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Mon May 06, 2013 at 02:45 PM PDT

Another Crazy Conspiracy Theory

by rclevela

Call me a crazy conspiracy nut if you will, but I’m beginning to wonder if there is more to the Republican obstruction of every attempt to deal with the high unemployment than worry over the deficit or some commitment to ideology. Is it possible that the opposition to legislation that might improve the employment situation in this country is purposeful;  that it suits the Republicans’ business sponsors to have large numbers of Americans out of work?  

At first common wisdom suggested that the Republican obstruction of any new stimulus package was a political ploy; that they hoped the economy would be so bad that Obama would not be re-elected. More recently their actions have been attributed either to an unhealthy obsession with the deficit or to a zealous commitment to shrinking government at whatever cost.

But as any first year business major can tell you, high unemployment can actually be a great boon to employers. After all, in times of full employment, employers have to compete for workers. Wages go up and benefit packages have to be more attractive. But when millions are out of work, wages can be pushed lower and benefits can be reduced. More importantly, profits soar as labor costs are reduced.

Of course, that’s exactly what we see happening. Employers are offering lower and lower salaries (just compare what the average college graduate is offered today as a beginning salary compared to what he or she was offered just a few years ago). Meanwhile the cost of benefits is being increasingly shifted from employers and onto the backs of employees. Isn’t it just possible that the gradual impoverishment of the American worker is not the accidental outcome of market forces, but the result of a deliberate policy intended to reduce the cost of the workforce and increase profitability?

The theory doesn’t demand some secret society made up of shady corporate moguls conspiring with their representatives in darkened rooms. It only requires that the business elite occasionally remind politicians that high unemployment helps keep labor costs low. More to the point, the process helps move labor costs down toward whatever minimum the economic elite believes is optimal. It is also clear that the elite believe labor costs are too high. Just look at their attacks on the pay and benefit packages won by unions. Virtually any working American who makes a decent living today is under attack; and this attack, ironically enough, comes from people who are far wealthier than the folks they’re going after.

Nor do the politicians who support high unemployment face any risk by maintaining the dismal status quo. After all, the occupant of the White House usually gets  blamed for problems in the economy. In fact, even as the Republicans have stymied every attempt to boost job creation in our country, they point at the President’s policies as the source of our economic troubles. They even call their corporate supporters, Job Creators, while their policies effectively keep people out of work and searching for work, for any work, at almost any wage.
You could argue that high unemployment takes a toll on society as a whole and no sensible politician would want it to continue, but there is a portion of the population that is not only not suffering under the current policies but is thriving instead. This is also the population that is financing Republican politicians and supporting their obstructionism on employment policy. They’re not concerned about the state of the economy as a whole. Why should they be? They’re doing fine.

The truth is we now have two economies. One is thriving, while the other struggles; but economic policy is almost entirely dictated by the people in the thriving economy, to the detriment of those unfortunate enough to find themselves locked into the economy that is not.

Maybe I’m reaching to wonder if there is some diabolical plan is at work here, but the business community and the politicians that serve them aren’t ignorant of basic business principles. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that the people who are making out like bandits in this economy are really anxious to change things. And it’s hard to imagine that businesses are anxious to compete against each other again and have to offer higher wages and better benefits. I also can’t imagine that the politicians that the economic elite support and influence are unaware of how their policies serve their sponsors.

On the other hand maybe there’s nothing deliberate about their policies. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that things are working out so well for them.

Discuss

Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 05:30 PM PDT

Divorce:American Style

by rclevela

A funny thing happened in America and no one noticed.

At some point business and morality got a divorce. Nobody told the kids.

We should have seen it coming. Maybe we were too blind to notice or maybe we were hoping it was one of those spats that would just blow over and we’d go out to McDonald's and feast on Happy Meals.

But all the hints were there.

Business kept saying things like, “The business of business is to make money” and, “Corporations are only responsible to their shareholders” and, “The only thing that really matters is the bottom line.”

Meanwhile morality couldn’t stop talking about sex, like that was the only thing she was interested in.

Like I say, we should have seen it coming, but we never believed they would really break up until it was over.

The wreckage is all over the place.

Like Apple that uses all sorts of tax gimmicks to avoid paying more than ten per cent in corporate taxes and refuses to build its products in the country where it makes much of its profits and pays most of its retail employees a substandard wage; all while generating $37 billion dollars in profits and paying its CEO almost half a billion dollars a year.

