You’re not fooled. You read the news. You know that “the unemployment rate” is higher than it’s been in decades. Chances are, you also recognize that calling it “the unemployment rate” turns the distress of real people into a tame abstraction.
No doubt, like me, you’re asking Why? What’s gone wrong?
Of course: “the recession.” But officially at least, the recession’s over. The banks and corporations are filling their piggybanks again. Yet working folks are still hearing a pitiful clink or two when they shake their piggybank. Incomes have not risen in real terms for a decade or more.
Back in the 1970s the Department of Labor already had its finger on the problem. There were just enough new jobs being created for new workers entering the workforce. But the quality of the jobs was under stress. Read: the quality of the jobs was declining. Since then, as you know, more people are working part-time, without benefits, for lower pay, and with signicantly less job security.
What’s wrong? The President has appointed a new economics advisor from GE, and today’s explanation is that “American competitiveness” needs to improve. But again, the corporations are flush: only their profits are coming from investments – and labor – abroad. To put it more directly, with less denial, American business have been sending money and jobs overseas.
They’re not being simply malicious. They’re responding to the difference in labor costs around the world – global wage arbitrage. China, India (“Chindia”) and other countries have opened up vast new pools of cheap labor.
To sweeten the pot, these available workers are usually docile. They’re grateful for a wage, they put up with the grind of the sweatshop. They know they have to eat and can be replaced on the assembly line.
If you look past polite denial, the reality is that you work or you starve. That is, you die. Your kids die. Or you survive in squalor, in a state of social death.
This ultimate, disguised fear of death sends a powerful electric current through the subject of jobs. Not surprisingly, those on top feel the threat too, though for them the fear is that labor’s costs and demands may rise, profits may fall, and the boss, too, may fall. This is one reason for the relentless campaign against unions around the world. Colombia is notorious for the murder of labor organizers. At a comparable stage this country saw the same sort of violence, as Howard Zinn famously documented in his People’s History of the US.
The global wage arbitrage and means that for the forseeable future, incomes will be rising in developing countries and declining here. Usually we focus on the need to create more jobs, which turns the problem into a manageable task, even if we never seem to reach the goal. But change the perspective. Over the horizon in the bigger picture, you can see that forces in America will be working to drive down the number of well-paid workers until wage differences come into balance.
That means triage.
You see it everywhere. Layoffs. Declining benefits. Givebacks. Automation. Union-busting. The firm gives you a severance check and sends you to India to teach your job skills to the Indian who will replace you (no kidding).
Of course the quality of public life suffers. Less tax revenue means fewer government services and a tattered safety net. Education, the route to skills, costs more. As in the past, the increased competition and insecurity mean increased hostiity to immigrants and felllow workers, including union members and public employees with secure health and retirement benefits – even though the system is actively scheming to gut their contracts and pensions.
Under pressure, in short, people are tempted to turn against organizations that have improved the workplace. You don’t see protests in the streets against corporate greed and criminality. There are no sit-down strikes of the sort that won auto makers the right to organize during the Great Depression.
There are practical reasons for this slowmotion crisis. The US has the weakest labor laws of any advanced industrial country. Most media in the nation is owned by four multinational corporations with no incentive to publicize the needs of labor. Schoolkids have little or no exposure to economic or labor history. The list could go on, with denial everywhere.
But that’s why it’s important to keep triage in view. Triage is culling the herd. Triage is finally about survival.
People unconsciously in the grip of survival dread may drift along in strenuous denial – who can bear to think about death setting off to work in the morning? But some people will turn aggressive, as if to get control of fate by turning flight into fight: turning fear and depression into outrage. We see it in audiences eager to be pumped up by ranting politicians and shock jocks. Their outrage combines a sense of victimization with righteous fury. It’s a pill for self-esteem.
But as history keeps showing us, throwing wild punches at shadowy scapegoats all too often shows you a shocking black eye when you look in the mirror in the morning. And it does nothing to stop triage.