Republicans continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s pretty hard to keep up with the inanities coming out of the mouth our “president”. As a Democrat he sure embarrasses me, but I often wonder why Republicans are not. If retiring Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) is correct, most Republicans in Congress are embarrassed by Trump, but can’t summon the political will to say so.

Trumps tweets and remarks get weirder and weirder. This is probably due to 50% ignorance and 50% cognitive decline. Still, it’s quite embarrassing. Yesterday, a day after his Secretary of Energy Rick Perry declared that Puerto Rico was a country, Trump told a convention of evangelicals that he has spoken with the “president” of the Virgin Islands. So two top administration officials including our “president” don’t understand that both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are American territories. What’s next? Sending in the marines to take over these “countries”?

Yet on such capable shoulders we are entrusting our nation. The only thing seeming to restrain Trump from his worst impulses seems to be a few officials, principally Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Maddis and Secretary of State Tillerson. They are our firewall of sorts, although there is no guarantee they can restrain Trump. Reportedly they have a suicide pact: if one gets fired they all resign. In any event depending on one unflagging Chief of Staff to babysit Trump 24/7/365 doesn’t seem like a great plan. Trump might launch nuclear weapons against North Korea while Kelly is in the bathroom.

So what does all this have to do with the rich getting rich and the poor getting poorer? Nothing really. I am just venting. But in the boatload of stupid that has come out of Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed recently, there was this from his interview with Sean Hannity on Tuesday:

The country — we took it over and owed over 20 trillion. As you know the last eight years, they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed more than $10 trillion, right? And yet, we picked up 5.2 trillion just in the stock market.

Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months, in terms of value. So you could say, in one sense, we’re really increasing values. And maybe in a sense we’re reducing debt. But we’re very honored by it. And we’re very, very happy with what’s happening on Wall Street.

Aside from the numbers themselves that are off, there is the amazing conclusion from Trump, a graduate of Wharton. Remember, Trump recently bragged that he could beat Rex Tillerson in any IQ test. Trump apparently thinks that gains in the stock market cancel out federal debt. This is surprising in itself, but apparently it only works if he is in office. It doesn’t apply to the Obama administration, which saw the longest sustained growth of the stock market in history. There is no doubt that the stock market is doing very well since he took office, but it’s not doing appreciably better than it did under Obama. Those of us with lots of stocks are just seeing our pile of wealth get larger and larger.

I certainly see it in our portfolio. We take $1900 a month out of it to supplement our retirement. Just our investments (almost all of it in retirement accounts) amounted to $795K on February 1, and is now valued at $857K. Add in our house and other assets are we are millionaires, if a net worth of about $1.41M means that much these days. Gains in the stock market though create wealth only for those who own stocks. Guess what? Many of those who voted for Trump don’t have much if anything invested in the stock market. That’s due in part because there is little money left over to invest in stocks. According to one study, in 2013 the top 1% alone owned 38% of the stock market. The top 10% owned 81.4% of stocks. That leaves 19% for the rest of us. I may be technically a millionaire but rest assured my assets are part of that 19%. In reality I am not even close to being rich, at least not by the standards of the top 10%. I sure don’t plan to buy a Tesla or fly on a private jet to Monaco.

To make money in the stock market though you need to invest regularly over many decades and hold onto the assets. And that’s only possible if you have money left over to invest in the first place. It also means that you also need a relatively secure job, so that you are not raiding your nest egg in lean times. You also need it just to get through recessions and downturns with your investments able to wait out the hard times. If you don’t have all these factors in your favor you probably won’t be investing much in stocks and if you do it will be periodic retirement investments during relatively flush times.

So the surging stock market is really creating wealth principally for the rich who already have plenty of it, exacerbating income inequality. At best its effect for the rest of us is indirect, perhaps by keeping unemployment low thus maybe pushing up wages a bit, or by stimulating investment in the economy. Nothing about the stock market’s rise though fundamentally changes things for the middle class, poor and working class.

Indeed, Republicans seem intent to make things worse. Just yesterday Trump ordered an end to Obamacare subsidies for the working class. This will have the effect of pricing almost all of them out of the health insurance market. This will make healthcare more expensive, increase the probability of bankruptcy due to medical debt and make their financial situation more precarious. In short, they are likely to be pushed down the ladder again. The major reason these classes saw any gains recently was from having affordable health care, which helped protect their assets.

Having tasted real health insurance, these voters are likely to be furious when they vote next November, particularly as the rich will keep getting richer. While the stock market may continue to surge until then, these changes will directly affect the financial stability of the middle and lower classes. It’s likely that when these voters realize they have been shafted once again that Republicans will pay a huge political price.

Ted Cruz is worried about a blowout if Republicans don’t deliver on tax cuts and repealing Obamacare. As he will discover next November these are the factors likely to cause the blowout.

How the working class will be fleeced again

The Thinker by Rodin

Stocks are up! Pundits (like me) were obviously wrong that Trump’s election would depress the stock market, at least in the short term. Trump’s threats of a trade war with China, dissing Lockheed Martin for its F-35 cost overruns and Boeing for bogus inflated costs to make the next Air Force One should have had the markets concerned. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have taken hits but overall the stock market keeps cranking up its share prices. By one measure, the S&P 500 is up 13.04% for the year, and 6.39% of the gain has been since the election.

Will these gains continue? In the short term it seems likely. Wall Street is betting that Republicans (who spent eight years trying to stop more federal spending) will agree to deficit spending for infrastructure initiatives that Trump has proposed. There are also those juicy tax cuts, principally for businesses. However, if Obamacare is repealed, the principle beneficiaries will be the rich, who won’t have to pay extra taxes to subsidize health care for the poor and middle class. (In case you were wondering, this is Republicans’ biggest grief with the ACA, not the mandate. They just won’t admit it.)

While this sucks for those who depend on Obamacare, all this should contribute to growth, at least until Trump starts his promised trade wars. What it won’t do is lower the deficit. In fact it will increase it. Most likely Republicans will lose their deficits-are-evil mantra again, at least until we have another Democratic president. Then of course it will become the most important thing in the world again. Lowering businesses taxes of course simply adds to shareholders’ bottom lines and thus share prices. This comes at the expense of depriving the government of revenue foisting yet more of the tax burden on individuals – well, except the rich, of course.

What this amounts to and what the stock market is telling us is that income inequality will increase again. To put it another way, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. This should be very alarming because democracies are more vulnerable when income inequality is high. But in the short term those with money are likely to do better. Rising stock prices are a reaction to this anticipated future. Since Wall Street generally doesn’t look past the next quarter you can’t read too much into it for the long term.

For now, continuing rising U.S markets are not an unreasonable proposition. Trump is stuffing his cabinet with not just millionaires, but billionaires. His cabinet will be the richest ever. In fact, Trump’s proposed cabinet’s net wealth is equal to one third of the wealth of all American households. He thinks that wealth indicates not only success but also an ability to get things done.

Since Trump is picking people that are at odds with many of his stated goals (like bringing back manufacturing jobs in the United States) it’s likely that a lot of his campaign promises in these areas are simply bluster. I would not hold your breath for a wall on our southern border, for example and I would definitely not expect Mexico to pay for it. I do expect that the working class that voted for him will be disappointed where it counts: in the pocketbook. Here’s why:

  • Blue-collar jobs that pay decent wages aren’t coming back – at least not in the volume our parents knew them, and they likely won’t be union jobs or with pensions. Even Trump knows this. The robotics revolution will continue meaning those manufacturing jobs that are created in the United States will be relatively few and those that get them will need higher skills.
  • Despite a “hydrocarbon heavy” cabinet, fossil fuels won’t be making a resurgence either. It’s cheaper to get hydrocarbons through fracking than through coal mining and a fracking well largely runs itself. But there are other reasons. Generating energy through solar power is now as cheap as fossil fuels, and it should get cheaper. Trump of course could be promoting these green technologies. Putting solar panels on all the roofs in this nation could keep hundreds of thousands of blue-collar employees employed and productive for decades, while helping the environment. But don’t hold your breath on this one (pun intended).
  • Trump is hostile to increases in the minimum wage, and his Labor department secretary would prefer no minimum wage.
  • As the stock market demonstrates, to build wealth you must save and invest. If you are not seeing wage growth, you probably won’t be able to save or invest much so you likely won’t be building wealth.
  • Removing subsidies for health care will move the costs of health care on those least able to afford to pay them. If there is no mandate to have health insurance, of course those opting out save money in the short term. But it will likely be wiped out when a serious illness occurs. Not only will the uninsured be asked to pay the costs of getting well, they will be paying a list price instead of discounts that the insured get.
  • If Trump and Republicans are further successful in reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits, they will disproportionately affect those with fewer assets and depend on these safety nets. Their reduced incomes will also depress the economy.
  • If welfare and food stamps are cut back, people will eat less, starve or eat cheaper and unhealthy food. This increases the risk of health issues and shorter lifespans.

So what’s really going on on Wall Street is a “party while you can” mentality. Those partying have every reason to party, since they will be sucking yet more money from those least available to provide it. Like all parties this one will end and probably sooner rather than later. Those whose wealth is being tapped are already mostly tapped out, which means there is no source of sustainable growth for the economy.

Smart partiers should realize this and turn their profitable assets into fixed income while they can. The smartest partiers will realize all this is counterproductive and that real growth depends on lifting everyone, and work to make this a reality. As for the working class, don’t be a fool and think that a new administration is going to save you. They’ll do their best to save those who they really care about: the wealthy.

Life on Dartmouth Street

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s a strange thing these days to see children at play. At least in Northern Virginia where I used to live, to the extent children play, it is at structured play. It is managed play. It is soccer league, or Little League, or basketball or for the girls perhaps 4-H or Girl Scouts. If mom or dad can’t attend practice, the nanny is there with a wary eye and taking notes.

They haven’t gotten the message here in Easthampton, Massachusetts that kids, even kids in their single digits, shouldn’t be allowed outside basically unsupervised just to play and roam. But play and roam they do here on Dartmouth Street, and in particular they play just outside the small two-bedroom apartment we now call our temporary home. No smartphones to distract them; they just want to be kids. Dartmouth Street is at best an irregularly traveled street, with large houses generally turned into duplexes with virtually non-existent lawns that hug the sidewalk. They are clearly rentals as of course is our building. There are lots of these houses, but most of them are rented and most suffer from somewhat deferred maintenance. They were built in a city that can trace its incorporation to 1785, and when such things as homeowner associations were unknown. This means gravel or buckled pavement parking lots (if there is a parking lot), bumpy roads where the potholes sometimes have potholes and curbs where chunks of the concrete may be missing. It means it’s okay for one of the renters to jack up the front end of his truck and work on it late into the night. Dartmouth Street is a neighborhood not built for show, or for improving your house’s resale value, or for fitting in with the Joneses, but for simple living. It means you rent a small apartment or duplex, your car is probably a little beat up but there is nothing particularly to be worried about. Easthampton may be old but at least it feels safe.

