Sunday, November 30, 2014

Inequality for All

I watched Robert Reich's film last summer on a camping trip.  I woke up in the middle of a pitch-dark night and couldn't fall back asleep.  I tried a movie on my phone to lull me into a coma, but this was the wrong one to choose.

Reich's film clearly explains how we've gotten into this economic pickle, and he offers solutions to get ourselves out.  Here's a synopsis the 90 minute film.  It's about the U.S., but much of it applies to Canada as well, so I use "we" throughout.

The (corporate controlled) media has created the illusion that the U.S. is poor, and we don't have any taxes to pay for anything, but that's a myth.  The U.S. is very wealthy, richer than it's ever been, but it's just no longer sharing the wealth in a way that can support itself.

The media also contributes to the problem by spinning any attempt to discuss income inequality into a conversation about class warfare - which, apparently, is a topic to avoid.  Jon Oliver gets at this issue very well and in only 14 minutes (with jokes!):

We have the same disparity now as we did in the 1920s - just before the great depression.  Policies that benefit a few at the expense of the many, according to Oliver, get passed because we've been brainwashed to believe erroneously that we, too, will end up in the upper echelons with the very wealthy:
"60% believe our system unfairly favours the wealthy, but, and here's the key, 60% also believe that those who work hard enough can make it.  Or, in other words, 'I can clearly see this game is rigged, which is what's going to make it so sweet when I win this thing!'"
Or, as Steinbeck said,

Federal estate tax is created to tax anything over 5 million, and is on the verve of being abolished because people think it might apply to them one day.  The problem with inheritance is it keeps the wealth circulating in few hands, and the poor have less chance of every getting out of poverty.  Marx was on the problems of inheritance, but from the other end.  He warned about the error of dismantling inheritance first while leaving the economic system intact:
"The disappearance of the right of inheritance will be the natural results of a social change superseding private property in the means of production; but the abolition of the right of inheritance can never be the starting point of such a social transformation."  
And we're back to Reich.

The Class Struggle

Reich and Oliver agree that, like cinnamon, a little inequality is a good thing, but too much is dangerous.  Reich uses a graph that looks like a suspension bridge, with the peaks - the danger points - in the 1920s and now.  In 1928 as in 2007, the top 1% took home more than 23% of all income, and the middle class stagnated. That's what too much inequality looks like.

The middle class is imperative to a healthy economy.  The rich buy very little proportionate to their numbers ("a person making a thousand times as much money, doesn't buy a thousand times as much stuff"), so we count on the masses to keep shopping. A good economy will support the middle class and the poor who will create jobs by spending money.  But they are struggling too much to survive for them to shop any day except, of course, Black Friday.

Policy Changes in the Late 1970s and Early 1980s

There's no such thing as a truly free market.  There are always governmental rules necessary to run things.  The real question is who do the rules benefit and who do they hurt. Middle class wages rose from the late 40s until the late 70s, and then flattened out.

The best book to understand this period of history, for my money, is The Shock Doctrine.  Naomi Klein outlines in detail exactly how the US, UK, and Canada (under Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney) changed the economic system with worldwide repercussions.  From the film:  The tax rate on top earners dropped from 70% to 28% under Reagan.  In the late 50s it peaked at 91% under Eisenhower for top earners, which was set at incomes over $400,000 (about $3.5 million in today's money).  That was dismantled in the name of equality: Why should some people be taxed higher than others.  But that confuses equality and equity.

The financial markets were granted more power as governments moved to deregulate the market, so they engaged in more excessive behaviour.  Labour unions declined (often by force) which mirrored a decline in the middle class share of income.  And globalization and technology added to the destruction of the middle class.

Where a company's headquartered means less and less.  We can outsource jobs which undercuts wages of workers in the US.  And automation has reduced the need for as many employees.

On the positive side, we have more cool stuff that's cheaper, and CEOs and financiers are much richer.  But CEOs raised their own salaries as they fired workers.  When companies depend on shareholders, there's a growing pressure to increase profits, which plays out by pushing down wages and benefits to the bare minimum.  But then they have fewer consumers available to buy their products, so they have to widen their market worldwide, make products that self-destruct, and encourage people to buy crap they really don't need.

What Worked in the Past

Policies that were around from 1947-77 (Keynes' economics) worked for the general prosperity of all.

  • Higher education was a priority, and universities expanded. 
  • Labour unions were strong, and more than a third belonged to a union.
  • The middle class bought more, so companies could hire more, providing a stronger tax base for governments to invest more in people.

Today tuition is rising as the government is taking money out of education.  Infrastructure is crumbling and becoming dangerous.  There isn't a tax base to use to fix the problems because we've lowered taxes on the very wealthy, shipped jobs overseas, and flattened middle class wages so they no longer keep up with inflation.  If the wealthy don't pay their fair share, and the middle class doesn't have enough to pay tax on, then there's less revenue for social services like public education and health care.  Then tuitions go up, and the population becomes less educated, and, globally, less competitive.  In the 1960s, tuition at Berkeley was free.  In the 1970s, it was $700 in today's dollars. Now it's $15,000/year.

In the 1980s, we coped with declining incomes for a time by introducing double wage families with more women in the workforce.  Families worked longer hours, taking on second and third jobs.  And we borrowed money with fewer restrictions on loans - that, to some, seemed like a good idea at the time, but later blew up.  Now the coping mechanisms the middle class used are exhausted.

The Effect on Democracy

Inequality is a problem for democracy too.  When so many resources accumulate at the top, there comes the capacity to control politics through wealthy lobby groups who give the maximum amount allowed to election campaigns.  All politics have shifted to the right, so that Reich maintained the same views, but shifted from a Republican to a Democrat over a few decades.  (And some of us NDP supporters are left without a truly leftist party to back.)  High inequality brings with it a high degree of political polarization with politicians disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing instead of working together for the good of the country (like Howarth rejecting a very left-leaning budget).  For $300 million, you can buy a president.  We can't have government on an auction block.

There's a polarization of citizens too.  Losers of a rigged game can get very angry.  These trends of society pulling apart are very dangerous.  Reich sees fights on the Berkeley campus.


The economy does better when everyone does better, and history is on the side of positive social change.  There's no "single magic bullet," be we need to mobilize, organize, and energize other people, from what I gleaned from the film, to...
  • shop locally - avoid automated check-out line, on-line shopping, or anything that reduces jobs
  • decrease technological use in manufacturing to increase jobs for the working class at home which will increase wages, increase shopping, and increase our tax base
  • put tax money into infrastructure to decrease risk of collapse and create jobs
  • support union creation and maintenance
  • convince the government to invest in education, skills, and infrastructure
  • regulate corporations to prevent companies from being allowed to deduct executive pay
  • raise the tax rate for the very wealthy to increase the tax base which will allow for more money in education and health care
But the question, as always, is... how do we get from here to there?  I can do the shop locally thing, and support unions, but everything else seems horrifically out of reach.

But then...  There's always art:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It'll Be Fast: On Yes Means Yes

Globe and Mail.
I was struck by the report of an intimate exchange between a man and woman in today's Globe & Mail; the woman later questioned how consensual the act really was.  She said, "Please stop," and he responded, "It'll be fast."  Later she says "yes," then later again "no."

But that "fast" line struck me because of when else it's typically said.  We don't offer the cushion that an event will be over quickly unless we're well aware that it's not an event that's desirable.  I might say it when my child's about to get a needle, or when I'm enticing her to clean her room.  It implies that an event has little to redeem it except that it will all be over before you know it, and you can get back to more enjoyable pursuits.  So it's curious that it wasn't clear that the woman wasn't interested when speed was the best persuasion he could muster.

This is very complex issue, and I applaud how many of the bits and pieces are at least given a mention in the article.

It's a Huge Issue, and It has Barely Budged
"At least one in five women say they have experienced sexual assault that includes penetration by the time they graduate...Roughly one-third of the students surveyed agreed that rape happens 'because men can get carried away in sexual situations once they've started,'....believe that men 'can't help it,' and that drunk women who cross their paths have themselves to blame."
This is no different from attitudes in my high school in the early 80s.  But it felt like it all shifted for a time; it felt like people were gaining an awareness of these myths through an openness towards sexual discussion.  Now it feels like it's all come full circle back to the crappy place pre-rape shield law.  Actually it's so much worse.  We never had to worry about videos of an assault going viral.   The only evidence I have is anecdotal: in 1991, several teens in my school felt the need for a Gender Equality Club to discuss these issues.  Then, after a few years, that went away.  It no longer provoked like it once had. Now, in 2014, we've got another group of teens feeling the need for these kinds of discussion outside of a classroom setting.

Maybe in the in between time, too many of us were resting on our laurels, relaxing that we waged that war and won a couple legal changes and some attitudinal shifts that might protect us a little more.  How hard is it for people to remember that nobody should be doing anything sexual that they don't feel like doing?  But I think we might have to be vigilant about this one forever - even when times seem good.  It's an easy victory to have slip away.

On Coercion and Culture
"If you include unwanted touching or being 'coerced' into sex...the [sexual assault] rate rises to more than 50 per cent."
I cringe at the word "coerced" for two reasons.  First, I hate the image of adults, women and men, as childlike puppets, easily manipulated into doing something they don't want to do, to the point that if they say 'yes' loud and clear, it doesn't count if they later reveal they were coerced.  They didn't want to, but got talked into it.  It makes us seem so weak.

But, secondly, I hate the reality of that situation.  Saying 'No, thanks' doesn't just deny two people of some carnal pleasure, it can often be punitive to the objector.  If it were just about sex, then choosing a yes or no would still be a complex decision of physical attraction, timing, and feelings.  But in our culture, it's also about reputation.  For girls, being a prude isn't cool, and if a guy rejects a girl, he's seen as gay; both terms are still seen as insults.  What if it gets around?  Furthermore, people may be punished for a 'no' response in subtle ways.

Turn down a colleague, and he could make your days at work very difficult despite your efforts to smooth things over.  Some people are sore losers.  Or just losers.  So a choice to have sex often isn't always just a choice between having sex or not having sex.  It can be a choice between having sex you're not into OR being hassled for years by the proposing partner and whomever hears his/her slanted side of things.   This is the realm of the few men who get angry if "friend zoned," who somehow think a friendship should blossom into more in order to be worth anything of value.

From here

It's Not Always a Big Misunderstanding
"Human beings can read body language in the bedroom as easily as they can in other social interactions....[Sexual assault] is about someone making a decision to ignore the cues." 
Sometimes our cues get misinterpreted, absolutely.  Look a little too long at someone, and they might think you're into them when you're not.  And we have this strange idea that body language tells truths that our mind might not be aware of, so sometimes no verbal explanation can help sway a belief in the depth of feelings you appear to have for someone you barely know.  It does happen, and it can be frustrating experience for all involved.  

But too often misunderstandings can be an excuse for an act of aggression.  Most people can tell when someone's pulling away, and they stop.  Some people notice the gesture, but choose to ignore it.    It seems like such a little transgression, ignoring a gesture, but it's huge.

The Legal Issues

The 'Yes Means Yes' campaign, "frames sex more positively, shifting the focus from what a victim did (or didn't do, or couldn't do) to the steps a perpetrator failed to take to proactively ensure consent."  Instead of someone needing to say "no" to stop it, now they need to say "yes" before beginning AND throughout.  Without a clear "yes," it's assault.   "If it's not loud and clear, its not consent."  

But it will ever be difficult to determine what happened behind closed doors.  Nothing short of cameras everywhere will alleviate that problem.  A false accusation that gets thrown out of court can be enough to ruin a life, but so can a real sexual assault.  The worst reality is that it sometimes takes more than one transgression by a perpetrator (of accusations or assaults) to get any action from the courts because of the complexity of the issue.  I do think we need to err on the side of believing the alleged assault victim when in doubt, however, but that's a post for another day.  Laura does a good job of explaining that in this post, where she says, in part, "I understand that there are false accusations of rape. They are rare, but they do occur. Sexual assault, however, is not rare."

There's also this Alternet post, which clarifies that rape and false rape accusations are not equivalent problems.

But It's So Awkward! 
"[T]here's a large part of us [that] wants things to be spontaneous and free - and it enhances our experience....asking permission is 'awkward' in that it suggests the guy, still usually expected to initiate sex, 'doesn't have game." 
Asking for, and giving, consent repeatedly throughout various stages of intimacy doesn't have to ruin the moment.  It's not a matter of taking a break to re-draft a contract to be signed in triplicate.  It's merely a matter of saying, "Is this good?  Does this work?  Do you want me to keep going?" from time to time.  If we're weighing reducing sexual assault with reducing the spontaneity of sex, then I think spontaneity has to take a back seat.

We've come a long way in our acceptance of all manner of sexual relationships and habits, but the one I think is still in the closet, is the desire not to have sex.  Abstinence-only education has become such a joke, that the choice to abstain has become denigrated right along with it.  If we put up ads to suggest it's okay, it comes across as pushing religious doctrine rather than acceptance.  But it's not the case that all men are always horny, or that sex is all every hormone-laden teen is thinking about.  There are a lot of other things we can do together.  Sex has to remain just one of many choices in order for it to be freely chosen at al.