The Unemployment Conundrum

All the months since President Obama turned the job loss situation around in 2009 have shown steady improvement in new jobs. Unemployment has fallen and employment has risen. We are in good shape, it seems.

And yet we have a big problem with unemployment. So significant that one demographic segment has shown unexpected major increases in drug use and suicides: middle-aged white males—the Trumpsters. The phenomenon is so prominent that we can no longer pretend that African-Americans are to blame for all our addictions. Nor can we any longer pretend they are the only unemployed.

This is the conundrum: how is it possible that the employment situation can be both steadily improving and at the same time worsening enough that these men become addicted and commit suicide?

The fact is that both Trumpsters and the younger hipsters are right, but they are talking about two different populations. It is very important that the nation address the problems that afflict the middle-aged Trumpsters as well as the hipsters. As I have said here, here, and here, I think an important step is to reduce the length of the work week, as we have done in the past.

Between these two groups, the greater difficulty lies with those who haven’t been able to find stable work for decades. People, not just whites, but African-Americans also, like those Paul Theroux talked to during several years of travels through the Deep South (the title of his latest book). Although he wrote about the south, the same conditions persist in other parts of the country, particularly rural areas. In the deep south, the cities tend to be prosperous enough to support the people reasonably.

But get outside the city limits ten or twenty miles and you will find that most of the population is poor and struggling, the employment situation desperate, the infrastructure in disrepair. Factories and farms are abandoned and overgrown, with jobs shipped overseas, and demand for local agriculture and manufactured products long gone. Good people are trying to help as much as they can, getting small funding from state and federal governments, but recovery is not underway.

But in many cities themselves, besides in the South, unemployment and depressing conditions are also high.

What Donald Trump is saying, although most of it is contradictory and false, resonates with many such people, because nobody else seems to believe they are worth the trouble, and they don’t like that, or the idea that whites are moving toward less power and dominance. Nothing has improved for them for a long time, and Trump tells them he will fix everything.

But Trump lies, of course. Nothing this failed businessman could do will fix the situation, although he tells them again and again he will make everything all better. But neither does anyone else of importance have the sure answer, and very few are even thinking about it, because they dismiss these people as being uneducated and beyond help, besides which many are the wrong color. They are therefore not worth the trouble.

But their situation is serious, and thoughtful steps can be taken to improve their prospects. The global market is here to stay, but the government could enact many minor laws and regulations that would be small but progressive steps toward improving things. Theroux wrote about the collapse of fish farming, for example, under the onslaught of Asian fish farms and their cheap products that now flood the US market.

But most Asian fish farms are filthy, disease-ridden, and chemically contaminated, and the workers are poorly paid. In the US there are now some modern hygienic fish farms that provide far superior fish to the US market, and we like their products. The government could easily enough forbid diseased and chemically polluted fish from being sold, subsidize the construction of US facilities, and guarantee the price for the operators. It could encourage worker ownership, which would bring greatly improved income to fish farmers, which would have a multiplier effect in their locale.

Likewise, other efforts could bring superior US American products to market. Henry Petroski, in The Road Taken, recounts how several inferior Chinese hand tools broke in his hand the first time he used them. The US government could encourage production of superior products. This is not without precedent. For example, Detroit’s Shinola corporation broke out of shoe polish business and into several new lines that are decidedly superior products. Likewise, the Lodge Cast Iron Foundry of South Pittsburg, Tennessee has been around since 1896, but not only has not faded away with the loss of the iron industry, but is now producing cast iron cookware that beats imports in both quality and price.

In recent years our pundits have told us we can no longer rely on making things, since the Third World can make them so much cheaper. But, as my examples demonstrate, cheaper is not always better, and there is a market for superior American stuff of all kinds. Moreover, not everyone can or should go to college. Skilled work of any kind is to be admired, should be well paid, and is worth a lot to our own markets.

It would not take earth-shaking new programs to put these people on a new trajectory. But it would take more than haphazard and disinterested efforts, which we seem to be making now. We can do it, but first we have to believe that it’s important.

