• Democratic Narrative: No Morning in America for You

    March 6, 2020 // 4 Comments »

     

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

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

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

     



     

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

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

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

     



     

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

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

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

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

     



     

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

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

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

     



     

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

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

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

     
     

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    Posted in 2020, Economy, Trump

    Navigating the Homeless and Mentally Ill

    February 24, 2020 // 12 Comments »

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Posted in 2020, Economy, Trump

    Bernie and Reality of Economic Inequality

    February 16, 2020 // 23 Comments »


     
    It is a good thing candidates like Bernie Sanders make economic inequality a campaign issue in 2020. But with apologies to the Bernieverse, he is well-meaning but like everyone else has no practical solutions. Bernie, et al, imagine there exists some means to redistribute wealth, most likely, following the economist Thomas Piketty, via a progressive tax on the wealthy. Just talking about that may be enough to scare the wealthy into putsching a corporate Democrat in place of Bernie once again despite the human shield of green-haired pierced volunteers, but even if he were to win he could not be enough to change America. It’s a reality problem.

    The reality of wealth is the gap between most Americans and those who sit atop our economy continues to grow. This is nothing new. For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top five percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate, about four percent a year. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases only half of that of those at the top. Then it got worse.

    Lower savings and hyper-available credit (remember fraudulent Countrywide mortgages, ARMs, and usurous re-fi’s?) put the middle and bottom portions of society on an unsustainable financial path that increased spending until it crashed into the Great Recession of 2008. Meanwhile, America’s top earners’ wealth grew; the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 as the markets recovered, while the bottom ninety percent became poorer as their missing homes did not. Their wealth, such as it was, was a Potemkin vision, wealth in the form of their homes which they actually did not own. The recession represented the largest redistribution of money in a century. How did the rich pull this off?

    The reality of possession. They own stock and real estate, not just personal homes to live in. Less than half of Americans do not own any stock while the wealthiest of Americans own over 80 percent of all stock, and 40 percent of America’s land. It is worse on an international scale. Only 85 human beings own half of all the world’s stuff. Markets over time go up and those who own parts of them do well. People who do not own homes have to rent them from those that do own. Owners can raise rents as they think they can get away with. A rising tide lifts all yachts, as historian Morris Berman observed. It can be hard to understand this level of wealth; a few years ago the real estate site Redfin figured out Bill Gates could buy all of the real estate in Boston. Candidate Michael Bloomberg could pick up Anaheim. Google’s Larry Page is able to buy Boca Raton. Never mind yachts, they can buy whole cities.

     

    It is the reality of the system. Walmart associates make minimum wage. Most associates are nowhere near full-time, so their take home pay is well below the poverty threshold. Employer-paid Obamacare, such as it is, only kicks in after one works 20 hours a week or more, so following the implementation of that policy most employees were cut to less than 20 hours, meaning they had to juggle multiple jobs to live and still did not have healthcare. They might be working 60 hours a week at three different places but that did not qualify them for healthcare as the qualifying hours are not cumulative.

    In return for paying below-poverty wages, Walmart enjoys taxpayer subsidies of $5,815 per worker in the form of food stamps paid by the government to keep the workers nearer the poverty line than below it, and tax breaks given to “create jobs.” On their side of the ledger, a few years ago the top four members of the Walmart family made a combined $28.9 billion from their investments. Less than a third of that would have given every U.S. Walmart worker a $3.00 raise, enough to end the public subsidy, though the four Walmart scions would have to make due with only $20 billion a year. Essentially the interests of the 99 percent are in direct conflict with those of the one percent.

    But the real money from economic inequality is made in much bigger bites. Walmart can pay low wages, creating a new status known as working poor, without having to see workers literally starve on the job because their employees receive $2.66 billion in government poverty assistance each year. That works out to about $5,815 per worker, or about $420,000 per store. Food stamps, a generic term for food assistance, are a key part of navigating in and profiting from, income inequality. In one year under study nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in food stamp dollars spent at their stores, a fair amount by their own workers. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in food stamp expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money nationwide is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.

     

    The reality of the system protects those who make massive amounts of money by owning things, as opposed to working for wages. So let’s Robin Hood those wealthy bastards, Bernie and Elizabeth and others say. Jeff Bezos’ net worth is $109 billion. But that’s everything he has, not just the six percent tax Elizabeth Warren wants him to pay. The net worth of the entire Forbes 400 is under three trillion dollars. That’s everything they all own, as if we killed them and took it. The reforms Elizabeth Warren proposed to address economic inequality will cost some $20 trillion. It does not exist.

    But you have to start somewhere, right?  Given that America’s largest companies already pay little to no tax, it is  unclear how such a system would ever be enforced in the long run before the wealthy offshore their money. Taxes still leave in place other factors driving economic inequality, including a system of higher taxes on wages than capital gains, inheritance laws (Money is immortal. The children of rich people are born rich and unless they get really into hookers and blow, will inevitably get richer. They almost can’t help it), and the ability of the wealthy to control wages and the availability of jobs. Unions are increasingly a thing of the past and automation threaten more jobs daily. The rich decide when to pull the trigger on touch screens in fast food restaurants and deep six cashier jobs, never mind the mass extinction driverless delivery vehicles will bring on, and the one after that when advances in AI crush entry-level coding jobs.

     

    The single most significant factor is that financial growth via capital ownership (what the rich do for money) always outstrips wage growth (what the rest of us do to get money.) Getting richer by owning stuff is always a better deal than trying to get rich by working for wages from the people who own stuff. Even if a magic wand reset society somehow, the nature of capitalism would soon set things back on the path to income inequality. This was French economist Thomas Piketty‘s significant finding. Rich people know about this even if poor people don’t. Rich people get money through capital gains, basically assets they buy cheaply becoming worth more over time (until slavery was replaced with the minimum wage, human beings were also considered as a form of capital asset. Seriously, check with human “resources” where you work.) That’s why a short-term downturn is bad for you, ultimately good for most of them. It’s why stock market trouble uninformed people wish for will not make Trump go away. Math!

    The only hope lies in the reality of politics, right? Over large swaths of the earth, there are no elections. In some of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East and Asia there is not even the pretext of anyone choosing a government. Most governments are controlled by family ascension, not unlike the Middle Ages or in more modern places corruption and manipulation. Power and wealth work together.

    Such is the case now in the United States. According to the once-prescient Lawrence Lessing (who has since lost his mind to Twitter and TDS), with the concentration of wealth, 132 people in the U.S. essentially control elections. They do so by donating, just that handful of people, over 60 percent of the SuperPac money. Those 132 people represent 0.000042 percent of the total number of voters; most other contributions to candidates are small, many below $200. It sounds nice when a candidate talks about it but it diffuses power even as you he owes you something now. It is impossible under such circumstances for government to create laws again the interests of the wealthy; after all, they work for them.

    The reality is there is no answer, no solution. That’s because things are working more or less as they are supposed to. From a certain perspective, income inequality means things are going according to the rigged rules. The system is designed to squeeze wealth up into a smaller and smaller group of hands. A by product is the creation of more and more poor and eventually homeless at the bottom. It is the inevitable end point for a society set up to fund the wealthy via capital appreciation by paying low or stagnant wages to everyone else.

    To say it can’t be is to ignore the last time in history when it sort of was, one king in one castle sustained by tens of thousands of serfs living in sloven conditions. The world has seen this before, for the West, during the Middle Ages, when feudalism was the dominant force. A very, very few owned most everything of value. The 99.999 percent majority — serfs then, valued Target associates now — worked for whatever the feudal lords allowed them to have.

    Of course this is all very wrong. It’s very American to believe there are always answers, that there are not forces stronger than change at work, especially in an election year. If you’re still looking for those answers — solutions — well, you’ve gotten to the end of the article.

      

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    Morning in America Again, or Kristallnacht? The Answer Wins the Election

    January 13, 2020 // 6 Comments »


     

    Just before holiday visits back home to the Midwest, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney explained Trump’s 2020 reelection message will focus on the economy, immigration, and Democratic Party “socialism.”

    The first is straightforward. Some 76 percent of Americans rate economic conditions positively, up from 48 percent at the time of Trump’s election. Stocks are having their best year since 1997, and indexes are at all time highs. Wage growth continues, unemployment is at a half-century low point, holiday spending was up 3.4 percent with an 18.8 rise in online sales, and the media-driven fears of recession and trade war apocalypse yielded to reality. History shows the guy in the White House on Election Day gets the credit.

    The Democrats’ rebuttal is a blurry focus on economic inequality. The drunks at Midwest holiday parties actually agree in large part, but as sober voters are unsure who Bernie Warren is lecturing to about that, as they’ve been well aware of economic inequality for a long time. It was easy to walk them back through the weaker and weaker union contracts (when they still had unions) and  plant downsizings (when they still had plants) to around 1973, the year financial equality in America peaked. The conversation is like watching those YouTube videos showing the Beach Boys singing Surfin’ USA in the Sixties through to their creepy 2019 selves.

