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Keeping the Waltons Out of the Poorhouse

Apr 18, 2015
A new study by the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC/Berkeley quantifies the amounts spent by federal and state governments on four of the most costly public assistance programs. The researchers gathered data on expenditures for Medicaid/CHIP, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Between 2009 and 2011, $152.8 billion per year was spent on just these four programs. And the most shameful fact, which was no surprise to me, was that over half of that state and federal money—56%—went to working families.

You and I help support millions of underpaid workers while their employers, people like the heirs of Sam Walton, become multi-billionaires. Much of those billions going into their pockets are dollars you and I have worked hard to earn. How is it we can be played for such suckers?

The report also repeats some familiar and equally dismal facts: Real hourly wages for the median American worker increased by only 5 percent between 1979 and 2013. And for the bottom 10% of workers, the wages were 5 percent lower. Furthermore, wages for the bottom 70% of workers were either flat or in negative territory between 2003 and 2013. The rich are getting fabulously richer, the poor are getting poorer, and you and I are struggling hard to stay where we are.

There is something very wrong with this picture. We have two options: solve the problem or watch it get worse. Powerful forces in American politics are at work to guarantee the latter. If no one emerges to challenge the essentially identical economic programs of the current left and right, things will only get, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “unimaginably worse.” Just how bad do they have to get?

The solution is a simple one: Jobs for all, at a living wage, and end the many inefficient, ineffective, and humiliating programs masquerading as “safety nets” for the poor. All they do is sustain poverty and allow a capitalistic system run amok to maneuver more of us into that category.
tags: Politics | Poverty | Governance

Of Cartoons and Carnage

Jan 11, 2015
Leaving aside for the moment the wisdom of printing unfunny cartoons whose only point seems to be to express one’s elitist contempt for another’s deity, let us contemplate the awful events of the last week.

The boys and young men who have paid with their lives for their desperate acts have their roots, even if they were born in a civilized country, in uncivilized ones. They or their immediate forebears hail from North Africa or the Middle East, from failed states ruled over by tyrants, where “democracy” and a “liberal education” are as unknown as they were in the Dark Ages. They find themselves in a land that has no decent education or work for them; where day to day they struggle for subsistence, never mind inclusion or respect, in the midst of an obscene level of plenty; where any role models they can find fill them with hatred for the Other and a lunatic dependence on a willful misinterpretation of their deity.

And, for the most part, they are poor. Oh, yes, Mohammed Atta apparently was middle class and bin Laden was from a wealthy family. Spare me the “Yeah, but”s. This is poverty we are speaking about. Poverty of knowledge, poverty of experience, poverty of exposure, and just plain poverty. It is hopelessness, and not the siren call of an adoring deity, that delivers these young people to their early demise.

And it is anger. They see the West and our militarized over-reaction to matters appropriately left to the police. They know about the Afghan wedding parties, the Afghan children, the Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani, Yemeni, Somali, and other civilians slaughtered by our soulless drones, and every infant death produces a dozen more of them ready to die in order to avenge our brutality. Would it be any different with us, if the drones were dropping their fire on St. Louis?

The Forever War. It is enormously profitable for the American military-industrial complex. How much does a small-diameter bomb cost? $50,000. $100,000? Try $250,000, brought to the drop point by a plane that costs $68,000 an hour to operate.

How does it end? Who can tell? Easier to say how it will go on, because it will. And once again, it comes down to those two vital areas: education and adequately remunerative employment. We must pledge ourselves to the liberal development of every one of our human resources here in the West. No child can be left behind to be forged in the furnace of ethnic hatred and pseudo-religious fundamentalism. And we must guarantee every adult a decent job at a living wage. We must reverse the alienation and disenchantment which is turning more and more of our fellow human beings, here and abroad, into instruments of death.

And we must stop supporting tyrannies, even the creeping tyranny of the one-percenters that threatens our own democracy here at home.

It can happen if the people can be brought to realize it must happen. And that must happen soon, because already it is almost too late.

tags: Religion | Terrorism | Governance

My Four-Star Books in 2014

Jan 01, 2015
I rate the books I read (I usually finish about 64 a year). Three stars is Recommended; four stars is Highly Recommended. Here are my 21 Four-Star books from 2014 (the fewest since 2005). Though there are some standouts, it wasn't a great year for reading. Bold-face items received 4.5 stars:

Julio’s day, Gilbert Hernandez
At last, Edward St. Aubyn
Bad news, Edward St. Aubyn
Mother’s milk, Edward St. Aubyn
Stitches, a memoir, David Small
The infatuations, Javier Marias
Castle Richmond, Anthony Trollope
Lady Anna, Anthony Trollope
Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth
Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope
The apartment, Greg Baxter
The colony of unrequited dreams, Wayne Johnston
Three strong women, Marie Ndiaye
The unwinding, George Packer
The light of Amsterdam, David Park
To rise again at a decent hour, Joshua Ferris
How to read and why, Harold Bloom
Swing, hammer, swing, Jeff Torrington
The sense of an ending, Julian Barnes
The dog of the south, Charles Portis
Norwood, Charles Portis

I'd love to hear your reaction to any of the above. Happy Reading in 2015!
tags: Books and Libraries

Take the Pledge

Nov 02, 2014
Someone (Mark Twain?) once famously commented, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Of course, the remark was intended to be a facetious one. What, after all, can one do about the weather? Precious little, as we are coming to realize in the face of global warming and increasingly dire episodes of out-of-control climate change.

