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Voodoo You

“It just isn’t going to work, and it’s very interesting that the man who invented this type of what I call a voodoo economic policy is Art Laffer, a California economist.” – George H.W. Bush, Carnegie Mellon University, April 10, 1980

 

I’m frightened for the United States, and it’s not just because of my disdain for our faux president, Donald Trump.  I’m genuinely concerned about what could happen over the next few years.

In the above quote, George H.W. Bush was referring to the plans of fellow Republican and 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for revitalizing a stagnant U.S. economy.  Then, when Reagan won in most of the primaries, his camp offered Bush the vice-presidential position, and the former Texas congressman shut up about economics.  In 1980, the nation was in a bad financial situation.  The costs of the Vietnam War, coupled with oil embargoes from OPEC nations, had finally taken their toll.  Unemployment stood at nearly 10%; the prime interest rate was 21%; inflation was 14%; home mortgage rates were 17%; and the top marginal tax rate was 70%.  In the second quarter of 1980, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 8%.  By the end of the year, the overall GDP boasted about $3 trillion (in today’s dollars).

With the help of some Democrats in both houses of the U.S. Congress, Reagan was able to generate an agreement that slashed taxes down to 50% on wages, to 48% on corporate income, and to 20% on capital gains.  These measures initially jumpstarted the economy.  Average citizens had more expendable income, which they poured back into the economy by purchasing many so-called big ticket items, like vehicle and electronics.  By 1990, the size of the U.S. economy had grown from $3 trillion to $6 trillion, with roughly 4 million new businesses and 20 million new jobs created.  Although the national debt increased from $1 trillion to $4 trillion during the same period, overall revenues doubled.

Reagan’s economic policies were in line with conservative views on taxation: if we give the “investing class” (meaning, the most affluent) generous tax breaks, they will respond by expanding their businesses or starting new ones, which in turn, will create more products and / or services and more jobs.  Along with reduced business regulations (“job killers” in conservative lingo), average citizens will have more income, which of course, they will pour back into the economy.  Such growth then will expand the tax base; the additional revenue will replace any money lost to the initial tax cuts.

Ask any frustrated project manager and they will tell you that everything always looks great on paper.  While Reagan disciples keep championing his financial moves, the reality is that “Reaganomics” didn’t work out as planned.  One thing people forget is a little thing called the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which rolled back financial regulations that had been established by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to prevent further damage caused by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.  It’s interesting that Bush’s voodoo comment was made at Carnegie Mellon University.  Founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1900 as Carnegie Technical School, it merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in 1967 to become Carnegie Mellon.  The Mellon Institute had been established in 1913 by brothers Andrew and Richard B. Mellon who, like Carnegie, were self-made businessmen and titans of early 20th century America.  Andrew Mellon served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 – 1932, one of the longest tenures for this position.  He created the “trickle-down” economic theory by declaring, “Give tax breaks to large corporations, so that money can trickle down to the general public, in the form of extra jobs.”

But Andrew Mellon is also known for a notoriously rotten hands-off policy with the Great Depression.  The banks that failed had put themselves in such a precarious financial position, he believed, and thus, they were responsible for extricating themselves from it.  It didn’t seem to matter that these bank failures took people’s money with them; therefore, amplifying the effects of the 1929 crash.

Still, President Reagan – like any good fiscal conservative – held onto these beliefs and eagerly signed the Garn-St. Germain bill.  That reduced the number of regulations on financial institutions and allowed them to expand and invest more of their customers’ deposits in various ventures, particularly home mortgages.  Again, that looks-great-on-paper ideology swung back around to bite everyone when the Savings & Loans Crisis erupted.  Between 1986 and 1995, 1,043 out of the 3,234 savings and loan institutions in the U.S. failed; costing $160 billion overall, with taxpayers footing $132 billion of it.  It was the worst series of bank collapses since the Great Depression.  That led to the 1990-91 Recession, the longest and most wide-spread economic downturn since the late 1940s.  I started working for a large bank in Dallas in April of 1990 and saw the S&L crisis unfold in real time.

Nonetheless, trickle-down economics saw a rebirth with George W. Bush, as his administration further deregulated the banking industry and also deregulated housing.  Combined with the costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. economy almost completely collapsed at the end of 2008.  The 2007-08 Recession was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Unemployment reached double digits for the first time since the start of the Reagan era, as millions of citizens lost their homes and their savings.  Had it not been for such programs as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (the FDIC, established by Roosevelt), we surely would have plunged into another depression.

