Friday, May 02, 2014

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) It looks like civil war is about to break out in Ukraine. Again.

2) I’m liking my new mayor more and more.

3) The country added 288,000 jobs last month, blowing past expectations like an officer worker to the coffee cart.

4) You may recall the embarrassing revelation that Donald Sterling was going to receive a lifetime achievement award (his second) from the NAACP. Well, someone had to fall on his sword, and here’s the stooge.

5) Why do I fight so hard to make sure the poor are kept in the public eye? I don’t want Americans to have to resort to this to make ends meet.

6) Or, for that matter, to this.

7) The legal definition of “photocopier” is at issue.

8) How insane is the nation of North Korea? Let’s take a look!

9) You might want to read this list before you head out on the roads this weekend.

10) Finally, the hamburger shoe because, well, why not?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Bit of an Eye-Opener

When you think “poverty in New York City,” what springs to mind? What stereotype has been so drilled into our heads from the newspapers, magazines and TV shows we all watch, like Law & Order or The Wanderers?

The very poorest among us in this city are Hispanics, perhaps African-Americans. Want to portray a neighborhood as poor in a TV show? Get a graffiti-coated wall, and stick a couple of Latinos playing handball against it.

Right? I mean, that’s the face of poverty in the Big Apple. Right?


Despite a rise in employment, nearly half of New York City's population is living near poverty levels -- a problem that is particularly striking in the city's Asian population, which has surpassed Hispanics as the city's poorest group, according to a new report conducted by the Center for Economic Opportunity.

The study revealed 45.6 percent of New Yorkers are barely making ends meet, even with more adults working full-time since the recession. A combination of low wages, rising rents, and a lack of benefits is largely to blame.

The dismal numbers, presented Tuesday to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, follows a growing number of studies showing the harsh realities of income inequality in New York. Just last week, city comptroller Scott Stringer released a study showing just how unaffordable the city has become, with the median rent in New York City rising a staggering 75 percent from 2000 to 2012.

The annual study also showed significant shifts within racial and ethnic demographics. As the report indicates, the poverty rate of Asians and Hispanics were "statistically identical" in 2008, at 22.4 percent and 23.5 percent, respectively. But by 2012, the rate surged to 29 percent for Asians, more than 3 percent higher than Hispanics.

The Stringer study is of particular note, as the rules governing rent control and rent stabilization in NY were amended in the last twenty years  to allow landlords to force tenants above a certain income threshold to pay market rents. This effectively took a percentage of affordable housing off the market. An additional form of vacancy decontrol, as it’s known, is to vacate an apartment for a year, make renovations, then petition the city to remove the rent controls. The landlord is entitled to an immediate 20% rent increase, plus one-fortieth of the costs incurred in renovations (which means premium pricing on plumbing, HVAC, and so on).

Estimates range as high as 300,000 units of affordable housing being taken off the market in the past twenty years.

Now that the economic side of this story has been expanded, let’s take a look at the demographics of poverty in the city.

There has been an influx of Asians immigrants into the city in the past decade. Like every ethnic wave before them, Asians seek a better life than they had at home: in this case, the Koreas, China, and Southeast Asia. There, people were paid pennies for work that here pays dollars.

Like every ethnic group before them, Asians send money home to family and friends to invite them here to America, to get a piece of the American Dream (silly Asian! Don’t you know that’s been dead for thirty years?)

And yet, they come, because poverty here is better than poverty at home. That’s an undeniable fact, but that does not also mean we in the States get the opportunity to deny the poorest among us the help they need.

And yet, they’ll put up with the squalor and crowding and hard work of seven days a week, two shifts a day, simply to see themselves a little bit better, and their families a little bit stronger.

It doesn’t matter where they come from, what their skin color is, or what language is their mother tongue, they will continue to come, no matter how hard we try to stop them, because life gets its way.

The irony is, they become an integral part of the machine that grinds down every one who earns a wage, even as those who run the machine knot their panties over their arrival.

Happy May Day

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fatal Mess

I wish I could say Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin will lose sleep over this, but somehow I doubt it:

Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in the state’s new lethal injection combination was administered. Three minutes later, though, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.

The blinds were eventually lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state’s top prison official eventually called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack a short time later, the Department of Corrections said.

‘‘It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched,’’ said Lockett’s attorney, David Autry.

“Botched” is legalese for “full metal fuck up.”

You may recall a story from a few years back where certain drug manufacturers refused to sell combinations of medications to states that maintained the death penalty. Corporate conscience. Whoda thunk?

And whoda thunk corporations would have more soul than many governors in the South? They scurried to find new ways of killing inmates, and hit upon this combination.

Which has now failed at least twice this year alone.

We’ve turned our prisons into an industry: private corporations make profits off human beings when they are incarcerated, they make profits when inmates get sick, and they make profits when they are killed.

This is immoral. End of discussion.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Piketty Fence

So I’m back from vacation and I keep seeing this name on my Tweeter and FacePlace feeds: Thomas Piketty.

Sounds vaguely Dickensian.

From what I gathered, Piketty wrote a book which proposes a new economic theory that would put paid to many of the basic notions that support capitalism.

Let’s take a look:

Piketty's argument is that, in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth. So the fact that rich kids can swan aimlessly from gap year to internship to a job at father's bank/ministry/TV network – while the poor kids sweat into their barista uniforms – is not an accident: it is the system working normally.

If you get slow growth alongside better financial returns, then inherited wealth will, on average, "dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime's labour by a wide margin", says Piketty. Wealth will concentrate to levels incompatible with democracy, let alone social justice. Capitalism, in short, automatically creates levels of inequality that are unsustainable. The rising wealth of the 1% is neither a blip, nor rhetoric.

To understand why the mainstream finds this proposition so annoying, you have to understand that "distribution" – the polite name for inequality – was thought to be a closed subject. Simon Kuznets, the Belarussian émigré who became a major figure in American economics, used the available data to show that, while societies become more unequal in the first stages of industrialisation, inequality subsides as they achieve maturity. This "Kuznets Curve" had been accepted by most parts of the economics profession until Piketty and his collaborators produced the evidence that it is false.

In fact, the curve goes in exactly the opposite direction: capitalism started out unequal, flattened inequality for much of the 20th century, but is now headed back towards Dickensian levels of inequality worldwide.

Well, at least now I know why his name sounded Dickensian..

A cursory examination of the history of the American economy…indeed, any Western economy after the 1700s…would support Piketty’s theory. There are numerous instances where income inequality expands, and then contracts after an economic bubble bursts. This is usually because the investor class – you know, the 1% -- milks the excess cash and assets out of an economic entity, then walks away to leave it unbalanced and unstable.

The markets crash, and the paper wealth of that 1% drops precipitously since the investor class is outsizedly affected by investment classes (kind of obvious, but it needed to be said). But, and this is Piketty’s point, income inequality never quite achieves the level it had after the last crash, but less an income parity at any point.

The long term curve mimics the short term curve: it points skyward. What does, in fact, bring it back down to more moderate levels is the introduction of what many would call “socialist programs”: the notion that the poor and middle classes do all the work for the investor class, and as such need to be protected from the vagaries of the market swings.

So we have unemployment insurance, and Social Security, and welfare, and any number of jobs programs. All to keep the supply of economic fodder alive long enough, just long enough, to perform economically valuable work.

Of course, to afford these programs, government either need to borrow (and defer tax increases) or raise taxes. Either way, the investor class gives back some of that income inequality in the form of what conservatives would call “handouts,” but in truth are lifelines for the working classes.

And we’re supposed to be grateful.

In short, you and I spend our entire lives making other people rich so they can hand off their money to their dilettante heirs.