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This Thanksgiving: How To Talk About The Economy Without Getting Into An Argument

man yelling with megaphone

Is your family one of those families… where Thanksgiving dinner always ends up in a political argument?

First thing to remember is that arguing won’t get you anywhere. Research shows that when the people you’re talking with hold strong beliefs, arguing with them only makes it harder for them to change those beliefs. And “when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. … when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.”

Political scientists call it the “backfire” effect – and if you’re an activist, you need to know about it (and remember it). Also remember that there are neurological differences between “Republican” and “Democratic” brains… and there are behavioral differences… although scientists are still trying to figure out exactly what those differences mean.

no_megaphoneSo what are you supposed to do? If you’re, say, sitting around the Thanksgiving table when Great Uncle Chester starts berating your college-graduate niece about the fact that she’s living at home rather than in her own apartment…?

Start by finding common ground. There’s always something to agree on, if you just look hard enough. Even if it’s just a gentle restatement of what the other person said. “Yes, Uncle Chester, we all agree that college graduates should be able to find jobs that allow them to support themselves.”

Then, add a little reality in there. “But that doesn’t seem to be happening in the current economy. There are a whole lot of twenty-somethings who are still living at home.”

Try to use personal examples rather than just facts. “I remember what my neighbor’s son went through, when he graduated two years ago. It took him 18 months to find a job, and even then he earned barely enough for him to make his student loan payments.”

When you talk about facts, try to frame them as a question, not a statement. “Don’t you think that the economy has changed from when you graduated college? Remember how working in a bank used to be a highly-respected job? Did you know that, these days, almost one-third of bank tellers need food stamps?”

Don’t push too hard. With Uncle Chester, you might not be able to persuade him of anything other than that he should stop berating your niece. (And if you push any further, the conversation might get loud and become a “nobody’s going to win this” argument.)

But continue the conversation, if your audience seems receptive. “Did you know that, these days, banks are paying billions of dollars to stockholders, rather than paying their tellers a decent wage?”

— — — —

no_megaphoneDo you have a second cousin Mildred who insists that “cutting taxes for job creators” is the answer to everything?

Find something you both agree on. “Nobody likes paying taxes.”

Add a personal story. “I remember when we got President Bush’s ‘tax refund checks’ back in 2001 and 2008. It was nice to get the money, but I didn’t invest it. I don’t know anybody who invested it. Most people either kept the money in the bank or used it to pay down debt.”

Then, a little reality. “Did you know that Congress has been cutting taxes on ‘job creators’ since Ronald Reagan was President? Back then, they used to call it ‘supply side economics.’ But it didn’t fix the economy; all it did was create a huge budget deficit. So after a few years President Reagan gave up on the idea and increased taxes again.”

Is Mildred still listening? If she looks interested, rather than angry, give her a few more facts. “Did you know that corporations are spending literally trillions of dollars buying back their own stock? Rather than building new factories or hiring new employees, they’re buying back shares of their own stock in order to keep stock prices high.”

Is she still listening? “And corporations are even borrowing money – bonds they will be paying back for decades – in order to give money to their stockholders now. So I don’t think CEOs would really invest money from tax cuts in ‘job creation.’ Don’t you think they would just pay it out to stockholders?”

Is she still listening? “I wonder what would happen to our tax rates, if corporations were paying taxes at the same rate they used to, before the SEC started allowing companies to buy back their own stock. Don’t you think that we might be paying less in taxes?”

— — — —

no_megaphoneDo you have a brother-in-law who isn’t bothered by increasing inequality? Who thinks CEOs actually deserve to receive 373 times as much as their employees are paid?

Then you ought to read this Pacific-Standard magazine article about a recent International Monetary Fund report.

And you can start the conversation with something like, “We all agree that economic growth is a good thing.”

Then add a little reality. “Did you know that income inequality actually hurts our country’s economic growth?”

Add a story. “Gosh, I wonder if this is why Macy’s is having such a hard time. None of my friends are planning to do their Christmas shopping there.   It seems like everybody is shopping discount stores or making their gifts, this year.”

Use questions. “How can the economy recover, if ordinary people don’t have money to spend? Did you know that one in ten American jobs is in retail? What’s going to happen to that sector of the economy if wages stay stagnant?  What’s going to happen to the rest of the economy?”

Know your audience, and either stop (before things get loud) or keep going. “Did you know that increasing the income share to the bottom 20% – even just by a tiny bit – helps the whole economy grow?”  “Do you think that’s why the economy grew more, back when income was a bit more equal?”

