Category Archives: Employment

Workers Need More Rights and Economic Democracy

As someone who has been a union member since I was a Marine with the American Servicemen’s Union until I retired last year as a Teamster as well as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, I have lived the reality of mistreatment of workers in the United States.

It is good to see labor rising with teacher and other strikes increasing across the country and with the US public showing its highest support for unions in decades. The next president should harness the energy of working people and build political power for a transformation agenda for working people who have not gotten a real raise in decades, while executives and investors have been getting rich off of higher rates of exploitation with increased productivity and globalized markets and corporate-managed trade deals that enable global corporations to pit the working classes of different countries against each other in a race to the bottom.

Urgent Reforms Needed, Time to Transform the Workplace

The centerpiece of my campaign for president is an ecosocialist Green New Deal. Responding to the climate crisis is going to require changes to many sectors of the economy. We need to create a new democratic and ecological economy. We must define this economy with the rights of workers in mind, not only their right to collective bargaining but the need to make workers into owners to end the capitalist crisis highlighted by the reality that three people have wealth equal to 50 percent of the population.

We need social and cooperative ownership where workers receive the full value of their labor. Now we are exploited. We get a fixed wage and all the surplus value we create with our work is taken by capitalists as profits simply because they own the company, not because they did any work.

The Green New Deal requires the United States to reconstruct all economic sectors for ecological sustainability, from agriculture and manufacturing to housing and transportation. This means millions of new jobs in a democratized economy where some sectors are nationalized, others are controlled by state and municipal government and more are re-made into cooperatives that are worker-owned.

A Green New Deal must include a Just Transition, which means income to compensate all workers whose jobs are eliminated by steps taken to protect the environment. Displaced workers should be guaranteed up to five years of their previous income and benefits as they make the transition to alternative work.

As part of the Green New Deal, I am calling for an Economic Bill of Rights, which includes a job guarantee and a guaranteed minimum income above poverty for all. The housing crisis will be alleviated with the institution of universal rent control and expansion of public housing in walkable communities with access to regional mass transit. Air and water pollution will be relieved by putting in place a 100% electrified transportation system emphasizing freight rails, high-speed inter-city rails, and urban light-rail mass transit, with electric powered cars and trucks where they are still needed.

A crash program of federal government investment and public enterprises to rebuild our economy for zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% clean energy by 2030 will create full employment and shared prosperity. But not everyone is able to work. And some things should be human rights, not commodities you can only get if you have enough money. That’s why we need a social safety net of social services funded publicly, not privately out of pocket. That means a national health service for universal health care, lifelong free public education, student debt relief, and a secure retirement by doubling Social Security benefits. The ecosocialist Green New Deal is a plan to remake the economy so that it serves the people and protects the ecology and the climate. Those objectives require a socialist economic democracy so that we the people–not big business interests–have the power to choose economic justice and ecological sanity.

Immediate Reforms For Working People

In addition to changes coming as a result of putting in place an ecosocialist Green New Deal, we need are immediate labor law reforms.

Repeal Repressive Labor Laws: Repeal the sections of the Taft-Hartley Act, the Landrum-Griffin Act, the Hatch Act, and state “Right-To-Work” laws that have crippled labor’s ability to organize by outlawing or severely restricting labor’s basic organizing tools: strikes, boycotts, pickets, and political action. This should include putting in place Card Check which extends union bargaining status to majority sign-up or card-check recognition.

A Workers’ Bill of Rights: Enact a set of legally enforceable civil rights, independent of collective bargaining. This should include:

(1) Extending the Bill of Rights protections of free speech, association, and assembly into all workplaces.

(2) Establishes workers’ rights to living wages, portable pensions, information about chemicals used, report labor and environmental violations, refuse unsafe work, and participate in enterprise governance. OSHA must be funded adequately to protest workers and communities and workers empowered to enforce safety and health regulations. Retirement should include a mandatory system of Guaranteed Retirement Accounts that provide a return of at least 3 percent above inflation guaranteed by the federal government.

(3) Establishes workers’ rights to freedom from discharge at will, employer search and seizure in the workplace, sexual harassment, and unequal pay for work of comparable worth. These rights should ensure that workers can take legal action to stop wage theft. In addition to a living wage, workers should have subsidized, high quality child care and elder care. Workers should receive six weeks of paid vacation annually in addition to federal holidays. For every seven years worked, they should receive one year of paid educational leave and one year of parental leave for each child with no loss of seniority.

Employer Accountability: There must be strong and speedy penalties for employers who break labor laws. In addition, federal law needs to ban striker replacements, provide triple back pay for illegally locked-out workers, and there must be unemployment compensation for striking and locked-out workers.

Labor Law Protections for Farm workers: Extend to farm workers the same rights under labor law as other workers, including A Day of Rest, Overtime Pay, Collective Bargaining Protections, Disability Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Child Labor Protections, and Occupational Safety and Health Standards.

Labor Law Protections for Prisoners: Enact legislation to end the super-exploitation of prison labor at pennies per hour, which undercuts the wages of workers outside the prison system. The prison labor system as it exists now is akin to slavery and the prison labor camps in other authoritarian countries. Work done by prisoners can be part of rehabilitation and enable prisoners to acquire job skills, support their families, and have savings upon release. Work done by prisoners for private contractors and for public works and services should be paid prevailing wages. Prison workers should have all the protections of labor law, including the right to organize unions.

Fair Trade: Trade deals should be rewritten to uplift labor and environmental standards across borders. Fair trade pacts should eliminate secretive trade tribunals to which only governments and corporations have access. Trade disputes should be adjudicated in public courts to which workers, unions, and public have access.

It is time to correct the decades of diminishing worker rights and shrinking unions as well as low-pay. The United States is about to begin a transformation to a clean, sustainable energy future. The new economy we create must prioritize the rights of workers to create an economy that works for the 99 percent, not just the 1 percent.

Linking Popular Movements And Unions Is A Winning Strategy For Workers

After years of declining power and stagnant wages, workers in the United States are awakening, striking and demanding more rights.  A Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows the number of striking workers is the highest since 1986. In 2018, 485,000 people went on strike, a number not exceeded since the 533,000 people in 1986, and 2019 will be even larger. Workers should be in revolt, as the Economic Policy Institute found workers have had stagnant wages for three and a half decades even though productivity is increasing.

This week we look at the origin of Labor Day, how workers are returning to those roots and the future for workers in the United States.

From the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Labor Returns To Its Roots: Strikes Escalate

This is the 125th anniversary of Labor Day, which was declared in 1894 after the nationwide Pullman railroad strike led by the American Railway Union under Eugene Debs when 260,000 workers in 27 states participated. Federal troops were used to stop the strike and 26 people were killed. Six days after the more than two-month-long strike ended, President Grover Cleveland pushed legislation through Congress creating Labor Day as a conciliatory gesture to the workers.

Near the end of the strike, on July 4, Debs described the strike as the beginning of a conflict where “90 percent of the people of the United States will be arrayed against the other 10 percent.” Six days later, Debs was arrested and, after his conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, he served six months in prison for violating an injunction against the strike. When released, Debs started the Socialist Party, which built worker power in elections, resulting in many changes to the laws.

The Pullman Strike was part of a growing labor movement that won reforms such as ending child labor, the 8-hour workday, the right to unionize and Depression-era New Deal laws, which included many laws demanded by workers, the Socialist Party and the Progressive Party.

Since the 1947 Taft-Harley Act, which restricted worker rights, unions have been in decline with reduced members and rights. The Janus decision, which some saw as a fatal attack on public-sector unions, might be the low point, perhaps the darkness before the dawn, for workers in the United States. Workers are realizing that democracy requires unions and now 64% of people say they approve of unions, a dramatic increase of 16 percent over a record-low figure registered in 2009.

Janus seems to have focused unions on the need to rethink their approach, and so far unions who have moved to an organizing culture have not been hurt by Janus. In recent years, there has been an awakening with a wave of strikes such as the teachers’ strikes in multiple states (California, ColoradoMichigan, New JerseyOregonPennsylvaniaTennessee, WashingtonWest Virginia, among others). There have also been recent strikes by healthcare and hotel workers in ten citiesgrad studentsfarmworkers and Stop and Shop, National Grid and Steelworkers, as well as the largest strike of manufacturing workers in the Trump era, McDonald’s, and even prisoners on stike in 17 states. WalMart workers threatened to strike and won increased wages.

Workers in the new gig economy also face challenges. When Uber and Lyft went public, it was bad news for drivers. While investors made billions of dollars, it created new “demands from investors for fare increases and further attacks on drivers, already grossly undercompensated.”  These drivers are contractors, not employees subject to minimum wage laws or the benefits of being an employee. The effective hourly wage of an Uber driver is less than what 90 percent of US workers earn. Drivers have begun to organize and strike to demand better wages and benefits.

It is time for a new era of worker rights, union organizing, higher wages, and worker ownership. Decades of mistreatment of workers are boomeranging and could make the next decade one of massive advancement by workers.

People participate in a workers’ rights protest. (Ben Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Transformation Requires More Than Wages

The vast majority of people in the United States are wage slaves as they depend on their job for survival and missing a short time without work puts people in serious financial difficulty. This is the time to transform the relationship of workers to their jobs.

The Congressional Budget Office found the wealth divide has reached new levels of disparity, finding the wealthiest top 10 percent of families with incomes of at least $942,000 now hold 76 percent of the total wealth and average $4 million in wealth. The remainder of the top half of the population took most of the rest, 23 percent, which left only 1 percent of wealth for the bottom 50 percent. That bottom half can barely pay their bills, has no money for emergencies, has no savings, can’t afford to send their children to college and is trapped with great insecurity and no upward mobility. In fact, the bottom 25 percent of people in the US are, on average, in debt $13,000 and the bottom 12 percent is $32,000 in debt.

One reason for the wealth divide is that since 1979 productivity has increased by 70 percent while hourly compensation has increased only by 12 percent. During this period, the top one percent’s wages grew 138 percent, while wages of the bottom 90 percent grew just 15 percent. If the wages of the bottom 90 percent had grown in parallel with the increase in productivity, then the bottom 90 percent’s wages would have grown by 32 percent, more than double the actual growth. Breaking this down further, middle-class wages have been stagnant with an hourly wage increase of only 6 percent since 1979, while low-wage workers’ wages have actually declined by 5 percent. Those with very high wages had a 41 percent increase.

Radical transformation is needed to correct decades of decline in worker’s rights and wages. This means reversing the era of privatization and creating economic democracy, such as worker ownership and workers sharing in the profits. As the calls to declare a climate emergency get louder, there is an opportunity to do both while we confront the reality of the climate crisis. Various proposals are being put forward for a Green New Deal. Transitioning to a clean energy economy requires changes in many economic sectors; e.g., construction, manufacturing, transit, agriculture, housing, finance, energy, and infrastructure. Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein list twelve reasons why a Green New Deal could be good for workers.

Responding to the climate crisis is going to require major public capital investments over the next two decades. With these public investments, the United States needs a democratically controlled economy. This means more public works, and the nationalizing of some sectors of the economy, especially the energy and transportation sectors.  It is an opportunity to put in place public ownership where workers have a share in ownership of businesses or complete ownership based on a worker-cooperative model.

Labor unions need to be involved in determining the details of the new Green-era economy. As Labor for Sustainability points out, many unions are already on board. It is important for workers involved in the fossil fuel economy to realize the new economy of the future will not include fossil fuels and they need to help create that new economy so they can be part of it and benefit from it. Green New Deal advocates are calling for a “Just Transition”, where workers are compensated and receive training as they transition to the new economy. One of the challenges of building the new economy is it will require millions of workers. There will be a worker shortage as all sectors of the economy will have to transition to sustainability and clean energy.

Join the People’s Mobilization to Stop the US War Machine and Save the Planet, September 20 to 23 in New York City. We will join the climate strike with messages that war = ecocide. We’ll march for Puerto Rico’s independence. We’ll talk about racism, militarism, and resistance. We’ll rally and march to demand the US be held accountable for its global gangsterism with Cornel West, Roger Waters, and the Embassy Protectors. And we’ll hold an evening of solidarity with representatives from countries impacted by US sanctions and intervention and music by David Rovics (you must register for this at bit.ly/RSVPapathtopeace). Learn more at PeoplesMobe.org. And sign the Global Appeal for Peace.

The shift to a democratized economy is already underway as more people are developing worker-owned businesses. The movement for worker ownership in the United States has been growing rapidly since before the 2008 financial crash. This movement is now reflecting itself in the electoral process. Polls show widespread support among people in the US for workers having ownership in corporations where they are employed.

Last week, Senator Sanders put forward a labor program that included giving workers a greater ownership stake in companies. Senator Warren made a similar proposal last year when she announced her exploratory campaign that included workers on boards of directors and receiving a share of the profits. Green candidate Howie Hawkins has a long history of support for economic democracy, giving workers more rights, a share in profits and ownership of corporations. Such “codetermination” policies are widely prevalent in Europe providing unions with a strong voice in corporate decision-making.

Commencement celebration, Bronx, NY

Wage-Slaves Must Revolt To Reverse The Era of Privatization

The attack on workers is a product of the privatization era that began under Reagan, accelerated under Clinton and continues today. Some of the teacher’s strikes have focused on charter schools, highlighting how privatization hurts workers. Privatization strengthens the financiers. The negative consequences of the privatization era are increasing support for socialism and economic democracy as well as specific policies such as national improved Medicare for all, municipal Internet networks, public utilities, and worked-controlled businesses.

There has been an increased call for general strikes by workers, climate activists, and immigrants. When the people of the United States become mobilized enough to organize a general strike, it will be a revolutionary moment in the development of the United States. People will realize they have the power to determine their own futures.

When we describe building power at Popular Resistance, we are describing the kind of people’s movement that is able to stop business as usual with a mass general walkout or other tactics. A wage-slave revolt is where the popular movement is going in the foreseeable future.

The escalation in worker organizing in the US, both inside and outside of unions, over the past half-dozen years is coming at a time when people are being radicalized in social movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter. Unions are connecting worker struggles to community concerns and as a result, when they strike, the community supports them.  The linking of the popular movement to growth in unions strengthens both workers and activists. People uniting across issues is building a popular movement that is demanding people and planet, not profit.

Labor Day is a time to reflect on the potential of workers building power. The people are on the path to build a powerful political movement against both corporate-controlled parties to fight for a government that represents the interests of workers and puts people and planet before profits.

Trump Has Blocked Wage Gains for American Workers

On June 19, 2019, President Donald Trump bragged at his re-election kickoff rally in Orlando that, thanks to his leadership, the wages of American workers “are rising at the fastest rate in many decades.”

The reality, however, is that they are not.  Indeed, wages rose at a faster rate only a few years before, under his predecessor.  And a key reason for the very limited wage increases since Trump entered the White House is his administration’s success in blocking any wage increases for some workers and in reducing wage increases for others.

In fact, Trump has never been enthusiastic about increasing the pay of America’s workers.  “Our wages are too high,” the billionaire businessman complained back in November 2015, during his campaign for the presidency.

Naturally, then, Trump and his fellow Republicans have blocked any increase in the federal minimum wage during his time in office.  In 2016, Trump stated his opposition to setting any federal wage floor and, since then, has never proposed raising it.  As a result of years of Republican resistance in Congress and the White House, the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at a poverty level — $7.25 an hour — for a decade and has lost much of its purchasing power, making it the lowest minimum wage throughout the industrialized world.  The minimum wage for waiters and other workers relying on tips is even lower: $2.13 an hour.

Moreover, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress continue to oppose any minimum wage increase.  In early May 2019, Trump’s Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, testified before two Congressional committees, declaring:  “We do not support a change in the federal minimum wage at this time.”  In response, Senator Patty Murray, alluding to the ten year gap since the last increase, asked:  “If workers do not deserve [a raise] at this time, then when do they?”  But Acosta did not answer her question.

In July 2019, the new, Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation to phase in an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, thereby — as the AFL-CIO noted — giving “40 million Americans a raise.”  But only three House Republicans voted for the measure, while Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that he would prevent a Senate vote on it.  Although, in mid-June, Trump said he was “looking at” the idea of a $15 an hour minimum wage, he quickly countered that by stating, falsely, that he had “already created a minimum wage because wages have gone up more than . . .  in many decades” under his administration.  Since then, nothing about a minimum wage increase has been heard from the president, and the Democratic wage raise legislation remains banned from consideration in the Republican Senate.

Trump has also gone out of his way to undermine the income of public sector workers.  In August 2018, he announced that he would scrap a scheduled 2.1 percent pay raise, plus locality paycheck adjustments, for 2 million federal employees.  “Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases,” he declared, avoiding any mention of the fact that he had previously secured a sharp reduction in federal income through legislation for a $1.5 trillion tax cut that largely benefited the wealthy and their corporations.  In late December 2018, Trump followed up by issuing an executive order to freeze the pay of federal workers.  But, subsequently, Congress overrode his action and partially restored the pay increase, raising the pay for federal employees by 1.4 percent (two-thirds of the scheduled increase), with additional money factored in for locality pay adjustments.

In the winter of 2018-2019, Trump attacked the livelihoods of public workers once again, when his shutdown of the federal government forced 800,000 federal employees to go on unpaid leave or to work without pay.