It’s so safe you can watch two kids (brothers?) sort of beat up each other in the middle of the road. There are no cars coming, and it’s clear there are no real body blows, but they laugh and wrestle and hoot and holler and in general are just excelling at being kids. It’s the sort of childhood I lived, when the phrase free-range kids had yet to be invented. The parents knew the neighborhood was safe and that if you were doing something really stupid one of the other parents would tell you about it. On Dartmouth Street it means squirt gun fights, yes, even in fifty-degree weather, lying on your back in the middle of the road giggling and then wrestling half-heartedly with your brother. It means kicking a ball down the street or into your brother’s groin. I am not sure where the parents are, but no one seems to care, and certainly not me.

Part of the reason no one seems to care may be that everyone here is about the same. Easthampton is not entirely white, just almost entirely. There may be a few lawyers and doctors here, but they probably live outside the city. Easthampton, and Dartmouth Street in particular is white working class. Mom is a teacher, or is bussing tables, and maybe doing both. Dad may be working at the auto body shop nearby or tending the package store around the corner. Life just sort of goes on here. No one seems to have pretensions. Pretensions are a relatively recent concept and largely unknown around here. You count your blessings for your job or jobs, you do your best, and you arise the next morning and then start the cycle over again. And if you are a kid, you are largely left to be a kid.

I’m the new Mr. Wilson in the neighborhood. Recently retired, it’s hard not to emulate my father who drew kids to him like moths to a flame, simply because everyone saw him as a wholesome, harmless and gentle man. So I smile at the boys across the yard and give another a wary stink eye when I see something that might get out of hand. I do that and I unpack.

We moved in yesterday. The morning was spent at a storage place across the Connecticut River. There me and two movers succeeded in getting all our long term storage stuff into a 10 x 20 foot storage unit, but just barely. Then the guys from JK Moving came here to Easthampton and deposited our much smaller cache here in this apartment. No complaints from me about JK Moving. They did a great job and everything went according to schedule. The weather even cooperated except for a little light rain. By three p.m. they had left and we were taking stuff out of boxes and setting up the apartment. Thank goodness for our wire cage in the basement. Some of the surplus we thought would fit in the apartment would not, so it is stored there, along with lots of boxes we will fill again in a few months.

From the outside our apartment is not much to look at. From the inside it has been gutted and rebuilt, and that includes the windows, doors and the walls. It’s all new; it’s just way too small. So my desk and our files are in the second bedroom and its closet doubles as an extra pantry and as our pharmaceutical chest. My wife’s desk is in the living room. The sofa has been replaced by a loveseat; it’s not big enough a living room for a real sofa. It takes us back to 1984, when we first started living together, and our quarters were only marginally bigger. But amazingly the technology all works. HD TV streams on our HD TV screen. Charter Communications delivers a reliable 64mbs download speed as well. I’ve moved 400 miles but the technology transition is flawless. As someone who made his living in Information Technology, this is definitely weird.

Still, our new pad is small and seeing a neighbor trying to fix his car on a gravel lot outside my bedroom window is not something I enjoy. So I’ll be content to leave Dartmouth Street in a few months for our more spacious house under construction. We drove by our house yesterday and noted that shingles went on during the day. The house is now fully enclosed. It seems like it should take a few weeks at most to finish the inside.

We are reliably informed the inside is the hard part. So many pieces have to come together, and each requires an inspection. Inspectors typically show up late. Meanwhile, we can contribute to the house building process by going through with an electrician and indicating where the wires should go. That will happen on Friday. And there will be more visits to various vendors to refine amenities like the color of our bathroom tiles and the model of our light fixtures. Our mailbox at least is already there, in a kiosk, and there was mail and a package waiting for us.

Mainly we are taking a breather today after four days of being mostly in hyperdrive. For me this means going through various papers and tying up loose ends. For my wife it means finding the local grocer and deciding if she will shop there regularly or opt for the more distant Big Y instead. It’s a day for ordering address labels and filling out forms for the DMV (it’s called a RMV around here). It means hauling my bike to the local bike shop for a tune up. When life settles down a little, I’ll be on the local bike trails regularly.

Meanwhile I am living on Dartmouth Street, eyeing the auto mechanic’s shop across the street and wondering about the Schlitz sign I saw on a building on Ferry Street. I wonder: do people still actually drink Schlitz? And are there some people that prefer it? I wonder if the roads are ever smooth around here. And I wonder if now that I am here if I will miss the crazy, traffic clogged place I used to call home.

The point of the Affordable Care Act

The Thinker by Rodin

Sometimes you want to cheer and shake your fist at the same time. That was my reaction to this Washington Post article that curiously arrived on my birthday, Saturday, when I turned 57:

Nine days into the new year, the 41-year-old call-center worker headed to the health clinic on Highway 15. She saw a doctor about her chronic stomach ulcers, had her blood drawn for tests and collected referrals for all the specialists she had been told she needed but could never afford.