— — — —

no_megaphoneAnd if the conversation turns to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty… please be thoughtful and careful about what you say.

Personally, I’m tired of politicians pitting people against each other. And factory employees in Singapore are working to feed their families, just like we are.

The problem with the TPP isn’t overseas workers, it’s how much power the treaty would give to corporations. It’s how much power the treaty would give to big banks. It’s the idea of America giving up our right to enforce our laws, when those laws are inconvenient to multinational corporations. It’s the idea of turning over even more of our country’s sovereignty to international “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) tribunals.  Read more about how the TPP empowers corporations on the Public Citizen website.

So please, if you’re opposing the TPP, don’t talk about how overseas workers are taking “our” jobs. The real problem is how much it will benefit corporations.

The real problem is that corporate profits are at all-time highs… while labor’s share of that bounty is pretty close to its all-time low.

And the TPP is likely to make that problem worse, not better.

But that’s not the fault of the migrant workers in a Malaysian electronics factory.

— — — —

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope the conversation around your dinner table is a peaceful one.

— — — —

no_fearBut if the conversation turns to Paris and Syrian refugees, please be especially careful. Fear is one of the most basic human emotions… it’s also one of the most destructive… and one of the easiest to manipulate.

Journalist Naomi Klein is the author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” She’s done a lot of research into how corporatists use disasters to push through political change. Read her work about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina here.

“For more than three decades, [economist Milton] Friedman and his powerful followers had been perfecting this very strategy: waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent. In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that ‘only a crisis— actual or perceived—produces real change.’ ”

I think of her work every time someone mentions the Bush tax cuts. Back in 2001, the federal government had a budget surplus; and in the first few weeks of September, the Washington Post did a poll that found 57% of Americans wanted the Bush tax cuts reversed, in order to preserve that surplus. Then 9/11 happened. And a decade and a half later, we still haven’t gotten tax rates restored to Clinton-era levels… and the federal debt has increased by $12.4 trillion.  (And we’re being told we need to cut Social Security, rather than restore the tax rates that President Bush cut even further “while citizens were still reeling from the shock” of 9/11.)

The Paris attacks renewed the atmosphere of fear that I remember after 9/11… and we’ve already seen how some politicians want to use that fear to change government policies. The good news is: my Facebook feed is full of people pushing back against these proposals, questioning them and using historical analogies to say “This is not what America stands for.” The bad news is: Facebook feeds are determined by an algorithm that tends to reinforce what people already believe.

So… when the conversation turns to Paris, and ISIS, remember the advice above.  Arguing isn’t going to help. You need to find some way to help the people you’re talking with step away from their fear, and step into the reality that their fear allows them to be manipulated. Find something to say that you both agree on – most people agree that refugees should be vetted before being resettled – and work from there.

Granite State Rumblings: Cutting Poverty In Half In Ten Years

Since 2010, the Half in Ten campaign has tracked its progress toward achieving its goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years by examining 21 different indicators of economic security and opportunity.

Here are the top 12 key indicators from this year’s report.

1. POVERTY RATE

About 45.3 million Americans lived below the poverty line last year. The percentage of people with incomes below the poverty line—$18,552 for a family of three in 2013—fell from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013. These measures do not account for the impact of the Earned Income Tax Credit, nutrition assistance, and other noncash benefits on income.  For example, if SNAP benefits had been counted as income, the U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that about 3.7 million fewer people would have had income below the poverty line in 2013. For a measure of poverty that includes most of these benefits, subtracts certain expenses, and uses a somewhat different poverty threshold, see Indicator 2.

To substantially reduce the share of Americans living below the federal poverty line, policymakers need to focus on job creation, investment in people, and improving the minimum wage and other labor standards. The poverty rate remains high today due in large part to an excess of poorly compensated jobs. We need to turn bad jobs into good ones by increasing the minimum wage, supporting the efforts of poorly compensated workers to join unions, and ensuring that all workers have basic benefits such as paid sick leave. Finally, to increase economic security and strengthen our nation’s balance sheet, we need to make our tax system more progressive.

2. SUPPLEMENTAL POVERTY RATE

Using the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, the poverty rate was 15.5 percent in 2013, down from 16 percent in 2012. The supplemental poverty measure counts more benefits as income than the official poverty measure, subtracts some work-related and medical expenses, and uses an updated poverty threshold.

Social Security benefits, for example, made it possible for 27 million   Americans to live above the supplemental poverty line, including
1.6 million children. At the same time, commuting and child care expenses pushed 6 million Americans below the supplemental poverty line.

