Category Archives: Corporate Greed

How The 1% is Killing Us All

 

Income-Inequality

Click on the image for more from Mike Luckovich.

I’m going to tell you a true story* about one man and then I’m going to tell you how I feel this story is basically a micro version of what is happening in the United States to anyone who isn’t a millionaire.

Dave is a handyman in his 60s. He lives in a shop in Kent. It’s pretty much just a garage. It has no running water. It has no electricity. His landlord, Matt charges him $350 a month. He works for landlords fixing up their properties when they need it. He built my front and back porches. He is currently fixing a wall that had some water damage.  He is a likable guy with solid skills. He’s getting old and can’t do as much as he used to, but he’s still working and typically charges about $12 an hour plus material costs. (Charging more has historically resulted in less work.)

One of the landlords he works for happens to be Matt, his own landlord. Dave has been living in his shop for the last four years. In that time he has done dozens of jobs for Matt. One time last year Matt asked him to spray some mold killer and paint over some black mold in an apartment that Matt owned. Dave arrived and found that a family was living there. The room with the black mold was the baby’s room. And the black mold wasn’t isolated to one small spot. It practically covered the ceiling.

Dave called Matt and told him that this was a much bigger job than simply spraying some mold killer and painting over it. This stuff was clearly in the attic as well on the surface of the ceiling. Matt told him that replacing the ceiling and getting into the attic was going to be ‘too expensive’ and demanded that Dave paint over it as requested. Dave refused. Dave then warned the family about the dangers of the mold and how the spores get into the air and cause all sorts of health problems especially for children.

A few months ago Dave was called to that same apartment to fix a leaking toilet. The same family was there. He took a look at the baby’s room and saw that Matt had found someone to paint over the mold and now it was growing through the latest paint job. He again talked to the family but the man he talked to said he was afraid to confront the landlord because he didn’t want to get kicked out and he couldn’t afford to move.

In January Dave did some work for Matt. The work totaled about $1600. When Dave was finished with the work, Matt said that he would pay him soon but that he couldn’t pay him at that time. A month later, Matt had property Tumwater that had been burglarized. He asked Dave if he could stay at the house a few nights until he had it rented out. Dave and his grandson drove from Kent to Tumwater and back for nine days. Shortly after that, Dave’s truck broke down. The transmission had gone out in it.

A week later Matt called him and asked him to do some work on a property in Bremerton. Dave said, “I can’t do it. My truck’s broken down.”

Matt said, “I can drive you there.”

Dave responded, “What you can do is pay me the $1600 you owe me so I can fix my truck.”

“You’ll get your money, but I need this done today. I’ll just pick you up.”

“And where in your Tesla will we put my saw? Where will you put my ladder? How will I get to the hardware store to get supplies?”

By late April he had still not been paid one dime from Matt. Eventually Dave was able to get his truck fixed using money he made from other handyman jobs. (Like the ones my landlord has him do.)

One day just before May 1st, Dave and Matt ran into each other at the grocery store. Dave said, “You owe me rent for the last few months.”

Dave said, “I don’t owe you rent. Rent is $350 a month. That’s $1400 rent for January through April. You still haven’t paid me the $1600 you owe me. By my count you owe me $200.”

Matt got angry and said, “I’m not paying you any money. And your rent just went up to $500 a month which I know you can’t afford so I’ll start eviction proceedings.”

Tomorrow Dave is talking to a lawyer to get this settled. I talked to him today. He said, “I’ll get this sorted out. Until then I’m gonna work. It’s all I’m good for.”

As I said at the beginning, Dave’s story has a lot of things that I believe apply to those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be in the top 1%. He’s paid below a living wage when he gets paid at all. His employer cares only for profits and nothing for the safety or welfare of those who help him make those profits. When someone becomes undesirable, they increase costs to price those people out of the market.

While not everything below applies to Dave’s specific situation, much of it does and the things that don’t apply to many people who are in similar circumstances as Dave. There is a concentrated effort on the part of the 1% to drain whatever power the rest of us have to nothing.

Here is the one and only conspiracy theory I truly believe in because the evidence is everywhere and it requires no collusion or secrecy on anyone’s part. Their attacks are overt. And they do it with impunity because they know we’re as afraid as the guy in the apartment with the black mold who is literally forced to choose between living somewhere unhealthy or not having a place for his family to live at all.

Here are some of the things that get legislated to make sure the poor don’t only stay poor but get poorer.

– Keep cutting funding to public education

– Keep wages low

– Increase cost of living expenses

– Restrict access to health care

– Restrict access to birth control

– Restrict access to abortion services

– Cut public assistance

– Increase taxes on the poor

– Increase college tuition to unaffordable levels

– Replace affordable housing with smaller more expensive ‘luxury housing’

– Give tax breaks to millionaires

– Eliminate restrictions on guns

– Implement mandatory minimum sentencing

– Privatize prisons so they are for-profit
Each of these things has been championed by prominent Republicans across the country over the last thirty years. The result is fairly simple. If you are not rich, you will be working harder and for more hours and less pay in order to simply maintain the lifestyle that previous generations could attain by simply working one full time job. If you fail to work hard enough, there will be no social safety net to save you. One of the few things you can get your hands on is a gun. Two out of three gun deaths are suicides. So maybe you decide to take yourself out after all of society has deemed you a failure for not playing along.

Or maybe you are desperate enough to commit crimes at which point, you end up in prison. Thanks to the for-profit prison system you’ll be able to make corporations money in the same way you would have working a dead-end below-living-wage job. Either way, you’ll be doing your part to make the rich richer. This is the system that is in place at this time and Republicans are only making it worse.

And I haven’t even mentioned the part where if you’re female or not white, your options and advantages are even worse than that. As a woman you’ll make 70% what men make in the same job. As an African American you’ll deal with systemic racism on all levels of society that make getting that job more difficult and authorities more likely to treat you violently.

I don’t have a solution for this. Voting for Democrats might not make things worse, but I don’t think they’re going to necessarily make things better in any real sense regardless of how progressive they claim to be if only because they can’t negotiate with the terrorists the Republican Party has become.

For a long while I wondered what it was going to take before things got violent. Then I realized things have been violent for a while now. It’s just that we aren’t even coming close to being what might be called a Resistance. Instead we’re being slaughtered in the street by militarized police forces and anyone who steps out of line can simply be labeled a terrorist. When someone within the government decided that the government having access to every phone call, email, and cellphone in the country was not okay, he had to go to Russia to avoid prosecution and is labelled a traitor.

I have asked myself what I should do about this and the truth is I can’t do much and neither can most of you because you’re like me just struggling the best you can to pay bills so you can make rent. It’s kind of difficult to make a concentrated effort at resistance when you’re spending all of your energy just trying to make enough money to survive.

As I said, I do not have a solution for you, me, or Dave. My solution for myself has been to enroll in college in the Human Services program. I did this both because I genuinely want to help people and because given all of the things I mentioned, there are going to be millions of people who need professional help. I figure one of the handful of growth industries in this culture is going to be counseling people who are trying to cope with a world so wildly out of balance that the richest country in the world also happens to have some of the highest child poverty in the world. I won’t be able to change the world, but I might make some people’s worlds better. Maybe I’ll find I can do more. Maybe it won’t make a lick of good. But I cannot look at what’s going on and do nothing.

– Jack Cameron

*Names and specific details have been altered to protect identities.

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The Pitchfork And The Brick

riot

A while back I watched a video of David Simon from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. (How cool is it that such a thing exists?) David Simon is the creator of The Wire. He also created Treme. He makes it his business to study urban and economic development in order to write compelling dramas about them. So when he talks about income inequality and where he thinks it’s headed, I listen. He got to a point in the hour long talk where he’s thinking about where things are going and he says this:

“We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.”

This week I found an open letter by billionaire Nick Hanauer called “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats”. It’s a scathing letter explaining in detail why the middle class must be rebuilt by paying workers more money. In words that eerily echo David Simon’s he says:

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”
These are smart men who know what they’re talking about and I don’t see a lot of compelling arguments going that refute their claims. More to the point, if you’re looking for it, I can see evidence of this war happening already.

Anyone who is paying attention can see that we have an increasingly militarized police force. Recently a Massachusetts SWAT team when asked for records of their activities claimed to be a corporation or a private mercenary force. This isn’t a promising sign when you have SWAT teams in other parts of the country injuring 2-year-olds.

When people aren’t getting injured or killed by the police, they’re getting arrested and imprisoned. In America we have 5% of the population and yet we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. We are incarcerating humans at a rate never before seen in human history. We are then taking those prisoners and forcing them to work for little to no pay often to increase the profits of private companies running state prisons. This is the legal slave trade of America. And you’ll find no millionaires among their ranks. Most prisoners aren’t white. Most of them are poor. All of them will have a difficult time finding a job if and when they are released increasing the likelihood that they will resort to crime resulting in more prison time.

Of course this isn’t the only problem. These days we have an increasingly large group of people who feel it is necessary to arm themselves with guns. Many of these people are anti-government. Many are poor. And thanks to gun laws so lax that even Mexican gangsters come to our country to get guns because it’s easier many of them are exactly the sort of people who shouldn’t have guns. Despite an annual death count that is nearly equal with car accidents, instead of increasing gun control laws, we have made guns even easier to get and easier to fire legally.

The combination of open carry laws and stand your ground laws make it possible for two people to openly carry guns, feel fearful of the other one and shoot each other without any law being broken. This isn’t the Wild West. It’s worse.

So we have unparalleled income inequality. We have unparalleled militarized police. We have unparalleled imprisonment. We have unparalleled private citizen armament. What we have is a class war being waged and it’s only just beginning.

If I were a billionaire, I’d probably do everything to erase my public existence, buy a fortified yacht, and hide out in the South Pacific until it’s all over.

Unfortunately, I’m a few billion dollars short of being a billionaire. Like most of you I’m living paycheck to paycheck at a pay rate closer to minimum wage than it is to the average CEO’s. I think it’s safe to say that the war is here and it’s going to get A LOT worse before it gets better. I’m talking Mad Fucking Max worse.

It could be that David Simon and Nick Hanauer and I are all wrong about this and it’s going to be fine. I accept that and I don’t have any questions about it.

What I don’t know is what should we do if we’re right? What do the people in the rapidly shrinking middle who don’t want to throw bricks or raise pitchforks do to prepare for war? How do we increase our chances of survival? Arming ourselves and stalking up on food doesn’t seem like a good choice because you don’t know how much food or ammunition you’re going to need and the best gun in the world doesn’t make you bulletproof. Is it as simple as drastic relocation? Should those of us who see this thing coming just get out of the country and try to find a safe place? (Though what place is safe from what seems to be a global class war?) These are questions I genuinely don’t know the answers to and I’m curious what others think about all of this.

I know it sounds a bit paranoid and most of us think that something else will happen before the pitchforks and bricks, but it’s a situation where we should start thinking about contingency plans before it’s too late.

I’m interested in what you think. Go ahead and comment below if you have anything you’d like to contribute to the conversation.

–       Jack Cameron

Book Review: The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living By Mark Boyle

What would you do if you had no money? The obvious answer is ‘get money’. But what if you couldn’t get money or more specifically didn’t want to get money. Welcome to the world of Mark Boyle. In The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, Mark Boyle puts his mouth where his money used to be.

It’s easy to think of life without enough money. For most of us, that life IS our life. But trying to think of life without money at all is actually somewhat difficult. If you need food, you can go to the store or you can go to McDonalds. If you need food but you have no money and refuse to take charity in the form of money or friends giving you stuff, this simple need becomes a bit of an adventure. What do you do? You can grow some of your own food if there is a community garden they’ll let you use. You can go dumpster diving or ask local businesses if they’re throwing anything out. You can forage in the forest. The thing that this book illustrates time and again is that there are options without money.

It begins with a fantastic and simple description of finances, banking and debt. He explains clearly how he’s not against the concept of money exactly. He’s against debt. He’s against what world currencies have created. He’s against financial institutions that only exist to make rich people richer. Some protest these people who seem to have rigged the system. Mark Boyle makes an interesting choice by walking away from the game entirely.

It would be easy to pick this book apart if I wanted to. I could point out how much stuff he got simply because he was lucky. (Not everyone who reads the book is going to be able to put a donated trailer on a community garden and live rent free.) Or I could say that he violates his own rules again and again. I mean he goes on about how he doesn’t like to eat animals and doesn’t want to use cars because of big oil companies and whatnot, but he still has a cell phone and a laptop. However, none of that really matters. This isn’t a book about living like a monk. It’s about what’s possible even without money.

This isn’t new thinking. In fact it’s very old thinking. The idea of trading and bartering for goods and services is as old as humanity. I think that’s why it’s so appealing.

For me, the problem is that I am really nothing like Mark Boyle. Towards the end he says, “We cannot have fast cars, computers the size of credit cards, and modern conveniences, while simultaneously having clean air, abundant rainforests, fresh drinking water, and a stable climate.” I disagree with this. I think that science and technology are the problem and the solution. I think that technology can make things easier and better. The problem isn’t so much the technology and science as it is the profit.

