Personal Testimony: Larry in Seattle, WA

Apr 12 2012

Seattle resident Larry Neilson testified March 30, 2012 at the Unemployed Nation Hearings. What follows is his testimony.

Thank you for having me here at Unemployment Nation. And greetings from the underwater position of 3 years and counting of almost complete unemployment. My last extension of UI ran out 15 months ago.

Living with no income is a minor art, including maximizing one’s eligibility for available benefits, concealing one’s assets, begging, and when needed, by outright fraud.  Not that I condone fraud; as a one-time taxpayer, I frown on it in general; but in desparate circumstances, one does what one has to in order to survive and protect one's remaining dignity.

I have all but given up looking for a full-time job because with age discrimination in hiring, it is a complete waste of time applying.  I once was a mid-level bureaucrat in the County government, and before that a buyer in the Ad business. These are now considered the province of the younger and more energetic members of the workforce, and people of my years and experience are considered old, dried-up wrecks unworthy of consideration. Let them starve! As for medical benefits, you heard the Republican debate audience:  Let them die!

I advertise my services free-lance.  After many moons of little or no interest, as the economy improves, I am getting some nibbles. So far this has generated less than $100 a month. This has left me dependent on my 86-yo mother for more than half my rent. While she has made no complaint, it is not fair for her to fork over so much of her retirement income to support me.  In effect, our family is "eating its seed corn," for when these savings are exhausted, there is nothing to replace them except selling our home. But if it weren't for my Mom, I would be back sleeping in my car, as I did the previous winter (2011-12).  I am, I hope, appropriately grateful.  Even a home infested with bedbugs is preferable to sleeping in an unheated vehicle.

This car was a gift of a friend several months after my old one died ... given to me instead of to KUOW.  But Catch-22, no good deed goes unpunished; although I only paid $200 for the vehicle, I now have $2000 in assets according to Social Security, and they have therefore denied me benefits on that basis.

We hear the unemployed laced into by mean-spirited pols and commentators.  We are called dead-beats.  We are supposed to be creatures of government dependency. On the face of it, I would certainly meet those criteria.  I feel depressed, even guilty, when I think about this, or when I go out to beg for gasoline at the end of the month to keep my 18-yo car running. Let's take a look under the covers and see what's really going on:

In fact, if you look at my employment history, you will find my periods of unemployment closely track economic downturns, and my periods of full employment and multiple jobs track flush times in the wider economy.  I well remember how, when I graduated from college in May 1975, the unemployment statistics were the grimmest since the Great Depression. My first job was working in a candy-cane factory for minimum wage, then $2/hr. When I quit in disgust, I coudn't get another job within biking distance.  Recent grads will appreciate how little has changed.

Now in the twilight of my working life, I find I'm still expendable.  At age 57, with some serious health issues incurred by a lifetime of insecurity and self-medication, I'm again unemployable and marginalized, left to subsist on whatever crumbs fall from the capitalist table, until Social Security kicks in 8 years from now.

I believe myself to be the victim of age discrimination.  I do not make this charge idly, as it comes from comparing notes with my co-generationists, and informal counseling from employment and placement consultants.  One of the latter told me, baldly, to abandon hope of getting 9-to-5 employment and seek free-lance opportunities, but to beware of the many work-at-home scams circulating on the Internet.  I have already reported on the results of this strategy so far.

Looking at the big picture and how my history fits in, I can report that 40-odd years ago, when I was breaking into the labor force as a college student and proudly deposited my first $200 paycheck, the U.S. was a very different country than it is today. Union membership was more than double that of today, as a percentage of the workforce.  There was an assumption that, if you came to work reliably and gave an honest day's labor, you could take employment and modest advancement for granted. There was a feeling that even the humblest worker had a stake in America's mixed-capitalist system, and that it would reward loyalty with a social safety net in case of misfortune.  During the 1950s and 60s, during the greatest sustained boom the country has ever seen, the wealthy were taxed at around 90% (versus <14% for billionaire Mitt Romney today).

This jerrybuilt, but fairly effective, welfare state philosophy came under attack by the right wings of both parties beginning in the late 1970s, using the economic downturn and manifest effects of America's oil dependency as an excuse de jour. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, neocon policies and the economics of wishful thinking (otherwise known as "supply side economics") came to the fore. Taxes for corporations and the wealthy were slashed.  The social safety net was ridiculed and hollowed out more and more under specious arguments, from Newt Gingrich's Cadillac-driving "welfare queens" to Andrew Breitbart's on-camera pimp impersonator visiting ACORN for government funding, to Breitbart's hatchet job on green jobs tsar Van Jones.

Although conservative Dems have been complicit in the hollowing out of the middle class, claiming the market will compensate for the lack of government subsidy (which is only true in boom times although no provision is made for hard times), since the days of Gingrich, the Republicans have moved further and further to the Right, showing complete, pig-headed intransigence on social issues. They have willfully brought government to a screeching halt in order to grandstand to their own base and feed more venom to Limbaugh. I need only point to the present budget process in Olympia, hijacked by the Senate Republicans, and the Ryan budget passed by House Rrepublicans in D.C., in effect holding the entire country hostage to their blackmail demands. If democratic politics is a game of artful compromise, today's Tea Baggers and so-called conservatives are not playing but upsetting the gaming table and walking out in a huff.

In such a country, the little man or woman no longer has a meaningful stake. This can be looked at as a distortion of how our country was meant to be, a limited social welfare state as in the Seventies.  Or it can be seen as a return to the laissez-faire economics of 1890-1912, often cited as a golden age by Grover Norquist and Karl Rove.  Though I DO hear Dick Cheney has had a change of heart.

In effect, we see that neo-con and Tea Bagger legislation has aimed at rolling back a century of progressive social reforms.  When they say "reform," they mean "backsliding" or hollowing out the state.  They mean the repeal of child labor laws, the enabling of the War or Women, incarceration of so-called illegal immigrants, renewed persecution of minorities and quasi-legal lynching, vastly increased state surveillance of citizens, the militarization of local police forces, rollback of veterans' benefits and Disability programs.  When they say "unleashing the creative forces of the marketplace", it is code for scrapping labor laws, busting public unions a la Scott Walker, and tearing up environmental guidelines to enable hog-wild energy drilling, the biosphere and groundwater be damned.  It is a case of quarterly profitmaking gone wild.  As plastic crusader Mitt Romney so glibly exemplifies, what matters to those in control is not people but numbers.  Any amount of human misery can be ignored with impunity if the numbers on the 1%'s calculators are favorable enough.

So my economic devastation is only a logical byproduct of their quest for ever-greater profits.  It is not a product of my character flaws at all.  I did not choose to be a dependent on my old mother (in effect, the beneficiary of 1950s - 60s - 70s earnings and savings by my hard-working father, a loyal New Dealer and apologist for capitalism in its Eisenhower-era guise).  My discomfiture is not mine alone, but is shared by millions of my co-generationists.  It is shared by millions of young, energetic workers only graduating into a blighted labor market -- 20-somethings with law degrees who are learning how to ask, "Would you like fries with that?"  I might think it was only a fluke that, after a successful phone screening, I will go to an in-person interview but don't get invited to a second interview.  After the HR flak sees my grey hair he/she flinches, shuffles papers on the desktop, and finds a way to hustle me out the door as soon as possible, sometimes without even bothering to be polite. I can hear my resume hitting the bottom of the round-file on my way out the door. I might think it's a coincidence except for the counseling that, after more than three years of unemployment, I am worse than dead meat on the labor market and likely will never work again.

This is not a coincidence:  This is exactly how the laissez-faire economic model is meant to work.  It may not be good for me or my immediate family, but a quick look at the record profits chalked up by Wall St. and the big banks will show that it is working fine for the people who really own America -- the oligarchy or the 1%.  In actuality it is a small subgroup of the 1%, closer to 1/2 of 1%, who call the shots; but they have a lot of allies, most of whom share some of the tax benefits doled out to the oligarchy under the present system.

Things are just ducky for these favored few, and they are reaching forth octopus-like to get ever more concentrated control and wealth.  They appear to be drive by an insatiable, grasping greed for power that is all but incomprehensible to those of us who are content with what we need.

We do have one great weapon in our arsenal against the 1%, however:  numbers.  The rage of the disenfranchised middle class and the marginalized minorities within our country has found voice in the past few years in a growing movement, loosely associated under the  banner of #Occupy Wall Street. Although the corporate-owned media would have you believe the movement has been swept away by a few brutal police actions, in reality it's alive and well and continuing the pressure.  In Sea-Tac, #Occupy activists reoccupied foreclosed homes vacated by robo-signed evictions from Bank of Ameria. Next week, we'll be overturning the tables of the money-changers in Rainier Valley.  In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is facing a grass-roots recall campaign -- and so are his Tea Bagger state senators, sufficient to repeal the union-busting laws that were snuck through the legislature in the dead of night last year. Veterans at Fort Lewis are banding together to demand re-evaluation of the recision of their PTSD/TBI diagnoses and benefits. Yes, these are all bite-size issues, nuggets of the whole overriding problem.  But what problem are they a part of?

The overarching problem is the overweening greed of the unrestrained capitalist system, and its callous disregard of the human rights and needs of the members of society.  In the 1960s, my father, the historian and economist, fondly proclaimed that the American system was the best of all worlds:  lacking the rigidity of democratic socialist states as seen in Europe, and thus retaining a competitive edge; free of the unwarranted interference of the police state into its citizens private affairs, and the straightjacket of central planning and state corruption as seen in the Soviet-style communist states.  My Dad apologized for the shortcomings of capitalism by pointing to the financial reforms adopted under FDR and upheld by the Supreme Court since. Dad cited them as evidence that the system was self-correcting and had an ultimately humane core to balance the harsher aspects of corporate life.

His arguments may have seemed valid for the time (he retired in 1985), but barely survived his teaching career. Bit by bit, the headlong flood of deregulation and "welfare reform" that followed soon reinstated the very greed that led to the Crash of 2008, replaying the devastating Crash of 1929 that had led to the adoption of Glass-Stiegel, the creation of the FDIC, and the other New Deal reforms my Dad was fond of extolling.  Using unlimited lobbying dollars and clever legal strategems, the 1% were able to wipe away more than a half-century of progressive reform, mounting Unbridled Greed once again in the saddle. When the  orgy of Wall St. speculation predictably ended in chaotic collapse, hardly any Wall Streeters went to jail -- only Bernie Madoff endured a high-profile token prosecution. Instead a flock of Armani-suited lobbyists descended on the Capitol to make dire warnings of a devastating collapse unless the Treasury bailed out the financial sector. $700B was cited, although the Treasury eventually signed on to nearly $3T in obligations.  In return Wall Street was shored up and the banks magically changed their bookkeeping methods while concealing their RE-based losses, restoring a nominal solvency.  No shred of social responsibility was observable in return for the public bailout, however.  Instead, Wall Street firms continued to issue draconian layoffs while offshoring operations, and banks constricted the money supply to small business. Competition suffered as better financed corporations feasted on weakened and bankrupt firms. Throughout, multimillion-dollar bonuses, wastefully luxurious executive retreats, corporate jets and insensitive CEO statements that echo those of Plastic Mitt Romney, all have continued unabated, inviting application of the stereotype phrase, Capitalist Pig.

People so grossly self-absorbed, so power-mad, will never willingly surrender their power and economic clout.  Only the threat of losing ALL they have will pry any concessions loose (and check any suggested concessions the offer carefully; there may be a devil lurking in the details of their cleverly drafted documents).  We will never be taken seriously without posing a credible threat of taking away, not just their toys -- the 1% can easily replace them -- but their privilege. We have seen over the last 20 years what trying to play nice and be reasonable gets you when you negotiate with hard-right ideologues, the proxies for the 1%. You merely concede whatever advantage you had in numbers, and negotiate away more and more.  At every chance the right will sieze advantage of parliamentary rules and tricks to exclude any opposing points of view, masking the narrow popularity of their views and slamming through repressive measures that do not reflect popular opinion in the country. A great example is the recent hearings on women's health and contraception, in which not a single woman was permitted to testify. In many cases these are narrow social issues that offer "red meat" to the Republican or "Christian" base, which inflame divisions in society and mask the larger agenda of moving the country further and further to the Right and consolidating the position of the 1% oligarchs. No:  we must break their class privilege, their sense of entitlement, of being beyond the law that only applies to "the little people," as Leona Helmsley once said.

Since actual bloody revolution, the hanging of corpses from lamp-posts and destruction of hideously self-indulgent mansions and luxury yachts is illegal, and since I for one am an advocate of uncompromising, nonviolent resistance, the best way to get the thrust of our message across is through symbolic acts.  For example, have a People's Tribunal try and convict Lloyd Blankfein for fraud, sentence him to death and the dispersal of his assets as remediation to those he has wronged, and hang him in effigy from a lamp post across from the GS HQ in Jersey City. Research his assets and throw models of them to the crowd.  The effigies are symbolic, but the rage is real.

Of course, nonviolent resistance acts can -- and do -- result in violent reprisals by the police.  We have seen this again and again in recent years, from the unprovoked clubbing and gassing of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge to the pepper-spraying of Dorli Rainey here in Seattle -- I could go on and on if there were unlimited time; but there isn't, so I won't.  Being a committed protester means being prepared to face beating and jailing, harassment and injury at any moment, and prepared to face any of the above with equanimity.  My Buddhist philosophy is helpful in this regard.  I have not personally been molested by the cops in Seattle, and though I've been cuffed and taken off the street a few times, no charges have been laid against me yet. If worse comes to worst, I am prepared to become a martyr to the great movement for redress and renewal in this country; I have no dependents, although I would regret not being able to repay my mother her generous contributions to bail me out in the wake of the 2008 crash and the exhaustion of my benefits.

One good thing about being unemployed is almost unlimited amounts of time. I have been active in the #Occupy Seattle movement, chronicling the encampment and in selected actions against the banksters, in solidarity with Wisconsin workers, on women's rights, and so-on.  My computer has been turned into a one-man protest sign factory.  In keeping with my emphasis on the Big Picture, I have adopted as my pet project the disabling of Citizens United and the delegitimation of corporate personhood, for this is the crux of the 1%'s stranglehold on political power. A quick look at the flood of negative TV ads, paid for by SuperPAC funds, in the Republican primaries will tell you the direction Citizens United is moving our politics in; the politics of scandal and innuendo, and completely opaque responsibility a la Rupert Murdoch. How many of you think this is a democratic direction?

No?  I invite you to come out and join Washington Public Elections and GMOP -- we meet every Sunday afternoon at the washington Convention Center lobby. Details online at washclean.org. There will also be an ensemble in the Fremont Solstice Parade June 16 on corporate personhood, placed in a mythological, Lewis Carroll context.  If you're interested in being part of that, come see me afterwards.  Also, training is afoot for the 99% Spring. For further info or to sign up for a MoveOn training near you, access the website on the screen: http://civic.moveon.org/event/events/index.html?action_id=268&id=&search_distance=20&search_zip=98136&submit=Search