    These people are open to hear what Democrats plan to do about it but they do not believe the Robin Hood strategy Elizabeth Sanders proposes. They are also more than aware there are even more exhausted little towns down county wracked by drugs. They know places like that don’t care about Medicare for All, they already have Medicaid for All. Free college isn’t much of a draw because there aren’t a lot of better jobs begging and the places that have had training programs left over from presidential campaigns past already learned the hard lesson education, while a good thing, doesn’t create jobs. Jobs create the need for education. Otherwise it’s empty calories, changing underemployed uneducated people into underemployed educated people. Teaching a million people to code, or weld, even if you could, means nothing if there aren’t a million of those jobs accessible. Actually, if “those in a craphole of debt” are an important electoral demographic for Democrats, the people in these pink houses would welcome some attention to limits on the 24 percent interest rate they pay on credit cards, or the 391 percent interest on payday loans for those who can’t get credit anymore.

    If a Democrat came up with a viable infrastructure plan, he’d have these folks’ ears and if funded more intelligently than “we’ll get rich people whose companies don’t pay taxes now to pay” he’d likely have their votes, too. They’ve struggled enough at the end of a month to know money doesn’t come from nowhere, and the same people promising them something are promising others bribes in the form of slavery reparations, student loan forgiveness, and maybe free ponies. Some might even remember the War on Poverty, which started Medicare and Medicaid, was aimed in part at the Midwest some fifty years ago to help displaced coal miners. These folks are familiar with politician’s promises. This is not an audience easily won over by an argument to trust new and expensive government programs to fix everything.

    Sure there are paradoxical notes on meritocracy, that things are earned, which get scrambled among people who accept food stamps but decry others who do the same as lazy. But what makes sense and what is are not always the same. In 2020 the hint of new taxes to pay for things that aren’t likely to get them a better job is enough to stick with what little the last four years handed over. A job, or a better paying job, is what everyone wanted under the Christmas tree. Trump has not delivered fully as he promised, but things feel better.

     

    More immigration is about as popular as less football. Listening to Democrats talk about open borders, sanctuary cities, benefits for illegals, and admitting more refugees, you would be surprised to learn 77 percent of Americans see illegal immigration as a “critical/important” threat. So people are wondering why fellow Midwesterner Pete Buttigieg wants to deport fewer illegal immigrants. They wonder what happened to the 2016 Bernie, who once claimed open borders were a Koch brothers’ plot to flood the U.S. with cheap labor to depress wages.

    They wonder if Democrats can’t handle the truth. Never mind the sepia Ken Burns documentaries, they know they’re the descendants of immigrants who weren’t always welcomed, who were called Hunkies or Polacks before being exploited as cheap labor by the “whyte people” of the day. They also know damn well the reason wages are down today at many places is because people are coming from countries thousands of miles away to be exploited as cheap labor. Nobody this New Year’s said “our lives would be better if we had more immigrants moving in.” Nobody said “I’m glad some candidates are focused on transgender asylum rights, that’s important.” But nobody said “I hate refugees or trans people” either. Understanding the difference between the two statements is going to help decide the election.

     

    That brings things to Mick Mulvaney’s last Trump campaign point, “Democratic Socialism,” a vision for what America could become under a new administration. It is a story a candidate tells voters. What the Democrats are offering seemed as popular as the burnt crescent rolls even the drunks left alone on the table New Year’s Eve. An “…and in other news” story about how the Bernie Sanders campaign is worried spending too much of their money on office supplies from Amazon is unethical brought forth a consensus opinion locally of “and these people represent who” around here?

    The great campaigners — Reagan, 2008 Obama, first-gen Bill Clinton — had a vision of Morning in America, of Hope, and, of well, also Hope. People vote their pocketbook, but they also vote on that vision of who they are and who they think they want to be. Aspiration is an economic driver same as wages and in America may be more powerful. Trump is good enough at this. He tells people he’s rich, he’s powerful, he can do anything he wants, and what he chooses to do is work for them for free. Look at the faces at a Trump rally. You saw the same in 2008 with Obama, with Reagan in 1984, and it becomes a conversation that ends almost organically with a vote, like a perfect date that slides buttery into breakfast. They don’t really want to stand up and complain at a town hall, they want to see their future. Save the arguments about what is real and what is guff because they don’t matter when you’re telling a good story to an audience that wants to think they’re better people than they’ve been forced to become.

