Category Archives: Economy

Extraordinary measures

The nation is beaming with praise for Cuomo, but his words also produced stark, every-man-for-themselves terror in city and county governments this week. Of course right now we’re too concerned about social distancing and groceries to be concerned about the fearsome quarterly budget powers which the governor may be appropriating for himself.

Welcome to EU-style “austerity,” and hopefully not also “Gov. Cuomo’s Little Book on How to Master Accents of the Five Boroughs.” Cuomo has personalized his approach to all this a great deal, as is his style. That isn’t necessarily a heartwarming state of affairs for those on the outskirts of the Empire.

Lawmakers are considering a return to Albany as early as Sunday, though with a scaled-down approach. After the positive virus results for a fourth member of the Assembly on Friday, they will be looking at ways for Democrats and Republicans to vote remotely if they are ill or have other issues that makes it unwise to return to the Capitol.

As water seeks its own level, power fills vacuums.

“Because we can…”

Paging Barbara Kopple (director of Harlan County USA and American Dream)… why not come to Wayne County and make it an even trilogy?

In Mott’s Strike, More Than Paychecks at Stake

The story in a nutshell: Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the company that owns the Mott’s apple juice plant in Williamson, says that their unionized workers make too much, even though the company is enjoying record profits this year. Apparently, Mott’s workers are supposed to be embarrassed that they’re not being paid like peasants, like the rest of their working-class brethren in harder-hit industries. (This attitude can also be found among bitterly unemployed master’s-degree holders as well, I’ve noticed.)

Kopple’s first film, Harlan County USA, was about labor struggles in an industry where the workers had yet to partake of the pay and security that other American workers enjoyed in the 1960s and ’70s. Her second film, American Dream, was about the confused Hormel plant strike where American workers began to lose their grip on what they’d won. This would make a great final chapter: the Mott’s workers as the last men standing, the tall poppies, with no one in America left to cheer them on in a clear fight that the coal miners in the first film would have well understood.

Dr Pepper Snapple has vigorously defended its stance. “The union contends that a profitable company shouldn’t seek concessions from its workers,” the company said in a statement. “This argument ignores the fact that as a public company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”

It would be interesting to parse what this corporation really means about “generating jobs” (are they saying they will be generating more, but lower-paying jobs for the community? Highly doubtful – they just want to pay the same amount of workers less) and “building community” (maybe they’re talking about building a company store).

However, Dr Pepper Snapple is, on another level, being honest. It is the duty of a profitable corporation to screw its workers over as much as possible. And it is the duty of a union to resist a blatant and open screwing. If you can get more than $14 an hour (or one billion dollars) for whatever work you do, it is self-evident that you are worth that much to someone powerful enough to pay it. It’s a fact of life that many Americans (despite their college educations) still don’t understand: you don’t get to be adequately paid just because you possess a piece of paper that says you’re in the club. If you must rely on a piece of paper, rely on a contract – and even then, not too much.

This is war, and it always was, despite many decades of niceties that are now past. Whose side are you on?

Dejobbing society

99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation

Facing eviction from her Tennessee apartment after several months of unpaid rent, Alexandra Jarrin packed up whatever she could fit into her two-door coupe recently and drove out of town. Ms. Jarrin is part of a hard-luck group of jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.

Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent… Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.

“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.

I don’t know why the NY Times keeps finding women of a certain age to talk to. Maybe it’s because these women are truly desperate and agree to talk, and men won’t. But over and over, the profile is the same: fiftysomething, single/divorced, usually with more than two kids, in debt because of mortgages, vacations, new cars or pricey graduate degrees. They’re intelligent, well-educated, and have plenty of job experience, but no one wants to hire them.

I don’t know what to say, because chances are these women are never getting anything resembling their old jobs back. In fact, employers find them attractive layoff prospects even in good economic times. The closer she gets to the age she can take early retirement, the more apt the company is to dump her. And companies also don’t want to pay out the health benefits, so it’s easy to cut off the aging woman who hasn’t got young kids to raise any more. Is it a female thing? Maybe not, but women also tend to network less in the workplace and carry more of the water, which may get some of them to a certain point on the corporate ladder, but might not serve them well enough when cutting time comes.

What is troubling to me is how many women don’t get this picture. It’s scary how many nonmarried (single/divorced) women lose sight of how expendable they are in the eyes of society, though, and enter their last real earning decades amassing more debt than they should. I won’t comment on the mortgages and Caribbean vacations, but the bright shining lie of “more education” in the form of expensive post-baccalaureate degrees is something that needs to be shattered. The woman in this story now has $92,000 of non-dischargeable educational debt. She’s very probably never going to be able to pay that back.

There might be a serious lesson for the younger single (nonmarried) woman here: These are effectively your best earning years. Don’t squander them. Don’t waste your money on things that will have no long-term return. Strengthen your finances and especially whatever personal relationships you have. Prepare for what you know is coming. Always know what time it is. This is Logan’s Run, and forget your biological clock — that flashing crystal on your palm has to do with money.

Modern feminism ought to be speaking to this. I don’t pretend to know what happened, but in the beginning, feminism was about making it easier for women to make choices – not to “have it all,” which is what the message is today. Early feminism sought to liberate single women from servitude not of their own choosing. It sought to give single women the tools and confidence to live with dignity and self-reliance, if they so chose. It was about living smart as a single woman, not about living large. Early feminism also had much to say to the married woman. This is why the institution of American feminism is so beautifully represented by the statue in Seneca Falls, of the married Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the single Susan B. Anthony first meeting in friendship.

So what happened? It’s sad to see how alone these older women are in these anecdotal news stories. Many times, their children are not helping them. It isn’t too late for women of a certain age to make a better future for themselves, but it’s going to involve turning away from a society that has pretty much shown its true colors in a time of stress, and has rejected them. In the Middle Ages, widows had the same problems, and in some parts of Europe they banded together and formed lay communities. Some of these communities became surprisingly big “players” in the wider community, much to the consternation of the Church. In American life today, this is a missing institution (as is traditional feminism).

Has the institution of higher education grown too large and usurped other institutions in importance (real or perceived)? I’m inclined to say yes. It’s not that there is anything wrong about higher education. But American higher education now purports to be all things to all people — the Great White Hope that, morally and practically, stands all alone against our corrupt financial institutions and a democratic system that is largely pay-to-play now. It doesn’t pass on knowledge, quite so much as it dispenses “educational treatments,” as Ivan Illich pointed out in his radical book Deschooling Society – inoculations of frankly questionable value, rather than necessary healing; an obligatory sheep-dip through which all the wayward flock must be herded. (“Take this shot of Education, or you will surely wind up in an economic hell from which there is no escape. Dominus vobiscum, suos cultores scientia coronat, oolee oolee oo.“)

When you put all your eggs in one basket, and all your trust into one social institution, that’s a recipe for disaster. Our society isn’t there yet, but with the decline and stress on so many other institutions — K-12 education, religious life, labor unions, the military — it’s getting dangerously close. It certainly was a disaster for the lady in this story.

Maybe someone also should write a treatise on Dejobbing Society – since the jobs are going away for all demographics. Is it possible that in the end all our former institutions will have to be upended and alternative ones formed, or re-formed?

Will the real CNY please stand up?

You might not have heard, but a couple of tinhorn Utica-area politicians with nothing better to do have, with their mighty and authoritative voices, changed the fate of a region.

State officials agreed Sunday to officially rename the Greater Utica area to “Central New York” after retiring the name “Central Leatherstocking Region.” Senator Joseph Griffo (R) and Assemblywoman RoAnn Desito (D) announced that for tourism purposes, the seven-county region will switch to the new name that is used more frequently anyway. The former “Central Leatherstocking Region” encompasses seven upstate counties of Oneida, Otsego, Madison, Chenango, Montgomery, Broome and Schoharie Counties. The Chairman of Empire State Development Corporation, Dennis Mullen, notifies the region’s tourism partners that the name has officially been changed after careful consideration and meetings with consultants.

At this point, don’t we have to consider “consultants” to be useless boils on the butt of humanity? Do they ever produce anything of actual value or insight? (Emerald City, anyone?) It’s not like they actually asked the people living in the actual Central New York that has been called that by the locals for decades, if not more. Onondaga County — the only county in America shaped like an actual human heart — is no longer the heart of Central New York, but rather a far-flung corner of the Finger Lakes region, according to distant people who have probably never visited here in the first place.

Our petty regional names are kind of important. New York is one of the least homogenous states in the country, and we’re all uncomfortably bound to “New York” as the name of a world city that often we feel has emotionally and economically nothing to do with us. We cling to a shallow “Upstate-Downstate” divide partly as a means of ego defense, and to avoid having to deal with the scary reality that “Upstate” is really fragmented and always has been.

You can see the map of the new Central New York over at New York Traveler, which has some wistful thoughts about the banishment of the term “Leatherstocking Country.” (Note that – like everything else in our economy – the geographic location of Central New York has now slid downstateward.)

This name game reminds me of another game you might have played when you were a kid. Remember those puzzle boards covered with numbers, which one had to shift around (up, down, right, left) until the rows added up correctly? Since there were only limited numbers of empty spaces to slide the numbers to, it was often a frustrating or even pointless exercise. One began to suspect that the game came from the factory rigged for unsolvability. It’s gotten to the point where our economic guardians have decided that calling one economically empty space by the rightful name of another economically empty space is the solution to the intractable problem of New York’s future existence. (Here are some more name and number solutions recently tried.)

I know how the numbers game always ended at my house: dug out with the fingernails, and then discarded for a new game.

Quote of the week

“What we see in the United States and some other economies is a statistical recovery and a human recession.”
–Larry Summers, Davos, January 30, 2009

“Of course; that was the intention. The stimulus money, QE, low rates, etc., etc, were geared toward goosing the stats. They were never directed toward middle or lower income individuals and reducing unemployment has not even been attempted. So now the stats are artificially inflated. Is the recession over? Of course not… it never was. This is 1936 with 1937 just around the corner.”
–A commenter on Calculated Risk