Your Vote: Plutocracy or Democracy

The most popular article at my site lately is this one. Apparently, more than a few people are aware of the enormous danger of the plutocracy we have allowed to develop in recent decades, a danger that’s particularly evident in this election. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and now Hillary Clinton are stressing it.

Those who have read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, or any of several recent books that document our dangerous slide into government controlled by and for the very rich, understand that people like the Koch brothers have used their enormous wealth to subvert democracy for their own benefit.

Lest you think this is exaggeration, there are regular secret meetings of the very rich to plot this subversion, documented with great difficulty by Jane Mayer. They are held in secret places that nobody else can get into, without any public notice. No press, no liberals, no Democrats. They go so far as to set up outward-facing speakers that blast loud music so no one lurking in the nearby woods can overhear. Democrats have no such secret meetings, and the platform is there for everyone to see.

Here’s how the very rich launder money so that no one knows who contributes what: A non-profit agency is set up to take donations for “educational” purposes. No one even knows who is managing this agency. It collects tens of millions from very rich Republican donors. These agencies, like Caribbean banks that hide wealth, are little more than a PO Box, or maybe a rent-a-desk in some sparsely populated western state. Another “educational” non-profit is set up in another crossroads town; money from the first one is transferred to it, stripped of any identifying info. Other “educational” shadow companies also contribute. There may be a third, fourth, and fifth rent-a-desk, and other non-profits that similarly contribute. By then the money is mixed like paint. Presto, freshly laundered cash for controlling Congress, and nobody can tell whose money it is.

There is much more to Republican mendacity, including the several Republican state legislatures that are doing their best to abolish democracy. They gerrymander their districts so that the Democratic majority cannot win; they pass laws that make voting more difficult instead of less, designed to keep the poor and black Democratic voters away from ballot boxes; they cut the number of voting places, restrict the hours, and “lose” blank ballots on election day; they subscribe to the belief that anyone in another state who shares a name must be voting twice, and remove people from voting rolls by tens of thousands, often without telling them; they have been caught red-handed manipulating the votes in various ways on election day. The most serious consequence of their skullduggery is that they have made it very difficult to undo.

This is why Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the most important persons in the election. Clinton’s certain nomination has been ordained for a long time, but it is Bernie and Elizabeth who have told us in clear terms that our democracy is gone, and we must reclaim it from the plutocrats however we can. If we want to seize our democracy from the clutches of people with preposterous wealth who want to control it and us, we must listen to Bernie and Elizabeth, because they are the main ones telling us how to get back on track.

Why Homelessness Won’t Be Solved by Itself

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an admirable series on homelessness—on the front page. Like everywhere else, the city has spent many millions to help solve the problem, and it has only gotten worse. That’s because homelessness is not a city problem. It’s not even a national problem. At base, it’s a global problem, closely related to the concentration of the nation’s and the world’s wealth in the hands of a few people who have absolutely no use for it.

Homelessness is not one single problem. Locally, the two most significant factors are unemployment and substance abuse. The former is no doubt the far bigger factor, in spite of what some people think. To those people, mostly white conservatives who believe because they were always able to find work, anyone unemployed is simply not trying hard enough. Oddly enough, the same people also believe that all homeless are addicts. In neither case do they think that economic conditions might have something to do with it.

Homelessness is not caused by the homeless. It is caused by the economy.

I will leave addiction for another time. The biggest element of homelessness is unemployment, and many of the personal tales are heartbreaking. Millions of people with decades of dependable skilled work were tossed aside when factories closed, their jobs shipped off to poor countries where the bosses pay a fraction of US wages, and workers are too desperate to demand more.

The newly jobless family is unable to find equivalent work, and falls behind on the mortgage and bills. Eventually they settle for beginning-level wages, which don’t pay the bills. They downsize, sometimes unable to sell their house in a down market, which is then seized by the bank. Sometimes they can’t find work because they are “too old”, which can be anything from 40 on up. Sometimes everything fails, and they have no choice but to live in their car, or a tent.

However, the loss of work because of modernization is a greater factor than outsourcing jobs to the Third World, although they are related. As I have said here and here, more and more of the work we depended on is being done by robots and computers. Some of this modernization calls for employees with new skills, but many more jobs simply vaporize, their workers pushed out to fend for themselves. Jobs in management aren’t shielded from this trend, either, if for no other reason than the analytical work by management, as well as software coding, can be done at 25% of the cost by workers in India and elsewhere.

Not all is lost, however. Effort in at least four areas can create higher levels of employment. These are: (1) a shorter work week; (2) better laws that provide universal citizen needs at greater efficiency; (3) laws that keep jobs and money in the country; (4) and changes that attenuate the greed of the very rich and the corporate bosses.

As I have said before, my half-humorous suggestion for determining the work week was to divide the grand total of hours of work available by the grand total number of workers. In principle it’s actually a good idea. It would give us a work week of 20 hours or so, which would give us some of the benefits that modernization should provide.

Getting to a 20-hour week is not simple, because workers can neither suddenly be paid half as much nor can they be paid the same for half the work. But we did it to arrive at the 40-hour week from 60 hours, so it is quite possible.

The federal government can do numerous things to make living under the new situation comfortable. Conservatives who believe that a sort of anarchy with few laws and minimal government is the best way are simply wrong. That would give us more crime and less efficiency.

We have laws because not everyone can be trusted to behave for the common benefit, obviously. Besides individual criminals, corporations and the very rich dependably behave in ways that reduce everyone else’s wealth and wellbeing while increasing their own. This has given us the current plutocracy, which, if we are to restore our democracy, must be overthrown one way or another. But that will not happen as long as the very rich and their congressional pets control the government. The once-reasonable Republican party has gone berserk, and is no help. It will take great Democratic strength to rescue the country from itself.

The laws that have taken away from the common good must simply be ended. If a practice cannot be shown to be socially worthwhile, it should be outlawed. It’s not hard to think of examples. Flash trading and hedge funds have no social utility at all; they do not benefit the country in any way. Giant banks must return to boring old banking, and shed their investment services. This is something the Great Depression taught us, but we forgot. Corporations must not be able to avoid their fair share of taxes by setting up a shell headquarters in some low-tax country. All the tax dodges set up by the very wealthy and their congressional pets must be ended. There is no reason the very rich should own such a huge part of the national wealth, because the only place it can come from is the rest of us.

Rather than clutching their pearls and watching corporate bosses rake in multi-millions for sending jobs to poor countries, Congress should enact any number of laws that discourage them from shipping jobs out and closing the mill. Simply requiring all foods to be pure and without known chemicals and impurities, and labeled GMO if they are, would not only improve the quality of our food, but would eliminate carelessly produced foods from overseas. Modernizing factories could be encouraged with financial incentives. Many small steps would improve the employment picture.

Corporations have taken to setting up an office in a low tax country and calling that the corporate headquarters to avoid paying taxes. There are many ways that could be curbed, including designating such companies foreign companies, subject to taxes and duties greater than those for domestic companies. The global economy is complex, but our laws should not allow the US to suffer for the benefit of corporate officers.

In all cases of universal citizen need, the federal government must manage that need, because profit-making interests will always cost significantly more. Every such step we take improves the wellbeing and wealth of the country. National health care is the most obvious instance. National health care insurance would provide the average equivalent of a seven percent raise. The simplest example of benefit here is the avoidance of unnecessary death from untreated disease. An adult who dies unnecessarily costs the country a lot, which falls on the deficit side of the national accounting. There are many other possibilities for national services besides health care that would improve the financial security of all citizens.

These things are so obviously beneficial for the country it is ridiculous to believe we’d be better off without them, as Republicans claim. The federal government is efficient, in spite of what Ronald Reagan claimed, and requires fewer people to do the same work, without the severely bloated wages of corporate bosses.

Right now the government seems to have no understanding of what causes homelessness, nor have more than a handful of people suggested what we can do about it. I believe that the ways I have suggested are well worth discussion and development. I believe they would cure or improve several serious problems. Unfortunately, one political party, the one that caused most of the problems in the first place, would rather defend the plutocracy.

