August 11, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT ON MEN'S AND WOMEN'S WORK


Goat Rope is pleased to feature another learned commentary by bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit.

Dr. Dimwit is regarded by Goat Rope staff as by far the most intelligent representative of unrestrained market theory of economics. For first time visitors, it is usually Dr. Dimwit's policy to use this space to comment on previous posts in this week's Goat Rope.

It is our fondest hope that, by providing space for opposing viewpoints, Goat Rope is reducing the tragic polarization of our times and promoting a climate of profound mutual respect, deep listening, and civil discourse.

THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

Curdawackadiddle! This blog is a regular septic tank submarine! Except stupider...

OK, I see where the wibberjibbers who write for this thing had two things in there this week about men and women in the workforce. Let me explain all about work scientificometrically.

Work is a great thing for everybody but me. The more and the harder everybody else works for the less wages, the better off they'll be, see? That way, they're contributing to the economy instead of wasting money on themselves. That's the way the market works.

The market knows its doing and what's good for you better than you do.
If you don't believe me, I can prove it algebraicotrigonometrically and empircoobservationally.

First take the square root of negative one and stick it up your nose! Then take a look at the picture. The little handsome guy in the background is me. And see what's in front of me, huh? That BIG hen? She's huge! I mean gargantuan. The earth quakes when she walks. And you know what? She's with me, Jack! Got it?

That's the beauty of the market.

And that's the truth. You bet your cloaca.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

LESSONS?

The terrorist plot foiled by British authorities is a reminder of several things. First, there really are fanatics who want to commit atrocities on innocent civilians.

Second, often plots of this kind are foiled by good intelligence and police work. Overwhelming military force is a pretty blunt instrument in dealing with a diffuse and decentralized threat. If overwhelming military force were the main ingredient in stopping terrorism, Israel would be the safest place in the world.

Third, the unnecessary war in Iraq has made the US less rather than more safe. The money and human resources consumed by the war—around $320 billion that we know about—could better be spent elsewhere. Supporters of the war often claim say “If we don’t fight them there, they’ll attack us here.” The recent threat is more proof that it isn’t a case of either/or.

Fourth, the spending and policy priorities of the nation’s leaders are seriously skewed and may do little to make us safer. As James Surowiecki points out in the August 7 and 14 New Yorker

…we have a defense budget that is over half a trillion dollars, forty percent higher than it was in 2001. More than half the federal government’s discretionary spending goes to the military, and, while a sizable chunk goes toward the fight against terrorism and the Iraq war, too much has nothing to do with the demands of a post-9/11 world.


Much defense money is being spent Cold War era high tech weapons systems that may well have once put the fear of God into the Soviet military but do little to counter the kinds of threats we face today.

The flow of lots of money to corporate defense contractors has been a boon to war profiteers but may have the effect of making us less safe:

…often in recent times expensive weapons projects have been given priority over mundane improvements that would help the military here and now. Earlier this year, for instance, the Senate cut funding for night-vision goggles for soldiers, while adding money to buy three new V-22 Ospreys, a plane that Dick Cheney himself tried to get rid of when he was Secretary of Defense. Similarly, we might have been able to afford appropriate body armor for the troops, and plates for the Hummers in Baghdad, if we were building only one new model of multi-billion-dollar jet fighter, instead of two.


The article also notes that the Congress recently eliminated $650 million for port security and $100 million for preventing the use of nuclear weapons in the US, all of which are less than a third of the cost of building a new destroyer.

Fifth, the mania for military outsourcing isn’t helping. In Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22, Milo Minderbinder said “Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry.”

What was once a laugh line is becoming a reality. Since 2002, the 16 percent of Defense Department spending for Iraq and the war on terrorism has gone to contractors who often do what military personnel once did, provided of course that they actually do what they are paid to do.

This is, alas, not a given. As Business Week puts it,

The U.S. military has lost billions to fraud and mismanagement by private contractors in Iraq who do everything form cooking soldiers’ meals to providing security.


The article reports that payments to contractors “who provide food, shelter, security and other services” has jumped from $53 billion in 2000 to $104 billion in 2005. The article quotes Jeffrey Smith, former CIA general counsel, as saying “Iraq has attracted patriots and crooks—and there were probably some crooked patriots.”

This ideologically driven mania for privatization can have deadly consequences when profit trumps troop or public safety.

