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.

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.

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!

What Middle Class?

In recent memory at least, Americans have been uncomfortable with the idea of class.  That somehow has caused a retreat to the middle.  In the context of the myth of universal opportunity for mobility through achievement, it’s almost like Garrison Keeler’s Lake Woebegone, where “all the children are above average.”  The “lower class” is not seen as an economic stratum as much as an admonition of individual personal failure or an attribution of questionable personal character applied to a “lower class of people.” In the individualistic consumer society, one just does not talk about “class structure.”

The very idea of class is a taboo subject in the American political discourse – which is so stilted anyway – with the exception that the wealthy immediately invoke “class warfare” if publicly called upon to accept a rate of taxation as high as that of their clerical staff.  Any other time, the denial of class in America is great cover for upper-class privilege.  That seems to make the rest of us “middle class,” by fiat – except for the “undeserving poor” – despite the vast economic disparities manifestly apparent to any casual observer.

The problem now is that the American class structure is changing radically and it is hard to ignore.  It is clear that on any objective measure the middle class is disappearing as the rich get obscenely rich and the poor are joined by so many formerly middle class.  What is most interesting and most disturbing about all this is that the pattern of change in the class structure is so similar to that which preceded the Great Depression.  That too escapes entry into the political discourse as the same old arguments against economic reform mimic those which opposed FDR’s New Deal.

Politicians routinely invoke “the middle class” when they are trying to show how empathetic they are to the plight of the American people – at least the American people who are not “low class.”  But as livable employment escapes more and more Americans, the politicians’ actions continue to reflect only the short-term interests of the corporations whose lobbyists dole out those “contributions” that somehow are not defined as bribery.

What about the Upper Class?  What about the Lower Class?  What about, well, the American people?  Well, that concept is increasingly as moot as it is continually invoked as an icon of political purity by those who exploit it – that cartel of corporate and governmental power elites Mike Lofgren calls the “deep state,” which is so entrenched that its decisions stand regardless of who gets elected. [1]   Remember the revolving door?

The term, middle class, has become increasingly meaningless as large numbers of people who were not long ago earning middle range salaries have fallen on hard times because of the malfeasance of upper class financial and corporate decision makers.  But there is much more to it.  The entire trajectory of the endless-growth economy has been predicated on reducing the need for labor by capital investment in technology to expand growth.  In its final stage, as menial jobs are outsourced – except for direct service work such as fast food and manual cleaning jobs – the technical and intellectual jobs with middle level salaries are fast being automated or outsourced too.  Combined with the exploding kleptocracy at the very top levels of the financial and political sectors, enabled by the Deep State of which they are members, the impact of this trend is to decimate what one might have described as the economic middle class.

So, the ranks of the lower class have been swelled by former middle-class folks and most lower-class folks, working or unemployed, are already at the bottom with no prospects of upward mobility.  The irony, it seems, resides in the fact that the very elites who do everything they can to eliminate labor costs just love to call themselves the “job creators.”

So, again, what’s with all this talk about taking care of the middle class?  What I suspect most politicians are doing when they appeal to that term is that they are referring to those “regular Americans” who fit their stereotype of culturally and behaviorally acceptable or legitimate “Americans,” that is, the most likely voters.  It’s pure demagoguery.  This, of course, flies in the fact of the growing populism among a wide swath of Americans who are gradually realizing that the “middle class,” just like the “American Dream,” is an illusion glossing over a system that is rigged against them, but increasingly cannot be sustained.

_____________
[1]  Lofgren, a former congressional staffer, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS show, and posted an essay describing the ruling political-economic cartel, “Anatomy of the Deep State.” Read it at: http://billmoyers.com/2014/02/21/anatomy-of-the-deep-state/.  His book, The Party’s over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, is about how congress really operates.

Necessary but Unlikely Total Mobilization to Curtail Climate Chaos

The inevitability of climate chaos leading to species extinction of humans, along with many other species, now seems assured without massive mobilization and collective action on a scale never before achieved by humans.  Necessary but seemingly impossible – that is not a comforting thought.  Yet, here we are, contemplating whether or not the president will even slow the juggernaut of fossil-fuel burning by rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport the most polluted crude oil from the environmental disaster called the Canadian Tar Sands Fields to Texas refineries for distribution on the world markets — not for “energy independence.”  Approval would be a purely financial act of enriching the industry at the expense of the planet.  To refuse approval would be a small step toward slowing the rapid slide into climate chaos.

Yet, many major actions, some much more complex, will have to be taken to make the difference between survival and extinction.  Here are just a few:

  • Massive retro-fitting of insulation of existing buildings.
  • Rapidly accelerate the installation of local photovoltaic solar electricity generation and local-regional wind farms and smart grids.
  • Execute broad water conservation strategy.
  • Tax all CO2  and externalized costs of fossil-based energy production and use revenue to fund conversion to carbon-neutral economy [lots of jobs in that].
  • Convert transportation from fossil-fuel to carbon-neutral energy and build required infrastructure.
  • Curtail intercontinental trade and shipping of goods easily made in the destination nation were it not for corporate “free trade” agreements favoring capital over labor.
  • Transform the corporate-driven international exploitation of local labor by mobile capital and shift production to the geographic region of consumption.
  • And even reconfigure the Internet to reduce wasteful giant server farms (including those of the NSA) that store massive quantities of data “in the cloud.”

These are just some of the major undertakings that are essential to slow global warming and minimize resulting climate disruptions.  The only example I know of a total mobilization of the kind required, but which occurred at a much smaller scale, was the rapid transformation of the stagnant American consumer economy into a booming war-production economy at the beginning of WWII.  (And Depression era unemployment was eliminated.)  Automobile production was stopped and factories were converted to production of tanks in a matter of weeks.  The iconic P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft was designed and put into production also in a few weeks.  In a variety of ways, the entire society was mobilized en mass, and with the full participation of the citizenry.  Why?  Because the focus and the stakes were clear to everyone – concerted action was the result.  We have not yet achieved that focus or clarity.

Could that level of collective commitment to, and implementation of, a conversion from a fossil-fuel based economy of perpetual growth and waste to a fully carbon-neutral economy of stability be accomplished in less than the maximum twenty-year window for action?  Theoretically, yes.  Practically, very unlikely, given the huge institutional and cultural obstacles we face.  Some scientists calculate that it would require changing about eighty percent of our production and consumption practices to achieve the carbon emissions goals that are necessary to not stop but just minimize climate disruptions over the next half century – that’s all the time we have, if that, and only if those changes are achieved in the very short term.  That would entail a Herculean collective effort – while the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fixed News scoff.

Yet, necessity can overcome seeming impossibility, once necessity is fully recognized.  No political issues like who is to blame, who should go first in cutting emissions, etc., can even be contemplated in any scenario leading to success.  In our present situation, a massive collective effort must start now and accelerate rapidly.  I’m assuming that if such an effort were initiated in the U.S., most nations would quickly follow, for several reasons.  But how can it be done?

It would seem that only an FDR level of singular focused executive action by the currently farcical “all of the above” energy-policy president could turn the tide.  But how is that possible?  When we look at the record of presidential pandering to the financial and petro-industrial elites so far, hopes dim.  But history has also shown that public mobilization can direct the actions of “leaders” if the will of the people is expressed at a sufficient scale and intensity.

Naïve liberals wonder why their obviously smart-enough president kowtows to the power elites (who gave him all those big campaign contributions) and Republican obstructionists, instead of fighting for social programs in the “yes we can” vein on which they believe he was elected.  At the same time, the evolving totalitarian plutocracy is extremely unlikely to accept necessary drastic actions without a fight – indeed, such actions reach far beyond the mere social programs that are also in direct opposition to its short-term interests.

Racist congressional obstructionism aside, the fact is that the power structure cannot be moved without massive public pressure, no matter who the president is.  Keystone XL may be the key bellwether. Besides, most of the political “liberals” – the Democratic Party incumbents who are also well oiled by the corporatocracy – don’t really get how seriously threatening this crisis is, or, they are simply holding to their own short-term political/economic interests.  They will not be the agents of change; the people will be…if they will.

All sorts of questions about the future of democracy are raised by the massive-mobilization prerequisite to fending off the worst effects of the accelerating climate chaos we are already experiencing.  But in a system where a plutocratic alliance of corporations and government already manages a hollow shell of a defunct democratic process, such questions are mostly moot.  Survival is a precondition anyway if we are to ever return to a real democratic polity.  If massive mobilization is driven by grass-roots demands of the citizenry for concerted action, as it must be, that very same citizenry can establish new democratic forms during the Great Transformation, but only if it happens within the rapidly closing window of opportunity remaining.

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

The pervasive acceptance of conventional economic theory as a “natural science” that gives us guidance for dealing with our economic lives is one of the biggest obstacles to understanding and making rational choices about the converging crises of our time.  Simply put, the fundamental flaw in conventional economics is that the economic system it promotes as a natural system operates in an ecological vacuum.  In the real world, however, economic policy confronts actual obstacles to its illusion of endless economic growth that it cannot overcome.  That is why the choices ahead are so difficult and will require massive social change.

The economics profession initially struggled to be recognized as a science, just like physics.  That recognition eventually came, but was not entirely justified.  Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef[1] have powerfully demonstrated how the scientific limits of economics were overcome by clever conceptual illusions and political alignment with the forces of wealth and power in society.  That has gone so far that, for example, the Koch brothers now control the hiring of economics faculty at Florida State University, having cut a deal that allows them veto power over faculty hiring in exchange for monetary support for the department.  So much for independent intellectual exploration in that academic setting.  The economics departments of high ranking universities around the nation are more subtly influenced by expectations tied to financial support from major corporations.  No wonder fields like ecological economics, which examines economic systems in relation to the ecological systems in which they operate, are so commonly excluded from such programs.

A few forward looking economists such as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill,[2] and Richard Heinberg,[3] have begun to unmask the myths of the orthodoxy of the Economics of Endless Growth and the false assumptions at its base.  As we reach the planetary limits to economic growth, the new ecological economics is an emerging attempt to build a basis for a steady state economy consistent with the carrying capacity of the biosphere.  Much remains to be done on figuring out how to respond to and manage the Great Transformation to the new economic reality.  The economists mentioned here have outlined some of the changes needed, but little has been said of how to accomplish them.  Gar Alperovitz[4] has extended that discussion, focusing on nascent democratizing economic organizations forming at the grass roots level.  That will be increasingly important, but strategy and tactics for getting there from here are the key factor which is both most important and least elucidated.

It is quite clear that electoral politics are so dominated by the corporate forces that sustain conventional growth-at-any-cost economics in their own short-term interests [quarterly profits and stock prices as well as obscene executive pay and bonuses] that getting reasonable independent people elected in the near term is highly unlikely.  The only other option is the building of a social movement from the bottom up.  The American people are not nearly as stupid as the plutocracy imagines.  People know something is very wrong, even when they don’t connect it to their own economic behavior.  Extant climate disruption has already overcome the corporate propaganda of climate-denial, but what’s a concerned citizen to do?

The news that a coalition of seventeen of the world’s biggest private foundations has announced that they are divesting their holdings of nearly $1.8 billion from fossil fuels corporations[5] indicates one thing.  Consciousness can change and change can become exponential; that is how emerging non-violent social movements are realized.  350.org was initially ridiculed for its plan to pressure educational institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.  But it is happening.  A much broader movement is needed, however.

Integral to modernity is the decline of the solidarity of natural social groupings (family, village, clan, etc.).   The discontent resulting from economic individualism could be countered by engagement in the very kinds of social movement that are needed to confront the otherwise overpowering force of corporatocracy.  Out of participation will come change in self-awareness.  If [when] Obama’s absurd “all of the above” [ultimately anti-ecological] energy policy results in approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new surge of activism will facilitate the larger social movement – and solidarity – necessary for change when conventional politics are locked out by corporate financial control.  What most middle-class “progressives” don’t quite understand, yet, is that the necessary massive reductions in CO2 and methane emissions will radically alter their consumer “lifestyle.”  That shock, sobering as it will be, must lead to massive collective action by new social groupings grounded in the human interest – not individual selfish short-term interests –  so that the broken fossil-fuel economy can be transformed into a new ecological economy never before seen.


[1] Philip B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011.

[2] Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill, Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013.

[3] Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2011.

[4] Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.  White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2013

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.