Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arc of a Diver

Bear with me, because I'm really thinking out loud here.

But I wanted to talk about something that I've been worried about for some time now.

Let's start with some of the elements that have been elemental to human life since Sumer, and some others that appear to have become more essential to life in the United States in the early part of the 21st Century.

First, let's begin with the proposition that human well-being comes from a variety of sources, but that the basic principles of Maslow remain sound. Physical needs like adequate food, shelter, and safety come first. If you are starving under a bridge in the February rains it doesn't really make much difference whether you are in a terrific love match. You will be dead soon of exposure, leaving your amorata bereft and looking for a new place to sleep.So securing those fundamental needs is the primary concern of humans everywhere.

For most of us in 21st Century America this means a job; gainful work, work that pays enough to secure that rented flat, food enough to live on, clothing, and the small fripperies that differentiate living from existing.

Let us further assume that political ideals and concerns will always come second to the primary need for security and well-being. Mark Twain called this "cornpone opinions"; tell me where a man gets his cornpone, said Twain, and I'll tell you what his opinions are.

To put it another way, a person fearful of want and hardship, of losing his job, that she will fall into desperate straits, is unlikely to worry much about the abstracts and deeper implications of policies and politics. As hard cases make bad law, frightened people make bad politics. While it would be nice to think that humans respond to desperate times with calculated courage, my experience is that the pressure of fear and want make fools of the hardiest of us. The usual reaction to pressure is panic. The main reason that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to limit the franchise to men of property is that they feared the "passions of the mob" - by that they meant the impact of the landless and moneyless being led, or driven, by their need to truckle to those whose patronage employed or supported them.And that brings us to the moment, the second Winter of our economic Discontent.

We the People have been assured, reassured, re-reassured that the key to economic strength is through the unshackling of the creative engine of capitalism. That the Market would bring us all prosperity, and that the best way to spread that prosperity was to lift the bonds of taxation and regulation on the Masters of the Universe, the financiers and entrepreneurs and captains of industry.

The rising tide that their flood of wealth creation would break loose would raise all our little boats alongside their yachts. We would lave ourselves in the streams of lucre they would bring forth, like Moses bringing forth water from the rock.

So we helped them, we cut their taxes - lower than anytime since their grandfathers smashed the Republic on the rocks of the Depression - and we waited. We, many of us, demanded the end of public unions, the crushing of deficits, the end of public spending, just as the powerful and wealthy told us would help - and we waited.

And certainly their tide has risen. The stock market is rising, many of the largest companies and corporations are awash with profit.

But for many of us the water is still at low ebb.Employment is still around 10 percent. Worse, many more of us have just stopped looking for work, or are working at menial or part-time jobs that pay little of what we earned before and not enough to live on above the meager minimum.

And here is the worst part of my fears.

I think that this Great Recession may be the harbinger, the slow drawback of the sea that fortells the arrival of the tsunami.

I think we are seeing a great convergence of political, economic, and social changes that spells trouble for those of us ordinary citizens of the Republic.

I think we will find that many of the lost jobs may never return. And I think that this may portend the end of the great "Middle Class Era" of the U.S.

When you think about it, wealth for the ordinary American went through two great periods of expansion. In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries that expansion was literal, physical; the nation prospered as it grew larger, incorporating huge territories into itself. If an American needed or wanted to try and prosper, he or she could move physically to a richer or newer part of the land.

By the end of the 19th and into the 20th Century, the expansion was technological and industrial; people left off farming and started making things, and the things we made became ever more complex and valuable.

But this depended on two things;

First, it depended on resources, and, more importantly, on domestic resources. The iron and coal were mined here, the petroleum drilled and refined here, the cotton grown here and the fabrics woven here. Americans largely used American resources to make American products. That economic power enabled us to purchase resources we couldn't find in North America and still have wealth to spare; our manufactured goods were as much in demand overseas as the resource materials were here.

Second, it depended on tariffs. For much of our nation's history we protected our industries with tariff barriers that made trade within the nation more economical than trade without, despite the relatively high wages we payed each other.In some cases we protected our industries absolutely; in the early 19th Century importing German or British steel would have been cheaper than using steel from Pittsburgh or Cleveland, even though the German and British steelworkers made no less (tho probably little more, and that little enough) than our own. But high tariffs forced Americans to trade with each other.

Well, the resources - especially petroleum - are gone and will not return. And we have chosen to lower the tariffs in the name of free trade and the acquisition of volumes of Cheap Plastic Crap. That has been good in the short run, and for the manufacturers of CPC. Now I think the bill is going to come due.

Because corporations have realized, and, soon, I think the American people are going to find, that many, many formerly living-wage jobs can and will be done by people in places like Brazil, Rangoon, Calcutta, and Guangzhou.These jobs don't take a vast amount of mental acuity, and, what's more, the education the people in Calcutta and Guangzhou is becoming no worse than our own. And their costs are much less than ours. We simply cannot compete with engineers in Mumbai who can design as well as engineers in San Francisco and for a fraction of the price. I think that we will be surprised, and dismayed, by the number and type of jobs that can and will be offshored.

I think that we are going to find ourselves with an indigestible 10 to 20 percent of the population that is going to become "long-term un/under-employed". I think this will have a disastrous effect on U.S. politics.

