Unemployment Extensions

I’ve been up since 3am.  I couldn’t sleep.  I’m currently running on six cups of Earl Grey and chain-smoking.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the mess that is unemployment benefits in California.  In recent months, nearly a million Californians have been cut off UIB without ever having found a job.  Now, after federal regulations go into effect, that number will increase once again.

I didn’t receive any specific notification from California’s Employment Benefits Division about whether or not I am one of the 93,000 Californians suddenly cut-off from receiving unemployment insurance benefits (UIB).  I don’t know if I’m affected and I can’t get through to speak with anyone at EDD about it.  Their help-line routes me through multiple automated messages and then cuts off.

If you are receiving unemployment benefits, please read on.

In my family, both my mother-in-law and I are currently receiving UIB as our only source of income.  Both of us have multiple college degrees.  Both of us got laid off from good-paying jobs.  Just over a year ago, we both had jobs, benefits and a little something in savings.  Today, we still don’t have jobs, we don’t have benefits and the little that we had had in savings is now gone.  It’s scary.

I knew that UIB wouldn’t last forever.  My partner and I had hoped that her mom would have found a job by now.  For us, and for so many in our same situation, we have faced one set-back after another.

When I lost my job, we moved to the country.  We moved in part because it was closer to my partner’s work, but also because we wanted a place where we could grow our own food.  It was our idea of extra “insurance.”

My partner and I have been following world politics, the economic crisis and the reality about resource scarcity.  It has been on the forefront of our minds­ for some time now.  I had had a job in social services and the agency that I had worked for had been facing budgets cuts since the year after I was hired.  When I finally lost my job, six years later, the agency’s employment force was a fraction of what it had been.  James Howard Kunstler used the phrase “The Long Emergency” to title his book about the current economic crisis and the on-going attrition and contraction facing world resources and economies.

At times, it seems like there will be large-scale benchmarks, events like Hurricane Katrina and the nuclear disaster in Japan, that will cause the system to rapidly unravel.  At other times, like now, it seems like pockets of people will become slowly and increasingly affected, stricken with poverty, hunger and homelessness, a symbol and indication of attrition worldwide.  Social safety-nets that used to exist in the United States for things like child care, food stamps, unemployment, social services ect. are increasingly disappearing.

The past century and the previous generations had seen an increase in wealth unlike ever before in history.  Even some of the poorest people of developed nations have been living like the royals of the past.  The discovery of fossil fuels, or oil, has allowed us to live amongst the abundance that we have enjoyed these past years.  Chris Martinson outlines in his book, The Crash Course, “In order to understand why oil, in particular, is so important to our economy and daily lives, we have to understand something about what it does for us.”  He notes, “Every time you turn on a 100-watt light bulb, it’s the same [energy equivalent] as if you had a fit human being in the basement pedaling as hard as he could to keep that blub lit…When you [drive] a car, it’s the same as a king harnessing up a carriage to 300 horses.” (pg 139)

To put that into perspective, according to Rutgers University, an average horse needs 1-2 acres of irrigated pasture to sustain its food needs.  To create the energy equivalent of one automobile, a person would need 300 horses and upwards or 600 acres of land, not including the acreage needed for the cows to provide the length of leather for bridle and tethering, or the wood and steel needed to foster a cart, in order to remotely come close to current energy resource we have when we use gasoline and a single car.

For further perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Statistical records, there are approximately 62 million registered vehicles in the United States.  For driving alone, the people in the United States would need to own a collective 18,600,000,000 horses to receive the same energy return on transportation.  And we would need 3,720,000,000,000 acres for nothing else except to feed our horses.  The total land mass in the United States is only about 2,300,000,000.  Such numbers make it pretty clear as to why our elected officials might think it’s a good idea to invade sovereign nations and go to war for such a resource.  (Even if they tell us it’s about spreading democracy.)  Oil has shaped and bolstered the world’s economy in a way that has been completely unprecedented in all of human history.  And oil is running out.  It is becoming increasingly more difficult and more expensive to extract.

To get in touch with just how difficult and expensive oil is to extract these days, think about the Deep Water Horizon, its breakdown and its consequences.  That is our most sophisticated and current technology for oil extraction today.

