Still caught in the can’t-catch-up economy

Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, takes a closer look at the income statistics everyone is celebrating.

Commuters make their way to work through morning traffic

HAS THE economic recovery finally filtered down to the U.S. working class, more than seven years after the official end of the Great Recession? The U.S. Census Bureau says yes, based on the results of its Current Population Surveyreleased on September 13.

According to the Census Bureau, all sectors of the population–be their incomes high or low, their ages old or young, their regions East, West, North or South–experienced sizeable income gains between 2014 and 2015. In fact, as MSNBC reported, income grew the fastest for the poorest people: “[T]he income growth was widespread across every…racial/ethnic demographic, with Americans at the bottom seeing the largest percentage increase.”

But the Census Bureau’s findings are highly suspect, mainly due the mountain of economic data they ignore.

Who could trust a meteorologist, for example, who reports cheerfully: “The recent heat wave has given way to cooler, more pleasant temperatures,” yet doesn’t mention a tropical storm presently whipping through the region?

The Current Population Survey has a similar problem, reporting on pre-tax cash income increases without regard to the spiraling expenses necessary to survive in today’s world.

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THE SURVEY showed that median U.S. household income rose a whopping 5.2 percent to $56,516 last year–not only the first increase since before the recession began in 2008, but also the fastest income growth in nearly 50 years.

It also found that 3.5 million people climbed out of poverty in 2015, lowering the poverty rate from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent–the sharpest annual drop in poverty since the late 1960s. In addition, the percentage of Americans with health insurance for at least part of 2015 reached 90.9 percent–the highest ever recorded.

With such upbeat news arriving less than two months before the election, it was almost possible to hear the corks popping over at Democratic Party headquarters. After all, records were broken in 2015! Obamacare is working! People are working!

Corporate media giants broadcast this ostensibly magnificent news with headlines such as “Median incomes are up and poverty rate is down, surprisingly strong census figures show” (Los Angeles Times) and “Poverty goes down, coverage goes up, and America gets a raise” (MSNBC).

The Washington Post editorial board used the report as an opportunity to ridicule both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (as if they were two peas in a pod) for their “bombardment of negativity about the U.S. economy” on the campaign trail–claiming the Census Bureau data proved that “the entire time candidates such as Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump were out on the stump, the U.S. economy was performing contrary to their respective tales of woe.”

But headlines such as “America Gets a Raise” imply that wages have risen significantly when they have not.

To be sure, roughly 2.4 million more people found full-time, year-round jobs in 2015 compared with the year before. But wages rose much less than 5.2 percent last year. Higher median household income reflects more hours worked rather than a substantial hike in pay.

And even by the Census Bureau’s own measurement, in 2015 median household income (which is the level at which 50 percent of the population makes more and the other 50 percent makes less–was still lower than in 2007, and lower still than the all-time high in 1999.

Further examination also reveals that people in rural areas didn’t share in the increase, but rather experienced a 2 percent decrease in median income last year–which fell to just $44,657 for these households, far below the national median.

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THE CENSUS Bureau generalizations about median income dramatically downplay the deep concentrations of poverty that exist across the country. For example, North Dakota had the nation’s biggest drop in child poverty between 2011 and 2016, but the poverty rate for Native American children, the majority living on reservations, is five times higher than for the rest of the state’s children.

Likewise, buried within a Detroit Free Press article headlined “Michigan posts its largest income gain since the recession” is the admission that the majority Black cities of:

Flint and Detroit continue to have some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S., at 40.8 percent and 39.8 percent, respectively. The child poverty rate is higher–more than half of the children who lived in Detroit and Flint last year lived in poverty, 57.6 percent and 58.3 percent, respectively.

The Census Bureau figures also ignore the enormous income disparities, often along racial lines, within individual cities. According to the Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.’s median household income rose to $75,600 in 2015, but that breaks down to $120,000 for white households compared to just $41,000 for Black households. The poverty rate for the city’s Black population is 27 percent–and 75 percent of all D.C. residents living in poverty are Black.

There is yet another way that the Census Bureau’s poverty statistics skew lower while its median income figures skew higher.

In the introduction to its Current Population Survey, the bureau makes the following caveat about its “sample” population: “People in institutions, such as prisons, long-term care hospitals and nursing homes, are not eligible to be interviewed in the CPS…[P]eople who are homeless and not living in shelters are not included in the sample.” The list of those excluded from the survey thus includes millions of the most impoverished people in the U.S.

Despite the flaws in the Census Bureau’s findings, they still show roughly one in four African Americans and Native Americans and more than one in five Latinos living under the official poverty line. One in five children are living in poverty by official standards, and 10 percent of U.S. households are trying to survive on less than $13,300 a year.

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BUT THE most glaring problem with the Census Bureau’s methodology is its appallingly low poverty threshold. If the poverty line were scaled upward to a more accurate level, the official poverty rate of the U.S. population would certainly skyrocket statistically.

The Social Security Administration developed the current poverty measure back in 1963, adopting a formula based on the minimum amount of money necessary to buy a subsistence level of food, using data from the 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey. On the assumption that food expenditures made up one-third of what a family of four needed to survive at the time, that amount was then multiplied by three to define the poverty line.

This definition, using obsolete 50-year-old consumption patterns and even more antiquated 60-year-old prices (adjusted annually based on the consumer price index), is still in use today.

