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"We're all temps now."
January 12, 2010 8:41 PM   Subscribe

The Disposable Worker - "In contrast with the past, what is good for America's global corporations is no longer necessarily good for the American people." (single-page print version)

"The trend toward a perma-temp world has been developing for years. Bosses are no longer rewarded based on how many people they supervise, so they have less incentive to hang on to staff. Instead, the increasing use of bonuses tied to short-term profit performance gives managers an incentive to slash labor costs. The Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates that 26% of the U.S. workforce had jobs in 2005 that were in one way or another "nonstandard." That includes independent contractors, temps, part-timers, and freelancers. Of those, 73% had no access to a retirement plan from their employer and 61% had no health insurance from their employer, the Iowa group said."

"Companies that seized on the recession as an opportunity to make drastic organizational changes for greater efficiency and flexibility aren't likely to reverse those changes once the economy begins growing again, says David H. Autor, a labor economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In other words, most of the jobs shipped to China will stay in China."
posted by Eideteker (100 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
In contrast with the past?
posted by demiurge at 8:47 PM on January 12, 2010 [10 favorites]


Would you like fries with that?
posted by hermitosis at 8:50 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's a pull-quote that I think explains what they mean by that:

'Sure, back in the 1950s pillars of the economy such as General Motors paid generously, because they could. Contracts between GM and the United Auto Workers set a pattern for pay throughout the economy, says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues. But while unions covered 36% of private-sector workers in 1953, the figure plunged to less than 8% by 2008. "Today, working conditions are set either by trends in the global economy or by nonunion firms in the U.S.," says Shaiken. He points out that while GM was the largest U.S. employer in the 1950s, "today that role is played by Wal-Mart (WMT), with very different consequences."'

Not so much that the companies were interested in the well-being of their workers, but that they could be relied upon to support a household. It was in the interest of the nation to keep them in business. "Buy American" meant something to our bottom line; it meant your neighbor kept his job, which kept him paying his bills and kept local merchants alive. Now, it doesn't matter. The biggest auto manufacturers in the US are foreign carmakers.
posted by Eideteker at 8:55 PM on January 12, 2010 [12 favorites]


It's good that we no longer teach the history of unions and organized labor in American schools. Now my generation gets to rediscover all the joys of a labor movement from scratch. Hooray!
posted by heathkit at 8:56 PM on January 12, 2010 [53 favorites]


In contrast with the past?
Definitely; you used to be able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage in America with a reasonable expectation that barring personal disasters or anomalies you'd put your time in and get your reward. It was why the American Way could be totued as superior during the Cold War - the capitalist world was delivering more for ordinary workers than the so-called worker's states. Since the crises of the mid-70s that's become less true, leading to the coining of the term precarity (as you can see from the link, it's not an exclusively US phenomenon).
posted by Abiezer at 8:57 PM on January 12, 2010 [17 favorites]


Companies that seized on the recession as an opportunity to make drastic organizational changes for greater efficiency and flexibility aren't likely to reverse those changes once the economy begins growing again...

I found that this is a corollary to the "Free Markets always produce greater efficiency" libertarian argument. Basically, once a company finds a new method to successfully disenfranchise it's workers (lower pay, reduced benefits), the method eventually becomes permanent and remains so even when overall profitability improves.

The greatest example of this is WalMart, who maintain the overwhelming majority of their employees at the poverty level (even giving them helpful advice on how to fill out food stamp applications) despite making about $15 billion in pure profit last year.

Of course, this may also be a by-product of the uniquely American attitude that all non-executive employees are actually lazy, shiftless thieves who hate their jobs and who will make every attempt rob the company blind if they aren't ruthlessly controlled and intimidated with sufficient gusto.
posted by Avenger at 8:58 PM on January 12, 2010 [38 favorites]


Yes, but as my FPP link mentions, it's not such a problem in countries with guaranteed healthcare. ;)
posted by Eideteker at 9:01 PM on January 12, 2010


This seems to be part of a shift that's going on all across the board, where companies favor short-term investments that require little cash outlay over long-term investments that require more.

For example, I used to live in an apartment building that was essentially built to be disposable. To make up for everything falling apart, the management company charged exorbitant damages after tenants moved out. The buildings will probably become structurally unsound (sinking foundations, etc) in a few years, but the company will have already made their profit on investment and be able to lift anchor and skedaddle. What happens to the rotting hulks won't be their problem.

Likewise, the same thing seems to be happening with people. Companies are hiring employees on short-term contracts, with no health insurance or pension plan- so when employees get old, you can just chuck them. What they're going to do when they get old isn't the company's problem.
I know this is stating the obvious, but everything is so bloody wrong in this country.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:02 PM on January 12, 2010 [13 favorites]


I have a friend who works for a Verizon service office. The only person employed full time with benefits by Verizon is the manager. The entire rest of the office staff are perma-temps hired through a head hunter.
posted by FunkyHelix at 9:04 PM on January 12, 2010


What happens to the rotting hulks [after they're gone] won't be their problem.

Funny: this actually encapsulates our species' attitude towards the entire planet we live on.
posted by Avenger at 9:04 PM on January 12, 2010 [25 favorites]


And of course, as many costs and risks are externalized as possible- so people have to pay for their own healthcare, even their own fucking job training- college. Whether you can actually get a job or not is your own problem- something they make very clear on student loan applications.
Student loans. Which you can't even get out of through bankruptcy. What the fuck. Someone's got this system engineered.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:08 PM on January 12, 2010 [8 favorites]


"In contrast with the past, what is good for America's global corporations is no longer necessarily good for the American people."

This really should have been posted yesterday.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:13 PM on January 12, 2010


Of course, this may also be a by-product of the uniquely American attitude that all non-executive employees are actually lazy, shiftless thieves who hate their jobs and who will make every attempt rob the company blind if they aren't ruthlessly controlled and intimidated with sufficient gusto.

Hopefully we can replace this with a new American attitude that all executive employees are actually greedy, shiftless thieves who don't care about their jobs and who will make every attempt to sell employees, the government and shareholders down the river if they aren't ruthlessly controlled and intimidated with sufficient jail time.

A guy can dream.
posted by uri at 9:16 PM on January 12, 2010 [25 favorites]


Henry Ford paid his employees enough that they could buy his cars. That probably caused the Great Depression, and goes against his rational self interest. He should have instead made his cars so cheap and crappy that he could pay awful wages to his employees. Besides, if the cars are crap, that means he gets to make a fortune fixing and replacing them.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:19 PM on January 12, 2010


As a teacher, I'm a union worker, and I hear my coworkers complain all the time about the union dues they have to pay. We have more job security than pretty much anyone, in our district we got a raise this year, three months off a year, a choice between HMO and PPO healthcare, but yeah, the $70/month we pay is outrageous. It's less than frigging CABLE TV, people.
posted by Huck500 at 9:22 PM on January 12, 2010 [19 favorites]


>: Of course, this may also be a by-product of the uniquely American attitude that all non-executive employees are actually lazy, shiftless thieves who hate their jobs and who will make every attempt rob the company blind if they aren't ruthlessly controlled and intimidated with sufficient gusto.

