Weekly Audit: The Unemployment Epidemic

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

On Friday, we learned that the U.S. unemployment rate officially broke 10% for the first time since the early Reagan years. This is about as bad as it gets for a modern, developed economy. No economic force takes a heavier toll on a society than rampant joblessness, and few personal setbacks take a deeper psychological toll than being out of a job for months on end. If Congress and President Obama don't do something to create jobs fast, both are going to pay a hefty political price when next year's mid-term elections roll around.

So how bad is it? In October, the economy shed 190,000 jobs and the unemployment rate jumped from 9.8% to 10.2%. That percentage is the most optimistic reading of the labor market in Friday's report. If you take people who want full-time jobs but are settling for part-time work, then add those who have simply given up on finding a job, the rate is a massive 17.5%.

The problem is not that either Obama or Congress have failed to act on the problem, but rather that they have not done enough. When Congress was moving on Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package back in February, we were shedding upwards of 700,000 jobs a month. So the stimulus package has worked--it's probably helped keep unemployment from jumping to 12% or 13%. But this is cold comfort to the nation's 15.7 million unemployed, 5.6 million of whom have been out of a job for more than six months.

As Robert Reich notes for Salon, Obama's economic advisers dramatically underestimated how bad things would get when they crafted the stimulus package. As a result, the package was too small and unemployment has remained high. Obama needs to go back to Congress and demand more economic relief funding. Republicans will continue to whine about government spending to excuse their obstructionism, of course, and conservative Democrats will probably start sweating, too--Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) helped cut back the original stimulus bill in February to help boost his "centrist" credentials. This of course had nothing to do with economics or policy. Government spending is what saves the economy in a recession. In a downturn as severe as this one, it takes a lot of spending to turn things around.

But as Reich notes, Nelson and his cohorts will have a lot more to worry about in the 2010 elections if the economy doesn't actually improve over the next year. And few economists think it will. The Congressional Budget Office, which is run by a conservative economist named Douglas Elmendorf, projects an average unemployment rate of over 10% in 2010. That's worse than this year. Democrats from swing districts need to support economic relief packages. Continued economic malaise will severely hurt them at the polls.

Congress finally took some action on joblessness on Thursday, voting to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 14 weeks. If we want the economy to recover, we need people to spend money, but if people aren't working, they don't have any money to spend. So the government cuts people checks to help them get by and stimulate a demand for goods and services. Even most conservative economists thinks this is a good idea.

But as Kevin Drum notes for Mother Jones, the soundness of the policy did nothing to prevent Republicans from fighting the effort to extend benefits tooth-and-nail. The bill had to overcome three--that's right, three--filibusters in the Senate from Republicans, who held up the bill for weeks for no apparent reason. In a blog post for The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen explains the economic cost of this obstructionism: In the weeks of delay, 200,000 people looking for work stopped receiving benefits.

But extending unemployment benefits will not solve our economic woes. The total program is just $2.4 billion, a drop in the bucket compared to the trillions of dollars the government put up to salvage Wall Street. $2.4 billion is not enough to reverse the unemployment trend. Cutting the checks certainly helps, but as Matthew Rothschild emphasizes for The Progressive, we need an economic policy that actually puts people back to work. We've known for months that the stimulus was too small and watched the labor market continue to deteriorate. We need more than tweaks at the economic margins, we need a robust job creation plan.

As Stephen Franklin notes for Working In These Times, we already know that the recession has created a significant jump in the nation's poverty rate. According to official government statistics, the rate climbed from 12.5% to 13.2% in 2008, the largest increase since 1991. But the National Academy of Science thinks the government statistics are misleading, as they account for rising costs associated with medical care, transportation, child care and different regional living standards, as Franklin notes. Taking these factors into account, the National Academy of Sciences calculates the actual poverty rate to be 15.8%. That's an additional 7 million people living in poverty, for a total of over 47 million. That's more than the entire population of the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia metropolitan areas combined. What's worse, we don't have poverty statistics for this year, when the most severe economic damage was been dealt.

Workers are facing tough economic prospects around the world. Writing for The Nation, Kristina Rizga details Latvia's economic turmoil. Just like the US, overexcited bankers in Latvia inflated a massive real estate bubble that took down the entire economy when it burst. But with the bubble burst, much of the country is now out of a job and stuck with a mortgage worth far less than what they paid for it. It's almost exactly the same story we've seen at home.

No domestic economic problem is more pressing than our epic levels of unemployment. We need another round of stimulus to get people working again. If not, we'll see the same public unrest here as in Eastern Europe.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Weekly Pulse: Joe Lieberman and the Opt-Out Revolution

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

Progressives rejoiced when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this week that the final Senate health care bill would include a public option. The announcement was a major victory for left-wing Democrats.

Better yet, it would be a public option without a trigger. Earlier proposals called for a triggered public option which would only take effect if private insurers failed to bring down costs on their own. Under the opt-out compromise, the public option would come on line automatically (albeit not until 2013), but states would later have the option of quitting.

The jubilation was short-lived. Alex Koppelman of Salon explains:

Progressives didn't even get 24 hours to celebrate the victory they won in getting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include a version of the public option in his health care reform bill. The celebration was cut off Tuesday afternoon with the news that Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., will vote with Senate Republicans to filibuster the legislation.

The Democrats have 60 Senate votes. If they all vote for cloture, a procedural motion to stop debate, the Republicans can't filibuster the bill. The Senators who vote for cloture can still vote against the bill. Reid's strategy for passing the bill was to get all Democrats to vote for cloture and let them vote their conscience on the actual bill. Even without Lieberman, Democrats have the votes to pass the bill by majority vote if they can avoid a filibuster.

Health care is the most important domestic policy initiative of the Obama administration. Would Joe Lieberman really torpedo reform? The Senate leadership thinks Reid is bluffing, according to Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly.

I understand the argument. Lieberman loves attention and power. By threatening to join the Republican filibuster, he gets both--Democrats have to scramble to make him happy, since there's no margin for error in putting together 60 votes. Lieberman gets to feel very important for the next several weeks by making this threat less than 24 hours after Harry Reid stated his intentions, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wants to be known forever as The Senator Who Killed Health Care Reform.

I find it very easy to believe, however, that Lieberman is capable of doing just that. He left himself some wiggle room, but not when it comes to the public option--he's against it, no matter what, even with all of the compromises thrown in.


In other words, if this is all a ploy for leverage, why would Lieberman open by swearing that he won't support a bill with a public option? You'd think he'd just say he was keeping his options open and force Reid to make him a counter-offer. Reid has already decided that the public option is politically non-negotiable. He's afraid that the base won't come out for the 2012 elections if they don't get what they want. Benen speculates that Lieberman wants to be the Senator Who Killed Health Care because he wants to drum up massive Republican support for his 2012 reelection bid. On this theory, Lieberman is joining Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson (R-SC) and Balloon Dad in the quest to make bank on ridiculous publicity stunts.

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) says that she will side with the Republicans to filibuster the bill "if she has to," as Evan McMorris-Santoro reports for TPM. Snowe was the only Republican to vote for the Finance Committee's health care bill.

Reid must walk a fine line. The administration really can't afford to alienate organized labor before the 2012 elections. Newly elected AFL-CIO President Ricahrd Trumka continues to push for his three core demands for health care reform: a public option, a mechanism to make employers pay their fair share, and no taxes on health care benefits. Last week, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said that his union would oppose legislation that taxed benefits, but Trumka hasn't gone that far, as David Moberg reports at Working In These Times.

Finally, in other health-related news, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the division of the Labor Department that oversees workplace safety, has issued a sweeping new report condemning Nevada's state-level OSHA program. As I report for Working in These Times, the investigators found that NOSHA inspectors were being pressured by their superiors to write up employers on lesser charges, even when their repeat offenses killed workers.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Weekly Audit: We Welcome Our New Plutocratic Overlords

Meet the new global elite. They’re pretty much the same as the old global elite, only richer and more smug.

