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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's the Poverty, Stupid: Part 1

This is the first part of a two part series. The first part discusses poverty in general, especially as it applies to the Occupy Movement. The second part relates poverty to the link between academic achievement and the economy.

Tracking the stories we tell each other can reveal societal and cultural priorities. When the middle class was big, strong and vibrant, preachers claimed that when God promised His people abundant life, he meant believers would be healthy and wealthy in today's world. Now that income inequities have never been greater, churchgoers do not hear the “prosperity” gospel so much.

On another front, the US Census Bureau recently modified the determination of poverty levels. However, as Aaron Task points out, media avoids covering the rising rates of poverty in America.

Rising poverty is a national tragedy and a brewing humanitarian crisis in America...Most groups saw their poverty rates increase using the new calculations, including married couples, whites, Asians, immigrants, homeowners with mortgages, those with private health insurance and the elderly...I didn't hear one word about this during the Republican Debate on Wednesday and you probably didn't hear much about it either...I'd like to take the rest of the so-called serious media to task for burying this story.

I get that poverty is a depressing topic and a change to how it's measured is a complicated story to tell. But I've never had a viewer tell me they want LESS depth or more 'infotainment.'

More than ever Americans want news organizations to focus on the hard stuff...instead of the salacious (Victoria Secret's runway show), the sensational (Sharon Bialek's press conference), the sophomoric (Rick Perry's 'oops' gaffe) and the ridiculous (anything about the Kardashians) developments that pass as "news" in our society.
Blaming the media is easier on the collective ego than each member of the 99% taking personal responsibility for their contribution to the problem. Media companies sell what they perceive consumers want to buy.
Bashing the press is great fun. But the fault, dear Brutus, is not entirely in our media stars or their corporate's important for all of us to be aware of the messages we're sending to the media in the stories we watch, share, favorite and Tweet about.

Same with the Occupy Movement. The 1% did not cause the Great Recession all by themselves. Corporations had a lot of help from greedy members of the 99%. After all, the income line between 2% and 98% is merely $250,000. Remember median income means 50% make more and 50% make less. One reason for the backlash from the so-called 53% is that some of them are (or were) your next-door neighbors and their enablers such as real estate agents, financial advisers (read: salesmen), mortgage sellers, landlords, property managers, employers, et al, who take their cut and move on, leaving economic ticking time bombs in their wake. For example, in 2003 did any real estate agent tell prospective buyers NOT to buy because houses were so overpriced relative to the underlying demographic? No, like Pavlov's dogs, they drooled over the mere thought of those juicy commissions.

Remember what your mother said. When you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. The story is told that Lord Chesterfield famously entered a contest to write the shortest possible essay identifying the biggest problem in the world. His response? “I am.” Members of the 99% who are actually serious must first look to themselves. For example, landlords need to charge fair rent relative to the typical income of tenants, instead of what the market will bear. Tenants need to take good care of other people's property. One-sided contracts must be rejected in favor of contracts that promote mutual benefit of both parties.

Wherever economic injustice is occurring, the 99% must make their power of their mass felt. For example, close bank accounts with exorbitant fees. Actually, banks should not be charging maintenance fees at all. The depositors own the capital that banks use to make money. For the privilege of use, banks should pay a fair rent, called “interest.” This interest needs to be equal to at least the rate of inflation in order to prevent erosion of value and buying power. If depositors lock up their money in a CD, then the interest rate should be greater than the rate of inflation, increasing with the term length.

Reject the bank manager's insistence that interest rates need to be near zero because the bank is a profit-making business. Paying fair rent for use of someone else's property is a cost of doing business. We know what would happen if a store owner told his commercial landlord he was no longer going to pay rent in order to make a profit. We have recently learned the power of consumers in mass when banks canceled their plans to charge monthly debit card fees. What was the consumers main argument? “It should not cost me money to use my own money.” Same goes for maintenance fees and interest rates.

Refuse to rent from landlords and property managers who charge rent in excess of the HUD zip-code-based fair market rates. Report poor landlords and their properties to your city. If you are justifiably afraid to do so, go to your local Occupy Movement and find out if someone there can collect a group of anonymous reports from present or former tenants to present to the city hall.
If you need a financial adviser, seek out the rare one who not a salesman. This is hard because certification is less about learning to be a competent adviser and more about getting a license to sell financial products. A clue: an ethical financial adviser will not try to sell you what you do not need, like stocks when you have an insufficient emergency fund.

“One critique of the protest is it lacks a unified message or mission. Indeed, in my reporting I found evidence of people supporting any number of issues, including:

* Higher Taxes on the Wealthy
* Prosecution of Financial Fraud
* Anti-Fracking and other "Green" issues
* Mortgage Modifications
* Campaign Finance Reform
* Anti-War
* Universal Healthcare
* Student Loan Forgiveness and, of course,
* Jobs, Jobs Jobs

So, sure, maybe the Occupy Wall Street movement is a bit unclear in its views and lacks leadership. But to those who mock the protesters, I have to ask: What exactly is it that you're defending? Crony capitalism? Bank bailouts? Rising income inequality and the slow death of the American dream?

March if you want. Sit on the grass if you want. In the meantime, take concrete steps aimed at encouraging the rest of the 99% to resist exploitative, zero-sum type capitalism in favor of fairness. Do not let anyone suggest that fairness is synonymous with entitlement or that other favorite emotional button, socialism. It is not. The 1% are not the only ones who keep the profits but pass on the losses. Many members of the 99% either do the same thing, or would if they could. The 1% do it so spectacularly.

I mean, what do you make of Santa Barbara's Occu-Pirate$?
The Occupy Santa Barbara protests on Saturday brought out the “Occu-Pirate$” to represent the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent of the people. Dressed as pirates, they wore signs and shouted slogans, including “Money Is Power,” “Profit Is King,” “All Hail the Mighty Dollar” and “Pirate$ for Corporate Personhood.” When the Occupy group marched up State Street, most of the crowd chanted, “We are the 99 percent!” while the Occu-Pirate$ chanted, “We are the 1 percent!”

Personally, when I came back from a long sojourn overseas quite a while ago, I was appalled at what had happened to America while I was gone. I felt like Rip Van Winkle as I took steps to re-establish myself, opening bank accounts, buying health insurance, etc. I said at the time that I wondered why Americans were not marching in the streets. A friend recently told me that I have gotten my wish. One reason for the long apathy might be the lack of financial education in our schools. It is a common canard that a democracy requires educated citizens. That education must comprise both civics and finance. Finance is not yet another curricular add-on for an already overly burdened education system; it is an absolute necessity for our students' adult lives.