It's easy to forget that prior to the War on Poverty that roughly a quarter of the U.S. population was poor. Really poor.Shotgun shack, barefoot-hookworm-and-pellagra, bad teeth and rickets poor. What saved us, to a great extent, is that most of those poor were either immigrants living in city slums or the rural poor. The first were too cowed and frightened to be much trouble, the latter were always able to eke out some sort of living, even in bad times.

But the rural poor are pretty much gone; what's left are agribusinesses feeding crap to the poor and lower middle class and the craft farmers feeding slow food to the upper middle class and wealthy. The bulk of the urban poor and suburban poor have lost the skills to farm; the countryside has lost the ability to insulate us from culture shocks. And the likelihood of as much as 20-30 percent of the U.S. becoming poor again, really poor - especially if the recent Republican fervor for dismantling the social safety net takes effect - is likely to remove much of the fear from the urban slums.

In revolution the real devastation begins with the thought "What the hell do I have to lose?"

And the gulf between the rich and the poor is widening again, to an extent unseen since, again, the Depression.It's worth remembering that FDR wasn't some sort of aristocratic Santa Claus. Yes, he had concern for and interest in those suffering from the worst of the Depression. But he was also a cunning politician, a frighteningly bright guy, and an old New York patroon. He could see what was happening as hard times made desperate people make mad and bad choices; the wealthy and then the middle class dead and imprisoned in Russia, fascists springing up in Germany and Italy, class war in Spain, and he didn't want to see it here. His opportunity came when the banksters and the free-marketeers shit the bed in 1929, and he rammed through some arguably unconstitutional measures that bought social peace for the succeeding fifty years.But I think that deal, that New Deal, is falling apart.I honestly have no idea what can be done. I can't see hopes for reviving the U.S. middle class the way it was created after the Depression; by raising the working class into the "middle" by paying them a wage that brought with it middle class expectations, manners, and mores. The competition from foreign workers is just inescapable.

I can't really see the creation of "new industries"; we're at the tag end of a technological cycle.

For example, look at the pace of technological progress, say, between 1910 and 1940 - practically the entire industrialized world changed! An American of 1910 would have had a hard time recognizing the world of 1940.

Another thirty years - from 1940 to 1970 - saw great changes as well. But not was great as the preceding thirty.

Between 1970 and 2000, still more changes. But changes in scale, or type, rather than in method. We went from landlines to "bricks" to cellphones to iPods - but a phone is a phone. We went from mainframes to laptops - but a computer is a computer. The next great technological leap may well be out there...but it seems increasingly like a "black swan". The arc of the present technologies seems predictable and increasingly incremental.

So the U.S. seems presented with the prospect of an increasingly divided society, with a small group of very wealthy at the top, a sullen lump of intractably poor and unemployable at the bottom, divided by a frightened and dependent remnant of the middle class between.Unwilling to tax themselves, the wealthy retreat to their gated enclaves. Unable to pay for themselves, the poor are lost, increasingly nothing more than a mob of votes to be bought and sold. Resented by the proles and ignored by the aristos, the rump of the middle finds themselves chained to the rock of their stagnant mortgage values with the vultures of the rich and poor rending their livers as they dread the day their job is finally outsourced or offshored.Now - don't get me wrong. I don't think that we're crash-diving into some Mad Max apocalypse, or that the U.S. is going to become Afghanistan tomorrow.

This country has always been tremendously resiliant. We have great reserves of human energy and creativity, and there are always events that can break favorably, unlike the gloomy scenario I've painted.

But combine everything we've talked about with a world that wants, and is getting to the point of being able to demand, what we have kept to ourselves for fifty years; with the increasing possibility that we are producing and consuming petroleum orders of magnitude faster than it can be formed from biomass; with the collapse of the post-WW2 political center into the repolarized politics of the Oughts and Teens...

I wondre if we have the wherewithal - political, social, economic - to reverse this trend and reestablish a broad middle class of the sort that had such a large effect in stabilizing the nation between 1945 and 1980; that is, the nation that most of us grew up in and take for granted.Is it?

One solution could be to "lighten" or "open" the U.S. economy. Until now we've rested like a massive stone wall on agriculture, resource extraction, and manufacturing. Above that foundation are the wood floors, the service industries, from the architects, engineers, and designers to the attorneys and the doctors. Above that are the gingerbready attics; the caterers, beauticians, the financial gamblers, the writers, the graphic artists, and the people who sell kitschy knick-knacks in twee little shops.

Agriculture and mining long ago lost their mass employment potential; most of us now work in the service industries. But there has to be a foundation, and that foundation is increasingly looking rather seedy. But do we need "mass employment"? Can we design a society that uses technology to replace human bodies, relies on creativity and a "nimble" exchange of good and services? One that is based on fewer people, but those people capable of more complex tasks? Could the way out of the dilemma of the un/under-employed be to simply have fewer people to BE unemployed?Or perhaps that next wave discovery occurs and revitalizes the U.S.

Or...or something.

I hope.

Because if not I am worried about my children and the nation that they will grow up in. If not I am worried because of what I see as the political and social state of the nation; I'm not convinced that we are prepared to deal sensibly and effectively with the sort of problems I've discussed.

If not I am worried that my children's lives will be more difficult than mine was, and that is every parent's worry.

And I am worried now.

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