10.20.2012

"all they talk about is taxes, but all people want is jobs": thoughts on why there are no good jobs and why no one is creating them

We visited family in the US this past week, and because of this, ended up hearing more about the election in two days than either of us have read, seen, or thought about in months, if not years. Which is not to say people talked non-stop about the election, only that both Allan and I completely tune out that circus masquerading as a democracy. (Apologies to circuses everywhere.)

I heard something over dinner one night that stuck in my mind. My sister noted that most voters care foremost about one thing: job creation. She said, "All they talk about is taxes, taxes, taxes, when they should be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs." She remarked how nothing is made in the US anymore, noting, "We don't even answer the phone." And she wondered how anyone even could go about creating jobs, a task that seems nearly impossible at this point. This got me thinking...

Bleeding jobs for decades

The mainstream media discovered the exodus of North American jobs fairly recently, about the time call centres were outsourcing to India. But the US has been bleeding good jobs - solid manufacturing jobs - for decades.

First good manufacturing jobs moved from the US north to the US south, where the so-called "right to work" (i.e., right to starve) laws let corporations lower standards. Then jobs moved further south, to Puerto Rico and other places in Latin America, then onwards around the globe. The US has been undergoing a massive de-industrialization for decades.

During those same decades, we'd hear that x number of jobs had been created, but rarely did we hear what kinds of jobs they were, relative to what had been lost. Those new jobs paid less, were part-time, offered less stability, and usually did not include health insurance. Mainstream economists and pundits largely ignored this.

I offer this extremely brief summary only to note that the massive unemployment and under-employment in the US is not new, and it is not sudden. It pains me when elected officials and the media act as if these conditions began in 2008.

So why didn't we hear about it?

This ongoing job loss was usually ignored because it occurred while the economy was said to be strong. This seeming contradiction is possible because the corporate media and the government believe that a strong Wall Street equals a strong economy. That is, if shareholders are doing well, the economy is good.

But as we know, shareholders profit when costs are driven down. And costs are driven down by downsizing, layoffs, and outsourcing.

During this supposedly strong economy, corporations could move their production bases to China, where they didn't have to worry about pesky details like health and safety laws, environmental protection, and labour laws. They could hire 10-year-olds, pay dollars a day, dump raw chemicals and sewage into rivers, lock workers in fire traps, and anything else that helped cut costs.

Then they could ship the product back to the US - leaving an increasingly large carbon footprint along the way - sell it cheaply, make a good profit, et voila, a healthy economy.

So why did we let this happen?

This is possible because laws have made it possible. The so-called free market is sacrosanct. No one can pass laws that are said to "interfere with business". No one challenges the bizarre notion that an economy in which fewer and fewer people are well employed is a healthy economy. No one with any power, that is.

No one in the mainstream media or in the government takes on Wall Street, because the media and the government are Wall Street.

So how could we reverse it?

In order to create large numbers of good jobs, we would have to re-write the laws of the American economy. We'd have to unravel many of the developments of the past 50 years. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head.

- In order to enjoy the privilege of selling goods in the United States, a company must employ at least 75% of its total workforce within the United States.

- Goods produced outside North America will be subject to a 50% tariff.

- All so-called free trade agreements are hereby null and void. Corporations will exist wholly within the borders of one country. Goods and services are to be produced within 500 miles of their point of use or sale.

In other words, corporations are no longer solely responsible to shareholders. They are now responsible to the local economy.

And this, we know, cannot and will not happen.

So why don't we try this?

Any candidate or party that advanced this platform would be torn to pieces. They would be ridiculed and vilified, and if for some reason that wasn't enough, they'd be smeared and disgraced.

Note that none of what I wrote about involves dismantling capitalism. I didn't mention public takeovers or an expansion of the public sector or mandatory investment in public works. The plan I outlined is not socialist, as it still involves private ownership and profit. Nevertheless, it would be called communist.

That is partly because most people have no idea what socialism is. (Proof: they call Obama socialist!) But it's mainly down to the corporate government itself.

Corporate interests control the government. So despite what any candidate might say during an election campaign, the administration doesn't exist to create jobs and help citizens. It exists to create profit and help Wall Street.

Now, dozens of economists and free-trade enthusiasts can come along and tell you why the suggestions listed above are actually bad for the economy. I would say, ask them how they define good and bad.

A local economy is good for the earth and it's good for workers. We can make what we use, then we can afford to buy what we need. Then we can stop endlessly criss-crossing the earth in order to make more crap that instantly falls apart, because the economy will no longer be based on poor people buying crap that falls apart so they have to buy more.

And if you hear about anyone in the US campaigning on such a platform, I might consider voting there again.

12 comments:

Amy said...

Great post, Laura. This really is the best thing I have read about the lost jobs. It's too bad that neither candidate can be honest about this, but to do so is political suicide. These jobs won't come back no matter what any President does; your suggestions make sense, but are also never going to happen, as you said.

johngoldfine said...

When I came to Maine in 1963, Waterville still had workers' slums, a truly Dickensian rookery where the first language was French or 'joual' if you like. Hard by on the Kennebec River were a Scott papermill, the Hathaway shirt factory, a shoe 'shop' making Bass Weejuns, a woolen spinning mill, and various other smaller shops, all dealing somehow with clothing, paper, shoes. Unions were strong, particularly the the papermakers, wages were just enough to keep people more or less permanently shackled to the looms and workbenches, but there were jobs, even for college boys looking for summer work.

