Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 21, 2020

SNAP election

[This serves as an addendum to my article on expanded unemployment benefits Jacobin just posted.]

In April, the most recent month available, almost 6 million people were added to the food stamp rolls, reversing the long decline after the 2008–2009 recession. In percentage terms, that’s the biggest monthly increase since 1970, when the program was young and participation was just taking off. This surge is a thing unto itself.

Food stamps

The number of participants in the food stamp program—which was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, though the old name has stuck—declined steadily in the late 1990s, as unemployment fell sharply and real wages rose. But with the 2001 recession and the weak recovery/expansion that followed, participation rose steadily, more than doubling between the 2000 low and the 2013 high. It fell steadily through early 2020, but as a percentage of the population never got below roughly twice the trough twenty years earlier.

Benefits are far from generous, though they are a lifeline to many millions of people. As the graph shows, the real value of the average monthly benefit was increased during the 2008–2009 recession, but that was allowed to erode. In real terms (using the price index for food for preparation at home), it’s just 7% above where it was in 1992, even though the cost of food prepared at home is up 78% since then.

food stamp benefits

The average monthly benefit per person was $181.60 in April, which works out to a rather tight $1.98 per meal. (All the SNAP stats are here.) That benefit level is about two-thirds of what the Agriculture Department calls a “thrifty” food budget for a non-elderly adult—a diet that, by the Department’s own accounting, doesn’t provide the recommended daily allowances of vitamin E or potassium; sadly, as they declare in cool bureaucratic prose, “a solution could not be obtained.” 

Despite the tightness of the budget, and the obvious need for food assistance even in more normal times, the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans have been trying to cut the program dramatically. It’s not a major budget item—0.3% of GDP—but reactionaries hate subsidizing food for the poor. Trump’s 2021 budget proposed cutting SNAP by nearly a third over the next decade. More recently, the administration tried to impose new regulations that would have kicked about 700,000 people off food stamps, a move that was blocked by a judge in March. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue—no relation to the chicken brand—justified these bits of savagery by saying the program was meant to provide “assistance through difficult times, not a way of life.” Because nothing says luxurious ease like a budget of $1.98 per meal.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 16, 2020

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July 16, 2020 Claire Potter, author of Political Junkies, on how our politics got so divided • Sonia Shah, author of this article, thinks about the pandemic in more than biomedical terms

Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 9, 2020

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July 9, 2020 Erin Thompson on art crime and the history of toppling statues • Jennifer Cohen on gendering the health and economic crises [back after another brief vacation break]

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 25, 2020

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June 25, 2020 Nikhil Pal Singh on race, class, policing, protest • Michael Kinnucan of Brooklyn DSA’s electoral committee on left victories in the NYC primary elections

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 20, 2020

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June 18, 2020 Eric Reinhart on jails as COVID-19 spreaders (article here, AER article on pretrial detention here) • Erin Hatton on “coerced” workers, from prisoners to grad students [back after vacation break]

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 4, 2020

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June 4, 2020 Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, on why cops are being so brutal and what should be done with them • Ben Tarnoff, co-founder of Logic magazine, on tech worker organizing (essay here)

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 2, 2020

NYC has way too many cops

As do many other cities, but since I’m a New Yorker, I’m leading with the hometown news.

US cities vary widely in the number of cops they have relative to their population, as the graph below (drawn from data assembled by Governing magazine). Among big cities, DC, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia top the list, with over 40 officers per 10,000 people. These are well above the national average of just under 28 per 10,000. Cities toward the bottom of the list have 20 or fewer.

If New York had an average number of cops, and not one of the highest ratios to population of any city in the country, we’d have 23,645 officers, not 36,228. If we had San Diego’s ratio, we’d have just 11,422, half as many as that average (which falls between Miami and Kansas City).

So, if New York wanted to be just average, we could fire 12,500 cops. If we wanted to be like San Diego, minus the nice weather and the US Navy, we could fire almost 25,000. We don’t have to be harsh about it. We could give them nice new jobs doing useful things instead of beating and shooting people, or a generous severance package if they prefer.

Even 11,422 is probably too many cops. But that’s another conversation.

