Working Class Reality TV: The Final Episodes

Hard Earned – Episodes 5 and 6

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

The final episodes of Hard Earned (“Fight for Fifteen” and “New Beginnings”) reveal mostly positive outcomes for the five families – in part due to their resourcefulness and in part (in my view) to extremely good luck.

Chicago: DJ loses his union job because it requires a car and he can’t afford the expense and upkeep. He finds a new job as field director for a voter mobilization campaign.

Montgomery: The couple finally find a house and mortgage they can afford and refurbish it to enable Elizabeth’s parents to move into their basement. They have been paying the $1700 mortgage on her parents’ home since her father developed cancer. Jose finally passes his math class and starts a part-time internship at a radio station to supplement his full time job at the courthouse.

Silicon valley: Hilton quits his Google job after he learns enough English to pass a food handlers exam. However he is forced to take a second job as a busboy to pay their medical bills and higher housing expenses (they have moved out of the garage into a house they share with another couple). His girlfriend takes a minimum wage job at a market.

Milwaukee: Percy finally lands a full time maintenance job that pays $11.25 and hour, and his wife, who has severe arthritis in her knees, is finally able to retire.

Evergreen Park: Emilia finally finds a good-paying waitress job and receives additional income from speaking tours about her struggle with drug and alcohol recovery.


For earlier episodes see Fighting Homelessness: Reality TV That Depicts Reality and  Reality TV: More Truth About the American Working Class

Fighting Homelessness: Reality TV that Depicts Reality

Hard Earned – Parts 1 and 2

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

As it bears no relation whatsoever to modern life, so-called “reality” TV is clearly a misnomer. Most of what passes for reality TV are highly scripted popularity contests for physically attractive white contestants.

Al Jazeera’s six-episode series Hard Earned, depicting the bitter struggle millions of Americans face to stay off the streets, is my kind of reality TV. Although I myself found it riveting, I am high skeptical that any US media provider will ever carry it.

Hard Earned follows five working class families as they struggle to meet basic survival needs with minimum wage jobs.

The families include an African American Chicago couple who work full time jobs at Walgreens to support two preschool kids; an Hispanic Iraq veteran in Montgomery Maryland who works a graveyard clerical shift at the courthouse, his school counselor girlfriend and his school aged son from a prior marriage; a Silicon Valley Hispanic man who works two full time jobs to pay $300 a month to live in a garage with his pregnant girlfriend; a 66/65-year-old African American Milwaukee couple who face working indefinitely at minimum wage jobs to keeping from losing their home; and a 50-year-old white Evergreen Park (Illinois) waitress who works two jobs and survives on credit cards to keep from losing the house she bought while making $80,000 a year as a construction worker.

We are introduced to the five families in Episode 1 and 2 (“The American Dream” and “Rock Bottom”). You are immediately struck by how exceptionally bright, hard working, resourceful and above all (for the most part) physically healthy they all are. This, despite working non-stop and getting very little sleep. They are also (for the most part) extremely adept at budgeting and managing their money.

 

 

The Real Reason Silicon Valley Moved Electronics Assembly to China?

Death by Design

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

Death By Design is a very concerning documentary about the extremely toxic chemicals used in the production of semiconductors and circuit boards needed for computers, cellphones ipods, etc.

It turns out IBM has been keeping a mortality register since the 1970s showing an extremely high rate of breast cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer and melanoma in in electronics assembly workers. Unsurprisingly there are also high levels of carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals in the ground water of various Silicon Valley neighborhoods. Thanks to the tireless organizing and lobbying efforts of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in 2001 the EPA declared a number of Silicon Valley companies Superfund Sites* in 2001 (IBM, Intel, National Semiconductor, Hewlett Packard among others).

This, in turn, would lead most Silicon Valley companies to outsource their electronics assembly to China, where environmental regulations are much weaker.

At the moment China also deals with most of the world’s toxic e-waste, a problem significantly compounded by deliberate planned obsolescence on the part of tech companies. Our Smartphones, computers, etc are deliberately designed to cease operating after about four years so we have to buy new ones. The most famous example is the Apple iphone, with the infamous battery that goes dead after 18 months and can’t be replaced.

Apple and their main Chinese contractor Foxconn are also the worst offenders in resisting Chinese environmentalists who are trying to reduce toxic discharges to Chinese rivers and streams.

The part of the film I found most interesting relates to a company called Ifixit, which specializes in teaching Smartphone and computer users how to fix their own devices instead of replacing them. They have even developed a special screwdriver to open Iphones so the batteries can be replaced.

I was also intrigued to learn about an Irish company that builds totally non-toxic and upgradable laptops out of wood (instead of plastic) that last 7-10 years.


*When the EPA declares a company a toxic Superfund Site, the company is required to develop and pay for removing the toxic chemicals.

Offline is the New Luxury

Offline is the New Luxury

VPRO (2017)

Film Review

This documentary is about taking back control of our Internet connectivity. Ironically it starts by recommending a new app that allows you to identify increasingly rare “white spots” – areas of the earth that aren’t blanketed with WiFi signals. One MIT psychology professor, who bans cellphones, laptops and tablets in her classes, is part of a movement to create sacred spaces in these white spots – areas where people fully engage with each other instead of their electronic devices.

The filmmakers also talk about the late Steve Jobs and other prominent Silicon Valley moguls not allowing their kids to have cellphones and tablets and sending them to low tech Montessori and Waldorf schools. Increasingly the well-to-do are seeking out expensive retreats and detox facilities to cure their Internet addiction. While growing numbers of law firms and security agencies patronize a highly successful Dutch firm selling Faraday cages and microwave shields to protect clients from electronic snooping and damaging microwave radiation.

The Amish, of course, have a cheap low-tech solution to Internet addiction – namely a value system that rejects most advanced electronic technology.

The video concludes by explaining the concept of “surveillance capitalism,” in which our personal information is “monetized,” ie in which the data Google, Facebook and Amazon collect on us is sold to advertisers.

A key strategy of surveillance capitalism is to use drones, satellites and giant balloons to expand connectivity to remote areas of the developing world. At the time of filming, Facebook was pressuring the Indian government to allow the introduction of Free Basics (free Internet connectivity) to all Indian residents, with Facebook retaining control of their Internet access. Google, meanwhile, is pushing to extend 100% connectivity to Sri Lanka by launching giant WiFi balloons.

According to one analyst, the drive to acquire massive troves of Indian personal data is a ploy to placate shareholders. The latter are understandably concerned about a drop-off in Facebook users in the developing world – due to privacy concerns and the recognition that most Facebook content is meaningless drivel.

The Ugly Truth about Airbnb, Uber and Task Rabbit

raw deal

Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers

by Steven Hill

St Martin’s Press (2015)

Book Review

Raw Deal is about all the creative ways Wall Street and Silicon Valley have invented to exploit American workers since the 2008 meltdown escalated the wholesale destruction of US jobs.  As of 2015 the US economy had shed a total of 12 million jobs, a figure that is increasing rather than decreasing.

The book mainly focuses on so-called sharing platforms, such as Airbnb, Uber, Task Rabbit and their imitators. However author Steven Hill also includes chapters on the phenomenal growth of permatemp “contract” labor, the burgeoning System D or gray labor market (where employers pay cash under the table) and the steady replacement of workers by robots, computers and apps.

The Myth of Worker Independence

For me, the most valuable chapters expose the total fraud being perpetrated on the US public about Airbnb, Uber and Task Rabbit, namely the immense benefit they offer the economy, the environment and worker independence by eliminating the middleman. The myth about freeing up US workers by making them micro-entrepreneurs is exactly that: a carefully constructed lie.

Centering these enterprises around web-based apps only thinly disguises what they really are: a labor force made up entirely of contract employees. It’s an immediate win-win for the employer, who reduces his labor costs by 1/3 by eliminating his obligation to pay Social Security, Medicare, unemployment tax or health or pension benefits. And an immediate lose-lose for the “microentrepreur,” who as a member of the precariat,** never knows where his next dollar is coming from.

Hyperexploitation: the Fastest Way to Become a Billionaire

The CEOs who run Airbnb and Uber are both thirty-something billionaires (Task Rabbit founder and CEO Leah Busque is only a millionaire), who got their by hyperexploiting their employees.

Brian Chesky is the 34 year old billionaire who founded Airbnb, a company using a web-based app to enable ordinary moms and pops to rent out their spare rooms to tourists. Guests pay a 6-12% service fee and hosts 3%. Airbnb, which operates in 34,000 cities and 192 countries, is bigger than the Hyatt Hotel chin. It’s valued at $25 billion.

The company has been banned in numerous cities and countries owing to its violation of short term rental laws (most cities place a maximum of 30 days on rentals) and their refusal to pay hotel tax.

