Economy 2012: Paul Revere the help-desk clerk

Note: Yes, this is long, but I hope you’ll help me sharpen my thinking. 

Among other things, I’m very interested in labor economics — and especially given changes in the labor market: the growth of outsourcing, unpaid internships, and contingent/temporary work, and the decline of jobs with benefits and professional responsibilities. Perhaps in the Soviet era people were trained in a wide variety of professions to meet political directives. I can just see the party members planning out the next year:

Well, we need 13 additional anthropologists to categorize and subdue the native Siberians, 28 weather researchers to fly into hurricanes so we can figure out how to direct them towards America’s coasts, and 47 graphic designers to make [ah-mazing Soviet-realist posters] to inspire us all. Find them, now! 

“Women! Learn the Means of Production!” 

But we’re more evolved than this, right? Now we let “markets” (or, as Karen Ho would say, investment bankers exporting their culture of high personal profits and risks to the general market) consolidate our intelligent and educated citizens into… workers at stupid and dehumanizing jobs. I have a feeling that Paul Revere, if he lived today, would be an overweight man with a B.A. in history, working at the Silver Help Desk at Zales Jewelers. He drinks at colonial American reenactment parties on the weekends with his unemployed buddies. His plump wife has a B.S in animal psychology and now works at PetCo. He has a plan for the future — he’s hoping to get a Master’s in librarianship — but G-d knows where that will get him

Why do we want everyone to be “employed”? 

So I found the rather polemical work of David Rushkoff thought-provoking. He questions why we’re trying to make everyone “employed” on the formal market when we can produce all the food, clothes, and housing we need with a fraction of the US population employed. This is a good question, as the obligation of every person to be formally employed in the “labor market” in order to “count” as a working person hasn’t always been the case. But this still, of course, leaves the problem of what to do with everyone else. As he says,

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff, it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

He’s picking up on something solid here – our national self-made feeling that if a person hasn’t worked hard in the “jungle” of the business world, all day, everyday, they’re moochers and don’t really deserve housing or food or societal respect. It seems we feel this even though the man-hours it takes to produce what we need are far below a forty-hour workweek for everyone. In also writing of the enclosure of shared lands in the late Middle Ages by the wealthy, he suggests–and I’ve heard both liberal and conservative commentators agree–that the industrial revolution and invention of standardized “jobs” in corporate settings has actually limited life for a large sector of society.

Working in Zales isn’t the same as owning a silver shop, even if the GDP produced is higher, and the country’s economic development indicators look better. And it’s getting worse — check out Martin Hart-Landsberg’s recent post on SocImages, where the fields with the most expected growth in the next ten years include things like home health aides, retail clerks, and office staff. Allowing the market to indenture our young into lifelong debt-slavery through student loans for that B.A. in colonial history may benefit others, but it’s worsened our ability to make choices about our future, and our quality of life. This is the same reality that young 99 percenters across America are waking up to.

There’s some background to this. In The Overworked AmericanSocial historian Juliet Schor suggests that whenever America has faced those guns-and-butter type decisions about what to do with our economy, we’ve chosen production of wealth (for those at the top) over other possible economic values. We work a lot to consume a lot, according to Schor, so that we can then get promoted to produce and consume some more, with the profits accruing to those at the top, and undoing the very protections the labor movement once fought for. We all learn about how “economies of scale” are better in first-year econ, but who are they better for?

Obviously, I’m not advocating unrest or revolution here — as an intellectual I know we’re usually the first to be offed, for doing stupid things like writing our analyses in public on blogs rather than sitting at home quietly piecing a quilt or new TV set together. And as a cradle Republican, I’m generally skeptical of politicians who think you can just create a new program to fix things, without thinking through all the unexpected social side effects. But I do think there’s a systematic imbalance in the market now, and it’s an imbalance that comes from the undue influence from large entities and people who own the most:

As Paul Revere the help-desk clerk has discovered, there’s an emptiness at the heart of corporate production of wealth (and academic production of knowledge!) that can actually eat us up rather than feed us, as individuals and communities.

Faithful responses?

I guess my faithful friends probably figure a rough economy is just part of a fallen world. And it obviously is,  but I don’t think we have to turn blind eyes to the people who choose these sometimes punishing systems for the benefits they offer to a few – the politicians, the mortgage brokers, the cost-cutting voters. Maybe sin and poverty are always with us, but can’t we choose to combat it, rather than lay down and let it walk all over us. And if it takes collective strength to overcome sin, isn’t that true for other social issues?

