Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Warren’

 

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Almost five years ago, I suggested we start calling things by their correct names.

Take the working-class—people who are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor power for a wage. We refer to them as members of the middle-class (which needs to be “rebuilt“) and working families (who need to be helped) or, now as workers’ wages stagnate and the real value of the minimum wage declines, as the “feral underclass” (especially in theUK, in the aftermath of the riots) or the working-age poor (as in the recent AP report on the demographic composition of those living in poverty [ht: ja]).*

What’s the problem with calling it as it is? What are we afraid of? It’s the working-class, and its member are becoming increasingly impoverished. People who work for a living, or want a full-time job but can’t find one (whether or not they’re actively looking for one, since it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a decent job), represent nearly 3 out of 5 poor people. . .

So, from now on, in political and economic discourse, let’s call things by their correct names. The vast majority of people in the United States are members of the working-class. And they’re getting shafted.

Well, it seems, Americans are still struggling with the notion of the working-class (and of class more generally).

The best Donald Trump was able to come up with were “the great miners and steel workers of our country.” (Really? Trump wants to send American workers back into the mines and steel mills? Those jobs are mostly gone, and that’s a good thing.) Even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders weren’t able to refer to the working-class, preferring instead to use terms like “working people,” “hard-working families,” “workers,” and “working families”—although, in their case, when counterposed to corporate profits and CEOs, it was pretty clear they were referring to the growing class divide in the United States.

As Tamara Draut [ht: ja] explains, the American working-class is in fact changing.

the blue-collar, hard-hat, mostly male archetype of the great post-war prosperity — is long gone. In its place is a new working class whose jobs are in the now massive sectors of our serving and caring economy. And so far, neither Trump nor Clinton have talked about this new working class, which is much more female and racially diverse than the one of my dad’s generation. With Trump’s racially charged and nativistic rhetoric, he’s offering red meat to a group of Americans who have every right to be angry — but not at the villains Trump has served up.

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“Long gone” may be an exaggeration. There are still more than 12 million workers employed in manufacturing in the United States (out of a total of 150 million employed people). And, according to the Economic Policy Institute (pdf), the American working class (which they define as people with less than a bachelor’s degree) is still a majority non-Hispanic white.* (It is projected to become majority people of color in 2032.)

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What we have, then, is an increasingly diverse working-class that together, “regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender,” has been receiving wages that fall far short of increases in productivity for more than three decades.

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The result, as I showed earlier this month, is that

the average income of the bottom 90 percent fell between 1979 and 2015 (from $34.6 thousand to $33.2 thousand), while the average income of the top 10 percent rose (from $149.1 thousand to $273.8 thousand) and that of the top 1 percent soared (from $370.2 thousand to over $1 million).

That dramatic rise in inequality—along with, as Dustin Guastella explains, “the rise of precarious labor, the proletarianization of white-collar work, the rise in real unemployment, [and] the persistence of underemployment—are what have propelled class issues back into the public debate.

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That combination is certainly what has convinced Millenials, the members of Generation Y, to see themselves less as middle-class and more as working-class. They may be better educated than their predecessors and for the most part they’re not working in traditional working-class jobs (like manufacturing or other blue-collar tasks) but their low wages and precarious employment make them identify with the working-class—”a feat in and of itself considering the narrow American cultural understanding for who qualifies as working class.”

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The fact is, as many Americans self-identify as working-class as they do middle-class, which is “striking given how uncommon the term working class seems to be in both the media and political speech these days.”

As I argued a year and a half ago,

Our political language has served to ignore the working-class status of most so-called middle-class Americans and, as a result, to confine the working-class (understood as workers without a college education), when it is mentioned at all, to a relatively small segment of the population. In other words, the working-class has come to be defined as the working-poor and the middle-class as something else.

As I see it, we’ll get a more accurate representation of our economic and political landscape if we redefine what we mean by the working-class. The fact is, what others understand to be working-class and middle-class actually have a lot in common. They may have different levels of education (high school, a year or two of college, and a four-year college degree), different color collars (blue, pink, and white), and work in different sectors (manufacturing and services, private and public) but they’re all pretty much in the same boat: they are forced to sell their ability to work to someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. That’s a very large part of the population. It basically excludes two relatively small groups: the capitalists at the top (who get the profits) and managers and supervisors (who manage the labor of others and get a cut of the profits).

So, we’re talking about 80 or so percent of Americans who, in one way or another, are members of the working-class.

They know it and we know it—even as mainstream economists, politicians (both liberal and conservative), and social surveys downplay or deny the existence of a large and increasingly distressed American working-class.

The next question then is, what kind of language are we going to use to characterize the not-working-class, the class that takes and otherwise lives off the surplus produced by the working-class? Right now, we have the “upper class” and, more recently, the “1 percent” and the “billionaire class.” Clearly, we need something better, a term that describes not just the rung at the top of the income ladder but a place in relation to that of the working-class, thus giving us a pair of positions that define the central relationship within the current economic system.

It’s going to take more than a bit of struggle. But, once we have that term, we’ll be well on our way to calling things by their correct (class) names.

 

*And that’s one of the reasons the presidential race right now is so close. Trump leads among white registered voters without a college degree, a significant portion of the working-class, by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.

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President Obama has finally come out in favor of expanding Social Security benefits:

It’s time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits so today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they have earned.

Clearly, the ground has shifted—within the Democratic Party and, in particular, with Obama, who as late as 2012 was willing to cut Social Security (as part of an ill-fated attempt at “entitlement reform”).

As Daniel Marans, Arthur Delaney, and Ryan Grim explain, there were many progressive groups involved in fighting against attacks on Social Security—in the midst of Bowles-Simpson austerity fever and the progress made by Third Way advocates inside the Democratic Party—which then turned to expanding Social Security benefits.

Elizabeth Warren played an important role in shifting the discourse on Social Security.

So has the success of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president.

Although the discourse on Social Security had been moving left for some time, it is impossible to ignore the role that the current presidential election cycle likely played in Obama’s timing.

The presidential race has been characterized by waves of economic populism in both major parties. Even presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump claims he will not cut Social Security benefits.

On the Democratic side, Sanders has made his career-long devotion to Social Security a centerpiece of his campaign. The Vermont progressive touts legislationhe first introduced in March 2015 to enact an across-the-board expansion of benefits.

Hillary Clinton expressed support for targeted increases in Social Security benefits rather than across-the-board expansion. Sanders and progressive groups demanded she clarify that this included ruling out benefit cuts of any kind, since some bipartisan reform plans — including that of the Bowles-Simpson commission — couple major benefit cuts with modest increases for poor and vulnerable groups. . .

“Bernie has marshaled millions of people against cuts and for expansion and showed the power of those people in the Democratic Party,” said Neil Sroka, communications director of Democracy for America, another key progressive group in the Social Security fight.

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At least on this issue, in the face of pressure from Warren and in response to the Sanders campaign, Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party have finally caught up with the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of Americans who (according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll [pdf]) believe protecting the future of Social Security is extremely or very important for the next administration.

It’s an old American saying, “If you steal a loaf of bread you’ll surely go to jail, but if you steal a railroad you’ll be made a senator.”

Or, as Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) puts it, “A hungry Negro steals a chicken, he goes to jail. A rich businessman steals bonds, he goes to Congress.”

Most recently, there’s Elizabeth Warren (pdf):

If justice means a prison sentence for a teenager who steals a car, but it means nothing more than a sideways glance at a CEO who quietly engineers the theft of billions of dollars, then the promise of equal justice under the law has turned into a lie.

Warren and her staff have issued the first in what they promise will be an annual series on enforcement. “Rigged Justice” highlights twenty criminal and civil cases in 2015 in which the federal government failed to require meaningful accountability from either large corporations or their executives involved in wrongdoing.

The purpose of this annual report is to highlight examples of the most egregious enforcement failures from the previous year. Sometimes these weak enforcement cases are the result of laws – such as OSHA, and the federal mine safety law – that give the agencies only limited authority and allow only limited punishment.

But in most instances, these cases are a result of failure by regulators to use the tools Congress has already provided to impose meaningful accountability on corporate offenders. Whether as a result of limited resources or a lack of political will, this limp approach to corporate enforcement, particularly in response to serious misconduct that cost Americans their jobs, their homes, or, in some cases, their lives, threatens the safety and security of every American.

As the examples in this report demonstrate, federal regulators regularly let big corporations and their highly paid executives off the hook when they break the law.

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