There are signs of a genuine nascent recovery in the US economy, four years after it was formally announced by government propagandists. But the new jobs pay less, and it will take a long time before newly hired workers feel safe enough to risk spending again.
Originally published at Breaking Modern:
Your phone rings. It’s your boss. “Hey, Ted, can you step into my office now?”
You enter your boss’ office. The first thing you notice is the lady from human resources is also with your boss. He says, “Have a seat, Ted.”
Then informs you you’re out of work.
Here comes that hollow stomach feeling.
What do you do now?
The first thing to do is to understand that you are not alone. They say the economy is recovering, and by many measures it is, yet 300,000 Americans still lose their jobs every year. If this is the first time for you, congratulations! With the old “work at the same company your whole life and retire with a gold watch” days dead and gone, the boom-and-bust cycle, coupled with the economic disruptions created by mobilization and new technology, jobs coming and going throughout your life is the new normal. If this is the second or third or fourth time, sorry – but it doesn’t make you a bad person. It isn’t personal. It’s capitalism.
The second thing to do is to not do something:
Don’t Get Angry.
You may be tempted to call your soon-to-be former supervisor bad names. You might want to cry. Trashing the office might seem like a satisfying way to go. Don’t. This particular form of temporary satisfaction comes at an unacceptably high price.
Why did you work there in the first place? Survival. You have bills to pay. Now that you have gotten fired/laid off/downsized/rightsized/whatever they’re calling it nowadays, survival is about to get tougher. Maybe your boss was an asshole, maybe it wasn’t your fault, who knows? You might even have a genuine lawsuit to file down the road. But that’s not the first, second or third thing you need to take care of.
Save your revenge for later. Right now, you have work to do.
That’s right: being unemployed is a full-time job.
Make a Graceful Exit.
This is an age of instant communications and social networks. Flame out as you head out the door with your banker’s box full of office supplies, and word will get out – most worriedly, to future potential employers who work in the same field. Assume a stoic demeanor. Take your dismissal with dignity, say goodbye to your co-workers, and be sure to leave your personal email and other contact information with those you’d like to be in touch with in the future.
Give Yourself Time to Adjust.
One of the best pieces of advice anyone gave me the last time I got laid off was: “Give yourself some time to process what has happened.” What that means in practical terms is, don’t go home and start sending out resumes right away.
You’ve just gone through the wringer; getting fired, especially in a country like the United States where your societal status is closely tied to your work, and which has a ridiculously thin safety net, is one of the most-stressful setbacks you will experience in your life. Allow yourself to pass through the four stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, acceptance.
If you feel like going out and getting drunk, do it. Wallow, rage, call your friends and chew their ears off about how evil your boss was. Vent.
But don’t make it a lifestyle. You have bills to pay, remember? The mourning process deserves at least a week, but no more than two.
File for Unemployment.
If you’re eligible – in other words, you were working a regular job, one that issues you a W-2 form, as opposed to a 1099 for freelance work – you probably qualify for state unemployment benefits.
Filing for unemployment is one of the first things you should do when you get home. Like: on day one.
Don’t feel guilty about filing for unemployment. It’s not welfare. You paid into your state’s unemployment system; all you’re doing is taking your money back out now that you need help. Depending on where you live, your salary at your previous job, and how long you worked there, your maximum unemployment benefits range from $240 to $674 per week. Considering the fact that the average duration of a job hunt is about 10 weeks, you’re going to need every penny to get by. Since we are talking about government bureaucracy, it probably will take several weeks before you start to see any money. So file quickly.
The old days of standing in line at the unemployment office are over. It’s easy to file online; simply Google the name of your state and the phrase “file for unemployment benefits.”
Answer the questions truthfully, but bear in mind that every question can and will be used against you as an excuse to deny paying you. So if you aren’t sure whether or not you’re going to receive severance, it’s better to answer the question “Will you receive severance?” with a no.
A few important quirks to bear in mind about unemployment benefits:
They don’t last forever.
If you earn money while looking for a new job, you have to deduct the earnings from that gig from your benefits. In other words, if you are getting $430 a week from the state, and you pick up $200 in freelance work that week, you have to report it, and the state will only pay you $230 that week.
However, you can mitigate this effect. Let’s say you receive two checks, each for $500. You could deposit them both the same week, report that income toward that one week, and the state will only withhold one $430 payment, in the example above.
While on unemployment, you will be expected to be looking for a new job. Most states require that you file at least three applications per week. But it’s not as hard as you think: sending an email to a prospective employer qualifies. Just keep track of the name and contact information for the companies; they will ask you for them later.