There’s the additional problem of Airbnb being taken over by real estate agents and slum lords seeking to cash in on a lucrative unregulated market. Of the 5,000 accommodations listed on the website, 2/3 are entire homes or buildings with no owner present, and 1/3 are controlled by people with two or more listings. In San Francisco, New York and other cities with rent control, unscrupulous slum lords are evicting whole blocks of elderly and disabled tenants to turn their buildings into Airbnb accommodation.

Uber Modeled After Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Uber is a web based taxi services that recruits drivers to use their private vehicles to carry fares. Uber founder and billionaire Tavis Kalanick, who fancies himself an Ayn Rand revolutionary, prides himself on breaking laws he finds inconvenient

Uber, which is worth $51 billion, has gone from scandal to sandal owing to its refusal to perform criminal background checks on their drivers (after a number stole from passengers or physically/sexually assaulted them) or pay livery taxes or carry commercial liability insurance; their brutal exploitation of drivers; and their failure to protect passenger privacy.

Kalanick faces criminal charges in South Korea and Uber has been banned in France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Denmark. It has also been banned (or severely curtailed) in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Nevada, Miami, Philadelphia and New York City.

Rent-a-Slave

Task Rabbit was founded in 2009 by Leah Busque to connect “domestic freelancers” with customers needing tasks and errands done. It expanded to include all forms of temporary work (Walmart uses Task Rabbit, where it pays a 26% commission, as opposed to the 40% charged by conventional temp agencies).

The most controversial aspect of the Task Rabbit platform was the “bidding auction,” where “rabbits” competed with one another to provide the lowest bid for the service desired. After a storm of controversy Task Rabbit ditched the bidding auction in 2014.


*According to Forbes, the total value of the global System D economy is $10 trillion

**In sociology and economics, the precariat is a social class of people whose life is dominated by a total absence of financial predictability or security.

Ayn Rand, Alan Greenapan and the 2008 Crash

I’ve just discovered another exciting series of documentaries by Adam Curtis

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace*

Adam Curtis

BBC (2011)

Part I

Film Review

Despite its deceptive title, this BBC documentary is about Ayn Rand and her immense influence over Silicon Valley and Rand devotee Alan Greenspan.

Prior to seeing the film, I had no idea about the cult following Rand inspired in the computer geniuses who flocked to Silicon Valley in the late sixties. Believing they could create a new kind of democracy by combining Rand’s radical individualism with computer technology, they set up Ayn Rand reading groups and named their children after her. They were convinced that linking computers in vast self-regulated networks would do away with the need for politicians and authoritarian hierarchies. However instead of decentralizing power, as they envisioned, the computer revolution only further concentrated the power of wealthy elites.

Rand called her underlying philosophy “objectivism” and disseminated it through her novels and a close-knit group of devotees. It was a philosophy of selfishness. She believed it was in the best interest of humanity for everyone to pursue their own rational self interest, unimpeded by religion or morality. She maintained that altruism was especially destructive, as it interfered with happiness and freedom.

Rand Devotee Alan Greenspan

Former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan was an early member of Rand’s Collective, the small select group that met weekly to hear chapters of her newest novel. He married a fellow Collective member and remained fiercely loyal to Rand even after her sexual jealousy broke up the group.

After cunningly convincing one of her strongest supporters to follow his own self-interest by having an affair with her, she somehow persuaded his wife (also a Collective member) to commit the sin of altruism by agreeing to it. When he continued to follow his own self interest by becoming romantically involved with a younger woman, Rand brutally attacked him (verbally and physically) and ordered him out of the Collective.

The Most Powerful Man in the World

After becoming Federal Reserve chairman in 1987, Greenspan became the most powerful man in the world.** In 1993, he somehow persuade the newly elected Bill Clinton to cut taxes instead of restoring the social programs Reagan and Bush had cut (as he promised during his campaign). Greenpan argued this would cause markets to boom, enabling Clinton to repay the sizable federal debt he inherited from Reagan and Bush.

So Clinton cut social programs even further. Markets boomed, as Greenspan predicted, but not because of tax cuts. The real cause was an enormous credit bubble by massive Wall Street lending to unstable Southeast Asian markets. All the Wall Street banks erroneously believed that feedback loops in their computer networks would protect them by allowing them to hedge (bet against) their risky loans.

Greenspan Recognizes His Error

By 1996, even Greenspan could see that productivity wasn’t increasing despite the massive increase in profits. He tried to warn Congress that stocks were overvalued in his December 1996 “rational exuberance” speech.*** The corporate media crucified him and he recanted, acknowledging that computers might be increasing productivity he ways he couldn’t decipher.

