Tag Archives: Consumerism

SYNDICATED COLUMN: You’re Not Underemployed. You’re Underpaid.

The Case for Shiftlessness

No bank balance. Nothing in your wallet.

“I’m broke,” you say. “I need a job.”

Or:

Perhaps you have a job. Then you say:

“I’m broke. I need a better job.”

You’re lying. And you don’t even know it.

You don’t need a job.(Unless you like sitting at a desk. Working on an assembly line. Non-dairy creamer in the break room. In which case I apologize. Freak!)

You don’t need a job. You need money.

We’ve been programmed to believe that the only way to get money is to earn it.

(Unless you’re rich. Then you know about inheritance. In 1997, the last year for which there was solid research done on the subject, 42 percent of the Forbes 400 richest Americans made the list through probate. Disparity of wealth has since increased.)

It’s time to separate income from work.

For two reasons:

It’s moral. No one should starve or sleep outside or suffer sickness or go undereducated simply due to bad luck—being born into a poor family, growing up in an area with high unemployment, failing to impress an interviewer.

It’s sane.

“American workers stay longer at the office, at the factory or on the farm than their counterparts in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more over the year,” according to a 2009 U.N. report cited by CBS. Thanks to technological innovations and education, worker productivity—GDP divided by total employment—has increased by leaps and bounds over the years.

U.S. worker productivity has increased 400 percent since 1950. “The conclusion is inescapable: if productivity means anything at all, a worker should be able to earn the same standard of living as a 1950 worker in only 11 hours a week,” according to a MIT study.

Obviously that’s not the case. American workers are toiling longer hours than ever. They’re not being paid more —to the contrary, wages have been stagnant or declining since 1970. Numerous analyses have established that, especially since 1970, the lion’s share of profits from productivity increases have gone to employers.

Workers are working longer hours. But fewer people are working. Only 54 percent of work-eligible adults have jobs—the lowest rate in memory. Which isn’t surprising. Because there are fixed costs associated with employing each individual—administration, workspace, benefits, and so on—it makes sense for a boss to hire as few workers as possible, and to work them long hours.

This witches’ brew—increased productivity coupled with higher fixed costs, particularly healthcare—have led companies to create a society divided into two classes: the jobless and the overworked.

Unemployment is rising. Meanwhile, people “lucky” enough to still have jobs are creating more per hour than ever before and are forced to work longer and harder.

Crazy.

And dangerous. Does anyone seriously believe that an America divided between the haves, have-nots and the stressed-outs will be a better, safer, more politically stable place to live?

Sci-fi writers used to imagine a future in which machines did everything, where people enjoyed their newfound leisure time exploring the world and themselves. We’re not there yet—someone still has to make stuff—but we should be closer to the imagined idyll of zero work than we are now.

If productivity increases year after year after year, employers need fewer and fewer employees to sustain or expand the same level of economic activity. But this sets up a conundrum. If only employees have money, only employees can consume goods and services. As unemployment rises, the pool of consumers shrinks.

The remaining consumers can’t pick up the slack because their wages aren’t going up. So we wind up with a society that produces more stuff than can be sold: Marx’s classic crisis of overproduction. Hello, post-2008 meltdown of global capitalism.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford warns that the Great Recession is just the beginning. In his 2009 book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” Ford, “argues that technologies such as software automation algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics will result in dramatically increasing unemployment, stagnant or falling consumer demand, and a financial crisis surpassing the Great Depression,” according to a review in The Futurist.

The solution is clear: to guarantee everyone, whether or not he or she holds a job, a minimum salary sufficient to cover housing, transportation, education, medical care and, yes, discretionary income. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in an 18th century mindset. We’re nowhere close to detaching money from work. The Right wants to get rid of the minimum wage. On the Left, advocates for a Universal Living Wage nevertheless stipulate that a decent income should go to those who work a 40-hour week.

Ford proposes a Basic Income Guarantee based on performance of non-work activities; volunteering at a soup kitchen would be considered compensable work. But even this “radical” proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Whatever comes next, revolutionary overthrow or reform of the existing system, Americans are going to have to accept a reality that will be hard for a nation of strivers to take: we’re going to have to start paying people to sit at home.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Want More Wars? Raise Taxes on the Rich

Tax Fairness Won’t Reduce Inequality

Reacting to and attempting to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement, President Obama used his 2012 State of the Union address to discuss what he now calls “the defining issue of our time”—the growing gap between rich and poor.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama said. “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

No doubt, the long-term trend toward income inequality is a major flaw of the capitalist system. From 1980 to 2005 more than 80 percent in the gain in Americans’ incomes went to the top one percent. This staggering disparity between the haves and have-nots has created a permanent underclass of underemployed, undereducated and alienated people who often turn to crime for survival and social status. Aggregation of wealth into fewer hands has shrunk the size of the U.S. market for consumer goods, prolonging and deepening the depression.