Now, with Donald Trump in office, I fear we’re headed for the same morass.  On December 22, 2017, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; the largest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years.  Financial prognosticators have already forecast the act will raise the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars over the next 10 years.  The law cuts individual taxes temporarily, but cuts corporate tax rates permanently.  As suspected, the most affluent citizens will benefit greatly, as they experience a significant reduction in their taxes.  The rest of us lowly peons may see a tax increase after those temporary provisions expire in 2025.

You know that classic definition of insanity?  Doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.  It’s more like, well, if you keep doing stupid shit, stupid shit will keep happening!

Ignore Russia-gate for a moment and the fact Melania’s side of the First Bed is colder than a Chicago winter.  This past week Trump visited the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.  This is where the most elite members of the business world meet (conspire) with leaders of developed nations to create economic policies and decide what’s best for us peons.  Kind of like evangelical Christians often meet to decide what people should see and read.  They’ve set themselves up as the righteous few; the ones who supposedly understand exactly what works and what doesn’t and are divinely compelled to bestow such knowledge upon the rest of us.

Trump ran his presidential campaign on the wave of anti-Washington sentiment; appealing to average citizens about reviving a once-lost “Great America” with a variety of clever ruses: ban Muslims, build a wall along the Mexican border, etc.  So many people, of course, bought into it.  Like Ronald Reagan, Trump was able to tap into that sensitive nerve of everyday angst; spitting out a slew of quaint buzz words to appeal to average folks.  He had said he would never take part in a WEF convention.  Yet, there he was; leading a parade of those self-righteous few into another kind of revitalization: the Gilded Age.

I doubt if most Trump voters even know what Davos means and how it could impact their lives.  Understand, though, that Switzerland is a place where Hollywood celebrities often went for a retreat or a little vacation – code words for cosmetic surgery; long before Phyllis Diller made it openly acceptable.  That’s essentially what Donald Trump did this past week.  He flew to Davos to tell the world, “America first is not America alone.”

I’m frightened for the United States.

 

Image: Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah.

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Slammed

Barack-Obama-images-

It’s been one month since the midterm elections, and a lot of people are still smarting from the results. But several folks saw this coming. As expected, the Republican Party has retained control of the House of Representatives and taken the Senate. But, few anticipated the GOP would garner such high numbers. Moreover, Republicans have attained most of the state governorships. Here in Texas, the GOP has won every major state-level office for the fifth consecutive election cycle. A Democrat hasn’t won a state-wide office since 1994, when Garry Mauro won reelection as State Treasurer. By the time the current crop of officeholders finish their respective terms, Democrats will have been shut out of state-level offices for two decades.

Texas Democrats had hoped this year would be theirs; that they would recapture at least one office, preferably the governorship, but at least maybe attorney general or state treasurer. But they didn’t. They lost – in the worst way. As usual, most voting-eligible Texans failed to turn up at the voting booths this year. In fact, Texas had the lowest rate of voter turnout than any state in the union – roughly 4.75 million people, or 28.5% of the vote-eligible population. In the Dallas – Fort Worth metropolitan area, some local officials blamed the damp, cold weather for the dismal response. Really? I recall an election in India several years ago where some people were being carried in on their deathbeds – literally! – to cast a ballot. Overall this year’s midterm produced the worst voter turnout since 1942. That particular year was understandable: the U.S. had just entered World War II, when many young men had already joined the fight overseas. Men were much more likely to vote than women back then, plus there were a slew of voter restriction laws – especially in the Southeast – to keep poor and non-White voters from casting ballots. But that was then; things have changed considerably in 70 years. I don’t just find the low voter response appalling. I find it disgusting. What happened?

After the 2007 – 2008 financial downturn – a period in which the U.S. came as close to a completed and total economic collapse – people felt their elected officials simply weren’t responding to their needs. President Obama and the Democrats inexplicably focused their energy on passing a healthcare bill and reforming the immigration system. The latter was labeled an attempt to appeal to Hispanics; once again, assuming Hispanics only care about immigration in the same way women only care about abortion and gays and lesbians only care about same-sex marriage. Sweeping assumptions like that are an insult and always dangerous. It’s bad enough, though, the Republican Party was determined from the moment Obama won the 2008 presidential elections to obstruct his agenda. Every conservative lout from Dick Cheney to Mitch McConnell stated publicly and emphatically they wanted to make Obama a “one-term president.” Fortunately, they failed. But they and the Democrats have failed miserably over just about everything, mainly the economy.

