Here there be monsters (socratic) wrote,
Here there be monsters

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Why all Americans should be nervous, and not just a little

I'm watching a documentary on the working poor as research about a job I've decided not to take, and I've had to stop it several times because it's too much for me. It's not the documentary itself, which is decent, nor the plight of the people it depicts, which is very tough, but rather that I think it represents the future for so many Americans. The situation is bleak and I'm even feeling it on a personal level, which is not something I expected so soon after the Clinton boom years.

I know that I am one of the fortunate few. I have a bachelor's degree from an Ivy League school, and not just a normal one but one with high honors and a Phi Beta Kappa appointment to boot. During the boom times I would have had employers beating down my door to get me into their organization, almost literally. I hear tell that at the height of the hiring phase a woman from the Merrill Lynch HR department put a cap in the ass of a Solomon Smith Barney guy who was trying to poach one of her hires. Okay, not really, but both firms did used to come on to the Columbia campus and state that they would take virtually anyone, not just econ students with mediocre grades but majors in the sciences or even *gasp* philosophy. There is even a tale of an Education major who was hired by Charles Schwab, but she had to be let go after she marked up the company mission statement with a red pen for improper use of a semicolon. The point is that if you graduated from Columbia with a decent GPA and only a couple felonies on your record there were employers lining up to hire you.

Most of my classmates seem to be temping. The jobs just aren't there anymore. Companies have trimmed and trimmed at the fat and then at the meat. While some are rehiring now it is mostly in temporary workers without benefits or any sort of security. Some are simply outsourcing functions that used to be performed in house. The recovery isn't being felt among young recent college graduates.

If we're not really feeling it then how are the poor doing? By most measures pretty lousy. Terribly, really. They've been doing badly for quite some time now and things aren't looking up. Not only has minimum wage dropped significantly in terms of REAL wages since the 1970s but now we're cutting into programs like section 8 housing and head start that are designed to allow people who aren't earning enough to support themselves in comfort to at least make a go of it. Unemployment isn't budging. The economy is adding jobs, but not enough to deal with population growth. The jobs being added are lousy too. They're not $35,000 a year with benefits jobs. They're $20,000 a year and you fend for yourself type positions. Social mobility has stalled. The greatest predictor of what you will do with your life and how successful you will be is what your parents did. That's good news for me at least. I'd like to be a professor earning $120,000 a year. Somehow I don't see that as likely.

Part of the blame for this can be placed squarely on Bush. What he's done to the economy has been...well...tremendously destructive. Yes he had to deal with the popping of the stock market bubble and the tragedy of 9/11. He did not have to slash taxes on the wealthy or the number of workers who qualify for overtime. He did not have to generate a massive deficit to eat up investment capital and drive inflation. He did not have to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars in Iraq, funneling cash from American taxpayers and the American economy to be dumped into the deserts of the middle east in the form of smart bombs and dumb wars.

Part of it is globilization. The fact of the matter is that capitalism will always seek the best bargain and if you can make an extra few million dollars a year by fucking over your neighbors and community then that's what you'll do as a good capitalist. You have shareholders to answer to. Marx looks smarter and smarter with each passing year. Not necessarily in his crackpot plans for a worker's world paradise but rather in his observations about how capitalism operates. It truly does allow companies to pay their workers just enough to survive, on average, and nothing more. It allows security guards protecting the wealth of millionaires to make so little that their children won't receive a Christmas. It creates mass stratification and concentration of wealth. That's been going on in America for years. It doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime soon either.

I'm worried. Terrified really. Not necessarily for myself, I have that Ivy League degree and $200,000 in the bank, which should be enough to get me through at least the majority of my life without dealing with destitution, but for the people around me. I desperately want everyone in America to have the basic things they need to live comfortable lives. A warm and reasonably sized living space. Running water. Enough food (this is not really a problem at the moment). Clothing. The basic necessities that Aristotle laid forth as necessary for having a life of the mind (minus freedom from work.) I think the resources exist to make that happen. I don't think it will. I don't understand how people with tons of money can begrudge others a slice of their pie. This is why many of us support higher taxes on the wealthy even if it would affect us. Yes we COULD just give more of our money to the poor, but that requires an unreasonable level of self-discipline. That requires saying "Okay, I won't buy that CD, I'll buy a sandwich for a guy who needs one." It's tough. It's even tougher when you know 90% of the people in the same situation aren't doing that. When the burden is fairly distributed people tend not to mind paying it. That's how the Republicans have pushed for these huge tax cuts, by making people think the burden isn't distributed fairly. The tax cuts have made it even less fair.

I don't know whether the forces of globalization can be contained enough to protect the American standard of living. My gut, and it's a big gut, says no. We're not even trying, though. We're not even trying to help our countrymen live better lives. That would be okay if we were at least trying to help foreigners. After all there's no particular reason why a single mother living in Harlem deserves a better life than one living in Vietnam. It's just geography and cultural connectedness that makes us think that way. We're not trying to do that either. While exporting jobs does help the communities the jobs go to, there aren't enough jobs to match population growth in third world countries and their standards of living don't rise in the ways that we're used to. Maybe they will eventually, but only when there aren't 8 workers being born to take the place of everyone 1 who dies or retires. Meanwhile our government isn't spending money to help the laid off or the victims of genocide in Sudan. It's spending the money to fight pointless wars that benefit the rich. It's spending the money on sending American youths to die in foreign lands. It's spending the money to have troops guard oil fields and leave 380 tons of high explosives unguarded. That's how we're keeping America safe.

John Kerry says that America's best days are before us. I don't believe that. All empires crumble and the populations of those empires have to suffer when they do. The American century is coming to a close, all signs point to that. I do think, however, that the decline could be made less steep and less painful with the right management. I do think that we could still afford to feed and clothe and provide medicine for even the poor among us. I do think that if we helped the unions strengthen and reminded people that when you go into Wal*Mart you're not just paying less for a product, you're paying for your neighbor to have to live in her van because she can't afford rent on a Wal*Mart salary and you're paying for your taxes to support their employees, many of whom are on food stamps or welfare.

I think America's future could be brighter. That I could live a relatively privileged life without worrying about those who have less because I would be sure they had enough. I think that if we provide for the least among us, even those who don't want to work and have no great redeeming value we can see, then we'll all be better off in the long run, not financially but in terms of the type of society we live in and the way we treat each other.

I believe that if George W. Bush is re-elected none of that will come to pass. He'll keep slashing Veteran's benefits and aid to the poor until the Republican dream of a starving worker at every rich man's doorstep comes true. Another reason to support John Kerry and another reason to stay up worrying at night that he might not win.
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