There was an interview with a record executive that I can’t find now. In it, the executive talked about how it used to be that you’d find a band. You’d help them create a voice. You’d help them create an album and a sound. You’d help them tour. And you’d help them work on their next album. You’d let their career be your career. Now though, most record executives don’t care. They find someone they can make one number one hit with, they push that as hard as they can and make a million damn dollars and they’re done. It’s fine for business to be about money. It should be. But it should be about more than just money. It’s the WalMart-ization of the world. Price and profit over quality and innovation. This is where our real problem lies.

– Jack Cameron

On The Comeback

Gillette Fusion Razor“They ain’t curing AIDS. Shit, they ain’t
never curing AIDS. Don’t even think about
that shit. They ain’t curing it, ’cause
there ain’t no money in the cure. The money’s
in the medicine. That’s how you get paid, on
the comeback. That’s how a drug dealer makes
his money, on the comeback.”
– Chris Rock, Bigger & Blacker

One of the things I want to point out in this series of articles is how companies manage to give you less for more. The funny part about this is that they will usually do this in the name of advancement or convenience. And sometimes this is true. However, most of the time, it’s an excuse to make you buy something more expensive that is less permanent. Making money ‘on the come back’ isn’t just a game the pharmaceutical companies play, it’s played everywhere.

Razors are a perfect example of this. My grandfather and yours too probably shaved with a shaving kit. It consisted of shaving cream, a small bowl with which to mix the cream, a  brush with which to exfoliate the skin and apply the cream and a safety razor with refillable blades that only cost pennies.

Now you’re expected to buy something like the Gillette Fusion Proglide. You can buy this for eight bucks, which doesn’t seem too bad. But then you have to buy the refillable cartridges. Over at Amazon you can buy an 8-pack for just under thirty bucks, which works out to about $3.75 a razor. So let’s say you shave every three days and that each razor can be used three times. So that works out to $3.75 every nine days. That’s about 40 razors or $150 a year. And that’s not including shaving cream.

So what’s the alternative? Over at ClassicShaving.com you can purchase the Complete Celtic Shaving Kit for $99.99. It includes a stylish shaving mug, a high quality badger brush, a double edged, closed comb safety razor and ten blades. And you can buy thirty more for $18. (Three packs of six.)  Even with purchasing new equipment, you’re still over thirty bucks ahead. Safety razors last for years. So in year two, Gillette guy is still spending $150 a year. Whereas the Classic Shaving guy is spending $24 a year or $6 per ten-pack. The bottom line is, even in today’s world, your grandfather had the right idea.

This is just one example of how companies have encouraged our disposable society. Other examples are things like mops. It used to be that you owned a mop. You had a bucket. You put soapy water in the bucket, you soaked the mop and you mopped your floor. All you had to buy was soap. Mops lasted for years. You can buy a good mop over at Amazon for twelve bucks. Now, they want you to buy a Swiffer WetJet for twenty bucks and refills for six bucks per twelve-pack.

This reverting back to the old way of doing things isn’t always best. You won’t see me telling you to turn in your iPod for a record player. However, the idea that you need to shave in five minutes with four blades or that your floor has to be clean to CDC standards is absurd. For starters, shaving can actually be enjoyable if you don’t rush it and take your time. And exposure to a reasonable amount of germs is what keeps your immune system working. A freshly mopped floor never killed anyone..unless they slipped on it.

My point is that there are hundreds of examples like this. The thing to remember is that unless your money is disposable, you shouldn’t be buying disposable items. There are often cost effective alternatives that last longer and are of better quality.

I’m not interested in showing you how to live like you’re poor. That’s not what this is about. It’s about living well with what you have, even if you don’t have much. This is important because the big companies are actually more afraid than you are. They’ve kicked their profit lusting into high gear and they don’t care who they hurt along the way. Netflix just lost 800,000 customers, but it doesn’t matter to them because they also just increased their profits 65%.  McDonald’s just announced they’re increasing their prices. Of course they made sure that announcement was drowned out by the return of the McRib.

If we’re going to get through this without falling into poverty, we’re going to need to help each other. The one thing we can still share is information. That’s what this is about. That’s why I’m putting this online and not in a book. My hope is that these posts will become a conversation. Share it with your friends. Comment below if you’ve got other ideas that relate to this.

Thanks for reading.

-Jack Cameron