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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Worry About Hunger and Homelessness Higher Than Ever

The Daily Escape:

White-Faced (Capuchin) Monkey, Costa Rica, 2015 – photo by Wrongo

The American economy has never been very kind to people at the lower income levels. In most ways, since 2008’s Great Recession, the economy has become riskier, and more tension-filled for lower income Americans, those making $30,000 or less per year. Nothing makes this clearer than this Gallup poll conducted March 1-5, 2017. Gallup surveyed 1,018 adults in all 50 US states. From Gallup:

Over the past two years, an average of 67% of lower-income US adults, up from 51% from 2010-2011, have worried “a great deal” about the problem of hunger and homelessness in the country.

More from Gallup:

Concern about hunger and homelessness now ranks as high as, or higher than, concern about most other issues tested in Gallup’s annual Environment survey. The only issue with a significantly higher “worried a great deal” percentage in this year’s poll is the availability and affordability of healthcare, at 57%.

People’s perspectives are based on their experience, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Gallup found that people making more than $75k/year had other concerns, and ranked hunger and homelessness much lower, at 37%. Still, even that number is up substantially from 23% in 2001.

The survey asks participants to rank their concern about 13 elements, and the differences between the concerns of the $30k or less cohort and the $75k or more cohort are stark.

  1. Americans making $30k and less rank their top seven worries in this order:
  • Hunger/homelessness
  • Crime/violence
  • Healthcare
  • Drug use
  • Terrorism
  • Social Security
  • Economy
  1. Americans making $75k or more ranked their top seven in this order:
  • Healthcare
  • Budget deficit
  • Economy
  • Social Security
  • Environment
  • Race relations
  • Hunger/homelessness

One reality is that the lower income Americans list “terrorism” in their top five, while it does not appear at all as a top worry of higher income Americans. Lower-income Americans worry more in general than those with higher incomes; everything is riskier and tougher for them. But nothing compares to the worries about hunger and homelessness. Gallup:

On average, across the 13 issues, the percentage of lower-income adults who worry a great deal is seven percentage points higher than among middle-income Americans, and 17 points higher than among upper-income Americans.

Here is Gallup’s chart showing the relative degree of “worry” by economic group:

No surprise that more money brings one fewer big worries. No individual worry of the $75k+ cohort was felt by as many people as the seventh-ranking worry by the $30k or less cohort.

In fact, the greater than $75k cohort sees the “budget deficit” as its second-most worried about item. Of course, this dooms any chance for the people making less than $30k to have greater security in life. Congratulations to Pete Peterson and the GOP deficit hawks on a job well done! Their decades of propaganda have made austerity a political obsession for the well-off, because government must tighten its belt, and cut its way to greatness.

Paging Dr. Maslow! Your theory of the hierarchy of needs is again demonstrated in the real world by Gallup. Here it is 2017, near the twilight of the empire. Physiological and safety needs are in the top five of the major worries of a population that is hanging on to our society by their fingernails.

Tighten your belts. Lower your dreams. Ignore the fact WE live in 10,000 sq. ft. mansions. We deserve it, and you don’t.

The American dream is a fallacy. Free markets are a fallacy. They are propaganda used to fool those poor Americans who live every day in all-too visible peonage.

Here is a 2005 tune by Coldplay, “Fix You” from their album “X&Y”. It gives a few words of empathy:

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

Takeaway Lyric:

When you try your best, but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse
And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

 

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ohio?

Our industrial heartland has withered away, in that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than ever, while manufacturing revenues have never been higher. Forty years of promises by politicians have come to nothing: These people are victims of a world order in which corporations have either exported or automated those jobs, with no responsibility to workers. It is left to the towns of Middle America and the federal government to clean up their mess.

This world order we live in today was born in 1980, with Thatcher and Reagan. According to Ian Welsh, the world order made a few core promises:

If the rich have more money, they will create more jobs.

Lower taxes will lead to more prosperity.

Increases in housing and stock market prices will increase prosperity for everyone.

Trade deals and globalization will make everyone better off.

Those promises were not kept, and in America’s Midwest, economic stress is now the order of the day. That stress has contributed to rising rates of drug addiction and falling life expectancy.