If you treat your employees that way, they'll become lazy, shiftless thieves who will take everything that isn't nailed down.
I know this, of course, because I was one- and I cursed my boss's eyes each time I remorselessly ate chocolate-covered peanuts and dried fruit out of the bulk bins.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:31 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Henry Ford paid his employees enough that they could buy his cars. That probably caused the Great Depression

I'm no economic historian... but zuh?!
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:32 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Henry Ford paid his employees enough that they could buy his cars. That probably caused the Great Depression

If by "great depression" you mean 15 years of economic boom time until the bravado of an unregulated bull market screwed that up for everyone, they yes - Henry Ford paying his employees enough that they could buy his cars caused the great depression.

This is really the part I don't get. Unless you are actually in the business of manufacturing cardboard shanty towns, who the hell do these big companies think is buying their shit?

Every so often the total non-stability of my job, my basement full of tools and someone at work telling me what they paid for a piece of reasonably nice furniture (e.g. not made from recycled 2 liter bottles) achieves conjunction and I think, "I'm in the wrong line of work."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:45 PM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I still don't understand why anyone would venerate the ruling class in this country. Hows does a person making even "middle class" wages defend the bonuses of wall street or the exorbitant salaries of the head office? And yet they do.
posted by maxwelton at 9:46 PM on January 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


Hows does a person making even "middle class" wages defend the bonuses of wall street or the exorbitant salaries of the head office?

Because that could be me one day!

The bigwigs have done a great job harnessing the self-interest of the masses and turning it against itself. Why else would anyone give a shit about the estate tax, if you don't have millions of dollars? Because you hope that one day you WILL be able to give a shit, and you think a system that rewards the rich will also somehow help the not-rich become rich.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:58 PM on January 12, 2010 [23 favorites]


Definitely; you used to be able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage in America

That is certainly, true, Abiezer, but I would modify it with the recognition that - inflation adjusted - Americans (and Australians, and Brits etc etc) are actually spending _a lot_ more than they used to in those days.

Houses are bigger, and they are filled with more things. The price of consumer goods has gone way down, but we have actually outpaced that fall with our discretionary spending (and debt, dear god, the inflation-adjusted levels of household debt).

So whilst, the 'average' life is no longer affordable on many single salaries, the average itself has substantially increased.

Essentially, when women entered the workforce in a big way, we ploughed that extra money straight back into our lifestyles, precipitating more work to keep up with the Joneses etc. Retirement is the new working frontier, but once that is crossed, I'm not sure how household spending will continue its growth, nor the implications for the broader economy.
posted by smoke at 10:01 PM on January 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


This is really the part I don't get. Unless you are actually in the business of manufacturing cardboard shanty towns, who the hell do these big companies think is buying their shit?
10% unemployment means 90% employment. There are still people who can afford internet access or whatever.

The problem, at least if you listen to Paul Krugman, is that the government wants to keep inflation low even in the midst of a deep recession. If inflation went up, then people with large cash reserves would be forced to invest, wages would go up and everyone would have jobs. But wages would probably grow more slowly then other prices, so eventually we would reach equilibrium. The next alternative would be massive stimulus. Government spending itself pays for jobs for everyone.

But instead we are looking at prolonged unemployment so that eventually wages go down overall, to reach equilibrium. That takes a long time, and it's mostly for the benefit of rich people who hoard cash.
Houses are bigger, and they are filled with more things. The price of consumer goods has gone way down, but we have actually outpaced that fall with our discretionary spending (and debt, dear god, the inflation-adjusted levels of household debt).
Actually a lot of the increases in spending come in the form of healthcare costs. The costs of consumer goods have come down. How much consumer crap do people even need anyway?
posted by delmoi at 10:19 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe the fear of immigration isn't the fear the immigrants are "taking our jobs" as much as being examples to companies on how they can treat ALL employees? I mean, contractors and salaried pay is already a great step in demolishing federally mandated overtime, and once we cast away that pesky minimum wage thing, we'll be well on our way!

And we'll have stayed far far away from evil socialism, where people take away the fruits of your labor to give to the undeserving!

Or something.
posted by yeloson at 10:24 PM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


The workers of the Triangle shirtwaist factory care to disagree.
posted by nestor_makhno at 10:29 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


So whilst, the 'average' life is no longer affordable on many single salaries, the average itself has substantially increased.
True of course, but that then leads to the whole debate about relative poverty and social exclusion (as I'm sure you're well aware). Plus it's not just declining incomes, people are working more to earn them too.
From there you might consider agency - is the current rise in precariousness largely down to poor choices by the average American/citizen of a Western developed economy, or were people by and large going along with the general flow of the usual complex mix of social forces, incentives and ideology/culture only to find out they were hollow? While I'm sure a foresighted family might have hunkered down and lived frugally amid apparent plenty, it makes more sense to look at the larger structural changes and decision made by power-holders rather than an agglomeration of individual poor choice-making by those in society with the least say over how they dispose their lives - the people who sell their labour to get by.
posted by Abiezer at 10:38 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I still don't understand why anyone would venerate the ruling class in this country. Hows does a person making even "middle class" wages defend the bonuses of wall street or the exorbitant salaries of the head office? And yet they do.

Its the same reason that some of the most vocal opponents of gay rights have never met a gay person in their life, or the most vocal opponents of the estate tax will never ever ever qualify for it...its called Republican Marketing to the "Real America".

The workers of the Triangle shirtwaist factory care to disagree.

Say it loud!
posted by hal_c_on at 10:41 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is really the part I don't get. Unless you are actually in the business of manufacturing cardboard shanty towns, who the hell do these big companies think is buying their shit?

The Chinese, the Indians, the ...... GM's biggest market last year was China, not the U.S. Combine the growth potential in these emerging markets with the relatively high cost of labor in the U.S. and EU, and you're only missing one thing to ensure long-term corporate prosperity at the expense of the rest of us: the absence of any meaningful controls on trans-national money flows.

Oops. We've now got that last missing factor. Over the last 20-some years, a fundamental imbalance arose in the global economy: money moves very easily and quickly across national boundaries; labor does not. Monetary wealth has become trans-national and essentially beyond the control of any single national government. It becomes a global game of "whack-a-mole" trying to regulate corporate behavior. In the '80s the U.S. saw it with NAFTA; the Europeans are also experiencing it through EU directives (e.g., the demise of centuries-old German beer purity laws). Unfortunately, we tend to respond to this with a race-to-the-bottom type of mentality, giving concessions that transfer traditional business costs to taxpayers just to get/keep a few dozen jobs here and there. I used to think that a great solution would be for all 50 U.S. states to band together and just say "no" to every "economic development incentive" demand made by Company X in order to build a new facility wherever. But then I realized that Company X would probably just say, "OK, we'll move to [China/Mexico/India/etc.]. See you later."