The oil shortage doesn’t simply mean that more people will have to walk or take a bus to get around.  Oil is tied intricately into one of the most substantial areas of our lives, namely, our food supply.  In the book, What’s The Economy For Anyway, authors John de Graaf and David Batker point out that, “Our agricultural system is highly dependent on fossil fuel for fertilizer, pesticides, packaging and transportation.  An average spoonful of food eaten in America has traveled more than one thousand miles from farm to palate.  Such energy-intensive agriculture requires about ten calories of fossil fuel to provide a single calorie of food.”  It’s not just that trucks won’t have enough gasoline to deliver our food.  The vast majority of agricultural output in this country is reliant on fossil fuels for everything from soil amendments at initial planting to the plastic box it comes in when you eat it.

We live on a finite planet.  There, very well, might not be enough resources to sustain those living on it.  Oil has created an unsustainable falsehood that has been keeping most people alive today.  As oil becomes scarcer, so too will things like access to jobs, food, health care and other once-reliable resources.

The nearly century-long availability of cheap oil has created a further staggering falsehood.  The foundation for continuing wealth in this country, and in other developed nations, was founded on one very fallacious assumption:  the world, its resources and its money would grow infinitely.  Our economy relies of infinite growth to maintain solvency.

After years of historical financial allocation in the wrong direction, our nation is now broke.  Our government is bankrupt.  We are all “under water.”  The infinite-growth paradigm that was supposed to fund our future was just a world-wide ponzi scheme that has left the masses very much a societal collective of Bernie Madoff’s clients.  The benefits, or “guarantees” that we were cooperatively promised, things like retirement, social security and pensions, were all reliant on the current generation being able to maintain past generations’ debt with their exponential input into the economy.

If art imitates life, it may occur to people that the release of the movie “Failure to Launch” staring Mathew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker, about a young man in his 30s still living at home, was released six years ago.  A lot has changed in six years.  A lot has gotten worse.  Most people are beginning to understand that my generation (I’m 32) just simply won’t have the capacity to fund the promises of yesterday.  We are having significant trouble fending for ourselves.  My older sister recently moved back into my parents’ spare bedroom.  They get it.

Our monetary system, and therefore our economy, is based on interest-bearing loans either figuratively or literally.  Interest-bearing loans are based on growth.  For people on Wall Street, money is made figuratively, through interest-accumulation or derivatives.  What that means is that people who work the stock market as a career, bet on or against the people who use the stock market as something that seems like an honest investment in our economy.

For most people, the investment in the interest-bearing economy, otherwise known as the “stock market,” is a reasonable investment that they’ve been sold in order to bolster some retirement fund.  For brokers, or Wall Street Regulars, they use the seemingly-reasonable investment that people make to fund their retirement in order to create wealth for themselves.  That’s how we got to where we are.  Regular people’s savings has been wagered against betting people’s whims.

For people thinking that they are playing an honest game by investing their retirement or 401ks in the stock market, they are betting on a return that requires people to buy more goods and services to fund their return.

Goods and services are no longer simply traded for monetary value.  It’s not as simple as an algebraic word-problem: “ten trees worth $40 per tree can be turned into six pieces of furniture worth $100 per piece.”  By today’s standards, that’s old-timey economics.  With monetary deregulation, goods and services are additionally and figuratively utilized as collateral in economic bets to create wealth.  With things like growth and debt-servicing, there is an additional aspect to goods and services.

As a metaphor, while you build the furniture, your next-door neighbor bets the guy on Oak Street at a 50% return that you will only get $90 per piece.  When you don’t get your asking price, your neighbor just made $135 per piece of furniture from the guy on Oak Street because you didn’t make your hoped-for return.  It’s completely shady but it’s how our stock brokers have been making money.

But for the American people, it’s worse.  When a broker’s bet doesn’t come to fruition, as we have seen in the housing crisis, the governmental budget, or, in other words, the American tax-payer, foots the bill, like in the bail out.  So normal folks pay double.

As Charles Eisenstein writes in his article titled “Money and The Crisis of Civilization,” “Borrowing more money to make the interest payments on an existing loan merely postpones the day of reckoning by deferring the need to create new goods and services.”  Our economy is no longer based on goods and services.  It is based on borrowed money and therefore our lives are based on borrowed time.

For people like my mother-in-law and I, for people who are counting on American safety nets to bridge the gap between now and unthinkable choices, we are running out of options.

I know that we aren’t alone.

More and more, people will protest, solicit our flaccid government for help and come up empty-handed.  People all over the world, in countries like Egypt and Greece, have already seen this reality manifest.  Even if people like President Obama really did have hope once, he, and others with any grounding in reality, know that our situation is hopeless.  It’s not about politics.  Not now.  It could have been about politics 20 or 30 years ago.  Today, it’s just a lack of resources and funding.

One day my unemployment benefits will run out.  I knew that when they started.  Based on the news of the day, that time may come sooner than later. My partner and I have increasingly tried to implement a structure that will allow us to eat when that time comes.  Sadly, much of the efforts we had put in place to modify our stability have unraveled.  Our recent move to our new place coincided with several things that required us to eat through much of our canned and dried food.  It’s alarming.

We have no savings.  Our electricity was going to be shut off if we didn’t make a payment today.  Luckily, I got what may be my last deposit.  I received an unemployment check this morning so, for now, the lights will stay on.  We will buy groceries, cat food and toilet paper.  But, with each paycheck, we are just scraping by.  And with the new news about unemployment, it’s probable that things will get worse sooner than we imagined.  I will have to give up my phone.  I owe money to the IRS.  Gas and electricity are really expensive here.  Most of our neighbors can’t afford propane and take cold showers.

I am part of a new demographic of American people. I am part of a growing community.  I am poor.  I am struggling.  I struggle to pay for electricity.  I am struggling to feed myself and my family.  I am struggling with poverty.  But I don’t fit into what was once a usual statistic for this demographic.  I am college-educated.  I am smart.  I don’t have children or dependents in my household.  No.  I’m just poor.

When I asked my mother-in-law about the reality of our situation, she replied, “I will know first-hand what my mother went through during the Spanish Civil War. They were eating potato peels and begging for food. I pray people don’t panic and turn into violent, greedy bastards. I pray our community will help us, and that we can find a job, and a way to survive.”

I hope so too.

State of the Union

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has said on more than one occasion that the American people are the most entertained and the least informed in the world. Listening to the mainstream media on Tuesday, leading up to the State of the Union address, I had a hard time figuring out if the story was about the State of the Union planned for the evening or the recent Oscar nominations. The airwaves were all aflutter with who was going with whom and who was bringing the popcorn. At one point my smart phone notified me that the minority speaker rejected the advances of some republican’s across-the-aisle reaching. First of all, gross. Secondly, I don’t care. I don’t care who Lieberman sits next to and whether or not McCain brought Goobers.

I’m all for the new the clamoring towards bipartisanship and launching a kindness revolution. I’m for talking with and getting along with neighbors. I’m for fostering community and building friendship. I am not for trying to reason with someone’s whose stance on climate change is Genesis 8. I am not for an energy policy launched by someone who has been blowing corporate oil for the past few decades. And I am not for the fanfare and party hats as our elected officials tell us that they will continue the path down the current paradigm—but they will do it holding hands.

Many parts of the speech made my stomach drop like riding a rickety rollercoaster at a state fair. If we think about international relations with any measure of social responsibility, our foreign policy is atrocious. The president’s mention of Tunisia’s recent upheaval, characterizing it as a great step for democracy and indicating that we’re supportive, was obnoxious. If we look at Iraq as an example, Americans know that we don’t get involved in other nations’ so-called democracy unless that nation happens to have oil reserves.

The Unites States of America built an embassy in Iraq larger than Vatican City but neither the Iraqi people nor the American people reaped any benefits from our nations’ conflict. The Iraqi people traded a dictatorship for a police state. The American people watched their sons, daughters and tax dollars go off to war and what returned, if it returned at all, came back forever changed. Ascertaining that we can conclude success in Iraq is ridiculous unless success is measured by how high we can stack dead bodies. The fact that we are finally leaving the sovereign nation we invaded almost ten years ago, so that the people there can fend for themselves and attempt to rebuild their toppled cities is not a cause for celebration. The whole debacle has been a terrible tragedy on any moral level.