Some states will also require you to attend a “job training” seminar. Basically this will involve teaching you how to prepare a resume and cover letter and how to search job sites. Most people will find this kind of silly and useless, not to mention a distraction from actually looking for a job, but conservative politicians have managed to make this a legal requirement for receiving unemployment benefits. This will take place at an office at your nearest county seat.
Thanks to President Ronald Reagan, unemployment benefits are taxable. So remember that at the end of the year Uncle Sam will come looking for his piece of those “huge” payments you’ve been living high on.
If you were fired “for cause,” you won’t qualify for unemployment. Basically, “cause” means they let you go for a legitimate reason other than a general economic downturn or simply not meeting your position anymore, something like theft, incompetence, absenteeism, disobedience, etc.
If you really did something wrong, suck it up and learn a lesson and don’t do it anymore at your next job. But some employers fire good, honest workers “for cause” because it’s cheaper: they don’t have to pay severance and, in some states, unemployment subsidies.
That happened to me in California: I took a vacation day, came back to work and got fired, allegedly for not asking for the day off. Fortunately, I had printed out both my request email as well as my supervisor’s response message authorizing the vacation day. I applied for unemployment, the state opened an investigation, I faxed them the two emails, and they ruled in my favor in less than a week.
If you don’t deserve it, don’t let your former employer screw you. File for unemployment and make sure you present a clear, easy-to-follow case that explains why you didn’t deserve to be fired.
Maybe Do COBRA.
Federal law gives you the right to keep your existing company health insurance for up to 18 months. But your employer no longer subsidizes it. You pay for it in its entirety, which can make it pretty expensive, even if it’s at the corporate rate. I recommend you sign up for it for a month or two, and then apply for Obamacare either via the federal Affordable Care Act website or the one for your state. If you are still unemployed in a couple of months, you may qualify for Medicaid or highly subsidized health care that is a lot cheaper than COBRA.
Of course, if you are a “young invincible” millennial without any major health concerns, you might choose to go without health insurance until you find a new job. Obviously not a great idea – you never know when a meteor might crash through your ceiling – but if you go that route, make sure you stay healthy.
The second thing you should do after filing for unemployment is to let everyone you know – friends, family members, neighbors, everyone you meet – that you’re looking for work, any work, while you struggle to get back on your feet. Even if that last part about taking any work isn’t 100% true – you’re probably not really going to get involved in asbestos mitigation or fishing for Alaskan king crab – it broadcasts both your desperation and your character. People want to help you, but showing that you are open to branching out outside of your comfort zone and aren’t too proud gives them a solid inducement to do so.
Since networking is by far the most effective way to land a new job, getting the word out that you are available, and keeping the word out by repeatedly checking in with your personal and business contacts both by email and by phone, has the best chance by far of paying off.
If you got laid off as part of corporate downsizing, there is a strong chance that your former employer will offer you a severance payment. In bigger companies the amount will be tied to the length of your service; in smaller ones it will basically be as little as they think they can pay you to get you to shut up.
About the shutting up part: severance payments usually go with a so-called “separation agreement” that the company will ask you to sign. Among the highlights will likely be passages in which you agree not to smear your former employer in a public venue like the Internet (a “non-disparagement clause”), promise not to share company secrets (a “nondisclosure clause”), and possibly a “noncompete” section in which you agree not to go to work for your former company’s competitors.
It will be tempting, given how broke you are about to become, to take the money and run – in other words, sign the separation agreement without attempting to negotiate. If the agreement is relatively benign, that may be okay, but read it over carefully, and if you don’t understand it have a lawyer take a look at it. Separation agreements are often legal minefields that take advantage of people who have just been fired and are still in shock.
When I got laid off from United Media, a subsidiary of Scripps Howard, they demanded that I agree to all the standard sections I described above, plus something outrageous: that I agree to never work in print or online media again. For the rest of my life. I wanted the $5,700 severance, but to never work again in my chosen field, $5.7 million wouldn’t have been enough. Scripps refused to give an inch or change a word, so I ended up leaving without getting a penny of severance. (They claimed they would never have enforced it, but if that were true, why ask for it?) Going without severance made my layoff harder, but looking back now, I’m happy I didn’t sign.
Like any legal document, you’ll have to live with the ramifications of a separation agreement for years to come. Be careful. Give your former employer what they need, like the nondisclosure and non-disparagement sections, but draw the line there. Remember: HR wants to close the file on you just as much as you want that last check.
Can You Sue? Probably Not.
It comes as a surprise to most American workers to learn that, unlike employees in most other Western countries, they are “at will” workers – in other words, their employers can fire them at any time, without notice, for no reason.
