The Stacked Deck

Recently a ridiculous graphic was going around showing how somebody could live on $2000 dollars a month, still save $100 a month and have a couple hundred dollars spending money too. Of course that person didn’t have children, most of the costs seemed to be typical of the 90s, and in order to clear $2000 dollars a month you still need to be making $13 or $14/hr which is nearly double the federal minimum wage. For those of you who don’t want to do the math, by saving $100, they could potentially get a year of college after 10 years of work. So, by 60 they could have their bachelor’s degree and maybe move up in the world.

If that sounds ludicrous, congratulations, you are a sane person. But more importantly that $100 (we could even bump it up to $200) a month savings isn’t going to just sit they’re happily waiting to be spent on something big in most cases. A capitalist society has many rags to riches stories, and while such stories typically rise to the forefront of the conversation, they are a vast minority. Why? Because they depend on luck. I think a capitalist society can be set up in a way to give more opportunities to people, but that’s not through an unrestrained free market. It requires a government that is actively restraining it.

What I really want to talk more about are the ways in which the society we live in is stacked against poor people. I find the GOP talking point that poor people are lazy to be one of the most insidious ever devised and one that causes not only continued financial misery for poor people, but also dehumanizes them, diminishing their human dignity and value.

Shop Cutco Knife SetsWhen I was 20 I worked a summer job where I sold Cutco knives. I’ve met other people who did the same thing; lured in by the promise of $11/hr for summer work, only two find that this was $11 for a 1 hour demonstration and you had to go into people’s homes and try to sell them knives. I’m not a great salesman, because I hate dictating how people should spend their money. Nevertheless they were quality knives and I did okay.  I was reminiscing about the job recently because I actually bought some Cutco knives off of eBay as I accidentally melted one of the handles off a knife I kept from sample set that I earned by selling enough knives. Anyway, I remembered how they taught us to explain that cheap knives might work great at first, but they dull or break quickly. So without buying good knives, over the course of some number of years you would actually lose money. The company was trying to justify why you would spend a lot of money (they were quite expensive, average $70 a knife in the early 90s) on a set of knives. Let’s take for granted that these are quality knives and that you would save money in the long run.  I was smart enough back then to know that this wasn’t how the real world worked for many people. Putting $800 down for a set of knives, no matter how great, was not the kind of capital people had lying around just for knives. Interestingly the thing that broke me was when the mechanically cheery regional sales manager told me to target middle class people because they were likely to have more money saved up than upper middle-class people who were more likely to have been frivolous with their money and might have less saved up.  So I was expected to take savings away from people who I felt could put their money to better use buying their kids new bikes for what amounted to only kitchen knives.

The knife example is like many things in our society:  good quality things that last longer are the better option to buy if you want to save money in the long term. However, to get those savings you need to have money to begin with. I remember when I was a grad student, and had limited income when I was buying a blender; there were many cheap choices that seemed like a good deal. And they would often work great for a little while, but invariably break down after a year or two.  Capitalism has done a great job of making these things at a cheaper and cheaper cost, but the trade off is durability. It’s a piece of equipment that works for a limited amount of time,because they know poor people have limited amounts of money and on any given month they can only afford a cheap blender; and in a year they will be able to afford another cheap blender.

There are many more examples like this.  You can reduce energy costs in your home by getting solar paneling on your roof,  but it is an expensive investment and the energy savings might only make up for the cost after 10 years.  You can afford to do this only if you have a nice house and the capital to invest in the first place.  Another caveat is that even if poor people did want to invest in a house, it is likely not one that is well built enough to invest in something like solar paneling.

Let’s go back to that budget I talked about at the beginning where somebody with $2000 a month is able to put away $100-200 a month in savings.  People who are poor generally have:

  • Cheaper/older appliances
  • Cheaper/older car
  • Older and cheaper living accommodations
  • Cheaper or no health care, thus high co-pays and deductibles

All it takes is a broken water heater, fridge, or washing machine, a car breakdown or accident, or a medical emergency for all those savings to be wiped away.  And these problems will occur more frequently as a result of what you can afford when you’re poor.

