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“A Systemic Problem Of Enabling The Rich”: Growing Income Gap Is Ripping The Social Fabric

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that one man’s act of altruism has attracted national attention. Raymond Burse, interim president of Kentucky State University, has given up more than $90,000 of his annual salary in order to boost pay for the lowest-paid workers at the college, some of whom earn as little as the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. His donation will bump their wages to $10.25.

Burse has noted that his sacrifice will hardly leave him impoverished. He is a retired General Electric executive (as well as a former president of the college) with good benefits, as he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. While his job as interim president is “not a hobby, in terms of the people who do the hard work and heavy lifting, they are at the lower pay scale,” he said.

Yet, Burse is not Mitt Romney rich, and he could easily have kept his entire $349,869 annual paycheck without raising an eyebrow among his peers. As acting head of a historically black institution, he’s not in the growing circle of college presidents whose annual compensation tops a million bucks. Still, his act of generosity shines a spotlight on the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, the well-off and the working stiffs, the 1 percent and the rest of us.

The nation’s growing income inequality is one of its biggest challenges, a widening rip in the social fabric. The United States is not held together by a common religion or language or ethnicity, but by its promise of equal opportunity for all. While that’s always been a bit exaggerated, the nation has generally made good on the ideal that those who work hard can at least provide for their families.

But that notion has been less and less true since the 1980s, as globalization and technology starting stealing the factory jobs that paid good wages and gave average workers a toehold in the middle class. Then came the financial meltdown of 2008, which sped the decline. It’s no wonder that 49 percent of Americans, according to a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, think the country is still in a recession.

The Great Recession, though, just put rocket-boosters on a trend evident for decades. The problem is systemic. We’ve managed to create an economy that makes the rich richer while most others struggle to get by. Those with college degrees generally fare better than those with high school diplomas, but there are lots of twenty-something college grads working part-time jobs and living with their parents. They can’t afford to rent an apartment.

The economic climate isn’t the fault of Congress or the president. This globe-shaking dislocation is a mega-trend — the sort of frightening reordering of the universe that shook millions at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that thousands of bank tellers, for example, are slowly being replaced by smart ATMs, but it does signal the disappearance of jobs that paid a decent wage.

Most Americans, however, aren’t buying the mega-trend explanation. They place the blame for their economic decline squarely on the shoulders of their elected leaders. The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, conducted late last month, found that “seven in 10 adults blamed the malaise more on Washington leaders than on any deeper economic trends,” the Journal said.

That is easy enough to understand. Even if political leaders didn’t instigate a tectonic shift in the economy, they have done next to nothing to ease the dislocations. Indeed, a dysfunctional Republican Party, now comfortable in its role as enabler to the rich, will barely acknowledge the growing income gap.

Democrats, for their part, have recognized the problem but present few long-term solutions. Yes, raising the minimum wage would help, but it’s just a start. The nation needs an overhaul of its educational system, cheaper college costs and a public works program that pays a decent wage.

Burse’s noble sacrifice could help a few workers, but it’s not clear that it will stay in effect after he leaves. Still, his gesture is a step in the right direction. Too few men and women in his position have even noticed the plight of their poorly paid workers.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Visiting Professor, The University of Georgia; The National Memo, August 9, 2014

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Middle Class, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Charles Koch’s Affront To MLK”: How A Right-Wing Tycoon Got Horribly Confused

You’ve got to hand it to Charles Koch: The man doesn’t want for self-confidence. The Kochs and their allies are taking a page from Sen. Rand Paul and trying to dress up their free-market, anti-union, welfare-slashing 21st century feudalism as the answer to persistent African-American unemployment even as the economy recovers under President Obama.

Unbelievably, Koch invokes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an ally in a stunning USA Today Op-Ed, “How to really turn the economy around,” which is essentially an argument for deregulating business, slashing welfare programs and forcing low-wage work on the poor in the name of the ennobling power of employment.

With laughable Koch paternalism, he shares life lessons from his father, Fred, an oil industry magnate and John Birch Society founder: “When I was growing up, my father had me spend my free time working at unpleasant jobs,” Koch tells us. “Most Americans understand that taking a job and sticking with it, no matter how unpleasant or low-paying, is a vital step toward the American dream.”

Not only does Koch fail to mention that he was the son of a very wealthy man when he worked those “unpleasant jobs,” he cites Dr. King as someone who agrees with him that “there are no dead end jobs.” (The Kochs, by the way, also fund “educational” groups that oppose the minimum wage.)

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper,” Koch quotes King, “he should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

This from a man who himself joined the John Birch Society in the mid-1960s, while it was targeting King as a “communist.”

Koch is right about one thing: King was indeed a great admirer of street sweepers. In fact, he was murdered visiting Memphis to fight for the right of city sanitation workers to join a union. Invoking King on behalf of his low-wage, union-busting, anti-minimum wage agenda is despicable, but Koch apparently thinks his money can buy him anything, including the right to claim King’s legacy.

He’s wrong. King died, by the way, while supporting AFSCME, the union representing the Memphis sanitation workers. AFSCME honored Dr. King by making the painful yet correct decision to end a partnership with the United Negro College Fund after UNCF accepted $25 million from the Kochs to establish a “Koch Scholars” program for black students. UNCF head Dr. Michael Lomax also dignified the annual Koch Summit, which plots its right-wing, free-market strategy, in June, alongside Republican senators and right-wing think tankers.

Along with their UNCF donation, which the Kochs widely publicized, Charles Koch’s Op-Ed represents a new front in their public relations battle. Neither their billions in wealth nor their trademark political stealth have served to insulate them from criticism and scorn. When asked about the Koch brothers, a recent George Washington University poll found that most people surveyed hadn’t heard of them, but 25 percent had negative feelings vs. 13 percent who had positive feelings. That’s bad news for a duo who have tried to keep their political activities undercover.

They apparently believe that funding African-American Koch scholars and invoking Dr. King can convince black voters they’re not the enemy. But quoting King on the dignity of street sweepers while forgetting – or never knowing – that he died while fighting for their right to unionize is at best boneheaded, at worst disrespectful. It won’t convince many Koch doubters.

Charles Koch’s billions can’t buy King’s legacy or King’s blessing for his radical far-right agenda, which opposes everything King stood for. But he probably can afford better ghostwriters.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor in Chief, Salon, August 7, 2014

August 8, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Koch Brothers, Martin Luther King Jr | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“24 Health-Care Scandals”: Legislators Who Block Medicaid Expansion Are Stiffing Veterans Out Of Health Care, And Stiffing Workers Out Of Jobs

The scandal over long wait times for veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system has grabbed a lot of headlines and elicited a lot of righteous anger — as it should. America’s veterans deserve so much better.

But as Ezra Klein pointed out in a piece in Vox, there’s another health care scandal that also deserves its share of righteous anger, and it also has a big impact on veterans with health care needs: the self-destructive refusal of lawmakers in 20-plus states to accept federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs.

Klein cataloged “24 health-care scandals that critics of the VA should also be furious about” (that is, the 24 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion). Thanks to lawmakers’ knee-jerk opposition to expanding health coverage in those states, there are huge numbers of uninsured veterans who should be eligible for coverage, but aren’t: 41,200 veterans in Florida, 24,900 in Georgia, 48,900 in Texas… and the list goes on.

All in all, about 250,000 uninsured veterans are getting stiffed out of eligibility for health coverage by lawmakers who have blocked Medicaid expansion, according to Pew’s Stateline. As it turns out, those lawmakers are also stiffing their own states out of economy-boosting jobs — health care jobs that are overwhelmingly good-paying jobs. Medicaid expansion would create thousands more of these jobs.

Virginia, where Medicaid expansion still hangs in limbo, is a perfect example. According to a report from Chmura Economics & Analytics, Medicaid expansion would create an average of over 30,000 jobs annually in Virginia, including more than 15,000 jobs in the state’s health care sector. An analysis of data on projected job openings and wage levels underscores that these will be good-paying, economy-boosting jobs.

For a single adult in Virginia, less than half of all projected job openings statewide pay above a living wage ($18.59/hour, according to the 2013 Virginia Job Gap Study). However, three out of five health care job openings and close to nine out of 10 health practitioner and technical job openings do.

For a household with two working adults and two children, while less than two out of five projected job openings in Virginia pay median wages above a living wage ($21.99/hour per worker), half of health care job openings and more than seven out of 10 health practitioner and technical job openings do.

Or look at Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bipartisan Medicaid expansion plan passed by the Maine Legislature earlier this year, and too few Republican legislators were willing to break ranks with the Governor to override his veto. There, Medicaid expansion would create over 4,000 jobs by 2016, including more than 2,000 jobs in Maine’s health care sector. As with Virginia, health care jobs beat statewide wage levels in Maine by wide margins.

For a single adult, less than half of all projected job openings in Maine pay above a living wage ($15.18/hour, according to the 2013 Maine Job Gap Study). But two-thirds of health care job openings and almost nine out of 10 health practitioner and technical job openings do. For a household with two working adults and two children, while barely one-third of projected job openings in Maine pay above a living wage ($18.87/hour per worker), almost three-fifths of health care job openings and more than four out of five health practitioner and technical job openings do.

Health care jobs are also overwhelmingly higher-wage jobs in states like Montana and Idaho. But all these states, along with 20 others, have been missing out on these economy-boosting jobs because their legislatures or governors have rejected Medicaid expansion.

State lawmakers who continue to block Medicaid expansion do so at their own peril — both morally and electorally. Because you can only stiff your own constituents — including low-income, uninsured veterans — out of both access to health care and good-paying, economy-boosting jobs for so long before it catches up with you.

