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July 29, 2011 · By Lacy MacAuley
Rallies and demonstrations on the debt ceiling crisis are expected to roll through Washington throughout the weekend, as long as Congress, House Speaker John Boehner, and President Barack Obama fail to resolve the deficit crisis that threatens to take the U.S. and global economy down a notch. Tea partiers, flag-waving labor unions, peace activists, gun-loving libertarians, and everyday Americans have all been showing up at the Capitol steps to have their say in the budget debacle.
Yesterday, 10-year-old Maceo Dolan-Sandrino was among the demonstrators. Maceo is from Maryland, just on the outskirts of Washington, the son of IPS Fellow Karen Dolan. He attended yesterday’s rally at the Capitol to oppose the cuts to our social safety net, services like healthcare and income assistance that many Americans rely upon through hard times. I thought it might be interesting to get a 10-year-old’s perspective on the day’s events. I asked Maceo what he thought about the protest.
At first, Maceo reported that he hadn’t really listened to anything, and that his feet had hurt. But when I asked him again, I got a different answer.
“The protest was about how John Boehner was going to take away social security and how he was going to – um, it was something about the taxes,” said Maceo. “Planned Parenthood was there and they had signs that said, ‘Don’t take away our birth control.’”
I asked Maceo if he realized that the United States was in debt, and that Obama, Boehner, and Congress were trying to decide whether to borrow more money. In return, Maceo offered a surprisingly searing analysis.
“It’s because the rich and wealthy people aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, and all of the big corporations are finding loopholes not to pay taxes, and then we don’t have enough money to pay our debts,” he said.
I found this comment to be incredibly astute. As IPS Fellow Chuck Collins wrote in an article for OtherWords, “Overseas tax havens enable companies to pretend their profits are earned in other countries like the Cayman Islands. Simply making that ruse illegal would bring home an estimated $100 billion a year.”
Making sure our government doesn’t tax the highest income brackets is another way the wealthy avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Since 1970, “the top marginal tax rate on our richest has been halved, from 70 to 35 percent, and our rich have become phenomenally richer,” wrote Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez in an article this month on toomuchonline.org. And you can bet that this tax rate plunge had a lot to do with campaign contributions to friendly elected officials. Money talks, Congress listens.
Unlike Obama, Boehner, or most members of Congress, Maceo intends to stick around for quite a while in order to help pay back the debt now being discussed in Washington. I asked Maceo about how he felt about our politicians leaving future generations to pick up the tab after the government has had its spending frenzy.
“I don’t feel good at all. No, I don’t think I’m going to have that money, because I know I’m going to have a family to take care of. So, I don’t feel good about that at all.”
Maceo is a sharp kid. If Obama, Boehner, and Congress listened to the wisdom of 10-year-olds, and made the wealthy pay their fair share for this budget, kids like Maceo wouldn’t inherit such a large debt burden for them to pay back through their taxes.
Tax the rich. For kids like Maceo.
June 18, 2011 · By Karen Dolan
Oh, so that's who the Republicans are complaining about, Mitt Romney! You know — the unemployed guy just goofin off, schleppin' around the mansion, flying around on his private jet, stubbornly pursuing only one job, when he's better suited to so many less-desirable jobs. That guy.
That's the lazy, too-good-for-your-minimum-wage-job unemployed guy the Republicans refer when trying to cut off unemployment benefits. I wondered who that guy was.
Turns out he showed up at an event for unemployed workers down at Buddy Brew Coffee in Tampa Florida, according to New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny. A bunch of folks were telling their hard-knock stories about trying to survive without a job. Tom Yarrenton, for one, told Romney his story of being unemployed. At age 55, after 31 years as an auditor in the manufacturing industry, Yarrenton lost his job a few months ago. "I should tell my story," Romney told Mr Yarrenton and the other unemployed folks in solidarity. "I am also unemployed." Must've made them feel better.
|Mitt Romney thinks his last five years of permanent campaigning are the same as being unemployed. Creative Commons photo by Dave Delay|
I wonder if he should reassure the folks whose stories the National Employment Law Project is collecting. It might help R.P., a father of three, from Pembroke, New Hampshire, who recently lost his job as an IT technician, to know he's in the same boat as multimillionaire Mitt Romney. "I have sent my resume to over 250 companies since June 2010 and have had 6 interviews all of which told me I was either overqualified or underqualified," R.P. reports. "At this point I have started applying at fast food chains and janitorial companies but still cannot get hired. I broke down crying during an interview yesterday because I cannot stop thinking about what will happen if I can't find a job that at least pays me $250 weekly."
It couldn't be R.P. and Tom Yarrenton that Republicans are trying to throw under the bus by yanking unemployment benefits, could it? And the other almost 14 million unemployed Americans struggling to find jobs that aren't there? A congressional panel recently approved a GOP bill along party-lines that would allow states to take $31 billion of federal money that benefits the long-term unemployed and use it instead to pay down state debt. I couldn't figure out why they would want to do this. I heard the complaints about the lazy, good-for-nuthins sucking off the guvmint's teat instead of looking for work. But I didn't actually know of someone like that until the other day when the former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate spoke out in Tampa. The only problem is that Mitt Romney doesn't collect unemployment insurance. His government subsidy comes in the form of the Bush tax cuts for multi-millionaires.
Now that that the Republicans have found their culprit, I am sure they will switch tacks and extend unemployment benefits for the millions of suffering out-of-work Americans and let the tax cuts for the lazy goofin' off unemployed rich guys expire.
May 19, 2011 · By Joy Zarembka
I first came to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in 2000 to help expose the abuse of maids and nannies by IMF and World Bank employees. This week’s news about powerful men and the women who clean up after them sounds painfully familiar. As soon as we opened our doors at the Institute’s Break The Chain Campaign project, stories began pouring in from migrant women who came to the U.S. legally as household help seeking the American dream, but found themselves living a nightmare. Many were paid little or no wages, and some reported sexual, physical, or psychological abuse.
I was drawn to this work when I realized I was next-door neighbor to a young girl living in virtual slavery in suburban Maryland. Within a month of research about the scale of such abuse, I was struck by a wrenching irony: Many women come to the United States as economic migrants precisely because the programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank limit the job opportunities and safety nets in their home countries. Then, once they’re here, they may be subjected to abuse. In essence, they are assaulted twice, as IPSer Lacy MacAuley illustrates in her blog post.
Break The Chain Campaign advocacy director Tiffany Williams examines why the mainstream media seems mainly concerned with the fate of "rock star" Dominique Strauss-Kahn, while tending to ignore the suffering of his alleged victim. "Poor women’s bodies are collateral damage of war, prizes for global accomplishment, or simply a means to an end," Williams writes. They "are even more vulnerable to dehumanizing sexual assault than others because their relationships are inherently unequal." Newspapers report that Strauss-Kahn made a "modest" $420,000 annual salary, plus pension contributions. The Fund's extremely generous benefits, the fact that IMF pay is exempt from U.S. income tax, and his wife’s reported wealth combined to facilitate a lavish lifestyle for a supposedly socialist public servant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the national median hourly wage for hotel housekeepers is $8.75. If that's what the Sofitel maid DSK allegedly attacked earned 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would come to $18,200 a year, about 4 percent of her alleged attacker's pay.
Such extreme inequity is emblematic. As our nation wallows in an unemployment crisis, the gap between the wealthy few and the rest of us continues to widen. Find more data, analysis, and commentary on wealth and income disparity, at inequality.org, the ground-breaking new website from our Inequality and the Common Good project. While unpacking the twisted sound bites of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and making sense of the staggering statistics featured in the "We’re Not Broke" video, IPS makes the case for the innovative, just, and simple tax reforms that could put an additional $4 trillion back in the Treasury over the next decade. You’ll also find creative approaches to shrinking the budget deficit that don’t gut Medicare.
With your heartening help, we will continue to do our utmost to make extreme inequality and its many insidious consequences a national embarrassment.
April 5, 2011 · By Karen Dolan
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is waging radical class warfare and ideological privatization schemes and selling it as a debt reduction plan.
As the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Dean Baker reminds us, the U.S. economic policies of the last three decades, by favoring corporations and the wealthy over average Americans, have achieved the world's most breathtaking upward redistribution of wealth. America's richest 1 percent are getting about $1.5 trillion richer each year. Studies also show that the top 5 percent in this country hold almost 64 percent of our wealth while and the bottom 80 percent of scrape by on just 12.8 percent of the pie.
Yet under the guise of debt reduction, the chairman of the House Budget Committee's budget proposal would take from the already poor, give to the already rich and attempt to achieve debt reduction not by cutting real costs, but by privatizing entitlement programs and shifting costs from the wealthy and corporations to struggling states, seniors, disabled, sick and low-income Americans. And the revenue-raising necessary for serious debt reduction is glaringly absent, with proposals instead to actually decrease tax-revenue from those most able to pay.
Although the details won't be released until later today, there's a fair amount that we already know: Its foundation is his 2010 "Roadmap for America's Future" and the similar healthcare recommendations of the Rivlin-Domenici Bipartisan Policy Center Task force. This reverse-Robin Hood scheme essentially privatizes Social Security and Medicare, converting Medicaid from a guaranteed benefits program to a limited block grant program. At the same time, it would repeal estate and corporate taxes, slashing the income taxes the wealthiest Americans pay and instituting a regressive national sales tax that would most likely increase tax obligations for poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans.
Even if his blueprint doesn't attack Social Security too, it won't be safe for long. Privatizing Social Security is another essential piece of this dangerous and unfair GOP agenda.
Instead of further shrinking the middle class and endangering the health and economic well-being of those of us not fortunate enough to be among the nation's wealthiest 2 percent, a responsible budget would look to ease long-term debt in some of the following ways:
First, fix our broken health care system. Under Ryan's health care schemes, beneficiaries would increasingly bear the burden of soaring costs with no guarantee of receiving the remedies prescribed by their doctors. A better and fairer approach would expand the single-payer Medicare system nation-wide, achieving cost-savings, implementing real cost control and retaining guaranteed healthcare for all Americans. Baker also suggests that if Ryan is such a fan of vouchers, how about a voucher system that achieves some of effective cost-saving and health-promoting results: give Medicare beneficiaries the option of to buy into the more efficient health care systems in Canada and Europe.
Second, my Institute for Policy Studies colleague Chuck Collins articulates our argument for four revenue-raisers that would bring in a whopping $400 billion each year: 1) impose a small tax on speculative financial transactions that do little to strengthen the real economy 2) reduce corporate tax dodging by closing overseas tax havens and requiring companies to pay U.S. taxes on the profits they actually earn in this country 3) establish higher tax brackets for households with annual incomes of $1 million or more, and 4) Institute a progressive estate tax on fortunes over $5 million, with higher rates on billionaire estates.
Finally, cut the bloated military budget. Obama's bipartisan Debt Commission called for cutting the Pentagon's spending by at least $100 billion over the next decade. We need to cut more than that but we shouldn't accept less.
The GOP is right about one thing: We have to be serious about debt reduction. Ryan's dangerous and seriously flawed scheme, however, is nothing more than an ideological ploy to shrink government programs that help poor and middle-class Americans while rewarding the already wealthy.
Cross-posted with Yes! Magazine.
“I don’t believe the economy is getting better,” says Billy R., a member of a mutual aid group in Oregon that he jokingly calls “my reality support group.” “All around me I’m surrounded by media and advertising urging me to keep borrowing, buying, and sleepwalking. I love meeting with others who are staring down the potential risks and challenges of the future.”
Maybe more of us could use a reality support group.
