US Social Security Administration announces effective cut in benefits


By Fred Mazelis
20 October 2016

The US government announced this week that Social Security beneficiaries would receive an insulting 0.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment in their monthly checks for 2017, amounting to about $4 for the average recipient, a cut in real income.

The $4 monthly increase is less than a round trip bus or subway fare in many major cities. It follows no increase at all for 2016. For the years 2010 and 2011, there were also zero cost-of-living adjustments, based on official claims of no inflation. As the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare said in a statement, “Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over one percent” annually.

The average annual benefit for the 65 million in the US currently receiving Social Security is less than $15,000. The notion that the cost of living for these recipients has increased by only 1 percent per year for the past period is preposterous on its face. In New York City, for instance, the cost of a subway or bus fare has risen by more than 20 percent since 2009 ($2.25 to $2.75). Rent-stabilized apartments in New York have seen increases averaging significantly more than 1 percent annually, even after zero increases in the past two years.

In addition to keeping Social Security increases below the actual rate of inflation, the upcoming 0.3 percent increase will be entirely eaten up by increases in the Medicare Part B premiums (currently $104.90 for most Medicare beneficiaries) that are automatically deducted from Social Security checks.

The new premiums have not yet been officially announced but are projected as significantly more than a 0.3 percent hike. According to a “hold harmless” rule, which forbids an actual cut in Social Security benefits, however, the increase in Medicare premiums will be capped for about 70 percent of the 56 million people receiving Medicare. These relatively “lucky” beneficiaries will see their Social Security frozen while living costs continue to go up.

For about 30 percent of those on Medicare, however, premiums will go up much more. These include those eligible for Medicare for the first time, those enrolled in Medicare but not receiving Social Security, and those subject to Medicare surcharges because they did not enroll in the first year of their eligibility. These millions of recipients will see an absolute reduction in their net income for 2017.

In addition to the Medicare premium increases, Medicare trustees have also projected a sizable jump in the annual deductible before recipients can begin receiving their benefits. This is now $166 for the year and is projected to increase to $204. This increase alone is nearly as great as the average cost-of-living adjustment of about $48 annually.

Finally, the Social Security Administration has also announced a rise in the ceiling on wages subject to payroll taxes for Social Security, from the current level of $118,500 to $127,200. This change, at first glance not unreasonable, will in fact hit many working class two-income families where after-tax earnings do not leave much left over after mortgage and car payments, college tuition and other major expenses. The super-rich and the upper middle-class layers, who have incomes well into the six figures, will easily absorb what is a very small increase in their tax liability.

The continuous chipping away at retirement benefits is no small matter for the great majority on Social Security. Millions have already been forced to remain in the workforce well past the expected retirement age because their benefits do not begin to cover basic necessities. Now, those who face a modest increase in rent of $50 a month, for instance, will have not a penny in increased Social Security to meet the added expense. They will have to find some other way to cut their already meager standard of living.

The official Consumer Price Index (CPI) understates inflation by allocating a far smaller percentage of costs to such items as housing, medicine and transportation. Some advocacy groups call for the use of CPI-E, an experimental index that increases the weight of such items as housing and health care. Even this would leave most retirees far short of an adequate income.

The latest attack on the working class and especially on its most vulnerable sections highlights the grotesque character of the 2016 election campaign. The issue of Social Security never arose at the first two presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The candidates were too busy dealing with sex scandals and the importance of getting tough on Russia to discuss working class living standards.

According to a report in the Huffington Post, in fact, a retired government worker in North Carolina submitted a question to the Open Debate Commission for the “town hall” debate format at the second meeting between Trump and Clinton. According to Huffington Post, “Ellen Pleasant…struggles to make ends meet on her monthly check of $996 and a monthly state pension benefit of $299. She has declared bankruptcy twice in recent years, because she was not able to make her mortgage payments and ‘do the things I need to live.’”

Pleasant’s question about whether the candidates “support expanding, and not cutting, Social Security’s modest benefits…was the third most popular question based on readers’ votes, but the debate moderators never raised it.”

