Browsing the archives for the economy category.


Creatures of Myth

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economy

Human behavior makes a lot more sense when you appreciate that none of us are entirely rational. In fact, I’d go so far to say that for most of us rational thinking accounts for very little of our views and opinions about anything. Most of us live inside any number of personal and collective myths that inform us who we are and how the world is supposed to work, and it can be damn near impossible to dispel the myths even with clear and irrefutable facts and data.

This has little to do with IQ, as it’s not at all unusual even for bright people to cling to beliefs that are measurably out of sorts with the real world. As I wrote in my book, to be a reasonably rational person you must first admit to your own irrationality. If you can’t do that, you will remain at the mercy of the various goblins, trolls and pixies in your head.

Paul Krugman — in my judgment, more rational than most people — has a blog post up now called Inflation, Septaphobia, and the Shock Doctrine in which he struggles to understand why allegedly Wise Men (and it is mostly men) guiding the world’s economies are such a pack of idiots.

The bad news from Europe is a reminder that the basic insight some of us have been trying to convey, mostly in vain, ever since 2008 remains valid: the great danger facing advanced economies is that governments and central banks will do too little, not too much. The risk of elevated inflation or fiscal difficulties is dwarfed by the risk of ending up trapped in a deflationary vortex. This view has been overwhelmingly supported by recent experience — if you acted on what they were saying on CNBC or the WSJ editorial page, you would have lost a lot of money. Yet the power of the hard money/fiscal austerity orthodoxy (yes, market monetarists want one without the other, but they have no constituency) remains immense. Why?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Along with charts and graphs showing that the hard money/fiscal austerity orthodoxy is just plain wrong, Krugman speculates a bit about what kind of mythology is driving it. The word septaphobia means “fear of the seventies,” btw, referring to the fact that the 1970s were marked by inflation and were a bad time for investors. The Wise Men may be running hysterically from the ghosts of the 1970s — ghosts haunting their own heads — and ignoring the very different real-world beasts that are the cause of today’s economic problems.

Thomas Frank has an article up at Salon called The 1 percent’s long con: Jim Cramer, the Tea Party’s roots, and Wall Street’s demented, decades-long scheme. As the title suggests this is a lot about how the 1 percent manipulates the world to benefit themselves. But if you read between the lines a bit, this article is also about myths and the way Wall Street portrayed itself in the 1990s as the true friends of Everyman and as shamans of a kind of economic democracy that was more fair and egalitarian than governmental-type democracy.  This is an excerpt from a book, and while I don’t know where Frank goes with this next one suspects he discusses the self-delusions that gave us the financial meltdown of 2008. But it also suggests that the New Deal was still looming in the personal myths even of people too young to remember the FDR Administration.

And there were incredible prizes to be won as long as the bubble continued to swell, as long as the fiction of Wall Street as an alternative to democratic government became more and more plausible. Maybe the Glass-Steagall act could finally be repealed; maybe the SEC could finally be grounded; maybe antitrust could finally be halted. And, most enticingly of all, maybe Social Security could finally be “privatized” in accordance with the right-wing fantasy of long standing. True, it would be a staggering historical reversal for Democrats to consider such a scheme, but actually seeing it through would require an even more substantial change of image on Wall Street’s part. The financiers would have to convince the nation that they were worthy of the charge, that they were as public-minded and as considerate of the little fellow as Franklin Roosevelt himself had been. Although one mutual fund company actually attempted this directly—showing footage of FDR signing the Social Security Act in 1935 and proclaiming, “Today, we’re picking up where he left off”—most chose a warmer, vaguer route, showing us heroic tableaux of hardy midwesterners buying and holding amidst the Nebraska corn, of World War II vets day-trading from their suburban rec-rooms, of athletes talking like insiders, of church ladies phoning in their questions for the commentator on CNBC; of mom and pop posting their very own fire-breathing defenses of Microsoft on the boards at Raging Bull. This was a boom driven by democracy itself, a boom of infinite possibilities, a boom that could never end.