Even with the announcement that the official unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent, millions of people remain in dismal economic straits. The pace of home foreclosures has barely slowed and millions remain out of work. Even upbeat scenarios still assume protracted unemployment and economic stagnation for much of the decade ahead. The unspoken scenario is that things could get worse.
So here’s the point: you must not face the future alone. Find your own “reality support group” (we’ll tell you how below). This year, make a resolution to deepen your relationships with people around you with whom you can face what’s coming down the pike.
Sometime during the next couple of years, there will likely be a fundamental shift. It might be another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008, or a shock to the economy thanks to a rapid spike in energy costs. It could be a series of extreme weather events that result in flooding, drought, or unprecedented heat waves. Think Hurricane Katrina on a larger scale. These changes could lead to food and water shortages—and test our personal and community preparedness in ways that we have not experienced in our lifetimes.
You should know that we, the authors of this piece, are not apocalyptic, bunker-building, pessimistic people. We’re both parents, gardeners, and active in our neighborhoods. We like a good football party—though we root for different teams (Patriots v. Steelers).
We believe our society has almost everything we need to build stronger communities, reduce inequality, live in harmony with the earth, and make a graceful transition to a new sustainable economy. But we won’t get there ignoring the data, and we won’t get there disconnected from one another.
We’re not talking about yet another issue campaign. We certainly need to remain engaged in the good fights around economic justice, peace, democracy, the environment. But there is something huge missing right now in our approach to social change. Our social movements are weak and, with some inspiring exceptions, not changing the political dynamics. The “Net Roots”—online organizing and social media—are creative ways to aggregate money and power in specific situations, but online activism is not a substitute for a movement based on durable and trusting face-to-face relationships. In some religious and labor traditions, this is called solidarity.
Fearful, Alone, & Ashamed
Presently in the United States we are witnessing the emergence of politics based on fear and the erosion of status. Millions of people saw their livelihoods and dreams collapse in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. People lost their homes, jobs, savings, and sense of a positive future. They’ve had to adjust their expectations—for example, facing the reality that they may never be able to retire or improve their standard of living.
Some people respond to these circumstances by blaming themselves and feeling ashamed about their difficulties. Many are hunkering down, feeling depressed and withdrawn. In the U.S., we tend to think everything is about the individual—even blaming ourselves for things that are largely beyond our control.
Others of us respond by scapegoating others, often those more disadvantaged. These responses often come from a place of fear, isolation, and shame.
There is good reason to be angry and focus on powerful financial and political actors who are responsible. But, as in the grieving process, we must move from anger to a place where we can boldly face today’s difficult realities and also initiate pro-active responses. We can start by learning to accept and live within new limits set by economic and ecological reality. Many people are already deliberately moving away from the old economy, and they’re finding new types of security and abundance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often feel much richer than they did in lives defined by the “work-watch-spend” cycle.
Rebecca Solnit, in her remarkable book A Paradise Built In Hell, reminds us to look for the “shadow governments of kindness,” the deep reservoirs of resilience and compassion that emerge during disasters and troubled times. All over the planet, people are defying the stereotypes of the self-centered “economic man” and instead caring for one another, building alternative economies, and deepening solidarity.
A Movement to Build Economic Security
The good news is people are already coming together in small groups to form and strengthen relationships. Some are called “common security clubs,” while others go by names like “mutual aid groups,” “resilience circles,” and “unemployed support groups.”
Call it what you want, but the purpose is the same: getting together regularly—8 to 15 adults—to face ecological and economic change. Small group organizing is part of the missing architecture in our social movements ... which may be why it’s catching on so quickly.
Such groups are designed to strengthen our personal and community resilience. They typically have three purposes: to learn together, support one another through mutual aid, and engage in social action.
Learn together. It’s hard enough for each of us alone to keep up with news about the ways our changing economy and ecology are impacting our lives. But it’s particularly challenging to face unsettling realities in isolation. In order to move forward, we need a community to help us learn and figure out how to deal with our fear, anger, loss, and feelings of betrayal.
Group members watch videos, read articles, talk to each other, and organize forums. Since the “experts” mostly got things wrong two years ago, participants are investigating things for themselves. What’s really happening in the economy? What caused the economic meltdown? What’s changed? What are the ecological risk points? How will the decline of cheap, easy-to-get oil affect the future economy? What will a transition to a new economy look like?
Mutual Aid. Our mutual aid muscles are out of shape. We need to find ways to increase our real economic security and web of support through shared resources, skills, experience, and capacities. Some folks do this through extended families, religious congregations, and ethnic and fraternal associations. But millions of people are disconnected from extended family and the immigrant and civic associations that helped earlier generations survive. And many religious congregations have gotten out of the practice of being centers of mutual aid.
Common security clubs often gather around potlucks, sharing food and recipes for healthy, low-cost meals. They support one another to get out of debt, brainstorm about employment options, share tips on saving money. They form bartering circles to swap skills, tools, and time. They talk about the challenges of parents moving in with children, children moving in with parents—and adjusting to new norms and limits as a result of the changing economy and future.
Social Action. Many of us want to make meaningful change at the local and national level. We want to find ways to constructively channel our anger and fear to resist further Wall Street destruction of our local economies. We want to act together in ways that go beyond online petitions or phone calls to our member of Congress. Think “affinity group” or “social action group”—a place to deepen our effectiveness as a small unit, but be part of larger movements.
Common security clubs in particular have worked for national policy changes, from universal health care and Wall Street financial reform to the extension of unemployment benefits. Many clubs, animated by the “break up with your bank” and “move your money” efforts, relocated personal, congregational, and other funds out of Wall Street, and into community banks and credit unions.
Other clubs have connected with community-wide “transition” efforts, inspired by the Transition Town movement sweeping England and now moving U.S. communities into action. Transition neighborhoods and towns proactively prepare themselves for climate change, economic hardship, and the decline in easy-to-get oil and cheap energy—with its huge implications for transportation, food security, building design, and our standard of living. Within the broader initiatives, small personal groups like common security clubs provide a place where people can meet to practice mutual aid and reciprocity. Both transition towns and common security clubs are integral components of building needed personal and community resilience.
A Few Stories
Encouraging stories are emerging from common security clubs and other mutual aid groups.
A group of unemployed workers in Maine created a resource sharing exchange. They met regularly at the library and laughed so much the librarian didn’t believe they were economically struggling.
A group in Greenfield, Massachusetts calls themselves “the neighbors” and meets monthly to check in, sing together, and practice mutual aid. On another night they meet for a monthly game night—what one member called “fun and affordable entertainment.”
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a network of Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers meets weekly and has formed committees to help educate one another about computer use, unemployment insurance, stress management in tough times, and green job opportunities. “Part of our work is to help face the unemployment bureaucracy so people get their benefits,” said Tom Lewandowski, a founder of the group. They invite people leaving unemployment offices to join the group. Members volunteer at libraries on Sunday afternoons to help unemployed workers file claims online.
Small Groups in Social Movements
Can forming a small group like this really make a difference, when the problems we face seem so overwhelming? History tells us they can. At many crucial moments in our past, small groups have played an essential role in incubating the seeds of great change.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than 27,000 “Share Our Wealth” clubs formed to discuss the causes of the Depression and advocate for a radical program of wealth redistribution.
Also in the 1930s, seniors organized “Townsend Clubs” to advocate for old age pensions—a formidable social movement that added to the pressure to establish Social Security. By 1936, more than 8,000 Townsend Clubs had been formed with over 2 million members. In ten states—including Oregon, Colorado, California, Florida, South Dakota—there were more than 50 clubs per congressional district.
In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, people formed nonviolent direct action groups to engage in sit-ins and keep up morale. Activists rooted in faith-based congregations and tight-knit communities were able to take greater risks knowing that if they should be jailed (or worse), there were others to care for their children and elders.
