes in the next three or four years.



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    Review: The story of what makes – and unmakes – the American Dream

    June 14, 2014 // 5 Comments »

    An Amazon reviewer had this to say about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent:


    Read this book. If you ever wonder what happened to the American middle class over the past 30 years or to the economy in the course of the last five years.

    Read it, though Ghost of Tom Joad is not an easy read. The portrait it paints is depressing. This is a hard reality to face. And Peter Van Buren doesn’t make it any easier by writing it partly as lived experience and partly as a political statement on America. There are moments of great descriptive writing and then there are whole racks of statistics that break the narrative flow.

    But none of this can take away from the importance of this book. It is a compassionate look at the American Dream since 1973 through the eyes of someone whose experience has been more nightmare than dream-like. It is also a cautionary tale– recognize the path that brought us to this pass in order to find a way out of the morass. The references to Grapes of Wrath are well-woven into the story and remind us of the need for constant vigilance to prevent exploitation.

    But this is not just a political commentary. Van Buren has written a very human story about a man’s life, his expectations and disappointments. It is the story about his decisions, the results that ensue, his limited room to maneuver because of a system that he doesn’t fully understand until it’s too late. It is also a story about the people who inhabit his world and their efforts to survive, against all odds. Heartbreaking, yet familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the heartland of America over the past thirty years.

    Every American should read this book. And the wider world as well to understand what makes – and unmakes – the American Dream.



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    I’ll Be at Book Culture in New York City on June 10!

    June 9, 2014 // 10 Comments »





    Yo, New York! I am excited that Book Culture, New York’s coolest independent bookstore, will host me for an evening of conversation in connection with my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

    The event is Tuesday, June 10, from 7:00 pm, at 536 West 112th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam, 212-865-1588. Nearest subway is the 1 Train to Cathedral Parkway. The store is across the street from the “Seinfeld Diner” and close to Columbia.


    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 first chance to speak in New York, please come join me at Book Culture!



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