We're Getting Jacked by 'Conservative' Pickpockets

Driving cross-country recently, I tried my best to catch as much local AM radio as possible to find out what was going on as I passed through the states. The biggest surprise for me were the debt-focused radio shows in practically every county.

I listened to debt-beater radio host Dave Ramsey bash the credit card industry for hours as suicidal caller after suicidal caller moaned about staggering interest payments on credit cards. On other shows, callers griped about not being able to see their way out of surging mortgage payments plus higher health care costs plus car insurance payments plus their children's college loans plus the credit card debt that -- temporarily -- alleviated the former monthly bills, only to find that the credit card debts were the hardest and steepest of all to pay.

Author Nomi Prins saw enough of this phenomenon to write a book about the increasing strain that living in a business state has put on the wallets of ordinary Americans. "Jacked: How 'Conservatives' Are Picking Your Pocket" (PoliPointPress, 2006) is Prins' new book, and it gets right at the heart of the economic pain that many of us are feeling. AlterNet caught up with Prins to discuss her book and what she thinks regular people should do to stop getting "jacked."

Jan Frel: In writing this book, you traveled across the country to see how conservative policies in Washington have affected real lives. What made you take that path as opposed to the usual wonk and policy-filled fact book researched out of D.C.?

Nomi Prins: Well, some of my best friends are wonks, but I think they should get out more. Jacked is more about people than policies. You can't understand what anyone's going through without talking to them, meeting them or hanging out in their world. Nonwonks, or most of the public, don't speak in general statistics -- they speak in miles traveled on a tank of gas, in fights with insurance companies over claims after hurricanes, in college tuition hikes.

I have a master's degree in statistics and spent years working with numbers as a banker before becoming a journalist. They are useful, but figures don't cry, or laugh, or bleed, or struggle, or win, or curse, or drive trucks, or balance community college and child rearing, or drink strawberry milk shakes with you in diners. People do. Seemed to me, you can't talk policy without starting with the people that policy impacts. I wrote Jacked about and for the people in it.

Frel: You do your best to show how common activities in regular American life are shaped by D.C.'s positions on foreign policy or corporate welfare. Did the people you spoke with get the connection?

Prins: It was a mixed bag. When I interviewed people, I didn't ask them what they thought of politics, D.C. policy, or corporate power. I let them lead me on a tour through their wallets and hit the issues their cards represented in their own styles. My first question was "What's the most important card in your wallet?" My second was "Why?" It went from there. The top card was the driver's license, then ATM/credit, then health insurance. Employee and student ID's were next.

Most people went from talking about their driver's license to talking about gas prices, which have doubled in the past three years. The first person mentioned in Jacked is a tour guide from New Orleans, Ozzie LaPorte. After Katrina, he balanced highly reduced tour sizes and highly increased gas prices for his vans at the same time. His take on gas company exec profits and D.C. was simply, "I don't happen to have my own lobbyist."

With the health insurance card, people were keenly aware of their jacked premiums and reduced coverage, and the direct link from activities to corporate behavior. With respect to foreign policy, the place where I had the most people bring up the war in Iraq without prompting was the red South, particularly the Gulf Coast. Even for Bush supporters, there was a real dissatisfaction with the way the government handled Katrina when it happened, and a year later, the idea that they could spend so much money on Iraq and not give the same care and focus to their own citizens. With credit and ATM cards, people tended not to see the connection as clearly.

Frel: Who are the "conservatives" you talk about in your book title?

Prins: The "conservatives" are the politicians that consider themselves "fiscally" conservative, but don't get the irony of the financial mess they've made of this country's balance sheet during the past six years. They're the Republicans who talk a good game about small government, and individualism, and the budget being more "efficient" (by cutting domestic social programs) but at the same time have let this country build up its highest deficit, amount of debt owed other countries, and trade imbalance ever. The dollar is embarrassing, and respect for us around the globe has diminished.

The "conservatives" include Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who let oil executives testify about their profits in front of the Senate without taking an oath. They are Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who championed a bankruptcy bill that screwed consumers, declaring it lent "fairness to an abused system," while he is under investigation by the SEC and Justice Department for questionable financial activities of his own. They are Dick Cheney, who had the nerve to tell Americans that they should save money, while he's in the top 1 percent of the country financially and doesn't have a clue what's going on in the other 99 percent. They are anyone, Republican or Democrat, who voted for tax cuts, in which three-quarters of American households (families with incomes below $75,000) get just 5 percent of those benefits.

There was one woman I interviewed, De Ette Peck, a single mom with two daughters in Portland, who was abused as a child and in several violent relationships before breaking free and supporting other struggling women through hotline work and going to college to get a field nursing degree to help her community. She said, "You give single mothers a dollar, and we'll show this administration how to stretch it right."

Frel: So many of America's problems can be found with the cards one finds in a person's wallet -- health care card, work ID, social security. Where did you get this idea for the backdrop of your book?

Prins: I wanted to find a common item that everyone could relate to, no matter what their lives were like. People have more in common generally than they think, or than political and media polls show. Just discussing a set of policies that impact a bunch of issues like health care, social security, education, and work benefits would be boring without some central personal item that everyone could touch, could picture in their minds easily. I was up quite late one night mulling this with two of my girlfriends. Basically, clothes and wallets were the two items everyone has. It was hard to link items of clothing to national policies, so wallets won out.

Frel: You have a great chapter tying together the crisis of credit cards, bankruptcy, and national debt. What kinds of activism did you encounter in your travels by citizens to deal with this? Debt talk radio is now broadcast across America.

Prins: Debt is the country's dirty little secret. It's the thing that people feel ashamed yet drawn to, no matter what their reasons for having it. They recognize it's a problem, and I imagine it's easier to talk about it with the screen of a radio show than one-on-one. When I set out to talk to people about their wallets and their credit cards, I was armed with facts about per-person debt. I'm not a psychologist, but it was amazing to me how few of the people I spoke to would admit to the amount of their debt face-to-face. Everyone seemed to be below the national per person average.

On the flipside, our political leaders have amassed such a high national debt, but people don't necessarily see that as a trade-off against things like spending for Medicare, Medicaid, or higher education assistance. Maybe if they realized that each person owes the equivalent of an SUV, they'd feel more prone to get active about their individual debt. This was the one area where people didn't blame corporations or the government -- not surprising because the way in which banks and creditors operate is obscure by design.

For the people I talked to, it was like debt was solely their making, not the fact that corporate credit card rates are as high as 30 percent, penalties are obscene, and the government doesn't regulate late fees, ATM fees or rate hikes on outstanding balances.

Debt talk radio has probably become popular in much the same way Dr. Phil has. It's a place to be cathartic, to admit to one's problems (because with Dr. Phil, as with debt, the problems belong to the individual) and try to solve them. It's why Suzie Orman is so popular. But if people understood the extent to which they are victims of banks because of their debt, they'd shop around more for their credit, be wiser consumers, and demand better treatment from their providers and their political leaders in controlling them. Whatever it takes.

Frel: Following up on the debt issue, you cite how an obscure regulatory agency (the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) in D.C. made a decision, stealing state power, over how banks may charge ATM fees. At the end of your book, you push for activism such as contacting your Congress members to deal with the problems you list. But how do citizens organize around the problems of centralized power that an obscure regulatory agency poses? It seems hard enough to get things moving on Iraq.

Prins: For average citizens, it's tough to tangle with obscurity. You can only start with what you know and experience. Iraq, which is an incredibly expensive and media-covered war, doesn't necessarily reach directly into homes that don't have family members involved, and that makes it harder to organize the general population. The kind of individual activism, like writing and calling Congress members, knowing you can fight against a bank suddenly charging new fees, or use the Internet to publicly blog your situation, seems less dramatic, but we actually have more power as voters and consumers than we realize. And sometimes, it just feels good to win the small battles.

Personal activism is personal empowerment -- it's the kind of thing that sells tons of self-help books annually, yet people don't think of in their political lives, because self-help books don't stress political identity and empowerment.

If we sit on our butts complaining and doing nothing, nothing will change. If we are pissed off about anything that has a political tie, and attempt to be active about it, we will achieve far more than doing nothing. In the end, no matter how many lobbyists or corporate contributors pay the way to Congress and the White House, our voice and votes can make the difference. And, how cool is it to go up against that kind of power and win?

Frel: You talk about "true Homeland Security" in your book. What's that?

Prins: It's knowing that you can pay for food, clothing, and a home from reasonable wages that don't continue to decrease at the bottom and increase at the top. It's fairness. It's knowing that in a pinch, you'll get appropriate medical treatment. That growing old doesn't mean growing scared. That being young doesn't mean facing a mountain of debt to get educated. It's about not worrying that one day Radio Shack (or whoever) will email you that you're no longer needed, have a nice day, good-bye.

True Homeland Security is pretty basic. It's not about protecting our borders from immigrants that many of us are related to, it's not about fighting wars that make us anything but safer, it's about personal security in our homes. There's a sign at JFK immigration that reads, "Homeland Security: Keeping Our Borders Open and Our Nation Secure." But you can only be secure when your immediate environment is secure. If you ask people, do you want your homes or your borders secure, most will choose their homes first. If you ask, is it more important to use the federal budget to pay for things to make your life more comfortable or for wars in the Middle East, most people will choose their lives. It's human nature.

Frel: As you wrote your book, did you find yourself coming up with a critique of our political system as a whole, or are you sold on the current means citizens have for addressing their current concerns?

Prins: Our political system doesn't represent our greater population. Partly this is because half the country doesn't vote, partly this is because those that do vote don't feel understood, or even that it's the job of Congress to understand them. As one auto worker in Oklahoma City said to me, "When I grew up, we barely had a hamburger each to go around. You tell me if those guys (in D.C.) can say the same thing."

Americans strongly buy into "individualism" but don't quite realize to what extent the deck is stacked against them by companies and the government. And if they do, it's so overwhelming and depressing to think about, that they switch to thinking about their own day, change the channel, email somebody. Individualism is great, on a level playing field.

Meanwhile, people make it work through ways in which they feel they have more direct control -- like in Biloxi after Katrina. There, the churches trumped the government and FEMA in helping people on the ground.

I started the book feeling very cynical about what people would think, but ended it much more optimistic. Americans are resourceful. It's just that many don't prioritize politics in their daily lives. It's not a factor. Plus, the polls and ways in which politicians and the media frame politics don't leave much room for creativity. If people were asked "What are your concerns?" rather than "Here are the concerns we think you should have, rank them," we'd get a more honest picture of where they are on issues. We have good ideas as a nation, stripping away the political rhetoric, and many of them are presented in Jacked by people I interviewed.

Doing a little is better than doing nothing. That's the message of this book. Our elected politicians should be held accountable to our needs, not theirs or their corporate sponsors. And we need to admit that to ourselves first, and do something about it second.

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