I'm not an isolationist, but I am a realist. The solution is not to close off our borders and build it all here. Smoot-Hawley a century ago proved that approach wrong. But all things in moderation, please.
posted by webhund at 10:56 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Being able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage may have been a bit of an historical fluke, particularly in the post war era. The US survived mostly intact while the major European industrial powers suffered tremendously. Huge corporations were more willing to throw a bone to unions, and had lots of teats to suckle from both the private and public sector (automobiles, durable goods, defense). But Europe slowly recovered, and Asia grew up.

And that sustainable single working wage family might have been harder to pull off if that single wage earner in the family was a woman and/or a person of color back then.

Interesting that now, despite the changes in the labor market being much leaner and meaner, Americans still manage to enjoy perhaps more prosperity than ever, across a wider socio-economic swath. In comparison, that mythical age associated with the prosperous single wage earner family starts to look quite primitive in comparison.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:06 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Being able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage may have been a bit of an historical fluke, particularly in the post war era.
Far from the historic norm I'd agree with, but not that it was a fluke - the result of the compromises between capital and labour after lengthy social struggles and within a context of the Cold War world, where an alternative to capitalism was presented albeit in a fundamentally flawed form in countries yet to complete "the tasks of modernity".
posted by Abiezer at 11:12 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Americans still manage to enjoy perhaps more prosperity than ever, across a wider socio-economic swath.

I'm sorry - are we reading the same article? The one that says, "Shockingly, pay for production and nonsupervisory workers—80% of the private workforce—is 9% lower than it was in 1973, adjusted for inflation"?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:15 PM on January 12, 2010 [10 favorites]


Slate: If you had to sum up what The Wire is about, what would it be?

David Simon: Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism.

Slate: How so?

David Simon: Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.

posted by sharkfu at 12:08 AM on January 13, 2010 [14 favorites]


I'm sorry - are we reading the same article? The one that says, "Shockingly, pay for production and nonsupervisory workers—80% of the private workforce—is 9% lower than it was in 1973, adjusted for inflation"?

He means you can buy a big screen TV for $199.

Health care? Who needs that when you have a wii and an iphone?
posted by delmoi at 12:25 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]



I'm sorry - are we reading the same article? The one that says, "Shockingly, pay for production and nonsupervisory workers—80% of the private workforce—is 9% lower than it was in 1973, adjusted for inflation"?


Yes. Even if true, it's hardly the whole story. Americans are still more prosperous than those in 1973. We have more education (which is increasingly utilized by our jobs), access to better and cheaper products and food, better health, and more resources to blow on pastimes. Furthermore, the labor market has indeed changed. "Production and nonsupervisory workers" are a smaller piece of the labor pie than before, and not necessarily representative of the American labor market as a whole. It's sort of like saying blacksmiths are having a tough time compared to 100 years ago. Which may very well be true, but a poor indicator for judging the health of the overall workforce.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:26 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


2N222: what part of "80% of the private workforce" makes you think that that class of worker is "not necessarily representative of the American labor market as a whole"? Can we at least say that they're representative of, say, 80% of that labor market?
posted by col_pogo at 12:49 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why is the assertion that some consumer goods may be cheaper more relevant than inflation? Inflation is calculated based on the consumer price index which is calculated from the goods people actually buy. It's already got the some things get cheaper bit factored in, proportional to how much people actually buy them.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:19 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is assuming the numbers are correct, and not misleading. There's also the public workforce. Which anecdotally, is kind of insane in my family. I think about half of my extended family has a job that's taxpayer funded. I think it's viewed as a way to avoid that "perma-temp world", as they tend to have their jobs effectively forever, as long as they want them. My guess is that the public sector is going to grow.

And still, the case that Americans are worse off now than 40 years ago is kind of hard to make, for some reasons that don't have to do directly with wages. The global playing field has certainly leveled quite a bit. The really interesting thing is that Americans have benefited as a result, along with the rest of the globe willing to participate in the labor market.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:22 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Shockingly, pay for production and nonsupervisory workers—80% of the private workforce—is 9% lower than it was in 1973, adjusted for inflation.

Yea, that's super misleading. In fact, it'd be just as accurate to say: "Shockingly, pay for production and nonsupervisory workers—80% of the private workforce—is the highest it's ever been in the last 28 years, adjusted for inflation."

Table B-4
posted by FuManchu at 2:09 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, since I'm looking at the chart now (which I cannot for the life of me figure out a direct link to), the whole period of the 1970s is crazy, between the wage-spikes which occur during a recession, and the following inflation. From 1980 onwards, though, it looks as if the mid-1990s was the worst period for the US worker ($7.50 an hour in 1982 dollars), and 2008-2009 the best (over $8.50 an hour). This even beats out the 1960s (which itself went from ~$7.50 to just under $8.50 an hour), which was also a grand time for workers.

Given all that, it's a terrible example of our latest troubles, unless you're willing to make the claim that now is the best time to be a worker in the last 25 years.
posted by FuManchu at 2:29 AM on January 13, 2010


Which anecdotally

Ah, okay.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:35 AM on January 13, 2010


Another chart: Real Compensation Per Hour, which includes benefits as well as wages, in Business Sector, Manufacturing Sector, Nonfarm Business Sector, all show that the average US worker is making significantly more now, adjusted for inflation, than he ever has before. Part of the problem is that benefits are taking all of the growth, not wages.

Given that we're employing more of the population, even at this point in the recession, than we were in the heyday of the US worker's golden age, I think the above is truly impressive.
posted by FuManchu at 2:51 AM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


" Being able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage may have been a bit of an historical fluke, particularly in the post war era. "

Absolutely. The trend throughout most of humanity is that life is harsh, brutal and short. Retirement as we know it never existed before. Pensions were paid at 65 because no one lived to 65. Thinking that you can be paid to do nothing for a third of your life is crazy, unsustainable and won't happen (as secure public sector employees will shortly find out, then the fun starts).
posted by Damienmce at 2:57 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


"My guess is that the public sector is going to grow."

Not in California.

"the case that Americans are worse off now than 40 years ago is kind of hard to make"

Not really. Access to a living wage was never guaranteed, but a high school diploma was access to a lower middle class to middle class life forty years ago. Not any longer. And not if your kid gets sick.
posted by bardic at 2:58 AM on January 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


the average US worker is making significantly more now, adjusted for inflation, than he ever has before.
A far smaller portion of GDP now goes to wages in the US, mirroring a global trend. You can also see later in the linked article a view supporting the idea of generally stagnant wages.
The growth that has accompanied globalisation has produced record corporate profits and income rises for the very top percentiles, but stagnant or tiny improvements in wages of the rest. This meant lots of people were running to stand still in the boom years and are staring down the barrel now the inevitable downturn has arrived, setting aside any arguments about the downsides of widening social inequality. The pattern is firmly in place but the economic growth rates that made it at least ostensibly sustainable may well never return.
posted by Abiezer at 3:36 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah ha, the "declining portion of GDP" argument. That's when I refer to my "total compensation" graph above, and then point to this: National Compensation Measures as a Share of GDP, which shows total compensation as share of GDP has been stable for the past 50 years.

What you are pointing to is higher payroll taxes and insurance premiums.
posted by FuManchu at 4:02 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hmm, well the link in my previous post states that "It also found that the share of national income consisting of wages and salaries is at the lowest level ever recorded, with data available back to 1929; and, while total employee compensation — which includes employers’ pension and health insurance contributions — is not at an all time-low, it is significantly below the average of the last three decades." They address some of the problems with using the total compensation measure elsewhere (back in 2004 when the economy was deemed to be in recovery):
The Commerce Department adds these insurance and pension contributions and employer contributions for government social insurance programs to wage and salary incomes to make up the category labeled “total compensation.” Even by this broad measure of labor compensation, the share of national income gains going to workers in the first 10 quarters of this recovery is lower than in all previous recoveries since World War II.

As opposed to increases in wages and salaries, the degree to which the increases in payments for insurance and pensions will enhance living standards is unclear. Rising employer payments for health insurance premiums partly reflects the acceleration in health care cost growth, which may not appreciably benefit covered workers. In addition, many employers with pension plans that promise a defined benefit to workers have had to increase their pension contributions to make up for the drop in the stock market, which reduced the value of pension plans’ portfolios. The increased contributions were necessary to assure payment of the promised pension benefits. In this respect, the current increase in pension contributions make workers no better off than they were before, since many workers would still expect to receive the same pension benefit that was promised previously.
Must admit to be not particularly familiar with the arguments though - not a measure used in the UK AFAIK due to our different welfare set-up.
posted by Abiezer at 4:28 AM on January 13, 2010


That graph doesn't mean much, FuManchu. It's total wages, and has nothing to do with median wages. It shouldn't be expected to change significantly - and the fact that it is actually being pushed down significantly by the deterioration of the USA's heathcare system should be shocking (but sadly, isn't). Maybe if you overlaid "wages paid to bottom 50% of workers" and "wages paid to top 1% of workers" each as a % of GDP, it would be a genuinely interesting statistical presentation, and a tad more enlightening.

Guess which one went up and which one went down?
posted by mek at 4:32 AM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


reasonably nice furniture (e.g. not made from recycled 2 liter bottles)

Ahhh, but like a diamond plastic is forever so:

1) When the shiftless lazy people break into your home they won't steal the recycled 2 liter bottle ottoman because they are looking for nice.
2) Because you still have the recycled 2 liter bottle furnature (not stolen AND lasting forever) you'll always have that.

Now because of #2 the maker of said item has to figure out how to make it as flimsy as possible so it breaks. Making it stylish and then changing style is hard, so best go with breaking.

How much consumer crap do people even need anyway?

Consumer crap fills the empty void AND its how other people judge you.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:46 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Found this pile of miserable news from a few days back too: Aughts were a lost decade for U.S. economy, workers; says there:
Middle-income households made less in 2008, when adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999 -- and the number is sure to have declined further during a difficult 2009. The Aughts were the first decade of falling median incomes since figures were first compiled in the 1960s.

And the net worth of American households -- the value of their houses, retirement funds and other assets minus debts -- has also declined when adjusted for inflation, compared with sharp gains in every previous decade since data were initially collected in the 1950s.
posted by Abiezer at 5:28 AM on January 13, 2010


As bad as workers in the United States have it, I'm sure there are much worse situations where the jobs have gone. If only we had an international labor movement that would struggle to improve the situation of the protoletariat everywhere.

That kind of seems like communism, though.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:42 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


you used to be able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage in America

For one fleeting period of time one could raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage in America. This period of time unsurprisingly coincided with the greatest shift towards Socialist, labor-friendly policies the country had ever, and to date, has ever known.

It annoys me to no end when people refer back to the 1950s as simply part of the normal cycle. As though the middle class were somehow a natural phenomenon that simply goes through periodic ups and downs. No 401K or health care for you this decade, but just wait twenty years and you'll see all the profits of your labor once again.

If history has shown us anything, it is that a middle class is not the natural state of man. Like World War I, every inch of progress for the working man has required a pitched battle, drawn-out with plenty of casualties.

What we have seen over the past three decades is the slow erosion of these gains and the gradual dismantling of these policies, to the clear detriment of the working class. We are witnessing the slow devolution of the middle class back to the primordial bogs of underclass. Imagine one of those "Evolution of Man" cartoons, but in reverse. We are reverting back to the natural state. The natural state is not pretty.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:52 AM on January 13, 2010 [28 favorites]


My Henry Ford comment was pretty strongly hamburgered. It is common wisdom that Ford was the "model" entrepreneur/boss, so I figured I'd throw that on its head to make a joke about our current disposable culture.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:02 AM on January 13, 2010


When I started my master's degree, I took a course called "The Anthropology of Work", and I was momentarily confused by the fact that we had two weeks dedicated to "homework." But then, of course, I found out that it referred to piece-work jobs given to people in their homes, an international labour trend that is closely tied to "just in time" production.

The woman in the fpp piece is an example of a homeworker. All the nitpicking about inflation vs increased consumer desire and relative poverty seems to miss the fact that she makes 25 cents a minute, only for the minutes she is on the phone. That means that at *maximum* she can make $15/hr, no benefits, no security. No guaranteed minimum income. No set number of shifts. Given the fact that she appears to be a single mother, this hardly seems like the kind wage fuelling an unrealistic consumerist desire. It sounds like barely enough to cover the basics, in 2009/2010 dollars.

Some of the autoparts assembly homework is far less than that. People are paid by the piece, and it is physically difficult to assemble enough pieces an hour to make a living wage. On top of that, the work is marketed at women as something that can be done while the children are at home. There are no safety standards or supervision, (and of course, no benefits and no security) and nothing to ensure that a poor family doesn't start using its kids to increase their output. Most of the stuff I read about was published in academic journals, but this book covers the topic as well.

It's always amazed me that people don't seem to know about this kind of work, and if they do learn about it, that they don't become enraged. Reverting to 19th century industrial-era labour policies hardly seems something to shrug off, rather something to both fear and fight against.
posted by carmen at 6:20 AM on January 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


In contrast with the past?

Yes.

you used to be able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage

Two things changed under Reagan and the O'Neill congress:

1. Income taxes on the upper class were dropped from ~90% to about 10%. With this money now available to their personal pleasure they invested it in financial products, rather than back into their companies.

2. Caps on university tuitions were lifted, and financial aid cut, so that anyone seeking education would have to be in debt, and therefore subservient and slavish to employers.

And Clinton's NAFTA was the final dagger in the back. You want America to have a middle class that you can join? Drop tuition, repeal NAFTA and instate protectionist tariffs, and raise taxes on people making over $100000 to 90%.

If the corporations and the rich want to leave and take their money with them? Fucking fine. Let them. Someone else who's worth our while will pick up the economy they left. And far fewer of them will abandon us than you think.
posted by clarknova at 6:39 AM on January 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


As bad as workers in the United States have it, I'm sure there are much worse situations where the jobs have gone. If only we had an international labor movement that would struggle to improve the situation of the protoletariat everywhere

There is evidence that global free trade has actually buoyed many in developing nations to higher standards of living. Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs, to name a few, make this argument.
posted by freshundz at 6:45 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I grow increasingly depressed when I read these types of articles.

Most of us will work at jobs for which we have more intelligence and education than is needed to do them well. I think one of the biggest tragedies of my generation (boomer/genX) is that we have an expectation of finding fulfillment in our work.

We came of age in a time when lifetime employment and pensions were expected. As a person who came of age in the "go-go eighties" the 'work hard, live hard, move up in the company' ethic began to take hold and we all wore our suits and red ties/foulards and got in early and stayed late, socking away our stock options. Too bad we were working for MCI (literally), Enron, Eastern, Pan Am, et.al.

Imagine twenty years of work and the entirety of what you worked so hard for evaporating in fraud and scandal. No wonder we have trust issues.

Yet we continue to let these people lead us in business. And the nerve of them to come with their hands out asking ME to bail their sorry asses out when their stupid shenanigans get them in trouble. And don't get me started on the Wall Street bonuses! With MY money!!!!!

I think workers need to start having a much more selfish view of the world. I'm not buying company stock, I'm only as loyal as my paycheck, if some guy down the street will pay me more, I'm outta here.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:56 AM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


a by-product of the uniquely American attitude that all non-executive employees are actually lazy, shiftless thieves

Why is it that every time one of the evils of capitalism is discussed it's always pinned on Americans as being the unique inventors and propagators? I mean, seriously..please read some Charles Dickens or some late 19th Century Russian Literature or some freakin Marx please. You think Karl Marx came up with his theory by observing how American executives treat their employees? This isn't an American attitude, it's a CLASS DISTINCTION attitude that is prevalent the world over. Poor people of any nationality are considered poor due to their own faults rather than to the complex combination of factors that exist in a given society to create and propagate class distinction and ownership of scarce resources.
posted by spicynuts at 6:57 AM on January 13, 2010 [16 favorites]


Unless you are actually in the business of manufacturing cardboard shanty towns, who the hell do these big companies think is buying their shit?

scrip (you know it as "credit"). Companies keeping their employees at the poverty level can create markets by issuing credit either through investing in credit companies or creating their own. The whole point of the game is to own you from cradle to grave, if you die in debt they win. Nothing disgusts a CEO more than one of his workers leaving a dime to their children.
posted by any major dude at 7:03 AM on January 13, 2010


Clarknova: ...raise taxes on people making over $100000 to 90%

I somehow don't think that will help enrich the middle class.
posted by reformedjerk at 7:10 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


...rather than to the complex combination of factors that exist in a given society to create and propagate class distinction and ownership of scarce resources.

That you can't communicate the idea "economic injustice" without using weasel words is a sign of how good the civil indoctrination is. Academic rhetoric about class and power has grown so abstracted and inoffensive over the last fifty years that the only progress we can make towards clarity is in moving back towards Marx.

Try this on and see how it feels:

"Workers Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!"
posted by clarknova at 7:14 AM on January 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


My wife shared this piece with me a couple of days ago. It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

I had a decent corporate job until 2003, when I was laid off. I quickly found that the job market had changed considerably, and I was unable to find a new position that would last. After being laid off again in 2005, I stopped pursuing full time work, and concentrated on being a temporary worker. That helped with the stress of being unemployed--I was making a lower wage, but I was working. I was also fortunate that I had a lot of skills that are in demand, especially for temporary positions.

I currently work in a call center. This office, which is run by a major corporation, employs about 200 people, of which 30 percent are temps. The office has an elaborate training process that's been set up for their temporary workforce--we attend training classes and are constantly monitored to make sure we are maintaining productivity. The typical cycle has about 2-4 new temps starting once or twice per month--and it's not uncommon to see temps who have been here for almost a year fired so they can move a newer temp with more skills into the same position.

The company uses several different agencies, so the temp who sits next to me doesn't get the same rate of pay or benefits that I do. I'm lucky in that regard--the agency I work with gives benefits like health insurance and vacation time.

The actual employees aren't much better off. They may get more vacation time, but their insurance was downgraded, and they also find themselves under a lot of pressure to perform. Doing things like calling in sick and taking time off threatens their positions, so they tend to not do it as much. And they have to worry about being laid off, because the company announced yet another workforce reduction this month. I, on the other hand, don't care--I take off when I want to without worries … because if they ended my assignment here, I'd just go somewhere else. Despite being a temp, I have received raises and a promotion--something that the regular employees haven't gotten. Management is spread very thin—to the point that my current supervisor overworked to the level of incompetence.

I hate telling people where I work because they all assume I work for the company, and that it's a great company to work for. If I was offered a position here, I wouldn't accept because it probably wouldn't be as good as what I have now.

I've been here for two years. Kinda hard for me to call myself a temp, but that's what I am.
posted by lester at 7:15 AM on January 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Income taxes on the upper class were dropped from ~90% to about 10%. With this money now available to their personal pleasure they invested it in financial products, rather than back into their companies.

Cite? The closest I can find to that claim is a decrease from about 70% to about 28%.
posted by electroboy at 7:20 AM on January 13, 2010


Given that we're employing more of the population, even at this point in the recession, than we were in the heyday of the US worker's golden age, I think the above is truly impressive.

Those statistics don't include home economics. Y'know, when people made stuff (and grew food, etc.) they needed at home instead of just buying it? Yeah, believe it or not that actually happened (and it was an economic force to be reckoned with). Nowadays that happens hardly at all. It still costs less (not to mention more healthy) to feed a family of four from scratch than it does to drive to taco bell and buy everyone the cheapest stuff on the menu (or buying cheap frozen crap at wal-mart). But the time commitment is hard to make for poor families where both parents are working jobs with weird hours or those working multiple jobs just to get by. And the (home economics) skills people had 50 years ago just aren't around anymore. The people who most could use these skills lack the time to learn them, or even the exposure to find out about them in the first place, and some of them are just too entitled to even consider doing these things.

And let's not forget this previous post, a speech by Elizabeth Warren, where she showed that the biggest of peoples expenses have been increasing (in a big way) since the 70's for many reasons: food, housing, health, education, transportation.
posted by symbollocks at 7:25 AM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


...For the past ten years, my career has been in theater, which pretty much guaranteed that I'd be working as a temp for a looooooooooooooong time.

This article tells me nothing new -- in fact, this article overlooks the fact that long-term temp workers has been the status quo for more people and more industries than you realize for longer than you'd think. My last long-term assignment was four years long, and I was one of three open-ended temps in my section of the office alone. One is still there, and he's going on six years now.

Then again, I'm very fortunate in that my particular temp agency does offer health insurance and a 401K plan, both of which I participate in, so that's some security, at least.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:28 AM on January 13, 2010


It's okay because my real reward is in Heaven.
posted by Legomancer at 7:30 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Employers prize flexibility, of course. But if they aren't careful they can wind up with an alienated, dispirited workforce. A Conference Board survey released on Jan. 5 found that only 45% of workers surveyed were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling. Poor morale can devastate performance. After making deep staff cuts following the subprime implosion, UBS (UBS), Credit Suisse (CS), and American Express (AXP) hired Harvard psychology lecturer Shawn Achor to train their remaining employees in positive thinking. Says Achor: "All the employees had just stopped working."

"They pretended to pay us, and we pretended to work."
posted by Ouisch at 7:44 AM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


It is unwise, I believe, to compare unions, work today with what was years ago. Our govt has been basically anti-union for some time now,by which I mean that in most industrial nations, you go on strike and you can not be replaced permanently by scabs once the strik is settled.

The issue though today is that strike, unions, non-unions--all the same because a com0pany can make goods cheaper overseas than in the U.S. even if all their workers here worked at minimum wage, and minimum is clearly not much to live on. So they ship jobs out of the country.

Corporations today are basically beholding to stock holders and boards, not to American workers, citizens. The auto industry for example will shortly find more sales to be had in China than in the US, and China will very soon be shipping cars into the US. Foregin cars, made here, are in non-union shops.
The future: jobs will be hands-on: ie, taxi drivers, police, teachers etc. any job that can be outsourced or done via net will be.
posted by Postroad at 7:53 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


freshundz: "As bad as workers in the United States have it, I'm sure there are much worse situations where the jobs have gone. If only we had an international labor movement that would struggle to improve the situation of the protoletariat everywhere

There is evidence that global free trade has actually buoyed many in developing nations to higher standards of living. Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs, to name a few, make this argument.
"

I think that it is almost certainly true that global free trade raises the standard of living in developing nations, especially if you look purely at economic statistics to make an argument about standard of living. Money is flowing into these developing nations that was not going into them before and this can't help but raise GDP, mean income, and other measures that are relatively blind to the distribution of the income.

If you look at the arguments of people who are against globalization, the picture may be more nuanced. Their idea of how this works would go something like: free trade puts local industry and agriculture out of business --> people have to go to work in factories with terrible conditions -->profits are taken by the factory owners in the developing country and multinationals.

I think that the truth would probably be some sort of synthesis of the two points of view, and I think that international labor organizations would almost certainly help to prevent some of the more abusive practices that occur in the race to find the cheapest wages. My comment about communism was intended to be an (admittedly bad) attempt at making a joke.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:57 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Try this on and see how it feels:

"Workers Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!"


Right because trying to understand the complexity of what causes 'economic injustice' in the first place is completely and utterly exclusive to trying to solve it. We aren't at a rally and I'm not trying to instigate a social movement. I'm engaging in an intellectual discussion. Trying to understand why one wants to change something is important to not becoming a dogmatic automaton.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule of fomenting revolution among the proletariat to condemn my commet as weasel words, though. I know that sitting at the computer and posting to Metafilter is sometimes more important than actually putting one's money where one's mouth is. I look forward to seeing your name and likeness on the t-shirts and posters after the revolution.

HAVE FUN STORMING THE CASTLE!
posted by spicynuts at 7:58 AM on January 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Great, I am so fucked, being in the 18 to 24 year old age bracket right now. As if I didn't need any more reasons to be pessimistic about my future.
posted by hellojed at 7:58 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Another chart: Real Compensation Per Hour, which includes benefits as well as wages, in Business Sector, Manufacturing Sector, Nonfarm Business Sector, all show that the average US worker is making significantly more now, adjusted for inflation, than he ever has before. Part of the problem is that benefits are taking all of the growth, not wages.

Benefits like health care, whose costs have been spiraling out of control because of a broken system? Doesn't sound like progress to me.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:32 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


repeal NAFTA and instate protectionist tariffs

I'm not sure why you'd want to flush the U.S. (and global) economy down the toilet, but this is a great way to do it.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:53 AM on January 13, 2010


For one fleeting period of time one could raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage in America.

I suspect that it you were willing to limit yourself to a middle-class 1950 lifestyle, you could still do this in some but not all housing markets.

It would mean a family of 4 implies a small (no more than 1200sf) 2-bedroom, small-lot house, or a 2-bedroom apartment.

It would mean simply eliminating several utilities: no cable, no internet, no mobile phone. It would mean not having or never using an air conditioner.

It would mean a single generally unreliable and shockingly dangerous car; you could probably approximate this by buying a 10 year old Civic, selling the seat belts and airbags to a chop shop, and welding a deadly spike to the steering column.

It would mean eating out only on special occasions, and spending large amounts of (inevitably, the wife's) time economizing on food and other products.

And it would mean persuading a health insurance company to set up a plan that only provides benefits for treatments available in 1950. I expect the cost of this will be rather less than a modern plan.

Even if you could do all this, you still couldn't support a family on working-class pay in Boston or the Bay Area, sure. But you almost certainly could here in WNY, or in D/FW.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on January 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


I suspect that it you were willing to limit yourself to a middle-class 1950 lifestyle, you could still do this in some but not all housing markets.

Don't forget about vacations and college education - both much more widespread then in the 1950s.
posted by shothotbot at 9:29 AM on January 13, 2010


and raise taxes on people making over $100000 to 90%.

Did you leave off a zero there?
posted by leahwrenn at 9:56 AM on January 13, 2010


The biggest auto manufacturers in the US are foreign carmakers.

If you look here, the American car companies are just over 45 % of sales, while the domestic portion of the foreign car companies adds up to 39.3 %, if my math is correct. Also, a foreign car assembled in America has much less domestic content than an American car assembled here.

Looked at by market share, GM is at 20.1 %, Toyota 18.2 %, Ford 17.3 %, Honda 10.4 %, Chrysler 8.4 %, and Nissan 7.1 %. All of the rest are down in the mud.

So any way you look at it, this isn't a true statement yet.
posted by rfs at 10:19 AM on January 13, 2010


"David Simon: Thematically, it's about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more"

That raises a question for me. In a world where the population is steadily rising, how does the value of an individual life stay the same (or rise)? More hands = more production? Are we supposed to be getting more efficient at harvesting wealth from this (finite) earth?

This is probably "Econ 102: STFU Malthus" stuff, but I'm not an economist so I gotta act a fool and ask.
posted by Eideteker at 11:34 AM on January 13, 2010


I used to work for a boss who liked to tell everyone:

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."

I could never make him understand that this was no longer a threat, but a promise, and moreover, one which could not be kept.
posted by Phanx at 1:08 PM on January 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


There is evidence that global free trade has actually buoyed many in developing nations to higher standards of living.

I think that it is almost certainly true that global free trade raises the standard of living in developing nations

Speaking of weasel words, can we please have a moratorium on using the term "global free trade" (and various derivations)? Please instead say what you mean: government subsidized industrialization. Which has shit all to do with free trade.

It would mean eating out only on special occasions, and spending large amounts of (inevitably, the wife's) time economizing on food and other products.

DOING THINGS WITH YOUR HANDS! THE HORROR! But seriously... inevitably? Home economics *inevitably* leads to sexism and patriarchy? How?
posted by symbollocks at 1:13 PM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


As an allegedly permanent worker who hasn't gotten a pay raise in two years, I can't help but notice my company's CEO did quite well this past year.
posted by tommasz at 1:44 PM on January 13, 2010



Great, I am so fucked, being in the 18 to 24 year old age bracket right now. As if I didn't need any more reasons to be pessimistic about my future.


We're all hurting. At least you didn't lose 50% or more of your retirement, like some people I know.
posted by milarepa at 2:05 PM on January 13, 2010


Well, maybe you did lose 50% of your retirement, but I think you know what I mean.
posted by milarepa at 2:07 PM on January 13, 2010


Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule of fomenting revolution among the proletariat to condemn my commet as weasel words, though.

Anytime. My point, however, was that your language was precious and unclear. This is due to your interalization of the language of the ruling class. Ask yourself what information your wordy phrasing conveyed that "economic injustice" does not.

I know how these things can prick the pride, but consider it a friendly critique, Comrade.
posted by clarknova at 3:32 PM on January 13, 2010


symbollocks, of course. But the thing is that moving away from all that can be considered a luxury. People can still live in the world ROU_Xenophobe describes.

In fact, check out the charts on one of Elizabeth Warren's pieces on inequality: The median American family is spending less on:
Food       -19%
Car        -30%
Clothing   -32%
Appliances -44%

And spending more on:
Health Ins. +103%
Housing     +100%
Childcare   +100%
Taxes       + 25%

Now, figuring out which of these are due to the family choices, and which are due to "the system" is not easy. Which of these are good things? She implies that the lowered spending on the first four is a bad thing. Is spending less on a 2008 car than a 1970s car a bad thing? Are we eating less enjoyable foods than we were in the 1970s? Is our clothing inferior? She implies this without giving it much more thought. What if people reach a natural limit to the kind of food they will purchase at a given income level? What if people satiate their desire for the first four items and plow it into the second? If you're not going to spend your money on one thing, it will be spent on another. (Yes, the savings rate is far smaller, but it's only changed a few percent compared to the above.)

The makeup of families has changed -- the number of single parents has exploded. Families are smaller yet living in larger homes. Health insurance costs have gone up because the amount of healthcare being provided has gone up. Universal coverage is barely going to dent this -- other countries' spending on health care has been increasing nearly as much as the US'.

I'm willing to have a discussion about the plight of the worker. But to point to a bullshit statistic like the article did, or to never be able to see anything beneficial like Elizabeth Warren, is silly. Some things are good some things are bad. Families are also making choices themselves, and not simply victims of the system. The median family in America will always be struggling because no one is content with a median life.
posted by FuManchu at 3:35 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


What if people satiate their desire for the first four items and plow it into the second? If you're not going to spend your money on one thing, it will be spent on another.

Are you suggesting that people are saving so much money on clothing and food at Wal-Mart that they are deciding to spend the excess in... health care premiums, childcare, and housing costs? None of those are exactly luxury items.

Health insurance costs have gone up because the amount of healthcare being provided has gone up. Universal coverage is barely going to dent this

This is completely false. The USA has the highest health care expenditure, as a % of GDP, of any nation on earth, while still denying coverage to a large swath of the population. Countries with universal coverage spend 9-12% of GDP with the USA spending over 15%. There is no reason to expect the implementation of true universal (single-payer) healthcare to cost more than the current system. While it is true that a demographic shift has been increasing the cost of healthcare in most developed nations, this is not the primary reason for the explosion of costs (+103%!!) in the USA in the last decade.

I'm not even going to touch the housing cost issue, because the housing market in the USA is obviously a very special case right now. (aka complete clusterfuck)
posted by mek at 3:55 PM on January 13, 2010


This is completely false

It's completely true. Jesus, even Orszag said:
Although the level of spending per capita in the United States contrasts sharply with that of other wealthy countries, the growth rate of spending in the United States is less unusual. Most industrialized countries—even those with a financing system quite different from that in the United States—have experienced a substantial long-term rise in real spending on health care.
posted by FuManchu at 4:15 PM on January 13, 2010


Great, I am so fucked, being in the 18 to 24 year old age bracket right now. As if I didn't need any more reasons to be pessimistic about my future.

It is hard to hear this stuff, and yeah, the future seems pretty bleak. Just realize that you're young enough to try to prepare for it. You have time to master skills that will be marketable, to gather experience that people will still pay for.

At least you haven't spent a decade (or more) amassing job experience in fields that are being wiped out because people realized they can do it cheaper another way. Try to find your way into a field that won't end up doing that.

Of course, that will probably end up meaning pizza delivery by the time this shitstorm settles.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:34 PM on January 13, 2010


Companies are hiring employees on short-term contracts, with no health insurance or pension plan- so when employees get old, you can just chuck them.

It's called the American Way. Which is less and less far from the Chinese Way as time goes on, at least in terms of wages and benefits. They are leaving the Third World as we are entering it.

Being able to raise a family with a good standard of living on a single working class wage may have been a bit of an historical fluke, particularly in the post war era.

People can barely raise a family on two of those, let alone have a good standard of living.

And yet Europe has managed to get there, with high taxation and more than a bit of wealth redistribution from top to bottom via universal health care and a real social safety net. The Right goes on about how awful things are in Europe because of social democracy. yet their productivity is as high as ours and their rate of economic growth very close to ours as well. Paul Krugman just ran this down this week. Oh, they have it so bad in Europe with universal health care, shorter work weeks, real maternity leave and real vacations. Man, we should pity them, the backward fools.

In the 50s and 60s, there was a social contract between corporations and labor but that has flown out the window. Way back in the darkest days of the late 60s, in my most pessimistic moments, the grimmest future I could imagine then cannot hold a candle to what has come to pass now.
posted by y2karl at 4:42 PM on January 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


See also French Family Values.
posted by y2karl at 4:51 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was just thinking (as I do, from time to time) about how to add this to a story, some sort of scifi-ish thing, where middle-aged people live together in a decent (modest, by today's standards), and compete in "Who Wants to be Middle Class?" America's most popular reality show. The people in the house would go through humiliating challenges all while having to work 10 hours a day at a demeaning job. Like the Jungle meets Make Room, Make Room.

But then it hit me, we're already pretty much there. Just to keep what we have (and what we have dwindles daily) we're forced to accept horrendous changes in our lives, like going from permanent employee in an enjoyable, challenging job to either a temp with the same job, and if you're lucky a couple benefits, or staying at the company, working longer hours, losing benefits, and possible having your salary cut. That's of course, if the employee is still considered viable. If not, they're cut loose, out there trying to figure out how to keep what they have, or how not to lose too much of it.

