The Great Jobs Myth and the Transformation of the Growth Economy, Part I

A lot of congressional politicians and media pundits of both Republican and Democratic persuasion are jabbering these days about “job creation.”  The 2014 mid-term elections are fast approaching and nobody wants to be caught looking indifferent to the lack of jobs for an increasingly large numbers of Americans.

Their approaches are different, of course.  The Democrats want more ‘stimulus’ to “grow the economy” by restoring government spending and infrastructure investment.  The Republicans, as usual want to cut even more taxes on business and the wealthy than ever, despite already record low taxes and swollen corporate coffers.  They would “encourage investment” in economic growth to “create jobs.”  But despite the obvious cruelty of actions such as cutting food stamps – a program benefiting more working age recipients than ever before – and failing to extend unemployment benefits when jobs are so hard to come by, neither wing of the ‘republican/democrat’ Corporate Party gets the basic facts of a changing economy nor wants to face them if they do understand the situation.

The entire history of the industrial era has involved forcing people off their lands and into a vast pool of “free labor” to be tapped by growing industry as needed, then forcing them out of their jobs by outsourcing capital to cheaper labor markets.  The whole time, investment in growth has included technical innovations that increase production while reducing the labor required for a given level of production.  Only the slave holders of the South wanted to retain a labor-intensive method of agricultural production – the labor was free!  Government policy all along has been to subsidize increased productivity and to supply the kinds of labor needed.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill allowed returning vets to get a college education that would open employment for them in a technologically expanding economy.  Continuing technological innovation – especially the explosion of computer technology from the 1980s onward – required fewer middle-management jobs and increasingly required smaller numbers of new jobs with highly technical skills in product development for military hardware, medical devices, industrial processes, computer hardware, software, and networks.  The labor market bifurcated into 1) high paying upper-management and technically-skilled jobs and 2) low paying unskilled jobs, as manufacturing capital was moved overseas for production with labor at a fraction of the cost that manufacturing labor had been in the U.S.  The middle class shrunk accordingly as consumption was increasingly funded by credit-card and mortgage debt.  That, of course, rolled into highly leveraged financial “assets” by the Big Banks, led to the 2008 financial collapse.

We now have a labor market which is composed of an increasingly smaller number of very high paying executive positions, well paying technical jobs, fewer and fewer moderately compensated white-collar jobs, very few blue-collar manufacturing jobs at depressed wages.  This followed the successful destruction of unions in the U.S.  Wage suppression and outsourcing let to an expanding labor market for low to minimum wage dead-end jobs that cannot be outsourced because they involve direct manual labor in the service sector, largely retail clerking, cleaning, building maintenance, etc. –  jobs that cannot adequately support a worker no less his/her family.

Despite my thirty-five years in higher education and belief in the importance of education for every citizen in a democracy, I know that more college educated workers in a labor market that does not need them is no solution to the shortage of jobs with a living wage.  Nor will technical training programs create the jobs they are meant to fill.  Most proposals from politicians to improve access to college education – low-interest student loans, subsidized tuition, loan forgiveness for those who go into teaching, etc. – are good in their own right.  But they will not solve the problem of insufficient livable-wage jobs available in the labor market.  Too many private training ‘institutes’ or ‘universities’ arrange federally subsidized student loans to pay for training that does not result in jobs for graduates.  The problem is not just the lack of educated workers; it runs much deeper than that.  The political rhetoric completely misses the real problem.

Labor markets were sustained in the growth economy because expanding production always needed new workers, even when technological innovations reduced the number of workers needed for individual industrial processes.  As long as growth could be sustained, debt-based capital infusion into new production increased the total number of new workers needed even though each process needed fewer workers to function.  But that is over now.  And the end of the growth economy is in fact the beginning of the Great Transformation that politicians are entirely unprepared to deal with, even as it fast approaches.

