For the past several weeks, President Bush has been barnstorming the country to tell us the good news -- the nation's payrolls grew by 308,000 in the month of March, the largest one month jump in four years. "People are finding jobs, and the nation's future is bright. America's families and workers have reason to be optimistic."
So what are these "new jobs?" Well, 13,000 of them are California grocery workers returning to work after an extended strike. Another 31,000 represent new government jobs. 71,000 "new jobs" are in the construction industry, a seasonal upswing independent of the President's policies. 11,000 "new jobs" are in credit intermediation, reflecting the surge in home refinancing due to low interest rates. And 36,000 "new jobs" are in health care or social assistance, jobs created to help people who no longer have jobs.
What the President fails to mention is the bad news. As New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) remarked: "Only in the Bush 'economic recovery' can our country gain jobs and increase the unemployment rate in the same month."
Unemployment figures rose in March for all adult workers across the board, irrespective of race, gender, or income level. Fewer whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics had jobs in March than they did in February. Only teenagers showed a slight drop in the jobless rate, sliding from 16.6% unemployment in February to 16.5% in March.
2.4 million U.S. jobs have disappeared since the recession began 33 months ago. 331,000 jobs were lost last year, on top of 1.5 million jobs lost in 2002.
The last time payroll employment fell in two consecutive years was at the end of World War II, as war-related manufacturing declined. The current figures stand in stark contrast to the average of 300,000 new jobs created every month between 1995 and 2000. And as a recent study by economists at the New York Federal Reserve Bank shows, a far greater share of recent layoffs have been permanent, rather than the temporary cyclical layoffs which occurred in most previous recessions.
Some 8.4 million people who want to work are still out of work. Manufacturing employment has been stagnant at 14.3 million since the last quarter of 2003. The Economic Policy Institute reports that manufacturing has lost three million jobs since its most recent peak four years ago. "As a share of total employment, manufacturing has fallen from 13.1% to 11%, a sharp rate of decline in historical terms."
The only noticeable sector in which jobs are surging is temp work, which added 212,000 jobs over the past year, a measure of the desperation of those looking for full-time permanent jobs, but unable to find them.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: "In March, the number of persons who worked part-time for economic reasons increased to 4.7 million, up 300,000 since February. Those individuals indicated that they would like to work full-time but were working part-time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find full-time jobs."
BLS figures show that the number of persons who were "marginally attached to the labor force" was 1.6 million in March, roughly the same as one year ago. "These individuals wanted to work and were available to work and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months, but were not counted among the unemployed because they had not actively searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey."
In March, there were more than half a million "discouraged workers," about the same as last year. "Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, were not currently looking for work specifically because they believed no jobs were available for them."
Taken together, the unemployed, discouraged workers, and those marginally attached to the workforce made up 9.9% of the civilian labor force in March. That statistic does not include those employed below their skill level, those who are out of work but designated as self-employed, those whose wages and hours have been cut as a result of the recession, and those whose unemployment benefits have run out.
The long-term unemployed, those who have been out of work for at least six months, rose one percentage point in March to 23.9% of the jobless, the highest level since July 1983, when the unemployment rate was 9.3%. By the middle of 2004, benefits will expire for an estimated additional two million unemployed workers.
In March, the average (non-farm) work week fell to 33.7 hours, the manufacturing work week decreased to 40.9 hours, and real average weekly wages for working Americans decreased by 0.7%.
So where does President Bush's good news come from? Corporate profits have risen 57.5% since the first quarter of 2001, while private wage and salary income has fallen 1.7%. According to Business Week, the average compensation for CEO's of large corporations in 2003 was $8.1 million, up 9.1% from the previous year. In the Bush lexicon, that's called a "recovery."
My thanks to James Crotty, Professor of Economics, UMass, Amherst and staff economist at the Center for Popular Economics (populareconomics.org) and to Betsy Leondar-Wright at United for a Fair Economy (ufenet.org) for helping me navigate the chasm between the illusion of job creation and the reality.
Judith Gorman is regular contributor to AlterNet.
The press is having a hard time holding its head up these days. Case in point: the recent unpaid commercial endorsement of the Bush administration that passed for coverage of the invasion of Iraq.
The level of mistrust has risen so high that an entire website (mediahorse.com) has been devoted to taking "an unbiased, in-depth look at the vast myriad of whores who call themselves 'journalists.'" This site "casts a garish spotlight on the relentless screaming heads of television, the babbling paranoids of squawk radio, and the crayon scribblings of lazy print media 'journalists.'" The website "set out to bring the media to their knees, but found they were already there."