We're all reality tv stars now. This just seems like the early rounds, where the humiliating challenges aren't so bad, where the tasks seem doable. Later on, I think it's going to get worse, but what are the other options? Having a place to live, food to eat, these things are kind of important.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:14 PM on January 13, 2010


Most industrialized countries—even those with a financing system quite different from that in the United States—have experienced a substantial long-term rise in real spending on health care.

Once again I declare your statements to be clearly false - feel free to read the rest of my comment if you want to understand why. I appreciate legitimate argument, but you seem to only be stating opinion, and the plural of anecdote is not data. There are multiple trends in rising health care costs, which you appear to be conflating, and the international trend has little to do with the extremely expensive system the USA currently has in place. Here is a colour-coded bar graph to further your understanding. As you can clearly see, many countries stabilized in the last 20 years around the 10% GDP mark, way below the USA's spending level which is still skyrocketing past 16%. That graph only goes to 2006 but it is still going up, up, up.

This is a derail, so I will bring it back to my original point: to suggest that the massive increase in healthcare and housing costs to the average American household are somehow a result of luxury spending on "cadillac plans" and McMansions requires a special kind of willful ignorance. It's such an absurd statement that I shouldn't even have bothered to rebut it, but here we are. Spending on food and clothing have gone down because the number of food-insecure households has doubled in the last decade alone.
posted by mek at 5:20 PM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Once again I declare your statements to be clearly false

Those weren't my comments, they were Peter Orszag's, who is essentially heading the health reform effort. And yes, I acknowledge that the US has a higher growth rate (I was actually looking for that same graph), but Elizabeth Warren's number is going to look pretty awful in other countries, as well -- so my comment that "Universal coverage is barely going to dent this" is absolutely accurate.

You're not arguing with someone who is claiming things are wonderful now without fault.

Also, I can't access the last link of yours -- is there really a chart of a US Hunger Index? I can't seem to find it anywhere, though I remember discussion in a recent FPP here, actually
posted by FuManchu at 5:43 PM on January 13, 2010


That graph doesn't mean much, FuManchu.

For a second, I didn't register that this was a response to someone with the username "FuManchu" and I thought it was just a really racist remark, like "Yeah, whatever Fu Manchu! Why don't you and Gunga Din go over to Kunta Kinte's house and have your friend Speedy Gonzales bring over some tacos!"

posted by Saxon Kane at 6:01 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Americans still manage to enjoy perhaps more prosperity than ever, across a wider socio-economic swath

If you define prosperity in some skewed "got lots of consumer crap" definition. By metrics like happiness, health, and security we are seeing a substantial and steep decline. Especially when compared to European nations.

Anyway. Your so-called "prosperity" can be stated another way. It's called credit cards. And how's that working out?

Not so good.
posted by tkchrist at 7:49 PM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


not that it was a fluke - the result of the compromises between capital and labour after lengthy social struggles

Over 50% percent of the wealth of the USA is in the possession of less than 5% of the population.

Imagine if one-quarter of that were returned in cash dollars to the poorest third of the nation. How radically would it change their lives? How would it affect the daily life of the 5% ultra-wealthy?

That leave a solid 25% of the wealth of the entire nation in the hands of the ultra-wealthy super-minority. It's still wildly absurd that a society could be that way, but what the hell, why not.

Forget the past and you re-live it again. Society is stuck in Groundhog Day.

The USA and Europe got where they are because unionism made it possible to get more of the profits of labour returned to the labourers. And thus a family could have a stay-at-home parent for at least the first half-dozen years from each child's birth; and might only eventually go full-time.

The unions did not even remotely accomplish this in an outrageously greedy manner: back in the 60s the income gap was still an L-curve, the best-paid were 30x annually more wealthy than the average-paid, it was pretty damn grand to be filthy obscenely wealthy.

Goddamn unions. Buncha communist bastards, buncha goofy ideas. Next thing, they'd be asking us to become French!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:18 PM on January 13, 2010


However, all that said, the global economy means this: global equality. That, or we ultimately accept slave-based societies, so that we may have wealth on the backs of others.

Additionally, there is this problem: the global population is far higher than can be accommodated to the lifestyle to which most MeFi users have become acquainted. Not without gross disparities in quality of life.

The ultra-wealthy show no signs of giving up their wealth. That means it's up to the rapidly-disappearing middle class to carry the load. Good-bye, the current standard of living for most of us MeFi users.

Or, more likely, hello further experiments in obtaining the cheapest possible labour using the least number of people and generally the cheapest quality input.

It'd be a good idea for effective birth control to be the default choice, as well the idea of bearing single children.

Grumble, crotchety. I know these ideas aren't popular, but I don't see how they don't generally correspond to reality. Too many people, too few resources, something's gotta give, and soon. We're coming between a rock and a hard spot.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:29 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Imagine if one-quarter of that were returned in cash dollars to the poorest third of the nation. How radically would it change their lives? How would it affect the daily life of the 5% ultra-wealthy?

With you, but I suspect you are engaged in complete fantasy when pondering the answer to the first question based on actual outcomes for people who are given either a lump sum or a periodic payment. Lottery winners, for example. Pro athletes. Etc.
posted by rr at 10:43 PM on January 13, 2010


Yeah, fff, I'm inclined to believe that people would just end up giving that money right back to the rich in trade for cheap trinkets. What we need is something that the rich can't just take from us, which are the skills that it takes to create and maintain the means of production on our own.

And even this can be taken away, as it has been over the last several decades as people bought into the idea of the "post-industrial economy", but the only thing that made that theft possible was a flood of cheap energy that is fast running out (and which I believe is playing a big role (pdf) in this whole economic debacle).

Now, most people aren't going to learn these skills in time to stop your predicted crisis from happening (reality check: it's happening now, just not as fast as you thought it would), but those who do learn them will have a hell of a head start on those who don't. But in the end it's gonna be bad for everyone, just worse for some, just like it is right now.

And while unions are an ok idea as far as holding government subsidized corporations halfway accountable goes, an even better idea would be to get rid of these government subsidized corporations by making them unnecessary. Unions too often make people feel comfortable and lazy, and I don't mean on the job, I mean on the task of eventually owning, creating, and maintaining the means of production for themselves. Unions are only a temporary solution to corporate-government collusion.
posted by symbollocks at 7:30 AM on January 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, fine, don't give it to them in cash.

Give it to them in healthcare. Education. Help fund their move to a city where there's work.

The main point is that over half the wealth of the nation is in the hands of a terribly tiny fraction of the nation. Half of it!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:53 AM on January 14, 2010


Read Scott Winship and Mike Konczal on inequality
Links on inequality and the macroeconomy
posted by kliuless at 5:55 AM on January 20, 2010


Jon Stewart To Elizabeth Warren: Let's Make Out (VIDEO)
posted by homunculus at 9:33 AM on January 27, 2010


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