Friday, June 3, 2011

Working For Less: Returning to Chains (Part 1)

Last weekend I watched both Too Big Too Fail on HBO and the documentary Inside Job. In short both movies pissed me off. It wasn't just because of former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld's sense of entitlement or the tilt on Henry Paulson being painted as the concerned and benevolent Treasury Secretary. I was incensed because every big bank CEO, especially Lloyd Blanfein of Goldman Sachs, knew what they were doing and did nothing to stop the impending economic collapse because they were all "too busy making money." Meantime, the rest of us were seeing our wealth erode, our assets depleted, our degrees not being the worth the paper they're printed on, and the implosion of the middle class in what one of the interviewees in Inside Job determined to be the biggest ponzi scheme ever.

That brings us to today. The first Friday of the month where the Labor Department unleashes on the market the unemployment rate. It has once again edged up, now at 9.1% from 9 percent in April and 8.9% in March. The private sector created only 54,000 jobs in May. That's the fewest amount of positions created in 8 months. Furthermore, this is happening at a time where the job market is flooded with college grads looking for work. They are all looking for a job after being promised by their respective schools that there would be work waiting for them. Unfortunately many of them are finding out they are shit out of luck and taking it out on the wrong person or school.

Just last week the New York Times published an article in a series it's calling Working for Less. The first installment was about how some lawyers are choosing to take jobs knowing they will never advance. The 'non partner' track. The track where they do the same amount of work but receive much much less in compensation as in $60,000 a year instead of $160,000 a year. Upon reading the article our resident lawyer, The Janitor said:

"Pardon my French but FUCK That. Two Times!!"

Me not being a lawyer, but a journalist who knows this is not a profession you go into to make money, I was intrigued. So I went to good old google and searched "Working for Less." I found articles dating back to 2003 following the dot com bust and 2001 recession where the erosion of the middle class was evident. I even found an old newspaper headline from the 1980's declaring the same thing.

This I found intriguing because as Inside Job pointed out, since the 1980's and the days of Reaganomics the deregulation of financial markets has continued. As it has each recession to follow has became more and more catastrophic and detrimental to the country. Regan's deregulations resulted in the Savings and Loan crisis. Clinton took over during a crisis but during his tenure as President somehow managed to turn the economy around. But his continued practice of deregulation left a ticking time bomb of an economy for George W. Bush. He may have inherited economic progress and a budget surplus but it burst with the fall of dot com businesses, Enron, 9/11, and two wars.

But that's just the way the economy goes right? Boom and bust. Boom and bust. Progression then Recession. It's just the way the economic cycle works... Right? Wrong. While the economy may work in cycles, those cycles can be and have been exacerbated so that when the getting is good it's great but when it fails it sucks major monkey nuts. In December 2007 the economy began to suck. Hard.

This time it was due to the housing bubble bursting. The housing bubble that got the big banks and their bankers rich popped and left everyone falling wishing they were immune to gravity. People couldn't make their payments, homes went into foreclosure, bankers lost money, layoffs were imminent, widespread, and deep. The housing market sank the economy and is continuing to do so.

Tuesday it was announced that home prices in 20 cities are at lows not seen since 2003. Home ownership is at a low not seen since 1998. The housing market is still free falling with no bottom in sight. People can no longer "tap the equity" in their homes. People no longer have homes. They are struggling to make ends meet in a still recovering job market. A job market that saw the forced exodus of men; especially black men. (See here and here)

So what happens when you can barely live and you have no choice but to work? You work more. You work harder. You don't care about compensation because whatever it is will be more than making nothing; hence you're working more for less.

This phenomenon is not just striking lawyers. It's hitting everyone. Never at any other time in U.S. history has the top 1 percent held so much financial wealth (about 42.7%) compared to the rest of the country. In terms of power and who runs the country:

"...the top one percent of households have 38.3% of all privately held stock, 60.6% of financial securities, and 62.4% of business equity. The top 10% have 80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America." (source)

Just 10 percent of 308 million people in this country actually own this country. Our wealth has been hijacked and there is nothing we could do about it. We are now a corporate colony working harder and harder for those who would just as soon outsource our jobs to a developing nation and cater to the growing middle class of other countries instead of the depleting middle class here at home.

We are all corporate sharecroppers. We take the land the house and the startup money, sow a good crop and get nothing from it because of all the money we owe. When at once we were able to plot an escape from the rat race we are now being sucked back in. If we are not one of the eight million people who lost jobs during this recession, we may be one of 44 million people receiving government assistance just to eat. If we are not one of them then we are working hard to put gas in the car, groceries in the refrigerator, and have enough left over to catch a high priced movie, or spend money on a plane ticket to an exotic location where you stay in a crappy hotel because you reason you'll party all night.

This is not enough. As Americans we should be able to demand more of our country. As Americans we should be able to stand up and say don't fleece our jobs to foreigners, don't cut funding for our education and then expect us to compete globally when we don't even have the tools to do so. We should be able to demand the redistribution of wealth in a way where the rich can remain rich but not in such disproportion to those who remain poor.

The socio-economic scale should not work in only one way for one group of people and only the opposite way for the other. It is a scale that should be balanced in its directions for all so that we're all able to work hard and see the fruits of that labor. The scale should be balanced in both directions for all so that while the rich may get richer their increase in wealth is marginal compared to the gains made by the now working poor.

Working for less, no matter what race you are, is a slow return to the chains the 13th amendment made illegal. Instead of slaves to farming masters of the ante-bellum South, we will be slaves to the dollars made by "corporate plutocrats and Wall Street oligarchs." (thank you Cornel West) We will covet money not just because we don't have it but because we need it. A need that was once within our reach but vanished with the same swiftness as our jobs, our homes, our industries, and our wealth only to be bought and sold swapped and borrowed to amass wealth that wasn't in the biggest Ponzi scheme the world has ever seen.

And you know what... it's happening again.


1. Do you think the economy will get worse before it gets better?
2. Do you think the wealth gap will ever close?
3. Why does the general public not seem to "get it" when it comes to how the unregulated free market has screwed them over?
4. If unemployment remains above 9% next year, is Obama out of a job?
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