A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
... a lot of individuals [in the Gulf states] who were very supportive initially of President Bush, started to say things to me like: it’s amazing you can pay so much money for a war. They didn't talk so much about how we could balance the budget, but that we were paying for a war, and we’re paying for things outside of the country, and not for things inside the country.
-- Nomi Prins
On the one hand, there's our government's policies, and on the other, there's the money or credit card tucked inside your wallet. Journalist Nomi Prins crisscrossed America to talk to people about what's in their wallets, and, in doing so, she found plenty of evidence of the impact of politics and policies on average Americans. Her new book, Jacked: How “Conservatives” Are Picking Your Pocket, shows the impact of "Republican incompetence and meanness" (Howard Dean's words) on real lives. Just as Studs Terkel delved into the world of Working, Prins explores inside Americans' pocketbooks. In so doing, she discovers a heroic American spirit -- along with real economic woes.
* * *
BuzzFlash: You left a career on Wall Street to become a journalist, and your new book is called Jacked: How “Conservatives” Are Picking Your Pocket. Could you just explain your approach to this book, which is really quite creative? Basically, it's about going through a wallet, and seeing what it represents in terms of how the American public is getting fleeced.
Nomi Prins: The idea of the wallet came from some conversations I had with friends. The wallet seemed to be something that people can really relate to in terms of what’s going on with them. People know where there money is going, or they feel it. It’s a much more emotional kind of reaction, that you can then link up to various government policies. And what’s in their wallet is impacted by those policies. I wanted to start with something that was common to everybody, so that’s where the wallet came from. I wanted to write a book for people first, and then connect to policies from that.
BuzzFlash: How did you choose what to focus on in a wallet?
Nomi Prins: I live in New York City, so I went to the guys at the corner deli, and just kind of asked them to tell me what the most important card was in their wallet. I wanted to hear directly from people, and I got some very interesting responses. People talked not only about the cards in their wallet; they were really going into detail about how their lives and those cards are intertwined.
BuzzFlash: You have a chapter on the credit card -- so, what do you draw from that?
Nomi Prins: When you talk to people about their credit cards, the first thing that they’ll tell you is how much debt is on them. But then they go into a lot of complaints about how credit cards and their companies kind of threw them over.
I start the credit card chapter with a woman in Connecticut who has had two children and is about to have her third. She is going into a hospital to have a Caesarian to deliver her third child, and she has had a perfect credit record up until that moment. When she takes some time out to be with her new child, she is barraged by her bank of many, many years. She was called almost around the clock about her late payments. It’s that kind of treatment that a lot of people can relate to, whether they’ve just given birth or just have other issues with some of the companies.
BuzzFlash: Of course, credit card companies are notorious, what with the recent anti-bankruptcy legislation that’s given them even more free reign. All the credit card offers make it easy to run up debt.
Nomi Prins: Young people going off to college are barraged with credit card offers. How many people really read through all the fine print, which may actually say: after you pay bills for six months, your rates could go up totally indiscriminately. And, the thing is, these same credit card companies are usually connected to banks that offer credit to corporations at substantially lower interest rates than they offer to individuals.
I found that most of the people I talked to really feel their debt is their own fault. To the extent that they actually buy the item, or sign for it, that is a very personal action. But the way they’re treated by companies like credit card companies is very, very much as prey. And the legislation that was passed last April effectively made it impossible for individuals who have been prey, or have needed credit to survive emergencies or something like that personally, to declare bankruptcy --even though many of our corporations declare bankruptcy quite freely and get out of their debt much more easily.
BuzzFlash: What did you find in terms of the most common form of identification in the United States? The driver’s license?
Nomi Prins: Drivers' licenses are definitely the most common form. And that connects to the fact that everyone is feeling the pinch of gas prices having doubled in the last two years. There’s a lot of antagonism towards the oil companies. People are less inclined to be thinking that the government itself could do something about that and hasn’t, and that was something that I discussed with a lot of people. But mostly they’ll talk about their driving. They’ll talk about: you know what? It’s my ID, but it’s what gets me to work. I do know exactly how much I pay to put in a tank -- particularly when you go outside of the urban areas.
When I was doing the research for Jacked, I traveled through about thirty states in the country. I really divided up the geography into urban and rural, and red states and blue states, and North and South and Central. The more that you get into places where driving is imperative to surviving, because there’s no public transport and it’s just survival, there’s a significant amount of anger towards how prices have risen so rapidly, so recently.
BuzzFlash: About how many people did you talk to?
Nomi Prins: Ten to twelve people a day, so in all it came to close to a thousand people. And whether it was taxi drivers or bartenders, I was really kind of on a mission to get flesh out the numbers and statistics and information that comes out in polls or from Washington, or from a lot of media.
BuzzFlash: You already said that many people feel personal responsibility for their debt. Did you also find a lot of discontent with the government or the Bush administration as holding responsibility for the financial straits that many Americans are in?
Nomi Prins: There's a lot of frustration with the Bush administration and the government in general. But there’s a disconnect between the government and what people are just living through on a day-to-day basis.
Many of the people that I spoke with work hard, but they still have fun lives. I don’t seek out sob stories, per se. I just wanted to get a sense of everyday reality from a general, diverse group of people. But some of the people in the Gulf region -- Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama, where Katrina had hit -- a lot of individuals there who were very supportive initially of President Bush, started to say things to me like: it’s amazing you can pay so much money for a war. They didn't talk so much about how we could balance the budget, but that we were paying for a war, and we’re paying for things outside of the country, and not for things inside the country. That was the general feeling I got from people who weren't originally anti this administration, or politically active that way, and even from the ones that had supported the administration. And there are a lot of people that don’t trust either party or the government to really understand them.
BuzzFlash: Your book is subtitled "How 'Conservatives' are Picking Your Pocket," but many of the people you contacted don’t see it as an ideological issue or a class issue. There’s anger at the government, but it’s not so much, oh, the right wingers are after my wallet.
Nomi Prins: I connected it to the conservatives because in the last almost six years, with what’s happened to the general balance sheet of the country is that this group that is in power in Washington has increased the deficit by the most ever. They have increased the debt that this country owes to other countries by the most ever, and have basically created a situation where our dollar buys much less overseas, which means that everything we import is so much more expensive to people. They've really just done a wreck job on the finances of the country. So although the people I talked to didn’t bring that up when I started to talk to them about their wallets, that was something I always had in the back of my mind. There’s an irony there. This government is controlled by people who consider themselves to be fiscally conservative, and yet they aren’t conservative with the budget of the country.
BuzzFlash: Some would argue that, with the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent on the war in Iraq, and the tax cuts for the wealthy, then the only place left to suck up the money from is the working class and the middle class. And that’s where the short end of the stick goes. But in terms of political movements, the working class people don’t really know, as Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? pointed out, who’s victimizing them. That could be in large part because the media ignores the working class as a group of people that deserve extensive coverage.
Nomi Prins: That’s a very good point, and that was one of the reasons why, within the book, I tried to talk to a wide variety of people and make the connections between how they’re victimized, and who’s victimizing them. I spoke with auto workers who were either getting laid off or having their friends being laid off around them, and they were seeing their benefits over the years completely cut into. I met a single woman out in Portland who became my heroine because she was a single mom, she has two children, she grew up in a violent home, and she just really, really struggles. But at the same time, she’s giving back so much. She’s working on hotlines outside of Portland to help other women. She’s going to community college to become a field nurse because she wants to help out in her community. And she created a fund within the college for people to have extra money for their kids to be taken care of while their moms are at work or at school.
So you have a person here who is just doing so much for herself and her family, and for other people on the margin, in terms of the money that’s coming in. Then you compare that to a government and a sort of corporate connection where there’s so much more money at the top that’s not even being distributed in any sort of a fair way. It’s really sort of gut-wrenching.
And the tax cuts that were supposed to help people, on average, gave people 600 bucks a year, so that’s not a help. And while that’s going on, their health insurance premiums have doubled in the last four years. College tuitions have increased by 35%. We talked about gas prices having doubled. So we’re definitely being hurt. The middle class and the working class definitely bear the brunt.
What we do have at the working class level is a lot of spirit that needs to be collected, and at least taken back through the voting structure. I think people feel that one vote isn’t going to make a difference, or their problems aren’t going to make a difference, and the fact that the media is not focusing on them doesn’t help. But what I wanted to do in this book is kind of say, look, you know what? There’s a lot of people like you around the country in a similar situation. Here are some things that you can do as an individual to help yourself and the overall situation for people like you.
BuzzFlash: You also have a chapter based on the health insurance card in a person's wallet. Health insurance is an issue that we’ve been debating in this country probably since the New Deal. Hillary Clinton also tried to do something about it in the early nineties, but it got sidetracked after that. Health care really hasn’t reemerged as an issue except in terms of the very complicated, convoluted prescription drug bill that got through the Congress. People without health insurance coverage who don’t qualify for Medicaid and aren’t old enough for Medicare are just screwed.
Nomi Prins:Yes. I think the number one problem and concern that people had in the overall conversations I had with them was about their health insurance. That was true whether they were working class, or middle class, or upper-middle class. I’d like to say I talked to a lot of upper-upper classes, but it was funny how they spoke less freely than anybody else to me about their condition. But health care is the number one concern.
There have been these misconceptions coming from Washington, that if you have some sort of a nationalized health insurance plan, somehow that means people won’t be able to choose their doctors -- that the government will just get involved and it will become even more bureaucratic and even harder to get anything done. But when you throw all that away and you talk to people about their card, about their health insurance situation, it was amazing to me to discover that anyone who had health insurance knew exactly how much their monthly premium was, down to the penny. They knew exactly how much it had increased over the last few years that we were discussing, and they were very acutely aware of how scary that was.
I have a section in that health insurance chapter where I spoke with a number of diverse people, including a big-wig Hollywood producer, and a former meth addict who’s turned PR god, and an ex-Laker turned actor, and a mom with two autistic children who basically don’t get covered, and someone who almost died because they couldn’t get coverage. I really cover the gamut in that chapter. And it is of concern to everyone. To me, for this not to be an election issue is completely criminal. We need to sit down and dig through it, and forget about why it shouldn’t happen, and concentrate on what should happen, .
BuzzFlash: How did you pick the people you talked to?
Nomi Prins: I first picked regions, and then I kind of mapped out the best plane and car routes that would be most efficient. I would schedule travel time late at night or early in the morning so I could have full days and evenings to talk to people. Then I got help from people on the ground at a variety of organizations, like the UAW, for instance. I made plans to talk to people in Detroit, and Oklahoma City, where a lot of car workers would have been about to be laid off. As I was going around the country, I'd meet people who knew people, who knew people. It was amazing to me. Whenever I got to a city, even if I started with two or three people in the city that I had pre-contacted, they all wound up getting me to a chain of other people they knew. I just tried to keep it as diverse as possible to get a good representation. I also wanted good stories.
BuzzFlash: You have alluded to the fact that people feel, in a way, powerless to resolve these economic problems that they’re encountering. Have we spun so far out of control that at least the general population doesn’t see solutions, doesn’t see ways out of this -- that the country doesn’t have any sort of unifying and passionate force for economic change that people could latch onto? Are they just sort of left helpless in their situation?
Nomi Prins: I think a lot of the people I’ve spoken with, and who contacted me after I put the book together, feel that it’s too big to deal with. If you’re worried about cabbing to work and how much that’s going to cost you, and if you’re older and worried about Social Security and whether you’re going to keep getting it, if jobs in your industry are going to be cut, or if you’re a student trying to figure out how to deal with your loans and balance a bunch of jobs on the side, you’re so busy dealing with your economic situation that you just don’t have the time to do something about that situation in a more general sort of sense, or in a political sort of sense.
I spoke with people about this, and I think, in order for us as individuals to change that, we have to feel like it matters. It's not just that we have an opinion, but that it feels good to express an opinion and it’s a positive thing to make a change. It’s a positive thing, even if you just call your credit card company and say: what do you mean? You just raised my rate by 20%. You know what? I’m closing my account and I’m going somewhere else. In places where you can have an impact, I think people need to feel like they would feel good about having that impact. That’s the first step to making it more general, and getting more people involved in doing things that can ultimately change things for them individually, and also for the larger economic condition of the country.
And we have to stop holding our celebrities and our very rich people up as sort of icons of what we all should be. I mean, I think of the heroes. The heroes in my book and all around the country are people who struggle and have fun, and balance all the good and the bad in their life, and help other people, and are just inspirational individually. Those are the people that we really should emulate.
BuzzFlash: That’s such a complicated issue. Of course, many working class people and people on the economic margins buy the magazines that highlight Britney Spears, and Tom Cruise and his wife. We live in a celebrity culture. Labor news almost doesn’t exist anymore as something that’s covered. If you were a working person looking for the media to cover the working people who go about their lives in a very steadfast and honorable fashion -- as you say, they’re never covered. Everything's about Oprah or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Katie Couric. What does that say in terms of concern about the working person or the person on the economic margins in America?
Nomi Prins: It’s very sad. Angelina Jolie does good work, but we hear much more about her than about the actual people she might be working with and what they’re doing. We absolutely have a skewed idea of what’s important and what we should strive to be and do. The idea that these people’s major struggle is, you know, which publication is going to showcase the first baby shots of Suri -- that’s sad.
One of the things that struck me when I was in Detroit was a statue I saw out there of a handsome young man, and he’s got muscles, and he’s very proud and confident, and that’s something that was created decades ago. Yes, it was symbolic of a workers’ movement, but it was also about a person that had that kind of strength. The media doesn’t showcase that, and it is a sincere lack of balance. I don’t know how you change that. I think what’s going on with Suri or Jen Aniston is kind of distracting. You feel like you know those people who are gripped by such marginal issues. Maybe they’re real issues to them. But it’s distracting from one’s own life.
BuzzFlash: And does that cause the general public not to think about what the core problems are, but rather retreat into some sort of fantasy world of people who have enormous amounts of money, but still have problems?
Nomi Prins: Well, exactly. I think that’s part of the issue. I also think it should be noted that many of the people who don’t have fame and fortune are actually admirable. And that’s the important message. It’s not just that we’re struggling to have more, or be more, or change. I was watching a documentary about 9/11 the other day, and in that event we all saw that a worker who’s not paid a lot still takes on an enormous amount of responsibility -- and they actually became idolized in some manner. The fire workers came out as much more heroic, because that’s their job. It took that kind of a tragedy to show some of that for a little while. But it doesn’t go away.
BuzzFlash: Meaning that they’re still performing that way, but we no longer look at it through the same prism of heroism. Only when there’s that moment, we elevate them.
Nomi Prins: The media elevates them and and then drops them, basically. But they’re still doing what they do.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much for a wonderful book. We recommend it to our BuzzFlash readers.
Nomi Prins: Thank you so much.
* * *
Jacked: How "Conservatives" Are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not) (Paperback), by Nomi Prins, a BuzzFlash premium.
Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America, by Nomi Prins.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW