Who Is Spokane’s Economy For Anyway?
Do We Work For Our Community . . . Or For the One Percent’s Coffers?
“We Will Build Spokane Bigger and Better!” (words uttered after the Fire of 1889)
Dog Eat Dog?
That 1889 fire took out the core of Spokane, caused by a kerosene curling iron knocked to the floor of a lady’s hotel room by a disgruntled customer. The question now is building bigger for whom, and, more importantly, do the benefits of the rebuilding go to the majority—our community? Daily, people in Spokane complain about the weeds, the empty lots, the sagging buildings, the potholes, traffic, billboards, old schools, the worn-out parks and lack of public spaces; yet the paradigm in today’s economic system is not to create decent jobs for the unemployed or underemployed by using the full force of community-directed projects funded by some of the hyper profits of corporations and big businesses, millionaires and billionaires.
It’s easy to think of any number of those all-American axioms when trying to shape what unregulated capitalism means: Survival of the fittest? Winner takes all? Those who have, rule; those who do not have are the reason for their own destitution and undoing? The meek shall not inherit the earth?
I have the luxury of being 59, having had dozens of jobs inside and outside my skills sets, experience, and educational background. This 35,000-foot view has also been honed by living abroad in such places as Azores, Paris, Edinburgh, Germany, Vietnam, Mexico, Central America, Canada, and England. The perspectives I have also were shaped by a career military father, grandparents who immigrated from England to Canada, and Germany to Iowa and South Dakota.
One cornerstone of my thoughts about the best way to survive in a pretty ruthless economic world here in this state and these “united” states was my family’s insistence on “getting educated.” Two graduate degrees later, after many states and cities under my belt, as part of the passage of American work, I am faced—as are millions of other Americans—with working into my 70s.
Why? For realistic and pragmatic economists, the reasons are pretty simple: we live in a new gilded age, one where a very few individuals and a few thousand corporations have amassed so much of the wealth using public money and citizen labor to create the most out of balance wage and wealth equity that at times it feels as if we are indentured servants.
The richest in this country have created such a gap in wealth that this inbred concept of fair play the USA has stood for and democracy itself risks collapse. Unfortunately, according to a recent Oxfam study, one percent of the population controls half the planet’s wealth.
The current visual illustration of this wage and wealth gap comes dramatically as follows: Many men and women in their late 60s leaving so-called retirement and entering the workforce as Big Mac cooks and Walmart greeters because retirement accounts are nil and our so-called Great Society’s Social Security is anemic, retrograde.
This is against a backdrop of youth in general and younger people of color most notably having astronomical under-employment and unemployment rates. When an informed person hears three-time bankruptcy filer Donald Trump (or any number of the thousands in both the Republican and Democrat party leadership) spew that all it takes is hard work to be a success in America, both laughter and revulsion rise in one’s throat.
Living Wage, Universal Right to More than Barely Survive
Washington State-based writer Mike Whitney studies economics, federal and international banking policies and writes profusely about the socio-dynamics of capitalism. “It all gets down to wages, wages, wages. If wages don’t grow, neither will the economy. The ‘trickle down’ Voodoo economic model was destined to fail because it was built on a fiction. Prosperity is not possible without the equitable distribution of wealth and fair worker compensation.”
Interestingly, anyone with a lick of critical thinking might see how this out-of-whack system of those who have and those who do not have (imagine, 92 percent of Americans have the same collective wealth as 8 percent) is tied to a certain “structural violence.”
Believe it or not, generational poverty is a type of violence. Eastern Washington University’s faculty engaged scholar in the geography and anthropology department, Michael Zukosky, hones in on this almost criminal uneven distribution of wealth:
“Violence is simply the use of coercion to achieve a goal, rather than say dialogue and cooperation. It can be individual –and for a simple objective like a fistfight over a parking space—or structural and based on extensive monetary and property resources like different racially-defined groups and access to good employment,” Zukosky states. “Clearly, the existing distribution of resources according to gender, class, and race entails structural violence that involves individuals (say a sexist boss) as well as police forces, military, private security apparatuses – overt violent forces. I think the important issue here is also that the threat of violence is often as important as the use of violence.”
Interestingly, we are today a far cry from a hundred years ago in terms of the worker voicing her or his distaste of the class divide. Even little Spokane was the hub of worker activity when in 1909 Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) saw the City of Spokane banning free speech in public. Within a few weeks, more than 500 workers were jailed in Spokane.
Of note, the founding member of the ACLU, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who fought for workers’ rights and the vote for women and is the standard bearer for those fighting for fair wages, safe working conditions and worker representation was thrown in Spokane’s jail for speaking out almost a century ago.
She was 19 when she came to Spokane from Butte, Montana, where her New York family moved. The newspaper—Spokane Daily Chronicle—interviewed Gurley Flynn after a reporter heard her speak. She proclaimed: “I will devote my life to the wage earner. My sole aim in life is to do all in my power to right the wrongs and lighten the burdens of the laboring class.”
It’s hard to imagine the sophistication and perseverance of a 19-year-old woman ready to tackle police, national guardsmen, and prosecutors and governors, let alone the entire federal government and president, but she represented that soul, gaining her social justice pugilism in Spokane.
For youth today, it’s clear more and more public movements like Black Lives Matter, college campus organizing and the fight for the $15 an hour wage by fast-food workers might be a reverberation of that Gurley Flynn era. What can we do to enhance and encourage the involvement of workers and labor organizations to fight what appears to be a log jam of media propaganda that keeps the workers’ issues from public dissemination?
For the EWU professor, the answer is simple but difficult: “Engage physical public spaces for information dispersal and meetings and the virtual public spaces like community-based media. Capital clearly dominates both spaces, and a start would be to reclaim them one at a time. The labor movement is almost completely invisible.”
Every Billionaire Was Made by a Million Hard Workers, Not Merit
It’s obvious that those at the top of the economic ladder are not the smartest, worldliest, best educated, most humble, and most deserving – consider Romney, Bush, Trump, any number of sports franchise owners, hedge fund thugs, or Hollywood movers and shakers. When the bottom line is profits (and really large profits) at the expense of workers’ lives, then we can see any amount of gap in skills or the “wrong zip code” to be living in are far from the only determinants of why people live or die in Spokane-LA-The Big Apple-Chicago-Detroit (the reader gets the picture).
We can rejigger so-called entitlement programs and education policy far and wide – infusion of software programs to realign our students’ and workers’ skills; encourage youth to get into up-and- coming professions (i.e. all health care occupations, from blood drawing, to medical coding to every aspect of a hospital’s inner and outer workings); pretend that self-employment and the Uber movement will solve anything; create public-private partnerships to provide supply and demand algorithms to assist the super rich and stock holders’ profits.
However, the other choice—a sustainable one—is to develop a true single-payer health care system, tax the rich’s incomes (from their wages to upping the Social Security deduction), make illegal all predatory lending and usury, create a national income (Finland is attempting this) and then nationally develop through non-profits, government agencies and the private sector real work systems to address authentic community needs vis-a-vis a paid volunteer brigade.
It’s not what you know, how well you know it or who you know, anymore. Exceptionalism is a myth, as well as the concept of all it takes is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to get out of working class poverty. Here’s a simple debunking of the meritocracy system Trump and others tout, by authors Robert K. Miller Jr. and Stephen J. McNamee:
“We argue that meritocracy—the idea that societal resources are distributed exclusively or primarily on the basis of individual merit—is a myth,” they state. “It is a myth because of the combined effects of non-merit factors such as inheritance, social and cultural advantages, unequal educational opportunity, luck and the changing structure of job opportunities, the decline of self-employment, and discrimination in all of its forms. If meritocracy is a myth, how can the system be made to operate more closely according to meritocratic principles that Americans so uniformly endorse?”
Both authors have four ways to move this country toward genuine meritocracy:
current forms of discrimination could be reduced or eliminated;
the wealthy could be encouraged to redistribute greater amounts of their accumulated wealth through philanthropy in ways that would provide greater opportunity for the less privileged;
the tax system could be redesigned to be genuinely progressive in ways that would close the distance between those at the top and the bottom of the system;
more government resources could be allocated to provide more equal access to critical services such as education and health care.
This is a life and death story—the life of some sort of decent, fair, and community-driven society which prohibits predatory financing, redistributes the profits of our hard work back to us, and reinvests in the workers’ civic, public, intellectual, and physical health. The poor and destitute are increasing in numbers and exponentially in Spokane, throughout this county, in spreading in Washington state and all over these “united” states.
Healthy Economy Means What?
Again, the prevailing issues around what an economy “is for” can be seen clearly through the lens of people working with the majority: the workers, laborers, and those wanting to work. From that perspective, it seems a capitalist economy, one heralded by a president who calls on all Americans to go shopping after the Pentagon and World Trade Center are attacked, is based on profits made from disasters, wars, hurricanes, tsunamis, unhealthy citizens and poorly educated masses.
In contrast, we are entering a new era where more and more people are wanting fewer things, seeking simplicity, desiring a shift from a car economy to one where we can access almost everything with walking and good public transportation.
We are at a crossroads, economically speaking, and local activists have been pushing for “smaller is better . . . less is better” sort of proposals that have the effect of bringing workers/laborers together to plan a future where there is more meaning to it and a real sense of community.
Kai Huschke has been working on the rights of citizens and communities for more than two decades. I first met him more than a decade ago through what is called “The Democracy School,” a training program and methodology that helps communities buttress their needs against the very fabric of a functioning democracy – a for, by, because and with the people system that allows for communities to hold corporations and government accountable and puts citizens’ needs above the banks’, the dirty industries’, and the many times predatory financial, medical and real estate sectors’ common values – profits over everything else.
What isn’t a sustainable economy, I asked Kai, who has been entrenched in many environmental and neighborhood empowerment movements in The Little Town that Said It Could Rebuild Better. “The ‘endless production for more’ type of economy we have today is not a viable, sustainable economy. That economy needs to die. When it dies it allows for a truly sustainable economy to emerge, one focused on true needs, ones that are localized, and that will be just and equitable to people and the environment.”
When we talked about a fair economy and sustainable jobs, Kai drilled down to a universal philosophical place: “The last comment leads to the second part of the answer, which is what makes for a sustainable job? That would be a job built on equity, justice, and dignity. That would be a job that not only paid workers fairly but adequately to support themselves and their family. That pay needs to be enough to cover basic necessities and then some. The ‘then some’ would be to allow people a modest savings so they can invest in things like a home or education. Sustainable jobs also means having a sense of security and pride in that work. The current economy treats most workers like widgets—plug them in when needed and discard them when not. If a sustainable economy is built, a truly sustainable one, sustainable jobs will be part of that new paradigm.”
In the second part of this story, we’ll look at how Spokane must create an economy where jobs are worthy of the needs of people and the education and skills they have obtained. We’ll explore what Kai Huschke and others see as Spokane’s job base, and whether its worthy of the word “sustainable”: “If you took an inventory today I’m not sure the list of sustainable jobs would be very long.”
Paul K. Haeder is a freelance writer who worked in Spokane as a community college instructor and journalist for more than 12 years.
The positions taken in Metro Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living’s publisher, editor or staff.
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