Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is the worth of a man?

I wrote the following draft in 2006, and then set it aside, because I couldn't reach a conclusion, except that this is wrong:

This has bothered me for some time now. When I was young, and more, when my dad was young, a man could do a day's physical work, and earn enough money to buy himself food, and a place to sleep. This is what Roger Miller sang about in "King of the Road": "two hours of pushin' broom Buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room." And if you had a skill, or a college education, you could earn more than that, maybe enough to buy a house and start a family.

Sometime between then and now, it's gotten too expensive to be a working American. Now, a man doing a day's physical work doesn't make enough money to pay the rent, and if he has a family, he and his wife both have to work two jobs just to get from one end of the month to another. And the kids stay home alone after school because there's no money for child care.

What happened? I'm afraid globalization is what happened. Factory jobs went from a place where people want safe working conditions, and a break for lunch, and a pension, and maybe to buy a house - to places where people are happy to work for $5 a day or less, and don't complain about working conditions or lunch breaks. This is why the stuff at Wal-Mart is so cheap, and not just Wal-Mart.

In the case of jobs that can't be exported, like fruit and vegetable picking, we imported the people instead: that's what the illegal immigrants everyone's talking about are doing. And because they're illegal, they're doing it for less than minimum wage - how can they complain? So to keep the produce we eat cheap enough for us to buy it, we pay the pickers so little that Americans can't afford to do the work. The immigrants live four or six to a room, and send money home. And a job that Americans did seventy years ago (what do you think the Okies came to California to do, during the Dust Bowl?) is no longer an option, even if Americans wanted to do it. Some people say Americans "won't take those jobs." Well, they certainly won't at those wages.

It's not just factory jobs anymore. Eighteen years ago I became a computer programmer, because it was a good career path. Now, there are damn few entry level computer jobs; they've gone to India where they can get a kid with a college degree in computer science for $20,000 a year. I've read complaints that American kids aren't studying engineering, especially computer engineering, in college. Why should they? The jobs are in India. And senior people with long careers are told they're "not measuring up", and then replaced by a college grad for a quarter of the salary.

That was in 2006.  It's now 2014.  The intervening 8 years have made it brutally clear that the America I grew up in no longer exists.  We've reverted to the America my grandparents grew up in - historians call it "The Gilded Age."  The age where all employment was "at will," there were no work rules and no safety requirements, and if you got sick you went home to recover or die, without pay, because there was no "sick leave" and only the rich could afford doctors.  Check it out on Wikipedia - the first pre-paid health care arrangements coalesced into Blue Cross in the 1930s, and employer insurance came in during World War II because wartime regulations didn't allow salary raises (see the Wikipedia article cited above).

Income in America today is appallingly unequal.  I'd usually cite the research, but we've all read it.  The rich now own Congress - hell, the rich now are Congress.  And the Supreme Court supports them.  Justice Scalia goes duck hunting with them.  Sure the judiciary is independent.  
How can we be proud of an America where you're either Mark Zuckerberg, with more money than he knows what to do with at age 30, or you're working two jobs at $8 an hour and still can't pay the rent, like far too many people in the San Francisco Bay Area?  When did we decide that $2,500 a month was a reasonable rent for a 1 bedroom apartment?  When did it become "reasonable" to pay a few bankers millions of dollars a year for bankrupting our economy through fraud?  

What do we do about this, and how?  I wish to God I had answers.  I hope to God that the money we've saved up will last us the rest of our lives; it seems like a lot to me, who grew up with my mother making all my clothes, and canning fruit every fall; but we're still comparatively young, and we have no kids to "help us out."  Not that anybody's kids can help them out when the kids are also making $8 an hour, if they have a job at all.  

Whatever the solution is, if there is one, we have to work together to do it.  The rich have gotten where they are by scratching each other's backs, and setting less wealthy people against each other.  In case you wondered, that's where all the rhetoric about "welfare queens" and the "lazy poor" comes from.  Until the rest of us realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with "the 1%", and start collaborating on solutions, things will stay exactly as they are.  There are more of us than there are of them; but they're really good at the old "divide and conquer" routine.


  1. I see our present dilemma as a direct result of the Republican policy tacticians of the last half century. They plotted the overthrow of the social legislation of the Depression and post-War years, and went about it single-mindedly.

    One by one, the protections and initiatives which brought us the broad prosperity of the post-War period have been eliminated or set aside.

    The strategy was simple. Kill off the unions, drive down wages and benefits, export jobs and capital. Privatize every public service (that's still a work in progress). Control the ballet box. Control the media. Discredit science. Blame the intellectuals. Marginalize minorities. Play national economies against one another. Buy Washington.

    This is a pretty crude cartoon, but valid enough. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal lent is lead editorial column to one of the Koch brothers.

    "Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs--even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished."

    That's enough phony spin to make you permanently dizzy. And yet this man is controlling many of the state and national elections in our country.

  2. Oh, you and I are 100% on the same page on this one. It took a rich man with a conscience and a sense of honor - Teddy Roosevelt - to start shutting down the last Gilded Age. Where is our Teddy Roosevelt? (metaphorically speaking)

  3. Aldous Huxley noticed long ago that whoever controled the media would control elections and the government. I'm only surprised that it's taken this long.

    The surprising thing about the plutocrats is the stupidity of them. Henry Ford knew that the people who built his Model T's had to be able to buy them or he wouldn't have a market. Who do today's capitalists think will buy their toys and gadgets when they've reduced workers worldwide to the lowest level possible?