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Tea Party at the Country Club

October 25, 2013

Tea Party At The Country Club

I recently wrote a bit on this blog about conservative Pavlovian responses.  It’s about time I pointed out at this is not something liberals are immune to.  The phrase that gets the biggest Pavlovian response is “Tea Party”.  The Tea Party is a group of really conservative conservatives that liberals love to hate.  With good reason, I should mention, since it was largely self-identified Tea Partiers that kept the government shutdown going for as long as it did.  The problem is that some liberals will talk about the Tea Party in terms of stereotypes about “crazy” people, “rednecks”, “trailer trash”, imagine them to be stupid, poor, overweight…you get the idea.  Lovely bits of classism that will surely help let everyone know that Democrats are the party that sticks up for the little guy.

If you know liberal assholes like this, please show them this article, and its follow-up, which quotes additional hard data.  Also show them to anyone you know who’s leaning towards the Tea Party and isn’t a rich person with no conscience.  Basically, the Tea Party is a movement of elites in red states, especially in the South, business owners who want to pay low wages and not pay for poor people’s healthcare.  It’s really the same class of guys who have, from slavery times on, not merely been racist but benefited financially from racism, because the way you keep employment costs low is to have a large permanent underclass that can’t vote.  (Or at the very least is gerrymandered into ghettoized Congressional districts.  Or who vote and aren’t counted–remember the 2000 presidential election?)

As always, follow the money.

Hooray for pork!

October 19, 2013

Ah, pork: federal funding for specific things in specific districts, copy-and-pasted into the middle of a giant bill about something else.  Much like many Jews (and possibly many Muslims–I don’t know enough of ’em personally to tell), politicians declare publicly they’d never touch the stuff but behind closed doors, their appetite for it is positively ravenous.

Is pork wasteful?  Sure, but not even half as wasteful as a government shutdown.

As you’ll recall, this government shutdown was engineered by the Republicans in order to bully the Democrats into ending Obamacare…well, that was the original demand.  Then it was to delay it for a year…then it was to means-test Medicare…then it was to let coal-fired power plants pollute more…plus they kept on trying to introduce bills to open up the super-attention-getting parts of the government, while keeping the rest of it shut down…basically, the Republicans shut down the government in order to bully the Democrats into shutting down the government, slowly, piece by piece by piece.  The Democrats were like, “Just open it all back up.  We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”  What they wanted was a “clean CR”: a “continuing resolution” to fund the government at current levels, no changes.  What they got was a slightly dirty CR.

The bill includes:

Pig smileys   A $174,000 death benefit for the widow of former senator Frank Lautenberg

Pig smileys    $20 million for LIHEAP (Low Income Heating Assistance Program)

Pig smileys    $3.1 million the for Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

Pig smileys    $450 million for rebuilding projects in flood-struck areas of Colorado

Pig smileys    Up to $636 million for federal agencies that fight wildfires, depending on how bad it gets next year

Pig smileys    $2.2 billion for a dam project on the Ohio River

What are You the Taxpayer to make of all this?  Well, if you’re a Republican, and you have the conservative Pavlovian response of furious denunciation whenever the phrase “government spending” is uttered, why, you rise up and denounce it.  That’s what John McCain did, calling the dam project “ridiculous” and comparing Congresspeople to alcoholics who “can’t resist taking a drink.”  (A side note: I recall hearing rumors on the radio during the shutdown period that House speaker John Boehner is a functioning alcoholic.  If true, I don’t blame him–I would be too if I had to regularly deal with the far-right-wingers in his party.)

But what anyone else looking at this spending might conclude is, a lot of it is actually for pretty useful stuff.  Low-income heating assistance in particular desperately needs the funds, as I wrote about in my last post.  Global warming is causing more and bigger wildfires.  Now that we’ve found out the NSA’s been spying on everybody, that Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is sounding more and more important.  The Colorado flood repairs and the Ohio River dam project, which affects people in Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky, are the kind of things that are supposed to be the responsibility of state and local governments.  On the other hand, state and local governments have been hit hard by the recession, and Bloomberg News, that bastion of liberalism, has reported the dam project as being essential for the flow of interstate trade.  So it looks like pretty much all of this “pork” spending will actually be really good for the economy and for most Americans.

