Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Unhappy Economy is Killing the 99%

According to the NPR, at least 16 people, including three veteran storm chasers, were reported dead from tornadoes that recently swept through Oklahoma. That was just 11 days after the May 20 tornado devastated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, which killed 24 people. (Total death toll: 40)

While any weather-related death is a tragedy, by contrast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for all ages. In 2010 there were 38,364 suicides in the United States for an average of 105 suicides each day --- and there were 25 additional attempts for every successful 1. (As of 2013, 22 of those daily suicides were by Veterans.) Imagine hearing the loud blast of a gunshot in your neighborhood every 13 minutes, of every day -- that's how many people die from suicide in America. That's more than a tragedy, that's a national epidemic.

According to an article in World of Psychology, more people die by suicide than car accidents. But this depressing statistic gets far less media attention than tornadoes. This could be because tornadoes provide dramatic video coverage to boost the media's advertising ratings, just like other natural disasters --- such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. But what about man-made disasters? Why are so many Americans taking their own lives, and what can be done about it?

It's no wonder that, according to a new poll, those earning less than $35,000 a year who said they were "very happy" declined from 33 percent to 29 percent from 2011 to 2013. 59.9% of the work force earns this or less, so that would also mean that over two thirds of them are NOT "very happy". The causes could very well be the state of the economy and fears about cuts to services under the "sequestration" (not having enough money to adequately survive on, or to pursue their happiness).

CNN: "They say money can't buy happiness, but a new study suggests it actually can. In fact, the more money you have, the happier you are. University of Michigan economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have examined data for more than 150 countries from sources including the World Bank and the Gallup World Poll. They found that the more money people have, the happier they are, regardless of whether they're rich or poor. And contrary to earlier studies, there isn't a cutoff point where making more than a certain amount doesn't lead to more happiness."

It would probably be more accurate to say, "Money can't buy love, but it can make you much happier." And people (usually men) can be much better situated to find love if they had money to date (It's very difficult to date without a car, a place to live and some discretionary cash for theater tickets, a fancy dinner and bottle of wine.) And if one found love, they could also be much happier. Generally speaking, most women won't date a man who earns less than they do. And more and more women are becoming the household bread winners, in a job market where women gained back more jobs than men --- leaving behind a lot of lonely, demoralized, financially strapped and unhappy men. (Wealthy men, such as Donald Trump, don't have this problem.)

Whether or not it's true (that money can't buy happiness), it appears that without money, people are a lot less happy. It only stands to reason that if someone were going through a personal crisis (such as a divorce or a health related issue) it would be much easier to cope with if they had the financial means to avoid having to also worry about other things, such as having to pay the rent and putting food on the table --- or having adequate insurance to deal with their health issue. Having money can stave off many other circumstances that could also make a person very depressed.

Mental healthcare professionals have broadened the definition of mental illness to include stress and sadness, which are medically dubbed “anxiety” and “depression”. President Barack Obama urged depressed, stressed and disturbed Americans to seek out taxpayer-funded mental health professionals. “We’re here for you. If you’re struggling, seek help. In any given year, one in five adults will experience mental illness."

But without adequate insurance, seeking and receiving proper mental health care can be much more difficult than just checking in to an emergency room for a broken leg. And the mental health counselors at the county health clinics don't provide the degree of care that a psychiatrist in a private practice might. Also, when using these public clinics, one doesn't just pick up a phone to make an appointment if they feel bad. It usually involves a screening process, paperwork and waiting in a long lines --- which makes one even MORE anxious and depressed. And these clinics are often located in the more depressed areas of town.

According to the Harris Poll® Happiness index, people earning over $100,000 a year were more happy than those earning less. A study by the lauded economist Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley found that the top 1 percent of earners have accounted for all of the income gains in the first two full years of the economic recovery. Their incomes have climbed about 11.2 percent. What's not to be happy about? Meanwhile, the incomes of the 99 percent have declined by about 0.4 percent as the cost of living keeps going up...that's very sad for the 99%.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that the wealth of the richest 7 percent of households climbed about 28 percent from 2009 to 2011. For the remaining 93 percent, average wealth dropped about 4 percent...that's also very sad.