If that formula (food expenses times three) was ever adequate for survival–and it most certainly wasn’t in the era of Eisenhower–it is completely preposterous today. In 2015, the poverty threshold was set at just at $24,250 for a family of four and $11,770 for an individual.

Even the Census Bureau recognizes some of the shortcomings of its formula. Since 2010, it has issued a “Supplemental Poverty Measure,” adding income from sources such as Social Security, tax credits and food stamps, while subtracting some expenses, such as work costs, medical care and child-support payments.

In 2015, this statistic showed the rate of poverty at a (slightly) more realistic 14.3 percent, compared to the Consumer Population Survey’s 13.5 percent.

But the Supplemental Poverty Measure is an exercise in futility, however well meaning its proponents’ intentions. It does nothing to actually improve the lives of impoverished people because the government relies only on the Current Population Survey to determine eligibility for government poverty programs such as food stamps.

And while those cloistered in the bubble of the federal bureaucracy seem to find its poverty threshold adequate for survival, anyone with at least one foot in the real world is aware that no family of four can make ends meet on $24,250 a year.

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JUST AS every household needs a budget measuring its income in relation to expenses, we should examine the actual cost of just a few major household necessities to give a cursory sense of whether that 5.2 percent rise in median household income last year actually made a dent in falling working-class living standards:

Rent: According to apartmentlist.com, using Census data from 1960 to 2014, median rent has risen by 64 percent after adjusting for inflation, while real household income only increased by 18 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, rents rose by 18 percent while household income fell by 7 percent.

As Apartmentlist.com concluded, “As a result, the share of cost-burdened renters [households spending more than one-third of their income on rent] nationwide more than doubled, from 24 percent in 1960 to 49 percent in 2014.”

If anything, the pace is accelerating: In the last year alone, median rents rose by 2.3 percent to $1,120 per month for a 1-bedroom apartment and $1,300 for a 2-bedroom.

Child care: The cost of child care has nearly doubled since the 1980s–yet it is not considered a necessary household expenditure, even though 75 percent of mothers with children six to 17 years old are in the labor force, as are 61 percent of mothers with children under 3 years old.

In 2015, the average child care cost rose to over $143 a week. As a result, fewer working parents can afford to pay for it and end up keeping children with relatives or trading off child care shifts while the other parent, if they have one, is at their job.

Whereas 42 percent of parents paid for child care in 1997, only 32 percent did so by 2011.The poorest families spend the largest proportion–one-third of their incomes–on child care.

Health care: The Supplemental Poverty Measure for 2015 showed that with medical expenses–including insurance premiums, co-pays, co-insurance, prescription drug costs and other uncovered medical expenses–factored in, 11.2 million (or 3.5 percent) more people are living in poverty than the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey acknowledges.

And we can expect next year’s statistics to be even worse, as employers continue to push more insurance costs onto their employees. More and more employers are turning to plans with higher co-pays and so-called “high-deductible” plans, offering premiums workers can barely afford and deductibles of $1,000 or $2,000 a year–meaning workers have to pay these amounts before insurance kicks in even a penny toward their medical care.

This year, deductibles alone are rising nearly six times faster than wages, according to the 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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A NEW Georgetown University study on job creation shows that workers with a high school diploma or less have lost the most income during the recovery, as more jobs go to those with at least some post-secondary education–perhaps reflecting a glut of “over-educated” applicants for low wage jobs.

“Of the 7.2 million jobs lost in the recession,” the Georgetown study states, “5.6 million were jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less…On net, there are now more than 5.5 million fewer jobs for individuals with a high school education or less than there were in December 2007.”

This downward trend began well before the Great Recession. A report by the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution found that between 1990 and 2003, real median wages had already fallen by 20 percent for male workers without a high school diplomaage 30 to 45, and by 12 percent for women in the same category.

As the New York Times, citing the report, concluded: “Less-educated Americans, especially men, are shifting away from manufacturing and other jobs that once offered higher pay, and a higher share are now working in lower-paying food service, cleaning and groundskeeping jobs.”

But this decline in wages is tied to more than the decline in manufacturing jobs. As theTimes article added, “[P]ay levels are declining in almost all of the fields that employ less-educated workers, so even those who have held onto jobs as manufacturers, operators and laborers are making less than they would have a generation ago.” Inflation-adjusted annual pay for manufacturing jobs fell from $33,600 in 1990 to $28,000 in 2013.

While much media attention today is devoted to labeling the so-called “millennial” generation the best-educated in history, fully two-thirds of those between the ages of 25 and 32 have no bachelor’s degree–a figure that is virtually identical to the baby-boomer generation.

But the earnings shortfall for young people without a bachelor’s degree compared to those with a four-year degree has fallen from 77 percent in 1979 to just 62 percent today. And with student debt averaging $35,000 per college grad, a bachelor’s degree is simply out of reach for most low-income young adults.

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THE LONG-term decline in wages is not an accident, nor an unfortunate consequence of factors beyond the control of U.S. policymakers. On the contrary, it has been a long time in the making.

Since the late 1970s, both Democratic and Republican policymakers joined with the rest of the corporate class in a strategy intended to drive down working-class living standards in order to raise corporate profits. This comprehensive set of policies–which involved legal green lights for union busting, wage and benefit cuts, dismantling social welfare subsidies, and privatizing formerly public services in order to shift costs onto consumers–has more recently become known as “neoliberalism.”

