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Since most of us will eventually be relegated to the ranks of the poor or ‘working poor’, I thought it fitting to feature an expert on poverty, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed. She is now heading the Economic Hardship Reporting Project whose goal is to “force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.” I have added their blog to my list of RSS feeds. For anyone who thinks that Mrs. Ehrenreich is unaware of the larger apocalyptic picture unfolding in the world, please listen to what she says about the demise of industrial civilization. And since our last post by Darbikrash centered around the rent-seeking financialization of the economy, in particular its effects on small businesses and individual liberties, it behooves us to look at how corporations and government entities prey on the poor and use them as a vast resource pool from which to extract dollars.

In what ways do the poor get used as a source for rent-seeking financialization? Here are a few:

…as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.

The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.

Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.

It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell….

You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.

These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor….

From for-profit prisons subsidized by taxes to government-mandated premiums for the private health insurance industry, I bet if the amount of rent-seeking as a proportion of the GDP in America was able to be quantified, we’d find that this country and its captive denizens are treated as just one big plantation from which to harvest greenbacks. According to economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, an inordinate proportion of those at the top of the free market heap have made rent-seeking the primary method by which they have accumulated their riches:

…The magnitude of “rent seeking” in our economy, while hard to quantify, is clearly enormous. Individuals and corporations that excel at rent seeking are handsomely rewarded. The financial industry, which now largely functions as a market in speculation rather than a tool for promoting true economic productivity, is the rent-seeking sector par excellence. Rent seeking goes beyond speculation. The financial sector also gets rents out of its domination of the means of payment—the exorbitant credit- and debit-card fees and also the less well-known fees charged to merchants and passed on, eventually, to consumers. The money it siphons from poor and middle-class Americans through predatory lending practices can be thought of as rents. In recent years, the financial sector has accounted for some 40 percent of all corporate profits. This does not mean that its social contribution sneaks into the plus column, or comes even close. The crisis showed how it could wreak havoc on the economy. In a rent-seeking economy such as ours has become, private returns and social returns are badly out of whack.

In their simplest form, rents are nothing more than re-distributions from one part of society to the rent seekers. Much of the inequality in our economy has been the result of rent seeking, because, to a significant degree, rent seeking re-distributes money from those at the bottom to those at the top.

But there is a broader economic consequence: the fight to acquire rents is at best a zero-sum activity. Rent seeking makes nothing grow. Efforts are directed toward getting a larger share of the pie rather than increasing the size of the pie. But it’s worse than that: rent seeking distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker. It is a centripetal force: the rewards of rent seeking become so outsize that more and more energy is directed toward it, at the expense of everything else. Countries rich in natural resources are infamous for rent-seeking activities. It’s far easier to get rich in these places by getting access to resources at favorable terms than by producing goods or services that benefit people and increase productivity. That’s why these economies have done so badly, in spite of their seeming wealth. It’s easy to scoff and say: We’re not Nigeria, we’re not Congo. But the rent-seeking dynamic is the same….

Below is a good discussion from a couple days ago of the expanding poverty problem in America featuring Barbara Ehrenreich. Don’t mind the free market lackey from the ultra-conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. He thinks that the access to information the internet created has made people less poverty-stricken than in the past. For those who can afford a computer and internet subscription, the information age has only made them more aware of how fucked they are in a world of depleting resources run by a ruthless transnational oligarchic elite.

What we have in America is a twisted form of socialism for the elite wherein the few are supported by the collective wealth extraction from the many, as precisely described by Dennis Kucinich:

The rancorous debate over the debt belies a fundamental truth of our economy — that it is run for the few at the expense of the many, that our entire government has been turned into a machine which takes the wealth of a mass of Americans and accelerates it into the hands of the few. Let me give you some examples…