A cabin in Butcher Holler

Ed Raymond

How many people can retire for 40 years?

King Donald got a lot of votes in coal country, stretching from West Virginia to North Dakota, in 2016 by lying that he would bring coal back. He is a good salesman as most narcissistic psychopaths are. But it never happened – and it is never going to happen. Coal mining has collapsed to the point that the life expectancy of coal miners and the people who supported them in small towns in many states is decreasing.

Butcher Holler, West Virginia is really suffering. Even when coal was big the good times were small. These lines from Loretta Lynn’s song “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” made popular 50 years ago, tell the true story:

Well, I was borned a coal miner's daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love
That's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar
My daddy worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines
All day long in the field a hoin' corn
Mommy rocked the babies at night
And read the Bible by the coal oil light
And ever' thing would start all over come break of morn
Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay ...
In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Nobel Prize economist Angus Death and his wife Anne Case, both economics professors at Princeton, point out that the miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, many of them whites without high school diplomas, have the highest drug overdose rates in the U.S. The death rates are shocking and are lowering life expectancy. Jobs are very scarce in some coal areas. And their book was written before COVID-19 had decimated small businesses.
The authors blamed the decline in the coal industry, the financial stress of the Bush Recession, the greatest income inequality in the world, but they blamed most of the overdose-kill problem and the lowering of life expectancy on the U.S. health care “system.” They argued that hospitals, insurance companies, drug companies, doctors, and device makers “are all wildly overpaid” by all international standards. They don’t seem to support Medicare-for-All with much enthusiasm – but the solutions they recommend sound an awful lot like Bernie Sanders at a 2020 campaign!


What happens when many humans live to be 100?

The other day I saw a picture of a couple celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary. They were both more than 100. Soon Corky and I will be celebrating our 66th. During the 20th century, 30 years were added to the life expectancy – if you could afford decent health care. Both of us were born poor – neither had a pot to piss in nor window to throw it out of – but we both have good ancestral genes at 88 and 87.

Later in life we have both enjoyed and could afford good health care through military service and insurance coverage from our employers. We gave up a lot of money to be covered by health insurance for more than 40 years before Medicare took over.
Who knows how long we will live?

I think the Stanford Center on Longevity has a good idea when it promotes their initiative “The New Map of Life.” The center is attempting to answer the question: Can we spend 40 years in retirement? They say we can’t.

They say we have to replace the old rigid model of life – education first, then family and work, and finally retirement (which we have lived) – with a life that interweaves leisure, work, education and family throughout life, with places to stop, rest, and change courses along the way. We have to rethink all stages of life, not just old age. We have to learn to find joy in both constantly unlearning and relearning. Education must be ever-present regardless of age.

We must learn to forget the two questions that frighten the elderly: “I hope I don’t outlive my money” and I hope I don’t get dementia.”

The Stanford Center has some recommendations we should all follow:

(1) Work will change constantly so we must learn to zig-zag in and out of the labor force,
(2) Everybody should work long after 60 so you don’t go nuts,
(3) Financing longevity requires major rethinking from the 401(K)s of today,
(4) We must learn to live with flexible scheduling and frequent “retirements”, and
(5) We must maintain physical fitness from beginning to the end of life, reducing chair time and spending more hours moving and walking about.

Oh. But that chair is so comfortable.

Back to the Age Of Trump and rich dinosaurs

Meanwhile, back in the country with the greatest income inequality on the face of the earth, let’s examine our current problems.

Here’s the major one: the median worker’s real weekly earnings rose by only 6% from 1979 to 2019.

But during the 40 years the rich got exponentially richer because of crony, disaster, and shareholder capitalism practiced by many corporations.

In his book Capital in the 21st Century, economist Thomas Piketty writes: “The One Percent has made out like bandits at the expense of the Ninety-Nine percent.”  

The so-called wealthiest nation in the world (only for the wealthy) had more than 37 million, or more than 10% of the population, struggling to find food in 2018. Now in the middle of COVID-19, that number has increased to at least 54 million – and is climbing every day. Witness the miles-long food bank lines in El Paso, Houston, and dozens of other cities.

Here is why: During the Ronald Reagan years, tax cuts for the rich and the gradual elimination of unions that created the strong middle class after World War II to 1980 enabled the rich to gain power over the political parties and our so-called democracy.