Well, except for the smallest piece.  I think we as Americans can all agree to tell Mrs. Lautenberg to go fuck herself.

Oh, and get ready to do this all over again on January 16th.

The Bogeyman

October 13, 2013

When do you stop believing in the bogeyman, realize that your fear of the bogeyman is making you less safe, that this fear is causing innocent people to get killed?

Psychotic.  Schizophrenic.  Black.

This is the pattern of murders committed by police in America.

Read the above article and its links.  We’ve already had cops murder a diabetic man in his own home while his mother, fiancee and 8-year-old daughter watched.  We’ve already had cops murder a double-amputee in a wheelchair for waving a pen around.  We’ve already had cops murder an unarmed woman by firing 17 shots into her car, with her 1-year-old daughter inside.

At what point do we as a country stop blaming the victims and start blaming the murderers?  At what point do we take a hard look at whether our police departments are training officers to be trigger-happy bigots?  At what point do we start actually prosecuting said officers when they murder people?

I mean, really, what is it going to take?


Government Shutdown Press Conference: In Which President Obama reassures the media, “We’re not turning into Greece! Really! I think. Umm…uh…I hope.”

October 9, 2013

So in the light of the fact that the US federal government has not been operating for over a week, Obama gave a speech yesterday and then took questions from the press.

The message of the speech was simple: Republicans, this whole government shutdown thing was your idea.  It’s now plunging our economy right back into the toilet again.  Pass a damn budget already.  And don’t say”we won’t pass any budget that’s got Obamacare in it” because that’s not negotiating, that’s holding the entire country for ransom.  Also raise the damn debt ceiling, don’t try to use that as a bargaining chip either, because if the debt ceiling is not raised the US will go into default.  Which means:

It would disrupt markets, it would undermine the world’s confidence in America as the bedrock of the global economy, and it might permanently increase our borrowing costs which, of course, ironically would mean that it would be more expensive for us to service what debt we do have and it would add to our deficits and our debt, not decrease them.

In other words, it would turn us into Greece.

(I hear there are some very pretty barrier islands off the coast of North and South Carolina.  Perhaps the U.S. can put a few up for sale?  No?  Well, how about Amtrak?)

(Now, a country defaulting on its loans isn’t always the worst thing in the world.  Sometimes countries seriously consider it, like when they’re faced with a shitty choice between defaulting and submitting to austerity requirements that essentially shut down the government.  But of course, that’s not what’s happening here.)

Obama then took questions from the press.  This part was much more educational.

Julianna Goldman from Bloomberg asked the question most important to the type of people who use Bloomberg terminals, i.e. investment bankers and other professional financial speculators:

You laid out the economic consequences of default, but if we were to get to that point, would you prioritize and pay bondholders first to maintain the semblance of credit or — rather than Social Security recipients or military servicemen and -women? And how would you go ahead and make that determination?

You can just picture all the bond traders out there, fingers hovering over their “sell” buttons, all those Wall Street assholes who really believe it’s a mark of financial sanity if Obama says “let’s pay the bondholders first.”  Because we must always and forever prioritize the holy bondholders!  It’s what “the markets” want!

Obama gets this deer-in-the-headlights, oh-shit-I-have-to-answer-this question? look, and takes some time replying.  It’s clear from his answer that he really has no idea what the government would do if it got to that point, and is hoping to never have to think about it.  But it also seems most likely that he won’t pay the bondholders first, that he’d rather prioritize Americans who desperately need the money over foreign financial speculators.  His logic is that if the US goes into default on its loans, its creditworthiness will be shot to hell and it’ll be charged higher interest rates, regardless of who gets paid off first.  He uses the metaphors “no silver bullet” and “no magic wand”, which, in this time of potentially catastrophic economic crisis, inevitably make me think of vibrators.

He urges Congress to put re-funding the government to a simple, up-or-down vote:

[…] let every member of Congress be on record. Let them — let them vote to keep the government open or not, and they can determine where they stand and defend that vote to their constituencies. And let them vote on whether or not America should pay its bills or not. And if, in fact, some of these folks really believe that it’s not that big of a deal, they can vote no.

And that’ll be useful information to — for voters to have. And if it fails and we do end up defaulting, I think voters should know exactly who voted not to pay our bills, so that they can be responsible for the consequences that come with it.

Of course, House Speaker Boehner also thinks that’s useful information.  And that’s exactly why he won’t let it come up for a vote.  Because if he did, they’d vote to re-fund the government.  And that would mean the far-right Republicans who engineered the shutdown would achieve neither of their two goals:

1) To show the Democrats who’s boss.  Oh, they say it’s about how evil Obama’s healthcare plan is, how they’re willing to shut down all kinds of important government services because they think Obamacare is a socialist train wreck of a bill that will destroy the country, but let’s be real here.  The last big game of political brinksmanship we had was over the “sequester”–a series of destructive across-the-board government spending cuts that would automatically take place if the two parties couldn’t agree on a deficit reduction bill in time.  At that time, the Republicans’ big sticking point wasn’t so much Obamacare as the prospect of tax increases and cuts in military spending.

The “sequester” went into effect.  Which brings us to the Republicans’ other goal:

2) To shut down the government.

For a long time now, the Republican party has denounced any government spending that looks like it might help people.  The campaign that runs ads using “spending” as a dirty word wasn’t going to really mind across-the-board spending cuts as a whole, even if some of the cuts kill jobs in the district of this or that Republican Congressperson.  It’s the same with the government shutdown.  As influential right-wing fundraiser/lobbyist Grover Norquist put it, they want to reduce government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  Right now, key economic data is not being published, toxic waste sites are not getting cleaned up, and programs that give poor people the money they need to feed their young children and heat their homes in winter are very close to running out of cash.  (See: “The ‘non-essential’ parts of government that shut down are actually quite essential” and “How the Shutdown Hurts the Poor”.)  When was the last time you heard a Republican congressperson speak favorably about any of that stuff?

Back to the press conference.  Mark Landler from the NY Times talks about how Obama had to skip a going to a big trade summit in Asia because of the shutdown.  He asks,

Does China benefit from the chaos in Washington?

I think, for the first time, that maybe it’s a good thing we have so many in our media willing to stoke American fear about China becoming the dominant world power.  Because without that fear, we might never get anything done.

Then again, maybe “getting things done” is not such a good thing:

And the one that occurs to me is the trade deal that you’ve tried to do in Asia. The leaders today announced that they still want to wrap it up, but they no longer are able to say they want to wrap it up by the end of this year.

Had you been there, do you think you could have gotten that additional push?

The trade deal he’s referring to is the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  As the name suggests, it’s pretty crappy.  So far the text of it is classified.  But from what we can tell so far, like every other major free-trade agreement in the past few decades, it serves to make it easier for corporations to offshore jobs from the US to countries with low wages and few to no laws protecting workers, while beefing up enforcement for laws about intellectual property, which primarily benefit corporations.

Obama says that his not being able to visit didn’t help to close the trade deal, but that

they understood that the most important thing I can do for them and the most important thing I can do for the bilateral relationship and America’s reputation is making sure that we reopen our government and we don’t default.

