• 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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    U.S. Economic Inequality at Highest Levels in 100 years

    January 21, 2015 // 12 Comments »

    yellen


    Unless you are very, very rich, you are getting poorer. Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen warned that the gap between the rich and poor in the United States is widening and has reached a near 100-year high.

    The One Percent of the One Percent

    Not sure? Between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households, compared to only 18 percent for the bottom twenty percent of us. Back in 1980, 0.01 percent of the population owned three percent of national wealth. Today that top 0.01 percent, only about 32,000 people, owns 11 percent of national wealth. That’s a staggering increase from an already high base. It suggests even the one percent no longer are that big of a deal in the economy. We need now to pay attention to the one percent of the one percent.

    “By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years,” Yellen said, noting the gap has grown steadily over recent decades, despite a brief pause during the 2008 crisis when pretty much everyone got whacked.

    About the 2008 Recession

    “But widening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded,” Yellen said, noting that “wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.”

    If you read that carefully, it means that the rich, who earn their money in significant part via capital, owning stock and things like multiple pieces of real estate, have done just fine recently.

    The rest of us, who work for wages as our primary income, are still in trouble. If your home, assuming you still own it post-2008 (and that’s a huge assumption. Some five million homes were lost to foreclosure between 2008 and 2013. 8.2 million more foreclosure starts took place in that same time period. Another three million homes in the next three or four years will face foreclosure), is not in a high-growth area, then the value of the one piece of capital you do have, then it does you little good.

    None of this is new or shocking. Economist Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century laid out the very simple math: R > G. R is capital and G is wage growth, and the value of capital, stuff the rich own, always, always grows faster than wages. Thus the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

    Student Loans

    The Fed chief also warned of the burden of student loan debt, which quadrupled between 2004 and 2014. In a bit of an understatement, she added “I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

    Americans owe over $1.2 trillion in college loans. Many students will work as essentially indebted servants for many years to pay them off. Or maybe their parents will. Or both. Yellen said that the trend in recent years in the United States has seen “stagnant or falling living standards for many families.”

    The One Percent of the One Percent of the One Percent

    Yellen offered no remedies for decreasing the rich-poor gap, because why should she. She works for the wealthy.

    With the concentration of wealth, 132 people in the U.S. essentially control elections. They do so by donating, just that handful of people, over 60 percent of the SuperPac money. Those 132 people represent 0.000042 percent of the total number of voters; most other contributions to candidates are small, many below $200. How much is your vote worth?

    Yellen went on to say two “cornerstones of opportunity” are resources available to children and access to higher education, and added that ownership of a family business and inherited wealth can also be important sources of economic opportunity.

    Let’s look at that. Poor people have no resources available to their children. Rich people can pass on robust inheritances. Result: kids of the rich get richer. Wouldn’t life be easier if you knew you’d be a billionaire once daddy kicked it? And as for that access to higher education, please refer back to Yellen’s earlier statement about student loan debt. Escalating tuition costs that have contributed to a dramatic increase in student loan debt — the outstanding balance quadrupled from $260 billion in 2004 to $1.2 trillion this year. Of course the rich pay cash for college, so this debt is disproportionately, and increasingly, affecting poorer families and may put college and graduate degrees out of reach.

    Global, But Worse in the U.S.

    Globally, the gap between the haves and have-nots has reached levels not seen since the 1820s, the OECD said earlier this month, in a report that looked at trends in health, education, inequality, the environment and personal security.

    The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the U.S. is 85; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85.

    Odd company for the self-proclaimed most powerful nation on earth.



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    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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    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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    Posted in #99Percent, Democracy, Economy, Minimum Wage

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