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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Today’s Wages Have the Same Purchasing Power as in 1978

(Email publishing of The Wrongologist should be restored as Wrongo is using a different vendor, WordPress. Apologies to those who read in email.)

The Daily Escape:

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, as it might have looked at night in the 12th Century lit by camp fires. Mesa Verde is unique since it is the only NP that preserves the works of man – photo by Rick Dunnahoo

This is going to be a historic year, even when compared to 2018. And it’s starting out with a bang. The government is shut down, half the cabinet is empty, the 2020 presidential race has officially started, and the Democrats are taken over the House.

And that’s without whatever Mueller shoe will drop sometime in the year, or whatever Twitter atrocities Trump decides to commit. In other words, we’re going to have our hands full.

But today, let’s talk about how bad the economy is below the surface of the headline numbers. Debt is rising, and rising debt is supposed to be matched by rising income. It shouldn’t be a surprise that more income is required in order to service more debt. But so far, in the 21st century, for the bottom 90%, debt is growing while income is stagnating.

Pew’s Fact Tank has an analysis that speaks to this problem. Average hourly earnings for non-management private-sector workers in July were $22.65, 2.7% above the average wage from a year earlier. But in the years just before the 2007-08 financial collapse, average hourly earnings often increased by around 4% year-over-year.

And during the high-inflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s, average wages commonly jumped 7%, 8% or even 9% year-over-year.

However, after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1978. In fact, in real terms average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.

Here is Pew’s chart demonstrating the problem:

Because there’s been little growth in wages, the growth in the standard of living for those below the 90th percentile has been largely fueled by additional consumer debt. The WSJ reports that consumer debt, including credit cards, auto and student loans and personal loans, is on pace to top $4 trillion in 2019, the highest in history. Debt allows you to furnish your home, pay for education, and get a car without having to save for them. In that way, it supports the growing economy.

But Pew also shows how most of the income gains went to those at the top of the food chain:

 

 

Among people in the top 10th of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, to $2,112 a week – nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth ($426).

This lack of symmetrical growth in debt and income actually matters. At some point household borrowers will default in greater numbers than they do today. When those losses occur, the monetary system won’t be able to bail out debtors (or banks) this time around as handily as we did in 2008.

 

Sluggish and uneven wage growth is a key factor behind widening income inequality in the US. Another Pew Research Center report found that in 2016, Americans in the top tenth of the income distribution earned 8.7 times as much as Americans in the bottom tenth ($109,578 versus $12,523).

Compare that to 1970, when the top 10th earned 6.9 times as much as the bottom 10th ($63,512 versus $9,212).

There is no simple solution to get American workers back on the right track. At a minimum, it will take a political groundswell aimed at overturning the way the tax code favors corporations. Along the way we will have to displace the political power of our corporate oligarchs.

Government must be made to serve the public interest, not Mr. Market.

Democracy is the sole mechanism enabling our citizens to have political and economic agency. But, democracy will cease to matter in a corporate-controlled, globalized system of government influence.

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Who The Dems Should Nominate for President

(There will be no Thursday column this week. Wrongo is in NYC.)

The Daily Escape:

The Passion Facade, La Familia Sagrada by Gaudi, Barcelona, Spain

Wrongo has been highlighting several people who have big ideas that could move our country toward reform of capitalism. One issue that impacts that reform is health insurance, and many Congressional candidates who won in the 2018 mid-terms ran either on preserving the ACA, or on implementing Medicare for All.

Talk has started on the 2020 presidential election, and the almost 30 potential candidates that seem set to try for the White House. Now that a Texas judge has declared the ACA unconstitutional, and should that decision be upheld, health insurance should be a big issue in 2020.

For Democrats, politics is a game of good policies badly presented. For Republicans, politics is a game of bad policies skillfully presented. With that in mind, let’s turn to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who on Sunday with Chuck Todd, refused to endorse Medicare for All. Instead, he said: “there are lots of different routes” to a universal healthcare system.

