Two American Dreams: how a dumbed-down nation lost sight of a great idea

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As Clinton and Trump prepare to debate next week, noble ideals are overwhelmed in a culture where most Americans do not know what is real anymore and the dream of equal opportunity is a fantasy

by


Every child had a pretty good shot

To get at least as far as their old man got

But something happened on the way to that place

They threw an American flag in our face.

Billy Joel, Allentown

We know it today as the American Dream. The now-obscure historian James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book The Epic of America, defining “the American dream” as:

a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Adams was writing in 1931, but the dream was there from the start, in Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” formulation in the Declaration of Independence, “happiness” residing in its 18th-century sense of prosperity, thriving, wellbeing.

Nobody ever came to America with a starry-eyed dream of working for starvation wages. Plenty of that available in the old country, and that’s precisely why we left, escaping serfdom, peonage, tenancy, indenture – all different iterations of what was essentially a “rigged system”, to put it in current political verbiage – that channeled the profits of our labor upstream to the Man. We came to America to do better, to secure for ourselves the liberation that economic security brings, and for millions – mostly white males at first, and then slowly, sputteringly, women and people of color – that’s the way it worked out, nothing less than a revolution in the human condition.

Upward mobility is indispensable to the American Dream, the notion that people can rise from working to middle class, and middle to upper and even higher on the model of a (fictional) Horatio Alger or an (actual) Andrew Carnegie. Upward mobility across classes peaked in the US in the late 19th century. Most of the gains of the 20th century were achieved en masse; it wasn’t so much a phenomenon of great numbers of people rising from one class to the next as it was standards of living rising sharply for all classes. You didn’t have to be exceptional to rise. Opportunity was sufficiently broad that hard work and steadiness would do, along with tacit buy-in to the social contract, allegiance to the system proceeding on the assumption that the system was basically fair.

The biggest gains occurred in the post-second world war era of the GI Bill, affordable higher education, strong labor unions, and a progressive tax code. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, median household income in the US doubled. Income inequality reached historic lows. The average CEO salary was approximately 30 times that of the lowest-paid employee, compared with today’s gold-plated multiple of 370. The top tax bracket ranged in the neighborhood of 70% to 90%. Granted, there were far fewer billionaires in those days. Somehow the nation survived.

“America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man and, if we can not obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.” So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her syndicated column of 6 January 1941, an apt lead-in to her husband’s State of the Union address later that day in which he enumerated the four freedoms essential to American democracy, among them “freedom from want”. In his State of the Union address three years later, FDR expanded on this concept of freedom from want with his proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights”, an “economic” bill of rights to counteract what he viewed as the growing tyranny of the modern economic order:

This Republic had at its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship … As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy has expanded – these political rights have proved inadequate to assure us equality. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.

Political rights notwithstanding, “freedom” rings awfully hollow when you’re getting nickel-and-dimed to death in your everyday life. The Roosevelts recognized that wage peonage, or any system that inclines toward subsistence level, is simply incompatible with self-determination. Subsistence is, by definition, a constrained, desperate state; one’s horizon is necessarily limited to the present day, to getting enough of what the body needs to make it to the next. These days a minimum wage worker in New York City clocking 40 hours a week (at $9 per hour) earns $18,720 a year, well under the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That’s a scrambling, anxious existence, narrowly bounded. Close to impossible to decently feed, clothe, and shelter yourself on a wage like that, much less a family; much less buy health insurance, or save for your kid’s college, or participate in any of those other good American things. Down at peon level, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a bad joke. “It’s called the American dream,” George Carlin cracked, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

“Necessitous men are not free men,” said FDR in that 1944 State of the Union speech. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” A dire statement, demonstrably true, and especially unsettling in 2016, a point in time when the American Dream seems more viable as nostalgia than a lived phenomenon. Income inequality, wealth distribution, mortality rates: by every measure, the average individual that Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated is sinking. Exceptional people continue to rise, but overall mobility is stagnant at best. If you’re born poor in Ferguson or Appalachia, chances are you’re going to stay that way. Ditto if your early memories include the swimming pool at the Houston Country Club or ski lessons at Deer Valley, you’re likely going to keep your perch at the top of the heap.

Income inequality, gross disparities in wealth: we’re told daily, incessantly, that these are the necessary consequences of a free market, as if the market was a force of nature on the order of weather or tides, and not the entirely manmade construct that it is. In light of recent history, blind acceptance of this sort of economics would seem to require a firm commitment to stupidity, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s true, that the free market exists as a universe unto itself, as immutable in its workings as the laws of physics. Does that universe include some ironclad rule that requires inequality of opportunity? I’ve yet to hear the case for that, though doubtless some enterprising thinktanker could manufacture one out of this same free-market economics, along with whiffs of genetic determinism as it relates to qualities of discipline and character. And it would be bogus, that case. And more than that, immoral. That we should allow for wildly divergent opportunities due to accidents of birth ought to strike us as a crime equal in violence to child abuse or molestation.

Franklin Roosevelt: “[F]reedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” The proposition goes deeper than sentiment, deeper than policy, deeper even than adherence to equality and “the pursuit of happiness” as set forth in the Declaration. It cuts all the way to the nature of democracy, and to the prospects for its continued existence in America. “We may have democracy in this country,” wrote supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, “or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Those few, in Brandeis’s judgment, would inevitably use their power to subvert the free will of the majority; the super-rich as a class simply couldn’t be trusted to do otherwise, a thesis that’s being starkly acted out in the current era of Citizens United, Super Pacs, and truckloads of dark money.

But the case for economic equality goes beyond even equations of power politics. Democracy’s premise rests on the notion that the collective wisdom of the majority will prove right more often than it’s wrong. That given sufficient opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, your population will develop its talents, its intellect, its better judgment; that over time its capacity for discernment and self-correction will be enlarged. Life will improve. The form of your union will be more perfect, to borrow a phrase. But if a critical mass of your population is kept in peonage? All its vitality spent in the trenches of day-to-day survival, with scant opportunity to develop the full range of its faculties? Then how much poorer the prospects for your democracy will be.

Economic equality can no more be divorced from the functioning of democracy than the ballot. Jefferson, Brandeis, the Roosevelts all recognized this home truth. The American Dream has to be the lived reality of the country, not just a pretty story we tell ourselves.

I have always gotten much more publicity than anybody else.

Donald Trump

Then there’s that other American dream, the numbed-out, dumbed-down, make-believe world where much of the national consciousness resides, the sum product of our mighty Fantasy Industrial Complex: movies, TV, internet, texts, tweets, ad saturation, celebrity obsession, sports obsession, Amazonian sewers of porn and political bullshit, the entire onslaught of media and messaging that strives to separate us from our brains. September 11, 2001 blasted us out of that dream for about two minutes, but the dream is so elastic, so all-encompassing, that 9/11 was quickly absorbed into the the matrix of FIC. This exceedingly complex event – horribly direct in the result, but a swamp when it comes to explanations – was stripped down and binaried into a reliable fantasy narrative of us against them, good versus evil, Christian against Muslim. The week after 9/11, Susan Sontag was virtually crucified for pointing out that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand how we came to this point”. For this modest proposal, no small number of her fellow Americans wished her dead. But if we’d followed her lead – if we’d done the hard work of digging down to the roots of the whole awful thing – perhaps we wouldn’t still be fighting al-Qaida and its offspring 15 years later.

Here’s a hypothesis, ugly, uncharitable, but given our recent history it begs inquiry: most of the time most Americans don’t know what’s real any more. How else to explain Trump, a billionaire on an ego trip capturing a major party’s nomination for president? Another blunt-speaking billionaire tried twice for the presidency in the 1990s and went out in flames, but he made the mistake of running as himself, a recognizably flesh-and-blood human being, whereas Trump comes to us as the ultimate creature, and indisputable maestro, of the Fantasy Industrial Complex. For much of his career – until 2004, to be exact – he held status in our lives as a more or less normal celebrity. Larger than life, to be sure, cartoonishly grandiose, shamelessly self-promoting, and reliably obnoxious, but Trump didn’t become Trump until “The Apprentice” debuted in January 2004. The first episode drew 20.7 million viewers. By comparison, Ross Perot received 19,742,000 votes in the 1992 presidential election – yes, I’m comparing vote totals with Nielsen ratings – but Trump kept drawing that robust 20 million week after week. The season finale that year reached 28 million viewers, and over the next decade, for 13 more seasons, this was how America came to know him, in that weirdly intimate way TV has of delivering celebrity into the very center of our lives.

It was this same Trump that 24 million viewers – a record, of course – tuned in to watch at the first Republican debate last year, the glowering, blustering, swaggering boardroom action figure who gave every promise of shredding the pols. One wonders if Trump would have ever been Trump if there hadn’t been a JR Ewing to pave the way, to show just how dear and real a dealmaking TV rogue could be to our hearts. Trump’s performance on that night did not disappoint, nor through all the debates in the long march that followed, and if his regard for the truth has proved more erratic even than that of professional politicians, we should expect as much. In the realm of the Fantasy Industrial Complex, reality happens on a sliding scale. The truth is just another possibility.

I speak the password primeval.

