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Robots are Replacing 'Redundant' Human Workers

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(NNPA) One of the most fascinating articles I read over the holidays was by Lydia DePillis in the Dec. 29 Washington Post (“8 ways robots stole our jobs in 2013”). The article is not long but was very pointed. Technology is expanding at a more rapid pace than most people have anticipated and with it there has come a significant loss of jobs, ranging from the stuffing of mail to the operation of farm equipment. And now the proposed Amazon flying drone.

For years we have been told that with advances in technology not only will there be the elimination of dirty and dangerous work, but that new and improved opportunities will open for those displaced. Circumstances have not quite worked out that way. Instead, some new and skilled high-tech jobs have emerged; many workers have been rendered “redundant” (un-usable) by the changing economy; and the benefits of the new technology have gone almost exclusively to the rich and the super-rich.

The importance of the DePillis article is that it reminds us that there is no automatic connection between improved technology and benefits to those who work for a living. Our standard of living does not necessarily improve with the spread of robots and other forms of computerization. If there is no direct intervention of working people and those who are supposed to be looking out for them, the cost of producing items will be reduced, and so too will be the opportunities for those who must work.

For those of us who love science fiction, we know that one of the scenarios often raised regarding the future is one where robots and computers take on all or most major tasks, making it easier and more comfortable for humanity. While this is a scenario that I would like to believe will happen, we should not assume that we are on the road toward such a future. Rather, the future seems to look more like the eternal expansion of Walmart, whereby it is easier and cheaper for companies to produce and sell items, but that the rest of us become poorer and poorer.

Rather than despair, however, it is really a moment when we need to start asking questions of government and industry. If workers are losing jobs as a result of changes in technology, and, if such changes benefit the titans of the economy, shouldn’t greater demands be placed on the corporate giants to insist that they provide for those who are displaced? Perhaps we should stop letting corporations get away with dispensing with workers in the name of increasing productivity, only to leave said workers on the side of the road to fend for themselves. The alternative is not the status quo, but rather the expansion of dead cities and abandoned zones where those no longer needed are warehoused.

That is not a future I want to see. There is no reason that it need come about.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.

Preserving the American Dream of Homeownership

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(NNPA) Although many economists claim the recession is over, millions of Americans are still reeling from its financial effects. In particular, communities of color continue to be disproportionately affected by billion-dollar losses in family wealth. New mortgage rules, effective this month, offer a strong foundation to begin rebuilding what has been lost. These new rules will provide protections for consumers whether they are struggling with troubled mortgages, looking to buy a home or seeking access to credit.

Summarizing the reasons for the new rules, Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently said, “Consumers want – and need – someone to stand on their side and provide safeguards against bad mortgage deals that ruin their credit, cost them their homes, and saddle them with additional problems. . . .No debt traps. No surprises. No runarounds. These are bedrock concepts backed by our new common-sense rules that take effect on January 10.”

A central part of the new rules is a new designation of a Qualified Mortgage (QM) that sets standards that apply to all lenders and covers about 95 percent of loans currently in the marketplace. QM loans are restricted from having the kind of risky features that caused the financial crisis. QM loans must be fully amortization, meaning that loan balances cannot increase as payments are made. Other key QM characteristics require that:

  • Loan terms cannot exceed 30 years;
    • Lenders are required to determine a borrower’s ability to repay the loan, reviewing consumer income and assets against debt and other obligations beyond an initial teaser rate;
    • Points and fees for the total loan amount are capped at 3 percent with an adjusted threshold for smaller loans; and
    • Lenders offering adjustable rate loans cannot use teaser rates to underwrite these loans and are to use the maximum rate during the first five years of the loan.

Another CFPB rule bans “yield-spread premiums,” the financial incentives formerly paid to brokers for steering borrowers into higher cost loans rather than those that were cheaper and for which they qualified.

It is important to note that none of these new rules affects the required amount of a mortgage down payment. Secondly, these rules apply to new mortgages applied for after the January 10 effective date.

