Don’t Worry! Be Happy! A Little Poverty May Do You Some Good

By Bonnie Weinstein

In the midst of this profound economic meltdown that permeates our every conversation, and the information that is fed to us by the mass media, certain phrases pop forward and stick in your craw. How many times have we, the victims of the mortgage and credit crisis, been admonished for having “lived beyond our means”? How often have we been told we have “made foolish and frivolous spending decisions”?

Then, in that same media, the “economic experts” warn that if the American people don’t start spending again, the economy is going to go even further down the tubes! As usual, we workers are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. But if we’re already living beyond our means, then how the heck are we supposed spend even more to bail out the wealthy? That would certainly be a foolish and frivolous spending decision!

Such condescending admonitions from the mouthpieces of capitalism are designed to justify a fresh assault on the living conditions of workers—not just here in the U.S. but around the world—in the form of massive bailouts of the wealthy by the poor.

From public schools to social services to the environment, capitalism’s profit-driven chaos is bringing nothing but disaster, devastation, and destruction. Not only are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing, but they are escalating and spreading to other countries—and more and more money is being pumped into them. According to the latest War Resisters League U.S. Federal Budget 2009 Pie Chart, total military expenditures, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, represent 54 percent of the Federal Budget, to the tune of $1,449 billion.

And now, due to the capitalists’ own profit-driven mismanagement, the bailout is escalating the theft of funds from all social services and infrastructure. Its effects are being felt in drastic cuts to public education and in the wanton destruction of our environment. Working people everywhere are feeling the pain and are expressing their outrage.

What we need to do is come together to use the power we have to actually do something about it.

Welfare for the rich

The wonderful comic Wonda Sykes put the bailout plainly in perspective in an interview with Jay Lenno when he asked, “The government bailout? Have you been following this stuff?” I transcribed her answer as best I could from a YouTube video. She answered:

Ah! You know, rich people got it good in this country! We refuse to let rich people not be rich! I mean, think about it! Broke people are gonna bail out rich people! . . . And then they don’t want any oversight! They want $700 billion and no oversight! . . . I want receipts, damn it! No oversight? What do you mean, no oversight? “Oh! Because you were so good with the other money . . . here’s some more money—we’re gonna close our eyes.” [She puts both hands over her eyes] . . . You know what? It’s rich welfare. It’s welfare for the rich and that’s all it is. So, to the average taxpayer it’s going to cost, like, two grand? [Lenno interjects, “No, $7,000 dollars every taxpayer.”] $7,000 every taxpayer. And you got the guy there busting his ass working two jobs, barely making $12,000 a year, and now he’s got to cough up something so a Wall Street guy can keep his swimming pool? . . . So the government’s gonna buy up all these bad mortgages, right? So now, in essence, you have rich people living in government housing.

I want them treated like they’re living in the projects. There aren’t any private swimming pools in the projects! Uh-uh! If you got a pool—open it to the public! I want everybody to go in, take a dip. Just treat it like the projects! I want them, every month, they got to go down to social services to pick up their paychecks! And stand in line! Make ’em all stand in line, pick up their paychecks, and they can only cash them at the check-cashing joint next to the liquor store.

Did you know poverty is good for you?

Wanda brings us back down to the earthly reality of the lives of working people, as opposed to the likes of Oprah and The New York Times, both of which are trying to pass this depression off as a quaint period of renewed family values.

Oprah told us the other day that we, i.e., ordinary working people—especially those whose mortgages are being foreclosed—have to accept responsibility for this crisis because we have been “living above our means.” (Her words, of course, were interspersed with commercials telling us what we should own and absolutely must buy today!)

Even more infuriatingly, Oprah, the billionaire, tells us: Heck, we (the poor) might even be better off for this economic crisis! Not only will we finally be forced to become economically responsible and learn to live within our means, but, parents who are out of work will be able to spend more time with their children and save money by playing board games instead of going to the movies; mothers will be forced to prepare more wholesome foods rather than ordering fast-food deliveries. No money and no job means burning less fuel, which will help the environment, and we’ll even drink less alcohol!

