Boredom and Work

“Are we there yet?” “Why? Are you bored?”

Boredom. I never got that. How can any conscious being be bored? I think it is a matter of perception and attitude, maybe even choice. I recall hearing of people retiring from a job they had for most of their adult life, then dying within a few months, essentially because they had “nothing to do” and became despondent about their lives. They had so closely identified with and focused on their jobs that they had lost interest in the rest of the world. Separated from the source of their identity, they were lost.

Did they die of boredom? I don’t know. But I am sure that they had become unable to engage with the world beyond their job. Jobs, jobs, jobs. There are the “job creators” of corporate fiction; there are also the job destroyers of corporate outsourcing, moving capital to where the cheapest labor resides. Oh, but they are one and the same. Especially in today’s corporate dominated American culture, the growing power of the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals results from the fact that the rest of us depend upon them for most of the shrinking number of well-paid jobs.

moderntimes_charliechaplin

Charlie Chaplin ~ Modern Times

As automated production and manufacturing are outsourced overseas to the poor nations with the lowest wages, the giant corporations, though flush with cash, keep demanding of their congressional lackeys lower taxes, even as they dodge most taxes anyway. They blame “government spending” and “entitlement” programs for the failings of a corporate economy that provides fewer and fewer jobs with a living wage. Senators and Congressmen openly admit that unless they pass “tax reform,” driving up the national debt, their donors will cut them off. And they probably will. But that’s another story.

What, exactly, is there in the world that is boring?  I thought I knew once when I was about 15 years old. It was 1955. My friends all had minimum-wage jobs, paying about 75

1951 Ford 2 dood sedan_6287_13x1.jpg

1951 Ford 2 door sedan

cents per hour. Or they had none at all. I was quite excited. My father had gotten me a summer job with his friend, a general contractor. I was paid at union scale, at that time around $3.65 per hour, almost 5 times minimum wage. That first summer it was easy to save up the $300- I needed to buy a used 1951 Ford as soon as I got my drivers license. If we all chipped in a quarter for gas, 3 or 4 of us could cruise all night until curfew. Nothing boring about that!

I remember clearly one hot summer day; I was at the bottom of a ditch the foreman had assigned me to dig. I can still picture myself there. He left me all alone in the hot smoggy Southern California sun to complete the ditch, for some drainage line at a hillside suburban home while he got some other workers started on another job. That ditch must have been 8 feet deep; I could barely launch a shovel full of dirt over the edge.  I wondered how long I’d be stuck with this ‘boring’ work.

Then I came upon an idea; I wondered how evenly I could cut the edges of that ditch while digging it as ordered – an interesting challenge for a kid trapped in a ditch with nothing else to do and nowhere to go. The day went much quicker as I faced that inconsequential challenge and learned how to not be bored.

So many of today’s jobs are boring because all ability to apply talent or skill to them has been taken out by automated processes, reducing them to simple mechanical performance with even less potential for creativity than digging a ditch. They are mostly at or near minimum wage too. And, minimum wage today, at $7.50 or $10- per hour buys less than that 75 cents did in 1955. Then, a 10-cent cup of copy was a small fraction of the hourly minimum wage. Today, a Starbuck’s coffee can cost you the equivalent of an hour’s work. That is not boring; it is intolerable.

Capital Contradiction: The Fundamental Flaw that Dooms the Corporate-Growth Economy

The corporate cheerleaders of the last stages of the dying unlimited-growth economy still argue that “growth” is necessary for a healthy economy. The role of growth in our economic culture seemed secure, until the cracks in its foundation grew ominous. Now it’s a big question.

As the argument goes, capital growth spurs technological innovation, which will allow people to work less and enjoy life more. A happy prospect – as I remember it from the 1960s. Industrial technology certainly has reduced the amount of labor needed as a component of production. So much can be produced with so much less labor than before industrial and office operations were automated.

Is All “Growth” Good?
But what are the benefits of labor-saving industrial technology for people? Who works less and enjoys life more today? Not even the capitalists, but of course they are driven not by need but by desire. The rest of us mostly work more for less pay, just to make ends meet, if that. All the benefits of efficiency have gone to the power elites. Their concerted efforts since the 1950s have destroyed the unions. So, little leverage remains for paying workers a living wage.  People don’t work less – if they have a job – they just earn less for the work they do and usually work more.

One result of less and less labor needed per unit of production is that more and more gets produced. But since less and less labor is needed, fewer and fewer jobs are available for workers. The quantity of goods produced grows right past the need for them to be consumed.  As population grows, there are more people looking for work.  But there are not more jobs. Unemployment and poverty result from overproduction when workers have a smaller and smaller role in the economy. More and more workers, regardless of education, find little meaningful employment. Many become trapped as “wage slaves” in jobs with below-subsistence buying power. This is worsened by the ability of capital to seek the lowest wage labor internationally, while most workers must find jobs where they live.

Overproduction causes pressures for people to over-consume. Many of the goods produced are not really needed – they result from manufactured wants. Less understood is the fact that many people, being under-employed or unemployed, cannot buy them anyway. The consequent loss of demand for goods is a drag on production, further weakening the demand for labor. But behavioral manipulation through marketing can be very effective in spurring consumption, as long as buyers have money. So, with depressed wages, heavily marketed easier credit availability has encouraged many to consume “beyond their means,” especially for food and rent.

A Crisis Delayed
At the dawn of the “age of automation,” back in the 1960s, enthusiasts promoted the myth that people would need to work less and have more leisure time. But many feared that factory automation and office automation would take away jobs. The great economic expansion of the 1960s through the 1980s generated more jobs and the impact of automation was dampened and delayed. The dot-com boom of the 1990s further delayed the impact of computer-aided design, production, and middle-management functions on jobs.  Capital increasingly outsourced the labor it needed to China and other low-wage nations.

But as more of the well paid manufacturing and technical jobs were lost to automation and to international outsourcing, wages continued to be depressed. Left to its own devices, capital finds ways to reproduce itself. As buying power was lost due to lower wages, consumer credit and second mortgage requirements were loosened and these forms of debt were heavily promoted. Consumption was increasingly driven by debt rather than income.

As corporate lobbying took over Washington, business tax loopholes proliferated.  With loss of revenue, government debt soared too, right along with consumer debt. Without new economic growth and rising wages, debt service becomes an increasing burden. While the corporate economy grew, wages continued to flat-line or decline, leaving worker-consumers in an ever-growing squeeze.

The march of labor-reducing technology is always assumed to be inevitable and good. Yet, with “free markets” in labor and with capital able to move globally to find the cheapest labor, a severe imbalance occurs.

Half truths are sometimes just false. For the claims of a comfortable life with fewer hours of work to be realized, the entire organization of the economy would have to be revised. Money would have to circulate much more freely among all the people. The means of distributing income and wealth would have to be altered so that not all of the benefits of increased productivity go to the top 1%.

The Time is Now
What the growth cheerleaders ignore is that we have reached a tipping point where the power of capital over labor has caused extremely depressed wages and high unemployment-underemployment. So, consumer demand is depressed. That in turn discourages investment in production – corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, afraid to invest without consumer demand. Well, corporations need production of a lot of the objects of artificially created ‘wants’ that marketing has generated in order to boost sales and profits. But workers have lost the necessary buying power. It’s a dead end.

As a society, we can no longer afford to produce all that stuff the remaining middle class workers keep in a storage locker because there is no more room in the garage. We need appropriate production of the objects needed in a post-growth stable ecological economy. That will in fact require a complete overhaul of the organization of the economy.

The inevitability of economic progress, whether in the predictions of Karl Marx or the vision of Adam Smith, is and always has been an ideological flaw in the thinking of those who have a particular interest in economic history. Anything is possible and some possibilities are far more problematic than others. The old assumptions must go. Only an ecological economy can work now.  How we can make that happen remains to be seen.