In response to these rules, Barry Zigas, the director of housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America was swift to express his approval. “Consumers are finally going to be in an environment where their ability to repay a loan will be the fundamental determining factor about whether they will get a loan or not. This is a terrific week for Americans” concluded Zigas.

Similarly, Chris Polychron, president-elect of the National Association of Realtors, said, “These regulations will go a long way to protecting consumers from receiving loans that may be inappropriate for them and gives them some additional legal protections.. NAR supports these changes and has provided input throughout the rulemaking process.”

For borrowers with existing mortgages, as well as future borrowers, other rules will now affect mortgage servicing, i.e. how house payments are collected and managed. Loan servicers must now provide borrowers with a monthly statement that shows the interest rate, loan balance, escrow account balance and how payments are applied. Servicers cannot begin foreclosure proceedings until after 120 days of delinquency, giving borrowers time to apply for loan modifications before initiating a foreclosure process.

In response to critics of these mortgage servicing reforms, Director Cordray said, “Our rule means simply that mortgage servicers must now do their jobs . . . Over the past year, we have heard plenty from realtors around the country who are just as frustrated as consumers at poor mortgage servicing practices.”

A new web-based resource by the Center for Responsible Lending brings together fact sheets on the new rules, related analysis and testimony. For more information on these new rules visit: http://rspnsb.li/KxNeFa.

As CRL President Mike Calhoun has said, “Families across the country need an opportunity to rebuild their household balance sheets after the worst financial crisis in decades. . . .The CFPB is setting the course for a financial marketplace with greater transparency and accountability. Consumers, responsible lenders and out nation’s economy all benefit from the improved markets that result from this work.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Getting Rid of Shanahan and the 'Redskins' Name

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(NNPA) I was not at all surprised that the Washington Redskins canned Coach Mike Shanahan. Three losing seasons over four years does not make for career advancement. So, on to next season, I guess. Yet, I found myself wondering, once again, why it seems so easy for the owners of the Washington football team to make any number of changes except the one that might actually make a difference for their future: change their name.

Most recently, team owner Daniel Snyder supposedly wanted to convince an increasingly skeptical public about his alleged concerns for Native Americans. Visiting Native Americans and getting a better sense of their miserable conditions was a noble move, but it does not make up for the recurring insult to Native Americans by his refusal to change his team’s name. It almost reminds me of someone talking bad about my mother while having a smile on their face.

Please understand that it is important that Snyder and other members of the wealthy classes of the U.S. get a better understanding of the horrendous conditions experienced by Native Americans. It would be especially useful for Snyder and his colleagues to study a little history to gain an appreciation of the genocide and marginalization experienced by Native Americans. But it is also important that Snyder, et.al. understand that the problem is not one that exists only in the past; there are continuing violations of the humanity of Native Americans. The exposure to and repetition of racist insults against Native Americans is illustrative of this pattern of continuing violations.

So, after another losing season perhaps Snyder, et.al. might consider that this may be the time for a really big change. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Snyder, et.al. to begin to face the ramifications of a history of very real and criminal actions perpetrated against a very real portion of humanity.

Until this happens, I hope that the Washington football team keeps losing.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.

New York City's Progressive Challenge to America

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(NNPA) The inauguration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on January 1 signaled an important left-of-center turning point in the evolution of progressive politics. It’s important not only for the largest city in America, but also for the masses of people who increasingly live in major urban centers throughout the world.

Mayor de Blasio represents a new challenge for a more “progressive” urban change and leadership in America. If the new mayor of New York City is successful in championing the cause of economic equality across the lines of race, class and gender, it will have a transformative impact on how other big cities are led and changed.

After being sworn in by former President Bill Clinton, de Blasio stood at the podium to boldly proclaim, “We care called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city that we love.”

The term “progressive” is simply defined as an individual or group generally classified as liberal in making commitments and actions in support of social, racial and economic equality. Put another way, a progressive is defined as one who seeks reform, change or improvement for the greater good of all.

African Americans and Latino Americans in particular know first-hand the social, racial and ethnic inequalities that characterize major metropolitan areas throughout the United States. This has always been a tale of two cities for them – a city for the superrich and a city of the superpoor. De Blasio declared, “When I said we would take dead aim at the tale of two cities, I meant it. And we will do it. I will honor the faith and trust you have placed in me. And we will give life to the hope of so many in our city. We will succeed … as one city.”

It is important to note that Mayor de Blasio was overwhelmingly elected last November with over 74 percent of the vote. His campaign did not shy away from a stern left-of-center progressive stance on all the major municipal political issues from education, employment, health care, and criminal justice to economic equality. The majority of New York voters knew who and what they were voting for by electing Bill de Blasio.

Hopefully, this will also be a teachable moment for others who seek political office. There have been too many closet progressives or liberals who have felt erroneously that in order to be elected, they had to hide or camouflage the fact that they were actual liberal in their principles and perspectives. Of course, those kind of politically camouflaged elected officials usually end up failing because they have been too cowardly to stand up for their principles.

Harry Belafonte’s also did not shy away from speaking the truth at Mayor de Blasio’s inauguration. He stated, “While it is encouraging to know that the statistics have indicated a recent drop in our city’s murder rate, New York alarmingly plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world.”

He explained, “Much of that problem stems from issues of race, perpetuated by the depth of human indifference to poverty. Changing the stop-and-frisk law is as important as it is the change of the law is only the tip of the iceberg in fixing our deeply Dickensian justice system.” Of course, Brother Belafonte was correct and on point.

It is refreshing to see the re-emergence of elected officials who are not afraid to represent their constituents and to speak truth to power. The eyes of the world will be watching New York City to see whether there is fundamental change. At least for first days of 2014, the city appears to be headed in a good direction with a good leader. Belafonte said it best: “Bill de Blasio gives New York another opportunity to open the door of possibilities. We, New Yorkers, must not let him fail…. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s get busy.”

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is President of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, He can be reached at: http://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc

Intolerable Wages Feed Strikes by Fast Food Workers

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(NNPA) The mainstream media has had difficulty understanding the eruption of strikes in the fast food industry. They have acted as if they have come out of nowhere and for no apparent reason. Neither is true.

The strikes in the fast food industry are the result of intolerable wages and working conditions faced by a workforce that has become increasingly dependent on this sector of the economy in order to survive. Today’s fast food industry is a bit different from days of old. The jobs in fast food are no longer being held exclusively by teenagers and 20-plus who are in school looking for some extra money. As the economy has reorganized and older workers have been thrown out of full-time employment, the fast food industry has become a location one step away from unemployment and homelessness for many workers of various ages.

The strikes, which were initiated by organizing conducted by a project of the Service Employees International Union, have become a front-line in the battle against the polarization of wealth in the U.S. Specifically, these are fights over the immediate necessity to raise the minimum wage. Fast food workers are generally kept at substandard wages and have to piece together various part-time jobs (much like workers in retail). They have few, if any, benefits and do not know from one day to the next whether they actually have a job that will last for any significant duration.

The fast food strikes have come to resemble the movement for the 8-hour day from the 19th century. In that case, workers undertook strikes, demonstrations and other forms of protest – including the strikes that led to the creation of May Day as “International Workers Day” – in order to demand that there be a shorter workweek with no cut in pay. Today’s fast food workers are making an analogous demand: they want a livable wage.

Fast food workers are fighting the good fight not only for themselves but for other vulnerable workers. They know that their conditions will not improve by bargaining a contract one fast food outlet at a time, but that instead there needs to be a governmental raise in the minimum wage and, frankly, there need to be industry standards to which all fast food—and retail—outlets are held. This will happen if and only if there is a continuous outpouring of public support, much of which has already occurred.

Thus, these actions are being conducted by some very courageous workers of all ages who have decided that they have had enough. They need to know that you are backing them up.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the chairman of the Retail Justice Alliance which supports workers in the retail industry fighting for fairness. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be followed on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.

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