Understandably frustrated, Ohioans and other Midwesterners gave Donald Trump a victory in November. His win has refocused attention by pundits and pols on the plight of our failing de-industrialized areas. While we have economic growth, we also have growing inequality. Here is a graphic illustration of the problem, comparing the US with the EU:

The Economist reports that from 1880 to 1980, the incomes of poorer and richer American states tended to converge, at a rate of nearly 2% per year. The chart above shows that the pattern no longer exists. This causes us to ask if the shift of resources and people from places in decline to places that are growing is simply taking longer to adjust, or has the current world order failed our people? In econo-speak, the gains in some regions should compensate those regions and towns harmed by the shift, leaving everyone better off.

But that is a political and financial lie promulgated by the very corporations that benefited, and by their political and economist cheerleaders.

With economic decline, some towns and cities became poverty traps. A shrinking tax base means deterioration in local services (think Detroit). Public education that might provide the young with new skills and thus opportunities, fails. Those that remain are on government subsidies or hold low-wage service jobs, or both. It is impossible to tell these citizens that the decay of their home town is an acceptable cost of the rough-and-tumble of the global economy.

Politicians are short on solutions. Since housing costs have risen sharply in towns and cities that are growing, underemployed Americans are less likely to move, and those who do, are less likely to head for richer places. Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley and Chang-tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago argue that our GDP could be 13.5% higher if this wasn’t the situation in America.

But if moving isn’t an option, what can be done to improve the outlook for those who are left behind?

Would more government subsidies help? Prosperous tax payers already support poorer ones. Subsidies for health insurance costs with Obamacare, as well as industrial tax incentives provide some cushion, but they are not likely to deliver long-run economic recovery, and they have not stemmed the growth of populist political sentiment.

To be fair, many people in Ohio and elsewhere want good jobs, but without having to move too far to get them. That may be impossible.

In the 19th century, the federal government gave land to states, which they could sell to raise proceeds for “land-grant universities”. Those universities, including some that are among our finest, were given a practical task: to develop and disseminate new techniques in agriculture and engineering. They went on to become centers of advanced research and, in some cases, hubs of local innovation and economic growth.

Politicians and academic economists might disdain a modern-day version of the program, one that would train workers, foster new ideas, and strengthen weakened regional economies.

But if our politicians do not provide answers, our populist insurgents will.

Time for a Christmas song. Here is Elvis with “Santa Claus Is Back in Town & Blue Christmas”, from his comeback special on NBC. This was recorded over six days in June, 1968 and aired on December 1, 1968. Elvis flubs “Santa Claus is Back in Town”:

Despite his flub, he does get this line right:

You don’t see me comin in no big black Cadillac

Kind of like out-of-work Ohioans.

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Capitalism Is Past Its Sell-By Date

“This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations…” Rutherford B. Hayes (March, 1888)

Nearly 130 years ago at the height of the Gilded Age, President Hayes had it right. Capitalism then was an economic free-for-all. Today, capitalism again is rewarding too few people. And data show that the problem is worse than we thought. The WSJ reported on a study by economists from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California that found:

Barely half of 30-year-olds earn more than their parents did at a similar age, a research team found, an enormous decline from the early 1970s when the incomes of nearly all offspring outpaced their parents.

Using tax and census data, they identified the income of 30-year-olds starting in 1970, and compared it with the earnings of their parents when they were about the same age. In 1970, 92% of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age. By 2014, that number fell to 51%. Here is a chart showing the results:

wsj-30-year-olds-make-less

And we know that real median household income in the US today is basically the same as in 1989. The paper doesn’t provide specific reasons for the decline in incomes for younger Americans, but it generally blames slower economic growth and, especially, the rapidly widening income gap between the top 20% and the rest of society.

They found that the inability of children to out-earn their parents is greatest in the Midwest. This underlines that those who voted for Trump have a point: The Midwest has been hit harder by import competition, especially from Japan and China, and by technological changes, than other regions of the US.

When looking only at males nationally, the decline is even starker: In 2014, only 41% of 30-year-old men earned more than their fathers at a similar age.