Want to really do something to help veterans get access to the health care they need and create good-paying jobs for your constituents at the same time? Two words: expand Medicaid.

 

By: LeeAnn Hall, Executive Director, The Alliance For A Just Society; The Huffington Post Blog, August 6, 2014

August 7, 2014 Posted by | Medicaid Expansion, Paul LePage, Veterans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Work And Worth”: What Someone Is Paid Has Little Or No Relationship To What Their Work Is Worth To Society

What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.

Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?

On the other hand, what’s the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.

How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.

What’s the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their ben pans? Surely higher than their median wage of $11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.

Or of child care workers, who get $10.33 an hour, $21.490 a year? And preschool teachers, who earn $13.26 an hour, $27,570 a year?

Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?

Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.

That may sound generous but a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.

One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.

And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.

At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.

They’re getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.

I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose jobs entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).

They don’t even build the economy.

Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.

They’re paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.

It’s said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.

In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.

They demand ever more cunning innovations but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.

Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society — if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.

In 2010 (the most recent date for which we have data) close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance (down from the pre-financial crisis high of 46 percent in 2006). Add in management consulting, and it was close to 60 percent.

Graduates of Harvard and other Ivy League universities are also more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.

The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids’ admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.

But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, August 2, 2014

August 4, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Workers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Doomsday Prepper Economics”: The Weird Obsession That’s Ruining The GOP

Call it doomsday prepper economics. For more than five years, many Republicans and conservatives have warned that catastrophe is nigh. Washington’s deficit spending and the Federal Reserve’s excessive money printing will lead to a financial crisis worse than the Great Recession, they prophesied. Inflation will skyrocket, the dollar will collapse, and the Chinese will dump treasuries, they swore. As Ron Paul, the libertarian former GOP congressman and presidential candidate, said back in 2009: “More inflation is absolutely the wrong way to go. We’re taking a recession and trying to turn it into a depression. We’re going to see a real calamity.”

Many GOP politicians have since echoed Paul’s prediction. But the Next Great Inflation never happened. The Consumer Price Index, including food and energy, has risen by an annual average of just 1.6 percent since 2008, below the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target. During the Great Inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, by contrast, prices rose five times faster.

This information isn’t a secret. The Labor Department releases inflation data monthly on its website. Yet inflation fears still rage on the right. Those concerns are a big reason why Republicans continue to push for a balanced budget ASAP. They’re why the GOP wants to saddle the Fed with restrictive new rules.

Regardless of the potential merits of those policy ideas, the inflation alarmism driving them is taking a weird turn. Some Republicans and conservatives now argue that Washington is figuring inflation all wrong, maybe even intentionally. Better, they say, to trust independent outside sources such as the website ShadowStats, which “exposes and analyzes flaws” in government economic data. According to one set of ShadowStats calculations, the true inflation rate is nearly 10 percent today. The inflation truth is out there.

In a recent National Review Online article, conservative author Amity Shlaes approvingly cites ShadowStats as supporting her thesis that “inflation is higher than what the official data suggest.” Others fans include conservative intellectual Niall Ferguson, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and a good chunk of the conservative blogosphere.

ShadowStats’ popularity on the right is crazy — because the site’s methodology has been roundly ridiculed by both economists and business journalists. Critics also note that the subscription price for the ShadowStats newsletter has remained unchanged for years. Inflation for thee, but not for me. Beyond that, MIT’s Billion Price Project, which tracks prices from online retailers every day, puts U.S. inflation at just over 2 percent. And consider this: If inflation were really 10 percent, that would mean the real economy, adjusted for inflation, has been sharply shrinking — yet somehow still adding 2 million net new jobs a year.

If GOP inflationistas had their way, the weak U.S. recovery would almost surely be even weaker. Just look at Europe. Unlike the Fed, the inflation-phobic European Central Bank sat on its hands despite weak growth. The result has been an unemployment rate nearly twice America’s and a nasty double-dip recession. Of course, inflation is lower than in America — so low, in fact, that the region risks a dangerous deflationary spiral of falling prices and falling wages.

Why this GOP inflation obsession? Maybe it’s a legacy of how rapidly rising prices in the 1970s swept conservatives into power in both America and Great Britain. Maybe it’s how many conservative talk radio shows are sponsored by gold companies who stand to benefit from inflation hysteria. Maybe it’s a belief that every single economic metric must be a nightmare under President Obama.

But whatever the reason, the GOP’s preoccupation with phantom price increases is distracting it from the actual problems afflicting the U.S. economy — such as low social mobility, stagnant wages, and the decline of middle-class work. The price of not addressing those issues is rising every year. And that is the kind of inflation worth obsessing over.

 

By: James Pethokoukis, DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: The Week, July 23, 2014

July 24, 2014 Posted by | Deficits, GOP, Inflation | , , , , , | 1 Comment

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