Oprah’s show parroted an October 7, 2008, New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope, entitled, “Are Bad Times Healthy?” The author says:

Economic studies suggest that people tend not to take care of themselves in boom times—drinking too much (especially before driving), dining on fat-laden restaurant meals and skipping exercise and doctors’ appointments because of work-related time commitments . . . . “The value of time is higher during good economic times,” said Grant Miller, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford. “So people work more and do less of the things that are good for them, like cooking at home and exercising; and people experience more stress due to the rigors of hard work during booms.” Similar patterns have been seen in some developing nations.

Dr. Miller, who is studying the effects of fluctuating coffee prices on health in Colombia, says that even though falling prices are bad for the economy, they appear to improve health and mortality rates. When prices are low, laborers have more time to care for their children . . .. In this country, there are already signs of the economy’s effect on health. In May, the market research firm Information Resources reported that 53 percent of consumers said they were cooking from scratch more than they did just six months before—in part, no doubt, because of the rising cost of prepared foods.

So, have no fear, cry the billionaires. Poverty is good for our health! Why, it might finally force us to lose some of those rolls around our middles; in danger of starving,
perhaps, but much better looking! (Some of us might be lucky enough to lose enough weight to fit into one of Sarah Palin’s hand-me-downs when she donates them to charity after the elections!)

In a Times article of October 19, 2008, by Nicholas D. Kristof, entitled, “The Downturn’s Upside,” the author encouragingly reports:

The economic misery is numbingly real, but it’s also true that a downturn isn’t uniformly bad and might even be good for you in several ways: A recession could save your life. Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, argues that death rates go down during economic slowdowns. Professor Ruhm’s research indicates that suicides rise but total mortality rates drop, as do deaths from heart attacks, car accidents, pneumonia and most other causes. For example, each one-percentage-point drop in unemployment in the United States is associated with an extra 3,900 deaths from heart attacks.

. . . Some experts are skeptical. But in downturns we drive less and so car accidents decline, while less business activity means fewer job accidents and less pollution. Moreover, in recessions people have more leisure time and seem to smoke less, exercise more and eat more healthily . . . .A bear market might benefit you, if you are in your working years and won’t have to sell your stocks soon. That’s because you’re probably accumulating stocks now in your retirement account, and you’ll accumulate more when share prices are low . . . .

Falling housing prices harm landlords and speculators but benefit renters and first-time buyers (if they can still get mortgages). These beneficiaries tend to be low-income families, thus in this respect the poor may benefit. Likewise, a recession lowers prices of gas, oil and food, which disproportionately affect the poor.

But what Kristof says next really bugs me the most. It’s just the kind of “conventional wisdom” you hear on Oprah all the time, and there’s nothing that infuriates me more than hearing it from a billionaire. Oprah frequently and sanctimoniously reminds her audience that “money can’t make you happy!” And here Kristof intellectualizes this very same idea.

Income doesn’t have much to do with happiness. Americans haven’t become any happier as they have prospered in the last half-century. . . .

This is called the Easterlin Paradox: Once they have met their basic needs, people don’t become happier as they become richer. In recent years, new research has undermined the Easterlin Paradox, yet it’s still true that happiness has less to do with money than with friendships and finding meaning in a cause larger than oneself.

“There’s pretty good evidence that money doesn’t matter much for how you feel moment to moment,” said Alan Krueger, a Princeton University economist who is conducting extensive research on happiness. “What seems to matter much more is having good friends and family, and time to spend on social activities.”

You might think these people are just out of touch with reality. After all, who doesn’t understand that if you’re sick and hurting you’re much better off under silk sheets and 24-hour care, with the finest physicians and nurses money can buy, than if you’re lying alone, homeless and cold, in a urine-soaked gutter. But propaganda like the Times and Oprah’s is designed to break down the self-respect of all workers, not to mention any respect workers may have for each other.

You’re poor because you’re stupid

What these capitalists are basically telling working people is that it’s your own stupid fault for believing all the lies you’ve been told to get you to sign on to that adjustable-rate mortgage (adjustable that is, by the lenders only—not the borrowers) or sign up for that additional credit card. And there’s nothing you can do about it, they say, so make the best of it. Besides, poverty isn’t such a bad thing anyway!