Worse yet, journalists have to contend with fellow writeers who make far more than they do -- the fiction writer who makes up stories for a living or the screenwriter who inflates other people's words to cinematic proportions for a living. Neither of them has to come up with new ideas every day, chase down leads, develop sources, quote with impeccable accuracy, respect confidentiality of off-the-record information, or avoid libel suits. And yet, each of them earns well into the seven figures a year, while most journalists' salaries, except for a few luminaries and network anchors, hover right around the public assistance level.
All of which might lead you to the conclusion that making things up for a living is easier and more lucrative than telling the truth. In fact, disgraced "New Republic" journalist Stephen Glass plays on this theme in an "autobiographical novel" about his misadventures in creative writing called "The Fabulist," due out in bookstores this week. Which may begin to explain the motives of Jayson Blair, a seemingly gifted and extraordinarily fortunate young reporter for the New York Times, who created his own bizarre twist on "all the news fit to print."
On May 2, the New York Times announced the resignation of Mr. Blair, a national affairs reporter whose Apr. 26 front-page article about an Army mechanic missing in Iraq included "passages similar to some appearing earlier in the San Antonio Express-News." The Times apologized to the family of the missing mechanic, Specialist Edward Anguiano, who has since been reported dead, for "heightening their pain in time of mourning." The Times also apologized to its readers for its "grave breach of its journalistic standards" and said that the editors "had been unable to determine what original reporting (Mr. Jayson) did to produce" that story.
According to a 7000 word mea culpa that ran in the May 11 edition of the Times, an "internal investigation into Blair's tenure at the paper uncovered a long history of falsified stories that appeared in the newspaper. Jayson Blair...misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not." At least 36 of the 73 articles written by Blair had "problems with accuracy, or were outright falsifications."
Mr. Blair now joins the ignominious ranks of former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, the Boston Globe's Patricia Smith and Mike Barnacle, and Slate's Jay Forman, all journalists who were caught embellishing, plagiarizing, and flat out lying in print.
Conflating fact and fiction, embroidering the truth, and, in general, floating through life on Cliff Notes, cuts across disciplines, with academics and scientists inventing data, as well. Last year, Emory University history Michael A. Bellesiles resigned following an investigation of charges that he concocted evidence to support his book "Arming America," and Bell Labs fired researcher Jan Hendrik Schon when it discovered he made up scientific data and published it. And lest we forget, last year noted historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose were forced to acknowledge that they "borrowed" freely from primary sources without accreditation, a costly error that got Mrs. Goodwin kicked off the Pulitzer committee, but not off the Sunday morning talking-head circuit.
Is it laziness, sloppiness, or is it just that "faking it" is the default mode of our culture? After all, if putting on boots and a ten-gallon hat can make you into a cowboy, and wearing a flight suit can turn you into a pilot, it isn't too much of a stretch to believe that wearing a press badge can make you into a journalist.
Judith Gorman is regular contributor to Alternet.
In a class action suit filed this past Monday, thousands of individuals who say they were unfairly denied college admission 30 years ago in favor of less qualified applicants are suing Yale College and the President of the United States.
The suit alleges that Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Sikhs, and women of all races, religions, proportions and colors, were unfairly discriminated against by an affirmative action program in effect at Yale at that time, which admitted sons and grandsons of alumni as "legacies," whether or not they met the stringent criteria for admission.
In point of fact, the main admissions requirements for Yale College legacies were the ability to walk and chew gum more or less at the same time, eat with a knife and fork without dribbling, read and write at 3rd grade level or above, open a good bottle of wine without letting pieces of cork drop in, and looking presentable in a navy blue blazer with gold buttons.
The average SAT scores for freshmen entering Yale in Mr. Bush's class, the Class of 1968, were 670 Verbal, 705 Math. Mr. Bush scored 566 on the Verbal and 640 on the Math, scores which placed him in the 84% percentile. Barring the unlikely possibility that young Bush wrote an essay of National Book Award quality, SAT scores in the top 16% would not have gained him admission to Yale on his own merit. Mr. Bush has defended his academic record, reminding us that he endorses affirmative action as long as it is utilized by friends, relatives, and business associates to give favorable treatment to those less qualified applicants who were too busy cheerleading and partying to really crack the books in prep school.
In explaining his defense of the legacy policy, Mr. Bush said that his administration will urge the courts to uphold the admissions policies at Yale, saying that there is no better way to achieve racial uniformity in higher education. In legal briefs filed yesterday, he extolled these so-called favorite son plans, describing them as "a tested and popular way" to ensure the primacy of the upper classes, especially now that they are an endangered cultural and economic minority. In the past, Mr. Bush has endorsed the so-called percentage plan, enacted when he was the governor of Texas, which allows the top 10% of graduating high school seniors to attend state universities no matter "how bad their high schools or how low their SAT scores." Unfortunately, not only would Mr. Bush have been denied admission to Yale on the basis of his high school record, but under the percentage plan, he would not have gotten into a state college or university in Texas. Undeterred by that fact, Bush told reporters in the Roosevelt Room on Tuesday that there are clearly constitutional means to further affirmative action through family connections. There are ways to utilize nepotism, which I have put in place as the governor of Texas, that will lead the courts to "define the outer limits of the Constitution."
Bush also declared last week that admission policies currently utilized by the University of Michigan are clearly unconstitutional because they fail to take into account nepotism, cronyism, and primogeniture. But he skirted the larger question of whether family connections should ever be considered a factor in government decisions.
Republican strategists close to the White House have said that Mr. Bush's position is a result of trying to please "anti-affirmative action conservatives" while still taking advantage of the privileges of birth.
And in a related story, a suit has been brought by hundreds of former business school applicants with college grade point averages significantly higher than Mr. Bush's C, who were denied admission to the MBA program at Harvard. Named as co-defendants are Harvard University, the Princeton Review, Kaplan Educational Centers and various other SAT and GRE tutoring services, the publisher of Cliff Notes, and George H.W.Bush, who allegedly put in a few good words for his boy. The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear oral arguments on April 1. The court will hear the two cases back to back that day, one challenging the Yale's undergraduate admissions policies and the other challenging the MBA admissions standards at Harvard Business School.
Mr. Bush declined to comment on whether preferential treatment should be used in the future as a factor in college admissions. In sidestepping the issue, Bush said it is up to his friends on the Supreme Court to settle the question, and he is confident that they will make the right decision.
As the first MBA President, George W. Bush pledged to run the country like an efficient and profitable corporation. That means he works for us, the citizens of the United States, and is responsible to us as an employee.
We hired Mr. Bush nearly two years ago, although most of us believed he was the wrong man for the job, and many of us knew that he was unqualified for the position. Mr. Bush had never successfully managed a large corporation, or for that matter, successfully run a corporation of any size, and his experience in public office was scant to say the least. It turned out that we really had no choice. After all, he was the boss' son.
Nepotism aside, the current president of the United States is our employee, and we're stuck with him for the next two years. We pay Mr. Bush's salary, as we do the salaries of his press secretary, his chief of staff, his advisors, his pollsters and his spin doctors. We pay his rent and his utility bills, we pay for the food that graces his table. We pay for his bespoke suits, his power ties, his speechwriters and teleprompters and all the rest of the artifice required to make Mr. Bush appear presidential. We pay for his kid's college tuition, for his vacations at the ranch, for his fishing trips with Dad, and come to think of it, for his jaunts around the country on Air Force One to raise money for Republican candidates.
As employers, we have the right to review the president's performance, to call into question his decisions, and to hold him to account if he fails to execute our explicit instructions or to fulfill his promises.
The president promised that our stock would rise. He vowed that the economy would improve by the simple expedient of giving money back to a select portion of the population. That was a foolish plan that didn't work, and while it has enriched a few people, the value of our investment has fallen dramatically and we are once again deeply in debt. Most corporate boards would respond to such a disastrous performance by giving the CEO his walking papers, but unfortunately, Mr. Bush is still around.
The president promised that more of us would have jobs, but instead he gave them away to people in other countries. He promised to improve our public schools, so that that all of our children would receive a quality education. That hasn't happened either.
The president promised to be compassionate. He told us that he cared about you and me. But like many CEO's, he became obsessed with mergers and acquisitions, ignored the stockholders, and forgot the bottom line. Now the president is trying to annex the oil producing nations of the Middle East, starting with Iraq. Politicians call it nation building, but most businessmen will recognize it as just another takeover, albeit with missiles.
Nearly two years ago, the president put his right hand on the Bible and promised to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. By any reasonable standard, the arrest and indefinite detention of individuals who are denied the right to legal counsel, as well as the labeling of anyone who disagrees with him a traitor, should qualify as gross violations of the president's oath of office.
The chief executive still works for us, and it is therefore incumbent upon us, as his employers, to hold him to his promises, to rein in his excesses, and to remind him that he serves at our pleasure. We need to inform the president that our primary concern is not whether or not he gets the guy who "tried to kill" his dad. We are more interested in the fact that he is running the country into the ground.
We stockholders have a meeting coming up on Tuesday, Nov. 5, at which time we will have the opportunity to express our opinions about the chief executive's record. Those of us who are dissatisfied with the president's performance should voice our displeasure by going to the polls and ensuring that his hands are tied for the next two years, retaining the Democratic majority in the Senate and returning control of the House to the Democrats.
In the meantime, the president welcomes your comments and suggestions. Every citizen can call Mr. Bush at the White House and tell him what we think of the way he is running the country. The number is (202) 456-1111. An automated message will connect you to a real live opinion taker.