Everybody (it seems) also talks about our current political situation, and have been talking about it eloquently for a good many years now, in films, books, newspaper columns, magazine articles, speeches, podcasts, tweets, and what-have-you. But nobody is doing anything about it.

Well, I am.

After attending to much of the material noted above, and after six years of blogging and considerable thought, I conclude that there are two bedrock issues we must address before we can do anything about all the others with which we are confronted. And those issues are poverty and education.

See The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012 and Poverty in the United States.

Poverty, always a problem in this, the richest nation in history, is getting worse. And as FDR told us, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

It is time to provide enough to those who have too little. And the only way I can see clear to doing that is through work. Men and women need to work, for their food and shelter, for their self-esteem, and in order to take their proper place in a society where, for better or for worse, we are dependent upon one another. And their work needs to earn them a living wage. It is immoral to take an adult’s full-time labor and compensate that adult with less than a living wage. It is immoral, and it ought to be illegal.

So I pledge to expend my precious vote only on candidates who themselves pledge to support the following: That any adult 18-65 who is able and wanting to work will be provided with a job that pays a living wage.

Education. No Child Left Behind is a wonderful sentiment. However, as anyone who is today associated with the education establishment, the public welfare bureaucracy, or the prison system knows all too well, it is a sentiment which is far from becoming a reality. We waste our human capital by the millions in this country, and the burden which an unemployed, uneducated, and all-too-often imprisoned citizenry places on the rest of us is unacceptable. If we are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, then no child can any longer be left behind to grow up in neglect, poverty, and ignorance.

This will require a reallocation of resources, a makeover of our public education system, and long-term devotion to the betterment of each and every individual member of our society.

And so I pledge to expend my precious vote only on candidates who themselves pledge to support the following: That we as a nation will do whatever it takes to assure that every child will grow up in a sufficiently nurturing environment so as to optimize their potential for leading happy and productive lives.

And you out there, will you join me and take the pledge? Because you know that today your vote is wasted, that representative democracy in this country is no more, that even the best of our “public servants” are captives of corporate money and influence.

If you will, send me your name, town, and state, and I will add it to the list of others who have so pledged. If the list grows sufficiently, one day it will make a difference, and perhaps we will be on our way to reversing our present descent.

And if you won’t take the pledge, just what will you do? I hope it is something worthwhile, and I hope to hear about it, because I will want to do it, too.

tags: Domestic Unrest | Politics | ATN

The End of Libraries, Part 18

Nov 01, 2014
Amazon has introduced the Kindle Unlimited (KU) service. For $9.99 a month, subscribers can download and read an unlimited number of books on Kindle and Kindle-enabled devices from a collection of over 700,000 titles (up from 600,000 when it was first introduced). Subscribers also have access to thousands of audio books from Audible.

This takes the one-book-a-month service to Amazon Prime subscribers a giant step further on the road that may one day see libraries replaced with a for-profit subscription service. For less than $120 a year, readers can now read their fill—no limit to the numbers of books they read, no due dates, no late fees. I wrote in Part XVII of this series about Scribd and Oyster, two other subscription services whose offerings are similar in scope and cost to KU. Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla, however, and KU is a more serious threat to public libraries than other subscription services. Of course, 700,000 titles are a small portion of the millions of titles available in digital format today, and you can bet that many of your favorite authors and newest bestsellers will not be any more available on KU than they are today, digitally, at your public library.

However, who can doubt that if and when Amazon finds an acceptable way to recompense publishers and writers equitably based upon actual circulation, we won’t see that package expand exponentially? “Actual circulation” today can not only track downloads, but methods are even available to determine whether someone actually read a downloaded book, a portion thereof, or none at all. And in Part II of this series, I outlined a method for public libraries to recompense publishers and writers which Amazon could easily adapt to its purposes.

As noted in Part I of this series, “If libraries cannot begin to serve their patrons’ eBook reading needs—and they don’t come close to doing so today—and an Amazon or another commercial endeavor steps in to fill that need, libraries are finished.” Public libraries are not doing a significantly better job of serving their patrons today than they were doing back then, over three years ago.

Amazon Prime’s book lending feature is insufficient to threaten libraries; KU’s is not. A recent article in Forbes, for instance, advocates closing all the libraries in Great Britain and purchasing a KU subscription for every citizen, arguing that such numbers could warrant a low “bulk rate” from Amazon that would save the country money. I have no doubt such thoughts are rolling around many a publisher and writer’s head, and you can bet Jeff Bezos is thinking the same thing.

I’m a big fan of Amazon and always have been. If they manage to kill libraries, I won’t blame them. They are doing what comes naturally. We aren’t. We (publishers, writers, readers) are sitting by and watching the privatization of our dearest resource, and the passing of it into the hands of a monopolistic entity whose only concern is maximizing profit.

tags: Books and Libraries

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