My gripe with Obama is his overt willingness to compromise. His first major capitulation to the Republicans came in December 2010, as the Bush-era tax cuts were due to expire. The GOP literally threatened to withhold votes on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, if tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations weren’t kept in place. Obama bowed to them; declaring openly that he didn’t want “the hostages” to be harmed. In December 2010, the Democrats still held majorities in both houses of Congress, and the President could have very well issued an executive order extending the benefits in question. But he backed down. And that’s when I began to lose respect for him – in the same way I’d long lost respect for most elected officials.

In 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized just how bad the Great Depression really was, he made the bold – and shocking – decision to raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations (the same ones who benefited from hefty Republican-spawned tax breaks the previous decade) to stimulate the economy. He convinced these people that such hikes would benefit them, too, in that more Americans would be able to enter the workforce and pay their own taxes, plus have money left over to buy goods produced by a variety of industries. It made sense. The policy worked to some extent, but the 1929 collapse had been so bad, the positive effects weren’t immediate. Thus, economists and the politicians who think they know so much have been debating the logic of this move ever since.

The Democrats failed on another front regarding the economy. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder never indicted anyone in connection with the recent financial calamity. Anyone with at least half a brain knows it didn’t happen by chance. It wasn’t the inevitable result of market ups and downs. Major banking entities such as Citigroup and Fannie Mae were key players in the debacle. Both helped to create the massive housing bubble at the turn of the century, replete with outrageous features such as zero-down purchases and mortgage-backed securities. As the crisis worsened towards the end of 2008, Citigroup managed to convince the federal government to give it a life-saving multi-billion-dollar loan. But it also began laying off people at its various offices across the globe. Fannie Mae, along with Freddie Mac, also received a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailout; this one in 2009. Yet that investment didn’t become profitable for taxpayers until this year. The average American worker hasn’t seen a lot of positive returns on their “investments” to save the “too-big-to-fail” banks. Those lounging in the economic ivory tower certainly have. For example, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, received a $16.2 million compensation package for 2011, despite a serious drop in corporate profits. The following year Blankfein urged Americans to consider a later retirement age.

“You can look at history of these things,” he told CBS News, “and Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30-year retirement after a 25-year career. … So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised. But in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.”

How thoughtful. In February of 2009, two months after I earned my college degree, the engineering company where I worked held their annuals employee reviews. Due to budget crunches, my then-manager told me, they couldn’t afford significant salary increases. So, while my living expenses continued to rise, my salary essentially remained flat. I was laid off the following year.

People like Blankfein are part of the current problem of wealth inequality in America. That the Obama Administration neglected to prosecute the scoundrels responsible for all those business closings and job losses – again, this didn’t happen by accident – is reprehensible. If I rob a convenience store of a hundred bucks and get caught, I’d be sure to serve some serious prison time. Hedge-fund managers who manipulated the stock market seem immune to the most egregious of financial indiscretions.

Still, the economy has rebounded since Obama first took office. The unemployment rate, which reached a high of 9.9% in April 2010, now stands at 5.8%. GDP growth stood at negative 5.4% in the first quarter of 2009 and is now at 3.9%. The national deficit was $1.4 trillion in 2009 and now is $564 billion. That all brings up yet another complaint. Why didn’t the Democrats highlight those facts? In his 2012 reelection bid, Obama proclaimed, “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive.”

It was simple, yet effective. For many of us, though, the economy really hasn’t recovered. Wages remain stagnant, and jobs are tenuous. We’ve become a contract society.

Moreover, I don’t really blame many people for not voting. I understand the frustration with the hollow words and obstinacy of some candidates. Wendy Davis, for example, began her campaign for Texas governor by attacking her opponent, Greg Abbott, instead of highlighting her own accomplishments. I think it was about 6 months into the campaign before she ran a more positive ad; one telling her life story. Voters really get put off by such animosity from the start. Criticizing the opposition is a dubious tactic. It’s almost as if the individual is hiding something nefarious about their own past. That’s essentially how George W. Bush won his two presidential terms: he had no redeeming qualities, so his campaign team attacked the other guys. And some voters fell for it.

I don’t know what the immediate future holds for this country. With Republicans now in control of the U.S. Congress, I foresee further adolescent bickering between people who are otherwise educated business professionals. I don’t envision economic improvements or tax relief for us regular folks. It’s depressing. That Mars One venture is looking more and more attractive.

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Happy Labor Day!

Today is Labor Day in the United States.  Thanks to all the hard-working people here and across the globe who try to make their communities a better place.  This is an especially poignant and troublesome time in the U.S., due to the ongoing economic crisis and the relentless political wrangling.  Nevertheless, people work hard – often too hard – for too little money and even less appreciation.  Believe me!  I feel your pain.  For those working today here in the U.S. and all over the world, congratulate yourselves anyway for giving it your best.  You deserve it!

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Grinding

As I enter my first full month at my new contract technical writing job, I can’t help but reflect on the way things used to be in the work place.  As I fast approach 50, I find that a common occurrence.  Now, I know why my parents and former coworkers were so bitter all those years ago.  You give your life to a company and often have little to show for it – although through no fault of your own.  People in the 50 and over category have had the toughest time in this dismal economy.  Thanks to Bush’s trickle-down economics on steroids and two unplanned, unfunded wars, we’re still mired in the worst financial crises in almost 90 years.  Somehow the clowns in both houses of Congress don’t really get it.  President Obama inherited this mess and has had a rough time straightening it out.  But, he’s just one person; he can’t do it alone.  Yet, while our elected officials try to upstage one another, real Americans continue struggling.

When I landed this job last month, the recruiter was kind of surprised I didn’t react with more glee.  “I’ll believe it when I start,” I told him jokingly – but, deep down inside, not at all joking.  Last summer I landed a 90-day contract technical writing job that the client pulled after only three weeks because their vendor wasn’t producing the work as anticipated.  And, I never heard from the recruiter again.  So, I went back on unemployment and revamped my resume to make it look as good as it can with all these gaps.  Explaining those three-weeks-on-90-days mess was especially challenging.  Fortunately, most people seemed to understand, given the current economic climate.  Or, at least they give that impression.

I kept in contact with that recruiter; emailing him weekly letting him know, ‘Hey, I’m still here!  I’m still available!  I’m free!  No plans yet!’  And, I never heard from him again.  He must have set my email address to spam.  He was young, probably no more than 30.  I hope he has erectile dysfunction for the rest of his life.

I also did the obligatory 5 contacts per week to maintain my unemployment benefits.  Each time I filed a claim, I wondered when Congress would start proceedings to find out how the big banks and other financial monstrosities were able to destroy our economy in less than a decade.  Seriously!  Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon would be impressed.  But, Congress was more concerned about what professional baseball players were using steroids.  Kind of like how the Southern Baptist Convention is more concerned about gay marriage than real problems such as poverty and child malnutrition.

Occasionally, my parents still have bad dreams about their working days.  I don’t want to imitate that part of their lives.  I’ve only had a handful of dreams about work.  I can recall two in the months after I lost my job at an engineering company in October 2010.  In the first one, I was at corporate headquarters in San Diego with the project manager who had hired me in 2002.  The building sat right along the coast, and the entire area was on edge because a tsunami was approaching.  We only had a few more minutes before we had to evacuate to the upper levels, or try to flee inland.  But, because we had so much work to do, that project manager told me we had to remain in the building.  Besides, he said in his usual dull, nonchalant tone of voice, he would stay with me.  Then, as the sirens went off and people began marching up the stairs, he disappeared.  I looked around the suddenly vacant offices, but he was gone.  ‘Fuck him!’ I said aloud and headed up a stairwell alone.  I didn’t need his help.

In the second dream, I was back in downtown Dallas, at the regional headquarters of the federal agency where I’d worked for the better part of my career with the engineering company; laboring on a government contract.  We had a meeting with some federal officials.  I got caught up on a task and left late for the meeting.  But, I couldn’t find where everyone was.  I wondered all over the damn building, it seemed, before I ended up in the break room – tired and butt naked!  Yes, naked.  Somehow, my clothes had fallen off.  I know a lot of married people say that, when they get caught screwing around.  But, there I was – butt- ass naked in a break room with a bunch of equally tired government employees.  And, no one seemed to care.

I could get all philosophical about those two dreams and reveal exactly what I think they mean.  But, I know the inherent theme is that, in today’s business world, you’re pretty much on your own.  Human resources isn’t your friend; your boss isn’t your friend; your coworkers aren’t your friends; and your elected officials aren’t your friends.  You’re like a wild dog; just left to your own devices.

No worries.  I can handle that.  Twenty-plus years ago, people were still going to work for a company and staying there with decent pay and benefits.  That’s about the time things started to change – for better or worse is up to personal opinions.  Now, people work contract and buy their own insurance.  They move from job to job.  They take care of and keep to themselves.  It’s ironic in that it’s how this country was built – people minding their own business and not expecting others to care for them.

No worries.  I can handle that, too.  And, run from a tsunami just as well!

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