The greatest damage from neoliberalism was done early on, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The average real hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers fell by 15 percent between 1973 and the mid-1990s, lowering the ceiling for working-class wages ever since. Wages briefly rose during the economic boom of the late 1990s–only to be derailed by the early 2000s when wages began to stagnate again. The Great Recession once again accelerated the decline.

The claims of the 2015 Current Population Survey should be viewed in this historical context. Since 1979, the vast majority of U.S. workers have seen their wages bouncing back and forth between decline and stagnation, while the wealthiest few have enjoyed massive gains in income. Even the Census Bureau’s statistics showed that the enormous degree of income inequality in 2015 was “not statistically significant” from the year (or years) before.

So a more appropriate headline for the articles about the Census Bureau report would be, “Neoliberalism continues to slash working-class living standards, with no end in sight (until workers fight back).”

https://socialistworker.org/2016/09/26/still-caught-in-the-cant-catch-up-economy

Rapid Burnout, Dissatisfaction of U.S. Doctors Threatens Public Health Crisis

Posted on Sep 29, 2016

Tim Waclawski / CC BY-ND 2.0

Half of U.S. physicians are “disengaged, burned out, and demoralized and plan to either retire, cut back on work hours, or seek non-clinical roles,” reports MedPage Today, citing a new nationwide survey commissioned by The Physicians Foundation.

“Many physicians are dissatisfied with the current state of the medical practice environment and they are opting out of traditional patient care roles,” said Walker Ray, MD, president of The Physicians Foundation, in remarks that appeared with the survey.

“The implications of evolving physician practice patterns for both patient access and the implementation of healthcare reform are profound.”

MedPage Today reports:

The majority of the 17,236 physicians surveyed (54%) describe their morale as somewhat or very negative, 63% are pessimistic about the future of the medical profession, 49% always or often experience feelings of burn-out, and 49% would not recommend medicine as a career to their children, according to the survey.

Physicians identified regulatory/paperwork burdens and loss of clinical autonomy as their primary sources of dissatisfaction. They spend 21% of their time on non-clinical paper work duties, according to the survey, while only 14% said they have the time they need to provide the highest standards of care. About two-thirds (72%) said third-party intrusions detract from the quality of care. …

The survey indicates that only 33% of physicians now identify as private practice owners, down from 49% in 2012, while 58% identify as employees, up from 44% in 2012.

Physicians also indicated that “they’re disengaged from key initiatives of healthcare reform,” MedPage Today reports.

Only 43% said their compensation is tied to value. Of these, the majority (77%) have 20% or less of their compensation tied to value. Only 20% are familiar with the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) which will greatly accelerate value-based payments to physicians.

While 36% of physicians participate in accountable care organizations (ACOs), only 11% believe ACOs are likely to enhance quality while decreasing costs. Physicians also are dubious about hospital employment of doctors, another mechanism for achieving healthcare reform.

Two-thirds (66%) do not believe hospital employment will enhance quality of care or decrease costs. Even 50% of physicians who are themselves employed by hospitals, do not see hospital employment as a positive trend.

The survey additionally found:

* 80% of physicians are overextended or are at capacity, with no time to see additional patients
* 48% of physicians said their time with patients is always or often limited
* Employed physicians see 19% fewer patients than practice owners
* 46.8% of physicians plan to accelerate their retirement plans
* 20% of physicians practice in groups of 101 doctors or more, up from 12% in 2012
* Only 17% of physicians are in solo practice, down from 25% in 2012
* 27% of physicians do not see Medicare patients, or limit the number they see
* 36% of physicians do not see Medicaid patients, or limit the number they see

One Truthdig reader said of the findings:

One should compare what’s happened in the medical profession with what’s happened in the nation’s universities—greed and ideologically driven (rather than empirically based) business modeling turned control of persons educated to perform the profession’s real work over to hordes of bean counting ‘administrators’ whose policies and actions deprive doctors and professors of autonomy, reduce both time to perform and fair reward for their work, and slash due respect for their hard acquired skills and the developed judgment needed to effectively use them with patients and students.

These results follow from privatization, which is a form of theft consisting of the capitalist practice of plundering employees and reducing services to the public in order to leach wealth for owners, managers or both—workers, humanity and Earth’s future be damned.

Update: Via email, Truthdig reader Lawrence Raines, recently retired from a career in healthcare, adds to the findings and the preceding comment:

I was an independent General Surgeon who retired (after 31 years in same location) in August 2013 because of the relentless, oppressive intrusion of Corporatised Medicine which is nicely described by the above quote from one of your readers. There are myriad reasons that led to my retirement but using my long acquired and honed skills to care for my patients was not one of them. I loved being a doctor but my professional life was literally sucked out of me and according to the article and conversations with former colleagues it has continued to get worse, “much worse.” I don’t think this is unique to healthcare and I have grave concerns about what type of society will exist for my grandchildren. Greed and Power and the associated Immorality are corrupting the world.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly

http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/rapid_burnout_of_us_doctors_threatens_public_health_crisis_20160929

Black Lives Matter Founder on Charlotte: We Need ‘Police-Free Communities’

alicia-garza_400x295_75

BY ANDREW WHITE

Editorial intern at Complex. Sharing life’s narratives from a passionate perspective for Complex Life.

SEP 23, 2016

Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Three days after the new broke that Keith Scott was killed by a police officer in Charlotte, Alicia Garza, one of three founders of the Black Lives Matter organization, says she hasn’t watched videos of the incident that have made the rounds through media and fueled intense protests.

“I’ve chosen not to,” Garza told Complex in an exclusive interview. “I think we know what it looks like when somebody is murdered.”

Instead, Garza says she’s has been paying attention to the protests that began Tuesday evening. Those protests turned violent Wednesday with the fatal shooting of one protester by another civilian. Despite the previous night’s shooting, protesters were back out Thursday and continued to demand justice for Scott.

Garza says, with so much media focus on the violent elements of the protests in Charlotte, many have lost sight on the injustice that sparked them.

“The thing that people get so concerned about is how do we stop the violence in Charlotte, but yet we’re not thinking about the fact that there’s been violence in Charlotte since way before whatever is happening there has happened,” Garza says. “The brother who was killed is a form of state violence. He was killed and the police will not release the video. The police are not taking accountability for the violence that they enact in our communities and yet there isn’t as much outrage about that as there is about some broken windows and lost property.”

According to Garza, those who are concerned with violent protests in Charlotte should focus instead on the conditions that create them. Indeed, studies find that not only is the city of Charlotte intensely segregated by race and income but as of 2014, 70 of Charlotte’s 79 high-poverty tracts were majority non-white. In fact, the median income for white families in the city is 86 percent higher than for black and Latino ones.

“How do we stop violence, looting, and riots? The way that we stop that is by making sure that people have the things that they need to thrive,” Garza says. “When people are systematically denied their right to adequate housing, adequate schools, to adequate food, to dignity—this is a response and a reaction that we should absolutely expect.”

Garza also proposes an unconventional solution to brutality by law enforcement in Charlotte and around the country: “police-free communities.”

“Ultimately, policing in and of itself is problematic,” Garza says. “I know that in this country we give a lot of veneration to police. In the ethos of this country, police can do no wrong. And if and when police do wrong, it’s a case of individual bad apples, as opposed to a corroded and corrupt system… Quite frankly, many of our [Black Lives Matter] members are continuing to investigate what it would mean to have police-free communities. I think what we’ve continued to see over time is that no moral appeal is actually stopping the deaths of black people, whether they be armed or unarmed.”

Finally, Garza told Complex that in the midst of so much attention paid to cases of black men killed by police, it’s important that those interested in the movement for black lives not lose sight of the black women who’ve also lost their lives to violence, like Korryn Gaines in Baltimore and Kayla Moore in Berkley.

“This is a perfect moment for us to have each other’s backs,” Garza says, “to call out the names of people who have been killed like the brother who was killed in Charlotte and the brother who was killed in Tulsa, but to also remember that this isn’t just a problem impacting black men, but it’s a problem that is impacting black people. For us to advance on this front, we have to bring everyone along with us.”

Complex

Tethered to Corporate Capitalism, Neither Party Willing to Eradicate Poverty

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If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that the interests of the wealthy almost always win out.

For the nation’s poor, neither major party has shown the necessary regard. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

After her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, few predicted that Hillary Clinton would leave the world of presidential politics. On the contrary, it was widely believed that she would make another run for the White House.

Anticipating such a run, the renowned political scientist and activist Frances Fox Piven, along with sociologist Fred Block, penned an open letter calling on Clinton, who had just left the State Department, to “step forward” and “launch a national debate about poverty and welfare.”

“Specifically,” Piven and Block wrote, “we are asking for you to open a conversation about the shortcomings of the 1996 welfare legislation that was passed when you and Bill Clinton were in the White House.”

The letter was not unprovoked: In the years immediately following welfare reform’s implementation, Hillary Clinton was an ardent defender of its underlying logic, arguing that it was a “critical first step” in the broader move toward a more effective system.

And Clinton’s defenses of the law didn’t cease even as evidence of its harmful effects became increasingly prominent. Indeed, in 2008, the New York Times reported that, in an interview, “Clinton expressed no misgivings about the 1996 legislation.”

In 2016, circumstances changed. Faced with a primary opponent running far to her left, Clinton shifted: “Now we have to take a hard look at” welfare reform, Clinton said in April, citing the entirely predictable failure of the now almost non-existent safety net to catch those harmed by the financial crisis.

Fast-forward several months, however, and the issue has all but vanished from the scene; no such “hard look” appears to be forthcoming.

Welfare reform’s absence was especially conspicuous in Clinton’s recent Times op-ed, in which she outlined her “plan for helping America’s poor.”

Clinton highlighted her tenure as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund, where she was mentored by Marian Wright Edelman, the organization’s founder. But the issue that prompted a rather bitter split between the two was left unmentioned.

Prior to its passage, welfare reform garnered striking bipartisan support. But dissent was there, and it was forceful. Edelman’s voice was among the most powerful, the most insistent, and, to those reading her words today, the most prescient.

“It would be wrong to leave millions of voteless, voiceless children to the vagaries of 50 state bureaucracies and politics, as both the Senate and House bills will do,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “It would be wrong to strip children of or weaken current ensured help for their daily survival and during economic recessions and natural disasters, as both the Senate and House bills will do. It would be wrong to exacerbate rather than alleviate the current shameful and epidemic child poverty that no decent, rich nation should tolerate for even one child.”

Her pleas fell upon deaf ears; welfare reform passed and was implemented, and its successes in booting millions off of “the dole” and diverting money away from poor families and into the coffers of state governments—which were given tremendous latitude in how they could spend the money — were cheered by Democrats and Republicans alike.