The results: tax rates on corporations and high incomes have gone down, unions have been crushed by right-to-work-for-less Republican legislatures in the South and Middle West, the minimum wage of $7.25 is actually much lower than it was in the 1960s, and Republicans, always against Social Security and other social safety nets such as universal health care, continue their main goal of cutting taxes.

The Citizens United decision by the Republican Supreme Court allowed the 400 richest families to provide half of the campaign money to buy the 2016 election for president and Congress. We have to realize we are no longer a democracy. We are an oligarchy like Putin’s Russia.

What have the rich been doing since they have “disappeared” the middle class?
Well, big white hunter Chris Peyerk of Michigan went to Africa and paid $400,000 to shoot and kill a rare black rhinoceros in Namibia. Now he wants a federal permit to bring its skull, skin and horns to this country. It is illegal because the rhino is on the Endangered Species List. I bet he gets it.

A safari guide says shooting and killing an old rhino is as thrilling as shooting a parked car.

Some “Richie” with money to spare just bought a LeBron James trading card from his NBA rookie year for $1.8 million, the highest price ever paid for a card. He must be thrilled also.

Another paid $162,500 for a five-pound chunk of meteorite from Mars. That’s three years of salary for a middle class worker.

Why are all the young whites and blacks protesting in the streets?

They have mutual concerns. They both want apartheid and the killing of blacks to end. They both want an opportunity to live peacefully and flourish in a democratic society. They want the American Dream to once again fill their minds instead of the nightmare of Trumpistan. They want a political revolution because returning to normal will never make America great.

What do they see? They see a 2016 election cycle where corporations bought the presidency and Congress by outspending unions 16-to-1; thus $3.4 billion to $213 million.

In the 2020 election sources say corporations will spend more than $8 billion in an attempt to keep Trump and Mitch McConnell in office. Since the last election cycle, corporations each year have spent $2.5 billion lobbying Congress while unions have spent only $48 million.

Now in the pandemic, with 90 million without health insurance, 50 million unemployed, unemployment well over 10%, and the end of “stimu-lus” payments, we see as many as 40 million evictions dramatically increasing the homeless tents in every city in the country. Just in the small city of Reading, Pennsylvania 2,300 renter families are in danger of being evicted – with their 1,700 children.

The one essential of a democracy – a vibrant middle class

In 1798 my French ancestors decided they didn’t have enough cake to eat so they filled some baskets with the heads of people who didn’t supply the cake. And so it goes around the world.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has become the world’s richest man by firing any employee who mentions “union.” At about $200 billion, depending upon it’s whether Tuesday or a Friday, he has that title because he doesn’t pay at least half of his 650,000 employees a living wage. (He made $13 billion in just one day when the rich invested in Amazon stock at the Wall Street Casino.)

The taxpayers pay the food stamps, the health care, and the other benefits that allow his workers to survive as they walk into their extremely hot or extremely cold “distribution centers.’ After all, air conditioning and heat is expensive.

In order to move from the oligarchy of today to the democracy of tomorrow we must change these numbers:

1. A little more 10% of the total workforce of 141.7 million in the country is in a union – a 50% decrease since the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s election.
2. Only 5% of the workers in the retail trade are now in a union. This area has been taken over by union-hating Amazon and Walmart. Both have been union-busting for their entire economic life. They both employ union-busting PR and legal firms.
3. Only 6.2% of private sector workers belong to a union. In the 1950s, 35% were unionized.
4. There are 28 right-to-work-for-less states. All of them are Republican states. For every dollar earned by a non-union member in a right-to-work state, the member in a union-authorized state earned $1.23.

An Amazon employee stated the case for joining a union which could negotiate wages, working conditions, and benefits for the members: “We are not robots. We are human beings. I feel like all the company cares about is getting their products out to the customers as quickly as humanly possible, no matter what that means for us workers in the end. To keep up with hourly rates such as picking up 400 items per hour which means one every seven seconds, we cannot take bathroom breaks. People pee in bottles.  At all times, if we don’t fulfill the rates of work, we are terminated. During summertime we don’t get enough air conditioning, in the winter we don’t get enough heat in the distribution centers.”