Let’s garnish the people and corporations who caused the Great Recession

Many Americans are getting poorer while they work longer.

Large debts are more common here than in Australia. The US medical system has bankrupted many people, and many are burdened by student loan debt that some will owe (at compounding interest) until they die. According to a 2013 Federal Reserve report, fewer than half of all Americans said they’d be able to come up with as little as $400 on short notice to deal with unexpected expenses, such as a car repair or medical bill, without selling something or borrowing money. As well, millions of Americans are still grappling with debt they accumulated since the recession.

In the US and Australia there are legal provisions for debtors to recover what they owe through wage garnishment. In Australia, the garnishee must be left with a minimum amount of money to live on (currently $458.40 per week as at April 2014). In the US Federal law limits the amount to 25% after tax.

An astonishing one in ten working Americans between the ages of 35 and 44 are getting their wages garnished and most garnishments are at the upper percentage limit. On a $7.50 per hour wage, $400 is about 54 work hours.

In the past, the vast majority of wage garnishments recovered child support payments or unpaid taxes. Consumer debt has taken the lead in garnishments since the recession for workers earning $25,000 to $40,000 a year.

Poverty in America has infected many more people and risen up the ‘income ladder’.

For many Americans, life has been broken.

With permission from Dan Moyle https://www.flickr.com/photos/danmoyle/
With permission from Dan Moyle https://www.flickr.com/photos/danmoyle/

Murder with a pure heart – fighting ISL

Today is the 11th of September, the thirteenth anniversary of  the terrorist attacks of  9/11. Flight 93 crashed into a field quite near here, in Shanksville, Pa. That was the flight on which the passengers took over the plane from the hijackers. There is a memorial being developed there which I will soon visit.

Last night, 9/10, President Obama declared that the US would pursue IS (the Islamic State, also known as ISL), until it is destroyed, including strikes in Syria.

This morning, the meditation in my Bonhoeffer daily devotional was about conflicts between nations. Bonhoeffer pointed out that the causes of wars are the same as those that poison personal relationships: “lust for power, pride, inordinate desire for glory and honor, arrogance, feelings of inferiority, and strife over ‘living space’ and over one’s ‘daily bread’” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom).

Bonhoeffer reminds us that as Christians we are called to become aware of and root out the casus belli in ourselves so we can be witnesses for peace in the world.

The remarkable thing about Bonhoeffer is that, despite being a man whose every action was founded on deep examination of his conscience in the light of the Gospel, he participated in a plot to kill Hitler. He understood the roots of war, that we are each responsible for eliminating those roots from ourselves and our societies, and yet he attempted a murder.

As Christians we are called to peace, and yet there are circumstances that demand war. I pray that we follow Bonhoeffer’s example, so that when we do support aggression, it is from a deeply-examined conscience and with sorrowful reluctance.


They can’t afford ‘fries with that’ – fast food workers demonstrate

This week fast food workers have demonstrated across the US to protest their low rates of pay.

A close to full time worker, even after one year’s experience, usually earns only $8.25 an hour.  As one worker commented: “You can’t afford to live in Chicago when your income is only $6,000 to $7,000 a year.”

‘Close to full-time’ work is usually not the choice of the employee. Fast food enterprises (and many other employers) take care to ensure that their employees’ hours do not meet the number per week at which they would have to provide health care and other benefits.

These conditions are not only grinding workers into the ground, but damaging the corporations themselves. Many Americans no longer have discretionary income.  Over the last two decades, the top 5 percent of earners have increased their share of consumption from 28 percent to 38 percent, while consumption has consistently fallen within the bottom tiers of income. This has meant that stores that catered to those with at least a modicum of income to expend on items other than food, utilities, and rent are dying.

While some argue that increasing the minimum wage would boost unemployment, economists are divided on whether this would, in fact, happen. As I have said before, the minimum wage in Australia is currently $16.87 (AUD) per hour, but the unemployment rate is almost identical to America’s.

Give these hard-working people a break!fries

Australia beware! You will become both fascist and communist!

Here’s a new idea – raising the minimum wage will lead to the rise of a Nazi-like American state. Or, so say the Koch brothers and the vice presidents of Koch Industries.

The minimum wage in Australia is currently $16.87 (AUD) per hour for permanent workers (casual and temporary workers earn more per hour to compensate for vacations and sick leave to which they are not entitled). Although Australia is not perfect, the last time I looked it was not a fascist state, nor has it ever been.

It’s rhetoric like this that makes Aussies shake their heads. If it is not higher minimum wages leading to fascism, it is universal health care that will lead to communism. It is just as obvious that Australia is not communist.  The Australian health care system, Medicare, works well, protects all Australians, and has not endangered our liberty since it was introduced about 40 years ago.

The Koch contingent argue that raising the minimum wage would lead to a huge increase in unemployment among unskilled people, which in turn would make them open to the ploys of fascist pretenders (why they would not be open to the imprecations of communists is not made clear by the Kochs).

