This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation by Barbara Ehrenrich (2008)
One of my favorite essayists, I read this book before, but picked it up again to see how much that was true then is true now. Sardonic is the word used on the jacket copy to describe her tone and I would add wickedly funny for those of us with very dark senses of humor in dark times. Good jibes, or maybe the right word is “snarky” and that is what I aspire to when I write my reading posts. Sadly, must work much harder to get to her sharp, concise, and clever turns of phrases. As an example, here is a random clause from the chapter titled “Heating Bill from Hell” (p. 26): “But no, it turns out, as usual, the flip side of misery is gluttony.”
This is a comment while she discusses situations like the coincidental massive increase in heating bills after a hurricane. Turned out, they were not necessarily simply the result of extreme weather. She cites six oil company CEOs having combined salaries (2008-ish) of $33 BILLION.
Her pithy response: “Forget hurricanes; this is a greed storm.”
Considering we have now reached the point where Republicans are not even pretending that government is for the HUMAN people. The neoliberals (DINOs) and the rest of the gang of thieves in Congress have been pushing “individual responsibility” like sheer willpower can actually make food magically appear on a table in an imaginary home. The U.S. government provides something like 50 BILLION dollars to multinational oil conglomerates in subsidies AND oil leases to drill on U.S. territory, WITHOUT MAKING A DISCOUNT PRICE AVAILABLE TO AMERICANS, or even a U.S. first requirement for our OWN oil.
She continues with, “What are the companies going to do with all the money?”
But as we all know too well, all the rich people or corporations got their money by their own hard work and risking of their hard-earned (inherited) wealth. I’m sure they would all pass a lie detector test when asked, “Do you rely on government for any assistance to make your fortune?” “Of course not,” they would reply. Such is the nature of cognitive dissonance that is pervasive in our contemporary world in particular. They don’t consider the sweetheart deals for businesses built into the IRS tax code to be anything less than their rightful due. Maximizing tax deductions is legal and if the technique like carried-forward interest is immoral but legal, well that just makes taking the deduction good business. I looked up the whole boondoggle at one point, good enough to grasp it, but apparently no well enough to retain, repeat or retrieve the citation for the description.
The point she goes on to make is that of course the company is not going to spend one thin dime on anything for their employees or the community.
In fact, we no longer have any expectation that businesses will do ANYTHING voluntarily to pay workers a living wage or to “give back” to the community possibly. The concept is ludicrous.
The for-profit businesses pay property taxes, well theoretically, unless they have been gifted with tax “incentives” to locate there (like sports areas often are) and other fees for local services, like sewer and fire and police protection.
But since the sports arena gets a tax break just to be there, ALL the people in the community have to pay whether they want to or not (TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY). They have to pay even when they never go to any sports event, never want to go to a sports event, and can never afford to go to a sports event. Their tax dollars are paying for the share that the sports teams don’t have to even though the owners make millions and pay themselves millions and pay the athletes millions of dollars. The woman working two jobs to make her mortgage payment that includes property tax while earning a variable amount of $20,00 to $35,000 a year (gross pay) IS NOT ACTUALLY THE ONE who should be covering the sports arena costs or anything to do with it.
Instead, the businesses should be PAYING THE CITIES with trust funds for employees who have no job when there is nothing going on at the stadium. Or maybe pay HIGHER property tax because THEY HAVE THE MONEY so that low wage workers in their little homes don’t have to cover for millionaires.
THE FALSE SECURITY OF LABOR LAWS
There are many slick little tricks built into our labor and safety laws. One common one is the exemptions for “small businesses” with employees of 50 or less.” You get a job, you think you have some kind of protection against discrimination or other abuse by management but gosh darn it, the law is not there to protect you because of an arbitrary number of employees as a floor before a labor law applies. Wrong and exploitive it may be, and illegal in a business with 51 employees, but legal such exemptions remain. Of course the bigger companies complain like stuck pigs that their “free” market is rigged by this gift to 50 and under companies. But their solution is NOT to eliminate the floor so all employees have the same rights. Their solution is to exempt themselves, essentially eliminate the worker protections.
Business is NEVER ABOUT YOU. It is always about PROFIT. More now than ever before and to the point that it is a faded memory of when that was not the case.
Furthermore, AT THE SAME TIME, these same people and their puppets declaim any GOVERNMENTAL responsibility to provide protections, regulations, recourse, and benefits to the employees. So they get to deny any obligation to people (employee or community) and then PAY LOBBYISTS to make sure that the politicians do not do anything that would break the crushing hold they have on the wage slaves that make their excessive profits and not giving a damn that people, their employees, are struggling to make ends meet.
Actually, they probably do care, but in a perverse way. If people are struggling to make ends meet, they are going to be docile, subservient, and CHEAP workers because unlike the immortal corporations, people have been enslaved to wage earning to live. The debt industry is keeping them there as well. And the high prices we pay for merchandise from the two or three manufacturers of Made in China goods is just another method of taking from the people.
We pay too much, for too little quality, made for cheap by other nations’ workers, with no actual choice other than one brand or another (maybe three), and we pay sales tax to fund city services but not enough to do the job and the corporations do not have to pay local sales tax, only their employees do. And the employees have to pay their property tax, the gas tax, the fees, the cost to park, the cost to ride the bus, the list is endless. Because they are HUMANS and they need these things to live, to earn a living, to support their families, and prepare for medical conditions, save for colleges, save for retirement, save for long term care, and there is not enough money to pay for all the city services that keep a community maintained well, safe, healthy, and so on.
People don’t have the money. THE BUSINESSES MAKING MILLIONS IN PROFITS have all the money with no conscience or legal obligation to pay for their employees health insurance, or day care, or parking, or maternity leave, or a living wage.
Or, as the author more eloquently (and more briefly) puts it:
Of course the oil companies could reach into their pockets to help people with fixed incomes, low incomes, and no incomes stay warn this winter. Not that the oil executives are totally unaware of those people’s plight. Questioned about it by a CNN reporter, one such executive kindly suggested that it was “the responsibility of government” to help the needy. And we thought all those CEOs hated “big government”! But he wasn’t offering to pay WINDFALL PROFIT TAXES to help the government — already strapped by war and tax cuts for the wealthy — in this mission of mercy. (p. 27)
One of the worst things I have heard is that some employers now still are legally allowed to dictate when and often employees can use the bathroom. Well, that was an issue in 2008 that the author brings up as well.
It is common knowledge now that keeping “hydrated” is important. So many people are walking around with water bottles, it has become a very competitive industry, albeit one that is as corrupt and the next using carcinogens in their plastic. But if you keep hydrated, there are consequences, and of course, women suffer the consequence more often and with additional inconveniences like fertility that may require them to use the bathroom more than once every four hours exactly when such a pleasant break from the job is permitted.
Women have one less muscle in the bladder somewhere (I was told) and that makes it harder for us to “hold it” as long as men can. Be pregnant and squish that bladder for 9 months plus passing a 10 pound bowling nearby for 24 or 36 hours of “labor” and it is no wonder than most women need to use the bathroom more than some schedule obsessed little tyrant supervisor might prefer. When did this happen? Or maybe the question should be, why didn’t this “bullying” as she calls it, be made to stop.
I could go on with examples of what could be called “bullyless bullying,” in which no aberrant individual can be blamed. [Systemic/structural bullying] There’s the matter of bathroom breaks, for example, which can be perilously infrequent , and not only for the elderly and the pregnant. The title of the one academic book on the issue tells it all: Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time.
In this chapter she discusses how RANK allows people to abusive their subordinates without guilt. And everyone is above someone. If you are the lowest of the low men on a totem pole, you still have your wife to go home to and beat up or the dog to kick. That is what having a higher rank means: you are entitled to do whatever you want to anyone different, smaller, weaker, “other” person or creature to you. She remarks that workplace hierarchies can be something other than abusive but I don’t think so. I don’t think she does either:
We may be carrying hierarchy–and it’s evil twin, “rankism“–to an unnecessary extreme in the workplace. . . . American employers [are] creating a workplace culture of “organizational totalitarianism” marked by “degradation, intimidation, and terror,” with the terror stemming from the CONSTANT THREAT OF BEING FIRED, LAID OFF, or “right sized” out of a job. The result, he [anthropologist Howard Stein] argues, is that, “is one sense, the spirits of tens of millions of American workers have been broken.”
Employers take note: one of the first casualties of an overly authoritarian workplace is creativity and its byproduct, innovation. You’re not going to venture a breakthrough idea if you know you’ll be IGNORED or you won’t get the CREDIT for it or for that matter, your bladder is bursting. Which is why the most dynamic enterprises of recent years have been the dot-coms and other hi-tech companies, where dress codes and punch-in times are often abandoned for a freewheeling, less hierarchical corporate culture.
Authoritarian workplaces can also be counterproductive when the fine points of hierarchy — that is, office “politics” — begin to take precedence over getting the job done. (p. 117)
This book of essays has sustained the passage of time so that everything she said about the country then (2008, so probably was written but not published before the crash) is still true, and even more so than then. In an early chapter, THAT SINKING FEELING, she provides some stats about wealth inequality. As horrific as her numbers were then, it is well documented that inequality is much worse now. These stats are from a Paul Krugman article in the New York Times (book page 92):
. . . that those in the top 10 percent of the income distribution have been seeing gains of only [!!!!] about a percent a year, or a total of 34 percent between 1972 and 2001. In the same period, those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution saw a gain of 87 percent, and those in the top .01 percent registered a gain of 497 percent. That’s right, four hundred and ninety-seven percent.
She also notes earlier on the page an Associated Press article stated that “the BOTTOM 25 percent suffered a DECLINE from a net worth in which their assets equaled their liabilities in 2001 to owing $1,400 more than their total assets in 2004.”
She concludes this chapter where I too will conclude, where she responds to the criticism of a New York Times columnist, David Books, that she has “an overly negative view of reality” and being out of touch with “the broader society.” Condescending little prick.
Brooks cheerily reports that “only” 19 percent of American males and 27 percent of females are in poverty — a percentage that is “probably much smaller than most progressive commentators would estimate.” If you average 19 and 27 percent, weighting for a 51 percent female population, you get an overall poverty rate of 23 percent. To my mind, a 23 percent poverty rate is totally outrageous, especially when compared to the federal government’s faux poverty rate of about 12 percent. So are falling incomes for the college-educated middle class and mounting plunder for the plutocrats at the top. Maybe I’ve been living in the “broader society” after all.
You and me both, sister.