The rapid increase of corporate spending in the American political process is eroding the foundations of democracy.
Source: Democracy Is Dying
The rapid increase of corporate spending in the American political process is eroding the foundations of democracy.
Source: Democracy Is Dying
Check out the twitter feed of Buzz Fugazi and grab some pithy talking points. Use them the next time you visit some wingnut Congresstool wanting to slash funding for public infrastructure and environmental regulations and cut taxes for the wealthy while piling on sales taxes, making your speeding ticket cost $2000, reducing the minimum wage, and exploding the debt for another unfunded pointless war that will not make us more safe.
When was the last time we reduced the size of the Federal Bureaucracy by getting into another war? The same every time we collapsed the economy by raising the minimum wage. It happens every year on the 5th of Never!
Having been accused repeatedly of being a mindless fanboy/shill for our lame duck President, I decided to take 30 seconds away from my normal focus: upcoming elections (not re-fighting elections already won, but, hey, if the Prez is such a big stupid head why did you lose to him twice, wingnuts? Cuz we Dems are so so much dumber we didn’t see the golden opportunity for electing two GOP nominees that were pretty well disliked by their own party HOW COULD WE NOT SEE THE APPEAL WE SO SO DUMB MINDLESS LIBTARD PEOPLE!!!!!!!) so here you go, wingnuts. Eat it.
Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 10:36 AM PDT
I’ve been wanting to visit a place where all the women are strong and the men are good-looking, and the children above average. (Applause.) And this clearly is an example of what Minnesota produces. So yesterday, Rebekah and I had lunch at Matt’s Bar, had a “Jucy Lucy” — (applause) — which was quite tasty. We had a town hall at Minnehaha Park, although I did not take a kayak over the falls, which seemed dangerous. (Laughter.) We got ice cream at Grand Ole Creamery — very good, very tasty.
And then this morning, Al Franken and I and Secretary Tom Perez, our Secretary of Labor who’s here — Tom, stand up — (applause) — we stopped by a community organization that helps with a lot of job programs and job placement programs. And this program in particular was focused on young moms. It was really interesting talking to them, because there are teenage mothers, 16 to 18, and it was a great pleasure for me to be able to say to all of them that my mom was a teenage mom, and she was 18 when she had me — and to be able to say to all of them that here in this country, it is possible for the child of a teenage mom, a single mom, to end up being President of the United States. (Applause.) And I think that it maybe gave them something to think about.
So you guys have been great hosts, Minnesota.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you!
THE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome. (Laughter.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you!
THE PRESIDENT: I love you back. (Laughter and applause.)
So I want to give you a sense of how this visit came up. As some of you know, every day we get tens of thousands of correspondence at the White House. And we have a big correspondence office, and every night the folks who manage the correspondence office select 10 letters for me to read.
And the job of these letters is not to just puff me up — so it’s not like they only send me letters saying, Mr. President, you’re doing great. (Laughter.) Sometimes the letters say thank you for something I may have done. Sometimes the letters say, you are an idiot and the worst President ever. (Laughter.) And most of the stories, though, are stories of hardship, or hard-won success, or hopes that haven’t been met yet. Some appreciate a position that I may have taken; some disagree with what I’m doing. Some consider policies like the Affordable Care Act to be socialism; some tell stories about the difference that same policy may have made in folks’ lives.
So I’m getting a good sample of what’s happening around the country. And last month, three young girls wrote to me that boys aren’t fair because they don’t pass the ball in gym class. (Laughter.) So there’s a wide spectrum — and I’m going to prepare an executive order on that.
But the letter that Rebekah sent stood out — first of all, because she’s a good writer, and also because she’s a good person. And the story that she told me reminded Michelle and I of some of our own experiences when we were Rebekah and her husband’s age. And in many ways, her story for the past five years is our story, it’s the American story.
In early 2009, Rebekah and Ben, her husband, they were newly married, expecting their first son, Jack. She was waiting tables, he was in construction. Like millions of middle-class families who got hammered by the Great Recession — the worst recession since the Great Depression — life was about to get pretty hard. “If only we had known,” she wrote, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”
Ben’s business dried up. But as a new husband and dad, he did what he had to, so he took whatever jobs he could, even if it forced him to be away from his family for days at a time. Rebekah realized she needed to think about how her career would unfold, so she took out student loans and enrolled in St. Paul College, and retrained for a new career as an accountant.
And it’s been a long, hard road for them. They had to pay off debt. They had to sacrifice for their kids and for one another. But then last year, they were able to buy their first home, and they’ve got a second son. And they love where they work, and Ben’s new job lets him be home for dinner each night. (Applause.) And so what Rebekah wrote was, “It’s amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to. We’re a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”
And that describes the American people. We, too, are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. And today, over the past 51 months, our businesses have created 9.4 million new jobs. Our housing market is rebounding. Our auto industry is booming. Our manufacturing sector is adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. We’ve made our tax code fairer. We’ve cut our deficits by more than half. More than 8 million Americans have signed up for private insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act. (Applause.) So here in Minnesota, you can now say that the women are strong, the men are good-looking, the children are above average, and 95 percent of you are insured. (Applause.)
And it’s thanks to the hard work of citizens like Rebekah and Ben and so many of you that we’ve come farther, we’ve recovered faster than just about any other advanced economy on Earth. More and more companies are deciding that the world’s number-one place to create jobs and invest is once again the United States of America. (Applause.) That’s the good news. And you don’t hear it very often.
By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office. (Applause.) You wouldn’t know it, but we are. We’ve made some enormous strides. But that’s not the end of the story. We have more work to do.
