The Issue That Matters

The only paper I read with regularity these days is the Wall Street Journal. Although its editorial writers are patently insane, the news and feature writers have recently dedicated themselves to thoughtful pieces on what should be the most important story of our day: the collapse of our economy.

Perhaps I mean the collapse of the illusion of our economy -- a place of endless riches, where everyone's a winner. (Old America: Getting off the plane in Vegas. New America: getting on the plane back home, broke and jacked up.)

Take the Sept. 10 edition of the Journal. On the far left of the page is a feature story on New London, Connecticut. This tired, slumping, working-class town invoked the government prerogative of eminent domain and razed the houses of elderly citizens, so that drug company Pfizer could come in and build a new plant. The article by Lucette Lagnado details how the company was promised millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives in exchange for building a $300 million research facility, conference center, and hotel. The project hasn't been completed because some empowered and pissed off residents have filed suit.

The completed part of the plant doesn't employ many folks from New London, nor spill revenue over to local businesses. This is the downside of globalization: Demolish locally, employ globally. Many conglomerates these days act like mercenary armies, bringing in the troops they need, and asking little except food, shelter and complete obedience from those who quarter them.

In the center of the same day's Journal is a story titled: "WorldCom Board Will Consider Rescinding Ebbers's Severance."

WorldCom, known to many of us as the company that swallowed MCI long distance, has been in the news for misplacing $7 billion and filing for bankruptcy. This story, by Susan Pullam, Jared Sandberg and Deborah Soloman, details how the former CEO, Bernard J. Ebbers, got a whopper of a good-bye present: a $408 million loan at 2.3 percent interest, plus $1.5 million per year in lifetime salary.

Let me run that by you again: a man who was at the helm of a company that just up and lost $7 billion got a $408 million loan, plus $1.5 million in free cash each year. Let's pretend to spend that money for him:

-- $408 million is the equivalent of: 204,000 fancy laptops, enough to give one to roughly one in 10 graduating high school seniors this year, or 2,000 new homes at their roughly $200,000 average price.

-- $1.5 million a year equals: 345 average yearly payments of TANF (the post-reform welfare); 100 students' full tuition, board and fees at UCLA.

I hesitate to compare lost corporate cash to real world dollars. While we're more than happy to talk about "welfare queens" and "poverty pimps" (and yes, there are welfare cheats), we don't seem to hear the vast sucking sound of white-collar criminals hoovering out our economy. (Not to mention the estimated $12 billion in legal federal "corporate welfare.")

A quick note about welfare, which more people will need in the current downturn. Since "welfare reform," the number of child-only families receiving assistance has doubled across the nation, rising in New Jersey, for example, from 17 percent of the caseload to 33 percent. This means that parents with addictions, mental health disorders, or simply too few coping skills have left their children as wards of the state. Like most people, I have no idea where the money lost in Enron, et al., really goes. But I'd love to see it spent on programs like childcare and drug rehab. Even for people of means, like Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle.

I will spare you my full rant on Jerry Springer and Eminem but let me simply say: White kids have figured out this country isn't rolling out the red carpet for them, the same way black and brown kids did years ago. The result is an often poorly articulated but justified rage against a country that manages to stock 50 types of snack products in every mini-mart but rarely generates a decent neighborhood public school.

America has found one very successful method for dealing with black rage: massive incarceration of people who were never trained nor expected to be a part of "mainstream" society, regardless of their potential. And in fact, incarceration of non-white Americans (often on drug crimes) is a growth industry that largely employs working-class whites and non-white Americans. But at a certain point, particularly in an economic downturn, the system begins feeding on itself. We will either have to jail undereducated white youth en masse, or we will have to try something radically different, like training working-class kids to think for themselves, and not just take jobs, but invent them.

Actually, a lot of white-collar Americans are feeling the need for a good solid job right around now. I've never had so many unemployed friends in my life; friends who, admittedly, are still holding out for something new and better, while running up their credit card bills to bridge the gap.

One problem is that the implicit contract between companies and workers seems very much broken. Today, no matter what the job level or contract, people are being fired seemingly at will, from downsized managers making six figures to the 17,000 employees of Consolidated Freightways, who were laid off via voicemail on Labor Day. Employees, in turn, find little reason to offer themselves as paragons of loyalty. No, they do not want to work unpaid overtime. Yes, they steal the pens and fax paper. Yes, they take two-hour lunches. Why? They're looking for another job.

In his two years in office, President George W. Bush has managed to mangle the economy, allow the guise of homeland security to demolish the guarantees of freedom inherent in the Bill of Rights, and get away with seeming -- God knows how -- presidential. At least to some of us. On trips abroad, the comments, even from conservatives, usually run something like, "Your President's an idiot, eh?" In fact, the conservatives (I'm thinking here specifically of a trip to Switzerland) are often more vitriolic, embarrassed and abashed that someone with so little sense of governance speaks in their name.

There's good reason for President Bush to go on the warpath. After all, war is a traditional and often successful distraction from domestic woes, which we have in abundance. We also still have, in my humble opinion, the greatest country in the world. So I will wave my little flag for America, the country that I love, and note:

You can telephone the White House at (202) 456-1111. Wait out a short machine message and then a live operator will take your (hopefully concise) message for the President, along the lines of "I oppose" or "I support" the proposed war against Iraq. And, if you're really feeling your beans, you could mention the need to reconsider mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, which his niece may soon be facing.

Farai Chedeya is the founder of Pop and She is currently a Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

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