Thursday, September 30, 2010

Frequently Wrong but Never in Doubt

History is being rewritten at warp speed. Teabaglicans would have us believe that Obama destroyed the entire US economy in less than 2 years. They’ve conveniently forgotten everything that happened in the preceding 8 years of the Bush administration, including the trillion or so we borrowed so that Dubya could work out his Oedipal issues in Iraq. It’s unfortunate that there can’t be rational dialogue about the mess we’re in, but the right is incapable of rational discussion. Last week, a columnist referred to Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine as RINOS. These women lean more toward being moderate than the new crazies like Palin, Bachman, Rand Paul, and O’Donnell – which is why the new, even more insane GOP wants to eliminate them. My father, the lifelong Republican, would recognize Snowe and Collins as members of the party he supported. He would be horrified to learn that a woman who claims scientists have created mice with human brains was walking around without a minder, never mind an actual candidate for the US Senate.

Here in NH, none of our GOP candidates are discussing rodent/human brains, but some of them are bringing the crazy and the extreme. Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter and her opponent, former Manchester mayor Frank Guinta faced off this week in their first televised debate. Guinta speaks fluent Sloganese, but behind the slogans there appears to be little substance. He is clever enough, however, to downplay his extremist positions.

Guinta, of course, proudly declares himself to be “pro-life.” What he doesn’t share when speaking in public is the extent of his pro-life position. Guinta told Fosters Daily Democrat that he would happily repeal Roe v. Wade, with no exceptions. That means that if Guinta’s wife were raped, he would force her to incubate the spawn of the criminal who attacked her. If that fetus jeopardized his wife’s life, he would let her die, rather than allow her to abort the fruit of the rapist. If that sounds extreme, it’s because it is. Deeply extreme. Guinta has said that women have abortions because they have no other options. He fails to note that he’s opposed to funding the kind of programs that would assist women and children.

Guinta has been chosen by the National Republican Congressional Committee as one of their “Young Guns.” The NRCC tells us that these are the young candidates, with new ideas, who will take us into the future. The average age of the “Young” Guns is 49. Half of them are over 50, and one is in his sixties. Of the first 23 Young Guns, only 2 are women. The Young Guns website is cleverly set up to avoid giving a list of the YG’s. One has to figure out who they are by clicking on a map. In that way, we can’t easily determine how many women there are. Or aren’t. Fewer than ten women have attained this exalted status. The other NH “Young” Gun is Charlie Bass, who at age 58 isn’t especially young. Charlie has already served 12 years in Congress, which guarantees he’s out of new ideas. The Young Guns Program is essentially a pageant, where new contestants can spew the same old stuff, and have it be called “new ideas.”

Frank Guinta, at age 39, is one of the younger Guns, but he’s not offering any new ideas. Just the usual, hackneyed “cut spending, cut big gummint, cut taxes” stuff the GOP has been spouting since time immemorial. Speaking fluent Sloganese, he tells us that he would eliminate the Departments of Education and Energy. All Republicans hate education, so the first is no surprise. No one seems to be questioning him as to the wisdom of closing down the agency that oversees nuclear programs, weapons, power plants, and waste. In the first televised debate, Guinta expressed his support for nuclear power, but seemed befuddled when Congresswoman Shea Porter pointed out that the nuclear industry is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Guinta has also announced that he wants the US to pull out of the UN, but at an event in August, he was surprised to learn that the US is the largest financial supporter of the UN. Guinta skirts around the idea of privatizing Social Security, mostly to conceal his true position. He’s stated that his children should never know what Social Security is. He doesn’t want his kids to know about the most successful anti-poverty program in our nation’s history. We all know where our seniors would be if Bush had been allowed to turn Social Security over to Wall St. in 2005. They’d be living under bridges, eating cat food.

There are the financial issues. In the first debate, Shea-Porter asked Guinta if he had ever taken out a student loan. He said no. After some tap-dancing around about the specifics, the bottom line is that yes, he did take out student loans for his graduate studies at Franklin Pierce. Guinta also has a problem with financial disclosure. After loaning his campaign $245,000, Guinta filed forms showing a bank account previously unmentioned, that contained $250,000. Guinta claimed he’d forgotten about that account. How nice to be able to forget about a measly quarter of a million. I want an account at the bank of Frank!

There are more incidences of forgetting. Candidate Guinta is full of bluster about earmarks and stimulus funds – both of which he took advantage of as Mayor Guinta. As one of the few Guns who is actually Young, it’s a shame his memory is already so faulty. Of course that may not matter. It seems that all that is required in today’s GOP is the ability to speak fluent Sloganese.