It wasn’t the end of Rebekah’s story, because she went on to write in her letter, “We did everything right. The truth is, in America, where two people have done everything they can to succeed and fight back from the brink of financial ruin -– through job loss and retraining, and kids, and credit card debts that are set up to keep you impoverished forever, and the discipline to stop spending any money on yourselves or take a vacation in five years — it’s virtually impossible to live a simple middle-class life.” That’s what Rebekah wrote. Because their income is eaten up by childcare for Jack and Henry that costs more each month than their mortgage. And as I was telling Rebekah — Michelle and I, when we were their age, we had good jobs and we still had to deal with childcare issues and couldn’t figure out how to some months make ends meet.
They forego vacations so they can afford to pay off student loans and save for retirement. “Our big splurge,” Rebekah wrote, “is cable TV, so we can follow our beloved Minnesota Wild, and watch Team USA in the Olympics!” (Applause.) They go out once a week for pizza or a burger. But they’re not splurging. And at the end of the month, things are tight. And this is like this wonderful young couple, with these wonderful kids, who are really working hard.
And the point is, all across this country, there are people just like that, all in this audience. You’re working hard, you’re doing everything right. You believe in the American Dream. You’re not trying to get fabulously wealthy. You just want a chance to build a decent life for yourselves and your families, but sometimes it feels like the odds are rigged against you.
And I think sometimes what it takes for somebody like Rebekah to sit down and write one of these letters. And I believe that even when it’s heartbreaking and it’s hard, every single one of those letters is by definition an act of hope.
Because it’s a hope that the system can listen, that somebody is going to hear you; that even when Washington sometimes seems tone deaf to what’s going on in people’s lives and around kitchen tables, that there’s going to be somebody who’s going to stand up for you and your family.
And that’s why I’m here — because I want to let Rebekah know, and I wanted to let all of you know that — because you don’t see it on TV sometimes. It’s not what the press and the pundits talk about. I’m here to tell you I’m listening, because you’re the reason I ran for President. (Applause.) Because those stories are stories I’ve lived. The same way that when I saw those young teenage moms, I thought of my mother. And when I see Rebekah and Ben, I think of our struggles when Malia and Sasha were young. And they’re not distant from me and everything we do.
I ran for President because I believe this country is at its best when we’re all in it together and when everybody has a fair shot, and everybody is doing their fair share. (Applause.) And the reason I believe that is because that’s how I came here. That’s how I got here. That’s how Michelle and I were able to succeed. (Applause.) And I haven’t forgotten.
And so even though you may not read about it or see it on TV all the time, our agenda, what we’re fighting for every day, is designed not to solve every problem, but to help just a little bit. To create more good jobs that pay good wages — jobs in manufacturing and construction; energy and innovation. That’s why we’re fighting to train more workers to fill those jobs. That’s why we’re fighting to guarantee every child a world-class education, including early childhood education and better childcare. (Applause.) That’s why we’re fighting to make sure hard work pays off with a wage you can live on and savings you can retire on, and making sure that women get paid the same as men for the same job, and folks have flexibility to look after a sick child or a sick parent. (Applause.)
That’s what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting so everybody has a chance. We’re fighting to vindicate the idea that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or how you grew up, or who you love, or who your parents were, or what your last name is, it doesn’t matter — America is a place where if you’re doing the right thing, like Ben and Rebekah are, and you’re being responsible and you’re taking care of your family, that you can make it.
And the fact is, we can do that. If we do some basic things, if we make some basic changes, we can create more jobs and lift more incomes and strengthen the middle class. And that’s what we should be doing. And I know it drives you nuts that Washington isn’t doing it. And it drives me nuts. (Applause.) And the reason it’s not getting done is, today, even basic commonsense ideas can’t get through this Congress.
And sometimes I’m supposed to be politic about how I say things — (laughter) — but I’m finding lately that I just want to say what’s on my mind. (Applause.) So let me just be clear — I want you think about this — so far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every single serious idea to strengthen the middle class. You may think I’m exaggerating, but let me go through the list. They’ve said no to raising the minimum wage. They’ve said no to fair pay. Some of them have denied that there’s even a problem, despite the fact that women are getting paid 77 cents for every dollar a man is getting paid.
They’ve said no to extending unemployment insurance for more than three million Americans who are out there looking every single day for a new job, despite the fact that we know it would be good not just for those families who are working hard to try to get back on their feet, but for the economy as a whole. Rather than invest in working families getting ahead, they actually voted to give another massive tax cut to the wealthiest Americans.
AUDIENCE: Booo —
THE PRESIDENT: Don’t boo, by the way. I want you to vote. (Laughter and applause.) I mean, over and over again, they show that they’ll do anything to keep in place systems that really help folks at the top but don’t help you. And they don’t seem to mind. And their obstruction is keeping a system that is rigged against families like Ben’s and Rebekah’s.
Now, I’m not saying these are all bad people; they’re not. When I’m sitting there just talking to them about family, we get along just fine. Many of them will acknowledge when I talk to them — yes, I know, I wish we could do something more, but I can’t — but they can’t be too friendly towards me because they’d be run out of town by the tea party. (Laughter.)
But sometimes I get a sense they just don’t know what most folks are going through. They keep on offering a theory of the economy that time and again failed for the middle class. They think we should give more tax breaks to those at the top. They think we should invest less in things like education. They think we should let big banks, and credit card companies, and polluters, and insurers do only whatever is best for their bottom line without any responsibility to anybody else. They want to drastically reduce or get rid of the safety net for people trying to work their way into the middle class.
And if we did all these things, they think the economy will thrive and jobs will prosper, and everything will trickle down.
And just because they believe it, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should be believing it — because we’ve tried what they’re peddling, and it doesn’t work. We know from our history that our economy does not grow from the top down, it grows from the middle out. We do better when the middle class does better. We do better when workers are getting a decent salary. We do better when they’ve got decent benefits. (Applause.) We do better when a young family knows that they can get ahead. And we do better when people who are working hard know that they can count on decent childcare at an affordable cost, and that if they get sick they’re not going to lose their homes.
We do better when if somebody is stuck in a job that is not paying well enough, they know they can go get retrained without taking on huge mountains of debt. That’s when things hum. And with just a few changes in priorities, we could get a lot of that done right now if Congress would actually just think about you and not about getting reelected, not about the next election, not about some media sound bite, but just focus on you. (Applause.)
So that’s why I’ve said, look, I want to work with Democrats and Republicans. My favorite President, by the way, was the first Republican President — a guy named Abraham Lincoln. So this is not a statement about partisanship. This is a statement about America and what we’re fighting for. And I’m not going to let gridlock and inaction and willful indifference and greed threaten the hard work of families like yours. And so we can’t afford to wait for Congress right now. And that’s why I’m going ahead and moving ahead without them wherever I can. (Applause.)
That’s why I acted to raise more workers’ wages by requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour. (Applause.) That’s why I acted to help nearly five million Americans make student loan payments cap those payments at 10 percent of their income. That’s why I made sure more women have the protections they need to fight for fair pay in the workplace. (Applause.) That’s why we went ahead and launched new hubs to attract more high-tech manufacturing jobs to America.
And, now, some of you may have read — so we take these actions and then now Republicans are mad at me for taking these actions. They’re not doing anything, and then they’re mad that I’m doing something. I’m not sure which of the things I’ve done they find most offensive, but they’ve decided they’re going to sue me for doing my job. I mean, I might have said in the heat of the moment during one of these debates, “I want to raise the minimum wage, so sue me when I do.” (Laughter.) But I didn’t think they were going to take it literally.
But giving more working Americans a fair shot is not about simply what I can do — it’s about what we can do together. So when Congress doesn’t act, not only have I acted, I’ve also tried to rally others to help. I told CEOs, and governors, and mayors, and state legislatures, for example, they don’t have to wait for Congress to raise the minimum wage. Go ahead and raise your workers’ wages right now. And since I first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage, 13 states and D.C. have raised theirs, including Minnesota, where more than 450,000 of your neighbors are poised to get a raise. (Applause.)
When Gap raised wages for its employees, job applications went up through the roof. It was good for business. I even got a letter from a proud mom right here in Minneapolis who just wanted me to know that her son starts his employees at $15 an hour, at Aaron’s Green Cleaning here in town. (Applause.) There they are! (Applause.) So the letter said, “We are very proud of his people-centered business philosophy! Three cheers for a decent living wage!”
So we don’t have to wait for Congress to do some good stuff. On Monday, we held the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families, and we heard from a lot of other families like Ben and Rebekah. They count on policies like paid leave and workplace flexibility to juggle everything. We had business owners who came and told me they became more profitable when they made family life easier for their employees.
So more companies are deciding that higher wages and workplace flexibility is good for business — it reduces turnover, more productive workers, more loyal workers. More cities and states are deciding this is good policy for families. So the only holdout standing in the way of change for tens of millions of Americans are some Republicans in Congress.
Because I just want to be real blunt: If you watch the news, you just see, okay, Washington is a mess, and the basic attitude is everybody is just crazy up there. But if you actually read the fine print, it turns out that the things you care about right now Democrats are promoting. (Applause.) And we’re just not getting enough help.
And my message to Republicans is: Join us. Get on board. If you’re mad at me for helping people on my own, then why don’t you join me and we’ll do it together? (Applause.) We’ll do it together. I’m happy to share the credit. You’re mad at me for doing some things to raise the minimum wage, let’s pass a law — Republicans and Democrats giving America a raise.
If you’re mad at me for taking executive action to make it easier for women to find out if they’re not getting treated fairly in the workplace, let’s do it together. You can share the credit. (Applause.) You’re worried about me trying to fix a broken immigration system, let’s hold hands and go ahead and make sure that this country continues to be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. I want to work with you, but you’ve got to give me something. You’ve got to try to deliver something — anything. (Applause.)
They don’t do anything — (laughter) — except block me. And call me names. It can’t be that much fun. (Laughter.) It’d be so much more fun if they said, you know what, let’s do something together. If they were more interested in growing the economy for you, and the issues that you’re talking about, instead of trying to mess with me — (laughter) — then we’d be doing a lot better. That’s what makes this country great, is when we’re all working together. That’s the American way.
Now more than ever, with the 4th of July next week, Team USA moving on down in Brazil — (applause) — we should try to rally around some economic patriotism that says we rise or fall as one nation and one people. Let’s rally around the idea that instead of giving tax breaks for millionaires, let’s give more tax breaks for working families to help pay for childcare or college. (Applause.)
Instead of protecting companies that are shifting profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share, let’s put people to work rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports. (Applause.) Let’s invest in manufacturing startups so that we’re creating good jobs making products here in America, here in Minnesota. (Applause.) Rather than stack the deck in favor of those who have already got an awful lot, let’s help folks who have huge talent and potential and ingenuity but just need a little bit of a hand up so that we can tap the potential of every American.
I mean, this isn’t rocket science. There are some things that are complicated — this isn’t one of them. Let’s make sure every 4-year-old in America has access to high school — high-quality preschool — (applause) — so that moms like Rebekah and dads like Ben know their kids are getting the best quality care and getting a head start on life. Let’s redesign our high schools to make sure that our kids are better prepared for the 21st century economy. Let’s follow the lead of Senator Franken and Secretary Perez and give more apprenticeships that connect young people to rewarding careers. (Applause.)
Let’s tell every American if they’ve lost their job because it was shipped overseas, we’re going to train you for an even better one. (Applause.) Let’s rally around the patriotism that says our country is stronger when every American can count on affordable health insurance and Medicare and Social Security, and women earn pay equal to their efforts, and family can make ends meet if their kid get sick, and when nobody who works full-time is living in poverty. We can do all these things.
And so let me just — let me wrap up by saying this. I know sometimes things get kind of discouraging. And I know that our politics looks profoundly broken, and Washington looks like it’s never going to deliver for you. It seems like they’re focused on everything but your concerns. And I know that when I was elected in 2008 and then reelected in 2012, so many of you were hoping that we could get Washington to work differently, and sometimes when I get stymied you’d think, oh, maybe not; maybe it’s just too tough, maybe things won’t change. And I get that frustration. And the critics and the cynics in Washington, they’ve written me off more times than I can count.
But I’m here to tell you, don’t get cynical. Despite all of the frustrations, America is making progress. Despite the unyielding opposition, there are families who have health insurance now who didn’t have it before. And there are students in college who couldn’t afford it before. And there are workers on the job who didn’t have jobs before. And there are troops home with their families after serving tour after tour. (Applause.) Don’t think that we’re not making progress.
So, yes, it’s easy to be cynical; in fact, these days it’s kind of trendy. Cynicism passes off for wisdom. But cynicism doesn’t liberate a continent. Cynicism doesn’t build a transcontinental railroad. Cynicism doesn’t send a man to the moon. Cynicism doesn’t invent the Internet. Cynicism doesn’t give women the right to vote. Cynicism doesn’t make sure that people are treated equally regardless of race.
Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice. And every day I’m lucky to receive thousands of acts of hope — every time somebody sits down and picks up a pen, and writes to me and shares their story, just like Rebekah did. And Rebekah said in her letter — she ended it, she said, “I’m pretty sure this is a silly thing to do to write a letter to the President, but on some level I know that staying silent about what you see and what needs changing, it never makes any difference. So I’m writing to you to let you know what it’s like for us out here in the middle of the country, and I hope you will listen.”
And I’m here because Rebekah wrote to me and I want her to know I’m listening. I’m here as President, because I want you all to know that I’m listening. (Applause.) I ran for office to make sure that anybody who is working hard to meet their dreams has somebody in Washington that is listening. And I’m always going to keep listening. And I’m always going to keep fighting. (Applause.)
And your cares and your concerns are my own, and your hopes for your kids and your grandkids are my own. And I’m always going to be working to restore the American Dream for everybody who’s willing to work for it. (Applause.) And I am not going to get cynical; I’m staying hopeful, and I hope you do too.
Thank you. God bless you. God bless America. (Applause.)
END 10:50 A.M. CDT
Photo Credit: Maslowski Marcin/Shutterstock.com
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Last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.
As the United States slips from its status as the globe’s number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let’s start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what’s happening in America today.
French economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is an unlikely beach read, though it’s selling like one. A careful parsing of massive amounts of data distilled into “only” 700 pages, it outlines the economic basis for the 1%-99% divide in the United States. (Conservative critics, of course, disagree.)
Just in case you aren’t yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1% of Americans hold 35% of the nation’s net worth; the bottom 80%, only 11% percent. The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet’s kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the U.S. is 85; for Germany, 77; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85. Odd company for the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation.”
Piketty shows that such inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more of everything (capital), rich people have a mechanism for getting ever richer than the rest of us, because the rate of return on investment is higher than the rate of economic growth. In other words, money made from investments grows faster than money made from wages. Piketty claims the wealth of the wealthiest Americans is rising at 6%-7% a year, more than three times as fast as the economy the rest of us live in.
At the same time, wages for middle and lower income Americans are sinking, driven by factors also largely under the control of the wealthy. These include the application of new technology to eliminate human jobs, the crushing of unions, and a decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage that more and more Americans depend on for survival.
The short version: A rising tide lifts all yachts.
2) So why don’t the unemployed/underemployed simply find better jobs?
Another way of phrasing this question is: Why don’t we just blame the poor for their plight? Mention unemployment or underemployment and someone will inevitably invoke the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” line. If workers don’t like retail or minimum-wage jobs, or if they can’t find good paying jobs in their area, why don’t they just move? Quit retail or quit Pittsburgh (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) and…
Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs — almost six million of them — between 2000 and 2009, and wherever “there” is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25%, the U.S. has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20%, Japan under 15%, and France 11%.)
One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.
Moving “there” to find better work isn’t an option.
3) But aren’t there small-scale versions of economic “rebirths” occurring all over America?
Travel through some of the old Rust Belt towns of this country and you’ll quickly notice that “economic rebirth” seems to mean repurposing buildings that once housed factories and shipping depots as bars and boutiques. Abandoned warehouses are now trendy restaurants; a former radiator factory is an artisanal coffee shop. In other words, in a place where a manufacturing plant once employed hundreds of skilled workers at union wages, a handful of part-timers are now serving tapas at minimum wage plus tips.
In Maryland, an ice cream plant that once employed 400 people with benefits and salaries pegged at around $40,000 a year closed its doors in 2012. Under a “rebirth” program, a smaller ice cream packer reopened the place with only 16 jobs at low wages and without benefits. The new operation had 1,600 applicants for those 16 jobs. The area around the ice cream plant once produced airplanes, pipe organs, and leather car seats. No more. There were roughly 14,000 factory jobs in the area in 2000; today, there are 8,000.
General Electric’s Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, employed 23,000 union workers at its peak in 1973. By 2011, the sputtering plant held onto only about 1,800 workers. What was left of the union there agreed to a two-tier wage scale, and today 70% of the jobs are on the lower tier — at $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be. A full-time worker makes about $28,000 a year before taxes and deductions. The poverty line for a family of four in Kentucky is $23,000. Food stamp benefits are available to people who earn up to 130% of the poverty line, so a full-timer in Kentucky with a family still qualifies. Even if a worker moved to Kentucky and lucked out by landing a job at the plant, standing on your tiptoes with your lips just above sea level is not much of a step up.
Low paying jobs are not a rebirth.
4) Can’t people just get off their couches and get back to work?
There are 3.8 million Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. These are the country’s long-term unemployed, as defined by the Department of Labor. Statistically, the longer you are unemployed, the less likely it is that you’ll ever find work again. Between 2008 and 2012, only 11% of those unemployed 15 months or more found a full-time job, and research shows that those who do find a job are less likely to retain it. Think of it as a snowball effect: more unemployment creates more unemployable people.
And how hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was 8.9%. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than 23,000applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6%, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell.
Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.
5) Why can’t former factory workers retrain into new jobs?
Janesville, Wisconsin, had the oldest General Motors car factory in America, one that candidate Obama visited in 2007 and insisted would be there for another 100 years. Two days before Christmas that year and just before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because you either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. The new president and Congress quickly paid for a two-million-dollar Janesville retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools built to teach new immigrants the skills needed by that Janesville factory a century ago.
This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs simply became trained unemployables rather than untrained ones. It turned out that having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” did not automatically lead to a job in the field. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees. And those who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36%. This, it seems, is increasingly typical in twenty-first-century America (though retraining programs have been little studied in recent years).
Manufacturing is dead and the future lies in a high-tech, information-based economy, some say. So why can’t former factory workers be trained to do that? Maybe some percentage could, but the U.S. graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014, many of whom already have such skills.
Bottom Line: Jobs create the need for training. Training does not create jobs.
6) Shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?
At some point in any discussion of jobs, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate people to find jobs — or starve. Unemployment money and food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) encourage people to be lazy. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won’t work for it? “If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said discussing food stamp cuts.
The problem with such statements is 73% of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families — just in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance per year.
Why do so many of the employed need food stamps? It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive. All in all, 47 million people get SNAP nationwide because without it they would go hungry.
In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or EBT, which, recipients will tell you, stands for “Eat Better Tonight.” EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.
A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than $189 a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn’t exactly luxury fare. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost two-thirds of SNAP children live in single-parent households. Twenty percent or more of the child population in 37 states lived in “food insecure households” in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6%) and the District of Columbia (30%) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16% of SNAP benefits, while 9% go to households with senior citizens.
Almost 22% of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012; for those under age five, it’s more than 25%. Almost 1 in 10 live in extreme poverty.
Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they’re hungry. Many are already there.
7) Why are Walmart and other businesses opposed to SNAP cuts?
Public benefits are now a huge part of the profits of certain major corporations. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line:
“Our business operations are subject to numerous risks, factors, and uncertainties, domestically and internationally, which are outside our control. These factors include… changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”
How much profit do such businesses make from public assistance? Short answer: big bucks. In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars — more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18% of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart.
Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied for food stamps, an indication of how much they rely on the money. The CEO of Kraft admittedthat the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because users were “a big part of our audience.” One-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps. Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, while companies like Coke and Pepsi pull in four billion dollars a year in revenues from SNAP money.
Poverty is big business.
8) Should We Raise the Minimum Wage?
One important reason to raise the minimum wage to a living one is that people who can afford to feed themselves will not need food stamps paid for by taxpayers. Companies who profit off their workers’ labor will be forced to pay a fair price for it, and not get by on taxpayer-subsidized low wages. Just as important, people who can afford to feed themselves earn not just money, but self-respect. The connection between working and taking care of yourself and your family has increasingly gone missing in America, creating a society that no longer believes in itself. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for building anything human.
But won’t higher wages cause higher prices? The way taxpayers functionally subsidize companies paying low-wages to workers — essentially ponying up the difference between what McDonald’s and its ilk pay and what those workers need to live via SNAP and other benefits — is a hidden cost squirreled away in plain sight. You’re already paying higher prices via higher taxes; you just may not know it.
Even if taxes go down, won’t companies pass on their costs? Maybe, but they are unlikely to be significant. For example, if McDonald’s doubled the salaries of its employees to a semi-livable $14.50 an hour, not only would most of them go off public benefits, but so would the company — and yet a Big Mac would cost just 68 cents more. In general, only about 20% of the money you pay for a Big Mac goes to labor costs. At Walmart, increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost the company only about one percent of its annual sales.
Despite labor costs not being the most significant factor in the way low-wage businesses set their prices, one of the more common objections to raising the minimum wage is that companies, facing higher labor costs, will cut back on jobs. Don’t believe it.
The Los Angeles Economic Round Table concluded that raising the hourly minimum to $15 in that city would generate an additional $9.2 billion in annual sales and create more than 50,000 jobs. A Paychex/IHS survey, which looks at employment in small businesses, found that the state with the highest percentage of annual job growth was Washington, which also has the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation. The area with the highest percentage of annual job growth was San Francisco, the city with the highest minimum wage in the nation. Higher wages do not automatically lead to fewer jobs. Many large grocery chains, including Safeway and Kroger, are unionized and pay well-above-minimum wage. They compete as equals against their non-union rivals, despite the higher wages.
Will employers leave a state if it raises its minimum wage independent of a nationwide hike? Unlikely. Most minimum-wage employers are service businesses that are tied to where their customers are. People are not likely to drive across state lines for a burger. A report on businesses on the Washington-Idaho border at a time when Washington’s minimum wage was nearly three bucks higher than Idaho’s found that the ones in Washington were flourishing.
While some businesses could indeed decide to close or cut back if the minimum wage rose, the net macro gains would be significant. Even a small hike to $10.10 an hour would put some $24 billion a year into workers’ hands to spend and lift 900,000 Americans above the poverty line. Consumer spending drives 70% of our economy. More money in the hands of consumers would likely increase the demand for goods and services, creating jobs.
Yes, raise the minimum wage. Double it or more. We can’t afford not to.
9) Okay, after the minimum wage is raised, what else can we do?
To end such an article, it’s traditional to suggest reforms, changes, solutions. It is, in fact, especially American to assume that every problem has a “solution.” So my instant suggestion: raise the minimum wage. Tomorrow. In a big way. And maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart.
But while higher wages are good, they are likely only to soften the blows still to come. What if the hyper-rich like being ever more hyper-rich and, with so many new ways to influence and control our political system and the economy, never plan to give up any of their advantages? What if they don’t want to share, not even a little more, not when it comes to the minimum wage or anything else?
The striking trend lines of social and economic disparity that have developed over the last 50 years are clearly no accident; nor have disemboweled unions, a deindustrialized America, wages heading for the basement (with profits still on the rise), and the widest gap between rich and poor since the slavery era been the work of the invisible hand. It seems far more likely that a remarkably small but powerful crew wanted it that way, knowing that a nation of fast food workers isn’t heading for the barricades any time soon. Think of it all as a kind of “Game of Thrones” played out over many years. A super-wealthy few have succeeded in defeating all of their rivals — unions, regulators, the media, honest politicians, environmentalists — and now are free to do as they wish.
What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart “associates” do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future — and yours.
In terms of income, 95 percent of new income generated in this country in the last year went to the top 1 percent
If the US Senate really is the world’s greatest deliberative body, it ought to consider consequential questions. That does not happen often in a Senate where trivia tends too frequently to triumph over issues of substance. But Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, raised what might just be the most substantial issue of all Wednesday, at a Joint Economic Committee hearing where Federal Reserve board chair Janet Yellen was testifying.
The senator began with the facts: “In the US today, the top 1 percent own about 38 percent of the financial wealth of America. The bottom 60 percent own 2.3 percent. One family, the Walton family, is worth over $140 billion; that’s more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people. In recent years, we have seen a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires, while we continue to have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Despite, as many of my Republican friends talk about ‘the oppressive Obama economic policies,’ in the last year Charles and David Koch struggled under these policies and their wealth increased by $12 billion in one year. In terms of income, 95 percent of new income generated in this country in the last year went to the top 1 percent.“
Sanders then introduced an academic study, by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, that concludes, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
That sounds like an oligarchy.
So Sanders asked Yellen: “In your judgment, given the enormous power held by the billionaire class and their political representatives, are we still a capitalist democracy or have we gone over to an oligarchic form of society in which incredible enormous economic and political power now rests with the billionaire class?”
Yellen did not answer “yes.” But she did say, “There’s no question that we’ve had a trend toward growing inequality and I personally find it a very worrisome trend that deserves the attention of policy makers.”
She also expressed concern that trends toward growing inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.”
Sanders asked another question, as well: “There comes a point where the billionaire class has so much political power, where the Koch brothers are now because of Citizens United able to buy and sell politicians; they have so much political power, at what point is that reversible?”
The senator did not press Yellen for an answer to that question. And her responses to inquiries about Republican proposals to cut the estate tax and otherwise steer wealth upward suggested that the Fed chair believes Congress has policymaking duties in this regard.
Ultimately, questions about oligarchy come back to politics, something Sanders well understands. He’s been arguing that core question regarding the concentration of economic and political power need to be addressed not just by politicians but by voters—with choices made in 2014 and 2016. As he explained recently, “[This] country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country.”
The issues are so consequential, Sanders says, that he is thinking about mounting a presidential campaign that would ask the American people whether they want to live in an oligarchic form of society.
Something green for St. Pat’s Day. Bummer. And another reason why we need legal regulated growing, not this criminal free market bullshit.
Starting about 90 miles northwest of Sacramento, an unbroken swath of national forestland follows the spine of California’s rugged coastal mountains all the way to the Oregon border. Near the center of this vast wilderness, along the grassy banks of the Trinity River’s south fork, lies the remote enclave of Hyampom (pop. 241), where, on a crisp November morning, I climb into a four-wheel-drive government pickup and bounce up a dirt logging road deep into the Six Rivers National Forest. I’ve come to visit what’s known in cannabis country as a “trespass grow.”
“This one probably has the most plants I’ve seen,” says my driver, a young Forest Service cop who spends his summers lugging an AR-15 through the backcountry of the Emerald Triangle—the triad of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties that is to pot what the Central Valley is to almonds and tomatoes. Fearing retaliation from growers, the officer asks that I not use his name. Back in August he was hiking through the bush, trying to locate the grow from an aerial photo, when he surprised a guy carrying an iPod, gardening tools, and a 9 mm pistol on his hip. He arrested the man and alerted his tactical team, which found about 5,500 plants growing nearby, with a potential street yield approaching $16 million.
Today, a work crew is hauling away the detritus by helicopter. Our little group, which includes a second federal officer and a Forest Service flack, hikes down an old skid trail lined with mossy oaks and madrones, passing the scat of a mountain lion, and a few minutes later, fresh black bear droppings. We follow what looks like a game trail to the lip of a wooded slope, a site known as Bear Camp. There, amid a scattering of garbage bags disemboweled by animals, we find the growers’ tarps and eight dingy sleeping bags, the propane grill where they had cooked oatmeal for breakfast, and the backpack sprayers they used to douse the surrounding 50 acres with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The air smells faintly of ammonia and weed. “This is unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it?” says Mourad Gabriel, a former University of California-Davis wildlife ecologist who has joined us at the site, as he maniacally stuffs a garbage bag with empty booze bottles, Vienna Beef sausage tins, and Miracle-Gro refill packs.
According to federal stats, trespass grows in California alone account for more than one-third of the cannabis seized nationwide by law enforcement, which means they could well be the largest single source of domestically grown marijuana. Of course, nobody can say precisely how much pot comes from indoor grows and private plots that are less accessible to the authorities. What’s clear is that California’s marijuana harvest is vast—”likely the largest value crop (by far) in the state’s lineup,” notes the Field Guide to California Agriculture. Assuming, as the guide does, that the authorities seize about 10 percent of the harvest, that means they would have left behind more than 10 million outdoor plants last year, enough to yield about $31 billion worth of product. That’s more than the combined value of the state’s top 10 legal farm commodities.
Even before voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational pot in 2012, marijuana was quasi-legal in California, and not just for medical use. Senate Bill 1449, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, reclassified possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to a maximum $100 infraction—you’ll get a bigger fine for jaywalking in Los Angeles. Indeed, many states have eased restrictions on pot use. But with the exception of Colorado and Washington, whose laws dictate where, how, and by whom marijuana may be grown, they have had little to say about the manner in which it is cultivated—which is challenging to dictate in any case, since growers who cooperate with state regulators could still be prosecuted under federal statutes that classify pot as a Schedule 1 drug, the legal equivalent of LSD and heroin. So where is all this legal and semilegal weed supposed to come from? The answer, increasingly, is an unregulated backwoods economy, the scale of which makes Prohibition-era moonshining look quaint.
To meet demand, researchers say, the acreage dedicated to marijuana grows in the Emerald Triangle has doubled in the past five years. Like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, this “green rush,” as it is known locally, has brought great wealth at a great cost to the environment. Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel generators, or doused with restricted pesticides and sown on muddy, deforested slopes that choke off salmon streams during the rainy season, this “pollution pot” isn’t exactly high quality, or even a quality high. “The cannabis industry right now is in sort of the same position that the meatpacking industry was in before The Jungle was written by Upton Sinclair,” says Stephen DeAngelo, the founder of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a large medical marijuana dispensary. “It simply isn’t regulated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.”
It’s not just stoners who are at risk. Trespass grows have turned up everywhere from a stand of cottonwoods in Death Valley National Park to a clearing amid the pines in Yosemite. “I now have to spend 100 percent of my time working on the environmental impacts of marijuana,” says Gabriel, who showed up at Bear Camp in military-style cargo pants and a kaffiyeh scarf. “I would never have envisioned that.”
Gabriel grew up in Fresno, the son of immigrants from Mexico and Iraq, at a time when the Central Valley city was plagued by turf wars among pot-dealing street gangs, notably the local Norteños chapter and their rivals, the Bulldogs. That world did not interest Gabriel, who spent a lot of his free time catching frogs and crawdads on the banks of the San Joaquin River. His love of the outdoors led him to study wildlife management at Humboldt State University, where he became fascinated with fishers, the only predators besides mountain lions clever and tough enough to prey on porcupines. The fisher, which resembles the love child of a ferret and a wolverine, was nearly eradicated from the West by logging and trapping during the early 20th century. It still hasn’t rebounded. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will consider listing it as a threatened species.
When Gabriel first began venturing into the woods to trap and radio-collar fishers, he assumed that most of them were dying from bobcat attacks, disease, and cars running them over. But then, in 2009, he discovered a dead fisher deep in the Sierra National Forest that showed no signs of any of those things. A toxicology test indicated that it had ingested large quantities of rat poison.
Back in his lab, he tested frozen tissue from 58 other fisher carcasses he’d collected on some of California’s most remote public lands and found rodenticide traces in nearly 80 percent of them. Rat poison isn’t used in national forests by anyone except marijuana cultivators, who put it out to protect their seedlings. Rodents that eat the poison stumble around for a few days before they die, making them easy prey for hungry fishers.
In 2012, after Gabriel published his rat poison results, he was the target of angry calls and messages. One person accused him of helping the feds “greenwash the war on drugs.” Another made vague threats against his family and his dogs. Gabriel also received a prying email, later traced by federal agents to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, soliciting the locations of his home, office, and field study sites. In Lost Coast Outpost and other local news sites, commenters shared links to his home address. “Snitches end up in ditches,” one warned.
Then, last month, Gabriel’s Labrador retriever, Nyxo, died after someone fed him meat infused with De-Con rat bait.
The types of threats Gabriel has received are not uncommon, and they have frightened scientists away from studying the environmental impacts of pot farming. “At my university, there is nobody who will even go near it,” says Anthony Silvaggio, a sociologist with the state university’s Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. Biologists who used to venture into the wilderness alone to survey wildlife now often pair up for protection. In July 2011, armed growers in the Sequoia National Forest chased a federal biologist through the woods for a half-hour before giving up. The following year, researchers surveying northern spotted owls on Humboldt County’s Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation were shot at with high-caliber rifles. Each growing season, a significant chunk of one designated fisher habitat in the Sierra National Forest becomes inaccessible to scientists because it’s dangerously close to illegal gardens.
Gabriel won’t go near a known grow site before it’s been cleared by law enforcement, as Bear Camp has. Scattered across the hillside, his team finds 4,200 pounds of chemical fertilizer, five kinds of insecticide, and three kinds of rodenticide. The stash includes a restricted pesticide capable of killing humans in small doses. Gabriel’s friend and colleague Mark Higley dons a gas mask and seals the canister in a garbage bag. “If it does erupt, I want everyone to be at least 20 to 30 feet away,” Gabriel warns. “It’s aluminum phosphide, and when it hits the air, it turns into phosphine gas.” Breathing it can kill you.
The Emerald Triangle’s pot culture has changed a lot since the hippies drove up from San Francisco in the early 1970s in search of peace, freedom, and blissful communion with nature. At first, the back-to-the-landers grew pot primarily for themselves, but news that the United States was paying to have Mexican pot farms sprayed with paraquat, a toxic weed killer, convinced American stoners to seek out the hippie weed.
Before long, Humboldt had become a name brand, but marijuana might never have come to define the Emerald Triangle had the old-growth timber industry not logged itself out of business by the mid-1990s. In 1996, when California became the first state to legalize pot for medical use, out-of-work loggers took advantage of the opportunity. “Then you had everybody like, ‘Sure, I’ll grow some weed,'” recalls Humboldt State’s Silvaggio. The size of the harvest grew, helped along by post-9/11 border enforcement, which made it harder for Mexican pot to enter the country. The latest leap in production was the result of Prop. 19, California’s 2010 legalization measure; although it lost narrowly at the polls, the Emerald Triangle’s growers boosted output in anticipation of having a mainstream product. Now marijuana “is all we have,” Silvaggio says. “Every other thing is built here to serve that economy.”
Drive around the Emerald Triangle during harvest season with the radio on, and you’ll hear ads openly pitching Dutch hydroponic lamps, machines “for trimming flowers,” and 2,800-gallon water storage tanks—because “you don’t want to be the one that has to call the water truck in for multiple water deliveries late in the season.” Even mainstream businesses like furniture stores get in on the green rush with “harvest sales.” Talk of bud-trimming parties and the going price per pound dominates restaurant conversations. And in backwoods hamlets where you’d expect high unemployment, you come across a lot of $50,000 pickups.
As with much of the state’s agricultural industry, the pot trade is stratified, and much of the labor is done by undocumented farmworkers. The man arrested at Bear Camp confessed to the police that he’d traveled north from Michoacán, Mexico, to pick apples in Washington, but knew he could make more money tending pot in California. Industry observers believe that at least some of the trespass grows are run from south of the border, but Silvaggio adds that many are financed by locals. Either way, the grunt workers tend to be the only ones busted when the grows are raided.
Although the original Northern California growers saw pot cultivation as an extension of their hippie lifestyles, their environmental values haven’t readily carried over to the next generation. “They are given a free pass to become wealthy at a young age, to get what they want,” Silvaggio explains. “And do you think they are going to give it up when they turn 20, with a kid in the box? They can’t get off that gravy train.” But with prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you can’t go smaller; you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make. So what does that mean? You have to get another generator. You have to take more water. You’ve got to spray something because you may lose 20, 30 grand if you don’t.”
Smaller growers operating on their own properties tend to use slightly better environmental practices— avoiding rodenticides, for instance—than the industrial growers who have moved in solely to make money. Even so, Silvaggio says, “we found that it’s just a tiny fraction of folks who are growing organic.”
Among the downsides of the green rush is the strain it puts on water resources in a drought-plagued region. Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, calculates that irrigation for cannabis farms has sucked up all of the water that would ordinarily keep local salmon streams running through the dry season. Marijuana cultivation, he believes, “is a big reason why” at least 24 salmon and steelhead streams stopped flowing last summer. “I would consider it probably the No. 1 threat” to salmon in the area, he told me. “We are spending millions of dollars on restoring streams. We are investing all this money in removing roads and trying to contain sediment and fixing fish path barriers, but without water there’s no fish.”
At Bear Camp, Gabriel leads me to a steep slope where the growers have plugged a freshwater spring with a makeshift dam of logs and tarps, one of 17 water diversions found at the site. Where moisture-loving ferns and horsetails should be flourishing, a plastic pipe leads downhill to a 1,000-gallon reservoir feeding a vast irrigation network. Gabriel unkinks a hose to release an arc of water from a sprinkler. National Guard troops enlisted to help out have already yanked the cannabis plants here, leaving behind a hillside of girdled white oaks and bare soil. “When we have a two-to-four-inch rain, this will just be a mud river,” Gabriel says. Sediment laced with pesticides and other chemicals will find its way into the salmon stream below. We hike down to a clearing where a helicopter is pulling out sling loads of irrigation piping. “Look at this!” Gabriel shouts after plunging into a thicket to help the soldiers rip out another dam. “Insect killer right in the middle of it!”
He and his colleagues have seen much worse. At a grow site in July, he found a fisher that had died from eating one of many poisoned hot dogs strung around the site on a trotline. A state game warden raiding a grow in 2011 discovered a black bear and her cubs convulsing on the ground, having eaten into a stash of pesticides. Two threatened northern spotted owls, the species once at the center of a bitter fight between loggers and environmentalists, tested positive for rodenticides in Gabriel’s lab; he’s now looking into whether toxins from grow sites could be impeding that species’ recovery as well. “When there is no adequate regulatory framework,” Silvaggio warns, “you are going to have nature taking a hit.”
Most growers just want to be left alone, but the small minority who are politically outspoken tend to favor regulation. Kristin Nevedal chairs the Emerald Growers Association, the triangle’s marijuana trade group. The coauthor of an ecofriendly pot-farming guide, she often consults with state and local lawmakers about how to make the industry more responsible. “Prohibition hasn’t curbed the desire for cannabis,” she says. “So we really need to look at changing our policy and starting to treat it like agriculture, so we can manage it.”
One of the most serious efforts on that front was a system put in place by Mendocino County, which as of 2010 allowed the cultivation of up to 99 plants, provided growers registered and tagged each one with zip ties purchased from the county. Sheriff’s deputies monitored the grow sites and checked that they complied with environmental laws. “That program was in a lot of ways fabulous,” Nevedal recalls. Almost 100 growers participated, but the program was shut down in early 2012, after federal agents raided one of the grows and US Attorney Melinda Haag hinted that she might just take the county to court. Later that year, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the county’s zip tie records.
Since then, efforts to regulate pot farming have mostly shifted to the state level. In Colorado, pot vendors are required to list on their packaging all the farm chemicals used to produce their products, and the state recently implemented a “seed to sale” tracking system. Most Coloradans grow indoors due to the climate, which reduces pesticide use and makes it easier to keep pot off the black market, but it’s highly energy intensive. In the journal Energy Policy, researcher Evan Mills estimated that indoor grows suck up enough electricity to supply 1.7 million homes—in California, they account for a whopping 9 percent of household energy use. The newly minted regulations for Washington state allow outdoor grows so long as they are well fenced and outfitted with security cameras and an alarm system.