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The story of how a millionaire CEO’s critique of Squeegee kids led to monetizing their suffering and points to a process that makes neoliberalism an engine for inequality.

Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM Hello, my name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Inequality Watch on The Real News Network. As we said before, the show is about the most acute existential threat to humanity, our country’s growing income inequality. But our mission is not just to expose how billionaire codling exacerbates inequality, but to hold the worst actors accountable. And to do this, we’d like to delve into the details of stories that might seem on the surface to be far removed from this topic, but in fact show just how the super rich not just bend the system but dominate it. And I want those of you watching to know that if you have evidence of the abuse of people at the hands of the wealthy, please share it with us. Tell us in the comments or message us at The Real News on Facebook or Twitter or of course you can message me directly at Taya’s Baltimore on Facebook and Twitter. I do read your comments and appreciate them.

So today we’re going to talk about two things. A story about impoverished kids trying to survive and the millionaire CEO who decided it was time for them to go. But we’re also going to look at how a political ideology known as neo-liberalism can use an issue like this to not only perpetuate wealth inequality, but make it worse. But first we’re going to continue a tradition, we started opening our last segment. Invoking the specter of past purveyors of unbridled wealth to characterize the behavior of the present. Last time we called this the Marie Antoinette effect for the 18th century French aristocrat who impart provoked the French revolution by suggesting the poor eat cake rather than addressing poverty. But this time we’re going to go a bit further and dole out our very first Marie Antoinette award, and that honor goes to none other than T. Rowe Price CEO William J. Stromberg. Stromberg heads one of the preeminent pillars of capitalism, the investment bank.

In his role as lead executive, he implements a system that has led to global warming, worldwide poverty, colonialism, and some of the metaphysical angst has affected people who suffer the consequences of unfettered capitalism. But even with that busy schedule, Mr. Stromberg took time to take aim at these young people, squeegee kids. Now, for those of you don’t know, the squeegee kids are mostly teens in cities like Baltimore who offered to wash windows in exchange for cash. The presence has been controversial with mayor Jack Young threatening to arrest them.

MAYOR JACK YOUNG They in the middle of the street and it’s illegal and we must address it.

TAYA GRAHAM  But the teens we spoke to argue that the money they make helps pay the rent and helps keep their families afloat and keeps them from other illegal, more lucrative forms of employment.

ZION We are in a projects, we have no other choice, but you feel me? It’s so many people out here selling drugs. You got so many killing out here like is this so much going on? And it’s as much as we can bear. We’re trying to get our mom out this environment.

TAYA GRAHAM  But Stromberg was having none of it. In fact, the CEO that made $13 million in a single year found the youths annoying. A fact he made clear to the mayor in his email. So Stephen, what did Stromberg say to the mayor?

STEPHEN JANIS Basically, Stromberg said, in his email to the mayor, that it was very dismissive of these kids, who were trying to survive, and basically said they become an annoyance to him. And he was speaking on behalf of a myriad of businesses downtown. If the mayor didn’t do something about it, that it was going to harm the quality of life in this city. And that, I guess his symbol of poverty made him uncomfortable.

TAYA GRAHAM  But the story doesn’t end there because there’s more to understanding what makes the system work. And it has to do with the set of policies and ideologies called neo-liberalism. As we’ve said before in this show, esteemed scholar, Dr. Cornell West, describe neo-liberalism best. It’s a philosophy that takes a complex social problem, criminalizes it, militarizes it and monetizes it. And in this case, the solution profit by the mayor shows how neo-liberalism is the great ideological engine for wealth inequality. So Stephen, can you explain a little bit how Neo liberalism and its policies work?

STEPHEN JANIS Well basically, let’s look at this squeegee cause it’s a perfect example. So the squeegee kids are a representative of poverty. And the problem that kids can’t get jobs and that we created such an economically isolated areas in the city that people really can’t find a way to survive. Okay. So they go and they squeeze you and the wealthier people who drive by feel offended by it. So what do you do? Do you go out and start an antipoverty program? Do you give direct assistance? Do you try to curb some of the issues with affordable housing? Some of the tax system that’s unfair? No, what you do is you create a bureaucracy and a system around it that it wealth in enriches the people who problematize, right?

So you basically come up with some bureaucratic solutions that actually fuel the income inequality by paying high paid bureaucrats to monitor the situation. You hire police to arrest them, that they go into the criminal justice system, and you basically create this bureaucracy of poverty and wealth violence around them where people are getting rich, but the underlying issue is completely ignored. And the inequality that created it is absolutely off the table. There’s no discussion with the mayor about what about the conditions is created. It’s PR. It’s actually let’s set up a system that will actually give people jobs who are already well off and let’s ignore the kids who need direct money now.

TAYA GRAHAM  Right. Aren’t they just bringing in people from our nonprofit industrial complex, giving them more money to handle a problem that they should have been addressing already, right?

STEPHEN JANIS Just shows you how profitable poverty is for people who have the social and political capital to benefit from it. And this is a perfect example.

TAYA GRAHAM  So here is the destructive philosophy of neo-liberalism in a nutshell, abject poverty and economic isolation exacerbated by racism, prompts teens to improvise a means to survive. But rather than address the underlying political structure that creates the conditions that make washing windows and necessity. Politicians first turn to police and then found a way to turn it into a profit center. All of this set in motion by an executive rich beyond imagination. Stephen, I’ve got to ask, what do you think? I mean, what’s your opinion here?

