Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, October 9, 2014 8:40 pm

The single most important reason why we cannot elect another conservative president in my lifetime …

… is the federal bench in general and also, in particular, federal judges’ attitude toward the most precious and fundamental of our rights: the franchise. Charlie Pierce on SCOTUS’s recent stay of the 4th Circuit’s reinstating same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting in North Carolina:

There is a long, blue river of sadness running through the words of that dissent. It runs under the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. It pools into a lagoon of sadness behind an earthen dam in Mississippi. The survivors of the generation that fought and bled for the right to vote are getting old and dying off right now. John Lewis is 74. Soon, there won’t be any of them left. But it always was thought that the victories they won would survive them. That the real monument to their cause would be lines of the historically disenfranchised suddenly empowered, swamping the system, and realizing that elections in this country are meant to be the most powerful form of civil disobedience there is. And now, it looks very much as though powerful interests are in combination to make sure their victories die with them, here as we celebrate John Roberts’s Day of Jubilee. There is a long blue river of sadness running through those words, and a darkness spreading across its surface, and a long night is falling on the face of the water.

Conspiring to deny your fellow citizens their civil rights is a felony under federal law. But when a majority of the Supreme Court is among the co-conspirators, to whom do we turn?

Monday, October 6, 2014 10:00 am

An open letter to Kathleen Parker re the War on Women

Ms. Parker:

Normally I enjoy your work, but in your column today in the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, you stumbled and fell right out of the gate.

You wrote: “Let’s be clear. The war on women is based on just one thing: abortion rights.”

Clear as mud, ma’am.

I have not needed to work particularly hard to gain any special understanding or insight into the war on women. I only have needed to look at what goes on in my field, the media and communications, and to look at the experiences of my mother, my sister, my wife, and my daughter.

My mother runs a management consulting firm with clients on three continents, and that running is very much hands-on despite the fact that she will turn 80 in December. She has a long list of anecdotes about sexism in the workplace ranging from hiring and pay discrimination to the constant little patronizing, condescending comments men make to and about women, often without even realizing how offensive they’re being.

My sister works in the technical end of music and theatrical productions, a male-dominated field, and has had to work twice as hard to be paid half as well.

My wife, before changing careers recently, worked in information technology, which was, as you can imagine, even more of a testosterone sink than my sister’s field. And that was in higher education. I can only imagine what she would have had to put up with in the for-profit sector.

And my daughter is 16, and you and I both know what 16-year-old boys are like … as well as the condescending male adults in teens’ worlds. Just a few weeks ago, she had to sit and listen to teachers at her high school tell girls they couldn’t wear Nike shorts to school because doing so would be a distraction to the boys — as if the boys are somehow not responsible for their own actions.

The war on women takes many forms and is fought on many fronts, from hiring and pay equity to rape culture, particularly but not exclusively on college campuses.

You misleadingly argue, in effect, that because the Saudis mistreat women, the U.S. does not. Such an argument not only is untrue, it also seems to be implying that Americans have just as much control over Saudi law and culture as our own. That’s patently absurd. You’re desperately hoping that we won’t notice that one major political party in this country is doing everything it can both to cut back women’s rights and to discredit anyone who argues in favor of them, and that the other major political party is doing the opposite.

One particularly insidious aspect of this war is the inevitable blowback that any woman will receive when she attempts to speak out against the war on women — blowback from what anyone can see is a mixture of uninformed bigots and well-paid trolls, such as you with this very column. I hope the money helps you sleep at night.

You’ve made the classic mistake of argumentation, asking me which I’m going to believe, you or my lyin’ eyes. Lady, given that choice, I go with my eyes every single time.

Get bent,

Lex Alexander
http://www.lexalexander.net

Thursday, September 25, 2014 6:19 pm

“Poor people don’t plan long-term. We’ll just get our hearts broken.”

“The thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s.”

I don’t agree with everything she asserts, but I get why she thinks as she does. I wish more people did.

Monday, September 8, 2014 7:49 pm

Joe Freeman Britt: Sociopath

This New York Times Sunday Magazine article about retired Robeson County DA (and later judge) Joe Freeman Britt shines a light into just how messed-up our judicial system is because of the ability of one sociopath to wreak havoc.

Britt won an international reputation decades ago as the “Deadliest DA,” but his many murder convictions and death-penalty judgments were won at the cost of innocent people’s lives: Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a 1983 killing. DNA evidence exonerated them, and they recently were released from prison.

It’s not clear what, exactly, Britt cares about with the legal system, but it obviously isn’t the truth, nor is it justice. He says it’s not his ego, and not only will I grant that he probably believes that, I’ll even grant the possibility that that’s true.

Just read the story. Britt’s behavior in office was so bad that the current DA, who is related to Britt, says:

He is a bully, and that’s the way he ran this office. People were afraid of him. Lawyers were afraid of him. They were intimidated by his tactics. And he didn’t mind doing it that way. … “You treat people with dignity, and you can get a whole lot more done that way than you can by trying to run over people. And that’s part of his legacy, that he ran over people.

Britt’s response to this rebuke? Nothing but macho blustering and ad-hominem attack:

“Well, let’s say, if I was a bully, he is a pussy. How about that?” the elder Mr. Britt said. “I think Johnson Britt has been hanging around too much with the wine and cheese crowd.”

I have my own ideas about what should happen to prosecutors and judges who willfully or negligently convict innocent people. Those ideas are tailor-made for sociopaths like Joe Freeman Britt, who, if he doesn’t watch it, could end up on a spit in Hell between two of the murderers he convicted who actually were guilty.

 

Your local daily newspaper didn’t fall. It was pushed.

Athenae basically says, yeah, sure, print journalism died of lead poisoning — in the sense that it was shot full of it:

No moral dimension?

It’s all just happening?

It’s nobody’s fault?

I hate to interfere with that comforting perception but I think it’s pretty clear there are more forces at work than just declining advertising revenue.

Imagine, for example, that instead of spending all the money they were making in the 80s and 90s on hookers, blow, and acquisitions of stupid [expletive] like baseball teams, newspaper companies socked that cash away. Imagine if they’d treated journalism like the public trust it always should have been, and safeguarded that trust, instead of partying like it was 1929.

Imagine if they’d greeted TV and the Internet not with defensive crabbing in public but with the confidence to use those media to enhance what they already did well, instead of flailing around in a goddamn panic pissing off every customer they had.

Imagine if they didn’t sign over their circulation and distribution departments to minimum-wagers who had no sales or logistics backgrounds and couldn’t sell the paper or deliver it properly.

Imagine if they courted “25-year-olds” with actual information, instead of insulting them with section after section that disparaged everything they found interesting or culturally relevant? Imagine if they looked at the places print was the best option — like college campuses or small towns or commuter suburbs — and invested there.

Imagine if they just RAN THEIR BUSINESSES WELL. What would print look like then?

We won’t know, because it’s much easier to just steal all the money, spend it on a yacht, and sit back while supposedly intelligent media commentators blame the Internet for everything.

And if you’re wondering why your local daily continues to suck, and sucks worse every year, well, this is, shall we say, a nontrivial part of the reason.

 

Thursday, August 28, 2014 7:27 pm

Karma is a bitch even — and maybe especially — if you’re the U.S.

Filed under: Evil,Sad,Say a prayer,Shooting the wounded — Lex @ 7:27 pm
Tags: , , ,

Chris Hedges at Truthdig:

Our terror is delivered to the wretched of the earth with industrial weapons. It is, to us, invisible. We do not stand over the decapitated and eviscerated bodies left behind on city and village streets by our missiles, drones and fighter jets. We do not listen to the wails and shrieks of parents embracing the shattered bodies of their children. We do not see the survivors of air attacks bury their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. We are not conscious of the long night of collective humiliation, repression and powerlessness that characterizes existence in Israel’s occupied territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not see the boiling anger that war and injustice turn into a caldron of hate over time. We are not aware of the very natural lust for revenge against those who carry out or symbolize this oppression. We see only the final pyrotechnics of terror, the shocking moment when the rage erupts into an inchoate fury and the murder of innocents. And, willfully ignorant, we do not understand our own complicity. We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them. This is a recipe for endless terror.

Chaim Engel, who took part in the uprising at the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp in Poland, described what happened when he obtained a knife and confronted a German in an office. The act he carried out was no less brutal than the beheading of Foley or the executions in Gaza. Isolated from the reality he and the other inmates endured at the camp, his act was savage. Set against the backdrop of the extermination camp it was understandable.

“It’s not a decision,” Engel said. “You just react, instinctively you react to that, and I figured, ‘Let us to do, and go and do it.’ And I went. I went with the man in the office, and we killed this German. With every jab, I said, ‘That is for my father, for my mother, for all these people, all the Jews you killed.’ ”

Any good cop, like any good reporter, knows that every criminal has a story. No one, except for perhaps a few psychopaths, wakes up wanting to cut off another person’s head. Murder and other violent crimes almost always grow out of years of abuse of some kind suffered by the perpetrator. Even the most “civilized” among us are not immune to dehumanization.

Sociopathic neocons to the contrary, “Kill ‘em all!” is never the answer, not only because it’s wrong, not only because it’s impossible, not only because it dehumanizes those who take part in it, but also because it doesn’t work. Indeed, not only does it not work, it blows back on us in ways that we see, in our mindless hubris, only as mindless barbarism.

(h/t: Carolina Under Seige)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 8:03 pm

Bell House is closing, and here’s why.

Bell House, a nonprofit, specialized assisted-living center here in Greensboro that serves people with orthopedic and/or neurological problems such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, will be closing in two months.

It’s not entirely clear where its current residents will go.

The center blames Medicaid cuts.

Insurance executive Richard Mayhew explains why this didn’t have to happen.

TL;DR version: It’s the fault of Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP legislature.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 9:46 pm

Greensboro Urban Ministry needs your help. Now.

The ministry’s plea, [fixed] from its news release (via Yes! Weekly):
 
This summer, we held a food drive call “Feeding the 5,000” in partnership with the City of Greensboro, First Lutheran Church, First Presbyterian Church, Friendly Avenue Baptist, Grace UMC, New Garden Friends Meeting, Starmount Presbyterian, VF Corporation, West Market Street UMC, Adams Farm Community Church, Christ UMC, Faith Wesleyan Church, St. Andrews Methodist, and St. Pius X Catholic Church.  Through this drive, cash and non-perishable food items totaling more than 15,000 lbs were collected.  However, this food provided for only two weeks of food assistance.
 
Our pantry now looks much like that of our clients – it is bare. And, there is little hope in sight until the end of September when the annual Leadership Greensboro Senior’s Food Drive restocks our shelves. Until that time, we will be purchasing food to meet the needs of our clients. In their first annual meeting last night, the Greensboro Urban Ministry Board of Directors pledged enough funds to purchase nearly two weeks worth of food, yet we have six weeks to cover.  That is why we are asking you, our supporters, to help us fill this gap and meet the needs of our clients. Your monetary gift, or donation of non-perishable food items, will go directly to those individuals in our community who would otherwise go to bed hungry tonight. Won’t you please support our efforts and give?
 
As reported last week, hunger is growing faster in this metro than in all but nine other metros nationwide. And no long-term solution is on the horizon at the federal, state or local level. So dig deep. And, please, do it today.

Saturday, August 16, 2014 11:24 pm

Reality check, Ferguson, MO, edition

David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” points out just a few elements of the bullshit that has been thrown our way since Michael Brown was gunned down in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Mo.:

The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action [taking a human life -- Lex] is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy.  After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?

Earlier tonight, I had an exchange on Facebook with someone claiming to be a police officer about the Ferguson case. I was polite until the point at which he suggested I do a ride-along sometime — as if I hadn’t done hundreds of hours worth in 25 years of journalism, as if I hadn’t, as he suggested, seen what they saw and smelled what they smelled.

He also argued, among other things, that the victim had been caught on videotape stealing cigars from a store (it has not been confirmed that the victim was in fact in the video), that the cop who shot him knew this (we now know the cop had no idea), that the victim was stopped for possessing the purportedly stolen cigars (again, way too many assumptions about facts that remain in question) and that the victim therefore probably thought he was going to be arrested for stealing some cigars (we have no idea what the victim thought) and thus behaved in a way that forced the officer to kill him (according to all available evidence thus far, utter horseshit).

So I called the guy out on all the assumptions he had made without any evidence. I said any “cop” who would handle a case as he was handling this one didn’t deserve the honor of wearing the badge bestowed by us taxpayers. And, because his writing suggesting that he was a lot younger than I am, I addressed him as “son.”

This gave him a case of the ass, apparently; according to Facebook, he deleted the thread. Whether he did or not, he certainly DM’ed me with a brief message: “Fuck you.”

Well, right back at you, “officer.” You made inaccurate assumptions about me, you behaved condescendingly and patronizingly, you spouted a bunch of crap about the Ferguson case that either was questionable or was flatly untrue, and then, when called on it, you accused those holding you accountable of being “rude.” Was I rude? I called you “son” because it’s statistically likely that if you’re still a working cop, you’re younger than I am, because your writing style suggested you are a LOT younger than I am, and because — I admit it — I knew it would piss you off. But you know what? As a sworn law enforcement officer, you’ve got to weigh some things sometimes, including damage to your ego vs. oh, I don’t know, BLOWING AWAY AN UNARMED MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF A STREET FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON.

And that’s before we even get into the race issue, which is deeply rooted in Ferguson, Mo.

I am not an expert at law enforcement, though I know a little more than the average civilian. But one thing I am kind of an expert on is how people respond to authority, particularly when it is abused. And that is what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

All you gun owners out there: What was the first rule your daddy taught you about guns? Don’t point your gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. So if I’m a resident of Ferguson, Mo., and the police department my tax dollars support rolls up to me in an armored vehicle when I’m not doing anything and levels a machine gun at me, you tell me what in the pluperfect hell I’m supposed to think. You tell me whom in the pluperfect hell I’m supposed to trust.

Go on. I’ll wait.

Forget the racial angle, though I have no doubt it’s relevant in Ferguson, where the victim and two-thirds of the population are black and the police department is overwhelmingly white. Forget the political angle, too: I’m a white, middle-aged, male Republican. But if the cops in my city shot an unarmed 18-year-old white man down in the middle of my street, refused to answer questions about it, and then rolled an APC into my ‘hood and pointed a machine gun at me when I tried to get answers, I’d be pissed, too. I’d be wanting answers, too. And I’d be expecting somebody to be held accountable, too.

Understand, please, that anyone who actually rioted, committed vandalism, looted, or what-have-you in Ferguson should be prosecuted and jailed. But understand also that not everyone who is in the streets of Ferguson tonight has done that — indeed, most of them have not and some of them have tried to stop those who have.

But the bottom line is just as Spider-Man said: With great power comes great responsibility. Cops have the power of life and death. They have the responsibility to operate legally, competently, and transparently, and to have their transgressions treated transparently. Police in Ferguson, Mo., have been behaving as if this reality does not apply to them, and they’re taking shit for that from people nationwide (as well they should). And telling anyone who reminds you of this fact, “Fuck you,” is not going to change the situation. Indeed, it might only make it worse.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 11:21 pm

Rigged

Nine years ago today, my father died. He was 75 and a self-employed financial consultant who was still working about 30 hours a week right up until his final illness (acute pulmonary fibrosis), which lasted a couple of weeks before his death.

From an early age, I heard Dad talk about the importance of saving and investing, and I did the best I could to follow his advice. As I got older and better able to grasp the mechanics, he talked about the stock market as the best long-term investment vehicle for retirement (although he did say that once I hit 50 I should start swapping some equities for bonds).

To the best of my abilities, I have followed his advice. I won’t give you numbers, but I’ll tell you the following: I don’t have a ton of ready cash and never have. But were I to die tomorrow, my family would be pretty well fixed, especially considering I was a journalist, and thus not particularly well paid, for most of my career. Like many Americans, I haven’t gotten a dime in retirement matching for coming up on about seven years now, but — although no one can read the future — I think my family and I will be OK assuming I live to 67 and actually get to retire.

But Dad didn’t live long enough to see the mortgage bubble burst. He didn’t live long enough to hear all the revelations about bank and nonbank and insurance-company and security-rating shenanigans on a scale that dwarfed the crimes of the S&L crisis two decades prior. He thought repealing Glass-Steagall was a bad idea, but he didn’t live long enough to see just how bad. For that matter, he didn’t live long enough to see high-frequency trading and the ease with which the practice makes front-running a trade possible.

So although I’m remembering Dad today with warmth and his passing with sadness, for some reason the Dad thought that has been most on my mind today has been: I wonder what he would make of today’s financial markets? Would he still consider it possible for a single, well-informed investor to do OK? Or would he be convinced, as I have been, that most of the market is a rigged game — that there is a club and that most Americans like me aren’t in it?

(And I’m writing from a middle-class prospective. My problems don’t even begin to touch the problems of the working poor, who are being robbed outright.)

I don’t know what he’d think. All I do know is that while he certainly wasn’t perfect, in his professional life, to the best of my knowledge, he acted with integrity and took seriously his fiduciary duty to his clients. I’m struggling to name a commercial or investment bank that exists today that I’m confident does the same thing.

Saturday, May 10, 2014 7:27 pm

The problem with the “new economy” — and how the media make it worse

Ed at Gin and Tacos:

Things like airbnb and Uber (a car sharing service, for those of us who don’t live in a city large enough to make the prospect of paying a stranger to drive you somewhere viable) are “building trust” among Americans, bringing them together and facilitating economic activity. Plus, they make the economy more efficient, partially eliminating the dead airtime in daily life. Why leave your house empty when you can get someone else to pay you to stay in it? Why sit around watching TV all evening when you could make money driving people around?

It all sounds great, at least according to the fawning sycophants who provide all of us out here in the provinces with such worshipful coverage of the amazing achievements of the Techno-Demigods. And it is great as long as you don’t bother to ask (or care) why people are suddenly employing themselves as improvised innkeepers and taxi drivers. After all, does anyone really want to let some strangers stay in their home for a few bucks? To drive some trust fund asshole to the airport on Saturday after a 45 hour week? I doubt it. People turn to the “Trust Economy” because they’re somewhere between financially stressed and desperate. They don’t make enough or they’re without any steady source of income at all. They do it for the same reason that people go to work at a temp agency or loiter in a Home Depot parking lot to do day labor: because they have no better options.

The tech media work hand in hand with the mainstream media to put the brightest and prettiest coats of paint on economic developments of this kind, but who really benefits from this kind of arrangement? Hold on to your hats, kids, but it isn’t you. The beneficiary is the guy who can get people like you to perform for pennies on the dollar all of the tasks that a driver, personal secretary, and butler would do. It’s remarkable how many of the recent Big Developments from the omniscient men of the Valley have managed to make the lives of the well-off easier without actually creating any jobs that pay a livable salary or have benefits. Oh, and they convince the media to cover these breakthroughs in a way that makes it sound like they’re doing you a favor. You’re free at last, free at last. Say goodbye to the chains of full time employment and hello to the boundless freedom of working piecemeal, making phone calls on Mechanical Turk for a quarter and driving Damon the Junior Content Developer to the airport so he can spend the weekend in Cozumel with his frat bros.

The problem with the fact that the economy created a robust 288,000 jobs in April is that it needs to keep doing that for many, many more months to begin to undo the damage wrought by the Crash of ’08. And in the meantime, people are doing whatever they have to do to get by. Ignore it if you like, sociopaths of the world, but for God’s sake do not try to romanticize it. There is some shit even Americans won’t eat.

The future is here, and it blows.

 

Monday, April 14, 2014 12:09 am

Is we is or is we ain’t a nation under the rule of law?

I think we ain’t, but it looks like we’ll know soon enough, because the leak even I could see coming is here:

A still-secret Senate Intelligence Committee report calls into question the legal foundation of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, a finding that challenges the key defense on which the agency and the Bush administration relied in arguing that the methods didn’t constitute torture.

The report also found that the spy agency failed to keep an accurate account of the number of individuals it held, and that it issued erroneous claims about how many it detained and subjected to the controversial interrogation methods. The CIA has said that about 30 detainees underwent the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

The CIA’s claim “is BS,” said a former U.S. official familiar with evidence underpinning the report, who asked not to be identified because the matter is still classified. “They are trying to minimize the damage. They are trying to say it was a very targeted program, but that’s not the case.”

The findings are among the report’s 20 main conclusions. Taken together, they paint a picture of an intelligence agency that seemed intent on evading or misleading nearly all of its oversight mechanisms throughout the program, which was launched under the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ran until 2006.

Some of the report’s other conclusions, which were obtained by McClatchy, include:

_ The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.

_ The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program.

_ The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program.

_ The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General’s Office.

So, in plain English:

  • The CIA tortured people — some of whom died of it, remember — in violation not only of international and U.S. law but also in violation of the flimsy, themselves-illegal guidelines set up by the Justice Department.
  • The CIA lied to the White House and Congress, obstructing their oversight, which is duly required by Constitution and statute.
  • The CIA lied to its own inspector general.

So CIA personnel ordered and committed hanging offenses and lied to everybody about it. That’s the bottom line, folks. All the rest is sound and fury signifying nothing.

Let’s be very clear about what needs to happen here:

  • The people who actually carried out the crimes must be charged and tried, but so must the people who ordered them and the people who lied about them.
  • If anyone carried out or ordered torture that resulted in death, that individual is subject to the death penalty. As a tough-on-crime conservative, I can sleep soundly knowing that.
  • If anyone used the classification process to try to hide evidence of a crime, he should be criminally prosecuted for that offense.
  • If anyone then or now in a Senate-confirmable position carried out or ordered a crime, he should be impeached and convicted, thereby to revoke his pension and any other benefits of having served in the federal government.

If these things do not happen, then we are not a nation under the rule of law, plain and simple. I wish I could say that we are, but experience suggests that nothing will happen.

So let’s do ourselves a favor. Let’s put paid, once and for all, to this notion of American exceptionalism. We are not special. We are not a shining city on a hill. We are not a Christian nation in any way that Christ Himself would recognize. We are not even, to judge by both legal standards and OECD measures for quality of life, a particularly good example.

It is tempting to say that we are governed by a parliament of whores, but to do so would insult whores, who generally are not nearly as hypocritical about what they do as our leaders are. We are a plutocracy, an oligarchy, an outlaw nation, and the only differences between our genocide and that of the Nazis is that ours was less recent and less efficient. Indeed, it was ironic for me to read tonight on Facebook about my friend Rabbi Fred Guttman honoring the congressional service of my friend Howard Coble, when Coble, a former federal prosecutor, did nothing to stop precisely the kind of behavior on the part of Americans that got Nazis hanged at Nuremberg.

I’d love to be proved wrong on this. I really, really would. But if it hasn’t happened by now, it ain’t gonna. And Americans need to understand that and to plan their futures accordingly.

Monday, April 7, 2014 6:59 pm

Do peons dream of loyalty?

I spent my 16th, 17th, and 18th summers working in food service at the Carowinds amusement park on the N.C./S.C. line near Charlotte. It was hard, hot, sticky, messy, occasionally dangerous work — hot frying fat is nothing to mess with, which doesn’t keep teens from messing with it, and I once got knocked back 10 feet into a stream cabinet when I accidentally touched a bare wire on a 440-volt grill I was trying to unplug. (Had I not been wearing rubber-soled shoes, an electrician told me, I might’ve been killed.) When I finished my first full day of work — 9 hours in a steamy kitchen on a humid April Saturday — I was in outstanding physical shape and still as physically tired as I would ever be in my life until I got E. coli food poisoning two decades later.

We had all kinds of rules about customer relations, grooming (sideburns no lower than the earlobe), our itchy-ass polyester uniforms, not sitting while on duty, and so on.

So when I read this post on working in retail by ex-journalist Joseph Williams, I didn’t find a whole lot that was new to me, other than the vastly increased amount of theft-prevention activity. But a lot of it was new to him, or forgotten since his last stint in retail 30  or so years ago. And there’s a small part of me that wants to criticize his ignorance, because retail and restaurant work is one of the fastest-growing segments of the labor force in an economy that is not, generally, creating enough new jobs even to match growth in the working-age population, let alone bring down the un- and under-employment rates. If journalists know nothing else about the economy, they need to know that, and what the ramifications are for the growing numbers of Americans for whom this is real life.

Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.

That put me at a distinct disadvantage.

In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.

Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.

Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.

“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”

I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.

He also discusses how “wage theft” — essentially, employers ripping free labor from employees, works, and this, too, I remember from Carowinds:

Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.

In at least one respect, I had it better than this guy: Once in a while, I actually did get overtime pay. Not always. Not often. But once in a while.

This guy was paid $10 an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25. He has an interesting take on whether the minimum wage should be raised, and once again, it involves wage theft (highlighted text below):

Proponents [of a minimum-wage increase] argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.

As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.

Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.

A modest studio apartment in a safe neighborhood would easily consume an entire month’s pay. Meanwhile, depending on circumstance, an annual salary of roughly $20,000 might not automatically qualify a retail worker for government assistance. One of my co-workers, a young single mother I called Flygirl, lived with her mom and commuted 40 minutes, one-way, from a far-flung suburb to make ends meet. Most of my co-workers, in their early 20s or 30s, had roommates, spouses, or second jobs. None of them seemed to be making it on their retail salaries alone.

Even though I was living rent-free in a guest bedroom, my every-other-Thursday paycheck couldn’t help me climb out of my hole, particularly after the state took half my pre-tax, $300 weekly salary for child support payments. Grateful just to have a job, I didn’t think twice when I noticed Stretch sometimes cut me from the daily crew and kept my hours under 30 per week—until Mike, a longtime friend and a former union shop steward, explained.

“You’re part-time,” he told me. “If you work 40 hours or more, they’ll have to give you benefits.”

Because I live across town, meanwhile, I had an hour-long commute that cost as much as $10 a day round-trip on public transportation.

“Dude,” my best friend Jamie said. “After taxes, you’re making just enough to get to and from work each day.”

And when the writer finally finds a new job, one that pays a living wage, he tells his boss, who promptly criticizes his work ethic and  loyalty.

We seldom get to pick either the messages we receive or the messengers from whom we receive them. And it would have been nice if this guy hadn’t landed in poverty through his own doing, at least in part. But his story matters no matter his personal failings, because his story is pretty much the story of everybody who works in retail.

As was discussed in the Ideas section of Sunday’s News & Record, North Carolina still has about three unemployed people for every available job opening, and that doesn’t even count the so-called “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking for work and therefore are not counted as unemployed. Nor does it count the people who, though qualified for better jobs, are working part-time or minimum-wage jobs because that’s all they can find.

Their experiences are not hugely different from this guy’s. If you’re not one of them, you probably know many people who are. The American economy is screwing them to the wall, and it’s happening because of conscious and intentional decisions made by lawmakers in thrall to large corporations. It’s 21st-century peonage. And it needs to stop.

There is dignity and morality in honest work, even in retail, as long as workers are paid and treated fairly. But there is no dignity for the worker, and no morality for the employer, in taking from the worker what is rightfully his and debasing and degrading him while doing so.

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014 6:30 pm

Life and death, post-9/11, and why it matters if you live in North Carolina

In March, for the first time in 11 years, no U.S. service members died in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

That’s good. Hell, that’s GREAT.

But it doesn’t mean our problems are over:

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

To commemorate them and raise awareness, 32 veterans from the group flew to Washington, D.C., to plant 1,892 flags on the National Mall today, one for each of the veterans that the group says took his or her own life in 2014. IAVA extrapolated that number from a 2012 Veterans Administration report finding that 22 veterans took their lives each day in 2009 and 2010, only a slight increase from years past, and a number that includes all veterans, not just those who served in America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The event was part of IAVA’s 2014 Storm the Hill campaign, an annual week of action in which organization vets meet with lawmakers to push a veterans’ agenda picked for that year. In 2013, it was the Veterans Affairs benefits-claim backlog; this year, it’s veteran suicides.

“I know several individuals that have died by suicide,” Sara Poquette of Dallas, a video journalist who served in Iraq, said, adding that she herself considered suicide while experiencing the hardships of reintegrating into civilian life. “For me personally, it was more just getting through until I was really ready to get help, just realizing that my life was going down a path that I never really wanted it to go down.”

In Joining IAVA, Poquette said, she found a “new unit.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing a bill, the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., plans to introduce. Walsh commanded a Montana National Guard battalion in Iraq.

“When we returned home, one of my young sergeants died by suicide, so this is very personal to me,” Walsh told reporters on the Mall today, calling veteran suicides “an epidemic we cannot allow to continue.”

The bill would extend eligibility for Veterans Administration health care, create a pilot program for student-loan repayment if health care professionals work for the VA, instigate a review of certain behavioral discharges, and mandate a review of mental health care programs at the VA, IAVA said.

The group is calling on Congress to pass the bill by Memorial Day.

OK, so the numbers are extrapolations, not exact counts. But even if they’re off a good bit, they’re still intolerably high. God bless Sen. John Walsh for planning to introduce this bill.

But you know who else could do something about veterans’ suicides and other problems, particularly with disability payments, that veterans are experiencing and have been for years?

That would be the ranking minority member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

That would be the guy from Winston-Salem, home of the VA regional office with one of the nation’s worst backlog of disability claims cases and a record of illegally destroying claim files.

That would be my senior senator, Richard Burr.

How ’bout it, Senator? Time to saddle up, ya think?

Friday, March 28, 2014 8:57 pm

If only there were a solution; or, Why Pat McCrory and Art Pope need to be horsewhipped

From today’s News & Record print and e-edition (but apparently not from the website, so probably paywalled):

Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday asked for more belt-tightening within state government as a pre-emptive move to protect the state from a Medicaid shortfall and a fuzzy revenue picture.

In a memorandum to state agencies and their leaders, McCrory said that while the state’s fiscal picture is much improved compared with “a year ago, “the state still needs to exercise restraint for the remainder of the fiscal year,” ending June 30. He wrote a similar directive in March 2013.

McCrory’s state budget office projected this week that Medicaid expenditures could be up to $140 million above the amount the General Assembly authorized.

First of all, “McCrory’s state budget office” is budget director Art Pope, the real governor. McCrory’s just the cabin boy.

Second, so the state might need to spend $140 million above what’s been authorized. Gee. Whocouldaknowed? And if only there some way the state could do something about that without eliminating raises for hard-working state employees, who have seen damn little in the way of raises since the Crash of ’08. There ought to be something we could do, y’know. Hmm. What could it be? And why didn’t the AP and/or the News & Record point that out?

But we continue:

While revenue projections are largely on track to cover this year’s budget, “there is revenue uncertainty for the remainder” of the year, McCrory wrote.

Stop right there, bubba. Both of those things cannot be true simultaneously. McCrory, by whom I mean Pope, is just flat-out lying here and hoping no one will notice. Certainly the AP and the News & Record didn’t.

He also ordered his Cabinet-level agencies to discontinue most salary increases, limit purchases, reduce travel expenditures and reconsider contract work.

Translation: Basically, we’re not just going to screw up Medicaid, we’re going to screw up every other agency, too.

Jesus wept. What they’re doing (and refusing to do that could help) is bad enough. And the news media are giving them a free pass on top of that.

Dear Merciful God, I’ve had a pretty good life, all in all, and so I haven’t asked you for much. And much of what I have asked for, you’ve delivered. But even though you did my family and me quite a solid just today, I’m asking this: Please let Roy Cooper, or some other competent Democrat, run against McCrory in 2016 and whip him like a rented mule. I mean, whip him so badly he needs skin grafts to close all the bloody welts on his ass.

Now, Lord, I grant that’s pretty harsh. But your own son took a brutal flogging en route to saving humankind. Meanwhile, thousands of North Carolinians are doing without health insurance, and thus health care, who wouldn’t have to except that Pat McCrory and Art Pople hate the non-white guy in the White House. And a nontrivial number of those North Carolinians, research shows, are likely to die prematurely because McCrory and Pope are petty, racist sociopaths. So I figured that taking a beating like that wouldn’t fix the damage McCrory will do between now and January 2017. But it might make a lot of suffering people feel a little better and prevent a boatload more suffering in the future.

