Monday, June 27, 2011

Odds Are, You're Getting Screwed

TRUE LIFE: I'm pretty law abiding, and I tend to default to the assumption that authority figures and the rules by which they abide are generally interested in my interests.  Over the past couple years, with recent acceleration, I've been trying hard to question that more often, because I simply don't believe it is the case any more.  This is harder than one might think.  Here in America, that's generally the line we get: when Abraham Lincoln said that our government was one "of the people, by the people and for the people," he was giving voice to something I think most Americans - certainly then, often now - believe.  I still believe that most people who work in government, which is to say, the civil and foreign service, who predate and outlast every Presidential Administration and Congress, are generally good, and generally want to ensure that government of, by and for the people does not perish from this Earth.  The problem is that politics are not government, and the direction of our politics have brought in another threat.  I will not go so far as to say that an encroaching corporatocracy is new - Tocqueville referred to the danger in 1835 - but I feel that it presents a greater danger now than it has before.

There are plenty of problems with corporations being granted political rights properly reserved for citizens via the offensive and ridiculous Citizens United vs. FEC decision, but not all power is political, and it is in the context of this apolitical power that my concerns emerge.  Economic oppression is a longstanding tool of those who would like to consolidate power amongst a select few, and we are in the midst of some of the most flagrant use of this tool in memory.  While Congress whines endlessly about jobs while not bringing any jobs bills to the floor, they ignore the fact that they may not have any ability to create jobs, besides the less-sustainable one-off jobs created under the auspices of government.  Corporations need to hire people, and they're not doing that.  "But they can't!  The economy!  It is bad!"  Yeah, about that:

Click to magnify
These two charts are compliments of Mother Jones' excellent collection of 12 angry-making graphs, and what you see here is a problem.  In the GDP graph, you see everyone's GDP dip in roughly the same way, and then recover roughly the same way.  In the next graph, you see unemployment dip in reaction to the general trend of the GDP drop...and everyone who isn't the United States recover in roughly the same way.  The United States has dropped and stayed dropped.  Your impulse here may be to say "but the US economy was the epicenter of the recession," and while you might be right to point to US financial fuckery as a primary driver of the recession, you would be incorrect to believe that means it is limited to the US in effect.  The three Big Bads of the recession were the housing bubble's burst, the financial sector's collapse (largely contingent on the housing issue), and the auto industry's whatever the hell that was.  These are three extremely internationalist industries; though it was the US housing market that went kablooey, the financial markets related to it were sectioning up bad mortgages to make them into "good" assets that could be poured into all kinds of financial endeavors.  (For a truly excellent summary of the housing crisis and how interwoven with the financial crash it was, I recommend NBC's documentary House of Cards.  It is presented clearly enough for even non-economics-wonks to understand.  I cannot recommend this enough.)  In any case, these were industries whose well-being affects the whole world - this is borne out by the GDP graph above - but only the US has stayed decimated by the effects.

Now, if the GDP is on the rebound [NB: I do not think that the GDP is permanently on the rebound, and I think we are on track for another recession.  No real efforts have been made to reform the systems and industries that caused the crash, and the recovery is not sustainable.  This is why Congress needs to stop fucking around and get to work.], why aren't American employers hiring more people and thus creating more jobs?  Leaving aside accusations about people relying overmuch on the government, there's a simple answer: because shit isn't that bad for people in charge.  Take a look at the increase in CEO pay to the left here.  As you can see, CEO pay has been skyrocketing since the 80s, with some kind of nitrous booster kicking in around 1995 or so.  That's (theoretically) good!  There are people making lots of money!  Prosperity! 

Not quite.