Debates about the economic effects and the merits of the minimum wage date back many decades.  Back in the first decade of the twentieth century neoclassical economists argued that wage levels were determined by workers’ productivity and that minimum wages would reduce employment among low-skilled workers. In contrast, progressives argued that minimum wages would encourage workers to increase their efforts, and would boost consumers’ purchasing power and thus raise aggregate demand. There is as yet no definitive answer as to its effects, if any.

At the moment, unemployment rates in the US and Australia are very similar, and have been comparable for many years. There are of course peaks and troughs when factors such as when the global financial crisis took effect.

The minimum wage in the US means that many workers need to hold two jobs in order to survive. Holding down two or more jobs means that they cannot spend time studying to raise themselves up the income ladder. So long, American dream.


Becoming socially secure with US residency

Almost everything in America depends on having a Social Security Number. You can’t open a bank account without one. I tried to get cable TV while on my extended tourist visa, and because I didn’t have a ‘Social’ the company wanted to charge me a non-refundable fee of $350 upfront. There are some accounts, like Colombia Gas, that require a Social in order to register for online payment – although they are perfectly happy to accept a check, cash, or credit card number over the phone.

At least I could get a library card. I once proposed marriage to the man I was living with in Germany because without resident status I couldn’t even borrow books from the local ‘Bibliothek’. (Nothing will prompt a marriage proposal from a nerd as effectively as the denial of reading material!)

I now have US resident status and I am about to apply for the precious ‘social’. I am even more excited about that than the visa itself. I will be legitimate! I belong!

My time without a Social reminded that in ordinary life, we do not realize how much our identities and security depend on us being recognized as belonging to a country. Australia still honored my citizenship and stood ready to extend protection to me while I waited for US residency. Even so, I felt insecure.

My uneasiness gave rise to thoughts about refugees. Georgio Agamben points out that in the contemporary world, we human beings are defenseless if we do not have an identity recognized by a nation state. Our lawfulness and safety depend on having a country that recognizes us and will protect us.  By definition, refugees do not have a home to rely on. All they have is ‘bare life’.  They belong nowhere and can turn to no-one for refuge.

While it is absurd to compare my circumstances with that of refugees from countries whose very governments are intent on killing them, I did have a taste of the uncertainty that not being a lawful resident brings.

Every time I use my new ‘Social’ I shall say a prayer for refugees around the world.


Did you just say what I think you said?

Hearing each other means hearing what the other person is saying, and not what we think they are saying. denial

Unfortunately, when we hear something we dislike we jump to judgement and stereotypes – ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about'; “These religious types are all the same ‘; That’s liberals for you – no sense at all'; ‘She doesn’t care about people, only her own pocketbook’. You know the drill.

A hero of mine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said ‘Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are’.

I devote a lot of my energy to trying to overcome my judgments and learning to love. I have also written about it quite often now on this blog, so in case you are getting bored with me droning on, I thought you may like to watch this TED talk, which sums up my thinking with elegance and in a much more entertaining manner.

“they’re so ugly, it’s just so wrong’- Back to school in America

In Cumberland there are regular events designed to assist people with food, clothing, and medical expenses. The most recent was four days of free medical, dental, and veterinarian services provided by the Army Reserve. This is a very poor area and there are many people who absolutely depend on these.

Some time ago I attended a children’s shoes (new Sketchers) giveaway held at a free street fair in the poorest neighborhood.   I went along specifically because I wanted to see the shoes being given out. I used to work for a community service agency in Australia and we always used some sort of credentials (usually a government Health Care Card) to validate that those we gave material assistance to were indeed on low incomes.

I wondered how things would go in this open slather. I expected mayhem and made sure to arrive at the moment the giveaway began because I was sure that supplies would be quickly grabbed. I was amazed to find a very orderly line, and as they received shoes the parents expressed their thanks.

I was reminded of this by my loyal commenter, Bob S. Bob and I hold opposite views about many things, including the poor, and I am very grateful that he doesn’t give up on me and that we can maintain a civil discourse.

Bob sent me a link to a post by the Lonely Libertarian that, in contrast to mine, paints a horror portrait of grasping and grabbing parents with out of control kids creating mayhem and filth at an event to distribute backpacks and school supplies (the article does not specify the town or state). The Libertarian reports a distressed charity worker despair that ‘they’re so ugly, it’s just so wrong’.

What do these posts prove? Poor people are selfish, filthy, and undisciplined? Or, poor people are disciplined, courteous, and grateful for help? Depends which blog you read – Nayano in America or the Lonely Libertarian. The answer is that it proves neither. What is does show is that poor people come in all varieties and are capable of a wide spectrum of behavior, just like rich people, the people in between, and you and me.

The opposing posts also illustrate how our values and beliefs influence what we see and especially what we tell others.I acknowledge that I tend to see and remark upon things that confirm my beliefs, and I am sure the Lonely Libertarian does this too. I wonder if the Lonely Libertarian would write about the behavior I saw at the Cumberland children’s shoes event?  (Indeed, would she have even noticed?  Acceptable behavior often goes unremarked.)

Because of this failing of human nature, it behooves us to work hard at remaining open to new information and to keeping the dialogues between ‘sides’ respectful.

Thanks Bob S., you have helped me open up to your take on the world, and to understand myself more fully.