Richard McGregor of the Financial Times would like to, as the name of his newspaper suggests, get back to “the issue of debt prioritization”.  Obama tells him and his readers to wait for Thursday, when Treasury secretary Jack Lew will make a formal presentation on the mess.  So now all the dollar-watchers and Treasury-bond-watchers can mark Thursday down on their calendars.  It reminds me of back when I used have a side business trading currency.  The big central bank honcho makes a speech, the herd jumps accordingly, and if you can correctly guess which way the herd jumps, you’ll make a pile of money in short period of time.  It’s all lots of fun–if you’re financially secure enough to have money to lose on trades.  If you’re not…well, food stamps are funded through the end of October.  Head Start’s had to turn away an estimated nineteen thousand children from their preschool program.  In part, how hard you’re hit will depend on where you live: Georgia’s Meals on Wheels program has calculated that it has enough federal money on hand for fifteen days of food.  In Connecticut, officials have warned that funds for their low-income energy-assistance programs, which help the poor heat their homes, could run dry in November if the shutdown continues.  In western Massachusetts, more than 30,000 households could be left without heating assistance because of the shutdown.

(If this shutdown continues, will the first deaths be reported as such?  Or will it be a second-page article in a small town’s local paper, reporting that such-and-such old person froze to death at home?)

Stephen Collinson of Agence France Presse asks about fighting terrorism in Africa:

And if we’re going to see U.S. military operations all around the continent, how does that square with your contention that America cannot be at war forever?

President Obama’s answer is surreal.

We’ve got to engage in a war of ideas in the region and engage with Muslim countries and — and try to isolate radical elements that are doing more damage to Muslims than they are doing to anybody else. We’ve got to think about economic development because although there’s not a direct correlation between terrorism and the economy, there is no doubt that if you’ve got a lot of unemployed, uneducated young men in societies, that there is a greater likelihood that terrorist recruits are available.

But where you’ve got active plots and active networks, we’re going to go after them. We prefer partnering with countries where this is taking place wherever we can, and we want to build up their capacity, but we’re not going to farm out our defense.

Well, the first thing is fine–talk is cheap.  But economic development?  Sending troops to “go after them” in yet more countries?  Why is this the only thing we ever have money for anymore?  To prevent terrorist attacks that kill large numbers of people at once?  Please.  Tell that to the CDC.

So, to summarize: winter is coming and we’re in a recession.  If the government shutdown doesn’t stop by November 1st, we run out of money for poor people’s groceries and much, much more.  If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by November 1st, the US is no longer able to pay its bills, and the global financial markets tank.  And the kicker: there is no real economic reason for any of this to be happening.  Yes, the US has a big deficit, but there are still plenty of ways the country can pay down its debt without going into austerity mode, like cutting the bloated millitary budget, or imposing a small percentage tax on financial speculation.  And shutting down the government is just stupid, if you care at all about the economy.  If what you really care about is looking tough to the hard-liners in your party, it makes more sense.  But it’s still really stupid.

In Solidarity with Victims of Torture: A Survivor’s Short Response

June 26, 2013

Today, June 26th, is the International Day in Solidarity with Victims of Torture.  Today I’m joining with all victims, survivors and resisters to write about psychiatric torture, in the hope that our raised voices can put an end to it.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in March 2013 called for an absolute ban on nonconsensual psychiatric interventions, including restraint, solitary confinement, and nonconsensual administration of electroshock, psychosurgery and mind-altering drugs such as neuroleptics.  He also urged repeal of legal provisions authorizing confinement and compulsory treatment in mental health settings, and said that detention on mental health grounds is unjustified.  See the statement of the Special Rapporteur, his report, and the response by the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry.  Note that the statement revises certain inconsistent positions that were left in the report.

If you can’t understand why nonconsensual psychiatric intervention is torture, then please read these (WARNING: TRIGGERING AS FUCK, ESPECIALLY THE LAST TWO):

Tina Minkowitz, “We Name It as Torture”

Faith Rhyne, “Trigger Warning: Why Is It So Hard to Think About Torture?”

Aubrey Ellen Shomo, “Remembering a Restraint”

Right now, 103 out of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay are on hunger strike; 44 are being force-fed.  They are doing it because they are being held prisoner indefinitely, and this has already gone on for more than 10 years.  They are being tortured.  (Understand how here–again, triggering as fuck: “What more can they do to me?”)