Both Trump and Clinton have issued vague promises to defend Social Security. Clinton’s more detailed proposals have been advertised as strongly supportive of the program, but a New York Times editorial on October 19 praises the candidate for “allow[ing] for compromise with Republicans who favor cutting benefits to keep the system viable.” Clearly, no matter which candidate wins on November 8, attacks on Social Security and Medicare will escalate.

Neoliberalism is creating loneliness

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

In Britain, men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.

As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves.

Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress? Arecent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

Studies in both animals and humans suggest a reason for comfort eating: isolation reduces impulse control, leading to obesity. As those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the most likely to suffer from loneliness, might this provide one of the explanations for the strong link between low economic status and obesity?

Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?

There are some wonderful charities doing what they can to fight this tide, some of which I am going to be working with as part of my loneliness project. But for every person they reach, several others are swept past.

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.

Clinton’s Paid Speeches Leaked

In lucrative paid speeches that Hillary Clinton delivered to elite financial firms but refused to disclose to the public, she displayed an easy comfort with titans of business, embraced unfettered international trade and praised a budget-balancing plan that would have required cuts to Social Security, according to documents posted online Friday by WikiLeaks.

The tone and language of the excerpts clash with the fiery liberal approach she used later in her bitter primary battle with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and could have undermined her candidacy had they become public.

Mrs. Clinton comes across less as a firebrand than as a technocrat at home with her powerful audience, willing to be critical of large financial institutions but more inclined to view them as partners in restoring the country’s economic health.

In the excerpts from her paid speeches to financial institutions and corporate audiences, Mrs. Clinton said she dreamed of “open trade and open borders” throughout the Western Hemisphere. Citing the back-room deal-making and arm-twisting used by Abraham Lincoln, she mused on the necessity of having “both a public and a private position” on politically contentious issues. Reflecting in 2014 on the rage against political and economic elites that swept the country after the 2008 financial crash, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that her family’s rising wealth had made her “kind of far removed” from the struggles of the middle class.

The passages were contained in an internal review of Mrs. Clinton’s paid speeches undertaken by her campaign, which was identifying potential land mines should the speeches become public. They offer a glimpse at one of the most sought-after troves of information in the 2016 presidential race — and an explanation, perhaps, for why Mrs. Clinton has steadfastly refused demands by Mr. Sanders and Donald J. Trump, her Republican rival, to release them.

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign would not confirm the authenticity of the documents. They were released on Friday night by WikiLeaks, the hacker collective founded by the activist Julian Assange, saying that they had come from the email account of John D. Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In a statement, a Clinton spokesman, Glen Caplin, pointed to the United States government’s findings that Russian officials had used WikiLeaks to hack documents in order to sway the outcome of the presidential election, suggesting that the leak of Mr. Podesta’s emails was also engineered by Russian officials determined to help Mr. Trump. Mr. Caplin noted that a Twitter message from WikiLeaks promoting the documents had incorrectly identified Mr. Podesta as a co-owner of his brother’s lobbying firm.

But Clinton officials did not deny that the email containing the excerpts was real.

The leaked email, dated Jan. 25, does not contain Mrs. Clinton’s full speeches to the financial firms, leaving it unclear what her overall message was to these audiences.

But in the excerpts, Ms. Clinton demonstrates her long and warm ties to some of Wall Street’s most powerful figures. In a discussion in the fall of 2013 with Lloyd Blankfein, a friend who is the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Mrs. Clinton said that the political climate had made it overly difficult for wealthy people to serve in government.

“There is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives,” Mrs. Clinton said. The pressure on officials to sell or divest assets in order to serve, she added, had become “very onerous and unnecessary.”

In a separate speech to Goldman Sachs employees the same month, Mrs. Clinton said it was an “oversimplification” to blame the global financial crisis of 2008 on the U.S. banking system.

“It was conventional wisdom,” Mrs. Clinton said of the tendency to blame the banking system. “And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened.”


John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, on the campaign plane last month.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

And she praised a deficit-reduction proposal from President Obama’s fiscal commission that called for raising the Social Security retirement age, saying that the commission’s leaders “had put forth the right framework.”

Such comments could have proven devastating to Mrs. Clinton during the Democratic primary fight, when Mr. Sanders promoted himself as the enemy of Wall Street and of a rigged economic system.

