The $2 billion Congress

http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2013/05/money.jpg

28 October 2014

While the upcoming midterm election will be the most expensive non-presidential poll in US history, voter turnout is expected to fall to record lows. Public disapproval of both the Democrats and Republicans—both of which are running on right-wing platforms—is at the highest levels ever recorded.

There is an ever-widening chasm separating the political institutions and both parties from the broad mass of the people. At the same time, the dividing line between elected officials and the financial oligarchy that controls economic life is growing ever thinner. With the passage of every election, the government is increasingly not only controlled by, but also composed of, the extremely rich.

Some recently released figures make this clear. The combined net worth of the members of the US Congress hit $2 billion last year, up $150 million from 2012, according to CQ Roll Call ’s annual tally. The median net worth of the members of Congress is over $450,000.

The release of the report follows the announcement earlier this year by the Center for Responsive Politics, using a different method for estimating the average wealth of US lawmakers, that 2012 marked the first time a typical member of Congress was worth over a million dollars.

Enormous wealth knows no party boundaries in US politics. The Democrats, who like to posture as partisans of the “middle class,” were on average richer than their Republican counterparts. Congress’ notable multi-millionaires include:

* California Republican Representative Darrell Issa, the wealthiest US lawmaker, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa has a net worth of at least $357 million.

* Texas House Republican Michael McCaul, who is second on the list, with a net worth of at least $117 million. McCaul serves as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Unsurprisingly, his top five campaign donors include the defense contractor Boeing and the airport security device manufacturer OSI Systems.

* Maryland Democratic Representative John Delaney, who placed third. His stated net worth increased over 60 percent between 2012 and 2013, hitting $111 million. He is a member of the House Financial Services Committee. Four of his five biggest donors include financial companies, including Credit Suisse and JPMorgan Chase.

* The House and Senate leaders are all multi-millionaires. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is worth about $2.8 million, while Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is worth $11.97 million. Republican House Speaker John Boehner has a net worth of $2.32 million, and outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor $9 million. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has a net worth of $29 million, making her the 14th-wealthiest member of Congress.

In comparison, the net worth of a typical US household was $56,335 in 2013, down a massive 36 percent since 2003, according to a study published earlier this year by the Russell Sage Foundation. Based on that figure, a typical member of Congress is 20 times wealthier than a typical American.

In being staffed and run mostly by millionaires, Congress is in the company of almost every other major institution in the US. For example, eight of the nine Supreme Court justices are millionaires (by far), according to a review of their financial disclosures by USA Today .

The growing wealth of those who populate the institutions of the state is an expression of the decay of democratic forms in the US and the ever-more openly oligarchical character of the US political system.

Corruption, bribery, fraud and all manner of insider-dealings: such is the standard operating procedure of government in the United States. With the whole process fueled by unprecedented levels of cash, candidates spend a majority of their time in office fund-raising among the corporate elite and the well-heeled. Increasingly, individual wealth is leveraged into positions of political power.

If politicians are not extremely wealthy going in, they generally find fortune going out—either through extravagant speaking fees paid by corporations or through the “revolving door” between Congress and big business. A case in point is the Clintons. The couple, according to Hillary, were “dirt poor” after leaving the White House, but have since racked up over a hundred million dollars from speaking fees and other sources, putting them squarely in the top 0.01 percent of income earners.

Without glorifying the past, one can note changes in the forms of class rule over the past century of American politics. The two major parties, the Democrats and Republicans, in an earlier period had broader constituencies. The Democrats had the active support of layers of the middle class and large sections of the working class, along with sections of big business. The Republicans counted on support from small businessmen and small farmers as well as most of corporate America.

These parties have largely lost any substantial, active popular base. They have become hollowed out. They are little more than electoral instruments of a tiny financial aristocracy allied to the military-intelligence apparatus. All important decisions are made behind the backs of the population and sold to the people by a mass media whose leading personnel are themselves multi-millionaires.

Over the course of the past 50 years, amid the deindustrialization and financialization of the economy, accompanied by an extraordinary growth of social inequality, any marginal, relative distance between the political apparatus and the corporate-financial elite has vanished. At the same time, the middle class, the traditional social basis of support for parliamentary democracy, has been increasingly broken up. Broad sections have been proletarianized while the upper layers have seen their wealth soar in line with the stock market.

It is a basic tenet of Marxism that the social class that dominates economic life controls the state as well. This historic truth is being expressed ever more openly and nakedly in official politics.

