The values of the U.S. public are not the same as those of the wealthy and corporations. It took a UN official—an outsider—to point out the dissonance.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently issued a scathing statement about the shameful state of the United States economy. On October 31, 2023, De Schutter called out several top private employers in the U.S., Amazon, Walmart, and DoorDash, for trapping their workers in a cycle of poverty.
He said, “Jobs are supposed to provide a pathway out of poverty, yet in all three companies the business model seems to be to shift operating costs onto the public by relying on government benefits to supplement miserably low wages.”
In a related letter to the U.S. government, De Schutter wrote, “Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States has a high rate of poverty among workers.”
Such public statements by the representative of a top international body ought to be a mark of shame for the U.S., which has historically marketed itself as being a place where people’s dreams come true.
In contrast to De Schutter’s rhetoric, the corporate media’s assessment is quite rosy, relying increasingly on the word “resilient” as a popular descriptor for the economy as a whole. According to the Financial Times, “The stunning resilience in the U.S. economy to date has stemmed from one primary force: consumer spending.” Economist Kathy Bostjancic, who was interviewed for the story, cited, “incredible job growth,” and lauded how “[b]alance sheets look in really good shape, stocks have generally performed really well.”
The U.S. government also sees nothing but cause for celebration. Officials at the Treasury Department on October 26, 2023, boasted how the nation’s economy this year “outperformed expectations along three key dimensions: growing economic output, labor market resilience, and slowing inflation,” and that the nation’s economic progress, “stands out across the globe.”
How to explain these striking contradictions in assessments between the United Nations and those of the corporate media and the U.S. government?
In short, evaluations by the U.S. media and politicians are based on corporate prosperity while the UN’s evaluation is based on individual prosperity.
If we look closely, there is a dissonance on display. We, the people, are being sold the lie that the values of the wealthy are the same as ours. But what’s on offer does not reflect reality.
Merriam-Webster defines the term “bait and switch” as “a sales tactic in which a customer is attracted by the advertisement of a low-priced item but is then encouraged to buy a higher-priced one.” It’s an apt phrase to understand the way in which mainstream economists, corporate media outlets, and many politicians promote the idea of stock values as something ordinary Americans should care about.
A year after dropping to a record low in 2022, child poverty in the U.S. more than doubled, partly as a result of COVID-19 related government benefits expiring. Additionally, median household income fell significantly. Economists rarely address such pesky details when celebrating the “resilience” of the stock market, preferring instead to focus on the fact that more people are employed, not whether their wages and benefits support a decent standard of living.
Occasionally there are stories that undermine the corporate narrative, such as an NBC story in March 2023, headlined, “Most people have jobs, but many are unhappy about their money.” But such coverage is the exception.
The story we are expected to internalize, in direct conflict with our own financial worries, is that we must be content with the nation’s financial status quo because stocks are performing well and corporate balance sheets look good.
There is another story, one that is consistent with individual bottom lines. “International human rights law recognizes a right to a living wage,” wrote De Schutter. “Workers should be provided, at a minimum, with a ‘living wage,’ regularly adapted in accordance with costs of living.”
De Schutter’s assertion that Americans have the right to earn a living wage is one that rarely enters mainstream U.S. discourse. When people are denied their rights, they will rise up to claim them, and the recent surge in union activity and strikes is an indicator that growing numbers of people are seeing through the economic bait and switch.
The changing narrative on wealth inequality, wage stagnation, and economic health is reflected in the simple and direct message that United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain regularly displays on his “Eat the Rich” shirt. UAW members are voting on major wage gains that their union won from the Big Three automakers after weeks of militant strike activity grounded in an entirely different set of values than those that frame a rosy economic outlook.
The phrase “Eat the Rich” has its origins in the French Revolution and the anger of the poor aimed at 18th-century aristocracy. The quote, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich,” is attributed to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its popularity in contemporary U.S. society is a warning to those in the media and the halls of government against selling the lie that corporate values are equivalent to people’s values.
Congress and the White House could easily thwart the growing popular tide by adopting any number of simple and direct policy changes. Echoing progressive recommendations, De Schutter made several suggestions in his letter to the government: if the minimum wage is too low, raise the federal minimum wage and build in cost-of-living increases. If unions are too weak, close the loopholes that allow corporate employers to undermine union activity.
Another direct solution is this: if the pandemic-era benefits cut childhood poverty rates, renew the benefits.
One can understand why the Biden administration wants to cheer on the state of the U.S. economy. In spite of congressional gridlock and, especially, Republican roadblocks to commonsense economic legislation, economic stability is one of the central responsibilities that government is charged with, and achieving success in this realm is key to Biden’s reelection efforts in 2024. So, his administration is putting a happy face on the economy and papering over the contradictions between stock values and real wages.
One can also understand why the corporate media cheers on economic indicators that are important to the wealthy. Media companies are cut from the same commercial cloth as Amazon, Walmart, and DoorDash, the corporations that De Schutter singled out for exploitative treatment of their workers.
What is less understandable is why the public has accepted the bait and switch in economic values for so long.
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Source: Independent Media Institute. This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Former city resident John Paul Jones was spotted over the weekend in his old neighborhood. The impetuous captain had been thought to have died, been buried, and forgotten many years ago, then exhumed and ultimately reburied in a grandiose sarcophagus in a crypt beneath the Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis. The reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, he told our Wandering Photographer. “By the way,” he added, “might I borrow a farthing? I would like to make use of this curious contraption.”
The Racist Origins of “Right to Work”
A Meandering Introduction
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on Tuesday billed as “Standing Up Against Corporate Greed: How Unions are Improving the Lives of Working Families.” So far, so good, right?
Chairman Bernie Sanders’s prepared statement began, “The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will come to order,” but order didn’t last long.
Sen. Markwayne [sic] Mullin, R-Okla.] used his allotted time insulting Teamsters Union President Sean O’Brien. O’Brien, a Medford-born, fourth-generation Boston truck driver, responded calmly enough. That seemed to infuriate Mullin, who stood up to challenge O’Brien “right here, right now.”
Sanders, 82, was having none of that, telling Mullin to sit down and ask questions. When Mullin—who has been photographed behind a podium, standing on a box—persisted in badgering O’Brien, Sanders turned the microphone over to Senator Maggie Hassan [D-N.H.].
If nothing else, this incident would seem to prove that money can’t buy happiness. He reports his assets to be worth between $31.6 and $75.6 million, thanks to a plumbing business founded by his father. Enough, though, about Mullin’s possible feelings of inadequacy.
Sidling Up to Our Topic
Tuesday’s hearing was intended to be about three bills passed this summer by the HELP Committee—“the first year since 1997,” Sanders noted, “that the HELP Committee has passed labor legislation.” No wonder the public has a low opinion of Congress.
The Healthy Families Act would, in Sanders’ words, guarantee every worker in America up to seven paid sick days. The Paycheck Fairness Act would guarantee equal pay for equal work. The Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act, would make it easier for workers to form unions and win first contracts.
In other words, the PRO Act is a long-overdue remedy for “Right to Work” Laws. Having buried the lede here under a load of macho posturing, let’s dig into the sordid history of these legislative travesties.
Down to Bidness
First, let’s give credit where it’s due: Michael Sainato, a Guardian reporter, sent us down this rabbit hole with the following tweet:
“Republicans testifying against PRO Act during Senate hearing today keep mischaracterizing ‘right to work.’
“‘Right to work’ was a movement started in the 1940s by Vance Muse, a Texas white supremacist lobbyist.”
This was an “aha moment” for our alleged editor. Barely off the turnip truck—this being the late 1970s—he first learned about Right to Work laws from a couple of public relations flacks working for Hill & Knowlton. Their immaculately-dressed presence in the offices of our two-bit weekly made it pretty clear: someone was hoping to profit substantially by getting a pending bill passed in Concord. Yet in all the ensuing 40-plus years, he’d never heard this origin story.
According to the all-seeing, all-knowing Wikipedia, “Vance Muse [1890, Moran, Texas–1950, Houston, Texas] was an American businessman and conservative lobbyist who invented the Right-to-work movement against the unionization of American workers, and helped pass the first anti-union laws in Texas. Muse was editor of The Christian American and worked for the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution (SCUC), which used both anti-Semitic and anti-black rhetoric in their lobby work against the reelection of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Christian American Association worked on the far right-wing in Texas labor politics. He also used segregationist views as an argument against unions, stating that “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.’”
Vance was often aided by his sister, Ida Darden, who for ten years published an eight-page newspaper, Southern Conservative. “Though most contemporary observers in Fort Worth in the 1950s regarded Darden as a crackpot,” the Texas Historical Association wrote in a brief bio, “she did not lack influence.”
