Whose Land?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

According to Barbara Ehrenreich, the answer to the question, "this land is whose land?" is definitely their — the super rich. The way she sees it (and she's been seeing it through fifteen books), ours is a nation divided, and the haves drop more than nickels and dimes on plastic surgery and "vast dynamic estates," while those at the other end of the spectrum don't have health insurance for their kids. It's familiar territory for Ehrenreich, but there's something to be said for repeating the point, particularly with such cunning:

I need to see vast expanses of water, 360 degree horizons, and mountains piercing the sky-at least for a week or two of the year. According to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, we all do, and the need is hard-wired into us... When I was a child, I sang "America the Beautiful" and meant it. I was born in the Rocky Mountains and raised, at various times, on the coasts. The Big Sky, the rolling surf, the jagged, snow-capped, mountains: All this seemed to be my birthright. But now I flinch when I hear Woody Guthrie's line, "This land belongs to you and me." Somehow, I don't think it was meant to be sung by a chorus of hedge fund operators.

That's from her blog, the source for the many essays in her new book, This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation. Where is that divide most visible to you?

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I left psychiatric social work to care for my (slowly) dying mother. After she died last September, it took me some time to recover from exhaustion as sole caregiver. Psychiatric social work is almost non-existent as an employment option with integrity. I tried getting a part-time job in housing social work; I'm now working for $7/hr as a grocery checker. I'm a union member --- it will be more than a year before I'm elegible for healthcare. This job has helped me in terms of getting back with people --- and it forces me to see in all levels of income challenges -- not to mention, I'm only making about half of what it costs me to live. Fortunately, for a while I can tap into retirement savings until they're exhausted. By that time, I hope to be ready to find other work. But I have to say that it was shocking to give WIC groceries to one of my co-workers!

Sent by Catherine Wade | 3:50 PM | 6-24-2008

I'm a little confused about the comparison of the historic Ford Company and the way business is not paying proper wages today. 100 years ago a corporate company was not nearly taxed the same as today,nor were they expected to provide health care benefits, social benefits, retirement, or even had human resources or legal departments. Businesses are expected to bring in 6% growth every year. I don't see how more government regulation on business will help the working wage. Or improve the working environment? Hasn't it already happen? Isn't this issue more complex than just the government and corporate greed? What about societies expectations of success or what it means to rich?

Sent by Michael Crosbie | 4:02 PM | 6-24-2008

Great show...regarding the point of personal responsibility and level of credit. What about the responsibility of credit card companies, banks, corporations, etc. Credit card companies shamelessly flood mail boxes with offers to people who do not even have jobs. Now Credit card companies can hound you indefinitely even though they share in the culpability of this over extension of ability to pay. Those with poor judgement without the resources of these big companies are then left with a hugh cloud of bad debt and high interest rates (because of the debt). At least the mortgage companies share the responsibility with the people who have their homes in forecloseure. Consumer education is important and should be pursued, but accountability and/or some judicial constraints (or penalities) need to be initiated. Somehow our laws seem to be supporting the legitimate loan sharks.

I do not know what the answers to solve the issues are, but those at the bottom deserve better.

Sent by G. Howe | 4:35 PM | 6-24-2008

What are the primary forces preventing people from organizing? Is this something that needs to be done at a massive level in order to prevent corporate blowback?

Sent by Chaz Fromage | 5:55 PM | 6-24-2008

I was pleased that a caller pointed out that although productivity has increased, wages have stagnated. However, I was disappointed that no one was politically incorrect enough to mention the real sources of our nation's economic problems: Global Labor Arbitrage and Population Explosion.

Global Labor Arbitrage is an averaging out of wages, on a worldwide scale, to account for the world's overall amount of able labor and capital. In other words, as barriers to international trade, both physical and political, have disintegrated our nation's economy and labor markets are essentially merging with those of the rest of the world, which include about 2.4 billion relatively impoverished people in India and China who are willing to work for lower wages (or a lower share of the value of their contribution to the production of wealth).

This economic phenomenon has become pronounced over the past decade and manifests itself primarily in the forms of (1) foreign outsourcing, including the outsourcing of college-education-requiring knowledge-based jobs (the ones people are supposed to retrain and reeducate for), (2) the use of foreign work visas (H-1B, L-1, etc.) to displace Americans from knowledge-based jobs, and (3) mass immigration, both legal and illegal (which consumes government funds for education and health care and tends to exert downward pressure on wages for the lower class).

All of these factors effectively increase the supply of labor available relative to the amount of demand for labor, which means that the price point (share of contribution to production received as wages) must decrease. Consequently, Global Labor Arbitrage has negatively affected Americans in almost all economic classes and income scales other than the wealthy who own the capital.

Population Explosion results in a higher ratio of people to acreage, which means having fewer resources per capita, a relatively higher demand for those resources, and thus higher prices (especially for real estate, energy resources, and agricultural products) relative to people's wages. It also increases the strain on the environment and could lead to environmental degradation. Mass immigration and illegal immigration are the primary drivers of our nation's population explosion and the United States is now by far the world's third most populous nation, right behind India and China.

Sadly, few of our politicians have the guts to even mention these issues. Instead, the politicians, pundits, and the news media have bombarded Americans with the propaganda that more and better (and expensive and time consuming) education, and not better economic policies, will magically solve our nation's economic problems. They have been feeding this propaganda to angry and disenchanted Americans as though education were an opiate of the masses. As any unemployed or underemployed-and-involuntarily-out-of-field college graduate (including many with advanced science degrees and professional degrees) who have to pay off their student loans will tell you, our nation already has an oversupply of college graduates. Americans should be asking: "Retrain and Reeducate--for what? All the jobs are either going overseas or going to foreigners on work visas." Consequently, almost ever unused or underutilized college degree constitutes a tremendous amount of economic waste that contributes to a lower quality of life and standard of living in this country.

The inanity of our politicians' and the media's education claims can be exposed by considering a simple question. If we double the number of people with college degrees in will the number of jobs available at currently prevailing wage rates in also double? Of course not; the notion that an increasing supply will magically increase the demand at a fixed or higher price point is ridiculous. However, by ending mass immigration and enacting trade protectionism we might be better able to internalize much of the economic activity that our nation generates, having more jobs available at better wages for both college graduates and for the working class while having less perceived need for people to invest time and money in excess college education that may not pay off.

As Americans, we need to ask ourselves whether we want to join the third world and if not, then we need to enact economic policies to protect ourselves from the poverty that is being caused by Global Labor Arbitrage and Population Explosion. We also need to resist the temptation to succumb to feel-good panaceas such as expensive educational investments for non-existent job positions instead of addressing politically incorrect and uncomfortable issues.

Sent by Frank the Underemployed Professional | 1:53 AM | 6-25-2008

The divide is most visible to me in poor communities where people feel so excluded from the mainstream that they've evolved as a defense mechanism an alternate culture that paradoxically denigrates any effort to join that mainstream, deriding the effort as "acting white" (in communities of color) or "getting above yourself," "acting high-falutin'," etc. Why should any child in NYC feel they have no right to attend even free theatre or ballet or concerts? That these things exist for other people but somehow are inappropriate for people like themselves? NYC used to be known for having, in addition to glamour, free, available and accessible culture. Now, it is a place of conspicuous consumption where nothing will sell unless it's labeled "luxury." It's the rise of the gated community that probably is the most obnoxious signpost of the divide; implying everyone not living in one is "rabble."

Sent by Jude from Flushing | 8:06 AM | 6-25-2008

These realities point to the inhumanization of people in "the land of the free." I'm a naturalized u.s. citizen, from latin america and I want to add my voice to the injustice to illegal imigrants: this land is their land too, wheather the laws are against them, the rich also "make" the laws in this country. Another consequence of $$$ concentrated in the privileged.

Sent by Rosario Villavicencio | 9:43 AM | 6-26-2008

What Ms Ehrenreich refers to as the "poverty tax" is the amount that a supplier (grocery store, check casher, insurance company, etc) MUST charge to compensate for the high risk associated with providing needed services to a high-risk (i.e. poor) population--the population most likely to default on a financial committment. An investor (the supplier) has to be compensated for this higher risk or he/she will put the money elsewhere. When risk decreases (the supplier offers services to a more stable population), so do these costs.

Sent by E. Nelms | 10:42 AM | 6-26-2008

Right... the amount a supplier MUST charge to compensate....These investors couldn't care less if a person misses a payment, they get a $50 plus dollars in fees as a result. The poverty tax isn't designed to compensate, its designed to ensure a higher profit is made off of those who have no other options available.
I mean really, how is charging a "high-risk individual" (i.e. a poor person) MORE going to lessen the risk of default? Heaven forbid they have to make lower payments- they just might be able to afford to make them on a consistent basis AND have money left over for, you know, food, clothing, shelter that's not sub-standard. They may even partake in the luxuries of American living like job training or a college education (which would increase their starting salary at any job, regardless of whether or not it was within their field of study).I mean really, how is charging a "high-risk individual" (i.e. a poor person) MORE going to lessen the risk of default? Heaven forbid they have to make lower payments- they just might be able to afford to make them on a consistent basis AND have money left over for, you know, food, clothing, shelter that's not sub-standard. They may even partake in the luxuries of American living like job trainning or a college education (which would increase their starting salary at any job, regardless of whether or not it was within their field of study).

Sent by Lauren | 4:19 PM | 6-26-2008