If business and morality still lived together, maybe Apple would recognize its responsibility to improve the lives of the employees or contribute a fair share of taxes to the country that made its rise possible or even invest some of the billions its holding overseas to avoid taxes to built factories and create good jobs here.

Evidently when morality goes, patriotism gets thrown to the curb too.

If business and morality were still married, maybe Caterpillar would take some of its record profits and share them with its employees instead of freezing their wages for the next six years and making them pay more for their healthcare.

That’s what you do when jobs are scarce and people are afraid and you haven’t got morality to nag at you anymore. You do what you can get away with. So what if it hurts people? So what if your company is participating in a pattern of lowering wages that weakens our country’s economy? It’s every man for himself, right?

After all, thinking about other people, thinking about communities, thinking about the good of the country; that’s so passé. At least since the divorce.

It didn’t used to be this way. Not when morality was still in the house. I remember my first job in 1968. I was sixteen, delivering office supplies for Perry Office Supply in downtown Syracuse. I was making $1.60 an hour, the minimum wage. That’s $10 an hour in 2012 dollars. Imagine a sixteen year old today with no responsibilities making $10 an hour on his first job. Today the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and grown men and women with families to support are lucky to make $9 an hour in Staples, the miracle Mitt Romney wrought.

In 1968 my dad was making the equivalent of $25 per hour plus benefits as a beginning factory worker. Today a new hire in a GM factory makes $18.50 an hour.

Businesses are wondering why no one is buying what they’re selling. Maybe its because none of their employees has any money left over after they pay for rent and food. Maybe if businesses actual felt some responsibility to care about their workers, people would have something extra to spend and demand would increase. But feeling responsibility for others is something morality does and you packed her bags and threw her into the street.

It would be good for the economy and good for business to pay people more, especially at a time when businesses are experiencing record profits. In fact, it would be a smarter policy than deliberately impoverishing your own customer base.

I guess morality got your intelligence in the settlement.

At least now that the divorce has gone through, life is simpler. With morality out of the picture you’ve got no responsibility for anyone but yourself. It’s nice in some ways. You don’t have to worry about whether or not you pay your fair share in taxes. Use your lawyers, take advantage of tax havens, pay less than everyone else, because really, what duty do you have to others or to your country? And without morality around, you can even brag about how little you contribute to the general good. We all know that only the little people pay their fair share of taxes.

And by all means don’t think about the unfortunate when you try to balance the  budget. Just get the figures to work and the hell with whether people go hungry or without healthcare. Make sure you take care of your rich friends so they’ll keep taking care of you, but don’t even think about asking them to help folks who are down and out. Really, who needs them? After all, caring about the poor is something morality would demand and you gagged and bound and dropped her off the end of the pier a few days after the divorce was finalized.

Besides, we don’t want people to develop a sense of dependence, do we? What comes after that? We’ll be expected to be our brother’s keeper? How totally uncool.  

Discuss

Fri May 25, 2012 at 01:34 PM PDT

The Humanities and Our Humanity

by rclevela

The debate about the roles of the humanities seems to be one of those perennial arguments which are never really settled. The same debate raged when I attended  college almost forty years ago, and if anything, the voices have grown louder with time.

Perhaps one reason the question never seems to get settled is that most apologists for the humanities couch their argument in terms foreign to the disciplines they are defending. The humanities, they assure us, provide skills that help workers adapt to an ever changing job market, promote the kind of intellectual flexibility demanded by modern occupations, and open the floodgates of the creativity a modern economy demands. What is noticeably lacking in their arguments is discussion of the value of the humanities in and of themselves, that is, apart from their ability to yield economic rewards.

Of course, to defend the humanities from an economic standpoint makes sense. After all, we live in an age of efficiency. Ours is not just an age that demands such efficiency, but celebrates it. And the goal of this efficiency is to built a smoothly functioning ever expanding economic machine. Our culture is intent upon drawing every aspect of our lives into that economic dynamic. The justification for virtually every decision we make is economic and increasingly the bent of our educational efforts is to produce ever more efficient tools for the pursuit those economic goals. We have been reduced to creators of value, whether we create value directly by becoming effective means of production or indirectly by being compliant consumers of what others produce. Whether we are more than this seems beyond the scope of the debate.

