Russ in Redding: The Human Face of The End of Work (September 2, 2011)
"The end of work" structural unemployment will not be solved with failed policies. We as a nation need a Plan B: social innovation aimed at rebuilding autonomy and community.
Those who have been jobless in this "jobless recovery" or in previous recessions know how dispiriting and crushing it is to be unable to find paying work. It's remarkably easy to discuss tens of millions of unemployed people in the abstract, and quite a different matter to respond to the human face of "the end of work" structural scarcity of jobs.
If you are unemployed, then you must respond to the natural cycle of despair and anxiety you will feel. If you have an income, or job, then you may have the opportunity to respond to an individual who is personally experiencing the consequences of sustained, grinding joblessness.
I was jobless (and income-less) during both the 1973-4 and 1981-2 recessions, and was down to less than $100 on more than one occasion.
Our problems far exceed anything resolvable with a "class war" mindset, but it is nonetheless instructive that a recent study found wealthy people tend to be very self-satisfied with their own merit while lacking empathy for those without their connections: The wealthy lack empathy, are self-centered: Because the rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped, they come to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund it.
As I have made clear here many times, Plan A--millions of jobs appearing out of thin air, magically called into existence by the incantations of cargo-cult Keynesians and their Wall Street banker brethren who think all our structural unemployment will go away if only the Federal Reserve shoves another couple trillion dollars into the banks and speculators' hands every year--has failed. We need a Plan B, and we have no models for Plan B. I tried to present such a model in Getting 20 Million Unemployed Back to Productive Work: Here's How (August 16, 2011), but few "got it": neither the Savior State nor the private sector is going to create 20+ million jobs, and the favored panaceas of technology and education aren't going to make it happen, either.
Here is the ugly truth about the Savior State, welfare state, social welfare state, or whatever you choose to call the Central State: The Savior State displaces and destroys community and social capital. By making individuals dependent on the Central State for free money, free food, free housing, etc., then the State has taken over the natural function of community.
We are going to have to reinvent our communities to provide opportunities to contribute. We may end up with a cashless solution, where people work for shelter, food, care and a chance to belong/contribute, which is an "asset" that is rarely recognized, much less understood.
Unemployment and social-welfare are fundamentally a political form of bribery: take the money, but keep quiet; we're buying your complicity, so don't make waves for those still prospering in the Status Quo.
The question of unemployment and job creation in an age of "the end of work" boils down to this very unpolitically correct equation: how much are the top 20% willing to pay in taxes to bribe the bottom 50% to keep quiet, to watch TV and kill time playing with "entertaining" gadgets and toys, and most importantly, remain politically invisible.
Life is still awfully good for the top 20%, and while I am not in the top 20% in terms of income, I count myself as definitely among those who are not hanging on by a thread. Paying taxes to keep the whole thing from unraveling is an easy trade-off to make, and that's for us working peons who can't avoid taxes like the Warren Buffetts of America. (Hey, Warren, I pay 40% Federal (25% basic rate and 15% self-employment) and 5% state, plus $11K in annual property tax, and $10K for bare-bones health insurance-- nobody's stopping you from paying your 40%. What you're really saying is truly pathetic: "Stop me before I evade paying taxes again!")
While heading home from our camping trip last week I happened to spot Russ in Redding, Calif. It was already dark, and we'd exited I-5 for gas. After filling up the Civic, I'd parked behind the gas station's mini-mart so we could use the bathroom. While waiting for my wife, I noticed a young man lugging a black plastic bag approach the poorly lit rear of the mini-mart on foot, his dog at his heels.
He was clearly homeless, and this was clearly one of his regular stops; there was a water spigot behind the mini-mart, and he refilled a water bottle and then set some water out for his dog. The briskness of his pace and the deftness of his actions told me he was not a druggie or an alcoholic. He was simply a young man with no money or income.
I never carry much cash, usually just a "Kansas City bankroll," a bunch of ones and a single tenner, but my instinct was to help this young man in some small way, which at that point meant a bit of cash.
I got out of the car and approached him in the dim light, keeping an eye on his dog and on his reaction. "Howdy," I said. He looked up and made a quick streetwise assessment--I passed as harmless.
"Could you use a few bucks?" The answer was obvious, but not everyone enjoys charity.
I handed him the money and asked him how he was doing. In a matter-of-fact tone, he said he'd graduated from culinary school, but it was hard to find a job. He had a few leads, but for the meantime he was on the streets, and he'd chosen not to abandon his dog, a part-Husky.
We all want to be treated as a normal person, and so in our conversation Russ was a normal person, not a homeless person. We chatted about the Redding Police--good sorts, not prone to hassle people on the street--panning for gold in the nearby mountains--a friend of his had been cited with a $300 fine for failing to have a $2 panning permit--and where I'd been camping. I gave a bit of attention to his frisky dog, who responded well to his voice commands.
It hurt me that this amiable scrawny young man was on the street, and that jobs were so scarce. I wondered how many other young people are on the street elsewhere in the nation, not qualified for unemployment because they haven't been working long enough.
I told him something was sure to turn up, but my reassurance had a hollow sound. We exchanged names and handshakes, and I returned to my car. My wife asked if he had family to help him, and I replied that I hadn't asked. Perhaps his family was threadbare, or his pride precluded asking them; I didn't know.
What I do know is that doing nothing isn't going to fix the economy, and neither will waving dead chickens and chanting incantations about tax cuts, more borrowed stimulus and quantitative easing. The cargo cults of tax cuts, Fed "easing" and Keynesian borrow-and-spend have been tried for four years, and all three have failed abjectly.
The problem lies far beyond these conventional postwar gambits: the problem is structural, i.e. the end of work. At some point, we will have to accept the need for Plan B, which will require a new understanding of community, autonomy and meaningful work outside the confines of both private-sector and government conventions.
If you didn't like Getting 20 Million Unemployed Back to Productive Work: Here's How (August 16, 2011), then outline your own Plan B. Doing nothing--waving dead chickens and painting dials on rocks to please the cargo cult priests--is going to accomplish just that: nothing.
For more on this topic, please read:
Social Innovation Will be More Important Than Technological Innovation
You Want to Create Jobs? Here's How
You Want to Create Jobs? Here's How Part II
Change and the Process of Transformation
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