I would give the sign of democracy;

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

In nine days Trump and Hillary will take the stage for their first face-to-face debate. There will be blood. The knives are going to be out, and the ratings are bound to be, need it be said, yuge. The American Dream will no doubt be invoked from both podiums, for what true-blue patriot was ever against the American Dream? And yet for the past 30 years the Democratic candidate has worked comfortably within a party establishment that’s battered the working and middle classes down to the bone. The “new” Democrats of the Clinton era are always strong for political rights, as long as they don’t upset corporate America’s bottom line. Strong for racial and gender equality, strong for LGBT rights (though that took time). Meanwhile this same Democratic establishment joined with the GOP to push a market- and finance-driven economic order that enriches the already rich and leaves the rest of us sucking wind.

That’s the very real anger Trump is speaking to, no fantasy there. Bernie as well; small wonder their constituencies overlapped, though Trump’s professed devotion to the common man stumbles over even the simplest proofs. On whether to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Trump’s moral compass has spun from an implied no (wages are already “too high”), to implied yes (wages are “too low”), to weasel words (leave it up to the states), to yes and no in the same breath (“I would leave it and raise it somewhat”), and, finally, when pressed by Bill O’Reilly in July, to yes-but (raise it to $10, but it’s still best left to the states). All this from the candidate who’s firmly in favor of abolishing the estate tax, to the great benefit of heirs of multimillionaires and none at all to the vast majority of us.

Meanwhile, the Fantasy Industrial Complex is doing just fine this election season, thank you. Speaking at a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference in March, one of the commanders of the FIC, Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS and a man whose 2015 compensation totaled $56.8m, had this to say about the Trump campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in and this is fun … this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/17/american-dream-divided-nation-equal-opportunity-trump-clinton-campaign

Meet the Right-Wing Poverty Deniers.

It’s Not Just Climate Change Anymore.

This past Sunday, I joined C-SPAN’s Washington Journal for a discussion on the House GOP poverty plan released earlier in the week.

My conservative counterpart on the show—Robert Rector of the right-wing Heritage Foundation—made his views on poverty clear early on in the conversation when he lamented that our aid programs are “too generous.” Believe it or not, he went on, poor people in America have basic household appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, ovens, microwaves, and—gasp! —air conditioning. He accused folks on the left—and the nonpartisan Census Bureau—of “exaggerating” the state of poverty in the U.S.

These are hardly new talking points for Rector. He’s been putting out “research” on how good poor Americans supposedly have it for years. Back in 2011, Rector’s brazenly titled report, Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an X-Box: What is Poverty in the United States Today? got the attention of Stephen Colbert, who gave it the treatment it deserves on The Colbert Report: “A refrigerator and a microwave? They can preserve and heat food?  Ooh la la!  I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis.”

All joking aside, the fact that Rector is still peddling this line reflects just how out of touch right-wing views on poverty are today.

For starters, are our aid programs “too generous?”

As I noted on Washington Journal, Rector should try telling that to the more than 6 million Americans whose only income is food stamps—which provides just $1.40 per person per meal in nutrition assistance. Or the 3 in 4 low-income families who are eligible for housing assistance but don’t receive it and can spend 60, 70, or 80 percent of their income on rent and utilities each month, while they remain on decades-long waiting lists for aid. Rector should see how his line goes over with the 3 in 4 families with children in poverty who are not helped by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), because it was converted to a flat-funded block grant that’s lost one-third of its purchasing power since 1996. Or even with the small fraction of families lucky enough to receive TANF—because in no state are benefits greater than half the federal poverty line.

And are poor people in America secretly living high on the hog?

Most observers view the austere federal poverty line as an inadequate measure of hardship. Experts say a family of four needs an annual income of $50,000 to achieve an adequate but basic standard of living—more than twice the poverty line for a family of four, which is a measly $24,000.

By that measure, the number of people in this country struggling to make ends meet far exceeds the 47 million Americans with incomes below the poverty line; it amounts to nearly 1 in 3 Americans—more than 105 million people—living on the economic brink today. This much larger figure is confirmed by recent survey data. In a report released last month by the Federal Reserve Board, one-third of American adults say that they struggle to make ends meet.

It is clear that after decades of growing income inequality, economic hardship can hardly be described as an “us and them” phenomenon. With working families facing flat and declining wages and gains from economic growth increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, economic instability is now a widespread experience.

Rector’s comments on Washington Journal made clear his proposed solution: just deny the existence of poverty and hardship in America. If poor families are actually doing just fine—they have refrigerators and microwaves, after all—then not only does that free up policymakers to slash aid programs, it also removes any need to boost wages or enact any other policies that would cut poverty and make it easier to get ahead.

But for the 105 million Americans struggling to get by, the fact that they are fortunate enough to be able to refrigerate—and heat!—their food offers cold comfort.

