The Consequences of Work

Donald Trump seems to be perpetually surprised, and a bit angry, that every man, every real man, doesn’t want to be just like him. He is, after all, the most respected and admired man in America. Don’t tell him otherwise. He’ll say you’re just jealous. That’s fun to watch, but then Wayne Newton seems to think he’s the coolest and sexiest thing ever. Spending your entire life in Las Vegas, that loud neon city in the middle of the desert, designed for no other purpose than to trick desperate fools out of as much money as possible, will do that to you. Standards are different there. The place is all flash and vague fear, and frantic hope to win at least a little money, or at least break even, and that frantic hope to be cool, in a place where no one knows you’re really a dork. Hey, it worked for Wayne Newton – but no one in their right mind ever goes to Las Vegas, on purpose, which explains why so many people do just that. The Las Vegas Visitors Bureau knows this, which is why they ran an ad campaign for many years with a simple message that said it all – What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Come for a visit. Pretend to be whatever you want to be. There are no consequences.

There is also Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – but that’s another matter. Go to the fake Paris and pretend you’re in the real one. That’s harmless enough, if you stay away from the slots and the blackjack tables. There will be no consequences, which is how we’d all like life to be. There won’t be any pesky French people either. You can be one. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

There is something quintessentially American about Las Vegas, the city of no consequences, where you can say and do anything you please, and where even Wayne Newton is somehow cool. Life should be like that, even if it isn’t. Mitt Romney found that out with that forty-seven percent comment that ruined his run for the presidency:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…

Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect… so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful…

What happens in a room full of wealthy donors doesn’t stay in a room full of wealthy donors. You don’t call nearly half the country morally inadequate slugs. Romney suffered the consequences. This isn’t Las Vegas, but now there’s this:

A GOP House candidate in Nevada has been caught on tape telling a crowd at a fundraiser that Mitt Romney was right to say that 47 percent of the country mooch off the government. Cresent Hardy, the Republican candidate for Nevada’s 4th district, added that since 2012, when Romney made his remarks, the “47 percent” has only grown.

“Can I say that without getting in trouble, like Governor Romney?” Hardy said, at a fundraiser held last Thursday at the Falcon Ridge Golf Club. “The 47 percent is true. It’s bigger now.”

Two years had passed since Romney’s original comments. Hardy thinks we live in the land of no consequences, or hopes we do – he is running for office in Nevada after all – but he’s a minor figure. That doesn’t explain the man from Ohio:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) seemed to echo Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that 47 percent of Americans are “takers” who suck up government benefits during a speech at a conservative Washington D.C. think tank on Thursday. Addressing the American Enterprise Institute, Boehner suggested that President Barack Obama’s economy has lulled many unemployed people into a sense of dependence on government.

“This idea that has been born, maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, that you know, I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around. This is a very sick idea for our country,” he said.

“If you wanted something you worked for it,” Boehner said, adding, “Trust me, I did it all.”

Neither Hardy nor Boehner seem to believe there are any real consequences to saying such things, and in this year’s midterm elections there probably aren’t. Such talk fires up the base in a very specific district or just one state, and Paul Krugman is not surprised:

It’s hardly the first time a prominent conservative has said something along these lines. Ever since a financial crisis plunged us into recession it has been a nonstop refrain on the right that the unemployed aren’t trying hard enough, that they are taking it easy thanks to generous unemployment benefits, which are constantly characterized as “paying people not to work.” And the urge to blame the victims of a depressed economy has proved impervious to logic and evidence.

But it’s still amazing – and revealing- to hear this line being repeated now. For the blame-the-victim crowd has gotten everything it wanted: Benefits, especially for the long-term unemployed, have been slashed or eliminated. So now we have rants against the bums on welfare when they aren’t bums – they never were – and there’s no welfare.

The Romney-Hardy-Boehner crowd actually got what they wanted:

I don’t know how many people realize just how successful the campaign against any kind of relief for those who can’t find jobs has been. But it’s a striking picture. The job market has improved lately, but there are still almost three million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, the usual maximum duration of unemployment insurance. That’s nearly three times the pre-recession total. Yet extended benefits for the long-term unemployed have been eliminated – and in some states the duration of benefits has been slashed even further.

The result is that most of the unemployed have been cut off. Only 26 percent of jobless Americans are receiving any kind of unemployment benefit, the lowest level in many decades. The total value of unemployment benefits is less than 0.25 percent of GDP – half what it was in 2003, when the unemployment rate was roughly the same as it is now. It’s not hyperbole to say that America has abandoned its out-of-work citizens.

These people were cut off, so they had to go back to work, except there is no work out there. There was no jobs boom as all those lazy bums gave in and went back to work. What Krugman calls the theory that “cruelty is the key to prosperity” ran into an economy where only the rich recovered from the collapse of everything in Bush’s last year. The issue was structural, not moral, which Krugman explains this way:

Now, as anyone who has studied British policy during the Irish famine knows, self-righteous cruelty toward the victims of disaster, especially when the disaster goes on for an extended period, is common in history. Still, Republicans haven’t always been like this. In the 1930s they denounced the New Deal and called for free-market solutions – but when Alf Landon accepted the 1936 presidential nomination, he also emphasized the “plain duty” of “caring for the unemployed until recovery is attained.” Can you imagine hearing anything similar from today’s GOP?

Is it race? That’s always a hypothesis worth considering in American politics. It’s true that most of the unemployed are white, and they make up an even larger share of those receiving unemployment benefits. But conservatives may not know this, treating the unemployed as part of a vaguely defined, dark-skinned crowd of “takers.”

My guess, however, is that it’s mainly about the closed information loop of the modern right. In a nation where the Republican base gets what it thinks are facts from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, where the party’s elite gets what it imagines to be policy analysis from the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the right lives in its own intellectual universe, aware of neither the reality of unemployment nor what life is like for the jobless. You might think that personal experience – almost everyone has acquaintances or relatives who can’t find work – would still break through, but apparently not.

That’s not exactly true. Earlier, in the summer, the man who went down with Mitt Romney’s sinking ship, Paul Ryan, tried to undo the damage:

Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, outlined a plan to combat poverty on Thursday that would consolidate a dozen programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” that largely shifts antipoverty efforts from the federal government to the states.

Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a leading voice in his party on fiscal matters, said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that the federal government represents the “rear guard – it protects the supply lines.”

In short, get the federal government out of all this social safety net stuff. Let each state do what it wants. Let’s see what happens, and let’s let whatever each state comes up with be a plan to make these struggling folks better people, which is the real problem:

Mr. Ryan tumbled somewhat awkwardly into the antipoverty discussion this year when he said a “tailspin of culture in our inner cities” perpetuated poverty, a comment that Democrats and some African-American groups called racist. But since then, Mr. Ryan has appeared to try to make amends, traveling the country to listen to Americans in poorer cities as he prepared to unveil this proposal.

The Opportunity Grants resemble block grants to individual states, which would have autonomy to spend on whatever antipoverty programs they desire as long as Washington approves the plan. The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on social welfare programs like food stamps and housing assistance. Mr. Ryan said that total spending would remain the same, and that his plan would not add to the deficit.

It’s just a different way of doing what needs to be done with confused and morally inadequate human beings:

If a state opted into the pilot program, it would have low-income residents meet with case managers who would create an “opportunity plan” offering both financial advice and coordinating the provisions of the several different programs they need. The residents would sign contracts with these case managers that would offer incentives to reach financial security and sanctions if they do not.

In short, we don’t need to spend more money. We have to force people to shape up, with an approved plan to be a better person, and fine them heavily if they don’t meet the specific milestones in the plan. All they need is a kind of “life coach” to help them become adequate human beings.

Needless to say, this went nowhere – it was arrogant and condescending, and having the long-term unemployed take weekly quizzes on the collected works of Ayn Rand seemed both silly and offensive – and John Boehner just killed it. That was probably for the best, but Krugman summed up the central problem here:

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty in a wealthy nation. Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough.

There may be no way to reconcile those two views. Liberals and conservatives will always disagree about this, so maybe we should talk about something else, something more fundamental. Patrick Spaet offers this:

Probably no other sentence comes up at a party as often as: “So, what do you do?” There is an unspoken question behind this: “Are you useful?” Work determines our social status: tell me what your job is – and I’ll tell you who you are.

Whoever isn’t “doing” anything, and says openly that he can’t be bothered to work, and that by no means any work is better than no work, is suspected of slacking, and of inciting others to do the same–with the result of this contagious slacking being that the whole of our hardworking society will plunge into an abyss. The mantra of our time is “I work, therefore I am.”

He says “the work fetish has become deeply ingrained in the DNA of western industrial nations” and he’s not impressed:

Our attitudes towards work are extremely schizophrenic: we secretly aspire to sloth, while we loudly praise work. There isn’t an election poster that doesn’t promise more jobs. The call for more work is similar to the Stockholm syndrome, in which the victims of hostage-taking eventually develop a positive relationship with their captors. We constantly hear the drivel of “growth,” “competition,” and “local prosperity,” to convince us that we have to “tighten our belts,” because only that way are “secure jobs” possible – while everything else presents “no alternative.” A wage increase isn’t in the cards, because otherwise the company will go broke. We can’t tax too much, because otherwise the job generators will go abroad. All of these things have become the consensus – even among the wage slaves themselves.

This situation is all the more schizophrenic in that we take every opportunity every day to escape toil and work: who voluntarily uses a washboard, if he has a washing machine? Who copies out a text by hand, if he can use a photocopier instead? And who mentally calculates the miserable columns of figures on his tax return, if he has a calculator? We are bone idle, and yet we glorify work. The Stockholm syndrome of work fetishism has befuddled our minds. It is the paradox of the present: the religion of work has attained the status of a state religion, at exactly the point in time when work is dying. The sale of labor power will be as promising in the 21st century as the sale of stagecoaches in the 20th century.

This is happening already:

We live in an era of capitalism in which the productivity of labor is so high that fewer and fewer workers are needed. The current mass unemployment in southern Europe – with a youth unemployment rate to some degree of over 50 percent – is only a taste of the great feeding frenzy that is still ahead of us. Computers and robots are taking over jobs everywhere.

The fast food chain McDonald’s has just installed thousands of “Easy Order” machines in their outlets worldwide. Customers enter their orders on the touch screen, pay for them using the machine, and pick up their food from the sales counter. McDonald’s can thus dispense with hundreds of otherwise unconscionably-low-paying jobs. At the other end of the line, even lawyers are now being sacked. In the United States, so-called “e-discovery programs” – complex and adaptive software products – are increasingly taking over research work, where formerly lawyers sifted through mountains of files and court documents. An Oxford University study concludes that by 2030 approximately 47 percent of all jobs in the United States may fall victim to automation.

Work isn’t disappearing because we’re too stupid. It also isn’t disappearing because the wealthy are forking over too much of their money to taxes, as the neoliberals would have us believe. Most people will not find a job in the short or long term, because capitalism is collapsing in the short term, and in the long term our labor force is being replaced by machines.

And now, the really depressing part:

Already more than a billion people worldwide are underemployed or unemployed, and this is a rising trend. But the scarcer jobs become worldwide, the more we praise work, instead of taking it easy. We could reduce the average working time drastically if we wanted to. “Growth” isn’t possible in any case. What exactly is supposed to grow, except people’s misery?

Liberals talk about circumstances and conservatives talk about character and both miss the point. Neither matters now and Spaet comments on the comments he received:

“Nobody has a right to be lazy,” they argued. “Those who don’t work are doing harm to society. They are just social parasites.”

Well, this is a prime example of the work fetish. And commentators like this one overlook the fact that most existing jobs are bullshit jobs. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”

He could have also quoted Bertrand Russell – “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” We’re having that collective nervous breakdown now.

Earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan put it this way:

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. …

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 we are facing 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 preeminence 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 now:

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. That’s why some people laughed at Romney’s forty-seven percent comment, after they figured out that outrage was probably inappropriate – the economy is what it is. The collapse is permanent. That Hardy fellow in Nevada was right too – the forty-seven percent is growing. Both of them think something can be done about it, like cutting them off and letting them die if they don’t shape up, but Paul Ryan’s plan, to fund Ayn Rand mentors to teach all of them the right attitude about work, was absurd. The work is gone. John Boehner thinks that somehow an idea that has been born – maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, as he concedes – that people really don’t have to work. He calls that sick, but more and more people really don’t have to work, not in this new world. They’re totally unnecessary.

What do we do with these people? Maybe we turn all of America into one big Las Vegas, where everyone pretends to be something they’re not and also very cool, playing the slots, hoping to break even, and the only ones who are actually working are the hookers and cheesy lounge acts and the janitorial staff, and Wayne Newton. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.

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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2 Responses to The Consequences of Work

  1. Rick says:

    I’m confused. I’m not sure but I think maybe everyone in this discussion is missing the elephant in the room.

    Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve heard concern that, sometime in our distant future, we would invent robots that would end up taking away all our jobs. I think we assumed they would look at least vaguely like us — at worst, big clunky metal things with a head and arms and legs, like Robby the Robot in the movie, “Forbidden Planet”, or at best, Haley Joel Osment’s humanoid character in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” — never occurring to us that someday, our cars would be made by robots that actually looked by big, mechanical arms. But it’s worth noting that our fears have been realized, and that all those people who tried to assuage our fears, with comforting notions that, yes, robots might take some jobs, but would create even more jobs, making the robots! — were just blowing smoke all along.

    It wasn’t until later that people worried workers could be also replaced by computers, and in this case, too, the future is now! In the late 1980s, I myself was able to create a weekly newsletter, distributing it throughout the country, using only one Macintosh computer and a laser printer, that might previously have taken a whole team of people to produce — written on typewriters, but then farmed out to professional typesetters, downtown somewhere, sitting at large Mergenthaler Linotype machines.

    In effect, my computer helped me manage a publication cheaply, which was great for me, but not so wonderful for all the workers I displaced. Yes, I realized I was putting people out of work, but the opportunity was just too cool for me to pass up. But I also could argue, with some justification, that I wasn’t really displacing anybody, since, without the economy of the home computer, I couldn’t afford to start the project in the first place.

    But the fact remains, while we crow about the great “productivity” of the American worker today, the truth is, it’s not so much the worker who’s productive, it’s the machines he operates — probably because these machines allow his employer to replace so many of his fellow workers, since they allow one person do the work of many, which is great for the company, but not so great for the economy at large.

    All this discussion of whether we shouldn’t just abandon the “protestant work ethic”; or shouldn’t take long, French-like vacations; or stop defining ourselves at cocktail parties by the work we do; and whether we don’t really just feel better about ourselves if we serve some other purpose than just stuffing our face with Cheezits while we sit on the couch, watching some dumb reality show on TV; is, of course, all beside the point.

    Let’s look at it this way:

    “…the only ones who are actually working are the hookers and cheesy lounge acts and the janitorial staff, and Wayne Newton. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.”

    So the question is, if these Vegas people are the only ones working, then it would follow that they’re being paid by people who, what, don’t work? And so where are all these non-working people of leisure getting the money to pay Wayne Newton and the hookers? And while we’re at it, why don’t Wayne and the whores just retire, like everyone else? In that world without work, why should anybody need a job?

    That elephant I talked about is this:

    If nobody is working at anything useful, where the hell is all the wealth coming from? After all, wealth does not, like manna, just fall from heaven.

    Yes, there are cases of people inheriting money from people who actually earned it — and also, there’s the case of “resource-rich” countries like Saudi Arabia, where everybody seems to be a prince, living off the revenues of stuff coming out of the ground, leaving them nothing to occupy their time except maybe hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. But at some point, the inheritances run out, as does all the oil, leaving those people with nothing to use to buy food to keep them alive — so they die. Or at least that’s my theory.

    The way it works now is, economies are contrivances in which lots of money randomly changes hands, giving everybody the money to buy food. And where does this money come from? It comes from each other, doing and making things that are useful, things that other people are willing to pay for.

    Yeah, you can have a couple of people here and there not do anything useful — retired people like me (who did, earlier in his life, earn a living, and create savings to live off of in his later years, thank you), and maybe even some slugs who inherited all their wealth in the first place and never did anything useful for anyone else in their lives — but you can’t have a whole society filled with non-workers. It just doesn’t work that way.

    Yes, I do believe unemployment is a structural problem, largely caused by the world thoughtlessly allowing its economies to be overwhelmed by labor-saving stuff that puts people out of work, and not caused by unemployed job-seekers just being lazy. And I do think the problem’s being aggravated by too many Republicans thinking that all this “inequality” talk is just Democrats trying to cynically foment some sort of “class warfare”, instead of what we all should see as a real problem in our out-of-balance economy — something that we all need to take note of and do something about.

    But no, while I do think we need to solve this structural problem, I do not think the solution will likely be everybody being able to sit around like Eloi, smoking grass and eating lotuses and expecting wealth to just happen, like magic. And anybody who thinks that that’s where the world is headed is not, in my opinion, seeing the big picture.


  2. Very well said.

    We are a consumer based society where people buy stuff they don’t need. But they have to be able to buy stuff in the first place. One of our constellation, age 50, single parent of a teenager, has been struggling for several years. He’s working at a menial graveyard shift job now, not enough to pay his bills, so who has to pitch in? Us. But he’s working. He’ll be leaving for another menial job, but at least during daylight hours, for the same low wages. Who’ll have to pitch in? Us. He’s been retraining for something else, but you can’t find a job to schedule around classes, so he’s trying to do stuff on-line, and he’s not brilliant. He’s our “poster child” among our 11 children or spouses or ex-spouses: the (in our case) 9%er that is depressed by his now long term always fragile situation. Watch him at a family gathering. It’s depressing to watch. How do you make small talk about what you aren’t doing because you just can’t find a decent job? And you don’t have the time to look for one, because you have to work to hardly survive.

    A friend, a retired corporate vice-president with plenty of money, was an excellent writer and went into a blog-like position writing interesting columns for one of those free newspapers. He didn’t need any money. He finally quit when the newspaper was sold to an outfit that wouldn’t pay the writers, but was strictly looking for salespeople for advertising. They reasoned that lots of people like to write about interesting things, and there’s no need to pay them. He said “to hell with it” and went back to just being retired, enjoying life. Maybe somebody else filled his slot for awhile….

    Unfortunately, I could go on and on with these kinds of stories.

    I’m fond of saying that if they really wanted to get the economy singing, they’d fill a plane with dollar bills and just fly over poor neighborhoods and let the money flutter down. These supposedly worthless folks would seek out the money and go out and spend it, rather than accumulating it for some tax shelter offshore. It’s just very simple economics, of the type we think is preeminent in our society.

    Meanwhile, we slide deeper into misery, pretending all is wonderful.

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