Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

The Thinker

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

 
The Thinker

Why do we hate the poor?

Have you ever been poor? I’m not sure where the dividing line is between poor and not poor, but if you are poor you will know it. By that standard I have been poor. One thing I learned during those years is that being poor totally sucked. Anyone who has ever been poor has every incentive in the world to get out of the state and will if they possibly can.

So many of us though resent the poor. We see them as moochers leaching off the rest of us. I’m trying to figure out why this is. At one level it’s easy to say it’s a classist thing. We hang out with people we feel comfortable with and these are generally in our socioeconomic group. Unless you have had the experience of being poor, it’s hard to empathize with those who are poor. It’s easy to think, “How hard can it be? Just apply yourself! You can work your way into the middle and upper classes. Get off your lazy asses!”

Lots of people manage it somehow; it’s the American dream after all. But lots of people don’t or simply can’t. And some people who used to live that dream have had it taken away from them, at least for a while. Count among these autoworkers, garment workers, coal miners and those who find their skills become obsolete. When it happens to these people, it’s clearly not their fault; they were unfortunate. It’s pretty clear where many of today’s Uber drivers will be in ten years: not taxiing people around. Uber is quite interested in the automated car and that’s because it can pay for the software that will drive people around quite easily, probably for no more than a couple of hundred bucks a year per car. Those Uber drivers probably earn at least ten bucks an hour. Uber would like to keep rates the same but channel the cost of their labor into their bank accounts instead.

When I was poor (i.e. independently living but not quite scraping by, roughly 1978-1981) I found the experience depressing. I preferred sleep to being awake because dreams were not as dismal as my life was. I had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree but like in 2008 the economy at the time sucked and my degree was not particularly marketable. I earned just over minimum wage doing retail work. I had roommates and I lived in a cheap part of town. I could not afford my car, so I sold it for scrap and walked, biked or took the bus when I needed to go somewhere. I ate cheaply but never well. Retail employment proved ephemeral. My hours were cut to almost nothing and only moving to another department let me pay my bills. I had no dependents but I did have a student loan to pay. I couldn’t even afford a vacuum cleaner for my apartment. My low status and lack of wheels made me largely friendless and dateless.

I never went on food stamps, mainly because it never occurred to me to try. I probably would have qualified for food stamps, which were much more generous back then. I wasn’t unemployed so welfare was not an option, but like many enlisted people today what I was paid wasn’t enough to really live on, unless you meant a basic and fretful existence, never quite sure whether if ill fortune struck if you would be out on the street.

From my perspective being poor really sucked, but I’m really glad I’m not poor today. Today to get food stamps I’d likely have to pee into a cup and I might not get them at all having no dependents. There were more homeless shelters back then and some states (I was in Maryland at the time) were progressive enough to maybe help you get back on your feet. Maybe there was Section 8 housing that you didn’t have to wait ten years to get.

I also knew that if worse came to worst, my parents might loan me some money or let me stay with them for a while. As there were eight of us, the expectation was that we could handle life somehow. We did but we were blessed in many ways. We were raised in love, treated humanely and attended good schools. Our parents had our backs. We had a pretty good idea how the world worked, knew which pitfalls to avoid and our parents lived sober and sensible lives that were not hard for us to model. In essence life put us a few rungs up on the ladder. Some sizeable but unquantifiable portion of this came from the privilege of being born white.

Being white, racism was not something I ever experienced. We weren’t part of any minority group, except possibly from being Catholic, which was hardly unusual, just that there were more Protestants. My mother’s ancestry was Polish, so there was the occasional Polish joke directed our way, but it clearly made no sense as most of us got straight A’s.

Had I been born black and poor the likelihood that I would have ascended into the middle class would have been much less. As I was born into the middle class, one crushing part of being poor was knowing I was faking it. But at least I had a brain, understood most of the social cues, could read, write and do math and was both white and male. It was these skills that made my years being poor relatively brief.

Those years though were not wasted years. They gave me insights into life that wholly elude Donald Trump, most Republicans and conservatives and many who simply haven’t experienced it. Being poor is hard and incredibly stressful. You are never sure when the next shoe will drop but often you have to simply hope for the best. I am quite confident that as hard as it was for me, it is magnitudes harder for those who were born poor. I never had to worry about gangs or being shot in the street. Burglary virtually never happened where I lived and our schools were well funded with decently paid and engaging teachers. I had regular parental supervision, and two parents to turn to. A frequently absent single mom that worked three jobs and that shuffled me between many babysitters did not oversee me. I never went hungry or malnourished. My clothes were sometimes second hand but they were usable.

Being poor depressed me but for the chronically poor the symptoms look a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Worse, the PTSD occurs at the worst time in life: when you are a child, and can last decades or a lifetime. It sets in motion patterns of behavior that become instinctive but become nearly impossible to change, driving many mental, physical and emotional issues that tend to carry through adult life.

When you are poor you really want people with the empathy to cut you some slack. But these days that’s largely not an option. Rather, those with the power will turn the screws even more. They will reduce your food stamps. They will introduce ever more burdensome obstacles simply to summon the very basics to survive. Today’s safety net has many holes in it. Whether the net will catch you at all or let you slip through it depends on many factors, but it’s problematic at best. No wonder it’s increasingly difficult for the poor to ascend another rung or two in life. The mines are laid everywhere. You will take some hits; it’s guaranteed. You simply hope for the best but there is too much road kill around you to have unrealistic expectations that you are all that special.

As miserable as it is to be poor, it’s much worse to be homeless. It’s a combination of pain, poverty, hunger, despair and feelings of unworthiness and shame that feels equivalent to being in hell. I can’t say this from personal experience, but it’s easy enough to infer. I can see the searing pain etched on the faces of the homeless I see in the streets everyday.

Why do we hate the poor? The answer doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding that being poor is difficult at best and traumatic and potentially life threatening at worst, and it should require society to act compassionately. It is to be avoided at all costs if possible, but as there are no guarantees in life it’s always a possibility that it can happen, even to you. It’s unrealistic to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, particularly if you don’t have any boots. If you have been poor, you will feel nothing but compassion for those who are poor. If you have not, count your blessings. Only good fortune is keeping you from finding out.

 
The Thinker

The rags to riches myth

And that myth would be: “In America, you can raise yourself from rags to riches.”

