Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich to TSA workers: walk off the job and protest the government shutdown

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history is now on Day 27. As 800,000 workers continue to go without pay, federal employees around the country are rising up to demand an end to the shutdown, which has run public institutions ragged and left hundreds of thousands financially strapped. We speak with Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the best-seller “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” She is calling for TSA workers around the country to strike.

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Dead, White, and Blue: The Great Die-Off of America's Blue Collar Whites

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Barbara Ehrenreich: In America, Only the Rich Can Afford to Write About Poverty

Back in the fat years – two or three decades ago, when the “mainstream” media were booming – I was able to earn a living as a freelance writer. My income was meager and I had to hustle to get it, turning out about four articles – essays, reported pieces, reviews – a month at $1 or $2 a word. What I wanted to write about, in part for obvious personal reasons, was poverty and inequality, but I’d do just about anything – like, I cringe to say, “The Heartbreak Diet” for a major fashion magazine – to pay the rent.

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Barbara and John Ehrenreich: The Real Story Behind the Crash and Burn of America's Managerial Class

Every would-be populist in American politics purports to defend the “middle class,” although there is no agreement on what it is. Just in the last couple of years, the “middle class” has variously been defined as everybody, everybody minus the 15 percent living below the federal poverty level; or everybody minus the very richest Americans. Mitt Romney famously excluded “those in the low end” but included himself (2010 income $21.6 million) along with “80 to 90 percent” of Americans. The Department of Commerce has given up on income-based definitions, announcing in a 2010 report that “middle class families” are defined “by their aspirations more than their income […]. Middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations”—which excludes almost no one.

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How Homelessness Became an Occupy Wall Street Issue

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What Should Lefties Do in These Revolutionary Times?

So a black man finally wins the presidency, only to discover that it's about as useful as a 32 cent stamp. According to Eric Alterman, the federal government, avatar of liberal hope for at least a century, has become hopelessly undemocratic, poisoned by corruption and structurally snarled by partisan divisions. Poor Barack Obama, who steps up to the plate and gets handed a foam bat!

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Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?

It's too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

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The Economic Fallout Has Decimated the Black Middle Class

To judge from most of the commentary on the Gates-Crowley affair, you would think that a "black elite" has gotten dangerously out of hand. First Gates (Cambridge, Yale, Harvard) showed insufficient deference to Crowley, then Obama (Occidental, Harvard) piled on to accuse the police of having acted "stupidly." Was this "the end of white America" which the Atlantic had warned of in its January/February cover story? Or had the injuries of class -- working class in Crowley's case -- finally trumped the grievances of race?

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How a Man Was Thrown into Gitmo and Tortured for Clicking on My Article

I like to think that some of the things I write cause discomfort in those readers who deserve to feel it. Ideally, they should squirm, they should flinch, they might even experience fleeting gastrointestinal symptoms. But I have always drawn the line at torture. It may be unpleasant to read some of my writings, especially if they have been assigned by a professor, but it should not result in uncontrollable screaming, genital mutilation or significant blood loss.

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The Nouveau Poor Have Reached Numbers Too Large to Ignore

Ever on the lookout for the bright side of hard times, I am tempted to delete “class inequality” from my worry list. Less than a year ago, it was the one of the biggest economic threats on the horizon, with even hard line conservative pundits grousing that wealth was flowing uphill at an alarming rate, leaving the middle class stuck with stagnating incomes while the new super-rich ascended to the heavens in their personal jets. Then the whole top-heavy structure of American capitalism began to totter, and –poof!—inequality all but vanished from the public discourse. A financial columnist in the Chicago Sun Times has just announced that the recession is a “great leveler,” serving to “democratize[d] the agony,” as we all tumble into “the Nouveau Poor…”

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How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy

(A shorter version of this appears as an op ed in the New York Times yesterday.)

Greed -- and its crafty sibling, speculation -- are the designated culprits for the ongoing financial crisis, but another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. As promoted by Oprah, scores of megachurch pastors, and an endless flow of self-help bestsellers, the idea is to firmly belief that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because thinking things, "visualizing" them -- ardently and with concentration -- actually makes them happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits, the reasoning goes, if only you truly believe that you can.

Positive thinking is endemic to American culture -- from weight loss programs to cancer support groups -- and in the last two decades it put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won't get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you're a "positive person" -- doubt-free, uncritical, and smiling -- and no one becomes a CEO by issuing warnings of possible disaster.

According to a rare skeptic, a Washington-based crisis management consultant I interviewed on the eve of the credit meltdown in 2007, even the magical idea that you can have whatever you truly want has been "viral" in the business culture. All the tomes in airport bookstores' business sections scream out against "negativity" and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic and brimming with confidence -- a message companies relentlessly reinforced by treating their white collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events. The top guys, meanwhile, would go off to get pumped up in exotic locales with the likes of success guru Tony Robbins. Those who still failed to get with the program could be subjected to personal "coaching" or of course, shown to the door.

The same frothy wave of mandatory optimism swept through the once-sober finance industry. On their websites, scores of motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Mortgage whose subprime ventures precipitated the entire crisis, was known for his congenital optimism and described in the Guardian earlier this year as "absurdly upbeat" even as his industry unraveled. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times, when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on. In May, the New York Times reported that Merrill, caught up short, was suddenly trying to "temper the Pollyannas in its ranks," and force its analysts to occasionally say the word "sell."

For those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. They actually could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. CEO compensation has ballooned in recent years, creating the new class of billionaires and centi-millionaires who inhabit Lear jets and four-figure a night hotel rooms, who can dispatch a private plane to pick up a favorite wine, or a pet, they happen to have left in the Hamptons. According to a new book from the UK, Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, these masters of the universe tend to be seriously uninformed about how the other 99 percent lives and, Toynbee told me, often uncomprehending of the financial operations -- the derivatives, CDS's, etc. -- that their wealth is derived from. If you live in a bubble of perfect wish-fulfillment, how could you imagine that, for example, some poor fellow in Cleveland might run up against unexpected medical bills or car problems that could waylay his mortgage payments?

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn't get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily "visualizing" success. Calvinists thought "negatively" as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose -- among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists -- in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

When it comes to how we think, "negative" is not the only alternative to "positive." As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism -- seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

Suicide Spreads as One Solution to the Debt Crisis

A few days before Congress passed its Housing Bill, Carlene Balderrama of Taunton MA found her own solution to the housing crisis. Just a little over two hours in advance of the time her mortgage company, PHH Mortgage Corporation -- may its name live in infamy -- was to auction off her home, Balderrama killed herself with her husband's rifle.

This is not the kind of response to hard times that James Grant had in mind when he wrote his July 19 Wall Street Journal essay entitled "Why No Outrage?" "One might infer from the lack of popular anger," the famed Wall Street contrarian wrote, "that the credit crisis was God's fault rather than the doing of the bankers and the rating agencies and the government's snoozing watchdogs." For contrast, he cites the spirited response to the depression of the 1890s, when lawyer/agitator Mary Lease stirred crowds with the message that "We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out .... We will stand by our homes and stay by our firesides by force if necessary"

Grant could have found even more bracing examples of resistance in the 1930s, when farmers and tenants used mob power -- and sometimes firearms -- to fight foreclosures and evictions. For more on that, I consulted Frances Fox Piven, co-author of the classic text Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, who told me that in the early 30s, a number of cities were so shaken by the resistance that they declared moratoriums on further evictions. A 1931 riot by Chicago tenants who had fallen behind on their rent, for example, had left three dead and three police officers injured.

According to Piven, these actions were often spontaneous. A group of unemployed men would get word of a scheduled eviction and march through the streets, gathering crowds as they went. Arriving at the site of the eviction, they would move the furniture back into the apartment and stay around to protect the threatened tenants. In one instance in Detroit, it took 100 cops to evict a single family. Also in Detroit, Piven said, "two families protected their apartments by shooting their landlord and were acquitted by a sympathetic jury."

What a difference 80 years makes. When the police and the auctioneers arrived at Balderrama's house, the family gun had already been used -- on the victim of foreclosure herself. I don't know how "worthy" a debtor she was -- the family had been through bankruptcies before, though probably not as a result of Caribbean vacations and closets full of designer clothes. It was an Adjustable Rate Mortgage that did them in, and Balderrama, who managed the family's finances, had apparently been unwilling to tell her husband that their ever-rising monthly mortgage payments were eating up his earnings as a plumber.

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock's brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. "All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once," Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, "describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, 'If you don't help me, I've got a gun in my car.'"

India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can't pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition -- like an ever-rising number of Americans -- you're no longer needed at the workplace, then there's no further point to your existence. I'm not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one's credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, "Just shoot me!"

The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction. It wasn't God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans -- often masked as financial institutions -- did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins's article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it's so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?

Body Fat Holds The Key to Energy Independence

Everyone talks about our terrible dependency on oil -- foreign and otherwise -- but hardly anyone mentions what it is. Fossil fuel, all right, but whose fossils? Mostly tiny plants called diatoms, but quite possibly a few Barney-like creatures went into the mix, like Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus and other giant reptiles that shared the Jurassic period with all those diatoms. What we are burning in our cars and keeping our homes warm or cool with is, in other words, a highly processed version of corpse juice.

Think of this for a moment, if only out of respect for the dead. There you were, about 100 million years ago, maybe a contented little diatom or a great big Brontosaurus stumbling around the edge of a tar pit -- a lord of the earth. And what are you now? A sludge of long-chain carbon molecules that will be burned so that some mammalian biped can make a CVS run for Mountain Dew and chips. 

It's an old human habit -- living off the road kill of the planet. There's evidence, for example, that early humans were engaged in scavenging before they figured out how to hunt for themselves. They'd scan the sky for circling vultures, dash off to the kill site--hoping that the leopard that did the actual hunting had sauntered off for a nap-- and gobble up what remained of the prey. It was risky, but it beat doing your own antelope tracking.

We continue our career as scavengers today, attracted not by vultures but by signs saying "Safeway" or "Giant." Inside these sites, we find bits of dead animals wrapped neatly in plastic. The killing has already been done for us -- usually by underpaid immigrant workers rather than leopards.

I say to my fellow humans: It's time to stop feeding off the dead and grow up! I don't know about food, but I have a plan for achieving fuel self-suffiency in less time than it takes to say "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." The idea came to me from reports of the growing crime of French fry oil theft: Certain desperate individuals are stealing restaurants' discarded cooking oil, which can then be used to fuel cars. So the idea is: why not could skip the French fry phase and harvest high-energy hydrocarbons right from ourselves?

I'm talking about liposuction, of course, and it's a mystery to me why it hasn't occurred to any of those geniuses who are constantly opining about fuel prices on MSNBC. The average liposuction removes about half a gallon of liquid fat, which may not seem like much. But think of the vast reserves our nation is literally sitting on! Thirty percent of Americans are obese, or about 90 million individuals or 45 million gallons of easily available fat -- not from dead diatoms but from our very own bellies and butts.

This is the humane alternative to biofuels derived directly from erstwhile foodstuffs like corn. Biofuels, as you might have noticed, are exacerbating the global food crisis by turning edible plants into gasoline. But we could put humans back in the loop by first turning the corn into Doritos and hence into liposuctionable body fat. There would be a reason to live again, even a patriotic rationale for packing on the pounds. 

True, liposuction is not risk-free, as the numerous doctors' websites on the subject inform us. And those of us who insist on driving gas guzzlers may soon start depleting their personal fat reserves, much as heroin addicts run out of useable veins. But the gaunt, punctured, look could become a fashion statement. Already, the combination of a tiny waist and a huge carbon footprint -- generated by one's Hummer and private jet -- is considered a sign of great wealth.

And think what it would do for our nation's self-esteem. We may not lead the world in scientific innovation, educational achievement, or low infant mortality, but we are the global champions of obesity. Go to; and you'll find America well ahead of the pack when it comes to personal body fat, while those renowned oil-producers -- Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran-- aren't even among the top 29. All we need is a healthy dose of fat pride and for CVS to start marketing home liposuction kits. That run for Mountain Dew and chips could soon be an energy-neutral proposition.

The Fall of the American Consumer

How much lower can consumer spending go? The malls are like mausoleums, retail clerks are getting laid off, and AOL recently featured on its welcome page the story of man so cheap that he recycles his dental floss -- hanging it from a nail in his garage until it dries out.

It could go a lot lower of course. This guy could start saving the little morsels he flosses out and boil them up to augment the children's breakfast gruel. Already, as the recession or whatever it is closes in, people have stopped buying homes and cars and cut way back on restaurant meals. They don't have the money; they don't have the credit; and increasingly they're finding that no one wants their money anyway. NPR reported on February 28 that more and more Manhattan stores are accepting Euros and at least one has gone Euros-only.

The Sharper Image has declared bankruptcy and is closing 96 U.S. stores. (To think I missed my chance to buy those headphones that treat you to forest sounds while massaging your temples!) Victoria's Secret is so desperate that it's adding fabric to its undergarments. Starbucks had no sooner taken time off to teach its baristas how to make coffee than it started laying them off.

While Americans search for interview outfits in consignment stores and switch from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart for sustenance, the world watches tremulously. The Australian Courier-Mail, for example, warns of an economic "pandemic" if Americans cut back any further, since we are responsible for $9 trillion a year in spending, compared to a puny $1 trillion for the one billion-strong Chinese. Yes, we have been the world's designated shoppers, and, if we fall down on the job, we take the global economy with us.

"Shop till you drop," was our motto, by which we didn't mean to say we were more compassion-worthy than a woman fainting at her work station in some Honduran sweatshop. It was just our proper role in the scheme of things. Some people make stuff; other people have to buy it. And when we gave up making stuff, starting in the 1980s, we were left with the unique role of buying. Remember Bush telling us, shortly after 9/11, to get out there and shop? It may have seemed ludicrous at the time, but what he meant was get back to work.

We took pride in our role in the global economy. No doubt it takes some skill to make things, but what about all the craft that goes into buying them -- finding a convenient parking space at the mall, navigating our way through department stores laid out for maximum consumer confusion, determining which of our credit cards still has a smidgeon of credit in it? Not everyone could do this, especially not people whose only experience was stitching, assembling, wiring, and packaging the stuff that we bought.

But if we thought we were special, they thought we were marks. They could make anything, and we would dutifully buy it. I once found, in a party store, a baseball cap with a plastic turd affixed to its top and the words "shit head" on the visor. The label said "made in the Philippines" and the makers must have been convulsed as they made it. If those dumb Yanks will buy this ...

There's talk already of emergency measures, like making Christmas a weekly holiday, although this would require a level of deforestation that could leave Cheney with no quail to hunt.

More likely, there'll be a move to outsource shopping, just as we've already outsourced manufacturing, customer service, X-ray reading, and R & D. But to whom? The Indians are clever enough, but right now they only account for $600 million in consumer spending a year. And could they really be trusted to put a flat screen TV in every child's room, distinguish Guess jeans from a knock-off, and replace their kitchen counters on an annual basis?

And what happens to us, the world's erstwhile shoppers? The president recently observed, in one of his more sentient moments, that unemployment is "painful." But if a pink slip hurts, what about a letter from Citicard announcing that you've been laid off as a shopper? Will we fill our vacant hours twisting recycled dental floss onto spools or will we decide that, if we can't shop, we're going to have to shoplift?

Because we've shopped till we dropped alright, face down on the floor.

The Boom Was a Bust for Ordinary People

It begins to sound a bit naughty -- all this talk about the need to "stimulate" the economy, as if we were discussing how to make a porn film. I don't mean to trivialize our economic difficulties or the need for effective government intervention, but we have to face a disconcerting fact: For years now, that strange stimulus-crazed beast, the economy, has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans.

The economy, for example, has been expanding, at least until now, and growth is supposed to guarantee general well-being. As long as the gross domestic product grows, World Money Watch's Web site assures us, "so will business, jobs and personal income."

But hellooo, we've had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been "decoupled" from widely shared prosperity.

I first began to sense this in the boom years of the late 1990s, when I was working in entry-level jobs for my book "Nickel and Dimed." While the stock market soared and fortunes were being made in the time it takes to say "IPO," my $6-to-$8-an-hour co-workers lunched on hot dog buns because that was all they could afford and, in some cases, fretted about whether they could find a safe place to sleep.

Growth is not the only economic indicator that has let us down. In the past five years, America's briskly rising productivity has been the envy of much of the world. But again, there's been no corresponding increase in most people's wages. It's not supposed to be this way, of course. Economists have long believed that some sort of occult process would intervene and adjust wages upward as people worked harder and more efficiently.

We like to attribute our high productivity to technological advances and better education. But a revealing 2001 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. also credited America's productivity growth to "managerial ... innovations" and cited Wal-Mart as a model performer, meaning that our productivity also relies on fiendish schemes to extract more work for less pay. Yes, you can generate more output per apparent hour of work by falsifying time records, speeding up assembly lines, doubling workloads and cutting back on breaks. That may look good from the top, but at the middle and the bottom, it can feel a lot like pain.

And what about the unemployment rate? The old liberal certainty was that "full employment" would create a workers' paradise, with higher wages and enhanced bargaining power for the little guy and gal. But we've had nearly full employment, or at least an official unemployment rate of under 5 percent, for years now, without the predicted gains. What the old liberals weren't counting on was a depressed minimum wage, weak unions and a witch's brew of management strategies to hold wages and salaries down.

So thoroughly is the economy decoupled from ordinary experience that according to a CNN poll, 57 percent of Americans thought we were already in a recession a month ago. Economists may complain that this is only because the public is ignorant of the technical definition of a recession, which specifies at least two consecutive quarters of negative growth. But most of the public employs the more colloquial definition of a recession, which is hard times. And -- far removed from whatever happens on Wall Street, the Nikkei, Dax, or the curiously named FTSE -- most Americans have been living in their own personal recession for years.

I could see this when I was doing research for a book on white-collar unemployment in 2004. Although the economy was officially on an upturn, I met laid-off people who'd been searching for a job for more than a year and often ended up -- after selling their homes and borrowing from relatives -- taking low-wage work as big-box sales clerks or even janitors.

In the months ahead, we can expect the hard times to spread. Citigroup has announced plans to eliminate 21,000 jobs; investment banks in general will shed 40,000. The mortgage industry is in a meltdown; Business Wire predicts a 37 percent increase in the number of companies planning layoffs this year. This is what a stimulus package needs to address: the persistent and growing struggles of the middle class and the working class, which is increasingly conterminous with the working poor.

There are reasons for doing so other than compassion. The chronically poor and the battered middle class have become a tripwire in the American economy -- generating defaults on debts, depressed consumption and global market turmoil.

Consider how we got into the current credit crisis in the first place, through defaults on subprime mortgages. These went to plenty of affluent folks and have wreaked havoc in gated communities. But overall, subprime loans were designed for, and snapped up by, the poor. According to a recent study from United for a Fair Economy, 55 percent of subprime loans went to African Americans and 17 percent to whites. Among whites, they went far more frequently to low-income people than to the wealthy -- 39 percent compared with 24 percent. Hence the subprime industry's noble boasts about providing the opportunity for home ownership to people who might otherwise have been excluded from it.

And why were so many Americans poor enough to turn to subprime mortgages and other dodgy credit schemes? The chief reasons are low wages and job insecurity. Chronically low wages afflict about 25 to 30 percent of the population -- more than twice the 12 percent the federal government counts as "poor." And even earnings in the six-figure range can be canceled overnight when an employer downsizes or outsources, leaving a family without income or health insurance.

For years now, we've had a solution, or at least a substitute, for low wages and unreliable jobs: easy credit. Payday loans, rent-to-buy furniture and exorbitant credit card interest rates for the poor were just the beginning. In its May cover story on "The Poverty Business," BusinessWeek documented the stampede to lend money to the people who could least afford to pay the interest on it: Buy your dream home! Refinance your house! Financiamos a todos! It wasn't just the bottom-feeders that joined the unseemly frenzy to lend to the poor; big companies, such as Wells Fargo and Countrywide Financial, plunged right in. But somehow, no one bothered to figure out where the poor were going to get the money to pay for all the money they were borrowing.

When personal finances are squeezed hard enough, you have the possibility of a genuine recession. People buy less, so growth declines to the point where even the economic overclass has to sit up and take notice. We saw the beginnings of that in the last Christmas season, which even Wal-Mart survived only through perilously deep discounting.

Not that we hadn't been warned. A century ago, Henry Ford realized that his company would only prosper if his own workers earned enough to buy Fords. But, like Wal-Mart, too many of our employers today haven't figured out that their cruelly low wages would eventually curtail their own growth and profits.

Government intervention, whether short-term or long-term, needs to get to the heart of this problem by offering a hand to the poor and the unemployed. Until the House capitulated to Bush two weeks ago, Democrats seemed to be standing solidly behind a stimulus package that would include an increase in food-stamp allotments and an extension of unemployment benefits, both of which are screamingly obvious measures. Current unemployment benefits last just 26 weeks in most states and end up covering only a third of people who are laid off. Food stamps are in even shabbier shape, with an allotment amounting to about $1 per meal. Nothing could be more stimulating than putting money in the hands of those who will spend it quickly.

But you can't jump-start a car that lacks a working battery. We need less titillating talk about "stimulus" and more commitment to some fundamental repairs -- higher wages, a real safety net and a return to progressive taxation among them. The challenge isn't just to prop up stock prices but to rebuild an economy in which everyone shares the good times -- and no one is consigned to a permanent recession.

Clitoral Economics

With all the talk about how to stimulate it, you'd think that the economy is a giant clitoris. Ben Bernanke may not employ this imagery, but the immediate challenge--and the issue bound to replace Iraq and immigration in the presidential race--is how best to get the economy engorged and throbbing again.

It would be irresponsible to say much about Bush's stimulus plan, the mere mention of which could be enough to send the Nikkei, the DAX, and the curiously named FTSE and Sensex tumbling into the crash zone again. In a typically regressive gesture, Bush proposed to hand out cash tax rebates--except to families earning less than $40,000 a year. This may qualify as an example of what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism," in which any misfortune can be re-jiggered to the advantage of the affluent.

But even the liberal stimulus proposals have me worried--not so much for their content as their rationale. Most liberals want a stimulus package that includes an increase in food stamp allotments and an extension of unemployment benefits, which are both screamingly obvious measures. Currently, the food stamp allotment amounts to about $1 per meal, and when four Democratic congresspersons tried living on that for a week last May they ended up even crankier than if they'd had to sit through a week-long filibuster by Tom DeLay.

As for unemployment benefits: They last just twenty-five weeks in most states and end up covering only a third of people who are laid off. If ever there was a time to create a real working system of unemployment compensation, it is now. Citigroup has announced plans to eliminate 21,000 jobs; investment banks in general will shed 40,000. The mortgage industry is in a state of meltdown; and Sprint--how did they get into this?--will lay off 4,000 full-time employees as well as 1,600 part-time and contract workers.

The economic rationale for more a progressive stimulus package, which we hear now several times a day, is that the poor and the freshly unemployed will spend whatever money they get. Give them more money in the form of food stamps or unemployment benefits and they'll drop more at the mall. Money, it has been observed, sticks to the rich but just slides off the poor, which makes them the lynchpin of stimulus. After decades of hearing the poor stereotyped as lazy, stupid, addicted, and crime-prone, they have been discovered to have this singular virtue: They are veritable spending machines.

All this is true, but it is also a form of economy fetishism--or should I say worship? If we have learned anything in the last few years, it is that the economy is no longer an effective measure of human well-being. We've seen the economy grow without wage gains; we've seen productivity grow without wage gains. We've even seen unemployment fall without wage gains. In fact, when economists want to talk about life "on the ground," where jobs and wages and the price of Special K are paramount, they've taken to talking about "the real economy." If there's a "real economy," then what in the hell is "the economy"?

Once it was real-er, this economy that we have. But that was before we got polarized into the rich, the poor, and the sinking middle class. Gross social inequality is what has "de-coupled" growth and productivity from wage gains for the average household. As far as I can tell, "the economy," as opposed to the "real economy," is the realm of investment, and is occupied by people who live on interest and dividends instead of salaries and wages, aka the rich.

So I'm proposing a radical shift in rhetoric: Any stimulus package should focus on the poor and the unemployed, not because they spend more, but because they are in most in need of help. Yes, when a parent can afford to buy Enfamil, it helps the Enfamil company and no doubt "the economy" too. But let's not throw out the baby with the sensual bubble bath of "stimulus." In any ordinary moral calculus, the baby comes first.

Far be it from me to make the revolutionary suggestion that babies are more important than profits. My point is just that our economy--with its dizzying bubbles, wild lending sprees, reckless downsizings, and planet-wide hyper-sensitivity--has gotten too far disconnected from ordinary human needs. We could take the current crisis as an opportunity to fix that, at least in part, by shoring up government support for the needy and the dislocated. Or we can wait around and watch while the appropriate imagery gets nasty, as this ghostly creature, "the economy," starts acting like a nymphomaniac junkie in withdrawal.

Are Re-Runs Really Such a Bad Thing?

In solidarity with the striking screenwriters there will be no laugh lines in this blog, no stunning metaphors, and not many adjectives. Also, in solidarity with the striking Broadway stage-hands, no theatrics, special effects or sing-along refrains.

Yes, I realize the strike could deprive millions of Americans of news as Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, and the rest of them are forced into re-runs. If the strike and the re-runs go on long enough, the same millions of Americans will be condemned to living in the past and writing in Kerry for president in 08. But are re-runs really such a bad thing? After opening night, every Broadway show is a re-run in perpetuity, yet people have been known to fly from Fargo to see "Mamma Mia."

And yes, it's a crying shame that so many laugh-worthy news items will go unnoted on the late night talk shows: The discovery of Chinese toys coated with the date rape drug. The news that pot-smoking Swiss teenagers are as academically successful as abstainers and better socially adjusted. Bush's repeated requests for Musharraf to take off his uniform. Could there be a simple explanation for the powerful affinity between these two men?

True, a screenwriters' strike is not as emotionally compelling as a strike by janitors or farm-workers. Screenwriters are often well-paid -- when they are paid. All it takes is for a show to get cancelled or reconceptualized, and they're back on the streets again, hustling for work. I know a couple of them -- smart, funny women who clamber nimbly from one short-lived job to another, struggling to keep up their health insurance and self-respect.

But my selfish hope here is that the screenwriters' action will call attention to the plight of writers in general. Since I started in the freelancing business about 30 years ago, the per-word payment for print articles has remained exactly the same in actual, non-inflation-adjusted, dollars. Three dollars a word was pretty much top of the line, and it hasn't gone up by a penny. More commonly in the old days, I made a dollar a word, requiring me to write three or four 1000-word pieces a month to supply the children with their bagels and pizza. One for Mademoiselle on "The Heartbreak Diet." One for Ms. on "The Bright Side of the Man Shortage." One for Mother Jones on pharmaceutical sales scams, and probably a book review thrown in.

There was a perk, of course -- the occasional free lunch on an editor's expense account. These would occur in up-market restaurants where the price of lunch for two would easily exceed my family's weekly food budget, but I realized it would be gauche to bring a plastic baggie for the rolls. My job was to pitch story ideas over the field greens and tuna tartare, all the while marveling at the wealth that my writing helped generate, which, except for the food on my plate, went largely to someone other than me.

For print writers, things have gone steadily downhill. The number of traditional outlets--magazines and newspapers -- is shrinking. Ms., for example, publishes only quarterly now, Mother Jones every two months, and Mademoiselle has long since said au revoir. You can blog on the Web of course, but that pays exactly zero. As for benefits: once the National Writers' Union offered health insurance, but Aetna dropped it and then Unicare found writers too sickly to cover. (You can still find health insurance, however, at

So, you may be thinking, who needs writers anyway? The truth is, no one needs any particular writer, just as no one needs any particular auto worker, stage-hand, or janitor. But take us all away and TV's funny men will be struck mute, soap opera actors will be reduced to sighing and grunting, CNN anchors will have to fill the whole hour with chit chat about the weather, all greeting cards will be blank. Newspapers will consist of advertisements and movie listings; the Web will collapse into YouTube. A sad, bewildered, silence will come over the land.

Besides, anyone who's willing to stand up to greedy bosses deserves our support. A victory for one group, from Ford workers to stage-hands, raises the prospects for everyone else. Who knows? If the screenwriters win, maybe some tiny measure of respect will eventually trickle down even to bloggers. So in further solidarity with striking writers, I'm going to shut up right now.

Why Does Everyone Bow Down to the Health Insurance Industry?

Bow your heads and raise the white flags. After facing down the Third Reich, the Japanese Empire, the U.S.S.R., Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, the United States has met an enemy it dares not confront -- the American private health insurance industry.

With the courageous exception of Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic candidates have all rolled out health "reform" plans that represent total, Chamberlain-like, appeasement. Edwards and Obama propose universal health insurance plans that would in no way ease the death grip of Aetna, Unicare, MetLife, and the rest of the evil-doers. Clinton -- why are we not surprised? -- has gone even further, borrowing the Republican idea of actually feeding the private insurers by making it mandatory to buy their product. Will I be arrested if I resist paying $10,000 a year for a private policy laden with killer co-pays and deductibles?

It’s not only the Democratic candidates who are capitulating. The surrender-buzz is everywhere. I heard it from a notable liberal political scientist on a panel in August: We can’t just leap to a single payer system, he said in so many words, because it would be too disruptive, given the size of the private health insurance industry. Then I heard it yesterday from a Chicago woman who leads a nonprofit agency serving the poor: How can we go to a Canadian-style system when the private industry has gotten so “big�?

Yes, it is big. Leighton Ku, at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, gave me the figure of $776 billion in expenditures on private health insurance for this year. It’s also a big-time employer, paying what economist Paul Krugman has estimated two to three million people just turn down claims.

This in turn generates ever more employment in doctors’ offices to battle the insurance companies. Dr. Atul Gawande, a practicing physician, wrote in The New Yorker that ''a well-run office can get the insurer's rejection rate down from 30 percent to, say, 15 percent. That’s how a doctor makes money. It's a war with insurance, every step of the way.'' And that’s another thing your insurance premium has to pay for: the ongoing "war" between doctors and insurers.

Note: The private health insurance industry is not big because it relentlessly seeks out new customers. Unlike any other industry, this one grows by rejecting customers. No matter how shabby you look, Cartier, Lexus, or Nordstrom’s will happily take your money. Not Aetna. If you have a prior conviction -- excuse me, a pre-existing condition -- it doesn’t want your business. Private health insurance is only for people who aren’t likely to ever get sick. In fact, why call it “insurance,� which normally embodies the notion of risk-sharing? This is extortion.

Think of the damage. An estimated 18,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford or can’t qualify for health insurance. That’s the 9/11 carnage multiplied by three -- every year. Not to mention all the people who are stuck in jobs they hate because they don’t dare lose their current insurance.

Saddam Hussein never killed 18,000 Americans or anything close; nor did the U.S.S.R. Yet we faced down those "enemies" with huge patriotic bluster, vast military expenditures, and, in the case of Saddam, armed intervention. So why does the U.S. soil its pants and cower in fear when confronted with the insurance industry?

Here’s a plan: First, locate the major companies. No major intelligence effort will be required, since Google should suffice. Second, estimate their armed strength. No doubt there are legions of security guards involved in protecting the company headquarters from irate consumers, but these should be manageable with a few brigades. Next, consider an air strike, followed by an infantry assault.

And what about the two to three million insurance industry employees whose sole job it is to turn down claims? Well, I have a plan for them: It’s called unemployment. What country in its right mind would pay millions of people to deny other people health care?

I’m not mean, though. If we had the kind of universal, single-payer, health insurance Kucinich is advocating, private health insurance workers would continue to be covered even after they are laid off. As for the health insurance company executives, there should be an adequate job training program for them – perhaps as home health aides.

Fellow citizens, where is the old macho spirit that has sustained us through countless conflicts against enemies both real and imagined? In the case of health care, we have identified the enemy, and the time has come to crush it.

Children Deserve Veterinary Care Too

This year, Americans will spend about $9.8 billion on health care for their pets, up from $7.2 billion five years ago. According to the New York Times, New York's leading pet hospitals offer CT scans, MRI's, dialysis units, and even a rehab clinic featuring an underwater treadmill, perhaps for the amphibians in one's household. A professor who consults to pet health facilities on communication issues justified these huge investments in pet health to me by pointing out that pets are, after all, "part of the family."

Well, there's another category that might reasonably be considered "part of the family." True, they are not the ideal companions for the busy young professional: It can take two to three years to housebreak them; their standards of personal hygiene are lamentably low, at least compared to cats; and large numbers of them cannot learn to "sit" without the aid of Ritalin.

I'm talking about children, of course, and while I can understand why many people would not one of these hairless and often incontinent bipeds in their homes, it is important to point out that they can provide considerable gratification. There's a three-year-old in my life, for example, who gives me many hours a week of playful distraction from the pressures of work. No matter how stressed I am, she can brighten my mood with her quavering renditions of the ABC song or "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

She has health insurance, as it turns out, and generally high quality care. But you can never be too sure. So I went to the website of VPI Pet Insurance, one of the nation's largest animal companion health insurers, to see what kind of a policy I could get for her. In the application form, I listed her as a three-year-old mixed breed dog -- a description made somewhat plausible by the fact that her first words, spoken at the remarkable age of 10 months, were "ruf ruf" and "doggie outside." When I completed the form and clicked to get a quote I was amazed to see that I get her a "premium" policy for a mere $33 a month.

But, you may be wondering, could a veterinarian handle common children's ills? On the hopeful side, let me cite the case, reported in June by Bob Herbert of the New York Times, of Diamonte Driver, a 12-year old boy who died recently from an abscessed tooth because he had no insurance and his mother could not afford $80 to have the tooth pulled. Could a vet have handled this problem? Yes, absolutely.

Or there's the case of 14-year old Devante Johnson, also reported by Herbert, who died when his health insurance ran out in the middle of treatment for kidney cancer. I don't know exactly what kind of treatment he was getting, but I suspect that the $1.25 million linear accelerator for radiation therapy available at one of New York's leading pet hospitals might have helped. The Times article also mentions a mixed breed named Bullwinkle who consumed $7,000 worth of chemotherapy before passing on to his reward. Surely Devante could have benefited from the same kind of high quality pet care, delivered at a local upscale animal hospital.

It may seem callous to focus on children when so many pets go uninsured and without access to CT-scans or underwater treadmills. But in many ways, children stack up well compared to common pets. They can shed real tears, like Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. They can talk as well as many of the larger birds, or at least mimic human speech. And if you invest enough time in their care and feeding, they will jump all over you when you arrive at the door, yipping and covering your face with drool.

The Senate Finance Committee has approved a bill that would expand state health insurance coverage for children (S-CHIP) to include 3.2 million kids who are not now covered (but leaving about 6 million still uncovered.) Bush has promised to veto this bill, on the grounds that government should not be involved in health coverage. If Bush does veto the bill, the fallback demand should be: Open up pet health insurance to all American children now! Though even as I say this, I worry that the president will counter by proposing to extend euthanasia services to children who happen to fall ill.

The Rich Are Making the Poor Poorer

Twenty years ago it was risky to point out the growing inequality in America. I did it in a New York Times essay and was quickly denounced, in the Washington Times, as a "Marxist." If only. I've never been able to get through more than a couple of pages of Das Kapital, even in English, and the Grundrisse functions like Rozerem.

But it no longer takes a Marxist, real or alleged, to see that America is being polarized between the super-rich and the sub-rich everyone else. In Sunday's New York Times magazine we learn that Larry Summers, the centrist Democratic economist and former Harvard president, is now obsessed with the statistic that, since 1979, the share of pretax income going to the top 1 percent of American households has risen by 7 percentage points, to 16 percent. At the same time, the share of income going to the bottom 80 percent has fallen by 7 percentage points.

As the Times puts it: "It's as if every household in that bottom 80 percent is writing a check for $7,000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent." Summers now admits that his former cheerleading for the corporate-dominated global economy feels like "pretty thin gruel."

But the moderate-to-conservative economic thinkers who long refused to think about class polarization have a fallback position, sketched out by Roger Lowenstein in an essay in the same issue of the New York Times magazine that features Larry Summers' sobered mood.

Briefly put: As long as the middle class is still trudging along and the poor are not starving flamboyantly in the streets, what does it matter if the super-rich are absorbing an ever larger share of the national income?

In Lowenstein's view: "...whether Roger Clemens, who will get something like $10,000 for every pitch he throws, earns 100 times or 200 times what I earn is kind of irrelevant. My kids still have health care, and they go to decent schools. It's not the rich people who are pulling away at the top who are the problem..."

Well, there is a problem with the super-rich, several of them in fact. A bloated overclass can drag down a society as surely as a swelling underclass.

First, the Clemens example distracts from the reality that a great deal of the wealth at the top is built on the low-wage labor of the poor. Take Wal-Mart, our largest private employer and premiere exploiter of the working class: Every year, 4 or 5 of the people on Forbes magazine's list of the ten richest Americans carry the surname Walton, meaning they are the children, nieces, and nephews of Wal-Mart's founder.

You think it's a coincidence that this union-busting low-wage retail empire happens to have generated a $200 billion family fortune?

Second, though a lot of today's wealth is being made in the financial industry, by means that are occult to the average citizen and do not seem to involve much labor of any kind, we all pay a price, somewhere down the line. All those late fees, puffed up interest rates and exorbitant charges for low-balance checking accounts do not, as far as I can determine, go to soup kitchens.

Third, the overclass bids up the price of goods that ordinary people also need -- housing, for example. Gentrification is dispersing the urban poor into overcrowded suburban ranch houses, while billionaires' horse farms displace the rural poor and middle class. Similarly, the rich can swallow tuitions of $40,000 and up, making a college education increasingly a privilege of the upper classes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the huge concentration of wealth at the top is routinely used to tilt the political process in favor of the wealthy. Yes, we should acknowledge the philanthropic efforts of exceptional billionaires like George Soros and Bill Gates.

But if we don't end up with universal health insurance in the next few years, it won't be because the average American isn't pining for relief from escalating medical costs. It may well turn out to be because Hillary Clinton is, as The Nation reports, "the number-one Congressional recipient of donations from the healthcare industry." And who do you think demanded those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy -- the AFLCIO.

Lowenstein notes, that "if the very upper crust were banished to a Caribbean island, the America that remained would be a lot more egalitarian."

Well, duh. The point is that it would also be more prosperous, at the individual level, and democratic. In fact, why give the upper crust an island in the Caribbean? After all they've done for us recently, I think the Aleutians should be more than adequate.

Will Chimp Life Get Human Rights?

Hiasl, a 26-year old Austrian-based chimpanzee, is petitioning the courts for human status, and let me be the first to extend him a warm welcome to our species.

My animal rights activism has never gone beyond the cage-free eggs' stage; it's the human possibilities raised by Hiasl's case that caught my attention. If a chimpanzee can be declared a person, then there's nothing in the way of a person becoming an ape -- and I'm not just talking about a retroactive status applied to ex-husbands. In fact, I predict a surge in trans-specied people, who will eagerly go over to the side of the chimps.

The transition need not involve costly, time-consuming, surgical arm extensions and whole-body Rogaine treatments, since we are practically chimpanzees already. We share 99 percent of our genome with them, making it possible for chimps to accept human blood transfusions and kidney donations. Despite their vocal limitations, they communicate easily with each other and can learn human languages. They use tools and live in groups that display behavioral variations attributable to what anthropologists recognize as culture. And we may be a lot closer biologically than Darwin ever imagined.

Last May, paleontologists reported evidence of inter-breeding between early humans and chimps as recently as 5 million years ago, and proposed that modern humans are the result of this ancient predilection for bestiality.

Hiazl's motivation is economic: The animal sanctuary where he resides has run out of funds, and, in Austria, only a person can receive personal donations. Many humans in this country may be similarly motivated to seek chimp status. There are individuals who commit crimes in order to gain access to the free food and medical care available in a prison. How much easier and more pleasant to have oneself declared a chimp and win entry to the soft life of a zoo animal! Not only are the guards friendly, but one's enclosure has been designed with far more psychological forethought than the average office or cubicle.

True, not all chimps have it as easy as Hiazl, who spends most of his time watching TV. There's the danger of being sold to a pharmaceutical company for research, for example, but this should decline as chimps achieve human status. We can't expect much progress on chimpanzee rights in Bush's America, according to Elizabeth Hess, author of the forthcoming book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. But in addition to the Austrian debate, the Spanish parliament is considering a bill to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes. Once apes achieve these protections, American humans are going to want them too. I'm thinking food, shelter, and medical/veterinary care.

Another reason to make the human-to-ape transition is the sex, at least if you're smart enough to declare yourself a bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobos, who are genetically as close to humans as larger chimpanzees, use sex much as we use handshakes - as a form of greeting between individuals in any gender combination. See an old friend, and you start rubbing genitals together, with mutual orgasm serving as a hearty "How ya doin', pal?" Plus, bonobo bands are female-dominated, which should be a special enticement to women investigating their chimpanzee transition options.

There are is another, less selfish reason, to seek chimpanzee status. Like me, you may be a wee bit disappointed in our own species. Here we are - the tool-wielding, word-spouting brainiacs of the earth -- and what have we done with our powers? We've poisoned the world, encrusted it with our unsightly infrastructure, and exterminated most of our fellow earth-dwellers, from elephants and tigers to fish.

Of course, what makes humans especially obnoxious is our tendency to believe in our absolute superiority over all creatures. We alone, of all species, have come up with religions and philosophies that declare us uniquely deserving of global hegemony. Yet one by one, our "unique" human traits have turned out to be shared: Chimpanzees have culture; dolphins make art (in the form of bubble patterns); female vampire bats share food with their friends; male baboons will die to defend their troop; rats have recently demonstrated a capability for reflection that resembles consciousness. We are animals, and they are us.

But just because you want, for whatever reason, to attain the status of a chimp, don't assume that you'll make the cut. Just as we don't know how the Austrian court will rule in Hiasl's case, we have no reason to believe that the chimps will have us.

Higher Education Conformity

Can you be fired for doing a great job, year after year, and in fact becoming nationally known for your insight and performance? Yes, as in the case of Marilee Jones, who was the dean of admissions at MIT until her dismissal last week, when it was discovered that she had lied about her academic credentials 28 years ago. She had claimed three degrees, although she had none. If she had done a miserable job as dean, MIT might have been more forgiving, but her very success has to be threatening to an institution of higher learning: What good are educational credentials anyway?

Jones is hardly the only academic fraud. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimates that 10-30 percent of resumes include distortions if not outright lies. In the last couple of weeks, for example, "Dr. Denis Waitley Ph.D." -- as he is redundantly listed in the bestselling self-help book The Secret, where he appears as a spiritual teacher -- has confessed to not having his claimed master's degree, and the multi-level vitamin marketing firm he worked for admits that it can't confirm the Ph.D. either.

All right, lying is a grievous sin, as everyone outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows. And we wouldn't want a lot of fake MIT engineering graduates designing our bridges. But there are ways in which the higher education industry is becoming a racket: Buy our product or be condemned to life of penury, and our product can easily cost well over $100,000.

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear. Jones, for example, was performing a complex job requiring considerable judgment, experience and sensitivity without the benefit of any college degree. And how about all those business majors -- business being the most popular undergraduate major in America? It seems to me that a two-year course in math and writing skills should be more than sufficient to prepare someone for a career in banking, marketing, or management. Most of what you need to know you're going to learn on the job anyway.

But in the last three decades the percentage of jobs requiring at least some college has doubled, which means that employers are going along with the college racket. A resume without a college degree is never going to get past the computer programs that screen applications. Why? Certainly it's not because most corporate employers possess a deep affinity for the life of the mind. In fact in his book Executive Blues G. J. Meyers warned of the "academic stench" that can sink a career: That master's degree in English? Better not mention it.

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one's ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white collar job, most of the time you'll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end -- whether in library carrels or office cubicles -- does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned -- although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation. Unless your parents are rich and doting, you will walk away from commencement with a debt averaging $20,000 and no health insurance. Employers can safely bet that you will not be a trouble-maker, a whistle-blower or any other form of non-"team-player." You will do anything. You will grovel.

College can be the most amazingly enlightening experience of a lifetime. I loved almost every minute of it, from St. Augustine to organic chemistry, from Chaucer to electricity and magnetism. But we need a distinguished blue ribbon commission to investigate its role as a toll booth on the road to employment, and the obvious person to head up this commission is Marilee Jones.

Wal-Mart and Target Spy on Their Employees

It reads like a cold war thriller: The spy follows the suspects through several countries, ending up in Guatemala City, where he takes a room across the hall from his quarry. Finally, after four days of surveillance, including some patient ear-to-the-keyhole work, he is able to report back to headquarters that he has the goods on them. They're guilty!

But this isn't a John Le Carré novel, and the powerful institution pulling the strings wasn't the USSR or the CIA. It was Wal-Mart, and the two suspects weren't carrying plans for a shoulder-launched H-bomb. Their crime was "fraternization." One of them, James W. Lynn, a Wal-Mart factory inspection manager, was traveling with a female subordinate, with whom he allegedly enjoyed some intimate moments behind closed doors. At least the company spy reported hearing "moans and sighs" within the woman's room.

Now you may wonder why a company so famously cheap that it requires its same-sex teams to share hotel rooms while on the road would invest in international espionage to ferret out mixed-sex fraternizers. Unless, as Lynn argues, they were really after him for what is a far worse crime in Wal-Mart's books: Openly criticizing the conditions he found in Central American factories supplying Wal-Mart stores.

In fact, the cold war thriller analogy is not entirely fanciful. New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro, who related the story of Wal-Mart's stalking of Lynn and his colleague, also reports that the company's security department is staffed by former top officials of the CIA and the FBI. Along the same lines, Jeffrey Goldberg provides a chilling account of his visit to Wal-Mart's Bentonville "war room" in the April 2nd New Yorker. Although instructed not to write down anything he saw, he found a "dark, threadbare room... its walls painted battleship gray," where only two out of five of the occupants will even meet his eyes. In general, he found the Bentonville fortress "not unlike the headquarters of the National Security Agency."

We've always known that Wal-Mart is as big, in financial terms, as many sizable nations. It may even have begun to believe that is one, complete with its own laws, security agency, and espionage system. But the illusion of state power is not confined to Wal-Mart. Justin Kenward, who worked at a Target store in Chino CA for three years, wrote to tell me about his six hour interrogation, in 2003, by the store's "Asset Protection" agents, who accused him of wrongly giving a fellow employee a discount on a video game a year earlier:

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Challenging the Workplace Dictatorship

With the Employee Free Choice Act heading toward a Senate vote, conservative columnist George F. Will has suddenly developed a tender concern for workers' rights. The act "strips all workers of privacy," he fumed in the Washington Post last week, and will repeal "a right -to secret ballots -- long considered fundamental to a democratic culture ..." As Will sees it, the unions are backing the act out of sheer desperation: Since they can't seem to win a fair fight for workers' allegiance, they want government to take away the workers' rights and help herd them into union membership.

OK, now let's leave Will-land and enter an actual American workplace. Are you punched in? Good. The first thing to notice is that you've checked your basic civil rights at the door. Freedom of speech? Forget about it: Some employers bar speech of any kind with your fellow employees. I saw this firsthand at a chain restaurant and a Wal-Mart store. Wanna work? Zip your lips.

How about those privacy rights that Will so concerned about? Nada -- they don't exist outside of Will-land either. You probably had to pee in a cup to get your job in the first place, which constitutes a very intimate chemical invasion of privacy. In most states, your purse or backpack can be searched by the employer at any time; your emails and web activity can be monitored.

Right of assembly? Sorry, you don't have that either. In my experience, most managers see a group of three or more employees talking together as an insurrection in the making. Shut up and get back to work!

The Employee Free Choice Act would require employers to recognize a union whenever a majority of workers sign union cards - thus bypassing the often prolonged and creaky process of an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election. The longer the delay before the election, the more time management has to intimidate, isolate, and harass the union's supporters.

Here's how they do it: Workers are called away from their jobs and required to attend management-run meetings where they are subjected to anti-union harangues and videos. Note: Not only do workers lack freedom of assembly, they lack the freedom to not assemble. If management announces a 2 PM meeting, you better be there. These are called "captive audience meetings" for a reason.

At the meetings, which may take place daily in the weeks leading up to an NLRB election, management lays out a dire picture of what will happen if the union comes in: Workers will lose the right to talk to managers individually (not true); they will see their wages and benefits decline (emphatically not true); they will be stuck paying exorbitant dues (hardly); the company may have to move to Mexico ... Sorry, no questions or comments from the audience.

Most pro-union workers can withstand the company's mass captive audiences. Harder to resist are the one-on-one and small group meetings, where individual workers are grilled about their union allegiance for as many hours as it takes. During one union drive among truck drivers, management confronted workers one by one about personal issues like their credit ratings and family responsibilities. A lot of them finally broke down, and the union drive was defeated.

There's nothing wrong with management voicing its view on unions -- say, in a flyer to workers -- and certainly nothing wrong with secret ballots. The problem lies in the abuse of management power in the period between the initial union card signing and the NLRB-sponsored secret ballot election. If workers are willing to sign a union card-- which is a courageous step all by itself -- that should be enough to signify their choice.

Will calls the Employee Free Choice Act "Orwellian." But Orwell's fascist "1984" is already here and it's called the American workplace. What really scares employers about the Employee Free Choice Act is that it will begin to change that -- and bring the first stirrings of democracy to work.

The Jet Blue Blues

The lucky JetBlue passengers were the ones whose flights were cancelled last week. They were fortunate enough to remain stranded in well-heated airports with restrooms and food courts. As for the unlucky ones, hundreds of them were trapped for as many as 10 hours in planes on the tarmac, with overflowing toilets, dwindling supplies of drinking water, and of course no food when the pretzels ran out. So far there have been no reports of cannibalism aboard immobilized JetBlue flights, but, with the company’s post-ice storm PR campaign in full swing, who knows?

I could do 10 hours on the tarmac, provided I had a sufficient supply of Xanax and protein bars. But with children? JetBlue’s CEO David Neeleman has nine of them. Would he dare risk a family vacation in the Caribbean if any of them are in the challenging 0 to 10 age range? According to CNN, parents on stranded planes were ripping up t-shirts to make diapers for their babies. And how many times can you read Curious George out loud anyway?

Neeleman has admitted to being “humiliated and mortified� by his company’s post-storm meltdown (one might wish that his status included “fired.�) But JetBlue’s outbreak of passenger abuse reflects larger problems in corporate America. One is a premium on youth at the expense of experience. According to Aero News, this may have had something to do with the company’s decision, shortly after the storm, to push planes off to the tarmac rather than canceling flights, as the older airlines did. JetBlue’s approach certainly succeeded in clearing some boarding areas of noisy, disgruntled passengers, but a stun gun might have been more humane.

“There’s a lot more gray hair at older airlines than there is at JetBlue,� Aero News quoted Tim Sieber, general manager of the Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm. But youth is part of JetBlue’s branding, even if it means having no one around who’s ever seen snow.

The other widespread problem is a simple shortage of employees. Since the late eighties, corporate America has pursued the beautiful dream of an employee-free company. Imagine: no payroll except for the top executives, no benefits to provide, and of course no unions! So the pattern has been that every time a company downsizes, its stock rises and its top managers drool over their burgeoning portfolios.

Since 9/11, the airlines in particular have been shedding employees like unwanted ballast, with predictable results. As the New York Times reports, there’s been an industry-wide “thinning of staff,� meaning that in bad weather, airlines often “do not have enough people…� Which might be OK if bad weather hadn’t become so routine that it’s crowding out all other news on CNN.

The budget airlines are especially skimpy when it comes to human employees. In late 2006, Neeleman announced plans to reduce its number of full-time employees per plane from 93 to 80. He should rethink that, since the major reason JetBlue couldn’t get back off the ground after the Valentine’s Day storm was that it lacks the personnel to connect crews to their flights. Pilots and flight attendants remained stuck in their hotels while passengers slept on airport floors.

Neeleman might also want to rethink the paltry passengers’ “bill of rights� JetBlue is offering as part of its effort to regain customer trust. What it’s missing is the crucial right to be freed from an airplane that isn’t going anywhere at all. According to a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the industry’s major trade group, such a right would “impose[s] inflexible standards on a carrier's operations� -- just as laws against kidnapping place a terrible burden on ransom-seekers.

If I get stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, I plan to use my cell phone to call Homeland Security. Let’s face it, JetBlue and the rest of you: Anything more than three hours on the ground isn’t an airline delay, it’s a hostage situation.

An Exit Strategy for the War on Christmas

As a dedicated secular humanist, I must regretfully acknowledge that the War on Christmas has not been going well. Some would use the word "quagmire," and urge a phased redeployment to other fronts, like Easter and Mardi Gras.

Others argue that we simply need more boots on the ground, and that our allies, such as the ACLU, have not been fielding sufficient troops. I say we have only ourselves to blame, and that -- however noble our intentions -- we haven't been putting up much of a fight.

Take me, for example. I had big plans for the season: I was going to spray paint the local church crèches with atheist graffiti, sue my town over the lights on Main Street, let termites loose on the mega-tree at Rockefeller Center, and start rumors about an E. Coli infestation of the nation's fruitcake supply.

But here it is, December already, and I've done nothing to rate a mention on Bill O'Reilly's show or even a mild rebuke from the Pope, who, apparently oblivious to the anti-Christmas threat, spent last week cozying up with Muslims in Turkey.

What's my excuse? Well, Christmas of course. There are those catalogues, which usually get recycled directly from the mail box, to study. Menus to plan. Should we do the Cuban-style roast pork or a re-run of the Thanksgiving turkey? Cards to buy and address: How will the pretty Virgin and baby go over with my Wiccan friends?

Then there's the annual fight over the tree: Can it be multi-colored and gaudy, as I prefer, or all-white, as certain puritanical in-laws insist? And toys, toys, toys. I spent yesterday searching for obscure members of the Dora the Explorer tribe: What's with this pre-Christmas shortage of Dora's monkey sidekick, Boots?

Let's face it: Christmas is not the exclusive property of those who think God came to earth 2000 years ago as a baby in Bethlehem. I caught the Christmas bug from my parents, who were militant atheists of the Richard Dawkins ilk.

I celebrated it with my first husband, the son of Jewish atheists. True, we tried Chanukah too one year, but it bombed with the kids. What's a little Chanukah gelt compared to a floor-full of presents?

My second husband, who had been inadvertently converted to atheism by the nuns at Catholic school, was the worst. We fought over whether to measure the extent of our excess by the volume of presents under the tree or their weight as determined by the bathroom scale.

How Christian is Christmas anyway? The tree and the wreathes descend from pagan, tree-worshipping, Druidism. The December date for the holiday probably comes from the Roman Saturnalia, a pre-existing blow-out featuring feasting and role-inversion (masters had to wait on slaves.)

Even if you fixate on Jesus, he was a pretty ecumenical guy -- a Jew who invented Christianity and is also much honored by Muslims. And who would be grinch-like enough not to welcome a baby whose mission was to bring world peace? Hell, I'm such a baby freak I think any baby, anywhere, any time, should be a cause for major celebration.

At the post office last week, where I was stocking up on stamps for the above-mentioned cards, I struggled over the seasonal options: Chanukah, Kwanza, Eid (the post-Ramadan Muslim holiday), or a traditional Virgin and Child. "You should get a sheet of each," the postmistress helpfully suggested, "More and more people are doing that." So I did, and I now declare the war is over -- the War on Christmas anyway.

Voters Make Work More Rewarding

Work just got a little more rewarding in Arizona, Montana, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and -- according to CNN projections -- Colorado. Voters in these states just approved increases in their minimum wages -- from $5.15 an hour all the way up to $6.85 an hour in Ohio. The six new states join the enlightened 18 that had already raised their minimum wages, for a total of 24 states where it's beginning to be worthwhile to get up and go to work in the morning.

I'm especially proud of my home state, Montana, which a decade ago was best known for its white supremacist militias. I feel like the Abe Lincoln character in the Rozerem ad: "Welcome back," I want to say, "We missed you." Except that the Montanans aren't falling asleep -- they're waking up from their weird, scary, claustrophobic dream.

If the U.S. electorate was as heavily skewed toward the upper middle class this time as it has been in recent years, many of the people who voted to raise their states' minimum wages were not in a position to benefit directly. In fact, some of them may end up paying a little more for their landscapers and restaurant meals. In other words, these voters saw the minimum wage as a moral or "values" issue. They decided that restaurant meals don't taste all that good when they're served by people who have trouble feeding themselves.

In Colorado, the group opposed to raising the minimum wage -- Stop42--tried to seize the moral high ground for itself, with an ad depicting God Himself warning against an increase. The ad shows a Santa-like Moses addressing the Big Guy:

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Wal-Mart Licks Its Wounds

Poor Wal-Mart just can't seem to catch a break. There they are, the monks of Bentonville -- who, according to company legend, share hotel rooms on business trips rather than drive up the price of pantyhose -- toiling away to make the good life affordable to the impecunious masses. And what do they get? Nothing but grief. The Democrats are running against Wal-Mart in the fall congressional elections, and not just the wild-eyed progressive ones. Centrist Hillary Clinton returned a $5,000 donation from the company, citing its inadequate health benefits, and Joe Biden just attacked it because he doesn't see "any indication that they care about the fate of middle-class people."

Then Andrew Young, the former civil rights leader-turned-Wal-Mart-flack, pulled a Mel Gibson, lashing out at the company's small business, ethnic, competitors: "I think they've ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs; very few black people own these stores." Wal-Mart quickly distanced itself from the remark, as did Young himself. He stepped down from his Wal-Mart job, though he has not yet followed Mel's example by seeking counseling from leading Korean fruit vendors.

The Young meltdown aside, Wal-Mart blames its troubles on the unions it has worked so hard to bar from its stores. They're so touchy, those unions! They take offense just because the Wal-Mart orientation for new hires includes a 12-minute video on the evils of unions, portraying them as little better than extortionists. They get all bent out of shape every time a union sympathizer is fired by Wal-Mart on some trumped-up charge like using profanity or being discourteous to customers. They jump up and down when Wal-Mart is caught making its associates work overtime for no pay, or locking them into the stores at night.

But the cruelest blow to Bentonville is a sudden decline in profits -- down 26 percent in the second quarter of '06 -- the first decline in 10 years. Wal-Mart blames, first, the failure of its attempted expansion into Germany, where apparently folks don't cotton to smiley faces and people greeters; and second, high gas prices in the USA. According to the New York Times, Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott "hinted that those [gas] costs seemed to be prompting consumers to shop less frequently." There's one big advantage to the little Jewish-, Korean- or Arab-owned shop: Usually, you can walk to it.

The profit drop suggests a deep contradiction in Wal-Mart's seemingly altruistic goal of bringing abundance to the American working class. According to Wal-Mart defenders, those low prices hinge, not only on improvements in productivity, but on the low wages and benefits offered to Wal-Mart's workers. In other words, you've got to squeeze one part of the working class -- the 1.3 million Wal-Mart employees -- to fill the shopping carts of the others. How much the employees are squeezed is hard to determine: Wal-Mart claims to pay an average of $9.68 an hour, which doesn't sound all that bad. But Wal-Mart has a record of falsifying data on employee hours to conceal unpaid overtime work, so why should we believe them about anything?

There were signs, even before the recent profit drop, that Wal-Mart was beginning to be priced out of the reach of its own employees. I was surprised, in my brief stint as a Wal-Mart associate, that our ladies' wear was too costly for many of my co-workers. (In Nickel and Dimed, I told the story of a $7 an hour associate who could not afford a $7 polo shirt of the kind we were required to wear.) If you earn $7, $8, or even $9 an hour, you're not buying new clothes anyway; you're going to Goodwill or consignment stores. As for the offerings of Wal-Mart's Electronics and Lawn and Garden departments, for my co-workers, these weren't even on the distant horizon.

Then there are Wal-Mart's sagging Christmas sales. Christmas is of course a retailer's defining moment, and in the last two years, Wal-Mart desperately slashed its prices as the holiday approached. But both in '04 and '05, Wal-Mart's Christmas take was disappointingly low (Target and Costco did better, as did the luxury stores like Nordstrom.) Who buys their Christmas presents at Wal-Mart? It's the $7-$10 an hour crowd that dreams of Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart, and for the last two years, there hasn't been much under their trees.

Now of course Wal-Mart associates are not a special breed of celibates who have taken a vow of poverty. They are the spouses and live-in grown children of carpenters, home health aides, baggage-handlers and truck drivers. When Wal-Mart workers can't afford health insurance or new school clothes, the whole working class begins to flail. Furthermore, the Wal-Mart business model increasingly betrays what was once the operating principle of American capitalism, as explained by Henry Ford the First: You've got to pay your workers enough so that they can buy your product; that's what keeps the system going. When the American majority can't buy the very goods they manufacture or sell, that system is cruising for a bruising.

With their business model crashing down around them, the monks of Bentonville are already moving on to Plan B. Forget the working class, which was so ungrateful anyway, and move up-market. They're redesigning their stores to be more appealing to the J. Crew and Whole Foods crowd. They've added organic foods and $2,000 flat-screen TVs to their wares. The poor will have to fall back on those Jews, Koreans and Arabs.

The High Cost of Being Poor

There are people, concentrated in the Hamptons and Beverly Hills, who still confuse poverty with the simple life. No cable TV, no altercations with the maid, no summer home maintenance issues -- just the basics like family, sunsets and walks in the park. What they don't know is that it's expensive to be poor.

In fact, you, the reader of middling income, could probably not afford it. A new study from the Brookings Institute documents the "ghetto tax," or higher cost of living in low-income urban neighborhoods. It comes at you from every direction, from food prices to auto insurance. A few examples from this study, by Matt Fellowes, that covered 12 American cities:

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Give Me That Old-Time Feminism

Feminism, as you've probably been reading for the last 20 years, is dead. Most women today want to smash through the glass ceiling, run for the Senate, and buy contraceptives at will (not to mention abortions, at least if the fetus they're carrying turns out to be "defective.") But feminism? It's just a bunch of hairy-legged, man-hating harridans screaming slogans that were already obsolete in the era of Charlie's Angels.

The latest nail in the coffin comes from Ana Marie Cox, the famed blogger known as "wonkette," in her snarky review of Katha Pollitt's new book Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Times (New York Times Book Review, July 2).

All right, I have a personal stake in this: I wrote a blurb for the book, I'm a friend of Pollitt, and I'm a little on the strident side myself. In her review, Cox is irritated, among other things, by Pollitt's criticism of women who have their little toes amputated so they can squeeze into stilettos. Cox confesses that her own first thought -- "OK, maybe not the first" -- on reading about "pink-ectomy" surgery was, "Does it really work?"

Cox is not the first post-feminist to denounce paleo-feminists as sexless prudes. Ever since Andrea Dworkin -- a truly puritanical feminist -- waged war on pornography, there've been plenty of feisty women ready to defend Victoria's Secret as a beachhead of liberation. Something similar happened in the 1920s, when newly enfranchised young women blew off those frumpy old suffragists and declared their right to smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts and dance the Charleston all night.

Maybe there's a cycle at work here: militant feminism followed by lipstick and cocktails, followed, in a generation or two, by another gust of militancy. But this time around the circumstances are vastly different. In the 1920s, women were seeing their collective fortunes advance. The Western nations were granting them suffrage; contraceptives were moving beyond the status of contraband. Contrast those happy developments to today's steadily advancing war against women's reproductive choice: the banning of abortion in South Dakota, fundamentalist pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control.

Worldwide, the situation is far grimmer, as fundamentalist Islam swallows one nation after another. Iraq, once a secular and fairly woman-friendly place by Middle Eastern standards (although Saddam had no use for actual feminists), is degenerating into a contest between misogynist factions of various sectarian stripes. Somalia, which had been reasonably secular, just fell to the Islamists, who have taken to attacking insufficiently covered women in the streets. Then there's Indonesia, where, in some regions, women lacking head scarves or sporting cosmetics now face arrests for "prostitution," and women found in public with unrelated men can be publicly whipped.

I've always liked to think that feminism is the West's secret weapon against Islamism. How can an ideology that aims to push half the human race into purdah hope to claim the moral high ground? Islamic feminists would fight Islamism, and we Western feminists would offer our sisterhood in the struggle. But while Muslim women are being stuffed into burkas, American post-feminists are trying to stuff their feet into stilettos. Who are you going to call when the morals police attack you for wearing eye shadow in Kabul or flashing some ankle in Tehran -- a wonkette?

Cox seems to have missed the irony of Pollitt's title "Virginity or Death!" This isn't Pollitt's choice, but the kind of choice being imposed on a growing number of women throughout the world. The deeper irony is that women's right to wear lipstick, show skin, and consort with men in public go hand in hand with their rights to vote, own property, and purchase contraception. Outside of brothels, you don't get the stilettos without suffrage. So, yes, maybe the paleo-feminists who chanted and marched for equal rights get a little tiresome at times. But you can thank them for your belly button jewelry and your right to display it in public.

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