"Nickel and Dimed, on (not) Getting By in America" A Book Review

I've begun reading "Nickle and Dimed, on (not) getting by in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich, having picked the book up after recognizing who she was and the premise of her book from a class struggle movie airing on either LinkTV or Free Speech TV, I can't remember which. The premise is that the author gives up her comfortable middle class life for the social experiment of trying to make it by working low wage jobs. She did her experiment from 1998 to approximately 2000, and he book outlines, in detail, what she learned, saw, and experienced as well as high-lighting the stories of her many coworkers, changing their names for privacy reasons.

I'm only into chapter two, albeit it's nearly half-way through the book. Not only is it a fast, engrossing read I am surprised that only two months and five jobs into her experiment her mind is already beginning to snap. Ehrenreich fully acknowledges the clear advantages she has going into this experiment - such as having a safety net so that she does not ever actually have to experience homelessness because she can cheat and tap into her real-life finances and bail herself out of a bad situation. She also has the advantage of having a solid education, a PhD in fact, although she promises not to use her previous work experience or education and has opted instead to lie and claim she has only a few years of college under her belt, and no relevant prior work experience in order to see what kind of work she can get on par with the single mothers returning to work after being on welfare.

She also has healthcare, a gym membership, and regular access to healthy food leaving her much healthier to start and able to withstand physical jobs better than the average low-wage employee. Psychologically, although she graces on this bit only slightly so far, she also has the knowledge that she has a much higher-wage comfortable lifestyle awaiting her when she's done experimenting. She admits to not ever being able to understand what it feels like to be poor, but it goes farther than that because there is a slow, painful, downward spiral mentality for those who have nothing to look forward to but another day of hard degrading work.

Even still, with her advantages, and even though she has already cheated twice, once using her multilingual skills to get a job, and once to use her access to healthcare to cure an unexplainable rash - she is quickly understanding poverty and low wage work as well as mentality far greater than I think even she realized.

By week five, and on her second location she is already noticing her ability to despise even low-level management as an "enemy" and clients or patrons as over-indulgent assholes. A great passage about this change of heart and thought happens while she's working for a maid agency. In this scenario she is gearing up to work in a house for this agency, and the patron is walking her through what she wants her to do:

"Self restraint becomes more of a challenge when the owner of a million dollar condo [...] who is [...] an acquaintance of the real Barbara Bush takes me into the master bathroom to explain the difficulties she's been having with the shower stall. Seems its marble walls have been "bleeding" onto the brass fixtures, and can I scrub the grouting extra hard? That's not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it's the world-wide working class - the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it."

Ouch, that's a pretty hard-core reaction to have in such a short time. This was of course, following the degrading experience of having to scrub a patron's floors on her hands and knees while the patron watched her work, and after watching her coworkers try and work through serious illnesses, and in harsh work conditions with little empathy from both the patrons and management. This is also following the experiences in her first location that include being embarrassed and treated like a criminal along with her fellow low wage coworkers just because someone made a mistake, or another employee (as it turns out lower management) did something illegal.

So far in this book what I'm seeing is an unabashed declaration of how little it takes to see through the capitalist and class/race propaganda constantly being shoved down our throats, where the realities are being covered up and ignored.

This book is, so far, a must read as far as I'm concerned. If nothing more than understanding how quickly and easily we could make people understand what's wrong with our economic system just by making them experience it first hand.


Is Taxation Actually Theft?

There are arguments abound that taxation is theft, and thus wrong. There are tea-parties gathering and protesting taxation. The general ideology is that their hard-earned money is being taken and used without their permission and that they could do a lot more if they were allowed to keep that money in their piggy banks instead.

I decided to investigate this claim. While I do agree that taking taxes with the threat of legal action is wrong, and while I do agree that tax dollars can and are used for things the tax-payers disagree with (mainly military and TARP styled funds) do I actually believe that taxation, in and of itself is coercive theft? No, I don't. Generally speaking I believe that even if we were living in Anarchist communities, without governments, and even without capitalism, the people in the communities would still have to pool their resources in order to maintain a particular standard of living to be enjoyed by all. If we were to keep all of our resources only to ourselves we could not afford to do all of the things we need to do. So even in Anarchist communities - we would have a "tax" system, which is merely the use of pooled resources to benefit the entire community.

But I wanted some hard numbers to back up my theory. So I looked up, to the best of my ability, the average per person, per household, per KM and per acre cost for the most basic community benefits we use nearly everyday. Things like roads, sewage, waste collection, fire protection, and yes even police protection. Legal services, public schools, parks, and libraries. I excluded things like public transportation (buses, subways) and other tax funded things like government aid programs, military, overhead costs and local, state, and federal employees. I also excluded the post office - a system we all use everyday.

I then averaged the cost of these basic services, and compared it to the national average cost of taxes per person or household. I excluded the cost of gas taxes and sales taxes since many states do not have these taxes and/or the cost depends entirely on the user. Keeping in mind that my numbers are averages as they cost, per person or household, in a not-for-profit industry, That means that in order to keep things running everyone would still have to pay in, but paying in directly rather than through gathered taxation, and, to for profit companies rather than lower cost not for profit companies. Here is what I found:

On average:
Waste Disposal, including sewage and garbage pickup, and bulk disposal: $102 per household per year.
Public Schooling: $5,000 per year per student. Keeping in mind that private schools often charge upwards of $8,000 per year in tuition.
Fire Departments: $778 per household per year, data from larger cities.
Road Maintenance: $3,592 per KM, or 0.62 miles. So your neighborhood roads? very expensive, never mind the highways.
Legal Assistance: $3,000 retainer for 20 hours worth of work, based on a $300 per hour attorney rate.
Police protection: $584 per household per year. Granted, most people don't like the police, but I couldn't find an average price for a private security company. I'm assuming their rates are much higher.
Public Library: $41 per year per person, plus whatever fees they levy on you when you sign up.
Public Park/space Maintenance: $13,235 per acre per year. Even if you don't have large parks, there are many public spaces that need maintaining, and that adds up.

Total cost per household, on average, per year for basic access and use of public facilities: $26,332

Now, the average household income in the U.S. is $40,000 per year. The average federal tax is 18%. The average state income tax is 5%. The average property (real estate) tax is $2,000. At $40,000 per year your annual taxes are : $11,200. If you want to add on other property, sales, and gas taxes you'll have to take a guess as to how much that is. For us, it's about $500 per year, but we don't drive or buy much. All total you're looking at $11,700 in annual taxes.

Or rather, if you were paying out of pocket individually you'd be overpaying by approximately $14,632 every year.

How is this so, you ask? Well, with the negotiation power of collective bargaining, plus other non tax funds for all of these programs (such as private donations, fundraisers, and borrowing) you get everything you get everyday for $11,700 per year instead of a much costlier $26,332. And that's at not-for-profit rates.

I can't speak for anyone else here, but there have been years when my husband and I have only made $25,000 in a year. Even of we made $30,000 we'd only have a few thousand dollars left over to purchase shelter, food, and clothing.

With 91 million Americans living at, below, or just above the poverty threshold of $17,000 per year do you think that they could afford anything beyond waste management and shelter on this privatized system? No. No education, no legal, fire, or police protection, no medical aid (since 80 million of them are on Medicaid) and no access to roads, parks, or public spaces because if they can't contribute, they can't use it.

Looking at the costs, I'd rather just pay the damn taxes. Economically it's more logical.

But back to the question at hand: Is taxation theft? Since you get to use everything at your disposal for less then what it should actually cost per person, I'd say no, taxation is not theft. You might be a little bit of a thieve, though, if you consider using something you can't afford to pay for in full theft. For me personally, I don't consider that theft either, but rather a proper use of collective bargaining for the benefit of all people.


Rethinking Pornography

Pornography is in an intriguing conundrum among people, particularly Anarchists. It's potency is something that is difficult to ignore due to the natural sexual desire hardwired into humans. But it also serves as a social and political controversy. It stands to reason that generations of religious demonification of sex and sexuality plays a large part in this controversy, but the opposition to porn seems to cross a great deal of social boundaries for a wide variety of reasons.

Yet, pornography is a highly profitable industry due to high demand, so clearly more people are partaking in it than the social and religious opposition would like to admit.

Anarchists are among a few socio-political groups where a high level of opposition to porn exists. I agree that many of the points that have been made are valid, and consistent with Anarchist ideologies, but I wonder if the reasons generally stated are enough to make total opposition legitimate. Most arguments hinge on coercion, degradation, and exploitation, and mainly of women. These arguments I find, are valid only part of the time. So let's take a look at reevaluating pornography.

First, I'd like to define what I'm talking about when I say "porn". Legitimate porn, in my opinion and for the purposes of this discussion, are videos, audio, literature and stills that are designed with the specific intent of sexual arousal. So while that lingerie magazine may be enticing, to me that's not porn because it is designed to sell lingerie, not to cause sexual arousal. Some types could include anything from sensual romance, erotica, to sex and fetish based pornography. I'm undecided on stripping as porn at the moment, so I'll exclude it from my lists entirely. Illegitimate porn, in my opinion, is that which is generally created without the consent of it's participants. Unwilling "stars", children, and those who have been coerced into it by any means is not legitimate porn, and I tend to also include the types of porn that defy basic human compassion and sexuality. So bestiality, snuff films and other highly extreme types of porn, in my opinion, go so far beyond the normal spectrum that I don't include them as legitimate porn. And I'll get to why in a few.

Pornography is deeply psychological to both the viewer and the creator. It's more than just trying to get a basic physical reaction, it's the creation of a fantasy designed to become a lasting memory or perhaps to tap into the conscious at a very deep level. But in my experience it goes even beyond that. After having been exposed to BDSM culture in a meaningful way, and after many conversations I realized just how psychological it is. It isn't just sex. It's an experiment with the human psyche that generally results in the betterment of the participants in their everyday lives. For example, a submissive in the bedroom is (typically) a dominate person outside of the bedroom. But by allowing someone else to control them during their most intimate experiences they learn to trust, let go, take instruction (AKA listen), and if nothing else they get a release from having to be in control of everything for most of their day. And if you're wondering yes, I'm a submissive. And no, submissives are not always women. The dominate in the bedroom is most likely not dominate outside of the bedroom, and thus learns how to give instruction, but also how to care for another person fully. Contrary to popular belief the dominate's role is not to simply do as they please with no regard for their partner, it is quite the opposite. They must take great care not to harm their partner, but to also do what their partner needs them to do, both sexually and psychologically. If they fail at that not only will the experience be a bad one, but their partner could potentially be hurt. In this way the two people are bonded psychologically and emotionally in the same way that the average couple would bond with the more socially acceptable romantic, sensual, sex.

Now, I'm coming to pornography with these basic insights tucked away into my brain. The arguments of coercion, degradation, and exploitation just ring false in my opinion because of these experiences and this knowledge. Now that doesn't mean that these things don't exist (check my list of illegitimate porn), what I am saying however is that they do not exist across the board and to paint pornography with such a broad brush is to do a great disservice to humans in general.

First I'd like to say that I fail to understand how the consensual participation, with the agreed upon roles and activities, can be considered exploitation. I hear people say it, I don't understand it. Is it exploitation when they do it at home for free? No. It's particularly not exploitative when the people engaged in it are being compensated with an awful lot of money for their trouble. (Granted, not all are paid well - see my list of illegitimate porn above. Those who are working for the porn equivalent of pimps are clearly not in a consenting state of mind). Unless of course you are of the frame of mind that being paid for the use of your body in any way is a form of exploitative non-sexual prostitution. If so let's make one thing clear on that point - it's not the sex that makes it exploitation but the use of one's body and mind for a profit of any kind. Now I'm of the opinion that regular gainful employment is exploitative because work in that regard is compulsory for survival, and thus the threat of homelessness and starvation is coercion, and so the decision to work is only quasi-consensual. I also make a distinction between those who choose to engage in pornography (as opposed to those who are also economically coerced into it) and those who are forced into gainful employment in the same way that I make a distinction between a person who truly chooses a particular job, not because they need it, but because it provides them with other benefits beyond financial compensation and because they could generally choose not to work there due to their economic standing.

OK so that's out of the way.

The issue of degradation in porn is a tricky one to address. There are literally millions of pornographic images, movies and books out there that vary widely in content. Some forms of pornography truly are degrading to people, typically women but other forms seem degrading but are not. This is where the psychological aspect comes into play. Degradation and humiliation, when done a particular way is a psychological, sexual fetish that encourages participation, trust, the pushing of mental and physical boundaries and emotional bonding between partners. It may not seem that way at first glance, but when person watches or reads about the sexual activities they often find themselves imagining that they are in that situation, with their real life partner. The arousal comes from asking oneself what they would do if they were in that situation, or how their partner would react if they did that. It can also serve as an idea-template for the more adventurous types. (Hey, we all need inspiration from time to time).

One thing should be mentioned here: porn is about fantasies - most people do not carry out pornographic fantasies in real life and those that try to tend to find that fantasy is best left in the realm of the imagination. Of course, "fantasy" and "reality" is quite relative for individuals and what one would never do in real life might be exactly what another loves to do in real life and so on. But it is about fantasy and imagination. This is why I think many people view pornography in movies to be degrading. It's a misunderstanding of the feeling one gets when viewing it. I don't find it to be degrading, but rather unimaginative, contrived, and otherwise "forced". So it leaves less to the imagination, and possibly leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable because they are being confronted with images they may not like or understand. Whereas written porn tends to stimulate the imagination a great deal more, and seems less degrading because characters on a page are not real people.

But that's just my opinion. And again, there are truly degrading types of pornography out there that only engage in the degrading acts to stimulate a sexual arousal without the mental arousal because it lacks the back and forth play between willing participants and tends to defy what a person would actually want to do or even imagine doing with his or her partner.

Porn is also a convenient way for people to capture their sexual fantasies without actually having to do the work themselves. We all make our own "porn movies" in our heads, but few of us actually want to share those fantasies with others, or at least claim ownership of such thoughts even if we admit to liking it when someone else presents it to us. Sharing sexual fantasies with your partner is an essential way to keep those fires going, and porn facilitates that need for people who are less than open about their sexuality.

If you don't believe me, try writing down one of your fantasies, being careful to highlight the details that arouse you most, and send it to your partner. Writing "dirty stories" and "talking dirty" is quite frankly, foreplay, and most people understand that. Pornography is just the prepackaged lubricant for people with poor imaginations, little time, or who are very shy about their preferences.

Not only does the sharing of porn with your partner (self created or purchased) help grease the sexual gears, it also serves as an insight for your partner. When you present your partner with a sexual fantasy she or he can ow understand better what makes you tick. It's a backstage pass into your psyche, and that my friends, is sexy.

So to wrap things up, I guess my main point here is that (all) porn is not bad, degrading or exploitative. To say that it is is to say that not only are we not free to do as we please with our own minds and bodies, but that sex itself is degrading and exploitative. It creates deep psychological connections, emotional progress and bonding between partners, as well as being a valuable "marital aid" for those who need to spice things up a bit.