The Last, Juiceless Days of Rome

The Talking Dog lets out a first-rate rant. In part he is responding to this article in the Financial Times about the slow economic strangulation of the American middle class. The article profiles a couple of families who are hanging on to their modest homes and their very frugal lifestyles by working multiple jobs, and they are still one missed paycheck away from ruin.

As the article points out, the effects of globalization are hitting the entire industrialized world. But people in the rest of the industrialized world have paid health care, and their unions haven’t gone to rot. That’s softening the blow everywhere but here.

Anyway, the Dog points out that the stressed and worried American middle class doesn’t “have the juice” to take to the streets. Instead, people worry discretely and hide behind a facade of normal.

Ironically, the only people who do have “the juice” to take to the streets are the teabaggers, a mass of rabid lemmings trashing what’s left of the facade on their way to the cliffs.

Sorta kinda related — NPR reported on students at UCLA who manage to come up with the tuition but have nothing left over for room and board. So, they are homeless and hungry. One professor realized students were going without meals, so he set up a free food pantry in a closet. The homeless ones sleep in student lounges and shower in the gym.

Most interesting, the students try to hide their situation from other students. Like the stressed middle-class families, each student seems to deal with his situation alone and struggles to maintain the facade.

Meanwhile — in his most recent column, Bob Herbert talks to some economists who say there have been more lost jobs than can be blamed on the recession. It appears many companies used the recession as an excuse to cut staff and force employees to accept lower pay and fewer benefits.

“They threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output,” said Professor Sum. “Here’s what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.”

That kind of disconnect, said Mr. Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II.

In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Productivity tells the story. Increases in the productivity of American workers are supposed to go hand in hand with improvements in their standard of living. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. That’s how the economic pie expands, and we’re all supposed to have a fair share of that expansion.

Corporations have now said the hell with that. Economists believe the nation may have emerged, technically, from the recession early in the summer of 2009. As Professor Sum writes in a new study for the labor market center, this period of economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Today, Paul Krugman:

Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal.

If Americans of 40 years ago had woken up one morning to today’s economic conditions, there would have been hell to pay. I’m thinking massive strikes, torches and pitchforks, politicians tarred and feathered. But now most people just accept the conditions meekly and hope for the best. No juice.

27 thoughts on “The Last, Juiceless Days of Rome

  1. I’m afraid the governing elite is club of wealthy, detached rulers who do not have a clue what it is like to make their way in this economic climate.

    I have several friends who are in their late 60’s/ early 70’s who are rather well off, but are very angry and afraid as they see their savings erode as the economy continues to sputter along. My friend in the NC mountains is one of those. He and his wife have a very comfortable life on a 25 acre gentleman’s farm, but their stock “portfolio” has gone south, and they no longer have the $10,000 plus per month income they were used to making from their investments.
    Another friend is part owner of an oilfield supply vessel company in Alaska.
    His retirement checks are no longer over $300,000 per year.
    They are very depressed.I’d trade places with them in a heart beat.
    I, on the other hand, am fending off two law suits, working two jobs, have two bad knees, and am saddled with heavy debt due to a failed business venture. ‘Damned good thing I enjoy my work.
    I read everything I can about sustainable farming, aquaponics, etc, and may start a commune if things get really bad. I think this will be the wave of the future.
    Third worldy, with a touch of ’60s adventure.

    • I read everything I can about sustainable farming, aquaponics, etc, and may start a commune if things get really bad. I think this will be the wave of the future.

      I may join you.

  2. Maybe a lesson needs to be taught.
    I have an idea.
    Labor Day is coming up. LABOR Day!
    I suggest a ”National Day of Mischief” for the Friday before, or the Tuesday after.
    The Friday before, all the bigwigs, if they’re working, will be trying to get out of town to enjoy their 3 days off from work. I suggest those of us out of work, create a little havoc. Nothing violent. Kind of a “Merry Pransters” day(s) just to let them know, ‘Hey, this time we’re doing this with some humor. Next time?’
    Hold rallies in parking lots and delay people getting home by standing in front of the cars, or blocking the exits (rich cars only).
    Delay people getting on subways with street theatre antics. Pull your suit, tie and shirt over your head, and march around holding a mannequins head with red paint on the neck.
    Throw water balloons filled with colored water at executives as they leave.
    Put ping-pong balls with a little hole in them in the gas tanks of upscale cars (the hole causes the ball to fill up with gas and settle over the intake causing the car to constantly sputter to a stop. This will keep happening the ball disolves). Or, Hell, good old sugar or sand will do, too.
    Bring mock guillotines to WAll Street, and the parking lots and subway stations in NYC or other large cities. Bring them to little industrial parks in smaller areas. March in front of gated communities with some cans of tar and tear feather pillows apart.
    I’m not clever enough, but I’m sure there are people out there who would have some really great ideas.
    Nothing violent.
    Just a reminder that we’re still here and still waiting for this nightmare to be corrected back to some semblence of ‘The American Dream.’
    We held up our end of the bargain – went to college, learned trades, held jobs, worked hard, had 401k’s. Now, were out of work, out of savings, and the 401k’s are now worthless, or cashed out, etc.
    We need to remind these people that they have a responsibility in all of this as well.
    This Labor Day, we do some ‘merry prankstering’ as a gentle reminder. And let them know we’re still here, still waiting, and we may not be as gentle the next time, if they don’t start to hold up their end of the bargain.
    What do you think?