There are two exceptions to this:
If you have an employment contract that specifically states possible causes for termination, and they want to let you go for some other reason, you have legal standing to challenge your firing. But most American employment contracts specifically state that you are an at-will employee.
If you can prove that your firing is the result of discrimination due to your age (for being too old, not too young), race, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation, you can sue your ex-employer for back wages, reinstatement and punitive damages. Some discrimination laws depend on the state where you were working; others are federal. However, you have to reach a very high bar to prove workplace discrimination and, thanks to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, that bar has been raised even higher. Among other things, you will have to obtain testimony from within the company, as well as documents, that confirm a systemic pattern of, say, sexism, to which you fell prey. That is almost impossibly hard.
Launching a successful discrimination lawsuit requires either deep pockets or a lawyer willing to work on a contingency, as it will likely take many years to see your day in court, which even if you win, will be followed by countless appeals. And even if you ultimately prevail, the odds are that you will not walk away with millions of dollars, but perhaps only a nominal sum, or enough to pay your attorney’s fees.
In short, you might be able to sue, but you probably don’t want to. (An exception would be in order to make a political stand against discrimination that would protect workers from being similarly abused in the future.)
Furthermore, suing a former employer all but guarantees that you will never again find work in the same profession. Once the word gets out that you are litigious, no one will want to hire you lest you turn around and sue them too someday. So unless you are one of those 1% of 1% of 1% for whom suing is a righteous cause in and of itself, hide those revenge fantasies of soaking your evil former boss for billions of dollars away in the dark recesses of the back of your brain.
Job Hunt Smart.
You’ve read those stories about people who have been unemployed for a long time: “I sent out 5,000 resumes and never heard back from any of them.” Job sites like Indeed, Monster and LinkedIn are useful, and people do find work from them, but you are literally five to six times more likely to get a job through direct contact than by replying to a job listing.
Direct contact means exactly that: reaching out to an employer where you’d like to work, and where you’d be a good fit, regardless of whether or not they have advertised for a position. Email the big boss – yes, the president or CEO or top manager – with a cc to human resources if they have such a department just to show that you are willing to work through the system – with a two- to three-paragraph email explaining who you are, why you want to work for them, and what you can do for them. Personalize it as much as possible but don’t go crazy; you’re not going to hear back from most of them so it’s not worth spending hours on each email. The shotgun approach will work as long as it isn’t painfully obvious to your prospects.
Don’t spend all day burning yourself out sending out emails. It’s very easy to get depressed while you’re not working, and depression clouds your mind and makes it more difficult for you to brainstorm about what to do next. I recommend getting out of the house in order to clear your mind, heading down to Starbucks or your local café with your laptop, and spending from 9a.m. to 12 noon every day, Monday through Friday, with a view toward just sending out resumes and cover letters to people and places for whom you’d like to work. Don’t bring your dog with you, don’t take any phone calls, don’t chitchat with anyone else there, just work. If the café is too distracting, head to the local library.
Then kick off and enjoy the extra free time. (Some of which should include staying in good physical condition, since being in good shape will keep you mentally healthy and make you more appealing to potential employers.)
Work While You Don’t Work.
Try to scare up some freelance work while you are looking for something permanent and full time. As with unemployment benefits, every penny you have coming in will stave off financial ruin.
Think outside the box. Consider renting out that extra bedroom on Airbnb. If you live in a city or a resort community, the income could be substantial.
What you should not do, however, is to take a poorly paid full-time job – at least not until all your other prospects have been exhausted and your unemployment benefits are gone. The reason is simple: if you are working 40 hours a week at $10 an hour, when will you have time or energy to look for a job that pays $30 an hour?
Budget Cut Smart.
You’ll find it easier to find additional income than to cut your budget to solvency. After all, you can’t cut your budget to zero.
In other words, focus on the job hunt, not on cutting expenses.
That said, we all have expenses that we can cut back upon. If you have premium cable, you might be able to live with basic cable instead or cut the cord and rely on video streaming. But don’t cut back anything that could impede your job hunt, like high-speed Internet service. You’re going to need that. Same thing with the phone. Any communications lifelines have to be paid up on time.
A successful job hunt relies upon persistence, ingenuity and open-mindedness. Even if you don’t have great luck at first, keep looking and eventually you will find something.
Consider ways you can apply your existing skills that may not have previously occurred to you. For example, you might want to look into fields that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. And be open to the world: Talk to everyone, ask questions, think about opportunities and jobs no matter what they are and where they come from.
After EU-imposed austerity pushed Greek unemployment to 26% and reduced educated people to abject poverty, Greece elects a leftist government. To hear the elites describe it, you’d think it was a communist revolution, which, if they keep it up, is exactly what could happen.
This week’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me back, not to warm fuzzies about peace and freedom and Gipper Ron Ron and winning the Cold War, but the reaction of my former BFF Dan (whom I miss for his talent for lightening-quick, wicked-brilliant repostes).
The Berlin Wall has fallen, I informed him. Germany is reunited.
“This,” he replied as usual without missing a beat, “is like the reunion tour recently announced by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I didn’t care for any of their previous collaborations, and I’m not looking forward to the next one.”
The former two Germanies haven’t given us another Hitler. Not yet. But Germany 2.0 did revive and realize the Führer’s dream of uniting Europe into a unified trading bloc, with a common currency, big enough to give the United States a run for its devalued money. The new euro was, naturally, pegged to the old Deutsche Mark. Germany is by far the most powerful nation in Europe.
Which is a good place to start my List of Reasons I Miss the Berlin Wall.
As usually-correct economist-professor-columnist (and usually ignored) Paul Krugman has pointed out over and over, the German-dominated European Union — which would never have come into being had the Wall remained standing and the Soviet bloc continued to exist — has been an unwieldy amalgam of political autonomy and fiscal union, dragging relatively poorer nations like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (“PIGS”) into a vicious cycle of austerity, budget cuts and seemingly endlessly rising unemployment. “The creation of the euro was about politics and ideology, not a response to careful economic analysis (which suggested from the beginning that Europe wasn’t ready for a single currency),” Krugman wrote in May.
Why should hard-working Germans bail out lazy, corrupt Mediterranean nations? Protestant pundits ask. Scratch the surface of the Eurozone crisis and you find that the Germans aren’t the victims here. Far from propping up their swarthy southern partners, Germans are using their control over the euro to turn the PIGS into trade debtors.
Adolf blew his brains out but Germany won the war. Cuz: reunification.
The most important consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall was, of course, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Economic shock therapy” — U.S.-backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s misbegotten attempt to convert the USSR’s state economy to neoliberalist capitalism overnight — led to the infamous Russian Mortality Crisis, when death rates soared 40% in Russia, and even higher in other former Soviet republics.
It has been estimated that 30 million people either died or will die as the result of the catastrophic dissolution of the USSR.
Socialism was destroyed but not replaced. The power vacuum opened by the collapse of the Soviet system was quickly filled by gangsters. Corrupt former factory managers forcibly seized state property and industries whose profits might otherwise have been used to create a blow-softening social safety net for the millions who lost their jobs. Hard drugs from Central Asia and Afghanistan, set free to fall apart after Gorbachev stepped down, supplemented rampant alcoholism. The infamous Russian oligarchy rose during this period, widening the gap between rich and poor, and set the stage for Putinism supported by traumatized Russians who happily chose authoritarianism over the anarchy of the post-Soviet period.
Former Soviet client states lost their financial and military backing. Nations like Somalia and Congo disintegrated into bloody civil conflict.
But hey. The demise of the Evil Empire was good for the United States, right?
American and European citizens paid trillions for the Cold War. After 1991, pundits promised a “peace dividend” — lower taxes, more public spending on infrastructure and social programs. Barely two years later, the peace dividend was gone — spent, ironically, on the high costs of the Soviet collapse.
“Defense cuts and reductions in military forces have brought in their wake a series of job losses,” Britain’s Independent newspaper reported in 1993. “The transitional costs of the end of the Cold War, combined with the inadequacy of government responses across Western Europe, have meant that we are worse, not better, off.”
You’d think that, as believers in the magic of the marketplace, Americans would see the value of competition in the world of ideas, militarily and politically, on the international scene. Whether or not they admit it, however, citizens of the United States have gotten softer and dumber after assuming their status as the world’s last remaining superpower. Unchallenged ideologically and otherwise, Americans questioned themselves and their beliefs in capitalism and American exceptionalism even less after the 1990s than before. But now, as de facto rulers of the last empire, Americans became the obvious targets of choice for opposition forces that want to change the new order, like fundamental Islamist movements.
It’s tough to disagree with the French writer Nicolas Bonnai, who noted in Pravda in 2012: “The US oligarchy [went] berserk, started new wars everywhere with the Bush dynasty and ruined [its] finances. Drastic inequality became the lemma of this crazy society driven by lunatic leaders and wars. Today America leads to nowhere; America is just a [locus] (Al Qaeda) of the new global matrix made of wars and terrors, manipulation and deregulation.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall created at least as many hardships as blessings.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
Southern California has always had one of the priciest real estate markets in the United States, but in recent years the gap between what people can afford to pay for rent or mortgage and median housing prices has opened to a gaping chasm.
