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Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

A Brutal Capitalist Regime–The Key Problem of Our Times

June 4, 2013 2 comments
The Money Problem

The Money Problem

If you are old enough you will remember that during the Cold War, we in the USA were told tales of the “brutal communist regime” in the Soviet Union and China. Actually, anywhere that professed to be Communist. I cannot pretend to know all of the facts regarding actual conditions in these countries, then or now.

But, one day a while ago, as I was riding the bus into the city it occurred to me-we live in a brutal CAPITALIST regime here in the America of the 21st century. And–we have exported this regime across the globe at the point of a rifle (or a drone). This means that however good- hearted you may be, or how much you may hate the system and the entities that enforce the system–you will participate or die.

But let me unpack this statement,word by word. First of all let us look at the term “capitalist”. By this I mean the peculiar strain of large C capitalism that has sprung up in the United States in the late twentieth century. This includes share-holder primacy, corporate personhood, and the colonization of the people’s government by big business.

Then, let us look at brutality. We live in a place where the extremely poor are allowed to die in the street, and the slightly better off die from lack of medical care. Where public works are being attacked as frivolous by politicians in the pockets of shadowy figures who pay no taxes but reap the rewards of citizenship. Where government is handing over our wealth (and its responsibilities) to private companies who take the money and destroy the services without accountability. Where food is allowed to rot with-in the sight of the starving if they can’t pay.Where a few sleep between thousand dollar sheets and control enough wealth to start their own counties  while the many huddle in project housing and work two jobs without earning enough to feed themselves. Where poverty is created by the elite, and then criminalized. Where  big money comes before the safety and welfare of our children. Two examples are the failure of the government to pass gun laws that protect school-children and the failure to control banks from preying on our college kids. Where big banks and their shareholders robbed us all, stole our pensions, and took our houses, and got away with it.

And it is brutal in other ways as well. The human condition demands that we struggle with our own worst qualities. People in any system can be greedy, power-hungry, and selfish. But only capitalism demands these qualities as a condition of survival. It forces us all to place the dollar ahead of all other things. If you don’t have money and you are too weak, old, young, or foolish to get it, you will live in misery and die painfully. Under these conditions “getting mine” trumps all else. This is as true for me as it is for all of you.

If this crushes the spirits of those in the middle and bottom, it does something just as bad to the rich. It gives those already prone to bad behavior the ugly justification and hubris of neo-Calvinism. Great wealth brings a propensity for social blindness, loss of introspection, and intense pressure to do wrong. Those born into wealth are conditioned from birth to believe a very distorted view of reality. Those who acquire great wealth may start out with a clear view, but in the absence of a powerful inborn moral compass the natural tendency to privilege one’s own self interest wins in the end, and the distortion takes hold.

In the brutal capitalist regime, no one is allowed to become fully human. And very few ever reach their full potential. Excellence is unnecessary when mediocrity sells, and under corporate rule both education and advertising are controlled by those doing the selling.

Now all we have left to un-pack is the word “regime”. The dictionary defines this as the government in power. In the United States we are told that this is either the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party. But this is a lie. We actually live under corporate fascism with a regular democratic charade. For example, a long list of our public servants have also worked at the Monsanto Corporation. Monsanto has ruthlessly fought against even labeling modified products intended to be eaten. I can’t bring myself to call these products food. Knowing what we are eating seems to be a reasonable request. But, instead of passing laws protecting citizens by making Monsanto label their products, congress, all full of once and future Monsanto employees, instead pass the Monsanto Protection Act, forbidding us citizens from complaining. And that is just one instance.

In the brutal communist regime, the people were afraid to speak and afraid to act. In the brutal capitalist regime, you can say anything you want if you still have the energy after breaking your back to earn your bread, and you can do almost anything you want, as long as you don’t interfere with the property rights of the rich. But just don’t expect anything to change, and don’t stop buying stuff.

I have not discussed the global reach of the regime and this post is getting long. So stay tuned, I’m back!

The Mismeasurement of Poverty in America-How the Numbers are Skewed

September 13, 2011 11 comments

 

Is This All?

 

The official poverty rate nationwide has risen to 15.1%, a rate high enough to generate some mainstream ink. According to various news agencies, this is the highest rate since 1983. But, if the poverty rate were known, it would be closer to one in three than one in six, and be the highest since the last depression ended with the entry of the United States into the Second World War.

The poverty rate is set as a multiplier of a “thrifty food basket”, a method implemented in 1962. The method has not changed since then, but everything else has. The poverty line for a family of four is $22,314. For a single person it is $10,830. It is on this basis that I make my claim that the poverty line is set too low, and that the poverty rate is grossly understated.

Let’s look more closely at these figures. For a single person, the official figure breaks down to $902.50 per month. A room in a house is at least $350 in most areas, and closer to $550 in larger urban areas that may have more income opportunities.  So let’s say $450. Food costs to meet the most basic need for sustenance is about $200. That leaves $350 to cover transportation, phone, medical expenses, utilities, clothing, laundry, and sundries. It is clear that meeting even these basic needs cannot be done on this budget. The situation is equally dire for a family of four, whose poverty level income amounts to $1859.50 a month. A family of four must rent a house for about $1000 a month. It will take about $400 to feed the family at a basic level of nutrition. This leaves about $400 dollars for all other expenses. Again, it can’t be done. The food cost may be mitigated by food stamps, but the calculation for the amount is deeply skewed. If an applicant has any income at all the amount of assistance goes down precipitously. Some states also have low income medical care available but these programs are getting squeezed as tax revenues drop. And, they too only provide the bare bones in care. Many have died for lack of decent medical care.

So, how much does it take to live a basic life in America, and where should the poverty line be set to reflect reality? For one person, it should be at about $1800 a month, or $21600. About what it is four a family of four today. And for the family, it should be in the neighborhood of $70,000 a year just to make ends meet, and to provide the children in the family with a basic foundation of good health.

So, what is the true poverty rate? The median income for a family of four was $67,000, which means that half of all families fell below that level.  Using that figure alone, my estimate of one in three is reasonable. This is the story that should be shouted from the rooftops throughout the land. The reason why it is not is grossly political and is tied to the powerful elite class that dominates the public discourse. That is the subject for a later post.These are the numbers. The actual human misery concealed in the numbers is immeasurable.

How Shame Keeps the Poor in Line

September 1, 2011 4 comments

Home Sweet Home

While I was in Detroit earlier this summer I had a conversation with a wonderful old woman who had been just at the bottom of the middle class all her life. She had gotten by working two, sometimes three hard and under-appreciated food service jobs, making just enough to get by. Now 62 and suffering from several ailments, including diabetes, she was waiting patiently for her unemployment to kick in, so she could stop standing on her feet sixteen hours a day. She had acquired a tiny bit of debt along the way, not enough to amount to lunch money for a rich person, but for her it was like an insurmountable mountain.

As the story goes, she had been almost starving in order to pay those bills, until a good friend convinced her to buy food first, and tell the companies that she was indebted to that they would just have to wait. Like many of the poor and almost poor, she was conscientious to a fault, and had to be convinced to take care of her own basic needs. Never mind that the interest rates she was paying were usurious. Never mind that there are whole industries in the business of exploiting people like her. It had never even occurred to her to miss a payment or negotiate a better deal.

This is just one of the ways that the poor are kept stuck. I have been traveling the country writing about the economic collapse of 2008 and the depression that has followed. It is amazing to me the number of people who have been harmed by these events, or even had their lives destroyed that will not speak out about it. The overwhelming emotion is shame. Shame in the face of a groaning table full of riches meant for others that they will never partake in.

And why are they ashamed, when the abominable condition they find themselves in in clearly not their fault? I believe it comes from an ugly strain of neo-Calvinism that the rich use to justify behavior that no true Christian would tolerate in themselves, and which the poor internalize. The result is massive shame instead of the appropriate emotion-galvanizing rage!

The Depression is Lumpy

May 16, 2011 4 comments

Depression? It Depends on Where you Live

Most of the time, when we speak of the economy, our language seems to represent it as a sort of national monolith. As if we all experienced the current situation the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact there are several economies in America, and which one you are a member of will determine whether you are living through a depression, a recovery, or the one of the biggest booms of all time.

The Recovery

For a certain group of people in the upper middle and upper class, there was a fairly steep recession, a terrible scare in the market, and then, for the last couple of years, a slow but steady recovery as stock market prices climbed back to their pre-crash condition. Though this group still suffers from the general malaise of the real estate market, in general they are out there buying things again.

Let the Good Times Roll

Another very small group of 1%ers made obscene profits from the housing and market crashes. These self-styled “masters of the universe” have grown fat on fraud and the misery of others, and have no intention of stopping now. Paying no taxes and avoiding the prison sentences they justly deserve, they are, at this very moment, engaging in further speculation of the type that fuels inflation that none of the rest of us can afford, and causes grave harm to society.

Main Street

For the rest of us, it depends on where you live. When we see articles in print and online touting the “recovery” it is this fact that they rely on. Statistics are easy enough to skew. What we focus on determines what we see. That is why the employment numbers posted by the government are so confusing and at times misleading. It is common knowledge that the official definition of the word “unemployed” serves to skew the figures right from the start. Add to that the excitement whipped up over the job creation figures when many of these new jobs are not at all comparable to the old (lost) jobs, and we have a very murky picture.  It is true that if you happen to live in a state with comparatively low unemployment you probably aren’t catching the worst of the depression. But what would happen if we all moved to these few states?

The Rest of Us

For all of us regular citizens that have the bad luck to be denizens of the more unlucky regions of the country, such as the south, the rust belt, or the whole state of California, the depression is an obvious daily fact of life. In fact, sinse I began using the term “depression” about three years ago, not one person from any of these places has challenged me. I think of this every time I see a headline once again proclaiming that we are in “recovery” from the “great recession”.

The Poor

This final group has been living in depressed conditions forever. The reasons that a certain number of Americans have always lived in poverty are complex, but with enough will on our part it would be possible to reduce these numbers to near zero. Instead, under the flawed logic of supply side economics, that great and cruel experiment in social engineering brought to you by Ronald Reagan and the billionaires club, the number living in misery is actually growing. Soon it won’t matter what state you live in.

The Inflation

April 26, 2011 1 comment

The Inflation Special

I’ve been taking a break from the road for the last three weeks and plan on another ten days or so. The rhythm of life is very different here, but the constant concern with controlling expenses remains the same. I have this in common with at least eighty percent of my fellow citizens. No one but the very rich feel secure in the current economic climate. And the inflation is making it much worse.

During the last depression there was no inflation. But now the price of crude oil is driving up the cost of everything, especially fuel and food. This is tantamount to a very regressive tax, levied not by government, which would presumably give us back the money in the form of programs, but rather by private companies. And, to add insult to injury, the runaway price of oil is being driven not by the invisible hand of the market responding to a shortage but instead by un-regulated Wall Street speculators.

I call it a regressive tax because strong inflation, especially in gasoline, heating fuel, and food, always hurts the poor much more than the rich. A year ago I could buy three bags of basic groceries for about thirty dollars in my local (somewhat upscale but competitive if I shop right) market. Now the same three bags is about forty five dollars. If I don’t have it I must buy less food. The beans and potatoes stay in cart, but the fresh strawberries are traded for a can of pears. A whole chicken will make three meals for two people. The white eggs are a dollar cheaper than the favored brown eggs. I really must get chickens again. I could go to a known discount outlet, but I would have to drive further. Gas is over four dollars a gallon. This cruel calculus is my constant companion. Usually there isn’t quite enough and sometimes there is a dangerous shortfall. And I am lucky because I live in a semi-rural county with a ten month growing season. In the wastelands of the inner city and the rust belt it is so much worse…

Good Bye to San Francisco-For Now

Great Poverty Exists

San Francisco has had a large income gap for a long time. For as long as I can remember, shapely high heels would step over the prone, nearly lifeless bodies of the homeless to get to their meals of Filet Mignon and Chocolate Decadence. It is a good thing I am coming back here in a few weeks because I was not able to meet with even one of the people I had

Side by Side with Great Wealth

hoped to. On my last day here, Wednesday, I made it to the Food Cart Wednesday under the Chronicle Overpass at 5th and Minna. I sat with a large crowd of the neighborhoods workers at lunch and listened to music in the sun.

At midnight my friend gave me a ride to the Greyhound station on Folsom and I started out towards Madison by way of Salt Lake City and Denver. The Greyhound station is new. It used to be a very scary place, dangerous even in daylight, situated in one of the city’s

At the Greyhound Station in San Francisco

worst areas. Now it is in an industrial area, and is under guard. You can’t come in to the lobby without a ticket.

The bus itself is cleaner than I remember from another long ago trip east. There are no rowdy drunken men in the back of the bus. But, it no longer stops at stations with diners. Instead it stops at Chevron Mini-Marts. I am very hungry

Salt Lake City View from the Bus Station

right now because I could not find one thing I consider to be edible in any of these stores.

Now I am enduring a three hour lay-over in Salt Lake City. I was lucky to find a plug. There is no food here either. By dawn I will be in Denver.

 

What is the American Middle Class Anyhow, and Why Should We Care?

January 14, 2011 2 comments

The American Dream

First, a little history: In Feudal times, there were three classes, or estates. They were the aristocracy, the clergy, and the peasants.  These classes were conferred at birth and the amount of social mobility was nil. As the market economy began to emerge in Europe and the New World this began to change. For the first time a moneyed merchant class rose up from the peasant class. These merchants came, for the first time, not from the landed aristocracy but from the common people. As their buying power increased so did their influence on the affairs of the day.

But, even at that, there were still large income inequalities. These inequalities lasted through the gilded age and continued into the 1920s.The American middle class as we know it today rose up as a result of the economic policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. This is the origin of the American Dream, which consists of home ownership, a decent education, and a job with a future and a large enough salary to enjoy the good life. The social safety net created by the New Deal made this dream possible for millions of people.

Though poverty was still endemic in certain areas the overall condition of the people was lifted up. The middle class also provided something to aspire to if you weren’t there yet. Every year there were newly minted graduates of universities that could say “I am the first in my family to finish college.” And the implied promise of the social contract was fulfilled-as graduation rates went up, so did incomes. The professions, formerly the bastion of rich white males, were forced to open there doors to everyone else.

They bounty was not confined to white collar workers. Through strong unions and a powerful manufacturing base the working class too joined into the American Dream. As did small business owners of all kinds. This new middle class were able, due to increases in standard of living, to pay more taxes, which built up cities, counties, and states. It also funded the safety net to protect those who were still behind in the game from real destitution. Neither hunger nor homelessness were big problems in those days. In fact, they were almost non-existent.

It would seem that having a large powerful middle class forming the glue of society would be considered a good thing all the way around. But there were those that thought differently. I am not going to discuss reasonable criticisms of the American Middle Class in this post, for instance the criticism of American over-consumption and waste, though I will discuss these in future posts. In this instance I am speaking of the elite class, defeated (in their own minds at least) by the New Deal policies that allowed the middle class to rise up to begin with.

The class war actually began around 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. It was slow and quiet at first, and always surreptitious. Slowly the market was deregulated, the jobs outsourced, the safety net eaten away. The apotheosis of the “free market” created a new body of “common knowledge”. The mental institutions shut down and the inmates were ‘set free’ to freeze and starve on America’s streets. And the price of education shot through the roof, as did the cost of medical care. As a new, now global, class of corporate elites formed, the luster of the American middle class began to fade.

The coup de grâce came in 2007 with the completely avoidable sub-prime crisis and the collapse of the economy, at least for us ordinary folk. The stock market itself came back very quickly, as did the million dollar bonuses. But not the jobs or the tax base. Now the rest of the safety net is in great peril, both from attacks by the elite and from being overwhelmed by millions of new ‘customers’. The middle class, once the greatest source of funds for services to the poor are now in need of such services themselves. And the elite class is not willing to foot the bill. They believe, along with Marie Antoinette, that we should “eat cake”

Here are some informative links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kwA-CwFK5A Paul Krugman discusses the origins of the American Middle Class

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A Elizabeth Warren on the coming collapse of the middle class

http://www.alternet.org/economy/41192/ Thom Hartmann on the war against the middle class