Health insurance finally came last month to Breathitt County, Kentucky and a lady named Mary Combs. Previously, like many of the people in this part of Appalachia, she saw a doctor irregularly if ever. She could not afford health insurance or even to see a doctor most of the time. She could occasionally afford to see a doctor at the local clinic, which at least had a sliding scale of payment based on her meager income. But even twenty dollars came hard to her and many of those who form the working poor of this country. Seeing specialists was simply out of the question. She was uninsured and in the eyes of many, principally Republicans, she did not deserve health insurance. Let them be miserable. C’est la vie.

Of course because she was working, albeit at starvation wages, she made too “much” money to qualify for Medicaid. At least that was the case until the Affordable Care Act finally caught up with her, which made it possible for her to enroll in Kentucky’s version of Medicaid, thanks to a healthy subsidy from the federal government. Mary Combs, like many of the people documented in this article, finally could do something to heal herself. Finally, at last, government gave a damn.

So many people like Mary Combs live in a world of hurt, always a paycheck or less away from losing all they have, and rarely with enough cash to see a doctor, even one with a sliding payment fee. Life for them is mostly suffering, something that is largely endured. Sometimes it ends abruptly and prematurely with a stroke, but often it means slow declines and frequent hospitalization for bills they cannot pay, but which simply adds to their indebtedness and drive overall health care costs higher. Often they come home from the hospital without a job. It left them when they couldn’t show up for their shift for a week. The hurdles just to stay alive simply grow higher every day for people like Mary Combs.

However, now she can afford to see a doctor, and specialists, and maybe start treating one of her many medical conditions. She can do so without going bankrupt, and by avoiding the hospital perhaps without losing her job as well. She had a chance not just to live, but to get better and maybe eke out some modest enjoyment from life again. It’s still a very long road and with her chronic conditions the odds are still against her. But she is getting some relief: psychological as well as medical.

Elsewhere in the article:

“Yeah, sometimes his face will get real red like he’s going to blow up?” Terri said. “Then he gets sick.”

“Okay,” Freeman said, pressing a stethoscope to his chest. “Big breaths.”

“Sometimes my heart hurts,” her new patient said as she listened to his stomach. “All I know is when you get 30, you start falling apart.”

No, at fifty you start falling apart. You don’t start falling apart at thirty unless you simply cannot afford to get treated and your job and environment stress you like a professional football player. At thirty you should be able to go three years without a physical. You should not have crushed discs in your back, suffer from sleep apnea and have already filed for bankruptcy. But if you live in Appalachia like John Wagers profiled in the article, and repair heaters for a living and never had health insurance before, then maybe you do fall apart at age thirty. This is what happened to our ancestors a few centuries back when medicine was more black art than science and most people never escaped a poverty they were born into.

Having affordable health insurance is something I have taken for granted. I can spend most of my life out of pain. I can enjoy most days. I can look forward (I hope) to an active and happy retirement. Now perhaps can the John Wagers and Mary Combs of the country too. Maybe as their health improves they will be able to compete for better paying jobs, because they are healthier and can be productive but also maybe because the minimum wage is raised, as us Democrats want to do. Maybe they will be able to attend a community college when they are healthy and have a few more dollars in their pockets. Just maybe they will get a real chance at the American dream, which needlessly denied them by tactics like only allowing those who can afford it to see a doctor.

The Affordable Care Act is hardly perfect, but it is a start. It warms my heart that in our fractured way we are finally moving people like John Wagers and Mary Combs out of misery and into health. They are being treated like human beings now instead of someone in a lower caste. It’s why elections matter and it’s why I am a Democrat and progressive.

Sucking it up for Herman Cain

The Thinker by Rodin

Herman Cain is Tea Party America’s favorite presidential candidate of the moment. Recent polls show him leading among Republican voters. While recent history suggests that Cain fascination will be brief (Michele who? Rick who?), you can understand why conservatives would be gaga over him. Cain, when speaking about Occupy Wall Street protesters, had this retort:

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! […] It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded; it is someone’s fault if they failed.

Attention 99% America: this may not be obvious to you but anyone can succeed in America. The only reason we are all not millionaires is because only one percent found the moxie to become a success. The ability to achieve success includes everyone: including the crippled, the disease ridden, the mentally retarded and the homeless. You can all become independently rich if you try hard enough. And if you don’t, you are a failure. A complete looooser.

If you are still not getting it, consider the curve of standard deviation below. It seems in nature most of us fit somewhere in the middle of the curve, but some of us are must inevitably be on the low or the high end. There are very few in the top one percent of the curve. Herman Cain is one of them. You and me, we’re in the 99% and the reason that I infer this is true, channeling Herman Cain, is because we chose to go fat and be lazy:

If you are not in the top 1%, you are a looooser

In the world of Herman Cain and Tea Party America, here is where we could all be if we tried hard enough:

The possible American world according to Herman Cain
The possible American world according to Herman Cain

That’s right. We all can all be millionaires, just suck in it, suck it up, be clever, put your nose to the grindstone and inevitably you too, like Herman Cain, can rise from humble circumstances to become a millionaire. It’s that simple. When you have the right mental attitude, just like God, you can move mountains. End of story.

But some people just aren’t getting it. They apparently include Matt, a guy I hired to do some handyman work for me. The guy I tried to hire was too busy, so he referred me to Matt. Matt is a guy who lives somewhere off I-66 in Virginia’s Piedmont. Five days a week he works a full time job somewhere that obviously does not come close to covering his modest lifestyle. When not working, he is taking care of his four kids so his wife can work at her odd part time jobs. On some Friday and Saturday nights, if he is lucky, he gets gigs playing the guitar at local pubs, which contributes some spare change to household expenses, and is his one passion in life. On Thursdays and Saturdays he runs his other business: handyman for hire. He does about a third of the work himself, but he also hires other good ol’ white boys like him to put in a few hours here and there to handle customers like me who are not Tool Time Tims. All of them so far that I’ve met smoke and all appear to live hand to mouth. They are Joe Bageant’s poor working class. This week some of them made some spare change because Matt subcontracted some of my work to them.

