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A Rising Standard Lifts All Boats: Employment and a Better Life
(Eric Andrews, February 4, 2008)
Although I appreciate the sentiment of "A Great Depression, or Simply a Return to Normal Life?" I have to object to the old canard of “jobs Americans won’t do.” This is an example of how common-knowledge is commonly wrong.
Living in a large migrant-farming area, I can tell you the labor field is strongly unbalanced. There are several aspects to it: that police and code enforcement keep a double-standard for migrant housing, occupancies, or living in vans; that businesses flout the law by, for example, paying migrants in cash or not withholding Social Security, giving them lower overhead as workers and larger upfront checks that legal workers cannot match.
Enforcement bureaus keep a double-standard by turning a blind eye to it. Americans would compete even in such awful jobs, but because they must obey the rules, and the margins are so fatally slim, they cannot. The migrants couldn’t either if they weren’t going to "retire" back to an ultra-low cost area.
In addition, far from being soft and entitled, in my experience American youth have been abused all their lives and--excepting a layer in select suburbs--are tough as badgers from the meth-threatened and dirt-poor rural trash to the discarded, jobless industrial towns, to the violent and long-abandoned inner cities. Kids fleeing their abusive home at 16, now dead-end couch-surfers with no savings or prospects, offering casual sex for housing and grifting for a living: for them—for us-- it is already The Depression. And always has been.
Many I know would prefer to live in a shack or a tent only to be left alone like the immigrants are, but would be run off by Sheriffs as hard as any Pinkerton Cops. These are not our glory days of subprime fantasies.
But that’s not my beef. The real canard is not that Americans WON’T do such bad jobs for such low pay but that ANYONE should be doing them. Grapes of Wrath and all that. But lest you think I’m being precious on this point, let’s go back to the original case: J.D. Rockefeller and the Ludlow Massacre and Colorado Coalfield War, a 1913 mining strike and guerilla engagement in Colorado in which 199 people were killed:
The premise was that to give in to the mining strike would embolden the workers who would ask for higher wages until the coal mines went bankrupt—or at the very least bankrupt the first mine to pay the higher wages. This too was “common knowledge.”
Given the awful publicity and even more awful conditions however, Rockefeller risked visiting the mine and made the decision to pay the higher wages, even if no other mine did—giving total advantage to his competitors.
So what happened? Nothing. His mine paid the higher wages and remained profitable. In fact, by modern times, coal mining is both high paying and relatively safe. More coal is produced than ever, while the cost remains as low as ever. This is the upside of capitalism at work.
It’s the same with the pineapple and orchard industries. Why is fieldwork so grueling? So people can have pineapple at a 10c discount? The consumer would easily pay the higher cost and never notice. Fact is, NO ONE should be working in those conditions, migrant OR American. Rockefeller and the coal mining example show that it doesn’t bankrupt anyone or close anyone down, and in fact squeezing lower wages and worse conditions doesn’t do any good at all: locally, nationally, collectively, or unilaterally.
Why? Because when workers get paid, they don’t stash piles of cash to swim in like Scrooge McDuck; they go BUY things. The economy has nothing to do with money: it has to do with cooperation and distribution. Underpaid workers can work, but they cannot buy, so the economy is no better off than before: instead of underproduction with too high prices, you have overproduction with too low prices. As you wouldn’t want to live in a freezer or a furnace, or both on average; so production, consumption, and prices all need to be tuned to each other. That’s a successful economy. Wages and prices are mere details.
Let’s take a 20,000-foot view: Suppose we have an economy like Hawai’i, which has 10,000 people: 1,000 pick pineapple, 6,000 people do other jobs, and there are 3,000 unemployed. Does it matter to the economy whether 1,000 people or 2,000 pick when the same pineapple is produced? Actually, yes. If more people work, the job is more pleasant and the wages are better distributed, both clear benefits.
More people participate in their own welfare and have a stake in society leading to increased peace and well-being. If only 1,000 people work, they’re still supporting the non-working 1,000 in one way or another because the unemployed 1,000 aren’t starving.* They’re just working harder than they need to, each doing the job of two.
What would life be like under such conditions? Strangely enough, we already know since
that was the case of the American Farmer before industrialization. Everyone worked as
best they could—there was no unemployment. There’s always something each of us can
offer, however young, old, or able. Harvests were collaborative often as a "work bee",
and tended to be social and cultural events like a barn raising or a harvest-festival.
Here’s Thomas Jefferson’s list for harvest:
In this list there are jobs for men, women, boys, and girls, able and less able. As the atmosphere was collaborative, songs and customs hundreds of years old accompanied the hard work:
Harvest Home! Harvest Home!
Result? The same work got done as if fewer people worked far more grueling shifts, while the same number of people ate the results of their labors. The difference? In today’s model some people are cruelly overworked and some are cruelly underworked. Although being overworked is not enviable, the underworked or unemployed don’t know where their next meal will come from. Even though they’re ready and willing to help in some capacity, they are denied the opportunity to provide for themselves as well as participate in the greater arrangement. Why is a discussion for another time.
This recalls Howard Dean’s campaign proposal that the US should enact tariffs on foreign nations according to their labor practices in wages, safety, and environmental compliance. You would have a level playing field which would bring the world UP to American standards, instead of everyone going DOWN to world standards. Politically, it was a non-starter. No one could understand a concept that was so simple: how about NOT screwing the other guy? How about NOT making them work in slave conditions? Certainly Dean’s proposal was self-interested, but as Thoreau would say, we cannot be free unless all men are.
Instead, our plan is to keep OUR costs low by making OTHER GUY pay. It seems simple. It seems like it should work. However, violence always has unintended consequences. Its name is "Outsourcing" and it is Legion. By choosing to lift ourselves at another’s expense we have all fallen. While that used to be dry theory, it is now reality. US wages are now arbitraging directly against India, China, and Mexico.
If we had looked out for the other guy, if we had lifted them, we ourselves would now be lifted. Against the prospect of an oncoming Greater Depression, their purchasing power could have upheld consumption through this downturn. And those who profited by labor arbitrage and outsourcing as a new means of extraction have now outsmarted themselves—without fair wages, there are no buyers; with no buyers, there are no sales; with no sales, there are no profits; with no profits, there are no wealthy. They too are discovering that the “other guy” who has to pay is now “them.”
The key with the “Jobs Americans won’t do” argument is that we could all do honest work in ways that have the same productivity but are far more human and enjoyable, every day, for everyone from Cesar Chavez to J.D. Rockefeller. As a bonus, the economy would be more stable and work better, creating more for everyone, rich and poor alike.
But increasing cooperation and participation always does that.
The jobs should be good enough for anyone, or no one should do them. The Americans have it right: provide living wages and conditions and we’ll work for you. Until then, we’ll remain on strike. Would you have it any other way?
*The only savings would be if the 1,000 starved, which at various times has been tried,
but only decreases production to the sorrow of both the culture and the economy.
** From "The Scythe Book" by David Tresemer.
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