Abandoning Sisyphus

It didn’t take twenty years here to figure it out. Hollywood is a strange place, where things are always shifting and friends come and go. Everyone moves on, all the time, and a decade or more ago it was hanging out with the industry crowd. There was that end-of-season wrap party for the popular television sitcom at Musso and Frank – a bit odd for a kid from Pittsburgh, but such things happen when, after the second divorce, you find yourself dating a British psychotherapist whose clientele was the mid-level executives at Warner Brothers out back over the hill in Burbank. Of course they were depressed. Making movies and television shows is a crap-shoot, as no one really knows what will take off and what will just die in front of your eyes, and all the while you’ve been selling everyone on your flawless instincts about such things. Maybe you even believed that nonsense, that at your core you knew what was what in the world. Yeah, well, dream on. That British woman had a hard job.

But there were other hard jobs, like being the line producer of that television series, which sounds like a cool creative thing. It isn’t. The line producer keeps track of production costs in real time – he’s a master of spreadsheets and gets to explain to the creative types that no, you really can’t do that stunning wedding scene in the final episode – we don’t have the funds. He’s the resident spoil-sport. Then there are the crafts people, the guys who build the sets and rig the lighting and such things. They work damned hard, and see their best work, not the standard sets, dismantled each week as if it never existed. That must be depressing. Perhaps they drive home to the stucco ranch house in the Valley each night muttering about Sisyphus and that rock. We all got gloriously drunk at that wrap party that night long ago, even those of us who just came as outsiders. The reward of hard work is ambiguity and a few memories, soon forgotten – and then everyone drifted apart. That was years ago.

Then there was the studio guitarist, who could sight-read anything cold and was the go-to guy for all kinds of session work, no matter what style of music was called for, who moved on to being music director for a few television drama series, then did a film score for a movie, an intense drama featuring two bankable semi-big stars, which unfortunately went straight to cable, and then started his own software company. Yeah, music and Foley effects and all the rest really can be automated. He worked damned hard too, probably because he grew up in Cleveland, and getting together with him to run down a few jazz classics each weekend was great fun, although there were the inevitable disagreements about chord-voicing and tempos and whatnot.

That too was a long time ago. People drift apart, and there the problem was France. He wasn’t impressed with the tales of the December trips to Paris each year, because the French were lazy bums who knew nothing about real work. Their six weeks of paid vacation each year, guaranteed, said it all – those people didn’t love work. They’d never achieve anything. Hell, they never had achieved anything, and we had to save their sorry butts in two World Wars, and he didn’t buy the counterarguments. Those were obvious. What’s so wonderful about work, in and of itself? If you work hard enough to provide the kind of life you want, and you’re happy enough with family and a good book, and a bit of stinky cheese and an excellent bottle of wine, what’s the problem? But he’d have none of it. Look at American productivity! He’s didn’t like the answer to that. Yeah, so what’s so good about productivity? Does productivity make you happy?

That ended that. Music doesn’t necessarily bring people together, but these tales of the minor details of life in Hollywood are emblematic of the situation being discussed in America now. People here work hard, and many of them wonder why they do, while others wonder why everyone doesn’t see the virtue of hard work – and an end in and of itself, not as a means to anything else. There’s the dignity of work, and if virtue is its own reward, the same can be said of work.

It’s easy to say such things, but for a decade or more wages have been flat for almost all Americans, save for the Wall Street crowd, and with the collapse of the economy and the putative recovery, things have only gotten worse. Those known as the One Percent got almost all of the gains in the recovery, and jobs are still scarce, with ten or twelve million Americans out of work for so long now that there’s no chance they’ll ever work again, and millions working full time now, or at two or three jobs, at wages that don’t even get them a penny above the official poverty level, so they’re on food stamps, which Congress just cut again. Three quarters of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, but that’s not going to happen – major corporations find that notion appalling, as that’s just thievery, a mandate to grab their hard-earned profits, taking from the successful and just handing to the whiners. There’s the dignity of work too, but more than a few McDonalds and Wal-Mart workers are discovering you really can’t feed the kids and pay the rent with dignity. You can’t buy groceries with dignity points, so more and more Americans are feeling like that Sisyphus fellow – roll that big rock up the hill each day, with honor and dignity, and it rolls back down each night while you’re asleep, and the next morning you do it again, endlessly, for no reason other than that’s what you do. And that’s if you have a job. Many don’t. The reward of hard work is ambiguity, at best. By the way, Sisyphus was being punished by the gods for chronic deceitfulness. At least he got an explanation.

Yeah, but everyone should work hard. Even the people here in Hollywood agree on that, and that means the government should do something, anything, to help create jobs, even crappy jobs. That’s where the discussion gets odd:

Given the hyper-partisan atmosphere surrounding the Affordable Care Act, what some call “Obamacare,” the reaction to this week’s Congressional Budget Office economic forecast verged on the inevitable.

The report by the nonpartisan CBO showed that, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, Americans would choose to work fewer hours over the coming decades. The amount of time shaved from U.S. time cards, according to the CBO, would be the equivalent of somewhere between 2 million and 2.5 million full-time jobs.

It was the birth of 1,000 screaming headlines, press releases and, of course, online campaign ads.

This is followed by a discussion of one of those ads, but something else is going on:

The problem here isn’t with the math, but the overall assertion that the ACA will cost the state, or the country, jobs. That’s not what the CBO report says.

“It comes down to the difference between labor supply and labor demand,” said Andrew Brod, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “When we talk about job losses – people leaving employment involuntarily – we’re talking about reducing labor demand by employers.”

The CBO report, he said, is speaking to labor supply and whether people are choosing to work or not.

That’s a different thing entirely. The report does not say more than two million jobs will disappear. The report says people will have more options, other than rolling that rock up that hill again, every day, for no reason at all, and being reminded of the dignity of all work no matter how pointless it really is. It’s a matter of getting the facts straight:

Politifact took Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson to task for saying “The CBO now says the president’s health care law will cut the number of full-time jobs in the United States by 2.3 million by 2021.” In response, Politifact rated that statement “mostly false” and added, “The word ‘cut’ sends the message that jobs are being taken away, but that’s not the case. On top of that, the statement confuses the number of jobs with the number of workers, and more specifically, the number of hours worked.”

The Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler took on a passel of similar claims, writing, “First, this is not about jobs offered by employers. It’s about workers – and the choices they make.” Kessler awards “Three Pinocchios” to anyone intentionally conflating jobs and the number of employees.

And finally, FactCheck.org pilloried House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for tweeting, “The CBO’s latest report confirms what Republicans have been saying for years now….Under Obamacare, millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs and those who keep them will see their hours and wages reduced.” FactCheck notes that the CBO says the drop in full-time workers “is ‘almost entirely’ due to a reduction in ‘the amount of labor that workers choose to supply.’”

Salon’s Brian Beutler puts it this way:

Imagine someone who’s been employed consistently for 25 years. He doesn’t earn big wages, but he’s frugal and would have enough money saved for a modest retirement but for the fact that insurance on the individual market will cost him $1,500 a month – or simply won’t be made available at all.

Now imagine someone else who’s been employed consistently for 10 years and thinks it’s time for a change. She wants to join a new start-up, which is offering her a decent salary bump, but won’t provide health insurance, or the insurance they will provide will place her pediatrician out of network, and her child has a preexisting condition.

Is one more deserving of government intervention than the other? I don’t really think so, and neither does President Obama whose Affordable Care Act provides the same remedy to both.

And until Tuesday, neither did conservatives. But thanks to a new CBO report that’s easily spun into an Obamacare attack, conservatives now believe that only the second worker is worthy of assistance. Suddenly, job-lock concerns them only inasmuch as it prevents people from switching jobs or careers, not when it prevents people from working less or leaving the workforce altogether.

Leaving the workforce altogether – those words are heresy to conservatives like that former studio guitarist, and all Americans, or so the Republicans hope, but Beutler finds that odd:

If Congress gave me $100,000 a year for nothing, I’d probably never hold down a job again. But we’re not talking about that kind of money and we’re not talking about cash compensation. We’re talking about insurance. And this position amounts to supporting a form of indenture for all working-age people irrespective of their self-sufficiency outside of the medical system.

Moreover, a healthcare reform plan that only eased job-lock for people who intended to continue working just as hard as they did before would be perverse in design. Subsidies and the coverage guarantee would become dependent on maintaining stable hours or productivity. Somehow I don’t think anyone actually thinks that’s a good idea.

Avik Roy characterized the Affordable Care Act’s income effect like so: “Bored with your job? No worries – now you can quit, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers. Want to retire early? No worries – now you can, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers.” He adds that, “giving people the opportunity to switch jobs is quite a different goal from encouraging them to drop out of the work force altogether.”

Yeah, you’d end up with a nation of Frenchman, working hard enough for the pleasant life they want, and no more, because they wouldn’t see the point, and be fine with paying substantial taxes so everyone can do the same, with no worries about crippling healthcare costs that will occur, sooner or later. Look at American productivity! Look at American productivity! The new American-Frenchman looks at that. Yeah, so what’s so good about productivity? Does productivity make you happy?

Andrew Sullivan senses there’s a shift on this issue underway:

It’s struck me that there is an underlying anxiety to several of our current debates on economic and social issues. That anxiety is that the American work ethic – unparalleled in the developed world – is under threat. That’s the real critique of Obamacare – as opposed to the mendacious “two millions jobs lost” line.

He speaks from experience:

I think of myself – a small business owner with serious pre-existing conditions (HIV, chronic asthma, mild depression). Until Obamacare, it was unthinkable for me to be unemployed at any point, because of the health insurance issue. I was always terrified of losing access and being bankrupted by treating a disease I could not get insurance for. Now it’s conceivable. I feel empowered by the ACA not to work if I choose to and have the savings to take a break. There are a zillion different scenarios in which the guarantee of health insurance removes the absolute necessity of working if you have some savings to fall back on.

That’s personal, but social mobility and inequality are pressing national issues, and something is up there too:

With wages stagnant for most Americans since the mid-1970s, and hard, often back-breaking work failing to provide real gains in income, doesn’t the logic of the work ethic get attenuated? Isn’t it also affected by your knowledge that many people at the very top of the pyramid rake in unimaginable dough for working far less hard than your average teacher or healthcare worker? And isn’t the vast accumulation of wealth among so few itself a contributor to the decline in the work ethic, since it provides so many dependents with such easy, unearned cash? It’s not just the left that has created these disincentives. Global capitalism has done its part as well.

The logic of the work ethic now does slam up against the hard reality of the global economic system – splat – and Sullivan also ties this to the issue of marijuana legalization and immigration reform:

One strong thread in the opposition is the fear that we’ll all stay on the couch, binge-watch Netflix and sleep in late, while the Chinese eat our lunch. And it’s strongest among those who experienced the American dream – the over-60s – than among those for whom it seems like a distant memory – the under-30s. And then there is immigration reform. Isn’t there an obvious, if unstated, cultural fear here that Latino culture is less work-obsessed than white Protestant culture (despite the staggering work ethic of so many Latino immigrants)? Beneath the legitimate concerns about border enforcement and security – which Obama has beefed up beyond measure, by the way – there is an anxiety that the core identity of America might change. We might actually begin to live more like Europeans do. Heaven forfend.

Good god, we’ll all turn French! No, their pop music is awful and their language incomprehensible and their cars silly, but Sullivan is sensing that this Obamacare thing is the final trigger that’s forcing a real debate about what we value in life, and what makes life meaningful:

Work is an ennobling, mobilizing endeavor. It is our last truly common denominator as Americans. But what if its pre-eminence is unavoidably weakened by unchangeable economic forces? What if the accumulation of wealth through work is beginning to seem like a mug’s game to more and more, trapped in a stalled social mobility escalator? Why wouldn’t people adjust their values to fit the times?

He says we may have to think about that:

I believe in work. I don’t want the welfare state to be a cushion rather than a safety net. At the same time, it seems to me that as a culture, we have a work ethic that can be, and often is, its own false idol. The Protestant work ethic we have, for example, is the imperative for industrious striving, self-advancement and material gain. It is emphatically not about being happy. And at some point, if those two values are not easily compatible, something will give.

And would it be such a terrible thing if exhausted American workers were able to take real vacations of more than two weeks a year; or if white-collar professionals could afford to take a breather in mid-career without worrying about their health insurance; or if 63-year-olds could actually enjoy two more years of leisure at the end of their careers? Would it be so awful if more Americans smoked pot and were able to garner a few more moments of chill and relaxation rather than stress or worry? How damaging would it be if a little Catholic, Latin culture mitigated the unforgiving treadmill so many of us are on?

That leads to two questions:

At what point, in other words, is the pursuit of material wealth eclipsing the pursuit of happiness this country was founded to uphold? Is the correction against the Protestant work ethic a destruction of the American values – or actually a sign of their revival after a period of intense and often fruitless striving? I suspect the latter.

Yeah, but there is noble dignity in intense and often fruitless striving, isn’t there? There are only so many times you can be told that before you laugh at that notion. Sisyphus was being punished, after all. Why would anyone want to be punished? What did you ever do to incur the wrath of the gods?

Leaving the workforce altogether, or choosing to leave the workforce early, or work less because that will meet your needs – those words are still heresy. That’s the right word, actually, as Douglas Jamiel explains:

Under the aegis of the Catholic Church, the poor existed for centuries within a universe where aristocrats were, at least in theory, morally obliged to see to their welfare. It was a world in which usury, excessive interest and commercial undertaking was held in check by church dogma. In today’s economic milieu, however, that system of patriarchal obligations has long since given way to glorified rapaciousness and self-interest. The beneficent God of old church doctrine has been given his pink slip and surrendered his cosmic office to the petty barons of Wall Street and the Koch brothers. How has this happened? In three words: the Protestant Reformation; in two more: John Calvin.

Calvin was a 16th-century French-born theologian who, on the heels of Martin Luther’s momentous changes in the Catholic faith, conceived what has come to be known as the Protestant work ethic. While the Protestant work ethic occupies at least part of the conventional wisdom, fewer appreciate John Calvin’s role in its formulation…

Calvin’s universe was ruled by a petulant and vindictive deity, one who toyed with his followers by designating a select group of them to share in his divine bounty, only to leave them in the dark as to who these lucky chosen might be. The faithful were, then, left to fret and worry whether they were in God’s good graces and, more importantly, whether they would share the common and inescapable fate of eternal damnation that was the certain end of the non-elect. How, then, was one to know if they were one of the elect? The answer: material success. If a businessman’s coffers were fat and he was benefiting from what appeared to be shrewd and effective business acumen, then surely it is evidence that the Almighty had smiled on him, welcoming him, perhaps, into the Divine’s august company. This, of course, is a ready-made philosophy for any self-flattering elite – no matter what the century – anxious to justify their good fortune as divinely mandated.

Jamiel may be unfairly negative in how he frames the Calvinist position, but theologically, he’s fairly accurate:

For Calvin, the only palliative to ease the fear, insecurity and loneliness of the human condition is to keep busy. In the end, one can and must always work; those who don’t or won’t or cannot are guaranteed certain damnation, no matter whether the cause of their idleness is systemic or personal.

There’s much more of this – it’s a long and complex analysis of what Jamiel sees are the real issues in America today, with charts and graphs too – but the point is that there’s a single source for this way of thinking, which is a theology, and all theologies posit heresy. The right also defines the wrong and all that. Now think of John Calvin as a former Hollywood studio guitarist screaming about the worthless French, or any Republican you choose screaming about the moral evil of food stamps, or of extending long-term unemployment benefits, or legalizing marijuana, or this new Obamacare thing freeing up people to do what they want with their lives for a change. Heresy cannot be tolerated.

It’s no wonder people drift apart. It’s not just Hollywood – but sometimes you just don’t want to push that rock back up that hill again, or produce another television sitcom that will disappear soon enough. Do, however, visit Musso and Frank. F. Scott Fitzgerald, stuck in Hollywood in his final years, missing the Paris of his youth, used to get drunk as a skunk there quite often. Maybe that’s the answer to all this.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Abandoning Sisyphus

  1. Rick says:

    A few whiney observations on my part:

    I guess your former Hollywood studio guitarist friend who was all over the French for not liking to work, and who praised America for its so-called “productivity” (which I think is probably just a result of computers helping so few of us grind out so much garbage) saw nothing weird about his own job being to create music for movies and TV shows. He really believed he was contributing something ultimately useful to the world?

    No, I know, he wouldn’t get my point, but to me, that seems an excellent example of that “fruitless striving” you speak of. Maybe his point was just that people keep busy, no matter what useless crap they produce. If that’s the point, then I guess that also describes me sitting here, posting comments on somebody else’s blog.

    And that guy, Avik Roy, who I understand confessed to being an “outside adviser to the Romney campaign on health care issues”, characterizing the Affordable Care Act’s income effect:

    “Bored with your job? No worries – now you can quit, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers. Want to retire early? No worries – now you can, thanks to the generosity of other taxpayers.”

    The “generosity of other taxpayers”? What does he mean by that? I myself would be the one that’s paying for the insurance, not other taxpayers!

    Or maybe I just don’t understand the extent to which this Obamacare thing is a government takeover of our system. But if that’s the case, then why are these insurance companies still debiting my bank account?

    Rick

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