STEPHEN JANIS Well, I think what we see here is why wealth inequality begets more wealth inequality. Because the connection between the people who suffer from unfettered capitalism and the people who benefit gets wider and wider. It becomes impossible for them to imagine the circumstances of the people find themselves in who have suffered and it is these young children, these teens who have suffered and who continue to suffer are completely unknowable. The only thing that can come up with is a program. You would think a guy making $13 million a year would say, you know what? These kids are actually making a dollar for washing windows. I’m not going to just say you get rid of them. I’m going to offer them something. I’m going to do something… But that connection is severed because the worlds are so extreme.

TAYA GRAHAM  You would think that he would see, wow, these kids have initiative. These kids are willing to stand on the corner in the heat eight, 10 hours a day. These are hardworking kids. Maybe I can help them work hard in a different way.

STEPHEN JANIS You know, we spoke to them and when people run a couple of clips right here, they’re entrepreneurial. They’re like ambassadors of the city. They know very much about the city. Let’s just run a clip so people can hear what they have to say.

ZION We just want to be represented as kids that want to make better for ourselves, that’s all.

MIKAI They can’t tax it. That’s the real reason why they want us to stop, they can’t tax this.

ANONYMOUS SQUEEGE KID Actually, a lot of people come to Baltimore city and really like what we’re doing. I have a lot of people that came here from Florida. I have… a man that came here from California. He said, he honestly said, he kind of liked what we were doing.

STEPHEN JANIS So the point being, that a chasm that is created by extreme capitalism, creates two different worlds that never meet. And not only that, that imbalance creates the ability to make it worse through saying, and this is where neo-liberalism is very brilliant, saying look what we’re doing. We’re starting a program to help them, but they’re not helping them. If you look at this report.

TAYA GRAHAM  Yes, this report.

STEPHEN JANIS Which maybe we’ll post the link to it if we can. It just simply shows that their jobs, there’s two counselors who are getting $120000 a year. They’re mentors.

TAYA GRAHAM  And don’t forget the $312,000 as being put aside from mentors. How much would that help the kids families directly?

STEPHEN JANIS Incredible. These kids were saying they’re making $120 a day and they’re helping their mom pay rent and have to split it. It would be unfathomable. Why not just give them money? Like Andrew Yang suggests. Why not just have, just more assistance to these families. That would make a difference.

TAYA GRAHAM  But these kids actually want to work. I mean the kids that we’ve spoken with say they have applied for summer job programs and had been turned away again and again.

STEPHEN JANIS Consistent theme of the kids that we spoke to is that they said, we applied for a summer job through the youth works program, which supplies summer jobs to children and they were rejected. So, but I think too, on the other hand, I think for them it is a way to control their own destiny, which is not afforded to them by the system that exists. The system that exists says you have to conform to our expectations, which is a position of exploitation, right? If you look at this program, it’s like you have to be mentored for three months. But these kids were like kind of creative and out there and sort of forcing themselves upon the world and forcing the worlds to reckon with the world that they live in. And that’s where it becomes uncomfortable because it’s like one bubble piercing another and I think it’s demonstrative of how the city responded that shows why this won’t end until we change the system.

TAYA GRAHAM  And and if anyone else wants to know how the city responded, all they had to do is take a good look at a Facebook page discussing squeegee kids with how very uncomfortable people are made when they have to face their own privilege. Now before we finish this segment, we wanted to again talk to the people affected by this policy. The squeegee kids themselves. We visited them as they worked at a new location after they were displaced by police. And here’s what they had to say.

SPEAKER They worked for their self and they make more money than the people that’s giving them the money. They not running around doing, they make $30 an hour at least. You see what I’m saying? They not breaking no law. They not bothering nobody. Every now and then you got to asshole out the bunch. That’s like they take kids. You feel them, every now and then you’re going to have one asshole out of the bunch. But they trying to stop the whole thing and then trying to see like getting a work permit for… why are we going to pay you for something that for that we’re doing on our own self? That extortion.

TAYA GRAHAM  So why does all this matter? Why do we care if a rich CEO finds squeegee kids annoying? Why does it matter that the CEO can fire off one email and wipe teenagers, who want to work, off of every Baltimore street corner? For a very simple reason. The system that has created massive income inequality is intrinsically designed to be self sustaining and worse, profit off misery. Which is why it’s so important that we understand how it works. If we don’t understand the imperative that drives the system, how can we hold it to account? On paper, the plan to help squeegee kids seems reasonable, but in reality it’s a literal documentation of the ongoing transfer of wealth to those who already have most of it.

It’s full of platitudes and euphemisms designed to obscure the naked greed at bolsters it. It’s a layer of bureaucracy that monetizes a problem of inherent unfairness to the benefit of politically connected insiders. Accrual and indifferent construct that addresses the problem of inequity with more of the same and that’s why we have not just reported the so called facts of the story like mainstream media, but sought to understand the system that informs it.

We have and will continue to go beyond the superficial aspects of the story and delve deeper into the underlying imperatives that caused the problem. I want to thank my cohost, Stephen Janis, and I want to thank you for joining us on the inequality watch, and I want those of you watching to know that you have evidence of abuse of people at the hands of the wealthy. Please share it with us. Tell us in the comments or message us @therealnews on Facebook or Twitter, and of course you can message me directly at @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. Please like, subscribe and let me know what you think. I do read your comments and appreciate them. I’m your host, Taya Graham and I want to thank you for joining me on the inequality watch.

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Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.