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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Ehrenreich: How Corporations and Local Governments Rob the Poor Blind

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Barbara Ehrenreich: How I Discovered the Truth About Poverty

The following piece is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and will appear in print in the new issue of that magazine. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.  

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How Homelessness Became an Occupy Wall Street Issue

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Barbara Ehrenreich: America's Tragic Decline -- Resistance Bursts Out All Over the World, While We Do Nothing to Fight Corporate Takeover

Editor's note: In the following Democracy Now! interview, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich and Amy Goodman talk about the human cost of the economic meltdown.

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Wal-Mart -- It's Alive! How the Company Is Terrorizing the Country With its Corporate 'Personhood'

What is Wal-Mart -- in a strictly taxonomic sense, that is? Based on size alone, it would be easy to confuse it with a nation: In 2002, its annual revenue was equal to or exceeded that of all but 22 recognized nation-states. Or, if all its employees -- 1.4 million in the U.S. alone -- were to gather in one place, you might think you were looking at a major city. But there is also the possibility that Wal-Mart and other planet-spanning, centi-billion-dollar enterprises are not mere aggregations of people at all. They may be independent life-forms -- a species of super-organisms.

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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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Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Forced Positive Thinking Is a Total Crock

From the book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at

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Ehrenreich: The Pink-Ribbon Breast Cancer Cult

Has feminism been replaced by the pink-ribbon breast cancer cult? When the House of Representatives passed the Stupak amendment, which would take abortion rights away even from women who have private insurance, the female response ranged from muted to inaudible.

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Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Your Children May Not Get a Swine Flu Shot Before They Need It

If you can't find any swine flu vaccine for your kids, it won't be for a lack of positive thinking. In fact, the whole flu snafu is being blamed on "undue optimism" on the part of both the Obama administration and Big Pharma.

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Ridiculous Study Blames Feminism for Non-Existent 'Happiness Gap' Between Men and Women

Feminism made women miserable. This, anyway, seems to be the most popular takeaway from "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," a recent study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers which purports to show that women have become steadily unhappier since 1972. Maureen Dowd and Arianna Huffington greeted the news with somber perplexity, but the more common response has been a triumphant: I told you so.

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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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Barbara Ehrenreich: Welcome to a Dying Industry, J-School Grads

The following is the text of Barbara Ehrenreich's commencement address on May 16 to the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2009.

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Unemployed, and Not Getting a Job Anytime Soon? Why Not Build a Better World?

In most parts of the world, mass unemployment brings the specter of mass social unrest. Not in the U.S., though, where 13 million people have accepted joblessness with nary a peep of protest.

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If We Are in the Death Spiral of Capitalism, Can We Start Using the "S" Word?

Note for NYC Residents: This Friday, The Nation Institute, Nation Books, and AlterNet are co-hosting a panel discussion, "Meltdown: The Economic Collapse and a People's Plan for Recovery," with an all-star cast that includes Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Jeff Madrick, Christopher Hayes. Some of them should be consulting for the Obama administration in place of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers et al. instead of offering us their thoughts for free at 8 pm this Friday at 2 West 64th Street in New York City at The New York Society for Ethical Culture. Doors open at 7:15, first come, first served.

If you haven't heard socialists doing much crowing over the fall of capitalism, it isn't just because there aren't enough of us to make an audible crowing sound. We, as much as anyone on Wall Street in, say, 2006, appreciate the resilience of American capitalism--its ability to regroup and find fresh avenues for growth, as it did after the depressions of 1877, 1893 and the 1930s. In fact, The Communist Manifesto can be read not only as an indictment of capitalism but as a breathless paean to its dynamism. And we all know the joke about the Marxist economist who successfully predicted eleven out of the last three recessions.

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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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Corporate America, Ground Your Jets

If anything symbolizes the excesses and inequalities of the last few years, it's the private Learjet or Gulfstream. While the masses take off their shoes and line up for security screening, high-fliers inhabit a parallel transportation universe characterized by cozy private terminals, flexible departures and nonexistent security. In flight, the sky is the limit, with some private jet owners spending $10 million to $40 million on interior decorating, which could include gold bathroom fixtures and rare-wood paneling, as well as flight staffs, including chefs and masseuses.

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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.

Flight Rage Incident Reveals the Dark Side of Osteen's 'Prosperity Gospel'

For heartsick former supporters of John Edwards, this week offers an edifying tabloid alternative: the civil trial of Victoria Osteen, wife of megachurch minister and televangelist Joel Osteen, for assaulting a flight attendant. The issue was what is sometimes described as a "spill" and sometimes as a "stain" on the armrest of Mrs. Osteen's first-class seat, which the flight attendant refused to clean up with sufficient alacrity because she was busy assisting others aboard. Although there is no evidence that the spill consisted of tuberculosis-ridden phlegm or avian flu-rich bird poop, Osteen was mightily pissed, allegedly pushing and punching the flight attendant and making such a ruckus that the Osteen family had to be removed from the flight.

I would be more sympathetic to the flight attendant, Sharon Brown, if she weren't demanding 10 percent of Osteen's fortune to compensate for injuries including a "loss of faith" and hemorrhoids somehow incurred from a frontal assault. But it isn't easy being a flight attendant in this era of layoffs, pay cuts and packed planes -- certainly not compared to being a millionaire on her way to Vail. Whatever dubious substance Victoria Osteen faced on that first-class armrest, she should have been able to derive some serenity from the fact that the church she co-pastors draws 40,000 worshippers a week and that her husband has been dubbed "America's Most Influential Christian."

Just another celebrity meltdown set off by insufficiently servile servers? Recall Russell Crowe's 2005 assault with a telephone on a SoHo hotel clerk, or Naomi Campbell's attacks with similar weapons -- a cell phone and a Blackberry -- on members of her own staff. But there's a curious antecedent here that Christians would do well to ponder: In 1997, another megachurch pastor and leading televangelist, Robert Schuller, was prosecuted for an eerily similar first-class tantrum.

Schuller, like the Osteens, is a proponent of positive thinking -- the doctrine that God intends for you to be rich, healthy and generally "great" right here in this life. While politicos have focused on the Christian Right, there's been far less attention to the fast-growing brand of Christianity Light, also represented by televangelists Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar. Positive thinking is the theology of the modern megachurch, and it avoids all mention of sin -- including the "sins" of abortion and homosexuality -- lest such "negative" topics turn off any potential converts or "seekers." Its promise is that you can have anything you want simply by "visualizing" it or, as Osteen puts it, "believing for it" -- a doctrine derided by some Christian critics as "name it and claim it."

Schuller faced a different biohazard on his first-class flight in '97: cheese. When the flight attendant gave him a fruit-and-cheese plate for dessert, Schuller insisted that the cheese be removed. The flight attendant refused, explaining, reasonably enough, that all the fruit had been plated with cheese and could be contaminated, from a cheese-allergy sufferer's point of view. But the pastor was simply on a low-fat diet and did not want to see the cheese on his plate, so he got out of his seat and accosted the flight attendant, shaking him violently by the shoulders. Schuller ended up paying a $1,100 fine and undergoing six months of police supervision.

In the theology of Christian positive thinking, "everything happens for a reason." The Osteens may conclude that the divine intention was to prod them into emulating Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar by investing in a private jet. But there's another possible message from on high: that this brand of Christianity fosters a distinctly un-Christian narcissism.

Consider the ways the Lord works in the life of the Osteens, as recounted in Joel Osteen's book Your Best Life Now, which has sold 4 million copies and is graced by a back cover photo of the smiling couple. Acting through Victoria, who kept "speaking words of faith and victory" on the subject, Joel was led to build the family "an elegant home." On other occasions, God intervened to save Joel from a speeding ticket and to get him not only a good parking spot but "the premier spot in that parking lot." Why God did not swoop down with a sponge and clean up the offending stain on the armrest remains a mystery, because Osteen's deity is less the Master of the Universe than an obliging factotum.

Plenty of Christians have already made the point that the positive thinking of Christianity Light is demeaning to God, and I leave them to pursue this critique. More importantly, from a secular point of view, it's dismissive of other humans, and not only flight attendants. If a person is speeding, shouldn't he get a ticket to deter him from endangering others? And if Osteen gets the premier parking spot, what about all the other people consigned to the remote fringes of the lot? Christianity, at best, is about a sacrificial love for others, not about getting to the head of the line.

If the Osteens' brand of religion is what flight attendant Sharon Brown lost faith in as a result of being manhandled by on that plane to Vail, then the suit should be dropped, because Victoria Osteen has already done her enough of a favor.

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 http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/hea_obe-health-obesity; 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.

This Land Is Their Land: How the Rich Confiscate Natural Beauty from the Public



I took a little vacation recently -- nine hours in Sun Valley, Idaho, before an evening speaking engagement. The sky was deep blue, the air crystalline, the hills green and not yet on fire. Strolling out of the Sun Valley Lodge, I found a tiny tourist village, complete with Swiss-style bakery, multistar restaurant and "opera house." What luck -- the boutiques were displaying outdoor racks of summer clothing on sale! Nature and commerce were conspiring to make this the perfect micro-vacation.

But as I approached the stores things started to get a little sinister -- maybe I had wandered into a movie set or Paris Hilton's closet? -- because even at a 60 percent discount, I couldn't find a sleeveless cotton shirt for less than $100. These items shouldn't have been outdoors; they should have been in locked glass cases.



Then I remembered the general rule, which has been in effect since sometime in the 1990s: if a place is truly beautiful, you can't afford to be there. All right, I'm sure there are still exceptions -- a few scenic spots not yet eaten up by mansions. But they're going fast.



About ten years ago, for example, a friend and I rented a snug, inexpensive one-bedroom house in Driggs, Idaho, just over the Teton Range from wealthy Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At that time, Driggs was where the workers lived, driving over the Teton Pass every day to wait tables and make beds on the stylish side of the mountains. The point is, we low-rent folks got to wake up to the same scenery the rich people enjoyed and hike along the same pine-shadowed trails.



But the money was already starting to pour into Driggs -- Paul Allen of Microsoft, August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch, Harrison Ford -- transforming family potato farms into vast dynastic estates. I haven't been back, but I understand Driggs has become another unaffordable Jackson Hole. Where the wait staff and bed-makers live today I do not know.




I witnessed this kind of deterioration up close in Key West, Florida, where I first went in 1986, attracted not only by the turquoise waters and frangipani-scented nights but by the fluid, egalitarian social scene. At a typical party you might find literary stars like Alison Lurie, Annie Dillard and Robert Stone, along with commercial fishermen, waitresses and men who risked their lives diving for treasure (once a major blue-collar occupation). Then, at some point in the '90s, the rich started pouring in. You'd see them on the small planes coming down from Miami -- taut-skinned, linen-clad and impatient. They drove house prices into the seven-figure range. They encouraged restaurants to charge upward of $30 for an entree. They tore down working-class tiki bars to make room for their waterfront "condotels."



Of all the crimes of the rich, the aesthetic deprivation of the rest of us may seem to be the merest misdemeanor. Many of them owe their wealth to the usual tricks: squeezing their employees, overcharging their customers and polluting any land they're not going to need for their third or fourth homes. Once they've made (or inherited) their fortunes, the rich can bid 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 rural Americans into trailer homes. Similarly, the rich can easily fork over annual tuitions of $50,000 and up, which has helped make college education a privilege of the upper classes.



There are other ways, too, that the rich are robbing the rest of us of beauty and pleasure. As the bleachers in stadiums and arenas are cleared to make way for skybox "suites" costing more than $100,000 for a season, going out to a ballgame has become prohibitively expensive for the average family. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, superrich collectors have driven up the price of artworks, leading museums to charge ever rising prices for admission.



It shouldn't be a surprise that the Pew Research Center finds happiness to be unequally distributed, with 50 percent of people earning more than $150,000 a year describing themselves as "very happy," compared with only 23 percent of those earning less than $20,000. When nations are compared, inequality itself seems to reduce well-being, with some of the most equal nations -- Iceland and Norway -- ranking highest, according to the UN's Human Development Index. We are used to thinking that poverty is a "social problem" and wealth is only something to celebrate, but extreme wealth is also a social problem, and the superrich have become a burden on everyone else.






If Edward O. Wilson is right about "biophilia" -- an innate human need to interact with nature -- there may even be serious mental health consequences to letting the rich hog all the good scenery. I know that if I don't get to see vast expanses of water, 360-degree horizons and mountains piercing the sky for at least a week or two of the year, chronic, cumulative claustrophobia sets in. According to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, the need for scenery is hard-wired into us. "People like to be on a hill, where they can see a landscape. And they like somewhere to go where they can not be seen themselves," she told Harvard Magazine last year. "That's a place desirable to a predator who wants to avoid becoming prey." We also like to be able to see water (for drinking), low-canopy trees (for shade) and animals (whose presence signals that a place is habitable).



Ultimately, the plutocratic takeover of rural America has a downside for the wealthy too. The more expensive a resort town gets, the farther its workers have to commute to keep it functioning. And if your heart doesn't bleed for the dishwasher or landscaper who commutes two to four hours a day, at least shed a tear for the wealthy vacationer who gets stuck in the ensuing traffic. It's bumper to bumper westbound out of Telluride, Colorado, every day at 5, or eastbound on Route 1 out of Key West, for the Lexuses as well as the beat-up old pickup trucks.



Or a place may simply run out of workers. Monroe County, which includes Key West, has seen more than 2,000 workers leave since the 2000 Census, a loss the Los Angeles Times calls "a body blow to the service-oriented economy of a county with only 75,000 residents and 2.25 million overnight visitors a year." Among those driven out by rents of more than $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment are many of Key West's wait staff, hotel housekeepers, gardeners, plumbers and handymen. No matter how much money you have, everything takes longer -- from getting a toilet fixed to getting a fish sandwich at Pepe's.



Then there's the elusive element of charm, which quickly drains away in a uniform population of multimillionaires. The Hamptons had their fishermen. Key West still advertises its "characters" -- sun-bleached, weather-beaten misfits who drifted down for the weather or to escape some difficult situation on the mainland. But the fishermen are long gone from the Hamptons and disappearing from Cape Cod. As for Key West's characters -- with the traditional little conch houses once favored by shrimpers flipped into million-dollar second homes, these human sources of local color have to be prepared to sleep with the scorpions under the highway overpass.




In Telluride even a local developer is complaining about the lack of affordable housing. "To have a real town," he told the Financial Times, "Telluride needs some locals hanging out" -- in old-fashioned diners, for example, where you don't have to speak Italian to order a cup of coffee.




When I was a child, I sang "America the Beautiful" and meant it. I was born in the Rocky Mountains and raised, at various times, on the coasts. The Big Sky, the rolling surf, the jagged, snowcapped mountains -- all this seemed to be my birthright. But now I flinch when I hear Woody Guthrie's line "This land was made for you and me." Somehow, I don't think it was meant to be sung by a chorus of hedge-fund operators.


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