What I went through was nothing compared to what others went through, nevertheless I can sympathize–I know what it’s like to be held down with doctors forcing stuff into me, I know what it’s like to be locked up for an indefinite period of time–until you’re “stable”, as the clinicians usually put it.  It is the same ugliness.

I hope one day American schoolchildren will take field trips to Guantanamo Bay, the way German ones take field trips to Auschwitz–to understand.  I hope that the same thing will one day be done with the places of psychiatric torture as well, like the Mt. Sinai Child Adolescent Inpatient Unit and the Judge Rotenberg Center.

In solidarity with all those still locked up, I offer this poem.  It is written about the time I was sent to Mt. Sinai as a teenager and assaulted by the staff there.  Above all, it is a love poem–as most of my poems are.


When they put me in the mental hospital

And violated my body with their drugs,

Forced needles into my sensitive places

And threw me still struggling into a small locked room

Where I wrote on the window in spit

Because pen and blood were forbidden to me,

I cried out,

But not for you.

I cried out for justice.


You have to understand this.

Let that knowledge cut into your guilt at not being there,

Cut it away and throw it to the dogs.

They are much abused, these poor dogs,

Yet too many still cravenly clinging to their master

And attacking their master’s enemies.

They were beaten and cast out into the street

Yet many of them still fear the beggar in the street more

Than the well-dressed man who put them there.

I can see and name this fear for what it is

Because I have been a victim of it.


Oh yes, I wanted you to be there.

Not to feel guilt, but so that you would understand


That in my tears and rage I was still beautiful,

In my hospital shift I was still sexy,

That their drugs did not take away my anger

Nor their needles my dignity.


Hold fast to this knowledge.  You may need it

In the dark times ahead.

Music video out!

June 5, 2013

For those who might be interested, I have a music video out, original music set to scenes from “The Great Gatsby”:

Click link – Play LOUD – Share with everyone!



Sarah Harper

#direngeziparki (resist: Gezi Park)

June 5, 2013

Was up all night 2 nights ago finishing my music video, then looking at tweets about the situation in Turkey.  Feeling rage against  Craig Murray for writing an incredibly sexist post where he dismisses them as “beautiful young women” who are “environmentalist” (code for: naive, gullible, easily manipulated) and really nothing but a cover for far-right Kemalist nationalists.  Feeling more rage at the police there for pepper spraying unarmed young people ; those horrible Turks!  So I glad I live in America, land of the free…oh wait.

They have taken over a major public square with bodies and voices and tents.  They are there because Erdogan’s government is corrupt, because it jails journalists, because it is turning towards the Islamist right, because it is putting in malls where people gather to speak out and destroying all the green spaces.

The Turkish media has refused to cover it.

Protestors’ main demands so far:

1. Gezi Park must stay as a park and that the authorities must announce a unanimous decision that nothing will be built there and it will remain a park from now on;
2. Ataturk Cultural Center (a building right next to Gezi Park) will remain untouched as well;
3. Governors, heads of security forces of Ankara, Istanbul and Hatay and those implementing their immediate orders must be dismissed from their duties immediately;
4. Ban on use of gas cannons and similar materials;
5. All those detained must be released immediately;
6. No more bans on public gatherings in squares like Taksim and Kizilay (in Ankara) and other public squares; no more bans on the right to protest; and removal of all kinds of conditions limiting freedom of expression.

I think…please let this mean something.  Don’t let it just blow over and be forgotten about…  They have free food in the square, yoga, a librarySo many feels!  (Sorry…I’ve gotten into Tumblr-speak.  “Feels” means a lot of things, a partial translation could be “incoherent and near tears”.)  I wish I could talk intelligently about this, offer some reasoned analysis that opens up new meanings, but then again maybe it’s not really my place to do that.  I know where my place is.

I know where my place is.

And again…

I know where my place is.

But to the freedom fighters in Turkey…good luck.  That’s all that I can say.