The myth did not begin with Horatio Alger, Jr. but he did a lot to spread it. The 19th century American author wrote dozens of rags to riches books that proved financially rewarding for Alger. However, Alger himself was not a rags to riches story. He was the son of a Unitarian minister. He was home schooled for his first ten years and eventually was sent to the Gates Academy and thence to Harvard University. He had a brief career following in his father’s footsteps. For about two years, he was a pastor at a Unitarian assembly on Cape Cod, and then abruptly resigned. Many years later, it was revealed that he molested two teenage boys in his congregation, the circumstances of which were hushed up at the time. Perhaps a tendency toward pedophilia drew him to New York City and into the world of young and often homeless boys who sold newspapers and shined shoes. In real life, none of these boys that we know about made their way from rags to riches. Even in Alger’s stories, the boys typically succeed because are usually befriended by a kinder, older and moneyed man who sees potential and a good heart in the boy. In short, even in fiction, these boys succeed because of the largess of a benefactor.

Yet it is curious how many Americans truly believe in this myth. Republicans in particular seem to swallow it hook, line and sinker. Perhaps the closest place the myth comes to being actualized is in Hollywood. Many a famous actor can recount stories of bussing tables or working retail while they waited for that big break. Yet, few of these actors grew up in a ghetto or were the product of migrant laborers. Most came from normal middle class households and were often supported by their families. They often achieved some small measure of regional fame before going to Hollywood. In any event they had some talent: usually looks and acting ability and some good fortune, usually one or more inside contacts that helped launch their career. Not many casting directors are actually looking for talent behind the counters of Hollywood Starbucks.

What happens to most people happened to my wife. She was a product of a single-parent household in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s. They could kindly be called lower middle class. In fact, they lived just above and sometimes below the poverty line. Almost every year they moved from one rental house to the next. However, she was smart. Her mind was and still is a sponge and picks up everything that goes into it. This plus the mediocrity of Flint public schools allowed her to easily get As without studying. She won a scholarship to Purdue University. There within a year or so she flunked out. The other students turned out to be way smarter than she was and had acquired study habits that she lacked. They also had this amazing support network called Mom and Dad, as well as various close friends and mentors they had acquired over the years. For the most part, they graduated from Purdue. She did not.

Not surprisingly, when sociologists measure the factors that are likely to mean you attain success (as in a good paying career and a relatively high standard of living) it helps if you come from a family where your parents also have good paying careers. Because they earn more money than their peers, they tend to live in pricier neighborhoods. Moreover, because they make more money than most, they spend more time petitioning their school boards to make sure the schools are top notch. They place their children in communities where their kids will be around people like them, with similar expectations in life. Moreover, their parents invest in their children. They put away money for their college education. They get their teeth fixed. They shepherd them to ballet and little league games. They attend their plays, pay for their tutors and guide them through the college admissions process.

Whereas if you grow up like my wife, your father is a distant memory of your early childhood, you are a latchkey kid, your mother almost never attends a school performance unless it is in the evening and because she tends to work late your diet tends to consist of a lot of greasy fast food. Yet, in many ways my wife was fortunate. She was fortunate to be born white. At the time there were decent paying blue collar jobs in Michigan, although her mother didn’t qualify for them. With the help of a government subsidy, her mother was able to buy into a local Levittown and for half a dozen years or so had a fixed address in a decent neighborhood.

If you are born Black or Hispanic then chances are your road to prosperity, if it happens at all, will be a much steeper climb. Because you are more likely living in poorer neighborhoods, your schools are more likely to be worse and your neighborhoods harsher. You likely have gangs, drugs and juvenile delinquency to deal with. You are almost guaranteed to be living in a single parent household. There is a good chance that your mother (who almost always gets custody because the father mysteriously disappears) will be trying to survive on two or three constantly changing dead end jobs, which means you will grow up not seeing much of her. The odds of you picking yourself up by your own bootstraps and living that richer and larger life are almost non-existent. They are unless you want to be a thug and perhaps through many acts of violence control the local drug market. You can also hope for unlikely fame shooting hoops or carrying a football.

In short, success in America, like is true anywhere else, depends primarily on how and where you entered this world, and the degree of caring and support you get from family, friends and community. It may also depend, in part, on how tall you are, your body mass index and how beautiful you are. Your race also predicts your success. While no one is guaranteed to be a success, the odds increase dramatically in your favor if you have some or all of the above.

By the way, my wife is now an American success story. Her success is due, in part, to marrying me, because I was a product of a middle class family that was nurturing and valued education. In the 1990s, her employer funded her tuition to night school. Over six years, she earned her bachelor’s degree that allowed her to move from secretary to I.T. support person. Even so, since she was cruelly downsized in the early 2000s, much of her present standard of living is thanks to my salary. When she managed to find work she found it suddenly paid about half what she used to make. My family certainly encouraged her to persevere, and I took up the parenting duties while she attended classes and studied during her nights and weekends. Which proves my point: no one lifts themselves up by their own bootstraps. It takes a certain amount of talent, a lot of perseverance, enormous amounts of good education, connections, a ton of money and especially a caring and supportive community to succeed.

If we truly want Americans to prosper, we need to foster this is the sort of caring and nurturing environment for all Americans.

 
The Thinker

Save a human life and eat less meat

Rising food and gas prices have been much on my mind lately. Unlike many Americans, rising gas prices do not bother me that much. I feel like we have been getting discount rates for gasoline for far too long. The effect has been counterproductive, encouraging urban sprawl and environmental degradation. I would like to see gas taxes raised to encourage conservation and to fund research into clean transportation solutions. It sure will not happen if we suspend federal gasoline taxes, a harebrained proposal that was endorsed by both presidential contenders John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

Rising food prices though do bother me. As I am one of the more economically fortunate Americans, I am not personally put out much by the rising cost of food. However, I do know that rising food prices are affecting many Americans. It has reached the point where some are going hungry who never went hungry before. Community food banks are running low, affected by both increased demand and fewer contributions. The drop in donations is due in part to the rising cost of food.

Cross our borders and the rising cost of food is not a minor cause for concern, but a major problem. In some poorer countries, it has morphed into full-blown crises. In Mexico, the cost of maize has increased 30% since the start of the year, making the simple corn tortilla almost a luxury item, and beyond the budget of many of Mexico’s poorest. Food riots in Haiti last month forced a change in government. The Washington Post documented the malnutrition and starvation occurring now in Mauritania, one of many poor countries with this problem. In Egypt, ten people died recently in fights in bread lines. The Philippines, which imports much of the rice it needs to feed its burgeoning population, is finding the supply of foreign rice scarce. What rice is available is far more expensive and unaffordable to many. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the rising price of food a global crisis.