Let’s throw in some other important factors.  In our society, nutritious food costs more and thus families with lower quality foods may suffer more health consequences adding to their medical costs.  As the COVID situation is showing us, poor people don’t get to social distance and stay home from work easily. To survive they depend on their social network and this can lead to worse outcomes in terms of getting sick and missing more work and school. The way public school funding seems to work here is that property taxes are a large part of the funding.  Poorer communities get less equipped schools, can’t afford to pay their teachers as  much and thus have less teacher retention, with the most experienced teachers unlikely to stay.

Another thing people might not be aware of is that poorer communities also tend to be in more disaster prone areas.  Consider living near a river. There are places that are less likely to flood and more likely to flood. But instead of just not letting people live in flood prone areas, developers build cheap housing there for people with less money. It’s relatively inexpensive to rebuild if the area gets wiped out and this keeps insurance costs down in riskier areas.  Meanwhile, a poor home owner in a flood zone is less likely to be able to afford and purchase flood insurance. So as poor person you are also just more likely to have your life wiped out by a natural disaster. There are also many other factors that increases disaster risks for people in with lower socioeconomic standing.

Disasters do not just happen – they result from failures of ...

It’s possible that a parent taught you a lot about cars and you know how to fix them yourself and spot a good used car. But that’s not everybody.  It’s possible that you are great at sniffing out good deals for quality appliances, but that takes time: a luxury money also gets you. Getting a higher education can also be a great way to get you out of poverty. However, this is becoming increasingly unaffordable without taking on significant debt, which in turn keeps you in a state of perpetual struggle for at least a decade after you graduate.  So maybe you get lucky and stay healthy, have few car issues, end up in a good school district, or are gifted genetically in some way that gives you an advantage. And of course there could be any number of issues that your parents have which might limit your ability to rise very much in life. A lot of people may be working hard, but only some will be able to rise out of poverty.

Capitalism doesn’t care if you put away money as long as you are buying something.  In fact, it prefers you spend your money rather than save it. It makes much more money off people buying multiple cheap blenders than a good quality blender that lasts 10 years. In fact, it is in capitalism’s best interest to not make things last for anybody. It seems that as the middle class erodes we just have rich people who can buy new expensive items every couple years; not because they have to, but because they can change their aesthetic anytime they want. Meanwhile poor people are forced to repeatedly buy cheap goods they have to replace often just to have a functioning home or vehicle.  Capitalism is also in general happier if you are sick more and need to buy pharmaceuticals instead of being able to have the leisure time to keep healthy, exercise, and buy nutritious foods.

The real insult is that this capitalist engine, working exactly as intended, accuses the very people it exploits of being lazy and stupid, performing worthless jobs that they should be thankful for because it is only by the grace of their corporate overlords that they haven’t already been replaced by machines. When workers start to demand enough money to get by on they get replaced by machines anyway because heaven forbid some CEO can’t afford to replace his 7th vehicle that year that’s parked unused at their 4th mansion most of the year. If you listen to conservatives a CEO is the hero in this story: he is better, smarter, and a harder worker, deserving of his riches, and possessing of a superior morality. Should they screw up on that front, however,  that’s okay. They have friends in the corporate media, they can hire the best lawyers and pr firms, and escape with barely a dent in their fortune. And sure some small percentage fall from grace, and while many people will recognize such people as criminals, others will simply say “Well if he’s really guilty, he surely would be in jail”.  Trump is a good example of how rich criminals support each other. Meanwhile poor people pay for even the most minor of crimes for a lifetime. Capitalism not only exploits poor people as workers, but also exploits them as consumers, all the while devaluing their very existence.

This system’s cracks are showing. It can’t sustain itself. Creating division among the population is its last-ditch effort to keep itself alive. And so far, it’s working. How much longer can it all go on?

The Scales of Justice

I recently watched this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about public defenders.  It is not a slam against public defenders, but rather a criticism of a system in which anywhere from 60-90% of people arrested cannot afford lawyers and rely on public defenders, but there are just far too many of them for public defenders to do their job adequately.  This leaves many defendants with less than adequate representation.  As a result over 90% of cases by public defenders end in plea bargains, even when the people aren’t guilty.  That’s a quick summary, but watching the clip is well worth the time and speaks for itself.

And I started to think about the entire philosophy of justice we have in this country and got really sad about it all.  It would be one thing if we had a beautiful ideal and we were continually striving towards it, but it seems that there is enough of a portion of this country that feel justice is working fine, and that if you are in a position to be arrested than you simply have some sort of punishment coming your way.  The system is rigged from the police procedures that target low income people knowing that many can’t afford to fight back and will pay fines whether they were really guilty or not, to the court system which puts low income people at a severe disadvantage, to the prison system which profits from long jail sentences for minimal crimes.  And once they are in there, opportunities are so low once they get out.  As President Obama said, we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population and compared to other western nations with similar standards of living we are one of the least safe nations.  The violent crime rate is down 40% from what it was in 1980 and yet prison populations have increased by over 400%.  Something is definitely not right.

Bernie_memeAnd my question really is why is it this way?  As poverty continues to grow in this country why do we continue to punish the most impoverished of our people for simply being in poverty?  I’m not saying that there aren’t people who commit crimes and that we should just let it happen, but when you look at the environment and challenges they face, those who criticize rarely have experienced such adversity.  Sure there is always a small portion who rise out of poverty but for the most part the poor are simply exploited for their labor or for their money.  On average, we don’t give them a living wage, we don’t give them access to equal education, we don’t give them equal access to quality health care, and we don’t give them equal access to healthy and affordable food options.

But they all deserve it right?  Making those bad decisions when they had so many good decisions open to them.  Do we not have a responsibility to raise the less fortunate up?  Do we just leave those who haven’t had the opportunities we had to languish and justify it with the idea it’s their fault they are in this position?  What about forgiveness?  What about compassion? How can we paint such a large population of our country with just one color and ignore the tapestry of lives that exist there?  As the top income earners continue to suck away the wealth of the bottom 99% why do we turn our attention downwards, kicking those at the bottom instead of shaking the tree more to let the fruit fall to the ground?  Some people in this country act like if we just eliminated the poor the country would be a better place, but in fact it would be chaos and nothing would remain.  No soldiers to fight our wars, no workers to pick our food, serve our food, work in retail, and all the other jobs we don’t even notice get done everyday.  And even if the void could be filled, the capitalist policies our country function on would simply shift more of us down to the bottom, while the rich keep benefiting.

Welcome to an economy built on consumerism and profit.  To answer the real question why, one simply has to follow the money.  It is to the benefit of the rich to keep the population of a large portion of the country poor.  Because there is only so far wealth can grow, it is finite and if the populous has more, they have less.  Life, liberty, and happiness for all citizens of this country take a backseat when money is involved.

I know this post was ranty and I try to put more logical discourse, but just sometimes you just look at these large systems that are so difficult to change when you are just one person and see millions upon millions of people being impacted by a system that is simply not there to help them, and in the long run doesn’t help the rest of us either.  I made a resolution with myself about a year ago then when I moved strongly by something emotionally I need to not just complain but do something positive, even if it’s just donate some money to a worthwhile charity.  Although perhaps on the periphery of the central theme of this post, there is something that I have been sort of procrastinating getting involved in for some time and I am happy to say I am procrastinating no longer.  I have decided to be a CASA volunteer which is a wonderful program where the volunteer acts as an advocate for a neglected or abused child in court until the system finds them a good and safe home.  Incarceration is a strong possibility for children who grow up in broken homes and maybe helping in this way I can help a few kids stay out of the prison system in this country.

Respect my authoritah!

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to

From http://dublinopinion.com

listen to the physicians point of view.  She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations.  This is a very valid question.  If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.

However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc.  I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society.  One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so.  I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents.  Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias.  This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question.  Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of.  As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism.  In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another?  I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think.  Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:

  1.        False authority figures. Who are the people we value in our society?
    Michele Bachmann – Not an authority figure (From http://www.warrenjasonstreet.com)

    Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues.  This is simply not the case.

  2.        The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority.  If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it.  That is false of course.  Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
  3.        Devaluing intellectualism.  In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large.  Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?

The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress.  We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.

Isolation in a crowded world

I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately.  I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing.  His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future.  To me that

From http://www.media.tumblr.com

is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.

One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series.  In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people.  The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware.  In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human.  Robots do everything.  Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need.  It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding.  And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.

Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more.  While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact.  Not overly different from today’s city life really.

Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted.  We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival.  Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance.   As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people.  The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained.  It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.

In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street.  Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well.  I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past.  I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it.  As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet.  I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship.  Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face.  Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?

And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways.  I can still conduct

my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me.  You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door.  Banking and paying bills can be done on-line.  As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher.  And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary.  Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others.  The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be.  Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.

For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species.  Is it simply not part of our

From http://www.stupidman.com

mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities?  Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man?  Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it?  What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others.  In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way.  Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way?  Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.

If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more.  But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace?  Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen?  I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder.  It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.

For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance.  I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂

Thanksgiving Workers (written Nov. 21st, 2012)

I don’t really understand this hostility to people having to work on Thanksgiving for numerous reasons.  First we have very few holidays in this country compared to many other countries.  Businesses on average give less holiday time to their workers.  Studies show that this does not make us more productive.  A rested, lower stressed employee is one that actually works more efficiently.

More importantly though there seems to be some sort of implication that people who don’t want to work on Thanksgiving are lazy .  Isn’t it possible they don’t want to work on Thanksgiving because they would like one day where they can be with their family, to celebrate with a warm home cooked meal and be thankful for the blessings they have in life.  Doesn’t Thanksgiving have value as a holiday?  And what does it say about our society when we devalue a holiday?  Is it okay to tell those who work in the retail industry that our right to consume is more important than your right to have family values?  We’ve already over-commercialized Christmas, so should we say goodbye to Thanksgiving too?  There are other ways stores could compete for business than opening earlier and earlier every year.  Many workers may have believed when they took the job that they would get at least certain days off, it’s not realistic to expect them to just go get another job.  Shouldn’t corporations have a responsibility to respect the people’s values about tradition and family?  Should we let their desire for profit dictate what our values should be?

Let’s face it.  It’s not like retail is essential services.  Things could not be open on Thanksgiving and we’d get by quite easily.  The meme I’ve seen put up that tries to deride Wal-Mart workers for complaining simply because the military have to work through holidays to me is the most troubling.  It represents reasoning by false analogy.  First, I don’t want our military to work during holidays either, and I’m sure they don’t either.  They wish they could be with their families, just as I am sure their families wish they were there for the holidays.  If they truly are fighting for our freedoms should we as a society say that Thanksgiving doesn’t really matter so that when they do return home, the very values they served to protect are washed away by consumerism?  Perhaps more importantly if you wish to tell retail employees to stop complaining and work because the military do (as well as other emergency services, like police, nurses, firefighters, doctors, etc) do you plan on honoring those people in the same way.  As you claw your way through crowds to buy items you don’t really need were you planning on thanking that Wal-Mart employee for working on a holiday so you can get the items you want and save a little money?  I doubt anybody thanks them for their service.    Are retail employees for corporations some sort of low paid underclass who are only there to serve our needs as consumers?  It feels very much like that is the case.  The corporation is already disrespecting their values and so it hurts to see so many others disrespecting their values also.  And at what point can we start supporting them?  When stores open Thanksgiving at 6 pm?  4 pm?

There are more important things in this world than money and material goods.  And we have many days in the year to make money and spend it, so what’s wrong with keeping the spirit of a few days a year alive to celebrate friends, family, and have rest?