Amazon’s CamperForce: A New Twist on Elder Abuse

Nomadland eBook by Jessica Bruder ...

Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century

By Jessica Bruder (2017)

W W Norton

Book Review

This book is about America’s new underclass, elderly middle class Americans who (after losing their jobs, pensions and savings in the 2008 global economic crash) work at minimum wage jobs and live in vans, RVs and sedans. Spending a total of three years researching this subculture, author Jessica Bruder lived in her own van for awhile and worked as an Amazon CamperForce employee get to know some of the individuals she profiles.*

While Bruder identifies a number of industries that deliberately exploit older Americans, Amazon is clearly the most hated by elderly “vandwellers.” To avoid hiking wages, Amazon annually recruits homeless seniors to staff their warehouses in the three to four months leading up to Christmas. The program, which pays $11.50 an hour plus mandatory overtime, requires them to work ten hours a day or longer and walk an average of 15 miles, in temperatures ranging up to 90 degrees (100 degrees in some warehouses). Stress injuries are so common in CamperForce employees that the company installs vending machines dispensing free over-the-counter painkillers in many warehouses.

Ironically taxpayers subsidize this exploitation, as Amazon receives Work Opportunity Tax Credits for every employee they hire receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or food stamps.

While Bruder acknowledges the warm fuzzy feelings that can occur from helping each other out during a crisis, after three winters it became hard to ignore the genuine hardships faced by this exploited underclass. These include the struggle to keep warm in a van or camper in sub-freezing temperatures, vehicle breakdowns they can’t afford to pay for (in some cases while still paying off vehicle loans), coping with illnesses and work injuries with no health insurance coverage,** difficulty renewing renewing a drivers license with no permanent address, a growing number of local laws criminalizing homelessness and new US Forest Service policies that discourage people with no fixed address from “camping” free in federal forests.

Last, but not least, is the troubling question of where elderly vandwellers go when they become too frail to work. With most of them earning a monthly average of $424 Social Security income (following their $100 Medicare deduction), they have no hope of paying rent anywhere in the US.

*The book seems nothing like the Academy-award winning movie, at least according to a review I read. See The Amazon Warehouse as Disneyland

**Vandwellers who spend their winters in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico frequently go to Mexico for dental procedures, pharmaceuticals and eye glasses that are a fraction of what they would pay in the US.

White Supremacy and the Obama Legacy

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World (2017)

Book Review

This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.

Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.

Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”

“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”

Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.

My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.


Who Stole the American Dream?

The Heist: Who Stole the American Dream and How We Can Get It Back

Directed by Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher (2012)

Film Review

The Heist traces the banking regulations Roosevelt enacted during the Great Depression – with the goal of preventing future economic cataclysms – and the systematic dismantling of this regulation that commenced in 1971. The documentary credits this deliberate attack on the financial regulatory system for the 2008 meltdown, the decimation of American unions, the total control of federal government by Wall Street corporations, and the most unequal economic system in the world.

The filmmakers date this orchestrated attack on US financial regulation to the Powell Memo,* which the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable seized on to launch twelve right wing pro-business think tanks (including the CATO Institute, the American Enterprise Institutes and the Heritage Foundation). Funded by six families, these foundations were created with the deliberate aim of capturing business schools and the media with fundamentalist free market ideology. They proceeded to lobby all levels of government for tax cuts on the rich, as well as financing focus groups and psychologists to develop propaganda persuading blue collar workers to vote against their own interests.

In 1980, they succeeded in convincing large numbers of blue collar Democrats to vote for Reagan. In addition to implementing tax cuts for the rich that created the largest federal deficit in US history, Reagan also repealed the Fairness Doctrine,** opening the door to a radio talk show market 90% dominated by right wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

Guided by the Powell Memo, right wing Democrat Bill Clinton repealed the Glass Steagall Act,***, deregulated derivatives trading, gutted the Federal Communication Commission’s authority to regulate media monopolies, and sped up the outsourcing of US jobs through the enactment of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which created the World Trade Organization).

Obama would prove even more pro-business than Clinton, with his refusal to prosecute the banskters he bailed out, his appointment of GE CEO Jeffrey Imelt (a notorious job outsourcer) to head the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, his promotion of the myth that Social Security is insolvent, his deregulation of private pensions, and his support for the Transpacific Partnership (TPP).

The film features great clips from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Paul Craig Roberts and Ross Perot (speaking out against NAFTA during his 1992 presidential campaign).

* The Powell Memo was a memorandum Lewis Powell prepared at the request of the Chamber of Commerce. It remained secret until after his appointment to the Supreme Court. The Powell Memo

** The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, requiring the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the Commission’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced.

***The GlassSteagall Act, passed by Congress in 1933, protected customers’ deposits by prohibiting commercial banks from engaging in investments. It was enacted as an emergency response to the failure of nearly 5,000 banks during the Great Depression.



How Bill Clinton Tried to Privatize Social Security in 1998

In this presentation, author Thomas Franks talks about his recent book Hey Liberal, Listen Up: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. The focus of his latest book is the blue collar backlash that has resulted in the probable selection of fake populist Donald Trump as the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. Franks places the blame for this squarely on Democrats, owing to their abandonment of working people.

As Franks describes it, the pro-Wall Street swing of the Democratic Party is based on a very deliberate strategy by Bill Clinton and his supporters to “screw over” their traditional power base (ie African Americans and organized labor).  Clinton proudly justified this strategy with the observation, “they have nowhere else to go.”