What else can we expect when the wealthy, who have been stealing and stockpiling the wealth that only working people actually produce, go on an accelerated rampage to steal even more from us by taking away all the things working people fought for to improve our lives and those of our children?

Working people are not only worried about whether or not we can afford a night at the movies. We’re worried about keeping our jobs, our hours, and our benefits. In the meantime, our adult children are trying to figure out how to leave the nest and live on their own. And they’re finding it impossible to do. In fact, they’re lucky if they’re working at all!

Working people are being forced to make much harder choices—between food and gas, or between rent and utilities. Meanwhile, Oprah and The New York Times tell us not to worry; that walking is better for us than driving and, that we should look on the bright side of life!

So not only do they blame us for this economic crisis and tell us we’re stupid for getting ourselves into this situation in the first place, they have the unmitigated nerve to tell us to sacrifice while the wealthy are asked to sacrifice nothing!

Meanwhile, we are only just beginning to feel the depth of poverty that working people are being propelled into.

Crumbling public education: a window into
capitalism’s dark soul

But our children have already begun to suffer from the downturn in the economy. The rate of youth unemployment and underemployment is very high. Among Black youth unemployment is as high as 50 percent. And all children have been experiencing the erosion of public education for years. In San Francisco they don’t call it “school closure”; they call it “doubling up.” It amounts to the same thing—two schools becoming one—but it doesn’t sound quite as bad. And there has been an accelerated deterioration of the public school system just in the last few decades.

In fact, today, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has transformed the schools into test-regimented, military-entrenched institutions that are severely failing students.

Recruiting, praying, abstinence and testing

The NCLB law ties federal funding to those schools that allow the U.S. military to collect student’s personal and school records and permit them to wander the school grounds in search of fresh cannon fodder for the illegal and immoral wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. To put a moralistic patina on the law, NCLB also protects prayer in schools, and prohibits sex education that condones the prevention of pregnancy and disease other than by abstinence. Schools that can’t prove they comply with all aspects of this law do not receive federal funds.

But the most insidious thing NCLB does in addition to the above is to require standardized tests for students in all schools. Under this law, those schools whose test scores are low are shut down and the teachers fired. This process has already begun and has resulted in thousands of school closures throughout the country. There is no provision for putting more money where it is needed most. There are no funds for hiring more teachers and lowering class sizes or rebuilding crumbling school facilities or equipment. There is only a system of punishment for the children who need the most help and the teachers who have the hardest jobs! Again, the poor are made to pay for the failure of the system.

They want us to pay for everything: for the schools; our healthcare; our food, clothing, and housing; the repair of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure; for the wars and the entire Pentagon budget; and now to bail out the wealthiest in our society. This includes all those who personally made record windfall-profits from mortgages now being foreclosed, from the soaring credit card interest rates, and from the inflated prices of the shoddy merchandise workers are forced to spend their hard-earned money on!

Not only are working people supposed to stand for the gutting of public education and every other social-welfare program; not only are we supposed to foot the bill for the U.S. wars of occupation costing over $700-million a day and $7,000 per second; but we must pay to bail out those who stole billions upon billions of dollars to line their own pockets! But, as the commercials say, “that’s not all!” We’re supposed to look forward cheerfully to our newfound poverty, since it will bring us closer to our children and other family members and “raise our family values!”

Ending welfare as we now know it

Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we knew it” in 1996 when he forced parents to work in order to collect aid, i.e., work at jobs that pay so low that the worker also qualifies for welfare! The law also limits higher education for parents to two years while collecting aid. So parents without an education or job training or even a high school diploma have only two years to complete their education, condemning them to low-paying, go-nowhere jobs—jobs that, by and large, are now on the chopping block.

One could, of course, work full-time at two low-paying jobs, take care of one’s children, and go to school past the two years to earn a higher degree, but this would also mean taking on extra debt for college tuition, supplies, etc. One would also have to pay for someone to watch the children while fitting classroom time into a double-workday schedule. In fact, Clinton’s cutbacks have already put a tremendous strain on single parents. Very few have actually been able to get a higher degree since his dismantling of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Now we have a new kind of welfare altogether: welfare for the rich! Talk about ending welfare, as we knew it! Not only has this bipartisan government eliminated welfare for the poor (since it’s not welfare if you have to work for it), but it has completely turned the tables and is now charging the poor to pay for welfare for the rich! Who’d ’a’ thunk?