Tim Logan of the Times reports about new data that reflects just how bad things have gotten for most Southlanders:
Nearly half of all working-age adults in Los Angeles and Orange counties live in a home with another adult who is not their spouse — a higher percentage than any other big city in the country, according a new report by real estate website Zillow. In second place: the Inland Empire.
Economists at Zillow crunched U.S. census numbers and found that 47.9% of adults in metro L.A. lived in “doubled-up” households in 2012, a number that has grown rapidly — up from 41.2% in 2000 — as the recession and yo-yo-ing housing market have pushed more people to share apartments.
“You’ve got a lot of households that are blending together,” said Zillow economist Skylar Olsen. “They’re doing that to make housing more affordable.”
That’s especially true in Southern California, where relatively high costs and relatively low wages combine to create what is, by some measures, the least affordable housing market in the country, especially for renters.
One has to wonder: how is this sustainable? Although there’s been some improvement in the economy, unemployment, especially long-term, remains stubbornly high. Wages remain stagnant. You can’t squeeze blood out of a stone. Won’t people just move away to somewhere more affordable?
Maybe eventually. For the time being, the pull of family ties, whatever work they currently hasveand just plain inertia is keeping hundreds of thousands of people stuck in houses and apartments that they can’t really afford. Until things turn around, maybe, someday, who knows when, they are doubling up and tripling up with friends, lovers and random people they find on Craigslist. As someone who has from time to time been forced to participate in the so-called “sharing economy” to make ends meet, I have nothing but sympathy for this situation.
Having a roommate you don’t want, simply for economic reasons, violates your privacy and sense of personal calm at least as much as secret government surveillance programs that intercept your email. This goes double if, like me, you are an introvert.
For this week’s cartoon, however, I do appreciate the fact that this predicament makes for a fun sight gag. If I had the ability to add sound here, imagine all the characters either snoring or growling ominously like zombies.
Yes, Virginia, the Republicans are running someone against California governor Jerry Brown. His name is Neel Kashkari.
Kashkari has been virtually invisible throughout what has passed for the campaign. (Not literally. There is no evidence that he has mastered the ability to bend light around himself so as to render his physical form undetectable to the human eye. Just in the media, which has decided that he isn’t worth covering because he probably won’t win. Which is true, since the media won’t cover him. Funny how that works.)
What do you do when the struggle for visibility gets tough?
In what his supporters would likely say was an earnest attempt to showcase the ongoing problem of un- and underemployment in California despite the economic “recovery” — if anyone bothered to ask his supporters — and what everyone else, including pundits, would call a cheap ploy, Kashkari says he spent the last week playacting as a homeless person in search of work.
Seema Mehta of the Times reports:
“Kashkari wrote that he took a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Fresno on July 21 with ‘only $40 in my pocket (and no credit cards), a backpack, a change of clothes and a toothbrush.’ He said he planned to find a job. “I am an able-bodied 41-year-old. Surely I could find some work. ‘Kashkari was accompanied by two videographers, who produced a 10-minute video. The footage shows a scruffy Kashkari saying, ‘This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life.'”
All Gen X smirkery aside, I think it’s admirable that any politician, especially a Republican — the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Republicans don’t even pretend to care about poor people — is drawing attention to the misery experienced by millions of Californians suffering through grinding poverty with no foreseeable end in sight. Sure, Kashkari is a multi-millionaire who could, and did, go home whenever he wanted. But when’s the last time you slept outside to see what it was like? Hell, I don’t even like camping.
So, good on Kashkari.
Still, I have some logistical and logical questions for him.
Like, why Fresno? The economy isn’t that bad there, relatively.
Why forty bucks? Why not $20 or $100?
Did the $5 bus fare come out of the $40?
Did he panhandle? Steal? I would.
Why was a toothbrush deemed essential, but not floss? Was there even toothpaste, and if not, why not, and if so, why wasn’t it mentioned? How about mouthwash? (Note to Gov. Brown’s opposition research team: Kashkari’s commitment to oral hygiene halfhearted at best. 92% of voters say ‘ewww.’)
When the Man Who Would Be Governor approached foremen at Fresno area construction sites, how eager for work did he appear? After all, this was an experiment that would have failed mightily had his able-bodied 41-year-old self been scooped off the mean streets of the Raisin Capital and offered a zillion bucks to run a hedge fund. Did he, full of honesty and integrity, pledge to work hard at low wages with little concern for his personal safety? Or was he all Little Lord Fauntleroy about it: “I don’t do sweat, dude”?
So many questions. I’d ask them all, too. But that would be against the rules. He’s a long-shot gubernatorial candidate and I’m a pundit.
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?
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 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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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.
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