Robert Rubin Launches Indonesian Coup

The credit bubble Wall Street created in Southeast Asia led Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Indonesia built thousands of homes and commercial buildings that couldn’t be sold. In 1997, the bubble burst. Clinton, who was busy being impeached over Monica Lewinsky, was powerless to act. He allowed his Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive Robert Rubin, to take over his Southeast Asia policy. Rubin, in turn, organized an attempted coup against Indonesian president Suharto for refusing to accept an IMF bailout.

Faced with massive civil unrest, Suharto eventually accepted the bailout and the structural adjustment conditions the IMF imposed (massive cuts in government spending on food subsidies and other social services, throwing millions of people out of worked). As typically happens, the IMF bailouts went to pay off the Wall Street banks. While the IMF-imposed austerity cuts (helped along by currency trader George Soros) led the currencies of all four countries to collapse. Residents of Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Indonesia were plunged into abject poverty comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

China Escapes from Wall Street Domination

The most important outgrowth of the 1997-98 Southeast Asia economic crisis was a major shift in Chinese economic policy. Determined to remove themselves from Wall Street domination, China’s leaders devalued their currency, flooded the US with cheap consumer goods and used their profits to finance growing US indebtedness by buying US Treasury bonds.

In the mean time, Greenspan cut interest rates to near zero percent and the US was flooded with trillions of dollars of cheap (borrowed) money. Wall Street, in turn, recycled these funds as subprime loans to the third world population in American ghettos.

Again believing computers would keep them safe, Wall Street banks created the largest credit bubble in history. When it burst in 2008 Wall Street, as usual, got bailed out. This time Americans paid for the bailout, as they were plunged into widereaching soul-crunching misery.

The documentary features fascinating archival interviews with Rand and members of her Collective.


* Title of 1967 monograph distributed free by California cybernetics enthusiast Richard Brautigan. Available for $400 from Abe Books

**On reflection, it seems a great pity Rand didn’t have the affair with Greenspan. We could have been spared the 2008 economic crash.

***”How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”

 

Corporate Predators Invade San Francisco

san francisco

Guest blog by Steven Miller

 (This is the 5th of 6 guest posts in which Miller discusses the corporate vultures descending on the Bay Area)

San Francisco’s Invasion by Corporate Predators – Part V

These are the best of times…. or so it appears. San Francisco is succeeding Detroit as the pre-imminent manufacturing city in America… except it does not manufacture tangible products. This development is amazing, since the city is isolated on a peninsula and never developed a large manufacturing base in the Industrial Era. For decades a Western center of finance, San Francisco is becoming the center of the high-tech industry, which produces intangible digital products, an extension of Silicon Valley 50 miles south.

The city’s population is over 800,000, the highest in history, as tech workers flood the city. Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group notes that well over 100 of his 391 member companies “either have headquarters or a strong physical presence in San Francisco”. (15)

The economy of the Bay Area has reached pre-2008 levels, but with 200,000 fewer jobs. The difference is in the greater use of electronic technology, which inevitably means laborless production.  (16)

In this respect, the economies of San Francisco and Detroit are moving in the same direction. This trend, reflected throughout the US and the world in general, gives the lie to glib pronouncements by politicians that they will create more jobs. The hard reality is that there will be fewer and fewer jobs because technology needs ever fewer production workers.

Electronic technology is now so productive that it no longer requires people work 40 hours a week. Thus corporations are engineering Temp World right before our eyes. Part-time workers, permatemps, precariats, contingent workforce, outside contractors, flexible contract workers, personal entrepreneurs – the names change, but a new model of work is being imposed. (17)

One of the city’s vaunted hi-tech start-ups is Task Rabbit, where someone posts a job on line – anything from moving a couch to creating a website – and a mob of desperate workers, many with advanced degrees, compete to place the lowest bid. This is the hi-tech version of the day laborer shape-up that happens every morning as construction workers, mostly without papers, battle each other to work for contractors. This trend reflects capitalism’s latest production model of outsourcing production through chains of sub-contractors.

At the other end of the pole, well-off techies have suddenly discovered the wonders of capitalism and wax profound about the libertarian virtues of a society where everyone free-lances. Though they believe they are creating the new glamorous world of work, they are simply establishing the visionary model of capitalist work in the electronic era, articulated in the 1994 Fortune Magazine article “The End of the Job”:

As a way of organizing work, the traditional job is becoming a social artefact, created in the 19th century and well suited to the demands of a newly industrial world, but poorly adapted to a fast-moving, information-based economy. Its demise confronts everyone with unfamiliar risks — as well as rich opportunities.”  (18)

Laborless production generates the polarization of wealth, the polarization of the job market and the polarization of society. Techies can afford to pay super-high rents. Immediately after the Melt Down, a massive wave of evictions swept the country. Many of these have been shown to be completely illegal. Now a new wave of evictions is being implemented across the city, leading to the eviction of working class families across the city. Evictions of entire buildings for purposes of sale are up 170% since 2010. (19)

Rebecca Solnit describes the Google buses that roam the San Francisco, picking up tech workers to carry them to Silicon Valley, “Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us. (20)

The new evictions really reflect the penetration of speculation through the economy. Wall Street’s new campaign is to turn rental homes into cash cows! The banksters caused the 2008 Meltdown by bundling predatory mortgages together as “a security” that could be bet on, either for or against. Now they are securitizing rents themselves to serve as fodder for the new amped up Casino Economy. When the next crash hits, will Americans again be so gullible to accept the “too big to fail” line once again?

Dave Ransom reports on how this is going down in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Oakland-based Waypoint Homes, for instance, calls itself “a next generation real-estate company.” It holds title to more than a thousand homes. And it is attracting serious capital to buy several thousand more—$2 billion from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and real-estate investors.

 “Waypoint buys foreclosed homes from banks or in auctions on the courthouse steps, generally at a steep discount. After fixing them up, it rents them out for a good deal less than the original mortgage payment.

 “That sounds good until you realize that, if the banks had offered the families living in the homes the same deal they offered Waypoint, those families could probably have avoided foreclosure entirely.

 “This spring, the Obama administration announced a plan to sell foreclosed homes owned by the government’s housing agencies—Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the FHA.

 “But the hedge funds and private-equity firms are pressuring the administration to offer them cheap financing and guarantee they will be bidding on lots of as many as a thousand homes at a time.

 “Who currently holds the mortgages to these homes? We the People do—the 99%. Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and the FHA—all government backed and bailed out by the taxpayers—hold half the country’s mortgages, dumped there by the banks when the housing bubble burst.  (21)

Thom Hartman describes the same phenomenon nationally in his book The Crash of 2016:

Among the firms and big banks buying up America’s real estate is the Blackstone Group, the largest private equity firm in the world. The Blackstone Group alone has bought nearly 40,000 houses across America, spending $7.5 billion in the process.

Blackstone, for example, bought 1,400 homes in Atlanta in one day, and owns nearly 2,000 houses in the Charlotte, North Carolina metro area.

So why are Blackstone and other Wall Street firms buying up foreclosed homes all across the country? It’s simple. By renting these homes back to Americans, and securitizing America’s home-rental market, they can bundle up rental payments the same way they used to bundle mortgage payments, and sell them to investors.”

The predators are again up to their old tricks. Nothing has changed.” (22)

This is madness! The speculative section of capitalism is in the driver’s seat, but the only solution they can offer to any problem is… more speculation. They use carbon futures to speculate on the very atmosphere, and intend to make a profit all the way through Global Warming and the end of human society, as we know it.

References and Resources

15)  Patrick May, “Is it now the ‘Silicon Bay Area”? Oakland Tribune. 11-13-2013

16)  Caroline Said. “S.F. Bay Area economy thriving despite challenges”. 3-17-2012

17)  NPR Staff. “A ‘Permatemp’ Economy: The Idea Of The Expendable Employee”. January 28, 2013

18)  William Bridges. “The End of the Job”. Fortune. September 19, 1994

19)  SF Chronicle. City Insider. 12-29-13

20)  Heather Knight. City Insider, SF Chronicle, 12-15-2013

21)  Peoples’ Tribune, October, 2013

22)  Thom Hartman. “Are the Bankers Now Setting Up the Crash of 2016?” 12-3-2013

To be continued.

***

Steven Miller has taught science for 25 years in Oakland’s Flatland high schools. He has been actively engaged in public school reform since the early 1990s. When the state seized control of Oakland public schools in 2003, they immediately implemented policies of corporatization and privatization that are advocated by the Broad Institute. Since that time Steve has written extensively against the privatization of public education, water and other public resources. You can email him at nanodog2@hotmail.com

Originally posted at Daily Censored

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons