Category Archives: Housing/Homelessness

Neoliberal (Mis)Governance

Neoliberalism is more than an epithet. It’s more than an economic program, or another name for globalization. It may be all of these, but most importantly, it’s a political practice. The dominant political practice of our overlords.

The problem, however, is that neoliberalism as politics rarely has a bright light shown on its shadowy manipulations. Recently 48hills, a SF Bay area news website, published an exposé on precisely that. It reveals Silicon Valley billionaires, real estate developers, academics, non-profit leaders, local politicians and, of course, ill-informed journalists all conniving to further an agenda hidden from public scrutiny. The smell of rot pervades the scene. The scene being a stew of secret meetings.

So, what’s this all about?

In case you haven’t heard, the San Francisco Bay area is facing a housing crisis and the cabal mentioned above has banded together to solve it. How great! The trouble is that they are collaborating to provide self-serving solutions behind the backs of the populace, but on their (our!) dime.

Corruption? What’s new? This isn’t Tammany Hall or Chicago’s Daley Machine, but a new sort of corruption that fits the definition of neoliberal governance, or rather, misgovernance if we assume that the public’s “business” should be conducted in a democratic manner.

Let’s start with some definitions, like the term “governance.” Neoliberalism appropriates this term from management studies where it stands for governing through the interplay of contending parties. In the context of public policy, neoliberal decision-making results from “stakeholders” contributing their perspectives and arriving at agreements legitimated through state actions: new legislation to facilitate funding through fees, taxes, subsidies or other forms of state assistance.

The thing is in this process, that the state, as represented by a “sympathetic” legislator, is but one of a number of stakeholders. Included, notably, is private business. And for purposes of authoritative weight, and depending upon the overall social impact of a specific proposal, an array of scholars, consultants and non-profit executives are invited to be stakeholders. Neoliberalism advocates the “market-place of ideas.” In this market, we know who has their thumb on the scale. And note that direct public input is absent from the deliberations. The public, after all,  is bothersome for expedited action.

The assumption behind this sort of governance is not only that the public is a nuisance, but also that the state is broken. Which means mainly it is bedeviled by arcane practices that create snail-paced progress when what’s needed, the neoliberals plead, is immediate action to deal with one crisis or another: expediency dominates the process; capital likes to move fast these days.

“Arcane practices,” however, are usually venues for public comment and deliberation, and while many may agree that state deliberations need rehabilitation, mainly through greater transparency, without them the role to government to represent the common interest is abandoned, creating a vacuum of power.

And who rushes into the void? Yes, the private sector and its agents (see above).

This is all by way of introduction to the specific situation that applies to the SF Bay area, but, I believe, not only there.

All across the country, but especially in large urban complexes, regional governments have arisen. Whether they are inter-county affairs or cross-state institutions, they have one thing in common: little to none public input. Some states limit regional functions, while others give them greater powers, like taxing authority, but none establish direct citizen selection of those who govern a region.

In the SF area the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the regional government for the nine counties that surround SF Bay and lower Sacramento River feeding into it. This regional government, for instance, collects the tolls from the eight bridges that span the bay and river. It’s a major player in the area not only because of its multi-million dollar revenue stream from tolls ($720,784,303/2016 – 2017), but also because it has the power to put funding propositions on the ballot for voter approval.

MTC, building on its experience with regional transportation issues, recently began encroaching into the area of land use. The details of this power grab are laid out in detail on 48hills. Suffice it to say here that transit-oriented development, a program pushed nationally to provide dense housing near transportation hubs, offered MTC the wedge it needed to pry open new territory for its expansion.

And here is where the story gets interesting. It turns out that Facebook funds the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative run by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his wife. This is not a philanthropic outfit, but a Limited Liability Corporation, so that the funds it disperses can be kept from public view.

Some clever journalistic sleuthing uncovered that CZI has been funding a slew of stakeholders involved with the expansion of MTC’s regime, including an academic entity on the University of California campus. The goal here is to have the state legislature endorse the expansion of regional government into land use issues, ostensibly to grow housing by overriding local control of zoning. Demonstrating to the state legislators in Sacramento that a wide variety of stakeholders support expanded regional control and, further, providing the intellectual heft academic authorization bestows, cinches the deal. It is impolite to mention that Facebook finances this chorus.

It’s not news that San Francisco has experienced a major catastrophe housing its citizens. And it’s not news that this calamity resulted from Silicon Valley hiring thousands and providing no place for them to live. As a result, the SF real estate market metastasized: long-term tenants got priced out as richer newcomers gobbled up landlord-inflated rentals. The result: a significant majority of the homeless in the SF Bay area are former tenants.

The high-rise apartments that the regional government and their allies are planning  will not house the homeless, nor newly hired schoolteachers, much less school janitorial staff. The aim is to erect housing that is “affordable” which means in the SF Bay area an income of at least $80,000. Salaries for new Berkeley teachers start in the $30,000 range.

The opposition to neoliberal misgovernance doesn’t really exist as such, though there is pushback on specific policy issues. The advocates for the homeless, for example, want their constituency to be prioritized, but they don’t attack the undemocratic process of expanding regional housing policies as fundamentally flawed. Their reluctance is easily understood. Since the Reagan administration, through Clinton’s regime to the present, neoliberalism has been the program of both parties. This top down, opaque governance model is like the wallpaper in the halls of power. It’s just the way “things are done.” Even the current mayor of Berkeley, a young Latino Sanders supported, plays the game. So much so that he got the Berkeley City Council to unanimously endorse the regional government takeover of housing policy.

