Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The slippery slope

Downward social mobility is always a possibility in any social or economic system. For those of us in America who are baby boomers, however, there is a strange reluctance to admit how many folks are falling down today. We were raised in a time when middle-class kids who did well in school, and went on to college, felt reasonably confident they could find an opportunity to make a decent living. My friend Peter W. is a great example of someone who was totally shocked by this recession’s impact on him and his family. After graduating college, Peter began working at a large bank in Boston. Over the years he was steadily promoted, and he earned his M.B.A. by the late ‘80s. Transferred to Rhode Island, he bought a home and started a family with his wife, Meg. The family enjoyed vacations in places like Europe and Hawaii. They had two comfortable cars, and paid landscapers to keep their yard beautiful. When the girls needed braces, Peter simply wrote out checks to the orthodontist. Financial worries seemed far away. Then, in February of 2008, Peter was laid off from the bank. Since then the only work he’s found has been a very short-term stint working for the Census. Thanks to Meg’s job as a bookkeeper there is still some income coming in. Yet they have been forced to deplete their savings. They are behind on the mortgage. They sold one of the cars, and no longer take fancy vacations. They dropped their gym membership and their subscription to the New York Times. Peter borrows a neighbor’s lawnmower to cut the yard. Peter fears they will eventually face foreclosure. Moving into an apartment in a far less attractive neighborhood is a real possibility.

Peter’s family hasn’t fallen anywhere near real poverty. They are, in fact, still living a much easier life than many. Nonetheless, their confident assumptions about the world, and their place in it, have been shattered. Peter’s former employer has recently posted record profits. Wall Street observers have heaped praise on this large bank for its “intelligent restructuring of human resources.” Corporate interests are not the same as our interests. For the very wealthy, high unemployment is mostly a good thing. It depresses wages which allows the owner class to bring goods and services to market at lower cost. This time, however, the persistence of high unemployment has begun to seriously affect consumer demand. This low demand will eventually erode profits enough that at least some rich folks may feel a pinch.

The easiest way to think of our current situation is like a huge game of chicken. On one side the corporate interests are saying: “Hey, America! Want some of your jobs back? Act more like our workers in Bangladesh who toil away for 14 hours a day at 10 cents an hour!” And the American middle and working classes are saying: “A new plasma T.V.? Are you joking? We’re not buying more stuff until we know we have a steady job at good pay!” Who’s going to win? Sadly, we all need to eat so we tend to work for less. This is why companies are so often able to find scabs to replace striking workers. The very wealthy don’t need to worry about their next meal. They can ride out even long periods of depression, investing in anything that provides any kind of return.

There is one piece of good news. The vote of a poor person counts as much on Election Day as that of a rich person. There are relatively few rich people. What’s more, some rich people have a conscience! Our votes combined with those of decent rich folks should prevail in any contest. We should be able to elect folks who will pursue policies aimed at producing full employment. If we can’t, it’s because politicians have found ways to distract and divide us. A politician who was truly willing to take up the cause of improving conditions for working people, even at the risk of losing support from the very wealthy, would have great appeal. The huge challenge for such a politician would be to speak to voters without massive funding or media exposure.

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