Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Labor Day Message:We’re Screwed

The Yahoo main page had some interesting stories posted yesterday. First, there was a ‘news’ item about islands you can actually buy. Then, later on, they told us about the best day of the year to purchase a new car. The most interesting piece was called “7 Spending Tips From Frugal Billionaires.”

Apparently, we’re supposed to get wet over the fact that Warren Buffet lives in a relatively modest home in Omaha and eschews luxury spending, “Toys are a pain in the neck.” There’s no mention of the fact that he disinherited his granddaughter for appearing in a documentary called The One Percent, which is about the gross disparities of wealth in this country. Given their druthers, even nice guy billionaires never want to give the game away. Besides, that would ruin the theme that Yahoo seemed to be pushing, which is envy the rich. There’s another billionaire who figures prominently, someone named Carlos Slim, who could spend “$1,150 dollars every minute for a hundred years before running of money.” He’s lived in the same home for forty years and doesn’t own a yacht or a plane. Hey, I’ve never owned a yacht or a plane either. Does that make me especially virtuous?

This is just another example of our one true national religion in action, money worship. Billionaires are singled as objects of special praise for doing exactly the kinds of things that we all do anyway. If the CEO of a company drives a pick-up truck and wears blue jeans, we’re supposed to melt with admiration and regard the prick as something extra special. Forget that he makes his money by laying people off, slashing wages, eliminating benefits, running sweat shops in Indonesia and Nicaragua, and financing Republican political campaigns to keep his taxes low. Nah, he flies coach and gets ten dollar hair cuts just like you. Shoot, he’s a swell guy!

The more insidious effect, of course, is to imply that you aren’t rich because you don’t do enough of those frugal things. You spend too much. You carry too much debt. Why can’t you be more like Warren Buffet? On second thought, maybe you just don’t deserve to be rich. And on it goes, the perpetuation of one of our most harmful national myths, the idea that rich people are rich because they are smarter and work harder than you. If you’re poor it’s your own damn fault, so quit complaining. That’s one of the reasons we never have any structural economic reforms in this country. That’s why poor trailer trash always vote to give people like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney a tax cut. We’ve internalized the slave master’s morality.

Here are a few of the tips offered in the article that spendthrifts like us would be well advised to follow: Keep your home simple. Buy your clothes off the rack. Drive a dependable car and avoid luxury items. You know, things that have probably never occurred to you. It’s pretty unbelievable. What do these people think we do, blow our unemployment checks on Cristal? Call in sick from Wal-Mart in order to get measured for tailored suits? Just what kind of country do they think we’re living in? These articles assume the existence of a middle class that really isn’t here anymore (largely, I should add, as a result those awesome, ascetic billionaires and their never-ending quest to make more money at our expense.) What’s left of a traditional American middle class is subsisting on credit cards and fading fast. Instead, we’re becoming a nation of college educated service workers, bartenders and waiters and cashiers. We are under-employed, impecunious serfs with useless college degrees, mountains of student debt, and no future. Part-time, no benefits, and don’t forget to smile and wear plenty of flair. It’s even becoming impossible to get a second job because your schedule is deliberately changed from week to week. You can’t organize anything else around it. Your DMV record and your urine are inspected prior to employment.

And don’t forget, you are not an employee. That implies a contractual relationship between two parties —employer and employee — with obligations on each side that must be performed. That isn’t really the case now. You have obligations, they don’t. You are a useless slab of fat that can be sliced off and discarded on your boss’s slightest whim or because of any tiny blip in the market. Nor are you a worker. That’s a word which carries some dignity. It implies honorable and meaningful activity that you can take pride in. That’s definitely not the reality anymore. No. You are now an associate. That’s the term du jour these days. It’s a clever if transparent trick designed to mask the obscene inequality between you and the board of directors. After all, what do associates do? They associate on a free and equal basis. They are partners and friends who work together in a common enterprise for the mutual benefit of both. Isn’t that nice? It almost makes you forget the CEO of the company makes one-hundred times more than you and the only retirement you’ll ever get is death.

That’s the reality of things today. Working harder’s got nothing to with do it. Trimming your expenses doesn’t either. Intelligence, ambition, drive, the Puritan work ethic, none of these things have any real relevance at all. The fact is, we’re increasingly trapped in a system that is explicitly designed to keep us poor. Rather than reform anything, we’re cheerfully told to copy a few superficial habits of the rich and famous.

Happy Labor Day. We’re screwed.

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