Friday, December 18, 2009

The trauma of joblessness: who is evil?

On November 8, 2009, the New York Times began its 98th “Neediest Cases” campaign, to raise funds for charities that help New Yorkers who are in real financial hardship. This year, however, the results of the New York Times / CBS News Poll published in the Times on December 14, 2009 as “Poll reveals trauma of joblessness in US” by Michael Luo and Megan Thee-Brenan, document a much more widespread problem, across the US. In addition to the very disturbing data presented, the article, and even more the video clips available on line, put a face on these numbers, and the face is that not only of those in chronic poverty, unemployment and homelessness (who, it must absolutely be remembered, are those who are suffering the greatest negative effects of this “recession”), but of a more traditional working-and-middle class group. Fear of falling out of their social class, whether formerly upper-middle, middle, or working class, is a major concern documented in this poll and discussed on Michael Luo’s Economix blog on the same day.

Some of the data revealed by the poll:
· 60% have taken money from savings and retirement accounts for daily expenses
· 53% have borrowed money from family and friends
· 46% feel embarrassed or ashamed about being out of work

Since this blog is often about medicine, some medically-related data:
69% are more stressed, 55% have trouble sleeping, and 48% have experienced emotional or mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

And they will find it more difficult to receive help for these problems, since:
54% have cut back on doctor’s visits and medical treatments, and
47% are currently without some form of health care coverage.

The Times article says that “Americans struggling with job loss say unemployment has created a crisis in their lives and is exacting a crushing financial and emotional toll.” That seems correct, although not ‘right’, a word I almost used.

It is difficult to not find the contrast with the articles on the huge banks (JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo) that are paying back the government’s TARP loans (e.g., “Wells Fargo to repay US, a coda to the bailout era”, New York Times December 15), to free them from the onerous burden of government regulation, such as limits on the outrageous salaries and bonuses that they can pay themselves, or the requirement that they actually loan money to credit-worthy businesses (especially small businesses) and individuals. For the bankers, I guess, the recession is over; the payback, in the word used in the article’s title, is a “coda” (“something coming after or at the end”, from the Latin “cauda”, tail). For those small business and individuals, as well as for the unemployed described in the poll, it is obviously not. And, if the bankers don’t feel secure enough to lend out money, why should they? They had to borrow all that money (“raise capital”) to pay off TARP, and to pay their executives. Sorry there’s none left to loan to you, to keep your business afloat and a few more workers off the unemployment line. (Of course, since the Clinton-era “welfare reform” we no longer have to watch folks on “relief lines”. There are none, because there is no relief.)

David Brooks’ Op-Ed column on December 15, 2009, “Obama’s Christian realism”, suggests that the president, more than his predecessors, has a moral framework that frankly includes “good and evil”. Focusing mainly on the President’s war policy, as enunciated in his West Point and Oslo (Peace prize!) speeches, Brooks essentially calls him a “cold-war liberal”, a label that Mr. Obama may not embrace. But certainly the President’s characterization of the bankers described above, who are not lending money, as “fat cats”, does suggest a good/evil belief system, and reinforces the sense that what we are seeing today is a frank real-world enactment of those old 19th-and-20th century pictures of evil greedy bankers, bosses, and capitalists trodding the working people under their feet. And if they, the bankers, or their apologists and flaks, want to take offense at the “class war” picture, it is their own fault, entirely; the situation, both the initial financial crisis and their current greed in the face of human suffering, is completely of their own making. (Of course, it always has been; the ruling class never complains about class war when they are not only winning, but completely unopposed. They raise the specter, however, when the least challenge to their hegemony is evident.)

Unfortunately, President Obama’s moral judgments do not seem to affect his administration’s policies, which have, molded by the Rubins and Summerses and Geithners, been unabashedly (ok, occasionally slightly abashedly, but certainly pretty completely) based on the critical nature of the success of Wall St., a far from universal opinion. For some data that supports an alternative opinion, the New Economics Foundation, a UK think tank, has a new publication, “A Bit Rich”, in which they look at the economic contribution of different jobs relative to the amount people are paid (h/t Alex Scott-Samuel, on the “Spirit of 1848” listserve). They discovered that hospital cleaners, because they prevent the spread of infection and preserve the health of the public, produce more than 10 times the value of their pay. Bankers earning over £500,000 a year (about $800,000) destroy (based on the effects of the recession on society) about £7 of value for every £1 they create.

So are the bankers evil? Maybe you have to ask the President, or David Brooks, or maybe you have your own opinion. Maybe they are just following their nature, like sharks. The question, however, is much more relevant when looking at members of Congress, especially Senators. The same folks who gave us the Bush-era $4 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and, in the health arena, a Medicare drug benefit program that was forbidden from negotiating rates with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of consumers, are at it again. They have opposed every effort to rein in the excesses of the bankers (including a proposal to limit credit card interest rates to “only” 18% -- is there any rational human being who cannot identify higher rates as pure usury?), or to extend health care benefits to Americans, who, like those studied by the Times/CBS poll, are unemployed, or the even greater group who are still working but who cannot afford or whose employers do not offer health insurance, or those who have health insurance and find out when they get sick how little it covers.

Fortunately they are now in the minority, which has helped getting some kind of health reform passed in the House. The Senate, however, is a different story; compounding its constitutionally-based unrepresentative nature (remember how the “Gang of Six” Senators formulating the Finance Committee bill represented less than 3% of the US population?*), it has rules (not constitutionally mandated) requiring “super-majorities” of 60% to end filibusters. This has allowed the group of 40 Republicans – plus Joe Lieberman – to prevent single payer from being discussed, to remove the public option from consideration, and now to remove the possibility of people over 55 from buying into Medicare. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, asked if he will vote for funds to support the troops in the middle east, says “No. I don’t want health care.” They talk about fiscal responsibility, but remember these are the same folks who pushed the enormously expensive tax cuts for the wealthy and restrictions on the Medicare drug plan mentioned above, but have treated single payer, which would not only cover everyone but save LOTS of money, as anathema.

So maybe they are hypocrites. Or maybe they are corrupt, in the thrall of the big corporations, including pharmaceutical and insurance companies, who make big contributions to them. Or, maybe, they are the ones who are evil. After all, the bankers – and insurance company and pharmaceutical company executives – (if you want to buy Milton Friedman economics) are supposed to follow their greed. Congresspeople and Senators, on the other hand, are supposed to work for the interests of the rest of us, and help, through regulation, to protect us from the power of the banks and big corporations.

But who do they actually work for? I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

*The six states that they represent rank 30, 36, 40, 44, 48, and 50 in population!

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