    Meanwhile, the story Democrats are telling is of a crappy place buried in racism and homophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. It’s not Morning in America in 2020, it’s Kristallnacht. We’re not people of hope and aspiration, we’re bitter and hateful, despised not just for holding a political opinion, but for being the kind of person who holds such an opinion. Nobody takes Michael Moore seriously in a literal way anymore, but he spoke out loud what many Dems think when he said “Two-thirds of all white guys voted for Trump. That means anytime you see three white guys walking at you, down the street towards you, two of them voted for Trump. You need to move over to the other sidewalk because these are not good people that are walking toward you. You should be afraid of them.”

    We’re not even really worthy of our vote — the popular vote, as expressed by New York and California, will allow a more righteous country to emerge over bodies of the rednecks the Russians told to vote Trump.

     

    The only real vision the Dems offer is whichever one of them limps out of the primaries, they are not Trump. They want everyone to forget the three years of lies and conspiracy theories that Trump was working for the Russians. They want everyone to ignore the FBI campaign to overturn the last election, the last gasping efforts of which are an impeachment process even the Democrats seem to wish would just go away now. They want everyone to forget the fear mongering saying Trump would start a war with China, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea or just nuke somewhere in a fit of rage when Melania had a headache again. They want everyone to forget the three years of claims Trump is incestous, is mentally ill, subject to the 25th Amendment, a danger to us all, bonkers, unhinged. They don’t know the more they rage about Trump and predict catastrophe the more out of touch it seems when the catastrophes don’t happen. Pssst, people have noticed the pattern, Rachel.

    Dems also want everyone to forget how those actions, consistent and over time, might be a better indication of how they would govern than any “plan” posted on line. So much fuel has been burned pointing out Trump’s ugliness that the Dems think voters won’t notice the party’s own self-righteousness. Everyone has had their good will tested by years worth of movies and TV which eschews plot to shove simplistic versions of wokeness and feminism down everyone’s throat. We get it — commercials feature disproportionate levels of same-sex and mixed race couples, and the moral of the story is the old white guy is wrong. The absurdity of a man with long hair identifying as a woman and setting local high school track records is now drilled in. That is part of the vision ascribed to Democrats, and it is not worth many votes.

     

    Few people listen to the media anymore here and even fewer believe much of what they hear. Polls show 47 percent of Americans believe it’s difficult to know whether the information they encounter is true. Some 60 percent say they regularly see conflicting reports about the same set of facts, and way less than half of Americans have confidence in the media (the number drops to 15 percent when just Republicans are asked.) The ground truth is not hard to tease out, though reality is easier to see when your morning coffee doesn’t cost $6.99. The Millenial pundits from Brooklyn who write the dumb garbage about the Heartland as a infestation of inbred racists wouldn’t even need passports to come out and visit. They might come to realize they spend too much time reporting off social media without knowing they’re talking to themselves. But they wouldn’t be comfortable at the cousins’ homes. When they ask where the coffee is sourced from and is it sustainable, the answer would be “Um, Kroger, and yeah, we got a whole pot on.” It helps to have to have grown up in a place where it was usually too cold to leave the beer outside on New Year’s.

    Still, they might learn the majority of voters in purple states, the ones who likely will decide the election, don’t see America as a hateful place consumed by racism, homophobia, and white supremacy, and they don’t see themselves as racists, homophobes, and white supremacists. A lot of these people voted for Obama when he won Ohio in 2008 and 2012. The people the pundits might meet are also more aware than the media things were not so great during the Obama years progressives now bathe in golden light. These people are tired of being defined and reviled by candidates who have no idea of how they live, yet hate them anyway for not watching PBS. The media’s idea they are Nazis, or support anything close to Nazism, is an insult. Their grandfathers fought the Second World War. They know Facebook is where you post pictures of the kids, not receive marching orders from the Kremlin. Their America hasn’t been taken away from them by blacks or whoever’s; nobody really wants it.

    “Not Trump” will be enough for the Whole Foods/Trader Joe base, but not for places across Ohio and elsewhere further down the food chain. Trump gets this at a visceral level. It is messy out there, but these people understand they have made it three years without a new war, without an economic collapse, that the impeachment matters not a whit, and even Saturday Night Live is sort of funny again.

     
     

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    Democrats Need to Stop Dry Humping the American Dream

    May 13, 2019 // 2 Comments »


     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     
     
    BONUS:

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

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

     
     

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