What to do? How should neoliberal misgovernance be confronted? First, it needs to be exposed for its connivance with capital, in this case with the real estate developers, and by extension, the banks and hedge funds. Second, its antidemocratic process must be condemned: No Taxation Without Representation! But exposure and condemnation are only the first steps.

Public policy needs ethical guidelines that circumvent the establishment of power brokers. If we state that housing is a right (as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights mandates) and if this baseline demands achieves support (which requires decontaminating pubic misconceptions) then popular power can be mobilized to demand policies that end corruption at the core of neoliberal misgovernance. Accepting that housing is a right assumes profit making is secondary to that end. In practice this means housing must be removed from the marketplace. There is ample precedent for this in the history and practice of cooperative housing. The Green New Deal references the original New Deal and we should recall that cooperative housing was integral to its vision of a vibrant society.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Existential Despair

Decades ago, Edward Said remarked that contemporary life is characterized by a “generalized condition of homelessness.” Decades earlier, Martin Heidegger had written that “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.” Around the same time, fascists were invoking the themes of blood and soil, nation, race, community, as intoxicating antidotes to the mass anonymity and depersonalization of modern life. Twenty or thirty years later, the New Left, in its Port Huron Statement, lamented the corruption and degradation of such values as love, freedom, creativity, and community:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man…

Over a hundred years earlier, Karl Marx had already understood it was capitalism that was responsible for all this collective anguish. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations…are swept away,” he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Home, community, the family, one’s very relation to oneself—all are mediated by money, the commodity function, “reification,” exploitation of one form or another.

And now here we are in 2019, when the alienation and atomization have reached such a state that it seems as if the world is in danger of ending. The phenomenology, the “structure of feeling,” of living in this society is that everything is transient and “up in the air,” human survival is in question, a hectored, bureaucratized anonymity chases us from morning till night, nothing really matters, no one gets their just deserts. Young people are refraining from having children. There is certainly no collective sense of belonging—that’s long gone. We’re les étrangers, passively consuming distractions as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, we read of little else but agonized suffering, from children in cages to rainforests burning, from opioid epidemics to rampaging neofascists.

The case for socialism is usually made, rightly, from the perspective of its justice. It would be just to have economic and social democracy, for one thing because it is intrinsically right that people not be forced to rent themselves to a business owner who exploits them for profit but instead that they collectively control economic activities and distribute rewards as they see fit. Moreover, economic democracy, whether in the form of worker cooperatives or democratic government control, would essentially make impossible the extreme income inequality that corrodes political democracy and ultimately unravels the social fabric.

But it’s also worth broadcasting the message that even from an existentialist point of view, our only hope is socialism. Certain types of conservatives like to complain about the demise of the family, the community, non-hedonistic interpersonal ties, and the sense of meaning in our lives, a demise for which they blame such nebulous phenomena as secularism, “humanism,” communism, and liberalism. That is, everything except what really matters: capitalism, the reduction of multifaceted life to the monomaniacal pursuit of profit, property, and power. So these conservatives end up in the realm of fascism or neofascism, which promises only to complete the destruction of family and community.

The truth is that only socialism, or an economically democratic society in which there is no capitalist class, could possibly usher in a world in which the existentialist howl of Albert Camus and JP Sartre didn’t have universal resonance. Mass loneliness, “homelessness,” and the gnawing sense of meaninglessness are not timeless conditions; they’re predictable expressions of a commoditized, privatized, bureaucratized civilization. Do away with the agent of enforced commoditization, privatization, and hyper-bureaucratization-for-the-sake-of-social-control—i.e., the capitalist class—and you’ll do away with the despair that arises from these things.

It’s true that the current suicide epidemic in the U.S. and the mental illness epidemic around the world have more specific causes than simply “capitalism.” They have to do with high unemployment, deindustrialization, underfunded hospitals and community outreach programs, job-related stress, social isolation, etc. In other words, they have to do with the particularly vicious and virulent forms that capitalism takes in the neoliberal period. But long before this period, widespread disaffection and mental illness characterized capitalist society.

Now, in light of global warming and ecological destruction, it’s possible that humanity won’t last much longer anyway, in which case capitalism will never be overcome and our collective existential anguish is perfectly appropriate. But nothing is certain at this point. Except that we have a moral imperative to do all we can to fight for socialism. It is what justice demands, and it offers the only hope that even we privileged people—not to mention the less privileged majority—can know what it is to truly have a home.

In Venezuela, the Right to Housing is Made Possible by the Revolution

In the Antímano neighbourhood of the capital district of Caracas, a very special block of flats has been built. Its inhabitants built it with their own hands. In 2011, on the initiative of President Hugo Chávez, a little less than one hectare of land was expropriated from the Polar company. The idea was to rescue abandoned urban land that did not fulfill any social function to benefit families in a situation of “social risk, without their own housing and young couples who are founding families”.

Camp Amatina is located in an industrial zone, but other camps were also set up “in upper class, middle class and peri-urban areas, adapting to urban contexts with different characteristics” – explains Housing Vice-Minister Nelson Rodríguez. In Amatina there are about 140 families that meet in weekly assemblies. Iraida Morocoima, one of their spokespersons, welcomes visitors to share this experience:

Many people among these families had no idea how to hit a brick. There were certainly others who were bricklayers, but most of us were women. The first challenge was to assume that a five- or six-story building had to be built; it was difficult, we couldn’t even conceive of it.

To get there, the pioneers relied on construction materials and technical advice provided by the state as part of the Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela.

The architectural plans were studied and finalized under the supervision of the future inhabitants, based on the specific needs of each of the families.  “This served us as a tool to give a different approach to this type of urbanism. If we had not politicized this construction, we would have fallen into the error of reproducing the family model advocated by capital: housing spaces conceived only for a male and a female, even changing their skin color… But we said no, because here there is a prototype of a different family. Our goal was to build a community.”

An example?

“There are no elevators in the building, so elderly and disabled people live on the ground floor. Before coming here, that disabled girl had nowhere to share. Now here we have this meeting space, where she can come and participate in parties like Christmas,” says Moracaimo.

Once they obtained state support through technical assistance, the camp established a model of self-managed construction, with no construction companies. In this way, “for the State, the cost of the project was reduced by half” – concedes Nelson Rodríguez. But the most relevant thing is the dynamic of participation that it provoked, with “hundreds of hours of organization of the families and the other 11 movements of settlers that came to their aid: material and resources were lent, it functions as a network, a system in which workers exchange, a joint purchase of machinery is made, etc.”.

Once the housing was raised as a right, returning the use to an abandoned land, the tool for the community to consolidate its objective was to assume self-government. It is one of the basic notions of this camp. “This is the first project that was carried out, and surely there are many mistakes that we made, with cracks in the wall, but we are learning. And the most important thing is what we have learned with this participatory design, because we are very aware that living here has to be different. This is a well-established idea among the families, including the younger ones. As I climb the stairs of the block of flats, I comment to a child who accompanies me how grateful the community must be to the Bolivarian government. His spontaneous response breaks in a thousand pieces the concept of “assistentialism” that has been recurrently applied as the characteristic seal of the Latin American processes of socialism in the 21st century: “We make this Revolution, nobody gives it to us!”

Nelson Rodríguez insists on the idea that the Amatina camp is not just a housing: “They are not only houses, but also community spaces, productive spaces such as cooperatives, communal gardens, and communal services such as a bank, a bakery, a factory… What is sought is the construction of a community of life and means of production based on self-management. It is an integral project of production and supply”. There are those who relativize this type of struggle for the right to housing, giving lessons from their ivory tower, but for others it is intolerable and must be ended in any way: “Many economic sectors did not accept this state intervention. The right wing says there are processes of land confiscation. They intend to return them, as they were confiscated by the Revolution. It is a battle, the company wants to initiate a process to recover them”. Far from being conceived as an isolated experience, its protagonists seek to extend it to the length and breadth of Venezuelan geography in order to strengthen the construction of the “communal state,” destined to undermine the foundations of institutionality and thus progressively replace the old state structures, tailored to the needs of the ruling class throughout decades of Punto Fijo government. It is therefore a question of deepening participatory democracy to the detriment of “restricted democracy”.

Without a doubt it is communal experiences like Amatina’s that best explain the quixotic mood and the unbribable attachment of this people to his government; also why Nicolás Maduro was re-elected president in May 2018 defying the economic crisis, the threats of the coup right-wing, the announcement of non-recognition by the EU and the sanctions of the Obama empire and then Trump. Morocoima sums it up like this:  “We didn’t plan to live here and then become another social class. We live here to defend the Revolution, to maintain this revolutionary process. This is a dignified and struggling people: Chávez came, he revived Bolívar and now we are Guaicaipuro, Bolívar and Chávez together!”

The indigenous, the Creole and the mestizo are symbols of the sovereignty of Venezuela and of its generous identity for the sake of integration; their incarnation in those three historical figures is the sample of the fact that this people made reality what seemed impossible: holding the reins of their destiny against all odds.

The Ongoing Dread in Gaza: So Many Names, So Many Lives

I felt shaky and uneasy all day, preparing for this talk.

— Jehad Abusalim, a Palestinian from the territory of Gaza

Jehad Abusalim, a Palestinian now living in the United States, grew up Gaza. In Chicago last week, addressing activists committed to breaking the siege of Gaza,  he held up a stack of 31 papers. On each page were names of 1,254 Palestinians living in Gaza who had been killed in just one month of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” attacks five years ago.

“I felt shaky and uneasy all day preparing for this talk,” he told the group. He described his dismay when, looking through the list of names, he recognized one of a young man from his small town.

“He was always friendly to me,” Abusalim said. “I remember how he would greet me on the way to the mosque. His family and friends loved him, respected him.”

Abusalim recalled the intensity of losing loved ones and homes; of seeing livelihoods and infrastructure destroyed by aerial attacks; of being unable to protect the most vulnerable. He said it often takes ten years or more before Palestinian families traumatized by Israeli attacks can begin talking about what happened. Noting Israel’s major aerial attacks in 2009, 2013, and 2014, along with more recent attacks killing participants in the “Great March of Return,” he spoke of ongoing dread about what might befall Gaza’s children the next time an attack happens.

Eighty people gathered to hear Abusalim and Retired Colonel Ann Wright, of US Boat to Gaza, as they helped launch the “Free Gaza Chicago River Flotilla,” three days of action culminating on July 20 with a spirited demonstration by “kayactivists” and boaters, along with onshore protesters, calling for an end to the siege of Gaza. Wright resigned from her post as a U.S. diplomat when the United States launched the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing of Iraq. Having participated in four previous internationals flotillas aiming to defy Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza’s shoreline, Wright is devoting her energies preparing for a fifth in 2020.

Another organizer and member of US Boat to Gaza, Elizabeth Murray, who like Wright formerly worked for the U.S. government, recalled being in a seminar sponsored by a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C., when a panel member compared Israeli attacks against Palestinians with routine efforts to “mow the lawn.” She recounted hearing a light tittering as the D.C. audience members expressed amusement. But, Murray said, “Not a single person objected to the panelist’s remark.” This was in 2010, following Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,383 Palestinians, 333 of whom were children.

Abusalim’s colleague at the American Friends Service Committee, Jennifer Bing, had cautioned Chicago flotilla planners to carefully consider the tone of their actions. A colorful and lively event during a busy weekend morning along Chicago’s popular riverfront could be exciting and, yes, fun.

But Palestinians in Gaza cope with constant tension, she noted. Denied freedom of movement, they live in the world’s largest open-air prison, under conditions the United Nations has predicted will render their land uninhabitable by 2020. Households get four to six hours of electricity per day. According to UNICEF, “sewage treatment plants can’t operate fully and the equivalent of forty-three Olympic-sized swimming pools of raw or partly treated sewage is pumped into the sea every day.”

Facing cruel human rights violations on a daily basis, the organizers urge solidarity in the form of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. U.S. residents bear particular responsibility for Israel’s military attacks against civilians, they note, as the United States has supplied Israel with billions of dollars for military buildup.

U.S. companies profit hugely from selling weapons to Israel. For example, Boeing, with headquarters in Chicago, sells Israel Apache helicopters, Hellfire and Harpoon missiles, JDAM guiding systems and Small Diameter Bombs that deliver Dense Inert Metal Explosive munitions. All of these weapons have been used repeatedly in Israeli attacks on densely populated civilian areas.

During the 2009 Operation Cast Lead, I was in Rafah, Gaza, listening to children explaining the difference between explosions caused by F-16 fighter jets dropping 500-pound bombs and Apache helicopters firing Hellfire missiles.

Israel continues using those weapons, and Israeli purchases fatten Boeing’s financial portfolios.

At Boeing Company, Names of people killed in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge are read aloud; Elizabeth Murray sounds a gong after each name.  (Photo credit: Barbara Briggs Letson)

On July 19, young Palestinians outside of the Israeli consulate read aloud the names of people who had, five years ago, been killed in Gaza. We listened solemnly and then proceeded to Boeing’s Chicago headquarters, again listening as youngsters read more names, punctuated by a solemn gong after each victim was remembered. Ultimately, 2,104 Palestinians, more than two-thirds of whom were civilians, including 495 children, were killed during the seven-week attack on the Gaza Strip in 2014.

Banner dropping over a bridge crossing the Chicago River: Israel, Stop Killing Palestinians (Photo Credit: Barbara Briggs Letson)

During the Free Gaza Chicago River flotilla on July 20, Husam Marajda, from the Arab American Action Network, sat in a small boat next to his grandfather, who was visiting from Palestine. His chant, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” echoed from the water to the shore. Banners were dropped from bridges above, the largest reading, “Israel, Stop Killing Palestinians.”

Kayakers on the Chicago River display Free Gaza sign (Photo Credit: Barbara Briggs Letson)

Kayakers wore red T-shirts announcing the “Gaza Unlocked” campaign and managed to display flags, connected by string, spelling out “Free Gaza.” Passengers on other boats flashed encouraging peace signs and thumbs up signals. Those processing along the shore line, carrying banners and signs, walked the entirety of our planned route before a sergeant from the Chicago Police Department arrived to say we needed a permit.

We can’t permit ourselves to remain silent. Following the energetic flotilla activity, I sat with several friends in a quiet spot. “So many names,” said one friend, thinking of the list Abusalim had held up. “So many lives,” said another.

• A version of this article was published July 23rd, 2019 at The Progressive

You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three

The central argument of Amusing Ourselves [Neil Postman] is simple: there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).

Andrew Postman

So what would Neil Postman say about this fellow [note title of this essay, referencing Jeff Bezos’ proclamation on what work should mean to every breathing American], or the many fellows like Bezos who have zero patience for a world without disrupting economies tied to their authoritarian business plan of more billionaires deserving (sic) more power. Disruptive and destructive, and not just economies in the book sense, but structural violence and community disintegration, murdering people with debt, lack of housing, no medical care, suicide, that’s Bezos, et al looking to capitalize on every penny gathered from every nanosecond in our individual human lives.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his company grow into one of the world’s biggest companies.

Back in 1997, Bezos told shareholders that employees at other companies “can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com, you can’t choose two out of three.”

Bezos acknowledges his high standards for employees every year, telling shareholders that “it’s not easy to work here.”

In the 24 years since Amazon was founded, CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his company grow from a modest online bookshop to one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Back in 1997, Bezos was already expecting big things out of his young company. In his annual letter to Amazon shareholders, Bezos described how much effort he expected from his employees.

“When I interview people I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three,” Bezos wrote in the 1997 letter.

“Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com’s success.”

The New York Times reported in 2015 exactly how bruising the work environment at Amazon could be. Employees were reportedly expected to routinely work late, were encouraged to criticize coworkers‘ ideas at meetings, and were often found crying at their desks. Amazon disputed many of the claims in the Times investigation, though the newspaper defended its reporting.

God forbid we call Amazon Boss Bezos a plantation owner of a different mother, for sure. That Americans — living in small and large cities, far and wide — depend on the Amazon way as if Amazon is sutured into all aspects of American culture (sic) and hardwired into every new born’s head. Same day delivery. A shopping cart that would be the envy of any Rothschild or Leona Mindy Roberts Helmsley.

See the source image

This essay, first, was going to address those other masters of the Universe — Google Guys and Algorithm Titans. I barely criticized a billionaire in a DV article —   Household Income, or Higher Planes of Consciousness?*

I criticized Nick Hanauer for his false balance, contrived bifurcation, and his new wind as a billionaire fighting what he calls the educationalism mindset that says that a good, grounded, deep and holistic education might be a thing of kings, whereas Nick says education backing and financing ain’t worth diddly squat in capitalism until more people make more money to buy more things, or just to survive in his nihilistic world.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

— Nick Hanauer

In my email box, Google, of course, I get an unsolicited email from an organization for which I have never associated with or even pursued. It’s the old surveillance state of Google and the internet Stasi, for sure —

Image result for stasi

Alas, Neil Postman was correct, in so far as what we say and do as writers really does not count — we are only as smart and deep and truthful as our masters will allow:

In my college economics class, we were taught that wages depend on productivity. The more productive or skilled workers are, my professors used to argue, the more they will be worth on the labor market and, therefore, the higher their wages will be. That’s bunk.