Under these conditions, nostrums such as the belief that change can be realized by voting or writing your congressman are becoming increasingly discredited. Progressive political change cannot come without a direct assault by the working class on the fortunes and property of the ruling class. The task is not to reform, but to overthrow the existing political system and replace it with institutions that are under the democratic control of the working class, together with the reorganization of economic life to meet social needs, not private profit.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/28/pers-o28.html

There Are 80,000 Homeless Kids in New York City


It’s a disaster of epic proportions.

Like his predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to lower the staggering rate of homelessness in New York City. Unlike his predecessor, his strategy has not consisted of  hectoring the homeless for their plight while  cutting their access to housing programs.

Still, the number of homeless families in New York continues to rise, especially in traditionally middle-class neighborhoods that have seen rapid growth (e.g. gentrification), as the Daily News notes. According to a report by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, 12,000 families are currently sleeping in shelters, including 24,000 kids. That’s a 250% jump in 20 years.

In reality, the city’s homelessness problem is far more dire because many homeless families don’t get into shelters. According to school records highlighted in the report, close to 80,000 kids have experienced homelessness in the past year.

“For every child in shelter, there were roughly two additional children who were homeless and living in unstable conditions,” the authors note. That could mean doubling up with another family or sleeping on the subway or in a car.

“Unless something is done to address the underlying issues driving families into extreme poverty, more children will become homeless,” the report concludes.

While New York leads the pack in horrifyingly high rates of homelessness, cities across the country continue to see increases in the number of homeless families.

A 2013 estimate by the Department of Education highlighted by the Huffington Post found an 8 percent increase in homeless  students in just one year. 

Tana Ganeva is AlterNet’s managing editor. Follow her on Twitter or email her at tana@alternet.org.

US child poverty remains at highest rate in 20 years

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By Andre Damon
27 October 2014

Nearly one in four US children lives in poverty, the highest level in 20 years, with a similar proportion not getting enough food to eat. These were among the findings of an article published last week in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, entitled Seen but Not Heard: Children and US Federal Policy on Health and Health Care.

While the Obama administration praises the “economic recovery,” the facts presented in this report show that since 2009 there has been an immense social retrogression in every measure of well-being among the most vulnerable section of the population: children.

“It shouldn’t be this hard for kids to grow and thrive in the world’s richest, most powerful nation,” said Bruce Lesley, one of the study’s co-authors and the president of the child advocacy organization First Focus.

The report listed a panoply of dangers to the health and well-being of children in the United States, including hunger, lack of health and mental health care, cutbacks in social spending, the havoc wracked on immigrant families by deportation, and others. It found, among all these, that by far the worst impact on the health and well-being of children is poverty.

The report notes that there is overwhelming popular support for government programs to fight child poverty: “82% of voters want Congress and the White House to cut child poverty in half within 10 years.” But with the upcoming midterm election only a week away, such a project could not be farther from the minds of US politicians.

The Obama administration’s 2015 budget proposal, for example, calls for slashing the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the Head Start preschool program, and the Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, by more than five percent.

The report found that 16.1 million children, or 22 percent, live in poverty. It lists a string of adverse health impacts, including “significantly higher risks of low birth weight, injuries, lower IQ, intensive care unit admissions, and infant, condition-specific, and overall mortality.”

The impact of child poverty affects people once they grow up, and even affects their children. As the report notes, “Childhood poverty is associated with substantially higher mortality rates in adults, regardless of adult socioeconomic status (i.e., even affluent adults who were poor as children have elevated death rates), and this increased mortality risk extends across 2 generations.”

The second threat to the well-being of children listed in the report is food insecurity. The report notes that sixteen million children, or 22 percent, live in food-insecure households. An enormous number of children—one in three—rely on food stamp benefits for nutrition, and 47 percent of food stamp recipients are children. The report concludes, “Food insecurity is associated with deleterious consequences for children’s health, including elevated risks of suboptimal health and hospitalizations.”

The report noted that budget cuts that went into effect last year have had a devastating impact on anti-poverty programs for children. For example, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food assistance to children and mothers, was cut back by more than $354 million. It added, “Some in Congress are proposing SNAP [food stamp] cuts at a time when SNAP participants already experienced benefit cuts in November 2013.”

