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.

Homelessness, Plutocrats, Over-population, and the Climate Crisis

The “homeless” person is part of what is perceived by the power elite as an unneeded collection of persons of no value to the system – a “surplus population.” I first ran across the concept of “surplus population” in a sociology journal article many years ago. The point was simple: a certain number of “positions” exist in society at any particular time and the number of people in society is often larger than the number of persons. The residual, or surplus population, consists of those who have no position.

It is now abundantly clear that all the production of goods and services – even including the superfluous, trivial, and just stupid products – can be accomplished using fewer and fewer workers than in the past. Overflowing suburban garages and commercial storage units demonstrate the oversupply of often meaningless products. Waste abounds. At the same time, the shrinking middle class tells the story of job shortages and a growing “surplus population.”

As the Industrial Age advanced, more and more goods could be produced per unit of labor; increased labor efficiency resulted from the application of technology to the production process. In the 1950s and 1960s, many people feared automation because it eliminated the need for many jobs. At the same time, we were told that new technologies would lead to shorter working hours, labor-saving home appliances, and more leisure time for everyone. From the 1960s on, women entered the workforce. But the expanding economy kept most workers employed.

Producing Waste and Wasting Lives

Because the economy was expanding so much, the need for workers expanded too, for awhile. Even the computer revolution absorbed more of the workforce as it expanded. Yet, many “middle-management” jobs were eliminated by the power of spreadsheets, word processors, and database management systems. The information economy expanded, but eliminated many jobs in the process. Through the 1980s and 1990s, as information control was enhanced, well-paid manufacturing jobs were lost as labor was “outsourced” to destitute low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America. Capital is mobile, labor is not. This trend was strengthened by a stream of international trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, which have increased corporate power over national economic policy. Many manufacturing jobs in the U.S. were lost. The remaining jobs were mostly retail and menial service jobs with marginal wages. Well, we all know how well that has worked out. The “American Dream” became a nightmare.

So, as the middle class contracted, Americans are left with less and less employment offering a living wage. Large numbers of people can no longer participate in the labor market while others live at or below subsistence level on minimum-wage incomes or less. Neither rents nor food are cheaper. Prices continue to rise as wages decline.

This is all well and good for the power elites who run the system, at least in the short run. More profits mean more power. For the growing numbers left out, the system seeks to either abandon them or find new ways to exploit them. They are to be 1) imprisoned for profit; 2) shot in the back by police; or 3) run out of town by any means necessary. City ordinances are commonly passed these days to make being homeless illegal! As usual, the victims are blamed.

But dark economic storm clouds are stirring on the horizon. As long as the money markets are run by the plutocrats and oligarchs for their own further enrichment, the real economy deteriorates. The economy is not run democratically for the benefit of everyone being able to make a living. The Congress represents the plutocrats, not the public. So, whoever is pushed out of the economy will be treated in these ways. The race to irreversible climate chaos continues as does the illusion that it is something about an abstract future.

The only alternative to this existential contradiction is a moral and ecological economy. And that requires locally organized movements for resistance and replacement of the mega-banks, international corporations and their political allies. These institutions have no national allegiance; they have no human allegiance. They must be overcome, not by force of arms (impossible) but by turning away and replacing corporate rule with community institutions. Otherwise, collapse.

The New Capitalism and Its Death

Unfortunately, Corporate Capitalism is the capitalism we have, and it is not about to relinquish its institutionalized greed. It is not the American Capitalism that built this industrial nation; it is a predatory capitalism that is extractive in nature and is destroying the nation. It does not merely extract the remaining resources of the planet. It also extracts monetary value from the economy to the point where instability is inevitable.

While still in control, the financial elites will never allow a hybrid economic model such as the Europeans have partially achieved, that would balance their greed with the public interest. That would not allow the obscene profits and power that it now enjoys. So, various forms of resistance are needed in concert with local ways to simply replace the “financial services” that the mega-banks fail to provide communities in their quest for phantom wealth generated from within the mega-banking system itself.

Local control can build community institutions and economies that can employ their populations instead of relegating them to ghettos and prisons. A genuine response to climate disruption would, of course, generate massive new employment. That will only be possible when we let go of our Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, and Bank of America accounts [of all kinds] and replace them with locally controlled banks with community ownership and ecologically sound policies. The new global movement of local resistance to predatory extractive capital can also direct community resources to employment in building resilience in a rapidly changing environment.

Homeless Plutocrats

Fact is, weird politics aside, overpopulation is a huge globally problematic factor in trying to curtail climate disruption as well as unemployment, underemployment, and homelessness. There will be nowhere to go for all those Bangladeshis when the seas rise a few feet and wipe out much of their farmland and homes. India is already building defenses against possible climate-forced migration. Similar scenarios are unfolding around the globe.

But the main source of the impending planetary climate crisis is the plutocracy driving global economic growth; that process also excludes more and more people from participation. Of course, it is the U.S. and other industrial nations that consume vast quantities of resources and produce vastly more CO2 per capita than the populations of “developing” nations. A key way to get population to level off and for masses not to starve is for the education and empowerment of women all over the planet to be accelerated. But none of it will much matter unless the plutocrats are driven from their comfy corporate homes and the economy is turned from extractive to ecological. There will be no place for plutocrats in a new “living earth” economy.

Meanwhile, corrupt corporate capital continues to exploit “surplus populations” in the U.S. and around the world. The “carrying capacity” of the planet has been outrun by endlessly growing numbers of people clamoring to participate in the phantom wealth of the industrial nations. Only consumption constraint of the wealthy nations can begin to bring the impact of their populations in line with the carrying capacity of the land they occupy. An unwinding of the ongoing re-distribution of ever more wealth to the very rich can allow a re-balancing between population and environment to begin. Some plutocrats may become homeless in the process.

Without major climate-chaos mitigation humanity will be depopulated alright — by resource wars, including water and food wars, mass starvation, and unprecedented social chaos. Homelessness could become the new normal. Hard, mostly political-economic, decisions lay ahead.

Capitalist Culture and the American Worker

We are a Capitalist Culture. The entire course of the industrial era has been driven by capital investment in technologies and materials that together have increased economic production. In the U.S. – contrary to corporate folklore – much of that capital investment has been made by the government, often at the behest of business. Infrastructure was the primary focus. The federally funded railways were a major factor in the expansion of the West. The Interstate Highway System started by President Eisenhower, virtually guaranteed post-WWII economic growth and indirectly subsidized the boom in the automobile industry. The early years of NASA saw major new technological inventions and aerospace accomplishments by a government-funded mission-driven enterprise. Advances in the aviation industry, largely publicly regulated then, benefited greatly from those developments. Numerous aerospace corporations grew rich on government “cost-plus” contracts, all the while praising “free market capitalism” and “free enterprise.”

The allies had won World War II supported by U.S. government investment in rapid invention and deployment of new (mostly military) products, also generating full employment. The war economy produced many jobs after politically powerful capitalists forced unemployment-inducing cutbacks in the initially successful New Deal. Investment in productive assets is the driving force behind all economic development. Government investment of public capital – paid for by our taxes – has driven much of the growth of the U.S. economy. U.S. business has been a prime beneficiary of public investments over the nation’s entire history.

Corporate Capital and American Culture
Americans have come to believe that economic development has resulted only from the combination of private capital and personal invention. It is an unquestioned cultural assumption. Why? Because Big Corporate Capital now controls most cultural communication in the U.S.A. The interests of the biggest corporations dominate the content communicated in the mass media — also controlled by Big Corporate Capital. Corporate ideology is expressed in a variety of ways by twisting the ideas that would normally express core American values. The mass media implicitly support corporate agendas rather than the public interest, while sounding like they defend core American values.

A classic case of corporate capitalist culture distorting cultural values were the efforts of groups like the John Birch Society in the 1950s. Like the Birch Society, today’s Koch brothers’ front groups work to get “right to work” laws passed in most states. Who would not agree that everyone has a right to work? It is virtually a universal cultural value, closely tied to “American individualism.” However, the “right” of one person to work in a particular unionized factory or office – without joining the union or paying union dues – is not quite the same thing.

When a union negotiates with management for a living wage or safe working conditions, all wage workers in that business benefit from that negotiation. For a worker to have the “right” to not pay union dues or a fee for the cost of the negotiations that benefit him, that worker becomes a “free rider.” He or she benefits from the success of the group but refuses to pay his/her share of the costs of that benefit. Any one worker has a “right” to not contribute to the efforts of a united group of workers to achieve a living wage. But in that case, s/he should not expect to reap the rewards of that effort. Such blatant exploitation of the efforts of others is the height of hypocrisy. It is also a direct attack on the rights of all other workers to effectively bargain for reasonable wages.

Sure, one could point to some cases where a union has gained unjustified power. Unions, like any other organization, when they grow too big and powerful, tend to act in the bureaucratic interest, not in members’ interests. The teamsters under the ‘union boss’ Jimmy Hoffa come to mind as such as case . A man like Hoffa was rather similar to the likes of a Jamie Diamond or the CEOs of several other financial corporations today, who have ruthlessly exploited their positions as heads of their institutions. The main difference is that nobody had qualms about prosecuting corrupt union leaders. However, corrupt “Banksters” today seem immune to all but the mildest disparagement, no less jail time. Instead, we hear “nobody could have predicted the financial crisis,” when many non-corporate economists did just that as well as point out the corrupt nature of the behavior of the financial elite.

American Values: Minimum Wage and a Living Wage
Recent surveys make clear the American public’s view that workers should be paid at least enough to subsist – it is called a “living wage.” If you work full time, you ought to be able to pay rent and buy food, clothing, and shelter, the basics. Yet over the past several decades more and more jobs are at or near, even below in some cases, the woefully inadequate “minimum wage.” The power of corporations over the political culture coincided with the corporate takeover of the congress and many state legislatures. Wage theft is rampant in situations such as the fast food industry where workers’ power to defend themselves against abuse is at or near zero. That, of course, is where wages are extremely low and the supply of workers is much greater than the demand.

The pure apologists for capitalist culture even argue that there should be no minimum wage, so that the magical “invisible hand” of a “free market” in labor can find the “true value” of any particular job. In a civilized society, one would think, no job should be valued at less than is needed for survival. Yet many executives who have the opportunity to do so, pay starvation wages. I know small business owners who insist on paying their workers a living wage, even for unskilled jobs, when they could pay only minimum wages. But these are entrepreneurs who have consciences; they believe in the American values of fairness and mutual loyalty of employer and employee.

One retired business owner told me with great confidence that raising the minimum wage would be counter productive for low wage workers. They would simply have to spend extra on more expensive fast food because their higher wages would drive up prices. Others claim that raising the minimum wage would destroy their businesses, because their customers would not pay the difference. Most critics of a livable minimum wage claim it would be a damper on the economy. Yet in every instance where the minimum wage was raised significantly, unemployment went down as the local economy was stimulated by the increased demand.  The additional income is mostly spent on necessities in the local economy.

Conscientious employers have proven the living-wage critics wrong time and again. Their businesses typically thrive, both because of the better mutual loyalty between employer and worker, and because the business just runs smother and is usually more responsive to customers as well because the owner has a better attitude about everyone. The public knows that the employment system in the U.S. is rigged to squeeze the workers and disempower them. That is why a new movement for economic fairness and justice is growing. At the same time, growing numbers of low-wage workers are recognizing that the only way they can break out of the trap they are in is to organize themselves and protest en mass. Despite continuing massive corporate propaganda, unions may be on the rise again.

Outsourcing America, or Reviving Our Economy
In the current situation of a continuing “wage recession,” we observe corporations sitting on vast quantities of cash. They hesitate to invest it in production, since low wages have driven demand for basic products so low. Everyone knows that a low-wage worker must spend every dollar s/he is paid just to survive. Production depends on demand. Corporations send capital overseas to reduce production costs and attempt to sell cheaper goods to workers here who cannot afford them. A shrinking middle class trying to survive on unsustainable poverty wages cannot maintain high levels of consumption. The rich can only buy so many mansions and yachts. The super wealthy corporate elites park their riches in financial instruments that contribute little to the real economy that would otherwise need workers at livable wages.

It is time to reassess the entire framework of the dying American economy. Narrow short-term corporate interests are destroying the potential for capital to be invested in creating many needed jobs in this country. The nation needs to do much work in areas that serve the public interest – such as energy efficiency – providing livable wages in the process. A massive investment of existing capital in converting the carbon economy to self-sustaining energy production and conservation would require many jobs. The fossil fuel industry cannot and will not provide such jobs – they are in the public interest, not the fossil fuel industry’s interest.

The so-called free market is anything but free. Capital has been put to many uses that cost society far more than their value to society and now even threaten our survival. Capital enables and empowers social action. Only a realignment of the role of capital in the new economy can make a livable society possible.