The Complications of Employment

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“The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” – Oliver Wendall Holmes

Realistically speaking, looking for a job should not be complicated. In order for society to succeed, it would only make sense that everyone should be able to find decent paying work. Unfortunately, far too often the work available (I’m looking at you service industry) doesn’t even pay enough to allow someone to pay the bills required to live in the area the job is located, let alone have extra money for savings and bit of entertainment from time-to-time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have to work to get ahead in life, I just think anyone who puts in 60+ hours of work or gets the requisite education should not need to spend years of their life worrying about how to pay the next bill or whether they’ll ever find employment in the field of their choice. And this complicated job market isn’t just bad for the individual, it is bad for society as a whole.

Take the millennial generation for example. We grew up being told a college education was the key to a successful career, but thanks to an economic crash coupled with more efficient work procedures, there are fewer jobs available than in previous years. Not only do you have a crop of individuals who are struggling to find work, but many of them are starting out at a financial disadvantage that averages around $25,000. How is that good for the economy? How can this generation of workers be expected to take any of the innovative risks necessary to address the challenges of the coming years when they are forced to spend a vast amount of their mental capacity just finding a way to break into a job market that expects more productivity for less pay? Unless we find a solution to this problem, we’re going to end up with a generation of individuals who choose to play it safe, rather than make the big leaps forward necessary for a brighter future.

Then of course there are those, who simply can’t afford the higher education to even compete in the tight job market. These are individuals who work lower-skilled (albeit just as necessary) jobs for wages too low to live on. If someone puts in 60-hours a week at Taco Bell, why shouldn’t they make enough money to pay their bills and still have some left over to save for their future? Instead, by not having higher pay for lower-skilled workers we create a gap that will never be bridged, making it not only difficult for this group to survive, but for their children to have the opportunities to climb the ladder of success. Is there are simple solution to this issue? Probably not, but in the meantime we must find ways to raise the minimum standard for income in this country and around the world.

Say you’re one of the luck ones. You have a successful job and make an ample amount of money. How is this complicated job conundrum bad for you? Well, there’s the idea that a well-educated, employed population makes for safer society. More people making money, mean more tax revenue at the local, state, and federal level, which can they be used to improve everything from infrastructure to security. Furthermore, there’s a moral imperative here. Is it right to allow society to continue to drift apart financially? So much so that the wage of the lower earners becomes further separate from the top earners, even while the economy improves. We owe it to future generations to find a way to maintain not just our personal financial security, but that of the country and world as a whole. No one should have to go to bed worried about how they are going to pay this month’s rent, or find a job that pays enough to do so. As former U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone once said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

Ultimately, finding a job that pays enough to survive falls on the individual. We need to be proactive in gaining the necessary skills. However, that does not mean the governments and corporations of society can’t do better to makes things a bit easier for those not born into immense talent or wealth. We ought to find a way to employ those of all skill levels. Furthermore, the job search should not be so difficult or hard to break into. Practices like, rejecting applicants because they’ve been unemployed for 6 months or more need to stop. We also need to be balance out the proportion of executive to employee pay a little bit. In the long run it’ll be better for everyone, and give future generations something to look forward to.

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Devious Disenfranchisement

” If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” ~Noam Chomsky

The American dream is something often touted by both political parties as they craft a vision for the future. The pursuit of happiness is ingrained in this country’s constitution. Idealistic freedom is the core tenet many politicians rely on as they speak out about their plans for moving this country forward if they are elected this November. In order to truly embrace these concepts we must have a population that is enfranchised to engage in upward mobility and engagement in their communities. Sadly, the rights of Americans are under attack on a variety of fronts, that if left unchecked, threaten the core of our Democracy.

The proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would legally define marriage as between one man and one woman undermines the social freedoms that are necessary for a healthy society. Many proponents of this amendment would argue that by allowing same-sex partnerships the government is ignoring their rights to religious freedom. However, this is simply not true. Even if same-sex partners were allowed to receive the legal benefits of marriage, churches could still choose to refuse to officiate and/or recognize said partnerships. On the other hand, if this amendment were to pass it would be singling out a specific demographic of society and denying them fundamental rights that other citizens currently enjoy. A decidedly backward violation of civil liberties that should not be allowed to stand.

Sadly the marriage amendment is not the only disenfranchising attack being put into our constitution under false pretenses. The Voter Identification amendment (or perhaps more appropriately the Voter Restriction amendment) would require anyone interested in exercising their basic right to vote to show a government issued photo identification in order to vote. The supporters of such a requirement argue that anyone can easily get a government identification and the integrity of our election system necessitates such a law. What is ignored by such oversimplification of this proposal is many American’s do not have a photo ID and would have a great deal of difficulty obtaining one. For the millions of impoverished and homeless workers obtaining such an ID will either be impossible (homeless people have no address) or not important enough to justify the time and resources such an extra step would take. Not to mention the many college students and other young voters who are still learning the importance of electing their representatives that may be turned off from the process if they are turned away from voting where they live. Creating barriers to voting that unfairly target at-risk demographics under the guise of preserving voting integrity is simply unacceptable to a functioning democracy.

Perhaps the greatest danger to the future prosperity of America and health of the world at large is the continued disenfranchisement of the millennial generation. Graduating college with over $25,000 in debt on average, according to study by the Project on Student Debt, they are starting their professional lives at a disadvantage. Many state budgets look to higher education funding to deal with budget deficits, further increasing the burden placed on this generation. In addition, efforts at slashing programs meant to prepare this generation to compete in an ever-competitive world economy to reduce the national debt while ignoring those programs that are far more costly (e.g. medicare, social security) show a bias towards the older versus the young. Leaving many of this emerging generation to question whether their elected officials care about their future.

Between the efforts to prohibit same-sex couples from experiencing the same legal rights as their opposite-sex counterparts, making it more difficult to exercise one’s right to vote by requiring a government issued identification, and budget solutions placed on the back of younger generations so many groups in our society are falling victim to policies that are leaving them feeling disenfranchised. Unfortunately, many of these efforts seem to be by design. Both overtly, in the case of the marriage amendment, and covertly, in the case of the Voter ID amendment. It is vital, we do not allow these efforts to succeed if we truly believe in the principles that govern a prosperous democratic society.

 

The Rising Income Inequality Risk

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” ~Plutarch

It has been awhile since I graced the blogiverse with a good old-fashioned political rant, so in the interest of keeping the “political” in the political ninja lets talk about the immense income inequality in this country. More specifically, how the influence of money on the government and the increasing income disparity between the wealthy and everyone else are creating a playing field that is increasing stacked in favor of the richest Americans. This increasing disparity not only permeates vital sectors of American economic and social institutions, but if left unchecked, is a danger to the future success of this country.

The rising income gap between the richest Americans and the working class is contributing to a slow economic recovery. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “The average annual earnings of the top 1 percent of wage earners grew 156 percent from 1979 to 2007; for the top 0.1 percent they grew 362 percent” (Mishel, Bivens, Gould, and Shierholz 2012). The same study found that the bottom 90 percent only increased by a mere 17 percent over the same time period. Meanwhile the cost of living has continued to increase, meaning the middle class is less able to afford to purchase the goods and services needed to boost our economy domestically. Despite what some people will tell you, all the trickle down by the 1 percent in the world is not enough to make up for the loss of purchase power that comes from a vibrant well taken care of middle class.

As the middle class becomes less secure financially, the next generations are left to fend for themselves when it comes to funding their much-needed higher education. Over the past ten years a college education has risen exponentially. Tuition at an average university has risen over 100 percent during the same time period. Unfortunately, government aid on both the state and federal levels have not come close to matching this increase. Furthermore, as middle class families have continued to see their incomes stagnate and shrink they’ve been less able to put aside the money needed to shoulder this heavy burden. Leaving many of the best and brightest poor and middle class college students burdened with working full-time and taking out thousands of dollars of student loan debt just to get the training they need to contribute to the economic engine of this country. All of this leads to young generation that is entering their working lives buried in debt and ill equipped to contribute to the financial growth our nation needs to reach its full potential.

The increased financial burden on the American people coupled with the uneven influence of monied interests on the political process is creating a sense of despair and apathy among younger generations unhealthy to a functioning democracy. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, Citizens United and its complete dismantling of campaign finance laws meant to curb the influence of big money donors has severely damaged the accessibility of electoral politics in this country. This coupled with the constant struggle to survive many young, middle-class, and poor Americans face in light of a depressed job market and massive personal debt is making engagement in the process increasingly difficult for all but the wealthiest Americans. This nation is and should not be an Aristocracy. However, if we continue down this path where the rich continue to get richer atop the economic mountain while everyone else continues to slide further down the slope, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Does this means we should give up? Do what we can to leap into the echelons of the wealthy before it’s too late? Not if we believe in the principles of freedom this country is founded on. The middle class, the poor and yes even the wealthy should work together to implement policies that bring us all a bit closer together. This means paying our hard-working members of the bottom 90 percent enough money to live a semi-comfortable lifestyle with a little left over for a rainy day. Even if that means the richest Americans have to sacrifice a small-portion of their substantial wealth. Furthermore, it means investing in the next generation of citizens by putting money into curbing the costs of higher education and finding creative ways to reduce or eliminate most of their debt. Lastly, we must stop thinking of those less fortunate than us as merely lazy, and start taking steps to ensure everyone in this country is given a fair chance at success. Only then will we cease to be a society of haves and have-nots and come together to build a future worthy of the principles this country was built on.

The Youth Movement: Continuing to Fight

“We live in an age when to be young and to be indifferent can be no longer synonymous. We must prepare for the coming hour. The claims of the Future are represented by suffering millions; and the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity.” ~Benjamin Disraeli

A great deal has been made of the fact that the youth vote in the 2012 election will pale in comparison to the historic numbers we saw in 2008. Sadly, there is a good chance those prognosticators might be right. The promise of real change offered by then presidential candidate Barack Obama was a motivating force behind millions of young voters not only making their voice heard through the power of their votes, but through engaging in a political process often dominated by older generations. However, as with most things, the reality things don’t always work out as planned coupled with a depressed economy that has had an especially dramatic effect on the young adults just entering the workforce or currently in college have caused many young people to become disenfranchised with the process. Despite this disappointment, it is more important than ever our generation engages to combat the age centric policies that are sure to effect this country for years to come.

Rising college costs have burdened an entire generation. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average college debt a student faces is more than $25,000. So many of individuals begin their adult lives behind financially with no physical assets to show for it. It is hard to think of purchasing a house when there is already a pile of loans hanging over your head. Instead of taking immediate steps to mitigate this debt, it is being used as a political football. Take the proposed increase of the Stafford Federal Loan interest rate from 3.4% to 6.8%. Instead of immediately passing legislation to extend the lower rate, many elected officials are using this issue as a political football to accomplish other policy goals. While the very fact this debate is taking place shows an interest in the fates of the young, unless they continue to make their voices heard it will soon fall to the wayside as issues being touted by an older, more engaged populace rise to the surface.

No one has felt the sting of unemployment as sharply as those just entering the workforce. So many individuals did what they were told. They went to college and worked hard. Then just as they were about to make a difference and start the jobs that would help them pay back the debt accrued while pursuing that education, the economy crashed. Droves of people were laid off, and those who would have otherwise retired were forced to remain employed as their savings dried up. As a result, so many college graduates have been forced to move back in with their parents and have been stuck working part-time jobs and are nowhere near starting the career they were promised. If this trend is ever going to be reversed it will require government investment that awards companies who hire this emerging workforce and invest in preparing them for the 21st century. Something less likely to happen if the young voters of this country do not stand up and have their voices heard.

If this country is going to face the challenges posed by the future it is vital the young make their priorities a central issue in every election. The only way that will happen is if they engage in the political process at every level: from the ballot box to the doorbell. They must fight against policies that favor preserving a status quo that pours billions of dollars into the a defense budget much larger than it needs to be. They must continue to fight for healthcare for all, not just the oldest Americans. Finally, they must not sit back and watch as higher education in this country becomes almost inaccessible while the rich continue to benefit from policies that sacrifice long-term investment for short-term gain. After all, to a paraphrase the man who inspired the beginning of this generations march towards excellence, we  must be the change that we seek.

For Trayvon Martin: By an American Soldier Serving in Kuwait

The Following is a Guest Post by my close friend Troy Olson who is currently serving his country overseas.

Last month, when an American teenager left to get skittles and iced tea to enjoy while watching the NBA he did not expect to be gunned down by a vigilante in training on his way home.  This young man followed the rules in every way possible. He followed the law.  He was near his home inside a gated community.  Trayvon Martin was a seventeen year-old African-American.

This saddens me, but my feelings cannot compare to the sense of injustice felt across the African-American community.  I am not going to sit here and say I know what it’s like.  However, when I was Trayvon’s age I did have a weapon pulled on me by a neighbor.  I cannot help but think if my skin color had been darker would I have met the same unjust end?

I cannot possibly imagine…  What I can do is my absolute best to try and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—for meaning, for comfort, to express solidarity.  Even this probably isn’t enough.  Perhaps I should ask this question instead.  If I had been eating skittles and walking home that day in Florida, would I have been shot and killed?  I have no doubt that I would not have been. .

What happened last month in Florida was not just a case of racial profiling, it was a case of youth profiling.  Race and age; two prejudices that are hard to overcome and can only be conquered with education and a little help from your friends.

Since when is any response proportional when it ends in the death of an unarmed individual?  There is simply no excuse for this.  George Zimmerman killed an African-American teenager. He killed an AMERICAN teenager.  Charges should be brought against him, but I am not going to delve into the particulars of the ongoing legal investigation.  Instead I want to discuss the issues of race and youth.

Too often in this country we feel the issue of race, and the gap between races and at times, outright alienation felt by some has been conquered for all times merely because we have elected our first black President.  Too often in this country we equate wisdom and experience with the number of years someone has existed on this Earth.

Too often in this country older Americans look upon their younger counterparts with assumptions that we lack their character and sense of right and wrong.  As a result of this, a sense of distrust in adults and other authority figures is created in the minds of the young.  Too often in this country we are quick to incarcerate young people over non-violent charges. Too often we are quick and harsh on judgment and slow and light on solidarity and empathy.

Too often in this country, liars and demagogues from the right and left pounce to score quick political points from tragedies. Situations like the one’s involving Trayvon Martin and Gabbie Giffords are politicized, not just by politicians either—but by some of our own cynical minds that hear our elected leaders speak to the country and what we hear is politics and we run to our scorecards and spin rooms to tally up the latest count.

To those who are responding negatively to what appears to be a quick public indictment of George Zimmerman, but do so by disparaging Trayvon and attempting to ruin his reputation.  I have words for you that I cannot utter here.  He was seventeen years old, with his entire life ahead of him. He could have been anybody he wanted to be…  Believe me when I say that.  Life has barely started when you are seventeen, which is why this is so sad.  You have barely even tapped into your best emotional and moral development years.  To those who suggest this was invited, I hope you are prepared to be suspicious of the countless Americans, young and old who wear a hoodie.  I met my future wife in a hoodie.  The founder of Facebook wears a hoodie.  If it were admissible for me to wear a hoodie right now—I would be wearing one.

To those who want quick and swift justice for Trayvon and those that want vigilante justice in response to Zimmerman’s poor and pathetic imitation of your favorite comic book character—I urge you to remember the words of Gandhi, “eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Just like you, I hope justice wins the day.  I want to believe in the system.  I have to.  But let’s be patient and better than the man who so quickly rushed to his own judgment and took Trayvon’s life.  Whether charges stick or not, Zimmerman has already lost the most important verdict in the court of public opinion.  As more facts come out, hopefully law enforcement officials will do their job and give Trayvon’s family and friends some measure of justice.  It will never be enough.  It never is.

For the time being, maybe some of us can be content knowing that a young American, taken long before his time is being greeted by angels. While another one’s ship is about to come in.  Maybe that will be enough…

Regardless of whether it is or not, the best response to this is to not continue the cycle of violence, and hate, and alienation.  If we are to mend the gap between races, generations and age-groups we must summon the very best of ourselves.  This begins with the simplest acts of kindness, understanding, and yes, forgiveness.

 

The Problem with Voter Identification

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”  ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

In an attempt to prevent “voter fraud”, the Republican party has been on a quest all over the country to pass laws that would require citizens to have photo identification to vote.  Minnesota has been able to avoid this crusade thanks to  elected officials placing an emphasis on making the election process as open and accessible as possible. However, there is potential this will all change. After failing to pass a bill that would have made this a law last year (thanks in part to a veto from Governor Dayton), they have decided to take their case directly to the voters. At first glance, this may seem like common sense. A fact the proponents of the constitutional amendment are counting on. However, when one looks beneath the surface this amendment would do far more harm than good.

Requiring voter identification disenfranchises disadvantaged and at-risk voting populations. A similar law in Texas was blocked from being implemented by the Justice Department on the grounds it would disadvantage Hispanic voters unfairly. Mississippi is facing a similar court battle because of its disproportionate effect on the African-American population. Both of these groups tend to be lower-income, and would therefore find it more difficult, if not impossible to obtain the required identification needed to exercise their right to vote. The same holds true for the elderly, disabled, and the homeless. These are arguably the most vulnerable members of our society, and rather than empower them to make their voices heard, this law puts unnecessary obstacles in their way. Something that flies in the face of the ideals that are the foundation of our Democracy.

This law discourages young voters from engaging in the political process. Countless studies have shown those who start voting when they are young are more likely to continue to do so throughout the rest of their lives than those who wait until later to begin their participation. By requiring a photographic identification with a current address, young voters, especially those in college, are being discouraged from taking this crucial step at a time in their lives when it is most important. While many have Driver’s Licenses, its likely the address is not current, which under most versions of the law being proposed would prevent them from voting in the college communities they live in. At a time when many important decisions are being made that will have major consequences for the future of this generation, we should be encouraging them to exercise their right to vote, not making it less appealing.

Voter fraud is statistically insignificant. As many have said, requiring photographic identification to vote is a solution in search of a problem. In fact, the major study on voter fraud in Minnesota did nothing to show a need for a law like this. First of all, it was at best inconclusive, as it was only able to find 113 potential cases in the entire state. Secondly, it was focused on convicted felons voting, something this law would do nothing to prevent. There are better, more inclusive ways to maintain the integrity of our voting system (many of which have already been enacted in Minnesota). While there is always a chance for fraud in an election, sacrificing the rights of so many people should never be done lightly and never without sufficient evidence to justify it. Which in this case does not exist.

Implementing this law is fiscally irresponsible and a bureaucratic nightmare. At a time when there is a national movement to reduce government spending, implementing a massive overhaul of the voting system seems unwise. Requiring everyone to have a photo identification forces the government to spend countless dollars on technology and other resources needed to not only provide, but determine the validity of these IDs. In addition, things like vouching and absentee voting would become far more problematic. A problem that would disenfranchise our soldiers currently serving overseas. Rather than waste money and add more layers to the government, perhaps we should be focusing on more pressing issues, like holding our elected officials more accountable.

Upon closer examination, requiring a photo identification not only disenfranchises large segments of the voting population, but also is an unneeded level of expense when government is being called upon to do more with less. At best this law is an attempt to prevent a minute amount of cases where the system is being abused. At worst it is an attempt at suppressing the vote of a disadvantaged voting bloc that tends to support a certain ideology. Whatever the reason, it is important this trend is not allowed to continue. We must stand up for the voters this type of law would affect, by giving the general public a complete picture of who would be effected if something like this were allowed to pass. The preservation of our democratic ideals depends on it.

Mortgaging the Future

“When you get in debt you become a slave” -Andrew Jackson

Recently student loan debt has reached $1 trillion. This is an unfathomable amount of money to saddle the future of this country with. This is more than all of the credit card debt in the country. Except with credit card debt, if things get too bad, you can just file for bankruptcy and it will go away. Meanwhile, with student loan debt even bankruptcy will not free you from shackles of student loans. This is simply inexcusable. We consistently emphasize the importance of higher education in rebuilding our economy, but then create policies that continue to drive its price  to a level well beyond anything that can be afforded without taking on massive debt. This is detrimental to our future and cannot be allowed to continue for a number of reasons.

The threat of debt makes higher education inaccessible for many. A recent Georgetown study, indicated that 70 percent of jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education. Sadly, many of those needed workers are being discouraged from pursuing a higher education in favor of remaining debt-free. Furthermore, every step up the educational ladder raises the risk and debt these students will face. When achieving one’s full potential to contribute to the economy is measured not by ability but how behind one is willing to get financially, it does not bode well for the development of society.

Debt saddled college graduates are limited in their ability to contribute to the economy. If I had managed to graduate college debt-free, there are a lot of things I would have done with the money currently going to paying back student loans. Most of which, would probably involve buying more goods. It’s no wonder we are facing a housing crisis in this country. When a large percentage of the next generation of workers are dumping money into paying off their education, there is a little left for purchases like a home or even a car in many cases. Ideally, we would live in an economy where the purchasing power of the populace was not so vital to prosperity.  However, until that day arrives, having a bunch of recent college graduates with money to directly inject into the economy is an excellent thing.

Debt discourages experimentation and innovation. Peter Thiel, cofounder of Paypal recently offered twenty individuals under the age of twenty,  $100,000 to forgo college in favor of starting a business. Most people are not faced with such a drastic choice as this. However, when one leaves college plagued by debt, taking the risks needed to stimulate the economy is not the most appealing proposition. Instead of pursuing further education, or taking out a business loan to start the next fortune 500 company, many college graduates are struggling just to find a job. Leading many to either settle for a low-skilled job that helps pay the bills, or in many cases, being forced to move in with parents or other family members while continuing a seemingly fruitless job search. This lack of success, damages the confidence of many, further reducing the willingness to take the chances needed to stimulate the economy.

The increase in student debt shows little signs of slowing. In fact, as governments attempt to balance the budget on the backs of students, both through decreased funding for public higher education, and reductions in state and federal grant programs, it only seems to be getting worse. However, this does not need to continue. Rededicating ourselves to preparing the future workforce of this country through investment in our higher education institutions and the grant programs that allow students to afford the educations they provide can reverse this trend. This will require courageous leadership and sacrifice from the elite minority that controls the money and power in this country. Or maybe we should just let the market solve the problem. That always seems to work…