Back to the dark ages

But really this isn’t new at all. It’s an old, old story that goes back to the roots of capitalism. Working people have always footed the bill for the rich, with their hard work creating wealth for the employer as well as with the inflated price they must pay for their own and their children’s sustenance, above which they have never been paid.

There was a time when children themselves had to work long hours if they were to have enough to eat because their parents barely earned enough to feed themselves. Children were paid a pittance, but would starve otherwise; parents had no alternative but to put their own children to work. It wasn’t unusual for a family to be thrust out of their home by their landlord or boss because they hadn’t put their children to work!

Labor’s struggle has been long, hard, and brutal! Nothing that workers have today was handed to them by a kindly commander of capital. Every hour cut from a child’s day of forced labor was paid for in working-class blood and sweat. We must remember our roots, because that’s what the capitalists want us to go back to!

It’s been at most 100-or-so years since workers routinely labored for 18 hours a day, six days a week, along with their children. But isn’t that what we’re doing when we have to hold down two jobs to make ends meet, leaving kids home alone to care for younger siblings? Are they going to tell us next that if all children—even those as young as two and three—were put back to work it would bring families even closer together?

There is no limit to the depths of poverty the capitalists will force upon the world’s working class in their drive to maintain their rate of profit and accumulate personal wealth.

How can working people get out of this financial crisis?

The most logical way for working people to get out of the financial crisis is to hold responsible the corporations and their CEOs who profited outrageously from these despicable business dealings, and make them pay back the money they stole. All corporate books should be opened for examination by working people, and the swindled money returned.

Another big savings—especially to enable us to rebuild our infrastructure and improve public schools, healthcare, and all social services—would be to bring an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the Pentagon budget altogether. Bring all the troops home now! Disband all U.S. military bases throughout the world and redirect all their funding toward solving the massive needs of human beings around the globe—eliminating the causes of war in the first place.

Tax the rich, not working people! Tax all income over $100,000 at a progressive rate, i.e., the more money earned, the higher the tax rate you must pay. (Less than 20 percent of American households earn $100,000 or above. The median annual household income is around $50,000.) This simple solution alone could pay for all the things we need for everyone to live happy, healthy, free, and productive lives.

How can working people save themselves and the whole planet in the bargain?

First, we have to realize who we are. We are workers. We are essential to the production of all commodities and the excavation of raw materials necessary to manufacture them. Our labor is responsible for every penny of wealth accumulated by the capitalists, the private owners of the very means of production our labor built and fuels. We are responsible for producing all the profits—including that which the capitalists use to pay our wages. The capitalists pay nothing at all. They have gotten a free ride. Now it’s time for them to pay!

They own the factories, the farmland, the machines of industry, and the carriers of goods and supplies. They themselves produce nothing yet they take almost everything, leaving us the minimum they can get away with! They are not workers. They are the exploiters of workers and the commanders of capital, whose interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of working people the world over.

The capitalists survive by convincing us workers that we’re not smart enough or resourceful enough, and ultimately incapable of surviving without the bosses’ superior intellectual guidance and rule. The capitalists bank on convincing us that the reason they’re rich is that they’re better, smarter, and more capable human beings. Isn’t that the essence of American culture—to be esteemed on the basis of accumulated wealth and power, no matter how they were gotten?

Why do you think the poorest woman likes to own that designer handbag, even if she ends up paying three times as much for it on some high-interest department store credit card? It’s been beaten into our heads from birth and from every possible angle by mass advertising and shows like Oprah’s that carrying that purse or driving that car proves we are worth something!

This little myth that “rich equals better” is the rationale behind capitalist rule. And divide and conquer is the technique they use to establish the inferiority of everyone else. Their ultimate goal is to turn each worker against the other so none will join together to turn against the rich.

Divide and conquer is the only way a tiny capitalist minority can maintain rule over the overwhelming majority of workers. They represent less than one percent of the world’s population yet they own and control over 90 percent of all the wealth, land, and property on the planet. The interests of capitalists and workers could not be further apart.