But stop for a moment and look at our lives. As Americans we work more hours a week than any other nation on earth. We also work more days of the year than any other people on earth. When we’re not at work, increasing numbers of us continue to work from home. Even our free time is devoted to creating wealth through consumption. We are seduced by ‘necessities’ our ancestors would have hardly recognized, all of which are designed to kidnap our imagination and direct our desires, and all in order to enrich others. Yet in the midst of this pursuit we are unhappy. A recent study revealed that a larger percentage of Americans suffers from depression than in any other region on earth.

Against this stands the humanities.

The humanities affirm those things in life that are not about production or consumption. They affirm the wonder of a well-devised novel, a poem’s ability to touch the soul, a work of art’s strength to move us, philosophy’s power challenge and inform us.

More importantly, the study of the humanities allows us to carve out islands in our lives that have nothing to do with productivity or consumption; islands we explore for the pure joy of the adventure. We can write a short story or act in a community play, sculpt or paint for our own pleasure, listen to a symphony or play in a local dive. The goal is to have some part of our life where we engage in a activity because we love it, not because we might grow rich from it or because we have been enticed by another to enrich them.  

The humanities also caress and nurture the higher aspects of our being by inviting us to reflect long and hard on life and not just be passive receptacles for the constant media stream that endlessly cries for our attention.

If the humanities vanish, whether from our colleges or public schools, where will our children discover the joy of painting a picture or playing a fine piece of music? Where will they wrestle with life’s meaning or learn to hear the cry of a poet? Where will they struggle to understand a tragedy and in the process perhaps confront their own demons? And where will they discover what it means to be human, not just units of production or the hapless targets of marketers?

I won’t argue that reserving a place for the humanities in our schools and colleges will have some great economic benefit nor do I care to do so. But I will argue that the humanities humanize us and offer us a place of refuge in a culture that threatens to devour our souls.

Discuss

There was a time in America when tax cuts to the wealthy may have made sense. Wealthy individuals sitting on accumulated wealth would have naturally looked for a place to invest those funds. They might have decided to expand the factory they owned or build a new one in the next city. They might have invested in another local business, allowing it to expand and hire new workers. The benefit of this system to American workers was simple and direct. Wealth was either invested or wasted, investments were local or regional,  and they meant more jobs for Americans.

That time is long past. Today the wealthy pour their accumulating riches into a dizzying array of financial instruments. They invest in options, swaps, and futures. They invest in asset backed securities, credit derivatives and other structured products. They put their money in hedge funds and currency markets. Most of these investments are nothing more than gambles on things like the future price of commodities, whether the value of a stock or bond will rise or fall, whether a foreign currency will strengthen or decline. These are not investments that build factories or expand businesses. They are little more than a high stakes poker game, not the source of jobs.

When the wealthy do invest in a business, as often as not they invest it overseas in multinational or foreign corporations. Some of their additional wealth from tax breaks and lower rates may actually go into building a factory or expanding the workforce, but the chances that the factory they build is here in America are slim to none, and it’s not American workers who are being hired. We’re giving tax breaks to millionaires while cutting government services and benefits to Americans so factories can be built in China.

You wouldn’t know that from listening to some politicians. They would like you to believe that cutting taxes on the wealthy will unleash their job creating powers here at home. Maybe that’s what would have happened in 1950, but that’s not what happens today. Today the extra income we lavish on the wealthy ends up either in the vast gambling hall of modern financial products or creating jobs in countries where people work for slave wages. If lower taxes for the wealthy actually produced jobs, then the Bush tax cuts we’ve had for the last ten years should have produced some by now.

A better way to help our economy would be to rescind the Bush tax cuts and end the lower tax rates for capital gains and investment income for wealthy Americans. We could use the revenue to build needed infrastructure and put some of the millions of unemployed construction workers back to work. We could also use the revenues to hire back some of the 600,000 state and local employees that have been laid off over the last few years. If we did that, we would reduce unemployment rolls, increase tax revenues for struggling local governments, spur our economy, and reduce the deficit. all at the same time.

That would be a real investment in America, its workers, and the health of our economy. The only jobs that might be lost would be some of the dealers in that vast casino where the wealthy gamble against each other as millions of Americans wonder how to pay their bills.

Discuss
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