Economy

Journalist explains why the super-rich aren't happy — and how their greed is poisoning our society

Last Tuesday, Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, soared into space in a rocket many observers compared to a penis. A week or so before that, Richard Branson also blasted himself to the edge of space in a "spaceplane" designed by his company, Virgin Galactic.

After his history-making feat, Jeff Bezos gave $100 million to CNN commentator Van Jones, and another $100 million to chef José Andrés, who has dedicated himself to providing free meals to frontline workers and others in need during the pandemic. They were asked by Bezos to use the money for charitable purposes. This beneficence was a type of "apology" for his grotesque act of hubris and ego: he and most others of his class have no sincere sense of social obligation.

In so many ways these billionaires and their space adventures, during a time of human misery and rising neofascism in America and the world, is like bad science fiction turned to life. It is as if Paul Verhoeven, Mike Judge and Roger Corman collaborated on a film and then found a way to replace reality as we once understood it with their elaborate simulation.

Bezos and Branson's antics are further evidence that America is a plutocratic pathocracy that is cannibalizing itself. In this new Gilded Age, millionaires and billionaires have enriched themselves through a political and economic system in which social parasitism and social Darwinism rule largely uncontested.

In this new world — that in many ways is an old world, with echoes of feudalism and debt peonage — neoliberalism means "socialism" for the rich and "free markets" for everyone else. Even worse, the poor, working classes and middle class directly subsidize the wealth and greed of the very rich, because the latter largely do not pay federal and state taxes.

With the billions of dollars Bezos and Branson collectively spent on their rocket rides to space, they could instead have chosen to provide vaccines for the poor around the world, rid the human race of a deadly disease, help uplift the poor and other vulnerable people worldwide, create a project to address the global climate emergency, or done other good works that would have simultaneously soothed their egos and desperate need for attention while also helping others.

With the money spent on his rocket ride and his gifts to Jones and Andrés, Bezos could have instead chosen to provide a true living wage for his employees (the very people who helped him to obtain his vast wealth) or given each of them a substantial cash bonus.

As seen with the Biden administration's new Child Tax Credit it does not take large sums of money to substantially improve the life chances of poor and working-class people in America. Bezos and Branson could easily choose to do the same.

In response to these billionaire space flights, Deepak Xavier, who heads Oxfam International's global inequality campaign, said this:

We've now reached stratospheric inequality. Billionaires burning into space, away from a world of pandemic, climate change and starvation. 11 people are likely now dying of hunger each minute while Bezos prepares for an 11-minute personal space flight. This is human folly, not human achievement.

The ultra-rich are being propped up by unfair tax systems and pitiful labor protections. US billionaires got around $1.8 trillion richer since the beginning of the pandemic and nine new billionaires were created by Big Pharma's monopoly on the COVID-19 vaccines. Bezos pays next to no US income tax but can spend $7.5 billion on his own aerospace adventure. Bezos' fortune has almost doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. He could afford to pay for everyone on Earth to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and still be richer than he was when the pandemic began.
Billionaires should pay their fair share of taxes for our hospitals, schools, roads and social care, too. Governments must adopt a much stronger global minimum tax on multinational corporations and look at new revenues. A wealth tax, for example of just 3 percent, would generate $6 billion a year from Bezos' $200 billion fortune alone ― a sixth of what the US spends on foreign aid. A COVID-19 profits tax on Amazon would yield $11 billion, enough to vaccinate nearly 600 million people.

What we need is a fair tax system that allows more investment into ending hunger and poverty, into education and healthcare, and into saving the planet from the growing climate crisis ―rather than leaving it.

Bezos and Branson command such vast financial resources and power that they can engage in acts of global spectacle for their own ego gratification. Why are the super-wealthy flying off to space? For reasons of personal glory, or perhaps out of collective narcissism and greed, and perhaps to flee a ruined planet — or just because they can.

In the final analysis we may all share planet Earth, but the very rich live in their own reality. Michael Mechanic, a senior editor at Mother Jones, knows this well. His new book "Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live — and How Their Wealth Harms Us All" explores that private and exclusive world.

In this conversation, Mechanic explains what the wealthy and super-rich understand about money that other people do not. He shares how the lives of the wealthy and super-rich are indeed very much outside the lived experiences and reality of all other human beings. Mechanic also explains how the wealthy engage in sociopathic or antisocial behaviors, while suffering few consequences — other than their own rootlessness and unhappiness. He warns that no society with such extreme levels of wealth and income inequality is stable and that a healthy democracy needs a more balanced economy with a flourishing middle class.

This conversation has been edited, as usual, for length and clarity.

As the saying goes, there's a class war in America and the rich won. Why don't we see any mass resistance or pressure to change this unjust system?

This can partly be explained by an American ethos which emphasizes the myth of upward mobility. So many Americans actually believe, "We can be in the mansion someday, and when we get there, we don't want to be taxed too much." This pervasive wealth fantasy exists much more in America than in other countries. As compared to Europeans, for example, Americans are overly optimistic about the prospects for upward mobility. American politicians are constantly telling these rags-to-riches stories as well. Such stories ignore the structural realities of American society and the fact that upward mobility is more mythical than real. Family circumstances are the biggest predictor of a person's own economic circumstances, unfortunately.

What does the average American not understand about the very rich? What is their world like?

Here is one example. White men have much greater access to a network of people in the worlds of finance, venture capital and other lucrative industries that they can rely upon when they need a step up. If you have a friend who works in finance, you can use that relationship to get funding for your business. Even to get in the room with a venture capitalist you usually need to have a friend or other contact to arrange it. If you don't have access to that network, you are at an extreme disadvantage. Most women, in general, do not have such financial networks. Black people in America tend not to have access to those networks either. If you are a working-class Black person looking for funding for a company, good luck — whereas if you come from a wealthy white family, your dad likely knows somebody who can get you that access.

Wealth is intergenerational. There are many among the rich who actually believe that they "earned" their money through "hard work" as opposed to family money, luck and access to other resources. Donald Trump is one of the most notable examples: he received millions of dollars from his father yet brags about being a "self-made" man who got a "small loan" to start his business. Do the wealthy really believe such things?

It varies. Donald Trump is the least self-aware person on earth. He probably believes these myths about self-reliance and that he did it himself. I believe there are wealthy people who appreciate how lucky they are. When you come from a wealthy family it is easy to downplay all of the structural and institutional factors which helped you and your family and that hurt others in terms of accruing intergenerational wealth.

What is the average day like for one of the super-rich?

There are many different types of the super-rich. There are those people that don't work, who are just socialites and go around to events and so forth. There are people who are in industry and are workaholics. But either way, people tend to travel a great deal. They have massive social calendars and many things of that nature to plan. Super-rich families actually have something called a "family office." This is a private company that handles all their personal affairs and investments, and manages all the properties and household employees, and pays the bills. But mainly, the purpose of the family office is to make you richer and to protect your wealth. The family office also helps them to avoid taxes by whatever means necessary. These family offices just perpetuate a dynastic system.

What is it like to live a life without fears or worries about not having enough money?

Many of the super-rich still care about money a great deal, even though they have a ton of it. They don't need more of it, but they use money as a scorecard for their success. It becomes a big game, a competition when you can buy anything you want and have anything you want. That is a quite surreal experience. It is spending money on stupid things. It creates a mindset of "I don't care about money, I don't need it, I can just do what I want." I believe this hurts the children of the wealthy even more because it allows them to flounder through life, never having to stick with anything.

They just wander through life aimlessly. Many children of the wealthy end up getting into the family business or doing something else to maintain a lifestyle that they do not really care about – and that makes them unhappy. To me, that is a bad way to live.

Because they travel so much, the wealthy are often away from their kids for long periods of time. These very wealthy families outsource everything. There are people who do the cooking, the cleaning, the yard work, who take care of the children, etc. There are also consultants for everything. As one of my sources told me, "I meet these super-wealthy people and they don't do anything. They just sort of live in this bubble where everything's being done for them." I believe this explains why we see the super-wealthy engaging in crazy, high-risk, high-priced adventure activities.

There is much research which suggests that the rich, especially the super-rich and the plutocrats, are more likely to be sociopaths than the average person. Did you encounter any people who fit that profile?

Psychologists have studied these questions and have shown that wealthier people, on average, are less empathetic. They are more prone to antisocial behaviors. They are less socially oriented. On the other hand, there's no data that shows the same person before and after getting these large sums of money. Thus, the question: Is it more that these types of personalities are the ones that pursue wealth, or that wealth actually has these negative impacts on a person's behavior?

Does money change people? I asked that question of many people who are sources for the book. Some of them said, "If you have $50 million and you were a jerk, you're going to be a bigger jerk. And if you are a great person, you'll have opportunity to do greater." Essentially, it amplifies your personality. One thing we do know is that children of wealthy families are at high risk for drug addiction and low-level criminal behavior. The risk is similar for very poor kids. People who are from middle-income families are at much lower risk of such behavior.

What of the children of the very rich? Do they just learn that there are no rules for people like them? Poor and working-class people can't claim that they are sick with "affluenza" when they get drunk and run over people, for example.

I do believe that is the case. There is a sense of entitlement that the rules don't apply. We see this among those who are rich but not super-wealthy as well. It is just the idea, "Oh, I can just do this thing and who cares, right? I can cut in line, whatever." It manifests across a range of small behaviors.

What do we know about new money versus old money?

Professional athletes are a classic example. It's actually getting harder and harder for poor kids to make it into the NFL and the NBA. But there is still a pretty sizable number of people who make it in professional sports and come from financially challenging circumstances. They are extremely talented and have focused like a laser beam on being successful in their sport. Then, all of a sudden, they are getting paid $2 million a month. These are crazy amounts of money. I talked with a business manager whose clients are mostly MLB and NBA players. He told me about the following: "This one kid, he's making a million or two a month. He had to hire a housekeeper. Someone to go fold his clothes, do his laundry. Because this kid had never done his own laundry. He never folded his own clothes."

Many of these professional athletes do not know how to function in normal life. They have lived in a bubble. There are all these hangers-on and others in their orbit who are trying to get money from them. It can be the coaches from before they went pro, family members and others who are trying to get these young athletes to take care of them financially.

There are a lot of athletes who fall victim to that. And if you're a big superstar like a Pat Mahomes or Steph Curry, then you can afford to behave in such a way. But as my contact told me, "If you're a backup point guard for the Grizzlies, you can't support a bunch of family members for very long or you are going to go broke." It happens. They get in serious financial trouble. If you come into all those millions of dollars without any sophisticated knowledge about what to do with it, the whole thing can be really disconcerting.