Several of the most eye-popping passages ultimately express more nuanced explanations of her views. When Mrs. Clinton describes herself as “far removed” from average Americans and their finances, she had just finished describing her growing appreciation for how “anxiety and even anger in the country over the feeling that the game is rigged.” And she reminds the audience that her father “loved to complain about big business and big government.”

The Clintons have made more than $120 million in speeches to Wall Street and special interests since Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001. Mrs. Clinton typically earned $225,000 for speeches, though she sometimes donated her fees to her family foundation.

“I kind of think if you’re going to be paid $225,000 for a speech, it must be a fantastic speech,” Mr. Sanders said during the primary, “a brilliant speech which you would want to share with the American people.”

As her race against Mr. Sanders — who now campaigns for Mrs. Clinton — grew unexpectedly contentious and close, Mrs. Clinton sought to portray herself as deeply skeptical of Wall Street and eager to punish its wayward leaders.

“I believe strongly that we need to make sure that Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again,” Mrs. Clinton said in January. “No bank is too big to fail, and no executive is too powerful to jail.”

As she sought to burnish her image as an advocate of working America, Mrs. Clinton declared her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Obama’s 12-nation trade pact, and distanced herself from Nafta, which her husband signed into law.

But in a 2013 speech to a Brazilian bank, Mrs. Clinton took a far different approach. “My dream,” she said, “is a hemispheric common market, with open borders, sometime in the future.”

Some of her paid remarks embrace the view that the public can benefit when Wall Street partners with government. When it comes to writing effective financial regulations, Mrs. Clinton said, “The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.”

Foreign hackers — authorized by Russian security agencies, according to national security officials — have successfully penetrated the operations of the Democratic Party and its candidates over the past year. They broke into the email servers of the Democratic National Committee, revealing embarrassing internal messages in which party leaders who were supposed to be neutral expressed their preference for Mrs. Clinton even as she was campaigning against Mr. Sanders. And Mr. Assange is an avowed critic of Mrs. Clinton who has made clear that he wishes to hurt her chances of winning the presidency.

Half of all registered voters said it bothered them “a lot” that Mrs. Clinton had given numerous paid speeches to Wall Street banks, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll in June.

Asked in an interview that month if the practice was self-defeating, given the anger over income inequality, Mrs. Clinton responded that her predecessors as secretary of state had given paid speeches, too.

“I actually think it makes sense,” she said. “Because a lot of people know you have a front-row seat in watching what’s going on in the world.”

The Collective Unconscious Is Creating Creepy Clowns

People just want to be scared about something…

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / tobkatrina

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: There are no clowns skulking around America’s neighborhoods, looking for children to abduct.

Since the first reports of creepy, potentially murderous clowns began surfacing across South Carolina in August, there have been supposed sightings in at least 10 states, as well as parts of Canada. Social media has been recast in its timeless role as the Perennially Loud and Wrong Town Crier, helping spread misinformation and “clown threats” across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Inside HigherEd reports that clowns have appeared at “the universities of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Miami, Missouri at Columbia and Texas at Austin,” as well as “Bloomsburg, Butler, Sacred Heart, Texas A&M, Syracuse Universities [and] Mississippi and York Colleges.” Yesterday morning, White House press secretary Josh Earnest actually had to answer a reporter’s question about how the administration is addressing the clown epidemic.

“I don’t know that the president has been briefed on this particular situation,” Earnest answered, presumably with a straight face, and even acknowledged it’s “something that I’ve read about in some of the news coverage.” He went on to suggest that the reporter check in with “the FBI and DHS and see what they have to say,” because talking to reporters about imaginary clowns is definitely a good use of federal agents’ time, I’m sure.

Most of the reports have been revealed as pranks, obviously. The New York Times noted late last week that at least 12 people had been arrested for “clown hoaxes,” and there have been multiple arrests since then. Other cases have turned out to be a combination of real clowns and irrational panic, as when a 12-year-old Virginia boy with autism dressed up early for Halloween, only to become the subject of a viral social media post and a local news segment. Somehow, police dispatched to all the remaining sightings have found no red noses left behind at the scene and not a single oversized floppy shoe for the crime lab to study. Benjamin Radford, whose books on urban legends and the paranormal include the recent Bad Clown, explains how the lack of forensic evidence is less about stealthy criminal clowns than overactive imaginations.

