Saturday, October 18, 2014

Work and the Myth of Corporate Efficiency

The other day I was ruminating on how much the US economy has changed in my lifetime. I thought of my father, who never graduated from high school; in the early 1950’s he somehow lied about his age and joined the Army. There he learned a trade: meat cutting. My old man was a supremely skilled butcher, an artist with a blade; he worked at every level of the trade: wholesale, retail, specialty shops. Wherever he worked, my dad made cutting meat look effortless. One of my earliest memories is accompanying my dad to work on a Saturday morning, standing by his side as he cut and sliced and fileted, his knives flashing. He let me scrape fat off the tables and sweep the floors. When he was working at his trade, my dad seemed happy. Work was important, meaningful, something a man needed to take pride in and do well.

The other day Bill Moyers interviewed former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Herbert has a new book out called “Losing our Way,” a chronicle of his recent travels around the United States. Out on the fruited plain Herbert found an economy that brutally punishes working people rather than raise them up; raising people up no longer being a consideration or goal of our economy. Profit is the American religion now, and the best way to maximize profit is to depress wages. The plutocrats and fat cats who run our country believe it’s perfectly acceptable, even salutary, for a person to work two or three part-time, low-wage service jobs in order to make ends meet; or to work a job where shift assignments are constantly changing, three hours in the morning here, four in the evening there, making it next to impossible for the worker to plan child or elder care or to be home to assist his or her children with their homework, or to volunteer to coach the local little league team, or to attend back-to-school night, or the 6th grade play, or to take any interest at all in civic affairs.

The American work ethic is still alive, but the difference now is that the work ethic is infused and driven by desperation and naked need. There’s a reason American workers take fewer vacation days than workers in other industrialized countries; it’s not by choice, it’s by necessity. The free- market racketeers broke labor unions and shipped our manufacturing base overseas, to Mexico, China, India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, wherever labor was dirt-cheap and the supply of exploitable workers vast; no annoying unions to contend with, few environmental regulations, business friendly laws – capitalist paradise. Fuck Karl Marx and John Kenneth Galbraith, hail Milton Friedman and, years later, a weasel named Alan Greenspan.

It’s been a long, strange and painful trip for American workers. The “new” economy hawked by Bill Clinton and other neoliberals has transformed workers into serfs, and almost every facet of American life boils down – not to right or wrong, moral or amoral – but profitable or unprofitable.

Ironically, the “free” market is almost as tyrannical as a totalitarian state.

The neoliberal cheerleaders for corporate efficiency tell us that an excessive focus on profit is actually beneficial to workers and consumers. Anyone who has called the local cable company for service knows that corporate efficiency is a cruel myth. I had this experience a few days ago when I bought a new cable modem and had to contact Cox Cable (our local monopoly) to register the device with them. The first three customer service or technical support numbers I found on Cox’s website were disconnected. When I finally found a working number I was on the line for fifteen minutes with a synthesized female voice, answering inane questions, unplugging the modem and plugging it back in, all to no avail. A human being on the other end of the line would have had me squared away in less than five minutes, but that’s not how the contemporary model of corporate efficiency works. First the customer must be tortured by voice mail menus and disembodied voices, asked for passwords, phone numbers, dates of birth, and the last four digits of one’s social security number. Only after the customer is seething with frustration does a human being with a beating heart and a brain come on the line: “Thank you for choosing Cox Communications, how can I help you!”

The fewer people it employs the more profit Cox makes. As a monopoly, Cox has no incentive to provide decent customer service; its rates increase with regularity while the quality of service stays the same or deteriorates. The corporation wins, the consumer loses, always.

No question about it, contemporary American-style capitalism is adept at providing staggering rewards to a relative few. But as an engine for improving the security and well being of the unwashed masses, American capitalism is a failure; it hurts workers, families, entire communities and the planet we all depend on for life. Moderation and capitalism are antithetical – the goal of capitalism is more, always more.

The quest for more is killing us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fat, Dumb and Clueless at the End of the American Century

A quick glimpse of any day’s news headlines leads me to believe that the world is about to tip off its axis. Every day, another threat to the American way of life: Ebola, ISIS, fire, flood, earthquake, tornado, the Chinese, the Taliban, a nut with a rifle (or a cop with a pistol and a black kid in his sights), General Motors, the airlines, you name it and it wants to fuck us up. Still, we remain fat, dumb and clueless – provided, of course, we have Happy Meals and plenty of TV channels to choose from. Every dying empire needs a robust entertainment industry to distract its citizens from creeping decay and decline. Our leaders insist that all is well, that America is still the biggest badass in the world. Facts on the ground suggest otherwise. The world’s greatest military force has been fighting, somewhere, continuously for a dozen years and is no closer to victory today than it was when George W. Bush got a hard-on for Osama bin Laden. With a prayer on his idiot lips and retribution in his heart, Bush fell right into the arch terrorist’s trap – an endless war against a shape-shifting foe. We enthusiastically adopted the terrorist’s methods and went on a murderous rampage through Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the while turning a blind eye and deaf ear to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most energetic sponsors of jihad. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia always receives a pass from generous Uncle Sam. It’s all very fraudulent and deceitful, immoral, and our double-dealing will ultimately contribute to our demise. America is sinking, not rising, in case you haven’t noticed. This doesn’t have to be, but the people are too willing to surrender their liberty for the illusion of security. Our political leaders and national media superstars, like the venerable Bob Schieffer over at CBS, insist that there isn’t a war the U.S. cannot wage and win. Our brave men and women, our technological superiority, our will and grit and resolve, these must carry the day. Raise the red, white, and blue, thump the drum, blow the horn… Defeat will not come in one epic battle but in hundreds of small skirmishes over many years. Didn’t the Romans spend 300 years trying to tame the Middle East, only to fail? But who cares about history, particularly if it doesn’t agree with the prevailing narrative, the story line, the talking points handed out by PR flacks and party dickheads? But what do I know, me, one unarmed American living on the parched central coast of California? Life is still grand here, the sun shines every day, the rich are happy and the poor are marginalized, and most of us rent and wait for the knock on the door or the envelope in the mailbox; and a good man I know lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room – another victim of cancer. I can’t pray for him because I don’t believe in that sort of thing. If there were a place like heaven, this man would already have his ticket in hand, his first-class seat reserved, a bottle of fine champagne chilling in a bucket of ice. Life isn’t fair, never was, never will be; the good die young, the evil live to grand old age, and no great man was ever good.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When in Doubt, Start Bombing

The US of A is bombing…again.

I saw President Obama’s brief remarks about the bombing campaign in Syria – the latest American-led assault on Arab territory. We never learn. Having created through hubris the conditions that spawned ISIS, the US is now obligated to bomb the shit out of ISIS. The irony is that for the time being at least, the Assad regime in Syria – against which the US considered a bombing campaign a year or so ago -- is sort of, kind of, our ally.

Or instead of ally should I say “partner,” as in “partner nation”? The US no longer has allies, we have partners, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The extent to which the language of the corporate boardroom has insinuated itself into civic discourse amazes me. “I’d like to introduce our glorious partners in this dubious venture…” The US seems to believe that having such committed partners as the aforementioned monarchies will convince the world that this truly is a joint operation.

Try not to laugh.

When viewed through the US’s schizophrenic lens the Middle East is a confusing mess; the friend we embrace and arm to the teeth today turns foe tomorrow and jams a sword in our neck. We create these monsters and then find that we can’t control them.

There is, however, one constant that governs US policy in the region: oil and Israel. Never take your eye off oil and Israel and you have a fair chance of understanding what the hell is going on, why the US supports one despotic regime and calls another the equivalent of Nazi Germany.  

Obama – who more and more looks a pathetic and empty figure, more than ready to trot off to pen his memoirs, open his presidential library, and reap rich rewards from corporate America – offered the obligatory praise for America’s warriors, the brave men and women of the world’s greatest fighting force, engaged, yet again, in a noble struggle against Evil. We prefer our enemies to be easily recognizable as bad people, and the file footage the US media plays over and over of ISIS forces brandishing AK-47’s is designed to reinforce this idea. Watch any major network news broadcast for longer than thirty seconds and you’d think ISIS is five miles outside of Washington D.C., bearing down on the White House in a fleet of Toyota pickup trucks.

In many ways the US is a dumb nation. Whatever mojo we once had evaporated years ago. This Syria chapter in the War on Terror will add at least another six years to our doomed quest to rid the world of whacky Islamic fundamentalists. We will keep bombing bad guys in order to destabilize and degrade them, and they will keep popping up in new locations, under new names and new banners.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Daddy Dumb Ass

I hit the August doldrums and haven’t recovered yet. When was my last blog post? Can’t remember and I don’t feel like looking it up. I’ve got plenty of thoughts running around the track in my brain, none of them sublime or beautiful or remotely insightful. Typical human ponderings, such as this: why can’t my son rinse his dishes? Is it so much to ask that he rinse the food from his plate or bowl, clean out the fucking sink and throw the refuse in the compost bucket? The kid’s smart but this simple task is beyond his capability. This is the kid, who recently turned 18 and celebrated his birthday by getting a tattoo on the inside of his right bicep, a quote from Emily Dickinson, rejecting sage advice from his old man to wait and think about what those words will look like in 20 years. Might as well have been pissing into a tornado – the kid is smarter than me, more worldly and in touch with what’s real. I don’t know shit.

