Tag Archives: Capitalism

SYNDICATED COLUMN: 50%+ of Americans Have Been Poor, and Capitalism Thinks That’s Awesome

Odds are, you are poor. Or you’ve been poor.

Conventional wisdom — i.e., what the media says, not what most people think — repeatedly implies that poverty is a permanent state that chronically afflicts a relatively small number of Americans, while the rest of us thrive in a vast, if besieged, middle class. In fact, most Americans between age 25 and 75 have spent at least one year living under the poverty line.

“One of the biggest myths about poverty in the United States is that a relatively small segment of the population is poor, and that this represents a more or less permanent underclass,” Columbia University economist and social work professor Irwin Garfinkel tells Columbia magazine. “But poverty is quite dynamic. Lots of people move in and out of poverty over the course of their lives. And it doesn’t take much for people at the edge to lose their footing: a reduction in work hours, an inability to find affordable day care, a family breakup, or an illness — any of these can be disastrous.”

Even if you bounce back, the effects of these financial setbacks linger. For young adults, attending cheaper colleges or passing up higher education — or being unable to afford to take a low-paid internship — burdens them with opportunity costs that hobble them the remainder of their lives (which will likelier end sooner). Debts accrue with compound interest and must be repaid; damaged credit ratings block qualified buyers from purchasing homes. Diseases go undetected and untreated during periods without healthcare. Gaps on resumes are a red flag for employers.

Americans pay a price for the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism. To find out exactly how high the cost is, Professor Garfinkel and his colleagues at Columbia have created the Poverty Tracker, dubbed “one of the most richly detailed studies of poverty ever undertaken in the United States.” The Poverty Tracker is “a meticulous long-term survey of 2,300 New York households across all income levels…for at least two years” that aims “to create a much more intimate and precise portrait of economic distress than has ever been conducted in any US city.”

Initial findings were distressing: “While the city’s official poverty rate is 21%, the Columbia researchers found that 37% of New Yorkers, or about 3 million people, went through an extended period in 2012 when money was so tight that they lost their home, had their utilities shut off, neglected to seek medical treatment for an illness, went hungry, or experienced another ‘severe material hardship,’ as the researchers define such extreme consequences.”

Wait, it’s even worse than that:

“Even the 37% figure understates the number of New Yorkers who endured tough times in 2012. The researchers estimate that two million more endured what they call ‘moderate material hardship,’ which, as opposed to, say, losing one’s home or having the lights shut off, might involve merely falling behind on the rent or utility bills for a couple of months. Many others were in poor health. Indeed, the researchers found that if you add together all of those who were in poverty, suffered severe material hardship, or had a serious health problem, this represented more than half of all New Yorkers [emphasis is mine].”

The researchers hope that “they will have enough data to begin helping public authorities, legislators, foundations, nonprofits, philanthropists, and private charities address the underlying problems that affect the city’s poor” by the end of 2014.

Nationally, more than 35% of all Americans are currently ducking calls from collection agencies over unpaid debts.

What can be done?

Under this system? Not much. Democrats, who haven’t even proposed a major anti-poverty program since the 1960s, aren’t meaningfully better on poverty than Republicans.

As things stand, the best we can hope for from the political classes are crumbs: a few teeny-weeny proposals for wee reforms.

Like expanding day-care programs. More school lunches. Housing subsidies. “Additional investments in food programs.”

A drop in the bucket in an ocean of misery.

The Poverty Tracker shows that poverty is a huge problem in the United States. Unfortunately its authors, who draw their salaries from an institution intimately intertwined with monied elites, dare not openly suggest what they know to be true, that the key to eliminating poverty is to get rid of its root cause: capitalism.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” out Sept. 2. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

Morality by Terrorism

Joe Cornell, 52, was working in the lot of a Salvation Army location as part of a substance abuse rehabilitation program when he saw a bag of cash fall out of the back of a Brinks armored cash transport car as it drove over railroad tracks in downtown Fresno. He sent it back – because he was afraid of the police state.

LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: Sick Days as “Job Killer”

Sick Days as Job Killer

There they go again.

Whenever anyone floats an idea that would improve the lives of workers — shorter hours, higher wages, or better working conditions — employers claim they’ll be forced to fire workers.

They’re always wrong. But they never shut up.

The California Chamber of Commerce, which represents business, has elevated this argument to a media event. This year’s annual CCOC “Job Killer” list features 26 bills the organization would like to kill. (Last year, the CCOC killed 35 out of 36 pro-worker bills on its hit list.)

Among the “killer 26” is AB 1522, sponsored by Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat. Gonzalez’s bill would guarantee California workers at least three paid sick days a year. (The exact formula is one sick hour for every 30 hours worked.)

To hear employers whine, you’d think that letting employees stay home sick less than one percent of the year — as opposed to dragging themselves to their jobs where they may infect coworkers and customers — would destroy the capitalist system.

Assemblyman Donald P. Wagner (R-Irvine) called the bill an “ill-considered, heavy-handed, one-sided piece of legislation,” Melanie Mason reports in The Times.