Though Schumer says he will support a “healthcare plan that can pass,” there is no evidence that any of the alternatives to Medicare for All have a better chance of passing than Sanders’ single-payer plan that was introduced last year. In the House, a majority of the Democratic caucus supports single-payer.

This is what we have to look forward to in 2019 and 2020. The Dems old guard will try and triangulate on policy in an attempt to corral a few Republican Senators. Nancy Pelosi is not a fan of Medicare for All.

A few of the old guard are running for president, including Bernie and Joe Biden. On the progressive side of the Democratic Party, there is a big age gap to a few relatively young politicians who are clearly progressive-purists.

Benjamin Studebaker has a provocative column, “Why We Cannot Nominate a Young Person in 2020”. His argument is that Democrats who are between 40 and 60 may have the right level of experience and political gravitas, but they all grew up in the Party of the Clintons:

…the overwhelming majority of Democratic politicians in their 40s and 50s are centrists who came of age politically in the ‘90s and ‘00s. These are people who got into Democratic Party politics because they grew up admiring the Clintons….They have spent their political lives working with Gore and Kerry and Obama and that’s the discourse they swim in. Corey Booker is 49. Kamala Harris is 54. Beto O’Rourke is 46. Kirsten Gillibrand is 52. Amy Klobuchar is 58. This group has…been tutored in triangulation from the time they were political toddlers.

Studebaker says that we can’t count on any of these candidates if we want Medicare for All, or a host of other policy improvements. He thinks we need someone who was too left-wing for the Democratic Party in the 1970s, and there is only one such person left alive: Bernie Sanders.

Wrongo isn’t sure. The NYT’s David Leonhardt, in his “Secret to Winning” column, says that the Democrats need a candidate who can, and will run as an economic populist:

They need a candidate who will organize the 2020 campaign around fighting for the little guy and gal….It would be a campaign about Republican politicians and corporate lobbyists who are rigging the game, a campaign that promised good jobs, rising wages, decent health care, affordable education and an end to Trumpian corruption.

Leonhardt thinks that several of those younger Democrats can do the job. He says that the formula is: Return to an updated New Deal. Put the public interest first, not the interests of the over-privileged elites. Force corporations and the rich to pay increased taxes.

Norm Ornstein notes that by 2040, 70% of Americans will live in 15 states, which means that the other 30% of the country will choose 70 of our 100 senators. And the 30% that are in charge of the Senate will be older, whiter, more rural, and more male than the 70%.

Whomever the Dems nominate must have a plan to successfully strip away a few red states. Economic populism can help do that, since it helps the working classes and unemployed. Higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, a higher minimum wage, and universal health care coverage are the cornerstones of the winning strategy.

The nominee must be someone who is authentic, not someone who is simply an ideologically pure lefty.

Being authentic means someone who doesn’t poll test every idea, and doesn’t base their messaging on what the editorial board of the NYT or WaPo thinks are the right ideas.

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Funding The Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada in snow – photo by Yan Gao

When the President and the incoming Speaker of the House get into a televised shouting match over whether we have enough money to fund Trump’s wall, you know that things have to change in America. They’re fighting over use of a limited resource, the US government’s funding.

We now have within our means the ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate everyone. But, as a country, we are unwilling to do so, because we buy into neoliberal economic theory. Never in history have we had the ability to make our species as secure as we do now, but we choose instead to make as many as insecure as possible.

Until about 1980, economic growth created a level of prosperity that earlier generations of Americans could only dream about. But, economic growth no longer makes people more economically secure. We’ve become prisoners in a system that promotes permanent growth, where wages stagnate, schools decay, and Goldman Sachs sits inside our government.

The question we should be asking is: How can our politics provide an answer to our people’s need for economic security? We know that neoliberalism has reduced many of our people to states of economic insecurity. We know that our economic and social order must change, and profoundly, or face an eventual revolution. This isn’t an option, it’s a certainty.

That means that only state funding will create the (peaceful) change we need.