The accumulation of massive private and public debt is today running up against the enormous accumulation of the waste and damage produced by unfettered economic growth as we approach the end of cheap energy and natural resources.  As resource limits and ecological collapse draw near, a Great Transformation is inevitable.  What that transformation will look like is a very open question.  How it plays out will be up to the ability of humanity to recognize the new planetary reality and to reorganize society and its deployment of technological and social innovation to create a new realism of hope that transcends the illusions of the recent past.  Part II of this post will explore where we stand in that quest.

“A Revolution of Values” is What It Will Take to Humanize the Coming Great Transformation

Martin Luther King referred several times to the need for “a revolution of values,” in his speech, “Beyond Viet Nam,” April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, a year before he was assassinated,.  I listened again as it was replayed on Martin Luther King Day, 2014, forty-seven years later. That speech had been immediately vilified by the media and many politicians who still supporting the war.  King’s words included, along with important but inconvenient truths of that time, some prophetic implications for today.  Not only did Dr. King nail the unacknowledged facts of the increasingly militarized foreign policy that has since grown more aggressive, he also projected his vision into the future with remarkable foresight.

Several converging trends together mark a great transformation in human history that is no longer easy to deny.  Official Washington circles denied it then, with the corporate media chiming in; today official Washington circles conspicuously ignore the writing on the wall and the corporate media follow suit in their silence, even as its biospheric proportions become ever more clear.  Not surprising, really; that is what “company men” and women have always done.  But it is stunning to hear or read Dr. King’s vision of the consequences of the nation’s folly as it reaches its pinnacle, a half century after he acknowledged it as the nation’s elites denied it.

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit…” [Read Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc.]  That malady remains as an ever-growing culture of cruelty abroad and increasingly at home.  The fundamentalist values of imperial domination of the Feared Other are now being turned inward as the domestic population is increasingly viewed as the enemy of the “free market” [read corporate controlled market] and its plunder of the entire planet.  The history of the industrial age has been one of forcing people off their land, and now from their jobs and homes, in the never-ending quest for more profit and less costs through reduced and outsourced wages and efficient production through labor-saving technology.  But to what end?  The economic values of the growth imperative override and supersede any human values we attempt to retain.  This is the extension of the malady Dr. King pointed to.

The human malady we continue to experience is expressed in the destruction of social relations – that is, relations among persons – in the economic interests of corporations.  Dr. King recognized that destructive trend quite clearly even in 1967:

“…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The result has been an ever growing culture of cruelty.  To counter that, we need a revolution of values.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies…. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ..
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation…  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

Dr. King did not anticipate the emergence of a massive ‘incarceration nation’ that would be the legacy of the drug war, nor the extreme disparity in income and wealth that would surpass the conditions preceding the great depression.  But all across the nation and the world, people are now beginning to seriously question government policies and economic conditions that approach being intolerable, recognizing that they serve the interests of the power elite only by destroying people’s lives and the biosphere in which we all live.  The evidence of their damage just keeps piling up.  But individuals are also aware that alone they have little opportunity to take actions that they feel will ‘make a difference.’  So, often on the model provided by Occupy Wall Street and with similar perspectives, small local groups are forming to address specific problems arising at a human scale from the destruction of the growth-imperative political-economy.  They embody Dr. King’s words:

“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.:”

Twenty-four hours before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Martin Luther King expressed his vision of the necessary movement of people around the world to redirect humanity through a revolution of values:

“Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…
It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

Wendell Berry recently commented that we are beginning to experience the “resettling of America,” in which people recognize the importance of their relations to the land and to the people around them, and are acting on that awareness – they are turning away from the giant institutions that have failed America.  They are taking direct actions in response to the emerging Revolution of Values of which they are a part and which cannot be stopped.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part III

The economics profession provides the ideology, the corporations fund the politicians and their lobbyists write the legislation, the congress formalizes the legal cover and the stacked courts confirm it, the Federal Reserve provides the “fractional reserve” lending authority, and the Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” direct capital to drive the endless-growth economy that is killing the planet.  The military, of course, assures that the dwindling planetary resources flow to the growth machine and the increasingly militarized police act as an occupying force to “manage” the population.

Where can we find the hope in all this harsh institutionalized reality that is already exceeding the limits of the biosphere?  Hope lies where it always has: in the people.  When we examine the examples of revolutionary change in history, one fact becomes clear.  All successful revolutions (aside from those overthrowing in invading or occupying armies) have been non-violent movements of the people against oppressive regimes of one sort or another.  Popular resistance is a powerful force.  Real power results from the consent of the governed; that is what frightened the financial and political elites so much about the Occupy Movement.  When that consent is withdrawn, elites tremble.

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall surveyed a wide range of movements of popular resistance to oppressive regimes in the last 100 years in their book, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, and found that a variety of non-violent sanctions – from strikes and boycotts to civil disobedience, street demonstrations, and non-cooperation – exercised by ordinary people, can separate ruling elites from their sources of power to end oppression.  Each case was different – from Gandhi’s movement of non-cooperation in India in the 1920’s to Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980’s, from Russia in 1905 (before the Bolsheviks) to Argentina in the 1970’s and Chile in the 1980’s to Burma today – but wherever popular resistance bloomed, it could not be stopped.

Today, our problem is the same but also different.  What Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism” in his book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, has quietly and incrementally overturned democratic institutions in the U.S., resulting in a elite-managed façade of corrupted democratic formalities that gloss over a pervasive corporate plutocracy.

What does all this mean for a citizen movement to transform the economy to achieve ecological justice, a stable biosphere, and the triumph of human values over economic growth serving corporate power?  Because all national institutions are now under unified totalistic control of the economic/political elite, serious change can only come from the bottom up – from the people ourselves.  Both collective acts of resistance and re-organization of economic activity in communities are necessary.

Close all your accounts with the Big Banks; open accounts only with local banks and member-owned credit unions.  Start employee-owned businesses.  Dump Comcast and join or start a cooperative member-owned Internet association at half the cost.  Divest your investments from fossil fuel corporations and military contractors.  Organize local opposition to water-table destroying oil/gas fracking.  Organize your community to establish publicly owned municipal community solar/wind driven electricity and local-regional smart grids.  Start community gardens and food coops.  Buy local, especially food, and avoid any “food”-product with more than five ingredients.  Pay a little more for locally grown organics and buy less plastic junk – the costs and benefits will balance out.  Organize to pressure city, county, and state governments to embark on seriously carbon-neutral energy programs.  The list can be extended by dozens of actions people can  take where we live.

We must change the way we live by taking individual and collective action in conflict with and in resistance to the very consumer culture we have internalized since World War II, but must now purge from our sense of ourselves.  We must again communicate with family and neighbors about steps we can take together to stem the tide of ecological catastrophe.  The new culture for a carbon-neutral world will look very different as we shape it, but will be fulfilling in ways the alienated consumerism we have been deceived into thinking is the mark of “success,” can never be.  And when you consider all those people who are just not paying attention, remember Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted words:  “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The inattentive will eventually recognize hope in a new reality forming.  The possible is not necessarily the probable.  That is up to us.  Only our individual commitments and collective actions will make it so.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  ~  Mahatma Gandhi

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part II

The reality we face in the coming decades involves three integrated crises: 1) the consolidation of the corporate state driven by the debt-based endless corporate-growth economy, which increasingly damages populations by isolating them from economic resources and destroys the environment we all need, in service to short-term profit and political power; 2) accelerating resource depletion which makes the conventional economic model of debt-based economic growth and expanding populations unsustainable; and 3) accelerating climate disruption caused by unrelenting carbon emissions resulting from (1) and (2).  Unlimited economic growth is an illusion that is ultimately self-terminating.  Our current path poses the utmost threat ever to human survival, making it the greatest imaginable challenge to an outlook of hopeful realism.  If you recognize the existential threat facing us, how can you not be a hopeless pessimist?  If you deny the existential threat facing us, you must be a foolish optimist.  Both those options are useless.

Any solution requires both hope and realism.  We must face necessary massive transformations in the ways we live on the planet if hope is to be sustained.  We must sustain a huge dose of hope in order to take the drastic challenging actions necessary for survival.  Most discussions that recognize the threat look for solutions that assume continuing on some “green” path of the consumer culture we have come to view as “normal.”  That will not work.  However, the Great Transformation that is now inevitable – though its outcome is unpredictable – need not require a Luddite approach that would simply destroy manufacturing technology.  Instead, we must recognize that human technology has gone off in a direction of “creative destruction” and must be re-directed and transformed into a new human-scale enterprise.  But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.  It is not hard to come up with a list of imperative economic and technological changes, all of which involve freeing ourselves from fossil-fuel dependency.  Here are just a few major items for such a list:

  • Convert electricity production from coal and gas to wind and solar.
  • Convert the hugely wasteful long-distance electricity transmission grid to interconnected local-community solar/wind electrical smart grids.
  • Reduce much of capital-intensive production to labor-intensive production.
  • Convert transportation from petroleum based to electricity based propulsion.
  • Break up the Big Banks; re-institute the Glass-Steagall wall between commercial banking and investment (casino) banking, and while were at it, have the Federal Reserve re-sell all those casino junk bonds back to the Big Banks at the price paid; that will re-direct the Bad Debt back to where it belongs; then resolve those bloated unnecessary institutions and let those gamblers take the losses they earned.
  • Establish State and local banks as public institutions in service to public needs.
  • Limit international trade to products and materials that are not capable of being produced in the receiving nation; convert all shipping to non-fossil-fuel propulsion systems.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Obviously, this list could be extended considerably, and much detail would have to be worked out.  But you get the idea: massive transformation of international, national, and local-regional economies in line with the energy requirements of stabilizing the biosphere to achieve stable local and planetary ecological systems.  Well, that was easy.  But wait.  How can these things be accomplished?  Conventional political processes are controlled by the very corporations that continue to resist such changes in order to grab as much short-term profits as they can before being forced to change.  But if we wait for the force of nature to stop the insanity, then it will be too late to stop the acceleration of climate disruption beyond the limits of human habitation on the planet.  Many corporations see the climate writing on the wall, but they are compelled by their own internal logic to grab all they can before the end of the era of endless growth.

The only answer left is popular resistance, and that is a long shot because the popular culture is largely controlled by the corporate media that promotes only its own short-term interests, and we will have to change the way we live rather quickly to make enough difference.  Yet, people are not nearly as stupid as politicians and CEOs think they are.  We know we are in crisis, but most just don’t know what to do personally and most still believe that we can somehow have a “green” economy and still consume all that stuff the corporations are selling us.  The most important result of the Occupy Movement – and the Arab Spring as well, for that matter – is that it really scared the political-economic power elites.  Occupy has dispersed, but many local actions based on similar principles are occurring.  History shows that the power of numbers can overcome the power of elites.  No guarantees; we have so much to do and so little time.  In Part III of this essay I will discuss the sources of hope in this sea of harsh reality.

Last Hours, Last Hope, Last Reality Check.

Last Hours is a scary video that presents the raw scientific facts of the impact of global warming reaching the tipping point where warming is accelerated by massive release of  methane from the arctic tundra and below the sea beds, because it is melted from its frozen solid state.  The result is an unstoppable positive feedback loop that will raise planetary temperatures 6-10 degrees, resulting in a massive extinction as devastating to life on the planet as the Permian mass extinction of 250 million years ago, which left only 5% of life on earth.  We are rapidly reaching that tipping point, as our politicians, media and financial elites babble about protecting the economy that only they benefit from anyway, but not for long.  They are lemmings; will we joint them or find another path?  Watch it.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part I

For most of us the world we see around us is “normal.”  We see little difference between the natural, social, and economic worlds – they are mostly one experience.  We are born into cities, suburbs, small towns, and (rarely anymore) farms.  We see history through the limited scope of textbooks once read as required and through the pop-history of the mass media.  Large historical changes are not easily seen in our everyday lives.  We view the past as quaint times when people didn’t know much or have much.  Yet, increasing numbers of things don’t seem to be quite so normal anymore.

Today we are inundated with technological change and the material “progress” that is made possible by the ever-expanding application of debt and capital to technical innovation and industrial production.  The smart-phone, the iPad, and mobile connectivity, along with all the previous technical innovations that have changed the world of employment as well as social life, are all quickly absorbed into our view of the natural order of things, which is, however, heavily dependent on the pervasive culture of corporate consumerism and an endless supply of materials for their production.  “Server farms” and “the cloud” are vague images of the information age no clearer in our minds than the National Security Agency’s “data mining” of everyone’s phone calls, email messages, and credit card records.  The dominant culture of debt-driven economic growth and the rise of the “security-surveillance state” have become culturally detached from, yet remain completely physically dependent on Nature.

We have lived most of our lives surrounded by rapid change (at least as compared with previous eras in human history).  We are accustomed to the changing conditions that have resulted from the economic-growth imperative that has driven our world since the dawn of the industrial revolution – though we are largely aware of only the present and very recent past as represented by our personal experience and the mass-media shaped “reality” constantly presented to us at various stages of our lives.

We are not paid to engage in critical thinking or to reflect on the course of human history beyond the roles we play – or roles we have lost to “outsourcing” – in the growth economy.  Yet we know that something is terribly wrong.  The contradictions between what we are told and what we experience keep growing.  We know that the “financial crisis” continues as a giant pyramid scheme; we know that natural resources are being used up rapidly; we know that the progress we expected in the form of “The American Dream,” is just not happening for “the 99%.”  We know that while profits grow exponentially, stagnant wages and longer work hours buy less and less of the endless array of the products of economic growth.  Most now realize that it’s time to set aside the propaganda of the industry-funded “climate denial” propaganda and face the known scientific facts of how the biosphere works and is being disrupted by the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.  And, we have now begun to experience directly the climate disruptions that scientists have been forecasting for a couple of decades and we recognize that something has to be done.

But what is most difficult to imagine is what it will take to avoid the catastrophic results of even a 2º Celsius increase in average temperature on the planet.  Look around.  Where do you see infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil-fuel based technology?  Survival requires that most of that infrastructure be eliminated or somehow converted.  But what will replace it?  The ‘political’ answer is to do more research on “alternate fuels,” which simply dodges the question.  But many alternative technologies for producing and conserving energy already exist and new ones are emerging.  These need to be implemented now.  To describe them all and how they might be implemented rapidly would take a book-length discussion.  But the coming “great transformation” will require that we reorganize the ways we use energy from the local to the national level.  That means reorganizing the way we live.

Even climate advocates rarely talk of the massive societal reorganization needed to achieve their goal of returning to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere needed to re-stabilize the climate.  Speculations are desperately needed on the actual changes in people’s lives and on how to transform social relations and institutions required to meet the challenge of climate disruption so that the biosphere can be stabilized and we can survive on the planet.  It is hard to forecast the future; many have tried and failed.  But it is even more difficult to imagine what everyday life will be like when climate disruptions force humans to drastically reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  A viable response must be comprehensive ecologically, which means we will have to change the way we want to continue living and others (in the third world) want to live.

The societal implications of radical reductions in fossil-fuel consumption and conversion to carbon-neutral and carbon-negative ways of living will take very different kinds of innovations than we are used to – including major cultural change for a new ecological economy.  Those innovations must come in the form of both appropriate technology and appropriate social organization.  Part II of this essay will consider what seem to be some of the key logical necessities and possible strategies for the coming greatest transformation of all time.