A similar law recently went into effect in New York over the objections of the city’s billionaire then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who argued that sick leave laws “hurt small businesses and stifle job creation.”

But there’s a problem with the Chamber of Commerce “job killer” talking point: it’s baseless. There’s no evidence that requiring companies to provide paid sick leave hurts business. A year and a half after such a law went into effect in Connecticut, for example, a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that “the impact of the new law on business has been modest…nearly two-thirds said it had led to no change or an increase of less than 2% in their overall costs. About another 12% didn’t know how much their costs had increased.”

“Virtually none [of the companies] reported reducing wages,” the authors wrote. “About 90% did not reduce their workers’ hours; 85% did not find it necessary to raise prices.”

Job killer? Job annoyer, at most.

Meanwhile, Seattle enacted a major increase in the minimum wage, to $15 per hour, prompting predictions that similar wage hikes could spread across the nation. As usual, pro-business extremists are predicting doom. ” Seattle’s economy will be hurt by this policy and so will some low skill workers who will lose their jobs thanks to the people claiming to be helping them,” Jeffrey Dorfman writes in Forbes.

In the real world, however, minimum wage increases have not caused job losses — even in isolated hamlets like SeaTac, Washington, where restaurants and other low-wage employers could seemingly pick up and move a few miles away.

Courtesy of the big business lobby, that’s the screw-the-workers propaganda machine for you. Why let facts get in the way of the eternal quest for an extra buck?

SYNDICATED COLUMN: America is in Decline. Get Used To It.

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We knew this was coming.

The American Century, after all, was the 20th.

Things were bound to go downhill.

Like 4th century Romans and post-World War II Europeans, Americans are beginning to realize that they are no longer citizens of an unrivaled superpower. And they’re kind of freaking out about it.

Using a novel “purchasing power parity” measure, the World Bank estimates that China’s economy will surpass the United States later this year. By per capita GDP — and most useful indices — the U.S. still maintains its lead. Nevertheless, many Americans agree with the thesis of Marxist economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” thatAmerica’s boom days are behind us, unlikely to be seen again. As The Economist summarizes Piketty: “The middle of the last century was unusual in its growth rates as well as in the distribution of income; the good times most of us see as our due as residents of rich economies were in fact a fleeting anomaly.”

By historical terms, back to normal slogging is a yawner. But humans don’t live in historical terms. We compare where we are now with where we were 10, 20, 30 years ago, and where our parents were. Psychologically if not fiscally, you’re better off never having experienced prosperity than to have had it and lost it. Downward mobility as America’s middle class has experienced it over the last 40 or 50 years — a boom-and-bust cycle featuring shorter expansions and longer, deeper recessions and depressions — is a bummer.

“We’re walking small,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote on May 3rd. “And that shift in our gait and our gumption has been palpable for many years, during an unusually sustained period of frustration that has the feel of something more than a temporary dive: a turned corner, the downward arc of a diminished enterprise.”

As Bruni points out, we have good cause for bad ennui: America’s shameful global ranking on education quality (#39), collapsing social mobility (it’s easier to get rich in Old Europe and Canada), and our crumbling infrastructure. China unveils its awesomely cool pressurized bullet train to the Tibetan plateau; when they’re not hours late, our Amtraks derail.

Not that there aren’t upsides. “Less assertiveness could mean less overreach. Less confidence could mean less hubris. And money isn’t everything,” Bruni allows.

Not that the U.S. doesn’t have at least as much money as it used to. Overall, the U.S. is richer. The trouble is, all our loot has gotten aggregated into the claws of too few people. As The Times’ Nicholas Kristof notes in a piece titled “We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!”: “Over all, the United States’ economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006. But 99% of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99% of the American population. Exclude the top 1%, and the average French citizen did better than the average American.”

Of course, Americans have always worried that America was in decline.

A kind of depression has set in,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in 2011. “We’ve lost our mojo, our groove.”

Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech (which despite our faulty collective memory contains neither the word malaise nor its existential French cousin “ennui”), addressed what he called a “crisis of confidence…the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” (And that was before the Iran hostage crisis.)

The Atlantic’s James Fallows (age 64) addressed America’s longstanding we’re-screwed vibe in 2010:

“Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half-century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. ‘Through the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,’ Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. ‘Thomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,’ said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. ‘And Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.'”

Context matters, and it’s smart not to panic.

Unless…

Unless we really are screwed now. The usually-ignored takeaway from The Boy Who Cried Wolf is that there really was a wolf.

In other words, it is entirely possible the events Fallows and Perlstein downplayed — environmental degradation, the military disasters in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, soaring energy prices and institutionalized political corruption that has gotten so much worse that Nixon now looks like a saint — really were as bad as the worrywarts fretted because, throughout the conscious life of someone Fallows’ age, the U.S. really has been in decline.

Aside from a lot of geopolitical and ecological (metaphorical) birds coming home to roost, the simple truth is that there’s only one world and the U.S. is being forced to share its stuff. Despite a foreign policy centered around disruption and harassment of emerging major regional powers such as China, India, Brazil and Iran, Americans had better get used to a smaller share of power and wealth.

