Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where we are at, Part Two

Back in April, as part of taking a "not altogether unsympathetic look at the teabaggers," I wrote this:
Now, remember when Barack Obama was attacked during the campaign for referring to people in western Pennsylvania as “clinging to their guns and their religion?” The point was clumsily expressed and deserved a clearer explanation, but the point was entirely valid: The people in the area were suffering real economic dislocations. Jobs were disappearing and more importantly for the purpose here, the sort of stable communities on which those people had depended for generations were disappearing along with them. So of course they clung to their guns and their religion. When you are under pressure, constantly stressed, when the things you have counted on seem to be slipping away, you are going to cling ever more tightly to those things you have left, those parts of your world that still make sense, that you still can control. It is a natural, normal, entirely human reaction.
I suggested then that such stresses were part of what was driving the TPers. In the interim it has become clear that those kind of stresses, those kinds of dislocations, which affect not only TPers but all of us, are not only going to continue, they are going to intensify. From the NY Times last week:
Temporary workers are starting to look, well, not so temporary. ...

This is bad news for the nation’s workers, who are already facing one of the bleakest labor markets in recent history. Temporary employees generally receive fewer benefits or none at all, and have virtually no job security. It is harder for them to save. And it is much more difficult for them to develop a career arc while hopping from boss to boss.

“We’re in a period where uncertainty seems to be going on forever,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So this period of temporary employment seems to be going on forever.”
"Seems" is a very poorly chosen word here, because all indications are that it's not going to change any time soon - if it does at all. The Times notes that at this point after the recession of July 1990 to March 1991, not quite 11% of new private-sector jobs were temporary. For the recession of of March-November 2001, the figure was just over 7%. In 2010, over 26% of all new private-sector jobs were temporary.
Temporary employees still make up a small fraction of total employees, but that segment has been rising steeply over the past year. “It hints at a structural change,” said Allen L. Sinai, chief global economist at the consulting firm Decision Economics. Temp workers “are becoming an ever more important part of what is going on,” he said. ...

And even before the recession, workers were learning that lifelong employment was disappearing along with phone booths and Filofax organizers
as corporations increasingly gear operations toward outsourced temp labor, making it easier to hire and fire people and cut benefits. Put another way, their goal is to increase their profits at the expense of working people. And they've been doing very well indeed at that:
Since their cyclical low in the fourth quarter of 2008, profits have grown for seven consecutive quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.
The third quarter of 2010 was the best quarter for corporate profits ever. Meanwhile, according to the Census Bureau, real median household income in 2009 was 5% below where it was in 1999. The Bureau says the difference isn't statistically significant, but even if that's true, it still means that average families have gotten precisely nowhere for 10 years - while poverty has been rising more or less continuously across that same time. (Bureau figures from pages 7 and 14, respectively, of this .pdf report.) And long-term unemployment is not only the worst ever, it's so bad that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is about to change the way it measures it because no one knows how bad it really is: Instead of the maximum number of weeks someone can be described as being unemployed being "99 weeks and over," the new measure will be "260 weeks and over." Five full years.

But hey, who cares? Go with the flow! Get with the program!
[T]he whole notion of what constitutes a permanent job may simply be changing. Workers “need to expect that their lives and jobs will change much more often than they have in the past,” said Jonas Prising, president of the Americas at Manpower,
trying to sound as if he has no vested interest in that development. Still, as the Times says, there are workers who
are starting to face the prospect that they could move among temporary assignments for the rest of their careers.
What does that mean for us, for our futures not only as individuals but as members of a broader society? I considered that idea some time ago - seventeen years, in fact - in the course of a personal letter to a friend in the UK. I was discussing what was the then-recent passage of NAFTA.
That, in turn, raises another issue which predates NAFTA (and GATT) but is closely connected to them: loss of community or, rather, the creation of what I call rootless workers. For a few decades now, capital has become more and more mobile, shifting from place to place more by electronic transfers than by the movement of actual bonds, bills, and coins. (You’ve heard of “virtual reality;” this is like virtual money.) Corporations have become freer than ever to chase around a country or the world, leaping from enterprise to enterprise, even industry to industry, in pursuit of profit. The result has been regional booms and busts as one area competes with others to see who could offer the most to Big Business in a downward spiral of self-flagellation that inevitably left the losers gasping for economic breath - and, often, the “winners” with a temporary if not downright pyrrhic “victory.” (Consider Texas, whose “boom towns” of the ‘70s became the empty husks of the ‘80s; consider Korea, whose “economic miracle” of the ‘80s, built on the infusion of transnational capital in search of low-wage labor, is turning sour as corporations move on to the Philippines in search of even lower-wage labor.)

The corporate response to this undeniable reality has been to trumpet “emerging opportunities,” “growth regions,” and “market expansion.” Implicit in all this staged euphoria is the notion that working stiffs, ordinary folks, everyday people, or whatever other folksy label we want to put on the 90% of us left out of the considerations of the powerful, are no different than the parts on a machine: replaceable, disposable, even interchangeable. And that the only way for us to survive in this bold new economic future is to be as mobile as capital - that is, to chase work around the country or the world as rapidly as money chases profit. We dare not attach ourselves to a place, a people, a community, or even a particular sort of work because we may have to abandon it on short notice for the sake of our own and our families’ survival, perpetually chasing behind - always, of course, behind - capital in what gives a new, more sinister meaning to “the rat race.”

We have to drink the shallow economic water that runs on the surface of a local economy because if we dare to set down roots and try to drink from a deeper source, we may find the watershed pumped away to feed another, distant, plain, leaving the earth cracked, dry, and barren and ourselves (and the stable communities we hoped to find) to wither. We must, that is, become nomads - no, not even nomads, which implies purposeful ranging over well-known territory, but mere wanderers, emotionally isolated in order to be emotionally insulated against the constant risk and frequent reality of loss. We must be homeless, placeless, rootless.

If that sounds melodramatic it’s because it describes not what’s fully formed today but the end of a process that has been going for some time and will only be accelerated by NAFTA and GATT, which make the macroeconomics of transnational corporations and not the microeconomics of actual human beings not merely the central (that’d be nothing new) but increasingly the only economic standard of measure. On the other hand, if it sounds melancholic, that’s because it is.
And the fact is, as our corporate overlords shrug and say "that's just the way it's going to be, hopping from one low-paying temporary job lacking benefits, health insurance, or a retirement plan to another just like it, so suck it up," the damn fact is, that future of rootless workers, of wanderers over the economic landscape, of "periods of uncertainty" that last lifetimes, of atomizing communities coupled with tight, even irrational, grips on "guns and religion" (and often enough, alcohol) as emotional crutches - the damn fact is, that future, that "melodramatic, melancholic" future, is exactly what they are talking about.

Remember that survey everyone kept talking about, the one that showed FauxNews viewers to be the least informed (or the most misinformed, if you prefer)? It included a question asking if the US economy was improving or not. If you said "no," you were considered uninformed. Because, you see, the measure - the measure - of the economy used in the survey had nothing to do with unemployment or underemployment, nothing to do with foreclosures, nothing to do with flat real incomes, nothing, that is, to do with the microeconomics of real people. No, the measure was the "official" one, the macroeconomic one, based on GDP growth.

The measure approved by economists, the measure embraced by corporations as their profits grow and what they give back to their employees for the work they do in producing that profit shrinks, the measure enthused over by the rich as income inequality continues to grow to heights not seen since the Roaring '20s and greater even than that found in most all industrialized and many poor nations - the measure that increasingly is a reflection of the wealth of the powerful and is increasingly distant from the lives of the vast majority of us - that is the sole measure on which the health of the economy is to be judged.

Because we know who must be protected.

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