Many people fantasize about wealth. But when you get that wealth, especially all of a sudden, it really changes your relationships with people – including old friends, your middle-class friends. You want to enjoy the money, and you may also want your friends to enjoy it too. "Can I invite my middle-class friends on this fancy trip where I'm going to pay for everything?" Sure, maybe you can do it once. But what's it going to be like if you keep treating your old friends to these super high-end things? It's going to get weird. Pride's going to get in the way, or maybe you'll feel like they are freeloaders. All that money can create very weird dynamics. Family tensions get involved. Children squabble about inheritances. It can become a total mess.

What are the informal rules about wealth that old money understands and new money does not?

Put that money away to make it last. Preserve it, and do not do what the young athletes do. You do not want to be flashy. Old money? it wants nobody to know it exists. The big wealth dynasties with their family offices generally do not want to be big public figures.

Some years ago, I was acquainted with a husband and wife who won the Lotto. It was a modest sum after taxes, perhaps only $150,000. Everyone knew about it because their names were in the newspaper. I asked them a few years later about what they spent the money on. The husband told me he wished they had never won the money, because all they did was pay off some bills and buy a new pickup truck. That was it. But everyone in their family, friends, the neighborhood, their co-workers, all thought they were rich. He told me it was so much stress with everyone asking him and his wife for money that they wished they had never won it to begin with. Is that a common experience?

Yes it is. The conventional wisdom about winning the lottery is that it ruins your life. And in some cases, it really does. I interviewed a guy who was a hedge fund manager. He had a house on Lake Tahoe right next to Larry Ellison's house. And the neighbor on the other side, it was this young guy in his 20s. It turned out, the guy had won a big lottery and bought this $4 million house on Lake Tahoe. He was always up there, just partying with his friends. He didn't seem to have anything else going on in his life. One day the rich guy pulls up in his driveway and he sees the coroner's van next door. He goes over there and asks, "What happened?" They told him, "The person is deceased. This young guy killed himself."

When you have a lot of money there are issues with trusting other people. You do not know who's coming at you. There are going to be people trying to get you involved in business partnerships, pitching ideas to you or trying to become your friend. But you don't really know whether they're there for some other reason. This includes potential romantic partners.

There was a documentary a few years back about lottery winners, that showed how they got all this money and moved into a new neighborhood, and the people there did not accept them. The interviewer asked one of the Powerball winners, an older Black man who came from a working-class neighborhood, what it was like to have all this money. The man was miserable. He and his wife almost started crying. He told the interviewer, "Look around. All we have is a house full of stuff. I don't want to buy anything because I got everything. The neighbors here don't talk to us because they don't think we belong. We were poor in the projects but now we don't trust anyone. We don't have those friendships or family relationships anymore. All we got is a whole bunch of money and a house full of stuff." Then the interviewer asked the obvious follow-up and the man said, "You know what? I was happier when I was poor."

It's true. If you don't have something to give your life meaning, and if you think money is the meaning of life and you pursue that path, forget it. You are going to be miserable.

So what's the magic number in terms of income and happiness?

There is research that looked at millions of people and their self-reported happiness. Positive emotions peak at incomes over 65 grand. Your negative emotions are minimized at about 95 grand. And then there is what is known as "life satisfaction," which is a type of measure of how you view yourself relative to your peers. That maxes out at $105,000, a modest amount of money.

Once you get above the satiation point where a person knows that their needs are met, it is all just creature comforts and other bonuses in life. As you go past the satiation point, your life satisfaction starts to decrease in wealthy nations. We still do not know why that is. But one of the speculations is that in order to maintain this high-end lifestyle, a person has to work all the time and they lose their social connections. If you take a high-paying job and you're just on-call all the time and have too many responsibilities, there is less time to enjoy your life and your relationships. What good is it, right? You have a large bank account and no friends.

We know a great deal about the poor and the "underclass," but we know very little about the very rich. They are under-researched because as a rule they do not talk to outsiders. How did you get access to them?

It was a very laborious process. I had many rejections. In fact, the billionaires wouldn't talk to me at all. They'll talk to you about other things. But they are not going to talk to you regarding their feelings about wealth. But the wealthy also have lots of middlemen, the PR people and the like, who said no. I got a lot more rejections than I got acceptances, I would say. So I had to fill in the gaps by talking to people who are on the periphery of the billionaire class, people who work with them closely, in financial management, of course, but also in such varied roles as building safe rooms for hedge funders, for example. I spoke to a woman who works security for billionaires and trains their nannies in physical combat. I also spent time hanging out with luxury realtors and luxury car dealers and all manner of people who interact with these incredibly wealthy clients.

What do you want the American people to understand about the super-rich?

By and large they are not bad people. The point of writing "Jackpot" was not to disparage the wealthy, but to point out how flawed our system is in America that allows people to amass such wealth at the expense of others. The policies that enable such an outcome is driving us apart as a society. It's really tearing at the social fabric, because as the rungs of the economic ladder get wider and wider apart, we are losing empathy for the people on the other side. There is now a situation where we are a society of extreme winners versus extreme losers. A healthy society has a thriving middle class. That's what really lifts all boats.

Artificial intelligence is hurtling us toward humanity's inflection point — and we're not ready

My wife and I were recently driving in Virginia, amazed yet again that the GPS technology on our phones could guide us through a thicket of highways, around road accidents, and toward our precise destination. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the soothing voice telling us where to turn has replaced passenger-seat navigators, maps, even traffic updates on the radio. How on earth did we survive before this technology arrived in our lives? We survived, of course, but were quite literally lost some of the time.

My reverie was interrupted by a toll booth. It was empty, as were all the other booths at this particular toll plaza. Most cars zipped through with E-Z passes, as one automated device seamlessly communicated with another. Unfortunately, our rental car didn't have one.

So I prepared to pay by credit card, but the booth lacked a credit-card reader.

Okay, I thought, as I pulled out my wallet, I'll use cash to cover the $3.25.

As it happened, that booth took only coins and who drives around with 13 quarters in his or her pocket?

I would have liked to ask someone that very question, but I was, of course, surrounded by mute machines. So, I simply drove through the electronic stile, preparing myself for the bill that would arrive in the mail once that plaza's automated system photographed and traced our license plate.

In a thoroughly mundane fashion, I'd just experienced the age-old conflict between the limiting and liberating sides of technology. The arrowhead that can get you food for dinner might ultimately end up lodged in your own skull. The car that transports you to a beachside holiday contributes to the rising tides — by way of carbon emissions and elevated temperatures — that may someday wash away that very coastal gem of a place. The laptop computer that plugs you into the cyberworld also serves as the conduit through which hackers can steal your identity and zero out your bank account.

In the previous century, technology reached a true watershed moment when humans, harnessing the power of the atom, also acquired the capacity to destroy the entire planet. Now, thanks to AI, technology is hurtling us toward a new inflection point.

Science-fiction writers and technologists have long worried about a future in which robots, achieving sentience, take over the planet. The creation of a machine with human-like intelligence that could someday fool us into believing it's one of us has often been described, with no small measure of trepidation, as the "singularity." Respectable scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued that such a singularity will, in fact, mark the "end of the human race."

This will not be some impossibly remote event like the sun blowing up in a supernova several billion years from now. According to one poll, AI researchers reckon that there's at least a 50-50 chance that the singularity will occur by 2050. In other words, if pessimists like Hawking are right, it's odds on that robots will dispatch humanity before the climate crisis does.

Neither the artificial intelligence that powers GPS nor the kind that controlled that frustrating toll plaza has yet attained anything like human-level intelligence — not even close. But in many ways, such dumb robots are already taking over the world. Automation is currently displacing millions of workers, including those former tollbooth operators. "Smart" machines like unmanned aerial vehicles have become an indispensable part of waging war. AI systems are increasingly being deployed to monitor our every move on the Internet, through our phones, and whenever we venture into public space. Algorithms are replacing teaching assistants in the classroom and influencing sentencing in courtrooms. Some of the loneliest among us have already become dependent on robot pets.

As AI capabilities continue to improve, the inescapable political question will become: to what extent can such technologies be curbed and regulated? Yes, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle as are other technologies — biological and chemical — capable of causing mass destruction of a kind previously unimaginable on this planet. With AI, however, that day of singularity is still in the future, even if a rapidly approaching one. It should still be possible, at least theoretically, to control such an outcome before there's nothing to do but play the whack-a-mole game of non-proliferation after the fact.

As long as humans continue to behave badly on a global scale — war, genocide, planet-threatening carbon emissions — it's difficult to imagine that anything we create, however intelligent, will act differently. And yet we continue to dream that some deus in machina, a god in the machine, could appear as if by magic to save us from ourselves.

Taming AI?

In the early 1940s, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov formulated his famed three laws of robotics: that robots were not to harm humans, directly or indirectly; that they must obey our commands (unless doing so violates the first law); and that they must safeguard their own existence (unless self-preservation contravenes the first two laws).

Any number of writers have attempted to update Asimov. The latest is legal scholar Frank Pasquale, who has devised four laws to replace Asimov's three. Since he's a lawyer not a futurist, Pasquale is more concerned with controlling the robots of today than hypothesizing about the machines of tomorrow. He argues that robots and AI should help professionals, not replace them; that they should not counterfeit humans; that they should never become part of any kind of arms race; and that their creators, controllers, and owners should always be transparent.

Pasquale's "laws," however, run counter to the artificial-intelligence trends of our moment. The prevailing AI ethos mirrors what could be considered the prime directive of Silicon Valley: move fast and break things. This philosophy of disruption demands, above all, that technology continuously drive down labor costs and regularly render itself obsolescent.

In the global economy, AI indeed helps certain professionals — like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who just happen to be among the richest people on the planet — but it's also replacing millions of us. In the military sphere, automation is driving boots off the ground and eyes into the sky in a coming robotic world of war. And whether it's Siri, the bots that guide increasingly frustrated callers through automated phone trees, or the AI that checks out Facebook posts, the aim has been to counterfeit human beings — "machines like me," as Ian McEwan called them in his 2019 novel of that title — while concealing the strings that connect the creation to its creator.

Pasquale wants to apply the brakes on a train that has not only left the station but no longer is under the control of the engine driver. It's not difficult to imagine where such a runaway phenomenon could end up and techno-pessimists have taken a perverse delight in describing the resulting cataclysm. In his book Superintelligence, for instance, Nick Bostrom writes about a sandstorm of self-replicating nanorobots that chokes every living thing on the planet — the so-called grey goo problem — and an AI that seizes power by "hijacking political processes."

Since they would be interested only in self-preservation and replication, not protecting humanity or following its orders, such sentient machines would clearly tear up Asimov's rulebook. Futurists have leapt into the breach. For instance, Ray Kurzweil, who predicted in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that a robot would attain sentience by about 2045, has proposed a "ban on self-replicating physical entities that contain their own codes for self-replication." Elon Musk, another billionaire industrialist who's no enemy of innovation, has called AI humanity's "biggest existential threat" and has come out in favor of a ban on future killer robots.

To prevent the various worst-case scenarios, the European Union has proposed to control AI according to degree of risk. Some products that fall in the EU's "high risk" category would have to get a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval (the Conformité Européenne). AI systems "considered a clear threat to the safety, livelihoods, and rights of people," on the other hand, would be subject to an outright ban. Such clear-and-present dangers would include, for instance, biometric identification that captures personal data by such means as facial recognition, as well as versions of China's social credit system where AI helps track individuals and evaluate their overall trustworthiness.

Techno-optimists have predictably lambasted what they consider European overreach. Such controls on AI, they believe, will put a damper on R&D and, if the United States follows suit, allow China to secure an insuperable technological edge in the field. "If the member states of the EU — and their allies across the Atlantic — are serious about competing with China and retaining their power status (as well as the quality of life they provide to their citizens)," writes entrepreneur Sid Mohasseb in Newsweek, "they need to call for a redraft of these regulations, with growth and competition being seen as at least as important as regulation and safety."

Mohasseb's concerns are, however, misleading. The regulators he fears so much are, in fact, now playing a game of catch-up. In the economy and on the battlefield, to take just two spheres of human activity, AI has already become indispensable.

The Automation of Globalization

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of global supply chains. The world economy nearly ground to a halt in 2020 for one major reason: the health of human workers. The spread of infection, the risk of contagion, and the efforts to contain the pandemic all removed workers from the labor force, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Factories shut down, gaps widened in transportation networks, and shops lost business to online sellers.

A desire to cut labor costs, a major contributor to a product's price tag, has driven corporations to look for cheaper workers overseas. For such cost-cutters, eliminating workers altogether is an even more beguiling prospect. Well before the pandemic hit, corporations had begun to turn to automation. By 2030, up to 45 million U.S. workers will be displaced by robots. The World Bank estimates that they will eventually replace an astounding 85% of the jobs in Ethiopia, 77% in China, and 72% in Thailand."

The pandemic not only accelerated this trend, but increased economic inequality as well because, at least for now, robots tend to replace the least skilled workers. In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 43% of businesses indicated that they would reduce their workforces through the increased use of technology. "Since the pandemic hit," reports NBC News,

"food manufacturers ramped up their automation, allowing facilities to maintain output while social distancing. Factories digitized controls on their machines so they could be remotely operated by workers working from home or another location. New sensors were installed that can flag, or predict, failures, allowing teams of inspectors operating on a schedule to be reduced to an as-needed maintenance crew."

In an ideal world, robots and AI would increasingly take on all the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs globally, freeing humans to do more interesting work. In the real world, however, automation is often making jobs dirtier and more dangerous by, for instance, speeding up the work done by the remaining human labor force. Meanwhile, robots are beginning to encroach on what's usually thought of as the more interesting kinds of work done by, for example, architects and product designers.

In some cases, AI has even replaced managers. A contract driver for Amazon, Stephen Normandin, discovered that the AI system that monitored his efficiency as a deliveryman also used an automated email to fire him when it decided he wasn't up to snuff. Jeff Bezos may be stepping down as chief executive of Amazon, but robots are quickly climbing its corporate ladder and could prove at least as ruthless as he's been, if not more so.

Mobilizing against such a robot replacement army could prove particularly difficult as corporate executives aren't the only ones putting out the welcome mat. Since fully automated manufacturing in "dark factories" doesn't require lighting, heating, or a workforce that commutes to the site by car, that kind of production can reduce a country's carbon footprint — a potentially enticing factor for "green growth" advocates and politicians desperate to meet their Paris climate targets.

It's possible that sentient robots won't need to devise ingenious stratagems for taking over the world. Humans may prove all too willing to give semi-intelligent machines the keys to the kingdom.

The New Fog of War

The 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan proved to be unlike any previous military conflict. The two countries had been fighting since the 1980s over a disputed mountain enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia proved the clear victor in conflict that followed in the early 1990s, occupying not only the disputed territory but parts of Azerbaijan as well.

In September 2020, as tensions mounted between the two countries, Armenia was prepared to defend those occupied territories with a well-equipped army of tanks and artillery. Thanks to its fossil-fuel exports, Azerbaijan, however, had been spending considerably more than Armenia on the most modern version of military preparedness. Still, Armenian leaders often touted their army as the best in the region. Indeed, according to the 2020 Global Militarization Index, that country was second only to Israel in terms of its level of militarization.

Yet Azerbaijan was the decisive winner in the 2020 conflict, retaking possession of Nagorno-Karabkah. The reason: automation.

"Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia's weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance," reported the Washington Post's Robyn Dixon. "Armenia found that air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of them older Soviet systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks, and losses quickly piled up."

Armenian soldiers, notorious for their fierceness, were spooked by the semi-autonomous weapons regularly above them. "The soldiers on the ground knew they could be hit by a drone circling overhead at any time," noted Mark Sullivan in the business magazine Fast Company. "The drones are so quiet they wouldn't hear the whir of the propellers until it was too late. And even if the Armenians did manage to shoot down one of the drones, what had they really accomplished? They'd merely destroyed a piece of machinery that would be replaced."

The United States pioneered the use of drones against various non-state adversaries in its war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. But in its 2020 campaign, Azerbaijan was using the technology to defeat a modern army. Now, every military will feel compelled not only to integrate increasingly more powerful AI into its offensive capabilities, but also to defend against the new technology.

To stay ahead of the field, the United States is predictably pouring money into the latest technologies. The new Pentagon budget includes the "largest ever" request for R&D, including a down payment of nearly a billion dollars for AI. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare has written, the Pentagon has even taken a cue from the business world by beginning to replace its war managers — generals — with a huge, interlinked network of automated systems known as the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control (JADC2).

The result of any such handover of greater responsibility to machines will be the creation of what mathematician Cathy O'Neill calls "weapons of math destruction." In the global economy, AI is already replacing humans up and down the chain of production. In the world of war, AI could in the end annihilate people altogether, whether thanks to human design or computer error.

After all, during the Cold War, only last-minute interventions by individuals on both sides ensured that nuclear "missile attacks" detected by Soviet and American computers — which turned out to be birds, unusual weather, or computer glitches — didn't precipitate an all-out nuclear war. Take the human being out of the chain of command and machines could carry out such a genocide all by themselves.

And the fault, dear reader, would lie not in our robots but in ourselves.

Robots of Last Resort

In my new novel Songlands, humanity faces a terrible set of choices in 2052. Having failed to control carbon emissions for several decades, the world is at the point of no return, too late for conventional policy fixes. The only thing left is a scientific Hail Mary pass, an experiment in geoengineering that could fail or, worse, have terrible unintended consequences. The AI responsible for ensuring the success of the experiment may or may not be trustworthy. My dystopia, like so many others, is really about a narrowing of options and a whittling away of hope, which is our current trajectory.

And yet, we still have choices. We could radically shift toward clean energy and marshal resources for the whole world, not just its wealthier portions, to make the leap together. We could impose sensible regulations on artificial intelligence. We could debate the details of such programs in democratic societies and in participatory multilateral venues.

Or, throwing up our hands because of our unbridgeable political differences, we could wait for a post-Trumpian savior to bail us out. Techno-optimists hold out hope that automation will set us free and save the planet. Laissez-faire enthusiasts continue to believe that the invisible hand of the market will mysteriously direct capital toward planet-saving innovations instead of SUVs and plastic trinkets.

These are illusions. As I write in Songlands, we have always hoped for someone or something to save us: "God, a dictator, technology. For better or worse, the only answer to our cries for help is an echo."

In the end, robots won't save us. That's one piece of work that can't be outsourced or automated. It's a job that only we ourselves can do.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

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.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Reporter details how Biden avoids 'the most obvious pitfalls of modern presidential politics'

Midterms can be brutal for sitting presidents in the United States, even those who win a second term. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan watched their parties suffer major midterms losses only to be comfortably reelected two years later; Donald Trump, in contrast, was clobbered during the 2018 midterms and voted out of office in 2020. It remains to be seen what the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election have in store for President Joe Biden, but according to New York Times reporter Nate Cohn, Biden may have found a way to avoid a "drubbing in the midterm elections."

"It is far too soon to say whether Mr. Biden will avoid the fate of Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, who all lost at least 41 seats in the House of Representatives in their first midterm," Cohn explains in a Times report published this week. "But by carving a middle path between legislative gridlock and a bold initiative to achieve a transformative partisan goal like health care, Mr. Biden is so far avoiding one of the most obvious pitfalls of modern presidential politics."

Cohn points out that while right-wing media have "focused on the culture wars" during Biden's six months as president, Biden has prioritized his legislature agenda — including "infrastructure."

"At times," Cohn observes, "the all-but-manufactured controversies over 'critical race theory' and the removal of some Dr. Seuss books from publication have received more attention than trillions of dollars in new spending…. It's nothing like the intense pushback Mr. Obama faced from Republicans over a decade ago when he prioritized health care. It gives Mr. Biden and his party a better chance to capitalize on what he hopes will be an increasingly favorable national political environment."

Some conservatives and libertarians have been criticizing Biden's agenda from a fiscal standpoint, arguing that he is increasing the United States' federal deficit too much. But those fiscal conservatives tend to be non-Trumpian types; MAGA Republicans have emphasized culture war issues in their attacks on Democrats. And Cohn notes that so far, Biden's legislative agenda is faring well in polls.

"The most recent polls suggest that Mr. Biden's big spending plans are all fairly popular," Cohn observes. "A CBS/YouGov poll this weekend found that 59% of adults approved of Mr. Biden's infrastructure plan. Around 60% of voters — including a quarter or more of self-identified Republicans — approved of his multitrillion-dollar spending on infrastructure and health in June polls by Morning Consultand Monmouth University."

In light of how much former President Donald Trump ran up the federal deficit during his four years in office, MAGA Republicans would look ridiculous attacking Biden for spending too much.

"The inability of conservatives to muster outrage in response to trillions of dollars of new spending would have been difficult to imagine a decade ago, when the Tea Party emerged in furious and all-but-unconditional opposition to Mr. Obama's stimulus and health care plans," Cohn writes. "But Republicans all but chose to abandon laissez-faire economics when they nominated Mr. Trump, who proved in victory that it was easier to appeal to conservatives by stoking outrage over cultural issues than by arguing for limited government."

