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Saturday, 02 July 2022


Democracy is under direct assault, we've succumbed to existence in a pernicious two tiered economic system and our environment will soon no longer support us- Happy Fourth!

Makes the old saying "where theres muck there's money" oh so true.

I’ve long thought that the US looks like it’s heading towards being a feudal society, albeit without the titles.

I liked this.

Two interesting things.

First is that net worth can fail horribly to asses how well-off someone is. Consider a person who has very high-paying job (they make paper towels perhaps). With income from this job they rent large lux yacht with staff on which they live, perhaps in glamorous location. Perhaps they also rent appropriate companions. Their net worth is ... approximately zero, as all their huge income goes on this. But they live in luxury.

Second is that inflation figures are often massaged. For instance they will include factor for fuel, food etc. If fuel, food is going up faster than the rest of the bundle, then inflation will be higher for people for whom fuel, food etc is larger proportion of their personal bundle of costs. This is happening now, and those people are of course poor people.

Well, things may get better in a while, for a while. In longer term ... not so much. Expect first large-scale starvation in 1st world before 2050.

"... the guy who waited on me was a weatherbeaten old dude with a gray pony tail down to his waist. (Probably one of those strange amalgams, the hippie Trumper.)"

What makes you think he is a Trumper ... because he is working for a living and not at the welfare office?

I could not resist since I don't get how you could guess that off the picture you paint. I did not vote for the guy (Trump), but this country lacks leadership right now.

[I talked to him for a while. I got a feeling for his views. --Mike]

Yep, on both income inequality and sticker shock. My wife has a high income (just promoted to Dean of Native Health in her medical school). We are still both huge Bernie supporters, and will be of anyone remotely like him. I went to Home Depot today to buy a recommended electric chainsaw. $199, okay, I thought. Then noticed that was for the tool only. The battery was $150! The charger was somewhere over in the hardware department for additional money.

In 1973, just before I landed a good paying job, I loaded up the grocery cart with $35 worth of groceries. The cart was overflowing. It was enough to last for a few weeks.
These days a careful shopping is running about $300 a week. Oh for the good old days.

We deserve something better than what we are given now. The people are polarized and divided on near every issue. Disturbing to say the least. So yes maybe that is how they want it. A united people would be a powerful force to deal with. Can’t have that can we?

Since you opened the can on political commentary, I'll say it...with Democrat governments, always comes higher taxes and/or higher spending. Higher taxes usually slows down the economy to the point of recession sometimes. Higher spending brings inflation.

Democrats always run on a "we're for the poor" platform and they always screw the poor. Wonder why all the rich people and major corporations back democrats? It's because with democrats rich get richer and poor get poorer...

You're throwing away your money, and your usage is environmentally harmful. A simple bidet or washlet costs about a hundred bucks and is easy to install, even for someone who is not handy. It won't eliminate but will significantly reduce your need for TP. A couple of dozen kitchen towels can be had for less than the cost of a roll of paper towels and can replace paper towel use for, conservatively, 50% or more of your needs.

I really like your photo apart from it's illustrative value. Light and shadow on (what I'm assuming) is a 'found' arrangement of items in your trunk makes for an effective documentary still life, I think. The right light and the photographic eye to see it in composition can make anything photographically interesting no matter how mundane it may be as a subject.

My father, a totally cynical Italian immigrant from fascist Italy who had nothing but contempt for politicians, especially the authoritarians con artists of war time Italy, used to say that capitalism and communism were just different ways of screwing people over.

In 1973, I was a night manager in a family pancake restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area. Servers at the time earned $2.25 per hour, minimum wage, plus tips. I now live outside Atlanta, Georgia. Servers in restaurants in Georgia, get a "server wage" of $2.10 per hour, a sub-minimum wage plus tips. 50 years and nothing has changed.

Another difference between then and now is that tip income is tracked scrupulously by the government. Everything must be reported.

With that in mind, even if the service is poor, I always leave a tip.

I get your point about the wage/price imbalance. But regarding what's in your trunk-
1) the poor don't buy Cottonelle. It's premium TP, and there are much cheaper choices out there, rougher and/or thinner (so you'll use more of it anyway).
2) Liberals and Reed grads don't buy Bounty. It's made by Koch Industries, need I say more? Actually, one of the few of those arch-conservatives' products that has a well-known brand and is easy to avoid.

I am tempted contribute my two cents, but the wisdom of Roseanne Roseannadana wins out, "Nevermind".

I am not sure you allow comments about comments, but it's hard to let false narratives go. Perhaps they should come with a warning or not be published. Chris's comment is not valid. In fact, it pretty much has never been true. Republicans are the big spenders and they are the ones that run up the deficit the most by far. Democrats don't want to increase regular people's taxes, they want to tax the rich and corporations whose taxes have all but been eliminated in the last 50 years leading to more inequality. Democrats want to spend tax money on the people whereas Republicans want to give it to the rich corporations. Democrats do not "screw the poor." Republicans do. It's regular people who are paying for the most recent trillion-dollar tax cut for rich people. And name another modern country that provides so little for its citizens? It's not the rich who go bankrupt because of medical bills. Medical bills are the most common cause of bankruptcy and it affects regular folk. That is all because of Republicans. Republicans tax regular folks, give them nothing in return, and fund corporations and the wealthy. Not to mention that most Republicans are trying to end democracy altogether. I could go on, but by writing what I have, I feel a little better now.

‘…the median net worth of all Americans in 2019 was $121,760.’ So per definition nobody has a net worth more than $121,760 in the bottom half.

Oh wait, there are some: ‘Only the very richest in the bottom half have a net worth as high as $122,000’ :-)

[The second number is merely rounded. The first is the figure for 2019. --Mike]

You complain without ever questioning how this situation came to pass, or even who you voted for? Your tears are sweet.

There’s a lot of accurate observation in the piece, not to mention surprises: I had no idea that, according to the stated paradigm, I must be amongst the wealthy of this world.

That came as a shock, because despite still having a few pennies in the bank, my day-to-day life feels one of staving off crisis upon crisis. I try to live on pension, leaving the bank as dormant as I can for most of the year, in order to insulate myself from the more harsh blows of annual insurance premiums etc. which themselves are heavy enough to lead to the persistently downward trend that all my banking numbers demonstrate so ably. In particular do I dislike visits to the gasolinera, where my little Fiesta seems to have morphed, invisibly, into a Mustang.

Someone mentioned that the value of money seems to become set in stone at about the time you hit your fifties. I can attest to the accuracy of that theory. I am perpetually surprised at the, to me, profligate expenditure of my grandchildren on restaurants and travel. My personal take on the latter is that as a kid, the travel didn’t come out of my pocket money, and as a working adult, it came bundled with the total cost of setting up assignments, hence the extreme pleasure of hotels and locations that I’d never have dreamed of trying to finance out of my own pocket. Photography was very kind to me, and gave me one helluva great ride - until the ‘phone stopped ringing, and digital arrived to destroy so many branches of the discipline. Consequently, now in my eighties, the financing of such delights is not even a forward dream, just a memory. Especially is it so when I remember how I priced gig travel back into the mid-80s, where that money took me, and what extremely short legs it would have today.

I don’t feel envy towards the top earners; I do feel apprehension towards where the ever-narrowing of personal privacy is taking us. I have avoided Facebook, twitter and instagram so far, only writing to one or two websites that seem to have something worth reading. However, even then, there is the danger of a fondness for writing to become paramount, to take over the waking hours. Was a time when I was never off a website affectionately called LuLa, which I left a couple of times in order to free myself to an actual life in this reality within which the body lives. I’d drift back after a few months, and only the coming of Trump freed me: the bile from both directions became so all-consuming that I found the motivation to quit for good.

But alas, that bravery did nothing to make the rise in the daily cost of living any the less daunting. In the 80s/90s I was shocked to be expected to pay a quid for a coffee in Waterstones, an oasis of books in the Glaswegian desert; after Spain joined the Euro, peseta prices were miraculously translated into northern European ones, a Spanish coffee doubling in price over a single night. I haven’t set foot in Glasgow since 2008. If I ever do again, I must remind myself to keep out of cafés and good bookshops.

I'm sorry, Mike, but "societally useless Waltons" is an overstep. Visit the Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, and you will see how one of those heirs has used inherited money to create an incredibly valuable contribution to society. And another of those heirs lost money for years so that Bentonville could retain its independent local newspaper when it was at risk of being bought by a mega newspaper chain. Yes, Sam Walton created an empire that has concentrated an obscene amount of money in one family, but the family is not societally worthless.