Sixth, the administration's fixation on tax cuts aimed mostly at the wealthy, which incredibly cost more than the the Iraq war, deprive the country of both needed services and legitimate security measures. If a jetliner explodes, it affects first class travelers too.

So, yes, there is a threat. But, yes, there have to be better ways of dealing with it.

August 10, 2006

WOMEN, WELFARE, WORK, AND WAGES


Caption: Venus can attest that it's not always easy to be a single mom.

The 1996 federal welfare reform legislation is ten years old this month. Some people are celebrating this anniversary as a great success. The legislation has been celebrated for reducing poverty among single parent families and increasing workforce participation.

It is true that poverty rates went down for single-mother families between 1995 and 2000, but other factors were at work as well. The minimum wage was increased in 1997 and the federal Earned Income Tax Credit--one of the best anti-poverty programs ever--was expanded in the 1990s as well. Probably the biggest factor, though, was the rapidly expanding job market.

According to Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute,

the strong increase in employment opportunities in the latter 1990s meant that the demand for labor expanded more than enough to meet the increase in labor supply precipitated by welfare reform.


So what happens when the labor market heads south? You guessed it, the poverty rate tends to rise, in this case from 33 to 36 percent for single mothers between 2000 and 2004. Annual hours worked by these women decreased from 1,170 to 1,068 in the same period.

According to Bernstein,

Single mothers clearly responded to both policy and economic changes in the latter 1990s, sharply increasing their annual hours of work in the paid job market. But the recession and jobless recovery meant fewer opportunities for these women. Note, for example, that employment for non-managers in retail grew by 1.9 million jobs from 1994 to 2000, but actually lost 33,000 jobs form 2000 to 2005. Thus, single-mothers' annual hours fell, and their poverty rates reversed course.


These trends didn't completely reverse the gains made by single mothers in the 1990s but they do highlight the need for a better safety net for these families when the job market sours.

West Virginia rant: one reason that welfare reform wasn't as bad as it could have been in El Cabrero's beloved home state is that lots of people worked hard to change and improve state policies to make education and support services more widely available and to ensure that the families of people with disabilities or survivors of domestic violence weren't cut off from benefits. Unfortunately, the latest welfare changes passed by Congress represent a step backward.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 09, 2006

A NEW FACE FOR HUMANITARIAN AID


Caption: Why the long face? A new kind of aid is on the way.

While catching up on a neglected pile of magazines, El Cabrero stumbled on a new and very sensible kind of humanitarian aid in the July 17 issue of Business Week:

ASKED TO NAME a team of specialists known for swooping into disaster zones to deliver relief, many of us could come up with Doctors Without Borders? But Telecoms Without Borders?


The French name (pardon the absence of accent marks) is Telecoms Sans Frontieres, and according to Business Week,

this little-known communications SWAT team is often among the first to arrive after a catastrophe--with laptops, routers, and satellite gear. TSF's 50 workers (15 salaried, 35 volunteer) have become a dependable geek squad for the international disaster-relief community. "Uninterrupted Internet communications are a lifeline for us," says Rajan Gengaje, a U.N. adviser who worked with TSF in the wake of the May 27 earthquake on the Indonesian island of Java.



The group was founded in 1998 but grew out of an older volunteer organization, Solidarite Pyrenee (again, sorry about the accent marks). The idea for this kind of an aid group grew out of the first Gulf War. According to co-founder Jean-Francois Casenave, many refugees at the time "gave us a piece of paper from inside their shoes with a phone number and asked us to call their families."

At the time of the article, the group had completed 60 missions, including the 2003 earthquake in Iran, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the 2005 famine in Africa. "After the recent Indonesian quake, a TSF team, headed by Oisin Walton, 26, set up a comprehensive Internet, fax, and phone center for 110 rescue workers in the city of Yogyakarta."

Make that 60+. On August 7, a TSF team departed for Lebanon.

Makes sense to me. Even during the minor floods and accidents El Cabrero experienced as a volunteer firefighter, sometimes the most urgent need of survivors was to get word to families and friends.

In this cold and increasingly postmodern world, information and communication are matters of life and death.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

August 08, 2006

TWO MOUNTAIN STATES


Caption: A view from Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak.

It is one of the consistent ironies of history that regions richest in natural resources often have the poorest people.

El Cabrero recently returned from a short visit to Vermont, another beautiful mountain state. The contrast between West Virginia and Vermont is always striking to me.