It’s not just Heritage who’s out of touch. Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan released a long-awaited poverty plan as part of his “A Better Way” House GOP policy agenda. He unveiled the plan at a drug rehab center, offering a not-so-subtle reminder of his views on the causes of poverty.

As Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out at a Center for American Progress event last week, if Ryan truly understood poverty in America, rather than seeing struggling individuals as “broken people,” he would have given the speech at a McDonald’s, surrounded by low-wage workers struggling because of a broken economy.

Even more out of touch were the comments made by Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) at the plan’s release—he actually referred to people living in poverty as “untapped, dormant assets.”

Speaker Ryan and his colleagues’ limited understanding of poverty is also evident in the “A Better Way” plan itself, which echoes many of the themes found in their previous budgets. (This year’s House GOP budget, for example, got three-fifths of its cuts from programs that serve low- and moderate-income people, while protecting tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.)

In addition to slashing housing assistance in the midst of a national affordable housing crisis, and proposing to cut school lunches, their solutions to poverty include legalizing bad financial advice by rolling back the Obama Administration’s “fiduciary rule” and blocking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed rule to protect cash-strapped borrowers from predatory payday lenders.

Perhaps even more notable than what’s in the plan is what it leaves out: any policies to create jobs or boost wages. Indeed, Ryan made clear in the Q&A following his speech that despite his previous claims to want to “push wages up,” he and his colleagues remain steadfastly opposed to raising the minimum wage.

Bipartisan interest in tackling poverty and expanding opportunity would be a welcome development. But instead of putting our heads in the sand, policymakers on both sides of the aisle must acknowledge the very real experience of poverty in America—and the many structural barriers that stand in the way of getting ahead.

That starts by admitting that poverty exists.

It’s Not Just Climate Change Anymore. Meet the Right-Wing Poverty Deniers.

This Is Not a Democracy: How the Sanders-Clinton Contest in California Failed Voters

Posted on Jun 14, 2016

By Jordan Elgrably

  The choice American voters now face. (Ted Eytan / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bernie Sanders inspired millions of Americans this year and became stiff competition for Hillary Clinton’s bid to become our next president. He was the only candidate who seriously addressed the growing income inequality in this country, referring to the Wall Street bailouts and the incredible tax breaks and loop holes enjoyed by the very wealthy and large corporations, who either fail to pay their fare share of taxes, or pay no taxes at all. (Indeed, a March 2016 USA Today report found that 27 “giant profitable companies,” among them General Motors, paid zero taxes in 2015.)

It is probable that a Sanders win in California would have made a difference in the national contest. Yet while millions of voters turned out for Senator Sanders across the nation, millions of our votes in California were never counted. In case you thought voter suppression went out in the year 2000 when we had “hanging chads” in Florida’s Gore-Bush contest, I have bad news for you: voter suppression is still in full swing.

First, as of Thursday, June 9, more than 2.5 million votes in California had yet to be counted, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office. A full accounting of those ballots will not be completed until the end of June at the earliest, yet Hillary Clinton has already been announced as the unchallenged winner in California’s Democratic Primary.

Second, there are a staggering 4.2 million independent, “No Party Preference” or NPP voters in California. As you can imagine, many of them would be voting for Senator Sanders, who for years represented his Vermont constituents as an independent, progressive and even socialist politician whose loyalty to his ideals for social justice came before any party loyalty. Yet according to investigative journalist Greg Palast, writing for NationofChange.org, “In some counties like Los Angeles, it’s not easy for an NPP to claim their right to vote in the Democratic primary — and in other counties, nearly impossible.”

Palast found that unless NPP voters who wanted to vote for Sanders asked for a “crossover ballot” at their polling place, their normal NPP ballot would automatically not include the presidential race. And according to Election Justice USA, poll workers were instructed to give NPP voters who requested a “crossover ballot” a provisional ballot. Notes Palast, who has tracked elections in the U. S. for years and is the author of two books on election fraud, “Provisional ballots are generally discarded.”

Voting is a privilege and an obligation in a democracy, and as a voter in a state as big as California, I feel that my vote as John Q. Citizen actually makes a difference. Imagine the frustration, then, of millions of other Californians who were either unable to vote in this presidential primary or whose vote wasn’t even taken into consideration when Hillary Clinton was announced the winner of the contest.

The choice American voters now face are two presidential nominees who are both under investigation for fraud and corruption. Donald Trump is the subject of multiple lawsuits for alleged swindles by Trump University, and is being pursued by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman for defrauding thousands of students. Hillary Clinton is the subject of an FBI criminal investigation into her use of a private email server that may have damaged national security. Also, the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the myriad questionable business dealings of the Clinton Foundation, including potential influence peddling while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, in particular involving her approval of the sale of shares in a uranium mining ranch in Utah. My other concern about Hillary is that she is an admitted protégé of war criminal Henry Kissinger, and has shown herself to be a hawk when it comes to foreign military adventures.

Millions of Americans who might have voted for Bernie Sanders, a peace candidate if ever there was one—Sanders was one of the few people in Washington who voted against the Iraq War in 2003 that has proven devastating to the entire region—have been hoodwinked into thinking our election process is fair and impartial.

This is not a democracy when each and every vote isn’t counted.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Elizabeth Warren becomes Hillary’s running mate and vice president, because she might be able to dissuade HRC from making some of those inevitable bellicose decisions. In fact, the best outcome would be that both Warren and Bernie Sanders become an essential aspect of the coming four years.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/this_is_not_a_democracy_20160614

California primary voters speak on social inequality, war

2016-election-new-hampshire-votes-0581f8f07c6cbbf6

By our reporters
8 June 2016

Voters went to polls on Tuesday in the final six primary contests of the 2016 election cycle, with the exception of the District of Columbia, which will vote next week. Hillary Clinton declared victory in the Democratic Party nomination contest Tuesday evening.

WSWS reporters spoke to voters throughout the state of California. California, while traditionally having relatively little influence on the nomination process due the voting schedule, nonetheless is a significant gauge as it is the largest state in the country.

More than 650,000 Californians registered to vote in the final six weeks of the registration period, pushing the state’s total registered voters to 18 million, the most ever heading into a primary election. Many of these newly-registered voters were under the age of 45, a group that has favored Sanders heavily over Clinton.

In Los Angeles, many voters said the growth of social inequality and poverty were motivating factors in their election decisions.

“We have so many problems here,” one voter said. “I take the bus down 7th street and there’s homeless people everywhere. It’s ridiculous for us to continue spending money in places like the Middle East. But at the same time we’ve caused everything that’s going on over there.”

Another expressed frustration with the media’s declaration of Clinton as the presumptive nominee the day before the California vote. “They shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “They should have to wait until all the ballots are counted to make sure people feel free to vote for the candidate of their choice.”

WSWS reporters also spoke to voters in Berkeley, California, many of who expressed illusions in both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

Bob, an engineering student in Berkeley, said that he voted for Sanders. “I believe he has good policies for social change that will represent the younger generation,” he said. “Public education is a big deal for me. I believe it’s important to have an educated population.”

Asked about Clinton, Bob replied, “I think she’s an acceptable candidate. I would have nothing against her as a candidate, but Bernie Sanders seems to have much more audacity.”

Helcio, a Brazilian national, expressed a growing and widespread resignation about the US election system. “It’s pretty sad,” he said. “There is not much hope anymore. All the top 1 percent are in control. It doesn’t matter what you do, it will take a long time for people to get power again.”

Chris, a database architect, said he voted for Sanders because of concerns over income inequality. “Paraphrasing Robert Reich, I think Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for the system we have, and Bernie is the best for the system we would like to have. I’m voting my conscience in the primary.” Asked about the lack of discussion of war in the presidential election, Chris replied, “We’re to the state of a forgotten war.”

Rishi, an engineer, also voted for Sanders. His primary concerns are “the environment, climate change, and having a good foreign policy that doesn’t lead to war,” he said. “Trump is out of his mind. Hillary is a little too pro-war, pro-involvement in all the things she voted for. That was probably the biggest reason I voted for Bernie.”

When asked what kind of issues were of particular concern to him, Patrick, a voter in the San Francisco area, said, “The big one for me is medical debt. It hits me personally because I have kidney failure. I was diagnosed last November. For just a four-day stay in the hospital, it would have been $80,000. Luckily, I was able to qualify for Medi-Cal,” the state’s Medicaid health care program.

Many voters in San Diego also expressed distrust in the election process and a disbelief that anything would significantly change regardless of which candidate wins in November.

Alex, a student worker, said, “The super delegates can do whatever they want instead of doing what the people want. I read last night that Hillary Clinton is now the nominee. Why should we even bother voting now? The election process is rigged, we don’t have a voice.”

WSWS reporters in San Diego also spoke to voters from City Heights, a mostly Hispanic working class and immigrant community.

Freddie a telecom worker told reporters he was voting because, “I’m tired of blue-collar workers like myself suffering due to the financial institutions, Wall Street banks and corporations.”

When asked if he felt that this framework could adequately address the democratic rights of the population, he responded, “No! It doesn’t feel like it is a democracy when the politicians can be bought and sold. I don’t feel like it’s a democracy if hundreds of police can get away with killing people.”

Freddie was engaged in the strike by 1,700 workers for AT&T, which was contained by the union to San Diego. When our reporters asked why the union, the Communication Workers of America, made strikers return to work without a contract, Freddie responded that he was disappointed in AT&T. When pressed why the union had allowed them to even work without a contract, he agreed that the unions were no longer organizations of the working class.

Speaking on the difficulties of making ends meet, Freddie also said, “It’s not [quite] the [official] poverty line, but it’s paycheck to paycheck and that’s poverty. We work our whole lives and what do we get in the end? To pay off our car, maybe pay off a house that we can pass on to our children. That’s it?! You work so hard and you’ve got nothing to show for it at the end of your lifetime.”

Juan is a 30 year old military veteran who spent time in Afghanistan. He said he was there to vote for Sanders because he agreed with the way Sanders spoke about Wall Street and the difficulties of life for average people. Despite Sanders saying he would support Hillary Clinton if she won the primary, Juan maintained the impression that Sanders would never support Clinton. He said he would refuse to vote for Clinton, believing the Democratic and Republican parties are thoroughly corrupt and can only be reformed by Sanders.

When asked about Bernie Sanders’ support of the wars in Libya and Syria, as well as his votes to fund the wars in Iraq, Juan said he believed that Sanders did not really support the current wars in the Middle East.

A young mother also spoke to our reporters briefly saying she was going to the polls because it was her obligation. Expressing her disapproval of US military interventions abroad she said, “It’s my taxes that are paying these people to send soldiers to war and kill thousands of people in other countries. We are paying these people and they should answer to us.”

Daniel, a cook and student at a local community college said he was disgusted with growing social inequality, and expressed disbelief that it could be in any way addressed through either of the two big business parties. “The election is controlled by the 1 percent of both parties, the Democrats and Republicans. The race has become a popularity contest, we have no idea what politics is.”

Daniel continued, “We can’t trust anything Hillary says, she is two-faced. There will be no difference if Hillary or Trump wins.”

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/06/08/cali-j08.html?view=mobilearticle

The Age of Precarious: 6 in 10 Americans Living on the Financial Edge

Published on

‘The more we learn about the balance sheets of Americans, it becomes quite alarming.’

The picture is decidedly “precarious,” as two-thirds of Americans would have trouble immediately paying an unanticipated bill of $1,000. (Photo: thebarrowboy/flickr/cc)

An unexpected medical bill or a dip in the stock market would be all it took to send two-thirds of Americans into financial distress, according to a new poll that finds lingering lack of confidence in the U.S. economy.

Despite reports of falling unemployment, growing wages, and rising consumer confidence, a full 57 percent of respondents to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey describe the national economy as poor. Only 22 percent of people say the economy has mostly or completely recovered from the Great Recession.

And while 66 percent of Americans describe their current financial situation as “good”—suggesting they are able to pay their regular bills, go out to eat more, and think about buying a new car or house—the picture is decidedly “precarious,” as the Associated Pressputs it.

“Even though there are signs that the economy has improved in recent years, a lot of people are not feeling that the recovery has reached them,” said Trevor Tompson, director of The AP-NORC Center. “There is evidence of optimism among the more affluent, but two-thirds of Americans would have trouble immediately paying an unanticipated bill of $1,000.”

Indeed, according to the AP, “these financial difficulties span all income levels”:

Seventy-five percent of people in households making less than $50,000 a year would have difficulty coming up with $1,000 to cover an unexpected bill. But when income rose to between $50,000 and $100,000, the difficulty decreased only modestly to 67 percent.

Even for the country’s wealthiest 20 percent — households making more than $100,000 a year — 38 percent say they would have at least some difficulty coming up with $1,000.

“The more we learn about the balance sheets of Americans, it becomes quite alarming,” Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute focusing on poverty and emergency savings issues, told the AP.

What’s more, most employed Americans have not seen a salary increase in recent years; less than a third have confidence they would be able to find equal or better employment if they left their current position; and few workers expect to have enough savings to retire on their own timetable.

“It’s just real shaky right now,” said Dorothy Mszanski, 60, a former steelworker who had to retire on disability, to the AP. “It’s like nobody can figure out what to do.”

The People’s Budget, released earlier this year by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), spoke directly to this unease, aiming to fix “an economy that, for too long, has failed to provide the opportunities American families need to get ahead.”

“Despite their skills and work ethic,” the CPC said in a statement at the time, “most American workers and families are so financially strapped from increasing income inequality that their paychecks barely cover basic necessities.”

In its analysis of the proposal, the Economic Policy Institute declared: “The People’s Budget aims to improve the economic well-being of low- and middle-income families by finally closing the persistent jobs gap that has plagued the U.S. economy since the Great Recession began.”

