Jobs, employment, and life-giving work: 3 essays

March 18, 2016

Workers have become expendable to many of the corporations that run the economy; NAFTA and other trade laws opened the floodgates of outsourcing to low-wage countries. Many of the jobs that can’t be outsourced are being eliminated, or hours, pay, and benefits are being cut.

As corporations amass greater power, wealth, and influence, they successfully lobby for tax breaks and federal subsidies and set the national policy agenda. As long as the giveaways continue, along with massive military spending, governments have to cut education, public services, and infrastructure investments—and the jobs that go with these public benefits.

since the official end of the recession, virtually all of the new income—92 percent as of the first quarter of 2011—has gone to corporate profits, according to a May report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. None of the increased GDP has gone to boost wages and salaries.

More importantly, since World War II, growth has been built on cheap energy—particularly petroleum—and low-cost dumping of the effluents of a wasteful global economy. Now the easy-to-pump oil is nearly used up, and the cost of extracting petroleum is rising. At the same time, we’ve used up the Earth’s capacity to absorb climate-changing gases and other forms of pollution. Changes in the delicate balance of atmospheric gases are already disrupting the climate, and extreme weather events are happening with increasing frequency. Growth has failed to yield prosperity, and the planet cannot bear more of it.

So how do we create an economy that provides dignified livelihoods to all who are willing to work, without undermining the natural systems we, and our children, rely on?  A real solution requires a vision that is both humble in terms of the material wealth we can expect and ambitious about the fairness, mutual support, and quality of life we can build.  Here is a three-part plan for building real prosperity in an age of limits:

1. Local Economies, Local Ecosystems

The corporate economy has failed to offer economic security to most people in so-called developed countries and has undermined the environment and the living standards of people around the world. Strong local and regional economies are the way to a sustainable and resilient recovery. Small businesses create more jobs and innovation than big corporations. And entrepreneurs with long-term stakes in their local environment and economy have both the means and the motivation to protect them. There are many simple ways individuals and communities can support the transition to local economies:  buy local so profits stay in the community, invest in local efficiency and renewable energy, and substitute local for imported.  Bank locally too.  When banks are located in the community, they come to know local businesses and what sorts of loans are likely to work. When banks hold the loans, rather than sell them, they have an incentive to make wise loans. Credit unions, community-rooted banks, and state banks (see page 46) invest in the local economy, instead of siphoning off our bank deposits to use for global speculation.

Start with strengths. Under the old economic development strategy, communities compete with each other for jobs by offering corporations ever greater tax breaks and concessions on health and safety regulations and union rights. This race-to-the-bottom strategy may yield occasional wins, but it’s a long-term loser. A more successful strategy is to build economies from the grassroots up, starting with existing assets whether a vibrant local arts scene, a natural resource like forests or farmland, or a hospital, university, high-tech enterprise, or other “anchor institution” that isn’t going away.  Start by finding ways to turn these assets into sustainable livelihoods. An unused building could provide a place for start-up farmers to try vertical farming, for example. Then look for ways to link these core enterprises to local customers, vendors, a skilled labor pool, and so on.

Use wasted resources. Instead of demolishing and landfilling obsolete buildings, local entrepreneurs are creating jobs by disassembling them and selling components. Other common wastes: used clothes and books and repairable appliances. Unharvested fruit trees. Church kitchens that sit empty most of the week but could be health department certified for food processing start-ups. Methane from landfills, which could heat homes instead of the climate. Front yards that could be farmed. Each wasted resource could be transfomed into a job.

Do it cooperatively. Well-paid workers are a community asset, and even more so when they own their workplaces. Cooperative work arrangements are available not just to well-educated entrepreneurs.  Home health care workers, house cleaners, grocery store clerks, and laundry workers have all become worker-owners of successful cooperatives. These workers tend to spend their paychecks, and with a steady family income they are more able to contribute to the well-being of their community. And, since they share in the profits of their enterprise, they develop a nest egg they can use for buying a home, educating their children, and helping relatives through difficult times.

Allow communities to control their resources. Community-controlled forests are more likely to be sustainably managed than corporate-controlled ones; sustainable agriculture is more labor-intensive but less polluting. Sustainable and fair practices create jobs that last while boosting local resilience.

Keep ownership human. When owners are workers, customers, or the community at large, an enterprise can operate in accordance with multiple values, such as human well-being, the good of future generations, and ecological health. Corporate owners are constrained by law to put profits first.