But for the most vulnerable, there was little to celebrate.

Some found work, largely in low-wage jobs; those who didn’t, or couldn’t, slipped into deep poverty. The research of Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, noted the Washington Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund in February, “shows that the number of people living on $2 a day or less in cash has increased more than twofold, to 1.6 million households” since welfare reform’s passage.

The impact on children has been profound. “Under TANF,” a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “the number of children living in deep poverty—with incomes below half the poverty line, using a comprehensive poverty measure—has risen significantly, placing large numbers of children at risk for long-term negative academic, employment, and health outcomes.”

It is significant that Hillary Clinton has consistently downplayed this reality. In her Times piece, she acknowledges in passing that “extreme poverty has increased,” but she does little to explain how such destitution arose in the world’s wealthiest nation.

And, as Ryan Cooper explains, while many of the proposals Clinton puts forward are welcome and necessary—from her emphasis on affordable housing to her support for paid family and medical leave — her plan taken as a whole is “woefully inadequate.”

“The problem, at root, is the same one Paul Ryan has with his various anti-poverty ideas—a wildly disproportionate focus on work, and a corresponding lack of attention to the welfare policies that could seriously cut poverty,” Cooper argues.

Citing the research of Matt Bruenig, Cooper writes that Clinton’s work-centric approach would do little to alleviate poverty because a “huge majority of poor people are not employable.”

Bruenig calls this large group “the CEDS bloc“: It consists of children, the elderly, those with disabilities, and students. And, Bruenig notes, “no matter which common poverty measure you use,” 60 to 65 percent of the poor fall in one of these four categories. Add to that the 20 percent represented by “carers and those who faced a spell of involuntarily unemployment during the year,” and you have a picture of poverty that is entirely different than that painted by the nation’s two major political parties.

“So, all together,” Bruenig concludes, “the CEDS bloc plus carers and those who faced a spell of involuntarily unemployment make up around 80-85% of the poor in any given year.”

Given this context, Clinton’s assertion that “The best way to help families lift themselves out of poverty is to make it easier to find good-paying jobs” is, at best, disconnected, both from the lived experience of impoverished families and from statistical realities. Cooper notes that, of course, “more and better-paying jobs are a great policy objective, but it will have little purchase on the problem of poverty.”

That work is nonetheless at the center of Clinton’s anti-poverty strategy—as opposed to, say, the most effective approach to reducing poverty—is indicative of the ideological limitations not just of Hillary Clinton’s agenda, but of the Democratic Party more broadly. It is not merely, to use Adolph Reed’s phrase, an “atrophy of political imagination” that imposes such strictures; it is also the party’s active commitments, both to its donor base and to dominant economic and political ideas.

Perhaps the most apt description of the party’s ethos comes from former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips, who once remarked that the Democratic Party is “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.”

“They do not interfere with capitalist momentum,” he added, “but wait for excesses and the inevitable popular reaction.”

Far from defying this tradition—one that consolidated power during the administration of Bill Clinton—Hillary Clinton is advancing it, embracing a political status quo in which big money dominates and celebrating the relationship between America’s dominant institutions and the nation’s economic direction.

“Hillary Clinton is a capitalist,” Emmett Rensin summarizes, “and even within a capitalist party, she is in both perception and in practice unusually comfortable with capitalism’s worst practices.”

Often characterized as clear-headed pragmatism, Clinton’s approach to poverty lays bare the deep conservatism of the party that claims for itself, despite contradictory evidence, the label “progressive.” But such conservatism is not surprising if one considers the significant changes that have taken place within the party over the last several decades.

Thomas Frank has documented the extent to which the Democratic Party has come to consist of professionals and technocrats, and this is reflected in voting patterns: As Lee Drutman has noted, as Democrats have moved rightward, theirs has increasingly become “the preferred party of the very wealthy.”

Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the anti-Trump members of the billionaire class provides only a superficial marker of this shift; the most consequential shifts have taken place just below this surface.

Clinton’s party, Thomas Edsall has observed, is largely made up of an “unruly coalition“: “upscale well-educated whites and, importantly, ethnic and racial minorities, many of them low income.”

If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that the interests of the wealthy almost always win out.

As such, Edsall concludes, “Instead of serving as the political arm of working and middle class voters seeking to move up the ladder, the Democratic Party faces the prospect of becoming the party of the winners, in collaboration with many of those in the top 20 percent who are determined to protect and secure their economic and social status.”

A party committed to securing the privileges of elite sectors of society cannot also push the aggressive (but remarkably simple) measures necessary to eradicate poverty; the party of Goldman Sachs, the party of ultra-rich professionals, and the party of oil lobbyists cannot also be the party of the poor.

In 2009, Peter Edelman—the husband of Marian Wright Edelman—and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a scathing critique of the new anti-poverty discourse, whose adherents “consider poverty a voluntary condition, one curable with a quick kick in the pants and the opportunity to work for minimum wage.”

This view persists in the present, on both sides of the political aisle; it is, in effect, a way of omitting the systemic causes of destitution, invoking in their place a critique not of capitalism, but of those victimized by it.

If we are to wage a successful war on poverty, we cannot, in the words of Mathew Snow, “accept capital’s terms for addressing its own problems or purported moral imperatives that presuppose them. We can [we must] overturn those terms completely.”

