America enters a new era of pain and destitution
Alexander Cockburn: Take your pick – join the Marines or queue for the soup kitchen
I went to get my hair cut the other day and waited 10 minutes while the elderly barber finished buzz-cutting a young Mexican American. After the young man had exited under his thin skullcap of black stubble, Don the barber sighed and said, "That's the third boy I've cut today who's headed into the Marines.
"They all say the same thing. 'There's no work around here and I've got a family to support.' When I tell them to hold off, they say: 'Too late. I've signed up.' "
This is Humboldt county, northern California, where the marijuana boom is in its final paroxysms, with people flocking from around the world to get a piece of the action, just like they did in the Gold Rush.
One of the many places selling bags of good soil to marijuana growers ($10 a bag, eight bags to each marijuana plant, grown in a costly 100ft x 30ft plastic greenhouse) took $300,000 in a day recently. So there's more money here than in most places across America, where the situation is truly desperate.
Profits are up 41 per cent since Obama's election; yet half of American workers have suffered a job loss or a cut in hours or wages over the past 30 months. They're saying around 28 million people either have no job or one that doesn't yield them enough money to get through the week.
Millions are plummeting into total destitution, having reached the end of their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. Their only option then is the soup line at a church and getting on the waiting list for a shelter.
The nearest big city north of me is Portland, Oregon. The downtown area there is filled with homeless people, napping on steps, bedding down on cardboard in doorways.
California agriculture and much of the construction industry depends on undocumented workers coming across the border from Mexico – minimum cost $1,000 – for an eight-day walk through the Arizona desert.
Since building is in a terminal slump, many Mexicans would like to head back home until times improve, but nowadays it's so tough to come back across, that they daren't risk it. Hence the paradox: trying to lock "illegals" out means locking them in.
My friend Frank Bardacke, who lives in the farm town of Watsonville, a couple of hours south of San Francisco, recently described a bank robbery by one young, desperate immigrant.
"Several months ago, " says Frank, "Jario took his father's pick-up truck, drove 20 miles to the upscale tourist playpen Carmel By the Sea, and walked into the local branch of the Bank of America. He waited in line to see a teller, and, when his turn came, he pretended to have a gun under his shirt and quietly demanded that the teller give him her cash. As she was passing out the money, he apologised for frightening her; meanwhile, she was hiding a GPS device among the bills.
"He left the bank, his crime apparently unnoticed, and returned to the truck for the drive home. On the way, he got confused and took a wrong turn through Monterey before he got back on the right road home. Twenty police cars from four different police jurisdictions followed the GPS signal and stopped him 45 minutes after he left the bank.
"He immediately confessed, explaining that he needed the money to help his dad pay the family mortgage. When his case came to trial, the DA pressed for two years in state prison. The judge decided that six months in the county jail and five years' probation would be enough."
In Texas, or anywhere in the South, the fellow would probably have got 25 years. But in desperate times one can expect people to do desperate, stupid things, and this decent judge showed compassion and understanding. One can't say the same for many Americans, starting with the Republicans in Congress who've been happily voting for a cut-off in benefits for the jobless.
Conspicuous good works are always a feature of Depression, the rich zealous to purchase moral insurance. Some billionaires, led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have been pledging that they will earmark not less than 50 per cent of their personal wealth for charity. But whatever they give away is tax deductible, so revenues to Uncle Sam will drop.
The rich don't get to be rich by being the nicest guys in the shark tank. As the financial writer Carl Ginsburg remarks, "In its fledgling years, profits on Bill Gates' software were reportedly 70 per cent annually. Another way to gauge Gates's billions is by catching a glimpse of the multitudes of students priced out of the computer market – thanks in part to that Great Giver's expensive software – lined up daily at community college libraries for some free access to computers, each machine an expression of Gates's creative commitment to profit in the +40 per cent range – a gift Gates gave himself that keeps on giving. As Gates told Fortune: 'The diversity of American giving is part of its beauty.'"
We can probably expect more laid-off workers going postal. On August 3, at seven am, Omar Thornton showed up for a disciplinary hearing at the Hartford Distributors, a Budweiser distribution warehouse in Manchester, Connecticut. Thornton had been caught on video pinching some beer. They asked him whether he wanted to be fired, or just quit. Thornton pulled out a handgun and killed seven fellow employees before shooting himself dead.
Before he loosed off his last shot into his head, Thornton, a black man, called a friend on his cellphone and said he'd taken care of some racists who'd been giving him a hard time. Unemployment means fear, and fear nourishes racism, all the more because we have a black president. Racism is drifting across America like mustard gas in the trenches in World War One.
And, final token of hard times, we have Bonnie and Clyde on the run. In their latest guise, the duo consists of John McCluskey and his cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Welch , who's no Faye Dunaway. She threw some wire-cutters over the fence of her man's Arizona prison at the end of July and they've been fugitives ever since.
Cops suspect them of killing a couple of retirees, then stealing their truck and heading north up to the Canadian line through Glacier National Park. That's the last sanctuary in America of Ursus horribilis, the American grizzly. Behind them the cops, ahead the bears. It could be the first movie of the New Age. ·
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