The weather has not been a construction worker’s friend this week. We had torrential rain for a good part of yesterday. The guys tried to tack down the new screening on our deck between downpours; otherwise they were in our garage trying to put up a new garage ceiling. For some reason the morons who built our house back in the 1980s attached drywall to the ceiling of our garage. About a quarter of it fell out while I was cleaning it a few weeks back, fortunately not while I was directly under it. I’m having them replace it with sturdier particleboard, and directed that they actually use screws to attach the boards into the joists instead of the drywall nails used when the house was constructed. Anyhow, progress has been slow.

Matt apparently is not working hard enough to be a success. He was managing multiple other projects with other good ol’ boys, which meant frequent trips to Manassas and other places to make things right. He’s pissed that he’s behind on our job, and is apologetic. Fortunately I am in no hurry.

Matt is basically doing everything possible to make money in this economy with his natural talents, but even with three jobs and essentially working twelve or more hours a day seven days a week, it’s still not enough. What’s the problem here?

If you were thinking, “Well, the economy is not doing too great, and a handyman’s wages are pretty modest, and gosh, it takes a lot to feed a family of six” you are one of the 99% and hence a looooser. If you are the surreally out of touch Herman Cain, the solution is obvious: Matt is a failure. Moreover, he is simply not trying hard enough. Maybe if in addition to working seven days a week he gave up the guitar gigs and worked instead of sleep, he could finally achieve success. He basically should run himself into the ground even more than he is doing now, which is leaving him obese, tobacco addicted and with circles under his eyes.

I bet you can guess where I stand on this. It’s pretty simple. Herman Cain, you may be a success, but in many ways you are also a moron who cannot see one centimeter past the bridge of your nose. Only a moron or a conservative would actually believe this crap that you spewed out. And yet it seems part of our American character to believe your crap. The fault is never in our stars, or in the broader economy, or in life’s circumstances, or our genetics, or our abusive parents, or our substandard schools but only in ourselves. Just like original sin that the Catholics believe in, in your mind the original sin is the inability of everyone to replicate what you achieved. The rest of us are failures, basically dog poop.

Mr. Cain, please print this out and stick it up some orifice in your body where the sun don’t shine. Consider it a little thank you from one of the 99%. And Matt, I feel nothing but compassion for you and the good ol’ boys who work for you, even if I can’t get too close to you because I am a nonsmoker. You are doing extraordinary things and while it is still clearly not enough, you have my respect and heartfelt sympathy. You also have my sincere hope that the economy improves quickly so you don’t need to be someone’s handyman anymore and get the chance to breathe again. And I hope you get more gigs strumming out those songs that you love.

Fanfare for the Workingman’s Man

The Thinker by Rodin

Joe Bageant passed away a couple of days ago at age 64. Most likely you are saying “Joe who?” For those of us who haunt his site or have read his books, life without more of Joe’s writing is a huge blow. Just one reading of his seminal work, Deer Hunting with Jesus where he explores the hassled life of the working class of Winchester, Virginia convinced me that he was in the top dozen best authors I have ever read. If you read Deer Hunting with Jesus, you will find that the book will haunt you. Never again, if you come from a family of some privilege (and Joe would include middle class people like me as privileged), will you be able to tune out the working class around you.Joe Bageant

Before reading the book, I was more likely to tune out the guy who empties the trash in my office, the roofer, the clerk on the express lane at the superstore, or the guy haunting a booth at the gas station. Perhaps I turned away in part because I worked that life for a while and was glad to forget it. I spent my teenage and young adult years in suboptimal employment. The jobs I had back then paid enough to get by, if you lived with Mom and Dad, or failing that didn’t mind depending on public transportation and living in a room in a house with multiple roommates. None of these jobs paid enough to allow you to thrive. My workingman experience was designed to be brief. I wanted better things: a house in a nice neighborhood, a car, an office and enough money to indulge regularly in my passion for the arts.

It was unthinkable that I would be a workingman for life, but plenty of people live this sort of life who are constantly living on the edge. Joe chronicled them because he was one of them, and he knew intimately the world of the redneck. Something very weird though happened to Joe. He became part of a social experiment called The Great Society, served in the Navy during Vietnam, and was the first in his family to go to college thanks to government largesse. In college, Joe had a great awakening. In college he became exposed to a larger world and yet somehow he also remained a redneck to the core. He scraped together a living writing for military journals. Thirty years after he left Winchester, Virginia, Joe decided to move back. In his book, he chronicled the sad decline of the working class there. His writing is so good, so personal that you cannot help but step inside the souls of the working poor white people of Winchester. He wrote with such vividness, such empathy and so poignantly that the book was hard to put down even while it was at once both heartwarming and heart wrenching.