“And he was easily riled, and likely to shout. Frequently wrong, but never in doubt.”
Cheryl Wheeler

published as an op-ed in the October 1, 2010 Conway Daily Sun
© sbruce 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two Paychecks Away From Homelessness

The Las Vegas Sun newspaper has done something most other papers don't bother with. They haven't just paid lip service to homelessness. They actually keep on printing stories about homeless people. In July, I wrote a blog post called "More Stories of the New Homeless" One of the stories I linked to in that post was from the Las Vegas Sun.

At the end of August, the paper printed an essay by a homeless man, Rodger Jacobs, who is a freelance writer:

I am a 51-year-old professional writer; throughout my 20-year career I have been an award-winning feature documentary producer (“Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes” and multiple educational documentaries), a trade and arts magazine journalist, a successful playwright (“Go Irish: The Purgatory Diaries of Jason Miller”), a true crime author and a literary event producer. For the past two years, I have enjoyed my role as a book and literature columnist for Pop Matters, a popular online journal of cultural criticism.

But in the larger scheme of things, my credentials are utterly meaningless. In less than two weeks, my girlfriend and I will be without a home in a town where we have no friends, no family, and apparently no safety net to catch us when we fall.

I have been medically disabled for the past eight years; my primary source of income is my monthly Social Security disability payment of $926 and whatever supplemental income I can earn within the $1,000 monthly limit, but with jobs in the freelance market few and far between in the new economy, several months often pass without additional income.

It's the story of a writer and his partner who were living close to the financial edge, and were pushed over by the ruined economy. They've faced one problem after another - and when you have no financial resources, the smallest problems can be insurmountable. Things like trying to get a picture ID, in order to get assistance from social service agencies:

A friend has offered to pay the cost of obtaining my birth certificate from California so I can get a Nevada ID card, but then there’s the cost of getting the affidavit notarized and, further, how can I obtain an ID without an address for DMV to send the card to?

Rodger's second essay was published last weekend. It focuses on the kinds of responses he got from the first essay:

The day the Sun published my essay — which was intended to illustrate how close many of us are to being homeless in the Great Recession — I had planned to spend packing. Instead, I spent many of my waking hours defending myself against allegations of sloth (“30 years of not having a real job”), hypochondria, arrogance (“Your arrogance got you where you are and will keep you where you are”), weak moral and ethical judgment, prevarication (“Writers are liars and opportunists”), alcoholism, drug abuse, liberalism, solipsism, atheism (“Christ was homeless … read the Bible … take up your cross and follow the Lord”), ripping off “the system,” a defeatist attitude, poor money management, a grifter looking for a handout, and, oh yes, I need to stop smoking, get a haircut, and “renounce (my) citizenship, become a Mexican citizen and then come back as an illegal and qualify for free housing, food stamps, and medical coverage and live off the fat of the land.” (How chilling that the last comment unintentionally invokes John Steinbeck in “Of Mice and Men,” perhaps the greatest literary defender of America’s downtrodden.)

Rodger Jacobs is disabled. He has psoriatic arthritis. Many of the angry people who responded to his essay told him to go get a job at McDonalds:

I walk with a cane, sometimes I have to use an electric wheelchair that Medicare provided last year when I was under home health care by a nurse service, and my toenails and fingernails have been eaten away by the ravages of psoriatic arthritis, leaving exposed flesh with sensitive nerve endings. I cannot help Lela pack, let alone avail myself of “menial labor” jobs that so many respondents in this paper excoriated me for refusing to do should such offers come my way.

Imagine life without fingernails and toenails and then ask again why I’m not working at McDonald’s.

The lack of compassion is troubling - but the level of anger is even more disconcerting. I suspect that the anger some people have for the homeless is fueled by their own fears that they are only a paycheck or two away from being homeless themselves.

David DeGraw, writing for AlterNet, did an analysis of the official poverty rate, as was recently reported by the Census. His methodology shows that the numbers are even worse than the official numbers. One of the most chilling aspects of the story was how many of us really are a paycheck or two away from homelessness:

In my analysis, a key metric to judge the overall economic security and hardship level of a country is the percentage of the population living paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck can tell you about the stress and psychological impact it has on you when you know your family is one sickness, injury or downsizing away from economic ruin. The employment company CareerBuilder, in partnership with Harris Interactive, conducts an annual survey to determine the percentage of Americans currently living paycheck to paycheck. In 2007, 43 percent fell into this category. In 2008, the number increased to 49 percent. In 2009, the number skyrocketed up to 61 percent.

In their most recent survey, this number exploded to a mind-shattering 77 percent. Yes, 77 percent of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck. This means in our nation of 310 million citizens, 239 million Americans are one setback away from economic ruin.

I flunked remedial math in high school (true story) - but as numerically challenged as I am, I know that's 3/4 of the population. Those of us who aren't in the top 2% are in a very precarious position. Some of us have already skated off the ice. I hope Rodger and Lena find both help and kindness.

cross-posted at MainSt/

Foreclosure System Fraught with Failure

Man's house wrongly sold in a foreclosure mistake. From the Sun Sentinel:

When Jason Grodensky bought his modest Fort Lauderdale home in December, he paid cash. But seven months later, he was surprised to learn that Bank of America had foreclosed on the house, even though Grodensky did not have a mortgage.

Grodensky knew nothing about the foreclosure until July, when he learned that the title to his home had been transferred to a government-backed lender. "I feel like I'm hanging in the wind and I'm scared to death," said Grodensky. "How did some attorney put through a foreclosure illegally?"

This is shocking - and must be an isolated incident, right?
Apparently not:
In Florida courts, which have been swamped with foreclosure cases for several years, mistakes "happen all the time," said foreclosure defense attorney Matt Weidner in St. Petersburg. "It's just not getting reported."

And the legal efforts required to resolve a foreclosure mistake are complicated. "Unwrapping it is like unwrapping Fort Knox," said Carol Asbury, a Fort Lauderdale foreclosure attorney. "It's very difficult."

It seems the foreclosure system is a disaster. From WaPo:

The nation's overburdened foreclosure system is riddled with faked documents, forged signatures and lenders who take shortcuts reviewing borrower's files, according to court documents and interviews with attorneys, housing advocates and company officials.

The problems, which are so widespread that some judges approving the foreclosures ignore them, are coming to light after Ally Financial, the country's fourth-biggest mortgage lender, halted home evictions in 23 states this week.

The stories coming to light are horrifying:
Ally Financial is now double-checking to make sure all documents are in order after lawsuits uncovered that a single employee of the company's GMAC mortgage unit, a 41-year-old named Jeffrey Stephan, signed off on 10,000 foreclosure papers a month without checking whether the information justified an eviction.


Beth Ann Cottrell said in a sworn deposition in May that she signed off on thousands of foreclosures a month for JPMorgan Chase even though she did not verify the accuracy of the information.

In Georgia, an employee of a document processing company, Linda Green, for years claimed to be executives of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and dozens of other lenders while signing off on tens of thousands of foreclosure affidavits. In many cases, her signature appeared to be forged by different employees.

Thousands of families were undoubtedly booted out of their homes because of these callous, incompetent individuals working on behalf of callous banks and assisting companies. The whole story is well worth reading.

We can hope that the new consumer protection agency being set up by Elizabeth Warren will tackle this, but it's hard to tell just yet what will fall under the purview of the new agency.

cross-posted at MainSt/

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Welfare to Work Program Ending

From HuffPo:

The 2009 stimulus bill created an "Emergency Fund" that allowed states to subsidize jobs via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), formerly known as welfare. The Senate voted against reauthorizing the program in March. Last week Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blocked a request to bring up a bill that contained a $1.5 billion reauthorization. Advocates of the program are not optimistic that a change of heart is afoot in the U.S. Senate.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the program put more than 240,000 otherwise unemployed people to work in 37 states, including 45,000 people in California. The program even has the approval of the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Hassett, who calls it "a pretty cost-effective way to create jobs."

That's the same Kevin Hassett that both Mitchell Hirsch and I have written about recently. The same Kevin Hassett who thinks people earning minimum wage are being overpaid. If he thinks this is a good deal, that's because the job creation is cost effective, and because the people who get these jobs aren't being paid all that well.

Thanks to the Senate, instead of 240,000 working people, we'll have 240,000 more unemployed people, with little to no hope of finding a job any time soon. Brilliant.

cross-posted at MainSt/

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Updates From Big Insurance

From MoJo - health insurance companies plan rate hikes, even as the number of insured Americans continues to decline:

The number of people with health insurance decreased from 255.1 million in 2008 to 253.6 million in 2009. Since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data were collected, this is the first year that the number of people with health insurance has decreased.
Between 2008 and 2009, the number of people covered by private health insurance decreased from 201.0 million to 194.5 million, while the number covered by government health insurance climbed from 87.4 million to 93.2 million. The number covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 176.3 million to 169.7 million. The number with Medicaid coverage increased from 42.6 million to 47.8 million.

Jobless Americans are losing their private health insurance, which means Medicaid enrollment is increasing dramatically.

In the wake of health care reform, insurance companies are raising their rates—apparently, in preparation for the tepid new rules that won't go into effect for years, and thus give the industry plenty of time to jack up their prices and protect their profits. The Wall Street Journal reports that premiums for individuals and small businesses will go up in 2011, in some cases by as much as 20 percent.

Unfortunately, there was nothing in the health insurance reform bill to prevent insurance companies from continuing to jack up their rates. Soon they will be blaming rate increases on the decreasing numbers of people buying insurance.

