Esther the Wonder Pig is wondrous indeed — but so are all pigs

During 10 years as a pig farmer I came to know pigs as well as I know my own dog. That’s why I quit

Esther the Wonder Pig is wondrous indeed -- but so are all pigs
Esther the Wonder Pig (Credit: Facebook/Esther the Wonder Pig)

There is a pig out there who lives with a family of humans, dogs and cats, not other pigs. Her name is Esther, and we should all get to know her. Her human family members, Derek Walter and Steve Jenkins, believe she is wondrous, so her name is not just Esther. It is Esther the Wonder Pig. Derek and Steve believe that Esther is so wondrous that they turned Esther onto social media. She has her own Facebook page. She is on YouTube. She even tweets. Over the past couple of years, Esther has garnered quite a following – her Facebook page has more than 275,000 likes. Among vegans, vegetarians and people in the animal compassion communities, Esther is a celebrity. Esther is the it pig.

Esther started out as a small “mini” pig that Steve and Derek adopted from a friend who couldn’t handle having Esther as a pet. Esther the mini pig. As is so often the case with mini pigs, not so much. Once home at Steve and Derek’s townhouse outside of Toronto, Esther, who was actually not a mini pig at all, but a baby commercial pig, quickly grew from mini straight past big beyond huge to humongo. She now weighs over 600 pounds, and is more than 5, maybe even 6, feet from nose to tail. Six hundred pounds or not, Esther is quite a cream puff, and a total ham (the good kind) for the camera.

Scrolling through Esther’s social media accounts and her website, you can see pictures of Esther in the house lounging on her bed, on Derek and Steve’s bed, or on the couch (she is quite the lounger), and of her snuggling with her canine siblings (with her feline siblings nearby – feigning feline aloofness, of course). You can also see pictures and videos of her hamming (again, the good kind) it up as she sits or stands, waiting patiently with that pretty pig smile on her face for a treat like pies, often homemade by her loving humans. You can also see Esther running and playing in the backyard. You can see her being mischievous, and, as any 600-pound adolescent will do, wreaking havoc. The videos and pictures are captivating. They are simply a joy to watch. I never tire of them. I love Esther.

However, there is more going on here than mere entertainment. The videos and photographs of Esther elevate her from an abstract idea (practically none of us have any direct experience with pigs) to a real, concrete, individuated being, placing her, in terms of our ability to relate with and to her, on par with the family dog. Esther is clearly a unique individual being, with interests that are personal and particular, and that should be fostered and protected. She has great emotional, psychological and intellectual capacities. She is a being that one can bond with. Esther is every bit as dear as Fido.

And, this is evidently so. In spring 2014, Derek and Steve launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to fund the purchase of a farm where Esther would be able to fully express herself (her life in the suburbs of Toronto is somewhat limited) and that they would turn into a farm animal sanctuary. In just 60 days, nearly 7,500 people together contributed a total of $440,245 (CAD), nearly half a million dollars, and 10 percent more than the funding goal, so that a pig could move to a home better suited to her. That is a lot of love.

How is that possible? It is possible because Esther is so absolutely endearing. She seems so unique and unusual. She seems set apart from all of the rest of the pigs in the world. When we see Esther, we don’t see a pig, plain and simple, we see a wondrous pig, different and more extraordinary than all the rest of the pigs in pigdom. Esther strikes us as one in a million, maybe even one in a billion. Esther seems, then, in a word, special. She seems so special that to kill her would be a crime.

For about 10 years, until November 2014, I was a pig farmer. As a pig farmer, I raised pigs to be killed so that people, myself included, could eat their meat. Over those years, I spent well over 10,000 hours working closely with pigs. I came to know pigs – pigness, that is, what it fundamentally means to be a pig – as well as I know my own dog (and I use “my own” here in the same way I say my own brother, not as property, but as a cherished part of my family). Ultimately, I came to know pigs so well that I could no longer see what distinguishes a pig from a dog, or, on occasion, even from me, and for this reason, I quit pig farming. I did more than that. I adopted a vegan diet.

With this brief biography in mind I would like to say that there is nothing, literally nothing at all, special about Esther the Wonder Pig. She is wondrous. She is a unique individual with distinct interests and particular tastes. However, in terms of how she lives her life with her family, she is perfectly ordinary. Esther is not cute, lovable and loving, smart, playful, mischievous, gentle, well-mannered, mirthful, gregariously snuggly and fastidious because she is special. She is all of those things, so powerfully all of those things, because she is a pig. That string of adjectives does not describe Esther alone. It describes the very heart and soul of every pig on the planet. It describes pigness. Truth be told, and it should be told, any pig anywhere in the world living in a situation similar to Esther’s – granting personality, emotional and psychological uniqueness – would act and behave just like Esther.