“The problem is that when police investigate, they never find anything,” he toldUproxx. “These mysterious phantom clowns that these children, and occasionally adults, report—they don’t exist. There’s never any evidence of them, and more importantly they never actually harm anyone. This is one of the keys to understanding the phenomenon. It’s always just missed. It’s always, ‘A clown lurched at me but I ran away.’ It’s a potential menace. It’s not an actual menace.”

The only mystery here is how long the clown menace will continue to be a story before it fades from popular consciousness, like satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories and razor blade-stuffed apples before it. Imaginary clowns aren’t the cause of the mass anxiety we’re currently experiencing, they’re just the latest symptom and manifestation of it—and not for the first time, either. Scary clown sightings have trickled in from around the country since the early 1980s, when “stranger danger” first became the national concern that launched a thousand social panics. But the question remains, after 30-something years of clown sightings here and there, why the sudden peak in reports?

“I believe that the surge in phantom clown sightings in 2016 are a reflection of the fears and uncertainties in American society at the present time,” Robert Bartholomew, who writes about social delusions, fads and popular myths, “I think they are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers in an increasingly urban, impersonal and unpredictable world. Phantom clowns are essentially the bogeyman in a different cultural guise.”

That sounds about right. There is a huge part of America that virtually runs on fear, even in the best of times. An astounding part of the population is adept at, and secretly in love with, scaring the shit out of itself and dreaming up justifications for a paranoia that’s already embedded in its consciousness. In the worst of times, that fear is intentionally rattled by those who recognize its usefulness for their own ends. These operators know that nothing grips the imagination of far too many Americans quite like an imagined monster, come to threaten your home and take your kids away. When a fear-prone populace finds itself in a particularly frightening cultural moment—for reasons real or imagined—the hivemind can run amok.

“I know people are fed up,” one Florida sheriff said at a news conference late last month. “They’re tired of seeing demonstrations and riots. They’re sick and tired of terroristic threats. Now they’ve got to deal with these damn clown things going on.”

That statement, which stops just short of a rant about “law and order,” makes it seem like this is all psychic collateral damage caused by Black Lives Matter and immigrants, in tandem with terrorists crossing across our borders pretending to be refugees. The quote is a particularly good example of the thinking and rhetoric that propels these moments of social panic into arising. It suggests the blame lies with some “other” (instead of faulty systems and power mongers) and helps rile up those who need only the slightest nudge to buy into the idea in a moment of social unrest and economic insecurity. The sheriff’s theory ignores that menacing cartoon clowns are a projection of the contrived fears of a populace that can’t connect its own traumatization with the people who use it against them and essentially retraumatize them for social, political and economic gain.

It also denies the fear of those who are afraid of very real things, from long-term state-backed terror to a rising tide of audible hate from multiple corners, and the way those issues might create an environment that’s inhospitable for everyone, even those who think it’s none of their concern. What’s more, it contributes to that fear in a way that pushes it toward a tipping point where the paranoia ultimately demands the projected, amorphous image of fear become fully embodied.

In the 1980s, bubbling hysteria about faceless marauding satanists eventually led to witch hunts that put real people in jail and ruined actual families and lives. If prankish teenage behavior becomes a reason for irrational national fear, punitive measures could follow. A case in Virginia that ended with two African-American teens being arrested and their mugshots splashed across the Internet for “chasing children while wearing a clown mask,” is a reminder of whose youthful indiscretions are most likely to count against them in the harshest way.

And like always, the hysteria feeds upon itself. Schools in Reading, Ohio, were closed after a woman claimed a clown physically attacked her. The Phillipsburg school district in New Jersey went into lockdown status after a “clown-related threat” appeared on social media. New Haven, Connecticut, schools announced a ban this Halloween on clown costumes and—wait for it—other “symbols of terror.” The police presence has been beefed up in Syracuse, Houston, St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, to name just a few places.