Under this logic, the way to cure our economic woes – whether poverty, inequality, underemployment, or unemployment – is through education. By educating our citizens, we increase their human capital, making them more productive and, therefore, increasing their expected income.

It sounds good, right?

This seductive myth – of education as an economic cure-all – is something Civic Action founder Nick Hanauer calls “educationism.” As Nick writes in a recent article for The Atlantic, it’s a myth he used to believe, and it’s a myth many wealthy elites still propagate. It’s what leads philanthropists to donate billions of dollars to public schools and educational institutions.

There’s just one problem: Educationism doesn’t work. If it did, our middle class would be much better off.

In the last 40 years, while the real incomes of most Americans have been stuck, we’ve gotten a lot more educated. Almost everyone has a high school diploma and the share of Americans with a college degree has more than tripled since 1970.”

But all that education hasn’t translated into higher wages. In fact, if our incomes had done what my college profs told me – gone up with productivity – the average family today would be earning $29,000 more a year. An average of $105,000!

Of course, it’s true that getting an education is likely to increase your own income. But that’s not the same as raising incomes throughout the economy. Not when four out of five of the fastest growing jobs pay very low wages – jobs like cashiers and health care assistants. Meanwhile, the pay of most people who do have a college education barely keeps up with inflation.

What we do need to do is raise incomes for working families and the middle class throughout the economy. That’s how we build an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few. As Nick writes:

“In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.”

—  Stephen Paolini, Civic Action, email with an ask for $ support

But then, this essay takes a twist, as they always seem to do when I deploy some ground-truthing. You see, most of us in the USA, the 80 percent of the population —  many of which are on the skids, on the near skids, or those of us barely scraping by, and those of us who are unseen but are many short steps away from working for one of those sweatshops like we see with Amazon (there are so many warehouse jobs, forklift gigs, sorting careers) and finding down time in the back seat of our cars)  —  so-so tire of, really, the prognosticators writing away hard in semi-secure status —  even the smartish ones on leftish magazines like The Nation, or digital forums like Truthout or Truthdig or The Intercept.

They have NO idea of what is real in the world, and that rarefied realm of citing this study or making this or that prediction, well, it is bombast at best, propaganda at worst, denuded of humanity in many cases.

Case in point — tens of millions of men and women wandering the land (US), in some warped version of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, really, in a society that eats-sleeps-dreams-believes the crap that Huxley warned of, and that which Neil Postman discussed. Oh the irony, those, that billionaire book salesman, Bezos, dead to the world, dead to us, the 80 percent, living, barely, in the middle of their hellish barbecue.

I was with three fellows — two literally are sleeping in campgrounds, and one fellow living with his parents. A million miles away from what any social worker or Sheryl Sandberg or Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or any of the scions of Holly-dirt or anyone in the Trump Loony Bin Show, or those clamoring around an Obama or Oprah or Rachel Maddow. It’s a triple sick experience even thinking about how vapid that so-called debate was yesterday with half of the half-wits of the Democratic Party wanting to play president.

So, a life of men truly on the extinction block, in several demographics. These fellows I hired on to help my spouse and I move from a rental to a house we had the temerity to purchase in a Time of Climate Heating, Oceans Rising, Food Wilting, Water Draining, Economies Imploding, Saber Rattling, and ICBM Immolating.

Their lives, broken down, seem to hold the familiar life story of many people I have worked with as a non-traditional social worker for the homeless, the just-out-of-prison returnees, and chronically physically and mentally ill. They work jobs, stacking halibut,  packing shrimp, pounding two-by-fours, hauling goods, sorting things, cutting trees, landscaping, roofing. Both of these fellows are 50, living in campgrounds, one with false teeth, the other with nubs and rotting teeth.

Child support for children they have never seen, or can’t see now. Felonies for this or that charge keeping them from even getting to first base on an apartment application. Vagabonds harassed by cops, and living life in a constant move. For my other helper, Brian, he’s a former marine, working as a social services provider, has a wonderful child on the spectrum (autism) and is currently living with aging and sickly parents. All three fit the bill for zero tolerance in this society. Never reflected in the news stories, in the Mass Murdering Media, never on the minds of the One Percent, Point Zero Zero One Percent. I know for a fact, though, that those Little Eichmanns who populate the other 19 percent of the 20 Percenters, well, many of them have one degree of separation when it comes to family members with substance abuse issues, chronic mental or physical illness, depression, suicidal, schizophrenic, and homeless.

You get both barrels of human pain and human survival and some human triumphs when talking with real people, albeit, denigrated folk, disenfranchised humans.

They are really rough around the edges, but these fellows, Tommy and Devon, they are examples of struggle and defeat and some triumph, as Brian and I note and agree. They are so far from any of the discourse going on around the world — the complete irrelevance of all the trolling, all the internet crap, all the stuff that makes for an echo chamber that sucks humanity and human connection from the ether.

You look at Tommy, and you see a man on the skids. Big laughing screwed up face, almost Dickensian, crazy might be one moniker. Hustling and wanting to have people know that there was once a time when he had some normalcy, some sense of being a man in society — not on the skids. Though, Tommy would not see himself on the skids.

Brain injury 23 years ago when a van hit him head on as a pedestrian. And he still works, moves heavy furniture, and hammers roofs.