What is driving up the cost of food? As you may know, there are two primary factors. One is that more of the world is becoming industrialized. With more money in their pockets, these newly emboldened consumers are consuming more food. Principally they are eating a lot more meat. In addition, rising oil prices are “fueling” the growth of renewable energy sources like ethanol. Biofuels that come from food sources mean that there is less food on the market to be consumed, which is contributes to the fast rising price of food. If these factors were not enough, rising oil prices are also contributing to the increased cost of growing food. It costs more for the gasoline to till the soil, plant and harvest crops. It also costs more to transport crops to market.

There may have been times in our past when food prices were this high, but I cannot recall them. In my memory, American farms have always produced far more food than could be consumed. Billions of metric tons are still shipped overseas to feed a growing world. The U.S. remains the world’s biggest food exporter, but that is changing. Now, with 6.5 billion humans across the world to feed even our surplus is not quite enough. Moreover, world demand for petroleum seems unstoppable. It appears that the world is in for a turbulent and hungry period, with hundreds of millions if not billions of people at risk of malnutrition or starvation.

I know that I will survive largely unaffected. I have the income to weather any food or energy crisis. Yet, my lifestyle also has the indirect effect of causing other people to go hungry. When I fill my gas tank with 5% ethanol, I am encouraging this industry. If people are going hungry, I would rather pay higher prices for gas without ethanol in it. I would prefer to divert these crops into food for consumption by my fellow human beings. If we are going to make the choice to use renewable fuels, then we must make sure these crops go to feed hungry people first. I have no problem with using open space that is currently not being farmed to grow non-food crops like switchgrass that can be made into renewal fuels. However, the lives of hungry people must first. If we need to expand food production in order to keep people from starving, we should choose this over cultivating crops for biofuels.

In addition, we in the developed world need to rethink our addiction to meat. I mentioned in an earlier post that vegetarianism is good for the planet. It is not only good for the planet; it is good for anyone who values human lives. The majority of corn and soy grown in our country goes not to feed humans, but animals, who we then slaughter for their meat. According to this New York Times story, it takes two to five times as much grain calories to fatten livestock for slaughter compared to humans consuming the grain directly. In the case of cattle on feedlots, the ratio goes as high as ten to one. While we need protein to survive, Americans typically consume about twice as much protein as they need. The protein we do need can just as easily come from plant sources as from meats. Despite high grain prices, grains are much cheaper per calorie than meat.

I do not plan to give up meat altogether, but I do feel the ethical imperative to start consuming less meat. My steaks, which are already rare treats, will be fewer and smaller. I plan to go without meat one day a week for a start, and then see if I can make it two days a week. Perhaps I can take some wisdom from my daughter, who eats comparatively little meat, but consumes plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There is ample protein in peanut butter, and it is loaded with the good kinds of unsaturated fats, not the bad ones. If I feel the need to consume an animal product, an egg or a slice of cheese is a better ethical choice.

Now I am more aware that by driving down the demand for meat, I am helping animals of all species. However, most importantly I am helping my fellow human beings survive. It is not much, but it is a start.

 
The Thinker

Overpaid at $11.59 an hour

I am very grateful that I did not make retail a career. It is a scummy business, operating on very low margins and subject to the constantly changing whims of consumer demand. If you do decide to make retail a career then with a few exceptions expect to be treated shabbily. We need no further proof of this than recent press reports that the electronics retailer Circuit City is firing its retail salespeople because it apparently thinks they are overpaid.

Steven Rash, 24, said he was one of 11 workers fired at a Circuit City in Asheville, N.C. The store manager broke the news during a meeting at 8:15 a.m. and escorted them out of the store. Rash said he has worked for the retailer for seven years and was one of the most junior members of the affected group.

He said he earned $11.59 an hour and worked from 15 to 20 hours a week. He received four weeks of severance pay. Though he has a full-time job at Bank of America, he said he needs to find part-time work to help pay his student loans.

“It’s not just a part-time job,” he said. “It’s about paying the bills.”

Like most people working retail, Steven Rash is working part time. Retailers, like many small employers, prefer part time workers for the obvious reasons: they do not have to pay them benefits, they are readily expendable and can typically be easily replaced, because their job is not highly skilled. My wife does not work retail but is one of the part-time work force who falls into this category. In her case, she works as a level-one computer troubleshooter for a doctor’s practice with a staff of about 50. I will not say how much she earns, but I can say when she was working full time she made about $10 more an hour than she makes in her current position, and she was then surviving on a school teacher’s pay. Now she keeps the computers working at two offices in this practice for very modest wages and typically works 20-30 hours a week.

It is a good thing that she has my financial wherewithal to rely on. If we were divorced, she would be in serious financial straits. Even if she could convert her job into a full time position, could she even afford to keep a roof over her head? (We live in the metropolitan DC area, and rents start at $1200 a month.) I doubt she could afford to live alone. Despite working in a doctor’s office, she would have minimal benefits. The practice she works for is feeling squeezed too, perhaps because Medicare is squeezing them with reimbursement rates that do not cover their expenses. It trickles down to substandard wages and high employee turnover. She says in a typical month about 10 people on the 50 person staff leaves for better offers. The same is true in the retail business too. At the wages they are paid, there is little incentive to stick around. There is even less incentive to feel any loyalty for your employer.

Mr. Rash depends on $11.59 an hour to pay off his student loans. He was probably drawn to Circuit City, not because it paid well, but because it paid better than other scummy retailers like Wal-Mart. Still, $11.59 an hour is hardly the sort of salary that would let you lead an opulent lifestyle. By my calculations, if he could have converted his sales job to a full time job he would make $24,000 a year.

For him his “expensive” $11.59 an hour salary is now moot. The severance pay will pay for a month of student loans. He can take some comfort in that. Many retailers would not even provide a severance check. Nevertheless, likely his next second job will pay even less. Circuit City is helping to lower the bar and to ensure even more Americans cannot earn a living wage. Way to go, Circuit City.

Mr. Rash is also fortunate in one other respect: he has a full time job. It is likely that Bank of America offers him some benefits. I do not know how typical he is of most Circuit City workers. Clearly though not all retail workers are part time workers nor depend on the income just to pay student loans. Many likely depend on these second, third or, in some cases, first jobs, to pay basic expenses.

Today I flew out of Denver International Airport. I happened to overhear one of the people working in one of the screening areas. “It’s a good thing I have my retirement to fall back on,” I heard him say. “Because this job pays $18,000 a year. I could not afford to live on this wage.”

I hope for his sake that he works part time. Because if he has a full time job, then he is earning $8.65 an hour, which would be the wage the airlines are willing to pay to deter future terrorist attacks. I do not know if Denver International is one of these airports that are required to use federal screeners. At these wages, I suspect not. It is hard for me to believe that any federal employee would be required to do this sort of grinding work, day in and day out, on Wal-Mart wages.

Not everyone in the retail business though is being screwed. As The Washington Post reports, Circuit City’s CEO is doing fine. While grunt salesmen and women suffer, his salary last year was $716,346. He also got $704,700 in bonuses, $3 million in stock awards and $340,000 in stock options. Imagine how much more he will get this year for this latest brilliant idea.

The Washington Post also reports that the average hourly wage for retail worker, as of March 2005, was $11.14 an hour. Therefore, it is unlikely then that Steven Rash was underpaid. He was likely earning the market rate. This makes me wonder if this latest strategy by Circuit City will prove to be counterproductive. Call me dubious, but I do not think this strategy will help the Circuit City bottom line. Were I a Circuit City stockholder, I would be calling for CEO Philip J. Schoonover’s head or cashing in my stock. Where will this strategy take Circuit City, already suffering from competition from retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy? My bet is that it will probably take it right off a cliff. As a stockowner and thus an owner of the company, I would want a retail employee who is motivated to work in the best interest of the company, not some retail drone counting the minutes until closing time.

I have empathy for retail workers because I was one of them myself. In the intervening 27 years, I have been only marginally successful in changing the retail worker market dynamics. I have joined the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign, which has resulted in a few, modest successes. I have also supported politicians who advocate living wages with significant campaign contributions. I do know one thing: any company that improves its bottom line at the expense of its workers earns my disdain and contempt. Other retailers like Costco and Wegmans have figured out ways to pay living wages to their employees in highly competitive markets and have thrived. So can apparently scummy retailers like Wal-Mart and Circuit City. Their “leadership” is simply bereft of creative ideas.

Although I have not shopped at a Circuit City in years, it now joins a growing list of retailers that include Wal-Mart that I will boycott until it treats its employees decently. They are not cattle. They are people. Employees deserve nothing less than to be paid a living wage and to be treated with respect.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Fiddling while Rome burns

It is that time of year when I start writing checks to charities. One of my favorite charities is local: So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith effort in Washington D.C. that provides for the basic needs of the area’s poor and homeless. As their name suggests they spend much of their money providing them meals. They also provide clothing and health care to people who obviously cannot afford it. In addition, they work to break the cycle of poverty through services like addiction treatment and counseling, job training and affordable housing. How could Jesus not approve? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” he told us. His message is clear: find grace and meaning by practicing compassion and relieving human suffering.

I am so grateful that I was never homeless nor hungry. That is not to say I do not feel some empathy for these people. I have lived from meager paycheck to paycheck. I never went hungry, but I spent a couple years on the borderline, barely able to pay my rent and eating many meals consisting of little more than rice and entrees in boil a bags, because I could afford little better. When my car died, I lived for a couple years without one. I felt like many of today’s graduates do: that I deserved more from life than what I got. Life was risky when you are 21, you have a new degree and the job market sucks. In the complex game of natural selection in which I was caught, only my relative youth was an asset.

Most religions teach us that life is sacred. The Catholic Church goes the extra mile and prohibit adherents from doing anything “unnatural” to prevent pregnancy or anything deliberate to shorten its lifespan. While life certainly seems to me to be something of a miracle, it should seem less miraculous. We humans are so good at increasing our numbers and extending our life spans that a case can be made that we live unnatural lives. We are rapidly changing our world, and not for the better. Global warming, largely due to human activity, is now an accepted fact. None of us comes with an environmental expiration date. Mother Nature does not knock on our doors and say, “Well, you’ve had your 57 years. You’ve taken as much from the planet as it can give you and sustain the rest of us, so it’s time to die.” We resist. “I am here and I am entitled to live my life as I please. I will live a long life. I will live a prosperous life. I will live a comfortable life. I will be free and I will be reckless in my happiness. I owe no debt to the earth. Go screw yourself.”

I could perhaps satisfy Mother Nature by living a simpler life. I could be like Billy Graham and live alone in a cabin in the woods. Of course, I will not. It is not just me, I tell myself. I do it for my family. I do it for the ones I love. My wife and I are about ready to send our daughter to college. The last thing I want for her is to spend her adult years washing dishes. No, I wish for her a lifestyle similar or better than mine, in a house with central heating and air conditioning, and a car, and in a job that pays well and in a field where she will find meaning and personal growth. My miserable period was rather brief, but it was miserable. I do not want her to endure anything like it because, gosh, it hurt. For similar reasons, I ache for the wretched and homeless and write checks to SOME. I want happiness for that skid row alcoholic too. I want humans to stop dying of preventable diseases or to have to endure pointless suffering. Moreover, I want all war to end, pronto! Just say no to violence, people!

And I want the Earth to be a garden of Eden again. That is, I want a pony.

When I hit that last point that is when I feel like I should go douse myself in cold water. I have castigated President Bush for his guns and butter approach to war. I have castigated Republicans for expecting low taxes and plenty of government services at the same time. Therefore, I should hold myself to my own standard. I should take less, a lot less from this world than I do. Will I do it? Not a chance.

In a sense, my selfishness, as well as the collective selfishness of all of us living a first world life, as well as the billions desperately clawing their way toward a prosperous life, is writing the extinction of our species and possibly our planet. Each of us, by making this very natural choice to move from misery toward comfort is sending a four-finger salute to future generations. We are also sending this message to the other species that inhabit our planet, and on whom we depend for our mutual survival. In addition, we are sending a message to future generations: if we can be so selflessly reckless, so should you.

After all, freedom is what America is all about. Yes, there is a price to freedom. It is not just, as the proponents of the military tell us, that freedom must be defended. Freedom comes with certain constraints. One of its natural constraints is that the more of us there are, the less free each of us can be. Hence, we end up with community associations dictating the color of paint we must use on our houses. However, it is not just population increases that make us less free. It is also how we choose to live our lives. Each person who chooses to live a prosperous life is acting like a neighbor who plays his rock music all night long at ear piercing volumes. That more of us engage in this habit does not mean we are all, either individually or as a whole, really better off.

Even Al Gore is in denial. He talks about setting the thermostat down a few degrees and replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights. He says we must do this to reduce our carbon footprint. Obviously, these are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Al is not planning to give up his house in the suburbs either. His air conditioner may have a higher efficiency rating than yours, but he is not going to put it out with the trash. He too will take much more from the earth than it can affordably give him. Even if we followed all his suggested practices, the earth would not be in balance. At best, we might delay our day of reckoning.

To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I now find myself uncomfortably awake. I know my selfish actions are counterproductive to the values I claim to espouse. I know I am a damned hypocrite. I will continue to assuage my conscience by tinkering around the edges. Those plastic yogurt cups will continue to go in the recycle bin. I expect we will replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent ones. However, I also understand that these actions do not amount to atonement, and that I will continue to live an earth-hostile life. My car may be a hybrid instead of a Hummer, but I am still a sinner. I am farting a little less than my neighbor is, but I am still stinking up the room.

Perhaps knowing that you are in denial is a prerequisite toward moving toward real penance. If so, I am just tentatively sticking my head above the herd and bleating, “This is a real problem, folks.” The herd, being a herd, does not want to hear me but they sure notice that I am trotting in step with them. I shall bleat nonetheless. Meanwhile, I will keep recycling my yogurt cups. In doing so, I do not really atone for my sins. However, for whatever it means, I do acknowledge my sins. I am sorry I am such a reckless fool, but at least I know I am a fool.

 
The Thinker

New Thinking Needed on Child Support

A comment left on my Red vs. Blue: Myth vs. Reality entry a couple weeks ago got me thinking. Our child support laws and procedures need a major overhaul. They are not working very well.

Scofflaws aside, pretty much all of us would agree that those who choose to have sex that results in a birth should pay for the child’s expenses until their child reaches adulthood. Unfortunately, as the commenter pointed out, things in the child rearing business are rarely simple. It is as easy for a woman to get pregnant through a one-night stand with a man whose name she might not even know as it is to become pregnant by her husband. For some men, thirty seconds between a woman’s thighs may be all it takes to cause another human being to come into existence. In some cases (gang rapes come to mind) it may be impossible to identify the father.

It is very clear that a child should do better on two parents’ income than on one. No question about it: in these United States, it takes a heap of money to raise a child to be a productive member of society. I have one daughter, now age 16. For most of her life, I have been tracking her expenses. Anything I spend on her directly goes into a “Childcare” category in Quicken. To date the total of her expenses is about $50,000. This does not include a variety of investments for her college education. By the time college is finally behind her, the total of her expenses is likely to exceed $150,000. Moreover, these are just the direct costs. I did not include food, shelter, movies, transportation and hosts of other miscellaneous costs.

Luckily, my wife and I are solidly in the upper middle class. I am not sure how I would have provided for her if, say, I had been a minimum wage worker trying to eke out a living working at a Wal-Mart. The current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is clearly far below the poverty line. (For reasons wholly ideological, Congress does not seem inclined to increase it.) Mere subsistence, let alone child support payments, is problematical for parents earning these wages. The situation is likely not much better at $10 or $15 an hour.

Undoubtedly, there are enormous numbers of deadbeat dads out there. (Likely, there are deadbeat moms too, but they are probably the exception.) Some, like my wife’s father, simply disappeared after the divorce. He never sent my mother in law any child support payments. She effectively raised my wife by herself, which was daunting since she scraped by from one poorly paid job to the next. My wife’s childhood was full of the unwelcome memories of moving frequently from one rented place to another.

Had there been regular child support coming in then her situation should have been quite different. It is hard to say how it would be different, but it is likely she would have had more continuity in her life. She might have had access to some of enriching experiences that were beyond their means, like piano lessons. Fortunately, her mother was resourceful and made the best of a bad situation. She should have done much worse than she did. Needless to say her mother had no money saved for her to go to college. While she was bright enough to get a college scholarship, she never learned the discipline needed to succeed in a real collegiate environment. I am proud to say that she eventually succeeded, just many years later. She was a working adult and mother when, at age 39, she proudly received her bachelor’s degree.

The government does recognize the seriousness of the problem. In my last job, I worked tangentially with the Office of Child Support Enforcement, part of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. OCSE had the job to assist the states with tracking down deadbeat parents. By comparing withholding forms submitted by employers with the social security database there was the expectation that the government could find these people and get them to pay up.

Despite this, for a scofflaw parent, the odds are only one in five (in 1996) that they will be tracked down and pony up the money. If they are tracked down, it is easy enough for the deadbeat parent move to another state. A national ID card would certainly help, but the idea is anathema to many civil libertarians. Even a national ID card is no guarantee, as many jobs (such as day laborers) pay cash wages.

Fortunately, there are still social programs out there that provide basic aid to needy children. However, since welfare reform became law, assistance has become limited in both amount and duration. The CHIPS program helps children who get the health care that they need. All this government aid, while helpful, still does not address the larger needs of children. Subsidized housing is difficult to acquire and seems to be something that Republicans want to abolish. Day care costs shouldered by working mothers make it difficult for them to also pay the rent, let alone put food on their tables. Our assumption is that working mothers, with some temporary help, will develop the wherewithal to provide for their children. The burden is on them to pressure child support enforcement agencies to find deadbeat fathers.

What more can be done? While everyone seems to want taxes to be as low as possible, I do not think it should be at the expense of our children. If deadbeat parents cannot be found or cannot pay child support, then the government needs to step in and make the payments in lieu of the deadbeat parent. That is not to say that the deadbeat parent should get off the hook. It does mean that no child should be put at a financial disadvantage because of an absentee parent. The government should keep ledger under the deadbeat parent’s name for these payments. The government, when it finds these absentee parents, should press for the collection of back due child support. Tax refunds are already garnished for child support, and wages are garnished too if the parent can be identified. However, other sources of income for the deadbeat parent should also be fair game.

Of course, you cannot get blood out of a stone. If the father simply does not have the money to pay his child support, then the amount may need to eventually be excused. Another possibility is that the government should weigh the costs of helping the parent acquire better paying job skills. If the deadbeat parents had better job skills, perhaps the child support payments could eventually be collected.

Mothers also need to understand that they too bear responsibility. While most assume the parenting duties, which are quite burdensome, they also have a responsibility to behave responsibly in their sex lives. It may sound impractical, but they should have the names and address of anyone they have sex with, not just in case of pregnancy, but in case they contract a sexually transmitted disease. Women who habitually do not do these things must understand the consequences. Perhaps they should be required to use Norplant birth control until they are legally married, or can prove they can financially take care of an additional child.

