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.

Why a Return to Progressive Taxation is necessary…and Right

The accelerating concentration of income and wealth in the upper 1% of the upper 1% of the population and the failure of the “growth” economy to serve the population that supports it, are not only moral questions of fairness. The distribution of income and wealth are also important elements of the health of the economy itself. Between 30% and 75% of aggregate income in the past 30 years has gone to the top 10% and most of that has gone to the top 1%. After the “great recession” of 2008, almost all of new income went to the top of the top 1%. If this trend continues, the circulation of money and therefore the health of the economy will stagnate even further.

It is fortunate that French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, is making such an international splash. Piketty raises fundamental questions about the economy that most economists, in their pandering to the power elites, have avoided ever since crowning Adam Smith patron saint of mainstream economics.

What classical economics, as practiced throughout the industrial era, has ignored is the inherent tendency of capital to concentrate among the wealthiest individuals and corporations, unless mitigated by social policies that assure the broader circulation of money throughout the economy.  It’s really quite simple. The economic power of those who control the most wealth and income gives them advantages that enable them to accumulate wealth at increasing rates, to the disadvantage of everyone else in the economy.  Without economic regulations that dampen the special advantages of wealth, such as the progressive income tax that once benefited the economy, extreme disparities in income and wealth cause all sorts of problems.

The evidence of that destructive process is grossly obvious in the current economies of the industrial nations, especially in the United States. That is exactly what happened before the Great Depression of the 1930s, causing economic collapse due to excessive concentration of wealth among the richest class in America. Yes, class, that concept so long banned from discussion in the U.S. Forget the fancy academic analyses of socioeconomic class and status in social relations. It’s simply a matter of an inevitable distortion of the distribution of wealth and circulation of money when the tendency for concentration is not tempered by some kind of social policy designed to limit concentration by re-balancing the circulation of money in the economy. Such policies were enacted in the 1930s, but, under pressure from the most privileged, have been abandoned, allowing further distortion of income and wealth.

The concentration of wealth and income was moderated when we had a progressive income tax system. The simplest and most practical approach to staving off plutocracy (rule by the wealthiest members of society) and reducing damage to the economy that results from unfettered accumulation of wealth, is to return to a progressive system of taxation of income and the return of the tax on inheritance. There is simply no economic reason, let alone moral justification, for allowing the economy to spin out of control and fail to serve the public interest in order to allow the wealthiest members of society to become that much wealthier, simply because they already have excessive economic power.

At the same time, the obsession with reducing the federal debt by further cutting expenditures that support the general population, such as social security, medical insurance coverage, and public education, serves no earthly purpose other than to make the rich richer. The biggest con of all these days is the one that characterizes the ‘rentier’ class – those who merely make money on the value of the wealth they have already accumulated – is that their income and wealth ought to be protected from taxation because they are the “job creators.” They are no such thing, and their excessive income is of benefit to nobody, not even themselves – you can only spend so much before reaching absurd redundancy.  But the quest for power knows no bounds.

Restoring the progressive income tax would be fit medicine to help restore the health of an economy suffering from the cancerous growth of the ‘cells’ of the richest class of Americans and the corporations they control. The federal revenue gained thereby could be applied not only to the national debt, but to investing the desperately needed transformation of the fossil-fuel driven economy to a carbon neutral economy in order to minimize the damage of climate disruption. After all, it is the 1% and their fossil fuel related investments that have driven us to the brink of climate catastrophe.

Bottom line: an economy is not an economy of the whole society without consistently adequate circulation of money throughout the population.  It is both immoral and foolish to continue on the path of accelerating concentration of wealth to the detriment of the entire society. Privilege and wealth will not disappear with progressive taxation. Look at the post WW-II 1940s and 1950s, when the marginal tax rate on income above $200,000 — the tax rate on the part of income above the first $200,000 earned, and there were 23 brackets below that with progressively lower rates — was 91%; adjusted for inflation, that would be the rate for income above $2.41 million today. We should have such a healthy economy today!

The Real Cause of Unemployment: Automated and Outsourced Over-Production

In a growth economy, new jobs are created on a regular basis because new production expands the employment base. In a shrinking economy, just the opposite happens. The U.S. and most of the industrial world have enjoyed the benefits of expanded production and employment for many decades, minus the occasional downswings of the “business cycle,” along with some deep depressions. That is the ‘conventional wisdom,’ and within a narrow framework it has worked until now.

However, in addition to sending jobs to low-wage nations, ‘improvements’ in the processes of design, production, and optimizing the supply chain – all of which involve reducing the labor needed for these processes – capital invested in advanced production technology requires less and less labor. That is the key contradiction in the growth economy. Once labor costs are reduced beyond a certain point, buying power can no longer keep up with production. The addition of capital mobility amplifies this problem.

Capital is mobile; labor, not so much. Sure, Mexicans come across the U.S. border seeking work because highly automated production of corn in the U.S. – with the help of government subsidies and NAFTA – allows U.S. agribusiness corporations to undercut Mexican corn prices, flood their grain market, and drive traditional Mexican farmers off their land. Then the same corporations buy up or lease Mexican farmland to produce crops for export to the U.S. – especially those requiring hand picking. Desperate farmers who lost their livelihood can be hired at below poverty wages; some of the remainder head for the U.S. with nothing but hope.

A win-win situation for the corporations and their capital is a lose-lose proposition for both Mexican and American workers and the price of their labor. But when capital moves from the declining cities where American manufacturing once thrived, to the centers of large Asian populations in dire poverty, the immobility of labor is clear. Neither American nor Asian workers without highly specialized technical skills, can follow the movement of investment capital to obtain jobs. That is the real face behind the mask of “free trade.”

Those corporate elites who the pundits of CNBC and Fox News tout as the “job creators,” are, in fact, American-job destroyers. The claim is routinely made that these wealthy CEOs create jobs through investment of their wealth. Well, they do create poverty jobs in Asia to replace middle-class jobs in the U.S. In the process they destroy American jobs. And now we have the TPP, the “Trans-Pacific Partnership,” or “NAFTA on steroids,” formed in secret and intended to wipe out national standards for labor and environmental protection, even further extending corporate rule and economic control over nations.

Through most of the industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of economic production, investment of capital has been directed toward labor saving technologies of production as well as the invention of new products. The first coal-fired steam-driven textile factories in England and Scotland required many workers to maintain the machinery which did absorb some of the farmers driven off their land by the “enclosures” which were part of the first stage of industrialized agriculture. Most of the rest were encouraged to emigrate to Australia, the U.S., or Canada, where expansion into native lands provided new opportunities for workers displaced by the new industrial technology.

The industrial age has been characterized by continued economic growth. That growth absorbed most of the labor lost to automation of industrial processes. We are now at the end of that phase of the growth economy. Despite denials from the industrial and financial elites, the age of economic growth is ending. Converging crises of finance, resource depletion, accelerated climate disruption with increasingly costly expansion of fossil-fuel production, under-funded over-consumption sustained only by increased debt, and even greater over-production, make it inevitable.

Classical economics, the propaganda tool of industrial capital, sustains the illusion of endless growth. But it fails to recognize environmental reality. A new economics that faces ecological limits must assume curtailed fossil-fueled production and reliance on human labor for two reasons. First, no economy works without circulating its money. Wages are necessary for workers to purchase goods and services produced by other workers. Second, an adequately rapid withdrawal from fossil-fuel addiction will require converting many processes from capital-intensive to labor-intensive production. Some might yell “Luddite!” But existing science and technical knowledge will allow invention of many new labor-based methods and modification of old ones, avoiding the back-breaking pre-industrial forms of work. They just will not use so much fossil-fuel energy. Vast opportunities arise to invent new technologies that rely on human energy. Don’t forget the venerable bicycle. It remains the most energy-efficient mode of transportation yet devised.