This fact is the “ace in the hole” of the future of all humankind, because we working people are the overwhelming majority of people on the planet. We are the ones who know how to make and do everything. We don’t need the capitalists or their rotten system that uses up and exploits everything—especially human beings—in the pursuit of private profit. In fact, the capitalist system itself is standing squarely in the way of human advancement.

Ending capitalism is essential to saving the planet

The capitalist system puts the accumulation of vast sums of private profit and personal wealth above all else and is responsible for leading the world to the brink of ecological collapse. Here’s just one example.

The World Bank has bought up and clear-cut natural forests in Sao Jose do Buriti, Brazil, to plant eucalyptus trees, for which they receive “pollution credits.” They have sold these pollution credits to BP, whose Grangemouth oil refineries are poisoning the air and water in and around the town of Grangemouth, Scotland—theoretically “balancing out to zero” the pollution between the two cities. There’s only one catch—aside of course for the fact that the people of Grangemouth are still getting poisoned by the refineries (but that doesn’t count to the capitalists). The eucalyptus trees planted in the forests of Brazil have caused nearby streams and rivers to dry up because they suck up a lot more water than the natural forests, and this is devastating the local environment, drying up streams and rivers, and severely impacting indigenous farmers in the area. You can find out more about this in the documentary The Carbon Connection.1

In such ways does the capitalist profit motive breed chaos and disregard for anything but profits. They plunder and pollute the land. They lie, cheat, swindle, sow division and distrust among people. They make the laws, hire the police, and enlist the armies to maintain their control over the means of production. By maintaining their stranglehold and enslavement of the workers, they protect their exclusive ownership rights to the plentiful wonders of the world, which they wantonly squander.

For them there can be no rational planning in the interests of what is best for the health and welfare of the planet and the myriad forms of life on it.

Their decisions are all self-centered and single-minded. And make no mistake about it: while they may compete, bicker, even battle among themselves from time to time, capitalism’s collective interest lies in maintaining the class distinction between themselves and the masses of workers. They are compelled to do so to maintain their rule over us, over all the wealth we produce with our minds, hands, and backs, and over the land we walk on.

We workers must look after ourselves in the same single-minded way, but from a collective, working class-centered point of view, i.e., always looking out for our and our planet’s best interests. To do this, we must do away with the capitalist system and its chaotic profit motive, sending it straight to hell where it belongs!

Socialism is the answer

That’s all socialism really is: Workers taking over the means of production; democratically and collectively deciding what people need and want; using all our technological skill, know-how, and creativity to produce the best of everything; and eliminating all the waste involved in the production of inferior goods that are designed as a cheap substitute to sell to the poor.

With the fantastic worldwide communications network we already have in place, we could figure all this out—what things and how much of them we need—in no time, so that everyone would be provided with the best of everything. By eliminating the capitalist profit-driven mode of production and replacing it with a socialist mode of production, we could rationally plan and share the work, develop the best, safest, and most efficient production and distribution methods, and distribute everything free of charge to everyone. Without the profit motive tying the overwhelming majority of people to hours of drudgery a day just to keep a roof over their heads (if they’re lucky), all children born will have a chance to live free and develop their potential to the fullest.

Doesn’t it make sense? Allow all people to develop to their fullest; to pursue all their interests; to hone their skills so each one will be able to contribute at his or her fullest capacity to the common good. From each according to skills and abilities, and to each according to individual needs and wants.

In fact, the goal of socialism, or communism, is to eventually eliminate the need for money or any kind of exchange of one form of labor for another, or one thing for another. Instead, everyone just gets all they need and want, and contributes any talents they can develop to the fullest for the betterment of all!

It’s really simple. Under a rational, socialist, planned-economy, each machine that replaces labor, and each young worker joining the workforce, would not take someone’s job away but would simply reduce the total number of hours everyone would have to work, freeing up more time for each to, in turn, develop even more knowledge and skills.

The thing we workers need to comprehend is that together, in unity and solidarity with each other toward such goals, we do have the power to change this dog-eat-dog world into just such a society!

Capitalism? We just don’t need it!

1 The Carbon Connection, the video can be viewed online at