Tuesday, October 17, 2006

SPECIAL EDITION: Words of Power Interviews Nomi Prins, Author of "Jacked: How 'Conservatives' are Picking Your Pocket"

"I don't think it's just a war on the Middle Class, if anything it's a 'war' by the people that have the most on everyone else, the weapons being the power to influence decisions in Washington and in workplaces around the country - on everything from health and pension benefit reductions or deletions to charging exorbitant bank or credit card or mortgage fees to the ones who can afford them the least. Dobbs and Hartmann base their premises on the fact that the middle class is shrinking, which it is, as a percentage of American classes. But, what's happening more than that, is that the top portion of the country is accumulating more of its wealth, power and benefits, than the middle class, or the working poor, or lower (poorer) class."
Nomi Prins, Author of Jacked: How “Conservatives” are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not)

SPECIAL EDITION: Jacked: How “Conservatives” are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not), Words of Power Interviews Nomi Prins

By Richard Power

Economic security is an issue that looms larger each hour of each day.

Two excellent posts, one from David Sirota and the other from Bob Geiger, underscore this painful fact.

In "Tom Friedmanism now punishing China for trying to stop sweatshops," Sirota remarks, The New York Times reports that "China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers' rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since Beijing introduced market forces in the late 1970s." That's great news - but here's the kicker: the new law is "setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories in China."

In "Nobel Economists: Republicans Wrong on Minimum Wage," Geiger reports, With the buying power of the Federal minimum wage at its lowest point in 55 years, five Nobel Prize-winning economists have been joined by 650 of their peers, in calling on the Republican-led Congress to increase the minimum wage. Describing the last increase almost 10 years ago as now "fully eroded," the economists said that they agree with a report written in 1999 by the Council of Economic Advisors declaring that "modest increases in the minimum wage have had very little or no effect on employment."

In the 1960s and 1970s, I traversed the USA on Greyhound buses several times; imbibing the elixir of the American spirit in towns like Wheeling, West Virginia, Lake Charles, Louisiana, Lordsburg, New Mexico, Green River, Utah and Winnemucca, Nevada. On each journey I took a different route, and with each drought of that potent elixir, I grew stronger in the vision of this country's greatness and in the urge to articulate it.

Forty years ago, the USA was a big, brawling dockworker’s son. The USA of the 1960s and 1970s was full of danger and promise. Despite war, racism and political assassination, there was room to move and materials with which to build a life.

But over the decades, the danger has thickened and the promise had thinned.

Now, although I travel in airplanes and rental cars instead of buses, I still explore the Body Politic somatically, and I feel a people confined to a narrowing corridor, a people pushed and prodded toward a cul-de-sac, a people fleeing a juggernaut and racing toward a high wall. But it isn’t Mexico on the other side of that wall; it is the “American Dream.” They have come full circle, but they are on the wrong side of the wall. How will they punch through this wall? How will they tear it down? How will they return to the land of opportunity they were meant to inherent from their parents?

In the past six years, as we have slipped deeper into the gloom, I have seen so many Americans in the airport lounges, turning away from CNN and Faux News to stare off into space, out of despair or distrust.

Now Nomi Prins has given them a voice.

Prior to 911, Prins ran an analytics group at Bear Stearns in London and then worked in New York as managing director for Goldman Sachs. “9/11 changed a lot of people, particularly in New York City where the Trade Center once was,” she recently told me. “It was a time for introspection and examination about my life and what I wanted to do with it. I realized that it was time for a change. I left Goldman Sachs and the world of Wall Street to pursue another passion, i.e., to become a writer.”

Now a senior fellow at Demos, Prins has written an important book "Jacked: How 'Conservatives' are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not)", published by Polipoint Press.

In many ways, this Words of Power interview with Prins is the companion of my recent interview with Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To be Young.

Generation Debt documents the predicament of today’s youth, particularly the twenty-somethings: “I am twenty-four years old, and I was born into a broke generation,” Kamenetz writes, “I look around and I see people who have borrowed more to go to college than they can repay, who can’t find a good job, can’t save, can’t afford basic necessities like health insurance, can’t make solid plans.”

Jacked, too, documents economic security issues. It organizes these issues by the cards all of us (young, old or middle-aged) carry (or are supposed to carry) in our wallet, e.g., your medical insurance card (unless you are one of the tens of millions of US citizens who don’t have one) and your employee ID card (unless your job has been outsourced to Hyberdad).

Prins writes: “It’s not that politics became less important; it’s that more Americans checked out of the conversations….But politics still touches our everyday life in so many ways. So taking the nature of our frantic lives into account, I’ve tried to talk about American politics by starting with something we can all relate to—our wallets. Wallets are roadmaps of our daily realities: they hold photos of the people we love, chunks of our identity, and plastic cards that evoke our financial worries. The cards inside your wallet tell a story. They also tell the tale of the government’s impact on you.”

Both Prins and Kamentz got out into the real world; they traveled the country far and wide and gave voice to real people.

In reviewing Jacked, I was reminded of two great works, Stud Terkel’s Working and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Terkel and Steinbeck were unafraid to write about the lives of the so-called “common people.” Both Terkel and Steinbeck are unabashed in their celebration of and commiseration with the daily life of the people.

Prins, in her book, like Kamenetz in hers, has been true to that great tradition.

You will note that Prins puts the label conservative in quotes in the title of her book. “The group of conservatives in power in Washington have not been conservative with the country's finances,” she explained to me, “They have created the biggest debt in our national history, largest trade imbalance, weak dollar and high deficit. That is not economically conservative behavior.”

Here is the Words of Power interview with Nomi Prins.

Words of Power: My work focuses on risks related to national security, energy security and environmental security. But you can’t really achieve any of these without economic security. That's why I consider the Bush-Cheney tax cuts, which gutted the surplus and plunged the federal budget into deficit spending, a national and global security issue of the highest importance. It has exposed this country great harm in a world gone mad. But the deficit isn’t the only economic problem that has either been brought about or exacerbated in the past six years (e.g., the trade deficit, the weak dollar, the outsourcing of US jobs overseas, the bankruptcy bill, the cost of health insurance and student loans, etc.) It is in this context that I reviewed Generation Debt and interviewed Anya Kamenetz, and why I have sought you out to review Jacked and interview you. Tell us what led you to write Jacked? And what led you to write it in the way that you did, i.e., as a first person narrative with the voices of the people out in the real world?

Nomi Prins: I wrote Jacked in a way that made it an easy read, in the hopes that people around the country could relate to it, even if they were not already following politics or thinking about how politics affected their daily lives. Many of the political books out there, are 400-500 pages long and heavy expensive hardbacks that most people don't have the money or time to process. Also, rather than rely on merely numbers and statistics, I wanted to get a sense for reality, which you can't do from behind a desk in New York, or a policy center in DC. It is my belief that people are generally too busy with their own lives to think about these political connections. They are dealing with financial or health or scheduling issues. So, I wanted to hear from them what these issues were, and combine this, in their own voices, into a book - first and foremost, about people and then about politics. And, I wanted it to be a book that would not take up too much time to read.

Words of Power: Two books from very different perspectives, "War on the Middle Class" by CNN Money Line host Lou Dobbs and "Screwed" by Air America progressive radio talk show host Thom Hartmann have recently hit the stores. Do you accept the premise of a "war against the Middle Class"? How would you characterize it? What is the point? What is the end game? Where did it start and where does it lead? How conscious is it? How have you seen it manifest?

Nomi Prins: I don't think it's just a war on the Middle Class, if anything it's a 'war' by the people that have the most on everyone else, the weapons being the power to influence decisions in Washington and in workplaces around the country - on everything from health and pension benefit reductions or deletions to charging exorbitant bank or credit card or mortgage fees to the ones who can afford them the least. Dobbs and Hartmann base their premises on the fact that the middle class is shrinking, which it is, as a percentage of American classes. But, what's happening more than that, is that the top portion of the country is accumulating more of its wealth, power and benefits, than the middle class, or the working poor, or lower (poorer) class. This is a Darwinian type phenomenon that's probably gone on since the dawn of humankind. In America, it's gotten increasingly worse since the 1980's and today, we have the biggest gaps in wealth, power, and influence ever. That is why people need to re-direct their frustrations at their personal situations to shifting back that balance - by voting and voicing their concerns. Their numbers are greater in the end, even if their control at this point isn't.

Words of Power: Let's explore the Bankruptcy Bill. Seventy-three "Democrats" voted for the Bankruptcy Bill in the House of Representatives. Thirty of them also voted to repeal the Estate Tax. Fourteen Senate "Democrats" voted for cloture (i.e., to end the debate) and allow a vote on which they knew the bill would pass and be signed into law. There is no harsher or more damning evidence of the impact of lobbying money, or the cruel indifference (at best) to the fate of the "Middle Class." It is class warfare, bought and paid for by an elite class of business interests and delivered by an elite class of political animals. And yet, I doubt many US voters really understand the implications. And many of them won't until it is too late for them (i.e., when they need to resort to the hapless option of bankruptcy and find that they cannot...Give us your take on the bankruptcy bill, e.g., what it really means to the working men and women of the USA and what you heard about it or realized about the fallout from it on your travels? What impact does it have on people hit hard by medical crises?

Nomi Prins: I have not interviewed a single person who declared bankruptcy because they ran up a debt on luxury items. Mostly, it is a decision that they come to after much consideration, and attempting other ways to consolidate debt - debt accumulated because of a series of basic needs - clothes, gas, necessary household items - to harsher ones - like emergency health care costs that spiral out of control in an unforeseen matter. No one looked at their debt as some kind of a right, but as something to manage. When credit card companies are allowed to charge unregulated late fees (on which they made over $16 billion in profit alone last year) it's hard for people to financially 'take' it. Also, because of the slightest 'mis-behavior' a person may exhibit in paying their bill, as in the case of the woman in chapter 2 of my book, who always paid her bills on time until she had an emergency c-section and wasn't able to focus on them, and then had her interest 'jacked' to almost 30% on her entire balance, credit card companies act in an extortional manner. None of that was addressed in defining the bankrupty bill that was lobbied for and paid for by these companies....In other words, the reasons that many people declare bankruptcy (almost a half of which are to pay for health emergencies, because our insurance system is appalling) were not debated. Nor, was the idea that people paying 10% on say a $1500 balance was a lot different from people paying 30% on it, in terms of budgeting. It was more the idea that a slight percentage of people took advantage of bankruptcy to run up debts and then shirk them. It was all about the credit card companies, not their customers, the consumers.

Words of Power: Let's explore how economic issues, or more accurately the "conservative" agenda on economic issues, are spun and sold in the US mainstream news media. Both of us have extensive experience in corporate media, on the air waves and in print. We both know about the compressed arc time in the news cycle and the cut backs in news room budgets, yada yada yada...but there is something more to it...It is hard not to conclude Alan Greenspan and Thomas Friedman and all those pundits who want to be Alan Greenspan or Thomas Friedman simply do not have any empathy or interest in the lives of working people in this country or elsewhere. On issues such as globalization and outsourcing their views can only be characterized as contemptuous of working people. And yet, their views are almost unassailable in the "conventional wisdom." Globalization is a fact of life in the 21st Century, but how it evolves is a matter of free will. And outsourcing is a far more damaging impact on the life of the US worker than illegal immigration, and yet it receives no attention while illegal immigration is used to channel people's economic anxieties. The strangest effect of all of this is that there are so many middle-class voters walking into the voting booth thinking that somehow what Greenspan and Friedman think is best really is best for them in their own lives. Could you tell us how you feel about the way economic security issues are addressed in the mainstream news media? What is the importance of alternate media, e.g., the blogosphere and Air America?

Nomi Prins: It's unclear whether it is a lack of empathy on the part of Greenspan or Friedman, or merely the fact that they are not focused on how what they say or do impacts the general public and their lives. The media gives far more air-time to them, and their message than to the needs of ordinary people. Ironically, this is because they are in the 'public sphere' even if they do not say things or make decisions that help much of that public. I don't explore illegal immigration in JACKED, but it strikes me that rather than blaming others for coming here to work, and not getting all the papers, because they take years to process, we should be looking at how to increase the benefits and compensation for working Americans. When the mainstream media covers lay-offs at GM or Ford, for example, which I discuss in the Employee ID chapter of JACKED, (chap 4), they take the company line, that these companies are finding it financially difficult to keep the promises they made to their workers, they cite various reasons, but come down on the chief reason being the cost of their benefits, like health care and pensions. Rather than ask the question, "well why don't they fight with insurance companies for better and cheaper packages," the media supports this idea that it's the workers demands for their benefits that's the problem, rather than the insurance companies ripping off company and worker alike.

