Income Inequality

Americans don’t resent people getting rich. In fact, we are fascinated by wealth. Remember the TV show Lifestyles Of the Rich and Famous? The show was a big hit, with Robin Leach as host. The first episode aired in 1984; episodes continued until 1995.

Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” That’s how Leach signed off at the end of each show.

If we don’t resent the rich and indeed harbor a secret hope that one day we’ll be one of them, we also have to believe that ordinary people have a realistic chance to move up. That’s a core part of the American dream.

It’s less and less true. Wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top, and there’s not much left over for the rest of us.

“The three wealthiest US families are the Waltons of Walmart, the Mars candy family and the Koch brothers, heirs to the country’s second largest private company, the energy conglomerate Koch Industries. These are all enterprises built by the grandparents and parents of today’s wealthy heirs and heiresses.

These three families own a combined fortune of $348.7bn, which is 4m times the median wealth of a US family.

Since 1982, these three families have seen their wealth increase nearly 6,000%, factoring in inflation. Meanwhile, the median household wealth went down 3% over the same period.

The dynastic wealth of the Walton family grew from $690m in 1982 (or $1.81bn in 2018 dollars) to $169.7bn in 2018, a mind-numbing increase of more than 9,000%.”

These wealthy families use their fortunes to hold sway over Republican Congressmen, and to demand legislation that protects their wealth in current time and their ability to pass on their wealth free of estate taxes.

Most Americans don’t even know what the word “plutocracy” actually means, but that’s what we’re becoming.

There are a few notable exceptions, like Warren Buffet. But mostly, rich families are intensely focused on getting richer, and isolating their wealth from the clutches of the tax man.

It wasn’t how democracy is supposed to work.

Who’s the Biggest Employer?

People need work in order to thrive economically and to feel good about themselves. Regions of the country where available work has been decimated — as in the coal mining states — have high rates of poverty and associated problems, like drug abuse.  Regions of the world that never had much work to start with other than subsistence agriculture are at the root of destabilizing mass migrations.

My former home town of Rochester used to have lots of recognizable companies that provided good jobs with benefits that lifted a lot of people into the middle class, even if the worker had only a high school education:  Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox, Gannett, French’s Mustard. Guess who’s the largest employer now? The University of Rochester and the UofR Medical Center.

I just read an article in the London Guardian about Atlanta. Who do you think is the largest employer there? Coca Cola? CNN? Neither. The largest employer is Hartsfield-Jackson airport, which lists 63,000 people on its company roster.

The world of work has completely changed. When I was small, we thought of growing up to be a fireman or policeman or teacher — because that’s what we saw in our neighborhoods. At a point, aspirations shifted from roles to companies: a Kodak guy — usually it was a guy — could get his kids summer jobs there and then, often, a bid to join the company full time. Then, aspirations became linked to industries: finance, tech.

Now, people look for jobs where they can find them. What little kid grows up thinking “I want to be a Harsfield-Jackson airport worker”? But if you live in Atlanta, that’s probably a pretty good job to seek.

Donor Lunch with Senator Patty Murray

I give to Democratic candidates and office-holders at a level that gets me invites to things like a small group lunch with Washington’s Senator Patty Murray. These events are tightly scripted and last no more than 45 minutes to an hour — the Senator’s staff keeps her on schedule — but there are opportunities to ask a question and hear the Senator respond.

We covered much ground, and I came away with a lot of feelings — sobering ones. Things really are as bad in Washington D.C. as we fear. Totally aside from Trump’s pot-stirring tweets, his lies and demonization of huge swathes of the country, his cabinet appointees like Betsy deVos, Ben Carson, and Jeff Sessions are radically reshaping the missions of the departments they lead. Mitch McConnells’ singular focus is stacking the federal judiciary with as many Federalist Society approved hard right judges as he can. Senator Murray said that for all of her time in the Senate, she and her counterpart in the Senate from Washington — early on, Republican Slade Gordon and more recently, Democrat Maria Cantwell — the two Senators agreed on a bipartisan commission that would recommend exceptionally qualified judges from a variety of perspectives. The two Senators would work together to have those judges elevated to the federal bench. The Trump administration has thrown all of that out, and Senators are simply told who is coming to fill openings in their state — all deeply conservative judges, mostly white men, schooled and supported by Koch-funded Federalist Society money. Damage to the credibility of the court system is one of the most destructive elements of the nearly two years that Trump has been in office. With a Democratic Senate takeover unlikely, the damage to our justice system will continue unabated.

As Justice Kagan recently said, the viability of the court system rests on all of us accepting that the process is fair, and agreeing to abide by legal rulings whether or not we agree with them. Once the majority begins to feel that the process is rigged, that key institution in our democracy falls apart.

Trump voters are not the majority.

Patty Murray said she honestly believes our country is better than what we’ve been since Trump burst upon the national scene. The November election will tell the tale.

The Impulse to Do Good

This is a really long ProPublica piece, which you should surely read if you ever feel tempted to give money to organizations working in developing countries that are run by young white people from the U.S. whose main qualification is an impulse to do good.

Creating real, sustainable change in another country with a different culture and likely a welter of different languages is extremely hard. I’m thinking of my own Peace Corps service in Panama, and of my niece’s stint as a volunteer physician in Africa. Humility is called for. An ability to work with and through local resources is a must. Being on site to see what is actually happening rather than taking high profile fund-raising tours in the U.S. is essential. Keeping appropriate personal boundaries with on site staff goes without saying. Actually have some skills in the area you hope to influence — like running a school — matters.

A college classmate of mine, a Maryknoll nun, has been living and working in Arusha, Tanzania for decades. Mary runs a home where Masai girls come and live while they go to high school rather than being married off. Mary lives on site. She has the professional skill and educational background to tutor the girls in math and science. She controls who has access to the girls, and watches what happens with the adults who do. She supervises the local staff, who have taken on more and more of the responsibility of running the place as Mary gets older.

There’s a world of difference between that and what you see described in this article.

If you have good intentions, and the capacity to give, and an interest in developing countries, beware.

Why Tax Fraud is Easy — For the Rich

People can be forgiven for thinking that the New York Times expose’ of the longstanding pattern of deception and fraud perpetrated by Fred Trump and his son Donald will result in consequences. Surely now the Republican Congress will demand Trump’s tax returns — the story was based on Fred’s — to see what Donald has been up to recently. Surely, if a civil case can be documented and proven, the IRS or New York state authorities will bring one.

Probably not. The IRS is badly outgunned by rich families who can afford to hire layer upon layer of the best legal and accounting talent to help them avoid, and in some cases evade, their fair share of taxes. Think about it: if you were at the top of your accounting classes and a whiz at taxation, would you go to work for the IRS and be paid as a pubic servant, or would you go to work for a firm that serves families like the Trumps? The IRS doesn’t have the talent, the manpower, or the political running room to take on the Trumps, not before Donald became president and certainly not now.

Bernie Madoff, he of the colossal investment scam that took place right under the noses of the SEC and the NASD, finally got his comeuppance — but only because he cheated rich people. Fred and Donald Trump cheated low income residents in their housing projects and the taxpaying population of the country in general, and there’s a lot more tolerance for greed when it’s ordinary people who are taken for suckers.

Teachers Losing Ground

I think many of us have the sense that teachers are losing ground. My older sister and her husband were both teachers, then administrators, during what now look like the glory years of public education. One of the friends I most admire was a teacher, administrator, and finally a superintendent of schools in Massachusetts. Florence wanted to be a lawyer but bright young girls from 1930’s Flatbush mostly weren’t, Brooklyn neighbor RBG notwithstanding. My friend Ada taught both of my kids in elementary school. My friend Sally was a teacher and a building administrator. These are all exceptionally bright women who, had they come of age today, could have been anything.

A good teacher can make a world of difference in a child’s life. One that is unkind or inept can cause inestimable damage.

Teachers may not have made what others with comparable education did, but they had three months off in the summer and generous health care and pension benefits in addition to compensation. No more. Now, those benefits come in lieu of salary — and with the rickety state of public employee pensions in many states, that future bet hardly looks so secure.

If we say that teaching isn’t important enough to justify a professional salary package, then we’re saying our kids and their futures are not important either.

This drive to diminish public education isn’t coming from Congress as a whole; it’s a core belief of the Republican party, who want their children in charter schools whose ethnic makeup they can control. Betsy DeVos, our remarkably ignorant Secretary of Education, is the poster girl for their position — part of Trump’s Make America White Again agenda.

Think about that when you vote.

Climate Change: Bad for the Panama Canal

Panama is a small country, with few natural advantages other than location. Panama has a robust banking and finance industry, but other than that, what keeps the country afloat is revenue from the Panama Canal.

According to the Washington Post’s Energy 202, the daily newsletter about energy-related issues, the Venta Maersk, a Danish container ship, is about to attempt to sail through the Northern Sea Route. Enough ice has melted, apparently more or less permanently, to make the passage possible from July to October.

This is good news for the profitability of shipping companies. The news is very bad for the global climate, for the Panama Canal and for Egypt’s Suez Canal.

Wealthy Panamanians, like the wealthy anywhere, will likely be largely untouched. But the poor, the people I visit in the city and the village, Minga’s large extended family, will see their lives get harder and harder.

Light-Fingered Lunch Ladies

Nobody pays attention to the lunch ladies in the school cafeteria, a low skilled job with fewer hours offered than most people need to make a living. Lunch ladies, who tend to be older women, are more or less invisible. Ah, the opportunity…

Enter the lunch ladies of New Canaan, Connecticut — 61 and 67 year old sisters, who are accused of having spirited away nearly half a million dollars  over four years from lunch money handed over by the kids. The ladies were unmasked when a new software program was installed to track daily cash receipts in the middle school and high school. To be fair, at this point the sisters are merely accused of wrongdoing. They haven’t been tried and convicted yet.

The New Canaan lunch ladies join a long list of successful scammers that nobody thought important enough to watch, or were assumed to be people who’d never steal. In 1996 the treasurer for the national Episcopal Church stole 1.5M right out from under everyone’s eyes, and it apparently wasn’t all that hard. Since then, a long list of clergy, administrative people, and ordinary churchgoers involved in the Sunday collection have been nailed as a result of greater scrutiny. “But who would steal from the church?”, people sometimes ask. Turns out a lot of people, if given the opportunity. Ditto for stealing children’s lunch money.

The half million bucks is apparently gone, and all because nobody was looking.

Dollar General: A Devil’s Bargain

Dollar General stores, which sell items as diverse as food and clothing and household cleaners and tools at rock bottom prices are moving like a juggernaut into rural American and into devastated inner cities. Dollar General, says its CEO, goes where even Walmart doesn’t.

The problem is that Dollar General wipes out what local businesses might remain in these economically challenged communities. And, they offer a different kind of product, one that has a long shelf life and can be bought in bulk. Heirloom tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, meat from locally grown animals … things like that don’t make the cut.

Not everything is to be had for a dollar, but rarely is anything priced above $10. But there is a cost. Dollar General’s aggressive pricing drives locally owned grocery stores out of business, replacing shelves stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat with the kinds of processed foods underpinning the country’s obesity and diabetes crisis.”

Occasionally a town, like Buhler, Kansas, turns down the subsidies required to bring a Dollar General store to town, and the local grocery gets a reprieve. But Dollar General is steamrolling ahead, constantly finding welcoming  communities.

I think of Bloomfield, Iowa, where my father went to high school. He actually lived in Mark, which is a tiny crossroads so small he had to rent a room in town for high school because the walk from the farm would have taken too long. Bloomfield is the county seat for Davis County. In the early years when we went to visit family in Iowa, “Saturday night” was a big deal. All the farmers came into town to buy supplies for the week. The men stood chatting and smoking on street corners while their wives went in and out of local merchants, stocking up. We kids played on the grass in the town square and ate ice cream. Years later, my Aunt Colleen mourned that “Saturday night no longer happens.” Most people were shopping at big box stores outside of town, and the local merchants failed. People stayed home to watch TV.

The last time I was in Bloomfield, some years ago, most of the store fronts were open. But it was arts and crafts shops, small galleries… things that would appeal to tourists. The Royal Cafe where my father worked his way through high school was long gone. So was Colleen and Louis’ “Graves the Great Barber Shop and Beauty Salon”, where Louis and Colleen Graves made their modest living. There were two chairs in the shop, one for men’s haircuts and one where Colleen gave tight perms using acrid chemicals that made my eyes water just being in the shop.

I’m sure there were once stores selling groceries, too, but no longer.

Walmart and Dollar General are a devil’s bargain for these rural communities, but we all know the old days when farmers gathered for Saturday night and bought from local merchants aren’t coming back.