Tag Archives: Wealth Inequality

The Obama Phone and Other Nonsense

The “Obama Phone” lady is the latest viral video on the net. Here it is for those who have not seen it:

Not surprisingly, the likes of Rush Limbaugh have already jumped all over it as proof of Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment. One of my favorite comedic radio shows had one of the hosts ranting for 30 minutes about how the woman in the video represents the “entitlement” mindset common to most Obama voters. It is tough to see the planet on which these people are living.

The equation for Rush Limbaugh, the aforementioned comedy show host and the rest of their ilk seem to be the following. Obama is black. Therefore, most black people support him. In return, they believe they will get increased entitlements like welfare, food stamps, public housing and now, cell phones. The fact that black people have been slipping ever deeper into poverty since Obama’s election seems to be lost on them. In reality, Limbaugh and company are thinking in caricatures left over from the days of Reagan’s war on mythical “welfare queens”. It bears little resemblance to actual black people, whether they support Obama or not.

Obama will win this 2012 election. This is something I have said since he won in 2008 and I was not exactly going out on a limb then. This is not because Obama has done such a bang-up job, although there are plenty who seem to think so. Rather, it is because the other viable alternative, which includes not just Romney but the entire apparatus supporting him, has proven too odious and out-of-touch to be relevant to anyone but a small delusional percentage of the population. To be sure, this small delusional percentage comprises an active voting bloc. Yet, I think 2012 will prove that this bloc will no longer be able to swing elections like they did during the Bush Era. It seems the Tea Party was the last dying gasp of their influence, a swan song made possible by the infusion of money and organization from the corporate class.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the “Obama Phone” is nothing of the sort. What the woman in the video is describing is the federal program designed to provide cell phones to low income, elderly and disabled people started in 2008 while George W. Bush was president. My mother had one of these phones. It was a no-frills, antiquated cell phone with 250 minutes a month. My uncle, who is a Vietnam veteran, also has one. Although it was a help when my mother needed to communicate with me, I bought her a Blackberry with an unlimited plan because those 250 minutes never seemed to last her more than 20 days.

Are these the “entitlements” that Rush speaks of? Is this the free ride that 47% of us expect according to Romney? If it is, the ride certainly does not go very far.

One of the other tropes trotted out to buttress the idea that Americans in the Obama Era feel more “entitled” is the fact that the food stamp rolls have increased over the past four years. Is this due to some sort of mass laziness brought about by Obama’s presence in the White House?

When people get hired at Walmart, they are also given an application for food stamps. This is because Walmart welcomes their new employees to the world of the working poor. The food stamp program is available to anyone making enough money under a very strict definition of poverty. This includes people on welfare (whose rolls have been declining in many states, thanks to Bill Clinton’s reforms) and the ever-growing number of Americans who are joining the ranks of the working poor. The new jobs that have supposedly ended the Great Recession are the types that qualify people for food stamps.

Listening to that small delusional part of the population, one would think that this country is saddled with legions of unproductive people sucking at the government’s teat. Our ingenuity and creative energy as a nation are being sapped, the thinking goes. Those who style themselves “education reformers” add the coda that “failing” public schools are graduating incompetent and uncreative workers.

And yet, the Gross Domestic Product of this nation has been increasing over the past 30 years. Even throughout the Great Recession, our GDP has been rising other than the years of the toxic assets brought about by billionaire banks. This means that the American workforce has been more productive. There is something wrong with this picture. If the workers of this country are more productive, why are people poorer? (and how are schools “failing”?)

This is the million-dollar question. The answer seems to lie somewhere within the growth experienced by the wealthiest Americans during this Great Recession. Americans are producing more wealth for the wealthy.

Occupy Wall Street was born of this state of affairs. Now that the occupations have been swept away, the small delusional sect of the population is back to pointing to the “Obama Phone” lady and the mythical caricature she represents as the crowd on the prowl for handouts. Sadly, many in that small delusional sect of the population qualify as poor as well. It is the poor blaming the poor for why they are so poor.

The crooked railroad magnate Jay Gould famously said that he could always get one half of the poor to kill off the other half. It explains why the myth of the lazy, entitled (and black) Obama supporter still has traction. It explains why the corporatists behind the Tea Party were able to find so much support. It explains why Libertarianism has been considered some sort of independent “middle way” between Democrat and Republican, rather than the deformed Neoliberal ideology it is. It explains why the Republican Party still has any support at all, and why the Democrats of today are somewhere to the political right of Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Entitlements in this country are going to predominately one place: up. Steven Perlstein’s Washington Post article over the weekend captured it perfectly:

I am a corporate chief executive.

I am a business owner.

I am a private-equity fund manager.

I am the misunderstood superhero of American capitalism, single-handedly creating wealth and prosperity despite all the obstacles put in my way by employees, government and the media.

I am a job creator and I am entitled.

I am entitled to complain about the economy even when my stock price, my portfolio and my profits are at record levels.

I am entitled to a healthy and well-educated workforce, a modern and efficient transportation system and protection for my person and property, just as I am entitled to demonize the government workers who provide them.

This is where we stand as a nation. If you believe these criticisms are the result of “class warfare” or “envy” of “successful” people, then you also believe that we live in a “democracy” with “free enterprise” and “equal opportunity”. You probably also wanted to end the “death tax”.

What is more likely: that a woman at a political protest talking about an “Obama Phone” is holding us back as a nation, or that our nation is really an oligarchy with corporate socialism that reinforces economic castes?



School Reform is Educational Reaganomics

An article from the Huffington Post this past weekend, entitled Education Reform is a Vote for the Economy, describes one of ed reform’s central tenants:

“But there’s another “E” missing from the equation that actually feeds — or starves — even the best economy. It’s called Education, and its reform is the imperative for a nation that continues to lag in achievement and finances.

In every state and community, education reform is the battle cry for those most afflicted by the nation’s 2,000 failing high schools, and for the approximately 70 percent of kids who are not learning at either national or international benchmarks….”

This quote is inspired by the idea that children are the future; that schools should prepare children for the future; and that good schools give children the skills they need to be successful in the future economy. Given all of this, a nation full of well-prepared children stands the country in good stead to be competitive in the global marketplace.

This is the premise from which business leaders work when they claim schools are failing. They see children graduating high school without the skills that make them employable by America’s companies. To prove this, they quote statistics that show people with only high school diplomas making little money or as part of the long-term unemployed. If only the education system better prepared their graduates, their prospects for success would improve.

It really is a hallowed American assumption, echoing Horace Mann’s words about education being the “balance wheel” of society. Children are not failing in school. Schools are failing children. Enter the reformers, who promise to restore public education to its true role of being America’s balance wheel. It would not be a stretch to say that the prevalence of this assumption throughout the country is part of what gives education reform so much public support.

There is something Reaganesque about this idea.

Ronald Reagan became president as an acolyte of economist Milton Friedman. Friedman’s calls for lower corporate taxes, deregulation of business and union busting were folded into a program that Reagan dubbed “supply-side economics”. It was called that because these policies aimed at increasing corporate productivity and innovation, leading to an increase in the volume and quality of the supply of goods and services. This increase would lower prices and improve the quality of life for everyone.

Supply-side economics, or Reaganomics as some called it (“voodoo economics” in the words of George H.W. Bush), stood in stark contrast to the economic orthodoxy of the day, which was Keynesianism. Since the days of FDR, the country had operated under the assumption that ensuring consumers had money was of utmost importance. People with money meant consistent demand. Consistent demand gave business the confidence to keep producing. Progressive taxation, business regulation and strong unions would ensure a healthy level of demand. If times got rough, the government should step in to be the employer of last resort to buoy demand.

Two visions of economic policy, one focusing on the supply side and the other focusing on the demand side of the economy. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon said “we are all Keynesians”. Since the days of Reagan, it is safe to say that our nation’s leaders are all Friedmanites.

This includes education reformers.

Education reformers clothe their policies in a concern for the supply-side of the labor market. They work from the assumption that improving the quality of labor will improve the economy overall: more people will be employable, corporate productivity will increase and innovation will blossom. The United States will catch up with Europe and stay ahead of China. As economists would say, it is all about improving the quality of the nation’s “human capital”.

If the start of the Great Recession showed us anything, it is that supply-side economics is not sustainable. When the mortgage market melted down, there were those who pointed the finger at people who had taken out mortgages they could not repay. They coupled this with finger-pointing at people who lived by credit cards, refused to save money and generally lived beyond their means. We were reminded that pennies saved were pennies earned. These criticisms miss the point.

People had no choice but to live beyond their means. Real wages for the working class have stagnated or declined since the Reagan era, despite the increased productivity of the American worker. The average American is now working more hours for less money than they did 35 years ago. At the same time, the wealthiest have seen unprecedented gains in wealth.

The growth of suburban sprawl, technology and inflation has made it more expensive to merely participate in the world of work and family. We now need cars, cell phones, computers and a host of other things in order to stay piped in to the world around us. Try looking for a job without a reliable car, a cell phone with an unlimited plan or an internet connection. The demands of the modern age require that most members of the working class live beyond their means.

Concentrating on only the supply side of the economy has proven to be a recipe for savage inequalities. Society has disinvested from the American worker (demand), in order to invest in the American business owner (supply). Now education reform seeks to focus only on the supply side of the future American workforce. Without investing in what those future workers, who are our children, demand, we merely stand to exacerbate those inequalities.

The demand side of the future labor market is the future jobs market. Of course people with only a high school diploma are hit the hardest by the Great Recession. This is not because they are not competitive or unemployable because our schools do such a horrible job of educating them. It is the fact that the real unemployment rate in this country could be upwards of 22%, when considering people who have given up on looking for work or people who are underemployed. There simply are not enough jobs out there to absorb the labor force we have. This provides a large labor pool from which employers can hire. The proliferation of people with college degrees out there means they will usually get chosen above high school graduates, even if it is for relatively low-skilled work.

Seeing it this way, there is no reason to believe that improving the public education system will improve the chances of high school graduates to find jobs.

Talking about education reform as a solution for our economic woes makes no sense. What is worse, it deflects attention away from the lack of jobs in the economy.

What is probably the scariest of all is the nature of education reform being proposed. The same Huffington Post article goes on to say:

“There are solutions to these true economic deficiencies (yes, education is vital to a healthy economy!) ranging from more choices in public and private education, teacher and parent empowerment, higher standards, better content, online delivery, tenure reform and more.”

Talk about speaking out of both sides of your mouth. How does “teacher empowerment” jive with “tenure reform”? How does “better content” jive with “online delivery”?

What this really is saying is more charter schools, parent trigger laws, online classes, standardized exams and union busting. People in business know better than anyone the types of jobs that will be around in the future. The fact that they are stressing bubble-in exams, rote online learning programs and a docile teaching force is a glimpse into the types of jobs that will be around in the future: low-skilled, low-paying and unimaginative, the types of jobs where workers are interchangeable and replaceable. It is imperative they crush any thought or imagination in children. It is imperative that they deskill and devalue the teaching profession so the workers of tomorrow do not have any role models with the ability or capacity to speak freely.

Supply-side education is as wrong-headed and insidious as supply-side economics. Yet, at the very least, the manner in which its supporters wish to accomplish its goals says a lot about what they have in store for America’s future.