We can always debate how much of this the Captains of Finance actually believed themselves, and how much of it was PR, but I think the financial crisis showed us they really were not behaving rationally at all. They became convinced they were immortal; that bullets would not kill them; that whatever they did was blessed because they were doing it. Greed was driving a lot of this myth, of course. I don’t doubt those who survived the meltdown still believe this, and why wouldn’t they? The government protects them from having to face their own mortality.

More to the point, as Krugman says, sometimes these myths actually are not supporting their own long-term financial health in any rational way.

And this crew of mostly Asuras are ultimately the ones responsible for the fiscal austerity orthodoxy, possibly because in their mythical world somebody should suffer for the setbacks of the 2000s, but it shouldn’t have to be them.

Postscript — one more thing — whenever I cite Krugman for anything I can count on somebody, somewhere, snorting at me that Krugman is an idiot and Krugman is always wrong. But if pushed, such people can never explain coherently what he has been wrong about. Push harder, and it becomes clear that Krugman is “wrong” because he disagrees with the orthodoxies and the myths, not because what he writes is frequently proven untrue. It isn’t, actually.

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Why Nothing Will Change

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economy, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Going back to my post of a couple of days ago, on the S&P report on income inequality — There have been some more reactions to this. Basically, from the Left we’re hearing “Duh. What we said.” And from the Right it’s “[denial].” So, as usual, people believe what they want to believe, facts be damned.

One progressive reaction is at The Daily Beast, of all places, by Monica Potts, titled “The Big, Long, 30-Year Conservative Lie.” Potts concludes [emphasis added]:

Closing the gap by lifting low-income families out of poverty could do more to help the economy than any number of tax credits for “job creators” might, which is what Hanauer argued in Politico. And the S&P report puts more support in his corner.

On the question of what to do, there is widespread agreement on boosting educational attainment and increasing salaries at the bottom end. Policymakers have had a lot of time to think about how to help the middle class, since real wages began declining in the mid-1970s. Many of the problems of inequality have policy solutions ready to go, spelled out in a white paper stuffed in someone’s desk drawer. Why has it taken so long to think about addressing it? Was the political might of the right so overwhelming that they couldn’t speak up until people like Hanauer saw, as he warned in his essay, that the pitchforks would be coming for them?

The answer to Potts’s questions are in the several hundred comments, the bulk of which read like this one:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Similarly, we can provide opportunity, but you can’t make folks take advantage. So instead you have massive government welfare programs designed to redistribute the earnings of hard-workers to those who prefer the outcome be guaranteed for them with zero effort.. This way, we try to even outcomes. Maybe the inequality gap is growing because, when government incents folks to avail themselves of government largesse, folks lose ambition. Meanwhile, ambitious workers keep earning, and the gap grows.

Never mind that this entire line of argument was directly demolished in the S&P report. At this point, the Right cannot change.They’ve spent more than 30 years brainwashing Americans to believe what the commenter above believes — poor people are just lazy government moochers, and anyone can get rich if they just work hard enough, and if we can just cut taxes for job creators a bit more everything will be fine. And this is what the Republican base wants to hear, facts be damned. Any Republican who even gives off the appearance of being soft on moochers is asking to be primaried by some foaming-at-the-mouth bagger.

And, of course, much of their support is coming from the infrastructure of  “think tanks” and astroturf organizations funded by a relative handful of right-wing family trusts like the Koch Boys and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, many of which can be traced back to the old John Birch Society. But these are the people with the money bags and the influence. So …

The best Republican politicians can do is make speeches laced with buzzwords that suggest they understand the problem while proposing policies that wouldn’t actually fix it. Paul Ryan is particularly good at this, or at least, he’s gotten away with it so far.

Paul Krugman also hopes people pay attention to the S&P report.  He points out that the factors that cause an economy to grow or shrink are not as simple as just moving dollars around, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Programs like food stamps that provide nutrition support for poor children lead to healthier poor children and a more productive workforce in the long run, for example.