Franks most shocking revelation is that Clinton took office in 1992 with a deliberate determination to repeal the New Deal. In 1997, he made a secret deal with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to ram a bill through Congress privatizing Social Security (which Clinton mentions in his 1998 State of the Union address). Thanks to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, this bill never happened.


The Billionaires at 740 Park Avenue

Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream

Directed by Alex Gibney (2012)

Film Review

Park Avenue is about the 31 billionaires who live in the luxury cooperative building at 740 Park Avenue. The building was originally commissioned by Jackie Kennedy’s grandfather James T Lee. He lived there with a consortium of Wall Street millionaires who engineered the 1929 stock market crash. Most of the present residents are hedge fund managers.

The documentary examines how 740 Park Avenue billionaires use their money and power to become even richer – funding election campaigns and lobbying for tax cuts and laws that reduce financial, environmental and health and safety regulation.

I’ve always found this level of geed quite puzzling. A psychologist featured in the film discusses his research into the sense of entitlement conferred by extreme wealth. An interview with the building’s doorman is even more revealing.

Among the billionaires profiled, two of the most powerful are Steve Schwarzman and David Koch. Schwarzman headed mergers and acquisitions at Lehman Brothers when they went bankrupt and is presently CEO of the Blackstone Group*. He (and his pal Senator Charles Schumer) were personally responsible for blocking the repeal of the “carried interest provision” in the federal tax code. This provision taxes the earned income of a hedge fund manager at the capital gains rate of 15%. Largely thanks to Schumer (who has raised the most Wall Street money of any Democratic candidate), Obama’s initiative to repeal this loophole failed, even with a Democratic majority in both houses.

David Koch, whose primary wealth is in oil and coal, has (with his brother Charles) donated to the campaigns of over half the members of the house and senate, as well as numerous right wing think tanks. The Koch brothers are also the big money behind the Tea Party, numerous right wing think tanks they have created and (along with Exxon) the climate denial movement.

The brothers are personally responsible for the recent anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. They’re also the main sponsors of Paul Ryan’s rise to fame, as well as the Republican Party’s adoption of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity. The latter advocates for privatizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in addition to trillions in tax cuts that would virtually do away with all public services outside the military and police.

*An American multinational private equity, investment banking, alternative asset management and financial services corporation based in New York City.

Student Loans Are Forever

student loans

Recently a mind boggling General Account Office (GAO) study revealed that 105,000 Americans had their Social Security benefits garnisheed due to unpaid student loan debt. The New York Federal Reserve reveals that two million US Americans over sixty are still paying off $36.5 billion in student loan debt. Over eleven percent of this debt is in default.

According to banking reform advocate Ellen Brown, some seniors incurred this debt by co-signing student loans for children or grandchildren. However a lot was incurred by middle-aged workers going back to school in the hope of finding employment in a bad job market. What they have wound up with is something much worse: no job, an exponentially mounting debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and the prospect of old age without a social security check adequate to survive on.

John F Kennedy’s Vision

It took me twenty years to repay the student loans that enabled me to attend medical school (1969-73). This was before the financialization of the American economy, when student loans became a profit center for Wall Street banks. President John F Kennedy, who started the Health Professions Loan scheme, believed that bright students who worked had as much right to attend medical school as the sons (only seven in my class were women) of wealthy families. He also wisely envisioned that patients would benefit from a more diverse medical profession.

Although student loans are issued by banks, they are guaranteed by the federal government. Theoretically this means the taxpayer is on the hook if the student can’t pay the loan. In practice, this rarely happens. Student loans can’t be wiped clean by bankruptcy, except in rare cases of permanent and total disability. Or even by death. Last week Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced “Andrew’s Law,” new legislation requiring private student loan companies to forgive outstanding debt if a borrower dies. The bill has little hope of success in a Republican congress.

At a time when mortgage interest rates were over 8.5%, I only paid 3% interest on my student loan. In addition my medical school was scrupulous about limiting my outstanding debt to $26,000 – finding me work study jobs and private grants to reduce the amount I had to borrow.

With the advent of neoliberalism, education is no longer regarded as a basic right, but as an enormously lucrative commodity. Banks borrow money from the Federal Reserve for close to 0% interest. They charge homeowners 3-6% interest on mortgages, while students, who are more desperate, are forced to pay 4-10% interst. Moreover, unlike mortgage loans, student loan interest rates are fixed and can’t be renegotiated when interest rates drop.

The Student Loan Bubble

The New York Federal Reserve recently called a daylong conference to address the student debt crisis. In his opening address , New York Fed president William Dudley indicated that student loan exceeds $1 trillion dollars and has the highest rate of delinquency of any form of consumer debt. In the 2009 cohort of college graduates, only 17% of the original debt has been paid down. In fact, more than 20 percent of high balance student borrowers owe more than when they graduated.

In mid-March, Obama signed an executive order instituting a Student Aid Bill of Rights that will

1. provide a new website where all federal loans will be visible by July 2016.
2. require loan servicers to notify debtors when their loans or transferred or payments are late.
3. instruct loan services to apply prepayments to loans with the highest interest rate
4. offer a “state-of-the art” complaint system.

Beats me how any of this helps struggling seniors whose Social Security checks are being docked.

People can learn more about the student loan crisis at Student Debt Crisis, a non-profit organization dedicated to fundamentally reforming the student loan program. The weekly radio program Counterspin recently interviewed their executive director Natalie Abrams. Listen here (starts at 18:45).

photo credit: IMG_2589 via photopin (license)