Simply put, Esther is every pig. Every pig is Esther. If you love Esther, you love all pigs. If you think Esther’s life is cherished, you think all pigs’ lives are cherished. If you think to kill Esther would be a transgression amounting to murder, you think killing any pig would amount to the same.

At this moment, more than 60 million Esthers are languishing in pig production factories in the United States alone, a few million of whom are confined to barren metal crates so small they are unable to walk or turn around. As for the rest, they are doing their best to retain some semblance of their pigness, as they live crammed together in spaces too small and in groups too large for their instinctive, hierarchical social calculus to comprehend, making them live in anxious uncertainty about their place in the world. They spend every moment living on hard, unforgiving concrete floors; their powerful interests and desires to root, to forage, to run, to play, to bask in the sun – to do the very things that make them pigs – go woefully unmet as they pursue the one interest they are allowed to satisfy, eating. They belly up to the trough and eat, unwittingly growing themselves into meat. While their lives might indeed be better, the fate of the few 10,000 pigs raised outdoors on small pasture-based farms like mine is no different. They too become meat.

Making meat is not benign. It takes a life, a life that not only by its very nature, but by our own reckoning – by the joy Esther brings us and the love we feel for her – is precious. In order for people to satisfy what amounts to a mere gustatory craving, the beautiful essence, the fundamental core of Esther’s pigness, her being, must be wantonly and utterly obliterated.

I know this. I know this because I spent a quarter of my life sharing time with and taking care of a couple thousand Esthers. I know this because on the day that I finally came to, I realized that my efforts to raise pigs humanely had failed: in nearly 10 years I had never looked into a pig’s eyes and found them empty, vacant; they were always vibrant and full; there was always someone looking back at me, someone wondrous, someone sacred.

Note: Background details about Esther and her family come primarily from the Huffington Post article “Esther the Wonder Pig Is a 500-Pound House Pet, and So Much More” by Arin Greenwood.


Fight for $15 marks a new era of workers’ struggle in the US

By Chris Wright On May 1, 2015

Post image for Fight for $15 marks a new era of workers’ struggle in the USThe struggle for fair pay is establishing itself as a successor to failed trade union strategies and a key node in the emerging social justice movement.

Photo by Christopher Dilts.

The demonstrations across the United States on April 15 revealed the significance of the Fight for $15, and has already been dubbed “the largest protest by low-wage workers in US history.” Tens of thousands of people in 230 cities marching, chanting, broadcasting their voices over loudspeaker so that the “Masters of the Universe” could hear them — demanding fair pay for all.

Consider the scene at the University of Illinois in Chicago: thousands of black, white and brown faces cheering together — retail workers, graduate students, professionals, unions organizations for the homeless, interested individuals, schoolchildren, the middle-aged, the elderly: a panoply of humanity shouting in unison against poverty wages, union-busting, racism, police brutality, corporate oligarchy — the status quo.

Even in its early stages, Fight for $15 already finds itself at the forefront of a new social justice movement. As it intersects with the Black Lives Matter and feminist movements, community organizing and workers’ struggles the world over, Fight for $15 exemplifies an innovative new form of social movement unionism — the desperately needed successor to the old failed AFL-CIO strategies of narrow collective bargaining, ossified bureaucratism, and concessionary negotiations with union-busting employers.

It’s time we took the fight to the streets, to resurrect and fuse the spirits of the 1930s and the 1960s. The Fight for $15 is rapidly emerging as a key node of this revolutionary 21st century fusion — what we can expect will become a massive international movement of movements for economic and social justice.

In less than three years, the Fight for $15 has grown from a single strike in New York City to what we saw on April 15, which included demonstrations in Italyand New Zealand. Seattle and San Francisco have passed $15 minimum wage laws, Chicago will have a $13 minimum wage by 2019, and other cities and statesare considering similar laws.

More and more politicians are coming out in support of minimum wage hikes, which, on less dramatic scales, have been passed recently in several states and cities. Social movements take years to build, but this one is already picking up steam.

As it continues to gain visibility, moreover, the pressure it brings to bear on politicians will deepen and broaden. When issues like a higher minimum wage, anti-racism, workplace safety, immigrants’ rights and social welfare are seen to overlap and are pressed forward, together, on multiple fronts — as happened, for instance, in the 1930s, when the wide range of social movements pushed American politics to the left on dozens of issues — real political change can result.

Ultimately, systemic alternatives can emerge, whether interstitially or squarely in the mainstream. As important as the Fight for $15 is, therefore, it may be only the beginning of something truly momentous.

We’ve already seen other glimmers of the possible, some of which flared up only briefly and then sputtered into semi-darkness after months or a couple years. Occupy Wall Street is the best example. It had enormous influence at the level of public discourse, thrusting the issue of income inequality into the spotlight, but after being savagely repressed by the political establishment and its police goons, it rapidly petered out.

The Fight for $15, by contrast, while lacking Occupy’s creative anarchist spontaneity, is much more organizationally robust, oriented towards the long haul and towards specific legislative goals that can serve as stepping stones toward ever more ambitious goals. The movement is building networks and coalitions, politicizing working people, raising awareness, and pushing public opinion to the left. As the American mainstream becomes sensitized to the demand for higher wages and enforcement of workers’ rights, it is more likely to support anti-racist policies, prison reform, action against police brutality, anti-war agendas, and other left-wing goals that all overlap.

These fights are not likely to suffer the fate of Occupy Wall Street, largely because they don’t depend on a single specific tactic that is vulnerable to police action. They will build strength year by year, aided by the momentum of the Fight for $15.

It is significant, incidentally, that a large cross-section of American business — including two out of three small business owners — supports a higher minimum wage, because it makes good economic sense. When radical ideas like these start being adopted by large sections of the ruling class — even if only in a defensive move — it is clear that the momentum is on the side of change.

In short, there is cause for optimism on multiple fronts. Of course there is little doubt that society, in the long term, is in for catastrophic social and environmental disruptions — but in the midst of these tragedies, there will still be accumulating successes, thanks to the work of activists like those who have made possible the Fight for $15. The more of us join them, the more victories the left will be able to claim in the years and decades ahead.

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history and author ofWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and Notes of an Underground Humanist. Visit his website.

Neoliberals are killing us

The TED talk, techno-utopian, Thomas Friedman-economy is a lie

Neoliberal fantasy world is filled with daring entrepreneurs competing in a meritocracy. Do you recognize that?

Neoliberals are killing us: The TED talk, techno-utopian, Thomas Friedman-economy is a lie

A turkey and Thomas Friedman (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson/panbazil via Shutterstock/Salon)

Last week, 295,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Economists called it good news, as the number was less than 300,000; that’s the line they say separates good news from bad. But it isn’t much less, and other news seems very bad. In February, housing starts plunged 17 percent. Inventories are high. Demand is low. Job growth is anemic. Still, economists say things are going so well we can raise interest rates. They call that good news — though they don’t say for whom.

There’ll be more news this week: home prices, consumer confidence, new growth figures. In our casino economy we hang on these reports like blackjack players waiting for a dealer to turn the next card. Republicans and Democrats alike believe growth will cure all our ills. President Obama and Hillary Clinton call it their No. 1 economic priority. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still believe a rising tide lifts all boats.

Some call Obama’s and Clinton’s economic worldview ‘neoliberal.’ Like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ it’s an imprecise word meant to signify a cluster of opinions; among them that globalization is inevitable and benign and that the revolution in information technology is fast democratizing commerce and politics. Neoliberals love fiscal austerity and free trade and are suckers for privatization, deregulation and ‘education reform,’ which they say will keep us competitive.

Like the neoconservatives with whom they often ally on military matters, neoliberals seem to regard our present political and economic arrangements as civilization’s final flowering, as close to perfect as one can get in a fallen world. It’s the faith that made Bush think Iraqis would greet us as liberators–who wouldn’t want to be us– and why Obama bet his presidency on economic recovery rather than reform. It’s our establishment orthodoxy, the ‘bipartisan consensus’ we’re forever chasing. It’s killing us.

In the neoliberal narrative, geniuses reinvent the world in their garages; risk takers invest in innovation; technology and trade spawns endless opportunity. It’s a land without ideology; a true meritocracy where anyone with pluck and grit is sure to rise. (So long as they’re really, really smart.) Above all it’s an engine of prosperity, the only sure means by which to broaden and strengthen the middle class.

