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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.

NY Times: Another Hidden Comedy Goldmine

March 23, 2013

So I just randomly found a NY Times article that apparently got a lot of buzz on the Internet, no doubt because it’s about dating and sex.  It’s about the end of courtship among the “Millenial” generation, here translated as “people in their twenties who are white, straight, college-educated and have trendy jobs”.

I read it and couldn’t stop laughing.  Never mind whether traditional dating is dead among the young; that’s a debate that’s been going on for almost a century.  Just check out this quote that shows what passes for research among “journalists” at the NY Times:

For evidence, look no further than “Girls,” HBO’s cultural weather vane for urban 20-somethings

For evidence, look no further than “Girls.”

For evidence, look no further than “Girls.”

Made my day.  Thanks, NY Times!

Pissed Off At: People Who Tell You To Smile

March 23, 2013


Because this blog isn’t just about political issues: it’s about the things that piss me off.  And this is a big one.  Because when someone is telling me to smile, I’m generally in one of two states:

1. Not depressed.  In which case it’s insulting to have random strangers assume that I must be upset–when I’m really fine–and therefore in need of their expert advice–when I’m really not, even when I am depressed.

2. Depressed.  In which case somebody telling me to smile is not going to magically make the unhappiness go away.  Especially since said person is generally a stranger, and not someone interested in doing the actual work it would take to really make me happy.  Like being my best friend and listening to me bitch about my problems, or giving me a bunch of money.

I’ll smile if you pay me! Really!

And that’s the key, isn’t it?  When people tell you to smile, it’s not because they genuinely care about your hapiness, it’s because they are put off by your non-smiley appearance.  Either because seeing someone without a smile on threatens to disturb the rose-coloured bubble they usually live in, or more likely, because they think you’d be much sexier eye candy for them if you’d only smile a little.  And then the message is: “Smile because I tell you to.”  Just like working a customer service job, except you’re not even getting paid.  Not exactly a recipe for happiness there.  More likely a recipe for me wanting to punch you in the face.

What I’m wondering is: do guys get this too?  I’ve heard/read a lot of women complaining about this, and saying that noone says it to guys, but maybe guys get it too and just complain about it less.  (If that’s the case: before you men congratulate yourselves on how much less whiny you are than women, consider that you’re not also dealing with the other kind of street harassment, the kind that involves offensive comments about your derriere.)

Personal update

March 23, 2013

For anybody who might care: I’m ok.  I’m still broke, but not suicidal anymore, and working at getting a better job/making money thru small-business type stuff.  My next few posts will be more non-political stuff: not the norm for me, but these days I’ve been avoiding the news because our whole joke of a “gun-control debate” is just too fucking triggering for me right now.

Arbeit Macht Frei (part II)

February 10, 2013

I tried to hang myself Monday.

I had been working at Jiffy Lube since September, for minimum wage.  When I was brought on they told me the job would be full time with possible overtime, but the past 1 or 2 months I’d been given variable hours, more like 25-32 hours per week on average, and not just during the holidays either.  Even before they reduced my hours it had been frustrating, because I made too much money to get food stamps but at minimum wage, all that did was make me dependent on the local food bank.  I wasn’t too bothered, though, because I was interviewing for better things and had come very close (I thought) to being hired for a full-time job doing mental health peer advocacy work, something I actually care about.  Being told someone else had been hired was what precipitated the suicide attempt.

Before working at Jiffy Lube I had worked at a telephone survey place called Abt SRBI, all evening and weekend shifts.  The hourly pay was better, but they had a nasty habit there of booking people for 6-7 hour shifts and then telling them they’d have to go home 3 hours early because there wasn’t enough work.

I’m a musician.  There’s equipment, amps and mikes and things, that I want to make enough money to save up for.  I could not live like this.

I had been on Wellbutrin since December 12th.  It hadn’t made a difference, any more than the other pills had–no side effects, no desired effects either.  At the follow-up visit, my doctor asked how long I’d been depressed, and when I told her, she said I had treatment-resistant depression and suggested either antipsychotics or electroshock.  Instead, I looked up the instructions online and bought a piece of rope at the surplus store.  I tied a noose knot on one end and secured it to a bookshelf on my bedroom wall.  I put my neck in the loop and began to sat down.  Then I thought, maybe I haven’t yet exhausted all the possibilities.  Luckily I live in an area with a peer respite house, a place where you can go when you’re in crisis that isn’t a hospital, but a healing environment with privacy and nobody forcing drugs on you and someone there to talk to 24/7 if you want it.  I called them and stayed there for the week.  While there, my depression lessened a bit.  But the anger did not lessen at all.

I am putting out a call for donations from readers of this blog.  I’m asking for money because I’m in kind of a catch-22 situation right now–I’m $900 in debt from a car accident several months ago and the precarity of my finances means that every hour of work I do counts, but at the same time, the fact that this precarity is due to a deliberate policy decision on the part of my employers means that, day by day, my job is becoming nearly impossible to stand working at emotionally.  I feel like any minute I might either physically collapse or open up my mouth and tell the truth.  I deal with this mostly by constant snacking to stuff the feelings down, which has its own problems as I’m not currently getting any food stamps.  Hence, the appeal to the little PayPal button on the right-hand side of the page.

This isn’t just about me, though.  I know I’m not the only person in this country whose job is killing them.  We might even be in the majority now–certainly when I look at Craigslist job postings in my area, most of the ones I see are part time.  And the political rhetoric I hear on the news is so focused on jobs this, jobs that, green jobs, welfare to work programs, “job creators” etc., but what the hell is the point of having a job if all it allows you to do is earn just enough to fulfill the basic conditions of physical survival so you can work another day?  All those conservatives saying we’re lazy and should just get a job–well, why should we, when work doesn’t pay?  I imagine a hub, maybe a Tumblr blog along the lines of “We Are The 99%”, where all of us working poor can share our very real grievances.  And then I imagine us all just going on strike.  How much business would still be run in this country, do you think, if everyone forced to work part time said “fuck it” and just stayed home?  Or better yet, said “fuck you” in picket lines, out in the streets?  Or better yet, took over their factories and retail stores, locked the bosses out, kept all the money earned?

I think of the aborted French revolution of May 1968.  A slogan from that time comes to mind: “Don’t negotiate with bosses, abolish them.”  And another slogan, if you can call it that, a piece of graffiti written by someone who maybe was working at the time and just as close to death as I was:

“We want to live.”