Store clerk, by CG on flickr.

Maybe that’s a bit abstract. But I’ve seen this here and abroad. I’ve lived this system, working at Walgreens and then at Chase bank, bending my back, bending my smile at customers, to serve profits in tax havens rather than level fairly with the human beings who enter my shop. And I’ve done it in academia, bending my mind to serve the endless maw of conferences, term papers, grant proposals, and academic publications (cf. Rey Chow’s analysis called “media, matter, migrants”). And I do it now in Kazakhstan, long hours stretching into the night at the library, answering desperate faculty requests, their eyes glazed from the bright lights overhead, hoarding my own moments when I can do my own writing instead of being a cog thrust into a newly built academic system. “They can’t spare me,” a colleague says, uncertain of whether she’ll get to take even a day of vacation after a year of work. “I’m not going to sleep tonight,” one of our students says as we close the library, contemplating his unread books for tomorrow’s exam. “We can’t take it anymore,” a faculty member tells me, baggy-eyed, staggering to another late-night committee meeting, pressed into service to set up all the bureaucracy of a modern university.

Why? If we’re building a university for the nation, I keep wondering, and we can’t build it without crushing people – who exactly are we building it for? If we’re building value with our physical and intellectual labor, but it’s not sustaining us – who is it sustaining?

Maybe it’s privileged, but I wasn’t raised this way. From teaching myself oceanography while sitting by our pond, to helping out family and friends, to spare hours spent reading and thinking in cafes, I’ve had a lot of flexibility throughout my life. I can’t see a life without leisure time as well as creative, self-directed work. What’s Paul doing in a call center? What’s his wife Sandy doing at PetCo? What am I doing at Atameken University?

What else is there, loves? What can we build together, in our communities, and at the level of the powerful nation of the world, that puts people first?

And speaking of a seemingly inevitable political and religious world, it strikes me that Jesus called out the Sabbath as made for man, rather than man being made to serve the rules of the Sabbath. Well, loves, the economy and the state were made for all of us; we weren’t made for this economy.

By Fergal of Claddagh

4 Comments

  1. hmmm…perhaps your parents didn’t do you any favors by NOT raising you to be a contented drone??

    interesting, thought-provoking commentary (as usual)…

    one question I have—if people are NOT working, and if they are being supported by public “dole,” then where do they get their self-esteem from? how do they value themselves? what gives them a reason to get up in the morning?? We see a lot of despair out here…and it seems to me that much of it is made worse by NOT being employed and thus not having answers to those questions…

    • Well, you’re right that the public “dole” probably isn’t best for people who are able to contribute to their communities. And as with people out where you are, full-time steady employment may not be available or what families actually want. But it also doesn’t work to be unemployed — and not to have alternatives for meaning, purpose, and active participation in the world — in a world where employment determines much of a person’s social value, especially for men!

      So I’d say we need alternate forms of sustenance that don’t depend on the employed=good person//unemployed=bad person distinction. But where people can still fully participate in their communities and society. Obviously young hipsters try to do this through sustainable living farms, etc, but I don’t think you can export that on a wide scale.

      Like Juliet Schor points out, it could also mean that as a society we are technologically efficient enough that we don’t need to have everyone working full-time. Right now we have a tiered system with the “the real professionals” working 40-50 hour weeks, the moms and students working part-time without benefits, or others working not at all. Perhaps a standard 20-30hour week, depending on person, would be better for families and workers and keep everyone engaged.

      The problem with that is that it’s not best for companies on the world market. To keep their profits up, companies “streamline” the labor force by only hiring the most efficient or skilled employees, and then working them as hard and long as they can get away with (see http://motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor for Amazon’s practices). But these corporate practices wear some people down and leave others out; it may not be what’s best for families, individuals, or communities.

      My thoughts, offhand. What do you think that means for someplace like NM?

  2. I love the post, especially the end. This is random, but my uncle actually came up with a scheme for helping this: http://signon.org/sign/national-sabbatical-plan.fb1?source=s.fb&r_by=2345832 I’m not clever enough to know if it would work, but at least it acknowledges the problem and tries for a creative solution!

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