Thoughts on the Stockholm riots

June 5, 2013

First of all, apologies for abandoning this blog for so long!  I have been concentrating on my music career and not paying much attention to the news.  (I have a new music video out, which I will definitely promote on this blog as well!)  I have also been working overtime at my new day job, which is a great one for me as day jobs go–it’s $11/hour with a temporary offer of double pay for overtime (I’ve been taking advantage, as you can imagine!), and the work is typing and internet research with zero customer service interaction, overall a very low-stress position.

OK, enough with the personal blah-blah, back to the politics….

So there’s been a whole of rioting lately in the Stockholm suburbs.  The cause?  Police killing someone.  The actors?  Youth of immigrant Muslim communities that are economically depressed.  Very similar to the French banlieue riots, in other words.  But Sweden is widely seen as a near-perfect country in terms of social policy, one of the most equal countries in the world, although social policy has been tending in recent years towards more social welfare cutbacks.

It seems to me that the fatal flaw in the media coverage of these riots (and the ones before them) is that nobody seems to be talking about the success stories–the Muslim immigrants who have successfully integrated–except in order to say reassuringly that the problem is not that bad.

This is something I wrote on a web forum about the Muslims of France a while back:

I disagree about Islam being more tolerant than Judaism or Christianity–that’s obviously not true in Muslim states like Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Your statement about latter-generation French Arabs/Muslims is on the mark though–I’ve met a whole bunch of them and they are basically EXACTLY like the rest of the French in terms of attitudes, values, even ways of flirting 😉 which I think we can lay solidly at the feet of France’s beautiful secular culture. However we do have a population in the “cites” (housing projects) that is getting radicalized because of racial discrimination combined with a lot of fundie propaganda from overseas, and it has gotten BAD–to the point of having neighborhoods controlled by gangs who enforce sharia law, that the police are afraid to enter. The root cause in my opinion is that old-boy-network racism combined with a generally illiquid job market (hard to get hired, hard to get fired) has constricted economic opportunities for non-white French youth, so they’ve reacted either the French way: radical leftist or anarchist politics, rioting, burning cars–or taken refuge in a “traditional Muslim” outlook that is actually not at all traditional but more fundamentalist and far more hateful and murderous than anything their parents brought over with them.

Why should this matter to non-French? Well, first of all, the question of how to assimilate Muslim immigrants, whether it’s possible, whether they’re a threat etc. is something most nations in Europe are struggling with, and increasingly the US and Canada also. The responses are often blunderingly, stupidly racist, blindly assuming Muslim = evil, ignoring the myriad immigrant-integration success stories–hard to imagine France without Zidane, let alone Edith Piaf (Algerian grandma). But question is a real one: you have these neighborhoods where radical Islam is a viable option for youth, whether they become terrorists or regular citizens depends on how attractive it is to them compared to being totally secular, being Muslim on the holidays, being a strict Muslim but not trying to impose it on anyone else etc. And also on how attractive political Islam is to them vs. non-ideological anarchist rebellion vs. voting and protesting and community organizing.

Also, this issue of marginalized people turning to violent religion is not limited to Islam. Look at America’s home-grown Christian militia terrorists. Much of the same debate Europe is having about Muslim immigrants applies here: how do you make this option less attractive for people, give them opportunities so they try to succeed within secular culture rather than make war on it?  How do you respect their freedom of religion while not letting them take over and impose their religion on the rest of us?  Unfortunately, instead of debating what economic and social policies best promote happy integration, what we too often get are racist rantings about the invading hordes.

Well, that’s what I wrote about the French situation.  The point I was trying to make was that some people of Muslim/Arab/African descent there are living successful lives as citizens and others are not.  And it’s those latter who are rioting.  So here’s what we should be asking: what is the difference between those two groups?

We can talk to the ones with success stories.  Ask them what they think the difference is.  Maybe the difference is luck.  Maybe the successful ones faced a lot of job discrimination and/or police harassment but persevered in the face of it, instead of giving up on trying to find a place in European society.  That’s the most plausible thing I can think of right now…maybe others can think of something else.