The Happiness Factor: What’s the Point of Having an Economy anyway?

Globalization is widely touted in the mass media as both inevitable and good. But why? It is claimed that products are more efficiently produced, labor is more productive, technology is improved by greater innovation, and capital is more efficiently allocated. But wait, there’s less!

According to Paul Hellyer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada,

“Globalization is really a code name for corporatization. It’s an attempt by the largest corporations in the world, and the largest banks in the world, to re-engineer the world in such a way that they won’t have to pay decent wages to their employees, and they won’t have to pay taxes to fix potholes and to maintain parks, and to pay pensions to the old and handicapped.”

Corruption of Economic Purpose
We have to ask, what’s the point of having an economy anyway? Is the purpose of an economy to serve the special interests of giant transnational corporations? Or should it be to serve the needs of the human population? (No, corporations are not persons.) I would have to answer that the only excuse for having a particular economy is to better support the happiness of the people. When basic needs are met, happiness is maximized. How is that achieved? If an economy provides enough jobs and income for people to live comfortably in a stable safe environment, I’d say it has succeeded.

If an economy grows at a healthy pace by eliminating jobs and reducing household income of ordinary workers to secure higher corporate profits, then it has failed. If work is available and wages are livable, then it has succeeded. Social science research has shown that income improves happiness only up to the point of a modest middle-class life. After that, it fails to contribute to happiness. Today’s accelerating and extreme disparity in wealth and income between the 1% and the 99% reflects a dangerously defective economy.

In fact, the wonders of globalization all accrue to the giant transnational corporations that control the world economy. These enormous organizations are constrained only by nations’ laws meant to protect people and the earth. Environmental laws, labor laws, safety laws, all protect populations and ecologies from damage due to uncontrolled exploitation. The “globalists” make international trade deals in secret to exempt themselves and override the protection of people and the planet. Having bought off Congress, they “fast track” legislation that circumvents national sovereignty to liberate capital, enslave labor, and exploit the planet.

NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) and now the “Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP), are secretly negotiated, then “fast-tracked” through Congress, without deliberation. They actually take precedence over the sovereignty of nations that agree to them. Their corporate courts can overrule national environmental, labor and safety laws. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the freedom of international capital to exploit labor, and generally plunder the planet. Does that contribute to human happiness? In this equation, people are the dependent variable; their happiness is irrelevant. Human needs and happiness are not the determinants of globalization; they are its victims.

An Intentional Economy
For an economy to be morally justified, it must serve human needs and not destroy the ecosphere upon which we all depend. Human survival in the very near future will depend upon whether we can re-cast the economy to reflect human needs under local conditions. That will mean distributed food and energy production, re-designing technology to fit the needs of communities, and reorganizing the flow of capital to serve the needs of local democratic ecological economies. All of these things will require both lots of labor and a major reallocation of capital.

A huge amount of imaginary capital exists today in the “Too Big to Fail Banks.” That phantom “money” was created by the Fed buying the largely worthless debt of the Big Banks to cover their speculative losses. All that must simply be abandoned and a banking system re-created to serve local and regional needs for investing in ecologically creative ways. That alone will create many jobs. An ecological economy will directly serve the needs of humans where they live while intentionally reducing carbon emissions. Such choices will build a survivable future for people and the planet’s diversity of species. An intentionally ecological economy is necessary to sustain the environment we depend on. Any chance for human happiness depends on it.

In the New Ecological Economy, if we will have it, industrial and trade policies will be determined by human needs and the necessities of sustaining the ecosphere of which we are a part. There is simply no getting around it. But to support human happiness, who would want to? Today, those who would traffic in any kind of human misery for a profit still rule the global corporate-growth economy. Any movement in the exact opposite direction toward building an economy intended to serve human happiness must begin from the ground up.