Real life is nothing like the neoliberal narrative. As PayPal’s Peter Thiel says, our overhyped innovations tend toward mere gadgetry and away from such vital areas as health and transportation. One reason: those stories about geniuses in garages and their angel investors are mostly made up. In 2014 venture capital funding hit $48.3 billion, but just $700 million of it went to ‘seed stage’ projects. Who really funds the little guys? The same folks who brought you the microchip, the Internet and GPS. Last year the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research Program alone lent or gave the real pioneers $2.4 billion; more than triple their take from ‘venture capitalists.’

If the story of our not-so-bold investors disappoints, it may matter less than you think, in that technology and trade never really lived up to their billing. In 2005, Tom Friedman, the Candide of globalization, said “the world is flat”; meaning technology was a great leveling force that would soon topple the old political and economic oligarchies and give everyone a chance to be an entrepreneur, or at least work in a call center. America has since grown more economically stratified and politically corrupt and has fewer jobs than it did eight years ago.

Early critics who said the new information technology would lay waste to labor were dismissed as Luddites. Twenty years on it still kills more jobs than it creates; even ‘serious people’ now say this could be the first new technology wave to result in a net job loss. As for trade, the tide let in by NAFTA sank more middle-class boats than it lifted, which accounts for the resistance to Obama’s fast track scheme.

In real life, we’re a nation of middle men and corporate toll collectors, where health insurers get 20 cents on the dollar for services done everywhere else for a nickel or less; where big banks shun small business while raking in merger fees and taking a cut of every purchase charged to a credit card; where Comcast’s pipeline is worth more than NBC’s oil; where Google gorges on ad revenues that once supported world-class journalism. We’re about cartels, not startups, not bound to the future but mortgaged to the past.

In real life, the middle class is in limbo. In the seven years since Wall Street’s crash, stocks, profits and CEO pay are at historic highs, but wages haven’t budged and we’re still years away from adding back all the jobs we lost. Millions of older Americans who lost their pensions and the equity in their homes will retire broke. Millions of younger Americans fear they’ll never have their parents’ opportunities. They all know it will take more than a bailout or a stimulus to get our economy, or their lives, back on track. You can’t prime a broken pump. We need real reform and everybody knows it; everybody, that is, except those in charge.*

The gap between elite and popular opinion on these issues is wide. Tension boiled over on the right long ago, but Democrats have mostly kept mum. It reflects their fear of Republicans, and the fact that Obama and Clinton are staunch neoliberals. Bill Clinton, more than anyone, made the consensus bipartisan. Hillary’s rhetoric has a more populist hue now, but changing her actual views won’t be easy for her.

The backlash against neoliberalism cuts across all political categories. If the Democrats resist debating it, progressives must force a debate. But they too may be reluctant, not because of any risk—there’s greater risk in silence—but because they don’t know what to say. Many progressive critics of neoliberalism are just like Republican critics of Obamacare; they hate it, but can offer no alternative.

It’s understandable. The very purpose of a political debate is to test our ideas. We progressives knock Democrats who duck debates but it’s been a while since we’ve had one of our own. I don’t mean the daily squabbles we all seem to enjoy, but a big debate that draws our whole community and eventually the nation in. We know we’d raise the minimum wage and tax the rich. But do we know our bottom line? We reject soulless, mindless globalization, but can we picture a more just and humane order? If so, we can start to frame policies to support it. I’ve only a few fragments of a vision, but hoping to extend the conversation, I’ll describe them.

Right now, before our eyes, a new economy struggles to be born. It’s more democratic than the one we have. It prizes smallness, permanence and community. It favors cooperatives and other collaborative forms of ownership and production. It reclaims the commons we own in trust for future generations. It’s local and sustainable. It both needs and fosters civic renewal. It’s growing now despite great resistance, but its final success or failure is up to us. I’ll offer some examples, first a less exotic one. It’s of an old familiar institution readapting to changing times.

I speak of independent bookstores. By 2009 the big chains had nearly wiped them out. They hit rock bottom: 1,651 stores. Then to everyone’s surprise, they revived. The number of stores has since grown to 2,094, a 25 percent increase in six years. Sales are up, and at a brisk 8 percent annual rate. It turns out that in the age of information overload, thoughtful curation means more, not less. The Internet that nearly killed them also provided a cheap way to advertise. And by expanding their activities, they built community and played to their great strength, their customers’ love of books and bookstores. To many the future of small-scaled enterprises looks bleak, but the independent booksellers’ story is one of many that suggests that in the new economy, small is beautiful.

The new economy favors forms of ownership and production that foster democracy and collaboration. You may recall George W. Bush’s blather about an ‘ownership society,’ a greedy scam to privatize Social Security and Medicare. For many years real reformers have been building a real ownership society. A familiar tool is the employee stock ownership plan. (ESOP) Often underestimated, today 11,000 ESOPs now employ nearly 11 million workers. Benefits range from higher job satisfaction and wages to improved productivity and in hard times, fewer layoffs.

ESOPs are most typically born via conversion of an established business on its owner’s retirement. Chris Mackin, a leader in the field, says coming retirements of so many baby boomers offer a chance for rapid growth. Mackin also urges use of other forms of employee ownership and seeks new government policies, including possible set asides for employee owned businesses. Having worked in the field for thirty years, he feels its best days are not only ahead of it, but imminent.

Some very innovative thinking concerns the public commons. The phrase has always meant y resource owned and used by the public but it applies in new ways to new things, from public lands to the internet and the airwaves. One goal is to preserve priceless public assets; another is to compensate the public for private use of its resources.

Peter Barnes, a journalist, activist and public spirited entrepreneur, has called for a dividend fund patterned after the Alaskan fund that distributes state oil revenue to all citizens on a pro rata basis. He’d first target companies that pollute the air and says the government could collect enough money from all sources to write every American a check every year for $5,000.

The commons may refer to peer to peer production, a process by which people collaborate as equals to produce things of value, often with little or no pay. It may sound arcane but examples include Linux, Mozilla Firefox, and Wikipedia. David Bollier, a brilliant strategist of the commons, says the challenge is to protect such work from rapacious monetization by corporate actors. Another challenge for all cooperatives is to preserve an ethos of public spiritedness as enterprises scale up.

In their different ways, independent booksellers, ESOP owner/ employees and open source programmers are helping to engineer our next economy our next new economy. The 11million who work in ESOPs enjoy good wages, benefits and job security. The booksellers are among the 14 million Americans who work for very small businesses. The programmers may be among the 6 million Americans who work from home or the 10 million who are independent contractors. For income and benefits, most of them are pretty much on their own.

All have these things in common: Their government doesn’t think much about them. They don’t think much of it. Their needs are ill-served by current economic policies or by having both major so closely tied to the old order. You can count them different ways and never with confidence, but it’s likely they comprise as much as 15 percent of the workforce — and they grow by the hour. They haven’t a sense of themselves as a political force but one party or the other soon will. When that happens, I hope they hold out for real answers.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.


Chasing shadows: Europe’s misguided war on smugglers

By Carlos Delclós On April 25, 2015

Post image for Chasing shadows: Europe’s misguided war on smugglersBy declaring war on the smugglers, the EU is not just ignoring the root causes of the Mediterranean drownings, but threatening to make matters worse.

Photo by Ahmed Jadallah.

There are tears that burn and tears that heal. There are tears that are recurring because we forget why we cried them, or never knew to begin with. They come back in waves. Finally, there are the crocodile’s tears, which he sheds as he consumes his victims. They are not unreal, but they come back as shadows.

Take, for instance, the weeping of the European Commission after every spectacular disaster in the Mediterranean. For two decades, reports of capsized boats and deaths by the dozens or hundreds have been followed by somber statements from European leaders and calls for “urgent” action. This emphasis on urgency, often echoed by activists and human rights organizations, can be useful in forcing political decisions that address the most immediately distasteful aspects of a systemic problem. But by reducing that problem to a seemingly manageable scale, it can also sideline necessary considerations of its root causes. And that, in turn, can lead to bad ideas.

When nearly 400 people died en route to Lampedusa in October of 2013, Europe’s urgent response was spearheaded by the Italian government via the Mare Nostrum operation. This search-and-rescue program was recently scrapped and replaced by Operation Triton, following arguments that Mare Nostrum encouraged irregular migration by making it safer. Smaller in scope, Triton is oriented not towards protecting lives, but towards surveillance and border protection. The result of this change, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has been a dramatic increase in deaths, while the flow of arrivals has increased only slightly according to figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior. As sociologists have argued for years, more securitization has made migration more dangerous and done nothing to reduce the flows of people.

In response to the massive number of deaths in the Mediterranean between April 13 and 19, many have been quick to call for the return of a humanitarian search-and-rescue program like Mare Nostrum. Yet even this program, though undoubtedly more humane than Triton, was unable to prevent thousands of deaths at Europe’s southern border during its period of operation. The fact of the matter is that the border is doing exactly what it is intended to do, namely channel and protect the accumulation of global capital in the North by filtering and excluding the people from the South through bureaucracy and the selective application of violence.

It is thus misleading and counterproductive to treat the horrific deaths in the Mediterranean as the result of an uncaring administrative decision. What they are is a disturbing manifestation of the European status quo. Not a deviation, but a moment of truth in which we see that the world’s deadliest North-South border (28,000 deaths since 2000 according to the IOM) is situated in the world’s most unequal North-South border zone.

What framing the moment as an emergency does is produce a state of exception that opens the way for oppressive, reactionary legislation. European leaders seemed to have this in mind on April 23, when the Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos announced, “Our response is clear and unequivocal. Europe is declaring war on smugglers.” He went on to announce member states’ broad support for the ten-point action plan on migration that was proposed three days earlier. Aside from promising to carry out more search-and-rescue activities, the plan allocates more funds to FRONTEX (the EU’s border control agency), extends European authority into third countries and suggests a possible military mission to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats.

This sudden shift of focus from a politically damaging humanitarian disaster to a discussion about shadowy networks of smugglers is a common rhetorical device in political discussions about irregular migration. It allows politicians to adopt a moralistic discourse that depicts people who migrate as helpless victims preyed upon by a dark and criminal enemy. But the reality is hardly so clear-cut. As Patrick Kingsley points out in a recent article for The Guardian:

“Smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbor of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice. To destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.”

It seems unlikely that European leaders are unaware of this: journalists, migration analysts and human rights organizations have argued for years that the criminalization of people smuggling may be doing more to globalize harm than prevent it. Ultimately, smugglers are simply part-time players in a transnational informal economy created around and sustained by the European Union’s failure to provide safe, legal and affordable pathways for people to seek asylum or simply try out a life in a new setting. By declaring war on them, European leaders are not just ignoring the root causes of the thousands of deaths each year in the Mediterranean, but actually threatening to make things worse by adding more of the violence and instability that is driving more and more people in the region to take increasingly desperate measures.

Carlos Delclos is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. Currently he collaborates with the Health Inequalities Research Group at Pompeu Fabra University and the Barcelona Institute of Metropolitan and Regional Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Majority of US public aid recipients are from working families


By Zaida Green
25 April 2015

A recent report by the University of California, Berkeley, shows that 73 percent of people enrolled in welfare programs are from working families, surviving on poverty-level wages. An earlier study by the UC Berkeley reported that 25 percent of all workers in the United States relied on some form of public aid.

Titled The High Public Cost of Low Wages, the study reports that of the 29 million families that depended on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for food assistance in the period 2009- 2011, 10.3 million had working family members, but still needed assistance. Some 34.1 million workers and their family members were dependent on Medicaid for health care and did not receive health insurance from their employers. Overall, some 56 percent of combined state and federal assistance goes to working families.

The authors point out that data in the study does not include the impact of the Medicaid expansion contained in the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Both state governments and the federal government will share these costs.

The report noted that despite the official claims of an economic recovery, the wages and benefits for most American workers have continued a “decades-long stagnation.” In fact, inflation-adjusted wages for the bottom decile of wage earners were 5 percent lower in 2013 than they were in 1979. During the same period, real median hourly wages of American workers overall were just 5 percent higher.

Between 2003 and 2013, the real wages of the bottom 70 percent of households, i.e., those with an annual income at or under $83,000, either stagnated or declined. According to the US Census Bureau, the real median household income in 2013 was 8 percent lower than in 2007.

The overwhelming majority of jobs that have been created in the wake of the 2008 financial crash are low-wage or part-time and offer few if any benefits. Compared to the start of the recession, the number of full-time jobs in the US has decreased, while the number of part-time jobs has increased by 2 million.

Many of these jobs are in the service industries, particularly retail stores and restaurants. According to the UC Berkeley report, nearly half of all fast-food workers, child-carers, and home health aides, and a quarter of part-time college faculty, are enrolled in at least one public assistance program.

The wages of these jobs often sink below $10.30 per hour. Federal law permits employers to pay tipped workers, such as those working in restaurants, a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, well below the official poverty line for a family of two. Many of these workers are forced to work multiple jobs just to stay afloat.

Workers employed part-time at colleges and universities often must search for other sources of income during the summer months between academic terms. Some states ban adjunct professors and other teachers from claiming unemployment benefits during this time.

The majority of fast-food workers are employed part-time, working 30 hours per week. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average wage of a fast-food worker at $9.03 per hour, amounting to an average annual income of just $14,000. However, even full-time employment is not enough to supplement the meager wages in the industry. The families of more than half of fast-food workers rely on welfare programs. One in five lives in poverty.

Though tens of millions of families depend on welfare benefits to survive, the ruling class is carrying out ruthless attacks on these vital social programs.

SNAP’s budget will be slashed by $8.7 billion over the next decade. The TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program itself is a product of reactionary “welfare reform,” imposing arbitrary time limits on child care benefits and requiring adults to find employment in order to continue receiving aid past a certain time period.

While mass layoffs, austerity, and savage attacks on the standard of living have defined the “economic recovery” for the working class, a tiny financial elite has seen their coffers balloon. Between 2003 and 2013, the net worth of the world’s billionaires more than tripled from $1.4 trillion to $5.4 trillion. The wealth of the world’s billionaires set a new record this year, at $7.05 trillion.

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The Big Shift Needed for Humanity to Protect the Earth: Restore the Commons

On Earth Day, let’s talk about making the commons the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life.

Photo Credit: Garry Knight/Flickr

At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.

Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.

What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?

The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.

The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.

Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.

But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.

Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.

California governor’s emergency drought measures leave agribusiness giants untouched


By Evan Blake and Glenn Ricketts
20 April 2015

On April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order mandating that the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) implement water rationing guidelines that must lead to “a statewide 25% reduction in potable urban water usage through February 28th, 2016.” On Saturday, the State Water Board released draft regulations to meet this standard, which will be finalized after its May 5-6 business meeting.

The emergency regulations, taken in response to severe drought conditions, place the burden of water conservation primarily on the shoulders of working class residents, while leaving the vast agribusiness giants and other large corporate interests–which consume the overwhelming majority of the state’s water resources–untouched.

The restrictions come in response to Department of Water Resources (DWR) estimates of record low levels of mountain snow, which supply rivers and streams as it melts. On the Sierra Nevada mountain range, whose snowpack normally provides the largest yearly source of freshwater, there is a mere 1.4 inches of water content, five percent of the historical average of 28.3 inches for April 1 and 80 percent lower than the previous lows for the date in 2014 and 1977.

The State Water Board regulations released on Saturday set conservation benchmarks for the state’s 411 local water districts ranging from 8-36 percent, proportional to water usage measured last summer, and will take effect on June 1. Beginning in July, local districts that fail to meet their conservation requirement face fines of up to $10,000 per day. Under previous emergency legislation, local districts also have the authority to fine individual residents caught violating the measures up to $500 daily, effectively pitting neighbors against one another by encouraging reporting of wasteful consumers.

This is essentially a regressive and punitive consumption tax placed on working class families. A recent UCLA study found that wealthy neighborhoods in California on average use three times more water than working class communities, a discrepancy directly attributable to the acres of lawns and landscaping that adorn the properties of the rich who will have little problem absorbing any fines.

California’s agricultural industries account for roughly 80 percent of all potable water usage in the state, or 27 of the total 34 million acre feet of water used in California each year. However, Brown’s order only mentions agriculture in sections 12 and 13 and imposes no restrictions, let alone consumption fines or taxes on the largest enterprises.

Agricultural water suppliers responsible for farms 25,000 acres or larger are told to submit a “detailed drought management plan that describes the actions and measures the supplier will take to manage water demand during drought.” Those supplying water to farmland 10,000 to 25,000 acres do not need to “submit the plans to the Department until July 1st, 2016.”

The order does not require any usage reductions from agribusiness, and any measures taken by growers as part of their “drought management plan” are strictly voluntary.

When asked in an interview about the need to curtail agricultural water usage, Brown responded, “Then you’re putting government in a role of picking and choosing, maybe almonds instead of walnuts or tomatoes instead of rice. That is a big brother that outside of war or some unprecedented catastrophe shouldn’t even be considered.”

Brown has no trouble acting as “big brother” when it comes to regulating the water usage of working class residents. The governor refuses, however, to impinge in the slightest fashion on the profit interests of big business, and justifies this by insisting the present situation does not qualify as an “unprecedented catastrophe.”

In reality, it is the big agribusinesses that are holding the people of California hostage and sacrificing the needs of society to the single-minded drive to produce profits for top executives and wealthy investors. For all of Brown’s “environmentally progressive” posturing, he is nothing more than a tool of these corporate interests.

In response to the water shortage, growers are spending millions to drill ever-deeper groundwater wells, in order to gain access to the state’s natural aquifers, upon which they then draw water free of charge. As a result, naturally occurring arsenic is increasingly released from underground rock formations as the water level drops. The rising concentration of this cancer-causing element has rendered the drinking water unsafe for at least 255,000 people in 341 separate local water systems across the state, mostly in rural areas of the Central Valley.

Groundwater aquifers throughout the Central Valley, the breadbasket of California, also show high levels of carcinogenic nitrates, which stem from farming chemicals and animal waste and are linked to thyroid cancer, skin rashes, hair loss and birth defects. The region’s working class, largely Latino immigrant families, are hardest hit by aquifer contamination and spend as much as 10 percent of their already meager income on bottled water.

Governor Brown’s Executive Order absolves agribusiness for their past and ongoing crimes because he and the entire political establishment directly benefit from their patronage. Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of the largest almond, pomegranate, pistachio and mandarin orange farms in the state, and who possess a combined net worth of over $4.2 billion dollars, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign coffers of each of the last three governors.

Governor Brown directly rewarded agribusiness for their support last year, when the Super PAC raising funds for his election, “Brown for Governor 2014,” donated over $5 million to the “Yes on Prop. 1” campaign. Proposition 1 cut the total budget for all state agencies managing and overseeing water resources from $11.14 billion down to $7.12 billion. It furthermore allows the agribusinesses to use inefficient, but largely cheaper irrigation systems, and ignore more sustainable watering or farm management practices that would produce the most substantial reductions in water usage over time.

The Resnicks donated $150,000 to the “Yes on Prop. 1” campaign, while the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Growers Service Association each donated $250,000. Prop 1 passed in November last year after its proponents spent nearly $22 million, compared to opponents of Prop. 1 who only raised $101,149.

The entire framework for attempting to achieve water savings under capitalism turns reality on its head. The State Water Board has proposed an addition to Brown’s restrictions, mandating that “The use of potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings that is not delivered by drip or micro-spray systems will be prohibited.”

If the same principle of adopting universal drip irrigation and other more efficient technologies were applied where appropriate to agriculture, the water savings would dwarf any potential savings through urban conservation. Instead, these giant and obscenely wasteful monopolies are untouchable.

As water has become scarce over the duration of the ongoing drought, agribusiness has responded by concentrating production on high value cash crops such as fruits, nuts and hay. Almonds alone use roughly 3.4 million acre feet of water per year, 10 percent of the state’s total usage, while alfalfa consumes roughly 6.8 million acre feet, or 20 percent of the state’s total usage.

Alfalfa is by far the most water intensive crop, as a majority goes toward feeding the state’s 1.8 million dairy cows, while the state’s horses come in close second. The most recent DWR data shows that 77.1 percent of all alfalfa is grown using the least efficient flood, or furrow, irrigation methods, while 17.9 percent is grown using inefficient sprinkler systems. A paltry 2.5 percent of alfalfa grown in the state uses the most water efficient drip irrigation methods. Transitioning to drip irrigation for this single crop would account for vastly more savings than those that will be realized by Brown’s Executive Order.

Statewide, 43 percent of all crops are grown using the least efficient flood irrigation, 15.4 percent using slightly more efficient sprinkler systems, and 38.4 using the most efficient drip irrigation methods. The majority of crops grown in the state would grow as well or better using drip irrigation, and shifting all applicable crops to these highly efficient watering systems would yield immense water savings.

To fundamentally address the unprecedented drought crisis requires multiple, massive public works programs for both agricultural and urban sectors. Techniques exist to sustainably produce more food while using exponentially less water, including hydroponics and aquaponics, drip irrigation for applicable crops and remote sensing farm management technologies. At the same time, the universal use of water efficient showers and toilets, drought resistant lawns composed of native species, advanced water capture and recycling systems that span entire cities and modern pipe and sewage systems would greatly improve water usage.

Far from investing the necessary resources for the repair and renovation of the country’s outmoded and decaying infrastructure, however, both Democrats and Republicans continue to starve it of necessary funds. The annual Pentagon budget- $360 billion- is 6.3 times the amount of federal funding for infrastructure even as cities across the country are plagued with bursting water pipes and drainage systems dating back to the early 20th, if not late 19th centuries.

To give precedence to the needs of society–for modern infrastructure and the application of the latest developments in science and technology to address water usage, climate change and the preservation of the planet–the outmoded capitalist system must be abolished and economic and political life reorganized based on the socialist principle of production for human need, not profit. This includes the nationalization of the major agricultural monopolies and other large corporations under the democratic control of working people. For this, a mass political movement of the working class, independent of both big business parties, fighting for a workers’ government and socialism, must be built.