Mysteries of Hate and Bombs

Would you go out into the street and kill someone at random? Of course not, yet there are people who would do not only that, but would plot for months, and blow themselves up into bloody chunks to kill as many total strangers as they can.

A few months ago a bunch of Muslim idiots decided some woman had burned a Koran, and brutally murdered her and dismembered her body. She was innocent, and had done nothing of the sort. A supposedly atheistic man was killed with machetes in front of his house. He wasn’t an atheist. And several peaceful advocates for gay and trans persons have been hacked to death.

Not too long ago in Japan a radical cult released poison gas in the subway, killing many total strangers. Timothy McVeigh in the US exploded a truck bomb outside a government building, killing a lot of people, including many children, all total strangers. I can make no sense of any of these things, or the numerous others that offend our sense of right, because they make no sense.

The latest is several people shot total strangers and blew themselves up at the airport in Istanbul. What next, where? Why? Don’t these people have something better to do?

I’m mystified. I just don’t get it. What makes these people think any of this is a good idea?

Too much hothead stupidity in the world, particularly religious hothead stupidity, particularly fundamentalist Muslim religious hothead stupidity. Killing total strangers at random.

A few weeks back some guy in the US attacked a Buddhist monk, bashing his head against a rock while raving about Muslim terrorists. A Buddhist monk. The monk was hurt, but not seriously injured, and commented about how horrible the guy’s life must be to do something like that. I chalk this one up to right wing stupidity, mostly. It’s the brand of stupidity that imagines committing violence against a random person is some sort of revenge. Revenge is impossible to extract from a random stranger. 

You can’t get revenge against someone who has blown himself up. Nor can you get revenge against his family, or his religion, because none of these are the one who committed the presumed offense to begin with. Revenge, in fact, is the most indefensible of motives, even if you do attack the one who committed the original offense, because that just adds to the sum of violence in the world, and creates still more useless revenge motive.

Some violent Muslims in the West strike out to “protect Muslims” by killing people at random. Now, protecting people from violence is a noble goal. There are plenty of intolerant fools who would commit some sort of violence against anyone they perceive as Muslim, and there are many potential ways to protect Muslims. But killing random strangers to “protect Muslims” makes no sense at all. It protects no one, and makes everything worse.

The apparent bomb-maker in the recent attacks in Brussels had everything going for him. He had reached adulthood, had a loving family, was doing well in college, and had a bright, useful future in front of him, while so many others like him had turned to petty crime in their bitter, unrewarding lives. Yet it was the best one among them who built bombs and killed himself in order to murder a couple dozen bystanders he had never seen before, not the embittered cohorts who might at least claim more reason. I don’t get it.

Do the Muslim terrorists who shoot tourists or people in a restaurant or at a musical event think they will change the world and bring everyone to Islam? Fat chance. The opposite is far more likely, and various hotheads will react by committing violence against innocent Muslims. Do those who attack ordinary people they have never seen before imagine that they are wreaking revenge for some person or government that has done them wrong? Stupid as that may seem, Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other without pause for some 1400 years.

One of the main characteristics of terrorist groups is an imagined class wrong in the past that they seek to rectify by their acts. But of course they cannot do that, and the transgression is usually not real anyway. Hitler famously made the Jews into villains, as so many in history have. The Jews were a sophisticated and highly educated people who made notable contributions to German society, and brought many important qualities and achievements to Germany. Albert Einstein escaped Germany in 1933, and contributed world-changing achievements that Nazis scoffed at and rejected as “Jewish science”—as stupid an appellation as you will find. But Adolph needed a villain, and Jews served the same purpose they had historically. Jews serve the same purpose for fundamentalist Muslims today, but violent fundamentalists are quite happy to kill practically anyone.

Published in: on 2016/06/29 at 10:16 pm  Comments (3)  
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My Unwitting Complicity in Genocide

Shame came late to my life, arriving only after I fully understood my own part in the genocide of the North American First Nations people.