Aside from wealthy flatlanders snapping up old farms and real estate, Vermont is mostly owned and controlled by…Vermonters.

In West Virginia’s colonial economy, out of state corporations own vast tracts of land and exploit it and the people ruthlessly. They also dominate state politics. Now they are permanently altering its natural terrain through mountaintop removal mining practices that extract wealth while creating fewer and fewer jobs. And, as the world was reminded earlier this year, too many miners still die on the job.

Vermont reminds me of the Shire, home of the happy hobbits, whereas the beloved home state seems like an embattled encampment on the edges of Mordor where there are nearly always Dark Lords seeking total power and control (although they already have almost everything).

West Virginia talks about being “open for business,” which often means boarded up main street windows and big box retail sprawl, usually paid for in part by state tax breaks for out of state corporations. Vermont really is open for local businesses. A drive through just about any small town there will find thriving locally owned stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, bed and breakfasts, crafts, restaurants, and other businesses.

Political leaders in Vermont see their mountainous terrain as an asset, whereas those here often seem to see ours as something to be eliminated as quickly as possible.

Vermont provides virtually universal health care for children and is moving to cover adults. West Virginia’s current leadership is targeting and punishing Medicaid recipients and wants to postpone expanded health coverage for children to pay for more tax breaks for corporations.

Last year’s Census report on Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States shows a contrast:

*Three year average household income (2002-2004) was $45,692 in Vermont, compared with $32,589 in West Virginia;

*Three year average poverty rates were 8.8 percent in Vermont, compared to 16.1 percent in West Virginia;

*The three year average for people without health insurance was 10.5 percent in Vermont, compared with 15.9 percent in West Virginia.

Vermont doesn’t have a colonial economy.

Author Jeff Goddell writes unflatteringly in the recent book Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future,

…if coal mining were the sure-fire ticket to wealth and prosperity that many in the industry claim, West Virginians would be dancing on gold-paved streets. Over the past 150 years or so, more than 13 billion tons of coal have been carted out of the Mountain State. What do West Virginians have to show for it? The lowest median household income in the nation, a literacy rate in the southern coalfields that’s about the same as Kabul’s, and a generation of young people who are abandoning their home state to seek their fortunes elsewhere.


OK, the Kabul thing was over the top, but the writer has a point.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: YOU DECIDE

August 07, 2006

MEN WITHOUT WORK



Caption: These guys stopped looking for work long ago.

An interesting article in last week's
New York Times
reported that about 13 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 55 are not working, up from 5 percent in the 1960s. "The difference represents 4 million men who would be working today if the employment rate had remained what it was in the 1950's and 60's."

In El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, the numbers are even higher, as reporter Scott Finn wrote in yesterday's Sunday Gazette-Mail.

One in four men in the Mountain State between the ages of 30 and 54 said he did not have a job, according to 2004 Census data--twice the national average.

This information flies in the face of conventional wisdom and an official state employment rate of about 5 percent.

These men don't show up in unemployment statistics because they have been without a job for too long to receive benefits. Some stopped tying to find a job. Others collect disability checks. Many survive on under-the-table income from odd jobs.


These numbers reflect structural changes in the state, national and global economy as corporations have downsized and out-sourced jobs to other countries. West Virginia has been hit especially hard by mechanization of mining and the decimation of manufacturing in the wake of NAFTA and corporate-driven globalization.

As one would expect, many men of this age now out of the labor market were from blue collar backgrounds, but their ranks also include many highly educated men from management or professional careers. As the Times reports, "Refugees of failed Internet businesses have spent years out of work during their 30's, while former managers in their late 40's are trying to stretch severance packages and savings all the way to retirement."

Behind the numbers are personal stories. In some cases, men who enjoyed a living wage, benefits, and a certain amount of prestige in their previous careers are reluctant to take low wage, low skilled, low trust jobs. In other cases, the shock and pain from losing a job is a blow to personal identity that translates into depression, illness, isolation, family problems, and early death.

As WV AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Larry Matheney put it in the Gazette-Mail, "I've had men in their 50s stand before me and cry because they've lost their jobs. That sense of loss is second only to the death of a loved one."

Any way you look at it, this is a huge waste of human potential.

The thing to remember is that corporate driven globalization (and the right wing anti-worker political agenda that is its evil twin) isn't a picnic for most women and children either or for that matter for very many people outside of the international investor class.

One of the many challenges for our times is to try to build an economy that works for everyone.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED