Utah newspaper slams the state’s public assistance program for violating 'the First Amendment'

The United States in general has a weaker social safety net than major developed countries in Europe, but red states are especially bad — and that includes Utah, where public assistance for the poor is hard to come by. And the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board, in a scathing editorial published on December 3, not only slams Utah’s Republican-dominated government for its lack of public assistance, but also, for suggesting that those it rejects need to become Mormons.

“Utah’s rules for giving cash assistance to the poor are so Scrooge-like that almost nobody qualifies,” the Tribune’s editorial board explains. “As recently as 2019, Utah was providing cash assistance, beyond food stamps and Medicaid, to only about 3000 households, out of 30,000 families living below the poverty level. Applications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — what Bill Clinton put in when he kept his promise to ‘end welfare as we know it’ — are rejected at the rate of 1300 a month in the state. So, state employees often accompany a rejected application with a suggestion that people seek out the leaders of the local ward of the (Latter Day Saints) Church in hopes of receiving aid from its undeniably large and often very generous welfare system.”

The Tribune’s editorial board continues, “By itself, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s legal, and it is very much in the American tradition of supplementing official forms of aid with help from various private and faith-based organizations, providing more help without adding to the taxpayers’ burdens. But two things make the unofficial link between our state and our state’s predominant church a problem. One of them is that it’s not altogether unofficial.”

According to the Tribune’s editorial board, “Once the vulnerable people are shunted over to the church, many of them are expected to accept proselytizing visits in their homes, to attend church services, even to be baptized in the faith, in order to qualify for food, cash or other assistance…. Once a church’s welfare system gets tied to the state’s federally funded welfare operation, in the way the LDS Church’s efforts are linked to Utah’s, it is not so independent anymore. It becomes a de facto arm of the state. That is an obvious violation of the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion in America.”

Utah’s safety net is entangled with the LDS Church — so some get denied unless they practice Mormonism

This was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Near the start of the pandemic, in a gentrifying neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, visitors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived at Danielle Bellamy’s doorstep. They were there to have her read out loud from the Book of Mormon, watch LDS videos and set a date to get baptized, all of which she says the church was requiring her to do in exchange for giving her food.

Bellamy, desperate for help, had tried applying for cash assistance from the state of Utah. But she’d been denied for not being low-income enough, an outcome that has become increasingly common ever since then-President Bill Clinton signed a law, 25 years ago, that he said would end “welfare as we know it.”

State employees then explicitly recommended to Bellamy that she ask for welfare from the church instead, she and her family members said in interviews.

Bellamy’s family was on the verge of homelessness. The rent on their apartment continued to rise — a result of Utah being the fastest-growing state in the nation, a trend driven in part by young, upper-middle-class people from California and elsewhere flocking to Salt Lake City’s snow-capped slopes to enjoy its outdoor activities, tech jobs and low taxes.

Worse, Bellamy suffers from a severe autoinflammatory disease and, barely able to stand, is regularly hospitalized for days at a time. Her younger daughter, Jaidyn, had to drop out of high school to care for her, helping her get up, lie down, bathe and change out the wound vacuums attached to her body.

Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.

What that means is that over the past decade, the Utah State Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law, a review of budget documents shows.

The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place called Welfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops can also authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, car payments and the like; recipients often have to volunteer for the church to obtain the aid.)

Welfare Square was built in 1938 amid the Great Depression, an intentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.

But Bellamy, a Black single mother, is not one of the church’s own — and, unlike the government, a church is often allowed to discriminate based on religion.

The bishop of her local congregation, called a ward, decided that as a precondition of receiving welfare, she would have to read, understand and embrace LDS scripture, Bellamy told ProPublica. Church representatives came by her apartment to decide what individual food items she did and did not need while pressuring her to attend Sunday services, she said.

A church spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak on the record for this story, said that Bellamy’s is just one experience, and there are likely thousands of people across Utah who would swear by the help they’ve received from the church and the guidance they’ve been given toward a more self-sufficient life. He said that because some bishops are more rigid about providing aid than others, some people may wind up in situations like Bellamy’s, but that most in the church default to compassion.

The spokesperson also said that conversations about welfare are between individuals (like Bellamy and others whose stories also appear in this article) and their bishop, and that the church would not break what it regards as a sacred confidentiality.

Bellamy cooperated at first with what was being asked of her. She felt she’d go along “if that’s what I needed to do for some type of goodness to come to my family,” she said, adding that she knew that many in her community had benefited greatly from church welfare and their LDS faith.

Yet she ultimately balked, especially at the thought of being baptized in front of strangers. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t believe in it. And it’s important what I believe in.”

For her refusal, she says, she and her family were denied welfare by the church, just as they had been by the state.

Utah After Welfare Reform

ProPublica is investigating the state of welfare across the Southwest, where the skyrocketing cost of living has made cash assistance for struggling families — an issue that has been brought to the fore again amid debate over President Joe Biden’s child tax credit — more desperately needed than ever.

What the 1996 welfare reform law did, in essence, was dramatically shrink the safety net for the poorest Americans while leaving what aid remained in the hands of individual states, issuing each a “block grant” of federal welfare funding and significant discretion over how to spend, or not spend, the cash.

Ever since, welfare has taken on each state’s personality.

There’s perhaps no better place to examine the past and future of public assistance than Utah, the only state with a private welfare system to rival the government’s. After all, the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as a model for the welfare reform movement of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was spotlighted by then-President Ronald Reagan during a visit to LDS welfare facilities and in the writings of a young conservative named Tucker Carlson.

The first thing Utah did under the 1996 law was to become increasingly closefisted about helping poor people, creating a labyrinthine system of employment and self-improvement programs that applicants must partake in — including resume-writing seminars, screenings for drug use, counseling sessions and continual paperwork — as well as strict income limits they must not surpass. As of 2019, the state was providing direct assistance to about 3,000 families out of nearly 30,000 living in poverty, a precipitous decline from the mid-’90s, when Utah’s program served roughly 60% of these parents and children. (Utah denied welfare applications, on average, more than 1,300 times every month last year, including during the pandemic.)

A single mother of one here is eligible for $399 a month in state assistance, and only if she has a net income of $456 a month or less.

Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.

Thanks to “the LDS Church’s welfare system, literally millions, tens of millions and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars are saved by the state,” former state Sen. Stuart Reid said in 2011, when the Legislature passed a resolution honoring church welfare on its 75th anniversary.

Indeed, Utah has been counting millions in church welfare work every year as part of the state’s own welfare budget, as a way of meeting the minimum level of effort the state is required to put into addressing poverty so it can collect on federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. According to the memorandum of understanding between the church and the state, Utah takes credit for a percentage of the hours that church volunteers spend producing and packaging food and clothing for the poor at Welfare Square and similar facilities.

It also claims as state welfare a percentage of the church’s efforts to produce and ship out humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters — aid that may not even help Utahns.

Officials at Utah’s public assistance agency, which after welfare reform was named the Department of Workforce Services, said they do not know how long they’ve had this “third-party” understanding with the church. But they emphasized that it’s legal under the 1996 law and subsequent federal regulations, and that other states engage in the same practice. (That law was the first federal legislation to allow and encourage religious groups to be involved in the provision of government-funded social services, a policy championed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft and later by President George W. Bush.)

ProPublica found that the deal with the church was brokered in 2009 during the Great Recession, when Utah hired a for-profit company called Public Consulting Group Inc. to identify private organizations that could help the state spend less on welfare while still receiving full federal funding, according to Utah’s contract with PCG.

When the state denies help to low-income Utahns, state caseworkers sometimes, though not always, suggest that they seek welfare from the church instead, according to interviews with more than three dozen former caseworkers and applicants.

“You would explain to them, ‘Have you talked to an LDS bishop?’” said Robert Martinez, an eligibility worker for the Department of Workforce Services from 2013 to 2019.

Martinez said he always gave applicants other nongovernmental options to consider, and there was no coercion to go the religious route. Still, he emphasized to them, the church has a lot more money to offer than the minimal aid dispensed by the state. (In fact, the church appears to have more money than what is by most accounts the largest philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Liz Carver, director of workforce development at the Department of Workforce Services and the lead TANF official at the agency, acknowledged in multiple interviews that caseworkers might in some instances propose church welfare to customers, which is what the department calls citizens who apply for public assistance.

But, she said, welfare caseworkers not just in Utah but nationwide refer applicants to a range of community organizations, faith-based or not, all the time. It’s part of a larger conversation with these individuals about what brought them to ask for help that day, she said, and about which needs the government can assist with under the federal regulations and which it can’t.

Utah, Carver noted, is one of the most charitable states in the nation, characterized by a strong ethic of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes the agency’s public-private offerings stronger.

Regarding the state’s fiscal arrangement with the church, Carver said, “We’d have to ask the state Legislature for more money if we couldn’t count this partnership” toward state welfare.

“I mean, we could be counting millions of hours of [church members’] volunteer time, bishops helping their communities, all that stuff,” she continued, suggesting that the current amount of church assistance that Utah is claiming as the state’s is minimal and necessary.

Christina Davis, communication director for the department, added in an emailed statement that the fact that caseworkers may refer Utahns to the church and other private groups is a separate and unrelated issue from the state’s budgetary agreement with the church welfare program.

She also stressed that tens of thousands of low-income households in Utah receive other forms of help from the state, including food stamps and Medicaid.

Finally, Davis pointed out that the number of poor people who are provided direct assistance has been significantly scaled back not just in Utah but across the country.

The problem with Utah’s dependence on church aid to pick up that slack, civil rights advocates say, is that although the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, once instructed his membership to clothe the naked and feed the hungry whether they arein this church, or in any other, or in no church at all,” the thousands of individual bishops who today run point for LDS welfare services may have different views.

Most are continually generous with aid. But some might feel justified in politely denying assistance to poor people who aren’t Latter-day Saints — or to LGBTQ people — even in some cases turning away struggling church members who haven’t been attending services or paying 10% of their income to the church in tithes.

“There’s this term in the church called ‘bishop roulette,’” said David Smurthwaite, a former bishop in Salt Lake City, referring to the differing choices about welfare that get made by each bishop in congregations across the state.

Smurthwaite said that church leadership did equip him with a slate of questions to ask low-income people who came to his office asking for help. But, he said, bishops are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”

Bishops are called to their lay role on a temporary basis, typically for around five years. Unlike most clergy in other faiths, they often have day jobs. And like with anyone else, their politics can infuse their religion.

There’s also much less accountability than there would be for a government program. Welfare decisions by bishops are subject mainly to the broad tenets of the church’s “General Handbook,” usually with counsel from other church leaders but without oversight from the public.

“If a state’s premier social safety net is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, “what does that mean if you’re not one?”

Separation of Church and State

The very first words of the First Amendment are not about freedom of speech or the right to protest, but rather a warning against government establishment of religion.

That is why the state of Utah’s welfare-provision system being intertwined with the LDS Church is “troubling,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on the separation of church and state. “I can’t think of anything at all analogous,” he said, adding that if someone sues, it would be a “novel” case.

Laycock noted, though, that if Utah’s granting and denying of welfare applications isn’t itself religious in nature, it may not matter legally that the state then tells some applicants deemed ineligible about a private source of aid — even one, like the church, that may judge them based on religion.

Nathan S. Chapman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia, said a key question is whether Utah has “partnered” with the LDS Church to enough of an extent that the overall system for providing welfare in the state is “insufficiently religiously neutral” and thus denies vulnerable people “true private choice” as to whether to partake in religion so they can receive assistance.

But he also said the state could argue that it is not constitutionally obligated to provide welfare to citizens, and that there is a marketplace of private aid providers including not just the LDS Church but also others that are less publicized in Utah, like Catholic Community Services.

ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen low-income Salt Lake City-area residents about their experiences with Utah’s safety net. Almost all who weren’t active church members — and even many who were — felt that welfare in Utah is religiously prejudicial, at least in practical terms, because the state has left a vacuum of social services that’s filled by individual bishops and their potential biases.

Candice Simpkins, who grew up in the church, says she struggled to pay her bills and afford groceries after the birth of her daughter but knew from reading a state website that her income was slightly too high for her to qualify for public assistance. When she went to a bishop for help instead, she says, she was told that she wouldn’t be in her situation if she hadn’t had sex out of wedlock, and that she would have to start attending church services. (Feminist Mormons say that women especially are affected by the capriciousness of welfare in Utah. Bishops are all men, and some view both premarital sex and divorce, each of which can lead to precarious financial situations, as the fault of women, critics say.)

A close friend of Simpkins’, whom she called in tears after her interaction with the bishop, corroborated her description of what happened.

In another case, Jo Alexander, who is lesbian, says she was desperate for a hotel room during a period of homelessness. But she knew she couldn’t get public assistance from the state because she had received it around two decades ago as a young woman and therefore had exceeded her lifetime limit under another of the rules implemented under welfare reform. As a result, she went to a bishop.

Despite being raised as a member of the church, she was denied. She says it is known in the community that she is gay and she believes that was the reason for her rejection. (A friend confirmed her account, though there are no public records of these private conversations with bishops.)

And Miranda Twitchell, who is currently homeless, says the rules and procedures for obtaining state aid are so convoluted and seemingly endless that she had nowhere to turn except the church for immediate help when she needed food and a bed — and that’s when she decided to follow a piece of advice shared on the streets: “Get baptized, get help.”

Some low-income people in Salt Lake City say they have gotten baptized just to obtain welfare, even though they don’t believe in the ritual. Most who had done so were afraid to speak on the record for this story, believing the church would learn that their conversion stories were inauthentic and retaliate by not helping them in the future.

The LDS spokesperson defended the church’s approach to welfare in part by emphasizing that the church should not be confused with a government agency or considered a replacement for the government in the provision of public assistance. (Indeed, the LDS “General Handbook” clearly states that church members should turn to the government first for financial help, before going to their bishop.)

The church does look after its own membership, the spokesperson said, given that it is a religious institution. If a nonmember seeks help, there’s less of a preexisting relationship with that person, and a bishop may ask the individual to come to services to see firsthand what his or her needs are. There, relationships are established with church members, who then extend a hand of fellowship.

Finally, he said, one of the church’s larger goals is for people who are struggling financially to learn self-reliance and industriousness, not dependency. This may be one reason that some felt rejected when they asked for ongoing assistance.

Experts on charitable giving note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members arguably do more than any other religious community to help people in poverty. (In Utah, the churchhasgiven tens of millions to fight homelessness.)

Several active Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake City area said that when faced with financial hardship, they may actually have a better safety net than anyone in any state, because they can count on the church for help with food, clothes, furniture, rent, utilities, car payments and repairs, tanks of gas, medical bills, moving expenses, job searches and general life problems.

Benjamin Sessions, executive director of Circles Salt Lake, an anti-poverty community organization, said that a struggling family he works with recently called him in the middle of the night while huddling in their car with nowhere to go. Sessions called up a local LDS leader he knows personally, who simply said, “What do you need? Get me a list.”

Help from the church is “dramatic and it’s quick,” Sessions said. “If you ask me to choose between calling up someone at the state versus someone at the church, I would call the church 10 out of 10 times.”

Others say it is a strength of this country that there are so many religious groups, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, synagogues and mosques, that provide food and shelter to the poor.

“If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food, is it less than optimal? Sure,” the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner told The Atlantic. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”

Yet most other faith-based organizations do not make religious rites such as worship or baptism a prerequisite of basic survival help, the way that some LDS bishops do, experts on religious charity say.

Even some lifelong church members in the Salt Lake City area told ProPublica that they were denied welfare by the church for religious reasons.

Amberlyn Robinson, who had been such a loyal churchgoer that she says she missed services only twice that she can remember during her entire childhood, fell deep into medical debt as a young woman after having a miscarriage that was nearly as expensive as it was traumatizing. She looked at her family’s finances and decided that the only way to pay the bills would be to be less consistent about tithing 10% of their limited income from her then-husband’s two jobs in retail, even though she worried God would smite her as a consequence.

Her bishop then denied her financial assistance, citing her failure to pay tithes as one reason — which left Robinson baffled as to how an inability to afford tithing could show anything but her need, she says, and made her so resentful that she ultimately left the faith.

Danilyn Levorsen, who was also born and raised in the church, struggles with rent and bills as the cost of living in and around Salt Lake City surges.

Her husband, who has severe disabilities that add to the family’s expenses, is a fan of the supernatural. He volunteers at a haunted house, Halloween is his Christmas, and he has intense tattoos.

When he asked a bishop for help, Levorsen says, the bishop responded by criticizing his alternative lifestyle and dark clothing.

“I hear on the news all the time that the church is shipping food to other countries,” she said, adding that she completely understands and supports those efforts, given the poverty in the world.

“But this is supposed to be their golden city, here,” she said. “And this is how they do us?”

It’s the State’s Responsibility

The onus to provide a safety net for America’s poorest families and children — and equal access to such services under the law irrespective of religion, gender, race or class — ultimately falls on the government, not a church that has a right to choose whom to serve.

Joel Briscoe, a former bishop in Salt Lake City and now a Democratic state legislator, said that as a bishop he always had people coming to him after they had tried and failed to get help from the state, especially food stamps. He could only do his best to make up for public assistance being “ludicrous, the amounts are so small,” he said.

Utah’s stinginess with aid stems in part from its focus on putting welfare applicants to work — no matter how much work a family is already putting into just getting by.

In Bellamy’s case, a state employee told her daughter Jaidyn that the family could get assistance only if she stopped staying at home to care for her mom and instead got a job, the family said. (She now works at a child care center. Bellamy’s older daughter, Imani, works overnight shifts as a home health care aide.)

Bellamy noted that the state has helped her with food stamps; she has also had many neighbors from the LDS church show her great kindness throughout her life, she said.

While denying so many families direct assistance, Utah was, as of a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, leading the nation in aid that its government was supposed to be providing the poor but was instead outsourcing to a third-party nongovernmental organization.

States do not have to report the extent to which they engage in this accounting maneuver, but a 2016 follow-up GAO report found that 15 others do it. By that time, Georgia was the outlier among several states that aggressively count as their own spending the charitable activities of groups such as United Way, the YMCA, food banks and domestic violence shelters.

Scott Dzurka, former president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways, told the publication Bridge Michigan that his organization eventually decided to stop allowing its work to be counted by the state as welfare. “We looked long and hard at that,” he said, “and raised concerns that really our resources may in fact be working against what we were trying to do, which was to supplement state poverty efforts, not replace them.”

The LDS Church declined to comment on this issue.

For a brief period during Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and Congress were both moving to prevent states from “gaming the system” by counting outside spending as their own. But Rep. Tom Price, who went on to briefly head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, helped kill the legislation that would have ended the practice.

Because states are largely allowed to count welfare dollars how they want, Utah has also been able to spread this money around among its lawmakers’ favored projects, many of which are aimed at preventing low-income people from having sex out of wedlock rather than providing them with direct aid. (This is despite mounting evidence that cash assistance — money — alleviates poverty — a lack of money — much more effectively than less direct interventions like parenting classes.)

Welfare funding in Utah goes to the Utah Marriage Commission, among many other similar initiatives. These include a 4-H program called Teen Spheres of Influence that state budget documents say makes teens “3.4 times more likely to delay sexual intercourse through high school,” as well as a relationship program called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette.”

Davis, the Department of Workforce Services spokesperson, reiterated that all uses of TANF funds in Utah are consistent with federal regulations implemented under welfare reform, which explicitly pressed states to reduce pregnancies among the poor unless they are in married, two-parent households.

Still, Utah continues to evolve, diversifying, becoming less of an LDS state centered on traditional family life. One area south of Salt Lake City is now so jammed with tech companies that it has been rechristened the Silicon Slopes. Meanwhile, thousands of the region’s residents have become homeless over the past decade and are being pushed from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next by the police and the health department.

Farther up the mountainside, past the lovely houses around the state Capitol, you’ll find their latest encampment set against a cliff above the blazing lights of the Marathon Oil refinery to the northwest. Most here say they were denied survival help by the state first and the church second, or vice versa. Many say their rejection by the church was due to their unkempt appearance, their refusal to attend church services they find hypocritical, or an assumption by bishops that they would spend financial assistance not on food, but on drugs.

Michelle Low grew up in the faith but says she had a dysfunctional home life and became addicted to drugs while still a child, and then became homeless. She is now trying not to ask the state for help because of the strict lifetime limit on receiving aid; she wants to be able to apply for it down the road if she needs to. (But she says she could use the aid to buy warm clothes and shoes and to pay her cousin rent so she’d have somewhere to live indoors.)

Instead, Low asked the church for assistance, despite the many moral and intellectual questions she has had since childhood about church doctrine. But a bishop she spoke with said he couldn’t help her unless she made the choice to live together with and marry her child’s father, she says.

The bishop said they could be married right there in his office.

To which Low said, “He isn’t the right guy for me, and also I don’t want to get married in an office.”

“See,” she says, “it’s always ‘We’ll help you if.’”

Graveyard shift: The dark reality of the modern economy reveals itself under pandemic-era demands

In mid-October, President Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles would begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, joining the nearby Port of Long Beach, which had been doing so since September. The move followed weeks of White House negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, as well as shippers like UPS and FedEx, and major retailers like Walmart and Target.

The purpose of expanding port hours, according to the New York Times, was “to relieve growing backlogs in the global supply chains that deliver critical goods to the United States.” Reading this, you might be forgiven for imagining that an array of crucial items like medicines or their ingredients or face masks and other personal protective equipment had been languishing in shipping containers anchored off the West Coast. You might also be forgiven for imagining that workers, too lazy for the moment at hand, had chosen a good night’s sleep over the vital business of unloading such goods from boats lined up in their dozens offshore onto trucks, and getting them into the hands of the Americans desperately in need of them. Reading further, however, you’d learn that those “critical goods” are actually things like “exercise bikes, laptops, toys, [and] patio furniture.”

Fair enough. After all, as my city, San Francisco, enters what’s likely to be yet another almost rainless winter on a planet in ever more trouble, I can imagine my desire for patio furniture rising to a critical level. So, I’m relieved to know that dock workers will now be laboring through the night at the command of the president of the United States to guarantee that my needs are met. To be sure, shortages of at least somewhat more important items are indeed rising, including disposable diapers and the aluminum necessary for packaging some pharmaceuticals. Still, a major focus in the media has been on the specter of “slim pickings this Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Providing “critical” yard furnishings is not the only reason the administration needs to unkink the supply chain. It’s also considered an anti-inflation measure (if an ineffective one). At the end of October, the Consumer Price Index had jumped 6.2% over the same period in 2020, the highest inflation rate in three decades. Such a rise is often described as the result of too much money chasing too few goods. One explanation for the current rise in prices is that, during the worst months of the pandemic, many Americans actually saved money, which they’re now eager to spend. When the things people want to buy are in short supply — perhaps even stuck on container ships off Long Beach and Los Angeles — the price of those that are available naturally rises.

Republicans have christened the current jump in the consumer price index as “Bidenflation,” although the administration actually bears little responsibility for the situation. But Joe Biden and the rest of the Democrats know one thing: if it looks like they’re doing nothing to bring prices down, there will be hell to pay at the polls in 2022, and so it’s the night shift for dock workers and others in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and possibly other American ports.

However, running West Coast ports 24/7 won’t solve the supply-chain problem, not when there aren’t enough truckers to carry that critical patio furniture to Home Depot. The shortage of such drivers arises because there’s more demand than ever before, and because many truckers have simply quit the industry. As the New York Times reports, “Long hours and uncomfortable working conditions are leading to a shortage of truck drivers, which has compounded shipping delays in the United States.”

Rethinking (Shift) Work

Truckers aren’t the only workers who have been rethinking their occupations since the coronavirus pandemic pressed the global pause button. The number of employees quitting their jobs hit 4.4 million this September, about 3% of the U.S. workforce. Resignations were highest in industries like hospitality and medicine, where employees are most at risk of Covid-19 exposure.

For the first time in many decades, workers are in the driver’s seat. They can command higher wages and demand better working conditions. And that’s exactly what they’re doing at workplaces ranging from agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere to breakfast-cereal makers Kellogg and Nabisco. I’ve even been witnessing it in my personal labor niche, part-time university faculty members (of which I’m one). So allow me to pause here for a shout-out to the 6,500 part-time professors in the University of California system: Thank you! Your threat of a two-day strike won a new contract with a 30% pay raise over the next five years!

This brings me to Biden’s October announcement about those ports going 24/7. In addition to demanding higher pay, better conditions, and an end to two-tier compensation systems (in which laborers hired later don’t get the pay and benefits available to those already on the job), workers are now in a position to reexamine and, in many cases, reject the shift-work system itself. And they have good reason to do so.

So, what is shift work? It’s a system that allows a business to run continuously, ceaselessly turning out and/or transporting widgets year after year. Workers typically labor in eight-hour shifts: 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8:00 a.m., or the like. In times of labor shortages, they can even be forced to work double shifts, 16 hours in total. Businesses love shift work because it reduces time (and money) lost to powering machinery up and down. And if time is money, then more time worked means more profit for corporations. In many industries, shift work is good for business. But for workers, it’s often another story.

The Graveyard Shift

Each shift in a 24-hour schedule has its own name. The day shift is the obvious one. The swing shift takes you from the day shift to the all-night, or graveyard, shift. According to folk etymology, that shift got its name because, once upon a time, cemetery workers were supposed to stay up all night listening for bells rung by unfortunates who awakened to discover they’d been buried alive. While it’s true that some coffins in England were once fitted with such bells, the term was more likely a reference to the eerie quiet of the world outside the workplace during the hours when most people are asleep.

I can personally attest to the strangeness of life on the graveyard shift. I once worked in an ice cream cone factory. Day and night, noisy, smoky machines resembling small Ferris wheels carried metal molds around and around, while jets of flame cooked the cones inside them. After a rotation, each mold would tip, releasing four cones onto a conveyor belt, rows of which would then approach my station relentlessly. I’d scoop up a stack of 25, twirl them around in a quick check for holes, and place them in a tall box.

Almost simultaneously, I’d make cardboard dividers, scoop up three more of those stacks and seal them, well-divided, in that box, which I then inserted in an even larger cardboard carton and rushed to a giant mechanical stapler. There, I pressed it against a switch, and — boom-ba-da-boom — six large staples would seal it shut, leaving me just enough time to put that carton atop a pallet of them before racing back to my machine, as new columns of just-baked cones piled up, threatening to overwhelm my worktable.

The only time you stopped scooping and boxing was when a relief worker arrived, so you could have a brief break or gobble down your lunch. You rarely talked to your fellow-workers, because there was only one “relief” packer, so only one person at a time could be on break. Health regulations made it illegal to drink water on the line and management was too cheap to buy screens for the windows, which remained shut, even when it was more than 100 degrees outside.

They didn’t like me very much at the Maryland Pacific Cone Company, maybe because I wanted to know why the high school boys who swept the floors made more than the women who, since the end of World War II, had been climbing three rickety flights of stairs to stand by those machines. In any case, management there started messing with my shifts, assigning me to all three in the same week. As you might imagine, I wasn’t sleeping a whole lot and would occasionally resort to those “little white pills” immortalized in the truckers’ song “Six Days on the Road.”

But I’ll never forget one graveyard shift when an angel named Rosie saved my job and my sanity. It was probably three in the morning. I’d been standing under fluorescent lights, scooping, twirling, and boxing for hours when the universe suddenly stood still. I realized at that moment that I’d never done anything else since the beginning of time but put ice cream cones in boxes and would never stop doing so until the end of time.

If time lost its meaning then, dimensions still turned out to matter a lot, because the cones I was working on that night were bigger than I was used to. Soon I was falling behind, while a huge mound of 40-ounce Eat-It-Alls covered my table and began to spill onto the floor. I stared at them, frozen, until I suddenly became aware that someone was standing at my elbow, gently pushing me out of the way.

Rosie, who had been in that plant since the end of World War II, said quietly, “Let me do this. You take my line.” In less than a minute, she had it all under control, while I spent the rest of the night at her machine, with cones of a size I could handle.

I have never been so glad to see the dawn.

The Deadly Reality of the Graveyard Shift

So, when the president of the United States negotiated to get dock workers in Los Angeles to work all night, I felt a twinge of horror. There’s another all-too-literal reason to call it the “graveyard” shift. It turns out that working when you should be in bed is dangerous. Not only do more accidents occur when the human body expects to be asleep, but the long-term effects of night work can be devastating. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, the many adverse effects of night work include:

“type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and sleep disorders. Night shift workers might also have an increased risk for reproductive issues, such as irregular menstrual cycles, miscarriage, and preterm birth. Digestive problems and some psychological issues, such as stress and depression, are more common among night shift workers. The fatigue associated with nightshift can lead to injuries, vehicle crashes, and industrial disasters.”

Some studies have shown that such shift work can also lead to decreased bone-mineral density and so to osteoporosis. There is, in fact, a catchall term for all these problems: shift-work disorder.

In addition, studies directly link the graveyard shift to an increased incidence of several kinds of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer. Why would disrupted sleep rhythms cause cancer? Because such disruptions affect the release of the hormone melatonin. Most of the body’s cells contain little “molecular clocks” that respond to daily alternations of light and darkness. When the light dims at night, the pineal gland releases melatonin, which promotes sleep. In fact, many people take it in pill form as a “natural” sleep aid. Under normal circumstances, such a melatonin release continues until the body encounters light again in the morning.

When this daily (circadian) rhythm is disrupted, however, so is the regular production of melatonin, which turns out to have another important biological function. According to NIOSH, it “can also stop tumor growth and protect against the spread of cancer cells.” Unfortunately, if your job requires you to stay up all night, it won’t do this as effectively.

There’s a section on the NIOSH website that asks, “What can night shift workers do to stay healthy?” The answers are not particularly satisfying. They include regular checkups and seeing your doctor if you have any of a variety of symptoms, including “severe fatigue or sleepiness when you need to be awake, trouble with sleep, stomach or intestinal disturbances, irritability or bad mood, poor performance (frequent mistakes, injuries, vehicle crashes, near misses, etc.), unexplained weight gain or loss.”

Unfortunately, even if you have access to healthcare, your doctor can’t write you a prescription to cure shift-work disorder. The cure is to stop working when your body should be asleep.

An End to Shift Work?

Your doctor can’t solve your shift work issue because, ultimately, it’s not an individual problem. It’s an economic and an ethical one.

There will always be some work that must be performed while most people are sleeping, including healthcare, security, and emergency services, among others. But most shift work gets done not because life depends upon it, but because we’ve been taught to expect our patio furniture on demand. As long as advertising and the grow-or-die logic of capitalism keep stoking the desire for objects we don’t really need, may not even really want, and will sooner or later toss on a garbage pile in this or some other country, truckers and warehouse workers will keep damaging their health.

Perhaps the pandemic, with its kinky supply chain, has given us an opportunity to rethink which goods are so “critical” that we’re willing to let other people risk their lives to provide them for us. Unfortunately, such a global rethink hasn’t yet touched Joe Biden and his administration as they confront an ongoing pandemic, supply-chain problems, a rise in inflation, and — oh yes! — an existential climate crisis that gets worse with every plastic widget produced, packed, and shipped.

It’s time for Biden — and the rest of us — to take a breath and think this through. There are good reasons that so many people are walking away from underpaid, life-threatening work. Many of them are reconsidering the nature of work itself and its place in their lives, no matter what the president or anyone else might wish.

And that’s a paradigm shift we all could learn to live with.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Featured image: Port of Los Angeles sunrise by pete is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.

House Republican comes out and says it: Forcing tax cheats to pay up would 'cost' them billions

Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace, inflicted on us by the state of South Carolina, has been running a bold new online ad condemning Democratic plans to boost funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Why, you might ask?

"Biden's policy will double the size of the IRS at the cost of billions of dollars in unpaid taxes. We should stabilize our nation's economy first."

While @z3dster has done us the solid of parsing out what the hell Mace's word shrapnel was meant to actually mean, it's still worth stewing on that odd language. "At the cost of billions of dollars in unpaid taxes?" At the ... cost? But going after tax cheats is widely recognized as being a net federal win, because just a little money allocated to investigating the most prolific tax-dodgers results in much larger revenues when the dodged taxes actually get paid, so—ooh. Ooooooh.


What the House Republican is saying here is, of course, boosting IRS capabilities will "cost" the wealthiest tax dodgers in the country billions of dollars, and forcing rich tax cheats to pay what they owe will harm the economy so very much that we shouldn't even think about it until we've "stabilized" everything else first.

You've heard of trickle-down economics? This is trickle-down tax fraud. If we don't let rich Americans who have more offshore bank accounts than you have spoons get away with their current level of financial crimes it is all of you who will suffer, because that money being paid in taxes won't be going to buying new yacht chandeliers, or underwater television sets, or the spiffy new uniforms the upper classes want you to wear while hunting you for sport.

Instead, that money will be going to the government, and the government will probably waste it on stupid things like rebuilding roads in places you don't live, or saving coastlines you don’t visit, or giving you better childcare options after your name comes up in the to-be-hunted-for-sport lottery.

In any event, what Mace is suggesting is that American financial criminals have been hiding so very damn much money that attempting to collect it could destabilize our nation's very economy. Shouldn't be done! Too dangerous!


See, our problem here is that we're taking a Republican message literally instead of treating as the propagandistic word salad it is intended as. It’s not meant to make sense. Mace may or may not distance herself from the premise of her own self-promoted statement after she's gotten sufficient mockery for it, but it was crafted not to make an actual argument but to burp scary-sounding words at Republican base members primed to react to them without thought. "At the cost of billions" is meant to invoke the notion that it will be costing the nation money, rather than bringing it in. "Stabilize" is meant to invoke the notion that the nation's economy is currently not stable, when all the facts and figures suggest that the economy is now actually in pretty darn good shape.

Things are so good, in fact, that ports are being clogged with the stuff Americans are now wanting to buy and (mostly anti-labor) economic grumps are warning that if we keep raising wages and recovering from pandemics then we'll summon the Inflation Monster, so central banks need to start taking a few good golf swings at worker knees before things get out of hand. And that’s all while the pandemic is still raging around us.

The "Biden's policy" bit is also rote party schtick: While nigh-on everybody who is not personally evading taxes or being lobbied by people who do all agree that returning IRS funding to something approaching normal is both necessary to curb now-rampant tax dodging by the wealthy and an enormous government gain, calling it "Biden's policy" is intended to portray the move as partisan rancor, or spreading socialism, or otherwise controversial.

It's all gimmick. Republicanism may no longer have policies of its own, but each new congresscreature is in tune with the larger movement's dictionary of cult phrases and contrarian phrasing. Going after tax dodgers will "cost" you money. Doing the "Biden policy" on anything will further "destabilize" the glorious f--king paradise of corpses and lines for toilet paper gifted to us by Dear Crabby-Ass Leader in his final year.

Rep. Nancy Mace may be new to town, but she and every other newly elected House Republican gained their current position by telling the ever-outraged base whatever they wanted to hear. She's in a bit of hot water over that at this precise moment, in fact, being roundly mocked for a particularly comical Sunday show circuit that saw her both undermining vaccination efforts on Fox News while claiming to support them on CNN.

It's all a game; there is little effort being put into attempting to discern what policies would best serve the nation here, and flopsweat-level effort being put into selling the base on the nation that whatever policies actual experts come up with are most certainly an effort at "socialism," an attempt to abridge your "freedoms," or a flat-out conspiracy to harm you because the "elites" will do nigh-on anything to oppress you, whether it be bamboo-laced ballots or firefly chemicals in your vaccines or arresting "patriots" whose only crime was attacking the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress in a seditious attempt to cancel the results of a United States election.

All that said, we're not going to get anywhere if we ignore it all and let the Maces of new Republicanism fire off chaff meant to invoke primal reaction while breezily evading the part where nothing they said made any actual sense. So we're all ears, Rep. Nancy Mace.

You say going after tax cheats will "cost billions"—who ya aiming that statement at, representative?

Because the only people who will see a "cost" when going after prolific tax fraud are the folks doing the actual crimes. Is that who you're going to bat for here? Did they send someone to your office to make that case?

And you're saying American tax cheats are costing the rest of us so much money that making them actually pay it would threaten to destabilize the entire economy?

Oh, do tell. That one's worth a floor speech. We all really want to hear you explain that going after institutionalized tax evasion by people who can hire more lawyers than the IRS has available investigators would threaten our very way of life. There haven't been many Republicans with the guts to make that argument in public, but you made it a sponsored online ad.

Please explain, representative. Give it your best shot.

Biden taps the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — here's what you should know about it

by Scott L. Montgomery, University of Washington

President Joe Biden ordered a release of oil from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve on Nov. 23, 2021, as a part of a coordinated effort with five other countries to tamp down rising fuel prices. The U.S. plans to tap 50 million barrels of crude oil in the coming months, while the other nations – the U.K., India, Japan, Korea and China – are said to be releasing about 11 million barrels in total.

But what is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, why was it created and when has it been used? And does it still serve a purpose, given that the U.S. exports more oil and other petroleum products than it imports?

As an energy researcher, I believe considering the reserve's history can help answer these questions.

Origins of the reserve

Congress created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as part of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 in response to a global oil crisis.

Arab oil-exporting states led by Saudi Arabia had cut supply to the world market because of Western support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Oil prices quadrupled, resulting in major economic damage to the U.S. and other countries. This also shook the average American, who had grown used to cheap oil.

The oil crisis caused the U.S., Japan and 15 other advanced countries to form the International Energy Agency in 1974 to recommend policies that would forestall such events in the future. One of the agency's key ideas was to create emergency petroleum reserves that could be drawn on in case of a severe supply disruption.

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act originally stipulated the reserve should hold up to 1 billion barrels of crude and refined petroleum products. Though it has never reached that size, the U.S. reserve is the largest in the world, with a maximum volume of 713.5 million barrels. It currently holds a little over 600 million barrels of crude oil.

Oil in the reserve is stored underground in a series of large underground salt domes in four locations along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and is linked to major supply pipelines in the region.

Salt domes, formed when a mass of salt is forced upward, are a good choice for storage since salt is impermeable and has low solubility in crude oil. Most of the storage sites were acquired by the federal government in 1977 and became fully operational in the 1980s.

History of drawdowns

In the 1975 act, Congress specified that the reserve was intended to prevent “severe supply interruptions" – that is, actual oil shortages.

Over time, as the oil market has changed, Congress expanded the list of reasons for which the SPR could be tapped, such as domestic supply interruptions due to extreme weather.

Before the latest drawdown, more than 230 million barrels of crude oil had been released since the reserve's creation. The amount of the November 2021 release, 50 million barrels, is the largest so far.

There have only been three emergency releases in the reserve's history. The first was in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait the year before, which resulted in a sharp drop in oil supply to the world market. The U.S. released 33.75 million barrels.

The second release, of 30 million barrels, came in 2005 after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina knocked out Gulf of Mexico production, which then comprised about 25% of U.S. domestic supply.

The third was a coordinated release by the International Energy Agency in 2011 as a result of supply disruptions from several oil-producing countries including Libya, then facing civil unrest during the Arab Spring. In all, the IEA coordinated a release of 60 million barrels of crude, half of which came from the U.S.

In addition, there have been 11 planned sales of oil from the reserve, mainly to generate federal revenue. One of these – in particular the 1996-1997 sale to reduce the federal budget deficit – seemed to serve political ends rather than supply-related ones.

Biden's decision to tap the reserve was similarly seen as political by Republicans because there's no emergency shortage of supply. The White House said part of the release is an acceleration of planned sales approved by Congress, while the rest is an exchange that will return to the reserve over time.

Is the reserve still necessary?

Because the U.S. is today a net petroleum exporter, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has entered a new era. Some of its original rationale and function – to be used in emergencies to ensure the U.S. has a steady supply of oil – are gone.

And efforts to reduce global carbon emissions and the use of oil – for example, with more electric cars and other vehicles on the road – will likely only reduce the need for such a reserve.

Indeed, Congress has recognized the reality that oil exports have been declining. It mandated annual sales from the reserve beginning in 2017 and extending through 2028 – for a total of 271 million barrels.

But as long as the reserve is available, Biden's use of it primarily in hopes of reducing gas prices – which will take time to have any effect, if any – suggests Americans will see many more similar releases in the years to come.

[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]The Conversation

Scott L. Montgomery, Lecturer, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The New York Times and CNN are spreading misinformation designed to scare people about the economy

Prices are up. That's absolutely true. Inflation has increased since the beginning of 2021 at a rate unmatched since 2009. But that's what happens every time a Democratic president drags the economy back out of the ditch where a Republican administration left it. It's not, as the media seems to be insisting, a sign of the apocalypse.

Two weeks ago, CNN ran a segment that was supposedly about how families are "constrained by inflation" and that this is putting "a burden" on their lives. In the segment, CNN's Brianna Keilar throws over to reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro with an expression of deep concern about how inflation is affecting how families "feed their kids." McMorris-Santoro, handily standing in front of a gas station sign, moves directly into how gas is "up by more than a dollar since last year" without noting that the prices in 2020 were heavily depressed by the pandemic. He then goes on to interview his typical American family in Texas—who have nine kids and buy 12 gallons of milk each week.

Most of the criticism about the story has focused on that astounding number. Any family that buys 48 gallons of milk each month is pretty far from typical in our 1.23 children per family on average society. But that's not the problem. And it's not just CNN.

The problem with that original report on CNN isn't the family, and it's not their fondness for milk. The problem is how McMorris-Santoro enthusiastically passes along misinformation without correction.

"I think that probably in June, a dollar was worth a dollar," says the mother in the interview. "And now that dollar is worth about seventy cents."

The inflation rate over the last few months may have been higher than Americans are used to over the last decade, but a dollar in June is actually worth about $0.97. The actual rate of inflation is 10 times smaller than the number that was passed along with comment. McMorris-Santoro doesn't make that correction.

Then comes that citation for a gallon of milk, with a claim that it was $1.99 at some unstated time in the past, but is now $2.79. Both of those prices are not only well below the average cost of a gallon of milk in America, the lower value hasn't been seen since around 1994.

The truth is that milk prices are almost completely divorced from inflation. That's because they are set by Federal Milk Marketing Orders that were last revised in 2000. That system generates a complex, regional pricing system that results in milk being extremely cheap in the Upper Midwest, with prices increasing as you move away from that area—to sites such as Texas. Stores can, and do, advertise and sell milk at lower prices. They do this as a loss leader to bring people into the store. But the actual cost of milk now is lower than it has been for most of the last two decades.

None of this gets explained. Instead, McMorris-Santoro goes to lengths to point out the large consumption of this exceptionally large family. If the numbers provided are accurate, all that milk works out to about $10 a week in extra expense. Or $40 a month.

However, McMorris-Santoro completely fails to mention that, even if the one child the family is fostering isn't included, they would still be receiving at least $2,000 a month in new child tax credits that President Joe Biden began issuing in July. That's right. June, the month that is set up in the interview as the Last Good Month before things went to hell, was actually the last month before they began getting monthly benefits as large as their family.

Inflation over that period wasn't 30%. It was 3%. Milk prices over that period didn't go up $0.80 nationally, they went up by just $0.11. And all of that was a blip compared to the $2,000 check that began rolling out to the family in the interview every single month. But that's not how it got presented.

"Grocery shopping means tough choices right now," voices McMorris-Santoro.

That's followed by a statement from the father in the interview who says, "We're not buying the most healthy stuff, because [the] prices have gone way up. I feel kind of guilty that we can't afford the good things to be healthy also."

The remainder of the piece focuses on how the family has to clip coupons, look for bargains, and bypass things they'd like to have. That's before the final statement in which we're told that their total bill—$310—would have been "$150 or $200" back in March. In other words, the CNN story is now pushing the idea that there has been 107% inflation since March. No one corrects this. In fact, McMorris-Santoro doubles down, saying that the family is "feeling the inflation squeeze to a tune of an extra hundred dollars a week."

They're not. But even if they were, they would be coming out $400 a week ahead thanks to those child tax credits. So why aren't they able to buy their kids healthier food than they were buying in June?

The reason this interview became infamous may be for the 12 gallons of milk, but it should be disdained for using the Big Two distortions when it comes to selling Americans on a disaster that didn't happen.

  • It treats the exceptional as if it's average.
  • It passes along gross exaggerations without correction.

And all that would be true even if the child tax credit is ignored. Which it shouldn't be.

So … here's a story from The New York Times that ran on Saturday, written by Emma Goldberg, Coral Murphy Marcos, and Kellen Browning. See how it lines up on those points.

That story starts out just like the CNN piece, by telling us that, "The national average for a gallon of gas is $3.41, which is $1.29 more than it was a year ago, according to AAA." But it fails to point out that those low prices in 2020 were actually the cheapest gas has been in any November since 2008. The article, like many others, starts off by comparing current prices to prices that were depressed by the worst impacts of the pandemic, generating the maximum apparent increase. That's step one.

But that's just a baby step compared to what comes next.

While consumers are seeing a steady rise in the prices of many goods and services, the cost of gas is especially visible. It is displayed along highways across the country, including in areas where a gallon has climbed as high as $7.59.

Where is gas $7.59 a gallon? Not in any state listed by AAA. The most expensive grade in the most expensive state is $5 a gallon. Where does the $7.59 number come from? Who knows. Goldberg, Marcos, and Browning certainly don't bother to provide that information.

But hang on, we're not done.

Aldo McCoy, who owns an auto repair shop in Toms River, watched the numbers on a gas pump flash higher Wednesday as he filled up the tank of his 1963 Chevrolet Impala. He recalled recently filling his 2003 Cadillac Escalade and seeing the price go above $100, where it used to be $45.

This paragraph manages to check both of the Big Two in as many sentences. It not only treats an absolutely exceptional circumstance—a guy who owns a 58-year-old muscle car and a massive 18-year-old SUV as if this makes him a great example, it passes along something this driver "recalls" that simply can't be true.

Even assuming that Mr. McCoy's Escalade topped off at exactly $100, that would make his $45 fill up 222% more expensive than whenever "used to be" might be. How far back do we need to go to get that number? Try 2002. Which would be a year before that Escalade rolled into the showroom.

You might think that a claim that gas prices have increased by 222% might merit at least some incredulity on the part of the Times. Or that such a claim might at least require some definition of how far back "used to be" might be. It does not. Instead, they get right into the burden that this incredible, amazing, increase in price has placed on McCoy and his cohorts.

Mr. McCoy said he and his staff were working more than 15 hours of overtime each week to compensate for the extra money they spent on gas. He has also cut back on his household spending.

Even if you assume McCoy filled his Escalade's 31-gallon tank every week, that would set his hourly salary at $3.67 an hour. And that's overtime. Who knows what he makes in a regular hour. Since McCoy is the owner of the shop, he should really talk to himself about that salary.

Just like the family in the CNN story, here's an ordinary American, in a typical situation, facing a huge and unreasonable burden because of massive inflation. Except it's absolutely none of those things.

Instead, it's Goldberg, Marcos, and Browning passing along unverified numbers, all of which are clearly exaggerated, in the way that generates maximum drama, without bothering to ever check for reasonableness.

Those Big Two points again

  • It treats the exceptional as if it's average.
  • It passes along gross exaggerations without correction.

In both cases, CNN and the TImes avoid directly making false claims themselves. They just let the people they're interviewing make those claims, and let them go uncorrected.

Which makes you wonder how many interviews they went through until they came up with someone who gave them the kind of scare quotes they wanted.

Manchin, Sinema chase after Republican mega-donors and betray their impoverished states

While President Joe Biden is attempting to undo four years of Trumpish and decades of inequality, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are being rewarded by Republican mega-donors for the precise purpose of blocking that, blatantly and unapologetically. Along the way, the $6 trillion jobs, economic equality, tax the rich, and climate change plans got whittled down to $3.5 trillion and then down again to $1.75 trillion while Democrats played whack-a-mole with these two and, to a lesser extent, their conservative Democratic House counterparts. When one made a demand that was satisfied, the other would pop up with their own demands, dragging the process out and singlehandedly fanning the flames of "Dems in disarray" reporting.

The whole point of this exercise for the two of them, it appears, is to open up the Republican donor spigot. That's were the really big political money is, and courting it is so much easier than doing the necessary work it takes to amass small donor donations. Like showing up in your state, holding town meetings, and being accountable to the people who put you in office. Besides, going to London and Paris in search of checks is so much more fun.

Both have been feted by Texas donor G. Brint Ryan at his $18 million mansion in Dallas. He advised the former guy on taxes during the 2016 campaign and says of Manchin and Sinema that they are "out of step with their party, but I tend to believe that they're in the right." He has a tax consulting firm and one of is partners, Jeff Miller, is a "close political adviser" to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Ryan and his firm are all-in on the two turncoats according to the Times: "In the days around the fund-raisers at his home, Mr. Ryan, his employees, his company's political action committee and a relative's law firm combined to donate nearly $80,000 to Ms. Sinema's campaign and more than $115,000 to Mr. Manchin's."

The two have set personal bests for fundraising this year, Sinema raking in $2.6 million in the first three quarters—"two and a half times as much as she raised in the same period last year"—and Manchin $3.3 million, which is a whopping 14 times as much as his haul from last year. Both are up for reelection in 2024, so this push isn't to save their seats in a difficult midterm election for Democrats. More likely, at least in Sinema's case, it's to try to scare off a primary challenger. She's been on an image-rehab tour for the past week or so. She spent most of the year sabotaging Biden behind the scenes, not making her demands public and earning the wrath of fellow Democrats and particularly the activists in Arizona who get her elected.

Sinema, who has broken her months-long silence in a "rare interview" fluff piece in Politico and another in the Washington Post, is now casting doubt on whether she'll support Biden's Build Back Better bill passed last week by the House. She's raising the same bullshit argument about inflation as Manchin, telling the Post she is "worried about inflation" and saying "new tax hikes could harm businesses."

At least she's talking, even if it is bullshit. Like when her spokesman tells the Times that all that Republican money she's raking in has nothing to do at all with her policy choices. That spokesman, John LaBombard, told the Times that "Senator Sinema makes decisions based on one consideration: what's best for Arizona."

Accountable.US crunched the numbers for BBB and just how much it will benefit Arizona. They look specifically at the fact that Arizona has the largest Native American population in the country—communities that could gain crucial funding through BBB. In total, the bill has at least $5.2 billion to help Native communities, including more than $2.34 billion for Native American health initiatives, including the Indian Health Service; more than $1.67 billion for Tribal housing, infrastructure, and community development; more than $485 million for climate resilience, conservation, and drought relief specifically for Native American communities; $200 million in grants to Native American language educators; and $523 million in other funding benefitting Native American communities, including funding for a Native American Consultation Resource Center. Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, the Diné people, is pushing for the bill.

That's just one part of what the bill will do for the state. The White House breaks down more numbers for Arizona: child care to 430,000 young children, providing help to 90% of Arizona's young families; free preschool to more than 134,000 additional children; additional Pell grant assistance to 112,180 Arizona students; grants for job training to 19 community colleges; an additional 262,000 students getting free school meals; 158,000 uninsured people getting access to health insurance; and tax cuts of as much as $1,500 to 385,200 low-wage workers in Arizona. But Sinema is inexplicably more worried about the extremely wealthy who will have to pay more in taxes.

The White House also has the facts for West Virginia, one of the poorest and oldest states in the union. Right now, West Virginia families with two children pay as much as 22% of their income on just child care every year, about $5,871 on average (West Virginia salaries are not high). That's childcare for 94,170 families—child care that could allow parents to further their educations, or take on new jobs, or start businesses. Only a quarter of the state's children now has access to publicly-funded preschool, and private preschools average about $8,600 every year. An additional 27,753 children would be able to go to free preschool. A whopping 21% of West Virginia's children don't consistently have enough to eat. The bill would give free school meals to an additional 38,000 students in the school year and provide food to almost 205,000 students during summers.

There's a tremendous need in both states, with both ranking in the bottom 10 in the nation for the people living in poverty, Arizona at 43rd and West Virginia 44th. You sure couldn't tell it by the priorities of these two senators.

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are attracting billionaire GOP donors as they scale back Biden’s Build Back Better

According to New York Times reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Kate Kelly, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are attracting some wealthy GOP donors.

"Even as Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin, both Democrats, have drawn fire from the left for their efforts to shrink and reshape (President Joe) Biden's proposals," Vogel and Kelly explain, "they have won growing financial support from conservative-leaning donors and business executives in a striking display of how party affiliation can prove secondary to special interests and ideological motivations when the stakes are high enough. Ms. Sinema is winning more financial backing from Wall Street and constituencies on the right in large part for her opposition to raising personal and corporate income tax rates. Mr. Manchin has attracted new Republican-leaning donors as he has fought against much of his own party to scale back the size of Mr. Biden's legislation and limit new social welfare components."

The blue wave of 2018 showed how big a tent the Democratic Party is. Progressive allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were among the success stories of 2018, but so were Manchin (who was reelected) and Sinema — who has often described the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona as her political idol and has been on very friendly terms with his daughter, conservative GOP activist Meghan McCain. And with Democrats having only a razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate, Manchin and Sinema have the power to make or break legislation.

"The stream of cash to the campaigns of Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin from outside normal Democratic channels stands out because many of the donors have little history with them," Vogel and Kelly observe. "The financial support is also notable for how closely tied it has been to their power over a single piece of legislation, the fate of which continues to rest largely with the two senators because their party cannot afford to lose either of their votes in the evenly divided Senate."

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The legislation that the Times reporters are referring to is the Build Back Better Act of 2021, which recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration.

"Their influence has been profound," Vogel and Kelly say of Manchin and Sinema. "The domestic policy bill, which would expand the social safety net and efforts to fight climate change, started out at $3.5 trillion and has been shrunk — mainly at the insistence of Mr. Manchin — to around $2 trillion; it could get smaller as the Senate takes up the version passed on (November 19) by the House."

The Times reporters note that Stanley S. Hubbard, a billionaire Republican, made a donation to Sinema in September, and Kenneth G. Langone (a Republican billionaire and Wall Street investor) recently donated to Manchin.

According to Vogel and Kelly, "One Wall Street executive joked that in his industry, Ms. Sinema — who, as a young politician, once likened political donations to 'bribery' — was now referred to as 'Saint Sinema' for opposing most of Mr. Biden's proposed taxes on the wealthy. She has, however, supported a 15% corporate minimum tax and other revenue-raising measures that will help pay for Mr. Biden's legislative spending."

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The US was ill-prepared for a pandemic. A medical anthropologist explains why capitalism and government deregulation are to blame

Elanah Uretsky, Brandeis University

It's unclear when the pandemic will come to an end. What may be an even more important question is whether the U.S. will be prepared for the next one. The past year and a half suggests that the answer may be no.

As a medical anthropologist who has spent the past 20 years studying how the Chinese government reacts to infectious disease, my research can provide insight into how countries, including the U.S., can better prepare for disease outbreaks.

Researchers agree that a good response starts with a strong public health system. But this is something that has been sidelined by the United States' neoliberal system, which places more value on free markets and deregulation than public welfare.

Neoliberalism promotes a free market accessible to the wealthy few, making essential services less free for everyone else.

As US neoliberalism evolved, public health devolved

Neoliberal economic policies became popular in the 1980s during the Reagan and Thatcher eras. This new approach aimed to make government leaner and more efficient through measures like market deregulation, privatization and reduction of government provision of public services like health and education – resources that do not necessarily lend themselves to market production.

While neoliberal governments still work to promote the health, welfare and security of their citizens, they place the responsibility of providing those services in the hands of private entities like health insurance companies and nongovernmental organizations. This gives the government space to focus on economic performance.

But placing responsibility for a public good into the hands of a private corporation turns that good into a commodity that people need to buy, rather than a service publicly available to all.

Spending on health care in the U.S., including on hospitals, medications and private insurance, has more than tripled in the past 60 years. But the public health system that helps the nation prepare for the unexpected has been neglected.

U.S. spending on the local health departments that help to avert epidemic outbreaks and protect the health of populations fell by 18% between 2010 and 2021. Two and a half cents of every medical dollar goes toward public health, a figure that has fallen from 1930 levels of 3.3 cents of every dollar. This has allowed the U.S. to manage health risks like chronic diseases that threaten individual's health. But it leaves the nation inadequately prepared for population-level major health threats that have a much bigger effect on the economy and society.

Public health cuts left the U.S with a skeletal workforce to manage the pandemic. Because of this, responsibility fell to individuals. For example, without mandatory workplace COVID-19 safety guidelines, essential workers faced daily exposure to the coronavirus with insufficient to no protective gear and sanitizing supplies. They had to protect both their own health and the health of their families when they returned home, a difficult task without proper resources and support.

And this was not unique to the U.S. There were similar COVID-19 outcomes in other neoliberal countries like the U.K. and India that had shifted priorities away from public health.

How Asian nations learned their lessons

The story was different in many Asian nations where people enjoy the same types of individual liberties as those who live in neoliberal societies. The difference is a collectivist type of mindset that guides these societies and encourages people and government to take responsibility for one another. In her book Flexible Citizenship, anthropologist Aihwa Ong argues that this leads to a societal model where citizens can be independent and self-reliant while also able to rely on a state that supports the collective. Countries like Taiwan and South Korea may have been better prepared to respond to the pandemic because most people are accustomed to protecting themselves and their communities.

Like China, these countries also learned from their recent experience with a pandemic. In 2003, China and much of Asia were caught off guard with the emergence of SARS. Like the U.S., China's public health system had taken a backseat to investment in market reforms for over 20 years. As a result, it couldn't accurately track individual cases of infections.

Following the end of the SARS outbreak, however, the Chinese government improved training for public health professionals and developed one of the most sophisticated disease surveillance systems in the world. This allowed China to respond more quickly to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and late 2019 COVID-19 outbreaks, once it was able to get past the initial bureaucratic and political hurdles that prevented local doctors and government officials from sounding the alarm.

Some have attributed this swift action to China's authoritarian form of government that allows for greater control over individual lives. But prioritizing public health is not new to China. This became official practice as early as 1910 when it adopted the methods of quarantine, surveillance and masking to respond to an outbreak of pneumonic plague.

Could this work in the US?

Much like SARS did with China, COVID-19 has exposed huge holes in the American public health infrastructure.

Take for example contact tracing. SARS taught China and other affected countries the importance of a robust system to identify and track people who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. The Chinese government sent more than 1,800 teams of scientific investigators to Wuhan to trace the virus, which helped their efforts to quickly bring the virus under control.

In the U.S., on the other hand, poorly funded and thinly staffed public health departments struggled to test and notify people who had been in direct contact with infected individuals. This crippled the U.S.'s ability to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In my home state of Massachusetts, the local government teamed up with the global health organization Partners in Health to start a contact tracing operation. But even then, people were left to fend for themselves. This became all the more evident as people scrambled for vaccines after their initial approval, through Facebook groups and informal volunteer networks that worked to help people secure appointments. Those who had resources learned how to take advantage of the system while others were overlooked.

This is typical of a U.S. health care system that is consumer-oriented and market-based. Americans are often convinced that the solution to a health problem must be technical and costly. The focus was placed on developing vaccines and therapeutics, which are essential for ending the pandemic, while ignoring lower-cost solutions.

But masking and social distancing – non-pharmaceutical interventions that have long been known to save lives during disease outbreaks – fell by the wayside. Uptake of these simple interventions is dependent on strong and coordinated public health messaging.

As seen in several Asian nations like Taiwan and South Korea, a well-thought-out plan for public health communication is key to a unified response. Without clear, coordinated directions from a public health system, it becomes difficult to prevent the spread of an outbreak.

What it takes to be prepared

Anthropologist Andrew Lakoff describes preparedness as more than just having the tools. It's also about knowing how and when to use them, and keeping the public properly informed.

Such preparedness can only happen in a coordinated fashion organized by national leadership. But the U.S. has seen little of this over the past year and a half, leaving pandemic response up to individuals. In an era where emergent viruses are an increasing threat to health and welfare, the individualism of neoliberal policies is not enough. While neoliberalism can be good for an economy, it's not so good for health.The Conversation

Elanah Uretsky, Associate Professor of International and Global Studies, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why an army of union workers and other activists coalesced around America’s infrastructure bill

Donneta Williams and her coworkers at the Corning plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, hail from different backgrounds and hold diverse views.

But just as they team up on the production floor to make top-quality products powering the internet, they banded together to push for a long-overdue infrastructure program that's destined to lift up their community and countless others across America.

They didn't fight alone. Williams and her colleagues were among a veritable army of Steelworkers and other activists from all over America whose unstinting advocacy helped to propel a historic infrastructure package through Congress and into the Oval Office.

Their rallies, letters, phone calls, tweets and visits to congressional offices provided the heft behind the bipartisan legislation that cleared the House during the first week of November, just as their steely resolve helped to deliver the Senate's vote in August.

"It unified us," Williams, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1025, said of the bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on November 15 and which will invest billions in roads, bridges, seaports, locks and dams, manufacturing facilities, energy systems and communications networks.

"Everyone benefits," she said, noting the infrastructure program will create and sustain millions of union manufacturing and construction jobs while modernizing the nation and revitalizing its manufacturing base. "It's not about one particular party or one particular person. It's about the nation as a whole and our future and what can be accomplished when everybody works together."

Williams and her colleagues make optical fiber, the backbone of broadband networks, a product as fine as thread that carries voice, data and video over the information superhighway at tremendous speed. Across the nation, however, the availability of high-speed broadband remains grossly uneven, and even some of Williams' coworkers can't access it for their own families.

That absurdity inflamed Local 1025's support for an infrastructure program that will deliver affordable, high-quality internet to every American's door while also bringing urgently needed repairs to school buildings, expanding the clean economy and upgrading crumbling, congested roads in Wilmington and other cities.

Williams and her coworkers sent their representatives and senators hundreds of postcards and emails championing the infrastructure legislation. And when the USW's multi-city "We Supply America" bus tour rolled into Wilmington in August to promote the bill, many of Williams' coworkers donned blue-and-yellow T-shirts and turned out for a rally to show they were all in.

"They were the wind behind everything," Williams said of the Local 1025 members, who clapped and cheered when it was her turn to speak.

Miners on Minnesota's Iron Range also pulled out all the stops to press for the legislation, knowing it will support family-sustaining union jobs for generations to come by increasing demand for the materials and components needed to rebuild transportation networks, upgrade drinking water systems and tackle other improvement projects.

"This is something that we needed. We still have pipes in this country that are made of wood. That's crazy," said Cliff Tobey, the benefits and joint efforts coordinator for USW Locals 2660 and 1938, who wrote postcards, dropped in to congressional offices and even penned a column on the bill for the local newspaper.

But he didn't stop there. Just a couple of days after the bill passed the House, Tobey was part of a USW delegation making one more visit to local congressional offices to ensure the package contained exactly what America's workers expected.

"I think we understand what infrastructure means," Tobey said, stressing the legislation's importance for workers across a giant swath of industries. "It's not just steel. It's paper. It's rubber. It's glass. They'll all gain from this."

His own advocacy was driven partly by the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, a tragedy that sent cars and trucks, commercial vehicles and a school bus plummeting more than 100 feet. The collapse killed 13 and injured dozens of other motorists during their evening commute.

Investigators eventually attributed the collapse to a design flaw. But the span, which carried 144,000 vehicles a day, had been previously classified as "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical" because of maintenance issues.

There was no reason for that kind of neglect, Tobey said, noting how long America's skilled workers have wanted to overhaul the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Now, they'll get that chance.

"It shows that when Steelworkers put their minds to something, they fight, and they keep fighting until they get it done," Tobey observed.

The new infrastructure legislation will stimulate manufacturing and job growth all along supply chains.

That's because construction projects require not just steel, aluminum, glass and other raw materials but paint, insulation, roofing products and electronic equipment, among many other items. Builders also need trucks to transport materials and heavy equipment for use at job sites.

"They're going to be buying Bobcats," said William Wilkinson, president of USW Local 560 in Gwinner, North Dakota, noting the Steelworkers fought to include domestic procurement requirements in the infrastructure bill, ensuring the nation rebuilds with highly skilled union workers.

Wilkinson represents hundreds of workers who make excavators, skid loaders, utility vehicles and various attachments. And when the infrastructure program increases demand for those products, many other businesses, like Bobcat's suppliers and local stores, will also benefit.

"Everyone supported it," Wilkinson said of the infrastructure bill.

After the many months they spent advocating for the legislation, USW members want nothing more than to get to work rebuilding America.

"It's dear to our hearts," Williams said of the historic opportunity she and her members helped to create. "It makes you feel good knowing you did your part."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why the modern economy is to blame for inflation — not government benefits

Headlines are screaming that inflation is here to stay. Consumer prices have risen by an average of 6.2 percent in the past year, the sharpest increase since 1991. Although Americans are supposedly—in the words of the New York Times—"flush with cash and jobs," they are also deeply unhappy with the state of the economy.

It's no wonder Republicans are thrilled and are drawing a line between inflation, public anxiety about the economy, and Joe Biden's presidency.

What is surprising is that President Biden himself is helping them by citing his administration's achievement of putting more money into people's pockets as part of the explanation for the current spike in inflation. In a November 10 speech, Biden said, "You all got checks for $1,400. You got checks for a whole range of things," and with the patience of an academic teaching an Economics 101 class, he went on to explain, "Well, with more people with money buying product and less product to buy, what happens? … Prices go up."

The New York Post, a conservative-leaning paper, jumped on the speech, claiming that the president "concedes his COVID stimulus checks fueled [the] spike in inflation."

The paper downplayed Biden's assertion that, "The supply chain is the reason." In fact, the president led his audience through a fairly clear explanation of how globalization of the economy works, has artificially driven down the cost of goods for decades, and is vulnerable to disruptions such as that caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden said, "Products like smartphones often bring together parts from France, Italy; chips from the Netherlands; touchscreens from New York State; camera components from Japan—a supply chain that crosses dozens of countries."

He then concluded, "That's just the nature of a modern economy—the world economy," as if the massive web of consumer manufacturing was a fact of nature rather than a systematically deregulated system designed by multinational corporations to minimize the cost of materials and labor and maximize their profits.

Recall that this was precisely what the anti-globalization movements of the 1990s were protesting. According to a 2007 essay by Mark Engler, protesters included, "trade unionists, environmentalists, anarchists, land rights and indigenous rights activists, organizations promoting human rights and sustainable development, opponents of privatization, and anti-sweatshop campaigners" from all over the world who claimed that "the policies of corporate globalization have exacerbated global poverty and increased inequality."

When Biden explained in his speech that you "have to use wood from Brazil, graphite from India before it comes together at a factory in the United States to get a pencil," he didn't reveal that pencil manufacturers obtain wood from Brazil because they might be relying on illegal logging of the Amazon that drives down the price of wood. Nor did he mention that the cost of transporting goods from the far reaches of the globe generate massive carbon pollution that is driving climate change.

Rather than blaming globalization for inflation, he concluded it was simply "the nature of a modern economy" that we rely on. Most media outlets missed this connection too. Instead, there is blame on the increasingly rare instances of the U.S. government ensuring people have enough money to live on.

As to why Americans are so unhappy about the state of the economy? Apparently, according to Bloomberg's Ramesh Ponnuru, it is "a frequently recurring" pattern that when wages are rising there is broad pessimism. He rightly points out that, "Wages and benefits have been moving up smartly, but only in nominal terms," and that, "positive trends would have to continue before people began to register satisfaction."

Go back to polls conducted even before the pandemic (such as this one in 2018, and this one in 2019) and one can find widespread malaise about the state of the economy. In other words, Americans have spent decades being disappointed with the sustained suppression of wages and the trend of increasingly insecure jobs in the so-called "gig economy."

This may be why record numbers of people are continuing to resign in spite of their despair over the economy. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that a record 4.4 million workers resigned from their jobs in September alone, continuing a trend from August.

In addition to workers searching for jobs with better wages, the Washington Post concluded that the resignation trend is also linked to "problems finding child care."

But if conservative Republicans have their way, you'll see assertions that Americans are deeply unhappy about the government spending money on them and that child care subsidies and stimulus checks are at the root of the mass gloom—all readymade talking points to win back political power in the next election cycle in order to rein in spending.

This kind of conservative messaging includes claims that Biden "doesn't understand just how bad inflation is hurting Americans," and "[i]f congressional Democrats don't stop Biden and Pelosi's plan, a lot of Americans won't be able to pay their heating bills this winter," as is said in an advertisement by the conservative Club for Growth, aimed at vulnerable House Democrats.

Conservative Democrat Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is making similar connections to justify his stymying of Biden's proposals to expand government assistance.

The liberal Democrats' answer to the current economic crisis is not much better, advising either that people wait out inflation, or claiming that demand for better wages fuels inflation.

Larry Summers, former economic adviser to the Obama administration, wrote earlier this year that, "Higher minimum wages, strengthened unions, increased employee benefits and strengthened regulation are all desirable, but they, too, all push up business costs and prices." Summers echoed a Republican assertion that jobless benefits were bad for the economy, saying, "Unemployment benefits enabling workers to earn more by not working than working should surely be allowed to run out in September."

The prevailing message to Americans from political elites across the spectrum is the same one that Biden spelled out in his speech: "That's just the nature of a modern economy," and we have to deal with it.

A better takeaway from our current economic situation is that there is nothing natural about being at the mercy and whims of an economy designed by corporate profiteers for corporate profiteers.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Happy Holidays!