Laura Flanders of GritTV interviews business reporter Chrystia Freeland about her cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly on the new ruling class. She says that today’s ultra-rich are more likely to have earned their fortunes in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street than previous generations of plutocrats, who were more likely to have inherited money or established companies.

As a result, she argues, today’s global aristocracy believes itself to be the product of a meritocracy. The old sense of noblesse oblige among the ultra-rich is giving way to the attitude that if the ultra-rich could do it, everyone else should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Ironically, Freeland points out that many of the new elite got rich from government bailouts of their failed banks. It’s unclear why this counts as earning one’s fortune, or what kind of meritocracy reserves its most lavish rewards for its most spectacular failures.

Class warfare on public sector pensions

In The Nation, Eric Alterman assails the Republican-controlled Congress’s decision to scrap the popular and effective Build America Bonds program as an act of little-noticed class warfare:

These bonds, which make up roughly 20 percent of all new debt sold by states and local governments because of a federal subsidy equivalent to some 35 percent of interest costs, ended on December 31, as Republicans proved unwilling even to consider renewing them. The death of the program could prove devastating to states’ future borrowing.

Alterman notes that the states could face up to $130 billion shortfall next year. States can’t deficit spend like the federal government, which made the Build America Bonds program a lifeline to the states.

According to Alterman, Republicans want the states to run out of money so that they will be unable to pay the pensions of public sector workers. He notes that Reps. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) are also co-sponsoring a bill to force state and local governments to “recalculate” their pension obligations to public sector workers.

Divide and conquer

Kari Lydersen of Working In These Times explains how conservatives use misleading statistics to pit private sector workers against their brothers and sisters in the public sector. If the public believes that teachers, firefighters, meter readers and snowplow drivers are parasites, they’ll feel more comfortable yanking their pensions out from under them.

Hence the misleading statistic that public sector workers earn $11.90 more per hour than “comparable” private sector workers. However, when you take education and work experience into account, employees of state and local governments typically earn 11% to 12% less than private sector workers with comparable qualifications.

Public sector workers have better benefits plans, but only for as long as governments can afford to keep their contractual obligations.

Who’s screwing whom?

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is calling for a sense of perspective on public sector wages and benefits. In AlterNet he argues that the people who are really making a killing in this economy are the ultra-rich, not school teachers and garbage collectors:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers. They don’t want stories about Wall Street bonuses, now higher than before taxpayers bailed out the Street. And they’d like to avoid a spotlight on the billions raked in by hedge-fund and private-equity managers whose income is treated as capital gains and subject to only a 15 percent tax, due to a loophole in the tax laws designed specifically for them.

Signs of hope?

The economic future looks pretty bleak these days. Yes, the unemployment rate dropped to 9.4% from 9.8% in December, but the economy added only 103,000, a far cry from the 300,000 jobs economists say the economy really needs to add to pull the country out its economic doldrums.

Andy Kroll points out in Mother Jones that it will take 20 years to replace the jobs lost in this recession, if current trends continue.

Worse yet, what looks like job growth could actually be chronic unemployment in disguise. The unemployment rate is calculated based on the number of people who are actively looking for work. Kroll worries that the apparent drop in the unemployment rate could simply reflect more people giving up their job searches.

For an counterweight to the doom and gloom, check out Tim Fernholtz’s new piece in The American Prospect. He argues that the new unemployment numbers are among several hopeful signs for economic recovery in 2011. However, he stresses that his self-proclaimed rosy forecast is contingent upon avoiding several huge pitfalls, including drastic cuts in public spending.

With the GOP in Congress seemingly determined to starve the states for cash, the future might not be so rosy after all.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: We Welcome Our New Plutocratic Overlords

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Meet the new global elite. They’re pretty much the same as the old global elite, only richer and more smug.

Laura Flanders of GritTV interviews business reporter Chrystia Freeland about her cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly on the new ruling class. She says that today’s ultra-rich are more likely to have earned their fortunes in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street than previous generations of plutocrats, who were more likely to have inherited money or established companies.

As a result, she argues, today’s global aristocracy believes itself to be the product of a meritocracy. The old sense of noblesse oblige among the ultra-rich is giving way to the attitude that if the ultra-rich could do it, everyone else should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Ironically, Freeland points out that many of the new elite got rich from government bailouts of their failed banks. It’s unclear why this counts as earning one’s fortune, or what kind of meritocracy reserves its most lavish rewards for its most spectacular failures.

Class warfare on public sector pensions

In The Nation, Eric Alterman assails the Republican-controlled Congress’s decision to scrap the popular and effective Build America Bonds program as an act of little-noticed class warfare:

These bonds, which make up roughly 20 percent of all new debt sold by states and local governments because of a federal subsidy equivalent to some 35 percent of interest costs, ended on December 31, as Republicans proved unwilling even to consider renewing them. The death of the program could prove devastating to states’ future borrowing.

Alterman notes that the states could face up to $130 billion shortfall next year. States can’t deficit spend like the federal government, which made the Build America Bonds program a lifeline to the states.

According to Alterman, Republicans want the states to run out of money so that they will be unable to pay the pensions of public sector workers. He notes that Reps. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) are also co-sponsoring a bill to force state and local governments to “recalculate” their pension obligations to public sector workers.

Divide and conquer

Kari Lydersen of Working In These Times explains how conservatives use misleading statistics to pit private sector workers against their brothers and sisters in the public sector. If the public believes that teachers, firefighters, meter readers and snowplow drivers are parasites, they’ll feel more comfortable yanking their pensions out from under them.

Hence the misleading statistic that public sector workers earn $11.90 more per hour than “comparable” private sector workers. However, when you take education and work experience into account, employees of state and local governments typically earn 11% to 12% less than private sector workers with comparable qualifications.

Public sector workers have better benefits plans, but only for as long as governments can afford to keep their contractual obligations.

Who’s screwing whom?

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is calling for a sense of perspective on public sector wages and benefits. In AlterNet he argues that the people who are really making a killing in this economy are the ultra-rich, not school teachers and garbage collectors:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers. They don’t want stories about Wall Street bonuses, now higher than before taxpayers bailed out the Street. And they’d like to avoid a spotlight on the billions raked in by hedge-fund and private-equity managers whose income is treated as capital gains and subject to only a 15 percent tax, due to a loophole in the tax laws designed specifically for them.

Signs of hope?

The economic future looks pretty bleak these days. Yes, the unemployment rate dropped to 9.4% from 9.8% in December, but the economy added only 103,000, a far cry from the 300,000 jobs economists say the economy really needs to add to pull the country out its economic doldrums.

Andy Kroll points out in Mother Jones that it will take 20 years to replace the jobs lost in this recession, if current trends continue.

Worse yet, what looks like job growth could actually be chronic unemployment in disguise. The unemployment rate is calculated based on the number of people who are actively looking for work. Kroll worries that the apparent drop in the unemployment rate could simply reflect more people giving up their job searches.

For an counterweight to the doom and gloom, check out Tim Fernholtz’s new piece in The American Prospect. He argues that the new unemployment numbers are among several hopeful signs for economic recovery in 2011. However, he stresses that his self-proclaimed rosy forecast is contingent upon avoiding several huge pitfalls, including drastic cuts in public spending.

