Monday, September 27, 2010

Wealth, Education, Youth, Ethnicity And The U.S. Economy's 'New Normal'

By Manifesto Joe

Judging from what the polls are telling us, the American people are on the verge of being rendered a drooling mass of chumps yet again -- by Republicans once more calling for continued low taxes on the wealthy and big corporate interests, while relentlessly whittling away at the labor arrangements and social safety net that made the U.S. middle class of the 20th century possible in the first place.

The most recent comprehensive polls in Texas put President Obama's approval rating in the state at 36.8%, compared with 57.5% of likely voters who disapprove. The approval rating for Obama is much lower in some of the major population areas, like where I live. Even though gubernatorial challenger Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, has distanced himself from Obama, what this probably means is that Texans are going to re-elect Governor Rick "Goodhair" Perry, who would then be on track to be the state's chief executive for 14 years.

The poll, conducted Sept. 15-22 by Blum & Weprin Associates, also breaks down in some interesting ways. Obama does best among certain distinct groups.

Young Voters

Among those under 30, Obama gets 52.3% approval, compared with 38.7% disapproval. This could be spun in different ways. Republicans would suggest that Obama has retained popularity among inexperienced idealists. Democrats would suggest that perhaps the younger voters have not yet been so thoroughly immersed in the right-wing brainwashing that seems to pervade the current U.S. political climate.

Ethnic and/or Racial Minorities

Obama has a 93% approval rating among African-Americans, compared with only 5% disapproval. The obvious GOP spin: Obama is black. The Democratic spin: African-Americans are also much less likely to believe much of what the likes of Fox News disseminates. Me thinks they've been lied to before.

Among Hispanics, the trend is similar, though not as overwhelming. Some 66% approve, and 28% disapprove, of Obama's performance.


I suppose this should be a no-brainer, since wealthier Americans have enjoyed lower taxes than residents of the rest of the developed world for many, many years, and they want to keep it that way. Obama isn't even suggesting dramatic changes, but any changes are enough to piss off richer people. That's the kind of self-centered society Americans consist of now. Those making $100,000-plus a year disapprove of Obama, 64-30. As one moves down the income categories, Obama's popularity shifts among Texans making under $30,000 a year. They like him, 51-45.

Republicans would resort to obvious elitism here -- the "successful" people tend to dislike Obama, and the "layabouts" figure him as a more likely source of new handouts. An opposite spin -- it's been my experience that most people in higher income brackets have always been there, and have no serious idea of what life is like for less fortunate folks. The latter group knows all too well.


This may be the most revealing statistic. Obama doesn't do badly, in Texas at least, among the least educated. Less than high school: 44% approve, 53% disapprove. Among high school graduates, it's 43-53, statistically the same. Obama fares worst among those with "some college" -- only 18% approve, while 71% disapprove. It gets a little better among college graduates, at 32-63.

But here's the part that may be the most telling. Among Texans reporting "college-plus" as their education -- people with graduate or professional degrees -- Obama gets a 56% approval rating, compared to 41% disapproval.

We can get into some serious elitism here. There's an old saying that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, hence the Tea Party level of popularity of Obama among Texans reporting "some college." If I remember students like these accurately from my college days, they lasted in the academic world just long enough to get the idea that they really knew something, when they actually didn't know much at all. They often lacked either the intelligence or the discipline to finish the job.

Of course, the Republican spin on this would recall former House Majority Leader Dick Armey's condemnation of fellow academics. Such people, Armey said, have absolutely no idea of what it's like to go out and make a living in the real, private-sector world. This from a guy who came to prominence as an economist teaching at a state university, who was on the public payroll for years and years before gaining a more lucrative position on the public payroll as a member of Congress.

As a person who lasted in the academic world long enough to get a master's, my observation is that my peers are intelligent enough to know that the current economic morass took 30 years to make. It didn't start as soon as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid took the reins of Congress in January 2007. But, it's often quite convenient for Republicans to be one-dimensional thinkers, and even to distort the facts as they see fit. If you happen to be holding the bag right now, it doesn't matter to such political opportunists what kind of policy travesties were ongoing in the 1980s. (What we have here is often too many business administration courses, and not enough history and economics.)

The New Normal

The two obvious megatrends in the U.S. economy from the 1970s until late 2007, when the bubble burst, were: (1) deregulation, particularly in the realm of high finance, and (2) "supply-side" economics, the remarkable belief, even against empirical evidence, that giving tax bonanzas to rich people and big corporations will create jobs and put the economy in overdrive.

Call it the New Gilded Age. This ruse went on for so long that, despite its rather obvious cumulative failure, "supply-side" still has a huge following. I can understand how it started. By 1980, the U.S. was suffering from what is called demand-pull inflation -- too many dollars chasing too few goods. An economic correction was admittedly needed.

But once Reagan and his cronies got in office, their long-range intentions quickly became clear. Cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, while quietly raising them on working people in the form of high Social Security payroll taxes. Look the other way while companies are exporting jobs to low-wage countries. The wealthy types that these people represented never liked the higher marginal tax rates needed to maintain even a modest welfare state, nor did they like the labor arrangements that forced them to pay living wages to Middle America. The middle class of the 20th century is gradually dismantled, leaving the U.S. with an ever-richer elite while the rest of us settle for scraps from the rich man's table.

It worked just well enough, and just long enough, for some Americans to prosper and become true believers. As for me, and many others like me, I'm still waiting for my "trickle-down" from the first time. It always felt and smelled more like "tinkle-down" to me.

Here's a link to a good article on the subject: "The New Normal: What to Expect of Our Economy."

Even a crusty old capitalist like Henry Ford understood that the economy doesn't do as well if you're not paying working people enough for them to be able to actually afford the products that they are making. Now, they often can't even afford the ones being imported from Mexico and Indonesia, being made by people who now have the jobs that used to exist here.

The demand side matters, too. But the poll numbers are clear. Americans are being duped, yet again. It looks like they are going to need more than one lesson.

And it looks like they are going to get more than one lesson.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

RIP, Kevin McCarthy, 1914-2010: Fox News Making Pod People, One Brainwashing At A Time

By Manifesto Joe

You're next! You're next!!

That was the warning from Kevin McCarthy's small-town California doctor character in the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by the great American B-movie auteur Don Siegel and co-starring Dana Wynter, the film depicts Earth people being covertly transformed into inhuman, emotionally dead "pod people" when they go to sleep. I would include a few minutes from the movie, but embedding has been consistently blocked. You can see clips on YouTube.

(I smell a Fox News conspiracy here!)

After this movie was released in 1956, there was a lot of writing about Cold War and McCarthyist paranoia. Although the greatness of Siegel's film has never been questioned, critics both right and left sensed political allegory, although the author of the source material, novelist Jack Finney, denied any such thing.

The right, at the time, wrote about the dehumanization of people under communism. The left wrote about the regimentation of Americans in the era of McCarthy-style blacklisting. I think an argument can be made in both directions: Fanatical ideologies of any mold have the potential to dehumanize the believer.

In 2010, I offer a new spin on it. Everyone I know who watches Fox News consistently displays a certain glazing of the eyes, and astounding, stupifying suspension of reason. It's a world of its own, quite divorced even from the reality of the lives of those viewers. They can be wage slaves, toiling for little more than minimum wage for rapacious corporations. Or, they can be people who make good salaries and benefits working for that vicious socialist government. Or, they can be retirees who live largely off "Socialist Security," yet see no conflict with being Tea Party activists.

They see no problem with their willingness to throw anyone and everyone who doesn't look like them, talk like them, worship like them, vote like them, etc., out into the street -- even if they aren't doing so well themselves. In that case, they blame it on people they perceive as below them, not the real culprits in higher places.

If that doesn't describe "pod people," I don't know what could.

And in passing, let's pay respect to a great American actor who never quite got his due. Kevin McCarthy (no relation to the late alcoholic right-wing senator) left us several days ago at the ripe old age of 96. Few obituaries noted that his sister was the late novelist Mary McCarthy, who wrote The Group. And although Kevin never quite became a star, his career on celluloid and stage was long and distinguished.

I hope the prophesy of Kevin's character in Body Snatchers will be heeded. One thing that's crucial is to understand what Fox News is: a right-wing version of the old Soviet state TV, or the newspaper Izvestia. If that's not obvious, then ...

You're next!

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas (surrounded by pod people).