Two important things.  One is a good, hard look at what this graph is actually measuring, which is CEO pay relative to net profit, which is the money made after all the bills get paid, basically.  In 1960, for every $1 of net profit, your average CEO could expect to make about $100.  In 2000, that ratio jumped sharply, so a CEO could expect to make $500 or more per $1 net profit.  This graph also stops around the early 2000s, but the trend has continued, even into 2010, when CEO pay jumped 11%.  The second important thing is more damning, and we can see it clearly in this graph:
This graph shows us that the worker's share is doing the opposite of the CEO's share, and almost as dramatically.  It is also worth noting that recessions (shown here as the grey bands) were not a reliable indicator of workers getting screwed, and in fact were more likely to show the opposite effect...until 2010.  In 2010, we see that workers' decline in percentage of a share in profits continues its decline through the recession, and then drops even more sharply once it ends. Got a job?  Odds are you're getting screwed.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this kind of movement, but I think most of them are addressed in Mother Jones' excellent "All Work and No Pay: the Great Speedup," which you should take a few minutes to pop over and read.  It is the article that the above-linked charts accompany.  The speedup, as the MJ article explains, is where employers demand ever more of their employees without a corresponding increase in pay.  We have given in to the dialogue that if you're not checking emails 24/7 and multitasking your face off, you are somehow lazy, ceding complete control of our lives to our work.  It is the American Dream's work ethic on every steroid imaginable and stripped of every incentive - from "with hard work and perseverance, you can gain a free life" to "you must work hard and persevere."  Our willingness to accept this has made it possible for employers to simply pile the work of laid off employees on those who survived the cuts, knowing that they will do whatever they must to complete the work shoveled onto their plates.  I saw this first hand when Rich was laid off from his employer of 15 years.  He kept in contact with his team, and they were absolutely wrecked with the sudden influx of work from having their group's population decimated.  However, they figured out some way to do it, because "at least they had jobs."  So say we all.

The "at least you have a job" argument is a compelling one, and a product of the above perversion of the American Dream.  The idea is of course that having a job is better for both soul and pocketbook, and this seems logical.  Unfortunately, our collective inattention to the preservation of a legally mandated living wage means that this is not always the case.  It feels a bit strange to link Cracked here, but they published an excellent article about "Five Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor," which describes five things that comprise the absolute tippety-top of the iceberg of economic oppression.  It's worth a read (cuss word warning, if you need such a thing).  When you are not paid a living wage, you essentially descend into a vortex of suck that makes it more or less impossible to attain any kind of existence that would give you the luxury of having a political voice. Paper after paper after study after study indicates that the people who are most likely to get out and participate politically are the ones who have the social and economic capital to do so - the ones who can miss a day of work, or make large donations to candidates or organizations.  Poor people simply do not have this luxury; when even a perfect week's work does not represent subsistence to you, you cannot afford time to read about or participate in political life, which generates the government that represents your only hope at changing your situation in a solid and permanent way.  Once you're screwed, odds are, you're staying that way.  With this in mind, is "a job" - as in, any job - really such a guaranteed blessing?

I'm not sure what the solution is - part of it is instituting a living wage requirement - but a big step would be dropping the hyperbole in which we discuss our working conditions.  Demanding that employers pay a living wage is not stealing profit from them; it's paying workers fairly for the work that makes profit possible.  Removing corporate tax loopholes and tax breaks for the richest of our society is not theft, it's investing via our government in workers who will be able to work longer, healthier, and better to - again - make profit possible.  I believe that capitalism holds the most potential for the achievement of human greatness, but that pinnacle of human excellence is not as excellent if it stands amongst the broken bodies of the rest of humanity.  Its risk is that it demands a continual fixation on the short term and a hyper-individualistic focus.  As discussed before, being poor allows money to dominate your life for the sake of a mean existence; one might argue that the rich suffer the same hobbling, continually absorbed in the quest for ever more money.  Democracy, on the other hand, relies on a concern for the common good, and consideration on the society as a whole.  We cannot realistically presume that after spending 364 days and 23.5 hours of every year driven by the economic mindset demanded by capitalism, that for the one half hour it takes to vote every year (or two, or four), we will suddenly find every American imbued with patriotic love for their fellow man, casting a vote for the most benevolent and generous politician on the ballot.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Josie. Well done.

    - caesar