  3. erinyes,
    Good luck with the law suits. And if you start a commune, let me know. I’m physically handicapped, but I’m sure I can do something to earn my keep – cook, clean, read storied to kids.

  4. Good luck with the commune. Maybe in our new economic environment people will be motivated to make it work, but in my admittedly limited experience, all it takes is one or two people with entitlment issues to ruin it for everyone.

  5. “Sorta kinda related — NPR reported on students at UCLA who manage to come up with the tuition but have nothing left over for room and board. So, they are homeless and hungry”

    Times are defiantly tough but is this really new? I know I was dead broke while I went to college, the VA paid me just enough per month to cover tuition and maybe half my rent, the rest was on me so I got a job as cook, made a little money and stole alot of food. Hell we had to home brew beer and grow our own weed! It wasn’t only me most of my friends were broke as well, only the frat boys and girls lived carefree!

  6. I think I mentioned this before, but our little farm started out as an “old person’s commune”. I had been speculating out loud about the idea and my father-in-law began to need some looking after, so we pooled our money. The situation also allowed me to care for my aging mother for four years until she died last year at 93. She was able to spend her last few years in her own cottage, watching goats play and birds eat from her feeder instead of languishing in a nursing home.

    Farming is a rough road if you have to make money at it, but having extra hands to lighten the load would make it much easier. It is hard, for example to find someone to care for the horses and goats if we want a vacation. If we are milking at the time, doubly hard and expensive. But, there again a communal approach would really make things easier, and no one you can hire will care for your animals as well as you do yourself. The other thing is “right sizing”. The last time I went overseas, one of our bucks got out, which lead to an unwanted increase in goat population. We have the unprofessional tendency to make pets out of them or I could get $65 a head for the kids by selling them to some Mexican friends of mine. For now, we can afford inot to, but that may not always be so.

    I think you all have some strong resources. I wish I had the passion about sustainable agriculture that erinyes has. I fully believe it is the way to go, and some of my friends who are seasoned, accomplished, farmers, far more knowledgeable than I will ever be, say sustainable, micro, niche farming will be the future of non-industrial farming. But, I have been doing this for twelve years and some of the passion has ebbed.

    I think people will band together out of necessity, but there is a joy in communal effort and teamwork that offsets the social difficulties of group living, and that is necessary to sustain it. I know this sounds Pollyannish, but, after some experience, I still think it is true.

    So, if you start a farm, goats are a great dairy animal. The milk is sweet and makes great cheese. They are such winning creatures that culling the herd is difficult. But, farming gets in your blood. Even when I am looking at real estate in some more civilized country, I always look at small farms and country houses first. There is the great place in Languedoc-Rousillon…they have great goats there.

    Well, I have a veterinary issue with one of my favorite little does, Juliet. I will be taking her in to the vet in order to spend three times what she is worth to put her right again. If you could see her you would do the same. But, there is a saying, “a sick goat is a dead goat.” (She may have an injury from another goat or have a neurological problem. Let’s hope for the injury.) So, you have to be very engaged and head off problems before they start. A Buddhist has some valuable tools for farming.

    P.S. Chickens are also very much fun to watch.

  7. Thanks for the shout out, Barb.

    Good luck with the commune. Maybe in our new economic environment people will be motivated to make it work, but in my admittedly limited experience, all it takes is one or two people with entitlment issues to ruin it for everyone.

    What we have had beaten out of our existence is the fact that “our new economic environment” of “let people die in the streets” capitalism is barely 200 years old; before that, ostensibly we all lived on communes of one form or another, to wit, most people grew all or most of their own food, or at least, were never too far removed from it. And it was understood that most people worked out of social obligation rather than economic obligation. In a social obligation situation… entitlements have a completely different significance than they do in our “only money matters” world… anyway, the point being there ain’t nothing natural about our system… no matter what we think. People are motivated by lots of things that aren’t money or stuff– something else seemingly lost to us… or is it?