Behold the GOP’s not-so-secret plan to dismantle government services: Defund, degrade and then privatize

While Trump dominates the headlines, House Republicans slash Social Security and drive the system toward disaster

Behold the GOP's not-so-secret plan to dismantle government services: Defund, degrade and then privatize
Donald Trump; Paul Ryan (Credit: AP/Evan Vucci/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Photo montage by Salon)

One side effect of the three-ring circus this presidential campaign has become is the distraction it provides so that other damaging agendas can be advanced with little or no attention. Take for example, the Republican Party’s long-standing efforts to dismantle America’s internationally modest, but still crucially important welfare state, which helps keep tens of millions of Americans out of poverty. Social Security and Medicare have both been top targets via various schemes over the years, and this budget cycle is no exception, regardless of what noises Donald Trump may make.

The need for Social Security staff services has increased as baby boomers begin to retire. Instead, these services have been cut back since 2011. And in late July, as the American Federation of Government Employees noted, “the House Appropriations Committee cut President Obama’s proposed budget for the Social Security Administration (SSA) by $1.2 billion. If they get their way, SSA will be forced to operate on $263 million less than it does now — even though it’s already struggling to meet public demand.”

These congressional cuts would even force workers to take a two-week furlough. Crippling Social Security’s ability to function just when it’s needed most is the epitome of what Republican public policy has become. It’s part of a familiar right-wing strategy to degrade the quality of government services, then use that degradation to argue for privatization.

Not only does Social Security lift tens of millions of retirees out of poverty, but in 2014 3.2 million American kids directly received Social Security benefits, mostly in the form of survivor benefits. Another 10 million disabled workers were covered as well. But it’s not just these many millions of people who benefit: Retirement security for grandparents means more money for parents to invest in their children’s future. Security for orphans and disabled workers have similar spillover benefits as well. So attacks on Social Security really are a threat to Americans of all ages, now as well as in the future.

Those attacks are already well under way, thanks to the austerity measures imposed since the Tea Party first arrived in Washington with the GOP congressional wave of 2010. (The money comes directly from workers — not from the overall Federal budget — but Congress controls the spending.) During the current budget cycle, the attacks are getting worse, even as baby boomer retirements continue to swell the rolls. This erodes confidence in the system, thereby weakening it for even further attacks, privatization and dismantlement — the true conservative dream.

In a June report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kathleen Romig wrote, “The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 after adjusting for inflation, even as the demands on SSA have reached all-time highs …. Budget cutting — due mostly to the 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) tight appropriations caps, as further reduced by sequestration — has lowered SSA’s operating budget from an already low 0.9 percent of overall Social Security spending [far less than any private system] to just 0.7 percent, forcing the agency to do more with significantly less,” a situation summarized in the following figure:

Social Security Cuts--CBPP Fig1

“The cuts have hampered SSA’s ability to perform its essential services,” Romig wrote,“such as determining eligibility in a timely manner for retirement, survivor and disability benefits, paying benefits accurately and on time, responding to questions from the public, and updating benefits promptly when circumstances change.”

Among the impacts already felt, Romig listed:

  • A hiring freeze in 2011, leading to “a deterioration in SSA phone service that the agency has only partially reversed,” with average hold times of over 15 minutes on SSA’s 800 number, and nearly 10 percent of callers getting busy signals.
  • Cuts to SSA field offices, “where people can apply for benefits, replace lost Social Security cards or report name changes.” Since 2010, 64 field offices and 533 mobile offices have been closed, with hours reduced at the remaining offices. “Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks; by 2015, fewer than half could.”
  • Disability Insurance applications and rejections rose dramatically during the Great Recession, but SSA lacked the resources to cope with with appeals. Between 2011 and 2016, the average wait for a hearing rose from 360 to 540 days, with more than 1 million applicants waiting, “an all-time high.”
  • Understaffing has delayed critical behind-the-scenes work needed to pay benefits accurately and on time (awarding widows’ benefits, adjusting benefits for early retirees and disabled workers with earnings, etc.). Wait times now average four months for these tasks.

Unless you’re one of the people affected — and there are millions of them — all these might seem like minor inconveniences, but the underlying aim is to destroy the system: death by a thousand cuts … or in this case, by millions upon millions of them.

As Social Security Works recently wrote:

The majority of Americans visit SSA’s field offices at critical and, often, stressful moments in their lives. Many are preparing for the important, life-altering decision of applying for retirement or disability benefits. Some are contending with the death of a working spouse. And others, faced with poverty, are applying for SSI. At these moments in their lives, Americans depend on in-person service from staff members who have a detailed understanding of Social Security, and who can offer knowledgeable, personalized and compassionate assistance.

It’s not as if delaying any of these vital services actually saves money in the long run. To the contrary, “Failing to invest in customer service is penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Romig says, going on to quote Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue (a Bush appointee) telling the Senate in 2012:

At some point, we will have to handle every claim that comes to us, every change of address, every direct deposit change, every workers’ compensation change, every request for new or replacement Social Security cards. The longer it takes us to get to this work, the more it costs to do.

Now Republicans in Congress just want to make matters worse, with cuts that will require 10 furlough days — which equates to a two-week shutdown of Social Security. “Government doesn’t work,” they’re saying, “Watch, we’ll show you how to make sure!” The amount of money involved is trivial — about 7 cents for every $100 of benefits paid. And it all comes out of money that recipients have paid into the system themselves.