Here’s a big idea from Richard Murphy, a UK tax accountant:

…To put this another way, what may be the biggest programme of change ever known in human history is required in very short order. We need new energy systems; transformation of our housing stock; new transport infrastructure; radically different approaches to food that might even require rationing if we cannot create change any other way; different ways of working and new ways of using leisure time.

Murphy goes on to say:

But this must be done in a way that increases certainty. Jobs must be created on the ground…And I mean, in every constituency….but the transport and other infrastructure must be provided in that case and that does not simply mean more roads. The social safety net must be recreated. That means a job guarantee. It also means a universal basic income. And business must be transformed. Since that process will be incredibly expensive this requires capital and if that means state investment and co-ownership, so be it.

Murphy says that if this was wartime, our government would find the money to fund radical change. He says that we can no longer just extract higher taxes from the rich to solve our funding requirements, we need to create a vision, a plan and funding to achieve the change required.

One way to fund a portion of these requirements may be to restrict funding for the military, to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for corporations. More from Murphy:

The time for pussy-footing is over. We know what we need to do. We know the scale of the issue. We know the reasons for acting….and we know we can pay for it. This is not left or right as we know it. And any party not addressing it is part of the problem and not the solution.

He’s suggesting deficit financing for societal gain. What are the chances that revolutionary change can happen? Almost zero today. Left to our political class, we’re just going to keep on doing what we’re currently doing, that is, until we can’t.

As we said yesterday, people say, “It’s the system, we can’t change it”.

But, in the Middle Ages, the exact same thing could have been said about feudalism. That institution was deeply entrenched, it was “how things are, and were meant to be.” It was inconceivable that something like democratic government could ever succeed feudalism, yet it did.

Today, our revolutionary task is to allow democracy to express its full potential to reshape and revitalize our social and economic life.

We must begin by setting priorities, taking resources from areas that drain the economy. Then we need to devote those resources to things that will make for a healthier, more secure economy.

One example is to adjust the priority that military defense spending has in our economy. Let’s stop being the world’s policeman, nobody wants us to do it. Then, use the excess resources to build infrastructure, and renewable energy systems.

Everything else we need then will become easier to build.

It’s a matter of deciding what our priorities are, and voting for those who agree with that vision.

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Can America Learn From France’s Yellow Vest Movement?

The Daily Escape:

Turtlehead Pond, Groton State Forest, VT – October 2018 photo by mattmacphersonphoto

The Yellow Vests have thrown France into turmoil with their protests in recent weeks. They say they want lower taxes, higher salaries, freedom from gnawing financial fear, and a better life.

It’s a uniquely French phenomenon. Every automobile in France is supposed to be equipped with a yellow vest, so that in case of car accident or breakdown, the driver can put it on to ensure visibility and avoid getting run over.

That enabled the wearing of a yellow vest to demonstrate against unpopular government measures to catch on quickly. Most people had one. The symbolism was fitting: in case of an income inequality emergency, show people that you don’t want to be run over.

What set off the protests was a rise in gasoline taxes. But it became immediately clear that much more was driving the protests, that the gasoline tax was the last straw in a long series of measures favoring the rich at the expense of the majority of the population.

That’s why the movement achieved almost instant popularity and support.

The Yellow Vests held their first demonstrations on Saturday, November 17 on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Most French trade union demonstrations are well organized. People carry banners and listen to speeches from leaders at the end. But, the Yellow Vests showed up without any organization, and no leaders to tell them where to go, or to speak for the crowd’s demands.

They were just there in yellow vests, angry and ready to explain their anger to any listener. Their message was:

We can’t make ends meet. The cost of living keeps going up, and our incomes keep going down. We just can’t take it anymore. The government must stop what it’s doing and change course.

This is another example that income disparity between the rich and rest of us is out of control on a global basis.

The Yellow Vest protesters know that our political systems are controlled by the rich, and by their captured politicians. They are enriching themselves on the backs of the working and middle classes. Interestingly, it was the French economist, Thomas Piketty, who has researched and publicized the fact that the US has the largest income gap of any Western nation.