How can we make the system fairer?

Liberals are calling for a more progressive income tax: i.e., raise taxes on the rich. Obama says he’d like to slap a minimum federal income tax of 30 percent on individuals earning more than $1 million a year.

Soaking the rich would obviously be fair. GOP frontrunner/corporate layoff sleazebag Mitt Romney earned $59,500 a day in 2010—and paid half the effective tax rate (13.9 percent) of that paid by a family of four earning $59,500 a year.

Fair, sure. But would it work? Would increasing taxes on the wealthy do much to close the gap between rich and poor—to level the economic playing field?

Probably not.

From FDR through Jimmy Carter it was an article of faith among liberals that higher taxes on the rich would result in lower taxes on the poor and working class. This was because the Republican Party consistently pushed for a balanced budget. Tax income was tied to expenditures, which were more or less fixed—and thus a zero-sum game.

That period from 1933 to 1980 was also the era of the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society social and anti-poverty programs, such as Social Security, the G.I. Bill, college grants and welfare. These government handouts helped mitigate hard times, gave life-changing educational opportunities that allowed class mobility, closing the gap between despair and hope for tens of millions of Americans. As the list of social programs grew, so did the tax rate—mostly on the rich. The practical effect was to redistribute income from top to bottom.

Democrats think it still works that way. It doesn’t.

The political landscape has shifted dramatically under Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes. Budget cuts slashed spending on student financial aid, food stamps, Medicaid, school lunch programs, veterans hospitals, aid to single mothers. The social safety net is shredded. Most federal tax dollars flow directly into the Pentagon and defense contractors such as Halliburton.

As the economy continues to tank, there’s only one category to cut: social programs. “Eugene Steuerle worked on tax and budget issues in the Reagan Treasury Department and is now with the Urban Institute,” NPR reported a year ago. “He says one reason no one talks about preserving the social safety net today is that lawmakers have given themselves little choice but to cut it. They’ve taken taxes and entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, off the budget-cutting table, so there’s not much left.”

Meanwhile, effective tax rates on the wealthy have been greatly reduced. Which isn’t fair—but not in the way you might think.

Taxes on middle-class families are at their lowest level in 50 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal thinktank.

What’s going on?

On the revenue side of the budget equation, the poor and middle-class have received tiny tax cuts. The rich and super rich have gotten huge tax cuts. Everyone is paying less.

On the expense side, social programs have been pretty much destroyed. If you grow up poor there’s no way to attend college without going into debt. If you lose your job you’ll get 99 weeks of tiny, taxable (thanks to Reagan) unemployment checks before burning through your savings and winding up on the street.

Military spending, on the other hand, has soared, accounting for 54 percent of federal spending.

In short, we’re running up massive deficits in order to finance wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on, and so rich job-killers can pay the lowest tax rates in the developed world.

I’m all for higher taxes on the rich. I’m for abolishing the right to be wealthy.

But liberals who think progressive taxation will mitigate or reverse income inequality are trapped in the 1960s, fighting the last (budget) war in a reality that no longer exists. The U.S. government’s top priority is invading Muslim countries and bombing their citizens. Without big social programs, invading Muslim countries and bombing their citizens is exactly where every extra taxdollar collected from the likes of Mitt Romney would go.

The only way progressive taxation can address income inequality is if higher taxes on the rich are coupled with an array of new anti-poverty and other social programs designed to put money and new job skills directly into the pockets of the 99 percent of Americans who have seen no improvement in their lives since 1980.

You have to rebuild the safety net. Otherwise higher taxes will swirl down the Pentagon’s $800 toilets.

If you’re serious about inequality, income redistribution through the tax system is only a start. Whether through stronger unions or worker advocacy through federal agencies, government must require higher minimum wages. It should set a maximum wage, too. A nation that allows its richest citizen to earn ten times more than its poorest would still be horribly unfair—yet it would be a big improvement over today. Shipping jobs overseas must be banned. Most free trade agreements should be torn up. Companies must no longer be allowed to layoff employees before eliminating salaries and benefits for their top-paid managers—CEOs, etc.

And a layoff should mean just that—a layoff. First fired should be first rehired—at equal or greater pay—if and when business improves.

Once a battery of spending programs targeted to the 99 percent is in place—permanent unemployment benefits, subsidized public housing, full college grants, etc.—the tax code ought to be radically revamped. For example, nothing gives the lie to the myth of America as a land of equal opportunity than inheritance. Aristocratic societies pass wealth and status from generation to generation. In a democracy, no one has the right to be born into wealth.

Because everyone deserves an equal chance, the national inheritance tax should be 100 percent. While we’re at it, why should people who inherited wealth but have low incomes get off scot-free? Slap the bastards with a European-style tax on wealth as well as the appearance of wealth.

Now you’re probably laughing. Even Obama’s lame call for taxing the rich—so the U.S. can buy more drone planes—stands no chance of passing the Republican Congress. They’re empty words meant for election-year consumption. Taking income inequality seriously? That’s so off the table it isn’t even funny.

Which is why we shouldn’t be looking to corporate machine politicians like Obama for answers.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Thrifty Families and Other Lies

Like Their Government, Americans Live on Debt

his State of the Union address President Obama repeated this ancient canard: “We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in,” he said. “That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.”

Republicans have used this “families balance their budgets, so should government” line for years. Now Democrats are doing it too. Everyone is jumping aboard the pseudo-austerity bandwagon. (Why pseudo? Neither party really wants to balance the federal budget because it can only be done by bringing home the troops, shrinking the Pentagon by 90 percent, ending corporate welfare, and soaking the rich—i.e. major campaign donors—with higher taxes.)

The family budget talking point is a fascinating meme that reflects a rarely considered national blind spot. As with other cases of mass denial (we think we’re generous do-gooders around the world, foreigners see us for the crazy mean torturers we also are), we give ourselves more credit than we deserve.

We Americans value thrift and personal responsibility. We believe we should live within our means. These cultural ideals stem from our Puritan history.

But we don’t live up to our ideals. Not even close.

Americans are up to the ears in debt.

Four out of five individuals have at least one credit card. The average family has an outstanding balance of $10,700. It spends 21 percent of its monthly income to pay interest on that balance.

The average American family has assets: It owns a house worth $160,000. But it owes $95,000 to the bank. As the housing market continues to crash, equity shrinks.

Our average family’s savings are virtually nonexistent: $3,800 in the bank, no retirement account whatsoever (for half of families, average retirement savings $35,000 for the other half), no mutual funds, no stocks, no bonds.

The claim that American families live within their means is a joke.

To be fair, it’s not entirely their fault. The typical American family only earns $43,000. It’s hard to buy much of anything, much less the house that embodies the American Dream, with that. And it’s impossible to save.

So they/we borrow.

As grim as a life of indebted servitude may seem, imagine what the American economy would look like if families really did live within their means, spending no more than they earned. No debt. No credit.

Markets for big-ticket items—homes, automobiles, major appliances—would crash and burn. Countless businesses would go under.

According to the National Association of Realtors 23 percent of homebuyers paid cash in January. That’s more than ever before but that still leaves at least 77 percent relying on mortgage financing. (Why “at least”? Most “cash” transactions include money borrowed from banks and credit unions.) Take 77 percent of purchasers out of the buy side of the equation and million-dollar homes would be worth five figures.

Pop! Credit is the biggest bubble of all.

If credit went away, most Americans’ biggest asset would vanish. Everyone would be “under water” to their lenders. The burbs would soon look like Afghanistan.

The same goes for cars: At least 88 percent of buyers take out a loan.

What would happen if these buyers had to save actual cash money before they could hit the showroom? They wouldn’t buy a car. Air would get cleaner but the economic collapse that began in 2008, which has put one out of five Americans out of work, would accelerate dramatically.

Two-thirds of the U.S. economy directly relies on consumer spending. People can only purchase goods and services using one of three sources: income, savings or credit. As we’ve seen, the average American family doesn’t have savings. Its income has been falling since 1968.

That leaves credit. If consumer credit vanished, the corporato-capitalist system currently prevailing in the U.S. would deteriorate from its current, merely unsustainable form into total chaos. Without credit cards and other loans citizens would seethe, trapped between the mutually irreconcilable forces of falling wages and the aggressive advertising and marketing of products they would never be able to afford. There would only be two possible long-term outcomes: revolution, or the ruling classes would be forced to pay substantially higher wages to workers. To corporate elites, the latter choice would be too unpalatable to countenance.

The typical American family cannot live within its means because it cannot earn enough to sustain its lifestyle. Were it to downgrade its living standards to a level it could afford, there wouldn’t be enough consumer spending to drive the economy. This would force further personal austerity. Eventually we’d all be living outside.

You know what’s funny? Unlike the American family, the U.S. government can spend less than it earns. It can increase revenues by raising taxes. Unlike families, it spends trillions of dollars on stuff—wars—that it doesn’t need and actually makes things worse.

It could even use its power to force employers to pay workers what they deserve. If the government did that, families might not need credit.

They could (finally) live within their means.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

When We’ll Take the Environment Seriously

The arctic melts. The gulf stream stutters. Average temperatures rise. Species go extinct. Yet no one takes the destruction of the environment seriously. What would it take for that to change?