The boy isn’t going to Southern Oregon University after all. We drove to Ashland in June for orientation, rubbed elbows and backsides with nervous incoming freshmen and their neurotic helicopter parents, got the kid registered for classes and waded deep into the cesspool that is financial aid; this last bit put the Fear in me, big time. The idea of taking out a parent loan that we would be paying off for the next decade or so made my stomach clench. Loading up with education debt is the American way, part and parcel of the racket of higher education in this wayward capitalist nation. We stood at the precipice, ready to sign, ready to pack the Honda CRV and drive the kid back to Ashland, help him move into his dorm room.

And then the boy announces that Southern Oregon was sending him the wrong vibe, telling him to back off, stay away, retreat and regroup. I admit – it was hard to accept and I was ticked off. I liked SOU because it was a liberal arts school with only 7,000 students in the beautiful Rogue Valley, with downtown Ashland less than a mile away, and I made the mistake of thinking that my kid could attend this school and avoid getting lost in the crowd, that he might – in spite of his propensity for self-sabotage – have a college experience that would buoy him for the rest of his life.

Joke’s on me, the idiot daddy, although all along I wanted the boy to attend Santa Barbara City College for two years and then transfer to Southern Oregon or the American University of Paris or Bennington or wherever, saving a boatload of money in the process. Shit, kids flock to the American Riviera from Japan and China and Taiwan and Norway for the sole purpose of attending the esteemed Santa Barbara City College, and my son is here, with a place to live, a room of his own, and he looks this gift horse in the mouth and says, no way, man, I ain’t going. 

He found gainful employment at a local coffee house, but of course he hates the work, his supervisor, rising at 4:30 a.m. in order to open the joint at 5:00, when only the homeless and Mexican day laborers are stirring on the streets of SB. He grinds beans and cleans equipment, sweeps the floor, wipes down the counters, then returns home and sleeps for 14 hours.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Laughing at the Moon

I will not write about Gaza and Israel; I will not write about Iraq or Syria; I will not write about income inequality or militarized police forces or racism. We’re in the dog days of summer here on the Platinum Coast and State Street is full of European tourists -- strolling, shopping, eating, gawking, bumping into and annoying us locals. What can one expect when one lives in a prime tourist destination? The world arrives here by plane, train, bus and rental car, eager to check us out, experience the fabled Santa Barbara lifestyle, whatever that is.

My son leaves for college in Oregon in about a month. We’ve been sorting out financial aid and loans, learning the definition of subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Like many 17-year-olds my son is hard to read; he rides his emotional train up and down, sleeps prodigiously, and tells his parents as little as possible about what he’s doing or where he’s going. We give him space, confident that when he needs to talk to us, he will. He’s facing a large change in his young life and although he claims it’s no big deal, we know better. The kid is nervous, as he should be. Is he ready or not? I don’t know. I fret a bit about his work habits and wonder if he has it in him to make the social connections that could make or break his college experience.

I have to stop and remember myself at my son’s age. I had the same hubris when I joined the Air Force and was sent to Japan; like my son, I couldn’t get out of provincial Santa Barbara fast enough. Aching for adventure, I landed at Haneda International Airport on a rainy night, the neon lights reflecting off the slick streets. On a long bus ride to Yokota Air Base I realized how alone I was – and how far from home. I had no idea what I didn’t know. Older hands tried to school me but of course I never listened.

My 12-year-old daughter has had an uneventful summer; she stays up late, watching TV on her laptop, and wakes up around 10 or 11 a.m.; she hangs with friends, paints her nails, fusses endlessly over the clothes hanging in her closet. Her moods alternate between sweet and demonic – and change without warning. We know one has changed to another when she slams her bedroom door and screams that she hates us. Our transgression? Unknown. Our very existence, I suppose, the fact that we say no when she wants – demands – we say yes. She watches lame shows on the Disney channel and their theme songs get into my head. Dog with a Blog? Really.

I do a lot of laundry, wash and dry a lot of dishes; I pick shirts and socks and underwear from the floor, uncertain if they are clean or dirty; I corral shoes, pair them up with their mates, and return them to the closet where they belong, wondering, always, why my children cannot put anything back where they found it. When I lay my head down to sleep at night the kitchen is clean, the sink empty, everything is in order and in its place, but when I wake up in the morning and switch on the light there are several plastic cups on the counter, crumbs on the counter, and banana peels in the sink.

One kid going off to college, another about to enter eighth grade, their dad has gray in his beard and worries in his head, a case of the blues. Tonight I’ll stand in the doorway and laugh at the moon.