Thursday, May 31, 2012

More Advice For Fiftysomethings: Ramen Noodle Nation Primer #2

See the Frustrated Fiftysomething Guy,
Who took the President's other newfound piece of advice:
"So nobody will hire you?  Start your own business!"
Funnily enough, the unemployment counselor said the same thing.
Suitably encouraged, Frustrated Fiftysomething Guy
Dumped whatever he hadn't spent from his 401K,
Into his own hardware store downtown.
He splurged on a splashy grand opening party,
Took a crash course in social media,
And talked up his new venture every chance he got.
Now, fast forward six months later:
The customers aren't kicking down the doors,
Because they can't afford so much as a circular saw.
All those 20 and 30 percent off sales didn't help, either.
Now, Frustrated Fiftysomething Guy is falling behind on rent,
Owes money to his suppliers, and can't afford to advertise.
At this rate, he'll probably close his doors
Before the first anniversary passes.

By the time he's done, Frustrated Fiftysomething Guy
Will have burned up the remainder of his 401K,
Without any immediate hope of paying
All those back taxes and small business loans.

There's one silver lining, though...maybe he can spend
The last night's take on a Consolation Pub Crawl
With all the other Failed Entrepreneurs
In the neighborhood.

Let's face many more backyard bakers,
Carpenters, haircutters or mechanics
Do we need right now, anyhow?
Nobody's got the money to hire 'em!
--The Reckoner

Advice To Fiftysomethings: A Ramen Noodle Nation Primer

See the President giving an interview.  

His brow wrinkles with concern.
"When you lose your job in your 50s, it's a lot tougher," he admits,
"Because a lot of employers say to themselves,
'Well, I might have to pay those people more...'
No kidding, Sherlock!  So what's the answer?
Well, how about doing a little retraining,
Preferably for an industry that's hiring now?
Don't get too picky, though: on average, older workers
Stay idle for 60 weeks, versus 38.5*
For their younger, (presumably) perkier counterparts.
OK, maybe that's why all those "WE BUY GOLD" places
Are making so many inroads throughout Small Town USA...
Along with the payday loan outlets, bingo halls
And fast food franchises!

Next time you see Mom, Dad, Grandpa
Or someone else in your immediate family
Sweating away for minimum wage, tell yourself:
"It's a dirty job, but at least they get to do it."
Then pray like hell it won't be your turn some day:
McJobs are pretty unforgiving places for atheists.
  --The Reckoner
(*Source: American Association Of Retired Persons, Public Policy Institute)

To anyone who ever read  -- and dug -- MAD Magazine's primers of the '70s...this post is for you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Capitalism & Psychopathic Behavior: Do They All Know Something That We Don't?

We may detest them, question their morality and pine for the era when Republican presidents like Nixon were (gasp, shock, horror!) "scared" of the Democrats...but th tope 1 Percent aren't going down without a fight.

We're often reminded to thank the 1 Percent for keeping their moneybins humming...because it'll all trickle down to the bottom, eventually...the key word being, "eventually." This is the line pushed by uber-capitalists like Mitt Romney: "Gol-dern it, if everybody would just get the heck out of my way, I could roll up my sleeves, and create a fountain of jobs to keep everybody happy." 

Of course, the vast majority of workers -- whose wages, remember, have been kept artificially flat for nearly 30 years now -- might beg to differ, having little to show for their efforts at the box office.

But that doesn't stop these guys from laying on the chutzpah with a mason man's trowel -- as we'll see this month, when one of Romney's former Bain Capital  colleagues, Edward Conard, publishes his book, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About The Economy Is Wrong. The publisher, appropriately enough, is named (wait for it) Portfolio.

Conard's basic thesis is that America's record levels of income inequality are actually good for all of us, because it shows that the system is working, and if only those pesky social do-gooders stepped aside, the 1 Percent could get on with the job of showering their benevolent god works on the rest of us.

In fact, Conard goes so far as to argue  that “the wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large.”  With fabulous understatement, the New York Times notes: "This could be the most hated book of the year."  Ya think?  Maybe we can file this little tome under, "Man bites dog," and call it a day...

...or maybe not.  In another article published on May 10, the New York Times quoted a survey that claimed 10 percent of all those working on Wall Street are "clinical psychopaths" who show little empathy or interest towards others, and are prone to“unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”  By contrast, the newspaper noted, the actual proprtion of psychopaths nationwide is closer to (wait for it again) 1 percent.

Unfortunately, the Times doesn't cite the source -- but it's easy to draw similar conclusions from the nation'sbusiness pages. This is the white collar police blotter, where no practice is off-limits -- from accounting fraud, to bid rigging, overbilling, perjury and tax evasion -- the list goes on and on.