One of the factors advancing the income of American workers, as well as helping to safeguard them from excessively-long workweeks, is the provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that guarantees them time-and-a-half pay for more than 40 hours of work per week.  But coverage is based upon workers remaining under a specific income level and, thanks to inflation over the past few decades, fewer and fewer workers remained below that level.  Recognizing that only 7 percent of American workers were still covered by the law, the Obama administration raised the income level for eligibility substantially. But, upon taking office, the Trump administration severely cut back Obama’s expansion of eligibility, thereby depriving as many as 8.2 million workers of the overtime coverage they had previously been promised.

Despite these actions taken by Trump and his administration to reduce wage gains, what economists call real wages (that is, wages and salaries adjusted for the rising cost of living) have been rising ― in part because many states and localities have passed laws raising their minimum wages far beyond the pathetic $7.25 level set by the federal government.

But, overall, increases in real wages during the Trump presidency have remained minuscule.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, the real average weekly earnings for American workers increased by just 0.2 percent between June 2017 and June 2018.  From June 2018 to June 2019, the increase in their real average weekly earnings was only 1.2 percent.  Consequently, as Senator Bernie Sanders has stated, correctly, the average American worker earns less today than he or she did 45 years ago.

Although the pundits say the U.S. economy is booming — and it certainly is for the country’s billionaires — it’s not doing much for the incomes of American workers.  And much of the responsibility for this situation lies with Republican officeholders, especially Donald Trump.

Greece:  Suicide or Murder?

Pundits from the left, from the right and from the center cannot stop reporting about Greece’s misery. And rightly so because the vast majority of her people live in deep economic hardship. No hope. Unemployment is officially at 18%, with the real figure closer to 25% or 30%; pensions have been reduced about ten times since Syriza – the Socialist Party – took power in 2015 and loaded the country with debt and austerity. In the domain of public services, everything that has any value has been privatized and sold to foreign corporations, oligarchs, or, naturally, banks. Hospitals, schools, public transportation – even some beaches – have been privatized and made unaffordable for the common people.

While the pundits – always more or less the same – keep lamenting about the Greek conditions in one form or another, none of them dare offer the only solution that could have rescued Greece (and still could) – exiting the euro zone; return to their local currency and start rebuilding Greece with a local economy, built on local currency with local public banking and with a sovereign Greek central bank deciding the monetary policy that best suits Greece, and especially Greece’s recovery program. Why not? Why do they not talk about this obvious solution? Would they be censured in Greece, because the Greek oligarchy controls the media as oligarchs do around the (western part of the) globe?

Instead, foreign imposed (troika: IMF, European Central Bank (ECB) and European Commission (EC) — the latter mainly pushed by German and French banks and the Rothschild clan — austerity programs have literally put a halt on imports of affordable medication, such as like for cancer treatments and other potentially lethal illnesses. So, common people no longer get treatment. They die like flies; a horrible expression to be used for human beings. But that’s what it comes down to for people who simply do not get the treatment they humanely deserve and would have gotten under the rights of the Greek Constitution; however, they simply do not get treated because they can no longer afford medication and services from privatized health services. That is the sad but true story.

As a consequence, the suicide rate is up, due to foreign imposed (but Greek government accepted) debt and austerity, annihilating hope for terminally ill patients, as well as for pensioners whose pensions do no longer allow them to live a decent life and especially as there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Now, these same pundits add a little air of optimism to their reporting, as the right wing New Democracy Party (ND Party) won with what they call a ‘landslide’ victory on the 7 July 2019 elections; gathering 39.6% of the votes, against only 31.53 for Syriza, the so-called socialist party, led by outgoing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who represents a tragedy that has allowed Greece to be plunged into this hopeless desolation. The ND won an absolute majority with 158 seats in the 300-member Greek parliament. Therefore, no coalition needed, no concessions required.

The new Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis (51), son of a former PM of the same party, in his victory speech on the evening of 7 July, vowed that Greece will “proudly” enter a post-bailout era of “jobs, security and growth”. He added that “a painful cycle has closed” and that Greece would “proudly raise its head again” on his watch.

We don’t know what this means for the average Greek citizen living a life of despair. What the “left” was unable to do – stopping the foreign imposed (but Greek accepted) bleeding of Greece; the strangulation of their country – will the right be able to reverse that trend? Does the right want to reverse that trend? Does the ND want to reverse privatization, buy back airports from Germany, water supply from the EU managed “Superfund”, and repurchase the roads from foreign concessionaires, or nationalize hospitals that were sold for a pittance and – especially – get out from austerity to allow importing crucial medication to salvage the sick and dying Greek, those who currently cannot afford treatment of their cancers and other potentially deadly diseases?

That would indeed be a step towards PM Mitsotakis’ promise to end the “painful cycle” of austerity, with import of crucial medication made affordable to those in dire need, with job creation and job security – and much more – with eventually a renewed Greek pride and Greek sovereignty. The latter would mean – finally – it’s never too late to exit the euro zone. But, that’s an illusion, a pipe-dream. Albeit  it could become a vision.

If the ND is the party of the oligarchs, the Greek oligarchs that is, those Greeks who have placed literally billions of euros outside their country in (still) secret bank accounts in Switzerland, France, Lichtenstein, Luxemburg and elsewhere, including the Cayman islands and other Caribbean tax havens, hidden not only from the Greek fiscal authorities, but also impeding that these funds could, crucially, be used for investments at home, for job creation, for creation of added value in Greece. If the ND is the party of the oligarchs, they are unlikely to make the dream of the vast majority of Greek people come true.

Worse even, these Greek oligarch-billionaires call the shots in Greece not the people, not those who according to Greek tradition and according to the Greek invention, called “democracy” (Delphi, some 2500 years ago) have democratically elected Syriza and have democratically voted against the austerity packages in July 2015. Now, that they are officially in power, they are unlikely to change their greed-driven behavior and act in favor of the Greek people. Or will they?

Because, if they do, it may eventually also benefit them, the ND Party and its adherents — a Greece that functions like a country, with happy, healthy and content people, is a Greece that retains the worldwide esteem and respect she deserves — and will, by association, develop an economy that can and will compete and trade around the world, a Greece that is an equal to others, as a sovereign nation. A dream can become a reality. It just takes visionaries.

Back to today’s reality. The Greek Bailout Referendum of July 5, 2015, was overwhelmingly rejected with 61% ‘no’ against 39% ‘yes’, meaning that almost two thirds of the Greek people would have preferred the consequences of rejecting the bailout, euphemistically called “rescue packages”, namely exiting the euro zone, and possibly, but not necessarily, the European Union.

Despite the overwhelming, democratic rejection by the people, the Tsipras government reached an agreement on 13 July 2015 – only 8 days after the vote against the bailout with the European authorities for a three-year bailout with even harsher austerity conditions than the ones rejected by voters. What went on is anybody’s guess. It looks pretty obvious, though, that “foul play” was the name of the game which could mean anything from outright and serious (life) threats to blackmail, if Tsipras would not play the game and this to the detriment of the people.

President Tsipras’ betrayal of the people resulted in three bailout packages since 2010 and up to the end of 2018, in the amount of about €310 billion (US$ 360 billion). Compare this to Hong Kong’s economy of US$ 340 billion in 2017. In that same period the Greek GDP has declined from about US$ 300 billion (€ 270 billion) in 2010 to US$ 218 billion (€ 196 billion), a reduction of 27%, hitting the middle- and lower-class people by far the hardest. This is called a rescue?

The democracy fiasco of July 2015 prompted Tsipras to call for snap elections in September 2015, hélas – he won, with a narrow margin and one of the lowest election turnouts ever in Greek postwar history; but, yes, he ‘won’. How much of it was manipulated – by now Cambridge Analytica has become a household word – so he could finish the job for the troika and the German and French banks, is pure speculation.

Today, the ND has an absolute majority in Parliament, plus the ND could ally with a number of smaller and conservative parties to pursue a “people’s dream” line policy. But they may do the opposite. Question: How much more juice is there to be sucked out of broken Greece? Of a Greece that cannot care for her people, for her desperate poor and sick, cannot provide her children with a decent education, of a Greece that belongs into the category of bankruptcy? Yes, bankruptcy, still today, after the IMF and the gnomes of the EU and the ECB predict a moderate growth rate of some 2%?  But 2% that go to whom?  Not to the people, to be sure, but to the creditors of the €310 billion.

Already in 2011, the British Lancet stated “the Greek Ministry of Health reported that the annual suicide rate has increased by 40%”, presumably since the (imposed) crisis that started in 2008. From this date forward the suicide rate must have skyrocketed, as the overall living conditions worsened exponentially. However, precise figures can no longer be easily found.

The question remains: Is the Greek population dying increasingly from diseases that could be cured, but aren’t due to austerity- and privatization-related lack of medication and health services and of suicide from desperation? Is Greece committing suicide by continuing to accept austerity and privatization of vital services, instead of liberating herself from the handcuffs of the euro and very likely the stranglehold of the EU?  Or is Greece the victim of sheer murder inflicted by a greed-driven construct of money institutions and oligarchs, who are beyond morals, beyond ethics and beyond any values of humanity? You be the judge.

• First published by the New Eastern Outlook – NEO

In the U.S. they are never called human rights violations

Trump’s 2020 budget proposal reflects another significant increase in military spending along with corresponding cuts in spending by Federal agencies tasked with the responsibility for providing critical services and income support policies for working class and poor people. Trump’s call for budget cuts by Federal agencies is mirrored by the statutorily imposed austerity policies in most states and many municipalities. Those cuts represent the continuing imposition of neoliberal policies in the U.S. even though the “A” word for austerity is almost never used to describe those policies.

Yet, austerity has been a central component of state policy at every level of government in the U.S. and in Europe for the last four decades. In Europe, as the consequences of neoliberal policies imposed on workers began to be felt and understood, the result was intense opposition.  However, in the U.S. the unevenness of how austerity policies were being applied, in particular the elimination or reduction in social services that were perceived to be primarily directed at racialized workers, political opposition was slow to materialize.

Today, however, relatively privileged workers who were silent as the neoliberal “Washington consensus” was imposed on the laboring classes in the global South — through draconian structural adjustment policies that result in severe cutbacks in state expenditures for education, healthcare, state employment and other vital needs — have now come to understand that the neoliberal program of labor discipline and intensified extraction of value from workers, did not spare them.

The deregulation of capital, privatization of state functions — from road construction to prisons, the dramatic reduction in state spending that results in cuts in state supported social services and goods like housing and access to reproductive services for the poor — represent the politics of austerity and the role of the neoliberal state.

This materialist analysis is vitally important for understanding the dialectical relationship between the general plight of workers in the U.S. and the bipartisan collaboration to raid the Federal budget and to reduce social spending in order to increase spending on the military. This perspective is also important for understanding the imposition of those policies as a violation of the fundamental human rights of workers, the poor and the oppressed.

For the neoliberal state, the concept of human rights does not exist.

As I have called to attention before, a monumental rip-off is about to take place once again. Both the Democrats and Republicans are united in their commitment to continue to feed the U.S. war machine with dollars extracted — to the tune of 750 billion dollars — from the working class and transferred to the pockets of the military/industrial complex.

The only point of debate is now whether or not the Pentagon will get the full 750 billion or around 733 billion. But whether it is 750 billion or 733 billion, the one sector that is not part of this debate is the public. The attention of the public has been adroitly diverted by the absurd reality show that is Russiagate. But this week, even though the budget debate has been disappeared by corporate media, Congress is set to begin debate on aspects of the budget and specifically on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Raising the alarm on this issue is especially critical at this moment. As tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf, the corporate media is once again abdicating its public responsibility to bring unbiased, objective information to the public and instead is helping to generate support for war with Iran.

The Democrats, who have led the way with anti-Iran policies over the last few decades, will be under enormous pressure not to appear to be against enhancing military preparedness and are likely to find a way to give Trump and the Pentagon everything they want.

Support for Human Rights and Support for Empire is an Irreconcilable Contradiction

The assumption of post-war capitalist order was that the state would be an instrument to blunt the more contradictory aspects of capitalism. It would regulate the private sector, provide social welfare support to the most marginal elements of working class, and create conditions for full employment. This was the Keynesian logic and approach that informed liberal state policies beginning in the 1930s.

The idea of reforming human rights fits neatly into that paradigm.

As seen, a state’s legitimacy was based on the extent to which it recognized, protected and fulfilled the human rights of all its citizens and residents. Those rights included not only the right to information, assembly, speech and to participation in the national political life of the nation but also the right to food, water, healthcare, education, employment, substantial social security throughout life, and not just as a senior citizen.

The counterrevolutionary program of the late 60s and 70s, especially the turn to neoliberalism which began in the 70s, would reject this paradigm and redefine the role of the state. The obligation of the state to recognize, protect and fulfill human rights was eliminated from the role of the state under neoliberalism.

Today the consequences of four decades of neoliberalism in the global South and now in the cosmopolitan North have created a crisis of legitimacy that has made state policies more dependent on force and militarism than in any other time, including the civil war and the turmoil of the 1930s.

The ideological glue provided by the ability of capitalism to deliver the goods to enough of the population which guaranteed loyalty and support has been severely weakened by four decades of stagnant wages, increasing debt, a shrinking middle-class, obscene economic inequality and never-ending wars that have been disproportionately shouldered by the working class.

Today, contrary to the claims of capitalism to guarantee the human right to a living wage ensuring “an existence worthy of human dignity,” the average worker is making, adjusted for inflation, less than in 1973; i.e., some 46 years-ago. 140 million are either poor or have low-income; 80% living paycheck to paycheck; 34 million are still without health insurance; 40 million live in “official poverty;” and more in unofficial poverty as measured by alternative supplemental poverty (SPM).  And more than half of those over 55 years-old have no retirement funds other than Social Security.

In a report, Philp Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, points out that: the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France and Japan combined.

However, that choice in public expenditures must be seen in comparison to the other factors he lays out:

  • US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
  • Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.
  • US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries
  • In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.

For African Americans in particular, neoliberalism has meant, jobs lost, hollowed out communities as industries relocated first to the South and then to Mexico and China, the disappearance of affordable housing, schools and hospital closings, infant and maternal mortality at global South levels, and mass incarceration as the unskilled, low-wage Black labor has become economically redundant.

This is the backdrop and context for the budget “debate” and Trump’s call to cut spendings to Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and even the State Department.

The U.S. could find 6 trillion dollars for war since 2003 and 16 trillion to bail out the banks after the financial sector crashed the economy, but it can’t find money to secure the human rights of the people.

This is the one-sided class war that we find ourselves in; a war with real deaths and slower, systematic structural violence. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can be depended on to secure our rights or protect the world from the U.S. atrocities. That responsibility falls on the people who reside at the center of the Empire to not only struggle for ourselves but to put a brake on the Empire’s ability to spread death and destruction across the planet.

The American Dream Is Alive and Well – in China

Home ownership has been called “the quintessential American dream.” Yet today less than 65% of American homes are owner occupied, and more than 50% of the equity in those homes is owned by the banks. Compare China, where, despite facing one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, a whopping 90% of families can afford to own their homes.

Over the last decade, American wages have stagnated and U.S. productivity has consistently been outpaced by China’s. The U.S. government has responded by engaging in a trade war and imposing stiff tariffs in order to penalize China for what the White House deems unfair trade practices. China’s industries are said to be propped up by the state and to have significantly lower labor costs, allowing them to dump cheap products on the U.S. market, causing prices to fall and forcing U.S. companies out of business. The message to middle America is that Chinese labor costs are low because their workers are being exploited in slave-like conditions at poverty-level wages.

But if that’s true, how is it that the great majority of Chinese families own homes? According to a March 2016 article in Forbes:

… 90% of families in the country own their home, giving China one of the highest home ownership rates in the world. What’s more is that 80% of these homes are owned outright, without mortgages or any other liens. On top of this, north of 20% of urban households own more than one home.

Due to their communist legacy, what Chinese buyers get for their money is not actually ownership in perpetuity but a long-term leasehold, and the quality of the construction may be poor. But the question posed here is, how can Chinese families afford the price tag for these homes, in a country where the average income is only one-seventh that in the United States?

The Misleading Disparity Between U.S. and Chinese Incomes

Some commentators explain the phenomenon by pointing to cultural differences. The Chinese are inveterate savers, with household savings rates that are more than double those in the U.S.; and they devote as much as 74%of their money to housing. Under China’s earlier one-child policy, many families had only one heir, who tended to be male; and home ownership was a requirement to score a wife. Families would therefore pool their resources to make sure their sole heir was equipped for the competition. Homes would be purchased either with large down payments or without financing at all. Financing through banks at compound interest rates doubles the cost of a typical mortgage, so sidestepping the banks cuts the cost of housing in half.

Those factors alone, however, cannot explain the difference in home ownership rates between the two countries. The average middle-class U.S. family could not afford to buy a home outright for their oldest heir even if they did pool their money. Americans would be savers if they could, but they have other bills to pay. And therein lies a major difference between Chinese and American family wealth: In China, the cost of living is significantly lower. The Chinese government subsidizes not only its industries but its families—with educational, medical and transportation subsidies.

According to a 2017 HSBC fact sheet, 70% of Chinese millennials (ages 19 to 36) already own their own homes. American young people cannot afford to buy homes because they are saddled with student debt, a millstone that now averages $37,000 per student and will be carried an average of 20 years before it is paid off. A recent survey found that 80% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. Another found that 60% of U.S. millennials could not come up with $500 to cover their tax bills.