So if it wouldn’t be too much trouble …

Amen.

Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:53 pm

Thought for the day, rugged-individualism edition …

… from Helaine Olen at Reuters:

To presume home-buyers put into predatory loans by mortgage brokers working for outfits like Countrywide Financial could have stopped the housing market implosion if they knew a bit more about balancing their checkbook is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking a high school class in money management could help someone two decades later decipher a 100-page, single-spaced mortgage origination document loaded with “gotcha” clauses.

But our self-help culture doesn’t allow us to admit we might not be able to overcome greater economic woes on our own. In fact, it often makes our individual situations worse when things don’t work out.

Thomas Scheff, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently published a paper in the journalCultural Sociology claiming that in highly individualistic cultures like the United States, where people are encouraged to “go it alone,” shame is the price we pay for not achieving success.

Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.

This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.

According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.

True, self-help advice is not always fully useless. Saving money, for starters, is certainly more likely to lead to a prosperous life than not putting anything aside at all. Yet all too often, knowledge and individual action are not enough.

Self-help causes us to take the political and economic problem of increasing income inequality and make it personal. That’s both morally wrong and financially ineffective.

That we fall for it only makes it worse.

I would add that the fact that we fall for it is no surprise when you watch how much and how deeply American media of all political stripes (or none at all — movies produced purely for entertainment, for example, often include this theme) drill this message home. As we are bombarded by and marinated in those messages, the notion that many if not most great things we’ve accomplished could only have been accomplished by teams, groups, companies, communities, or the states or the federal government becomes the dog that didn’t bark: We’re so used to, and have so absorbed, this self-reliance tenet that we fail to note its all-too-frequent systemic failures.

We’re all in this together, folks. And before we can act like it, we — or most of us, anyway — have to think like it.

(h/t: Fec)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 8:27 pm

Was EVERYBODY to blame for the 2008 crash? Not just no, but, hell, no.

Dean Starkman at The New Republic, writing long and worth every word and minute:

With Wall Street’s demand for mortgages unending and some loan producers managing to book up to 70 loans per day, the system didn’t just crash. It was brought down.

But we’ve also been made to understand that subprime lenders and their Wall Street funders didn’t act alone. Instead, they were aided by the avarice of the American people, who were not victims of the crash so much as accomplices in it. Respondents to aRasmussen poll done during the throes of the crisis overwhelmingly blamed “individuals who borrowed more than they could afford” (54 percent) over Wall Street (25 percent). To this day, the view is widespread and bipartisan: Main Street was an essential cause of the meltdown. The enemy was us.

“It all goes back to the increase in the tolerance for debt,” David Brooks wrote a couple of years ago. …

One of so many instances in which Brooks has been flat wrong on the facts without professional consequence. But I digress.

Is that not the truth?

Actually: No, it’s not. The notion that American consumers share the blame for the mortgage crisis is a lie. And it is one of the most pernicious out there.

Everyone-Is-To-Blame (or EITB, for brevity’s sake) has done much to mute the public outcry essential for sweeping efforts to respond to the financial catastrophe. To the extent that Dodd-Frank fell short of the root-and-branch reform that followed the last great crash in 1929, EITB is to blame. The fact that banks too big to fail before the crisis have been allowed to grow to twice their pre-bubble sizes can be traced to a nagging sense that they didn’t act alone. And if you wonder why, six years after the fact, no significant Wall Street figure has been criminally prosecuted, I would suggest that EITB has muddied perceptions just enough to allow the administration to sidestep the necessary legal mobilization. If everyone is to blame, then criminal indictments of individual executives can be framed as exercises in scapegoating.

Everyone-is-to-blame did its worst damage to the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, an effort rolled out in the immediate aftermath of the crisis to reduce borrowers’ monthly payments through refinancing or principal write-downs. It was the mere idea of HAMP that set off Rick Santelli on his 2009 rant about “losers’ mortgages” and their “extra bathroom,” sparking the Tea Party revolt. The prospect of helping delinquent borrowers, while others paid theirs on time, unleashed a flood ofressentiment that filled the Congressional Record with denunciations of “irresponsible” actors who “lied” only to wind up in line for “gift equity,” and “tax-payer subsidized windfall.” Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the concept of “happy-go-lucky borrowers” and “cagey borrowers.” Jim Bunning, then Kentucky’s junior senator, felt compelled to warn against helping homeowners “who made bad decisions.” The outpouring tapped into a sentiment powerful enough to silence even some liberals and turned hamp into a political disaster for the Obama administration. Left adrift, the program went from a potential lifeline for borrowers to a fee-machine for servicers and a Kafkaesque nightmare for those it was supposed to help.

As an agent of obfuscation, EITB is a gift that keeps on giving. In October, The Washington Post’s editorial board objected to a $13 billion mortgage-era civil settlement with J.P. Morgan largely because it unfairly singled out the bank, when, in fact, “everyone, from Wall Street to Main Street to Washington, acted on widely held economic beliefs that turned out not to be true.” A forthcoming book by Bob Ivry, a Polk Award–winning investigative reporter for Bloomberg News (and, full disclosure, a friend), eloquently inveighs against big banks and their Washington lackeys, but also includes this assertion: “In the years leading up to the Great Bubble-Burst of 2008, everybody got a chance to cash in. … If you wanted to buy a place to live, you could get more house than you ever dreamed. You could use your rising home equity for the Disney vacation, the power boat, the fourth bedroom or the college education.” …

True. But that’s not the same thing as mortgage fraud, which, though not trivial, was an incredibly small part of the total problem:

In 2010, an FBI report drawing on figures from the consultancy Corelogic put total fraudulent mortgages during the peak boom year of 2006 at more than $25 billion. Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously not nothing. But here again, teasing those mortgages out of that year’s crisis-related write-downs of $2.7 trillion from U.S.-originated assets leaves our infamous “cagey” borrowers to blame for only a tiny share of the damage, especially since not all of the fraudulent mortgages were their fault. The ratio looks roughly something like this:

Yes, some of our cab drivers, shoeshine boys, and other fellow citizens tricked a lender into helping them take a flyer on the housing market. But the combined share of the blame for bad mortgages that can be placed on the public sits—and I’m really rounding up here—in the high single digits, and not the much larger, fuzzier numbers in our heads.

The fact is that defrauding a bank that actually cares about the quality of a loan is actually rather difficult, no matter how aggressive or deceitful the borrower. Lenders, on the other hand, can lie with relative ease about all sorts of things, and mountains of evidence show they did so on a widespread basis. For starters, it’s lenders who establish the loan-to-value ratio for a property: how much money the buyer is borrowing versus the house’s estimated worth. Banks didn’t used to let you take out a mortgage too close to the home’s total cost. But play with those numbers and, voilà, a rejected loan application turns into an accepted one. Leading up to the crash, some banks’ representations about loan-to-value ratios were off by as much as 40 percentage points.

Then there was the apparent rampant corruption of appraisals, which also have nothing whatsoever to do with borrowers. Before the bubble popped, appraisers’ groups collected 11,000 signatures on a petition decrying pressure by banks to arrive at “dishonest” or inflated valuations.

And that’s to say nothing of lenders misleading borrowers directly—a practice that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the Levin-Coburn report, and lawsuits by attorneys general around the country have all found was very much systemic. Mortgage brokers forged borrowers’ signatures and altered documents; Ameriquest (those guys again!) had its own “art department,” as it was known internally, for precisely that function. Oh, and remember those 137,000 instances of “suspicious activity” about possible borrower misdeeds? For the sake of perspective, Citigroup settled a Federal Trade Commission case alleging sales deception that involved two million clients in a single year. That’s what we call wholesale, and it was happening before the mortgage era even really got started.

Today, there’s a big and growing body of documentation about what happened as the financial system became incentivized to sell as many loans as possible on the most burdensome possible terms: Millions—and millions—of borrowers were sold subprime despite qualifying for better.

Perhaps the most astonishing and unappreciated finding comes from The Wall Street Journal, which back in December 2007 published a study of more than $2.5 trillion in subprime loans dating to 2000 (that is to say, most of the subprime loans of the era). The story, by my former colleagues Rick Brooks* and Ruth Simon, painted the picture of a world gone upside-down: During the worst years of the frenzy, more than half the subprime loans issued went to borrowers who had credit scores “high enough to often qualify for conventional loans with far better terms.” In 2006, the figure hit 61 percent. Along with its article, the Journal illustrated the alarming trend line with a version of the following graphic:

It goes without saying that no one would voluntarily eschew a prime loan for subprime—subprime is called that for a reason, carrying higher, often escalating rates; pre-payment penalties that “shut the backdoor” by precluding refinancing; and other burdens tacked on for good measure. The Journal concluded that its analysis “raises pointed questions about the practices of major mortgage lenders.” That’s putting it mildly!

He goes on to suggest some reasons why Everybody Is To Blame is such a popular world view. But what he keeps coming back to, what we must keep coming back to, is that it is wrong. If you actually look at the numbers — you know, like bankers are supposed to do — you consistently find that the overwhelming majority of the financial damage was caused by the banks, often through unethical and sometimes even illegal means.

Even so, today, we refuse to punish those responsible. If there’s Blame to be laid at the feet of Everybody, this is it. Charlie Pierce is fond of saying that for all Occupy Wall Street’s many foibles, gaffes and mistakes, it at least got people shouting at the right buildings — i.e., corporations rather than government, and the big banks in particular. Unfortunately, some of the country’s top journalists and pundits still get it wrong, and they and the lawmakers on the take form a daisy chain that keeps anything substantive from happening, not only to punish those who were responsible last time but also to do what it takes keep something like this from happening again.

It’s not Everybody’s fault. Everybody is NOT to Blame. The banks and their executives and boards are to blame. And part of citizenship in a constitutional republic is to hold them to account.

*Disclosure: Rick Brooks worked with me at the N&R in the early 1990s.

Thursday, March 6, 2014 7:57 pm

The effort to help the poor that even the GOP could love, once, is now in their sights

Tim Noah:

President Obama’s new budget increases spending on and expands eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the largest and most successful government assistance program for the working poor.

The much-praised House GOP tax reform introduced last week would cut the EITC, even though a House GOP report excoriating most federal assistance to the poor singled out the program for applause.

This new partisan difference over the EITC – a program that in the past has been a rare source of bipartisan agreement – speaks volumes about Republicans’ newfound ambivalence toward the working poor.

The EITC was created back in 1975 by Sen. Russell Long, who–despite being the son of populist Louisiana Gov. Huey “Every Man A King” Long – was fairly conservative. The idea was to use government assistance to reward work rather than indolence among the poor; you only got the money if you could show that you had worked.

This conceit had obvious appeal to President Ronald Reagan, who expanded the program, and later to President Bill Clinton, who expanded it much further even as he eliminated “welfare as we know it,” i.e., long-term, no-strings cash assistance to the poor. (The EITC was further expanded under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)

Welfare reform should have ended the partisan scrimmage over welfare dependency. Instead, it merely shifted the goalposts. Previously, the GOP had praised the “deserving” (i.e., working) poor even as it derided the “dependent” (i.e., welfare-collecting) poor. But with Clinton’s abolition of long-term assistance and imposition of work requirements, it became more difficult to isolate a class of nonworking, government-dependent poor that Republicans could reliably scapegoat. So they gradually came to rebrand as “dependent” any low-income person who collected government assistance, even if that person also had a job. In effect, conservatives broadened their definition of “welfare” to the breaking point, including food stamps (most of which go to people with jobs), Medicaid (a benefit you collect only if you get sick), and even Pell Grants.

I don’t think the Republicans are “ambivalent” toward the working poor. I think they actively want to kick them harder. They may say otherwise, but by their works ye may know them. North Carolina already has killed its own version of the EITC because our legislature is controlled by sociopaths.

UPDATE, 9:37 p.m.: Forgot the link. It’s there now.

Monday, January 27, 2014 10:19 pm

The price of experience

Today is observed internationally as Holocaust Remembrance Day (it’s the anniversary of the day Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in 1945). Earlier this evening, I attended a screening of the movie “Jakob the Liar,” about the lives of Jews in Poland’s Lodz ghetto in 1944, followed by recitations of the Male HaRachamim and the Kaddish.

The event also included a reading of a meditation, “The Price of Experience,” written by Adrian Mitchell and Kate Westbrook. Two lines in particular struck me:

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted/To speak the laws of prudence to the homeless wanderer

It must be, because we do so much of it in America today. We have one major party (and, frankly, some members of the other) actively working against universal access to  health care. We accuse the poor of deserving to be poor because of moral flaws or failure to exert sufficient effort to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, never mind the fact that increasing numbers of Americans have no boots and no immediate prospects of being able to find a job that pays well enough to buy them.

What is going on in America today is by no means, of course, morally equivalent to the Holocaust, and I do not mean to imply otherwise. But it is bad nonetheless: For more than 30 years the wealthy have waged war on the middle class, and that war has only accelerated with and since the Crash of ’08. Meanwhile, the hyperwealthy who attend Davos moan about the bad things the less fortunate say about them. One moron, venture capitalist Tom Perkins, writing in The Wall Street Journal — and you can’t make this crap up — even compared complaints about the wealthy to attitudes of Nazi Germany toward Jews. On a slightly less offensive level, neither Congress nor the Beltway media talk much about this problem, let alone consult with some of the people who know how to fix it. One can only assume that things are this way because the wealthy and powerful want them this way. That’s bad enough. But the victim blaming is a sign of advanced moral rot. And when moral rot in a society’s leadership expands to this point, perhaps a Holocaust is not inevitable. But a French Revolution certainly isn’t out of the question — nor should it be.   

Thursday, January 23, 2014 8:57 pm

Terrorist acts that our federal and state governments have ignored

Esquire’s Charlie Pierce with a thought experiment:

Imagine if there were three terrorist events in two weeks. First, terrorists poison a state’s water supply. Then, they rig a building to collapse and rig another one hundreds of miles away to explode. Nervous politicians would be blue-pencilling the Bill of Rights by daybreak. The NSA would throw a parade for itself. Edward Snowden would be hung in effigy, if we couldn’t do it in person. Somebody’s ass would get droned in Waziristan.

Sounds about right.

But in the past two weeks, we have seen West Virginia’s water supply be poisoned by a Koch Bros.-owned chemical plant (CORRECTION: As Roch notes below, the Kochs sold the plant Dec. 31, nine days before the leak), which promptly filed for bankruptcy protection so that the families who are harmed will have to be compensated by the state if they get compensated at all. Then we have the building collapse in Nebraska and the explosion in Oklahoma. And those events happened in the wake of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured more than 160 others and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings. What do these things have in common? Freedom! The dead hand of government regulation has been removed, by fiat or via lack of enforcement, so that these companies could kill Americans without significantly harming their owners’ bottom lines.

At Cogitamus.com, the Low-Tech Cyclist says:

I keep on waiting for the Democratic Party to get a clue about this: to say after the latest such disaster, “This is why we regulate, [expletive] — this is why we need the regulations, and why we need enough Federal inspectors out in the field to make sure they’re followed.  Because otherwise, they’ll poison our food, dump chemicals in our rivers, steal your wages, and make you work in places that could blow up.”

But Dems at the state and federal levels seem almost as in thrall to industry as their GOP brethren and sistren, so we’re all screwed. Pierce concludes:

(Forklift operator) Kendrick Houston was brave enough to go back into the fire (in Omaha). Yet too many of our politicians, local and national, don’t have the simple stones to stand up to a corporate class that has come to represent nothing but death and pillage. But they will show up at the funerals, boy. They will do that, and they will talk about the indomitable spirit of American individualism, through which people will run back into the fire, and then they will go out onto the stump next fall and talk about how the dead hand of government regulation is stifling that same spirit, and that freedom demands more victims. The American Dream becomes the province of the dead, Moloch with stock options, and that is the country today, where things fall down and things blow up and almost nothing ever changes.

The Republicans got the Congress back in 1994 in part by using language to frame the terms of the debate and even to describe their opponents as outlined in the now-famous document “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” So is it excessive to, as Low-Tech Cyclist does, call our plutocrat class “terrorists”? I think not — if the poison-tipped jackboot fits, wear it — but even then, they do what they do because we allow our legislators to let them. This, among many, many other reasons, is why voting matters and why electing people to office who believe that government can and should do its job, not those who are bent on dismantling what remains of government, is so important.

Some of our most vicious terrorists are home-grown, and it’s time they did time. But in addition, and better, it’s time we prevented them from getting in the way of what’s needed to keep our food, water, drugs, cosmetics, workplaces, and so on, safe. Because the free market doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you live or die. If you doubt me, you can just go to West, Texas, or even just down to Hamlet and ask.

Monday, January 13, 2014 9:32 pm

Jon Stewart on Chris Christie

In case there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen this yet (language NSFW, duh):

A $90 billion story about GM that I had not heard before

Filed under: Shooting the wounded — Lex @ 6:08 pm
Tags: , , , ,

From Ed at Gin & Tacos:

… did you know, despite this fact being absent both from Michael Moore’s ultra-liberal documentary and ten thousand mainstream media accounts of GM’s bankruptcy a few years ago, that the financial collapse of what was once the world’s largest corporation was precipitated by Roger Smith’s bright idea to replace all of the autoworkers with robots? True story. General Motors under Smith spent $90 billion on robotics and automation in nine years.

Think about that for a second. Ninety billion dollars. $90,000,000,000.00. Of course none of it worked, with factory robots breaking down constantly, painting one another, and welding car doors shut. It’s easy to say that the company got what it deserved and forget about it. But think for a second about the mindset of a group of people so committed to the concept of eliminating the workforce (and the UAW) that it would piss away ninety billion dollars trying to do it. Even if the Worker Bots worked flawlessly, how could that possibly make financial sense? How many decades and centuries of “savings” from lower wages to earn back those sunk costs? And how much money would the Robo-Factories demand in the future for maintenance, upgrades, and eventual replacement with newer and better technology? For $90 billion, GM simply could have purchased Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and most of its other foreign rivals – several times over. Of course, in that scenario they’d still have to pay people to make cars.

The fact is that General Motors didn’t go bankrupt, it committed financial suicide because its executive culture fostered a loathing for the UAW and the hourly workforce that was so extreme that it obliterated basic logic and business sense. The idea was not to replace the workers with Japanese robots (GM Robotics was acquired from Fujitsu) because it would save money; it was to replace the workers with robots because [expletive] the workers.

Phrased a little less colorfully, that mindset has put us where we are today, with the stock market, corporate profits and corporate cash on hand at all-time highs — not because of greatly increased sales, but mainly because of cost-cutting, primarily by laying people off.

Which raises a question I wish would become an integral part of the debate in any campaign for federal office: What is the purpose of the economy? Is it to make a very few individuals and large corporations fantastically wealthy? Or is it to create jobs in which people produce goods or services that other people want to buy? My bias on this question is pretty obvious, but I imagine a large majority of Americans share that bias. If so, then what role should government play and how should it go about playing that role? The GOP response for my adult lifetime has been lower taxes and fewer regulations, which not only has gotten us coming up on six lost years of economic activity but also is injuring, sickening and killing people while poisoning the planet, from Fukushima, Japan, to Charleston, West Virginia.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013 12:58 am

The Gospel According to Pierce; or, A Christmas Prayer, With Carrion

And Pierce wrote, saying:

But this is the argument in season over these holidays. That the poor must suffer in order to be redeemed. That hunger is a moral test to be endured. That only through pain can we hope. What doesn’t destroy you, etc. Santa Nietzsche is coming to town. The idea that we should — hell, that we must — act out of charity for each other through the institutions of self-government is lost in the din of a frontal system of moral thunderation aimed at everyone except the person who is out there thunderatin’ on behalf of personal-trainer Jesus, who wants us to work, work, work on that core. That was the way that government operated once before; the specific institutions that Scrooge mentions, and with which the Spirit eventually reproaches him in his own words – the prisons, the union workhouses, the treadmill, and the Poor Laws – were all government institutions based on the same basic philosophy that drives the debate over the food stamp program today.(We even seem to be going back to debtor’s prisons.) We have speeches on self-reliance given by government employees to people who increasingly have only themselves on whom to rely, day after grinding day. It is a way to keep the poor from having a voice in their own self-government. It is a way to keep the wrath of the boy at bay. There will be a reckoning, one way or another. But it can be staved off by platitudes, and by verses from Scripture wrenched from the obvious context of the Gospels. The sepulchers brighten whitely while the bones inside grow increasingly corrupt. This is what this Congress believes, as it goes home proud of itself and its members dress themselves to sing the midnight carols with no conscience sounding in counterpoint, and this is Christmas in America, and it is the year of our Lord, 2013.

Merry Christmas to all, and tonight, God bless us, every one. But forgive me, Lord, in advance, for hoping and praying that the year of our Lord 2014 brings plague and pestilence upon those who would force the suffering to suffer further, those who would insist upon morality tests for the poor that they themselves could not pass, those who would require that many of our fellow Americans be denied a voice with which to insist anything. Bring on the plagues for them, turn their fruit into locust husks, their wine and water into blood, and their foie gras to feces, and let their corrupt bones and those of their first born be cast out from the whitely brightened sepulchers to be feasted upon by jackals and vultures.

Except for those who repent and atone. Always except for those.

Amen. And Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 7:41 pm

Giving a [bleep] about kids: Dems vs. GOP edition

Mistermix at Balloon Juice:

My dad is a lifelong Democrat because his family felt that Roosevelt and the Democrats gave a [bleep] about their kids during the Depresssion. I’m a Democrat because it’s clear who gives a [bleep] about my kid, and none of them have an R after their name.

They don’t give a [bleep] that hating gays leads to teen suicide.

They don’t give a [bleep] if kids go hungry because food stamps were cut.

They don’t give a [bleep] if teenagers can’t get birth control.

And they certainly don’t give a [bleep] that a kid who has epilepsy, or Crohn’s, will be saddled with a life of worry over whether she’ll be able to buy insurance.

After all the noise over the website dies down, after the Republicans try to shut down the government three more times and vote to repeal another dozen times, this is what’s going to be left for thousands of American families: a man and a party that gave enough of a [bleep] about them to endure a five year temper tantrum from a party that clearly has a broken give-a-[bleep]er when it comes to children.

It’s fine to talk in principle about limited government. (It must be — I do it, although I often mean something by “limited” that is different from what the RWNJs mean.) But when the real-life results of your actions carry an actual and nontrivial body count, you either change your positions or you mark yourself as a sociopath.

Moreover, the real reason why the GOP has carried on a five-year temper tantrum about Obamacare is that they know that if it works — and it is working, even if the website still has bugs — people will embrace it like Social Security and Medicare and the party will be screwed politically for at least a generation.

 

Thursday, October 31, 2013 10:04 pm

You want scary? Here’s scary: Congressional Democrats trying to help poor people.

Why are millions of Americans about to have their food stamps (SNAP) cut tomorrow? Because Congressional Democrats are the worst, most inept defenders of America’s most vulnerable in the history of, well, forever:

WASHINGTON — A group of nine Democratic members of the House of Representatives held a press conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday to demand Congress avert an automatic food stamp cut scheduled to take effect on Friday.

“The average family of four will see a $36 cut in their monthly benefits, bringing the average per-person benefit from $1.50 a meal to $1.40 a meal,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said. “Shame on this Congress for allowing this to happen.”

But the cut, which will reduce monthly benefits for all 47 million Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by roughly 7 percent, is happening thanks mainly to Democratic votes that hastened the demise of a benefit increase from the 2009 stimulus bill. Each of the representatives at Tuesday’s presser voted with their party for a pair of 2010 spending bills that set the cuts in motion.

The first bill took money allocated for future food stamp use and used it instead to prevent states from laying off teachers. Democrats supported the bill grudgingly, lamenting that it would cause a food stamp cut in 2014. When it came time to support a second bill that raided future food stamp funds once again, pushing the cut to November 2013, they protested — at least at first.

“This is one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and is a vote we do not take lightly,” more than 100 Democrats wrote in an August 2010 letter to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But then President Barack Obama smoothed things over in a meeting at the White House, because the bill in question was the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — a priority of the first lady’s. The measure provided free lunches and updated nutrition standards for schools.

“I am very pleased we were able to work together with the president and his team to address concerns regarding cuts to the food stamp program that are included in the child nutrition bill,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said in a statement at the time. On Tuesday, Lee told HuffPost the president had pledged to support replacing the SNAP funds, a vow he fulfilled in subsequent budget blueprints that didn’t become law. Congress and the White House have been otherwise silent about the issue for the past three years.

Now, you may have heard that the GOP is seeking cuts — $40 billion over the next 10 years — in food stamps, while continuing to support the indefensible agricultural subsidies that, along with food stamps, are part and parcel of the same agriculture bill now under discussion. And you’re right; they are. But the cuts that are going into effect tomorrow are a separate issue and were aided and abetted by a nontrivial number of Democrats — and this was back in 2010, when Democrats still controlled the House. Democrats hope you won’t notice this.

Digby comments:

They are actually defending the fact that they were forced into choosing between vegetables and fruits for school lunches and food stamps for poor people. Our progressive representatives passively capitulated to the absurd notion that we could not do both. How many of these “deals” have Democrats made over the past few years?

Too damn many, is how many. On pretty much every issue of importance to the poor, the middle class, women, minorities, consumers — basically every constituency except rich white men and large corporations — Democrats have gotten rolled over and over and over again.

I sometimes get asked why, given how nutzo the party has gone in the past 20 years, I remain a Republican. My reasons are my own, but, swear to God, some days I feel like saying something stupid like, “Because at least they’re competent.”

Monday, October 28, 2013 7:33 pm

Why Healthcare.gov problems shouldn’t be a surprise

Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation and co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Obama’s online 2008 campaign, on the rollout:

Well, government doesn’t have a lot of people to choose from when they’re looking for contractors to build this stuff. And I think part of the problem is that the same people that are building drones are building websites. When government is building a website like this, they have to use a system called procurement, which is about 1,800 pages’ worth of regulation that all but ensures that the people who are building this stuff are the people with the best lawyers, not the people with the best programmers. And so, you know, you have this sort of fundamental lack of talent amongst the contractor ecosystem that’s building this stuff, that it’s bound to be bad work—that, combined with the fact that in 1996 Congress lobotomized itself by getting rid of its technology think tank, called the Technology Assessment Office. So when they’re writing bills, they don’t understand the technology that they’re requiring in their laws. This is what you get when you have a Congress that is basically brainless on technology, and government who can only pick from a few old, stodgy contractors. You’re bound to have this result. And, in fact, the standings group came out earlier this week and pointed out that over—for all procurements over $10 million, 94 percent of them fail.

We can thank the Republicans for getting rid of the Technology Assessment Office, inasmuch as they controlled both houses of Congress at the time and facts are just so darned inconvenient.

Meanwhile, adding to the site’s problems, a data center built and run by Verizon went down Sunday, halting enrollment in all 50 states. I eagerly await Darrell Issa’s subpoena of Verizon’s CEO, and/or Issa’s call for the CEO to be fired.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 7:41 pm

Pension systems for public workers are only unsustainable if …

Filed under: I want my money back.,Shooting the wounded — Lex @ 7:41 pm
Tags: ,

… politicians and bankers steal from them.

The government, via insurance and regulations, has some leverage over the banks. It should use it to recover the money the banks stole and return it to retired public workers.

Oh, and a unicorn.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 7:47 pm

Digby explains it all for you …

… in less than a paragraph:

Boehner’s caucus won’t do what he wants them to do! He can’t make a deal they don’t want him to make unless he’s willing to commit hara-kiri and pass a clean CR with Democratic votes. Does he think Obama will agree to defund Obamacare?

Now, by “commit hara-kiri,” Digby means that if Boehner agreed to pass a clean continuing resolution with Democratic votes, he’d be voted out as Speaker. And, frankly, with the full faith and credit of the United States on the line in just a little over two weeks, a guy who cared about serving the country would take that deal. But the weeping Cheeto wants to hold onto the speakership, even though he’s a bad Speaker of historic proportions, so he’s going to let the Crazy Caucus dictate the GOP’s position. And Obama won’t back off on the Affordable Care Act (nor should he, what with it having been approved by Congress, signed into law, pronounced constitutional by the Supreme Court and effectively ratified by voters nationwide in 2012 and all).

The Crazy Caucus is threatening to blow up the government. And it’s not just a tantrum, it’s something they’ve been planning since January. They need to be reminded of something:

The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.

James Fallows’s thought experiment on government shutdown

Fallows shows your liberal media at work:

2) Thought experiment. Let’s suppose it’s the fall of 2005. Suppose George W. Bush has been reelected, as he was in real life. Let’s suppose, also as in reality, the Senate remained in Republican hands. But then suppose that Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats had already won control of the House, rather than doing so two years later. So suppose that the lineup as of 2005 had been:

  • Reelected Republican president;
  • The president’s Republican party retaining control of the Senate; and
  • Democrats controlling only one chamber, the House.

Then suppose further that Pelosi’s newly empowered House Democrats announced that unless George W. Bush agreed to reverse the sweeping tax cuts that had been the signature legislative achievement of his first term, they would refuse to pass a budget so that the federal government could operate, and would threaten a default on U.S. sovereign debt. Alternatively, that unless Bush immediately withdrew from Iraq, federal government funding would cease and the debt ceiling would be frozen.

In this imagined world, I contend:

  • “respectable” opinion would be all over Pelosi and the Democrats for their “shrill,” “extreme” demands, especially given their lack of broad electoral mandate;
  • hand-wringing editorials would point out that if you want to change policy, there’s an established route to do so, which involves passing new bills and getting them signed into law, rather than issuing “otherwise we blow up the government” ultimatums;
  • no one would be saying that the “grownups in the room” had to resolve the crisis by giving away, say, half of the president’s tax cuts. (Even though, to my taste, that would have been a positive step.)

The circumstances are the mirror image now. A party that within the past year has:

  • lost the presidency by 5 million votes;
  • lost the Senate by a total of 10 million votes;
  • held onto control of the House through favorable districting, while losing the overall House vote by 1.7 million nationwide

… is nonetheless dictating terms to the rest of the government. This would have been called extreme and unreasonable under an imagined Nancy Pelosi House in 2005. It is extreme and unreasonable now.

Yup. But apparently IOKIYAR, because the Washington Post and other outlets of its out-of-touch ilk are suggesting that the “grownups in the room” have to compromise now. Uh, not just no, but hell, no. The Crazy Caucus must be forced back into its cage, and until it is (which likely won’t be until the 2022 elections) it should be held up to public shame and opprobrium at every possible opportunity by the “grownups in the room,” which ought to include, but does not and has not for years, the Washington Post.

Monday, August 12, 2013 6:16 pm

Quote of the day, newspaper-industry edition:

Charlie Pierce:

Nobody, I assure you, knows anything. They’re just bailing like hell, and people like [Washington Post buyer Jeff] Bezos and [Boston Globe buyer John] Henry are the newest, shiniest buckets.

In the case of the Post, I suppose it’s possible that Bezos will bring Amazon.com’s customer-service technical know-how to the business side in salutary ways. But the content side has problems you don’t have to be a technology entrepreneur to see: It’s too focused on the horse race at the expense of policy coverage, it’s too focused on inside-the-Beltway middle-school cat fights at the expense of the kind of policy reporting a national newspaper ought to strive to provide, and its op-ed page is, with a few honorable exceptions, staffed with hacks who are either flat wrong or else clinging to a world view that went out of style the day after the Berlin Wall fell. His best hope is to turn the Post into an online-first operation and then look for ways to phase out or kill the print edition, and even he seems in no hurry to do that.

As for Henry, it’s hard to see what he gets out of this besides (even more of) a megaphone for his Boston Red Sox. He’s paying 5% of what the New York Times paid for the Globe 20 years ago and no matter what he does, he’ll be lucky to sell at a profit in his remaining lifetime.

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