Joe knew what’s what better than just about any person I have ever read. His vision of society was largely nihilistic but fundamentally clear-eyed. After reading his essays it was impossible not to agree with him. Even if you could not agree with him, it was impossible not to be blown away by his prose. His discerning gaze saw everything and pierced through all pretenses. Joe was so totally grounded in real life. In style, his writing was much like Hunter S. Thompson, except Joe carried with him a keen sense of empathy and pathos. Joe didn’t like lots of people including, arguably, people like me cocooned in the safety of the middle class. He seemed beyond hate, but certainly not above disdain and loathing. Those of us in the middle class, but particularly the politicians, lawyers, and stockbrokers of the world he saw either explicitly or implicitly as pimps, who turned the backbreaking work of the working class into unearned wealth in the form of 401-Ks, sports cars and McMansions. He knew that the working class were largely unseen and when seen at all, judged with some disdain and contempt by their “betters”.

I enjoy writing, but I will never be as good a writer on a good day as Joe was on a bad day. Never will I be able to write sentences that grab you like two hands with a vice grip on your throat like these:

Below it all are the spreading pox-like blotches of economic and ecological ruins of dead North American towns and city cores, such as downtown Gary Indiana, Camden, Newark, Detroit — all those places we secretly accept as being hellish because, well, that’s just what happens when blacks take over, isn’t it? Has anyone seen downtown Detroit lately? Of course not. No one goes there any more. Miles of cracked pavement, weeds and abandoned buildings that look like de Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street. Hell, for all practical purposes it is uninhabited, though a scattering of drug addicts, alcoholics and homeless insane people wander in the shadows of vacant rotting skyscrapers where water drips and vines crawl through the lobbies, including the Ford Motor Company’s stainless steel former headquarters. (See the works of Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara.)  It is the first glimpse of a very near future, right here and now for all to see.

Once you got a taste for Joe’s writing, it grabbed you and you just wanted more. So you haunted his website and you joined Feedblitz so you were quickly notified when he made a new post because you knew it would be good. Only, Joe had to go all mortal on us. Apparently, Joe smoked, some things legal, some allegedly not, and perhaps because he was a child of the 1960s he ingested things that would land him in jail today. Perhaps that is why he spent so much time in Mexico. His lungs were bad, probably a product of smoking, and his habits probably contributed to his premature encounter with the grave. Doubtless, Joe met his maker pragmatically. He might have even been glad to punch his exit ticket. Joe saw, as do I, that mankind is entering a sad, resource-competitive phase likely to bring out the worst in us instead of the best. If he had been able to do so, I am sure he would have had an amazing essay or two about the overreach by Republicans in states like Wisconsin as just more evidence of a nasty class war already well underway.

Sometimes in tons of rock you will find a diamond. Joe was one of those diamonds. He was a glorious accident whose writing touched me (and thousands of others lucky enough to discover him) to the core. If you haven’t read Joe, check out his website as it may not be around forever. And yes, you absolutely must read Deer Hunting with Jesus. Your humanity will stretch in the process and your eyes will open wider than they ever have before. You may find yourself like me, sadly wiser on the ways of the world and appreciative of the workingmen and women all around us who make civilization possible.

Understanding Bubba, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

I am trying to retain a positive attitude during my convalescence. Rather than look at my recovery as a drag, I am looking at it as a reason to do more self-education. One of the things I have been doing is reading Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant.

Admittedly, reading this book is depressing as all get out. Author Joe Bageant frames the book in a town where generations of Bageants were born and bred: Winchester, Virginia. In the thirty years I have lived in the Washington metropolitan region, I have never visited Winchester, although it is only about an hour’s drive away. I had no reason to visit Winchester, nor was it on my way to somewhere else.

Winchester is like Binghamton, New York where I spent my formative years. Within its town boundaries, Winchester has about 25,000 people. Around 122,000 people live in the greater area. The City of Binghamton has around 47,000 people but add in the nearby communities of Johnson City, Endicott, Vestal and Endwell (where I grew up) and you get a similar sized area. According to Bageant, the one constant in Winchester has been its Rubbermaid factory, where generations of its working class residents have toiled. The plant is still there. The same cannot really be said about the Endicott Johnson Shoe Corporation in Endicott, New York. When I was last there in 2000, all the former factories, which for generations manufactured lower end shoes and sneakers, were idle. There was something resembling a corporate Endicott-Johnson office in a small building along Main Street. Also gone is IBM. During the time I lived near Endicott in the 1960s, Endicott was a manufacturing hub for many of IBM’s business class computers and processors. Essentially, Endicott is no longer manufacturing anything as evidenced by its crumbling roads and mostly empty downtown.

Unlike Endicott, which has had its soul torn apart when EJ and IBM left, Winchester has done a little better. The Rubbermaid factory is still there. Since the truck corridor of I-81 runs through Winchester (as it does Binghamton), the town also makes some money from truckers and tourists passing through. Working class men and women can get jobs in and around Winchester, but they are not great jobs. Bageant makes clear that today’s working class in Winchester are worse off than their parents who sweated through similar low-end jobs.

For example, Rubbermaid used to offer real middle class wages, benefits and a pension to its employees. Those days are long gone. Winchester remains a workingman’s city, but now jobs are particularly precarious and real wages are lower. Yet, its working class soldiers on because it must. Winchester is a city full of the white working class. They are the sorts who if they are not working at Wal-Mart are shopping there in what feels like a futile effort to make their $8.59 an hour wage stretch a little further. It is a city where the working class survives on their wits. For the vast majority of folks, you work two or three jobs to get by. No job or combination of jobs is likely to provide a ticket to the middle class. Most folks are but one major medical mishap away from financial ruin. It’s hard to build up a medical savings account when you are in arrears to a couple credit card companies already.

Winchester is the sort of place I might well have lived, worked and died in had not I been a bit more fortunate. According to Bageant, my family would be the exception in Winchester. Although my mother had working class roots, both my parents had college degrees. Moreover, my siblings and I assumed we were destined to end up in careers, not jobs. Yes, we sweated through our own working class jobs prior to (or in some cases during) college. We have a basic understanding of what this life is like. Our experiences informed us that this was a life to be avoided, if possible.

Bageant understands the white working class intimately because this is how he grew up. What makes Bageant unusual is that he awoke from his working class stupor. He also became a gifted writer. Through the prism of his experience, I can subsume myself into the world of Winchester’s working class. I can taste the draft beer at the Royal Lunch diner where Bageant hangs out with his kind. I can peer (however indirectly) into the souls of these people. Moreover, with Bageant’s help, I can see their world through their resigned and pragmatic eyes. It is a world where continually dodging life’s many landmines informs folk much more than some fancy pants education. It is an area where the gun feels as natural as the many sidewalk ministries in the town. It is a place where the town’s elite can keep the working class forever in control. For Winchester’s working class are largely unable to marshal the combination of family support and financial resources to really escape this lifestyle. Moreover, if you told them this was the only way they could escape, they would berate you for your silly liberal notions.

According to Bageant, the working class in Winchester earnestly believe that somehow by applying themselves just a little harder they will reach the next economic rung, despite mountains of evidence that it takes a supporting infrastructure of family and community for all but a handful of us to reach that next rung. It is The Big Lie they tell themselves which is also endlessly fed to them by their politicians. It causes them to vote for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush or more recently Bob McDonnell, who yesterday was inaugurated as Virginia’s latest Republican governor. Naturally, McDonnell is preaching the same old tired Republican soap that has yet to work: that he will somehow do much more with much less and in the midst of a recession to boot. Winchester will be lucky if its Rubbermaid factory does not end up in Mexico, where many of its other factories have gone over the last few decades.

If I feel like I do not understand their lives very well, the same is true with them and my life. I would feel awkward drinking beer with the locals at the Royal Lunch diner in Winchester. They would feel just as awkward bellying up at a local sushi bar or buying wholly organic food at a Whole Foods. In Bageant’s case, he got lucky. Remember The Great Society? Those of us of a certain age will remember. Back in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson earnestly tried to right longstanding class inequities. A few like Bageant were the beneficiary of the social experiment that for the most part failed in its goals. Thanks to some grants courtesy of The Great Society and despite the considerable odds, Bageant went to and graduated from college as well as did a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Those who attend a good college, like Bageant, finish with not only a degree but also with a true education on the complexity of our messy world. You might say the lens of his life opened up for Bageant, courtesy of Lyndon Johnson.

About ten years ago, he felt the need to return to his roots in Winchester. The result was this book, a seminal work on the working class unseen since the death of Studs Terkel. It takes those of us without the experience inside the lives and minds of the working class rednecks. As uncomfortable and heart wrenching as it is, it should be required reading for every progressive. For until we truly understand the Bubbas of this world, any changes we try to make to society are likely to be merely window dressing.

Bageant lays it all out for us. I hate to admit it, but Bageant is right about gun control. In the past in response to incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings, I have railed about the need for gun control. Bageant blows quite a few holes into the myths about gun control, while perhaps selectively ignoring a few pertinent facts. He points out statistics that show how many intruders are actually deterred because of the presence of a gun in a household. He documents how homicides in places like New York City have decreased as the rate of gun ownership has gone up. Where Bageant may have a blind spot is in dismissing the number of homicides facilitated among people who are related to each other because of the presence of guns. Where Bageant is unfortunately dead on (no pun intended) is the futility of even trying to control guns. It is like trying to put a genie back in the bottle. It simply cannot be done, no matter how much we might wish it so. We might as well wish to change our eye color. Guns are part of our national DNA and will be for at least many generations to come. If it happens at all, it will be long after any of us reading this are dead.

Gun control is really a knee jerk and ill thought out response to a much more daunting set of institutional and societal problems that Bageant outlines with a painful clarity that is hard to criticize. To truly move our country and our planet toward a sustainable future, we must be able to persuade people like the working class people in Winchester to embrace real change. As Bageant makes clear, the hour is very late and the odds are very long. For the rednecks of America have centuries of Calvinist Scots Borderer breeding in them. They do our nation’s dirty work for us, almost reflexively making them easy for politicians to manipulate as long as they pander to their fundamentalist beliefs in the sanctity of God, guns and autonomic patriotism.

Bageant’s book is really a series of long essays about who our puppet masters are, how they got in charge and why we let them remain in charge. Liberals as well as rednecks are at the hands of these puppet masters. Identifying who they are, understanding how they are manipulating us and developing the skills to actually change these institutional forces will give us the ability to create real and meaningful changes. More on this in future posts as well as more analysis of Bageant’s thoughtful book. Stay tuned.

My Wall Street Rescue Plan

The Thinker by Rodin

Upset about large payments to AIG employees to encourage them not to quit? Join the rest of us angry taxpayers. In some cases these payments amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars per employee. AIG says they are necessary to keep these valuable employees from quitting. It is hard to imagine where else these employees would go with the financial industry in a tailspin. 724,000 jobs were lost last month alone, which is far more than forecast. They should feel lucky to have a job.

Moreover, if they were let go they might have to get a real job. AIG workers, like many of us white collar workers, may find their jobs feel a bit surreal at times. Today many of us are blessed with careers, not jobs. Careers are jobs that require significant education and that at least in theory you should enjoy. The rest of America gets by with working class jobs where you are not particularly valuable and are easily replaced. This is reflected by their inadequate wages and the sad fact that many of them are shuffling two or three jobs trying to make ends meet. Health insurance? For the working class, most of them cannot afford health insurance premiums, in the unlikely event their employer offers health insurance in the first place.

For a well paid white collar dude like me it helps to get grounded every once in a while. This week, like I usually am twice a year, I am in Denver. Actually I am in Lakewood, Colorado, in a hotel near the Denver Federal Center, which today was nearly socked in by a blizzard. From eight to five this week I am helping to manage a set of people testing some upgrades to a software system I manage. At five p.m., I get to go back to my hotel. While I do not have a car at my disposal as we carpool to save money, there is plenty of company and convenient restaurants in walking distance. I have several hours every evening to socialize with my coworkers or just relax in my hotel room, where I can surf the ‘Net, watch HBO or blog. It’s a bit like a partial vacation at my employer’s expense.

For most in the working class, an 8 to 5 job, Monday through Friday with weekends off must seem surreal. Moreover, I would think they would puzzle over the fact that we are so well compensated to basically sit around all day, look at our computers, type things into them, talk to other people on the phone and chat with fellow employees. Most of us never get our hands dirty. That is not the case at Jason’s Deli, which sits on Union Boulevard in Lakewood adjacent to the Denver Federal Center. Twice so far this week I and a few coworkers have ventured to Jason’s for lunch. It is the closest restaurant to our building and the food is both good and relatively inexpensive. It also offers a modicum of exercise, since it is about a mile walk there and back.

The people who work at Jason’s Deli work harder than any other group of people I have ever seen. Granted I am at the deli at lunch, which is its prime time. Often a line stretches out the door. It pays to arrive a little early to avoid the line at Jason’s. We queue up to order the usual: soups, various hot and cold sandwiches and to create a salad at their enormous salad bar. While the food is good, I often spend much more time watching the people at Jason’s than I do savoring their food or even the company of my coworkers. There but for the grace of God go I. There, but for the incompetence of our federal government, employees at AIG get to stay in their well moneyed white collar jobs and get fat retention bonuses instead of working for a living like the employees do at Jason’s Deli.

Maybe Jason’s employees do see Jason’s as a career. I’ve been coming here two or three times a year now and I recall the same lady behind the register and even the same Hispanic busboy. Maybe the days go fast because they never seem to stop. The energy level coming from each employee in the place is phenomenal. So to say they bustle in their work is to damn them with faint praise. They work frantically trying to keep up with the demand and the lines. The sandwich makers have a system which must be efficient but involves a lot of scurrying and yelling to each other. The cashier has an exceptional voice. She must have one to be heard over the din of the diners. “One bowl of red bean rice soup!” she will bellow, with many variants, to the assembler across the aisle.

Patrons queue up at the salad bar, which is next to the drinks machine, which seems to never stop servicing people. While we search for a table, a busboy scurries through the dining area frantically removing plates, bowls, silverware and glasses from tables so that other patrons can take their place. It is a crazy sort of ordered chaos. Jason’s is not a high tech place. That it works at all depends on the relentless energy of its employees. No doubt behind the walls is another crew of cooks, dishwashers and ancillary personnel necessary to choreographing this daily event.

Of course I have no idea what Jason’s pays its employees. I hope they are well compensated because they more than earn whatever salary they are paid. As a class, restaurant workers are near the bottom of the compensation scale. Republicans looking for a model of American industry need look no further than this Jason’s. Naturally they would not take one of these jobs even if they were desperate, but it models everything they claim to believe in: hard work, duty, obedience and doggedness. It likely lacks a whole lot in the compensation department. I don’t know how much the general manager of this restaurant makes, of course, but I am willing to bet he works twice as many hours as I do probably for half my salary.

The late Mao Zedong had a peculiar way of making sure people in the cities knew what the real world was about. He shipped them off to the country where they slaved away on collective farms using farming instruments that were medieval. Most likely most of those sent away to these collective farms loathed the experience because hard work and poverty are not natural proclivities for most human beings. His passing and China’s embrace of capitalism no doubt came not a moment too soon for those he sent to the collectives.

I wish as penance for their sins that the Wall Street brokers and those at AIG who brought us our latest financial calamity could spend a couple years working at this Jason’s Deli. It could be the American version of China’s Cultural Revolution. It is clear that many of these people do not understand where wealth comes from. It comes from exploiting the bottom feeders of the labor market like the good and hardworking people at Jason’s Deli. They daily perform minor miracles of food delivery.

Yet I strongly suspect their souls are being crushed, their lives shortened and their bank accounts emptied so we can enjoy really good and inexpensive food. Perhaps if these Wall Street brokers are lucky enough to return to Wall Street, rather than invent new collateralized debt instruments, they will create investment products that can move hard working employees such as those at Jason’s Deli out of the bottom of the labor market into something that resembles a middle class lifestyle. They too should have the realistic expectation of one day having an 8 to 5 job.

Two things are abundantly clear to me: the workers at Jason’s deserve it more than Wall Street barons and even well educated people like me. Also, if you could somehow educate the employees at Jason’s in the ways of finance, I am confident they would do a much better of managing my money than the crooks on Wall Street have done.