In China, by contrast, student debt is virtually nonexistent. Heavy government subsidies have made higher education cheap enough that students can work their way through college with a part-time job. Health care is also subsidized by the government, with a state-run health insurance program similar to Canada’s. The program doesn’t cover everything, but medical costs are still substantially lower than in the U.S. Public transportation, too, is quite affordable in China, and it is fast, efficient and ubiquitous.

The disparity in incomes between American and Chinese workers is misleading for other reasons. The “average” income includes the very rich along with the poor; in the U.S., the gap between those two classes is greater than in China. The oversize incomes at the top pull the average up.

Even worse, however, is the disparity in debt levels, which pulls disposable income down. A survey after the 2008-09 credit crisis found that household debt in the U.S. was 136% of household income, compared with only 17% for the Chinese.

Another notable difference is that 70% of Chinese family wealth comes not from salaries but from home ownership itself. Under communism, all real property was owned by the state. When Deng Xiaoping opened the market to private ownership, families had an opportunity to get a home on reasonable terms; and as new homes were built they traded up, building the family asset base.

Deng’s market liberalization also gave families an income boost by allowing them to become entrepreneurs. New family-owned businesses sprang up, aided by affordable loans. Cheap credit from state-owned banks subsidized state-affiliated industries as well.

“Quantitative Easing With Chinese Characteristics”

All this was done with the help of China’s federal government, which in recent decades has pumped massive amounts of economic stimulus into the economy. Unlike the U.S. Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, which went straight into big bank reserve accounts, the Chinese stimulus has generated new money for productive purposes, including local business development and infrastructure. Sometimes called “qualitative easing,” this “quantitative easing with Chinese characteristics” has meant more jobs, more GDP and more money available to spend, which in turn improves quality of life.

The Chinese government has done this without amassing a crippling federal debt or triggering runaway inflation. In the last 20 years, its M2 money supply has grown from just over 10 trillion yuan to 80 trillion yuan ($11.6T), a nearly 800% increase. Yet the inflation rate of its Consumer Price Index (CPI) has remained low. In February of this year, it was just 1.5%. In May it rose to 2.7% due to an outbreak of swine fever, which drove pork prices up; but this was a response to shortages, not to an increase in the money supply. Radically increasing the money supply has not driven consumer prices up because GDP has increased at an even faster rate. Supply and demand have risen together, keeping consumer prices low.

Real estate prices, on the other hand, have skyrocketed 325% in the last two decades, fueled by a Chinese shadow banking system that is largely beyond regulatory control. Pundits warn that China’s housing is in an unsustainable bubble that will pop, but the Chinese housing market is still more stable than the U.S. subprime market before 2008, with its “no-doc no-down” loans. Chinese buyers typically put 40 to 50% down on their homes, and the demand for houses remains high. The central bank is also taking steps to cool the market, by targeting credit so that it is steered away from real estate and other existing assets and toward newly-produced goods and services.

That central bank intervention illustrates another difference between Chinese-style qualitative easing and Western-style QE. The People’s Bank of China is not trying to improve banking sector liquidity so that banks can make more loans. Chinese economists say they don’t need that form of QE. China’s banks are already lending, and the central bank has plenty of room to manipulate interest rates and control the money supply. China’s central bank is directing credit into the local economy because it doesn’t trust the private financial market to allocate credit where local markets need it. True to its name, the People’s Bank of China seems actually to be a people’s bank, geared to serving the economy and the public rather than just the banks themselves.

Time for More QE?

 In early April, President Trump said in one of his many criticisms of the U.S.  central bank that he thought the Fed should be doing more quantitative easing (expanding the money supply) rather than quantitative tightening (shrinking the money supply). Commentators were left scratching their heads, because the official U.S. unemployment rate is considered to be low. But more QE could be a good idea if it were done as Chinese-style qualitative easing. A form of monetary expansion that would allow Congress to relieve medical and educational costs, grant cheap credit to states to upgrade their roads and mass transit, and support local businesses could go a long way toward making American workers competitive with Chinese workers.

Unlike the U.S. government, the Chinese government supports its workers and its industries. Rather than penalizing China for that “unfair” trade practice, perhaps the U.S. government should try doing the same. China’s legacy is socialist, and after opening to international trade it has continued to serve the collective good, particularly of its workers. Meanwhile, the U.S. model has been regressing into feudalism, with workers driven into slave-like conditions through debt. In the 21st century, it is time to upgrade our economic model from one of feudal exploitation to a cooperative democracy that recognizes the needs, contributions and inalienable rights of all participants.

• Article was first published on Truthdig.org.

Marx Still Prevents the Progress of Society

If one searches “theory of alienation” in Google, predominately Marx’s theory comes out because other theories of alienation in a political and economic level do not exist. The question is why? What is so incredible in Marx’s statement that workers get alienated from the products of their labour, which alienates them from themselves? It just does not hold much water because everyone who produces for the market gets alienated from the product at the moment of purchase.

Marx strongly contributed to the scientific understanding of capitalism. He stated that capitalists profit from the production, while their workers only receive a fraction of the capitalist’s profit as wages. Capitalists exploit workers by paying them low earnings. Marx was right about this. He believed that exploitation of workers might be eliminated through socialist revolution only. Marx was wrong here because a violent revolution cannot better society. Although a revolution may replace a certain social injustice, it has always been replaced with a new kind. To ensure the lasting effect of revolutions, new leadership are generally autocratic, and therefore spread alienation throughout society with all the unfavourable dictatorial phenomena that are well-known throughout history. Revolutions have never contributed to the improvement of society as it was desired by people. Marx did not have enough data to be able to build his vision of socialism scientifically. As a result, his vision of socialism failed.

Thanks to social scientists, it is still not known what exactly creates exploitation of workers even though the answer is straightforward – unemployment creates exploitation. Unemployed workers are pressured to accept poorly paid jobs to feed their families. When we eliminate unemployment, we will create a fair market for work. The lack of workers will increase their demand on the market so that employers will have to pay them more. This will create a chain reaction in which workers’ salaries will grow, while employers would still make profits. We may say this would eliminate exploitation. There is no formula which would determine what exploitation is, only workers dissatisfied with their earnings may present it. A fair market of work will remove this dissatisfaction.

The rise in workers’ salaries in the fair market can be proved. In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed one-third of the European population which suddenly increased demand for workers. The shortage of workers increased the workers’ wages. At Cuxham (Oxfordshire, England), a plowman demanded from his Lord a payment 3.3 times greater in 1350 than in the previous year (The Economic Impact of the Black Death, Economic History Association). “In Parliament, in 1351 the Commons petitioned Edward III for a more resolute and effective response. They complained that “servants completely disregard the said ordinance in the interests of their ease and greed and that they withhold their services to great men and others unless they have liveries and wages twice or three times as great as [prior to the plague] to the serious damage of the great men and impoverishment of all members of the said commons.””1

According to this, if a political party wins an election offering a reduction of work to 5 hours per day; the lack of workers would increase workers’ salaries 2-3 times per hour in one year. The daily wages would rise 30-90% for just a 5-hour shift. Workers would work shorter hours and earn more. It has already happened, and it is much easier to accomplish than raising a revolution.

So who is going to pay for such an increase in salary? The wealthy employers, of course! Right now they collect this money as profit for themselves. Can employers refuse to increase worker salaries? They can, but then their workers would find a new employer who would pay more, and that means they will lose the possibility to maintain their businesses. When workers earn more they will purchase more which will, in turn, increase the employers’ profits. So, why have we not created a good economy so far? Because the more workers earn, the less they depend on the rich. The rich keep their power in society by maintaining the fear of unemployment. More about it is presented in my article: Let’s remove unemployment.

*****

Marx thought that the market economy caused the exploitation of workers, so he proposed the elimination of the market economy by a centrally planned economy. Marx knew that the elimination of market economy removes the indicators of economic efficiency so he called upon for worker conscience to replace it. It revealed a consistency problem of Marx’s philosophy. Human conscience belongs to idealism and it was never able to improve society because it was never accepted on the social level. The planned economy was supposed to produce goods and services in quality and quantity to satisfy people’s needs. But the leaders have never learned how to gather people’s needs, so they decided it for them. Such economy alienates itself from the people. The socialist economy also deteriorates because revolutions replace experienced entrepreneurs with inexperienced theorists. The socialist ideology overprotects workers while also taking their freedom which does not stimulate them to work enough. The planned economy is not able to make the balance between production and consumption leaving people unsatisfied. As a result, the Marxist’s economy failed to satisfy people’s needs sufficiently.