There are some issues with the study worth mentioning: Most kids born in the 1940s did well in their thirties, maybe because their parents were 30 during the Depression and WWII. By the 1960s, an industrialized economy brought significantly higher wages to 30 year olds. A high denominator in the ratio of parent’s income to child’s income (compared to the past) made it more difficult for succeeding generations to exceed their parents’ incomes.

The economy also has shifted in the past 30 years and is now service-based, as factories moved overseas, and automation became prevalent. This change swapped higher wage manufacturing jobs for mostly lower wage service jobs. That alone could make it all but impossible for young adults to hit the ratios that their parents did relative to their grandparents.

Maybe the American Dream didn’t die; it just never really existed in the sense of broadly-based income mobility. Have another look at the chart, upward mobility (as measured by making more than your parents) has been declining since the mid-1940s.

Why? Between rising globalization and rapid advances in automation, we now have more people than jobs. And no matter whom we elect, this trend will continue. Those manufacturing jobs are never coming back. Even in China, robots are now displacing workers in factories.

We don’t need “good paying manufacturing jobs”; we need good paying jobs.

This is the most serious challenge capitalism has faced in the US. Without improving personal income, there will be fewer who can afford college, or afford to buy the things that capitalism produces. Low personal income growth puts sand in the gears of our economy.

The left offers a critique of contemporary global capitalism but no real practical alternative. Neither does the right, but their memes of America First, nostalgia for a golden (gilded?) age, and more tax cuts seem like less of a stretch than a Bernie Sanders-like frontal assault on capitalism.

No one in either party has a plan for a world in which robots displace the demand for labor on a large scale. And the under-30 cohort is now spending at least 4 times more (in the case of Wrongo’s university, 10 times) for a college education than what their parents paid, and they are earning less.

If people matter at all to our leaders, and if 90+% of them lack the means to live without working, America must make employment our top priority, despite the fact that many have been deemed redundant by capitalists in the private sector.

Surplus labor drives the price of labor down; allowing the employer class to afford a pool boy, or a nanny, or another cook.

And it makes the waiters more attentive to Mr. Trump.

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Hillary Should Grab Populism and Run With It

The biggest change in our politics in the past 20 years is the rise of populism on the left and right. The populists believe that we are led by a selfish elite that cannot—or will not—deal with the problems of ordinary working people, and there is ample evidence that they are correct.

Trump and Clinton say they will bring back jobs that corporations have shipped offshore. They make China the scapegoat for lost economic opportunity, while the real causes are automation and the triumph of the spreadsheet in corporate strategy.

Those jobs are never coming back, and a candidate who says they can negotiate with foreign governments to bring jobs back demonstrates either their naiveté about the true cause of job loss, or a simple desire to BS the American public.

Voters can see through that.

Economic and cultural insecurity are the bedrock causes for populists. Unemployment and stagnant wages hurts working-class whites, while cultural issues are a top issue for older white Americans. The first group sees their jobs threatened by automation and globalization. They join with older whites in seeing immigrants as scroungers who work for less, grab benefits and if you believe Trump, commit crimes.

Both groups also believe that American society is being undermined by diversity and foreign-born citizens.

This is the battle line of the 2016 presidential election. The mediocre economy that has been with us for nearly 20 years has caused real harm. We remain a wealthy country, but certain groups now see their opportunity slipping away. Slow growth, or no economic growth, means only a few elites will do well, and most voters see the self-serving political class as siding with the elites.

So can a candidate unify an electorate that now plays a zero-sum political game?

  • The Pant Load has the better position in this game, since he can exploit pre-existing fears that are based in fact.
  • The Pant Suit must carefully calibrate her message, but she cannot be a “maintain the status-quo” candidate and win.

Clinton would do well to consider what William Berkson said in the WaMo:

If there is one national goal that Americans can agree on, it is opportunity for all.

Berkson makes the point that since President Reagan, Republicans have advocated a simple theory of how to grow the economy: The more you reduce government involvement in the economy and the more efficient markets become, the more the economy grows.

Sorry, but the simplistic theory of free market economics has been drowned in a tsunami of fact in the past 35 years. Berkson says:

Both Democratic administrations since Reagan—that of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—have raised taxes, and under them, the economy grew more rapidly than under the tax-cutters Reagan and George W. Bush.

This opens a path for the Pant Suit. In order to win, she must assure voters that she will deliver more and better jobs. Family income must go up. But how to achieve this?

By advocating a policy of economic opportunity through public investment in infrastructure. It fulfills the promise of opportunity for all, a populist message that has proven to work throughout America’s past. And it allows Clinton to hammer the GOP Congress and Paul Ryan about the lack of any track record for laissez-faire policies, since they have never worked, not even once, as a miracle cure for jobs and income inequality. This would be an open return to Keynesian economics. Here is Eduardo Porter in the NYT:

The Keynesian era ended when Thatcher and Reagan rode onto the scene with a version of capitalism based on tax cuts, privatization and deregulation that helped revive their engines of growth but led the workers of the world to the deeply frustrating, increasingly unequal economy of today.

And led to the low growth economy that drives today’s populist anger.

How to fund that infrastructure expense? More revenue. For the last 40 years, Democrats have been unwilling to counter the conservative argument that higher taxes are a redistribution of wealth between classes. Clinton should argue that current tax policy is really a transfer of resources from tomorrow’s generation to today’s. This is a strong populist message.

Younger Millennials understand this clearly. They already believe Social Security will not be there when they need it. She can win them over if she makes a case for new jobs and new revenues.

When conservatives say that it is unfair for people in their highest earning years to pay more taxes on that income, Clinton can point out that this is a past-due bill that they need to pay just as their elders paid higher taxes that supported the current earners when they were starting out. It was that investment in public resources such as public education and infrastructure, and in research, technology and industry that enabled today’s peak earners to get where they are.

While the strategy opens Clinton to criticism from Grover Norquist and the right about fiscal irresponsibility, it pits Trump against the Tea Party and the GOP. He would need to choose between being a populist or a doctrinaire fiscal conservative. Either way, it will bleed votes from some part of his base.

The strategy could work in down ballot races as well, particularly in the Rust Belt. Maybe working class conservatives will hear her, and not vote against their economic interests for once.

We’ll see if she will move from status quo, to “let’s go” as a campaign strategy.

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More Questions for The Pant Suit and the Pant Load

Yesterday, Wrongo broke the bad news about the May job report. Exactly one year ago, Wrongo wrote “Technology Isn’t Creating Enough Middle Class Jobs.” That article spoke about how deploying new technologies continues to cost more and more mid-skilled jobs.

With low interest rates, the cost of capital investments have fallen relative to the cost of labor, and businesses have rushed to replace workers with technology. Because of technology, since the mid-1970s capital and labor have become more substitutable, and it’s a major global trend. Some proof of this is in the article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where  Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman from the University of Chicago found that the share of income going to workers has been declining around the world.

As Brad Delong, economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote recently, throughout most of human history, every new machine that took the job once performed by a person’s hands and muscles increased the demand for complementary human skills — like those performed by eyes, ears or brains.

This is no longer true. From Wrongo’s June, 2015 column:

Facebook is touted as a prime player in the knowledge economy, but it only employs 5,800 to service 1 billion customers! Twitter has 400 million total users. It has 2,300 employees.

What is the value of Facebook and Twitter to the jobs economy? These are two of our very “best” success stories, and they only employ 8,100 workers.

These firms have had a huge impact on society, but the total jobs they have created are only a rounding error in our economy.

As the idea sinks in that human workers may be less necessary than in the past, what happens if the job market stops providing a living wage for millions of Americans?

How will people afford to pay the rent? What will happen if the bottom quartile of workers in the US simply can’t find a job at a wage that could cover the cost of basic staples?

What if smart machines took out the lawyers and bankers? Bloomberg is reporting that job loss is on the way for bankers. Banks are racing to remake themselves as digital companies to cut costs. In other words, they’re preparing for the day that machines take over more of what used to be the sole province of humans: knowledge work. From Bloomberg:

State Street had 32,356 people on the payroll last year. About one of every five will be automated out of a job by 2020, according to Rogers. What the bank is doing presages broader changes about to sweep across the industry. A report in March by Citigroup…said that more than 1.8 million US and European bank workers could lose their jobs within 10 years.

They close by saying that Wall Street will go on—but without as many suits.

Some estimates say that automation could cost half of all current jobs in the next 20 years. The OECD thinks the number is smaller. They argued last month that lots of tasks were hard to automate, like face-to-face interaction with customers. They concluded that only 9% of American workers faced a high risk of being replaced by an automaton.

9% of today’s American workforce equals 13.6 million jobs. It just took us seven years to gain 14.5 million jobs, most of which were contractors and temp jobs.

The prognosis for many medium and some higher-skilled workers appears grim.

The corporatists have seen these forecasts. It explains their unwillingness to do anything serious to create effective jobs programs here at home. They don’t need to do anything, because there is a (virtually) infinite supply of skilled and unskilled workers in the overpopulated third world.

So, these are today’s questions for the Pant Suit and the Pant Load, and their answers need to be specific:

  • Where will the household’s income come from when jobs alone can’t provide it?
  • How will we deal with large-scale inequality that requires large-scale redistribution?
  • Is it time to think about how to provide more income that isn’t directly tied to a job?

From Eduardo Porter:

For large categories of workers, wages are already inadequate. Many are withdrawing from the labor force altogether. In the 1960s, one in 20 men between 25 and 54 were not working. Today it’s three in 20. Although the population is generally healthier than it was in the 1960s; work is almost uniformly less demanding. Still, more workers are on disability.

The issue is not technology, or robots, or restoring our manufacturing base. It isn’t better skills, or technology or outsourcing. We have too many people chasing too few good jobs.

This is why we need the presidential candidates to speak the truth about job creation in America.

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Pant Suit vs. Pant Load, Part III

(Note: this week there will be no Sunday Cartoon Blogging, since Wrongo will be visiting MA and PA through Sunday, returning on Monday.)

Wrongo and long-time blog reader Terry engaged in a short email dialog on how to “fix” the US political system. We were concerned that there is no individual Congressperson accountability. A backbencher can follow an agenda that can imperil our nation (and a few have done just that) without consequence.

But in America, accountability is managed by election district. Your only alternative is to round up enough votes to replace poor representation. So, if you wanted to reform the impact that money has in our politics, or the way the filibuster works in the Senate, you have to reform Congress.

Yet, under our Constitution, only Congress can reform Congress. And today, there are three parties vying for control of it, and since they rarely are willing to work with each other, not much gets done. So you can completely forget about Reform.

And the parties have not been willing to deal with the not-so hidden desperation in America that shows up in statistics like increasing opioid addiction and suicide rates. The political class ignores how lethal the US economy is for the less fortunate: The New York Times reported this week that US death rates have risen for the first time in a decade.

The increase in death rates among less educated whites since 2001 is roughly the size of the AIDS epidemic. One reason is the use of opioids. And, despite Mr. Obama’s speech in Elkhart, IN where he said our economy is doing well, there has been a spike in suicides to levels higher than during the 2008 financial crisis.

The little people know that the economic policies followed by both parties have brought income inequality to Gilded Age levels. They know that all of the post-crisis income gains have accrued to the top 1%. Unlike in China which continues to grow, our economic expansion has brought with it high unemployment and underemployment, particularly among the young.

As a result, people feel powerless. In fact, a RAND survey in January found that 86.5% of GOP voters who strongly identified with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were Trump supporters.

And, since so much of politics is about corralling money into the bank accounts of our politicians, your Congresspersons have no intention of listening to you unless you have given at least $10,000 to their campaign fund, or are the CEO of a major employer in their district or state. In US politics, money=speech. But, there is little meaning to free speech without free access to influence the political process.

Many of us feel nihilistic about our politics and our government. So the Pant Load’s support seems a lot like a form of public political vandalism where The Donald is the can of spray paint.

Most people can see that a large portion of Americans are poorer with each new election cycle. After all, the reason Trump (and Sanders) are doing well is because many, many workers are seeing their job security, income security, and retirement security all go up in smoke. That’s no mystery, just the natural outcome when the government fails to represent the people in favor of the rich who fund their campaigns. It’s no wonder the Pant Load is easily corralling the frustrated.

But can the Pant Suit reverse the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the working class in America?

We know that she needs to focus on drawing more potential working class and young supporters, but so far, Democrats are content to run only in their municipal strongholds, following a strategy of stitching together interest groups, largely in states with big urban populations.

Energizing people around the fact of our corrupt political system is both a way to get higher turnout, and a way to elect members of Congress and state legislatures to fix the corrupt system. That is Bernie’s message, what he calls a “political revolution.” But Sanders is not the person to bring this about. Consider Sanders just the messenger.

Strategically, the Pant Suit needs to figure out how to get folks energized enough to vote for her and against Trump for reasons that don’t so paralyze them with fear that they stay home. If she is successful, it could be the start of re-establishing the New Deal coalition, and a re-installation of the principles of the civil rights movement.

That’s a huge job that will not be completed in one election cycle.

This threat is the GOP’s worst nightmare. They have worked for 40 years to eliminate these ideas, so expect the GOP to unanimously support the Pant Load:

COW Never Hillary

The Bernie Dems will rally behind Hillary for similar reasons.

Trump/Arpaio 2016: Because immigrants are the greatest threat to the nation.

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Angry Men Now a Political Force

The spin after the SOTU was about how angry voters are, and the political opening that creates, despite the genuine good news on the economy. Here is Mr. Obama from the SOTU:

Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

We can’t change the fact that some people are angry, but this article from the Washington Monthly by Andrew Yarrow points to some stunning facts about how men in particular have been left by the wayside of American life:

At least 20% of the nation’s 90 million white men have been pushed to the sidelines, either retreating or storming out of the mainstream of American life. They are not the men you see at work, who play with their children, go out with their wives or partners, are involved in their communities, and earn a living to save for their children’s education and their own retirement. What they do doesn’t register in…the gross domestic product…

Yarrow continues:

We know that they are out there. But they don’t fit old stereotypes of failure, so we’ve had trouble coming to grips with who they are or naming the problem. Parts of their stories have garnered significant attention, but we don’t see that what have been treated as separate problems are closely related.

Here are a few statistics from the article that merit your attention:

• Today, fewer than seven out of ten American men work; in the 1950s, nine out of ten worked.
• Since the 1970s, inflation-adjusted incomes for the bottom 80% of men have fallen, with the most dramatic declines occurring among the bottom 40%, most of whom do not have a college education.
• Today, just half of men are husbands; in 1960, three-fourths of men were married.
• As Barack Obama leaves office, only two out of three children live with their fathers; when John Kennedy was elected President, nine out of ten children lived with their fathers.
• Today, 43% of 18-to-34-year-old American men live with their parents (compared to 36% of millennial women); in 1960, about 28% lived at home.
There are 36% more women in college than men, whereas in 1970, there were about 35% more men than women in college.
Men are 50% less likely to trust government than women.
• In recent years, there has been a roughly 20-point gender voting gap, with white men being much more likely not only to vote for Republicans but to express disillusionment and anger toward government; until about 1980, men and women voted roughly evenly for Democrats and Republicans.

The point is that a lot has gone wrong for many white men, a demographic that once was the epitome of privilege and high expectations. And while politicians discuss stagnant wages, broken families and inequality, few notice, much less talk about the probable linkages between these issues and the impact of angry males on our politics.

Some may be thinking that this is a manufactured issue. After all, men still out-earn women, and they still hold most of the CEO and board–level jobs. And none of this white male angst should obscure the continuing struggles of women and people of color, including men of color. African-American and Latino men have had it worse than white men for a very long time.

But we ignore any group’s anger at our peril. The Bundy Brigade’s antics in Utah and Oregon is just one recent example. Many men are mad as hell, and their anger is often turned on scapegoats: Government in the case of the Bundys; Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, and Latinos in the case of others.

In 2016 we are seeing several presidential candidates feeding from the trough of this anger. Playing to the inchoate anger of a sizable minority of white men who have been benched economically, or who simply left the field, is a dangerous demagoguery, one that only benefits the demagogues.

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Monday Wake Up Call – November 30, 2015

Today’s wake up is for the American worker. While you were sleeping, corporate executives were piecing together an economy and associated tax regulations that allowed them to become America’s oligarchs.

The Center for Effective Government just came out with a study of CEO retirement funds. You already know the conclusion, but you didn’t know the facts:

• The 100 largest CEO retirement funds are worth a combined $4.9 billion. That’s equal to the entire retirement account savings of 47 million American families
• Nearly half of all working age Americans have no access to a retirement plan. The median balance in a 401(k) plan at the end of 2013 was $18,433, enough to generate a monthly retirement check of $104.

In addition, 73% of Fortune 500 firms have also set up special tax-deferred compensation accounts for their executives. These are similar to the 401(k) plans that some Americans have through their employers. But average workers face limits on how much pre-tax income they can invest each year in similar plans, while the plans the F500 provides to their top executives do not. They are free to shelter unlimited amounts of compensation in their retirement funds where their money can grow tax-free, until retirement.

But for the average employee? The GAO says that 29% of workers approaching retirement (aged 50-65) do not have pension or retirement savings in a 401(k) or IRA. While according to a study by the Schwartz Center at the New School, 55% of those aged 50-64 will be forced to rely solely on Social Security (which averages $1,233 a month).

The current rules mean that if CEO’s slash worker retirement benefits, they can boost corporate profits and thereby, stock prices. And since much of executive compensation is tied to the company’s stock price, these rules (and company practice) create a powerful incentive for CEO’s to choose their pocketbooks over those of their employees.

We are talking about market power. The CEO’s and their firms have little to fear from Mr. Market. In turn the rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door between government jobs and those in the private sector. Political influence in turn is used to write the rules of the game—the tax laws we are speaking of here, antitrust laws, deregulation, union-busting—all in a way that reinforces income concentration.

The result is a feedback loop between political power and market power that created, and now maintains, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Well, time to wake up from a snooze that allowed our politicians and the largest corporations and their CEOs to turn our country and economy into their private sandbox.

To help with today’s wake-up, here is Rage Against the Machine, the gone but not forgotten band, with Zach de la Rocha on vocals and the superb Tom Morello on guitar. They are performing “No Shelter”, written in 1998:

Sample Lyrics:
Empty ya pockets son, they got you thinkin’ that
What ya need is what they selling
Make you think that buying is rebelling
From the theaters to malls on every shore
Tha thin line between entertainment and war

Chained to the dream they got ya searchin’ for
Tha thin line between entertainment and war

There be no shelter here
Tha front line is everywhere
There be no shelter here
Tha front line is everywhere

American eyes, American eyes
View the world from American eyes
Bury the past, rob us blind
And leave nothing behind

Just stare
Just stare
Relive the nightmare

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

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The Republican “Free Stuff” Meme

At the last Republican presidential debate, Chris Christie (R-NJ) characterized the Democratic candidates’ debate as:

A parade of, ‘I’ll give you this for free; I’ll give you that for free’.

Senator Marco Rubio said: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

It [the first Democratic debate] was basically a…debate about who was going to give away the most free stuff: Free college education, free college education for people illegally in this country, free health care, free everything.

Jeb Bush says that black voters should back him, since his:

…message is one of hope and aspiration, not one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff…

For the record, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and unemployment have dedicated tax revenue streams. If we back out those funded benefits, all other elements of the so-called social safety net “free stuff” adds up to ~$405 billion, a fraction of the $1.2 trillion in “unfunded” Federal entitlements, and most of the rest goes to top income earners.

So, what do Republicans mean when they say “Free Stuff”? From Jared Bernstein:

There are at least three definitions of “free stuff.” The broadest would simply include all government benefits. A narrower version might apply only when people receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. A third might refer to any net gain relative to the status quo.

Under any of these definitions, the Republican claims are misleading: they attack help for people who need it, while implicitly condoning tax subsidies for the wealthy. What the Republicans want us to focus on are public education, Medicaid, and direct cash assistance to the poor, but the government provides other subsidies, some of which the GOP seems perfectly happy to keep in place.

For example, Rubio and Bush want to cut capital gains taxes below the current level (Rubio would completely abolish them). But today’s reduced cap gains rate already provides a significant benefit to people who invest in assets (i.e., the wealthy). Then there are things like regressive housing tax breaks, about 70% of which go to those in the top 20%. In addition, 68% of the tax benefits for retirement savings and 64% of subsidies for individual retirement accounts (IRAs) accrue to the top 20%.

Can it be that government benefits for poor people are “free stuff”, while benefits for the wealthy are not?

Maybe Christie, Rubio, and Bush subscribe to the second definition described above: It’s “free stuff” if you receive more in benefits than you pay in taxes, but not if you pay more in taxes than you receive in benefits.

The third way to think about “free stuff” mirrors the most accepted concept of “free”. Bernstein asks:

Suppose, for example, that you opened your email today to find an unexpected $100 Amazon gift card. No matter how much money you had spent or planned to spend at Amazon, you would call this “free” money. Or imagine that you go out to dinner at a restaurant and a waiter decides to “comp” your dessert. Regardless of the overall price of your meal, you would likely consider that dessert item to be “free.”

Under this definition, “free stuff” from the government would be new benefits or reduced taxes relative to one’s current situation. Since the Christie, Rubio, and Bush tax plans all contain massive tax cuts, they would give away huge amounts of foregone tax revenue as “free stuff,” and unlike the “free stuff” proposed by the Democratic candidates – the GOP “free stuff” would go to their very wealthy patrons.

From the carried interest loophole, to drug patent law, to defense industry markups, to sweetheart deals for the oil industry, the total “free stuff” for the 1% dwarfs that available to the rest of us. Yet, the nattering nabobs of trickledown continue to target removing the scraps doled out to the 99%.

Social stability is the reason the rich should not begrudge the support given to those that are less fortunate in our society. The rich have the most to lose should the vast majority decide they have suffered enough, and we see an “off with their heads” moment.

Extra money in the hands of the 1% or the .01% just creates bidding wars for penthouse apartments that the 2% can no longer afford.

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Truth or Spin?

Eye of the beholder: Baltimore in flames!
COW Balto Fire

The only problem is the photo wasn’t taken in Baltimore. It was taken in Venezuela. But, Fox13 in Memphis, TN posted it as “Baltimore in Flames.” For those who saw Fox’s rendition of the story, the image is of urban devastation in Baltimore. A viewer recalled the actual event and called Fox out. Fox took the photo down after it racked up tens of thousands of views, saying: “Our team didn’t fact check the picture the way we should have.

At the time, many commentators stressed the need for peaceful protests. It wasn’t long before some invoked MLK. You can always count on Wolf Blitzer:

I just want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Martin Luther King.

Sure, why not? Here is what a 38 year-old Martin Luther King Jr. already the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said to the American Psychological Association’s convention in Washington, DC:

Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest.

MLK said more: (emphasis and brackets by the Wrongologist)

But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he [the Negro] is shocking it by abusing property rights…This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.

He also said:

It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services.

And Dr. King closed with this:

These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.

Speaking truth, or showing photos that distort the truth?

Take another “truth”, the Republican’s emerging 2016 campaign idea: What matters is economic opportunity, not inequality. A Wall Street Journal poll asks the question:

Which concerns you more: the income gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the country or middle and working class Americans not being able to get ahead financially?

The answer?
• Income gap between the wealthy and the rest of the country: 28%
• Middle and working class not being able to get ahead: 68%

People tend to share values, and they lean more towards equal opportunities than equal outcomes. But, these are linked through causation. That means we can’t increase opportunity without reducing inequality. If we have narrowly distributed growth, those with asset-driven incomes hold disproportionate power relative to those whose incomes depend on paychecks. So, measures that attempt to reduce the 1%’s economic “rents”, things like collective bargaining, higher minimum wages, trade policy that protects workers’ rights and wages, robust safety nets, and progressive taxation, are attacked by Republicans as counterproductive to growth and jobs.

The political selling of “equal opportunity” is a house of cards. Why would anyone be happy with just equal opportunity, if it means an equal chance to live in in poverty? The R’s seem to be comparing equal economic opportunity to one roll of the dice: Roll a six sided die, get a 1, and earn less than $20,000, roll a 6, and you earn more than $115,000.

It’s high stakes, but relax, you’ve got equal opportunity.

Here is a Red-Winged Blackbird for your moment of Zen. Saw the first of the year today in a Crab Apple tree on the vast land holdings at the Mansion of Wrong:

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can see the video here.

See you on Sunday.

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