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Fully Raw Cannibals and My Obamacare Nightmare

Re: Conservative reactions to marriage equality, Atrios wrote the following last week:

Marriage equality was supposed to be a “conservative” gay rights issue. And, yes, more lefty queer people (speaking generally) weren’t initially thrilled with it becoming the central gay rights issue of our time. As homophobia is the last truly acceptable bigotry (deeply held sincere beliefs!!!), conservatives were never going to be on the correct side of that issue, no matter how many times Glenn Reynolds tells us that Dick Cheney was a gay marriage pioneer.

Unfortunately, homophobia is not the last truly acceptable bigotry. It is far more likely that fully raw cannibals will achieve acceptance and equality before women do.

***************************************

Now that Sebelius has taken the fall for the fiasco that is Obamacare, I thought I’d relate my own experience with it. Disclaimer: I am not a Republican. I don’t hate Obamacare because it is a government program that saps “freedom” (aka tax money) from Jahb Creaturz. No, I am in favor of a national health care policy that uses the best practices that other industrialized countries have put in place. You know, universal mandates for individuals AND employers, cost controls on the medical industry, public options. I was brought up on military medicine and if it was good enough for my sister with chronic severe asthma, by golly, it’s good enough for me. I don’t need frills.

Anyway…

I recently attended a younger cousin’s birthday party. My relatives sat around and compared plans. This group was a mix of ages, employment situations, number of dependents, personal wealth. The bad news for the Democrats is that no one likes Obamacare. Not one of them. In Pittsburgh, the effect of Obamacare is pronounced because two major insurance carriers in the region are battling and one of them, UPMC, refuses to contract with Highmark BC/BS. That leaves Highmark customers scrambling to find new doctors and praying that if they do have an emergency, they don’t get carted off to one of the ubiquitous UPMC hospitals where they will get socked with a massive out of network price structure. They played nicely before Obamacare but no more.

The problem of insurance plans is particularly acute for those of us who fall into the precariat class and Obamacare falls severely short there. Let me explain from my own experience.

Last year, I got a full time job. Unfortunately, it was a temp position. Temp positions mean no benefits and because it was pre-Obamacare, I paid premiums that were out the wazoo. Because it was a position in an academic lab that was facing economic stress from the sequester, it only lasted until December. Thank you, House of Representatives, Senate and Executive branch. At that time, I could no longer afford the $992/month premium on my health insurance policy. Fortunately, my now non-existent salary meant that kid now qualifies for Medicaid. Ok. Kid taken care of. Great. Now for me.

I went on the Obamacare website and looked for a new policy from my existing carrier. By the way, my carrier called me to tell me the “good news!” that due to Obamacare, they could shave the cost of my old policy down from $992/month to $750/month! Isn’t that great?? The new policy came with supercool new features too. I tried to explain to the customer service rep that I was between jobs and $750/month for a healthy person my age was out of the question but I don’t think she was really listening. I decided to try for a subsidy.

On the healthcare.gov site, I saw some policies in the $400-500 range with reasonable $1000/year deductibles. Great! With the amazing subsidies I’ve been hearing about, I should get a pretty reasonable rate. But I found that there’s always a glitch to these sites or something that needs to be explained to a real person so I decided to apply on the phone instead. This was a mistake.

The navigator asked me questions about my income, (um, non-existent? but only temporarily) and started going through the plans. They weren’t anything like the ones on the website. They were more expensive, had higher deductibles and even the silver plans sounded much more like the bronze plans. It was like the online site and the phone assistance sites were totally different. He quoted me a plan that was similar to the one I already had but it was a more restrictive HMO and the deductible is $3750/year. This was a silver plan. I asked him the price and as we were talking the price of the plan went up. Yeah, it was like buying a plane ticket. The price was changing before his eyes.

Then I asked him what kind of subsidy I was going to get. The answer: none. I was startled. Why am I not getting a subsidy?? Because, he said condescendingly, you don’t have an income and aren’t paying taxes.

I have to stop for a second, oh best beloveds, because I suddenly became livid remembering the decades past where I paid more in taxes in a year than I expect to make in income this year. That really scorched my oatmeal. Apparently, to this smug asshole, I am just a deadbeat.

Then he recommended that I just pay the penalty and skip signing up for a plan. That made me really mad. So, now I am going to be a burden on the taxpayers if my conversation with this navigator gives me a stroke and I end up in a UPMC hospital.

I considered my options. I don’t want medicaid for myself because I don’t want my heirs to end up penniless when the state of Pennsylvania swoops down to recover assets from my estate to cover the medicaid premium. This scenario reminds me of the starving Irish who had to give up the last quarter acre of land before they could get food in a workhouse. I worked very hard for decades for the house that I have. I do have money from the sale of my house in NJ in savings but due to the nature of the job market, I have to hold on to that money to pay for the now perpetually temporary nature of making a living. I have TAXES to pay to my municipality for trash pickup, libraries, roads and schools, all of which I am happy to finance.

I reluctantly signed up for the $500 plan. Then I found a job. BUT it’s only part time and, of course, it doesn’t come with bennies. I don’t know if I can get a subsidy now and until my job situation improves, I’m very reluctant to pay the premium on this crappy plan. I am now without health insurance for the first time since 1986.

But wait! There’s more!

It turns out that temp jobs and part time work is very in fashion this year. It is extremely difficult to get a full time job with benefits. There are such jobs to be had but getting through the HR filters is like tilting at windmills. (If anyone in the Pittsburgh area has an opening, let me know. I have great references.) I think I got my current part time job because I aced the online assessment test. Unfortunately, not enough sites have such assessment tests so we are forced to mind read what most job posters have in mind.

So, my relatives and I compared plans. It turns out that I have the worst plan at the highest price. One cousin had to change her doctors completely. Another cousin has a serious heart condition but hasn’t landed any work yet, so, no coverage. When his prescription from another state expires in August, he’s screwed. Another cousin just lost his job. He’d been working for 6 months but just when his health benefits were supposed to kick in, he was laid off. How conveeeeenient. Ironically, it is my self-employed cousins who have the best policy. We share the same insurance carrier but, for some mysterious reason we can’t figure out, he pays something like $450/month for 4 people and has a low deductible. It makes me wonder how the rates are determined.

The relatives that are doing well under Obamacare are the young, single male relatives. Their rates are something under $100/month. The ones who are doing the worst are the ones 45-65 and who don’t have steady jobs. The number of relatives with crap jobs is steadily rising. If you own your own business, rates seem to be fairly reasonable when obtained directly from the carrier.

And here is where the rumors start. We are all convinced that the reason there is so much part time and temp work with impending layoffs just when you reach the bennies mark is because employers do not want to have to pay benefits and Obamacare means they don’t have to. The mandate only applies to the individual. It won’t kick in for employers for another year- if ever. BUT if you can only get part time and temp work, you do not have the money to pay for the premiums. It’s a catch 22 scenario.

Was there no one running the models when this law was written??

I really wish Paul Krugman would stop crowing about Obamacare. It’s a conservative Republican plan passed by Democrats and it now has a “liberal” sticker on it, whether it is deserved or not. It has opened the door to a race to the bottom in terms of benefits and it’s going to damage the Democratic party. It was an ill considered, poorly implemented plan with long ranging consequences to the working class (that is, everyone not making an income from their investments). AND since I read the new Michael Lewis book on compromised stock exchanges, it has dawned on me that the health care exchanges are equally prone to exploit the unaware. We don’t know what our neighbors are getting in terms of plans but it seems like each premium is calculated to optimize profits for someone.

You don’t have to be a Republican to hate Obamacare. Democrats should be very afraid.

 

 

 

 

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(Un)intended Consequences?

IMG_1110

The last vacation I took: Bethany Beach, Delaware, July 2011

In a day or two, I will relate my own ongoing struggle with Obamacare (it’s not positive, believe it or not).  But for now, I want to talk about something I saw yesterday on Corrente regarding the Clinton papers and what Hillary Clinton had to say about the individual mandate.

But first, let me tell you about Jobs4NJ.  When I was laid off back in 2011 from the job I loved, I signed up for the NJ job matching service.  You upload your CV to their database, spend 2 hours correcting all the formatting mistakes, and wait.  By the way, we were told at the NJDOL that we could also apply for state jobs but that each job application would require a $25 fee.  That fee was non-refundable whether you got a job or not.  Imagine asking a bunch of unemployed people to cough up $25 for each job opening they saw on the state employment site.  I’m wondering if that was a Christie innovation.  The DOL employees were extremely kind, helpful and treated us with dignity and respect and even they thought the fee was outrageous.

Anyway, getting back to Jobs4NJ.  They sent me some job listings.  The good positions were gone, gone, gone from NJ.  The postings I got had descriptions that seemed a bit vague, as if the companies themselves weren’t really sure what they wanted.  Most positions in “science” were really business positions.  Apparently, R&D has an unmet demand for marketing and finance specialists.  Labrats?  Ehhhh, not so much.

I applied to some of the few low level lab positions that were available, and, as is the custom these days with companies, never heard back from any of them that they even received my CV and cover letter or what exactly the mismatch was.  This was not the example of malignant narcissism run amok that I alluded to a couple of days ago though.  I would be grossly exaggerating if I characterized this all too typical insensitivity towards jobseekers as evil.  I’m saving the story of true senseless malice for a book.

I still get email from Jobs4NJ, though you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to go back to that state.  But I noticed something the other day about the new positions.  Quite a few of them have the word “CONTRACT” in the post.  Hmmm, that’s a new one, thought I.  And then, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

Over a year ago, I predicted that the ACA would lead to a greater number of contract positions.  And why is that?  There are a couple of reasons.  One, it allows many corporations to go “weightless”.  They don’t have to offer their workers benefits if they get a third party vendor to handle their human resources needs.  That third party vendor becomes a middle man, matching up contractors with the company.  The middle man becomes the tax collector who processes the paperwork and handles the  untidy business of interacting with the people who, you know, get their hands dirty in the labs.  (Sidenote: It always amused me when I compared the executive cafeteria with the R&D cafeteria.  The business workers had bespoke prepared foods, plenty of healthy and delicious options and an on-call nutritionist who would consult with you on your dietary needs.  I witnessed this personally one day.  The R&D cafeteria served the kind of high fat, high calorie limited entrees that would be perfect for coal miners, not a bunch of bespectacled, skinny geeks.  But since the executives rarely interacted with us, we may perhaps excuse them for thinking we were grimy blue collar lumberjacks who needed 5000 calories per serving of bland, greasy food.)

The other reason why the ACA is leading to a greater number of non-full time, contract positions is that because the employer mandate keeps getting put off, indefinitely, it seems, the employee is now responsible for carrying the weight of the health care premiums, which, by the way, are still astronomical when the deductibles and OOP expenses are factored in.  An increase in precariousness shouldn’t be surprising.  Why should an employer invest money in training and retaining an employee when they don’t have to?  It’s a kind of moral hazard, is it not?

So, it came as no surprise to me that Hillary Clinton saw a flaw in the individual mandate back in the 90s.  Let’s be clear, that’s not the same as a universal mandate, which seems to be a cornerstone of successful national health care systems around the world.  It’s important that all stakeholders, employees and employers, buy in to the system or it doesn’t work.  But to put all of the burden on individuals and letting employers get away with no responsibility?  According to the papers, Hillary Clinton said that was a problem:

“That is politically and substantively a much harder sell than the one we’ve got — a much harder sell,” Clinton said. “Because not only will you be saying that the individual bears the full responsibility; you will be sending shock waves through the currently insured population that if there is no requirement that employers continue to insure, then they, too, may bear the individual responsibility.”

Yes, this is exactly what is happening.  EVERYONE is potentially affected.  Even worse, there may be a two tier system of employees.  I can just imagine the better connected, legacy ivy league graduates becoming fully vested in the employee benefit system while the state school graduates scramble from job to job trying to find a foot hold.  It’s already happening in the pharmaceutical industry where what the MBAs consider the cream of the crop get the few coveted positions in Cambridge and San Francisco and the rest of us run from contract position to contract position, or stuck in an endless series of low paying post doc positions.  (Sidenote: you politicians are crazy if you think we former scientists are going to let you get away with the “there aren’t enough STEM workers” schtick.  We are already all over the comments sections and posting loud and clear that there is no shortage.  We’re not going to let our children languish in the labs for decades while they make less money than a first grade teacher for all the education they have.)

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!!

What else do contract workers not have besides health care benefits?

Well, I will tell you because I have been there.  They don’t have pensions, 401K plans, sick days, holidays or vacation days. They don’t get tuition discounts or reimbursements.  They don’t get to ride the buses for free nor can they get a spot in the employee parking lots.  And if you are a temp or contract worker, you don’t really have ANY labor protections.  You may have trouble getting paid due to the way companies pay their invoices.  In some cases, you have no protection against discrimination.  Think of how gay contractors fare with even the federal government.  YOU’RE a CONTRACTOR.  Your boss could call you in at any time of the day or night and make unreasonable demands on your time.  He may decide to arbitrarily cut your hours in half one week and let YOU worry about how you’re going to pay the rent or health insurance premium while your kid is in the hospital. As a temp worker “you do not have a salary”, as I was so brusquely  and dismissively reminded one day.

See where this is going?  Sorry, people, this is where we already are.  It’s not the future of employment.  It is the now.  Check out the Freelancer’s Union to see what employment is turning into.  A rational person would become debt free as quickly as possible and build a tiny house with solar panels and no plumbing and grow their own food.  We can let Krugman wax rhapsodic about what would happen to the economy if everyone cut back and accrued as little debt as possible.  Talk about lack of demand.  But that’s where we’re headed.  Those of us who were lucky enough to have some savings when the masters of the universe decided to pull up stakes and grab the pie for themselves have decided to stop spending money.  It’s self preservation but it’s not healthy for the country.  No more Royal Caribbean cruises, no more vacation rentals at the shore.  We question whether we really need that bentwood coffee table and agonize over hair cuts.  We save up for the days we have to call in sick.  We put off replacing our broken phones.

I think it’s time we stopped making excuses for our politicians that let this happen.  In fact, I’m not blaming Republicans for the recent, drastic, horrible negative turn of events that working people are experiencing right now.  They were like snakes and we knew what they were.  Their poison was already well understood by the educated working class.  We have no one to blame but ourselves for allowing the stealthy predators into our midst in the last 6 years.  Some of us were so bedazzled by being called “creative” that we failed to look closely at who our new friends were.

But whether the war on the working class by the financiers was intentional or not, we can no longer deny, or should I say, we deny at our peril, that our nation’s top politicians have provided a moral hazard for finance and businesses both large and small, to continue to shed benefits and worker protections via the contracting route.  In the pharmaceutical area, this was accomplished easily by laying off hundred of thousands of R&D professionals in the wake of the Great Recession and now hiring us back as contractors.  Indeed, the high unemployment rate of the last several years coupled with the delay in the employer mandate for the ACA has created a perfect storm where the stripping of compensation is going to pick up even faster and reach deeper into the American workforce just as Hillary predicted decades ago.

It’s happening so fast that many of us don’t even realize the predators are on us until we’re being forced down the gullet.  Will this become a harder sell politically in November 2014?  We will see.

Sallie Krawcheck will bring Wall Street work culture to the SEC

Sallie Krawcheck of Bank of America, being shopped around DC for head of the SEC

Sallie Krawcheck of Bank of America, being shopped around DC for head of the SEC

Yesterday, I read a post by DDay on Firedoglake about how the totally uneccessary “fiscal cliff” talks are going and I felt a tiny, teensy ember of hopefulness.  But it was quickly dashed when I read in the NYTimes about how the Obama administration is considering Wall Street executive Sallie Krawcheck for the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Never turn your back on the Obama administration or its backers.

It’s not just the fact that Krawcheck is a Wall Street executive who will be regulating one of the worst bunch of cheaters, liars and thieves in the history of the world. It’s more about the other things she brings to the table that the movers and shakers think are important.  For example, she is “known for her independent streak and consumer advocacy efforts”.  I don’t know what that means and the New York Times does not go into details.  Does her independence extend to not calling consumers of Wall Street products “muppets”?  I guess that would be a step in the right direction.  But something about the vagueness of this sentence reminds me of the slick, tailored dude from the major 401K management firm who I will not name who came to our site to describe all the new financial products they were rolling out.  He gave his presentation to a bunch of sciencey types but the numbers on the brochures were all based on estimates of salaries and 401K balances of the executives up the street.  Then he went on to say that these were our choices, there are no guarantees we’ll make any money from any of them, but, hey, where’re you going to go?  There’s not going to be any Social Security.  (Oh, yes, he really did say that.  I kept wondering where he was getting his information in 2009)

So, that’s the first thing that bothers me.  Making the financial products easier to understand and transparent for the consumer doesn’t get rid of their risks.  It doesn’t give you something solid and guaranteed to fall back on like Social Security.  And if everyone on Wall Street is offering products where the House is guaranteed to win no matter what but where consumers could lose everything they have because there are no company pensions anymore and we’re all shoved into 401Ks against our better judgements, then consumer advocacy means very little.  I don’t like the premise to start with that we all have to be playing at the global craps table.  Some of us want other, more secure, boring, plodding choices.  No, we really don’t care if we never own our own yacht.

But it’s more than that.  It’s Krawcheck’s crappy attitude towards work that is characteristic of Wall Street culture as described by anthropologist  Karen Ho in her book Liquidated, An Ethnography of Wall Street.  Here’s what Krawcheck had to say:

One [LinkdIn] recent dispatch, titled “What I Learned When I Got Fired (The First Time),” offered career guidance from her own rocky periods.

“If you haven’t been fired at least once, you’re not trying hard enough,” she wrote. “As the pace of change in business increases, the chances of having a placid career are receding. And if in this period of rapid change, you’re not making some notable mistakes along the way, you’re certainly not taking enough business and career chances.”

This is where she becomes completely unacceptable.  Here’s the problem: she acts like a “placid career” is a bad thing and a thing of the past.  (How does she know that?? What information does she have that we don’t? What schemes have the bankers been up to?)  Well, it might be a bad thing for people who suffer from ADHD and pernicious greed well into their adulthoods but to the rest of us out here, our placid careers are what makes us consumers in the first place.  You can’t buy anything if you don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from.  I have seen this attitude creep into the pharmaceutical research industry and ruin it.  Around 2000, many of the pharmas started employing Jack Welch management and rewards systems on the research community.  But Welch was trying to motivate salesmen.  His method doesn’t work in science.  Research people are about as far away from sales people in temperament as it is possible to get.  But suddenly, we were all supposed to act like salesmen, become super competitive and cutthroat and be prepared to lose our jobs at any moment.  You can’t do science under those circumstances.  Research takes continuity and patience and collaboration.

I’m pretty sure that science is not the only industry that doesn’t adapt well to the Wall Street work style where everyone is ready at any moment to be laid off.  It’s not practical for hundreds of millions of Americans to become instant precariats.  For one thing, many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  Challenging the status quo and getting fired isn’t an option for them, much less getting things wrong just for the sake of shaking things up.  For another, you can’t plan for the future if you’re always worried about your present.  It’s impossible to put down roots, buy a house or even rent one, purchase a new car or computer.  You can’t have a family.  Well, you *could* have one but you’d better be prepared to not see them.  That’s what has happened to a lot of ex-pharma people.  Their families live in one state while they work in another. Think of South African diamond miners in Soweto.  And no job is secure for very long, which makes relocation a constant problem.

That’s going to have a downstream effect on homeownership, the auto industry, consumer goods.  Has it ever occurred to people on Wall Street and the people from Wall Street who are now in the upper echelons of the Obama administration that this kind of attitude towards work may be prolonging the recession??

Oh, but Wall Street people will argue that it’s the survival of the smartest.  But the science researchers out here who have lost our jobs know this is bullshit.  What Wall Street values is status, not intelligence.  Spend a few months in a lab trying to discover something that no one has ever done before.  That’s intelligence.  Or do brain surgery or rocket science or green energy science.  Or try plumbing, or modern architecture with new materials.  Or fixing some young banker hotshot’s car.  There are many different professions that require intelligence.  Computational chemists have an inkling of what Wall Street professionals do because we work with complex mathematical models all the time.  Wall Street professionals *can* be replaced- easily.  It’s not so easy to replace someone who can interpret a new protein structure.  That takes practice.

And that’s another thing that flies out of the window in Krawcheck’s world.  In an environment where you can be fired for being bold and the safety net is weak to non-existent, no one is bold.  And with each firing, there’s less time to rehearse your skills.  You’re never on the job long enough to learn anything with proficiency.  There’s some study that says that to become truly proficient in an area, you need to have spent 10,000 hours practicing it.  In Krawcheck’s world, no one gets nearly that much time before the bean counters decide to subtract positions from the bottom line.  It’s even worse than that.  During Pharmageddon, it was the salesmen in the labs who survived the job cuts, not the people who actually did the work.  And there were plenty of people with excellent performance evaluations, merit awards and inventors of billion dollar block buster drugs who were let go.  One thing we science geeks have learned from Pharmageddon is that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how long you work, how dedicated you are to your job or any other factor that you’ve been told is crucial to your employment.  You are expendable whenever the executives need your salary to pay a shareholder or buy a new company.  The relationship between effort and reward becomes permanently broken and no amount of mean spirited insistence from the conservative Tea Party whip kissers will change that.  Kissing the whip doesn’t do you any good any more, no matter what level of education or profession you have achieved.

So, to recap, Wall Street’s idyllic work environment would result in more economic uncertainty, more stress on families, less consumer spending, less long term thinking, less expertise for businesses and a poorer, more demoralized, less motivated workforce.  It sounds like something straight out of Central America circa 1980.

It’s hard to believe that someone like Sallie Krawcheck or anyone with her attitude towards work, would seriously be considered for any governmental position during this Little Depression that was caused by so much short term thinking.  I hope that the New York Times is just trying to be provocative.  Consider me provoked.

The problem with prospective appointments like Krawcheck’s to the SEC, like Tim Geithner’s to the Treasury department, is that they bring with them a moral attitude and values system towards work and reward that is dangerous to the average American.

But the morality and values starts at the top.  I doubt that Krawcheck and Geithner would even be considered by a president who was thinking about the long term interests of the average American.  And that’s what worries me and snuffs out that little teensy ember of hope.  Obama’s actions have to match his rhetoric and just by considering someone like Krawcheck or anyone like her, the actions and rhetoric will be miles apart.

Trust no one.

Update: In a followup post at the NYTimes titled Dropping the Ball on Financial Regulation, Simon Johnson of Baseline Scenario has similar misgivings about the Obama administrations prospective appointments, particularly with respect to Sallie Krawcheck to the SEC.

Monday: Research Professionals in NY, NJ, CT- pay attention

A lot of you are understandably upset that the world expects you to take a steep cut in pay and forego benefits because they don’t see how the chicken gets made, plus you belong to a reviled profession.  You’re only a step above health insurance claim processors and nuclear reactor specialists (there are family members out there who are laughing very loudly right now).

Anyway, how do you pay for everything on your vastly reduced salary while you fly back and forth between coasts trying to keep your head above water?  Well, this article in the NYTimes describes one possible option.  It’s called the Freelancers Union and it is growing:

For most of the 20th century, it was efficient to link benefits to jobs this way. But today, more and more work falls outside the one-to-one, employee-to-employer relationship. Work is decentralized, workers are mobile, and working arrangements are fluid. However, the risks of life haven’t gone away: people still need protections. They just need a different system to distribute them. They need benefits that they can carry around, like their laptops. As things stand, millions of independent workers go without health and unemployment insurance, protection against discrimination and unpaid wages, and pension plans. It makes no sense.

One of the social innovators to recognize this problem early and act on it was Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union, which has more than 165,000 members across all 50 states.

She quickly discovered that their biggest concern was the cost of health insurance. But there were other problems, too. Unlike traditional workers who receive unemployment benefits, independent contractors have to rely on their own resources to get through hard times. In 2009, Freelancers Union surveyed 3,000 members and found that more than 80 percent had gone jobless or underemployed during the year. More than 60 percent had used their credit cards or borrowed from friends and family to make ends meet, and 12 percent had to turn to food stamps. Close to 40 percent had given up, or downgraded, their health insurance protection.

Another problem was getting paid. Some companies, like Time Inc., actually charge freelancers penalties if they request payment within 25 days. Freelancers Union found that 77 percent of its members had been cheated by a client during their careers and 40 percent had had trouble getting paid in 2009. The average wage loss was $6,000. The Department of Labor protects traditional workers from unpaid wages, but freelancers have no equivalent recourse. Then there were difficulties obtaining mortgages, the lack of access to 401(k) plans, and other issues.

Go read the whole article.  This is either a step in the right direction or the last resort.  Regardless, it’s necessary.  I didn’t know that some companies make you wait so long to get paid and penalize you if you ask in advance in order to feed your kids.  This is the up and coming area where labor laws will be fought because so many of us are being forced into contract work.  You don’t have to be a psychic to figure out how this will impact the economy in the future.  If you can never be absolutely sure that your work will be paid or if paid, paid on time, it’s very difficult to pay the rent or buy a car or any other little luxury in life, like an education for your kids or a retirement for yourself.  It’s the way of the precariat.  Expect that to eventually effect the cost of houses, the number of cars sold in the US and a rise in the number of emergency room visits that must be picked up by taxpayers.

When precariatism hits the experienced research professional it’s particularly disturbing because most of the time, we’re just not paying attention.  We don’t have the smooth talking survival skills of the salesmen.  Our work is vital, no question about that.  And it’s academically and mentally demanding.  But the bigwigs who run things are commissioning their next yacht.  They fail to see the way they are destroying their research departments, to the eventual disappointment of the shareholders, and they’re not particularly concerned with the impact that their short term decision making and trendy management schemes are having on the economy.

So, you have to do things for yourselves.  You can’t expect anyone else to do this for you.  I checked out the Freelancer’s Union site the other day and their health insurance policies were competitive with my COBRA policy and in most cases, the price was much more affordable as was their term life insurance.  When you’re out of the system *everything* is more expensive.  It’s really unfair to your kids.  But there you go, that’s the way it’s going to be until we get a handle on this new reality and figure out a way to gain the upper hand again.  Is every new idea going to be perfect at first?  Of course not.  Few things are.  But I was genuinely surprised to find that a freelancers union existed at all.  It’s going to be a long hard slog.  Start now.

Today, the Freelancers Union offers health insurance policies only to New York state residents.  They have a presence in NJ but no insurance policies yet.  I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get them either but we are in desperate need.  Those of you booted off the pharma payrolls in NJ might want to consider moving across the border if you’re commuting anyway.

Don’t let them force you into precariatism without a fight.

Precariat- Learn this word

No, precariat is not a misspelling of a group of single celled organisms.  It’s a very disturbing word, an ominous word, a word that has already arrived here in the United States and is slowly moving up the food chain:

Precariat- a social group consisting of people whose lives are difficult because they have little or no job security and few employment rights

It’s a portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat”.  A precariat is a person who doesn’t have a reliable job.  Precariats initially were service workers who may have been working a 40 hour work week, but maybe not.  A precariat could be called in to work a 6 hour shift, every other day and one long 12 hour day at some other point in the week or come to work expecting a full 8 hours but sent home after 2.  The amount of work can vary from day to day, week to week.  This worker typically has no benefits.

I think most of us can see right away the limitations of the precariat world.  If you can’t say for sure how many hours you’ll be working each month, can you afford to rent a nice apartment or buy a house?  Can you buy a new car?  If you have children, how do you schedule and pay for their child care?  Can you depend on your paycheck to feed them?  Work and living become precarious.  Here is a video about the precariat from The Precariat: the New Working Class:

Precariats usually spring up in countries where workers are not protected by unions or strict labor laws.  Right now, the UK is starting to come to terms with the precariat but in a way, the Welsh precariat has it good compared to the American version.  Here in the US, there is no national health care system or reasonably priced, government subsidized schools of higher education.  So, the land of opportunity in America is starting to look like the last place you want to live if you are forced into precariatism.

Another feature of precariatism is the appearance of the middle man hiring agency.  That agency stands between the employer and you.  The employer hands off responsibility of hiring and paying the worker.  The worker becomes a true human resource to be hired when needed and laid off when not.  Benefits and risks are born by the employee.  The hiring agency takes a cut of the worker’s pay, I hesitate to call it a salary because that would imply some kind of security and regularity.

A couple of years ago, we who were salaried employees would have looked down on the precariat with pity.  Now, we are one.  From my vantage point, this is the way the pharmaceutical industry has decided to handle its well educated, experienced workforce.  We are now service workers.  More and more of us can only find contract work.  The work is parceled out in 3, 6 or 12 month contracts.  There are no benefits.  In some cases, the worker pays both sides of the social security tax.  It is hard to plan where to live because you don’t know if you’ll be able to pay the rent.  You can’t make any major purchases on credit because there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to afford the car payment.

One of the reasons I suspected that the McKinsey reports of employers dropping health insurance coverage for their employees after the passage of the Affordable Care Act was true was because it fits so well with the precariat worker norm.  Since a universal mandate meant that workers would be legally compelled to spend whatever the insurance companies could charge for health insurance, the employer could cut this benefit out of their compensation packages guilt free. To escape the employer mandate, all the employer would have to do is make many of its permanent employees into contractors.  The number of layoffs would be expected to increase. Responsibility and risk would now be transferred to the employee.   You don’t have to be a highly paid consulting company or economist to see how this would work.  All you have to do is think a couple of steps ahead. Mandatory universal coverage without a public option or a single payer system that requires employers to pay in puts much of the American workforce at risk of falling from the middle class into the precariat.

The new middle man hiring agency becomes the new growth sector.  Expect to hear more horror stories of foreign students brought to the US by a hiring vendor promising that they will learn English only to spend their summer in a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania doing manual labor for subsistence wages.  Expect Hershey the company to deny all responsibility.  Or Amazon.  Or {{your company name here}}

It’s hard to say whether Barack Obama was onboard with this or whether he was so overwhelmed by his job that it never was evaluated properly.  But I think we can say pretty unequivocally that the acceleration of the expansion of precariatism within the American culture is related to the measures that were  or weren’t taken in the wake of the financial collapse.  So much attention was focused on shoring up the banks at taxpayer expense that homeowners were allowed to foreclose, jobs were allowed to disappear and healthcare reform was rushed through to score political points without much thought of how  those reforms would affect the workforce.  In fact, hardly any thought at all has been spent on the workforce.  Well, Elizabeth Warren was thinking about it for years but as Adam Davidson pointing out in that blistering Planet Money interview from 2009, Warren’s opinions didn’t really count because she wasn’t a “serious” person.  Did Davidson see the rise of the precariat?  Does he know that free lancing is going to appear at an NPR station near him someday?

If the US economy is in a slump right now, it may very well be because there are so many more precariats where once there were college educated salaried people.  In my own sphere, precariatism is the norm these days, not the exception.  It wasn’t like this before 2008.  But now, if you’re a precariat, you can not plan for the future.  There IS no future.  Everyday is a struggle and stress about where the next mortgage payment will come from, what will happen if the car breaks down, how to pay for the plumbing that keeps getting backed up or the last of the orthodontic appointments.  It’s the reason why so many grocery stores are shuttering their stores and why Lowes is laying off workers in the northeast and why people are hoarding their money instead of spending it.  And it will get worse until more working people realize what is happening to them.  The people who are kissing the whip today are going to be tomorrow’s precariats.

We have been subjected to years of politicians relaxing the rules for the 1% and tightening the rules for everyone else.  The rise of the number of precariats can be attributed to the politicians who let this happen.  We need to replace as many of them as possible.  Because it wasn’t too long ago that Americans were pretty cool with capitalism.  When we were all making money and productivity gains went to the middle class, we had a vibrant, robust economy.  But when the rules went out the window and labor came under attack from the superwealthy and the whip kissers who brainlessly listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Fox News, an opportunity arose to force many of us to live on the edge of a knife.  Now, those of us who didn’t necessarily want to be rich but wanted to work for its own sake are considered losers.  And the infection of the precariat is bound to spread.  There is no profession that is safe.  Once the public unions are broken, precarianism will be the norm, not the exception.  Your degrees cannot protect you.  Even senior citizens are not sheltered from the effects of precariatism because as the salaries disappear to be replaced with lower, precarious wages, the tax base will continue to shrink.  It won’t be that we don’t want to pay for social security. It will be that we just can’t anymore.

The 99% don’t want to live a precarious life.  We know who was responsible for the ruination of the American middle class.  We focus on the robber barons of Wall Street now but come November 2012, with a handful of notable exceptions in Congress, they ALL have to go, Obama included.

What the OccupyWallStreet protestors object to is the increasing economic injustice forced on the precariat and what they demand is that it stop.