The Reckoner gently suggests that these things happen because capitalism's driving impulses (make money, reward shareholders) are incompatible with any humanitarian impulse that might be attributed to the 1 Percent. As the Times's article notes,  "These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught."

We received many, many warnings of how these tendencies might play out, if left unchecked -- as Bret Easton Ellis noted in his novel, American Psycho (1991), whose degenerate central character, yuppie investment banker Patrick Bateman, gleefully cannibalizes, murders, rapes and tortures his way across the midtown Manhattan playground that he inhabits. He shows no remorse for his actions, nor does he feelit necessary to explain them.

Many of Ellis's larger points got lost in the resulting protests, but as of 2012, Patrick Bateman shows no signs of departing the proven by American Psycho's staging as a musical, in London...and the announcement of a June 2012 U.S. production, The American Play, which is also based on the book.

As all these various anecdotes of capitalism = psycohpathy suggest, it's tempting to ask, "Do they all know something that we don't? Too much for comfort, perhaps. The mind boggles. --The Reckoner

Saturday, May 19, 2012

College is a Racket!

Now that information is free via the Internet and even your local library, why are young people being forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to have information spoon-fed to them?

I dream of a new movement of lecture societies, apprenticeships and people who are interested in educating themselves coming together, but it's doubtful it will happen in controlled America.

The colleges really are not that interested in teaching anything useful, outside of some highly technical fields where they are forced to put you in a lab, they'd rather indoctrinate you into being a good little consumer. College today, is basically a mercenary exchange where a young person exchanges a giant pile of money [or future debt] to receive a piece of paper that allows them entrance into the job world. Of course that said, that piece of paper is not guaranteeing that anymore is it? And how many people even from a generation ago, admit that their college degree was worthless as they most often ended up doing things like flipping burgers, cleaning toilets or telemarketing that had nothing to do with those 4 years of sitting in class?

I remember my alma-matter, and while in the late 80s they built endless million dollar buildings including a new retrofitted sports arena, they had their hand out for an endless array of tuition bills, incredible fees, and more. My own parents resented me as they took out a loan for my education to pay a portion of it, I paid the rest, and that lauded higher paying job after college never showed up. Of course my health issues were interfering by then. I remember working in the college dorm cafeterias putting cookies on heavy trays and making sandwiches for fellow students for three and half years to meet my expenses, getting the huge tuition and housing bill that zoomed up way past the rate of inflation. Summers were spent in a variety and mixtures of day care centers, factories, camps, and restaurants. The money from my months of summer work would vaporize immediately upon the dawn of September.

More then a couple times, with my dorm bills late, I went to class receiving notices, that I could be evicted but would get them paid just in time. By the way, I looked up what the kids are paying now, everything is THREE TIMES the amount I paid, why doesn't anyone ever question how much it all costs?

The phrase money hungry does not even do justice for the lust for cash, my alma-mater had. Every misdeed meant a giant fee. Even buying books could break you for a semester, I bought all used and even in a few classes was so broke, I had to borrow other people's books. It was good I read fast. Even that could cause one to lay down 300 bucks in one day. Some of my classes required supplies too, and often those came too dearly as well.

Even applying for a teaching job in a dead market in 1990, cost three dollars for every school to send out credentials. [You weren't allowed to make your own copies and the schools required the information to be sent from the college]. Three dollars doesn't sound like too money, on the front end, but just think applying to a mere 10 schools means 30 dollars. Then add on even more costs if you want to go out of state for a teaching job, back in 1990, $150-300 dollar was the cost for a teaching certificate. I do not want to know what it costs now.

The whole system was designed to pick my pockets from 1986-1990 and leave me without much in the way of a real living wage or future. In my case, I lost out on regular teaching jobs due to declining health--my state required medical exams of would be full-time regular teachers at the time. I would spend years piecing together substitute teaching jobs, with other part time jobs. So I got to be in the schools, and had a well paid part-time alternative school teaching job, that lasted for a few grant based years but was it all worth it? I would say "NO!" without hesitation.

While I went to an elitist suburban high school in the early 1980s, which put down the blue collar crowd, their main focus was to teach us the anti-ethics of that then go-go time. A decent Vocational Education probably would have made things a lot less stressful on me. Perhaps if I had gotten a job with actual medical insurance, disability could have even been averted.  Back in the late 1980's I would have been better off buying a small house for $40,000 and enjoying life rent-free rather then seeing it all burnt to a crisp with nothing to show for my efforts except a piece of crispy paper encased in an "6 x 8" faux leather cover.