That world is all shuttered and long-gone today, demolished, abandoned, gentrified, or loft-ized. Same story all across Maine, the oldest state in the USA.

People in Maine have understood about jobs heading south (in every sense), just as you describe, long before the media discovered globalization.

laura k said...

Amy, thank you so much.

John, yes, that's it, exactly. People in the Northeast US know this in their bones. My father used to organize (meaning, help workers form unions) textile workers all through New York State. When Allan and I drive to Vermont through the North Country region, we see signs for towns my parents lived in when they were young, on the road together, organizing.

When I was a child, my father was no longer organizing, but he was the union rep for all the clothing factories in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It was a huge territory.

Every one of those factories is gone now.

He was also sometimes flown "down South", as we called it, to organize factories there - exotic territory for us New York Jews.

Those factories are gone now, too.

We're told that UNIONS put them out of business. If anyone reading this needs an explanation of how ridiculous that is, let me know, I'll be happy to supply it.

laura k said...

I received a comment by email that said: THINGS WILL COST MORE.

I suppose that person meant that if goods are manufactured in the US by US standards, the product will be more expensive.

I agree. People will also earn more.

Right now the cost of all the crap sold at Walmart is artificially low, enabled by bad labour conditions and environmental degradation. In other words, those cheap goods are expensive in other ways.

A "corporate responsibility" job plan would begin to turn that around, too.

johngoldfine said...

Nothing is more ghostly than a union hall built for a union for an industry no longer present. Waterville had a veritable palace of proud and fancy woodwork for the Carpenters' Union, now all shuttered.

laura k said...

Nothing is more ghostly than a union hall built for a union for an industry no longer present. Waterville had a veritable palace of proud and fancy woodwork for the Carpenters' Union, now all shuttered.

Heartbreaking.

In the Hudson Valley, as in many places, the old mills and factories have been converted into expensive condos and lofts. The residents work in the new service/monetized economy.

Then there are all the cutesy shopping and restaurant complexes in "restored" mills and factories. The Northeast is teeming with them.

Also, there are the cities whose entire economy is based on historic districts and tourism. Tourism that decreasing numbers of people can afford and tourism which increasingly means nothing but "please buy this crap made in China".

We had a lovely short trip to Charleston once, and we enjoyed the historical stuff, but other than that, there was nothing but "please spend your money here, we have nothing else". Hundreds of US cities are like that.

laura k said...

In case anyone is wondering, Canada is on the same trajectory, but about 25 years behind. Major manufacturing has begun to leave Ontario in the last 10-15 years. There's a lot of pressure on unions to concede everything to save jobs - which, of course, won't work.

One major difference here, though, is that the government is expected to have a hand in job creation. Even the Conservatives cannot shirk that, although they are no friend to labour.

John F said...

Your point about jobs first moving to the South is interesting. I remember an ad for (I think) Virginia that ran on CNN in the early 90s. It was the usual country music over green vistas and quaint townscapes sort of thing, along with text that listed the state's benefits. One of the bullet points was "Northernmost right-to-work state", which really spoiled the effect for me...

Oh, and Atlantic Canada is going through the call centre phase of globalization right now. A decade ago, each province was trying to outdo the others in offering tax breaks to companies that would turn out-of-work miners and fishermen into phone jockeys. Once the sweetheart deals dry up, the companies disappear, leaving large empty buildings in industrial parks.

allan said...

Here's the place where there used to be industry
This train is carrying jobs out of Cleveland

johngoldfine said...

"Oh, and Atlantic Canada is going through the call centre phase of globalization right now. A decade ago, each province was trying to outdo the others in offering tax breaks to companies that would turn out-of-work miners and fishermen into phone jockeys. Once the sweetheart deals dry up, the companies disappear, leaving large empty buildings in industrial parks."

Exactly, and you were in competition with Maine back then for exactly the same companies. And our result a decade or so later is exactly the same as yours.

No one doubts the lives blighted by factory and millwork: poverty, long hours, child labor, dangerous machinery, industrial diseases, and so on. But less well known are the characteristic mental health issues of depression and anxiety faced by the call-center workers. Out in the parking lots of Aetna, BOA, LLBean every morning are the people who can't face work until they've had their daily good cry and who can't go home until ditto.

laura k said...

No one doubts the lives blighted by factory and millwork: poverty, long hours, child labor, dangerous machinery, industrial diseases, and so on. But less well known are the characteristic mental health issues of depression and anxiety faced by the call-center workers. Out in the parking lots of Aetna, BOA, LLBean every morning are the people who can't face work until they've had their daily good cry and who can't go home until ditto.

Well said, John. Labour conditions can be grueling no matter what the industry. I've worked in the office equivalent of a sweatshop. In NYC in the 90s, there was no reason to put up with it - jobs at my level were plentiful. For those LLBean workers, different story.

laura k said...

Here's the place where there used to be industry
This train is carrying jobs out of Cleveland


Who the fuck still uses a payphone