From the LA Times:

A number of big insurance companies will no longer sell child-only insurance policies. Families that might have only been able to afford to insure their children are going to be out of luck.

Major health insurance companies in California and other states have decided to stop selling policies for children rather than comply with a new federal healthcare law that bars them from rejecting youngsters with preexisting medical conditions.

Anthem Blue Cross, Aetna Inc. and others will halt new child-only policies in California, Illinois, Florida, Connecticut and elsewhere as early as Thursday when provisions of the nation's new healthcare law take effect, including a requirement that insurers cover children under age 19 regardless of their health histories.

The action will apply only to new coverage sought for children and not to existing child-only plans, family policies or insurance provided to youngsters through their parents' employers. An estimated 80,000 California children currently without insurance — and as many as 500,000 nationwide — would be affected, according to experts.

It's amazing that a business so deeply involved in a crucial aspect of our lives could be so utterly lacking in any sort of moral compass.

cross-posted at MainSt/

Monday, September 20, 2010

The World's Smallest Violin...

From the Wall St. Journal:

It’s not as easy to be rich as it used to be.

Once upon a time, America’s most wealthy people barely felt the ups and downs of the economy. Over the past few decades, though, the roller-coaster ride has become more extreme for them than for any other income group, according to a new paper by two Northwestern University economists.


Overall, since 1982, the income of the top 1% of earners has been about 2.4 times as volatile as the average for everyone, the paper’s authors find. That’s a big change from the years 1947 to 1982, when the income of the top 1% fluctuated about 30% less than average.


To be sure, the greater volatility doesn’t mean poorer folks should feel sorry for the rich. On average, households in the top 1% had a pre-tax income of about $1.4 million in 2006, so they were well able to absorb big losses.

Whew - that's a relief. I don't have to go dig under the couch cushions for change, so that I can go buy a box of tissues to use as I weep for the plight of the wealthy.

According to Paul Krugman in the NY Times, the rich are angry:

These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.

Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.


These days, however, tax-cutters are hardly even trying to make the trickle-down case. Yes, Republicans are pushing the line that raising taxes at the top would hurt small businesses, but their hearts don’t really seem in it. Instead, it has become common to hear vehement denials that people making $400,000 or $500,000 a year are rich. I mean, look at the expenses of people in that income class — the property taxes they have to pay on their expensive houses, the cost of sending their kids to elite private schools, and so on. Why, they can barely make ends meet.

Uh-oh, I may have to go back to the couch cushions.... but wait. Krugman points out that the rich have political power and influence, and so a number of politicians from both sides of the aisle are fighting to keep the tax cuts for the wealthy in place, in spite of the price tag.

NOW it's time for the tissues:

And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.

But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people.

cross posted at MainSt/

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Get Ready for a Bumpy Ride

The votes have been counted, the winners declared, and the primary officially over. Now we move into the concentrated madness of election season; the season we love to hate. Robo-calls, lawn sign wars, letters to the editor, ugly accusations, and underhanded deeds will be part of our lives for the next month and a half. It’s better than any reality show.

I’ve made it a point to listen to our candidates over the last few months. What I’ve learned is this: Republicans only care about money. Their sole message is “cut taxes, cut spending.” Their whole focus is ensuring that NH is a tax-free haven for millionaires. They never mention the natural beauty of our state; never mind how to preserve it. Our state parks are underfunded to the point of being closed down. Jeb Bradley carps incessantly about business taxes in his seemingly unlimited Sun op-ed space, but never mentions that NH kids are the healthiest in the nation. Of course, to mention that would be to have to acknowledge the role that NH Healthy Kids/SCHIP play in keeping all of our kids healthy, especially when Republicans hate funding it.

All they care about is taxes. In a recent op-ed, Jeb Bradley wrote that liberals contend Americans are obligated to pay their fair share of taxes. He says this as if it’s a bad thing. Yet, every day, State Senator Silver Spoon drives on publicly funded roads, as he drives to the publicly funded State House. He relies on the publicly funded fire and police departments. As a resident of Wolfeboro, he benefits from the municipal water and sewer systems. He may even use the services of the public library. Yes, Jeb, when “liberals” talk about paying their fair share, that’s what we mean. We believe in paying for the public services that do so much to enhance our collective quality of living. In that same op-ed, Bradley used the phrase, “liberal Democrat” eleven times. Given that he feels all Democrats are liberals, that phrase would appear to be a redundancy. It’s sloganspeak, the official language of the GOP.