Which isn’t the worst thing. It sucked at the time, but losing their colonial empires is the best thing that ever happened to Europe’s once great powers, both morally and economically. The question for Americans is: What do we do about it? Do we allow our slide into Third Worldism to continue? Or do we scale back the drones and stupid wars, reject the NSA’s Orwellian (and wildly expensive) security nightmare, tax the hell out of the rich, and rebuild the social safety net?

One thing’s for sure: we can’t vote our way out of this problem.

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COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

Premium Ignition Option

13 people died because GM refused to switch out a faulty ignition switch on the Chevy Cobalt and other models, despite being aware of the problem. The change would have cost GM 90 cents per car.

Death Benefit

No expense is spared to retrieve dead bodies, whether it’s the victims of the Malaysian Flight 370 victims at the bottom of the Indian Ocean or the mudslide victims buried by sludge in coastal Washington State or the soldiers who cannot be left behind on the field of battle. Yet when we’re ALIVE, we can’t get help when, for example, we lose our jobs.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Suicide Kills More Americans Than Gun Violence

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As I waited for the body of a man who jumped in front of my train to be cleared from the tracks — less than a week before another train I was riding struck a suicide victim — it occurred to me that (a) I should check whether suicide rates are increasing due to the bad economy (they are, especially among men in their 50s), and that (b) talking about suicide is long overdue.

With modernity comes depression; depression sometimes leads to suicide. And it’s a global phenomenon. “The World Health Organization reports that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world,” T.M. Luhrmann wrote in The New York Times recently.

Why are so many people opting out?

Can we eliminate or reduce the number of our brothers and sisters who kill themselves?

Disclosure: my best friend committed suicide when we were 15. Bill’s death, and his inability/unwillingness to find a reason to keep living among his friends and family, left me angry and confused, unable to process an unsolvable equation. No day passes without me thinking about Bill hanging himself. His death makes me question my own daily decisions to go on living. I am not in touch with anyone else who knew him, but I imagine their trauma was not wildly dissimilar from mine.

So, yeah, it’s a personal issue for me. Given that 30,000 Americans commit suicide and 800,000 attempt it every year, it’s personal for 5,000,000 survivors of close friends and relatives too.

Nobody talks about it, but suicide is a national epidemic. Suicide by gun kills more Americans — a lot more Americans — than gun violence committed against others. (Though research shows that having a gun in your house greatly increases the chance that you’ll shoot yourself.) More American soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the war against Afghanistan.

Perhaps public discussion is inhibited by the cultural myth of the rugged individual, personal responsibility, etc. — hey, it’s your choice to live or die — but we’re all in this together. We need to save as many people as we can.

One way to reduce the suicide rate would be to get rid of capitalism. Though not a truly communist state, citizens of the Soviet Union were far less likely to kill themselves before the collapse of socialism in 1991.

There is a relentless tendency toward monopoly, consolidation of wealth and rising inequality under capitalism. Inequality — specifically, awareness of inequality — kills.

Studies show that relative poverty — how much poorer you are than your societal peers — is strongly correlated to mental illness, including depression. Of course, you can find a study to support just about anything; there’s even a theory that country music prompts people to kill themselves. Still, as Lurhmann says: “We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get: The higher your social position, the healthier you are. It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — literally, where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status alone.”

Being poor doesn’t bum people out. Being poorer than other people — people whose relative wealth you personally witness — does. Mali, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are poor countries. Yet their rates of inequality are low, similar to those of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. And so are their suicide rates.

“Overall life expectancy also tracks with inequality, with a bigger wage gap meaning shorter lives and worse health — for both rich and poor, though the poor are hit much harder,” Maia Szalavitz wrote in a much-cited 2011 Time magazine article. “Researchers suspect that this gradient is linked to stress caused by our place in the social hierarchy: Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, for example, has found that even in baboons, lower ranked animals have higher levels of stress hormones and worse health. But when status conflicts are reduced, producing a more egalitarian situation, these differences are also reduced.”

In a famous 2003 experiment with monkeys, the animals refused to accept small food allotments than those offered to neighboring monkeys. They became angry at the researchers, throwing objects at them — apparently because they blamed them for unequal distribution of the treats.

Those monkeys were on to something. Better to turn our rage against those responsible for inequality than against ourselves.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

How Capitalism Deals with Inequality

President Obama and the Democrats have finally decided, five years after his election, to begin talking about the issue of income inequality, which has been increasing since the early 1970s. But their rhetoric makes it sound like inequality is a weird byproduct of capitalism when, in fact, it is a key feature of an economic system that relies on poverty and exploitation. This is the best system ever conceived?

Triumph of the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the 1%

A new study finds that the world’s wealthiest 85 people own more wealth than the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people — half the world’s population — combined. What if this trend continues?

The Pope Code

65% of Americans say they agree with Pope Francis I’s critique of capitalism. But because we’re not allowed to publicly voice our opposition to capitalism, we resort to a sort of “dog whistle” — a “pope code” — in which we express our approval of the pope as an acceptable way to transmit our closet sympathies for socialism and communism.