We should be paying closer attention both to Piketty and the Yellow Vests.

Global corporations and their fellow traveler politicians know that this sort of discontent is infectious, so politicians always try to quell it quickly. If the American 90% got the idea from France, revolution might migrate, as our revolution in 1776 migrated to France in 1789.

It is interesting that the NYT reports that in France, the Yellow Vest protests were totally unanticipated by the government.

We all know that income inequality is a growing global problem, so how can it be that the suffering of a country’s citizens and their protest against the French government’s plan to increase gas taxes would be “totally unanticipated by the parties’’?  Are the powers that be in France completely tone-deaf to the needs of their constituents?

So, are there lessons for America in the Yellow Vest movement? There should be, because the issue here is similar to the issue in France, and elsewhere in Europe. That issue is economic insecurity.

There’s no political will to deal with job insecurity. There’s no mechanism in place for those who can’t pay their bills. Soon, given automation and AI, there will not be enough work available for everyone to support themselves and their families. Underemployed people will still need food, shelter, and health care, so they might start by demonstrating in order to get them.

The sooner our corporate and political leaders decide to work on these problems, the better we all will sleep at night. But, no one in the top 10% of our economic strata has any idea what it is like to go without the necessities; it is simply inconceivable to them.

Many think that there are no consequences to the inequality that has developed in America since 1980, but there certainly will be consequences. We are in the midst of economic class warfare. The politicians, bought by the corporate plutocrats, are pushing their corporatist agenda down the throats of the middle and working classes.

We can either engage in a slow reform of Capitalism, or we can wait another generation, and participate in an urgent, rapid destruction of Capitalism as we know it today.

If we opt to go slow, let’s not kid ourselves. You don’t close a deep wound with a Band-Aid. It takes surgery.

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Tax Abatements Are Killing School Budgets

The Daily Escape:

Egmont National Park, NZ – photo by vicarious_NZ

A new report shows that US public schools in 28 states lost at least $1.8 billion in tax revenues last year as a result of tax incentives granted to corporations. The study analyzed the financial reports of 5,600 of the nation’s 13,500 independent public school districts.

Good Jobs First examined the first full year of reporting under a new accounting standard for school districts, adopted by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the body that sets accounting rules for all states and most localities. The new rule, GASB Statement No. 77 on Tax Abatement Disclosures, requires most state and local governments to report annually on the amount of revenue they’ve lost to corporate tax abatements.

This is extremely important, since most local schools are very dependent on revenue from property taxes, but they rarely have influence over corporate tax abatements granted by their towns, and/or the cities or counties where they are located.

And local voters have had no way to see how much they are forced to pay in additional taxes that were lost to enrich the pockets of corporate employers.

Good Jobs found that the 10 most affected states could have hired more than 28,000 new teachers if they were able to use the lost revenues. Or, they could have avoided higher home property taxes, or provided their teachers with better resources, or higher pay.

States and cities have long used abatements and other tax incentives to lure companies, or to keep them from leaving, and/or to encourage them to expand locally. Often, those companies make their choice of location based on the quality of local schools and colleges.

These abatement deals are made by local politicians and are meant to boost local economic development. Their proponents say the lost tax revenue is worth it, because they grow the local economy. But it is difficult to know whether the benefits outweigh the burdens.

And until GASB 77, it has been impossible to see just how much a school system may have lost because of a company’s tax break. The new rule is especially helpful in understanding local schools finances, because it requires the reporting of revenue losses even if they are suffered passively by the school system as the result of decisions made by another body of government.

Of the five districts that lost the most, three are in Louisiana. Together, they lost more than $158 million, or $2,500 for each student enrolled. The School District of Philadelphia, which only last year regained local control from the state after climbing out of a deep fiscal crisis, lost the second most revenue at $62 million.