2. Redefining Middle-Class

Building the local and regional economy will create real prosperity and keep the benefits circulating among ordinary people. But we are approaching the end of an era of cheap energy and seemingly limitless growth. To live within our means, we’ll need to produce and consume less stuff. That may mean less paid work available, at least in some sectors of the economy, so it makes sense to share those jobs and work fewer hours.

Many Americans work too much and are starved for downtime. A shorter workweek could benefit them while opening new jobs for the unemployed. Productivity increases when workers aren’t overstretched. Profits now going to the wealthiest could be distributed to workers so they could afford to work fewer hours and have more time for the rest of life.

Working less also means we have more time to do things for ourselves.  Learning new “do it yourself” skills and building relationships with friends and neighbors builds greater self-reliance and offers opportunities to develop multiple facets of ourselves.  And frequent exchanges among neighbors help reweave a community fabric that has been badly frayed by overstressed lives. Once you get the tools to repair your bicycle, you can fix other people’s bikes or teach them how. When you’re canning jam, it’s easy to make some extra for gifts and exchanges.  All this means we can live with less money, so we can afford to spend less time at a job, which also becomes less central as a source of identity. And these rich networks and practical skills enhance our resilience as we face an uncertain future.

3. A Movement to Rebuild the Dream

While resources are still available, we should use our tax dollars to put people to work replacing obsolete energy, water, transportation, and waste systems with infrastructure that can serve us in the resource-constrained times ahead.  We could invest in universal health coverage, which offers people the security to risk launching new businesses and helps make shorter workweeks more feasible. We could fully fund education and job training.  We could save money by cutting the bloated military budget, oversized prison populations, and the drug war. And we’d have the money if everyone—including the wealthiest and large corporations—paid taxes at the rates they paid earlier.  To get these sorts of changes, we need governments to work for all of us, not just for corporations.

Powerful moneyed interests won’t willingly give back the power that has allowed them to acquire most of the wealth. We need strong people’s movements to get government to work for ordinary Americans. That’s the way workers in many places won the 8-hour day, women secured the right to vote, and African Americans ended segregation.  Enlightened politicians may cooperate with these movements, but few will lead them. We the people—through unions, community associations, advocacy groups, and local political groups—will have to set our own agenda and insist that government respond.  Now’s the time to challenge economic orthodoxy—but only a massive social movement can turn things around.

By  and 

“Jobs Aren’t the Answer” – by Grace Lee Boggs

The continuing jobs crisis is an opportunity to go beyond protest organizing for more jobs and begin imagining work that frees us from being the appendages to machines that we have become because of our dependence on jobs.  Instead of looking to politicians for programs that will provide millions of jobs, we need to encourage the creation of work that not only produces goods and services but develops our skills, protects our environment and lifts our spirits.

In a letter read recently to hundreds of activists at an Environmental Justice gathering, University of Michigan Professor and futurist Bunyan Bryant explained the thinking needed for this visionary organizing.  It begins, he said, by making a distinction between work and a job as outlined by Matthew Fox (The Re-Invention of Work):

“A job is similar to slavery in that one is forced to perform actions in return for some sort of compensation for one’s labor. Therefore the rewards are extrinsic, and without such extrinsic rewards people cannot be forced into a job they dislike. To tolerate or compensate for these job conditions often times people will engage in excessive consumerism or self-medicate to counteract the boredom that comes from a job or to make themselves feel better.

Work, on the other hand, is defined as activities that one enjoys. To be compensated with money is not important because of the pleasures and satisfaction of work. Therefore the rewards are more intrinsic.

I envision a multi-racial society where people perform the requirements of a job three days a week. Jobs are designed to perform the basic functions or necessities of society. The other four days of the week are devoted to work activities of teaching, learning, and healing the earth. It would also be a time to spend more quality time with family, friends and to pursue one’s hobbies and special interests.

Full employment can be defined as 90 percent unemployment. People will devote their time to build a green economy and one that is compatible with the Earth’s life-cycle. People will be liberated to participate in community-based research projects to help the poor and to protect the environment.

Every six years people would get a two year paid sabbatical to travel to distant parts of the planet to help people in need and to work for healthy environments, green economies, peace and prosperity of the mind, body and spirit. In order for this to happen requires a skillful use of technology and a commitment to the future.”