In my case, I could get a few day-care jobs and $67 bucks a day as a substitute teacher but that was about it. I was left living the rented room-boarding house life and out of milk crates for years, the poverty would not improve, it would only worsen. Out of my graduating class, I knew only ONE person who got a regular teaching job, and their parents had connections to people in the school district and they were able to get a Master's Degree. The rest as the Baby Boom teachers, held onto their jobs with an iron grip, disappeared into a variety of alternative schools, Montessori centers, residential homes, day care and substitute teaching. The promised wave of teaching shortages never came and then the school lay-offs and hiring freezes had already begun.

Later I would go for a paralegal degree, thinking it was more stable and easier on my health rather then the physical rigors of teaching, by then I had specialized in the troubled and violent youth market to stay employed. However the worries about the hordes of unemployed lawyers taking the only jobs available nibbled at the edges of my mind. I would be forced to move to avoid homelessness, taking a residential care job out of state, not realizing the money-hungry colleges would deny all credit transfers, to make my completion of this post-baccalaureate  degree even with only two classes left impossible. Later I would return to my former state, would do an internship once a week fitting it around being disabled, and would be denied due to the passage of too many years and told I would have to start from English 101, bachelors or no bachelors, talk about the lust for cash determining their decisions.

College has become one of the biggest rip-offs on the planet. I even realized to my horror, as I grew older and more wise, away from my start of college at the age of 17, that I learned far more for FREE, outside of the classroom just from having a love of libraries and reading non-fiction. There I could learn things outside of being indoctrinated, and so much college was absolute nonsense--- goddess worship in women's studies classes writing a paper about whether you were an Aphrodite or other Greek goddess, art classes that taught absolutely no real techniques or craftsmanship-paint your "feelings", history classes, that were so superficial, and never asked any real questions, education classes with weird experimental group-think stuff taught for future indoctrination of those younger then you. I'll admit my class selections could have been better but what did I know at 17? One got the idea that education wasn't about real thinking but just adopting the twisted world view of out of touch professors who still thought it was the late 1960s.

Even as I started being a teacher, I had to study up quick to go survive in the classroom and write some actual realistic lesson plans. My life was spent in a fury at the library, learning what all those thousands of dollars hadn't bought me.

 Think about this is college really paying off for young people? or is it really enslaving them? Just to remind people, I do think education and learning are good things, but what happens when it becomes abused for a captive audience to get that piece of paper even just to make a living, and those who run the system make that piece of paper harder and harder to get and more expensive? Something is very wrong with that picture.

Watch this video to figure more of the college game out.

If you are young and reading this rethink what you are being told and the automatic go into debt formula. Don't believe every word your high school guidance counselor tells you or all those fancy brochures that sell college to you. Make sure if you do go to college, that you enter a field that gives you a fighting chance of a living wage and a job when you are done. If you are a parent, make sure to discuss this with your child and don't think protecting them from how hard it is to make a living will do them any favors. Tell them how the system really works. Tell them what happened to their older cousins or uncles and aunts, try and break through the youthful idealism that tells them, "it won't happen to me!"

College may pay off for a few still, but at least go into it with your eyes open.--The Squawker

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Note To The Long-Term Unemployed: "You're On Your Own, Kid!"

Imagine the scene: you're attending a local school board meeting.  During the announcements, the management team notes that a much-loved employee is retiring after 37 years on the job.  Just two days later, you're observing a similar scene at a different meeting, where one of  the key administrators is retiring after four decades in the educational trenches.

Either way, you find yourself surrounded by people with equally extended tenures -- with the average hovers between 15 and 30 years.  The atmosphere is breezy and jovial at both meetings. Between raids of the nearby brownie table, the conversation focuses on summer vacation plans: what books they plan to read, which grandkids they intend to visit, what kinds of tasks they'll finally catch up on.

You sigh to yourself, and wonder: how'd everybody else get to stick around for so long, and what the hell did I do wrong?  Why am I still playing the same never-ending game of 19th-century-style musical chairs, of insecurity as a permanent condition?  How'd we get to this pass, anyway?
For most Americans today, the reality is starkly different,.  If you're a part-timer, or self-employed, you already find yourself parked right behind the eight ball -- with no benefits and no health insurance -- plus the knowledge that, if you're a contractor, you'll be expected to cough up about 25 percent of what little you actually do take home. 

In a month where you often don't have a tenner left over to buy anything more radical than Ramen noodles and Carl Budding lunch meat, you still have some small matters to address...such as quarterly estimated tax payments.

But Caesar's not particularly bothered about whether you have anything left for such fripperies -- as you'll find out next year, when he'll whack on enough penalties and interest to keep you working for him...well, more or less indefinitely. 

Like the Bible says, Caesar still expects his due, and by God, you'll pay, pay, and pay until your wallet turns black and blue. The scary thing, of course, is that your situation could be worse -- as the long-term unemployed are finding out.  By next month, the federal Extended Unemployment Benefits Program will phase out in most states that have used it, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

This assistance -- which the federal government has fully funded since 2009 -- amounts to 13 or 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate in each state.  For many folks, this latest onsalught of cuts -- imposed, remember, by Congressmen and women with full benefits, like taxpayer-funded health insurance, and pensions -- amounts to the final kiss-off from a government that seems permanently stuck in voodoo economic mode.

Don't worry, though, the voodoo priests are making out like bandits -- as ABC News reported, in noting that the four living ex-presidents billed taxpayers $3 million for various items last year.  The amounts included $15,000 for Jimmy Carter's postal expenses; $579,000 for Bill Clinton's office rent; $830,000 for George H.W. Bush's expenses (hopefully, they were itemized!); and $80,000 for George W. Bush's phone bills.

Now, considering how much money these gentlemen heist on the rubber chicken circuit -- which amounted to $10 million for Clinton, and $15 million for George W. Bush last year -- it seems strange when the feds claim they can't find more money to help those who need it most. 

Remember this factoid when your far right coworkers start ranting about "bums on welfare."  These ex-presidential perks amount to welfare of a different sort, but apparently, they prefer to call it something else to ease their blackened, blinkered consicence -- albeit one that's shrunken and shriveled from too many years spent lapping at the public trough.

As NELP director Christine Owens notes, it's not like everybody who was relying on these long-term unemployment dollars suddenly found a magic bullet to cure all their ills: "These cuts are coming faster than the economy is improving, which means more workers will have to survive without any jobless assistance and families will have less money to put back into the economy."

But that doesn't bother anybody, apparently.  The government remains stuck in full passive-aggressive mode, hoping that the bad economic news will finally go away, so that all those people grubbing underneath them will stop yammering about their needs...and they can look good.  Fat chance.

For those trapped in this permanent morass of insecurity that devalues their lives, their dreams and their hopes of meaningful social change, the message is simple: "It's sink or swim.  You're on your own, kid." 

If there is a hereafter, Darwin and Nietzsche must be slapping each other high-fives: "You see? You see?  I told you so!"

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Faces Of Hunger: Scenes From A Church Dinner

The one-two punch of poverty and hunger often results in strange, neo-Orwellian terminology...such as a monthly Saturday "community dinner" that one of our local churches hosts at 11:30 a.m.  As far as The Reckoner is cnocerned, that's lunch, under any other name.  By popular consensus, we generally don't worry about eating dinner until six o'clock or thereabouts, right?

At any rate, this particular dinner comes without strings attached.  You won't have to listen to a moral lecture, before being getting to take your plate.  You don't have to fill out a signup sheet, or leave any other official vapor trail -- unlike most food pantries, which must do the paperwork tapdance to satisfy whatever federal agency may be assisting them. 

No, this event is simple and to the point: no charge, open to all comers...just line up and fill your plate: take seconds, if you like, even.  The Squawker and myself have eaten here twice, when the emptying of our refrigerator -- coupled with an equally depleted wallet -- left no other choice.

And the food is decent -- again, served without fuss or frills, but a notch above most of the local pantries. The first time, we got ham slices as the featured item; this time, it was Sloppy Joes. Again, such things may not be your first choice, but when your stomach (and wallet) are growling, you're unlikely to feel terribly picky.

Evidently, word has traveled fast, because only a couple weeks ago, Dinner #2 was packed to the rafters -- looking around the church's large circular meeting room, The Squawker and myself estimated that 60 people turned out, or roughly 20 more than the first dinner we attended. Had we arrived a few minutes later than we did (at 11:45 a.m.), it's quite possible that we wouldn't gotten a seat.

Glancing around the room, however, I was struck by the types of people that we observed -- a roughly 60-40 split between African-Americans and older whites (aged 45-60), respectively. We're still in our lower to mid-40s, so the Squaker and myself were easily the youngest people here, though we also spotted quite a few people with disabilities, as well.

As we took our plates -- and seats -- one other thought struck me.  I only recognized one face in the room, and that was a fiftysomething African-American woman whom I'd interviewed recently at a health fair. Otherwise, all these people were strangers to us; we certainly didn't recall seeing them around town. 

Where did these people come from?  Obviously, they didn't feel that any better options existed, or they wouldn't have shown up, right?  A million thoughts flooded our heads. Would we find ourselves in this tight spot again next month, and how many of these faces would we see again?  What kinds of stories might we hear?

These people aren't abstractions.  They're the faces of hunger in every community -- somebody's loved one, neighbor or friend, yet sorely lacking the gravitational pull that automatically accompanies large corporate donations to your favorite Tweedledee or Tweedledum running for office... short, these are the people whose faces are totally forgotten and ignored by the Washington, D.C. power structure. If we make it out again...we'll see what happens at next month's dinner. --The Reckoner