    Thing with the system now is that it has seemingly finally broken out of the chains of rationality or sustainability– to wit, throw enough bones, bread and circuses down the line to the peons, and they’ll stay in line. We’ve stopped throwing the bones. Sure, the Tea-Partiers are storming the Bastille demanding more privileges for the aristocracy, but most people are coming to grips with the fact that something is insanely, fundamentally wrong. And at some point, “the system” fails in a way that the usual bullsh*t fixes (like bailouts) won’t work anymore. The most recent example of this happened barely 20 years ago in the former USSR… just a few years earlier, thought inviolable forever by everyone. But NO SYSTEM OR INSTITUTION is inviolable. The USSR failed when it couldn’t feed its own people; a major oil shock here (like that could ever happen… LOL) and we may quickly have the same problem.

    Anyway, my point to you’all is… don’t WAIT to start a commune; get your skills going now– if you’re not already growing vegetables (I happen to have a few containers set up on my roof in Brooklyn– squirrels get more of my food than I do, but I’m learning)… start. TODAY. Go to Home Depot or Loews or wherever and get a container or two, some soil, seeds and a hose AND GO. NOW.

    I’m not kidding… hopefully we’re not at “imminent” collapse… but it won’t hurt to have a few fresh vegetables under cultivation at any given moment anyway.

    • Dog — Maybe erinyes could start a commune on your roof? At least that would be close to my children. It’d be a trick to get the goats up there, though.

  8. In reference to Krugman’s comment, we have become a society in which the privilege of disposable income is contingent on the existence of disposable people. Judging by the direction Republicans are trying to take this society of ours, the meat of this statement is their mission statement.

  9. There’s another issue that’s recently started bugging me. In countries with a better social safety net, there’s a greater interest in the powers that be to maintain high levels of employment.

    Here, we have very little safety net, and therefore, no reason to push companies to find ways to keep hiring people here. Offshoring? No problem!

    Add in supply-side economics (“cut wages and jobs er, I mean, expenses!”) and you’ve got the middle-class being squeezed with no one giving a damn.

  10. I’ve been interested in communes since growing up in the 1960s, have actually visited several communities of various types, and will hopefully make the jump before my energy is all spent. And so the comments about this, upthread are all very interesting to me.

    There are so many things to say. First off, I recommend Homegrown Revolution, a video of Jules Dervais and his family, who turned their little home in Pasadena California into an urban homestead, growing massive amounts of food on a city lot.

    ..I knew from early on that we had to settle the food problem..because growing food is empowering, it’s powerful….It’s one of the most dangerous occupations on the face of the earth. Because you are in danger of becoming free…

    In general though, banding together into tribes of various kinds is as old as there have been humans. It is not only the future, it is also the past. The kind of hyper-individualistic society the raw American continent and the age of cheap energy afforded to many millions here is anomalous.

    I also recommend Communities, the journal of the intentional communities movement. Their Visions of Utopia videos are a great way to armchair visit a dozen or more communities around the country. I had visited one of the communities profiled in one of these videos, and was contemplating joining it, but decided against it after realizing some things, gleaned from interviews in the video.

    Your use of word “Rome” in the title is so heavy with meaning and poignancy. People, especially those with no vision or energy, cling to a dying system when they instead should be planning and building the future, because there always will be a future. Unless you’re well prepared, it’s stupid to wait around, for whatever death knell is going to come to this country, analogous to barbarian Alaric’s sacking of the eternal city in 410 AD. The Romans couldn’t imagine the fuzzy wuzzy Alaric prevaling against their great city which had stood for centuries, but he did.

    We’ve had enough warnings that something is coming – it may not be barbarians on horses – but clearly our system is so sclerotic and dysfunctional (not to mention broke) at this point, with some major crises on the horizon (global warming for instance), while at the same time the entrenched powers that be do everything they can to resist change, while gaming the system for their own ends. Situations like this are what caused many to flee Europe in the first place for America.

  11. Can’t you just put the goats in the elevator?

    It’s interesting how the thought of moving out to a communal farm is so appealing. Before I moved here I had read so much Joe Campbell that I thought about it as “going into the woods” as middleaged Hindus often do. For many years, the chores all seemed like meditation. I used to joke about my “barn mucking meditation”. But, for quite a while, it really seemed that way. It can be a grind, like any job. But, for long periods of time, it really is engaging and rewarding. You shepherd a lot of animals through birth and death. I’ve been the midwife for the occasional undersized mama goat, and I swear my beloved horse Trudy waited for me to come in to feed her before she staggered and fell, with me there to stroke her and hold her head off the ground. This scenario has repeated itself with various animals at their last. I was holding my mother’s hand when she died. The farm prepared me for that.