MLK reminded us that the US was born of genocide, but the term didn’t really hit me until I read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. If every European-American read it we would have a different country. But it’s tough reading, and shocking, like reading about serial murder, or the Holocaust. The atrocities go on and on and after a while you can’t stand it. And then it sinks in: those white land-thieves who benefited from the genocide of First Nations people were my ancestors, and not so long ago.

Genocide is a term that is casually tossed around these days to describe things that have nothing to do with genocide. But what MLK was talking about was the plan to systematically kill all of the millions of First Nations people in North America, coast to coast. That’s what genocide means.

It was not an economic move, nor accidental displacement as white folks moved in. It was the systematic murder of all the men, women, and children in peaceful Indian villages on their own land, and it was the deliberate government policy of the United States, particularly under Andrew Jackson.

Deliberate murder, by government policy.

Before Europeans arrived in North America it was a vast continent peopled by hundreds of what we call “tribes”, with a population in the millions. Mostly they were farmers, and mostly they got along with one another. These tribes managed the land, wisely, from coast to coast. If the place had been the “forest primeval” that romantic Europeans believed it was, it would have taken an additional century or two for them to overrun it.

The white Europeans viewed the presence of millions of Indians on “their” land as an inconvenience. So it was important to rid the land of these “primitive” squatters. (The Indians thought it was the Europeans who were primitive; Indians bathed or washed every day, and were appalled at the stink of Europeans, who bathed rarely or never. And of course they were not squatting on their own land.)

The conquering Europeans and the US Americans simply killed Indians—men, women, and children—wherever they found them, forcing the survivors off their lands and moving them westward to wide open prisons we called “reservations”. The Trail of Tears marked one of those campaigns. Many of their remaining descendants live in these places today. Their total numbers are now less than 1% of the US population.

Here’s how I fit in: My particular branch of the Pennington family arrived early, in 1642, in New Haven Colony. Over two centuries we moved numerous times, first southward to New Jersey, then westward, with one branch moving to the south. Each time we moved, it was onto land already the property of an Indian tribe, which we pushed out or killed.

After the government and marauding vigilantes had murdered most of the Indians in the midwest, the land was divvied up and sold cheap to anyone who wanted it. My great-great grandfather was one of many who appreciated the rich soil of Illinois, and he settled there in the 1800s, on land belonging to the Illini Indians. Thus my own family background was built on a foundation of genocide of the Illini Indians, who were murdered outright, with the few who survived forced to move west.

But in the South the Pennington family was also complicit not only in genocide, but also the abhorrent practice of lifelong enslavement of African peoples.

I lived in the South for a number of years, in Cherokee County. It had that name because the Cherokee were the tribe either murdered or forced off their own land so a branch of my ancestry could purchase black slaves to work without pay until they died. Slaves often died early, literally worked to death.

The little town where I lived had a very small telephone directory, but it seemed as if half the entries were for the name Pennington. In my innocence I just assumed that the southern branch of the family was prolific. It wasn’t until just recently, after I had read Dunbar-Ortiz’ book, as well as Our America, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, about what happened to indigenous Mexicans in the west, that a truth dawned on me that forced me to recognize my own complicity in the depressing history of the United States: Almost all of those Pennington names in the phone book represented the descendants of Pennington slaves. All the Penningtons of the 1800s “owned” land recently stolen from Illini Indians, most of whom were murdered.

I can do nothing to make up for the endlessly sordid history of the United States, of course, a suppressed and unrecognized history that very few European-Americans even know about, and that continues today as we defend ourselves from terrorist organizations in the Middle East that didn’t even exist until we meddled there too.

The descendants of several parts of the Illini tribes are now consolidated into the Peoria tribe in Oklahoma. They operate a casino and resort.

Why Aren’t We Talking About the Work Week?

Job flight to poor countries isn’t the only reason so many of our citizens can’t find work. The major reason, aside from greed, is modernization, which has been ongoing since Luddites broke up the new weaving machines with sledgehammers in 1811. Today it’s crucial.

Studies of the longterm unemployed poor find their numbers steadily increasing, along with homelessness, partly because their jobs shipped out, but also because computers and robots do so much of the work today that millions of jobs no longer exist. It’s not just the poor who are affected. Even top corporate officers can lose out.

If you look at the neighborhood corners in most cities you will find small stores every block or two. These were mom and pop stores, mostly empty now. Back in the day, these stores had two employee-owners, mom and pop, and they often lived upstairs, or in rooms at the back.

The store might be open 10 hours a day, six days a week. Customers came in and said what they wanted, mom or pop got it, weighed it, put it in paper and tied up the package with string. When corporate stores came along mid-century the work week dropped to 40 hours, although the stores were open longer than the mom and pop stores, and packages tied with string went away. Mom and pop could not match the hours those stores were open.

Many of the jobs that made a modern store efficient at midcentury have been replaced by software. A store employing 100 people might now need, say, 75, and the other 25 jobs vaporized.

In essence, counting those already unemployed, the de facto work week has dropped to 20 hours. But instead of Congress recognizing that and modernizing, the 40-hour week drags on, exacerbating unemployment. Almost no one is talking about the de facto 20-hour work week. It’s de facto because the total work hours needed divided by the number of people needing work comes to 20 hours or so. That’s just my guess, but it agrees with what John Maynard Keynes predicted would happen back in the 1930s.

It would be unwise to fight job flight by disallowing job migration to poor countries. There are ways to lure jobs back to the US, with new Government terms that would be attractive. Among these might be requiring certain products to be modernized, much the way organic foods are certified. Manufactured goods might be required to have enhanced safety and raw material requirements. (Remember the Chinese baby formula that killed babies?) Such requirements would result in safer and healthier products for US Americans, and would boost employment in the US.

Moving corporate headquarters to Ireland or some other place for tax purposes should result in a requirement that all such foreign corporations pay a duty for their products sold in the US, as well as infrastructure fees. National health care insurance would provide a major advantage to US businesses that compete with places that have national care. Corporations with overseas headquarters should not be allowed to use US national health care. Foreign corporations are already disallowed from exercising political influence in the US. But they do, and ending this lobbying would eliminate a big source of corruption and reduce purchase of legislation by the super-rich.

But the best thing we could do is to make the work week 20 hours. If we did, we would automatically have full employment. In fact we would have greater than full employment, because some people who have been so discouraged they dropped out of the labor market would return. How would we make 20 hours the official work week? Easy, we would require every hour above 20 to be paid at 150% of the employee’s wage, and the same for a secondary job.

To understand how this works, imagine what would happen if we established a longer work week. If the present 40-hour week were increased to 60 hours, each two employees would do the work of three people. That third person, now unemployed, would increase unemployment by 50%. The 20-hour work week takes us the opposite direction; that’s why it makes sense.

A problem immediately arises when the work week is shortened: what should the wage be? We need to preserve some sort of living wage, but can’t suddenly double what people make so they can work half as much. It’s not a new problem. Before the 40-hour week there was the 60-hour week, yet somehow we got the 40-hour week. The 20-hour week is also doable. Failure to adopt it will lead to even more inequality and poverty.

A partial solution comes from the realization that a satisfactory life isn’t entirely dependent on how many dollars we bring home. There is a growing realization that super-sized McMansions, pricey cars, and all the other elements of conspicuous consumption don’t really improve our lives. In addition, we don’t typically make use of our local community. For example, our local “Next Door” internet group regularly features a request to borrow something they will use only once, or wanting to give away something useful.

We already have many ways to assist with housing costs, including cooperative housing, city-financed homes, veteran benefits, and more. National health insurance would cut health costs in half, which is like a 7% raise in pay. Municipal transportation is improving, which has already made a second car unnecessary for many. Self-driving taxis may soon make any car unnecessary. Various other community efforts can potentially reduce other common costs.

A satisfying life is what’s important, and great wealth is literally irrelevant to that. But right now it is the very wealthy who control government, and they do it for their own endlessly increasing wealth, totally useless greed that has the effect of reducing everybody else’s wealth. This should not be the purpose of government in a democracy.


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