This Budget Deal Smells

April 11, 2013

Normally, in American politics, Democratic and Republican politicians come to compromises where each party gives its constituents something they want.

In the Republicans’ case, that usually means lower taxes (especially lower corporate taxes) and less regulation on businesses.  It can also mean higher spending on the military.

In the Democrats’ case, that usually means increased spending on public goods, such as healthcare and education.  It can also mean tax cuts specifically targeted at people who don’t make a ton of money.

But in this case…

a Democratic politician (Obama)

is trying to cut a deal wherein he will reduce federal benefits for retired and disabled people that have remained untouched for decades (Social Security)

in return for higher taxes on the wealthy, which is one of the better ways to reduce the deficit, yes, but can anyone put it in their pocket?  No.

Actually, he really wants to reduce benefits for retired and disabled people AND implement a highly regressive tax hike on middle class and low-income working people – according to the budget overview released by the White House, they’re “using a chained measure of inflation for cost-of-living adjustments throughout the Budget,” (emphasis mine) “with protections for the most vulnerable” – no word on what exactly those protections are.

Now mind you, Obama’s budget proposal doesn’t entirely suck.  There’s a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, to $9/hour.  There’s increased investment in highway and bridge repair, and in scientific research.  There’s also another proposal I’m kind of iffy about, namely a universal preschool program funded by a tax on tobacco.  It’s the kind of thing I would have been wholeheartedly behind when I was a teenager – I mean obviously this country is way overdue to have universal preschool, and I don’t smoke, in fact just being around people smoking makes me physically sick – but having experienced life as a member of the working poor, I’m now not so sure it’s a great idea, because tobacco taxes are deeply regressive.  They’re a sales tax – regressive in itself because it’s not tied to income – and also, from what I can see anecdotally, the number of smokers seems to go up the lower you go on the socioeconomic scale.  Which I can understand on a personal level too, as someone who’s struggled on and off with binge eating.  We all have addictive behaviors we turn to under stress, and if you’re lower-income you’re going to have more stress, and it’s not like you can relieve it by taking a vacation or going to a spa or doing “retail therapy” the way the women’s magazines all seem to assume you should do.

But really…cutting Social Security?  I smell a rat here.  This is political suicide for the Democrats if the Republicans actually take the deal.  It’s classic austerity: raise taxes on everybody, cut spending on everybody.  Which of course is supposedly going to reduce the debt, but actually ends up killing the economy.  I advise readers to follow very closely which politicians get behind this stinking cow pie of a budget “deal”, and see how much they’re getting in campaign donations from the finance sector.  I think the results will be very revealing.


Decoding the March US Jobs Report

April 7, 2013

Ah, the subtle art of reading job market statistics.  Akin to reading tea leaves, except that those who do it for a living are more likely to be white guys in suits than women in interesting dresses.

The US Labor Department just came out with a report showing lackluster hiring this month.  So everybody’s looking around for someone to blame.  As someone looking for a job that doesn’t completely suck, I count myself in this number.

On the PBS Newshour Friday, Mark Shields (their resident “left” commentator) and David Brooks (their resident “right” commentator) had a discussion on the topic that I think was actually fairly intelligent, and therefore worth quoting at length.

David Brooks:

There was a sense — and I had been hearing from economists, from businesspeople that we are finally reaching takeoff, because the housing market has been looking a lot better. The private debt has been looking a little better. So all of the fundamentals seem to be fine that we’re taking off. And that clearly is not the case, or probably not the case.

And so now we’re stuck in this frustrating economy. And, politically, you began to see everybody rallying around their favorite causes. Why does this happen? Some people pick on sequestration. But the timing isn’t quite right for that. The sequestration is probably going to hit, to the extent it does, later. Then, oh, maybe it’s because the payroll tax was raised or restored to earlier levels.

But, again, retail, jobs were down, retail sales not so much down, maybe health care. Well, it’s hard to see.