Veterans Day was observed in Portsmouth at the appropriate time, on the appropriate day, with all the usual ceremonies. “Of course,” one might think, “that goes without saying.” Perhaps not. One might just as well expect that the Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] could be trusted to put veterans first in their management of VA Home Loans. But, on November 11th, NPR reported that 6,000 veterans are now in foreclosure because the VA ended a Partial Claim Payment program in October of 2022. Another 34,000 veterans are currently on track to face the same fate.
‘Baby Steps’ Will Not Avert Climate Catastrophe, UN Warns
by Jessica Corbett
“The world is failing to get a grip on the climate crisis.”
That’s how United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres began his Tuesday remarks about a new U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) report on nationally determined contributions (NDCs), or countries’ plans to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, including its 1.5°C temperature target.
The UNFCCC analysis “provides yet more evidence that the world remains massively off track to limiting global warming to 1.5°C and avoiding the worst of climate catastrophe,” said Guterres. “As the report shows, global ambition stagnated over the past year and national climate plans are strikingly misaligned with the science.”
Under current NDCs from the 195 Paris agreement parties, global greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise by nearly 9 percent by 2030, compared with 2010 levels, according to the analysis. While that’s a slight improvement on the 10.6 percent increase from last year’s assessment, it’s still nowhere near the cuts that experts say are needed.
The analysis of NDCs comes as scientists project that 2023 will be the hottest year in 125,000 years and just over two weeks before the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a summit controversially led by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
“As the reality of climate chaos pounds communities around the world—with ever fiercer floods, fires, and droughts—the chasm between need and action is more menacing than ever,” Guterres declared. “COP28 must be the place to urgently close the climate ambition gap.”
U.N. Climate Change Executive-Secretary Simon Stiell echoed Guterres’ call to action, stressing in a statement that the new assessment makes clear governments are merely “taking baby steps to avert the climate crisis.”
“It shows why governments must make bold strides forward at COP28 in Dubai, to get on track,” Stiell said. “This means COP28 must be a clear turning point. Governments must not only agree what stronger climate actions will be taken but also start showing exactly how to deliver them.”
The UNFCCC document was released on the same day as State of Climate Action 2023, which its crafters called “the world’s most comprehensive roadmap of how to close the global gap in climate action across sectors.”
Published under Systems Change Lab, the latter report highlights that only one of the dozens of indicators assessed, the share of electric vehicles in passenger car sales, is on track to meet its 2030 target.
As the publication details:
“Recent rates of change for 41 of the 42 indicators across power, buildings, industry transport, forests and land, food and agriculture, technological carbon removal, and climate finance are not on track to reach their 1.5°C-aligned targets for 2030. Worryingly, 24 of those indicators are well off track, such that at least a twofold acceleration in recent rates of change will be required to achieve their 2030 targets. Another six indicators are heading in the wrong direction entirely. Within this subset of lagging indicators, the most recent year of data represents a concerning worsening relative to recent trends for three indicators, with significant setbacks in efforts to eliminate public financing for fossil fuels, dramatically reduce deforestation, and expand carbon pricing systems.”
To get back on track, the international community must “dramatically increase growth in solar and wind power” while also phasing out “coal in electricity generation seven times faster—which is equivalent to retiring roughly 240 average-sized coal-fired power plants each year through 2030,” the report warns.
The publication also emphasizes the need for shifting to healthier, more sustainable diets eight times faster, increasing the coverage of rapid transit six times faster, reducing the annual rate of deforestation four times faster, and scaling up global climate finance by nearly $500 billion annually until 2030.
“Despite decades of dire warnings and wake-up calls, our leaders have largely failed to mobilize climate action anywhere near the pace and scale needed,” declared the report’s lead author, Sophie Boehm of the World Resources Institute (WRI). “Such delays leave us with very few routes to secure a livable future for all. There’s no time left to tinker at the edges. Instead, we need immediate, transformational changes across every single sector this decade.”
Every world leader is under pressure to ramp up efforts to cut emissions, including U.S. President Joe Biden, who on Tuesday received a letter from hundreds of scientists urging him to “increase the ambition of domestic climate action—including through accelerating a just and equitable clean energy transition, rejecting the expansion of new long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure, investing in climate resilience, and ramping up climate finance—while working toward the strongest possible agreement at COP28.”
The United States now ranks behind China as the top emitting country but still leads the world in cumulative planet-heating emissions. According to a U.S. government assessment released Tuesday, the nation is “warming faster than the global average,” and “the effects of human-caused climate change are already far-reaching and worsening across every region.”
Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.