Not that anyone on the Right gives a hoo-haw about healthier poor children. Even the “this benefits you too” arguments fall flat because they require comprehending complex dynamic influences on economic growth, and a standard characteristic of righties is that they are stuck in simplistic and rigidly literal thinking. You might as well explain physics to a toaster, in other words. So ten thousand S&P reports won’t change anything.

Related: Timothy Egan writes about wildfires in Washington State: “People who hate government most are the loudest voices demanding government action to save their homes.”

Smart foresters had been warning for years that climate change, drought and stress would lead to bigger, longer, hotter wildfires. They offered remedies, some costly, some symbolic. We did nothing. We chose to wait until the fires were burning down our homes, and then demanded instant relief.

As a nation, we have lost the ability to actually do anything about anything, except to attempt to put out fires.

The nation that built an interstate highway system, and cleaned up its filthiest rivers and most gasp-inducing air, has become openly hostile to long-term investment or problem-solving, says Paul Roberts in “The Impulse Society — America in the Age of Instant Gratification,” a cautionary tale to be published next month.

“We can make great plasma screens and seat warmers and teeth whiteners and apps that will guide you, turn by turn, to the nearest edgy martini bar,” writes Roberts. “But when it comes to, say, dealing with climate change, or reforming the financial system, or fixing health care, or some other large-scale problem out in the real world, we have little idea where to start.”

And they can’t change, because tribal loyalty to ideology — which I write about in the book — trumps actual evidence and reasoning. Apparently even watching their own homes burn doesn’t wake people up to realizing why there’s a fire.

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Even Big Business Sees the Problem of Income Inequality

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economy

I’m no economist. What I know about economics I got from a long-ago econ 101 college course I don’t actually remember, except that I know I took it, and reading Paul Krugman’s column. But it just makes intuitive sense to me that widespread income inequality chokes off economic growth. When a growing percentage of the population is just squeaking by, or not even that, then a growing percentage of people are not spending money on new consumer products, or taking vacations, or leaving money in the bank in the form of IRAs or money market funds or anything else.

And when an increasing amount of a nation’s wealth is hoarded by a relative handful of the mega-rich, those hoarded dollars are not necessarily ever going to be spent within the home country. They could be spent elsewhere, or just kept hoarded. So this sort of situation naturally leads to fewer and fewer dollars in circulation within the country in question. By extension this leads to fewer and fewer jobs as demand drops for goods and services fewer people can afford. And I don’t care if you call that Keynesianism for something else. It makes plain sense, and I’ve ever heard a persuasive argument against it.

Now Standard & Poor’s has issued a report called “How Increasing Inequality is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, and Possible Ways to Change the Tide.” To which I say, duh.

Neil Irwin writes,

I asked Beth Ann Bovino, the chief U.S. economist at S.&P., why she and her colleagues took on this topic. “We spend a lot of time trying to think about what’s the economic outlook and what to expect ahead,” she said. “What disturbs me about this recovery — which has been the weakest in 50 years — is how feeble it has been, and we’ve been asking what are the reasons behind it.” She added: “One of the reasons that could explain this pace of very slow growth is higher income inequality. And that also might explain what happened that led up to the great recession.”

“From my research and some of the analysis I saw from others, when you have extreme levels of inequality, it can hurt the economy,” she said.

Because the affluent tend to save more of what they earn rather than spend it, as more and more of the nation’s income goes to people at the top income brackets, there isn’t enough demand for goods and services to maintain strong growth, and attempts to bridge that gap with debt feed a boom-bust cycle of crises, the report argues. High inequality can feed on itself, as the wealthy use their resources to influence the political system toward policies that help maintain that advantage, like low tax rates on high incomes and low estate taxes, and underinvestment in education and infrastructure.

Duh, S&P. I’m glad you came out and said this, but it’s rather pathetic that it needs to be said. As for the hoarding mega-rich, there’s an old fable about a goose and golden eggs they might want to review and reflect upon. I would add that there is nothing inherently “pro-business” in government policies that favor the wealthy. In the long run, encouraging inequality is anti-business.