Cops per 10,000 pop

 

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 28, 2020

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May 28, 2020 Excerpts from a virtual panel sponsored by Red May, Seattle: Jodi Dean, Leo Panitch, and Asad Haider on the current crisis, with lots about how socialists should engage with the state (full session, with video, here)

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 21, 2020

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May 21, 2020 Vincent Bevins, author of The Jakarta Method, on the US-sponsored strategy of mass murder during the Cold War • Kyle Beckham, lecturer in education at the University of San Francisco, on schooling during the pandemic

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 15, 2020

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May 14, 2020 Thea Riofrancos, co-author of this book, on why the Green New Deal is more urgent than ever • Alexander Zaitchik, author of this article, on how the profit-driven drug industry is an obstacle to developing a vaccine

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 9, 2020

Measuring the carnage

When Trump promised to end “American carnage” in his inaugural address, he had no idea he’d end up presiding over mass death and economic collapse, but history can be a brutal ironist. Here’s a look at the bloodletting in the job market, which is central to most people’s economic well-being.

Most of the time, the monthly employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is of interest mostly to econogeeks, but the April 2020 edition, released on Friday, May 8, was like no other since the end of World War II. The scale of job loss and the rise in unemployment had nothing even remotely like a precedent.

Employers axed 20.5 million jobs in April, making for a decline of 12.9% from a year earlier. That annual loss is a record by a wide margin. The previous record was -7.6% in September 1945, during the postwar demobilization. Total employment is back to where it was in February 2011, which was itself back to March 2004 levels, thanks to job losses in the Great Recession (a name that might have to be retired) and its aftermath. And that March 2004 level was the same as February 2000’s, because of the 2001 recession and the jobless recovery that followed it. So, employment now is the same as it was 20 years ago even though the adult population is up 48.3 million, or 23%. (See graph below.) We’re almost certain to see giant losses for May when the numbers are released on June 5.

Employment 1939–2020

Almost every sector and subsector lost jobs, and lots of them. Manufacturing lost 1.3 million; retail, 2.1 million; professional and business services, 2.1 million; education and health, 2.5 million (including 1.4 million in health care, a bizarre development during a massive health crisis); and leisure and hospitality, dominated by bars and restaurants, 7.7 million. Government was off almost a million, all of it at the state (-180,000) and local (-801,000) levels. It’s distressing that at a time when people need public services, they’re being radically shrunk, and a sector that is supposed to counter recessions by maintaining stable employment is acting instead as a downward accelerant. During the worst phases of the Great Recession, state and local government employment declined at an annual rate of around 1.5%; April’s level was off 4.5% from a year earlier. Austerity at the state and local level undermined the early Obama stimulus package, and continued as a drag on growth throughout the expansion.

Weirdly, average hourly earnings rose an eye-popping 4.6%—for the month, not the year, over 15 times the 2018–2019 average. The reason is that job losses are concentrated among lower-paid workers, which pushed up the average. It’s likely job losses will climb up the income ladder in coming months.

These figures come from a survey of employers, known as the establishment survey. The BLS also conducts a survey of people, known as the household survey. It was, if anything, even grimmer than its establishment counterpart. It found job losses a million higher (the two surveys often differ in the short term, though they always wind up telling the same basic story). The employment/population ratio, the share of the adult population working for pay, cratered, falling from 60.0% in March to 51.3% in April, an all-time low. (See graph below.) In the 1950s, before the mass entry of women into the labor force, it occasionally got as low as 55%. Its all-time high was 64.7% in April 2000. It never got anywhere near that high again, either in the early 2000s or in the 2009–2019 expansion, because of a mix of an aging population and weak economic growth. If people were employed at that rate now, there’d be almost 35 million more working.

EPOP

Unemployment soared, the rate rising more than 10 points from 4.4% to 14.7%. As the graph below shows, that’s well above previous peaks since the end of World War II. It took almost two years after the 1929 stock market crash for unemployment to hit 15%; we’ve done it in two months.

Unemployment rate 1929–2020

The BLS reports a fairly obscure set of stats called employment flows, which measure moves in and out of employment and unemployment. They report that almost one in six people who were employed in March lost their jobs in April.

As sharp as the April increase was, it was partly masked by massive labor force withdrawal. You have to be actively looking for work to be counted as unemployed, and no doubt some people either saw no point in searching, or no way to do it with so much shut down, so they weren’t counted as unemployed. Also, as the BLS reported, many people who were actually laid off reported themselves as “absent from work.” Had they reported themselves as laid off, the unemployment rate would have been close to 20%.

The BLS also reports a broader measure of unemployment, called U-6, which includes people who are working part-time who want full-time work and those who’ve given up the job search as hopeless. That rose from 8.7% to 22.8%, shattering its previous record of 17.2%, set in April 2010. The histories of the headline unemployment rate, aka U-3 (the one discussed in the previous paragraph) and the broad U-6 rate are graphed below. Also shown is a predecessor of the U-6 rate, known as U-7, which was reported from 1970 through 1993. The pure verticality and magnitude of the April spikes read like a poke in the eye.

