Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A

Shame Redistribution

April 23, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change, Inequality

A little while ago, I was watching this video of Michelle Alexander. In it, she talks about how struck she was by the silence within the communities most affected by mass incarceration. House after house in these neighborhoods had family members in prison. But people weren’t talking about it. And a big reason for that was shame.

Not long after, some of the people from the housing committee of Occupy DC were telling us how they had a hard time finding people willing to admit that they were being foreclosed on. People were too ashamed to admit it publicly. The shame was so great that they would rather lose their home.

It is incredible to me how we have all been shamed into silence. We are ashamed of being targeted by police. Ashamed of being taken advantage of by shady mortgage lenders. Ashamed of being poor. Ashamed of what we look like or who we have sex with. We are just inundated with shaming for so many things that we have no business being ashamed of.

Meanwhile, I’m researching Wells Fargo and their investments in private prisons. And I’m thinking about these mutual fund managers who shamelessly  sit at their desks buying stock in private prisons that torture people. Then they go home to their McMansions or posh condos and bask in the glory of having all the things the rest of us are shamed for not having.

There is a lot of talk about redistribution of wealth. But I think maybe we need to start with a redistribution of shame.


Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

Arms Sales as Economic Warfare

September 30, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Politics

Money spent on arms is money that impoverishes people.  Governments take money from their citizens, money that they can ill afford to give up.  Instead of using that money on education and social programs which would help the poor climb out of poverty, it is paid out to weapons manufacturers.  Tax resentment, stemming from all the taxes it takes to keep up with arms purchases, makes social spending even more impossible.

According to a Congressional Research Service report out this month titled Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2001-2008 (CATDN), 76.4% of 2008 arms transfers agreements by major weapons suppliers were to nations in the developing world.  “The value of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations in 2008 was nearly $42.2 billion.”

Let’s put $42.2 billion into perspective. India is one of the primary developing country purchasers of weapons around the world.  According to the World Bank’s Geo, India had a 2006 per capita income of $820.  So $42.2 billion is equivalent to a year’s income for more than fifty million Indians.

How many people is that?  Take the populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and San Antonio.  Add them together.  Now double it.  It is still less people than the fifty million Indians whose yearly income equivalent is being spent on arms by developing nations.

“India ranked second in arms transfer agreements during 2005-2008 with $20.2 billion (in current dollars), or 13.7% of the value of all developing-world arms transfer agreements.”   So while India contains a third of the worlds poor and while nearly a quarter of urban residents live in slums, the government is spending vast amounts of money on arms.

The money that is spent on arms by developing nations goes primarily to companies from the richest countries in the world.  And the United States military industrial complex benefits more than anyone. “In 2008, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with $29.6 billion or 70.1% of these agreements” (CATDN).*

Selling arms benefits the United States in all sorts of ways.  First there is the money directly made from the initial arms sales.  Then there is the continuing income from “upgrades, spare parts, ordnance and support services” (CATDN).

Rather than feeling any moral ambiguity about taking money from poor people in developing countries to fill the coffers of the U.S. “defense” industry, many in our government see the arms race as a desirable mechanism for keeping dependent countries from ever catching up.

Lest you think I have been hanging out on too many conspiracy theory websites, I direct your attention to Senate Bill 1044.  The bill was introduced by Republican John Thune of South Dakota.  It is titled Preserving Future United States Capability to Project Power Globally Act of 2009.  Its purpose is to “pursue a development program for the next generation bomber” and it reads, in part:

(2) Long range, penetrating strike systems provide…the ability to impose disproportionate defensive costs on prospective adversaries of the United States.

In other words, as long as we can keep other countries buying our outrageously expensive high tech weapons, our world hegemony remains secure.  The fact that this hegemony depends on keeping the poor impoverished is not an unintended consequence.  It is a tactic.


* Please note that this figure includes only the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales.  Data for commercial export sales is not kept by any government agency.

United States commercially licensed arms deliveries data are not included…The United States is the only major arms supplier that has two distinct systems for the export of weapons: the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system, and the licensed commercial export system. (CATDN)

Hunger Chalenge Thoughts

September 25, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I’ve been on the Hunger Challenge this week.  It’s been forcing me to think a lot more about my food.  That’s a good thing.  Even someone like me, who used to work at a center for agroecology, tends to forget about where my food is coming from and who is involved in bringing it to me.

I have new found sympathy and respect for the people who make a $4 per day food stamp budget work.  It takes careful planning and a lot of time cooking and shopping to eat on that.  There are single parents out there trying to work two jobs and still plan meals on that tight a budget.  They are amazing.

It’s infuriating that anyone would have to do that though.  Food is a human right.  And yet, according to the World Food Program

There are 1.02 billion undernourished people in the world today. That means one in nearly six people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

That’s criminal.

Meanwhile, while people starve or scrape by as underpaid food system workers, agribusinesses and the food industry rake in monstrous profits.  Even in bad times, Archer Daniels Midland is making profits of $64 million a quarter.

ConAgra brought in $165.9 million in profit last quarter.  Monsato is cutting back now but looking to “more than double gross profit to as much as $8.8 billion in fiscal 2012 from $4.2 billion in 2007.”  That’s right.  That was billion with a b.

Food should not be a commodity that Wall Street speculates over and buys yachts with while millions are malnourished.  It’s disgusting.

Poor Women Feed the World

September 24, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about women using women.  In it I commented on privileged women using poorer women to clean their houses and raise their children – women who have low salaries and no benefits.

But the truth is that all of our lifestyles are built on the backs of poor people (and women in particular), even if we don’t have the direct exploitative employer/employee relationship.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

Rural women in particular are responsible for half of the world’s food production and produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries.

And yet while these women are feeding us all, estimates are that 70 percent of the worlds poor are women.

It isn’t just an issue of small-holder agriculture either.  Women are overrepresented in all aspects of the grossly underpaid food system.  Women are the majority of wait staff, fast food workers, and counter attendants.

The latest occupational employment report shows the U.S. median wage at $15.57 per hour.  Workers in the food industry typically make little more than half that.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “more than two-thirds of all low-wage workers in 2003 were in service-type occupations, mostly in food service jobs.”

Every step of food production  – from the farm worker to the food processing plant to the food prep worker to the counter help or wait staff – relies on millions of underpaid workers with few (if any) benefits and little security.

How is it that the people who do the jobs most fundamental to survival are so undervalued?

Poor People Can’t Eat Healthy

September 22, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post that I am participating in the Hunger Challenge.  It means I am trying to eat on $4 per day.  That’s how much someone gets if they are on food stamps.

How am I doing?  Not so good.

Yesterday I was hungry and cranky.  I skipped working out because I would have been famished after.  I usually eat every few hours to keep my metabolism up (and my crankiness down), but that was impossible.  My daily apple was skipped.  Fruit is just too expensive.  My lunch salad consisted of three ingredients.

With all that I still went over my $4.  Pathetic no?

Research shows that obesity and poverty are linked in this country.  Just one day on the Hunger Challenge showed me why.  I knew I was going to have to give up the farmers market and the organic food.  I knew I was going to have to give up pricey fish and cheese.  I didn’t think I was going to have such a hard time including even a couple fruits and vegetables.

The cost of fruits and vegetables isn’t just a matter of chance, it is a matter of policy.  Our government subsidises farmers, but not the farmers who grow most fruits and vegetables.  In fact, government policies actually prevent farmers from growing fruits and vegetables.

That’s just crazy.

The Class War Heats Up

September 16, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Politics

Here in the United States, we like to pretend that we are all middle class.  We all want to believe in that myth of equal opportunity.  Despite the fact that every day we see people with no scruples who work less and earn more, we still seem to buy into the idea that those who work hard will be rewarded for it.

This mythology, this willingness to admire the rich and revile the poor, is very convenient for the people that have been bleeding us dry.  And while we are busy blaming the poor for their misfortune, the richest 1% keep taking bigger slices of the pie.

Since Ronald Reagan, every president has run on a platform of fiscal responsibility.   And since Ronald Reagan, social programs spending (except for health care costs) has been decreasing.

The republicans managed to win elections by labeling poor, black women as “welfare queens.”  Their tactics were so successful that the democratic party fell all over itself to become “new democrats” who “reformed” the welfare system.

Now the welfare queen myth is back in new form.  Once again, that greedy 1% is manipulating people into thinking that their increasingly difficult and indebted lives are the result of poor freeloaders, rather than the rich corporate welfare recipients who really benefit from government largess.

The 1% is really ratcheting up their war now.  The war is no longer just against the poor or against liberal government.  They now set their sites on civil society.  This morning’s Heritage Foundation email attacks, not just acorn, but “poverty advocacy” as a whole

That “web of relationships” between poverty advocacy groups like ACORN is the real story here that impacts the American people. ACORN is by far not the only suspect community organizer group. Just last summer federal investigators raided a city-chartered nonprofit agency accused of abusing a federally financed program that was created to clean up houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Teachers unions have contributed over $1.3 million to ACORN and its affiliates, since 2005. And the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has chipped in another $7.4 million. ACORN founder Wade Rathke even has a book out titled “Citizen Wealth” which “shows how to cut through government indifference and bureaucratic obstacles” to achieve “maximum eligible participation” in the “anti-poverty programs still out there.”

So here we are.  The 1% is using their considerable arsenal to make sure they keep their lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Republican politicians and media pundits will happily help them blame the poor, brown people for all our troubles.  Democrats will, maybe, throw a little government money our way to look like they are for the people.

The real question is, what are we going do?  Are we going to let politicians attack the poor and those advocating on their behalf? Are we going to watch as democrats fall all over themselves, once again, trying to show how fiscally responsible and anti-welfare they are? Are we going to let race and culture and mistrust get in our way again?

Or are we finally going to acknowledge that the 1% has gone too far and it’s time the other 99% of us stand up for some justice?

Women Using Women

September 08, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I have worked with many self-described feminists who have housekeepers and nannies.  I am amazed at how few of them see the conflict inherent in building your freedom on some other woman’s lack thereof.  And I’m not talking about Wall Street women.  I’m talking about liberal women who supposedly care about inequality, oppression, racism and poverty.

What I find especially frustrating is how a reliance on hiring poor women allows men to continue to shirk their responsibilities.  How many of you have friends whose husbands refuse to clean or do their fare share of the childcare?  Did they confront their husbands?  Did they attempt to confront the sexism and unfairness of it all?  Or did they just cop out and use their privilege to buy someone poorer to make the problem go away?

Racewire has an important article out that you all should read.  It is called
Immigrant Workers at Home: Hired Hands Hold Family Bonds and it reads, in part:

So immigrant workers help lift white-collar mothers toward that coveted work-life balance. But back at home, work remains the same as it ever was: hard, endless, and never fairly compensated. The difference for domestic workers, of course, is that they are still outsiders in the home, culturally and professionally. And when overworked and exploited, they end up tending to other people’s families at the expense of their ability to care for their own.

And let’s not forget that domestic workers have few rights.  They work long hours for low pay.  They work without health insurance or other benefits.  And they are specifically excluded from the labor laws that protect the rest of us.  Families that rely on domestic workers to give them time to pursue their careers, are relying on an exploitative system.

All inequality is related. If we accept the inequality inherent in using money to resolve a problem for a few women, at the expense of others, then we accept inequality, period.

Against The Rich

October 03, 2008 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I am so tired of rich people. I’m tired of people who admire rich people. I’m tired of people who aspire to be rich people. I’m tired of Paris Hilton and MTV Cribs. I’m tired of televised yacht tours. I’m tired of walking by empty beach-side mansions that are only occupied one month per year while thousands of homeless don’t have shit. I’m tired of hummers and beemers, of six hundred dollar purses and thousand dollar shoes. I’m tired of the shallow, materialistic, empty, selfish, and greedy culture that underpins it all.

Most of all, I’m tired of the people whose desire for money goes beyond what they can get for it. The worst are those who just want money to have it. They want as much of it as possible. And they don’t give a damn who they step on in the process of getting and keeping it. And don’t kid yourself into thinking that it is possible to acquire that much wealth without being ruthless. Acquiring that much wealth is in itself ruthless.

What is wealth really? It is a representation of natural and human resources. It is the value of commodities plus the value of labor. What gives anyone the right to hoard that much of the natural resources and labor in the world? And why do we accept it? We are all getting raped in every orifice and yet, instead of raising hell, we just go to the corner store to buy a lotto ticket in the hope that we can be one of those rich people. It isn’t going to happen.

Goldman Sachs is one of the firms whose speculation and greed has caused this supposed meltdown of our financial system. Of course, it is former Goldman Sachs CEO and current Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who is telling us the sky is falling, but lets pretend it is for a moment. Not only are the Goldman Sachs of the world costing each of us more than $2,000 with this ridiculous bailout, they are also one of the major oil speculators that has been driving the price of gasoline sky high. Goldman Sachs executives have been pulling in $50 million a year. Why are they coming to us for $2,000 a piece? Why aren’t they taking the $54.3 million Lloyd Blankfein made in 2006?

No one needs to make 50 million dollars a year. And making 50 million dollars a year isn’t good for anyone. It means hoarding resources that could be better used by others, at best. At worst it involves crushing other human beings. It creates extremes of wealth and poverty that aren’t good for the people at either end of the spectrum. The poor are dehumanized by their desperation and the rich are dehumanized by their inability to empathise or relate to real life.

This country is full of addicts. The bastards we are bailing out with our tax money are addicted to cash. They don’t need us to provide another fix for them. They need a twelve step program. They need some tough love. Cut them off. Let them hit rock bottom. Let them lose their mansions and yachts and trophy wives. Put them to work tarring driveways or cleaning airport bathrooms for minimum wage.

Is Education Overrated?

June 14, 2008 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Recently, John McCain opposed a bill requiring equal pay for women. He received a maelstrom of blogosphere criticism for his assertion that what women needed was “education and training.” Let’s, for the moment, set aside the fact that we were talking about women with equal education and training. Was what John McCain said really so different from the same tired lines we always hear about education?

Education as a panacea

Both Barack Obama and John McCain’s websites highlight our failing educational systems. McCain focuses on public schools “cultural problems” and lack of choice. (Read: Fearful parents should be able to remove their children from schools filled with the other.) Obama wants to provide funding, improve teacher pay and make a college education affordable for everyone.

Regardless of whose position you most agree with (and I admit that I agree with Obama’s), the implication remains the same. Without education, children will fail in life. They will not be able to get good jobs. They will be poor. They will always struggle. And all of this joblessness, poverty, and struggle will be the result of their poor education. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who will disagree with that statement. No one seems to question it at all.

What do we mean when we say education?

About a year ago, I was on a mini-tour outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. My boyfriend and I were on our way to some natural hot springs called Las Fuentes Georginas. Sharing the van with us were two other tourists, one woman from DC and one from Australia. As we drove the winding road to the hot springs, passing Mayan farmers working their fields, the Australian commented on the impressiveness of their mountainside agriculture. The American quickly responded that the Peace Corp had come in and shown them how to do everything.

Now, for those of you who do not know, indigenous people of the Americas have always been some of the most gifted agriculturalists in the world. Their efforts over centuries have brought an incredible array of foods that the world relies on to survive, most importantly corn and potatoes. In fact, recent scholarship has focused on how to undo some of the western agricultural practices imposed on indigenous people by our so-called experts and on learning about their much more sustainable traditional ones.

The point of my story being that the American could not conceive that someone without a formal education could know something. It was easier for her to believe that a twenty-something Peace Corp volunteer would know more than a 40 year old farmer who had centuries of knowledge passed down to him or her.

When we say education, we mean formal education. We mean education that comes with a piece of paper. We mean that someone who has already been certified as worthy confers on us this same worthiness. We can then show this paper to the world and say, you see, I deserve to make a decent living.

Is formal education just stratification?

For employers, the formal education system is, at best, a shortcut. Presumably, that piece of paper evidences a certain level of knowledge and ability that the employer can rely on. But since not everyone has the opportunity to get that piece of paper, it also acts as a barrier and as a means of conferring status from one generation to the next. If you are wealthy and one of your parents went to college, you are far more likely to go yourself.

Employers are not necessarily conscious of the prejudicial filtering effect of this system. Every nonprofit I have worked for has been chagrined at the lack of diversity in their offices. They often set up diversity committees to figure out what is going wrong. They think of elaborate ways to recruit a more diverse staff.

The reason non-profits are not diverse (ethnically or economically) is simple. Minorities are disproportionately poor. They have less opportunity to go to college. Since nonprofits require a bachelors to sweep the floor, they filter out good people who had less opportunities in life. (On top of which, the main entry point to the world of nonprofits and government is through unpaid internships, which no poor person can afford to take.)

What is societies responsibility to business and vice versa?

There was a time when business was required to provide training to their employees. Then, at least, if an employer was going to make money from your labor, they had to provide you the skills to do it. Today, we are expected to obtain the skills ourselves. Employers want society to provide education. They want their employees to have previous experience. For-profits don’t want to waste a penny of their bottom line on training. Non-profits use the excuse of few resources.

In fact, university education itself has changed. It is no longer about a liberal arts education. It isn’t about pondering the meaning of existence or critical thinking about the issues of the day. It has become, more and more, about simply providing the skills that businesses are looking for. If our entire education system revolves around what business wants, is it any wonder that business has taken over our political and personal lives as well?

Does an “uneducated” person deserve their fate?

When we were kids, my father used to tell my sister that, if she didn’t improve in school and go to college, she would end up flipping burgers in Wags Restaurant. (Wags was a lot like Denny’s, if you’re not familiar.) This was said with absolute certainty, without any doubt as to whether or not this most terrible fate would be deserved (or if it was a terrible fate at all).

When I was in high school, a classmate of mine was stabbed to death. During the trial, the defense brought up his poor performance in school as evidence of his inherent badness. The logic went that, if he performed poorly in school, he must be one of those bad kids. If he was one of those bad kids, he must have done everything that the defense said he did. They bought it and the murderer got off.

Whenever we hear about a farmworker making pennies and living in a cardboard box, or an inner city youth who can’t find a job, or an Appalachian former coal miner barely surviving, our response is that they need eduction. The implication is twofold. Without a formal education, it is acceptable that someone can’t even make enough to feed their family, regardless of how hard they work. And without a formal education, a person doesn’t have the ability, knowledge or skills to contribute to society in a way that deserves decent compensation.

What role should education play in our lives?

I’m not suggesting we all embrace illiteracy and ignorance. I’m saying that knowledge from a professor duly authorized by the university system is not the only kind of knowledge there is. Not only people with graduate degrees deserve to live humanly.

Perhaps we need to start questioning the motives of people for whom formal education is their answer to everything. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how much our idea of education should revolve around certification of the skills some well-paying businesses want and more around how to produce a just society in which everyone can participate.