See also “U.S. policymakers gird for rash of corporate expatriations.”

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Rotting From Within

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economy

Anna Bernasek writes in the New York Times that the typical American household is worth a third less than it did ten years ago.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially. …

…For households at the median level of net worth, much of the damage has occurred since the start of the last recession in 2007. Until then, net worth had been rising for the typical household, although at a slower pace than for households in higher wealth brackets. But much of the gain for many typical households came from the rising value of their homes. Exclude that housing wealth and the picture is worse: Median net worth began to decline even earlier.

The housing bubble basically hid a trend of declining financial wealth at the median that began in 2001,” said Fabian T. Pfeffer, the University of Michigan professor who is lead author of the Russell Sage Foundation study.

Hm, who became President in 2001? Wait, it’ll come to me.

Meanwhile, the Dumbest Man on the Internet links to this article under the Headline “OBAMANOMICS IN ACTION: Typical US Household Worth One-Third Less Than Under Bush.” And he wasn’t the only rightie who commented without bothering to read the article. The Derp: It burns.

It doesn’t surprise me that this particular decline began in 2001. I remember looking at the incoming Bush Administration and fearing the nation was doomed. And I also remember the headlines were full of bad news about the economy before September 11. The financial crisis of 2008 (who was President then, do you remember?) accelerated the decline, of course.

Via Digby, see What caused the wealth gap?

David Atkins presents the Four Responses to Record Inequality. In brief:

  1. “There is a broad recognition within the progressive left that the wheels are increasingly coming off the train that propelled the 20th century economic model.”
  2. “Those in the neoliberal/center-left camp do believe that modern inequality is a problem, but that this too shall pass and we can trudge along as usual after a recovery. . . . This is delusional thinking, but extremely commonplace—particularly among wealthier liberals.”
  3. “Then you have the center-right. They take rational market theory as an article of faith, believing with religious fervor that if the labor and capital markets are allowed to act unimpeded, then both labor and capital will find a comfortable, fair and balanced price. No amount of evidence can convince them that both human life and dignity are priced incredibly cheap on the open market, or that that late 19th century was not, in fact, the model of a moral or economically functional society.”
  4. “Finally, there is the far right. These are the True Believers: the ones who not only buy into the center-right line, but also the raw Objectivism of Ayn Rand and Fox News … In this view, the only inequality that matters to them is redistributive taxation to ‘others’ in society.”

As much as we may crab about the far right, it’s really the centrists, left and right, that are in the way of addressing this crisis. They’re the ones who dominate news media and who have the real power in Washington. Progressives have little power or voice.

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Bitcoin Bust?

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economy

I have never understood bitcoins and why they aren’t Monopoly money that people choose to take seriously, because why. But then, I could argue that “real” money is no different. Finance is an elaborate fantasy, as far as I’m concerned. It affects us only because we’ve all agreed to play along.

I take it bitcoins have a libertarian appeal, in that they aren’t subject to awful government regulation or taxes. But then, aren’t these the same people who want to return to the gold standard? Whatever.

Apparently hackers have been draining a major bitcoin site for months and redirecting millions of actual dollars’ worth of the whatever they are, amounting to 6 percent of all the bitcoins in the world. So lots of people have lost a ton of money, or “money.” Because they are unregulated, they are also unprotected.

Paul Krugman:

Bitcoin was, of course, created in part to cater to libertarian dreams – to provide a way to store your wealth where governments can’t steal it through taxation or currency debasement.

And it’s true! Thanks to Bitcoin, you can instead have your wealth stolen by private hackers.

D’oh!

The Austrian-school-bots at Reason think this is just a minor setback for bitcoins. And if enough of them think that way, it probably is, because it’s all Tinkerbelle. Bitcoins will life as long as there are those who believe.

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Do They Think We Have Amnesia?

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economy, Republican Party

Apparently the Republicans are rallying behind the argument that Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed, so it’s time to give them a turn at running the government.

Seriously.

WASHINGTON — Senator Marco Rubio says the American dream has become “unattainable.” Senator Mike Lee says reforming government benefits programs should be the country’s “first priority.” And Representative Paul D. Ryan says the government safety net has “failed miserably.”

Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the message from Republicans in Congress is that the government has foundered in its efforts to address the problem.

“While we have programs in place that help deal with the pain of poverty, they don’t deal with the structural problems,” Mr. Rubio of Florida said in an interview.

And who caused those “structural problems,” toots? Answer me that! Whose economic/governing philosophy has dominated Washington and federal policy since, oh, about 1980 or so (and arguably earlier)?

Mindful of polls that show many Americans see them as detached from or indifferent to the hardships faced by the people most affected by the recession and slow recovery, Republicans have begun to speak publicly on the issue of poverty and to propose their own, more market-based solutions.

In other words, the same crap that got us into this mess.

But at the same time that the party is shifting its focus to poverty, many Republicans are pushing for deep cuts to food assistance programs and unemployment insurance, while 11 million Americans are jobless and poverty rates remain elevated in the wake of the recession.

One way to reduce poverty is to starve the impoverished, I give you that. It worked pretty well in Ireland awhile back.

Un-bee-lee-vah-bull.

But you know the Republican establishment is nervous when they bring in the empathy coaches.

House Republican leaders sent a memo this week to the entire GOP conference with talking points designed to help rank-and-file Republicans show compassion for the unemployed and explain the Republican position on unemployment benefits. In the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post, House Republicans are urged to be empathetic toward the unemployed and understand how unemployment is a “personal crisis” for individuals and families. The memo also asks Republicans to reiterate that the House will give “proper consideration” to an extension of long-term insurance as long as Democrats are willing to support spending or regulatory reforms.

Of course,

Last year they tried to empathy coach Republican politicians about women, and I can’t see that it helped. But why are they so worried now? Joan Walsh writes,

Maybe because of polls like the one just completed by Hart Research (on behalf of the National Employment Law Project). Surveying likely 2014 midterm voters the pollsters found they overwhelmingly supported extended benefits 55 to 34 percent. Significantly, key Republican groups like seniors and white non-college educated voters were among the most supportive; white women, a swing group that leaned to the GOP in 2012, support maintaining the benefits 53-33 percent.

And by some non-coincidence, many Washington politicians who are most adamantly against extending benefits are from states with the highest number of jobless constituents. Funny how that works, huh?

Unfortunately for them, Paul Ryan spilled the beans last month when he declared he wanted to end jobless benefits so that people would be compelled to go out and find a job. But the average American is at least a few shades brighter than Ryan — hell, there could be varieties of dieffenbachia that are brighter than Ryan — and understand that it’s a bit tricky to go out and get a job when there are no bleeping jobs to get.

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A Conspiracy So Immense

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economy, Financial Crisis

Charles Pierce sums it up:

[T]here is no pile of money anywhere in the country, no matter how large or small, and no matter how vital to the people who were depending upon it, to which the grifters in the financial-services “industry” do not feel entitled as fuel for their unquenchable greed.

To see what Mr. Pierce is reacting to specifically, see “Looting the Pension Funds” by Matt Taibbi. Please read it all, but in brief, he’s showing us that the financial sector has been looting government worker pension funds for years, because they could, and now that the pension funds are mostly gone, the public workers are being blamed for the dire circumstances of state and local governments. Taibbi:

It’s a scam of almost unmatchable balls and cruelty, accomplished with the aid of some singularly spineless politicians. And it hasn’t happened overnight. This has been in the works for decades, and the fighting has been dirty all the way.

All across America, pension funds have been diverted into “investments” that somehow made no money for anyone except the power brokers on Wall Street. Or else the pension funds were used to make up the revenue shortfall created by tax cuts that benefited only the wealthy. David Sirota provides some examples:

In Rhode Island, the state government slashed guaranteed pension benefits while handing $75 million to a retired professional baseball player for his failed video game scheme.

