Albania in Transition is a Rough Edge Dragging

Triana    We started the day in the port city of Durres where we composed a panel talking about community organizing to a group of sixty, mostly young women, hoping to become teachers in the education curriculum of the University of Alexander Moisiu Durres, named after one of the great European stage actors of the early 20thcentury who had lived in Durres in his youth before a lifetime in Austria.  The panel went well and eventually the questions were quite animated.  I was disappointed to learn later that the job prospects for these young people were abysmal with 30% unemployment and many forced to migrate to other countries in a search for work.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Durres is the second largest city in Albania, only about a half hour drive from the capital with a port on the Adriatic Sea.  Gantry cranes greeted us to the sea side after the panel, and a malecon along the water invited tourists and natives to swim in the summer.  An eight-hour ferry ride would take a passenger to Italy across the sea and the influence of Italy is everywhere.  Although the Greeks founded Durres 1300 years ago, the Romans extended the Appian Way and similar roads beginning in Durres and running all the way to Constantinople or Istanbul as we now know it.

Later back in Tirana, we met the director of Co-Plan, the nonprofit overseeing the internship program.  We drove to the visit over huge potholes cratering the commercial road in this industrial district until we reached the private university that Co-Plan had founded, and where they were now housed in what the director called a case of the “daughter now taking care of the mother.”  Co-Plan is not an abbreviation but a shortening of their mission which he described since 1997, not long after the fall of Communism in the country, as Collaborative Planning.  The school over the last dozen years has focused on studies in regional and local planning, architecture, and engineering with a claim of placing 90% of graduates in jobs either in Albania or abroad, though he lacked data on exactly where the jobs were located or whether or not they were in the students’ field of study, the director conceded.  The Co-Plan mission was strengthening territorial government from the neighborhood to the region, revitalizing economic development, and improving municipal planning and management, including strengthening the nonprofit sector and other aims.

More frankly the director shared with us his perspectives, and more valuable information on the country and the status of the economy and its political life emerged.  There was economic collapse after the fall of Communism more than 25 years ago with much forced migration because no sector, including the government of course, was prepared to rejigger what had been heavily concentrated in the mining and heavy metal exportation sector.  There have been a lot of false starts by the Socialist government including a national airline which bought planes and computers, but has been unable to get any up in the air yet.  His narrative mixed incompetence and corruption in full measure.

The joblessness has led to a growing concern about the aging of the population and the social security system despite the concentration of youth in the current demographics.  One worker is carrying the pension benefits he claimed for every 2.5 or more elderly.  The retirement age is now in the process of moving from 65 to 70.  At the same time, he claimed that only 25 to 30% of the population is paying taxes.  It then emerged that many workers, including professionals from the testimony of most of those working in the room, were recorded by their employers as being paid the national minimum wage (about $250 USD/month) with the rest of their pay off-the-books as part of the broader informalization of the economy.

If that is the case, it indicates that the corruption, if that is what it is, has permeated every level of economic and social life, making the government as much symptom as organizing system.  Protests were scheduled this week that would indicate whether or not there was strength on the streets to call for new elections, though some of our associates saw little difference between the ruling and opposition party, the director seemed to hope it would signal the need for the government to change its ways.  To an outsider, it seemed the problem might be much more extensive than just the rulers on top of the heap.

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Increasing Benefits, Now We’re Talking!

New Orleans     The new Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives has   now submitted the Social Security 2100 Act in the new Congress.  The first proposed expansion of the social security since 1972.  That’s 47 years.  I’m not naïve.  It’s not suddenly going to become law, but finally at long last after decades of neoliberal attacks on anything that included their dreaded word, entitlements, a little bitty step forward has been made.

The bill would provide a 2% across-the-board increase in benefits.  Not huge, but it would help.  Additionally, the level of cost-of-living raises would increase.  Ironically, supporters argue this it to take care of additional health care costs for seniors, which almost seems like a backdoor insurance and hospital subsidy, since all of these seniors are on Medicare, so this rationale is handling copays.  Seems like better healthcare coverage should take of this, but I don’t want to quibble.

There would be an increase in the minimum benefit.  That’s also a good thing for lower waged workers or workers in the informal sector who might have enjoyed more limited times on a regular paycheck.  It also is an indirect subsidy for the gig economy, but I don’t want to quibble.  The bill would cut federal income taxes on Social Security benefits for some 12 million largely middle-income people, according to Robert Pear, the longtime benefit specialist for the New York Times. 

The pay up plan is kind of weird.  On the straight up side, they propose that over 24 years the rate on payroll taxes would go from 12.4% to 14.8%.  Right now, there is a cap on payroll taxes for the well-to-do and rich at $132,900, which makes no sense whatsoever.  The proposal is not a whole lot better, but it is a bit better.

The proposal would create a free-fire zone between $132,900 and $400,00 that would be tax-free, and then payroll over $400,000 would be taxed without a cap.  How in the world does that make sense?  Are campaign donors largely clustered in the doughnut hole gap?  Is that where Democrats think most of their suburban and urban chronic voter base is situated?  The answer has to be somewhere in that hole, because other than that, tell me why high earners should get a break and the rest of us should be cruising towards a 15% bite?

Republicans claimed this plan would “fix Social Security for 75 years.”  I hate to admit it, but some of them are asking the same questions that I’m asking:  why the big handout to middle-and-upper-income retirees, who are not the ones hurting?

Finally, in 2020, we may actually have some things worth fighting for down the road, other than the broken white line in the middle of the highway that we’ve been offered in past cycles.

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Please enjoy The Communists Have the Music from They Might be Giants. Thanks to KABF.

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