Overall, nearly 250 school districts lost at least $1 million each, and in four districts, tax abatements reduced classroom resources by more than $50 million.

But most school districts have not yet complied with Rule 77, which was implemented in 2015. Good Jobs First estimates that another $500 million of subsidies and abatements are currently unreported.

Most of us believe that our governments are supposed to govern in the interests of the “general welfare,” that when voters put people in positions of power, based on the legitimacy of our electoral process, is the limit of our responsibility as voters.

We accept that somebody has to say what the rules are, and then enforce them.

But in our neoliberal economic times, voters have to remember that our governments often act as wholly owned subsidiaries of the 1%. It takes suspension of belief to accept that our republic, ruled as it is by an oligarchy, is working for the general welfare of all of our citizens.

Why do we think that, our “governments”, all of which are subject to capture and ownership by the few, are going to somehow provide decency, comity, or fairness to all of us?

We need to abandon the article of faith that the free market, one without government oversight, promotes the best economic outcome for all of us.

Today’s inequality says the opposite.

We need a new vision of the role of government. But it isn’t really a “new” vision. It is simply a return to insisting on the “promotion of the General Welfare for all” as the paramount object of government.

Here’s another thought from Gordon Wood, in his book, Creation of the American Republic:

In a republic each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body. For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all encompassing—a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance.

The last outcome that American revolutionaries wanted was to be ruled by oligarchs. But, here we are.

We need to reform our capitalism.

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We’re Too Short to be on This Ride

The Daily Escape:

Lion’s Head, Capetown South Africa, viewed from Tabletop Mountain – 2012 photo by Wrongo

A WaPo report said that Donald Trump discussed giving Janet Yellen another term as head of the Federal Reserve, but was concerned that she was too short. He thought that at 5 feet, 3 inches, she just wasn’t tall enough to get the job done.

Wrongo thinks Yellen’s performance was about the same as her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, and her successor, Jerome Powell. Shouldn’t the real question be: Do we know what’s wrong with our economy, and do we have people in place with enough strength and/or courage to fix it? They can also be short, as long as they have ability and vision.

And it isn’t only in the US: (brackets by Wrongo)

Income inequality has increased in nearly all regions of the world over the past four decades, according to the World Inequality Report 2018. Since 1980, the global top 1% of earners have…[garnered] twice as much of the global growth as have the poorest 50%.

More from the World Inequality Report: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Such acute economic imbalances can lead to political, economic, and social catastrophes if they are not properly monitored and addressed….Governments need to do more to keep society fair…Public services, taxation, social safety nets – all of these have a role to play.

We’re seeing a slow-rolling social catastrophe in the US. We’re seeing alienation across class, race, age and gender. We’re divided as never before, with the possible exception of the pre-Civil War period.

Aren’t we all too short to be on this ride?

Central banks play an integral part in the global economy, and their performance (including the Fed’s) during the 2008 Great Recession was for the most part, admirable.

But central banks can only use monetary policy to partially solve issues of economic inequality. The most robust solutions lie in fiscal policy. Fiscal policy is how Congress and other elected officials influence the economy using spending, taxation and regulation.

Take student loans. Many of our university students are simply being led to the debt gallows. Currently, 44.5 million student loan borrowers in the US owe a total of $1.5 trillion. Student loans are the fastest growing segment of US household debt, seeing almost 157% growth since the Great Recession.

From Bloomberg:

Student loans are being issued at unprecedented rates as more American students pursue higher education. But the cost of tuition at both private and public institutions is touching all-time highs, while interest rates on student loans are also rising. Students are spending more time working instead of studying. (Some 85% of current students now work paid jobs while enrolled.)

Student loan debt has the highest “over 90 days” delinquency rate of all household debt. More than 10% of student borrowers are at least 90 days delinquent. Mortgages and auto loans have a 1.1% and 4% 90-day delinquency rate, respectively,

And if the student loan can’t be repaid, it isn’t expunged by bankruptcy. In fact, students can’t outlive their debt. The feds can garnish social security payments to repay a student’s outstanding debt.

As young adults struggle to pay back their loans, they’re forced to make financial choices that create a drag on the economy. Student debt has delayed marriages. It has led to a decline in home ownership. Sixteen percent of young workers aged 25 to 35 lived with their parents in 2017, up 4% from 10 years earlier.

We are only beginning to understand the social costs of our politics. We are in the midst of a brewing social disaster. And these are self-inflicted wounds, fixable with different government policies. But, most of today’s politicians are too short to get on that ride.

So, how to solve the simultaneous equations of high poverty rates, income inequality and an impending social disaster?

It won’t be easy, and it starts with politicians admitting that our economy doesn’t work for everyone, and that it must be reformed. Then, we can move beyond the tired rallying cries of “more tax cuts” to a capitalism which incorporates a social consciousness that can get people on the track to better paying, and more secure jobs.

An April 2018 study of survey data from 16 European countries found that economic deprivation increased right-wing populist tendencies. Sam van Noort, a co-author of the report said:

Individuals who “feel economically less well-off” were more likely to be attracted by the far right…and radical right respondents are more likely to be male, subjectively poorer, less educated [and] younger.

This will also happen here, unless the voters have determination, and even the short politicians have courage.

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Monday Wake Up Call – December 3, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Boston Public Library – photo by joethommas

The NYT’s David Brooks:

We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The GDP is growing at about 3.5% a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history, and if it lasts for another eight months it will be the longest ever.

So everything’s good, no? Not really. More from Brooks: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago.

And people’s faith in capitalism has declined, especially among the young. Only 45% of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010.

Brooks’ conclusion? It’s not the economy, we all just need more community connections.

His is another attempt to dress up the now-failing neoliberal economics. Things look good today from some perspectives, but our economy is crushingly cruel from others. Brooks seems to think that millions of Americans are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, education loans, health care insurance or buy groceries because they have failed to master the art of networking in their neighborhoods.

Alienation is behind the rise of Trumpism, and the rise of populism across the world. In that sense, Brooks is correct, but the leading cause of people’s alienation is economic inequality.

And the leading cause of economic inequality is corporate America’s free rein, supported by their helpmates in Washington. Last week, Wrongo wrote about the exceptional market concentration that has taken place in the US in the past few years. He suggested America needs a revitalized anti-trust initiative. In The Myth of Capitalism, authors Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearns write:

Capitalism without competition is not capitalism.

For decades, most economists dismissed antitrust actions as superfluous, so long as consumers were not the victims of price-gouging. Monopoly capitalism is back, and it’s harmful, even if a company’s core product (like Google’s and Facebook’s) is free to consumers. As we wrote last week, there’s excessive corporate concentration in most industries, including air travel, banking, beer, health insurance, cell service, and even in the funeral industry.

All of this has led to a huge and growing inequality gap. That means there is little or no economic security for a large and growing section of the American population. People see their communities stagnating, or dying. They feel hopeless, angry, and yes, alienated.

One consequence is that we’ve seen three years of declining life expectancy, linked to growing drug use and suicides. We seem to be on the edge of a social catastrophe.

But our real worry has to be political. People could become so desperate for change that they are willing to do anything to get it. The worry then, is that few vote and a minority elects a strong man populist leader, simply because he/she tells them what they want to hear. That leader can then go out and wreak havoc on our Constitutional Republic.

After that, anything could happen.

Despite what Brooks thinks, we don’t have a crisis of connections. It’s a crisis of poorly paying jobs, job insecurity, and poverty. When people look at their economic prospects, they despair for their children. Doesn’t it matter that in America, health care, education, and transportation all lag behind other developed countries?

The unbridled ideology of free markets is the enemy. Our problem isn’t that individual entrepreneurs went out and took all the gains for themselves, leaving the rest of us holding the bag. It’s more about how neoliberal economics is used both by government and corporations to justify an anti-tax and anti-trust approach that has led to extreme wealth and income concentration in the top 1% of Americans.

The reality is that the nation’s wealth has become the exclusive property of the already prosperous.

We need to wake up America! We have to stop for a second, and think about how we can dig out of this mess. When America bought in to FDR’s New Deal programs 75 years ago, we entered an era we now think back on nostalgically as “great”.

And it isn’t enough to talk about how we can look to Sweden or Norway as economic models. Both have populations of under 10 million, and our society is far less homogeneous than theirs.

We need a uniquely American solution to this problem. It will involve reforming capitalism, starting with tax reform, and enforcing anti-trust legislation.

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Saturday Soother – December 1, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Yukon Grizzly before hibernation – 2014 photo by Paul Nicklen

Quite the week. We had barely digested Thanksgiving dinner when we heard about Russia seizing three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Azov Sea. We learned that Paul Manafort lied to Robert Mueller, and that his lawyer reported everything that occurred between Manafort and Mueller to the White House. Then, we heard that Trump’s former in-house lawyer, Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress, and is now cooperating with Mueller. Who knows what it all means?

But, the big story this week was that we learned that life expectancy in the US fell to 78.6 years, a 0.3 year decline from our peak. From CNN:

Overdose deaths reached a new high in 2017, topping 70,000, while the suicide rate increased by 3.7%, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports.

We are witnessing social decay in America. This is consistent with what Angus Deaton and Ann Case called “deaths of despair” in 2017. The WSJ has a detailed breakdown, and also points out how other countries are continuing to show progress:

Data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Thursday show life expectancy fell by one-tenth of a percent, to 78.6 years, pushed down by the sharpest annual increase in suicides in nearly a decade and a continued rise in deaths from powerful opioid drugs like fentanyl. Influenza, pneumonia and diabetes also factored into last year’s increase.

From Yves Smith:

Americans take antidepressants at a higher rate than any country in the world. The average job tenure is a mere 4.4 years. In my youth, if you changed jobs in less than seven or eight years, you were seen as an opportunist or probably poor performer. The near impossibility of getting a new job if you are over 40 and the fact that outside hot fields, young people can also find it hard to get work commensurate with their education and experience, means that those who do have jobs can be and are exploited by their employers.

The 2017 data paint a dark picture of health and well-being in the US, reflecting the effects of addiction and despair, particularly among young and middle-aged adults. In addition, diseases are plaguing people with limited access to health care.

In the late part of the last century, and the early years of this century, there was a steady decline in heart-disease deaths. That offset a rising number of deaths from drugs and suicide. Now, we’re not seeing those heart-related declines, while drug and suicide deaths occur earlier in life, accounting for more years of life lost.

The worst aspect is that it never had to be this way. These drug and suicide deaths are “collateral damage” caused by the social and economic changes in America since the 1970s.

And we made most of those changes by choice.

Wrongo is reminded that last month, he learned that something similar had happened in Russia under Gorbachev. Under Perestroika, millions of Russians lost jobs. The government’s budget deficits grew. The death rate exceeded the birth rate. Nearly 700,000 children were abandoned by parents who couldn’t afford to take care of them. The average lifespan of men dropped to 59 years.

Are we in a slow motion disaster that could be similar to what Russia went through back in the 1990s?

We’ve become hardened. These American deaths are largely anonymous. When AIDS was ravishing the gay community in the 1980s, people were able to appreciate the huge number of deaths by seeing, or adding to, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which eventually weighed more than 50 tons.

There is no equivalent recognition for these deaths of despair.

A traitorous American ruling class has sold out its middle and lower classes. If you doubt that, think about Wal-Mart. The Walton’s fortune was made by acting as an agent of Chinese manufacturers, in direct competition with US manufacturers. Doesn’t that seem like treason?

Relax, there’s nothing you can do about all of this today, the first day of December. Time to get what solace you can from a few minutes having a coffee, and a listen to a piece of soothing music.

Start by brewing a cup of Kona Mele Extra Fancy coffee from Hula Daddy Kona Coffee ($64.94/lb.). It has an aroma of dark chocolate, fruit and flowers. And shipping is free.

Now settle back and listen to a few minutes of George Winston’s “December”. Here are Part 1: Snow, Part 2: Midnight, and Part 3: Minstrels:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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A Strategy for 2020 Emerges

The Daily Escape:

Fall in Hopkinton, MA – November, 2018 photo by Karen Randall

The 2020 election campaign has already started, regardless of whether we are ready.

“Big Idea” strategies are in the air. And the large group of potential Democratic presidential candidates are being discussed.

And we no longer have to chew on the failure by Democrats in 2016. We can now talk about lessons learned in the 2018 midterms, and how they may apply in 2020. Wrongo wants to highlight three Democrats who won in deeply Republican districts. Max Rose, who won on Staten Island in NYC; Kyrsten Sinema, who won the open Senate seat in Arizona; and Lauren Underwood, who won a Congressional seat in Illinois.

Rose won a district that went heavily for Trump in 2016. He beat a long-time incumbent Republican. He did it by asking for a chance to reshape the fortunes of working people. From the NYT:

He offered a simple, unifying message that was progressive in substance but relatively neutral in its delivery: that the system is rigged to benefit special interests, that the little guy is getting stiffed over and over, that we need better infrastructure and stronger unions.

Demographic change helped. Rose’s district covers parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, where Millennials who have been priced out of living in Manhattan and trendy Brooklyn are now locating.

Kyrsten Sinema’s story is different on the surface, but similar in what got her elected. A three-term member of Congress, she campaigned on her biography. She was homeless for three years as a child. Sinema is an openly bisexual former Green Party activist who moved to the political center.

Sinema promised to be a nonpartisan problem-solver. She campaigned on health care and protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Sinema treaded lightly on immigration, but probably looked pro-immigrant versus her opponent Martha McSally, another member of Congress who was very anti-immigration. 2.1 million Latinos live in Arizona, and after Trump’s visit in October, there was a spike in Latinos returning early ballots. Most Arizona residents vote by mail, and many Latinos voted for Sinema.

Lauren Underwood won an Illinois Congressional seat held in the past by the infamous Denny Hastert. The 32-year-old African-American nurse, unseated four-term Rep. Randy Hultgren in a district that is 86% white. The district was gerrymandered after the 2010 census to make it an even safer Republican seat. She won by stressing health care for all Americans.

These three candidates were successful in traditionally Republican places. They each had great personal stories. They each ran as problem solvers who wanted to help working families. This shows there are two threads that mattered in 2018: The candidate, and a message that addressed the things that were alienating people in their districts.

If we widen out our view to America today, alienation is behind the rise of Trumpism, and the rise of populism across the world.

The leading cause of people’s alienation is economic inequality.

Candidates can win as centrists if they are willing to fight economic inequality, because everybody knows that the system is rigged to benefit special interests.

Progressives can also win on economic inequality, because the largest divide in our country is between the 98% and the 2%. This idea can unite us, because nowhere in the US do the capitalists outnumber the salaried and hourly wage people.

Remember what Franklin Roosevelt said in his acceptance speech: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth… I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.

Today, Democrats need working people to vote for them if they want to win decisively. But since they govern like mainstream Republicans when in office, they must change to an FDR-like call to action.

It is possible to build voting coalitions that pick off a few red states in 2020. In fact, the midterm results were a terrible leading indicator for Trump in 2020. Without Hillary heading the ticket, Midwest states like Michigan and Wisconsin appear to be returning to Democrats. Pennsylvania is already back.

The Dems need to convince voters that governing the country in a manner that benefits everyone is a better idea than governing the country in a manner that benefits only a few.

The potential new votes for Democrats by following this strategy is largely the pool of non-voters. They are the majority in this country, and they are alienated.

They also outnumber the small percentage of persuadable Republican voters.

Nominating high quality candidates and fighting alienation are the keys to success in 2020.

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