But perhaps more glaring about the State of the Union address was not what was revered but what was glossed-over. The mention of Afghanistan hardly got two sentences. The organization Rethink Afghanistan published that, “During the time it took President Obama to give [the] State of the Union address, the U.S. spent another $13,764,244 in Afghanistan, according to the National Priorities Project’s Cost of War counter.” Even if our nation has no morals whatsoever, really doesn’t care about the human cost of war and has no regard for anything but the bottom line, Afghanistan is still a ridiculous endeavor. To reiterate the words of poet Jovi Radtke, “If we think about the war in purely economic terms, America has a credit card bill the size of Afghanistan.” Obama talked a lot about investing in America’s future. By anyone’s standards, building bombs and shooting Afghanis aren’t good investment decisions.

When it comes to foreign wars, our pockets seem to be bottomless. When it comes to investing in our own people, money suddenly becomes scarce. When Obama proposed that we freeze domestic spending, many people felt as though the buzz word in that sentence was “spending” and, perhaps, fiscal conservatives felt that this might be a good idea. I’m not a mathematician and even I can tell you that the way America has been borrowing against the future, with its massive deficit and outlandish spending, is not a viable approach to fiscal soundness. We have to cut back and I know that. But the buzz word was “domestic” Put another way, continuing to burn through hard-earned American money in Afghanistan is fine but money that goes back to the United States should be enforced with a mandatory stasis for the next four years, especially at a time when a record number of people are approaching retirement age and a record number of people are being born. It’s like someone sitting down to do their household budget and deciding to cancel the cable and the phone but still paying for the next-door neighbor’s dog food.

Sadly, all commentary about the economy, and how our money should be spent, is useless. The money doesn’t exist. It has been spent already. Nicole Foss, co-editor of The Automatic Earth (http://theautomaticearth.blogspot.com/), explains in her economic lectures that, for the last century, we have been spending what is essentially a global inheritance. The incredible amount of energy returned from oil production is from a source of sunlight and ancient fossils steeping for millions of years. We came across the incredible inheritance, divided it (usually by force) amongst the perceived more-deserving nations and we blew our wad in a little over a century. Many people still believe that we can continue the rape of the earth and that the economy will continue to grow the way it has for the last few decades. I am not the first person to point out: on a finite planet, there is no such thing as infinite growth.

Still, when I finally think that Peak Oil has hit the mainstream, and that the inevitable attrition and restructuring of how we use energy will start to develop with some level of common sense, an elected official or some other important decision-maker opens their mouth and gives me a delusion-check. Let’s pretend for a minute that there are enough resources and enough energy to build a completely new energy infrastructure and move into clean energy resources such as wind or solar. Even if this were true, Obama said himself that China has the largest solar research facility in the world. Even if there were resources to start a revolution toward sustainability, we are not heading in that direction. Our president gave us cute little allegories about people like the Allen brothers who turned their Michigan furniture shop into a solar shingle factory. Obama failed to mention that solar panel manufacturing companies in the US are being bought out by Chinese companies left and right and that our government has no real foundation to implement a plan for any sort of energy transition that might help us more from our dependency on oil to something more sustainable.

It has become more and more clear that the earth’s resources are finite, that growth is not perpetual and that the rate of our use of the earth’s resources are depleting them so quickly that we will face very serious consequences. Our elected officials could be truthful about this fact, reason with the American people and start a serious plan for the coming transition. Instead, they are maintaining the status quo and continuing down the harmful path that put us in this position in the first place. Rather than expressing the reality of our dire energy situation, Obama just furthered the infinite-growth fallacy and remarked, “We can have economic growth and use more energy while transitioning to ‘clean’ sources like nuclear and clean coal.” I think Richard Heinburg’s dissertation on said remark via facebook summed up my thoughts exactly: “Not.”