The women’s movement was built upon small consciousness-raising groups, which enabled millions of women to reflect on their identity. “The personal is political” was experienced in thousands of face-to-face gatherings, ultimately shifting gender attitudes throughout the society. The anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s formed “affinity groups” as part of direct action efforts to prevent power plants from being built.
In the labor movement, the success of organizing female clerical workers into trade unions depended upon an organizing approach that included small support groups. Large mega-churches have grown upon a foundation of “small group ministry” in which members connect through smaller, face-to-face groups. A growing number of organizers today are examining the “power of networks” in social movements.
Given the challenges we’re collectively facing in the present, where are such movements today? It appears that without a lived experience of “solidarity” in our personal lives, it can be difficult to respond to an abstract call for the common good. It may be that small group organizing is central to our hopes for broad-based change.
Potential Shock Points
There is good reason to believe that the next 10 years are going to be very different than the 10 years prior to the 2008 economic meltdown. Persistent unemployment means that millions of people may live out the decade in an economic depression.
Moreover, the underlying economic structures that brought on the collapse have not been addressed. We remain at risk for more financial nosedives. As a result, new Wall Street economic bubbles and busts may emerge. The “danger” light on the dashboard is still flashing…
In fact, the future could bring any number of “shock points”: another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008; a further increase in unemployment, even to 20 percent; more extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves); new spikes in the cost of energy; rapid deflation as the value of money falls; a dramatic increase in the cost of food; and/or shortages of fresh water.
Because of the extreme inequalities of income and wealth that have opened up over the last generation, the brunt of these changes is falling, and will continue to fall, most intensely on lower and middle income and disadvantaged folks. But these changes will touch everyone in various ways, even those who believe they have built a wall of economic security around their families.
These are some of the reasons people need to face the future together and strengthen the social fabric of our communities. This is not a future you can, or should, face alone.
How to Start a Common Security Club
Calling All Organizers! Does this idea of a small support group appeal to you? Is it a missing part of your organizing work? Would it benefit your community, or your own life? Check out the resources provided by the Common Security Club network to help you organize a group.
Calling All Facilitators! Are you good at getting people together and holding a respectful space? If you’ve ever successfully facilitated a small group, you can facilitate a Common Security Club. You don’t need to be an expert on these matters, just good with people. There is a network that provides a free downloadable Facilitator Guide chock full of ideas for discussion, learning, sharing, mutual aid, and social action. The network provides facilitation tips, conference calls, and ongoing support.
Visit www.commonsecurityclub.org to learn more.
The Transition to the New Economy
Eight million jobs in the old economy are not coming back. But new jobs, enterprises, and livelihoods are emerging. We are seeing vibrant new kinds of enterprises in the local food sector, green building, and alternative transportation, as well as locally rooted cooperatives and producers. These are the pieces of a new economy that is emerging piecemeal around the country—an economy based upon entirely different models of economic growth and indicators of community health, and also new conceptions of wealth, community, and governance.
This new economy includes financial institutions invested in the real economy, like community banks and credit unions walled off from the Wall Street speculation that adds no real value to our economy. It includes respect for “all that we share”—our commons of public and private institutions such as libraries, schools, or agricultural knowledge. It is based on sound management and protection of the gifts of nature including water systems, seed banks, and land conservancies.
In the current political moment, leadership for large-scale transition to this new economy will not come from Washington, D.C., but from movements around green jobs, local manufacturing, alternative transportation, regional food, and more. This is a moment for each of us to reflect on our own power and agency. We each have a role to play, but perhaps we aren’t sure what it is yet. This is where your small group is important. Small groups help disconnected individuals find their roles, turning them into community players who contribute to the movements toward the new economy.
If we are prepared for a transition, we will be in much better shape than if we simply hope life will somehow return to normal. If we have our “core group,” we can face changes with less fear and more sense of our personal agency. Together, we will be able to work toward an economy that works for everyone.
Chuck Collins and Sarah Byrnes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Sarah is the organizer for the Common Security Clubs at IPS.