 

http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/05/19/age-precarious-6-10-americans-living-financial-edge

Reports document growing income inequality, declining manufacturing pay

America in the 21st century

Income-Inequality

By Kate Randall
14 May 2016

A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that more than four-fifths of US metropolitan areas have seen household incomes decline in the new century. The research is based on data from urban centers that are home to three-quarters of the US population.

Pew’s America’s Shrinking Middle Class shows that middle-class household income has declined throughout the population, while at the same time the gap between low- and upper-income households has grown, demonstrating a significant increase in income inequality across the US. A major contributor to economic decline and inequality has been the plunge in manufacturing jobs and wages.

The study analyzed data from 229 of the 381 metropolitan areas in the US, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These areas accounted for 76 percent of the US population in 2014. They included all those that could be identified in US Census Bureau data with statistics available for both 2000 and 2014.

Middle-income households are defined as those with incomes of about $42,000 to $125,000, adjusted for a household of three. Pew found that the share of middle-income households fell in 203 of 299 metropolitan areas from 2000 to 2014. With household income falling in the middle-income tier in these areas, the shares of upper- and lower-income tiers have correspondingly grown.

Based on US Census figures, the share of middle-income adults also fell nationwide, while the shares in the lower- and upper-income tiers have increased. The national share of middle-income adults decreased from 55 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2014. At the other poles of society, the share of adults in the upper-income tier increased from 17 percent to 20 percent, and the share of adults in the lower-income tier increased from 28 percent to 29 percent.

US metropolitan areas with the lowest household incomes are mainly located in the South. Areas with the highest household incomes are concentrated along the Northeast corridor and mid-Atlantic, from Boston to the District of Columbia, and in Northern California, representing the proliferation and profits of the tech, insurance and finance industries, as well as high-paid government employees and politicians.

Midland, Texas, which benefited from the rise in oil prices from 2000 to 2014, saw both a shrinking middle class, which fell from 53 percent to 43 percent, and a decline in lower income households, falling from 28 percent to 21 percent. The recent drop in oil prices is not reflected in these figures.

In nearly half of the metropolitan areas studied, the lower-income share of households increased. The 10 metropolitan areas with the greatest losses in overall economic status—the change in the share of upper-income adults minus the change in the share who were lower-income—have one thing in common: a greater than average reliance on manufacturing.

These include the Rust Belt areas of Springfield, Ohio and Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, Michigan, as well as two North Carolina areas: Rocky Mount and Hickory-Lenoir-Morgantown.

In Springfield, which saw the biggest decline in economic status, a 16 percent drop, the truck assembly plant owned by Navistar employs thousands fewer workers than it did in its heyday.

The Detroit metropolitan area has seen a dramatic decline in auto jobs, as well as a drastic drop in wages through two-tier systems introduced in large part as a result of the Obama administration’s auto bailout, carried out with the collaboration of the United Autoworkers union.

The Hickory-Lenoir-Morgantown area, once a thriving center of furniture manufacturing, has seen the demise of this industry, with an accompanying decline in household incomes and an increase in poverty.

A brief from the UC Berkeley Labor Center documents the impact on incomes of declining manufacturing wages and the proliferation of temporary staffing agencies. Producing Poverty: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Production Jobs in Manufacturing charts the increasing numbers of manufacturing workers who are forced to rely on government programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps, to survive.

The study shows that wages in manufacturing are falling to the levels of those in the fast-food industry and at big-box retailers. In 2013, the typical manufacturing production worker made 7.7 percent below the median wage for all occupations. The median wage of these production workers was $15.66, with a quarter making $11.91 or less.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) also found that since 1989 there has been a significant increase in the hiring of frontline production workers through temporary staffing agencies. Frontline workers are defined as non-supervisorial production workers who work at least 27 hours per week in the manufacturing industry or those closely associated with it.

The Berkeley study found that high utilization of government programs by manufacturing workers was primarily due to low wages as opposed to inadequate work hours. Economic Policy Institute researchers found that as manufacturing wages have declined, manufacturing labor productivity has grown by an average of 3.3 percent a year from 1997 to 2012, nearly one-third greater than in the private, nonfarm economy as a whole.

This means that the manufacturing industry is sucking more and more productivity out of workers while catapulting them out of the “middle class” and into poverty through low wages.

There has been a dramatic growth in low-paying temporary positions, which now account for 9 percent of frontline manufacturing jobs—a nine-fold increase from 25 years ago. Temporary workers earn a median wage of $10.88 an hour, compared to $15.03 for those hired directly by manufacturers.

Nearly half of all manufacturing workers hired through staffing agencies are enrolled in at least one public assistance program, just below the 52 percent of fast-food workers who rely on these programs.

Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center and co-author of the report, told Berkeley News, “Manufacturing has long been thought of as providing high-paying, middle-class work, but the reality is the production jobs are increasingly coming to resemble fast-food or Walmart jobs, especially for those workers employed through temporary staffing agencies.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/14/pews-m14.html

America’s frightening oligarchy: Thomas Piketty on our widening inequality and the right-wing billionaires who profit from it

Piketty: “Inequality’s rise has been incomparably more massive in the United States”

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America's frightening oligarchy: Thomas Piketty on our widening inequality and the right-wing billionaires who profit from it
Thomas Piketty, Bernie Sanders (Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau/Mark Kauzlarich/Photo montage by Salon)

Will oligarchy, or plutocracy, be America’s future? A recent Supreme Court decision striking down all limits on private funding for political campaigns has rekindled that fear. The hundreds of millions doled out by the hyper-Republican billionaire Koch brothers for TV ads and think tanks backing the farthest-right candidates have become the symbol of all-powerful wealth. The specter of a slide into hyper-inequality and a politics increasingly captured by the “1 percent” is animating political debates across the Atlantic like never before. It’s been several years now since the Occupy Wall Street movement and its peculiar slogans (“We are the 99 percent”) took Europe by surprise. Our continent is far more preoccupied—in part for good reason—with modernizing its welfare state, and the dysfunctions of its single currency. If President Obama could recently deem inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” it’s above all because inequality’s rise has been incomparably more massive in the United States. First the country witnessed an unprecedented takeoff in supermanager salaries; now it’s the growing concentration of wealth that looks set to become the main issue. The share of national wealth held by the richest 1 percent in America is approaching the dangerous heights seen in Ancien Régime or Belle Époque Europe. For a country founded in large part as an antithesis to Europe’s patrimonial societies, it’s a rude awakening.

Up to now, America has been sheltered by the ceaseless growth of its population and the dynamism of its universities and innovations. But that’s no longer enough. Once already, in the early twentieth century, the rise of inequality spurred a vast national debate — it was the era of the Gilded Age, of Rockefeller and Gatsby. That’s how the country ended up devising heavy progressive taxation on high incomes and the biggest inherited fortunes, with top marginal rates reaching or exceeding 70–80 percent for half a century.

Will we see a similar response from American democracy in the years and decades to come? As the Supreme Court’s decision shows, the political battle is shaping up to be tough — but it can be won. The justices once tried to block the income tax in the nineteenth century and the minimum wage in the 1930s. They seem well on their way to reprising the same reactionary role today, not unlike the French Constitutional Council, which is increasingly willing to give the force of law to its conservative views on taxes, all in good conscience.

An additional problem arises from the fact that regulating patrimonial capitalism in the twenty-first century requires new tools and new forms of international cooperation. The United States alone represents nearly a quarter of world GDP. The country is big enough to take action—especially to transform its flat tax on real estate (which dates to the nineteenth century, like similar taxes in Europe, such as France’s taxe foncière) into an annual progressive tax on individual net worth (which takes debts and financial assets into account). That would improve the situation for first-time homebuyers while reducing concentration at the top. The United States has also shown itself capable of staring down the Swiss banks to obtain the automatic transmission of information on its nationals’ financial assets.

To go further, the European Union, acting with the United States, must finally play its part and develop a genuine international register of assets and securities. The opacity of finance and the growing concentration of wealth are challenges for the entire world.

According to the rankings published since 1987 by Forbes, the biggest fortunes grew at an average rate of 6–7 percent per year between 1987 and 2013, versus barely 2 percent for average wealth worldwide. The risk of a drift toward oligarchy exists on every continent.

In China, so far the authorities have opted to deal with the problem case by case, as in Russia: oligarchs are tolerated so long as they’re docile toward the regime, and they’re expropriated when they threaten political elites or when it looks like the public’s tolerance is reaching its limit. But it seems as if the Chinese authorities are starting to realize the limits of such an approach, and debates on creating a property tax are already underway. The country’s size (soon almost a quarter of world GDP) and its high degree of centralization (much greater than in the United States) would allow it to act effectively if necessary.

In this global landscape, the European Union (the third quarter of world GDP) obviously suffers from its political fragmentation. Yet given the financing needs of its social model, it’s the region of the world that has the most to gain from taking action against the tax havens. In proposing to put this issue at the heart of a future Euro-American trade treaty, it would have every chance of being heard by an America beset by doubts about inequality.

Excerpted from “WHY SAVE THE BANKERS? And Other Essays on Our Economic and Political Crisis” by Thomas Piketty, translated from the French by Seth Ackerman. Copyright @ 2012, 2016 by Éditions Les Liens qui Libèrent. Translation and annotation copyright © 2016 by Seth Ackerman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. This essay first appeared in French in Libération.