Bear in mind, this is what the “responsible Republicans” in Washington are doing — more of what they’ve been doing since the 2010 midterms gave them control of the House. Trump, of course, has nothing to say about it. Yet this is the epitome of what he repeatedly rails against — the way elite politicians treat hardworking Americans with disdain. The fact that it’s happening in the middle of a campaign when Trump is supposedly repudiating GOP austerity and fighting for the working class only sharpens the irony.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Back in May, Joshua Green reported for Bloombergon Trump’s courting of the GOP establishment. The meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan was well worth recalling:

According to a source in the room, Trump criticized Ryan’s proposed entitlement cuts as unfair and politically foolish. “From a moral standpoint, I believe in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying, ‘We’re going to cut your Social Security’ and the Democrat is saying, ‘We’re going to keep it and give you more.’”

So there it is, as clear as day: Trump will be happy to sign off on Ryan’s agenda aftergetting elected. He just knows damn well it’s not what the American people want. The core of the agenda is first cuts, and then privatization. But slashing services in the meantime is key to souring the public on fighting against what’s coming next.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

Proven Wrong About Many of Its Assertions, Is Psychiatry Bullsh*t?

Some psychiatrists view the chemical-imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie.

Photo Credit: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

In the current issue of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, Australian dissident psychiatrist Niall McLaren titles his article, “Psychiatry as Bullshit” and makes a case for just that.

The great controversies in psychiatry are no longer about its chemical-imbalance theory of mental illness or its DSM diagnostic system, both of which have now been declared invalid even by the pillars of the psychiatry establishment.

In 2011, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, stated, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” And in 2013, Thomas Insel, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health, offered a harsh rebuke of the DSM, announcing that because the DSM diagnostic system lacks validity, the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”

So, the great controversy today has now become just how psychiatry can be most fairly characterized given its record of being proven wrong about virtually all of its assertions, most notably its classifications of behaviors, theories of “mental illness” and treatment effectiveness/adverse effects.

Among critics, one of the gentlest characterizations of psychiatry is a “false narrative,” the phrase used by investigative reporter Robert Whitaker (who won the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award for Anatomy of an Epidemic) to describe the story told by the psychiatrists’ guild American Psychiatric Association.

In “Psychiatry as Bullshit,” McLaren begins by considering several different categories of “nonscience with scientific pretensions,” such as “pseudoscience” and “scientific fraud.”

“Pseudoscience” is commonly defined as a collection of beliefs and practices promulgated as scientific but in reality mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. The NIMH director ultimately rejected the DSM because of its lack of validity, which is crucial to the scientific method. In the DSM, psychiatric illnesses are created by an APA committee, 69 percent of whom have financial ties to Big Pharma. The criteria for DSM illness are not objective biological ones but non-scientific subjective ones (which is why homosexuality was a DSM mental illness until the early 1970s). Besides lack of scientific validity, the DSMlacks scientific reliability, as clinicians routinely disagree on diagnoses because patients act differently in different circumstances and because of the subjective nature of the criteria.

“Fraud” is a misrepresentation, a deception intended for personal gain, and implies an intention to deceive others of the truth—or “lying.” Drug companies, including those that manufacture psychiatric drugs, have been convicted of fraud, as have high-profile psychiatrists (as well as other doctors). Human rights activist and attorney Jim Gottstein offers an argument as to why the APA is a “fraudulent enterprise”; however, the APA has not been legally convicted of fraud.

To best characterize psychiatry, McLaren considers the category of “bullshit,” invoking philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 journal article “On Bullshit” (which became a New York Times bestselling book in 2005).

Defining Bullshit

What is the essence of bullshit? For Frankfurt, “This lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt devotes a good deal of On Bullshit to differentiating between a liar and a bullshitter. Both the liar and the bullshitter misrepresent themselves, representing themselves as attempting to be honest and truthful. But there is a difference between the liar and the bullshitter.

The liar knows the truth, and the liar’s goal is to conceal it.

The goal of bullshitters is not necessarily to lie about the truth but to persuade their audience of a specific impression so as to advance their agenda. So, bullshitters are committed to neither truths nor untruths, uncommitted to neither facts nor fiction. It’s actually not in bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge can hinder their capacity to bullshit.

Frankfurt tells us that liar the hides that he or she is “attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality.” In contrast, the bullshitter hides that “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.”

Are Psychiatrists Bullshitters?

Recall establishment psychiatrist Pies’ assertion: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” What Pies omits is the reality that the vast majority of psychiatrists have been promulgating this theory. Were they liars or simply not well-informed? And if not well-informed, were they purposely not well-informed?

If one wants to bullshit oneself and the general public that psychiatry is a genuinely scientific medical specialty, there’s a great incentive to be unconcerned with the truth or falseness of the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Bullshitters immediately recognize how powerful this chemical imbalance notion is in gaining prestige for their profession and themselves as well as making their job both more lucrative and easier, increasing patient volume by turning virtually all patient visits into quick prescribing ones.

Prior to the chemical imbalance bullshit campaign, most Americans were reluctant to take antidepressants—or to give them to their children. But the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants sounded like taking insulin for diabetes. Correcting a chemical imbalance seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and so the use of SSRI antidepressants skyrocketed.

In 2012, National Public Radio correspondent Alix Spiegel began her piece about the disproven chemical imbalance theory with the following personal story about being prescribed Prozac when she was a depressed teenager:

My parents took me to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She did an evaluation and then told me this story: “The problem with you,” she explained, “is that you have a chemical imbalance. It’s biological, just like diabetes, but it’s in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There’s not enough of it, and that’s what’s causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that.” Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac.

When Spiegel discovered that the chemical imbalance theory was untrue, she sought to discover why this truth had been covered up, and so she interviewed researchers who knew the truth. Alan Frazer, professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, told Spiegel that by framing depression as a deficiency—something that needed to be returned to normal—patients felt more comfortable taking antidepressants. Frazer stated, “If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting, then taking a drug was OK.” For Frazer, the story that depressed people have a chemical imbalance enabled many people to come out of the closet about being depressed.

Frazer’s rationale reminds us of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, the title deriving from presidential adviser and journalist Walter Lippmann’s phrase “the manufacture of consent”—a necessity for Lippmann, who believed that the general public is incompetent in discerning what’s truly best for them, and so their opinion must be molded by a benevolent elite who does know what’s best for them.

There are some psychiatrists who view the chemical imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie by a benevolent elite to ensure resistant patients do what is best for them, but my experience is that there are actually extremely few such “well-meaning liars.” Most simply don’t know the truth because they have put little effort in discerning it.

I believe McLaren is correct in concluding that the vast majority of psychiatrists are bullshitters, uncommitted to either facts or fiction. Most psychiatrists would certainly have been happy if the chemical-imbalance theory was true but obviously have not needed it to be true in order to promulgate it. For truth seekers, the falseness of the chemical imbalance theory has been easily available, but most psychiatrists have not been truth seekers. It is not in the bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge of what is a fact and what is fiction hinders the capacity to use any and all powerful persuasion. Simply put, a commitment to the truth hinders the capacity to bullshit.

What’s 11,000 Times Dirtier Than a Toilet Seat?

Hint: when you stop at a gas station, the grossest thing may not be the bathroom.

Photo Credit: Phovoir / Shutterstock

America is a gas-guzzling, car-obsessed, open-road nation. Few things appeal to Americans more than a (traffic-free, ideally) leisurely drive to a fun, kick-back-your-heels destination, all the while enjoying the passing scenery. Of course, in order to achieve this bucolic vision of paradise, we need to fuel up the car, and in order to do that, we have to stop at the gas station. A study by Kimberly-Clark in 2015 investigating bacterial hot spots in the workplace fingered gas pumps as one of the unhealthiest things you can handle, and a new survey recently corroborates those findings.

Admittedly, it’s probably no great surprise that gas pumps are not exactly pristine. Never mind the chemical contamination that comes from gasoline itself, think about the sheer number of people endlessly grabbing the pump, often after returning from a pit stop at the not-so-hygienic gas station bathroom. You get the idea. Still, the new study gives one pause and suggests a bottle of sanitizer might not be a bad glove compartment staple.

It’s not just the number of germs present on gas pump handles, but the quality of those germs. The earlier Kimberly-Clark study, led by a University of Arizona microbiologist named Charles Gerba (whom colleagues know as “Dr. Germ”), found that 71 percent of the pumps were highly contaminated with germs associated with disease. The new survey, conducted by Busbud, studied samples from three different gas stations, as well as three different charging stations, to see what we may be exposing ourselves to. The sample size is small, but the results mirror the larger earlier study and are eye-opening.

Based on laboratory results from swabs from the sample gas pumps, handles on gas pumps had an average of 2,011,970 colony-forming units (CFUs), or viable bacteria cells, per square inch. Worse, the buttons on the pumps (where you select the grade of gas you want), had 2,617,067 CFUs per square inch. To put that in perspective, money, which is considered quite dirty since it changes hands often, has only 5.2 CFUs per square inch. A toilet seat has 172 CFUs per square inch. That makes a gas pump handle about 11,000 times more contaminated than a toilet seat, and a gas pump button 15,000 times more contaminated.

OK. So there are over two million CFUs dancing around on the gas pump. What kind of germs are they? Luckily, about half of them are usually harmless. These are the CFUs known as gram-positive rods. (I say usually because gram-positive rods can sometimes cause some types of infections, but are not considered unusually worrisome.) But those other million or so CFUs are mostly of the gram-positive cocci variety, and these are nasty critters that can cause skin infections, pneumonia and toxic shock syndrome.

Does the type of gas you select safeguard you in any way? It would seem so, to some small degree. The sampling showed that the buttons for regular gas contained 3,255,100 CFUs per square inch, about a third of which were the gram-positive cocci (bad germs), and another third of which were bacilli, another type of bad-guy bacteria linked to food poisoning and infections in newborn babies. The other third were mostly the safer gram-positive rods, with a smattering, about 5 percent, of gram-negative rods. These latter germs are especially worrisome as they are linked to antibiotic resistance as well as meningitis and pneumonia. The premium gas button had about 2,022,034 CFUs per square inch, divided about half gram-positive rods and half yeast (and we all know about yeast infections).

Since a typical visit to the gas station involves pressing the gas grade button as well as lifting the pump handle, that means, for regular gas, exposure to about 5,267,070 CFUs per square inch, and for premium gas about 4,034,004 CFUs per square inch.

Tesla and Volt owners, rejoice! If you own an electric car, and use a charging station, you can breathe a lot easier. The typical car charger has only 7.890 CFUs per square inch.

If you want to minimize your exposure to these germs, use a paper towel to hold the handle and push the button, or keep that hand sanitizer around and wash your hands after filling up.

Read the full survey.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.