In Kentucky, the state government slashed pension benefits while continuing to spend $1.4 billion on tax expenditures.

In Kansas, the state government slashed guaranteed pension benefits despite being lambasted by a watchdog group for its penchant for spending huge money on corporate welfare “megadeals.”

Paul Krugman today came out and called the Masters of the Universe types a “powerful group of what can only be called sociopaths.” These malefactors of great wealth not only think they are entitled to any remaining bits of wealth or privilege still available for plundering, but they want our adulation as well. When they don’t get it, they feel persecuted.

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Krugman Explains It All

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economy

The federal government is basically an insurance company with an army.” Nice.

See also

In any case, however, whatever is causing the growing concentration of income at the top, the effect of that concentration is to undermine all the values that define America. Year by year, we’re diverging from our ideals. Inherited privilege is crowding out equality of opportunity; the power of money is crowding out effective democracy.

So what can be done? For the moment, the kind of transformation that took place under the New Deal — a transformation that created a middle-class society, not just through government programs, but by greatly increasing workers’ bargaining power — seems politically out of reach. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on smaller steps, initiatives that do at least a bit to level the playing field.

Take, for example, the proposal by Bill de Blasio, who finished in first place in Tuesday’s Democratic primary and is the probable next mayor of New York, to provide universal prekindergarten education, paid for with a small tax surcharge on those with incomes over $500,000. The usual suspects are, of course, screaming and talking about their hurt feelings; they’ve been doing a lot of that these past few years, even while making out like bandits. But surely this is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing: Taxing the ever-richer rich, at least a bit, to expand opportunity for the children of the less fortunate.

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Righties Are Stupid, Part Trois Cent Cinquante

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economy, Obama Administration

President Obama has been talking about income inequality:

In a week when he tried to focus attention on the struggles of the middle class, President Obama said in an interview that he was worried that years of widening income inequality and the lingering effects of the financial crisis had frayed the country’s social fabric and undermined Americans’ belief in opportunity.

Upward mobility, Mr. Obama said in a 40-minute interview with The New York Times, “was part and parcel of who we were as Americans.”

“And that’s what’s been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis,” he added.

“If we don’t do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be. Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise,” he said. “That’s not a future that we should accept.”

Hold that thought.

Also, too, the Associated Press came out with this

Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor and loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.

So how does right-wing blogger Rick Moran respond to this? You will never guess. No, really. So I will tell you –

I read this AP story and could hardly believe it. Obama is still out there talking about “income inequality” when 80% of his constituents are living on the economic edge.

All together now: What do you think “income inequality” means, genius?

I swear, some of these people have had their brains sucked out and replaced by old wadded-up copies of The Internet for Dummies.

Getting back to the AP story —

Hardship is particularly on the rise among whites, based on several measures. Pessimism among that racial group about their families’ economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987….

…Sometimes termed “the invisible poor” by demographers, lower-income whites are generally dispersed in suburbs as well as small rural towns, where more than 60 percent of the poor are white. Concentrated in Appalachia in the East, they are also numerous in the industrial Midwest and spread across America’s heartland, from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma up through the Great Plains.

In other words — red state America.

More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.

Ryan Cooper, not a rightie, writes,

It’s probably fair to say also that poor whites are overwhelmingly Republican, and in large part due to an overhang of racial resentment.

Ya think? They watch Faux News and listen to Rush, and they’re all hopped up about all the illegal immigrants and black street thugs in hoodies and women getting abortions and liberal elites trying to take away their guns. And like the lemmings they are, they continue to vote for politicians who are screwing them.

Do we need Reality for Dummies? Maybe if it were a comic book …

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The Senior Senator From Massachusetts Kicks Ass

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economy

Charles Pierce:

My god, this is a kicking of the ass. Sooner or later, they’re going to realize that you really do have to bring the A-game on this stuff to the Senior Senator, or she is going to smile her Okie smile and the hook is going to come off the jab and, as the great Jimmy Breslin once put it, you will leave the ring in a blanket. She does mean business. Someone should start to believe that

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