The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

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Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

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.