The bottom line is that the child must be financially insulated from the reality of a deadbeat parent. Society needs to rewrite its rules so that the needs of the child come first. We owe our children nothing less.

 
The Thinker

Red vs. Blue: Myth vs. Reality

This diary on DailyKos got me thinking, and then it sent me Googling. It posits a number of theses, but the general thrust of the arguments is that things are better overall in blue states. It also suggests that the family values so espoused in red states are not as widely practiced in blue states.

Before the 2000 election, no one spoke of red states vs. blue states. For whatever reason during that election the networks showed states that voted for Bush as red on their maps, and states that voted for Gore as blue. Because of the 2004 election, a couple states flipped colors but the map looked largely the same. Blue states covered the northeast, Great Lakes and the West Coast. Red states largely covered the rest of the country. Red state vs. blue state stuck as a national metaphor. Both sides claimed that the values were significantly different between blue and red states. Aside from red states being more likely to be controlled by Republicans, such states emphasize low taxes, religion, individual responsibility and entrepreneurial behavior. Blue states are more likely to be Democratic, tolerant of diversity, secular and progressive in nature.

I decided to spend a couple hours doing some research. I did not have time to do an exhaustive analysis of all the claims made in the diary, but I did find the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which has a variety of social statistics and a convenient engine for generating these statistics by state. I picked statistics that gave me percentages. With states varying in population it made no sense to compare the number of abortions in, say, Nevada with California. By using percentages though, I was able to smooth out the differences between states. Consequently, the statistics I present show all states equally. I believe that a state-by-state comparison, grouped by red and blue states, can be useful for inferring the real values and characteristics of red and blue states.

The engine gave me a nice HTML report, but HTML was not convenient for analysis. I managed to copy the data into a spreadsheet. My analysis was done using MS Excel.

You should know that I am not a statistician. I took a basic course in college where I learned about things like average, mean, medium and standard deviation. I am also aware that one should not read too much into any set of statistics. For example, in the south there are disproportionately more Hispanics and African Americans. Historically they have not done as well in certain fields, like academics, as non-Hispanic whites. I also realize that certain states like Ohio, which were counted as red, split right down the middle in the last election and are more accurately “purple” states. Therefore, it is probably a mistake to read too much into my analysis. Still some of my results were interesting.

Here is a HTML version of my analysis. You are welcome to download the spreadsheet and check my logic. Based on the data and the approach I chose, here are some of the results.

Abortion: In blue states, 22.3% of women aborted their pregnancies. In red states, it was 14.32%. Analysis: Since abortion services are more readily available in blue states I was not surprised to find that more pregnancies were aborted in blue states. So if making abortion difficult is supporting the right to life then red states truly are more “pro life”, or at least more pro the new life.

Out of wedlock births: Women in red states are 1% more likely to have out of wedlock births. Red states have a 4.4% higher pregnancy rate for women age 15-19 than blue states. Analysis: some would infer that teenage women are somewhat “sluttier” in red states. Other reasons that could explain the difference include that teens in red states are less inclined to use birth control, or have a harder time getting a hold of it.

Marriage: If you are a man 20-49 then you are 4.1% more likely to be single in a blue state. Analysis: This is not very surprising; although I doubt gays, flocking to blue states explains the gap. I am surprised that nationally 46% of these men are single.

Education: Men 25-49 in red states are 1.5% more likely not to have earned a high school diploma than in blue states. Analysis: I do not think this margin is statistically significant.

Child Support: Blue states do a better job of collecting child support. (25.2% in blue states vs. 21.1% in red states.) Analysis: Blue states seem to give the problem more focus. What is shocking here is that nationally only about 20% of child support is collected. This is scandalous. I am amazed single mothers are not staging massive protests in Washington. No civilized society should tolerate this.

Poverty: 5.6% more men ages 20-49 live at less than 200% of the national poverty level in red states. For women, the gap is 6.4%. 2.7% more of the women in red states live in poverty in red states than blue states. Analysis: This is probably largely due to socioeconomic factors, but all things being equal it does suggest living in a blue state means you are less likely to be impoverished, perhaps because there is more of a social safety net.

Insurance: Men 15-49 living in red states are 3.5% more likely to be uninsured than in blue states. Women 15-44 in red states are 5% more likely to be uninsured in red states.1.8% more women age 15-44 are covered by Medicaid or SCHIP in blue states than in red. Analysis: This may be cultural. Red states are more likely to embrace a “self reliant” culture.

Sexually transmitted disease: About 3 more men per 100,000 (ages 10 and older) acquire Chlamydia in red states. About 7 more men acquire Gonorrhea. As for syphilis, the difference is about 1.4 men. Analysis: probably statistically irrelevant. There may be a slight cultural bias in red states not to use protection during sex, or more ignorance of the effects of unprotected sex.

If my statistics are meaningful, which they may well not be, then perhaps the following tentative conclusions can be drawn:

  • While “family values” are embraced more in red states, younger people are more inclined to get pregnant out of wedlock in these states. This suggests more “talking the talk” than “walking the walk”.
  • You are less likely to be impoverished and more likely to be insured in blue states.

If I have more time and the inclination, I will look at other sets of statistics.

 
The Thinker

The Illusion of Safety

It is not very often that I find myself agreeing with a Republican. Yet it happened recently. Moreover, of all the unlikely people I agreed with, it was Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Speaker Hastert suggested, at least initially, that the City of New Orleans should not be rebuilt.

Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of federal tax dollars reconstructing a city that sits below sea level and remains vulnerable, Hastert said: “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Hastert since backed off his remarks. How he says:

“My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt,” Hastert said in a statement sent to news organizations Thursday.

Clearly, he soon realized that his remarks were politically incorrect. Naturally, he was pounced on for his remarks. My favorite liberal blog DailyKos.com had numerous diaries and stories pummeling him for the remark. The common thread was that Hastert was being an insensitive and uncaring jerk. Hastert may be that way in real life for all I know. I have never met him. In this case, Hastert may have been blunt, but I also think he was right.

It may be that the kindest act the government can do for New Orleans is to bury it. The city had a great run but Hurricane Katrina should have sobered up everyone. New Orleans is no longer viable as a city in its current location. Perhaps that is why its population has been declining. It will likely decline a lot more after this disaster.

Nearby Bay St. Louis, Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and subsequently rebuilt. Now Hurricane Katrina has destroyed it again. Bay St. Louis though is comparatively small compared with New Orleans. In addition, it is above sea level. Arguably, after Hurricane Camille, Bay St. Louis should have been rebuilt further inland. However, given its size, it makes no economic sense to rebuild New Orleans. It will suffer the same fate again. No levee can be built high enough to keep the city from its ultimate fate. The higher the levees go the more force the river can apply to the levees, which makes them more likely it is to be breeched. When that happens, more people will die needlessly and it will probably happen much more quickly.

What is needed is some tough love. Yes, we need to help the residents of New Orleans and affected parishes rebuild their lives. We should certainly continue to provide temporary shelter and emergency aid. However, when it comes to rebuilding these residents’ lives, we need to help them do it elsewhere. The government should provide incentives for these dislocated citizens to rebuild their lives inland. It should offer disincentives for rebuilding their lives in New Orleans.

Of course, I know how difficult this will be for the affected families. Many likely have roots in New Orleans that go back generations. While I have never been to New Orleans, I know it has a unique culture, wonderful people and many fine historic buildings. Perhaps these institutions should be preserved. Perhaps the city could become a tourist destination only. Nevertheless, I do not think people should actually live in the city again. The risk for its inhabitants is unacceptable. Those who choose to do so should be required to sign a statement disclaiming the government from all financial liabilities for their decision.

New Orleans is really part of a natural coastal flood plain. Just as development is strictly limited on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (homeowners who choose to build houses there generally cannot afford homeowner or flood insurance) those who choose to live in New Orleans or anywhere along our hurricane coasts have to bear the enormous risks to themselves and their property for their decision. We do not bail out gamblers who lose their fortunes in Las Vegas. Similarly, we should not reward New Orleans residents with low cost loans or grants to rebuild their houses.

The response to Hurricane Katrina was clearly bungled at all levels of government. However, the situation was exacerbated by the folly of having so many people living in such a dangerous area. Clearly more should have been done to evacuate people who did not have the means to leave the city. Clearly the local, state and the federal governments should have done a much better job preparing for huge disasters like Hurricane Katrina. While more lives could have been saved, it is folly to think this disaster could have been prevented.

Since 9/11, in particular we have expected our government to keep us safe. Certainly, the government should do a lot to keep us safe from known threats. However, even a premier superpower like the United States has its limits. When a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits a coastal area with 140 mile an hour or plus winds, and sends storm surges of twenty feet or more above sea level then all the government can do is wait out the event and pick up the pieces as best it can. If you live along a Gulf Coast and you expect the government to keep you and your property safe from hurricanes, you are deluded. Unless everyone lives in hurricane-reinforced structures like the USGS Hydrological Instrumentation Facility (which I happen to know about through my job) homes are going to be destroyed. (The HIF, by the way, sheltered hundreds of people during the storm and emerged reasonably intact.) Even if you are fortunate enough to live in such a facility, there are still no guarantees. Mother Nature can undo any work of man. If it does not succeed through a calamity, it occurs through the slow but steady march of time.

So here is the sad reality: the government cannot protect its citizens from lots of threats. Even the threats that we want it to protect us from are largely out of its control. After 9/11, we want assurances that similar incidents will not recur in the United States. The government can do a lot to deter such events, but it cannot necessarily prevent all of them. We can do obvious things like screen passengers and baggage entering the country. Nevertheless, with thousands of miles of borders that we have never succeeded in securing, someone with the will and the means can get into our country. Considering our success rate at capturing illegal aliens, a determined terrorist will find a way to get into our country.

We must wake up and acknowledge government’s limits. We cry out to government to protect us from terrorism, natural disasters, crime, unsafe medicines and foods, gun violence, disease and from millions of other things. Fear is our greatest motivator. Politicians have played on our fears to keep them in office. It may be that because politicians could not protect us adequately from Hurricane Katrina that voters will throw the bums out, and put Democrats back in charge. As a partisan Democrat, I certainly hope so. While no government can make life completely safe for everyone, the Democrats have a much better record of these accomplishments than Republicans do.

Nevertheless, if Democrats get back into office by persuading voters that they will keep America safe they too will be guilty of wholesale pandering. It is foolish to promise that the government can keep its citizens completely safe on any issue. All government can do is improve the odds. Arguably, it should have been a lot better in deterring 9/11 and preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Yet life is uncertain. No government, no matter how competent and well funded can make it certain.

However, government act progressively. It can do a lot to minimize future calamities. In the case of hurricanes, it can penalize those who choose to live near the coast and reward those who live away from our coasts. The chances of this happening in our democracy though are slim. We voters insist that our politicians tell us what they want to hear. So we voters need to sober up too. We need to realize that any government has natural limitations. We need to use our forebrains and vote logically. We should not be pulling the levers for politicians who tell us what we want to hear. Instead, we should be supporting those who have realistic plans for those areas that the government can competently manage.

Life is uncertain. We can be alive at one moment and dead the next. We will all die in time. We will all suffer our share of disasters, heartache and misery. Suffering, as the Buddhists (and others) have pointed out, is an unpleasant fact. We cannot wish it away. We can certainly minimize it, and government can do a lot to reduce unnecessary suffering. Nevertheless, we must all suffer. Despite our best-laid plans, some shit is going to happen. We must come to terms the uncertainty of our lives. It is sensible for many of us to take steps to minimize life’s risks. Nevertheless, our lives are like rolling a pair of die. It is foolish to think we will get snake eyes every time.

 
The Thinker

Government is the price of progress

Some years back I read a review of the book Children of the Depression. I purchased the book, which is full of glossy black and white pictures documenting ordinary life for children in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pictures were found in the archives of the now defunct Farm Security Administration. In their raw and unvarnished form, they detail the heartbreaking daily poverty of ordinary Americans living through those times, with an emphasis on how the lives of children were affected.

Both my parents lived through the Great Depression. My paternal grandfather was a civil servant, so my father was only tangentially affected by it. My mother, born in 1920, had her entire life view shaped by being young and in a desperately poor family during the Great Depression. Looking through Children of the Depression, I can see that world through my mother’s eyes.

Here are a few snippets from my mother’s autobiography that gives you some inkling of just how awful and life was for her during this time:

When Dad lost his job, that was the end of meat in our diet every day. Now it was depression soup (a mixture of oatmeal, onions, water, salt and pepper).

How did we keep warm? I’m hazy here but I do believe welfare gave use some coal, but not enough to keep our drafty house warm. We are not proud of this, but we stole some from the trains that would pass near us. A few blocks to the east of us the train had to slow down to make a turn and the older boys would hop atop the coal cars and when they would get within blocks of our house, they would toss coal off as fast as they could. When the train would slow down they hopped off and gathered their booty in burlap bags and carried them home. Things got so bad at times the boys would hop a night train and go out early to pick it up.

There is much more to her story. Her family depended on sporadically available charity clothing and food. She routinely missed the first few weeks of school because she had to earn migrant labor wages in the fields harvesting the crops like sugar beets. Holes in her shoes were left unfixed, and she used cardboard insets instead. Naturally, there was no money for doctor visits, drugs, dental care or therapy. She was just one daughter in a family of twelve supported by an immigrant father. Her father, who emigrated from Poland, dropped out of school after the third grade. During better days, he was employed as a butcher.

Leafing through Children of the Depression, you can see that my mother’s tale was wholly ordinary and one of millions. Many people dealt with much worse than she experienced. While her family’s house was sold at auction, they managed to evade being thrown into the streets. They were eventually able to pay off the back taxes and reclaim their house. Therefore, unlike many in America during the Depression, they did not have to live the vagabond life. Such was life in Bay City, Michigan and much of America in the 1930s.

As bad as the Great Depression was, it could have been much worse. While modern welfare benefits were unknown, there were surplus food and goods that the government sporadically made available for the poor. My grandfather eventually found employment as a laborer helping to construct a bridge over the Saginaw River. This was just one of the many projects funded by President Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress during this period that succeeded in putting many chronically unemployed people to work. The government did not choose to stand on the sidelines while so many Americans suffered so deeply.

A couple days ago, I learned about the Otto Bettmann book The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible! It describes life in the 1880s. By comparison, the Great Depression seems wonderful. A diarist on DailyKos summed up some of the key findings, which include:

FOOD: Adulteration of foodstuffs was problem and conventional practice in the 1880’s. Alum, copper, and sulphur were often added to bread flour for preservatives. Coloring for candy was often toxic, sickening children and adults alike. “Bogus butter,” a mixture of animal fats, calcium, or potatoes (whatever was on hand) was bleached and processed in disgusting conditions and repackaged by merchants and labeled as butter. Canneries operated under filthy conditions, and the process itself often was proven detrimental, through the use of chemicals added to preserve. Slop fed to cows often made the children sick

SANITATION: Cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Helena Montana, Leadville Colorado, generally suffered from putrid conditions. The air stank, refuse filled the streets, garbage and food refuse was dumped everywhere, the waste of humans and animals alike trickled through crowded streets. Unhygienic conditions on the streets were matched by interior conditions in workhouses, orphanages, factories, asylums, hospitals, and farmhouses. Life in the country did not proved an escape from unsanitary conditions; private wells were often contaminated by close proximity to barns, privies, and household refuse. Many homesteaders lived with farm animals in their homes during winter months.

Yes, this was just a bit of the way things were actually like during those glorious, wonderful days of laissez faire capitalism. They must have been wonderful, because I hear modern current conservatives brandishing obsolete slogans like Thoreau’s “the government that governs best governs least”. I have to wonder: we are aspiring to return to days like this?

While that is unlikely, we do see more and more steps in this direction. We saw it emerge in recent times with the election of Ronald Reagan, who appointed people with open contempt for the general welfare. Of course, we also find ample examples of it in our current administration. We see it in its hostility to raises in the minimum wage. We see it in its refusal to create meaningful increases in vehicle fuel economy. We also see it in its inability to acknowledge honestly that global warming is largely a result of human activity. While our president makes inane statements about prosperity like “We’ve got to make the pie higher”, in actuality he is very deliberately making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Because of his tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich, when necessary commodities like gasoline rise in sharply price, those of lower incomes bear most of the pain.

Economic conservatives these days seem very much out of touch with reality. For one they seem to assume that liberals and progressives are against capitalism. They think that we embrace unbridled socialism as utopia here on earth. Except for a few liberals on the fringes, this is just plain wrong. Progressives like me understand that capitalism is a vital ingredient in social progress. However, capitalism is just one force that enables the promotion of the general welfare. The other part is government, which has the duty to promote the general welfare.

Centuries of unbridled capitalism have demonstrated beyond argument that by itself capitalism does not lift all boats. Instead, unbridled capitalism gives power to the wealthy. Moreover, by restraining government so that it does not do much to help the general welfare, it perpetuates the class system. Our social security system was created by the government because the private sector could not provide it and it was needed. Nor would free markets ensure that all laborers could earn a living wages. Capitalism does not care a whit if human beings are forced to live in tarpaper shacks or whether communities have modern sewage systems. Capitalism is simply a means that helps to maximize profits for the owners of the company. As is amply evidenced in the hallways of Congress and state legislatures across our country, businesses will petition endlessly to shift the costs, risks and burdens of industry off them and onto anyone else. They call it “being more competitive”. When you hear those words, beware!

Just as unbridled capitalism is not ideal, neither is unbridled socialism. Capitalism is a necessary engine for progress, but it must be constrained so it becomes win-win. Companies need to make profits, but also need to be constrained to ensure some of the profits indirectly improve life for all Americans. In addition, the government needs to give capitalists the maximum freedom to earn those profits consistent with allowing its benefits to affect the commonweal. This is, at its heart, what the economic aspects of the progressive movement are all about. It should not be the least bit controversial. It should be “No duh!”

Economic conservatives need to sober up. Libertarianism is simply not a workable philosophy in our modern world. We need agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, otherwise we are back to snake oil salesmen and unsafe food. We need the EPA, if for no other reason than capitalists need consumers around to buy their products. While there are perhaps some agencies whose missions are of dubious value, the vast majority have survived because they are involved in vital regulation and monitoring. This enables both the general welfare and provides a platform so that entrepreneurial behavior can continue to flourish.

Those who pine for the 1880s are sadly misguided and recklessly foolish. Except for the J. P. Morgans of the world, most of humanity lived short, sad and miserable lives. Ironically, China is becoming a case for why progressive government is needed. While some income levels in China may be creeping up due to largely unchecked capitalism, lifespan is decreasing from the resulting unchecked pollution.

Like it or not we now live in a far more complex world. Unless we all become like the Amish, the combination of increasing populations and quickly evolving technologies will make it inevitable that government will need to expand. If you object then to be consistent, you should give up your computer, cell phones and automobiles, none of which would be as cheap, safe or work as well without necessary and relatively benign government regulation. Like it or not, our complex and modern world and growing government is here to stay.

 

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