The problem with your rosy assessment of "philanthropic" foundations is obvious once you think about it. Society's surplus wealth should ideally be deployed for the betterment of all, from public health to schools to infrastructure, guided by democratic (small-d!) determination of priorities. Instead, unregulated capitalism has facilitated the obscene concentration of wealth by a tiny hereditary minority. This tiny minority directs society's surplus wealth based on personal whim, prejudice, or tax avoidance strategies. It's the very embodiment of perverse incentives. Yes, some good work gets done, almost incidentally. As the global climate heads for catastrophe, it's the deck band on the Titanic.

What I find problematic is not so much what you've written, but the fact that we don't teach enough basic economics in school so that people don't have to wake up 50 years later and realize that they were duped by marketing, disinformation, and politics.

To write on these topics and not let it devolve into a rant calls for great discipline, skill, and - since I agree with every word - clarity.

Thanks for this article. I like the way you used hard data to illustrate the inequities. One niggling complaint: "And, of course, the poorest 40% are hurt proportionally more by progressive expenses of all sorts, from sales tax to parking tickets." Economists call these "regressive" taxes, because of their greater impact on lower income groups.
We're not going to solve these problems, which have tormented thinkers forever, but lately the problems in the USA have me thinking that there are structural problems with American "Democracy." Mark Twain said it best: "We've got the best government money can buy." The folks at the top run the system for their own benefit. The Senate is controlled by a Red State coalition whose population is grossly less than the Blue States. One result is confirmation of Supreme Court Justices with naked political agendas, counter to majority opinion. Democracy?

Capitalism is the exploitation of Man by Man, whereas Communism up is the exact opposite .

Let's throw this little firecracker into the conversation....."Over the past 40 years, the number of people in China with incomes below $1.90 per day – the International Poverty Line as defined by the World Bank to track global extreme poverty– has fallen by close to 800 million. With this, China has contributed close to three-quarters of the global reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty." World Bank Press Release April 2022.

I have to agree with poster Ken that the huge pack of wasteful paper towels seems excessive for a single person household unless you can make it last for years. You have written earlier about how high net worth people are often frugal.

You know what they say…it takes money to make money. When you look at the richest of the rich (top .02% ?), you see people making money from investments or inheritance and when they do spend money it’s often other people’s money…and once they have extreme wealth they can buy power to tweak the system even further to their advantage. I suppose this could be seen as an undesirable">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmqeZl8OI2M">undesirable side effect of freedom but I’m not sure that these extreme outliers help to clarify the state our wealth inequality.

Our economy seems to be based on everyone buying trendy things, heavily advertised things, things that aren’t needed, or simply buying more than is needed. When inflation is soaring you just don’t need name brand products. You can buy the store brand paper towels and avoid the 100 million dollars in annual advertising cost that’s baked into the Bounty name brand. I imagine more people will begin buying based on need rather than want or habit if things continue as they are. The average new car cost is now $47K and the average car payment just hit $700 a month and yet the 2022 Consumer Reports car issue recommends almost 40 cars under $30K. There is a little room for adjustment…for now.

“People can come up with statistics to prove anything…14% of people know that.” ~ Homer Simpson


In counterpoint, according to the Census data since 1955 we've cut the percentage of people living near poverty by half. Since the early 1970s we have also cut the number of people over 65 living near poverty (as defined by between 1.0 and 1.25 % above poverty) by over half.

There are lots of data points to pick through at the Census site which directly challenge the anecdotal presumptions most people have about the increase or decrease in the quality of life in the USA, based on incomes. But there are actually data points one can reference.

It's obvious that society is going through various upheavals, from climate change to political fascism but from an economic point of view the actual median damage is not equally distributed by region, age, race, industrial base, etc. And a large group, well beyond the 1%, are seeing solid gains in net worth and income.

While wages have not kept pace with inflation in many industries anyone invested in simple S&P 500 index funds over the last 20 years has kept well ahead of inflation. At least in their investment accounts. And even before the recent jump in inflationary house buying the increases in values of homes for regions where people want to live has been well ahead of most economic disruptions. As you noted that's been your experience locally. As it has been for our family. The value of our home has rocketed from $213K in 1997 to nearly $2 million in 2022. A ten times increase in 25 years. If one chooses not to tap the equity that's their prerogative but one can't discount the value accrued.

Things are bad for some people in some regions but if you look at parameters like job creation and employment numbers some regions are doing a better job of lifting people out of near poverty thresholds. We are undergoing an enormous shift from the industrial age to something beyond just the information age. Some people will always be left behind. We have an obligation to provide a social safety net but we don't have an obligation to go backwards. We're not bringing back 250,000 coal mining jobs nor are we going to turn off millions of ATM machines and go back to standing in lines waiting for bank tellers.

Tip: buy generic paper products. Brands are only for the snobbish elite. Cottonelle? That's the Leica of toilet paper....

Re the last bit of the article and specifically the "that's what they want" quote. Who is they?

As disparity gets worse and worse crime will get worse and worse. Soon the poor will be living in shanty towns bordered by barbed wire. Essentially we will build walls within our own country. In the end, we will all suffer living in a country that is no longer safe. And the extreme right thinks that if we ban abortion and pray to Jesus everything will be good. This 4th of July weekend I'm ashamed to be an American.

Poverty levels: the federal definition of poverty is woefully inadequate. Just like the minimum wage. Currently the bottom 50% are sharing 2.5% of the wealth. No matter how you look at it, that is poor. The majority of the bottom 50% has more debt than assets.

Most everyone who posts comments here has more in common with the bottom 1% than the top 1%.

Being anti-communist my whole life I am ok with the wealth.

In particular if one read the list change over time.

But not the power (like you can sponsor political group after Supreme Court in Obama era ok with that). And the that the poor is too poor.

Have some wealth and inheritance tax so they spend their asset in their life time or after. Do not envy the rich. Get the poor sorted. Got your medical insurance sorted etc.

I note from your picture that the concept of “equivalency” is not limited to the camera industry :-)

Surprise! Inflation is actually below normal. Nobody seems to remember that after the Crash of 2008, we enjoyed 12 years of subnormal inflation. During those years, the Federal Reserve struggled vainly to push inflation upward toward its 2% target.

If the crash hadn't happened and inflation had continued to rise in step with its historical norm, today's prices would actually be higher than they are today. But we'd think nothing of it, because it would be ... normal.

So the current inflation panic is more psychological than economic, if we take the long view. We're only beginning to catch up to the historical average. The exceptions are companies that use "inflation" as an excuse for excessive price gouging.

My wife and I have a modest and frugal lifestyle and no debt. We paid off the only mortgage we ever had 40 years ago and have never financed the purchase of a car or anything else - except our first house - with debt. We don't have fancy cars and more things than we need. We're not wealthy, but in our old age we're still content and understand what a great privilege it is to be Americans. We pay our share of taxes, support some charities, and are generous with our children and grandchild. We don't envy or criticize any family for their honest success and what they have.

(coming in late, again)

Heh. Here in Japan, I buy a sort of ‘industrial’ type of toilet paper. It’s plain, tough, unbleached single ply. The rolls are wider than the ‘fancy’ kind in supermarkets. And, not only is the overall diameter bigger, the inner hole is smaller - i.e. more in both directions, so the thickness / distance between the inner hole and the outer edge is much greater. And, the rolls are wound (I guess) really tightly. They are dense enough to rap on the side with your knuckles and get a knocking on soft wood kind of sound, unlike normal rolls where your knuckles just sink into fluffy, expensive, marketed luxury.

Some of my fiends think I’m nuts to worry about this, but I’m the one paying way less by direct roll to roll comparison and on top of that getting a huge amount more. It seems businesses / corporations buy this stuff to save money. No reason why I can’t.

As an aside, as an expat, returning home occasionally really shows up the changes - what slips by unnoticed to those living there stands out starkly when visiting. Those creeping incremental changes companies do to sell you less and less for the same money or more. That’s why I think of New Zealand as the land of chocolate mist coated biscuits and toilet rolls with a centre hole you can drive a truck through…

Peace & cost effective cleanliness,
p.s. living in Japan, I also have Star Trek Captain’s chair bidet thing going on.

I think SteveW's comment concerning who most of us have more in common with is right to the point.

Here is a thought that I have heard a few times that I think sums up the situation our country finds itself in concerning racism and the distribution of wealth. Until poor white people realize that they have much more in common with poor people of color rather than white people of means, racism will still be embraced, all poor people will remain poor and poor white people will continue to vote against their own best interests.

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