Well first of all, thanks for not immediately going “it’s the Republicans’ fault” or “it’s Obama’s fault”.  Second of all, let’s look more closely at retail.  You say later in the program:

You go into a drugstore now, it used to — there would be four cashiers checking you out. Now there’s four automatic machines and one person helping out the four machines.

Yes.  That’s it, exactly.  And the average number of hours someone in retail worked per week last month: 31.7.  The average hourly wage was $16.57, but anybody who’s ever worked in retail can tell you what kind of picture produced that number: store managers and retail buyers earning high wages for 40-50 hours per week of work, while salespeople and stockers earn close to minimum wage with hours that vary between 20-40 per week depending on immediate business needs.  The report also says that employment continued to trend up in temporary help services.  Which could explain what Stephen Bronars, chief economist of Welch Consulting (PhD in economics from the University of Chicago, so probably not a raging liberal) had to say to ABC News about the jobs numbers:

In February, the country showed a large increase in part-time jobs.

“Another month of data will help decide whether this was an anomaly, or whether part-time jobs are taking the place of full-time jobs,” Bronars said.

Bronars also expressed concern that the labor force participation continues to lag.

“Much of the decline in the unemployment rate has been due to people giving up their job search. A decrease in the unemployment rate and an increase in labor force participation are needed for a healthy recovery,” he said.

According to the above-quoted report, the S&P 500 is at an all-time high.  Now what does that tell you?

What I’m trying to say here is, I think the shitty economic numbers are due to deliberate decisions on the part of employers to hire part-time workers, sometimes-part-time-sometimes-full-time workers, and temporary workers instead of creating living-wage jobs.  Why?  Because they can.  Let’s not sugar-coat it here by saying it’s due to “globalization” or “technology”, impersonal forces that let the bosses off the hook.  The “gee-whiz” types will try to do that, as in, “Gee whiz, isn’t it amazing that I can videochat with people in China on my iPad?  And that I can play ‘Jeopardy’ against a supercomputer and ride in a driverless car?  Some uneducated workers will lose their jobs because of it, but hey, that’s the price of moving into the future.”  It’s bullshit, a way of avoiding talking about the impact government regulation has, the differences between laissez-faire economies like the US and economies like the Scandinavian ones where workers have much more rights, the differences between companies who CHOOSE to take the “high road” vs. the “low road”.

Interestingly, one of the few non-shitty job types where employment is on the rise is in accounting and bookkeeping services.  To me, this suggests that employers are really going through their books carefully in order to figure out how to reduce expenses, labor expenses in particular.

Mark Shields said something important:

11.7 million Americans were looking for jobs to go to last month, and they didn’t find one. And we have people, lowest percentage in the work force now in 34 years, 1979, which some of us may recall wasn’t a great time economically in this country.

And I think the earlier discussion really raised what I think is the fundamental question. I mean, the moral test of any society is whether that economy serves the human beings in it or the human beings are there to serve the economy. We have got corporate profits at an all-time high. We have got the stock market going through the roof. And yet we have this human waste of capital and these broken human dreams.

And I just think it’s time beyond just a quick Band-Aid fix or whatever. We have got to examine that. If we’re not going to produce jobs, I mean, what are we going to do with these people with their abilities, with their energy, with their ambition, with their time? I just think it’s a serious, serious question.

Well, I’ve got some possible answers.

1. Increase the minimum wage.  Thus making work pay for the many, many people who are looking at the job market, seeing mostly part-time and/or minimum-wage positions available, and saying “fuck it, I can’t live on that anyway.”  And possibly preventing some suicides.  (See previous posts.)

2. Give everybody a guaranteed basic income, like in Alaska.  Make it enough to actually live on.  This will result in an explosion of entrepreneurship, creativity, scientific innovation, and higher wages from employers, as people with great ideas can finally afford to quit their day jobs and devote themselves to those great ideas full-time, and as employers find themselves having to use the reward of more money and better working environments to attract workers, instead of the threat of homelessness.