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.