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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since December 2011

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A Holiday Ditty from IPS

December 30, 2011 ·

‘Twas the night before the New Year and all through the land,
Evidence of the Institute's work was at hand.

In Occupy libraries from the East to the West
Our Executive Excess report was on the list of the best.

America Is Not Broke as well topped the list,
And A Main Street Fix was not to be missed!

The occupiers were nestled all snug in their tents,
Reading and learning about where the wealth went.

When out on Tahrir Square there arose such clatter,
Our scholars were here to explain what’s the matter.

From Egypt to Madison, ideas flew like a flash,
IPS supported the rights that corruption would smash.

The moon on the breast of ages-old sorrow,
Gave way to the luster of a more democratic tomorrow.

A public-scholar institute, so informed and so quick,
Laid foundations, launched protests, remedied that which was sick.

More rapid than eagles, our OtherWords came,
We taught about fixes, we called them by name!

Stop corporate greed!
Make Wall Street pay!

Tax speculation!
Give workers their say!

Put taxes on Carbon!
Bring the troops back homes!

Rebuild the safety net!
Stop spending on drones!

As 2011 quickly flies out of sight,
Remember IPS, which fights the good fight.

Donate to IPS

Protecting Guest Workers in the United States

December 30, 2011 ·

As the director of a project focused on the rights of migrant workers, I have been closely following the situation at the Hershey's Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, exchange students on J-1 visas faced threats and retaliation from their recruiting agency, the Council for Educational Travel (CETUSA) when they came forward to report exploitative conditions that violated federal worker protection laws and State Department regulations. The J-1 visa "summer work travel program," of which these students were a part, is intended to provide foreign college students with cultural immersion and the opportunity to "live and work in the United States," yet the students at the Hershey plant reported such restrictive work and living environments that there was no opportunity to do more than survive.

Neither the rain nor Hershey's will stop the march for justice.In August, the students filed a complaint with the State Department that contained serious allegations of intimidation and retaliation by their agency, the Council for Educational Travel (CETUSA). Shortly after, a human rights delegation, comprised of professors and practitioners with expertise in labor and employment law, and international human rights, expressed serious concerns about students' accounts of deception, coercion and threats from their recruiting agency. They called on the State Department to conduct an objective and expansive investigation of the sponsor. The New York Times reported on their plight in October, noting that "CETUSA failed to heed many distress signals from students over many months, and responded to some with threats of expulsion from the program." For example, the company threatened to revoke a student's visa when he complained to the State Department.

For the last 13 years, my project, Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies has focused on human trafficking of nannies and maids within the A-3/G-5 visa program, which include household workers for diplomats and employees of international organizations. Our work has shown the significant impact that improved oversight, education of workers and enforcement of consequences could have on curbing exploitation. We believe the key to successful improvements in this program has been collaboration with anti-trafficking service organizations and grassroots advocates who can share on-the-ground experiences with policymakers. There are still extensive improvements needed, particularly with worker education, but the progress has given us hope.

The State Department recently announced they would be completing a thorough review of the J-1 visa program. But as of this writing CETUSA is still sponsoring high school and college students on J-1 visas who plan to come to the United States. That's why the National Guestworker Alliance (pictured above), the workers' rights group supporting the students, is now calling on the government to immediately suspend CETUSA from the program.

Yet CETUSA is only one of many recruiting agencies. And A-3, G-5, and J-1 visas are only a few of the many visas with inherent weaknesses that leave participants vulnerable to exploitation by sponsoring individuals or agencies due to a weakly regulated sponsorship and penalty process.

The H-2A program for agricultural guest workers, H-2B program for non-agricultural guest workers, and the H-1B program for teachers, scientists and other "specialty" guest workers are other examples.

Consider these other cases of guestworker exploitation in the United States. In April this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a suit against the company Global Horizons for exploiting 400 Thai farmworkers working in Hawaii and Washington State. A company called Signal exploited more than 500 guest workers from India in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina. The Southern Poverty Law Center made history in December when it successfully brought a class-action human trafficking lawsuit on behalf of 350 Filipina teachers in Louisiana who came there with H1-B visas. It's the first time the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has been used to protect a group rather than an individual. In this case, the trial next July will center on the allegations that the teachers were brought to the United States by labor contractors who extorted huge fees and confiscated their passports, effectively subjecting the teachers to forced labor.

Workers' rights advocates, alongside anti-human trafficking advocates, have been urging the U.S. government to thoroughly review visa programs that depend on foreign labor contractors in order to minimize the vulnerability of workers to human trafficking and exploitation. Various drafts of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, notably the House version of the bill considered in 2008, have included extensive proposals for such regulations and remedies for victims, yet the U.S. government continues to fail in implementing serious protective reform. While some contend that our economy depends on cheap foreign labor, no one would argue that our economy requires the severe wage exploitation, fraudulent contracts, restriction of movement and the (sometimes violent) retaliation after complaints that we have seen repeatedly with these visa programs.

It's long past time for the federal government to make meaningful changes to protect guest workers.

The Lineup: Week of Dec. 26, 2011- Jan. 1, 2012

December 26, 2011 ·

As 2011 draws to a close, OtherWords wishes you and your families a happy holiday season.

In this week's editorial package, Wenonah Hauter explains why you should resolve to avoid genetically engineered foods in 2012, Jim Hightower cheers the reappearance of New York's state bug, and Donald Kaul sums up the evidence against the Iowa caucuses serving as an electoral weathervane. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

OtherWords commentaries and cartoons run in at least 275 newspapers across the nation and dozens of websites. If you're one of the many readers who eagerly await Donald Kaul's weekly column, or a newspaper editor who would panic if we suddenly stopped showing up in your inbox, please make a tax-deductible contribution today.

We're seeking new sources of support that will enable us to continue our distribution of bold, newsroom-ready commentaries and cartoons free of charge. Any amount you can spare will make a big difference.

  1. Two Cold War Milestones / John Feffer
  2. Defending the Ballot Box / Leslie Watson Malachi
  3. New Iran Sanctions Would Do More Harm than Good / Andrew Carpenter
  4. Resolve to Keep Science Experiments off Your Dinner Table in 2012 / Wenonah Hauter
  5. Reading Frog Entrails / Donald Kaul
  6. Three Cheers for the Nine-Spotted Ladybug / Jim Hightower
  7. Runaway Spending Cuts / William A. Collins
  8. Engineered Foods / Khalil Bendib

Engineered Foods, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

'Tis the Season to Shop at Tiffany's

December 24, 2011 ·

The economy is expanding, the unemployment rate is down, and consumers are spending again. The National Retail Federation expects holiday season sales to be up 3.8 percent over 2010, and other organizations predict increases of 3.5 percent to 4 percent. It all sounds like it's shaping up to be a happy holiday season for America's retailers.

Luxury retailers are enjoying the prosperity of the One Percent. Photo by Steve Minor

But which retailers? Black Friday sales at JC Penney were down 2 percent compared with 2010 and 5 percent at the Gap, Bloomberg News reported. Sales at Kohl's were down 6.2, while Gap's discount line Old Navy reported a fall of 7 percent.

On the other hand, sales at upscale stores are up — and up more the more upscale the store. Black Friday sales at Macy's were up 4.8 percent, Nordstrom's rose 5.6 percent, and Saks Fifth Avenue's spiked by 9.3 percent, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile luxury leader Neiman Marcus sold out of the Ferraris in its Christmas catalog in less than one hour. Neiman's $125,000 bookshelves are also selling well, New York magazine reports. (Not to worry, they come pre-stocked with books). "The most affluent luxury customer is spending with confidence," Neiman Marcus CEO Karen Katz told Reuters.

Whew! We were all worried about the most affluent luxury customers. After all, sales growth at Tiffany's has recently slowed to the low double-digits. Its stock has taken a beating.

The premiumization of holiday shopping is nothing new. It's all part of the premiumization of life that has been creeping up on us for forty years. Retail trends began to favor the wealthy long before the beginning of the current downturn.

In 2005 three Citigroup stock analysts announced the arrival of a new kind of economic system, which they dubbed the "plutonomy." They pointed out that aggregate statistics like national retail sales had become so skewed by the spending of a few wealthy people as to be almost meaningless. In their own words:

The World is dividing into two blocs — the plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., UK, and Canada are the key plutonomies — economies powered by the wealthy. In plutonomies, the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc. There is no "average consumer" in a plutonomy. Consensus analyses focusing on the "average" consumer are flawed from the start.

Six years later, this analysis is more accurate than ever. Yes, total retail sales are up this year. And the economy is growing. But is the recession over?

The Stagnant Realonomy

If it doesn't feel like the recession is over, that's because nearly all of the country's national income growth is going to the top 1 percent of the population. It's that same top 1 percent of the population that's driving the rise in retail sales. The plutonomy is growing, but the "realonomy" — the real economy in which the rest of us live — has been stagnant for three years now. In fact, it's hardly grown at all since 1999. And it wasn't going all that strong even then.

It's been widely reported that median incomes have been stagnant since the 1970s. What's been much less reported is that even college-educated professionals' incomes have been falling for a dozen years. Adjusting for inflation, no group below the top 5 percent has seen its income rise since 1999.

Among Americans with high school degrees only, median incomes have fallen 10.4 percent since 1999. Among Americans with college degrees, median incomes have declined by 7.6 percent. As a result, even families at the 95th percentile of the U.S. income ladder have seen no raises since 1999. Their incomes are down on average 1.2 percent in real terms, from $202,850 to $200,354.

When the data show that no one in the bottom 95 percent of the national income distribution has seen a raise in over 12 years, it's no wonder that holiday sales are driven by luxury goods.

All that talk about "the 1 percent versus the other 99 percent" really is true. Before 1973, America's economic prosperity was widely shared. In the 1980s and 1990s most of the country's economic growth went to the top 20 percent. In the 2000s, rising prosperity benefited only the top 5 percent.

Since 2008, only the top 1 percent have seen their incomes grow. They're Neiman's "affluent luxury customers." Pity them. At Christmas of all times it is wise to remember that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

There's no word on what books are included with that Neiman Marcus $125,000 bookshelf, but I know one I might recommend.

Salvatore Babones is an American sociologist at the University of Sydney and an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. His book on the American economy, Benchmarking America, is due out in 2013. www.ips-dc.org

The Lineup: Week of Dec. 19-25, 2011

December 19, 2011 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Donald Kaul explains why he never participates in the supposed war on Christmas and Mark Kastel alerts health-conscious consumers about what their "natural" breakfast cereals may contain. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

As always, our commentaries and cartoons are available for all to run in their newspapers and new media outlets free of charge. But our operations do cost money. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Any amount you can give will be used wisely and effectively.

Have a very happy holiday season.

 

  1. Chained COLAs and the Battle over Social Security / Salvatore Babones
  2. Too Many American Children Live in Poverty / Marc Morial
  3. Cereal Crimes / Mark Kastel
  4. Move Your Money to a Better Bank / Andrew Korfhage
  5. At Peace with Christmas / Donald Kaul
  6. Missoula's Supremely Important Vote / Jim Hightower
  7. We Should Buy More White Flags / William A. Collins
  8. Shiny New War / Khalil Bendib

Shiny New War, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

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