    Sorry, I obviously am a sentiment soul.–Economically speaking it is a great way to get “off the grid”, but raising food has been more expensive for us, than buying it. (except maye the chevre) The quality, however, is much better than you could buy. It is essential to have trading partners so you can enjoy a variety of foods and not have so much go to waste. For example, I have about 100 pounds of frozen Chevre, which is likely worthless now, but was worth a dollar an ounce when fresh. That’s another step up in the communal approach.

    I think there is one thing that makes this digression (nearly) germane. As the economy enters the next stage of capitalism and strangles the middle class, producing your own food makes you feel independent and secure with the satisfaction of shooting a bird at the ratrace. It allows you to build and rely on the social bonds that the current stage of capitalism has broken down. Your actions follow and relate to your needs more directly. Capitalists can intercede and take their cut of every transaction. (Guy Dubord, “Society and the Spectacle”). Producing food is a revolutionary act.

    Well, I have to tend to Juliet. She’s isolated on the porch for a few days. She has a neurological problem, probably induced by Deer Worm or some parasite. She has a chance, but a slim one. I will be there with her.

    • Re the commune — I (of course) would be spiritual leader and am also a pretty good cook. And Miss Lucy is an outstanding mouser.

      goatherd, give Juliet a scratch behind the ears for us. I hope she pulls through.

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  13. Y’all are a cool bunch.
    This thing just may happen, with the model being a Malay Kampung.
    I’ve been busy reading about cheese making and smoking meats/ sausage.
    Goatherd has got it right about those goats, the lady goats are sweet, the males; not so much. kinda like humans.
    Oh well, I own the 10 acres near Ocala, i just need to get it going.
    Maha, you’re already the spiritual leader,Stay in touch…….

  14. Moonbat, there are several organizations nearby that specialize in sustainable ag and aquaponics; ECHO down in Ft Meyers, and Morning Star Fishermen in Dade City.(FL)
    I’ll be down at ECHO in a couple of weeks to press some plam kernels for oil that may be used for bio fuel or cooking/ cosmetics. The stuff is all around us and nobody notices!
    I’ve been busy with many unusual, but productive crops, like bamboo for shoots, gourmet/ medicinal mushrooms / nopal cactus / and tilapia, a whole new world is ready to bust open.

  15. “I’m not kidding… hopefully we’re not at “imminent” collapse… but it won’t hurt to have a few fresh vegetables under cultivation at any given moment anyway”

    You know I read your blog and you have some excellent observations, the rift between rich and poor is getting to the point of being unsustainable. But the capitalist system is no where near collapse (and I would argue it quite a bit older than 200 years). It is just out of whack, pushed to the limits by greed of the haves and willful ignorance of the have-nots. What this country needs is for the republicants to be left in power for a decade or two. Long enough for the dimwitted teabagger types and fundie evangelicals to suffer and have nobody on the left to blame. I agree that most in this country don’t have the “juice” to rebel, they are also seriously confused as to whom and what they need to rebel about and for. Ten, fifteen years of trickle down voodoo should do the trick.

  16. “medicinal mushrooms”

    I may have prescribed those a time or two back in college, as I recall the side effects where quite pleasant!

  17. TTD’s comment was more subtle than I gave him credit for. I was going to write that two hundred years ago, defined as 1800, the transatlantic slave trade was in full bloom, so some people did not have to work at all, and if you substitute social status and dominating people for money as a motivation, you have gained very little. But social status could be defined as a “social obligation”.

    Adam Smith (as I understand it) and a libertarian like David Boaz have certainly shown the understanding that without people’s motivation for altruistic behavior the capitalist system doesn’t work.

  18. Medicinal ‘schrooms are shiitake, reshi, maitake, yamabushitake,and himematsutake. These have strong anti-cancer properties.
    Psilocybe are the “magic” mushrooms, I prefer to not be a magican. I couldn’t run a farm stoned, plus the legal hassels would be too great.Also, the magic mushers grow in poop.

  19. erinyes,
    Well, that’s at least one ‘turd blossom’ I could learn to live with…

  20. erinyes – pretty amazing stuff going on in Florida – I had no idea. Thanks for letting us know!

  21. Swami,
    Gotta start slow. After the ganja is legal, I’d be on the band wagon for organic industrial hemp!

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