Jeb bemoans wasteful spending, yet sponsored SB-472, a bill that the NH Judicial Council warns, “may cost the state in excess of $5 million a year.” Bradley and 10 other Republicans sponsored this bill to broaden the scope of the NH death penalty. More murderers in our state would be eligible for the death penalty, which means the costs would increase dramatically. As it is, the Michael Briggs case has cost the state approx. $1 million. More cases would mean building a death row. We don’t have a death chamber. Then there are the years of appeals. Millions upon millions of our tax dollars would be going to execute a small number of people. Next time you see State Senator Bradley, ask him where the money is going to come from to pay for all of these executions he supports.

US Senate hopeful Kelly Ayotte, another self-styled fiscal conservative supports expanding the death penalty as well. Of course we learned a little bit about Ayotte’s fiscal responsibility during her campaign. That famous “victory” against Planned Parenthood that Granny Grizzly touted when endorsing Ayotte wasn’t actually a victory. The law was repealed, the court ordered Ayotte to pay a settlement of $300,000 to Planned Parenthood, which she did. Quietly. The Union Leader was quite outraged. It will be fun to watch them walk back from their disdain for Ayotte, in order to support her. As NH’s official GOP newspaper, they will surely find a way.

Ayotte barely squeaked out a win over teabagger favorite Ovide Lamontagne. Apparently Palin’s endorsement didn’t help Ayotte. It was hard not to notice the strongest common bond the two women have. Sarah Palin quit her job as governor of Alaska, midway through her term. Kelly Ayotte quit her job as NH Attorney General, not even halfway through her second term, after she promised the governor that she would complete a second term. On a humorous note – her website lists her “plan” for fiscal reform. The last item mentioned is reforming “reckless earmarking to fund projects like the “bridge to nowhere.” As we all know, Ex-Governor Quitter took that money – yet here is her protégé, AG Quitter, speaking against it.

The primary also brought us perennial candidate John Stephen, running for governor this time. Stephen has been all over the place for months claiming, “Our state is broken.” Yet another Republican with nothing good to say about NH. His website is a lot of fun. He claims that he’s opposed to “intrusions into individual rights.” Yet, he’s opposed to a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and privacy, and he’s said he’ll sign a repeal of NH’s marriage equality law. Let us applaud Mr. Stephen for his staunch defense of the rights of heterosexual men! John Stephen’s record at DHHS will provide plenty of fodder in the weeks to come, but all that really needs to be said about John Stephen as a candidate is this: the day after the election, 6 high profile Republicans became “Republicans for Lynch.” One of them is Joel Maiola, who was Judd Gregg’s former Chief of Staff.

I was saddened to read that senate candidate Bill Binnie, and his father, had both received death threats, as a result of Binnie’s moderate stand on social issues. Binnie was brave enough to be a pro-choice Republican who also didn’t oppose marriage equality. In other words, Bill Binnie actually did support individual rights, something his party claims to be all about. His reward for not being a hypocrite was threats. After all, nothing says “Pro-Life” like making death threats. New Hampshire used to be a place where moderate Republicans were the rule, rather than the exception. The lunatic fringe has seized control of the GOP, and the moderates are being squeezed out by rabid rightwing nutjobs.

It’s time to pay attention, read up on the candidates, listen to what they say, and ask tough questions. Clean your glasses, get out your ear trumpet, and take the phone off the hook – it’s going to be a bumpy ride to November 2.

Published as an op-ed in the September 17, 2010 edition of the Conway Daily Sun

© sbruce 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stories That'll Frost Your Tonsils

From David Lazarus in the LA Times:

Time Warner Cable doubles fee to not list phone number. That monthly $1.99 fee for something the company isn't doing for customers is now one of the highest of its type in the telecom industry, and there appears to be nothing to justify it.

In other words, Time Warner is charging you almost $24 a year for something they aren't doing for you: publishing your phone number in a phone book.
Time Warner and other telecom companies are charging for a service that consists of them basically not doing anything. And because they continue not to do anything month after month, they keep charging you on the grounds that it's a recurring service.

Time Warner's fee is all the more remarkable because the company doesn't produce its own phone book. It pays Sprint to compile all its customers' names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone company dominates a particular market for inclusion in that firm's directory.

Just to be clear: That's $1.99 a month not to be in a phone book that Time Warner doesn't even publish.

In 2003, my local provider instituted a $3.00 charge for people who weren't making enough long distance phone calls. What a racket!

In North Carolina
Sheriffs want access to computer files that identify people who have prescriptions for pain killers and controlled substances.
Apparently the state has a huge database of prescription drug users.

For years, sheriffs have been trying to convince legislators that the state's prescription records should be open to them.

"We can better go after those who are abusing the system," said Lee County Sheriff Tracy L. Carter.

Others say opening up patients' medicine cabinets to law enforcement is a terrible idea.

"I am very concerned about the potential privacy issues for people with pain," said Candy Pitcher of Cary, who volunteers for the nonprofit American Pain Foundation. "I don't feel that I should have to sign away my privacy rights just because I take an opioid under doctor's care." Pitcher is receiving treatment for a broken back.

Privacy - Shmivacy! Giving non-medical personnel access to medical databases could never go wrong.

cross posted at MainSt/

Raising the Retirement Age Unfair to Laborers

We don't hear this often enough. Raising the Social Security retirement age is going to be hard on people who have worked in physically demanding jobs. From the NY Times:

At the Cooper Tire plant in Findlay, Ohio, Jack Hartley, who is 58, works a 12-hour shift assembling tires: pulling piles of rubber and lining over a drum, cutting the material with a hot knife, lifting the half-finished tire, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds, and throwing it onto a rack.

Mr. Hartley says the pain started for him when he was 50. He doesn't know if he can last till age 66, when he is eligible to collect full Social Security benefits.
After years of debate about how to keep Social Security solvent, the White House has created an 18-member panel to consider changes, including raising the retirement age. Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio and the House minority leader, has called for raising the age as high as 70 in the next 20 years, and many Democrats have endorsed similar steps, against opposition from some liberal groups. The panel will report by Dec. 1, after the midterm elections.

Any changes in Social Security’s retirement age will not affect workers currently in their late 50s and their 60s, who are eligible for full benefits at age 66. But their experiences now are a harbinger of things to come, said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research in New York, who opposes raising the Social Security retirement age because she says it will have a disproportionate impact on lower-income workers and minorities, who tend to have lower life expectancies and so fewer years of collecting benefits. At the same time, blue-collar workers often spend more years paying into Social Security because they start full-time work younger, she said.

“People who need to retire early — and they need to — are folks that start working in their late teens, whereas people who are promoting raising the retirement age are people who were in graduate school or professional school and got into jobs that would logically take them into their late 60s and 70s,” she said.

That last paragraph is the important one. The people making these decisions are people who have not done physically demanding work. They are not janitors, miners, steelworkers, cooks, carpenters, nurse's aides, or waiters- all jobs that take a toll on the body. Years of heavy lifting, carrying, and repetitive motion create chronic pain.

John Boehner earned his wealth sitting behind a desk. His voice (in concert with like-minded legislators) cannot be allowed to overshadow the voices of those who never got rich, working at jobs that required hard physical labor.

cross-posted at MainSt/

Monday, September 13, 2010

US Sees Record Surge in US Poverty in 2009

From HuffPo:

Census figures from 2009 are due to be released this week. The expectations of what the report will show are grim:

Interviews with six demographers who closely track poverty trends found wide consensus that 2009 figures are likely to show a significant rate increase to the range of 14.7 percent to 15 percent.

Should those estimates hold true, some 45 million people in this country, or more than 1 in 7, were poor last year. It would be the highest single-year increase since the government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. The previous high was in 1980 when the rate jumped 1.3 percentage points to 13 percent during the energy crisis.

Among the 18-64 working-age population, the demographers expect a rise beyond 12.4 percent, up from 11.7 percent. That would make it the highest since at least 1965, when another Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, launched the war on poverty that expanded the federal government's role in social welfare programs from education to health care.

This is chilling:

Lawrence M. Mead, a New York University political science professor who is a conservative and wrote "The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America," argued that the figures will have a minimal impact in November.

"Poverty is not as big an issue right now as middle-class unemployment. That's a lot more salient politically right now," he said.

Apparently it hasn't occurred to Lawrence Mead that the long-term, middle-class unemployed ARE the new poor.

cross posted at MainSt/

Thursday, September 09, 2010

You're Overpaid

Yesterday I wrote about the increasing income disparity in the US.

Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute (a right wing think tank) and an economic advisor to both George W. Bush and John McCain wants you to know that Your Fat Paycheck Keeps Your Neighbor Unemployed:

Hassett's views on unemployment:
So here comes the leap into ice-cold water: The biggest problem with the labor market right now is that wages are too high.

Yep, wages that have been stagnant for over a decade are the problem. Hassett's solution?
First, the minimum wage should be scaled back to $5.85, its level when the recession began in December 2007.

Second, government policies should induce workers to take the plunge and accept lower wages. These policies could include carrots -- tax credits that offset large wage declines, for example -- and sticks, such as a reduction in the duration of unemployment insurance benefits.

Finally, unions should be willing to reopen collective bargaining agreements and accept lower wages.

Notice that he makes no suggestions about lowering CEO, or executive pay. He doesn't mention his own willingness to take a pay cut that would undoubtedly put a couple of folks to work. No - it's always the people on the lower end of the wage scale who have to take the hit.

Call me crazy, but - it seems to me that in an economy based on consumer spending, trying to make sure that people have less money to spend is idiotic. Housing, energy, and food costs are not going down - therefore taking money away from those folks most likely to spend discretionary income would appear to go against the very idea of economic recovery. I'm certain I know who is overpaid in this scenario - and it isn't the folks earning minimum wage.

cross-posted at

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Increasing Income Disparity in the US

At Slate, Timothy Noah writes about what economist Paul Krugman calls "The Great Divergence" - the increasing disparity in US incomes:

It's generally understood that we live in a time of growing income inequality, but "the ordinary person is not really aware of how big it is," Krugman told me. During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth—the "seven fat years" and the " long boom." Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1 percent. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20 percent. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.

Remember "trickle down" economics? This is "pouring up."

Why don't Americans pay more attention to growing income disparity? One reason may be our enduring belief in social mobility. Economic inequality is less troubling if you live in a country where any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can grow up to be president.

We're told that all we have to do is pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and anyone can succeed. Unfortunately, the game is increasingly rigged against those who weren't smart enough to pick wealthy parents.

This is disturbing:
All my life I've heard Latin America described as a failed society (or collection of failed societies) because of its grotesque maldistribution of wealth. Peasants in rags beg for food outside the high walls of opulent villas, and so on. But according to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic.

The whole article is worth reading. It's part 2 of an ongoing series - one that seems to be worth following.

cross posted at MainSt/

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Terrorists Have Won

On May 1, 2003, President Bush pretended to fly onto an aircraft carrier that was pretending to be way out to sea, and provided a photo-op in his manly flight suit. He then stood beneath a huge banner reading, “Mission Accomplished,” and announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. It was an expensive bit of theatrical folly. Bush didn’t land the plane, the aircraft carrier was only 30 miles off shore (requiring careful filming in order that the shoreline not be seen), all that manliness was probably enhanced, and the war was not over.

This week brought President Obama’s version of Mission Accomplished. Obama spoke to us from the newly refurbished Oval Office. (An office that Arianna Huffington called “the audacity of taupe.) This speech marked the official end of combat operations in Iraq, which is what Obama promised when he took office. Of course there are still huge numbers of troops left behind, and the second army we’ve been paying for (the mercenaries) are still there – but that wasn’t mentioned. Instead, Obama paid homage to George W. Bush’s patriotism. For starting a war of aggression based on lies, Bush and his chums should be standing before the ICC. Unfortunately, the Democrats lack the spine to take that sort of action. Obama mouthed glowing tributes to our military men and women, and told us it was time to move on – time to think about our economy.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a major impact upon our economy. Imagine where we might be if we weren’t spending $7.3 billion a month in Iraq alone? The cost of sending one soldier to Iraq for a year is $390,000. Thus far, the combined cost of both wars stands at approximately $900 billion. Did we accomplish anything in Iraq that justified these costs? Were those purple fingers worth all the lives that have been lost?

In Kan Bani Saad, a town north of Baghdad, we spent $40 million building a prison that the Iraqis didn’t want, and aren’t going to use. We’ve spent $4.9 billion to fix the power grid in Iraq – without any improvement. Most places still only have a few hours of electricity a day. A $5.6 million slaughterhouse being built in Basra had to be abandoned, because no one had bothered to ensure a source of water was available to wash away the blood. A sewage treatment plant for Fallouja was supposed to cost $32. 5 million. The cost is now up to $104 million, and is almost completed. Unfortunately the contract did not include pipes to connect the plant to the town. Those are only a few examples of the ways our tax dollars have been wasted in Iraq.

The silence on the topic of military waste or the bloated military budget is deafening. Instead, we have the deficit peacocks preening their concerns, even as they insist the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy be extended. The Congressional Budget Office finds that extending those tax cuts will increase the deficit, but that matters not to the peacocks, who insist these cuts will promote job creation. They haven’t so far. But, then, we also learned that supply side economics don’t work, either, which hasn’t stopped the GOP from trying desperately to return to the old trickle down. President Obama’s Deficit Reduction Commission (known to many of us as the Catfood Commission) led by the utterly reprehensible Alan Simpson is focusing on gutting Social Security, which has nothing to do with the deficit.

But hey, who cares about that? Barack Obama is a Muslim – haven’t you heard? And the terrorists want to build a mosque right on the holiest of holies: the “hallowed ground” at the site of the Twin Towers. The fact that it’s a community center to be built in place of a former Burlington Coat Factory a few blocks away from Ground Zero is not even mentioned in the hysterical media narrative. All manner of fearful leaders have spoken out against it, and there have been demonstrations. A black construction worker was attacked by a mob shouting “Muslim” at him. The new anti-Muslim hysteria has resulted in a stabbing, arson, vandalism, and some assaults.

