September 23, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: A DOG EXPLAINS SEMIOTICS



Goat Rope is pleased to feature another exclusive contribution by Dr. Molly Ringworm, a Weimerauner dog who is Visiting Professor of Literary Theory at the Goat Rope Farm School of Cultural Studies.

Dr. Ringworm has previously contributed explanations about post-modernism and deconstructionism in the last two weekend editions of Goat Rope. Please check the archives. Her other works include The Social Construction of Squeaky Toys, Deconstructing Human footwear, and many other articles for academic publications.

This ongoing series is part of Goat Rope's continuing efforts to cover the cultural and intellectual issues of our time.

This week, Dr. Ringworm will explain semiotics, which can be defined as the study of signs and their meanings.

A DOG EXPLAINS SEMIOTICS

OK, like semiotics is cool because it's all about signs and signs are awesome! Dogs love signs.

Especially like road signs. We don't really care what's written on them though. Instead, that's like where we go to read and send each other email messages. Except we do it by peeing. Which is still a lot more interesting than most of the emails you guys send.

Signs can be all kinds of things. They can be letters, words, pictures, sounds, clothes, shapes--you name it. For dogs, they're mostly smells.

And the thing about most people signs is that all by itself the sign may not mean anything. Take the letter s. It's just a squiggly line. There's nothing about it that sounds like an s sound except with the system of all the other letters.

Like the letters s-q-u-e-a-k-y t-o-y by themselves don't mean anything but put them all together and the way you guys talk around here it means "squeaky toy." And the word "squeaky toy" means squeaky toy, which is like a toy that squeaks when you bite it.

Squeaky toys are cool. That's why semiotics is so important. Cause like otherwise you might miss out on the squeaky toy.

Signs have two parts. There's like the thing you mean, which us big dog semiologists call the signified. Then there's like the thing you use to mean what you mean which is called the signifier.

With dogs, it's pretty simple. We go to a road sign and sniff and there's usually a message like "Hey! Check this out! I am one BAD dog!" And then like you can leave a message of your own that says like "Whatever!" or "Oh yeah? Well check this out--I'm even BADDER!"

So what you sniff is the signifier and what it means is the signified, see?

But like with people it can get all messy. Sometimes the signifiers kind of slide off the signified so that nobody knows what anybody else is saying.

That never happens the way dogs do it. Our messages just kind of wear out or get covered over so you have to keep doing it.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

September 21, 2006

WHOSE ECONOMY IS IT ANYWAY?



Caption: Current economic trends have this dog mortified. And a little bug-eyed.

This is the last (for now) of several related posts on the key findings of The State of Working America 2006/2007 by the Economic Policy Institute.

Once again, El Cabrero strongly urges people interested in economic justice to lay hands on this resource. It is a painstaking and very detailed analysis of income, mobility, wages, jobs, wealth, and poverty. There are statistics enough for all.

But sometimes things are easier to understand through narrative than numbers. Here's the story as I understand it.

Economic growth--increasing the total output of goods and services--in general is good, but it's not necessarily good enough by itself to do working people much good.

It is possible to have economic growth and widespread increases in economic well being across the population. That was generally the case in the late 1990s with the nation as a whole.

(El Cabrero sincerely regrets the fact that he did not recognize the 1990s as the Good Old Days at the time.)

On the other hand, it is possible to have economic growth and increasing poverty, stagnant wages, and growing numbers of people without health insurance. That has been the case for most of the 2000s.

In the late 1990s, both market forces and public policy combined to promote rising incomes. The labor market was tight and public policies worked in tandem with the market. Earlier in the decade, the Earned Income Tax Credit was significantly expanded. The minimum wage was increased in 1997. New tax credits helped make post secondary education more affordable for working families.

Federal revenues were strong. Surpluses began to appear after decades of deficits.

The economic recession of the early 2000s was followed by what some call "a jobless recovery" in which GDP and productivity grew but prosperity was not widely shared beyond the wealthiest Americans.

Public policies this time worked against working people. The minimum wage was allowed to stagnate for (so far) the second longest period in its history (9 years Sept. 1, 2006). Tax cuts for the wealthy and the war in Iraq squandered a federal budget surplus which could have provided basic services to assist low income and working families. Key government agencies were occupied by industry-friendly and anti-union/anti-worker officials.

Skewed budget priorities led to a $40 billion cut in social programs such as Medicaid and student loans to pay for $70 billion in tax cuts aimed mostly at the wealthy. Some of the worst policy initiatives of the 1990s such as NAFTA-type trade agreements were expanded. Long standing pillars of the safety net such as Social Security were targeted (so far unsuccessfully) for privatization.

Working families were--and still are--caught in a scissors.

As the authors of this book length report say,

...if the findings in the hundreds of tables and figures that follow can be reduced to one observation, it would be that, when it comes to an economy that is working for working families, growth in and of itself is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The growth has to reach the people: the bakers need to benefit from bread they create each day of their working lives.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

THERE IS POWER IN A UNION



Caption: Goat union leaders say "What are you guys waiting for?"

If we're ever going to reverse the middle class squeeze and move the U.S. in a direction of shared prosperity, defending and revitalizing the labor movement has to be high on the to-do list.

After all, those (we) are the people who fought and voted for the kinds of contracts, laws, and policies that created the worker protections and the social safety net that we have.

Unions have unfortunately suffered a decline in membership. This has helped to erode living standards not just for members but for all working people due to the spillover or "threat effect" of unionism. This is the tendency of employers to offer higher wages and better benefits and conditions in order to stave off organizing efforts.

The Economic Policy Institute's The State of Working America 2006/2007 attributes the decline in union membership to both macroeconomic and political factors:

This erosion of bargaining power is partially related to a harsher economic context for unions because of trade pressures, the shift to services, and ongoing technological change. However, analysts have also pointed to other factors, such as employer militancy and changes in the application and administration of labor law, that have helped to weaken unions and their ability to raise wages.


Despite years of federal hostility or at best indifference to unions and worker issues--including trade deals that made good jobs a leading export--unions continue to deliver the goods to working people.

According to EPI, the union premium, defined as "the degree to which union wages exceed non-union wages" is still significant:

*Wages of union members are 28.1% higher than for non-union members;

*Total compensation (including wages, health and pension benefits) is 43.7% higher;

*Union members are more likely to be covered by health insurance (83.5% to 62%) and to have lower co-pays, deductibles, and better retiree health coverage. The total union premium in this area is 28.2% higher than non-union workers.

*Union members are more likely to be covered by pensions than non-union workers (71.9% to 43.8%). The union premium here is 53.9%; and

*Union members have more time for vacations (2.98 weeks to 2.35 weeks) for a union premium of 26.6%.

One step that could benefit the nation as a whole and stop the race to the bottom would be to restore the right of workers to organize unions without fear of retaliation. The Employee Free Choice Act would do just that.

Since it was introduced in Congress in 2005, bi-partisan support for this long overdue measure has been building but it still faces strong resistance.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

September 20, 2006

TO COMPARE IS HUMAN: WORK IN EUROPE AND THE U.S.


Caption: Un- and under-employed chickens often loiter and get into trouble.

It has become a common pastime in the U.S. to bash the social protections of European economies as inefficient and prone to high rates of unemployment.

(It is seldom observed that, thanks to those social protections, being unemployed in Europe is vastly different than being unemployed in the U.S. For starters, think health care...)

But the old image of European slackers doesn't work so well any more. As mentioned in previous Goat Rope posts, several European countries with strong safety nets and more protections for workers have higher rates of productivity and upward social mobility than this country.

And a new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that

Europe's welfare states have steadily narrowed their traditional employment gap with respect to the United States... The employment gap between the United States and Europe has shrunk considerably since 2000, falling to 1.1 percentage points in 2005 for prime-age workers.


A large part of the remaining difference is attributed to the low employment rates of women in Spain and Italy.

Some of the best performers were countries with strong social protections. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden all had higher prime age (25 to 54) employment rates than the U.S. (81.5%, 83.9%, 87.8%, and 79.3% respectively).

The take-home message seems to be that there is more than one way to get by in a global economy and success doesn't have to come at the price of stagnant wages, persistent poverty and doing without health care.

To view the full report, click here.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

September 19, 2006

WORKING AMERICA, PART II: SOCIAL MOBILITY



Caption: As is the case with nostalgia, social mobility ain't what it used to be.

This is the second post on the key findings in the recently released State of Working America 2006/2007 by the Economic Policy Institute.

"Social mobility" refers to the ability or tendency of people to move up and/or down in income and social class.

In popular culture, the US economy is often portrayed in terms of the rags to riches stories associated with Horatio Alger. The reality is a little different. According to the report,

...we find significant income correlations between parents and their children, implying that income mobility is at least partially restricted by a parent's position in the income scale.


One recent study cited found the correlation between the incomes of a parent and child to be 0.6 (a correlation of 1.0 would mean that a parent's income level for all practical purposes determines the income of the child).

To be more specific,

we find that sons of low-earning fathers have slightly less than a 60% chance of reaching above the 20th percentile by adulthood, about a 20% chance of surpassing the median, and a very slight chance--4.5% of ending up above the 80th percentile.


There are many contributing factors to this, including quality of education and extent of educational attainment, family history, the stresses associated with poverty, health issues, etc.

One particularly surprising finding was a comparison of the rates of upward social mobility. The correlation between the incomes of parents and children was significantly lower--which means that social mobility between generations was actually higher--in Germany (0.43%), Sweden (0.28%), Canada (0.23%), and Finland (0.22%).

To add some reality to our cherished bootstrap myth, we need policies which help people access education, earn their way out of poverty, and build assets.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

September 17, 2006

WORKING AMERICA, PART I: THE BIG DISCONNECTION



Caption: Seamus McGoogle attributes his productivity to a strong Puritan ethic.

Every two years, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) publishes The State of Working America, which is pretty much what it sounds like.

According to the EPI website,

The mission of the Economic Policy Institute is to provide high-quality research and education in order to promote a prosperous, fair, and sustainable economy.


The 2006/2007 version was released this Labor Day and was written by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Sylvia Allegretto. The report is over 300 pages long and contains detailed information and analysis about income, social mobility, wages, jobs, wealth and poverty.

The next few posts will highlight some of the key findings.

Let's start with a big one: the growth in US productivity that began in 1995 and has continued since that time. Productivity is the output of goods and services per hour worked.

Starting in 1995, productivity jumped from an average rate of 1.4 percent per year, a level that had been fairly constant since the 1970s. Between 1995 and 2000, the increase was about 2.5 percent per year. From 2000 to 2005, the rate jumped to 3.1 percent per year.

That should have been good news for working families. Economic growth creates the conditions for shared prosperity. But there is no automatic connection between the two. As the authors put it:

Our findings show that while faster productivity growth creates the potential for widely shared prosperity, if that potential is to be realized, a number of other factors have to be in place. Those factors include labor market institutions (such as strong collective bargaining), an appropriate minimum wage, and, most importantly, a truly tight labor market, all of which are necessary to ensure that the benefits of growth reach everyone, not just those at the top of the wealth scale.


During the last half of the 1990s, the increase in productivity was matched by a smaller but nonetheless substantial increase in median family income. Significantly, real income increased above the rate of productivity for minority and single parent families.

In the first half of the 2000s, however, these gains were reversed. Poverty rates increased, as did the number of the uninsured (by 17.1 percent and 15.1 percent respectively). In this period, "income growth has been uniformly negative, with especially large reversals for less-advantaged families."

In other words, US workers, the geese that lay the proverbial golden eggs, have been laying more and bigger eggs and getting less feed in return.

With apologies to "Cool Hand Luke," what we have here, in other words, is a little bit more than a failure to communicate.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: WIDE