Cohn points out that there is "still time for voters to sour on Mr. Biden's initiatives," but so far, according to polls, that hasn't happened. Nonetheless, the Times reporter observes that Democrats don't have a lot of seats to lose if they want to keep their narrow majorities in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022.

"Democrats will most likely struggle to hold Congress, no matter the national political environment," Cohn explains. "Republicans are sure to intensify their attacks as the midterms approach. The party has no margin for error in the House, where Republicans need to flip only five seats to take control. They might flip that many simply through partisan gerrymanders. And even the very best midterm showings typically involve the president's party gaining just a few seats."

'We're not allowed to hang up': The harsh reality of working in customer service

Last year ProPublica wrote about the world of work-at-home customer service, spotlighting a largely unseen industry that helps brand-name companies shed labor costs by outsourcing the task of mollifying unhappy customers.

As we reported on the industry, we invited current and former customer service representatives to contact us. They did. We heard from more than 100 and interviewed dozens. Often, their stories disturbed us. One woman, afraid to take a bathroom break, kept a jar under her desk in case she needed to urinate. Another, afraid to call in sick, paused calls to vomit. A third, afraid to hang up on a customer, didn't know what to do when she realized a caller was masturbating to the sound of her voice.

These accounts captured how agents are simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. Customers talk to them all the time but know little about their work conditions.

So we're providing accounts from seven agents, many of whom describe the experience of being caught between abusive callers and corporate directives to appease. These seven are highly representative of the 100-plus agents we heard from, as well as the agents we interviewed in our first article. The agents, including some who told us they love their setups, laid out common themes, describing problems that people at various levels of the industry, including managers, have told us are endemic. We've also found echoes of these complaints in lawsuits and arbitration claims. Abusive callers are such a concern that, a few years ago in Canada, a union for telecommunications workers launched a campaign called “Hang Up on Abuse." Airbnb, recognizing the emotional strain of taking such calls, offered their in-house customer service agents free therapy sessions.

The reps we spoke to needed these jobs, which allowed them to work from home even before the pandemic. They included people with disabilities, caretaking obligations or limited opportunities in rural towns. Recruitment ads touted flexibility and the chance to be your own boss. But many agents discovered the roles came with limited hours, close monitoring and strict performance measurements that put them in constant fear of losing their jobs. A Department of Labor investigator concluded that one contractor, Arise Virtual Solutions, exerted an “extraordinary degree of control" over agents.

Most customer service agents are women. Many describe being sexually harassed. One said a caller told her, “I really like the way you type." Their work belongs to a grim history of women in outsourced roles stretching back to the piecework manufacturing era. A half century ago, temp work exploded, driven by companies hiring women to cut costs compared with full-time employees. These magazine ads from 1970 and 1971 show how women temps were viewed at the time, and the attitudes have certain parallels to how customer service agents are viewed today. While many agents work full time, a growing segment are independent contractors who don't get paid holidays, vacation time or fringe benefits.

In the accounts below, most of the agents asked not to be identified, citing nondisclosure agreements that are common in the industry. (To work for some companies, agents must sign NDAs before they can even accept the job.) We've condensed for clarity and verified details wherever possible, collecting Facebook screenshots, email exchanges, company performance review forms, tax records and other proof of employment, along with contemporaneous recollections from agents' relatives or friends. But there were instances in which we couldn't get such documentation, owing in part to the premium placed on privacy and security by the companies. Some agents said they weren't even allowed to have their personal phone in their workroom while helping customers. Some lost access to their email and the company platform when they quit or were fired, and they hadn't made copies or screenshots beforehand. In every case we invited the companies that these agents worked with to comment.

Agent Taking Calls and Chats for TurboTax

Christine Stewart has social anxiety and depression. “I have a really hard time being out in public," she said. She wanted to work from home, so she became an independent contractor for Sykes from 2017 to 2018. The company bills itself as “a leading provider of multichannel demand generation and customer engagement services for Global 2000 companies." At Sykes, she helped customers using Intuit's TurboTax.

“I was actually sick one day, I called, they have a supervisor line, and told them I was going to be [out] sick. And without actually saying it, the lady said, you're going to be in trouble if you don't show up. And me, I don't like to get in trouble at work, I'm a good employee. I went to work. I kept hitting my mute button every time I had to throw up."

During training, she said, “they told me if you wanted to work nights, you could work nights. If you want to work days, you can work days. Once you finish the training they're like, 'This is your schedule.' I said I can't work that and they were like, 'Well, this is the schedule, and if you can't work the schedule, you don't want the job.' I was like, 'I need the job, I do want the job.' I said, 'I can do 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.' They wanted me to do 12 to 12. I have to get my kids on the bus in the morning, I was like, 'I need to take a five-minute break when the bus pulls up.' Even that was a huge problem for them. They would say, 'You can't keep taking these five-minute breaks.'"

Customers berated her. “One person called me the C-word. I'd call my supervisor. They'd say, 'Calm them down.' … They'd always try to push me to stay on the call and calm the customer down myself. I wasn't getting paid enough to do that. When you have a customer sitting there and saying you're worthless … you're supposed to 'de-escalate.'"

“There can be no background noise, no nature noises or cars passing by. I had a den. I had to insulate my den," she said. (To confirm the expense, she shared a tax form with ProPublica that showed a $100 deduction.) “I had to turn the AC off; you could hear the AC blowing. They called me out on that. When I was training, the lady said she could hear the air conditioner in the background."

One time, she said, “my kid broke his hand." She dropped her call, dropped everything, to help him, but then she needed a story, because, she said, had she told her supervisors the truth — that her kid broke his hand and needed her help — “I would've gotten in trouble even if I had a hospital note."

“I said my internet went down. I pulled the plug on everything, because it was their equipment. ... I didn't know if they had any kind of monitoring software that wasn't on the webcam or anything. It was better not to take any chances and unplug the whole thing."

Intuit told us that it “engages with vendors" able to deliver “flexible support," and that it is “dedicated to providing a safe, ethical, and inclusive workplace for all of our employees and vendor workers." (See thefull statement.)

Sykes did not respond to requests for comment.

Agent Taking Calls for Bath & Body Works

She needed money for a medical procedure, so, during the pandemic, she began working for Liveops as an independent contractor, helping customers for Bath & Body Works. She worked from home.

For online orders, Bath & Body Works allows shoppers to use just one promotion per order. A customer, for example, can use a code to knock down the price of a particular item, but they can't combine multiple codes. Customers can get upset when this is explained to them.

“We encounter customers who ordered the wrong items and want us to send them the right items for free. We receive calls from customers who have had their packages stolen. And then we get customers all the time who find out we don't sell a particular fragrance anymore, and they can be just incredibly abusive."

“I may as well say it out loud. We get called bitches all the time. One woman called me a 'stupid fucking cunt.'"

“It can wear on you. We're not allowed to answer back in the same way, nor are we allowed to hang up on them. Nor can we hang up on them after giving them one warning. The policy I am told is, we're not allowed to hang up on any customer under any circumstances, even if they question our race or ethnic background or anything like that. My understanding is that we're not even allowed to give people a warning."

“We have to sit there basically and listen to these people until they run out of steam. It's like they don't see us as a person."

With the pandemic, she said, a lot of agents are young women who lost their jobs and are desperate for anything. A lot of her fellow agents are Black women. “I've heard them say they were called 'stupid n-----,' 'you stupid Black bitch.'"

While some customer service reps are pressed to work more hours than they want, she got too few. Last fall, she signed up to work for four and a half hours during one day. She was paid 31 cents per minute of talking time. So when she wasn't getting calls, she wasn't getting paid. For those four and a half hours, she said, she sat there with her headset plugged in.

“No calls in those four and a half hours. Nothing. … I got some personal budget stuff done. Surfed websites unrelated to work. Familiarized myself with products on the website. I hate to say it, but I think I dozed off at one point."

Were there other days in which you got no calls? we asked.

“Oh, yes."

“How many?"

“I lost track."

Liveops has quality auditors who listen to at least four of an agent's calls per month, she said. They score agents using an audit form, which she shared with ProPublica. It says agents should make a “connected recommendation for each opportunity throughout the interaction" based on the customer's orders. Say a customer buys soap. The agent should ask, “Did you want a soap holder, too?" If a customer buys candles, the agent should also pitch candleholders.

“A customer calls to say, 'Hey, I didn't get my package.' So I'm supposed to say, 'Hey, do you want to buy some more products when you still don't have your package?' Oh, for crying out loud. Really."

The audit form has 20 questions. They include: “9. Did the agent compliment the customer's selections, reassure about the fragrance choices and/or give general positive reinforcement about the items? … 18. Did the agent apologize when necessary, show empathy and/or recognizes customer emotion? 19. Did the agent let the customer know that we have 'heard' them, that we genuinely care, and did the agent remain engaged throughout the entire interaction?"

A Liveops document said that if an agent's scores fall within the “unacceptable" range for three months in a calendar year, “the agent may be subject to removal from the program."

She said she recently received an email saying she had used profanity on a call, so Liveops was terminating her contract. She didn't remember saying anything profane. The company provided no recording for her to listen to. She emailed Liveops and called corporate to ask for details or a chance to hear whatever it is she was supposed to have said, but she got no response. (She said she didn't make copies of these emails before her email account was closed.)

“No appeal," she said.

Liveops told us that it does not comment on specific clients or agents, but said in a statement that agents choose their client programs and “have the freedom and flexibility to work around their lives." The statement added: “All client programs have their own unique process for handling and dispositioning unproductive calls and significantly upset clients. There are controls in place to ensure that, to the extent possible, all calls are professional, and no customer or agent is subject to verbal abuse." (Read Liveops'full statement.)

Bath & Body Works did not respond to requests for comment.

Agent Taking Calls and Chats for Barnes & Noble

She worked as an independent contractor for Arise Virtual Solutions, a company that bills itself as a pioneer in the work-from-home industry.

Customers, she said, “get mad at us. They start cursing at us. They start threatening to report us to the main office." One customer, she said, told her he was going to keep her on the line until he got what he wanted; he “started with the F-word," then apologized, then carried on. He “wouldn't stop and wouldn't stop" until finally, realizing the agent wouldn't give in, he gave up.

At one time she handled calls from Barnes & Noble customers. “A lot of cursing, a lot of crying — crying — believe it or not. I've been called every name in the book. And I do mean from A to Z. Everything in between. I've been hung up on, threatened, told I'm going to lose my job. I had one woman tell me, 'I hope you have a miserable day.' You can't laugh. I can't laugh. I'm thinking to myself, 'You ordered the Bible. You're some Christian person?' She'd ordered a Bible! Those are the worst! Those are the worst hypocrites! They scream, curse, yell, carry on, threaten. They're the worst."

“The women, their mouths are unbelievable. Or they start crying. They're worse than the men. I'm like, 'It's a book, for God's sake.'"

Arise told us that it does not tolerate harassment of any kind. (See thefull statement.)

Barnes & Noble did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Agent in a Call Center Taking Calls for Sprint

She was employed by iQor (pronounced I-core) as a retention specialist and sales agent, taking calls from customers for Sprint (which has since merged with T-Mobile). She worked in a call center.

“If the customer is angry and wants to completely cancel, you have 14 minutes to resolve their issue, get them to stay and sell them a new phone," she said.

A unit called workforce management would push agents along. One workforce management monitor would sit at a computer, checking the length of each agent's call. Another would walk the floor. These two would communicate by walkie talkie, one alerting the other to any agent whose call was running long.

“At 10 minutes you had somebody tapping on your shoulder. At 12 minutes you had someone tapping on your shoulder and saying, 'Wrap it up, wrap it up, wrap it up.' At 14 minutes, 'What's going on? You need to wrap this up. You need to move on.'"

“We had this guy who would run around on the floor yelling, 'Move it along, people, all hands on deck, move it along, move it along.'"

Agents would have management in one ear and customers in the other. Customers would often be insulting, sometimes shockingly so.

She remembered one customer in particular. “He was very, very upset. And it's personal. You get called names. 'I hope you fucking die.'" Another Sprint customer told her: “'I hope when T-Mobile takes over, you all lose your fucking jobs, your fucking families, your fucking homes, and you all kill yourselves.'"

She said she was not allowed to hang up. Only a supervisor could do that. “Where's the line where you no longer have to take that?" she said. “I spent more than one instance in the bathroom, crying, then shaking it off and going back to work."

“I'm pretty thick-skinned, and I had nightmares. It beats you down. Everybody is angry. Eight out of 10 calls, they're angry and they're cursing by the time they get to you. Usually it's the men who make it personal. That's why I coined the term AngryWhiteManistan. 'I have another resident of AngryWhiteManistan here.' They'll say things like, 'Well, then, you better get me someone who is not incompetent.'"

In her nightmares, she said, she would be doing some mundane task, such as making dinner in the kitchen, when the phone would ring. She'd pick up and hear: “Are you done yet? We need to move on. We need to move on. We need to move on."

T-Mobile, which merged with Sprint in 2020, told us it wouldn't comment on Sprint's prior practices. Since the merger, T-Mobile said, it has taken steps “to align T-Mobile's Care practices across our team and all our partners to our award-winning Team of Experts (TEX) model, whichheavily prioritizes customer and agent experience over more traditional call center metrics."The company's statement added, “We have a long-held policy that all of our experts do not have to tolerate abusive speech or behavior." (Read the company'sfull statement.)

IQordid not respond to requests for comment.

Agent Supervising Other Agents Taking Calls for DirecTV

She's lived in “many, many states" and worked in many call centers. Now she lives out west in a rural setting where jobs, and options, are scarce. A few years ago she found a job that lets her work from home. She started as an agent at Convergys (since acquired by Concentrix), then became a supervisor.

“It's just enough of a wage that you're going to be ineligible for most public support. I'm not eligible for any financial aid whatsoever. And yet I go to the food bank every month because I don't make enough money. … I don't go to the doctor, even when I should."

She said the job attracts a lot of new parents. And retirees. And people with medical issues. She said that in her experience, the turnover is “tremendous." Within months, many people get fired, or “termed," short for terminated. “We fire more than they resign. A lot more."

Most firings are over attendance. What counts as an attendance infraction? “Anything. It doesn't matter if it's in your control or not. … Your power goes out and, bam, you're absent. ... Doesn't matter if you had a hurricane."

“You don't know if you're going to have a job tomorrow."

Once, as a supervisor, she listened to a recording of a call that had been made to an agent working at home, answering calls from customers for DirecTV. “DirecTV had a policy, you never hung up on a customer, ever. You simply weren't allowed to, no matter what they said." (ProPublica interviewed another agent who also understood this to be the case.)

“There was a guy who called in and masturbated on the phone. It was awful. … Just imagine being a woman in your office in your home, alone. And here's this guy doing this, and it takes you a few minutes to figure out what that sound is, and when you do you're horrified, and you don't know what to do. All you know is, you're not allowed to hang up the phone. That would be horrible. I felt so terrible for her."

The agent, crying, asked if she could quit for the day without an attendance infraction. “We had the recorded call, it's not like it was ever in doubt. My boss was a man, at first he didn't understand why that was an issue." He didn't understand why the agent was so troubled. “I had to go to HR to get them to explain to him why it was an issue." Only then could the agent stop taking calls.

Convergys was acquired by Concentrix in 2018. Concentrix said it does not disclose details about current or former staff out of respect for their confidentiality, but said in a statement: “We recognize that the work-at-home environment isn't foreveryone. … We take the health and safety of our staff very seriously and do not have a no hang-up policy. Our staff are given extensive training to manage each interaction with techniques to deflect anddiffusesituations should they arise. If subjected to harassment or abuse they are trained and empowered to end the conversation." (See Concentrix'sfull statement.)

DirecTV told us: “The allegations are disturbing. We suggest you contact the agent's employer." In a written statement, the company said: “We don't tolerate, and we don't expect our vendors to tolerate, harassment of any kind. We have policies and procedures in place for our employees to escalate inappropriate customer interactions and the ability to terminate any customer interaction if and when that becomes necessary." A DirecTV spokesperson said in a phone call that “to the best of our knowledge," the company has not ever had a no-hang-up policy.

Agent Taking Calls for Home Depot

She's in her 60s and wanted a work-from-home job to keep her family safe during the pandemic. She saw a company called Arise Virtual Solutions mentioned online, but she was skeptical. She would be an independent contractor, required to absorb substantial startup costs. (ProPublica's previous article on customer service noted that Arise's agents often spend more than $1,000 on training and equipment.)

Then she saw Bob Wells, a real-life nomad featured in the movie “Nomadland," talking about Arise on YouTube. She decided to give it a chance. “I was like, 'I need work.' … I'd kind of given up on finding something more legit, frankly, because of the pandemic. So it was a pandemic Band-Aid for me."

She answered calls from customers for Home Depot. One, a nurse's aide, had ordered a portable toilet for a client. “This woman was like, 'I have a 90-year-old lady who needs this thing like, yesterday, and you haven't delivered it for three weeks, what is your problem?'" To the agent, this was urgent. “When it became a humanitarian issue, and there were plenty of humanitarian issues, especially during the pandemic," she would send the matter to people above her, who would then send it to Home Depot to do something. The customer's problem might then be resolved. “But my stats would go down," she said, because she hadn't resolved the matter herself. (She shared Arise's performance metrics with us.)

On days when the phone didn't stop ringing — and there were many — she couldn't step away from her desk. “I had a bottle I kept under my desk in case I had to urinate. I never used it, but I had it there if I needed it. I'm in my 60s. … There could be an emergency."

The work was isolating. She joined Facebook groups (and provided screenshots to ProPublica) and began to talk with other frustrated agents. She realized she was among the few white women in her work cohort. And she realized customers were nicer to her — an immigrant with a British accent. “When I first came to this country, I couldn't believe people could tell the color of a person over the phone. That was a culture shock. ... When people are calling in, I think they find it easier to yell at a Black woman. … I'm not the most evolved person, but I began to look at the work through a racial lens. ... I answered the phone, and there were people who called, and right at the beginning of the call, they were full of white-hot rage." Then they would hear her accent. “Well, the amount of comments I got from people who were like, 'Wow, they've got classy people here!' … I was born in a British colony. People think I'm a butler or a classy servant."

Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith told us the company uses an escalation process designed to help agents handle difficult calls. “If a customer becomes irate or disrespectful, we ask the associate to either have their supervisor take over the call or transfer the call to the resolution queue," she said. Agents who use this process are not supposed to be penalized, she said. (Read Home Depot's full statement.)

Arise provided us with a statement about itsnetwork of agents, whom it callsservice partners. “Arise does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind," the statement said. “Service Partners interacting with individual customers through the Arise® Platform are protected by both client and Arise policies and processes that include the ability to disconnect callers without penalty or transfer these calls to support resources if they are unable to de-escalate the situation." (Read Arise's full statement.)

Agent Taking Video Calls and Chats for TurboTax

Mara M. was a hairstylist and cosmetology teacher when her health began worsening. “Probably in about 2015, I started sleeping a lot. Any time I would stand up I would get really dizzy, really lightheaded. One of the requirements to teach hair is to be able to stand. I couldn't stand up. It was a walker and wheelchair for me. … I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome."

Mara eventually discovered Concentrix, a global customer service outsourcing company, while searching for work-from-home jobs on Indeed.com. She signed on at age 23, hoping she might be matched with a company that sold beauty products.

At her orientation three weeks later, Mara learned which account — that is, which of Concentrix's corporate clients — she would be matched with. She would be working part time, doing video calls and live chats for Intuit. She would be helping people use TurboTax.

Mara didn't have an office. But she did have a closet. So she turned her closet into an office. (She sent us photographs.) “They sent me a blue screen to put behind my chair," she says. That way, customers wouldn't know she was working from home, much less from inside her closet. She bought a computer, a monitor, a headset.

“We were not supposed to hang up. … You're supposed to hear them out, then empathize with them, then acknowledge that the problem was made. I had tried all that. They say, you know, apologize, but the people stay angry."

One customer called her, moaning. “I was very uncomfortable. I couldn't tell if he was sick; I couldn't tell if he was watching porn in the background. I just tried to get through the guy's questions." Afterward she told a friend that she thought the man on the other end of the line had been masturbating. (The friend confirmed this conversation.)

She learned that agents were monitored. “We had a webcam, and [the monitors] can see you through the webcam. … I'm not sure how often you were watched. But the trainer did say you should shut down your computer after your shift because they can still see you. I was like, that's really Big Brother. … That freaked me out because I spend a lot of time in my room." And she learned there were no built-in breaks for part-timers. “You can't step away when you're on the clock." She said it felt confining, like her closet was a prison cell.

She struggled to answer questions about complicated tax forms. She would Google for answers in a different window while trying to look confident to the customer, who could see her on the video call. “I had a nightmare so bad that I'd wake up at 6 in the morning over this job. I cried. I'm a sensitive person, so a lot of people probably wouldn't have cried. … I didn't know what I was doing. … I was like, 'I finally have a job, but I don't know what the answers are.'"

Mara didn't feel like she could quit. For the most part, she said, her metrics were high. But customers weren't responding to survey questions about her performance. And her lowest score was her “doc rate" — documentation rate — which penalizes agents for not closing out a chat with a customer. They get credit only when a customer says, “Yes, you have answered all my questions."

“Some people don't answer back after they get the answers they need. For those types of chats and everything, we couldn't close those cases. My doc rate dropped because ... I couldn't close the case on some of them."

Eventually, Concentrix emailed to say that TurboTax wanted her off the account, citing “a review of stats … done over the weekend." (Mara shared copies of the exchange with ProPublica.)

“I do apologize for the inconvenience," a Concentrix representative wrote. “Please feel free to apply for other Concentrix accounts!"

Intuit told us agents are “provided training to end calls with customers should they encounter abusive or threatening behavior." Its statement also said that Intuit establishes performance standards with vendors such as Concentrix: “Vendors — not Intuit — are responsible for ensuring those workers they engage to support Intuit's customers or our account meet those standards." (Read the full statement.)

Concentrix, which said it does not disclose details about current or former staff, told us, “We take the health and safety of our staff very seriously and do not have a no hang-up policy." (See Concentrix's full statement.)

There's a looming economic risk that could trigger the next financial crisis

by Garth Heutel, Georgia State University; Givi Melkadze, Georgia State University, and Stefano Carattini, Georgia State University

In 2008, as big banks began failing across Wall Street and the housing and stock markets crashed, the nation saw how crucial financial regulation is for economic stability – and how quickly the consequences can cascade through the economy when regulators are asleep at the wheel.

Today, there's another looming economic risk: climate change. Once again, how much it harms economies will depend a lot on how financial regulators and central banks react.

Climate change's impact on economies isn't always obvious. Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, identified a series of climate change-related risks in 2015 that could shake the financial system. The rising costs of extreme weather, lawsuits against companies that have contributed to climate change and the falling value of fossil fuel assets could all have an impact.

Nobel Prize-winning U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz agrees. In a recent interview, he argued that the impact of a sharp rise in carbon prices – which governments charge companies for emitting climate-warming greenhouse gases – could trigger another financial crisis, this time starting with the fossil fuel industry, its suppliers and the banks that finance them, which could spill over into the broader economy.

Our research as environmental economists and macroeconomists confirms that both the effects of climate change and some of the policies necessary to stop it could have important implications for financial stability, if preemptive measures are not undertaken. Public policies addressing, after years of delay, the fossil fuel emissions that are driving climate change could devalue energy companies and cause investments held by banks and pension funds to tank, as would abrupt changes in consumer habits.

The good news is that regulators have the ability to address these risks and clear the way to safely implement ambitious climate policy.

Climate-stress-testing banks

First, regulators can require banks to publicly disclose their risks from climate change and stress-test their ability to manage change.

The Biden administration recently introduced an executive order on climate-related financial risk, with the goal of encouraging U.S. companies to evaluate and publicly disclose their exposure to climate change and to future climate policies.

In the United Kingdom, large companies already have to disclose their carbon footprints, and the U.K. is pushing to have all major economies follow its lead.

The European Commission also proposed new rules for companies to report on climate and sustainability in their investment decisions across a broad swath of industries in its new Sustainable Finance Strategy released on July 6, 2021. This strategy builds on a previous plan for sustainable growth from 2018.

Carbon disclosure represents a crucial ingredient for “climate stress tests," evaluations that gauge how well-prepared banks are for potential shocks from climate change or from climate policy. For example, a recent study by the Bank of England determined that banks were unprepared for a carbon price of US$150 per ton, which it determined would be necessary by the end of the decade to meet the international Paris climate agreement's goals.

The European Central Bank is conducting stress tests to assess the resilience of its economy to climate risks. In the United States, the Federal Reserve recently established the Financial Stability Climate Committee with similar objectives in mind.

Monetary and financial policy solutions

Central banks and academics have also proposed several ways to address climate change through monetary policy and financial regulation.

One of these methods is “green quantitative easing," which, like quantitative easing used during the recovery from the 2008 recession, involves the central bank buying financial assets to inject money into the economy. In this case, it would buy only assets that are “green," or environmentally responsible. Green quantitative easing could potentially encourage investment in climate-friendly projects and technologies such as renewable energy, though researchers have suggested that the effects might be short-lived.

A second policy proposal is to modify existing regulations to recognize the risks that climate change poses to banks. Banks are usually subject to minimum capital requirements to ensure banking sector stability and mitigate the risk of financial crises. This means that banks must hold some minimum amount of liquid capital in order to lend.

Incorporating environmental factors in these requirements could improve banks' resilience to climate-related financial risks. For instance, a “brown-penalizing factor" would require higher capital requirements on loans extended to carbon-intensive industries, discouraging banks from lending to such industries.

Broadly, these existing proposals have in common the goal of reducing economy-wide carbon emissions and simultaneously reducing the financial system's exposure to carbon-intensive sectors.

The Bank of Japan announced a new climate strategy on July 16, 2021, that includes offering no-interest loans to banks lending to environmentally friendly projects, supporting green bonds and encouraging banks to disclosure their climate risk.

The Federal Reserve has begun to study these policies, and it has created a panel focused on developing a climate stress test.

Lessons from economists

Often, policymaking trails scientific and economic debates and advancements. With financial regulation of climate risks, however, it is arguably the other way around. Central banks and governments are proposing new policy tools that have not been studied for very long.

A few research papers released within the last year provide a number of important insights that can help guide central banks and regulators.

They do not all reach the same conclusions, but a general consensus seems to be that financial regulation can help address large-scale economic risks that abruptly introducing a climate policy might create. One paper found that if the climate policy is implemented gradually, the economic risks can be small and financial regulation can manage them.

Financial regulation can also help accelerate the transition to a cleaner economy, research shows. One example is subsidizing lending to climate-friendly industries while taxing lending to polluting industries. But financial regulation alone will not be enough to effectively address climate change.

Central banks will have roles to play as countries try to manage climate change going forward. In particular, prudent financial regulation can help prevent barriers to the kind of aggressive policies that will be necessary to slow climate change and protect the environments our economies were built for.The Conversation

Garth Heutel, Associate Professor of Economics, Georgia State University; Givi Melkadze, Assistant Professor of Economics, Georgia State University, and Stefano Carattini, Assistant Professor in Economics, Georgia State University

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

The U.S. must bolster retraining for workers harmed by unfair trade

When Goodyear closed its Tennessee manufacturing facility and laid off Ray Spangler about a decade ago, he moved his shell-shocked family about 330 miles so he could take a job at the company's Gadsden, Alabama, plant.

Goodyear shut that plant as well last year, after shifting most of the work to Mexico, leaving Spangler with the agonizing question of whether to relocate again.

In the end, he opted to use a federal retraining program, Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for Workers, to build a future in Gadsden.

Thousands of Americans find themselves in Spangler's shoes each year, victims of bad trade and corporate greed, and so Democrats in the House and Senate want to strengthen the program and provide more of the resources these workers need to start over.

However, the clock is ticking. On July 1, the most recent version of TAA expired, limiting assistance for those not already in the program. Congress needs to act as quickly as possible to ensure help is available when workers need it.

"It's life-saving," Spangler, a former member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12L, said of the TAA program that's covering his tuition, supplies, and other expenses while he studies electronics technology at Wallace State Community College near his home. "Other people need to have access to it."

TAA enables workers to chart new paths forward when they lose their jobs because of bad trade.

In some cases, as with Spangler and his coworkers, corporations shift jobs and production to countries with low wages, weak labor standards and lax environmental laws. Goodyear moved work from Gadsden to a plant in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and pays workers there just a few dollars an hour.

Other times, foreign countries illegally subsidize the production of aluminum, electronics, paper, steel, tires and other goods, and then dump the items in the United States at below-market prices. American manufacturers cannot compete on this uneven playing field, and so U.S. workers lose their livelihoods.

TAA pays for postsecondary education, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and other skill-building to let workers enter new fields.

Even then, starting over isn't easy. That's why TAA also provides income supports, case management services, job search allowances, a tax credit to help cover health care premiums and other resources that workers need to rebound from the bad hands they're dealt.

Dozens of Spangler's former coworkers leveraged TAA benefits to obtain commercial driver's licenses, learn trades, and pursue degrees in education, nursing and other fields.

When Goodyear closed the Gadsden plant, Spangler wasn't sure what to do. The career tire worker thought about pursuing a job at the Goodyear facility in Topeka, Kansas, but he decided to keep his family in the Gadsden area.

TAA lets him chart the future on his terms.

"It's just preparing me for more opportunity down the road," explained Spangler, whose associate degree will enable him to work for manufacturers, power generators and communications companies, among many other employers.

He and his colleagues were among 96,000 workers across the country who became eligible for TAA during the 2020 fiscal year alone. And that figure was up 6 percent over the 2019 fiscal year, driving home the continuing threat of bad trade and the dire effects on workers, their families and communities.

Congress reauthorized TAA many times over the years, and on July 1, the most recent iteration expired, triggering an automatic reversion to an older version of the program with a smaller budget, fewer resources and restricted eligibility.

It's essential that congressional Democrats quickly move forward with proposals to implement a program even stronger than before so it can better meet the needs of workers in today's economy.

The Democrats' plans include expanding income supports, increasing the job-search allowance and health care tax credit, establishing a child-care allowance, and adding pre-apprenticeships to the list of education programs TAA will cover.

They also want to extend TAA help to additional categories of workers affected by trade, like public-sector workers whose jobs are outsourced as well as those who lose their livelihoods when disruptions in global supply chains—as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example—hurt production and sales.

"Hopefully, they keep that program and expand it to others as well," said Brian Schweitzer, formerly a negotiating steward for USW Local 94, who was among hundreds laid off when the Verso paper facility in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, idled operations amid high levels of imports last year. "Without it, I would have been scrambling."

Schweitzer, who worked in the facility shipping department for 13 years, recalled how learning about the program made an immediate difference to him and coworkers who felt "down… and worried about the future."

He initially considered selling his house and leaving town but instead decided to use TAA to enter a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning training program at Mid-State Technical College. He still has several months of study, yet already gets a steady stream of job offers from employers who cannot fill vacancies for technicians and other HVAC experts fast enough.

"I'll have this in my back pocket forever," he said of his in-demand skills.

Because of its comprehensive services and high success rate, among other reasons, TAA stands out in a nation that has long failed to provide adequate job training opportunities.

Relative to the size of its economy, the United States spends far less on worker training programs than many other industrial countries, according to one study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Congress has a chance to start reversing that trend with a significant new investment in TAA, which has proven time and again to help workers like Spangler and Schweitzer forge ahead.

"It's been very rough," Spangler said, "but it's going to pay off."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

WSJ likes ‘more money in taxpayers’ hands’ — only when they’re wealthy hands

WSJ: Two Wins for Tax Cutting in Ohio

The Wall Street Journal (7/5/21) was thrilled by an Ohio tax cut that mainly benefited the wealthy…

When Ohio's Gov. Mike DeWine signed a tax cut into law on July 1, the Wall Street Journal editorial board (7/5/21) was thrilled. It praised the Republican governor, saying he "lower[ed] income-tax rates for all Ohio taxpayers."

While this is technically true, it's also misleading. Average Ohioans get virtually nothing from the tax cut. The Dayton Daily News (7/4/21) thus advised its readers not to get too excited:

Hold off on popping open some fancy champagne—the money you save might not be enough to buy the bottle. The savings for a taxpayer with a taxable income of $50,000 a year is estimated at $34.

Compare that to the windfall to be enjoyed by Ohio's wealthiest. The average member of Ohio's 1% makes $1.45 million annually, and will receive a tax cut of $5,400. The top 5% get 58% of the benefits, and the bottom 80% receive an average cut of just $43. Unsurprisingly, the Wall Street Journal editorial board omits these crucial facts from their analysis, defending the tax cuts on the grounds that they will "leav[e] more money in taxpayers' hands."

WSJ: Didn't States Say They Were Broke?

…but New Jersey tax rebates targeted to the poor and middle class are "sending checks to buy votes" (Wall Street Journal, 6/30/21).

If that's the case, then the editorial board should also love what Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is doing in New Jersey: His most recent budget includes $500 tax rebates for parents making under $150,000. You might call that "leaving more money in taxpayers' hands," and assume the editorial board would be in favor. But you would be wrong.

Instead, the board (6/30/21) smeared the rebates and other social-welfare spending as an attempt to "buy votes." But New Jersey is a deeply blue state where Murphy won his last election by more than 14 percentage points. The next general election is this November—a race rated "Solid D" by the Cook Political Report. Polls show Murphy heavily leading his Republican opponent, Jack Ciatterelli, in a state Joe Biden carried by 16 points. In short, Democrats don't need to "buy" votes in New Jersey. They already have plenty.

More important, though, is the framing. When government helps the working and middle class, it's tantamount to corruption. Buying votes, after all, would be blatant electoral fraud. But when bought-and-paid-for politicians enact big giveaways to the ultrawealthy, the Wall Street Journal applauds them and considers their actions exemplary. It's clear where their sympathies lie: not with all taxpayers, or even the majority of them—just a select few.

How monopoly was invented to demonstrate the evils of capitalism

'Buy land – they aren't making it any more,' quipped Mark Twain. It's a maxim that would certainly serve you well in a game of Monopoly, the bestselling board game that has taught generations of children to buy up property, stack it with hotels, and charge fellow players sky-high rents for the privilege of accidentally landing there.

The game's little-known inventor, Elizabeth Magie, would no doubt have made herself go directly to jail if she'd lived to know just how influential today's twisted version of her game has turned out to be. Why? Because it encourages its players to celebrate exactly the opposite values to those she intended to champion.

Born in 1866, Magie was an outspoken rebel against the norms and politics of her times. She was unmarried into her 40s, independent and proud of it, and made her point with a publicity stunt. Taking out a newspaper advertisement, she offered herself as a 'young woman American slave' for sale to the highest bidder. Her aim, she told shocked readers, was to highlight the subordinate position of women in society. 'We are not machines,' she said. 'Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition.'

In addition to confronting gender politics, Magie decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership – this time not through a publicity stunt but in the form of a board game. The inspiration began with a book that her father, the anti-monopolist politician James Magie, had handed to her. In the pages of Henry George's classic, Progress and Poverty (1879), she encountered his conviction that 'the equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence'.

Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land's value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature's gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighbourhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.

Determined to prove the merit of George's proposal, Magie invented and in 1904 patented what she called the Landlord's Game. Laid out on the board as a circuit (which was a novelty at the time), it was populated with streets and landmarks for sale. The key innovation of her game, however, lay in the two sets of rules that she wrote for playing it.

Under the 'Prosperity' set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George's policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the 'Monopolist' set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a 'practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences' and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes. 'It might well have been called “The Game of Life",' remarked Magie, 'as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seems to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.'

The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

Once the game's true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie's patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game's inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly's implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.

So next time someone invites you to join a game of Monopoly, here's a thought. As you set out piles for the Chance and Community Chest cards, establish a third pile for Land-Value Tax, to which every property owner must contribute each time they charge rent to a fellow player. How high should that land tax be? And how should the resulting tax receipts be distributed? Such questions will no doubt lead to fiery debate around the Monopoly board – but then that is exactly what Magie had always hoped for.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kate Raworth is a senior visiting research associate at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and a senior associate at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. She is the author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (2017). She lives in Oxford.

What the cult classic 'Point Break' can teach us about capitalism

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the cult classic Point Break follows Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), an FBI agent who infiltrates a band of bank-robbing surfers led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Though Johnny is undercover, he gets romantically entangled with Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) and comes to see the spiritual side of the group's lifestyle—beyond surfing, partying and chasing an endless summer. But when Johnny's cover is blown, the situation spirals out of control leading to the demise of the Ex-Presidents, the death of Johnny's partner (Gary Busey) and Johnny throwing away his badge.

As a child in the 90s, Point Break was an exciting procedural drama. The surfing, bank-robbery, sky-diving, explosions, romance and betrayal made it one of my favorite films of all time. What I found the most endearing was the relationship between Johnny and Bodhi. They are opposites but both contain bits of the other—Johnny a hotshot who craves more freedom and Bodhi a free-spirit guru who provides the structure for his group. Tyler tells Johnny that he and Bodhi share the same "kamikaze" look.

My adult-eyes see the political commentary of the film—specifically the tensions of toeing the line between anti-state and anti-capitalist critiques, and its reasserting of these things.

Though "young, dumb and full of cum" Johnny is more clean-cut, he and Bodhi share an Icarus complex. Bodhi chases the high through surfing, Johnny chases it through playing the hero and catching bad guys. I enjoyed how Point Break highlighted the yin and yang, push and pull, between Johnny and Bodhi, even down to ostensibly small details (for example, in the final scene at the beach, we see that Johnny has grow his hair surfer-long while Bodhi cut his short to a more "professional" length).

Watching Point Break during the Covid-19 pandemic adds renewed intensity to the film's messages. Millions of Covid-19-related deaths around the world have forced us to wrestle with our mortality. Being stuck at home, we've slowed down enough to collectively ponder what we want to do with our lives. Even in the midst of economic hardship, people are leaving their jobs or refusing to take positions they don't truly enjoy. It's hard to watch Point Break without thinking that we should be more like Bodhi—living free and searching for what truly inspires us sans the bank-robbery.

But 30 years later, my adult-eyes also see the political and philosophical commentary of the film—specifically the tensions Point Break has in toeing the line between anti-establishment, anti-state and anti-capitalist critiques, and its reasserting of these things. In some ways, these surfers reject one cage for another—the mundane, often unfulfilling and sedentary, life of the worker for the adrenaline-filled endless run.

Bodhi and his friends rob banks dressed as the ex-presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jim Carter. The business suits and rubber masks are satirical—the contrast between their carefree surfer lifestyle and the oppression of politicians and their corporate partners. In one scene, Bodhi, wearing the Reagan mask, jumps on the counter to introduce the Ex-Presidents, yelling "We've been screwing you for years, so a few more seconds shouldn't matter, now should it?"

It's interesting to see Bodhi take the lead as Ronald Reagan, who in many ways is the antithesis of everything he and his crew stand for. Though it was released in 1991, the film's development started in 1986 while President Reagan, a key figure in adopting neoliberalism as the dominant social and economic reality of the United States, was in office. Free market reforms, hyper-individualism and the defunding of public institutions placed all the ills of society and the burden to correct them on the individual. The Ex-Presidents see this theft of life and liberty as a non-partisan pursuit, as the four presidents are split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) says that its "us against the system, the system that kills the human spirit" while becoming a part of the system. Bank-robbery could be seen as subversive on its face, but it further justifies the force of the state.

Bodhi's crew are resentful of politicians whose greed, corruption and fealty to capital flatten the worth of humans down to their economic worth. By robbing banks, they are punching back against the parasitic overlords of Washington and Wall Street controlling the lives of the commoners, who are confined to work their life away doing a job they don't like while someone else enjoys the fruit of their labor. Bank-robbery and their surfer lifestyle reinforce each other as a rejection of the status quo.

But ironically, the Ex-Presidents accept the free-market, dog-eat-dog logic of the system they purportedly oppose. Phrases like, "Why be a servant to the law when you can be its master?" from Bodhi give up the game. Instead of fighting against forms of hierarchy, Bodhi merely means to reconstruct it for himself. The audience is told the Ex-Presidents are a group with no leaders, yet Bodhi is clearly the figurehead in their mini-corporate structure. What he says goes, no more or no less than a governor or CEO. Bodhi asserts that its "us against the system, the system that kills the human spirit" while, in a sense, becoming a part of the system. Bank-robbery could be seen as subversive on its face, but it further justifies the force of the state. The Ex-Presidents are merely replacing greed that oppresses with greed that liberates, which ultimately accepts the logic of the system. Ultimately, they reject the means, but not the ends.

This reminds me of Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism in which capitalism has become so ingrained in culture we can't imagine alternatives. Bodhi and the Ex-Presidents fail to recognize the paradox, where, to borrow Fisher's words, "even success meant failure, since to succeed would only mean that you were the new meat on which the system could feed." In this sense, the importance of money is not dismissed, but rather, recouped from the onset. The crew reject the expectations of society (working a nine-to-five, settling into suburban life, starting a nuclear family), and yet accept (more fully than the average worker) the power money has in providing them the life they want.

To reference Slavoj Žižek, the Ex-Presidents maintain a cynical distance between their beliefs and actions—the world has made them justifiably cynical yet their misdeeds aim to reflect it back at the world, not dismantle the system producing cynicism. They aren't Robin Hoods. They're in it for themselves. Their aim is not redistribution, but accumulation. To repurpose Fisher's paraphrase of Žižek, the group, like so many of us in a capitalist society, disavows the idea that money is worth more than humans, yet they treat money as if it "has a holy value. Moreover, this behavior precisely depends upon the prior disavowal—we are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads."

Point Break's ending is tragic for literal and metaphorical reasons: Bodhi (short for Bodhisattva, or someone walking the path toward enlightenment) dies riding a massive, un-rideable wave. But for him, purpose and money become synonymous. It's comedic that the guru never stopped to ponder this disconnect. Johnny realizes he no longer wants to be an agent of the state (which he only became because his NFL dreams were shattered) after seeing or taking part in the deaths of several people.

Point Break sets up a binary, two sides of a never-ending game.

But Bodhi was right about one thing: in this game, we all lose.

New York throws a parade -- and essential workers say ‘Fuhgettaboutit!’

New York City threw essential workers a ticker tape parade along the canyon of heroes last week. And somehow, Gotham's gilded oligarchs were spared the unsavory sight of marchers in matching "I Saved Your Asses From COVID-19 And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" gear.

Exhausted healthcare workers along with their counterparts in children's services, transportation, retail and other frontline sectors appeared too giddy about surviving the one-time epicenter of Covid and putting the worst of the ongoing pandemic behind them to pass up a well-deserved shot at the biggest block party NYC has to offer. Marching together, workers knew they deserved all the accolades the tired town could muster.

Yet even this most forgiving atmosphere where heaps of blue and orange confetti were periodically blasted from the backs of municipal pickup trucks couldn't obscure the level of worker resentment and anger roiling just beneath the highly produced pomp and pageantry.

Parade placards declaring, "Not All Heroes Wear Capes" and "Our Labor Saved Lives" carried an edge. Hearst drivers, embalmers and cemetery staffers made room on their proud banner for an impromptu "FDNY EMS Fair Pay Now!" sign.

As much as he would've liked, hapless outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio still couldn't get everybody on a float.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' District Council 37 [DC 37, AFSME] — the largest public employees union in New York City with some 150,000 members — told Hizzoner just what they thought of his self-serving party by simply not showing up.

Other unions joining DC 37 in its parade boycott, including those representing the Fire Department's Bureau of Emergency Medical Services [EMS] as well as the United Probation Officers Association [UPOA], also had no stomach for the naked hypocrisy of patting bone-weary workers on the back while at the same time continuing to deny them fundamentals including pay parity, early retirement and a fair contract.

Fair Labor Contracts

"If the mayor wants to celebrate the frontline city workers who put their health and safety on the line to keep New York running at the height of the pandemic, he can start by ensuring every city worker has a fair contract that pays a living wage," the UPOA said in a statement.

Just a week before the "Hometown Heroes" parade, some 200 retired city workers took to the streets of lower Manhattan to protest a secretive backroom deal swapping out their Medicare healthcare plans with private Medicare Advantage ones costing them thousands of dollars a year.

"I worked 34 years," retired special education teacher and United Federation of Teachers [UFT] member Gloria Brandman said at the scene. "I was promised Medicare and supplements paid for by the city."

Still Waiting

Nationwide, frontline workers who risked all throughout the pandemic are still waiting for fundamental job protections, vital healthcare coverage, a $15 an hour minimum wage, the right to organize and enforceable workplace safety standards to protect them against the further spread of Covid and its emerging variants.

What they are getting instead is an economic ass-whooping consisting of stagnant wages, vanishing unemployment benefits and rising consumer prices.

The sweet confections baked into ticker tape parades and the like are meant to distract from all that pain and suffering while the country's elite continue to gorge themselves on the $1.6 trillion they've amassed during the pandemic.

In Detroit, for instance, the city's essential workers are being feted to "Thank You Tuesdays" at Comerica [Bank] Park, where home game festivities include special scoreboard shoutouts and base pads reading, "Thank You Frontline Heroes."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, meanwhile, declared June 17, "Essential Worker Appreciation Day" and called on the feds to issue a one-shot bonus for frontline workers.

Liz Hanbidge, a state representative from Harrisburg, Pa., went even further this past spring, introducing a resolution in her state's General Assembly designating 2020 as "Frontline Workers Appreciation Year."

At least Hanbindge backed up the empty accolades with a proposal requiring large businesses to extend hazard pay to essential workers, along with a few other limited pro-worker measures including one offering supplemental payments to frontline workers still earning less than $15 an hour.

But elected officials aren't exactly shutting down traffic or breaking out the yellow vests in order to get working men and women in this country what they need for themselves and their families.

Embattled Governor

Back in New York, where embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo is doing his best to create his own blue collar bone fides with a problematic new monument at Manhattan's Battery Park dedicated to essential workers, it's much the same thing.

Ahead of the July 7, "Hometown Heroes" parade, City Council Member Margaret Chin expressed her "hope" that "many eyes" have been opened during the pandemic about the "value of these [essential] jobs."

"As the city reopens we must continue to respect and advocate for these workers," the lawmaker, who represents many parts of lower Manhattan including Battery Park City, declared.

As we say in NYC — "That, and $2.75 will get me on the subway."

Hopes and prayers are nothing in the face of an oligarchic onslaught machine that exists to keep exploited farmworkers hidden and out of sight; hard-pressed Amazon employees too exhausted and afraid to raise their heads; and pretty much everyone else in the good 'ol USA in a permanent somnambulistic stupor.

Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and other vaunted captains of industry are among the few who always have their eyes wide open.

When the monied interests oppose unionization, livable wages and universal healthcare — they know it's not about the Benjamins. These economic royalists know it's all about preserving their lofty perches by continuing to deprive working men and women of economic autonomy, strength and power.

Of course, Bezos and the rest of the oligarchic elite have more than enough money to pay workers better wages and benefits [for crying out loud, they're shooting themselves into outer space]. What they absolutely can't afford, however, is to lift their boots off our necks. Not even a little bit.

Public exhibitions and monuments like the ones popping up during the vaccination rollout have always been very powerful tools — whether created to instill particular narratives in the minds of the masses favorable to the ruling elite or making the masses believe the ruling elite actually cares about the concerns of workers.

That statue of Robert E. Lee that recently came down in Charlottesville, Va., was erected a-hundred-some-odd-years-ago with a clear-eyed purpose. In this case, to obscure the ugly fact that the Civil War was fought to perpetuate slavery and not at all about protecting "states rights," "honoring southern heritage," or any other such nonsense.

And despite the genuine earnestness of the participants, Mayor Muriel Bowser's decision to allow "BLACK LIVES MATTER" to be painted on 16th Street in Washington, DC also sought to accomplish the ruling elite's aim of placating the masses without, you know, actually doing anything to stop fascist police from murdering unarmed Black and Brown people.

Either way, it seems like you still can't go wrong with a statue or parade if you want to try and keep the working class in check.

The real source of the American housing crisis

We need more housing.

We need more luxury housing.

We need more affordable housing.

We need all of it.

The US has always thought about housing backward. In spite of overwhelming, empirical evidence showing that housing is a key metric to building a stable, thriving society, affordable housing is considered a burden, as opposed to a foundation. Providing affordable housing is the most cost-effective way for a society to increase economic mobility, reduce intergenerational poverty and reduce childhood poverty.

If you don't think providing affordable housing is the right thing to do (which, morally, it is, as a human and an American), then know it's also the economically smart thing to do. Providing a floor bolsters growth at significant levels. Without access to affordable housing, it's estimated that American families lost $1.6 trillion in increased wages and productivity, roughly 13 percent of economic activity, from 1960 to 2010. This is society-changing money that spurs local economies, job retention and private-market stability. It's a win-win for all involved unless your business is exploiting misfortune.

Unfortunately, right now, there's a shortage of 6.8 million affordable homes in the US, with zero of 50 states having an adequate affordable supply, and with very few even meeting half their demand. Five hundred thousand Americans are homeless at any point in time. As the richest country in the history of the world, this is a national disgrace. We literally have billionaires going to space for a few seconds just for fun.

So … Why don't we have more housing?

The US has a complicated, shortsighted perspective. Ideologically, Republicans have been opposed to any affordable housing, but in practice Democrat-controlled cities are not much better. One reason we aren't building enough affordable housing is because we also aren't building enough market-rate housing in population-dense areas.

Cue the NIMBYs. Short for "Not In My Backyard," this is a generational carryover from age-old euphemisms for white supremacy on the right, and the height of performative activism on the left. You know the type: "I support housing for the poor but … Not In My Backyard." NIMBY culture is generally flooded with people who love the advantages of being at an urban center of migration, particularly the rising value of their property and often grandfathered tax rates, but it does not want any changes a city would need to support its growing population. In short, NIMBYs block public transportation to connect lower-income neighborhoods. They block entertainment that doesn't fit their demographic. And most notably, they block denser housing.

Over 20 years, the NIMBY approach has slowed community cohesion. New people who migrate for jobs have a harder time laying down roots. It depresses upward mobility of lower-income residents (and their kids). It undermines the sense of community in neighborhoods. In most cities, this downward pressure on macro development increases commute times, rents, turnover, resources and congestion.

The pandemic was an inflection point.

Now that remote work is possible for a vast majority of middle-high income workers, housing opportunities in other locations have became destinations to establish roots. Roots in communities whose houses were significantly less expensive, buying up twice the house with twice the land for half the price. Most pandemic moves were in-state, people flocking to towns a few hours away from the cities they lived in. The problem is that we didn't actually increase the housing supply. It just skimmed demand from one area and dumped it on another. This will probably change the tax base and housing markets of those towns without changing the influx of income opportunities for the residents there. High-income earners flooding the markets of lower markets, driving up the cost of living without pairing it with local opportunity. There are a multitude of factors that could help with this, but one of the largest and clearest is more housing.

There are a few markets that have phenomenal housing plans in play whose core ideas we could, and should, adopt. One of the most successful is Singapore. It has world-renowned, sprawling public housing cities that are master designed to be convenient and green, and that prioritize the physical and mental health of their residents. While the city-state's stance on LGBTQ-plus rights is abysmal, its housing policy is sound.

Would Singapore's approach work here? Not in the same way, but there are significant lessons to be learned about investing in denser areas of the country: Rejuvenation is vital. Reinvigorating and updating community spaces is required. Proximity to other communities, to family, to different income levels and to public transit. We need long-term investment in food, housing, education and shelter. It is in a country's best interest to invest in a national infrastructure that allows its citizens to thrive.

Over the next 20 years, the US has a chance to change the landscape for generations.

But we need more housing.

More affordable housing.

More luxury housing.

More.

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