Words of Power: All the interviews I have done so far -- with Mark Crispin Miller, David Sirota, Anya Kamenetz and now you -- have been building on each other and forming I hope a mosaic, one that articulates an agenda for moving forward. From my perspective, there are four overriding priorities: election reform, campaign reform, media reform, and sustainability. Neither major political party would cite these four issues as even in their top five priorities. Why? Perhaps because they would turn over the trough at which the pigs (to borrow Arianna Hufffington’s metaphor) have been feeding for so long...My view is that these four issues, i.e., election reform (bringing US electoral system into compliance with internationally accepted standards), campaign finance reform (publicly financed campaigns to end the legalized bribery of the lobbyist culture in D.C.), media reform (if not the break up of the existing monopolies at least an end to further consolidation and a return to the Fairness Doctrine), and sustainability (a nationally mandated initiative to move to renewable energy resources within an accelerated time frame) trump every other issue...If our society could deal with these four issues, we would elevate our public discourse, renew our democratic institutions and guarantee the flourishing of life and prosperity. Then with vibrant public discourse, healthy democratic institutions and a healed environment, all of the divisive hot-button issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration, etc.) would work themselves out. My question to you is what should the economic initiative of this 21st Century agenda look like? What simple, big and bold actions would begin the process of restoring economic security for the nation, the family and the individual?

Nomi Prins: As a society, we should demand a political economic agenda that gives us more personal security from a financial perspective. If people feel adequately compensated and value for their work, whether it is in a large corporation, small business, or raising a family, they will be happier, more productive, and more connected to other citizens. Our economic agenda to accomplish this is simple, and would not hurt, but instead help the overall American economy and our place in the world, including:
1) Living wage for all at the federal level
2) Health insurance for all, including regulating insurance companies to charge on basis of what people can pay as a first step, and nationalizing health care as a second step
3) Re-address Medicare prescription D act to enable government to negotiate cheaper group rates for drugs with pharmaceutical companies
4) No bankruptcy bills that don't also penalize credit card companies for overcharging consumers
5) No tax breaks for gas companies unless they prove investment and results for finding alternative energy measures
6) Progressive social security tax to insure that system of insurance

Here are two brief excerpts from Jacked:

It’s not just auto-manufacturing that has been downsized in terms of people and benefits. It’s corporate America everywhere. When I was a little kid in the late ‘70s, Poughkeepsie, New York, was to IBM as Detroit, Michigan was to GM. Our parents were engineers, plant managers, mainframe technicians….There was no such thing as changing jobs or being laid off. Our doctors were paid by IBM. Our dentists too….It used to be that people got paid less in exchange for more benefits. Today, they get paid less for fewer. It used to be that companies took care of future risk. Today, we do. More and more, pensions and health care are the chips on the table to keep other employee benefits (like pay) in check….By the early 1980s, internal IBM budgets were slashed and the workforce was quietly reduced from 370,000 to 260,000. But not by massive layoffs—that came in the early ‘90s. It was early retirement and departmental consolidations. IBM paid health insurance until the mid-90s. Then it assessed a co-payment” of $180 per month for a family plan. That went gradually up to $320 per month in 2001. Deductibles rose to $500 annually. My dad’s job and my dad ultimately escaped, like many others, to Mexico.

Saving for your own retirement and health care is rather hard when you can’t feed your family or pay your bills. Luckily, that’s what President Bush’s tax cuts are for, right? Wrong. Just take a look at their damage. The cost of the cuts he passed between 2001 and 2005 was equal to two-thirds of the country’s 200t deficit. And for most Americans, these tax cuts haven’t even put any extra money in their wallets. On average, we’ve received about $600 a family. Yet, as we all feel too keenly, gas, tuition, health insurance, and medical expenses rose much more. Meanwhile, corporations have been raking in more and more tax breaks under the Bush administration…Six out of ten companies don’t pay any federal income tax—and not because they’re using that extra money to get out there and hire new people or pay workers more for their labor. No, they’re paying executives more. Every US industry increased what it paid CEOs in 2004....

Other Special Editions:

SPECIAL EDITION: Generation Debt -- Why Now Is A Terrible Time To be Young, Words of Power Interviews Anya Kamenetz

SPECIAL EDITION: “The More Nefarious Form of Corruption is That Which is Legal” -- Words of Power Interviews David Sirota

SPECIAL EDITION: “Until this issue is burning on the mind of every citizen” -- Words of Power Interviews Mark Crispin Miller

Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and http://www.wordsofpower.net. His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: richardpower@wordsofpower.net. For more information, go to www.wordsofpower.net

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