Unemployment varieties

Of course, employment and unemployment vary widely by demographic, as the graphs below show. While every category saw a sharp rise in unemployment and fall in employment, the white and educated started from better positions and remain there. But things stink for them too.

U & EPOP April 2019-2020

If you’re desperate to find a cheering note buried amidst all the red ink, almost all the unemployed report themselves as being on temporary layoff rather than as permanent job losers. Similarly, a Washington Post–Ipsos poll reports that 58% of laid-off workers think it’s “very likely” they’ll get their old jobs back, and another 19% say it’s “somewhat likely.” One hopes this is based on sound reasoning and not wishful thinking.

Judging from the behavior of the stock market, which has recovered much of the ground it lost in the sharp selloff in February and March—and which is actually slightly above where it was a year ago—Wall Street thinks this damage is a brief bit of unpleasantness that will soon pass and come fall, it’s back to the races. I don’t get this. Thousands, maybe millions, of small and mid-sized businesses won’t be able to survive months with no revenue, and so won’t be around to reopen. Second and/or third waves of viral attacks, which are quite possible, would make a quick rebound even less likely. We’re in lots of trouble, and no one in charge knows how to get us out of it.


Data note The monthly unemployment figures for 1929–1938 were assembled by the National Industrial Conference Board, predecessor of today’s Conference Board, a think tank and data shop. They’re available from the NBER. The modern employment statistics system originated in the late New Deal, as a project of the Works Progress Administration.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 8, 2020

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May 7, 2020 Jodi Dean on The Crisis and its implications for the Communist horizon • James Pogue, author of this article (and this book), on guns, the left, and collective self-defense

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 30, 2020

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April 30, 2020 Lauren Sandler, author of This Is All I Got, on homelessness in NYC • Cathy Cowan Becker, author of this review of the Jeff Gibbs–Michael Moore documentary Planet of the Humans, on why it’s so bad

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 25, 2020

Yanis Varoufakis on Larry Summers

More Larry Summers content. with him much in the news as a Biden adviser.

From Yanis Varoufakis’s Adults in the Room, pp. 21–24:

Determined to delay the serious business ahead of us a few moments more, I signalled to the bartender for a whiskey of my own and said, ‘Before you tell me about my “mistake”, let me say, Larry, how important your messages of support and advice have been in the past weeks. I am truly grateful. Especially as for years I have been referring to you as the Prince of Darkness.’

Unperturbed, Larry Summers replied, ‘At least you called me a prince. I have been called worse.’

For the next couple of hours the conversation turned serious. We talked about technical issues: debt swaps, fiscal policy, market reforms, ‘bad’ banks. On the political front he warned me that I was losing the propaganda war and that the ‘Europeans’, as he called Europe’s powers that be, were out to get me. He suggested, and I agreed, that any new deal for my long-suffering country should be one that Germany’s chancellor could present to her voters as her idea, her personal legacy.

Things were proceeding better than I had hoped, with broad agreement on everything that mattered. It was no mean feat to secure the support of the formidable Larry Summers in the struggle against the powerful institutions, governments and media conglomerates demanding my government’s surrender and my head on a silver platter. Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me.1

‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?”

Instinct urged me to respond with a single word; instead I used quite a few.

‘By character I am a natural outsider,’ I began, ‘but,’ I hastened to add, ‘I am prepared to strangle my character if it would help strike a new deal for Greece that gets our people out of debt prison. Have no doubt about this, Larry: I shall behave like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table – for Greece, indeed for Europe. But if the insiders I am dealing with prove unwilling to release Greece from its eternal debt bondage, I will not hesitate to turn whistle-blower on them – to return to the outside, which is my natural habitat anyway.’

‘Fair enough,’ he said after a thoughtful pause.”

“Powering through the watery curtain in pristine solitude, I took stock of the encounter. Summers was an ally, albeit a reluctant one. He had no time for my government’s left-wing politics, but he understood that our defeat was not in America’s interest. He knew that the eurozone’s economic policies were not just atrocious for Greece but terrible for Europe and, by extension, for the United States too. And he knew that Greece was merely the laboratory where these failed policies were being tested and developed before their implementation everywhere across Europe. This is why Summers offered a helping hand. We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 24, 2020

Larry Summers, 2000 vintage

With Larry Summers in the news as a Biden advisor, a check out this recounting of my encounter with him in April 2000.

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