Tag Archives: U.S. economy

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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Laborious

Finally – some good news!

Finally – some good news!

A few years ago – about a year after I got laid off from an engineering company and while I struggled to find even a temporary job while trying to launch my freelance writing career – I told a close friend of mine via email that, when the economy improves, people will start switching jobs without giving much, if any, notice to their employers.

“True,” he replied.

It’s starting to happen. The recent economic crisis – the worst in this nation’s history since the Great Depression – almost completely destroyed our financial stability. Multiple factors were responsible for it: broad-based tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations; further deregulation of banking and housing; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Between December 2007 (when the recession officially commenced) and June 2009 (when it officially ended), the U.S. economy shed roughly 8.7 million jobs. Employers began to add jobs in 2010. Only recently, however, have we regained all those lost jobs.

There’s no real cause for celebration. The after effects of such a prolonged economic debacle are as varied as the causes. People lost accumulated personal wealth; state and local economies suffered decreased tax revenue; and home values dropped. Wages, however, remain stagnant, despite increased productivity. People have always worked too damn hard for their money. Of course, everyone feels they’re overworked and underpaid. But now, we have statistical proof. But, according to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, the “Great Recession” actually was worse than the Great Depression. In a statement filed on August 22 with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, as part of a response to a lawsuit over the 2008 bailout of insurance giant American International Group (AIG), Bernanke said:

“September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” Of the 13 “most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two.”

When asked why he thought it was critical for the U.S. government to rescue AIG, Bernanke replied:

“AIG’s demise would be a catastrophe” and “could have resulted in a 1930s-style global financial and economic meltdown, with catastrophic implications for production, income, and jobs.”

Obviously, too-big-to-fail truly has become too big to fail! The Great Depression was exacerbated by the fact the Federal Reserve System didn’t take command of the banks. Billionaire financier Andrew Mellon was the U.S. Treasury Secretary during the Hoover Administration and – like a typical conservative Republican – believed the nation’s banks had gotten themselves into trouble and needed to get themselves out of it, even if that meant they failed and took their customers’ money with them. Which they did, of course, in very large numbers. At the time, though, we didn’t have a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to safeguard people’s financial assets. The federal government’s lackadaisical attitude at the onset of the Great Depression forced Republicans to lose both houses of Congress during the 1930 midterm elections and shoved Hoover out of the White House two years later. That same kind of ineptitude is probably what caused them to lose both houses of Congress in 2006.

Yet, as the economy continues to recover and employers continue adding jobs, I see my aforementioned prediction materializing. During sluggish markets, employers can afford to be picky on who they hire and can freeze wages and salaries at will. It’s almost cruel and inhumane the way some can behave. And, what’s the average worker to do? With children, mortgages, car payments and other debts, they’re often stuck. They have little power.

But, from January to June of this year, more than 14 million people quit their jobs. I would like to think they left for better jobs. And, I’d like to believe they gave little notice to their employers. After all, companies don’t have to give employees any real notice when they plan to let someone go; albeit, quite often, people can feel it. In 2009, there were approximately seven people for every job opening. As of June 2014, the ratio had dropped to 2-to-1. Overall, the number of unemployed has dropped by 5 million, while the number of new jobs has grown by 2.5 million. Now, there’s talk of a problem we haven’t seen in a while: labor shortage. Companies are starting to feel one of the adverse effects of an improving economy; there aren’t enough people, or at least not enough qualified people, to fill certain positions. Thus, it’s employees and jobseekers who can be picky.

And, that’s a good thing. It’s really the way it should be. Only once in my life have I had the pleasure of quitting a job I hate; in January 1989, I left a retail position, which I’d held for nearly three years. I just walked into the place and gave my immediate supervisor a typewritten note announcing my resignation. But, I’ve known a few people who, in recent years, essentially gave their boss the middle finger and walked out of a company. They recounted their experiences with glee. We spend a great deal of time at work; often more than with our own families. Work gives people personal value and a sense of accomplishment, and everyone who makes an effort to complete a job should be respected. Whether that person answers the phones in a call center; digs ditches for sewer lines; programs a voice mail system; or rings up items at a cash register, they should be considered important. They pay taxes and insurance and they put the rest of their money back into the economy as consumers.

Last week, an executive in the company where I’m working as a contract technical writer staged an impromptu meeting to announce a major organizational change. After presenting a variety of business details, he said something that I’d never heard from someone at his level: “Family is more important than work.” He emphasized that everyone needs to place greater value on their loved ones than on their careers; noting that he hadn’t done that and almost paid the price for it. I’ve heard some executives tell people on an individual basis the same thing – but never in such a large setting. He’s right. A company won’t collapse because you can’t make it to a business conference. You won’t necessarily recall that training seminar. But, you most likely will remember a child’s sports event. And, you’ll cherish it forever.

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My Time in a Locked Box

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Up until mid-March, I had a temporary position at a lock-box facility with a major financial institution. I won’t name the company or the staffing firm that found me the job, but I will emphasize that it was one of the worst places I’ve ever worked. I took the position as a filler job amidst my freelance writing gigs. In a way, I’m glad I did, though, because it gave me a clearer view of just how bad things are in the U.S. right now. If our elected officials could experience such drudgery, matters would change in no time.

A lock-box is an intermediary between a company and the bank that handles their accounts. You might notice a post office box listed as the mailing address on bills for telephone and water utilities. That box number simply steers the payments to a separate facility where they’re processed on behalf of the bank. It’s beneficial for the bank from a time efficiency standpoint. But, they’re also breeding grounds for fraud. The workers – many of them contract or temporary – handle countless personal checks and documents with sensitive information that can then be purloined or photocopied.

The place where I worked handles immigration applications on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. My specific job was to analyze packets of applications and ensure they contained the proper documentation. Security procedures are tight. Every employee – even temporaries – must wear a slave tag, or what they call “badges.” The badge bears the individual’s picture; tiny image that make driver’s license photos look like glamour shots. The badges also have digital codes that would trigger doors to open. To enter the actual location where the documentation was handled, associates had to swipe their badges and then apply an index fingertip to a scanner beneath the electronic locks. For some reason, the lock always had trouble identifying my fingertip. No, I wasn’t using my middle finger – although seems more appropriate now. But, I’d often stand in front of that stupid lock pressing my finger down like a rogue political leader reaching for a nuke button.

The job was monotonous and dull. I get bored easily anyway, so it was difficult for me to stay interested. But, I noticed a number of things. Most of the associates were female and / or non-White. Yet, the bulk of the supervisors and managers were composed of the usual suspects: older White males. None of that really surprised me. Women, non-Whites, the disabled and immigrants now hold the bulk of temporary and part-time jobs in the U.S. These groups have always resided at the lower rungs of the American work force. But, the 2007 – 08 financial crisis intensified those numbers. But, gender and race only tell part of the story.

Between 2007 and 2009, the American labor force lost 8.4 million jobs, or 6.1% of all employment. Since then, most of the newly-created jobs have been temporary or contract. Last year the U.S. added 2.8 million temporary or contract employees to the national payroll. After the previous two recessions, American companies increased employment by adding temporary workers. In fact, an increase in temporary and contract work generally signifies overall economic improvement. But, this recession is something new; most of the good-paying jobs that delineated the American middle class have been replaced with low-wage positions. Temporary jobs aren’t a sign of better times ahead; they’re a sign of the new (pathetically, dismal) normal.

In early 1990, I had a temporary position at a lock-box facility in Dallas. Back then, as now, the bulk of the workforce was female and non-White, while most of the managers and supervisors were White males. My immediate supervisor, however, was a Panamanian-born woman who once made an employee remove 37 seconds from her time card because she said the latter had been late that much when returning from break. Her manager was an older White male who had a quirky Napoleonic complex, but whom I liked much better. He didn’t work well under pressure; something that made observing him the highlight of the day. But, that was almost a quarter-century ago. And, from a workforce standpoint, not much has changed.

When I told my parents the paltry pay rate I earned at this last job, they were shocked. It was the same amount my father had earned as a contract employee of a printing shop in the early 1990s. He had worked for the company for nearly 30 years before he got laid off in 1989; he was then, rehired as a contractor.

The issue of salaries and pay rates has been staring the slow economic recovery square in its ugly face. Mid-wage jobs – those averaging between $13 and $22 hourly –made up about 60% of the jobs lost during the recession. But, those same mid-wage jobs comprised about 27% of the jobs created since 2010. However, lower-paying jobs have dominated the job recovery – roughly 58%. Nearly 40%, or 1.7 million of the jobs gained during the recovery, are in three of the lowest-paying categories: food services, retail and employment services (e.g. office clerks, customer service representatives). All of this has not only decimated the American middle class, but has pushed the U.S. below Canada regarding middle class affluence.

stateofworkingamerica.org

Graph courtesy U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A few other things bothered me about the facility where I worked. Because of the number of documents that arrive on a daily basis, the amount of paper is overwhelming. Should a fire break out, I thought, it could be catastrophic – and mainly because of one simple device: cell phones. People aren’t allowed to bring cell phones into the main production area. The reason is obvious: most cell phones now have camera features, and it would be easy for someone to snap a picture of classified documents. Therefore, anyone who enters the production area has to leave their cell phone in their vehicle, in a designated locker in the same building, or with security. But, along with the odd juxtaposition of desks, I also noticed fire exits weren’t clearly marked. People would be safe in the building should a tornado descend upon the property. But, if a fire erupted, I’m certain many people would head towards their lockers to grab their cell phones. Such a scenario reminds me of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 people (mostly women and immigrants) perished.