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Labor Day, MSM News Ranges From Bad To Stupid

By Manifesto Joe

Labor Day was made an official federal holiday in 1894, during the second Grover Cleveland administration. I understand that it was an effort to placate the American labor movement after certain of that number were murdered by goons/police during the Pullman strike.

Since then, it has become a sort of beer-guzzling and barbecue holiday, in which most working folks get a day off and are festive with friends and family. Well, from what the MSM is telling us, get ready for cheaper beer and lower-rent barbecue. The Third-World style of economics is upon us, and it's being reinforced with the clear subtext that there are supposed to be no alternatives.

Story No. 1: Economists are forecasting that when a recovery does finally come, the jobs will be mostly of two kinds: professional gigs that pay very good, upper-middle-class salaries, and then all the rest of the schmucks working for wages in the service sector.

Here's a link that explains the prognostication.

Kiss the Middle Class Goodbye

If the economic prognosticators are correct, the jobs of tomorrow will mostly pay either $80,000 a year (today's dollars) or $20,000 a year, with not much in between. People like me, in-between baby boomers who started careers in the '70s and '80s, will be tomorrow's dinosaurs, from back in the day when there was a viable lower-middle class in the U.S. The jobs of tomorrow will generally be for people who are either upper-middle-class professionals, or working-class slobs just subsisting on what the service sector deigns to pay. Those erstwhile lower-middle-class jobs are all in places like Mexico and Indonesia now, and that's been going on since the Reagan years.

Our politicians not only didn't do anything to stop it -- they seemed to encourage it, with tax breaks, and bad trade deals like NAFTA and such. (Yeah, even Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore had a very big hand in that one.)

Unfortunately, this is a megatrend that's going to be very hard to stop. Many of the decent jobs are gone, probably for good, and many service-sector employers live precariously off cheap labor.

The first and perhaps biggest step is for the American people to, at long last, understand who their real friends are, and perhaps more importantly who their real enemies are. Yes, many Democrats have had a hand in all this. But you won't find one Republican politician still viable today who stood up and fought against having this sort of thing happen. Go back and look at how Congress voted on NAFTA.

The immigrant-baiting found among Republicans rings hollow -- for one thing, illegal workers usually compete only for low-wage jobs, not the kind that Americans can start a kid in college on. For another, you haven't seen them ever try to ramp up penalties against the employers who hire illegal labor. An awful lot of those people are -- you guessed it, Republicans who make campaign donations.

For 30 years, the American people have had every chance to see who has stood up for them, and who hasn't. Yet, obviously many still don't get it. If they did, the Republicans would be polling something like 25% of eligible voters by now.

That's the bad news. Now for the stupid news -- story No. 2:

If You're So Smart, Why Ain't You Rich?

In the current economic climate, it seems pretty moronic to compare the lifestyles of stingy zillionaires to the hardships that many Americans have to face every grim day of their lives. But, leave it to a few big outlets of the MSM to do exactly that.

Yahoo! Finance picked up an item from Investopedia called "7 Spending Tips From Frugal Billionaires." Now this stuff (link) will really come in handy for all you working-class slobs out there. One of the examples was Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico, now believed to be the world's richest man, with $60.6 billion in holdings, according to Forbes magazine. He's lived in the same house for 40 years! Wow, like, I wonder how much money you would need to get a tour of those digs?

Warren Buffet, another of the world's richest men, was given as another example. He's lived in the same house in Omaha all these years, a little five-bedroom shack he purchased back in 1957.

Well, enough with the teases. Onward to the 7 spending tips. (My comments will be in parentheses and italics.)

Keep your home simple

Billionaires can afford to live in the most exclusive mansions imaginable - and many do, including Bill Gates' sprawling 66,000-square-foot, $147.5 million mansion in Medina, Wash. - yet frugal billionaires like Warren Buffet choose to keep it simple. Buffet still lives in the five-bedroom house in Omaha that he purchased in 1957 for $31,500. Likewise, Carlos Slim has lived in the same house for more than 40 years.

(I couldn't afford to buy a home until I was nearly 42. For 12 years plus, I've lived in the same four-bedroom house, built in 1955. By now I should surely be a millionaire, but my net worth is, alas, a good deal less than that.)

Use self-powered or public transportation

Thrifty billionaires including John Caudwell, David Cheriton and Chuck Feeney prefer to walk, bike or use public transportation when getting around town. Certainly these wealthy individuals could afford to take a helicopter to their lunch meetings, or ride in chauffeur-driven Bentleys, but they choose to get a little exercise and take advantage of public transportation instead. Good for the bank account and great for the environment.

("Self-powered transportation"! Who woulda thunk it? I've been doing that for years, forgoing the helicopter and taking my 1984 pickup truck back and forth to my night-shift job.)

Buy your clothes off the rack

While some people, regardless of their net value, place a huge emphasis on wearing designer clothes and shoes, some frugal billionaires decide it's simply not worth the effort, or expense. You can find David Cheriton, the Stanford professor who matched Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page to the venture capitalists at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (resulting in a large reward of Google stock), wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of the furniture company Ikea, avoids wearing suits, and John Caudwell, mobile phone mogul, buys his clothes off the rack instead of spending his wealth on designer clothes.

("Off the rack" ... Does Wal-Mart count?)

Keep your scissors sharp

The average haircut costs about $45, but people can and do spend up to $800 per cut and style. Multiply that by 8.6 (to account for a cut every six weeks) and it adds up to $7,200 per year, not including tips. These billionaires can certainly afford the most stylish haircuts, buy many cannot be bothered by the time it takes or the high price tag for the posh salons. Billionaires like John Caudwell and David Cheriton opt for cutting their own hair at home.

($45 for an "average" haircut? Where do these people get their hair cut? My wife has been cutting her own hair for many years, and when I get mine cut, about once every three months, I pay $12 and get every penny's worth. Then I wait until I'm a semi-hippie to get it cut again. Hey, what happened to that first million?
Of course, I can hear someone out there saying, "Maybe he isn't that successful exactly because he doesn't get enough haircuts." Hey, all that extra money has been going straight into my 401(k), so there.)

Drive a regular car

While billionaires like Larry Ellison (co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation) enjoy spending millions on cars, boats and planes, others remain low key with their vehicles of choice. Jim Walton (of the Wal-Mart clan) drives a 15-year-old pickup truck. Azim Premji, an Indian business tycoon, reportedly drives a Toyota Corolla. And Ingvar Kamprad of Ikea drives a 10-year-old Volvo. The idea is to buy a dependable car, and drive it into the ground. No need for a different car each day of the week for these frugal billionaires.

(We have my 1984 pickup, and my wife drives our 2004 Honda Civic hybrid. Look out, Jim Walton, I'm comin'!)

Skip luxury items

It may surprise some of us, but the world's wealthiest person, Carlos Slim (the one who could spend more than a thousand dollars a minute and not run out of money for one hundred years) does not own a yacht or a plane.
Many other billionaires have chosen to skip these luxury items. Warren Buffet also avoids these lavish material items, stating "Most toys are just a pain in the neck."

(Does this mean that our pit bull terrier, who guards the back yard, was a mistake? He damn sure eats a lot.)

What we can learn

Some of the world's billionaires have frugal tendencies. Perhaps this thrifty nature even helped them make some of their money. Regardless, they have chosen to avoid some unnecessary spending (at least on their scale) and the 6,864,605,142 non-billionaires out there can follow suit, eliminating excessive, keep-up-with-the-Jones style spending. No matter what a person's income bracket is, most can usually find a way to cut back on frivolous spending, just like a few frugal billionaires.

(I'm just trying to keep up with my Jones, not anybody else's.)

Well, there you have it, working slobs -- how to get rich. Funny, though, how often it doesn't work. Most of us have to follow those rules, quite involuntarily.

The American mentality betrays a tragic lack of respect for the dignity of labor. Recently, while I was watching a young comedian on The Comedy Channel, he observed that when one is Employee of the Month, one is a winner, and a loser, at the same time.

The joke is that, while the Employee of the Month has won an award, he's still an employee, which by the American definition is supposed to make him or her a loser. By that definition, certainly a majority of us will be losers for most, if not all, of our lives. Relatively few people can qualify as winners.

And what, then, does that make all those Americans out there who are trying to find work and can't? I presume that they are supposed to be even worse than losers.

So, happy Labor Day, all you losers out there who actually have jobs. The news ranges from bad to stupid.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.