I’m really curious what y’all think of this video (embedded above) that’s been floating around recently.
I know that the rich use wealth to create more wealth. I know. But I also know that such profits are increasingly created by the work of thousands of temps and grunt workers, many of whom don’t share in even a fraction of the rewards of their work.
And I can’t shake what I’ve seen in my own temping days. Just out of college, I took a standardized test scoring job that advertised at $12 an hour, 1-2 month contracts, college grads only. We sat in a barren room supervised by a weaselly man in a tall chair, as we cranked out ‘scores’ for creative writing and historical understanding in ways that measured not insight, but how well the student was prepped for the test.
And I still remember the people around me – all college grads and most competent members of the middle class. Artists needing cash, mothers needing money for their children. A clever woman with a master’s degree in economics. My grandma’s church friend, who had cancer and wore colorful hats. A lawyer from Boston, a gentle man with his face slid sideways by a stroke. There was a curly-haired brunette looking for a full-time teaching post, who cheerily called in sick when she had interviews. A beautiful Latina with a degree but no job.
And most heartbreaking of all, the father of my friend Anna*. Todd* was a deeply intelligent man, had worked in banking and social services, before being downsized. Still healthy, he was nearing fifty and couldn’t get a permanent position again. So here he was in this barren overheated room, stooped over a computer and typing out results on fifth-grade essays, trying to keep a mortgage above water. But even with his wife’s work, his temp income wasn’t enough to keep paying the bills. They were a good family, conservative and financially responsible – but they still lost the house.
And I can’t believe that was necessary. I can’t believe that Todd should be discarded from the workforce like that, or the lawyer, or the cancer lady, or the beautiful Latina. But I think those people are pictures of the middle class we see in the video above. These are the professionals with degrees, poise, and experience, who slip underwater after one layoff, one bout of temporary illness, one restructuring of a company. And this is the ‘fear of falling” that journalist Barbara Ehrenreich talks about, that affects us all.
And isn’t that what a safety net is for?
Owning the Future
Now when talking about inequality, I’m not just calling for government intervention. As red-state Americans, yep, we’re very proudly not about government fixin’ things.
But I find it very concerning that the top 1% own our economy, more than they did twenty or thirty years ago. On the left and the right, powerful companies and rich people own our government, through their lobbying efforts, their ideologies, and their industries. So in effect, they own us, and it gets harder and harder to fulfill that American dream of setting your own course, your own economic future, your own terms for your own work. Most of us, even after education and experience, are only in a position to sign whatever an employer offers.
As I’ve covered before, David Graeber defines social and economic freedom as the ability to sustain relationships with others. But that’s what slaves and temps don’t have. It’s what someone with a forced relo doesn’t have, and what the guy working two shifts to pay for his kids’ lunches doesn’t have.
That means most Americans don’t really have the freedom or flexibility to contribute to the economy and our communities, to decide to support someone in need, to drop out of the workforce and care for the sick, to stop and mentor those who want to join the middle class.
Freedom, as Americans, is what we hope to afford everyone who is willing to contribute and take care of themselves and others. But if it often feels like we, as managers, family members, voters, or professionals, are just dogpaddling to keep our heads above water, are we free at all?
Money, Time, Freedom
There’s an interesting free ebook online by Mark McGuinness, who suggests that what any craftsman, innovator, or entrepreneur needs is three things:
“1. Freedom — to do “meaningful work” when you want, when you want and how you want it. Not just in holidays and spare time…
2. Money — to maintain your independence and fund your creative projects…
3. Time — to spend… exploring the world and allowing your mind to wander in search of new ideas…
“Without money, you don’t have much freedom, because you have to spend your time chasing cash. Without time off, money doesn’t buy you a lot of freedom. And if you’re doing something you hate for a living, it doesn’t matter how big your salary is, or how much holiday you get. You still feel trapped…”
I would add that people also need some incentives to deliver valuable results for family sustenance or society, so that this money, freedom, and time are used reasonably well. But it’s a good point. If we’re watching our money, time, and freedom erode as a people, it becomes harder to sustain the independent ethos that got us to where we are. So what will sustain us?
So my argument is that, while maintaining incentives for useful work, we need to act decisively as citizens to recruit those with money into investing back into our communities. We need terms of employment that level the playing field between employer and employee. We need to preserve opportunities for innovation for both citizens and immigrants.
I don’t think this can be a top-down government mandate, but I do think we should be able to expect this of the powerful players in our society, or participator governance becomes rather a mirage. So how could we sets up conditions to reward innovation but provide baseline safety nets for all citizens who are doing what they can? Some ideas might be:
- Break up Rockefeller-like wealth by fiscally encouraging the top 1% to spread the wealth through foundations, grants, and investment in promising initiatives, rather than lose it to the government.
- Issue tax benefits to businesses who invest good pay and benefits in all employees, including temporary ones; penalties on those who skirt the law and churn through employees and interns without due compensation.
- Expand programs (Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, CCC) for new graduates and older folk to contribute to society while being productively engaged in work.
- Somehow address the burden of caring for the sick and elderly that takes so many resources from families, businesses, and the government?
- Restrict unpaid internships to 10 hours a week, and workweeks to 35 hours, with mandatory overtime pay for all beyond that, to create financial incentives to employ more people rather than less.
- Issue standard benefits on a pro-rated basis to all part-time and temp workers, again stopping the cost-cutting that makes families and communities vulnerable to disaster.
- Rewarding those who chose to volunteer in their communities, rather than spend their free time in extra money-making or product-consuming.
So I’m not saying we wrest money from rich people. But I do know that fear and uncertainty, wanting to be recognized and noticed and approved of – all of these make us grasp and hold onto money, even those good people devoted to God and community. So I don’t think the solution can be just for each individual to man-up or confess; it also means coming into a different relationship with each other and with our country and our society. To engage in practices that loosen the money we’ve got out from our hearts, especially among the middle and upper classes.
That’s not the direction we’re currently going as a society. And we see the problem before us.
So how do we make collective decisions to turn that around?