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ChatChat - Claudia Cragg

May 17, 2014

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KGNU's Claudia Cragg speaks here with Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department. He spent a year in Iraq, an experience that led to his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. As a result, the US Department of State began proceedings against him. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, Van Buren instead retired from the State Department with his full benefits of service.

The main point of discussion here though is Van Buren’s personal work experience (in the hiatus when suspended from the State Dept) working for a store he calls 'Bullseye' in the minimum wage Big Box economy. This led to his new book Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent based on his up close take on the drastic effects of social and economic changes in America between WWII and the decline of the blue collar middle class in the 1980’s right up to today.

Notes for the book (from Van Buren's Blog); Some Background from a Real Economist

Economist Thomas Piketty’s new bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century makes clear there has been a significant increase in income inequality in America. Our inequality rate is higher than it ever has been in our own history, is growing, and is higher than in countries in Western Europe and Canada.

In the United States, the top one percent own 35 percent of all capital, and the top ten percent of wealth holders own roughly 70 percent. The bottom 50 percent have roughly five percent. Note also that until slavery was ended in the United States, human beings were also considered capital.

The inequality is driven by two complementary forces.

By owning more and more of every thing (capital), rich people have a mechanism to keep getting richer, because the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth. This is expressed in Piketty’s now-famous equation R > G. The author claims the top of layer of wealth distribution is rising at 6-7 percent a year, more than three times faster than the size of the economy.

At the same time, wages for middle and lower income people are sinking, driven by factors largely in control of the wealthy, such as technology employed to eliminate human jobs, unions being crushed and decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage more and more Americans now depend on for their survival.