In Utah, police actually thought it necessary to use Facebook to gently suggest that maybe people should think twice before shooting at clowns. (Q: “Can I shoot or take action against someone that is dressed up like a clown?” A: “That’s not a simple yes or no question. It has a lot of variables to it.”) The police may be right, since there have been previous reports of people haphazardly firing guns into wooded areas where clowns were reportedly seen.

Yet, as Radford reminds us, “The fact is, to date, there are no confirmed reports of any clowns actually abducting, harming, killing [or] molesting kids. There just aren’t. There are zero.”

Amidst the other glaring reasons for the precipitous climb in clown hysteria, if you merely skim the surface of the fears plaguing the nation, is the season itself, which will culminate with the celebration of Halloween and the conclusion of a seemingly infinite and frightening election. There’s a chance the imagined clowns will pack up their imaginary cars and leave public consciousness with a proverbial whimper. All the better to make room for some other fabricated stand-in for American jitters about everything but the very real problems staring us in the face, before the clown car, at some point down the road, rolls back in again.

“By the end of November, it will become part of folklore,” Radford told Uproxx. “[But] this will happen again. I guarantee you this will happen again. It may be five years, it may be ten years, but someday, probably in my lifetime and certainly yours, there will be two or three more of these clown panics. They will be identical. There will be stories of clowns that are luring children. There won’t be anyone actually arrested for abducting kids.”

Why Clowns Creep Us Out

Creepy clowns have been terrorizing America.

Photo Credit: Elnur /

For the past several months, creepy clowns have been terrorizing America, with sightings of actual clowns in at least 10 different states.

These fiendish clowns have reportedly tried to lure women and children into the woods, chased people with knives and machetes, and yelled at people from cars. They’ve been spotted hanging out in cemeteries and they have been caught in the headlights of cars as they appear alongside desolate country roads in the dead of night.

This isn’t the first time there has been a wave of clown sightings in the United States. After eerily similar events occurred in the Boston area in the 1980s,Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist who studies the folklore behind mythical beasts such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, came up with something called “The Phantom Clown Theory,” which attributes the proliferation of clown sightings to mass hysteria (usually sparked by incidents witnessed only by children).

It’s impossible to determine which of these incidents are hoaxes and which are bona fide tales of clowning around taken to the extreme. Nonetheless, the perpetrators seem to be capitalizing on our longstanding love-hate relationship with clowns, tapping into the primal dread that so many children (and more than a few adults) experience in their presence.

In fact, a 2008 study conducted in England revealed that very few children actually like clowns. It also concluded that the common practice of decorating children’s wards in hospitals with pictures of clowns may create the exact opposite of a nurturing environment. It’s no wonder so many people hate Ronald McDonald.

But as a psychologist, I’m not just interested in pointing out that clowns give us the creeps; I’m also interested in why we find them so disturbing. Earlier this year I published a study entitled “On the Nature of Creepiness” with one of my students, Sara Koehnke, in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. While the study was not specifically looking at the creepiness of clowns, much of what we discovered can help explain this intriguing phenomenon.

The march of the clowns

Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Historically, jesters and clowns have been a vehicle for satire and for poking fun at powerful people. They provided a safety valve for letting off steam and they were granted unique freedom of expression – as long as their value as entertainers outweighed the discomfort they caused the higher-ups.

Jesters and others persons of ridicule go back at least to ancient Egypt, and the English word “clown” first appeared sometime in the 1500s, when Shakespeare used the term to describe foolish characters in several of his plays. The now familiar circus clown – with its painted face, wig and oversized clothing – arose in the 19th century and has changed only slightly over the past 150 years.

Nor is the trope of the evil clown anything new. Earlier this year, writer Benjamin Radford published “Bad Clowns,” in which he traces the historical evolution of clowns into unpredictable, menacing creatures.

A detail from one of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings.The Orchid Club/flickr

The persona of the creepy clown really came into its own after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970s, Gacy appeared at children’s birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown” and also regularly painted pictures of clowns. When the authorities discovered that he had killed at least 33 people, burying most of them in the crawl space of his suburban Chicago home, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans.

Following the notoriety of Gacy, Hollywood exploited our deep ambivalence about clowns via a terror-by-clown campaign that shows no signs of going out of fashion. Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s 1990 movie “It,” may be the scariest movie clown. But there are also the “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (1988), the scary clown doll under the bed in “Poltergeist” (1982), the zombie clown in “Zombieland” (2009) and, most recently, the murderous clown in “All Hallow’s Eve” (2013).

The nature of creepiness

Psychology, however, can help explain why clowns – the supposed purveyors of jokes and pranks – often end up sending chills down our spines.

My research was the first empirical study of creepiness, and I had a hunch that feeling creeped out might have something to do with ambiguity – about not really being sure how to react to a person or situation.

We recruited 1,341 volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 77 to fill out an online survey. In the first section of the survey, our participants rated the likelihood that a hypothetical “creepy person” would exhibit 44 different behaviors, such as unusual patterns of eye contact or physical characteristics like visible tattoos. In the second section of the survey, participants rated the creepiness of 21 different occupations, and in the third section they simply listed two hobbies that they thought were creepy. In the final section, participants noted how much they agreed with 15 statements about the nature of creepy people.

The results indicated that people we perceive as creepy are much more likely to be males than females (as are most clowns), that unpredictability is an important component of creepiness and that unusual patterns of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors set off our creepiness detectors big time.

Unusual or strange physical characteristics such as bulging eyes, a peculiar smile or inordinately long fingers did not, in and of themselves, cause us to perceive someone as creepy. But the presence of weird physical traits can amplify any other creepy tendencies that the person might be exhibiting, such as persistently steering conversations toward peculiar sexual topics or failing to understand the policy about bringing reptiles into the office.

When we asked people to rate the creepiness of different occupations, the one that rose to the top of the creep list was – you guessed it – clowns.

The results were consistent with my theory that getting “creeped out” is a response to the ambiguity of threat and that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills.

For example, it would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.

This reaction could be adaptive, something humans have evolved to feel, with being “creeped out” a way to maintain vigilance during a situation that could be dangerous.

Why clowns set off our creep alert

In light of our study’s results, it is not at all surprising that we find them to be creepy.

Rami Nader is a Canadian psychologist who studies coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns. Nader believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings.

This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next.

There are certainly other types of people who creep us out (taxidermists and undertakers made a good showing on the creepy occupation spectrum). But they have their work cut out for them if they aspire to the level of creepiness that we automatically attribute to clowns.

In other words, they have big shoes to fill.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Frank T. McAndrew  is a Cornelia H. Dudley professor of psychology at Knox College.

Clinton gives her take on Sanders supporters in leaked fundraising recording.

Hillary Clinton says in a clip that many of her former primary opponent’s supporters sought things like “free college, free healthcare.”  Described Bernie Sanders supporters as “children of the Great Recession” who are “living in their parents’ basement.”


By CRISTIANO LIMA 09/30/16 09:21 PM EDT
Hacked audio of a conversation between Hillary Clinton and donors during a February fundraising event shows the Democrat nominee describing Bernie Sanders supporters as “children of the Great Recession” who are “living in their parents’ basement.”
Speaking at a Virginia fundraiser hosted by former U.S. ambassador Beatrice Welters, Clinton says in a clip released by the Free Beacon that many of her former primary opponent’s supporters sought things like “free college, free health care,” saying that she preferred to occupy the space “from the center-left to the center-right” on the political spectrum.

During the conversation, also reported in the Intercept, Clinton confesses to feeling “bewildered” by those to her far-left and far-right in the election.
“There is a strain of, on the one hand, the kind of populist, nationalist, xenophobic, discriminatory kind of approach that we hear too much of from the Republican candidates,” she said. “And on the other side, there’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.”

While stressing the need to not serve as a “wet blanket on idealism,” Clinton paints fans of the then-surging Vermont senator as political newbies attempting to deal with an economy that has fallen short of their expectations.
“Some are new to politics completely. They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement,” she said. “They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future.”
Clinton added: “If you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”
“I think we all should be really understanding of that,” Clinton said.
The audio, which according to the Free Beacon was “revealed by hackers who breached the email account of a campaign staffer,” surfaces the same week that Sanders hit the campaign trail to try to win those same young voters that Clinton has struggled to attract since clinching the Democratic nomination.

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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, 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 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).”