The planned economy was tried in the USSR and China. It has significantly reduced material exploitation of workers which exists in capitalist countries but also, it decreased the efficiency of the economy. The economy in the USSR and China had much lower productivity than capitalist economies. The USSR collapsed due to the inefficiency of the planned economy. Thus, Marxism failed. China has learned on their own mistakes, abandoned the planned economy in 1980, and accepted the regulated market economy. From that moment it has become the fastest growing economy in the world, threatening to take the number one place soon. This explains everything about the Marxist economy.

Taking into account the failures of Marxism, why does it deserve such a significant presence in science, media, and in hearts of Marxists? It would not be possible without the approval of the owners of corporations. Without it, Marxists would not be able to participate in political elections. Neither would they be able to teach Marxism at universities and get media support. Why do the rich help the Marxist ideology which promotes violent confiscation of their property? The rich simply knew Marxism could not be a threat to capitalism. Otherwise, it would be banned. They knew that Marxism is on the wrong track and support it because Marxism prevents the progress of society. If Marx proposed reducing work hours instead of revolution, his philosophy would not be supported, and hardly anybody would know he has ever existed.

This is how the conspiracy of the rich works. By supporting Marx, the rich have successfully prevented a better society for 100 years. Now capitalists know they cannot cheat people by supporting revolutions and planned economy anymore, but they do not abandon Marxism because a large number of people are romantically and emotionally still connected to Marx. Most Marxists accepted Marx’s ideology when they were young. Youthful rebellion based on dissatisfaction and injustice in society made them easy prey for the manipulation of the rich. The rich hid the cause of the exploitation and promoted Marx’s philosophy as the escape from the problem. Marx made revolution scientifically acceptable, and people acknowledged it through the study of his excessive work.

Marxists recognize the failures of Marxism, but they still believe they need to find the right method to implement Marx’s philosophy correctly. By accepting Marxism they cannot change their opinion significantly anymore, especially not if a simple idea like shorter work hours tries to break it. The rich are masters of deception and Marxists cannot admit they have been deceived. Helped by the rich, Marxists got a strong influence in the political Left and by promoting the ideology which does not work, they help the rich. They are also helping the rich by preventing new left ideas from coming.

*****

This is precisely what has happened to me. I have presented how to create a good society in the book Humanism – A Philosophic-Ethical-Political-Economic Study of the Development of the Society. It is available free of charge online. The book is based on an original theory of alienation. It states that subjectivity alienates us from objective reality. Subjectivity puts us on the wrong path so that we cannot satisfy our needs. The escape from all problems of humankind lies in the building of objective vision of reality. Democratic acceptance of equal human rights will do it. The implementation of equal human rights will solve all social problems. Nothing else we need for building a good social life and nothing else can make it.

Marx was right when he called upon for equal human rights among people, but he did not see the scope of its development. The ultimate stage of equal human rights will create an equal possibility for the employment of every worker at every public work post at any time. It will be necessary to open a permanent competition of workers for every public work post. The best worker would get the right to work at any time. I know it sounds impossible because such a division of labour never existed. But the realization of it is just a technical problem. The system I have developed will effectively evaluate the productivity of work offers, define the job responsibilities of workers, and harmonize rewards for work. In short, the workers who offer the highest productivity and responsibility, and demand the lowest salary will get the job. No economy can be more productive than the one where each job gets the best available worker. Public companies will become more productive than private ones so that the latter will go down in history. Only this should be called socialism. I wrote more about it in the article: The Failures of Marxism and the Right Path to Socialism and Communism.

The market is the best choice for the economy. The market of goods allocates every good to the most capable purchaser who needs and loves it the most. The producers profit from it the most as well. The further development of the market will improve the economy much more. The market of work will eliminate work privileges which will make each job equally demanded. Such a market will allocate every job to the most productive worker who needs and loves it the most. Shorter work hours will eliminate unemployment while less desirable jobs will be compensated with higher incomes. The market will help society to reach the best life possible. I have presented the bright future of humankind also through stories in three screenplays: Good Capitalism, Good Socialism, and Good Communism.

Even if my ideas are wrong, which they are not, my effort deserves to be noticed, but I have experienced a total refusal by media, science, politics, and film industry. The people who hear me offering increasing salaries for shorter work time, which is the first step in developing the economy and society, think it is too good to be true no matter what arguments I give. Public discussion may help, but it is prevented. One of the reasons for that is Marxists do not like my work.

However, the rich cannot hide the truth forever. It will break through one day. Then people will accept the benefits of full employment and request shorter work hours. The rich will resist it, of course, but they cannot win against united people. This will be the hardest part of creating a perfect society.

  1. Michael Bennett, The Impact of the Black Death on English Legal History, Australian Journal of Law and Society, 1995, Page 197.

Welcome to Our World

Furloughed federal workers who are finding life tough because of the partial government shutdown are sacrificing and taking extreme measures to make ends meet and pay their bills. They are visiting pawn shops, asking for loan extensions, applying for SNAP (food stamps), using food pantries and visiting soup kitchens. They are taking any part-time temporary work they can find at whatever pay rate. They go to bed each night wondering how they will get through the next day, week, month. Sort of like a huge chunk of U.S. workers.

When the strike is over, they will get back pay, great benefits and continued security. Unlike a huge chunk of U.S. workers—like my paper doll ladies. And federal workers have a growing support network of people helping them with donations and work. My ladies aren’t so lucky. Oh, and these are only ladies because I suck at making paper dolls, and these came out decently. Make believe they are either men or women. Your choice, because they are pretty much being screwed equally.

Collage, “Paper Workers,” by Sheila Velazquez.

All of the government, academic and other studies I have looked at clearly show that government employees whose educations do not include advanced degrees earn roughly one third more than private-sector workers. In these economic times, they have a good gig.

Most workers in the actual “gig economy” live creatively. Two of my ladies have two jobs. One has three. None have benefits. All are temporary and part-time, as in they can be told without warning not to come in the next day. One with children can’t afford child care, and so trades with other moms in the same boat. Nobody gets enough sleep. Two of my dolls are slightly overweight, not because they thrive on unlimited organic food, but because two of every three meals are based on rice or pasta. At least they aren’t hungry—most of the time.

Their problems are hidden by the media, which never reports on the true state of American workers, driven as they are by a heavy Washington fist and powerful special interests, and by the federal government, which continually changes the rules of the game by fudging the way in which inflation is counted. For example, Americans’ food costs are used in calculating the cost of living (CPI/Cost of Living Index). The rub is that if we cannot afford better cuts of meat and have turned to ground beef, the CPI remains the same basing cost on cheap hamburger over steak, for example.

Every government statistic tells us happy days are here again. We have low unemployment (see my earlier article, “Working for Legumes“), to see how those numbers are manipulated. As I previously noted, the government gets its information by calling a limited number of people on their landlines. Landlines, hmm. Mostly older, comfortable, secure folks. Maybe federal workers. The people who are scurrying around looking for hours have given their mobile numbers to prospective employers so they don’t miss a call. And since many of these gig jobs provide income that goes unreported, no one is going to volunteer this info to the feds. Right? It has been estimated that roughly one third of workers are working in the gig economy. Look around at your friends and family. How many have one well-paying secure job—with benefits?

We have two issues here. Security and benefits and a livable minimum wage. I believe the former will never be adequately dealt with until we organize, dare I say unionize? I once belonged to a union, and I always felt that someone had my back. Instead of a job-specific union, we could organize as workers who demand a just and fair minimum wage for all. Of course, the media and special interests would yell “communists.” Just remember who has what to gain or lose.

The Labor Department changed the way in which inflation is calculated in 1980 and again in 1990. Elizabeth Warren told a Senate hearing in 2013 that if the inflation rate had kept up with worker productivity, the minimum wage would be $22. Add five years of inflation, and that number would be $24. Forget $15 an hour. Every candidate will offer us that. I say let’s go for $30, which is what minimum likely should be by the time the election rolls around. It’s time to give the paper dolls a break.

• First published at The Greylock Glass

What Are We Working For “At Eternity’s Gate”?

One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work.

— John Berger, “Vincent Van Gogh,” Portraits

Ever since I was a young boy, I have wondered why people do the kinds of work they do.  I sensed early on that the economic system was a labyrinthine trap devised to imprison people in work they hated but needed for survival.  It seemed like common sense to a child when you simply looked and listened to the adults around you.  Karl Marx wasn’t necessary for understanding the nature of alienated labor; hearing adults declaim “Thank God It’s Friday” spoke volumes.

In my Bronx working class neighborhood I saw people streaming to the subway in the mornings for their rides “into the city” and their forlorn trundles home in the evenings.  It depressed me.  Yet I knew the goal was to “make it” and move away as one moved “up,” something that many did.  I wondered why, when some people had options, they rarely considered the moral nature of the jobs they pursued.  And why did they not also consider the cost in life (time) lost in their occupations?  Were money, status, and security the deciding factors in their choices?  Was living reserved for weekends and vacations?

I gradually realized that some people, by dint of family encouragement and schooling, had opportunities that others never received.  For the unlucky ones, work would remain a life of toil and woe in which the search for meaning in their jobs was often elusive.  Studs Terkel, in the introduction to his wonderful book of interviews, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do, puts it this way:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.  It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.  It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.  To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

Those words were confirmed for me when in the summer between high school and college I got a job through a relative’s auspices as a clerk for General Motors in Manhattan.  I dreaded taking it for the thought of being cooped up for the first time in an office building while a summer of my youth passed me by, but the money was too good to turn down (always the bait), and I wanted to save as much as possible for college spending money.  So I bought a summer suit and joined the long line of trudgers going to and fro, down and up and out of the underground, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and light.

It was a summer from hell.  My boredom was so intense it felt like solitary confinement.  How, I kept wondering, can people do this?  Yet for me it was temporary; for the others it was a life sentence.  But if this were life, I thought, it was a living death.  All my co-workers looked forward to the mid-morning coffee wagon and lunch with a desperation so intense it was palpable.  And then, as the minutes ticked away to 5 P.M., the agitated twitching that proceeded the mad rush to the elevators seemed to synchronize with the clock’s movements.  We’re out of here!

On my last day, I was eating my lunch on a park bench in Central Park when a bird shit on my suit jacket.  The stain was apt, for I felt I had spent my days defiling my true self, and so I resolved never to spend another day of my life working in an office building in a suit for a pernicious corporation, a resolution I have kept.

*****

“An angel is not far from someone who is sad,” says Vincent Van Gogh in the new film, At Eternity’s Gate. For some reason, recently hearing these words in the darkened theater where I was almost alone, brought me back to that summer and the sadness that hung around all the people that I worked with.  I hoped Van Gogh was right and an angel visited them from time to time.  Most of them had no options.

The painter Julian Schnabel’s moving picture (moving on many levels since the film shakes and moves with its hand-held camera work and draws you into the act of drawing and painting that was Van Gogh’s work) is a meditation on work.  It asks the questions: What is work?  What is work for?  What is life for?  Why paint?  What does it mean to live?  Why do you do what you do?  Are you living or are you dead?  What are you seeking through your work?

For Vincent the answer was simple: reality.  But reality is not given to us and is far from simple; we must create it in acts that penetrate the screens of clichés that wall us off from it.  As John Berger writes:

One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second, distant, far away.  This opposition is false.  Events are always to hand.  But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction.  Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists.  For Plato, for Marx.  Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés.

These screens serve to protect the interests of the ruling classes, who devise ways to trap regular people from seeing the reality of their condition.  Yet while working can be a trap, it can also be a means of escape.  For Vincent working was the way.  For him work was not a noun but a verb. He drew and he painted as he does in this film to “make people feel what it is to feel alive.”  To be alive is to act, to paint, to write.  He tells his friend Gauguin that there’s a reason it’s called the “act of painting, the “stroke of genius.”  For him painting is living and living is painting.

The actual paintings that he made are almost beside the point, as all creative artists know too well.  It is the doing wherein living is found.  The completed canvas, essay, or book are what is done.  They are nouns, still lifes, just as Van Gogh’s paintings have become commodities in the years since his death, dead things to be bought and sold by the rich in a culture of death where they can be hung in mausoleums isolated from the living.  It is appropriate that the film ends with Vincent very still in his coffin as “viewers” pass him by and avidly now desire his paintings that encircle the room that they once rejected.  The man has become a has-been and the funeral parlor the museum.

“Without painting I can’t live,” he says earlier.  He didn’t say without his paintings.

“God gave me the gift for painting,” he said.  “It’s the only gift he gave me.  I am a born painter.”  But his gift has begotten gifts that are still-births that do not circulate and live and breathe to encourage people to find work that will not, “by its very nature, [be] about violence,” as Terkel said. His works, like people, have become commodities, brands to be bought and sold in a world where the accumulation of wealth is accomplished by the infliction of pain, suffering, and death on untold numbers of victims, invisible victims that allow the wealthy to maintain their bad-faith innocence. This is often achieved in the veiled shadows of intermediaries such as stock brokers, tax consultants, and financial managers; in the liberal and conservative boardrooms of mega-corporations or law offices; and in the planning sessions of the world’s great museums. Like drone killings that distance the killers from their victims, this wealth accumulation allows the wealthy to pretend they are on the side of the angels.  It’s called success, and everyone is innocent as they sing, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.”

“It is not enough to tell me you worked hard to get your gold,” said Henry Thoreau, Van Gogh’s soul-mate. “So does the Devil work hard.”

A few years ago there was a major exhibit of Van Gogh’s nature paintings at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts – “Van Gogh and Nature” – that aptly symbolized Van Gogh in his coffin.  The paintings were exhibited encased in ornate gold frames. Van Gogh in gold.  Just perfect.  I am reminded of a scene in At Eternity’s Gate where Vincent and Gauguin are talking about the need for a creative revolution – what we sure as hell need – and the two friends stand side by side with backs to the camera and piss into the wind.

*****

But pseudo-innocence dies hard.  Not long ago I was sitting in a breakfast room in a bed-and-breakfast in Houston, Texas, sipping coffee and musing myself awake.  Two men came in and the three of us got to talking.  As people like to say, they were nice guys.  Very pleasant and talkative, in Houston on business.  Normal Americans.  Stressed.  Both were about fifty years old with wives and children.

One sold drugs for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies that is known for its very popular anti-depressant drug and its aggressive sales pitches.  He travelled a triangular route from Corpus Christi to Austin to Houston and back again, hawking his wares.  He spoke about his work as being very lucrative and posing no ethical dilemmas.  There were so many depressed people in need of his company’s drugs, he said, as if the causes of their depression had nothing to do with inequality and the sorry state of the country as the rich rip off everyone else.  I thought of recommending a book to him – Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How big pharma has corrupted health care by Peter Gotzsche – but held my tongue, appreciative as I was of the small but tasteful fare we were being served and not wishing to cause my companions dyspepsia.  This guy seemed to be trying to convince me of the ethical nature of the way he panned gold, while I kept thinking of that quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

The other guy, originally from a small town in Nebraska and now living in Baton Rouge, was a former medevac helicopter pilot who had served in the 1st Gulf War.  He worked in finance for an equally large oil company.  His attitude was a bit different, and he seemed sheepishly guilty about his work with this company as he told me how shocked he was the first time he saw so many oil, gas, and chemical plants lining the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and all the oil and chemicals being shipped down the river. So many toxins that reminded him of the toxic black smoke rising from all the bombed oil wells in Iraq.  Something about it all left him uneasy, but he too said he made a very good “living” and that his wife also worked for the oil company back home.

My childish thought recurred: when people have options, why do they not choose ethical work that makes the world more beautiful and just?  Why is money and so-called success always the goal?

Having seen At Eternity’s Gate, I now see what Van Gogh was trying to tell us and Julian Schnabel conveys through this moving picture.  I see why these two perfectly normal guys I was breaking bread with in Houston are unable to penetrate the screen that lies between them and reality.  They have never developed the imaginative tools to go beyond normal modes of perception and conception. Or perhaps they lack the faith to dare, to see the futility and violence in what they are working for and what their companies’ products are doing to the world.  They think of themselves as hard at work, travelling hither and yon, doing their calculations, “making their living,” and collecting their pay.  It’s their work that has a payoff in gold, but it’s not working in the sense that painting was for Vincent, a way beyond the screen.  They are mesmerized by the spectacle, as are so many Americans. Their jobs are perfectly logical and allow them a feeling of calm and control.

But Vincent, responding to Gauguin, a former stock broker, when he urged him to paint slowly and methodically, said, “I need to be out of control. I don’t want to calm down.”  He knew that to be fully alive was to be vulnerable, to not hold back, to always be slipping away, and to be threatened with annihilation at any moment. When painting, he was intoxicated with a creative joy that belies the popular image of him as always depressed.  “I find joy in sorrow,” he said, echoing in a paradoxical way Albert Camus, who said, “I have always felt that I lived on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.”   Both rebels, one in paint, the other in words: “I rebel: therefore we exist,” was how Camus put it, expressing the human solidarity that is fundamental to genuine work in our ephemeral world. Both nostalgic in the present for the future, creating freedom through vision and disclosing the way for others.

And although my breakfast companions felt safe in their calmness on this side of the screen, it was an illusion.  The only really calm ones are corpses.  And perhaps that’s why when you look around, as I did as a child, you see so many of the living dead carrying on as normal.

“I paint to stop thinking and feel I am a part of everything inside and outside me,” says Vincent, a self-described exile and pilgrim.

If we could make working a form of such painting, a path to human solidarity because a mode of rebelling, what a wonderful world it might be.

That, I believe, is what working is for.

Universal Basic Income Is Easier Than It Looks

Calls for a Universal Basic Income have been increasing, most recently as part of the Green New Deal introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and supported in the last month by at least 40 members of Congress. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a monthly payment to all adults with no strings attached, similar to Social Security. Critics say the Green New Deal asks too much of the rich and upper-middle-class taxpayers who will have to pay for it, but taxing the rich is not what the resolution proposes. It says funding would primarily come from the federal government, “using a combination of the Federal Reserve, a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks,” and other vehicles.

The Federal Reserve alone could do the job. It could buy “Green” federal bonds with money created on its balance sheet, just as the Fed funded the purchase of $3.7 trillion in bonds in its “quantitative easing” program to save the banks. The Treasury could also do it. The Treasury has the constitutional power to issue coins in any denomination, even trillion dollar coins. What prevents legislators from pursuing those options is the fear of hyperinflation from excess “demand” (spendable income) driving prices up. But, in fact, the consumer economy is chronically short of spendable income, due to the way money enters the consumer economy. We actually need regular injections of money to avoid a “balance sheet recession” and allow for growth, and a UBI is one way to do it.

The pros and cons of a UBI are hotly debated and have been discussed elsewhere. The point here is to show that it could actually be funded year after year without driving up taxes or prices. New money is continually being added to the money supply, but it is added as debt created privately by banks. (How banks rather than the government create most of the money supply today is explained on the Bank of England website here.) A UBI would replace money-created-as-debt with debt-free money – a “debt jubilee” for consumers – while leaving the money supply for the most part unchanged; and to the extent that new money was added, it could help create the demand needed to fill the gap between actual and potential productivity.

The Debt Overhang Crippling Economies

The “bank money” composing most of the money in circulation is created only when someone borrows, and today businesses and consumers are burdened with debts that are higher than ever before. In 2018, credit card debt alone exceeded $1 trillion, student debt exceeded $1.5 trillion, auto loan debt exceeded $1.1 trillion, and non-financial corporate debt hit $5.7 trillion. When businesses and individuals pay down old loans rather than taking out new loans, the money supply shrinks, causing a “balance sheet recession.” In that situation, the central bank, rather than removing money from the economy (as the Fed is doing now), needs to add money to fill the gap between debt and the spendable income available to repay it.

Debt always grows faster than the money available to repay it. One problem is the interest, which is not created along with the principal, so more money is always owed back than was created in the original loan. Beyond that, some of the money created as debt is held off the consumer market by “savers” and investors who place it elsewhere, making it unavailable to companies selling their wares and the wage-earners they employ. The result is a debt bubble that continues to grow until it is not sustainable and the system collapses, in the familiar death spiral euphemistically called the “business cycle.” As economist Michael Hudson shows in his 2018 book And Forgive Them Their Debts, this inevitable debt overhang was corrected historically with periodic “debt jubilees” – debt forgiveness – something he argues we need to do again today.

For governments, a debt jubilee could be effected by allowing the central bank to buy government securities and hold them on its books. For individuals, one way to do it fairly across the board would be with a UBI.

Why a UBI Need Not Be Inflationary

In a 2018 book called The Road to Debt Bondage: How Banks Create Unpayable Debt, political economist Derryl Hermanutz proposes a central-bank-issued UBI of one thousand dollars per month, credited directly to people’s bank accounts. Assuming this payment went to all US residents over 18, or about 241 million people, the outlay would be close to $3 trillion annually. For people with overdue debt, Hermanutz proposes that it automatically go to pay down those debts. Since money is created as loans and extinguished when they are repaid, that portion of a UBI disbursement would be extinguished along with the debt.

People who were current on their debts could choose whether or not to pay them down, but many would also no doubt go for that option. Hermanutz estimates that roughly half of a UBI payout could be extinguished in this way through mandatory and voluntary loan repayments. That money would not increase the money supply or demand. It would just allow debtors to spend on necessities with debt-free money rather than hocking their futures with unrepayable debt.

He estimates that another third of a UBI disbursement would go to “savers” who did not need the money for expenditures. This money, too, would not be likely to drive up consumer prices, since it would go into investment and savings vehicles rather than circulating in the consumer economy. That leaves only about one-sixth of payouts, or $500 billion, that would actually be competing for goods and services; and that sum could easily be absorbed by the “output gap” between actual and forecasted productivity.

According to a July 2017 paper from the Roosevelt Institute called “What Recovery? The Case for Continued Expansionary Policy at the Fed”:

GDP remains well below both the long-run trend and the level predicted by forecasters a decade ago. In 2016, real per capita GDP was 10% below the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) 2006 forecast, and shows no signs of returning to the predicted level.

The report showed that the most likely explanation for this lackluster growth was inadequate demand. Wages have remained stagnant; and before producers will produce, they need customers knocking on their doors.

In 2017, the US Gross Domestic Product was $19.4 trillion. If the economy is running at 10% below full capacity, $2 trillion could be injected into the economy every year without creating price inflation. It would just generate the demand needed to stimulate an additional $2 trillion in GDP. In fact, a UBI might pay for itself, just as the G.I. Bill produced a sevenfold return from increased productivity after World War II.

The Evidence of China

That new money can be injected year after year without triggering price inflation is evident from a look at China. In the last 20 years, its M2 money supply has grown from just over 10 trillion yuan to 80 trillion yuan ($11.6T), a nearly 800% increase. Yet the inflation rate of its Consumer Price Index (CPI) remains a modest 2.2%.

Why has all that excess money not driven prices up? The answer is that China’s Gross Domestic Product has grown at the same fast clip as its money supply. When supply (GDP) and demand (money) increase together, prices remain stable.

Whether or not the Chinese government would approve of a UBI, it does recognize that to stimulate productivity, the money must get out there first; and since the government owns 80% of China’s banks, it is in a position to borrow money into existence as needed. For “self-funding” loans – those that generate income (fees for rail travel and electricity, rents for real estate) – repayment extinguishes the debt along with the money it created, leaving the net money supply unchanged. When loans are not repaid, the money they created is not extinguished; but if it goes to consumers and businesses that then buy goods and services with it, demand will still stimulate the production of supply, so that supply and demand rise together and prices remain stable.

Without demand, producers will not produce and workers will not get hired, leaving them without the funds to generate supply, in a vicious cycle that leads to recession and depression. And that cycle is what our own central bank is triggering now.

The Fed Tightens the Screws

Rather than stimulating the economy with new demand, the Fed has been engaging in “quantitative tightening.” On December 19, 2018, it raised the fed funds rate for the ninth time in 3 years, despite a “brutal” stock market in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average had already lost 3,000 points in 2-½ months. The Fed is still struggling to reach even its modest 2% inflation target, and GDP growth is trending down, with estimates at only 2-2.7% for 2019. So why did it again raise rates, over the protests of commentators including the president himself?

For its barometer, the Fed looks at whether the economy has hit “full employment,” which it considers to be 4.7% unemployment, taking into account the “natural rate of unemployment” of people between jobs or voluntarily out of work. At full employment, workers are expected to demand more wages, causing prices to rise. But unemployment is now officially at 3.7% – beyond technical full employment – and neither wages nor consumer prices have shot up. There is obviously something wrong with the theory, as is evident from a look at Japan, where prices have long refused to rise despite a serious lack of workers.

The official unemployment figures are actually misleading. Including short-term discouraged workers, the rate of US unemployed or underemployed workers as of May 2018 was 7.6%, double the widely reported rate. When long-term discouraged workers are included, the real unemployment figure was 21.5%. Beyond that large untapped pool of workers, there is the seemingly endless supply of cheap labor from abroad and the expanding labor potential of robots, computers and machines. In fact, the economy’s ability to generate supply in response to demand is far from reaching full capacity today.

Our central bank is driving us into another recession based on bad economic theory. Adding money to the economy for productive, non-speculative purposes will not drive up prices so long as materials and workers (human or mechanical) are available to create the supply necessary to meet demand; and they are available now. There will always be price increases in particular markets when there are shortages, bottlenecks, monopolies or patents limiting competition, but these increases are not due to an economy awash with money. Housing, healthcare, education and gas have all gone up, but it is not because people have too much money to spend. In fact, it is those necessary expenses that are driving people into unrepayable debt, and it is this massive debt overhang that is preventing economic growth.

Without some form of debt jubilee, the debt bubble will continue to grow until it can again no longer be sustained. A UBI can help correct that problem without fear of “overheating” the economy, so long as the new money is limited to filling the gap between real and potential productivity and goes into generating jobs, building infrastructure and providing for the needs of the people, rather than being diverted into the speculative, parasitic economy that feeds off them.

This article was first published on Truthdig.com