The report also noted that seven million US children, or nine percent, have no health insurance. Despite this, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, jointly funded by the states and the federal government, is scheduled to have its funding drop by 73 percent, from $21.1 billion to $5.7 billion, in 2016.

Congressional Republicans have proposed turning CHIP, together with Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, into a block grant or impose caps on the amount of healthcare funding individual children can receive. The report noted that such proposals “devastatingly restrict or eliminate benefits, underfund Medicaid, disadvantage children with even lower caps, and ration care.”

Among the most tragic elements depicted in the report is the effect of mass deportation on children. It noted that between 2010 and 2012, under the Obama administration, more than 200,000 parents of US citizen children were deported. As a result of these deportations, more than five thousand children have been put in foster care.

The report notes that one in three US children are overweight—which it refers to as a “pandemic”—and that 17 percent are obese. It relates these health problems to insufficient access to healthy food, both as a result of poverty and cutbacks to the funding of school lunch programs.

One in five children have mental disorders, and the rates are growing. “Pediatric mental-health and substance-abuse hospitalizations increased by 24% between 2007 and 2010, and hospitalizations for mood disorders increased by 80% between 1997 and 2010.” Suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers, and rates have gone up since the start of the recession.

Despite the widespread prevalence of mental illness among children, only half of US children with mental disorders receive any form of mental-health services, according to the report. On the state level, more than $1.6 billion in funding for mental health services have been slashed between 2009 and 2012, resulting in the elimination of 4,000 psychiatric hospital beds since 2010.

Whole areas of the country simply have no mental health care available to the poor, who tend to suffer disproportionately from the effects of mental illness. The report notes “35% of US counties have no outpatient mental-health treatment facility accepting Medicaid.” Only three percent of psychiatrists who practice alone accept Medicaid.

Despite the disastrous prevalence of poverty and preventable disease in the US, funding for medical research is being slashed. The report noted that the sequester budget cuts slashed $1.57 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and $289 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report is a devastating indictment of a society that is going backward, not forward, in every measure of social well-being. These disastrous cuts in social services, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, are accompanied by the enormous enrichment of the super-wealthy, who have doubled their net worth since 2009.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/27/chil-o27.html

The US elections and the American plutocracy

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27 October 2014

The 2014 midterm elections mark a further development in the disintegration of American democracy. Only eight days from Election Day, the general population evinces little interest in the campaigns or candidates of the two official parties. This is not because working people are satisfied or apathetic. On the contrary, there are many signs of growing concern and anger over ceaseless war overseas and relentless attacks on social conditions and democratic rights at home.

But the election process, more openly than ever, excludes any expression of the concerns or democratic will of the vast majority of the people. The issues that affect the masses—growing poverty and inequality, declining living standards, police violence and repression—are ignored by the two parties and the media. To the extent foreign policy is discussed, both sides indulge in chauvinist and militarist demagogy, seeking to outflank one another from the right.

Behind the mutual mudslinging and attack ads that insult the people’s intelligence, there is agreement on the need for more austerity, more government spying, more tax breaks for the rich, and a militarist agenda that leads inexorably to a Third World War.

It is little wonder, with none of the Democrats or Republicans proposing any policies to address the jobs crisis or the rise in hunger and homelessness, and both parties supporting savage attacks on the working class such as the bankruptcy of Detroit, that November 4 is expected to see a new record low turnout for a midterm election.

According to the most recent polls, hostility to the congressional Democratic Party is at a 20-year high, with only 30 percent approving and 67 percent disapproving. Congressional Republicans are even more unpopular, with just 25 percent of Americans approving, while 72 percent disapprove.

Popular alienation from the political system coincides with the ever more naked domination of both parties and the manipulation of elections by a handful of multi-millionaires and billionaires. A report issued last week by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) projects that the 2014 election will cost nearly $4 billion, a record for a midterm election.

Candidates and the Democratic and Republican parties will raise and spend about $2.7 billion, while outside political action committees, which have mushroomed since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, will spend another $1 billion.

Candidates and campaign committees are spending more than $100 million on the Senate races in Kentucky and North Carolina, and the governor’s race in Florida, and sums only slightly smaller in other close statewide contests, in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, Massachusetts, Louisiana and other states.

According to a chart published in this week’s Time magazine, spending on US political campaigns has risen 555 percent in the past 30 years, far more than the cost of health care or college education, and nearly four times the increase in household income. The vast sums expended have not won either party any genuine popularity—something that is impossible given their adherence to virtually identical ultra-right programs dictated by the needs of the super-rich.

The Republican Party will likely win a narrow victory on November 4, maintaining its control of the House of Representatives, retaining the majority of state governorships, and winning or narrowly missing a 51-seat majority in the US Senate. This reflects, at least in part, its roughly equivalent lead in the spending race, with the CRP projecting $1.92 billion in pro-Republican campaign fundraising compared to $1.76 billion for the Democrats.

However the two parties divide control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, the financial aristocracy maintains a vise-like grip on all three institutions and on the entire machinery of government.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the role of billionaires backing rival candidates in the Florida gubernatorial election. This was followed by a report in the daily Times on so-called “dark money,” funds that go unreported to the Federal Election Commission that now comprise half of all outside campaign expenditures.

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” NBC journalists Chuck Todd and Luke Russert chatted about the “group of modern-day oligarchs” funding the 2014 campaigns.

These conditions make a mockery of claims that the US elections embody genuine democracy. The United States has been transformed into a plutocracy, a country where government of, by and for the wealthy is openly admitted, and in some quarters, celebrated.

American politics is being brought openly into alignment with American economics. American society has divided into two great camps: a handful of the super-rich at the top, with a layer of upper-middle-class hangers-on; and the great mass of working people, struggling from day to day to make ends meet.

Last week, social scientists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman posted an article under the headline “Exploding wealth inequality in the United States.” In documenting the massive growth of social inequality over the past four decades in the US, they noted that the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent increased from 7 percent in the late 1970s to 22 percent in 2012.

The colossal class divide between an oligarchic elite and the mass of working people underlies the collapse of democratic processes in the United States—and increasingly around the world. Democratic rights cannot be defended apart from a revolutionary struggle by the working class against the capitalist system, which is the source of inequality as well as imperialist war.

Patrick Martin and Barry Grey

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/27/pers-o27.html

The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality

How invocations of “karma” and Zen are being used to justify deeply unequal systems of power

The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality
Steve Jobs, Satya Nadalla (Credit: AP/Paul Sakuma/Brendan McDermid/rnl, Kaveryn Kiryl via Shutterstock/Salon)

Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gave some shocking advice to a young businesswoman who was concerned that her male peers were passing her up for promotions: Don’t question the systemic sexism of corporate America, just trust in “good karma” to get you ahead. While his attitude made waves in the blogosphere, in fact it accurately represents a form of spirituality that is becoming popular in the West.

You know what I’m talking about. When I go to yoga, I’m often surrounded by wealthy white women who can afford expensive classes and Lululemon threads. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see exclamations of bourgeois spirituality (“Staying at the Waldorf tonight! #gratitude #blessed #100happydays #livelife”). Moreover, my actor friends seem to use karma and positivity as tools to help them achieve commercial success.

We might call this a belief in spiritual meritocracy. The implicit idea here is that our professional and financial growth depends on our spiritual merit, not on the presence or absence of social structures and biases. We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures. (Think “The Secret.”) We are told that we actually can have it all: a rich spiritual life, leading to a rich material life.

Of course, this is just the new-agey equivalent of the same old meritocracy myth that’s been floating around America since at least the 19th century; that in the land of the free, anyone can become rich if they just work hard enough, if they use the right brand of elbow grease.

Unless you are a rich Republican, decades of widening economic inequality should tell you how faulty this story is. While it is true that most successful people work hard, the meritocracy myth works more to justify an existing social hierarchy than to inspire us to make positive social changes.

So, for the same reason we look suspiciously on Horatio Alger-esque theories of social mobility, we ought to also be skeptical of their spiritual version, which says that underserved groups can get ahead not by standing up to power, but by focusing on love and positivity.



It’s times like these when I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s summary dismissal of “Western Buddhism.” Zizek cautions that while meditation may seem to come from an edgy counterculture, in fact Americans practice it in a way that is often consistent with consumerist capitalism:

“… although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement … One is almost tempted to resuscitate the old infamous Marxist cliché of religion as the ‘opium of the people,’ as the imaginary supplement to terrestrial misery. The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity … ”

In other words, rather than helping yogis become more socially conscious spiritual warriors, Buddhist meditation can get hijacked by the status quo. It only brings us a shallow peace that makes us less likely to question what counts as normal.

For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice, and I believe that there is some truth to Zizek’s harsh critique. As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.

One problem with a capitalist-inflected Buddhism is that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual cul de sac. I found that my practice was in an uneasy tension with my leftist politics. I found myself attracted to a glamorous Santa Barbara lifestyle that left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I found that it became easy to deal with disturbing images in the news by dismissing the suffering of others as the karmic products of their own poor decisions. (They’re just not being positive enough!)

Yes, I found myself tempted by tales of spiritual meritocracy.

Overall, I am happy that my Facebook friends and yoga moms are finding spiritual enrichment. But I believe that focusing only on the joyful aspects of spirituality can get us into trouble, if we aren’t careful. Every religion can get appropriated by the West’s consumerist ideology, and Buddhism is no exception. When we cultivate gratitude for our material wealth and ignore compassion for those less fortunate, comments like those of Nadella are a natural consequence.

In traditional forms of Buddhism, there are bits and pieces of teachings on karma that capitalism loves to pick up on. Our society emphasizes an interpretation of Eastern spirituality that does not threaten its own internal logic. It’s true, for example, that the Buddha taught that money was a blessing, and that one effect of an ethical way of life would be material prosperity. But it is hard for me to believe the Buddha would say that wealth inequality is solely the result of karmic patterns, and that we should ignore its hidden histories of slavery, colonialism and patriarchy.

The good news is that there may be a spiritual antidote for what Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism.” And I’m not talking about intermittent bouts of Catholic guilt. I’m suggesting that if we work to complement our gratitude with mercy and compassion for those who are less fortunate, we can move away from the surface-level spirituality that is really just materialism in disguise. And this may be what the world needs more than ever.

There are plenty of opportunities for us to be compassionate. For example, as scientists’ long-term projections of the effects of climate change become more and more dire, somehow American denial of anthropogenic global warming is on the rise. This kind of denial is only possible if it is not met with compassion for those who are already facing the extreme weather of hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, like the hard-hit women who are struggling to survive after flash floods destroy their communities. Cultivating compassion for those we usually ignore — whether that’s women in the global south who are facing the ugly end of natural disasters, inmates of American prisons, or businesswomen who make 20 percent less than men who do in the same job — is therefore both a spiritual and political imperative.

The point is not that we give up on Western spirituality, as Zizek seems to suggest. The teachings of Eastern religions are becoming more mainstream in America, but this is an opportunity as well as a cautionary tale. As we develop a more conscious lifestyle, let’s ask ourselves if we are deepening our spirituality, or just falling for the myth of spiritual meritocracy. May all beings be free from pain and suffering.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/26/the_dangerous_american_myth_of_corporate_spirituality/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

 

7 facts that show the American dream is dead

A living wage, retirement security and a life free of debt are now only accessible to the country’s wealthiest

, AlterNet

7 facts that show the American dream is dead
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetrecent poll showed that more than half of all people in this country don’t believe that the American dream is real. Fifty-nine percent of those polled in June agreed that “the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve.” More and more Americans believe there is “not much opportunity” to get ahead.

The public has reached this conclusion for a very simple reason: It’s true. The key elements of the American dream—a living wage, retirement security, the opportunity for one’s children to get ahead in life—are now unreachable for all but the wealthiest among us. And it’s getting worse. As inequality increases, the fundamental elements of the American dream are becoming increasingly unaffordable for the majority.

Here are seven ways the American dream is dying.

1. Most people can’t get ahead financially.

If the American dream means a reasonable rate of income growth for working people, most people can’t expect to achieve it.

As Ben Casselman observes at fivethirtyeight.com, the middle class hasn’t seen its wage rise in 15 years. In fact, the percentage of middle-class households in this nation is actually falling. Median household income has fallen since the financial crisis of 2008, while income for the wealthiest of Americans has actually risen.

Thomas Edsall wrote in the New York Timesthat “Not only has the wealth of the very rich doubled since 2000, but corporate revenues are at record levels.” Edsall also observed that, “In 2013, according to Goldman Sachs, corporate profits rose five times faster than wages.”

2. The stay-at-home parent is a thing of the past.

There was a time when middle-class families could lead a comfortable lifestyle on one person’s earnings. One parent could work while the other stayed home with the kids.



Those days are gone. As Elizabeth Warren and co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi documented in their 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, the increasing number of two-earner families was matched by rising costs in a number of areas such as education, home costs and transportation.

These cost increases, combined with wage stagnation, mean that families are struggling to make ends meet—and that neither parent has the luxury of staying home any longer. In fact, parenthood has become a financial risk. Warren and Tyagi write that “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” This book was written over a decade ago; things are even worse today.

3. The rich are more debt-free. Others have no choice.

Most Americans are falling behind anyway, as their salary fails to keep up with their expenses. No wonder debt is on the rise. As Joshua Freedman and Sherle R. Schwenninger observe in a paper for the New America Foundation, “American households… have become dependent on debt to maintain their standard of living in the face of stagnant wages.”

This “debt-dependent economy,” as Freedman and Schwenninger call it, has negative implications for the nation as a whole. But individual families are suffering too.

Rani Molla of the Wall Street Journal notes that “Over the past 20 years the average increase in spending on some items has exceeded the growth of incomes. The gap is especially poignant for those under 25 years old.”

There are increasingly two classes of Americans: Those who are taking on additional debt, and the rich.

4. Student debt is crushing a generation of non-wealthy Americans.

Education for every American who wants to get ahead? Forget about it. Nowadays you have to be rich to get a college education; that is, unless you want to begin your career with a mountain of debt. Once you get out of college, you’ll quickly discover that the gap between spending and income is greatest for people under 25 years of age.

Education, as Forbescolumnist Steve Odland put it in 2012, is “the great equalizer… the facilitator of the American dream.” But at that point college costs had risen 500 percent since 1985, while the overall consumer price index rose by 115 percent. As of 2013, tuition at a private university was projected to cost nearly $130,000 on average over four years, and that’s not counting food, lodging, books, or other expenses.

Public colleges and universities have long been viewed as the get-ahead option for all Americans, including the poorest among us. Not anymore. The University of California was once considered a national model for free, high-quality public education, but today tuition at UC Berkeley is $12,972 per year. (It was tuition-free until Ronald Reagan became governor.) Room and board is $14,414. The total cost of on-campus attendance at Berkeley, including books and other items, is estimated to be $32,168.

The California story has been repeated across the country, as state cutbacks in the wake of the financial crisis caused the cost of public higher education to soar by 15 percent in a two-year period. With a median national household income of $51,000, even public colleges are quickly becoming unaffordable

Sure, there are still some scholarships and grants available. But even as college costs rise, the availability of those programs is falling, leaving middle-class and lower-income students further in debt as out-of-pocket costs rise.

5. Vacations aren’t for the likes of you anymore.

Think you’d like to have a nice vacation? Think again. According to a 2012 American Express survey, Americans who were planning vacations expected to spend an average of $1,180 per person. That’s $4,720 for a family of four. But then, why worry about paying for that vacation? If you’re unemployed, you can’t afford it. And even if you have a job, there’s a good chance you won’t get the time off anyway.

As the Center for Economic and Policy Research found in 2013, the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not require employers to offer paid vacations to their workers. The number of paid holidays and vacation days received by the average worker in this country (16) would not meet the statutory minimum requirements in 19 other developed countries, according to the CEPR. Thirty-one percent of workers in smaller businesses had no paid vacation days at all.

The CEPR also found that 14 percent of employees at larger corporations also received no paid vacation days. Overall, roughly one in four working Americans gets no vacation time at all.

Rep. Alan Grayson, who has introduced the Paid Vacation Act, correctly notes that the average working American now spends 176 hours more per year on the job than was the case in 1976.

Between the pressure to work more hours and the cost of vacation, even people who do get vacation time—at least on paper—are hard-pressed to take any time off. That’s why 175 million vacation days go unclaimed each year.

6. Even with health insurance, medical care is increasingly unaffordable for most people.

Medical care when you need it? That’s for the wealthy.

The Affordable Care Act was designed to increase the number of Americans who are covered by health insurance. But health coverage in this country is the worst of any highly developed nation—and that’s for people who have health insurance.

Every year the Milliman actuarial firm analyzes the average costs of medical care, including the household’s share of insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs, for a family of four with the kind of insurance that is considered higher quality coverage in this country: a PPO plan which allows them to use a wider range of healthcare providers.

Even as overall wealth in this country has shifted upward, away from middle-class families, the cost of medical care is increasingly being borne by the families themselves. As the Milliman study shows, the employer-funded portion of healthcare costs has risen 52 percent since 2007, the first year of the recession. But household costs have risen by a staggering 73 percent, or 8 percent per year, and now average $9,144. In the same time period, Census Bureau figures show that median household income has fallen 8 percent.

That means that household healthcare costs are skyrocketing even as income falls dramatically.

The recent claims of “lowered healthcare costs” are misleading. While the rate of increase is slowing down, healthcare costs are continuing to increase. And the actual cost to working Americans is increasing even faster, as corporations continue to maximize their record profits by shifting healthcare costs onto consumers. This shift is expected to accelerate as the result of a misguided provision in the Affordable Care Act which will tax higher-cost plans.

According to an OECD survey, the number of Americans who report going without needed healthcare in the past year because of cost was higher than in 10 comparable countries. This was true for both lower-income and higher-income Americans, suggesting that insured Americans are also feeling the pinch when it comes to getting medical treatment.

As inequality worsens, wages continue to stagnate, and more healthcare costs are placed on the backs of working families, more and more Americans will find medical care unaffordable.

7. Americans can no longer look forward to a secure retirement.

Want to retire when you get older, as earlier generations did, and enjoy a secure life after a lifetime of hard work? You’ll get to… if you’re rich.

There was a time when most middle-class Americans could work until they were 65 and then look forward to a financially secure retirement. Corporate pensions guaranteed a minimum income for the remainder of their life. Those pensions, coupled with Social Security income and a lifetime’s savings, assured that these ordinary Americans could spend their senior years in modest comfort.

No longer. As we have already seen, rising expenses means most Americans are buried in debt rather than able to accumulate modest savings. That’s the main reason why 20 percent of Americans who are nearing retirement age haven’t saved for their post-working years.

Meanwhile, corporations are gutting these pension plans in favor of far less general programs. The financial crisis of 2008, driven by the greed of Wall Street one percenters, robbed most American household of their primary assets. And right-wing “centrists” of both parties, not satisfied with the rising retirement age which has already cut the program’s benefits, continue to press for even deeper cuts to the program.

One group, Natixis Global Asset Management, ranks the United States 19th among developed countries when it comes to retirement security. The principal reasons the US ranks so poorly are 1) the weakness of our pension programs; and 2) the stinginess of our healthcare system, which even with Medicare for the elderly, is far weaker than that of nations such as Austria.

Economists used to speak of retirement security as a three-legged stool. Pensions were one leg of the stool, savings were another and Social Security was the third. Today two legs of the stool have been shattered, and anti-Social Security advocates are sawing away at the third.

Conclusion

Vacations; an education; staying home to raise your kids; a life without crushing debt; seeing the doctor when you don’t feel well; a chance to retire: one by one, these mainstays of middle-class life are disappearing for most Americans. Until we demand political leadership that will do something about it, they’re not coming back.

Can the American dream be restored? Yes, but it will take concerted effort to address two underlying problems. First, we must end the domination of our electoral process by wealthy and powerful elites. At the same time, we must begin to address the problem of growing economic inequality. Without a national movement to call for change, change simply isn’t going to happen.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a writer and policy analyst. He is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and is host and managing editor of The Zero Hour on We Act Radio.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/25/7_facts_that_show_the_american_dream_is_dead_partner/?source=newsletter

The return of the nightmare in Mexico

…or, was it ever gone?

by Leonidas Oikonomakis on October 23, 2014

Post image for The return of the nightmare in Mexico (or, was it ever gone?)Political assassinations appear to be back on the agenda in Peña Nieto’s Mexico, as protesters demand information on the fate of 43 missing students.

Students being arrested by the police and then just disappearing from the face of the earth. Mass graves with dozens of unidentified bodies being discovered. The government reassuring that light will be shed and justice will be done. Mothers and students in the streets demanding the re-appearance of their sons, friends, and loved ones.

It sounds like a forgotten page torn from Latin America’s bloodiest period — that of the US-backed dictatorships that tortured, jailed, disappeared, and executed thousands of left-wing activists using methods taught at the infamous ‘School of the Americas’, created and sustained by the US military.

Or, even more, they remind us of a dark page from the bloodiest times of Mexican history, when the government (firmly in the hands of the PRI dictatorship) waged war against the country’s own youth in the 1960s and 1970s; a period that became known as la guerra sucia — the “dirty war”.

However, it is 2014, and it seems that the aforementioned practices are back on the agenda with the — direct, or indirect — assistance of the narcos this time. Welcome to Peña Nieto’s Mexico.

Mass graves

The case is well known by now, however unclear the information about it remains. On September 26, a number of students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School in Ayotzinapa, Iguala (in the state of Guerrero) were involved with a confrontation with the municipal and federal police. From the scarce information available, it seems that the students had gone to Iguala in order to “occupy” a number of buses — obtaining permission of their drivers, the students claim — to be used for their transportation to Mexico City for the commemoration of the October 2 Massacre of Tlatelolco, a practice not uncommon for the normalistas, as they are commonly known.

The lack of funds in their boarding school makes these and similar kinds of direct action — like the “hijacking” of trucks carrying milk and other food products — necessary. Once the students are back in their school, they normally return the buses or trucks to their respective owners. This time around, however, on the Iguala-Chilpancingo highway, the police blocked the buses and opened fire on them, killing six people (three students and three unfortunate citizens who happened to be in nearby cars and buses), while another 43 students simply… disappeared. The students were last seen being boarded on police trucks and were never to return again.

A few days later, a number of mass graves were discovered nearby, in which a number of bodies that had previously been tortured and most probably burned alive (by the narco-criminals, it seems) were also found.

It is still unclear whether the bodies found in the mass grave belong to the normalistas. The government has invited a group of Argentinian forensic experts to identify the bodies, and Mexico is holding its breath awaiting the results. However, the questions to be answered are stern: If the bodies belong to the normalistas, how did they end up in the narco‘s mass graves, especially since they were last seen arrested by the police? And if they don’t belong to the students, who do they belong to? And where would the 43 “disappeared” normalistas be, then?

Almost a month has passed, and the government has not provided any answers. Mexico keeps holding its breath.

Los normalistas

The Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal Boarding School of Ayotzinapa is not just like any other school. It carries a long history of struggles for social justice, and it happens to be the exact school were Lucio Cabañas — one of the greatest Mexican revolutionaries of the 20th century — had studied and had been a student leader, before starting his Party of the Poor (Partido de los Pobres) guerrilla army that shook Guerrero and Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Read Carlos Montemayor’s Guerra en el Paraiso to find out more about this incredible story.)

The Rural Normal Schools are not like the rest of the Mexican schools either. They are located in poor rural areas and they provide education for — and sometimes also awaken the political consciousness of — Mexico’s excluded: the impoverished, mostly indigenous, kids of the Mexican countryside. Some of the normalistas later move on to become teachers in rural schools or even to enter the most prestigious universities of the country to do postgraduate studies.

In her book México Armado, Laura Castellanos writes that, during and even before the guerra sucia, the students of the normales rurales had been protagonists of several struggles for social justice, very often joining some of the more than thirty rural and urban guerillas that chose the revolutionary road to social change at a time when all other roads seemed closed.

Arturo Gámiz and some other members of his group, who in a highly symbolic move for Mexico’s revolutionary left carried out an attack on the military barracks of Madera on September 23, 1965, were normalistas as well, while many other normalistas joined various guerrilla groups later on. The Rural Normal Schools of the time paid a heavy price for their students’ activism: they became the target of the ever-more repressive Mexican state. As Siddharta Camargo writes:

The students and graduates of the Normales Rurales became the perfect victims; their identity as sons of ‘campesinos’, their poverty, their political militancy, and their intellectual capacity transformed them into “a danger” in the eyes of an obsolete and ever-more authoritarian and repressive political regime.

And it seems they are still being punished to this day. For the same reasons.

Alive they took them, alive we want them back!

On October 22, Mexico took to the streets to demand the return of the 43 missing normalistas, as well as answers about the identity of the bodies discovered in the mass graves, and how they ended up there. “We are not all here — 43 are missing” and “Alive they were taken, alive we want them back” were the main slogans that shook Mexico’s squares from North to South. Several universities went on a 48-hour strike and some of them — including the UNAM and the UAM — declared an indefinite strike until the government provides some answers regarding the fate of the 43 normalistas.

Several acts of solidarity were also carried out in front of Mexican embassies and consulates all over the world, while on Thursday the European Parliament is expected to vote on a resolution condemning the disappearance of the 43 students and demanding justice to be done.

Meanwhile, Mexico is still holding its breath. The rest of the world is, too. And they demand answers.

Because We Are All Ayotzinapa.

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute, a rapper with the Greek hip-hop formation Social Waste, and a contributing editor for ROAR Magazine.

http://roarmag.org/2014/10/missing-students-mexico-normalistas/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29