With the GOP in Congress seemingly determined to starve the states for cash, the future might not be so rosy after all.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Pulse: Florida Governor Wants to Drug Test All State Employees

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott plans to force public workers and welfare recipients to undergo random drug testing every three weeks. Why? Because he doesn't like either group, Cenk Uygur argues on the Young Turks. "It's an attempt to stigmatize, demonize, and punish those people," Uygur says:
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fhSYsb2Gtg[/youtube]

Suzy Khimm of Mother Jones explains why Scott's plan is almost certainly unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled that public employees cannot be forced to take drug tests unless public safety is at stake. The government can impose random drug testing for bus drivers, but not clerks at the DMV. Scott wants to spend millions of dollars testing all state employees. The only beneficiary of Scott's plan will be the drug-testing industry.

From vitamins to purity balls

Martha Kempner of RH Reality Check profiles Leslee Unruh, the eccentric vitamin saleswoman-turned-crisis pregnancy center maven and abstinence crusader who is spearheading the drive for increasingly draconian abortion restrictions in South Dakota.

Unruh founded a crisis pregnancy center in 1997. Gradually, she became convinced that cajoling unhappily pregnant women to give birth was backwards. What she needed to do was save women from sex in the first place:

As Amanda Robb explains in her 2008 expose on Unruh published in MORE Magazine: “after working with hundreds of women who got pregnant unintentionally, she says she began to realize that this kind of counseling put the cart before the horse in women’s lives. To truly empower women, she became convinced, you have to ‘save them from sexual activity.’”

Unruh's Abstinence Clearinghouse is famous for sponsoring "purity balls" at which fathers promise to guard their daughters' sexual purity until marriage.

My uterus is a closed shop

Last weekend the Wisconsin AFL-CIO held a rally with Planned Parenthood in Madison, Wisconsin, Mike Elk reports for Working In These Times. Elk writes:

The labor movement, at its core, is about class struggle - the working class overcoming the power of the owning class in order to take control over their own lives. For women, class struggle historically has centered on overcoming the oppression of men who want to have control over their lives.

It makes sense that organized labor and the reproductive rights movement are being drawn closer together. Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker has declared war on unions and reproductive health care. Walker's notorious anti-collective bargaining bill also declared war on the state's highly successful, money-saving family planning program.

The Walker administration declared the union-busting bill to be law last Friday, in defiance of a court ruling, Matthew Rothschild reports in The Progressive. A court had ruled that the legality of the bill was in question because it seems to have been passed in defiance of the state's strong open meetings laws.

De-funding family planning

Some Minnesota Republicans are taking a page from Scott Walker's playbook, Andy Birkey reports in the Minnesota Independent. A group of Republican state senators are working to de-fund the state's family planning programs by cutting off state funding and refusing federal dollars to fund these initiatives. An estimated 40,000 people receive reproductive health care each year through programs that the GOP is trying to eliminate. Their position is surely not motivated by concerns about the deficit. Joint state-federal family planning programs have been shown to save money for the state and the federal government.

HIV/AIDS at 30

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At Colorlines.com, LaShieka Purvis Hunter profiles a distinguished community leader in the struggle against HIV, Rev. Edwin Sanders of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Sanders and his congregation have been engaged in the struggle for 26 years, ever since one of the founding members of this predominantly black church died of the virus.

Saunders says that, as far as he knows, his is the only African American congregation operating an HIV/AIDS primary care clinic:

"There are other congregations with primary care clinics that do other things, but ours is exclusively focused on HIV/AIDS,” he explains. “We were really fortunate to get a planning grant from the URSA Institute about 10 years ago, and have a fully operating clinic four years after that. Now we are able to serve a population in our community that represents those who are truly disenfranchised.”

The URSA Institute is a non-profit social interest consulting firm which supports HIV/AIDS-related research and prevention programs.

Dig for victory

Spring is here. Ellen LaConte of AlterNet explains why gardening is good for your health and your pocketbook. Produce prices are rising, thanks to increasing oil prices, dwindling soil reserves, monoculture, and other factors. LaConte predicts that gardening and small-scale collective farming will become an increasingly important source of fresh fruits and vegetables for average Americans in the years to come.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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