The terrorists have won. Here in the land of the brave and the home of the free, we’re so scared that we won’t allow a community center to be built in New York City. We’re so scared that we’re going to mandate English is the only language that should be spoken in the USA. We’re so scared that anyone with brown skin is eyed with suspicion. A delegation of Pakistani military officers on their way to meet with US Central Command in Washington, DC were taken off their plane because a passenger panicked. After the officers were cleared, they decided to skip the meeting and go home. We have become a weak, fearful nation. When we compromise the values our country is supposed to stand for, and tremble in fear – the terrorists have scored an even bigger victory than they could have hoped for.

“Those who died in this war did not die for their country. They died for their government. They died for Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. And yes, they died for the greed of the oil cartels, for the expansion of the American empire, for the political ambitions of the President. They died to cover up the theft of the nation’s wealth to pay for the machines of death.” Howard Zinn

published as an op-ed in the Sept. 3, 2010 edition of the Conway Daily Sun
© sbruce 2010

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Low Wage Jobs Are Coming Home


For years, Americans have had their phone calls about credit card bills and broken cell phones handled by people in the Philippines or India. But American firms are starting to bring call centers back to the U.S. — and this time around, they are hiring more people to work in their own homes.

Ten years ago, it made a lot of sense to outsource these jobs overseas. But that's changing. Increasingly, companies that want to outsource their customer service jobs are happy with these domestic arrangements.

High inflation and double-digit annual raises in some sectors are pushing up the cost of labor in India. At the same time wages in the U.S. are falling and companies are rethinking the trade-offs associated with outsourcing.


Experts say outsourcing is still accelerating for jobs in IT services and manufacturing. Phil Fersht, an outsourcing analyst, says even before the recession started, companies were starting to realize that offshoring wasn't the best option for other services.

In other words, the wage scale in the US has fallen so far that it's cheaper to hire folks at home to do the lowest paying jobs. The better paying jobs, like IT and manufacturing, are still going overseas.

In fact, US labor is so cheap now, that outsourcing companies in India are outsourcing jobs to the US. From

Pramod Bhasin, the chief executive of Genpact, said his company expected to treble its workforce in the US over the next two years, from about 1,500 employees now.

“We need to be very aware [of what’s available] as people [in the US] are open to working at home and working at lower salaries than they were used to,” said Mr Bhasin. “We can hire some seasoned executives with experience in the US for less money.”

I trust I don't have to underscore the irony inherent in that last story.

Finally, if unemployed folks find jobs, those jobs are likely to be lower paying. From the New York Times:

For years, long before the recession began, job growth had become increasingly polarized in this country. High-paid occupations that require significant amounts of education and training grew rapidly alongside low-wage, service-type jobs that do not, according to David Autor, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The growth of these low-wage jobs began in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s and began to really take off in the 2000s. Losing out in the shuffle, Dr. Autor said, were jobs that he described as “middle-skill, middle-wage” — entry-level white-collar positions, like office and administrative support work, and certain blue-collar jobs, like assembly line workers and machine operators


A new analysis by the National Employment Law Project, a liberal advocacy group, takes a different approach, identifying industries that have experienced job growth in 2010 and examining their median wages. It is a blunter measurement because it focuses on whole industries, within which there is often great diversity in income. Economists also cautioned that it was still too early to know exactly which sectors would eventually lead the way in a sustained recovery.

Nevertheless, the law project analysis offers a snapshot of where the employment growth has been so far. It found that job expansion to this point had been skewed toward industries with median wages that are low to middling, with a disproportionate share of job growth happening in industries whose median wages fell below $15 an hour.

Given that our entire economy revolves around consumer spending, it's difficult to imagine how an abundance of low paying jobs will provide "recovery." If this is the wave of the future, more foreclosures and bankruptcies await.

Cross-posted at MainSt/

COBRA Costs Increasing - Leaving Families With Hard Choices

From HuffPo:

Terminated workers are paying an average of $429 a month this year for individual HMO coverage, compared to $399 for the same coverage in 2009, according to a survey conducted by Aon Consulting. COBRA coverage for an entire family now costs an average of $1,251, up from $1,171 per month at this time last year. With COBRA costs on the rise and the average unemployment check totaling less than $300 a week, a growing number of jobless Americans are no longer able to afford their health insurance plans.

Families are having to choose between having health insurance or keeping a roof over their head and food on the table. A family who has a member with medical needs is between a rock and a hard place.

John Zern, executive vice president and Health & Benefits Practice director with Aon Consulting, said the costs of COBRA are rising because so many people are using the system.

In an effort to spread the misery around:

Current employees should also expect to see their plans become more expensive in the next couple of years as employers shift the costs over to them. The Aon survey found that 65 percent percent of employers plan to increase cost-sharing in 2011 for deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket maximums, and 57 percent of companies polled said they will ask employees to contribute more for the overall cost of health care next year.

Cross-posted at MainSt/