Shifting to the supplemental poverty measure produces a much lower rate of deep poverty overall and for most groups. The supplemental poverty measure is a reminder of the important role that work supports, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, play in reducing poverty and the costs associated with working, particularly for parents caring for minor children. Alongside more jobs with better wages, work supports that reduce work expenses and supplement the wages of poorly compensated workers should be maintained and strengthened to reduce poverty over the next decade.

3. INCOME INEQUALITY

Income inequality remained high in 2013. The 40 percent of households with the lowest incomes received only 11.5 percent of overall income in 2013, a share not significantly different than in 2012. The top 5 percent of households took in 22.3 percent of overall incomes, about the same share as in 2011.

The real incomes of low- and middle-income households have yet to return to their pre-Great Recession levels and are also not much different today than in 1980. At the same time, higher income households—particularly those in the 5 percent of the distribution—have seen substantial gains since 1980.

As with poverty, reducing inequality will require a renewed commitment to full employment and tax fairness; the strengthening of labor standards, such as the minimum wage and the right to bargain collectively; and investments in people’s health and well-being.

4. ON-TIME GRADUATION RATES OF HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMAN

The on-time high school graduation rate measures the percentage of students who enter high school as freshmen and graduate within four years. Over the most recent 10-year period, the on-time high school graduation rate increased by 8.3 percentage points, rising from 72.6 percent in the 2001-02 school year to 80.9 percent in the 2011-12 school year. The on-time high school graduation rate has now increased for six straight years.

On-time graduation rates have increased for all racial and ethnic groups. But there continue to be substantial disparities by race in on-time graduation rates: Rates for whites and for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are substantially higher than for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

5. ECONOMIC INCLUSION OF YOUNG PEOPLE

In 2013, 5.89 million youth—15.1 percent—were neither in school nor employed. The percentage of youth not in school and not working increased for the first time since 2009. While there was a modest increase between 2012 and 2013 in the number of out-of-school youth who were employed, there was an even larger increase in the number of youth not enrolled in school.

To increase the share of youth in education, employment, or training, Congress should allow young workers who do not have children to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, increase investments in summer and transitional jobs for youth, and adopt President Obama’s proposals to increase access and completion of postsecondary education and training, including his proposal for new College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus grants.

6. YOUNG ADULTS AGES 25 TO 34 WITH AN ASSOCIATE’S DEGREE OR HIGHER

The percentage of young adults ages 25 to 34 that have an associate’s degree or higher increased slightly by .7 of a percentage point between 2013 and 2014; it has increased by slightly more than 4 percentage points since 2008.

In October 2013, slightly less than half of 20- to 21-year-olds were enrolled in college. To further increase the educational attainment of young adults, Congress should expand access to higher education by increasing Pell Grant and Federal Work-Study investments and ensuring that working and nontraditional students are able to access financial aid.

7. UNEMPLOYMENT RATE

The unemployment rate continued to decline in 2014, falling from 7.2 percent in September 2013 to 5.9 percent in September 2014. Unemployment rates vary considerably by ethnicity, with blacks and Latinos much more likely to be unable to find work than whites and Asians.

Reducing unemployment needs to be Congress’s top priority. Policies that would create jobs and move us in the direction of full employment include ending harmful austerity policies, making immediate investments in public infrastructure, and creating transitional public jobs for youth and the most-disadvantaged workers.

8. EMPLOYMENT RATE OF PEOPLE WITH A DISABILITY

Among the 15.5 million people ages 16 to 64 with disabilities in 2013, about 4.1 million—26.8 percent—were employed, compared to 70.7 percent of people in the same age range with no disability. There was no change in the employment rate for working-age people with disabilities in 2013.

Adults with disabilities who are in the labor market are much more likely to be unemployed than adults without disabilities. For example, among people with a high school diploma but no college education, 11.3 percent of workers with disabilities are unemployed compared to 7.3 percent of workers with no disability. People with disabilities have much higher poverty rates regardless of whether they are employed or not.

9. PAY OF WORKERS IN SERVICE OCCUPATIONS

About 14 percent of U.S. workers work in one of the five categories of service occupations: health care support, protective services, food preparation, personal care and service, and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance. Median weekly earnings for full-time workers in these service occupations in 2013 were $493 or about $25,000 annually. Adjusted for inflation, there was little or no change in service occupation pay between 2012 and 2013. But since 2003, real median wages for service workers have fallen by about 3 percent.

Stagnant and falling wages for service workers have occurred despite ongoing gains in productivity. Policies that would help on this front include increasing the federal minimum wage to at least $10 per hour, encouraging greater union participation among poorly compensated workers, and halting attacks on the basic rights of workers.

10. SHARE OF POORLY COMPENSATED WORKERS WITH ACCESS TO PAID SICK LEAVE

Only about 34 percent of workers in the bottom quarter of the wage distribution had access to paid sick leave in 2014—the same as in 2013. Poorly compensated workers are much less likely to have paid sick leave than other workers. For example, workers in the second quarter of the wage distribution—between $11.75 and $17.64 per hour—are twice as likely to have paid sick leave as those in the bottom quarter.

Congress should ensure that all workers are able to earn paid sick leave. As an important step toward this goal, the proposed Healthy Families Act would ensure that all workers in the United States in firms with at least 15 employees are able to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Nearly half of the 30 million workers who would be able to earn paid sick leave under the act are in the bottom 25 percent of wage earners.

11. SHARE OF POORLY COMPENSATED WORKERS WITH ACCESS TO AN EMPLOYER-SPONSORED RETIREMENT PLAN

Only about 41 percent of workers in the bottom quarter of the wage distribution—$11.75 an hour or less in 2014—had access to an employer-sponsored retirement benefit plan. The change between 2013 and 2014 was not statistically significant.

Poorly compensated workers who have access to retirement plans are much less likely to participate in them. To improve the retirement security of poorly compensated workers, Social Security should be strengthened for them, as well as adults who spent part of their working years caring for children or elderly parents.

12. GENDER WAGE GAP

In 2013, median annual earnings for women working full-time and year-round were $39,157. That figure is 78.2 percent of the median annual earnings of for men working full-time and year-round:

$50,033. The gap did not change significantly between 2012 and 2013. Moreover there has been little progress in closing the gender wage gap since 2001.

Unequal pay means lower earnings for women and higher poverty rates for both married couples and female-headed households. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, boosting women’s pay to men’s levels would cut the poverty rate for all working women in half, and the total increase in women’s earnings would amount to more than 14 times the current public spending on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, block grant program. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would reduce the gender wage gap.

Policies such as increasing the minimum wage, expanding investments in child care, and improving pay for workers in female-dominated occupations such as care work would help narrow the gender wage gap.

“We will not find agreement on every policy, to be sure, and debates about best approaches can and should happen. But people of all political stripes must recognize the national threat poverty poses and the unacceptable costs of inaction. Poverty is not a Democratic or Republican issue: it’s an American issue.”  – Senator Cory Booker

We’re Number One! (in millionaires)

Most of the discussion I’ve seen of wealth and income inequality has focused on trends in the USA.  Now comes the annual report from Credit Suisse, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, on wealth and inequality worldwide.  The picture looks familiar:  a small number of individuals control most of the globe’s wealth.

Among their findings released October 14:

  • The number of millionaires worldwide is likely to increase from 35 million to 53 million in the next five years;
  • The USA is “the undisputed leader in terms of aggregate wealth;”
  • The USA, Switzerland, and Hong Kong are the most unequal “developed countries;”
  • Countries labeled as “emerging markets,” especially China, can be expected to grow their shares of global wealth in the next five years.  But there, too, inequality is rising.

Credit Suisse, which no doubt wants to handle those millionaires’ accounts, also finds that the USA leads the world with 14.2 million millionaires, 41% of the members of the worldwide millionaire club.  Credit Suisse  refers to them as ‘high net worth” or “HNW” individuals.

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals

Above the HNWs on the ladder are the UHNWs, the “ultra high net worth individuals,” those with with more than $50 million in net assets. The Global Wealth Report says this group has 128,200 members, 49% of whom live in the USA.

Dollar Millionaires

“The number of HNW and UHNW individuals has grown rapidly in recent years, reinforcing the perception that the very wealthy have benefitted most in the favorable economic climate,” the report says.  Indeed.

“HNW and UHNW individuals are heavily concentrated in particular regions and countries, and tend to share more similar lifestyles, participating in the same global markets for luxury goods, even when they reside in different continents,” the authors observed.

Here’s more numbers:

  • The poorest 50% of the global population owns less than 1% of the world’s wealth.
  • The wealthiest 10% (those with more than $77,000 of net worth) owns 87% of the world’s wealth.
  • The top 1% (more than $798,000 of wealth) owns 48.2% of the world’s wealth.
  • The world now has 35 million millionaires, less than 1% of the population.  Together they own 44% of the wealth.

Figures such as these demonstrate that the world’s wealth is in the hands of a very small group of individuals. The figures don’t, by themselves, tell us anything about trends in wealth distribution.  But this topic has finally gotten the attention of policy makers and bankers, even those whose clientele is ultra-rich.

“The changing distribution of wealth is now one of the most widely discussed and controversial of topics, not least owing to Thomas Piketty’s recent account of long-term trends around inequality. We are confident that the depth of our data will make a valuable contribution to the inequality debate,”  the report’s introduction says.

Credit-Suisse also says, “During much of the last century, wealth differences contracted in high income countries, but this trend may have gone into reverse.”

It may be significant that the Global Wealth researchers find that while the top 10% has seen its share of the global pie rise from 67% in 1989 to 72% in 2007 and topped 75% in 2013, the share in the pockets of the top 1% has “shown little upward movement for the past two decades.”

For the USA, however, they find that shares held by the top 10% and the top 1% have held steady, at about 75% and 38% respectively.  This finding contrasts with that of Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who recently wrote

“Wealth inequality [in the USA] has considerably increased at the top over the last three decades.  By our estimates almost all of the increase is due to the rise of the share of wealth owned by the 0.1% richest families, from 7% in 1978 to 22% in 2012.

The conflict may result from differences in methodology or from Saez and Zucman’s attention to the top 0.1%, a smaller sliver than Credit Suisse studied. Nevertheless, both reports add to a body of evidence that the economy is doing just fine for a tiny class of people while just about everyone else is getting left behind.

It wasn’t long ago that economists generally avoided discussion of the distribution of wealth.  Even if they now differ on some fine points, it probably represents progress when economists working for an institution like Credit Suisse are adding their weight to a call for a change of direction.

“In mature economies,” they conclude, “policies to address wealth inequality are receiving increased attention and can hopefully be designed to avoid unwanted effects on growth or economic security. Among emerging markets, policy makers would be advised to study countries, such as Singapore, which have tried to ensure that wealth gains are broadly shared, and which have succeeded in keeping wealth inequality in check.”

[Note: There’s a link to the Global Wealth Report on the Credit Suisse publications page, but the link did not work for me.  Instead, I contacted the bank’s New York press office, where I found someone to send me a copy.]

Originally posted on InZane Times.

The Supreme Court: LOOKING for Trouble?

TruthOrConsequencesCan’t help noticing… when SCOTUS goes looking for a case, the Justices can get themselves really far into the weeds.

Case in point:  two years ago, the Court indicated a willingness to “revisit” long-settled precedents on labor unions.  And they ended up with Harris v. Quinn – which could have all kinds of unintended consequences.  (Are they really going to rule that employers can’t fire workers based on who they associate with?  How’s that going to work, if a Homeland Security employee decides to join Al Qaeda?  Or will they rule that Illinois can’t decide the employment conditions of its own employees?  How are all those “States’ Rights” folks going to swallow that?)

The Harris decision is still pending… and it sounds to me like the Court is looking for even more trouble.

According to press reports, SCOTUS is now targeting state laws that prohibit lying about political candidates.  Here’s the WaPo story from yesterday:  Supreme Court suspicious of Ohio law that criminalizes false speech about candidates.

Ok, so… We’re still reeling from a presidential campaign where the concept of “truth” lost big time.

People’s trust in politicians is pretty much at an all-time low.

And now the Supreme Court wants to go after state laws that prohibit lying during political campaigns?  Really gotta wonder.

If the standards used in the Ohio statute sound familiar – “knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard for whether it was false or not” – well, that’s probably because those same standards are used in libel law.

So… If the Supreme Court rules that corporate-money groups trying to influence elections have a First Amendment right to recklessly disregard the truth about political candidates… wouldn’t that also throw a whole lot of libel precedent out the window?

(Can’t help but notice that there are some high-dollar libel lawsuits pending in lower courts.  MediaMatters’ story:  Libel: Will Defamation Suits Doom Three Right-Wing Media Outlets? How will the Ohio decision affect those cases?)

The judiciary is still the most-trusted branch of the federal government.  But that, of course, could change.  Observers describe an increasingly pro-business tilt to SCOTUS decisions.  (How the Chamber of Commerce conquered the Supreme CourtSupreme Court Hands Chamber Of Commerce Blockbuster Pro-Corporate Term)

And, according to researchers, the rest of our government already represents business interests, rather than the average citizen.

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

So… what happens if (when?) Average Americans lose trust in all branches of their federal government?

Can’t help but wonder how this is going to play out, long term.

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