Since the depths of our economic crisis (The Great Recession), the value of stocks on the Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled, and the wealthy have benefited disproportionately. One Walmart heir earns over $1 million a day from stock dividends. ("Happy days are here again!") According to recent research by the New York University economist Edward Wolff, the richest 10 percent of households own more than 81 percent of stocks. ("Oh happy days!")

And let's talk about taxes (a must read): A new Congressional Budget Office report shows that America's most wealthy are also saving big bucks from the U.S. tax code's wide assortment of income tax breaks. The top 10 special tax breaks in the federal tax code will cost the federal government $900 billion in 2013 --- and $12 trillion over the next decade --- forcing "smaller government" on everybody else (the 99%) in a job market offering low-paying jobs that aren't being created fast enough to keep up with natural population growth. This make the rich much happier and the poor much more sad.

The Federal Reserve’s purchase of about $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities every month has helped push down mortgage rates and makes it cheaper to buy a house; but because of tight credit standards, that windfall has mostly gone to the rich --- to families that meet the standards to refinance, and to investors (such as large private equity firms) with enough cash to buy lots of homes --- who then often puts them up for rent, until such time they can flip them for a profit. (This strategy also helped fuel the last housing bubble.)

Meanwhile, every three months 250,000 new families enter the foreclosure process. Those people can't be very happy, but more money would sure make them feel much better if they could keep their homes. According to a May 2013 report by the Congressional Budget Office, more than 13 million homes are still underwater, which increases the risk of foreclosure (and also increases the risk for anxiety and depression).

The average debt for a student loan is now $25,000, surpassing credit card, home equity and auto loan debt. And interest on those loans could soon double if Congress doesn't act. (This also increases the risk for anxiety and depression). According to the Harris Poll® Happiness index, college graduates' likelihood to qualify as "very happy" has dropped since 2011 (from 35% to 32%), a possible casualty of a challenged job market and increasing questions of whether a college degree in this day and age is worth the investment.

Josh Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says “High unemployment is much more destructive to wage growth for low-income workers than for high-income workers.” 50% of the U.S. labor force now earns $27,000 a year or less -- 8 million Americans need to hold multiple jobs to make ends meet --- and there are only 3.8 million available jobs openings for 11.7 million (still counted) unemployed Americans as unemployment benefits are being cut because of "sequestration".

The Council of Foreign Relations reports that 2 million manufacturing jobs were estimated to have moved offshore since 1983. Data shows there were 398,887 private manufacturing establishments of all sizes in the United States during the first quarter of 2001. By the end of 2010, the number declined to 342,647, a loss of 56,190 manufacturing facilities. This forced many American workers into lower paying jobs without any healthcare or pension benefits. That alone would make anybody depressed.

In addition to manufacturing jobs, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that white-collar offshoring will increase at a rate of 30 percent to 40 percent over the next five years. By 2015, Forrester predicts, roughly 3.3 million service jobs will have moved offshore, including 1.7 million "back office" jobs such as payroll processing and accounting --- not to mention another 473,000 jobs in the information technology industry.

And it's not because American workers lack job skills. According to Business Insider, there is not a STEM shortage, there are plenty of graduates of technical fields in the U.S. --- there is only a shortage of "ultra-elite American-born" talent. To import foreign labor to save money, Virgil Bierschwale at Keep America at Work mentions how businesses also use the B-1 visa program to get around the H-1B restrictions. Virgil is a very unhappy tech worker with 30 years of experience and military training, but has been unemployed in his field for the past 10 years.

From the Daily Kos, Being Poor in America: "It's as though, somehow, millions of people like me have been secretly placed on the economic equivalent of the no-fly list."

PBS reports that the relationship between unemployment and suicide is well established, especially among older workers. America's suicide rate has been rising. In the New York Times, researchers David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford summarized the findings of their new book, The Body Economic:Why Austerity Kills. They wrote in part, "People looking for work are about twice as likely to end their lives as those who have jobs. In the United States, the suicide rate, which had slowly risen since 2000, jumped during and after the 2007-09 recession. We estimate 'excess' suicides -- that is, deaths above what pre-existing trends would predict -- occurred from 2007 to 2010. Rates of such suicides were significantly greater in the states that experienced the greatest job losses. Deaths from suicide overtook deaths from car crashes in 2009."

Much of the rehiring during the "economic recovery" was mostly for younger people (who will, or can, work for much less), and this has also increased the number of part-time low-paying jobs --- forcing many to use food stamps --- but the newly proposed farm bill also threatens to cut food stamps as well, even though 15 members of Congress or their spouses received a farm subsidy last year.

One example would be Congressman Stephen Fincher. Tennessee voters elected him to Congress in 2010 as a Tea Party Republican, and Fincher, a heavyweight in agribusiness, has not disappointed the "small-government" crowd. He told a Memphis audience last month that Washington has gone “out of control,” making moves “to steal money” from some to “give it to others.” Fincher has been especially vocal in this year’s food stamp budget debates. He wants two million poor families cut off from food stamp benefits. But Fincher’s commitment to “small government” doesn’t apparently extend up the income ladder. Between 1999 and 2012, the Environmental Working Group reports, Fincher personally collected $3.48 million in federal farm subsidies.

The Fed now says that with all the budget cuts, "during the next three years, federal budgetary policy (aka "contractionary fiscal policy") could restrain economic growth by as much as 1 percentage point." That certainly isn't happy news.

The Huffington Post has recently mentioned a new report by the Rand Corp that points out that if States refuse to expand Medicaid under the new health care law, not only will it deny health coverage to 3.6 million poor Americans, they will also see increased spending on uninsured people's unpaid medical bills."

A study by economists at Wellesley College found that for older people who lost their jobs in the few years before becoming eligible for Social Security, also lost up to three years from their life expectancy, largely because they no longer had access to affordable health care. The study cited also found that for people in that age group, the long-term unemployed were also more prone to suicide. For "Baby Boomers", the suicide rate is up 30% (that is a lot of very unhappy Boomers.)

Speaking at a conference, Sarah Bloom Raskin, a Federal Reserve governor, posed the question of whether “inequality itself is undermining our country’s economic strength.” Her answer was an unequivocal yes. “I am persuaded that because of how hard these lower- and middle-income households were hit, the recession was worse and the recovery has been weaker,” she said.

During the continued demise of the abject poor, the working-class, and the middle-class in America, what has the White House and Congress been doing to make average Americans happier, besides just focusing on "scandals"? And the media has been running tornado stories 24/7 for the past three weeks --- while over the past 4 years the GOP has passed 37 repeals for ObamaCare and numerous anti-abortion bills. This makes nobody happy, neither Democrats nor Republicans.

The book "Coming Apart:The State of White America, 1960-2010" draws on five decades of statistics and research that demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship. The top and bottom of white America increasingly lives in different cultures --- with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America (just like many members of our Congress) --- as the lower class suffers from the erosion of family and community life, which strikes at the heart of their pursuit of happiness.

The American people are not happy with Congress and the "revolving door policy" where members of Congress, after serving themselves (rather than the American people), who then leave office to work as lobbyists pushing for more legislation that further hurts the 99% --- but helps the big corporations and banks.

We are all asking, "John Boehner, where are the jobs, those that pay a living wage?" With so many unhappy Americans out of work (with no money) why is President Obama agreeing to more H-1B visa and other guestworker programs? And why did he agree to sign another new "free trade" agreement? Robert Scott, director of trade and manufacturing policy at the Economic Policy Institute, says “U.S. multinationals have been associated with helping to fund paramilitary death squads that are operating in Colombia. You have to understand, the motivation for negotiating these trade agreements on the part of multinational businesses is to drive down their cost of production, take advantage of low wages and take advantage of a totally de-unionized labor environment.”

But people aren't just dying for corporate profits in far away places like Colombia or Bangladesh, they're also dying here, in America. Every day 105 very unhappy Americans take their own lives, because being unemployed (or not having enough money to pursue their happiness, or not having adequate healthcare) can be just like living without hope --- when death becomes just a formality.

* Also posted at the Daily Kos

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