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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Workin' For A Living

I think this piece in The New Republic really gets to the heart of the real problem with the supposed "economic recovery" under which we are living.

It's not necessarily that there aren't any jobs or even enough jobs, though there are not as many of them as we would like there to be. Though the business cycle had been on a downstroke and that may be reversing itself, the problems manifesting themselves in this economy appear to be systemic rather than merely cyclical.

It's that "good jobs" are going away and are being replaced by lousy ones. And not merely in the wage sense. Jobs that provide employment security are being replaced by jobs that don't. Jobs that provide health benefits for health families are being replaced by jobs that don't. These facts are not reflected in unemployment numbers, even before you consider that people whose unemployment benefits are exhausted aren't considered "unemployed" anymore.

When I was born, the country's largest employer was General Motors. For all the bad that the corporate congolomerates of the past have done, an autoworker at GM could own a home, support a family, and have some hope that his (and it usually was "his") children could aspire to an even better life. If one played by the rules, while you weren't likely to get truly rich, one could carve out a decent, respectable living.

Now the largest employer in the nation is Wal-Mart. Low wages, no benefits, and no security. You can't really raise a family on what they pay without another job.

And what have we gotten for this tradeoff?

Some of us have done very well. But not everyone rises to the top in lucrative professions. And if, for whatever reason, you don't quite make it under the new winner-take-all rules, your future is grim.

I think this was, more than any sense of generalized indignities suffered by low-wage workers and as much as how difficult it is to live off the fruits of low-wage labor, the impression I came away with from reading Nickel & Dimed. That for more and more people, whether they know it now or not, that this is their future. You may not exactly starve to death, but you better not get sick, you better not get into a car accident, and you better not complain about it to the wrong person.

Even if you can survive with your job intact, if you must work for your money, our society is building a systemic bias against you and in favor of those with the means to make money work for them.

In other words, all our modern technology and advancements nonetheless seem to be pushing things in America back towards some newfangled Gilded Age.

I know all of my readers are ready for me to lay into President Bush immediately, but this phenomenon is bigger than any president or administration. This trend was gathering steam when Bill Clinton was in the White House too as well, and I don't expect John Kerry to do much about it either in the event he gets to live in the White House come next year. Both parties appear to have been captured; for now, I prefer not to think about what might need to happen to cause that to no longer be the case.


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