If you think the president is doing a good job on the economy, go right ahead and tell him. If you think he is protecting our civil liberties and upholding the Constitution, mention that too. And if you are anxious to spend billions of dollars to send your sons and daughters to the Middle East for the next 10 years for the purpose of filling the nation's gas tanks and securing drilling rights for Mr. Bush's cronies, by all means, let the president know. If not, go right ahead and express your displeasure with Mr. Bush's policies and performance. He's waiting to hear from you.
That number again, (202) 456-1111. White House operators are standing by.
Even amongst the rich assortment of wackos, misfits, and fanatics of various persuasions who populated the streets of my childhood, my next door neighbor Murray was a standout. Every loud noise, a siren, a firecracker, backfire from a car, even a whistling teakettle, would cause this guy to drop to the ground and curl into a ball.
We kids considered those antics to be a hilarious form of street theatre, but Murray was not being funny. He served in the infantry in World War II, and after four years in combat, had developed reflexes to protect himself. Decades later, Murray still couldn't shake the feeling that danger lurked everywhere.
He wasn't the only one. Plenty of Americans remember air raid drills, blackout curtains, gas masks, and crouching under school desks in case of an atomic bomb attack. If London was bombed, not to mention the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we could be next.
That is the post-September 11 generational divide, a disconnect between those who lost their innocence last year, and those of us who lost it a long time ago.
The preponderance of individuals who perished on September 11 grew up in a popsicle colored dream of indomitable America, in a time when even the threat of an attack on American soil was unthinkable. But those who remember World War II and those who lived through the Vietnam War already know there is no safe place. No country or group of individuals is entirely safe from indiscriminate acts of terror, not even us. Especially not us.
Not everybody likes us, and it's amazing to see how many people are surprised by that information. Like a disgruntled schoolyard bully, we are genuinely shocked to discover that not only do people not like us, but that some of them don't play nice.
It's the way the world is, and it's a reality we have been insulated from for more than half a century. In most countries, indeed in all countries except this one, the random murder of civilians who are chosen not because of who they are but because of what they represent is an everyday occurrence. Ask the Israelis. Or the Palestinians. The few remaining Jews in Poland, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Kurds in Iraq, Muslims in Bosnia, Hutus, Tutsis, Chechneyans, journalists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, and East Timor. Except for the undisclosed location in which Vice President Cheney is presently hiding, there is no safe place. Not even here.
It's impossible not to think that what we are memorializing this week is not the death of innocence but the death of arrogance. Because nothing, no single thing, symbolized our hubris more than the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's lost monument to commerce, the late World Trade Center.
The so-called "cathedral of capitalism" was perilously built, utilizing innovative and cost effective methods of construction that increased open expanses of rentable floor space, without the impediment, expense, or structural stability of the more traditional masonry and mortar, massive steel girders and beams.
Designed around a space saving central core of stairwells and mechanicals, the buildings were pierced by what would become giant chimneys, spreading fire throughout the structures, and denying escape to those above the point of impact. Flimsily fireproofed, and later only partially retro-fitted with sprinkler systems that would prove to be useless, the Towers were exempt from strict city fire codes by virtue of bi-state ownership. Precariously balanced despite extensive motion damping, the towers oscillated in high winds like the world's largest pendulums. And they were unattractive, so belligerently ugly that they evoked comparisons to a pair of gothic revival parking garages. All in all what one critic called "a fearful instrument of urbicide".
What the Twin Towers were was tall. So tall, in fact, that the raising of those two monoliths was construed by many, thirty years ago, to be a finger poked directly into God's eye. Nevertheless, even after six people died in a car bomb attack on the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, no one considered the buildings unsafe. The only concession made was to coat the stairwell walls with glow-in-the-dark-paint. Surely no structure on the face of the globe was ever more susceptible to disaster.
Phillipe Petit is the man who knows the World Trade Center better than anyone else. Better than the shameless opportunists and relentless self-promoters who have usurped the events of September 11 to serve their own ends. Better than the maudlin talk show hosts and lugubrious newsanchors, better than the vendors of souvenir NYPD and NYFD tee-shirts and the celebrities who wear them, better than the landlords and developers so desperate to reclaim their ten million square feet of commercial real estate. And better than the hawks in the Bush administration who are using this tragedy to further their own preposterous political agenda.
Mr. Petit is the man who stretched a cable from the top of one Twin Tower to the other in August, 1974, before the buildings were occupied, and spent almost an hour walking the highwire between them. He says that at that moment, he understood that he was trespassing on territory that rightfully belongs only to birds.
Good news. You won't be getting any calls from telemarketers on Sept. 11.
The swell folks at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) have issued the following advisory: "As we approach the first anniversary of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, there has been some debate on what is commercially appropriate on that solemn day. Bowing to public sensitivities....the DMA is urging its members, in planning their marketing calendars for the coming month, to take into consideration that many Americans may not wish to receive any marketing messages on that day....The DMA is suggesting that its members either refrain from conducting unsolicited email and telephone marketing campaigns on Wednesday, Sept. 11, or conduct those campaigns with the utmost caution and respect on this solemn day of remembrance."
How tasteful. That's the good news. The bad news is that for the remaining 364 days a year, we will be subjected to a farrago of sales pitches that would put P.T.Barnum to shame.
They assault us day and night. Holidays and weekends. Right after we've poured the milk on our cereal, are up to our elbows in soapsuds, under the hood of the car, up a ladder cleaning the gutters, juggling six grocery bags, or just stepping into the shower. Nine times out of ten, if you drop everything to run for the phone, it will be a real estate opportunity from an untraceable number somewhere in the Great Okefenokee Swamp, yet another calling plan with unlimited free minutes after midnight, or a "Please hold for the next available representative." Sure I will.
And that doesn't include junk mail. Entire forests have been clearcut just to stuff our mailboxes with pre-approved credit cards offers at prime plus 22.9 percent, catalogs for everything from sheets, towels, and comforters to miniature Victorian dollhouses, underwear only appropriate for strippers, and a ticker tape parade of postcards addressed to "Current Resident." It all goes straight from the post office to the recycling bin, and it's getting worse, which probably accounts for the continuing escalation of postal rates.
Where do all those unwanted intrusions come from? They originate from the companies that compile your credit report. The only good thing about having bad credit is that these people will leave you alone.
Trans Union, Equifax and Experian, the three companies that issue consumer credit reports, can also convey that information to "prospective landlords, mortgage lenders, car salesmen, boat and motorcycle dealers, finance and loan companies, banks, savings & loans and credit unions, leasing companies, jewelry, appliance, musical instrument and other retailers that grant credit, home improvement contractors, doctors and dentists, stock brokerages, insurance companies, and city, county, state, and federal government agencies."
In fact, under Section 604 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), a consumer reporting agency may furnish a consumer report not only in response to your written request, but to any "person or entity whom the bureau has reason to believe intends to use the report in connection with the extension of credit, or the review or collection of an account...(or) otherwise has a legitimate business need for the report in connection with a business transaction involving the consumer." In other words, almost anybody, including the tinker, the tailor, and the Department of Homeland Security, can access your credit report.
Here's how to strike back. Contact all three credit reporting agencies at once by calling the Trans Union Opt-Out request line at 1-888-5OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) and getting your name removed from their shared promotional mailings lists. The call is effective for two years. To be taken off the lists permanently, you need to put the opt-out request in writing to:
Experian Information Services
P.O. Box 919
Allen, Texas 75013
P.O. Box 740123
Atlanta, Georgia 30374-0123
Trans Union Corporation
Attn: Marketing Opt-Out
P.O. Box 97328
Jackson, Mississippi 39288-7328
Next, you need to target the mother ship of the home invasion sales fleet, the Direct Marketing Association. Place your name on "Do Not Call" and "Do Not Mail" lists, by sending requests in writing to both the Telephone Preference Service and the Mail Preference Service, c/o Direct Marketing Association, Box 643, Carmel, New York, 10512. This can also be done by phone at 212-768-7277, or online at dmaconsumers.org, under Consumer Help/ Remove Name From Lists. The online service charges $5 for the courtesy.
For more information, contact the Center For A New American Dream (newdream.org), a consumer action group that works in conjunction with The Center For Democracy and Technology, to make it safe for all of us to answer the phone again.
Oh and by the way, you may be interested to learn that every year four people are inducted into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, which puts real names and faces on the world's most annoying individuals.
This year's honorees are Jock Bickert, founder of National Demographics & Lifestyles, a 41-million-name consumer database that generates "highly targeted" mailing lists; Jonah Gitlitz, originator of DMA's Shop-at-Home program; Robert D. "Bob" Kestnbaum, a pioneer in the application of "sophisticated database/interactive marketing technologies"; and Ralph Lane Polk II, whose "revolutionary efforts" transformed the compilation of automobile owner registrations into a "powerful direct marketing tool."
I plan to call them all next Sunday morning at 6am and put them on hold. You might just want to do the same.
If you've been throwing away those offers from the Gardens of Faith Perpetual Calendar and Plate Collection, Precious Moments Porcelain Figurines, Franklin Mint Presidential Commemorative Coins and other worthless junk that arrives inside your bank and credit card statements and insurance bills, you might want to go back through the trash. Hidden within that detritus was another piece of paper, one with an important message. If you missed it, you may have unintentionally waived your right to protect the privacy of your personal financial information.
The assault on privacy is being mounted on several fronts simultaneously, and as of last month, your personal financial information is now fair game.
For example, the company that handles my homeowners insurance is also a real estate brokerage and has recently become a mortgage lender, meaning that all of the information about the value of my home and its contents is available to anyone in that company and its numerous affiliates, including a broker from NYLife, who has been coming in weekly and accessing their computer files. News to me. And I only know because I asked.
The driving force behind the dissemination of personal financial information is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999), which went into effect on July 1, 2002. Although the law purports to set new safeguards for consumer protection, in practice it means that either you defend your privacy or you lose it.
Gramm-Leach-Bliley requires banks, mortgage companies, insurance companies, credit-card, issuers, financial planners and tax preparers, to "protect against hazards or unauthorized access" to their customers' personal information by allowing customers to opt out of information sharing.
But you have to be vigilant and knowledgeable to take advantage of that protection. Under the new law, financial institutions must offer you a disclaimer yearly, but it is often confusingly worded, hidden within a morass of garbage and printed in type smaller than the letters at the bottom of the eye chart. Read the fine print. Get out your microscope and you will see that you have the option of refusing to allow them to divulge your records. But in order to opt-out you must notify each and every company in writing.
A brief backstory of the new law. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Glass-Steagall Act (Banking Act of 1933) was passed in an effort to restore confidence in the banking system. Glass-Steagal was predicated on the idea that "America's financial house (would) best be kept in order if bankers and brokers stay in separate rooms."
Glass-Steagall reshaped America's financial landscape, first by establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to insure customer accounts. Second, it required banks to either accept deposits or underwrite securities, but not both. Banks had to decide whether to become commercial banks that accept customer deposits in checking and savings accounts, or investment banks that engage in "the riskier business of corporate underwriting, involving the purchase of new securities from the corporate issuers and their resale to the public."
This separation between stability and risk worked well for 66 years, until soon-to-be-retired Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm decided to bestow a parting gift on the banking community.
The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act effectively repeals the Glass-Steagall Act. Under its new provisions, banks, securities firms and insurance companies are no longer prohibited from forming affiliations. More to the point, they can freely exchange your private financial information with their cohorts.
According to financial planner David Root: "If you're providing information to one institution, it's going to be shared down the line. Not only would your credit report be fair game, your entire banking history, credit card numbers and Social Security numbers could be traded and sold to any business that wants to get their hot little hands on it."
The privacy provisions of Gramm-Leach-Bliley "requires all financial institutions, regardless of whether they form an FHC (Financial Holding Company), to disclose to customers their policies and practices for protecting the privacy of non-public personal information. The disclosure which customers would receive at the time of establishing the relationship and at least annually thereafter would allow customers to 'opt-out' of information sharing arrangements to non-affiliated third-parties. The Act permits financial institutions to share personal customer information with affiliates within the holding company."
Opt-out is the salient point. If you do not exercise that choice, you are opted-in by default.
Ignore these notifications at your own peril. If you receive an opt-out notification, respond to it. If you have not already received that communication from the institutions you do business with, you need to contact each of them and request the opt-out form. That includes banks, tax preparers, real estate brokers, credit card companies, stock brokerage firms and anyone else who has access to your social security number.
Privacy is an elusive commodity these days. And make no mistake about it, it is a commodity. Your personal information is being shared and sold every day, often without your knowledge or consent. If you want to protect your self, you need to be proactive. Opt out.
Gather unto you all your W-2's, your 1040's, your Schedule C's, D's and SE's, depreciations, amortizations, and profit and loss statements, for the Day of Reckoning is close at hand. That special day when we render unto Caesar a percentage of our incomes, minus charitable contributions, IRA's, work related travel expenses, and unreimbursed photocopying at Kinko's.
By and large, the majority of Americans pay their taxes, if not eagerly, at least on time and with a minimum of complaint. Our motivation stems in equal part from our willingness to fulfill our civic responsibilities and an abject fear of being audited. We are all terrified of the Internal Revenue Service, and with justification.
In 1997, in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, former IRS Agent Jennifer Long spoke of the "egregious" methods used by IRS Revenue Agents and "encouraged" by IRS Management. "These tactics", she stated, "are used to extract unfairly assessed taxes from taxpayers, literally ruining families, lives, and businesses, all unnecessarily and sometimes illegally."
In response to the barrage of injustices revealed at those hearings, Congress passed the IRS Reform and Restructuring Act in 1998, the most extensive revision of the agency's structure in history. The Act created an IRS Governance Oversight Board to eliminate abuses, established the position of National Taxpayer Advocate, and limited the powers of the IRS' Examination and Collection Division. With regard to collection procedures, taxpayers were, for the first time, granted specific due process rights. Congress also restricted the use of the draconian examination techniques so familiar to those of us who have been audited, and granted taxpayers specific rights to sue the IRS when it exceeded its mandate. So for some Americans, the promise of a kinder, gentler IRS was fulfilled.
But not for all of us.
Audit rates for the taxpayers with the lowest incomes have increased by a third since 1988, while falling 90% for the wealthiest Americans. You might suppose that the tax returns of highest wage earners would be the most vigilantly scrutinized by the IRS, but the reverse is true. The less money you make, the more likely it is that you will be audited.
According to an ongoing study conducted by Syracuse University, the overall chances of your tax return being audited fell to 1 in 200 last year, down from 1 in 60 in 1996. But those statistics belie the new strategy of the Internal Revenue Service, which is now focused disproportionately on the working poor, who are now more than 5 times as likely to be audited as anyone else.
If you earn more than $100,000, your chances of being audited fell to a new low of 1 in 100 last year. On the other hand, if you were one of the roughly 20 million Americans who applied for the Earned Income Credit, you chances of being audited were 1 in 75. 1999 marked the first year in which the poor were more likely than the rich to be subjected to an IRS audit.
We can thank former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the intensified focus of the Internal Revenue Service on those taxpayers who earn the least. Gingrich, together with a group House Republicans, was outraged by tax fraud. Not the kind of loophole you can drive a Mercedes through, but potential misuse of the Earned Income Credit, a program that returns government money to low income working families with children. As a result, taxpayers who apply for the Earned Income Credit now constitute 44% of all IRS audits.
I've said this before, and it bears repeating. According to a former IRS Agent Jennifer Long: "The IRS will often pursue a taxpayer who is viewed to be vulnerable. To the IRS, vulnerabilities can be based on a perception that the taxpayer has limited formal education, has suffered a personal tragedy, is having a financial crisis, or may not necessarily have a solid grasp of their legal rights."
Obviously, the more money you earn, the better equipped you are to deal with the IRS. You have access to the best tax advice money can buy, are able to take advantage of the fine print in the tax code, and ultimately utilize the best methods of minimizing your tax liabilities. And should you be audited, you can afford to hire the legal expertise necessary to fight back, a remedy not available to the working poor.
Indeed, IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti admits that within the agency, there is widespead "fearfulness of pressing cases against taxpayers... whose lawyers or accountants threaten to invoke a portion of the 1998 Restructuring Act, which mandates the firing of any IRS employee for committing any of 10 specific acts that constitute harassment of a taxpayer."
What recourse do the rest of us have? Save every piece of documentation you need to itemize your deductions, and by all means, hire a tax preparer, it will save you money in the long run. And yes, don't cheat on your taxes. Take it from me, life after an audit is hardly worth living.
The centerpiece of our national dream is home ownership, the plumage we display, like peacocks, to signify our ascension up the economic ladder. How and where we live is so significant a measure of who we are, that residential downsizing is considered as stigmatizing as leprosy.It is that most American of aspirations, the concept of socioeconomic advancement made manifest through real estate. However, for many of us pride of place and affordable housing appear to be mutually exclusive. If you want one, you are obligated to give up the other.Figures compiled by the construction industry and the U.S. Census Bureau would suggest that over the past decade, Americans are living larger, and at lower cost. But there is a startling disconnect between the booming economic indicators and the real lives of most Americans. The tremendous accumulation of wealth by the top 5 percent has created a skew which distorts all measureable medians. Nowhere is this more apparent than in housing, where for every homeowner of an expansive 30,000 plus square feet, a hundred people are each squeezed into 300 square feet or less.Dimensions of new residential construction are on the rise, but statistics show that overall, square footages of living space are virtually stagnant over the past eight years. According to the most recent figures from the American Housing Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American lives in 710 square feet, 742 square feet for homeowners, 495 square feet for renters.Slightly less luxurious are mobile homes, the prefabricated rolling tunafish cans hailed by Richard Nixon as the panacea which would make every American a homeowner. HUD standards for manufactured homes are 320 square feet minimum, with at least one 70 square foot bedroom. Grass, trees, and a view of the night sky not included.Despite the recent trumpetings in Newsweek and New York Magazine of the rise of the new class of barely pubescent billionaires, I have not been able to turn up a single human whose home size has increased, or whose total monthly outlay for housing has decreased over the past decade. Housing costs for most Americans have gone up, from 25 percent of income to 30 percent, and in the most desirable urban centers, considerably more.The dismal nugget of truth, hidden within the statistics, is that the larger the space you live in, the lower the proportionate cost. 2500 square feet of living space costs less than twice as much as 500 square feet. Which makes affordable housing an oxymoron.In inner cities, where new residential construction requires demolition of pre-existing structures, and the overall number of housing units remains relatively static, the housing market ressembles a pack of starving wolves fighting over a bone. Modest two bedroom apartments which sold for $65,000, 15 years ago, are now a steal at $650,000. Industrial lofts in the meat packing district that couldn't be given away for a hundred and a quarter a month, are fetching up millions. And if you subtract what passes for a kitchen and a bathroom these days, plus measurements that include the exterior walls, $1500 a month in New York, Boston, D.C., or San Francisco, will get you a fourth floor walkup the size of a refrigerator carton.Just like "Slaves of New York", many urban dwellers have been forced to choose between becoming the indentured servants of their landlords, or commuting to work from the suburbs. A fair number of those well past dormitory age are trapped in house-share hell with ex-friends, formerly significant others, and total strangers, or in the worst case scenario, moving back home with Mom. The studio apartment alternative, a coy euphemism for Tokyo style living, is the human equivalent of tinned sardines.With the exception of the upper 5 percent of the economic pyramid, the rest of us are piling up like lemmings, running out of habitat. The bad news is that an unconscionable number of us would be better off being declared an endangered species.Primatologists and planners at the new Bronx Zoo Congo Gorilla Forest have calculated that two Western Lowland gorilla families require a 6.5 acres of living space. The newly opened primate exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo has 4000 square feet of indoor space and 43,000 square feet of outdoor habitat for a total of 40 animals, including our close relatives the ring-tailed lemurs, orangutans, gibbons, gorillas, and squirrel monkeys.Most humans on the planet would be grateful for the same consideration. I know I would.
The George W. Bush political juggernaut is an unexplainable phenomenon in a class with extrasensory perception, spontaneous healing, and the Spice Girls. Here is a candidate with minimal accomplishment in public life and a dismal record in business, whose only asset is name recognition. A few diehards apparently think Dad is coming out of retirement, and that it's "Morning In America" all over again.After a mere five years in a real paying job, George W. has announced that he is ready to take over the reins of the family business and move into the White House. It makes you wonder why Americans pay less attention to the qualifications of potential presidents than we do to selecting a plumber, an auto mechanic, or an appliance repairman.A recent characterization of the Bush family as the Wasp Corleones could not be further off the mark. The Bush boys inherited all of their father's looks and none of their mother's brains, making them unlikely candidates to run a muffler and brake shop, let alone a crime family. Or a country.Jeb Bush, the Republican Governor of Florida, recently explained why his wife tried to smuggle $19,000 worth of clothes and jewelry into the country duty free. In a statement only acceptable to a confederacy of dunces, the Governor announced: "She wasn't lying to customs, she was lying to me." Then there's the mysterious Neil Bush, who seems to have conveniently dematerialized since the Reagan-Bush bailout of his Silverado Bank. And previous to his foray into politics, George W. was best known for his ability to perform reverse alchemy, turning family gold into dusty dry oil-less wells.Democrats tend to choose policy wonks as Presidential candidates, even if their social skills are a bit rusty. Republicans, on the other hand, go for the dim bulb, the easy-going doofus who volunteers to go out for a case of Cheetos and a keg.President Reagan may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was astute enough to pick a running mate whose sole function was to make him look good. When it was his turn, George Bush, the guy who needed 1000 Points of Light just to read his cue cards, picked Dan Quayle, possibly the only man in America who could make Bush seem like a genius by comparison.Republicans will be faced with a formidable challenge. Who can they possibly come up with as a vice presidential candidate who can make George W. Bush look like anything other than the guy in the corner downing jello shots and putting straws up his nose? It's hard to imagine trusting a guy like this to lead the country, when you would hesitate to trust him with your car or your teenage daughter. But the good news is Republican presidents perform only two functions, neither of which require an IQ above room temperature.The first presidential function is the ceremonial, or Queen Mum role. This requires saluting on the steps of Air Force One, hosting photo ops with Boy Scouts, Special Olympians, and returning heroes of 3 day wars, and appearing at celebrity golf tournaments. No matter how badly they want to get out of the Oval Office and take a nap, all of the Republican chief executives have shown a remarkable ability to say cheese when the flash goes off.The second important job of a Republican president is as Lobbyist-in-Chief, under whose auspices, campaign debts are paid back in a timely manor. Every single business that raises individual donations from its employees, or buys a half-a-million dollar table at a black tie dinner, expects to be compensated with tax breaks, federal handouts, and legal loopholes. Those agendas need to be prioritized, brought to the Congress, and converted to the law of the land expeditiously, and nobody does it better than the Republicans.As Governor of Texas, Bush rewarded his supporters in 1997 with a $2.8 billion property-tax cut, and spearheaded the privatization of the state's $8 billion welfare system by offering a $3 billion, five-year contract to bidders such as Lockheed Martin, IBM and Electronic Data Systems. In 1999, he gave a $45 million tax break to the oil-and-gas industry. "There's a lot of people hurting," the governor said.Which may explain why George W., who probably won't be getting a MacArthur Grant anytime soon, has already raised a record $36.3 million in campaign contributions, breaking all records for the number of lobbyists, former factotums, and family friends, interested in contributing to politics at the grassroots level. Governor Bush puts his mouth where the money is.