Devon, a former truck driver, someone who has a few years in the Marines, and as Brian states — people are only awakened to the level of how they have been able to access those tools necessary to be woken up. Yet, Brian states that he’d much rather be in the company of these men than the MSWs and other graduate-level punishers he’s worked with, as I have also worked with, in the non-profit arenas as supposed social services workers.

They probably know nothing about this movement, which could affect Tommy and Devon:

When reporters for the International Amazon Workers Voice interviewed part-time Amazon “associates” (a cheap euphemism for “employees” used to disguise the exploitative relationship between workers and management at the company) in Baltimore to discuss their attitude toward Bezos’ fortune, they were met with a torrent of disgust, calls for sharing the wealth, and social anger.

“Tell Mr. Bezos and the rest of management to come out of their offices and get on the shop floor” said one worker who identified herself as a single mother of two. “At the end of the day, they never feel what we go through in a day for $12 an hour. They get to sit down in their offices and get paid more than we will see in a year,” she said.

Bezos’ wealth typifies the way an increasingly small number of multi-billionaire CEOs and finance operatives extract ever more obscene sums from the international workforce. This process of ever-increasing wealth for the few and exploitation for the majority is reaching a political breaking point.

Explaining her work environment during the holidays, the working mother said, “they just had us move 100,000 packages in 5 hours, and at the end we aren’t even paid enough to take care of our kids. I’m a single mother, I don’t receive food stamps. My rent is $850 a month. I have to pay for gas, electricity, bus passes, plus raise two kids.

“If we decided to quit, who would move these packages out of the door?” she said, noting the social power of the workers employed by the company. “We are the ones making you rich.”

Brian and I talk about Amazon, and the nefarious nature of how the guy at the Washington Post attacks the fourth grader Trump and others, while he is part of the Military Industrial Complex. From The Intercept:

Amazon’s extensive relationship with the NSA, FBI, Pentagon and other surveillance agencies in the west is multi-faceted, highly lucrative and rapidly growing. Last March, the Intercept reported on a new app that Amazon developers and British police forces have jointly developed to use on the public in police work, just “the latest example of third parties aidingautomating, and in some cases, replacing, the functions of law enforcement agencies — and raises privacy questions about Amazon’s role as an intermediary.”

Then there’s the patent Amazon obtained last October, as reported by the Intercept, “that would allow its virtual assistant Alexa to decipher a user’s physical characteristics and emotional state based on their voice.” In particular, it would enable anyone using the product to determine a person’s accent and likely place of origin: “The algorithm would also consider a customer’s physical location — based on their IP address, primary shipping address, and browser settings — to help determine their accent.”

All of this is taking place as Amazon vies for, and is the favorite to win, one of the largest Pentagon contracts yet: a $10 billion agreement to provide exclusive cloud services to the world’s largest military. CNN reported just last week that the company is now enmeshed in scandal over that effort, specifically a formal investigation into “whether Amazon improperly hired a former Defense Department worker who was involved with a $10 billion government contract for which the tech company iscompeting.”

Bezos’ relationship with the military and spying agencies of the U.S. Government, and law enforcement agencies around the world, predates his purchase of the Washington Post and has become a central prong of Amazon’s business growth. Back in 2014, Amazon secured a massive contract with the CIA when the spy agency agreed to pay it $600 million for computing cloud software. As the Atlantic noted at the time, Amazon’s software “will begin servicing all 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.”

Given how vital the military and spy agencies now are to Amazon’s business, it’s unsurprising that the amount Amazon pays to lobbyists to serve its interests in Washington has exploded: quadrupling since 2013 from $3 million to almost $15 million last year, according to Open Secrets.

What would the house-less Tommy and Devon say about this Byzantine world of hyper billions of dollars and hyper trillions of human hours wasted on the things of capitalism, of power and control, consumption?

We were keeping our eye on 1984. But it’s Brave New World we should have feared instead.

I know many friends who wonder why we — people like me — still live in the US? Many wonder what it will take young people to stand down the systems of oppression. Some believe the young people have it, as in Greta the Carbon Dioxide Robin Hood, or AOC, the new face (sic) of American politics.

This system we have now is one where a few voices count (get read, heard, published, followed), and the majority of voices are just bursts of yelling in the woods, in campgrounds, in one’s lovely home in the old sedan, in our own bedlam. People travelling from one insane place to another, but in that realm, a sanity sets in for guys like Tommy and Devon. The world is pretty clear-cut, and on many levels, these people have positive outlooks — toothless, no real estate or swelling investment accounts. Just that hard way forward. Cigarettes and bicycling miles a day. Places to shower. Places to get out of the rain without the bulldozers of misanthropy pushing them further and further into ditches or out on the periphery until they stare us all down, face to face, the coming of a New Brave World. Is it the entertaining ourselves to death cycle, or a little bit of the other — big brother, watching our every move, holding every syllable mouthed in a cloud server, every speck of mole cataloged, and every word penned or typed, collected to hold us at bay, hold us as prisoners of our own faulty beliefs?

 

Needless to say, Charles Dickens grew to hate the system and rail against it in his works. In his seminal novella “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by two portly men raising money for the poor.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the [one of the gentlemen], taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

— Charles Dickens, 1843, A Christmas Carol 

Or, updated for 2020, as illustrated by a commentator on an article about Portland, OR, once the Rose City, now The City of Rocks:

To disrupt illegal camp sites set up by homeless in Portland, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is moving boulders onto the roadsides. The project will eventually cost about a million dollars, but ODOT argues this cost is less than the cost of dealing with existing campsites.

Many have pointed out that this policy does nothing to address the underlying problem or help the people in the camp, but only forces them to move somewhere else.

KGW8


odot boulders homeless camps highway 26 1015 2018

—Scrooge/Marley, Edward Sullivan, Planetizen

A debtor's prison in London.

A debtor’s prison in London.

Canada enables corrupt Haitian president to remain in power

At the front of a protest against Haiti’s president last week a demonstrator carried a large wooden cross bearing the flags of Canada, France and the US. The Haiti Information Project tweeted that protesters “see these three nations as propping up the regime of President Jovenel Moïse. It is also recognition of their role in the 2004 coup.”

Almost entirely ignored by the Canadian media, Haitian protesters regularly criticize Canada. On dozens of occasions since Jean Bertrand Aristide’s government was overthrown in 2004 marchers have held signs criticizing Canadian policy or rallied in front of the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince. For their part, Haiti Progrès and Haiti Liberté newspapers have described Canada as an “occupying force”, “coup supporter” or “imperialist” at least a hundred times.

In the face of months of popular protest, Canada remains hostile to the protesters who represent the impoverished majority. A recent corruption investigation by Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes has rekindled the movement to oust the Canadian-backed president. The report into the Petrocaribe Fund accuses Moïse’s companies of swindling $2 million of public money. Two billion dollars from a discounted oil program set up by Venezuela was pilfered under the presidency of Moïse’s mentor Michel Martelly.

Since last summer there have been numerous protests, including a weeklong general strike in February, demanding accountability for public funds. Port-au-Prince was again paralyzed during much of last week. In fact, the only reason Moïse — whose electoral legitimacy is paper thin — is hanging on is because of support from the so-called “Core Group” of “Friends of Haiti”.

Comprising the ambassadors of Canada, France, Brazil, Germany and the US, as well as representatives of Spain, EU and OAS, the “Core Group” released another statement effectively backing Moise. The brief declaration called for “a broad national debate, without preconditions”, which is a position Canadian officials have expressed repeatedly in recent weeks. (The contrast with Canada’s position regarding Venezuela’s president reveals a stunning hypocrisy.) But, the opposition has explicitly rejected negotiating with Moïse since it effectively amounts to abandoning protest and bargaining with a corrupt and illegitimate president few in Haiti back.

In another indication of the “Core Group’s” political orientation, their May 30 statement “condemned the acts of degradation committed against the Senate.” Early that day a handful of opposition senators dragged out some furniture and placed it on the lawn of Parliament in a bid to block the ratification of the interim prime minister. Canada’s Ambassador André Frenette also tweeted that “Canada condemns the acts of vandalism in the Senate this morning. This deplorable event goes against democratic principles.” But, Frenette and the “Core Group” didn’t tweet or release a statement about the recent murder of journalist Pétion Rospide, who’d been reporting on corruption and police violence. Nor did they mention the commission that found Moïse responsible for stealing public funds or the recent UN report confirming government involvement in a terrible massacre in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of La Saline in mid-November. Recent Canadian and “Core Group” statements completely ignore Moise’s electoral illegitimacy and downplay the enormity of the corruption and violence against protesters.

Worse still, Canadian officials regularly promote and applaud a police force that has been responsible for many abuses. As I detailed in a November story headlined “Canada backs Haitian government, even as police force kills demonstrators”, Frenette attended a half dozen Haitian police events in his first year as ambassador. Canadian officials continue to attend police ceremonies, including one in March, and offer financial and technical support to the police. Much to the delight of the country’s über class-conscious elite, Ottawa has taken the lead in strengthening the repressive arm of the Haitian state since Aristide’s ouster.

On Wednesday Frenette tweeted, “one of the best parts of my job is attending medal ceremonies for Canadian police officers who are known for their excellent work with the UN police contingent in Haiti.” RCMP officer Serge Therriault leads the 1,200-person police component of the Mission des Nations unies pour l’appui à la Justice en Haïti (MINUJUSTH).

At the end of May Canada’s ambassador to the UN Marc-André Blanchard led a United Nations Economic and Social Council delegation to Haiti. Upon his return to New York he proposed creating a “robust” mission to continue MINUJUSTH’s work after its planned conclusion in mid-October. Canadian officials are leading the push to extend the 15-year old UN occupation that took over from the US, French and Canadian troops that overthrew Aristide’s government and was responsible for introducing cholera to the country, which has killed over 10,000.

While Haitians regularly challenge Canadian policy, few in this country raise objections. In response to US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s recent expression of solidarity with Haitian protesters, Jean Saint-Vil put out a call titled “OH CANADA, TIME TO BE WOKE LIKE ILHAN OMAR & MAXINE WATERS!” The Haitian Canadian activist wrote:

While, in Canada, the black population is taken for granted by major political parties who make no effort to adjust Canadian Foreign policies towards African nations, Haiti and other African-populated nations of the Caribbean, where the Euro-Americans topple democratically-elected leaders, help set up corrupt narco regimes that are friendly to corrupt Canadian mining companies that go wild, exploiting the most impoverished and blackest among us, destroying our environments in full impunity… In the US, some powerful voices have arisen to counter the mainstream covert and/or overt white supremacist agenda. Time for REAL CHANGE in Canada! The Wine & Cheese sessions must end! We eagerly await the statements of Canadian party leaders about the much needed change in Canadian Policy towards Haiti. You will have to deserve our votes, this time around folks!

Unfortunately, Canadian foreign policymakers — the Liberal party in particular — have co-opted/pacified most prominent black voices on Haiti and other international issues. On Monday famed Haitian-Canadian novelist Dany Laferrière attended a reception at the ambassador’s residence in Port-au-Prince while the head of Montréal’s Maison d’Haïti, Marjorie Villefranche, says nary a word about Canadian imperialism in Haiti. A little discussed reason Paul Martin’s government appointed Michaëlle Jean Governor General in September 2005 was to dampen growing opposition to Canada’s coup policy among working class Haitian-Montrealers.

Outside the Haitian community Liberal-aligned groups have also offered little solidarity. A look at the Federation of Black Canadians website and statements uncovers nothing about Canada undermining a country that dealt a massive blow to slavery and white supremacy. (Members of the group’s steering committee recently found time, however, to meet with and then attend a gala put on by the anti-Palestinian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.)

A few months ago, Saint-Vil proposed creating a Canadian equivalent to the venerable Washington, D.C. based TransAfrica, which confronts US policy in Africa and the Caribbean. A look at Canadian policy from the Congo to Venezuela, Burkina Faso to Tanzania, suggests the need is great. Anyone seeking to amplify the voices from the streets of Port-au-Prince should support such an initiative.

The United Tent Cities of America

I viscerally remember a particular protest I participated in with Portland Tenants United that involved using tents as a symbol of the impending homelessness that will result if the landlords keep on raising the rent the way they’ve been doing. It’s a common, useful symbol, that communicates well in a picture, a tent. But there was that one protest when a bunch of actually homeless teenagers asked us, “what are you going to do with those tents when you’re done?”

If one of the tents had been mine, I probably would have just given it to the kids who asked about it. I didn’t see anyone giving them one of the tents, though. After all, each of them was probably owned by a hard-working tenant, there to protest against landlords and rent hikes. It probably cost $80 or so and was used for camping with the kids and going to festivals, when it wasn’t being used to protest landlords in downtown Portland.

Most working folks scraping by to pay the rent don’t make $80 donations to people on the streets, so I suppose it’s understandable if no one gave away their tent that day. Last weekend I heard on NPR the recently-updated statistic that there are about 60,000 people homeless, mostly living on the streets, unsheltered, in Los Angeles County, and almost 1,000 of them were found dead on those very streets last year, in 2018. It’s a shocking thing to hear, partially perhaps because it’s such a large, round number, which maybe gives it more resonance. Altogether we can say that there are untold thousands of people dying on the streets every year in the US, and literally the majority of the rest of the population is so squeezed by the cost of housing and other economic factors, that they can’t afford to help. They have no savings, only debt.

Four in ten people in the US can’t afford an unexpected expense of any kind if it’s greater than $400, according to a recent study. Many people are living in such cramped conditions that having one’s own bedroom is increasingly becoming a middle-class fantasy.

In the suburb I grew up in, no one was homeless. Tents were strictly for camping, cars were for transportation — and maybe sleeping in if you got caught in a blizzard or something. When my family made trips into nearby New York City and I saw people living in cardboard boxes beneath bridges and such, to me it was like going to Mars. A completely different reality. These grey, often bearded faces of ruined human beings, shivering, abandoned, waiting to die, it appeared to me. They seemed like a different species to my clean-cut suburban eyes. If it weren’t for the fact that as a young adult I found myself briefly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, I might still have that alienated orientation towards these castaways that can be found in every American city.

I was staying for a while in a tent on a very steep hillside near a park. It was a thickly-wooded hillside that no one used, but part-way down it there was a flat area just big enough for a very small tent. I set up a tent and hid it with a tarp and leaves and branches and such. No running water or electricity, but it was a dry, shaded place to camp. Until the police, or whoever, found it, and destroyed my camp, cutting lots of bushes and trees down in the process.

That night, it rained. I don’t remember what I might have tried to rig up to sleep under or on top of that night, but whatever it was, it wasn’t waterproof. The rain drenched me completely, until I was shivering, and probably hyperventilating. To survive the night, I spent hours awake, miserable, sitting in a 24-hour donut shop until the sun rose.

Just going through that experience for one night was a revelation. Until that night, being homeless sucked. I didn’t care so much about not having electricity, but I was a big fan of daily showers, and that was not happening. But it had otherwise up til then been more or less an adventure. After that night it no longer was. Death suddenly became something easy to imagine. Anyone, at any age, can die of hypothermia in such a situation. And, as these recent statistics attest, many do.

I don’t know how many other people who grew up in the suburbs end up having such experiences. I don’t know how many of them can relate to these completely disenfranchised people among us, beneath us, at our feet, as fully human. Regardless of whether they can or not, it seems clear to me that this society is at a breaking point. Any semblance of life as usual can’t continue while thousands of skeletal life forms are dying on the streets around you.

Listening to the tepid solutions being offered by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Oregon Governor Kate Brown or any of the presidential candidates running on the Democratic ticket — all of which is getting lots of media attention lately — we can be certain the crisis will only worsen. Building new housing and subsidizing rent for tenants in need are fine, but neither of these popular strategies challenge the profits of the real estate speculators, the developers, the landlord class so influential in so much of local, state and federal politics throughout the US.

What is abundantly obvious if you have any familiarity with the housing market in this country is leaving things to the free market has been an unmitigated disaster. Yet the only answer from the landlord lobby is more of the same.

It would be completely impossible to build enough new housing to build our way out of this problem. Regulation is obviously necessary. Democratic – that is, government — control over the cost of housing, over what landlords can charge for rent. The kind of regulation that will profoundly affect the profit margin of the real estate speculators, the vulture capitalists in control of so much of our politics. I’m talking not about a rent freeze, but about slashing rents to a fraction of what they have become over the past few decades of free market insanity. What’s needed is the kind of regulation that no one is talking about. For that kind of regulation, we’ll need to have a mass movement that shuts the country down. Regardless of what the more hopeful voices in the liberal media and the Democratic Party might want us to believe.

Until then, keep the morgues cold, more bodies will be coming.

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.