I arrived home from work one Friday to find a voice mail message on my cell phone from the staffing agency, telling me to call them immediately. The lock-box firm had pulled the job from me. The unit manager had accused me of being consistently late. His idea of “late” apparently is one or two minutes past the hour. I pointed that out to the staffing agency; emphasizing, though, that I made up the one, two or three minutes I arrived late. Moreover, I said, I’d already attained a 100% accuracy rate on the job. None of that seemed to matter. The agency was in a bind; they couldn’t refute whatever chicken-shit opinion the manager had of me.

It’s no great personal loss. I won’t exactly be seeking therapy because of it. Some things just aren’t worth the trouble. As this May Day comes to a close, it’s important to remember that people usually work too damn hard for their money. As the wealth gap in the U.S. widens, I don’t know how much longer this, or any truly democratic society, can deem itself civilized.

Image courtesy Compare Business Products.

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Downton Abyss

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Since 2010, “Downton Abbey” has been one of the most popular dramas on television.  It’s enjoyed high ratings here in the U.S., which surprised its British producers.  I’ll concede that the production values are extraordinary: the period costumes and set design are as appealing as the beautiful cinematography.  I also love seeing those vintage automobiles.  My parents are modest fans of the show, but I’m not.  In fact, I actually loathe it.  The concept of upper-class Britons spending their time delivering snarky comments to one another, while haggling over what attire to don for the latest high-society ball, bears no sense of originality or purpose in my view.  But, “Downton Abbey” actually serves a greater, if unintentional purpose: it represents what is wrong in the U.S. from a cultural and economic standpoint.

In one episode, I happened to overhear the character of Violet Crawley, portrayed by the exquisite Dame Maggie Smith, lament that life in England was pathetically different than it was before the “Great War,” a.k.a. World War I.  She desperately wants to see it return to “the way it was before.”  That’s how some White conservative Americans view this nation; they want to see it return to the way it was before the 1960s, when droves of Negroes, Hispanics, Indians, women and queers dared to demand equal treatment.  It’s one thing that makes Ronald Reagan so popular among White conservatives.  The “Gipper” (a failed, divorced actor) had always believed America was just fine before c. 1963.  Reagan’s British counterpart and political soul mate, Margaret Thatcher, apparently felt the same.  Aside from their subtle distaste for equality, both enacted legislation to crush unions and subsequently impede workers’ rights.  Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 for going on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions.  Thatcher systematically destroyed coal miners’ unions; coming close to bringing in the military to help put an end to their relentless strikes.  Consequently, labor never viewed either Reagan or Thatcher with much adoration.

It’s these latter antics that brought both countries back to an earlier time when large companies could do what they wished to their workers with little regard for their health or safety.  And, it’s where “Downton Abbey” plays out – during a period in which the wealthiest citizens managed to insulate themselves from “The Rest of Us” and stay above the fray of everyday life.  “Downton Abbey,” with all its vivacious costumes and sumptuous furnishings, is emblematic of the very real and extraordinary economic disparity in the U.S.  We’re still suffering the ill effects of dramatic deregulation of the banking and housing industries that the Bush Administration enacted more than a decade ago; irresponsible actions that, along with two unfunded wars and disparate tax policies, almost completely destroyed the U.S. economy by the end of 2008.  It lingers as a financial hangover for us common folks.

Still, Peter Augustine Lawler, a conservative professor of government at Berry College, celebrated the “astute nostalgia” of “Downton Abbey” in an editorial in “Intercollegiate Review,” a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  ISI promotes limited government and free market economies – hallmarks of conservative ideology that leave no room for individual freedom, despite their claims to the contrary.

Wrote Lawler: “Everyone – aristocrat or servant – knows his place, his relational responsibilities. . . . The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world. . . . Many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. . . . The nobility of living in service to a lord. . . . What aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”

Notice how Lawler mentions the term “place.”  It’s a common designation the upper classes often bestow upon their lowly minions.  It’s a word many Whites in the U.S. have used in conjunction with non-Whites; what some men have often said to women.  Everyone supposedly has a “place” in the human food chain and they shouldn’t dare to undermine that structure; lest they be denounced as heretical and banished to social obscurity.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, though, Lawler coldly declares that the aristocracy of any nation should be able to preserve their right to a privileged state without impediments and damned the rest of us.  In other words, we’re supposed to accept such conditions without question; it’s just the way things are and too bad if we don’t like it.

There is no “nobility” in a life of servitude – whether to the lord of an antiquitous estate or a bully boss in a Fortune 500 company.  It’s one reason why I’m strongly opposed to illegal immigration.  Aside from the legality question, illegal immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous employers who force them to work in the worst of conditions and sometimes fail to pay them; they then threaten the individuals with deportation if they have the audacity to demand the promised compensation.

It’s somewhat similar to what’s occurring now in the American workplace, as the economy remains fragile.  Corporate executives threaten employees with layoffs or termination if the latter won’t accept harsh working conditions, low pay and / or cuts in benefits.  I was threatened with my job at an engineering company in 2010; at the height of the “Great Recession.”  It worked, as I kept quiet and searched earnestly for another job.  So were most of my colleagues.  Everyone seemed unhappy, but could do nothing about it.  Our supervisor once mentioned in a meeting, “I wish you could see the number of applications on my desk.”  As her boss sat there nodding, we all comprehended the subtle threat.  Despite working so hard, though, four of us were laid off that fall.  My only consolation is that the supervisor and manager ended up losing their jobs, too.

The skewered viewpoint of the “Downton Abbey” gang is courtesy of principal writer Julian Fellowes, a private school graduate who holds a seat in England’s House of Lords.  Most writers compose what they know.  I’ve lived all my life to date in Texas; raised in a middle class household with two working parents in a good suburban home.  So, that’s who my characters are.  They may encounter some unusual events (since I have a fetish for the supernatural), but they’re generally working folks.  That’s my view of reality – and it’s a more accurate assessment than the world according to Fellowes.  He grew up in a golden bubble where his family obviously had privileges.  He never questioned the veracity of that lifestyle – why should anyone else?

Well I do – and I have no problems questioning it.  Violet Crawley (the name sounds as wretched as the character looks) reminds me of former First Lady Barbara Bush and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Gulf Coast in August of 2005, Bush and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, visited the Houston Astrodome where many New Orleans residents had been evacuated.  Observing the masses of people who had lost everything to floodwaters and high winds, Mrs. Bush quipped, “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.  And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Schlafly came to prominence in the 1970s when she vehemently opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have guaranteed complete and total equality to everyone in the U.S., regardless of gender.  Schlafly warned that women’s traditional roles were under threat from the proposed amendment: protective orders for sexual assault and alimony would be eliminated; women would no longer automatically be granted custody of their children in divorce cases; women would be drafted into the military; and unisex public restrooms would become mandatory.  With a law degree in her background, Schlafly often opened her speeches with gems like, “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight.”

In the narrow prism through which Bush and Schlafly see the world, everyone has their proper place, and challenging it would simply disrupt the natural order of things.  Because of the near-total economic collapse, the U.S. now has the greatest wealth disparity since the 1920s.  It’s a trend that actually began years ago, but became more pronounced by the end of the previous decade.  A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that, between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income for the nation’s wealthiest 1% grew by 275%.  For the rest of the populace, it increased during the same period by an average of only 40%.  Although the “Great Recession” technically ended in 2010, unemployment remains stubbornly above 6%.  It’s been a “jobless recovery,” a term no one I know had ever heard until now.  It’s an oxymoron – how can an economy recover from a recession if so many people can’t find work?

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In January 1952, two young men, Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, launched a road trip across South America on a motorcycle.  Their purpose was purely hedonistic; their youthful vigor infused with a craving for adventure and fun.  But, as they traveled from one town to another, Guevara in particular noted the gross economic disparities between the elite European-style upper classes and the downtrodden indigenous populations.  He became disillusioned with a world he thought was just and righteous.  He turned his anger to the written word in a chronicle he dubbed “The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey.”

“And then many things became very clear… we learned perfectly that the life of a single human being is worth millions of times more than all the property of the richest man on Earth,” wrote Guevara.  Later, the would-be medical student metamorphosed into the revolutionary Che Guevara – and would be murdered because he dared to challenge the elitist authority.

But, that happens when a country’s finances become skewered to favor the most affluent and their puppets in government.  People like Violet Crawley may feel safe and comfortable in their diamond-studded estates for a time.  But, we all die at some point – and whatever money and jewels we possess won’t go with us into that abyss of the next world.

Graph courtesy Congressional Budget Office.

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Oh yea, things really are looking up!

Clay Bennett 030713

Just wait and see.  Oh, of course.  Why shouldn’t the 10 to 20 million unemployed and under-employed in the U.S. be patient a little while longer?  Wall Street has just experienced an extraordinary boom and the jobless rate has ticked down to 7.7% with reports that employers added 236,000 jobs in February.  A tick is something I yank off my dog and throw down the disposal.  While our elected officials continue to behave like unsupervised grade schoolers, average Americans keep losing their homes, and my student loans keep accruing interest.

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Fuzzy Math

Well, the U.S. has always wanted to be number 1 in something.

Source.

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