Bunyan’s vision of a society that works reminds me of the {r}evolutionary transformation that Jimmy Boggs envisioned nearly 50 years ago in The American Revolution as automation and hi-tech eliminated the need for human creativity and energies to make things. Those energies and that creativity, Jimmy said, could be used to make politics and a better world — without war and without global warming.  Published on September 10, 2011 by BoggsBlog.org

“Tusanami” causes of globally increasing inequality

The world’s current economic and political structures are proving incapable of fixing the global crisis of poverty, unemployment, and dislocation from a viable way of life for the majority of the world’s population. Why?

“Tsunami” causes for the globally increasing inequality include:

 1. Automation: The number of jobs that have been automated out of existence in the last 30 years is astronomical. Any effort to enumerate them would be silly. Useful, on the contrary, are perhaps a few hints of the kinds of automation that are still in the future, but nonetheless just around the corner. Observe what is happening in retail – Amazon.com, and more generally in the service sector, in banks and offices; but beyond that consider the near future of robotics, and close to that the potential of self-driving cars, and of course the galloping field of fabricators. Automation so far has only been the first breeze of an approaching hurricane.
2. A second colossal cause is globalization. Despite the nonstop discussion of that topic its basic significance is still largely misunderstood. That factory work is outsourced to lower wage countries is a belittling phrase; more accurate is the contrast between the former monopoly of a very few colonial powers and the now prevailing condition where all countries everywhere — even the Central African Republic and Borneo and Mongolia — are indevelopment.  In other words, in all countries people are looking for jobs. Thus the supply of labor has burst through all bounds! This in turn means that the value of unskilled work has plummeted beyond human sustainability much less economic growth.
3.  Environmental degradation is growing. The depletion of natural resources is directly caused by fruitless efforts to stem unemployment.  Unemployment threatens to grow continuously and the only response we have so far marshaled is economic growth, which self-evidently is coupled to the depletion of our resources.
4. The fourth mega-force that escalates inequality everywhere is the industrialization of farming. Throughout the millennia of the Agricultural epoch approximately 75% of the population lived and worked on farms. That percentage only started to gallop away from this ratio when farming became mechanized. However, in the brief period of less than 200 years a breathtaking transformation has taken place. Worldwide 70% of farmers have been driven from their work and their land.  In country after country the percentage of people still working and living on farms has thundered downwards so that it is now in some countries only about 4%. On some continents that human migration is still in its headlong tilt: but as villages die, the former farmers do not find work; they are absorbed in slums and sink down in the morass of extreme poverty, violence, crime, prostitution and drugs.
The really foul and grotesque dimension of this lies in its cognitive segregation, for the worldwide migration away from the farms is hardly mentioned when the deficit of jobs and the rise of inequality are discussed. In sheer numbers, this is obviously the most gargantuan cause.
It is stunning that there are whole shelves of books about the job-problem, but the reality of the loss of working on farms has rarely been included in the workforce calculations. In essence it means that 75% of the total working population have been cut off from their work and that the need to find re-employment for that huge number is part of the monster-problem that we are failing to even identify let alone solve.
If one adds these four Tsunamis together —automation, globalization, destruction of natural resources and the industrialization of farming — then it becomes obvious that the remedies now applied — stimulation of the economy, raising the minimum wage, more education and the rest — are laughably inadequate. It also becomes evident that we are emphatically not in a recovery, somnambulant or otherwise.
None of these causes are “circular,” or as it is sometimes expressed cyclical, which recoveries by definition are. All four are linear: automation, globalization, destruction of the environment and the migration away from the land will grow, far beyond where they are now, and will multiply. The inequality will become even more monstrous and more dangerous than it is now. The contrast between slums and the palaces of the superrich is already surreal and fantastic, but it will grow further and beyond our worst imaginings. The faith that we are in a circular turning wheel situation, and that automatically, obedient to the laws of economics, we move towards equilibrium, is totally unfounded.  It is just a misguided medieval superstition.
We are not turning in a circle; on the contrary we are undergoing a gigantic linear transformation that is as all changing as the shift from agriculture to industrialization.
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Why is this a gigantic linear transformation? Because there is no circling back to a former “better” time.  The mega-factors listed have produced an enormous rift or a bifurcation. It is a split between the 20%, Oasis people (the rich) and the 80%, Desert people (the poor.)  Other groups have of course a greater liking for describing the division as between 1% and 99%