Friday
Jul302004

« Prosperity? »

I think we have more profound issues in our modern lives that are a problem of prosperity than of poverty.

The whole American Way of Life™ is a nebulous thing. The American Dream, as I understand it, amounts to living enough of a prosperous life that starvation, the elements, and ignorance, is all kept at bay, and the principle ways we define that sort of success (in material terms) is having food on the table, ownership of a house, and a college education. It may not be a lot to hope for to have a house, and in modern America, a car or three, and an education, but it is way more than many people in the world ever come to expect, or even think of. But we hope for and seem to expect it simply because it is attainable with some effort.

I don't have the stats in front of me, but something leads me to believe that in the grand scheme of things, even with things as they are, America has to have one of the widest ranges of educated people. Higher education is an option to all who can afford it or who are very determined to find a way. But I find an issue with the race to get on the higher education path, and the ultimate goal—to make more money in a profession.

The way I see it is this: every nation needs to have a variety of workers to fill the range of jobs available that ultimately serve the needs of the nation as a whole. It is a huge range of people who are supremely well educated in specialty fields, all the way to the people who sweep the streets and take the garbage out. There are just all those sorts of tasks that need doing in order for society to operate. Not everyone will be able to do everyone else's job, so by default, there is diversity and interdependency among everyone. Everyone has their role to play. Not all are going to be college educated, and not all professions will require it, though most jobs will require some sort of skill or aptitude that gets honed as the worker becomes more experienced. What I see happening here in America is that we have everyone racing to get an education to be some sort of white collar worker doing more and more sophisticated and prestigious jobs making more and more money. That is sort of a nice phenomenon, but it is sort of like everyone racing to one side of the boat and the boat being on the verge of tipping!

I have to state that there are some jobs that have no reason for existing in a society that actually has to work to keep its needs met. There are jobs that are totally superfluous to survival, the ones that will fail their workers when people have no money to spend on things that aren't critical. In an economy of survival, there will be no need for the excessive numbers of MBAs, CPAs, cell phone salesmen, dog groomers, web designers (unless they transfer into other communications), telemarketers, fast food workers, wedding coordinators, oil change specialists (and anything else that caters to the automobile), car detailers, gas station attendants, advertising execs, most employees of shops at a mall, coffee baristas, manicurists, Amway salesmen, promotions directors at media outlets, smoke shop employees, sysadmins, mid level managers, guitar techs, soundmen, Wal Mart greeters.

Most of these jobs exist solely because we are artificially able to indulge ourselves with leisure time, disposable income, and our feeling that we too, on occasion, can be kings for a day, while other people do our work for us. Most of the "professions" above will not be of much use to those who cannot pay for them, a number that will become greater and greater. There will always be the wealthier class that can afford to be more reckless with their money, but now most of these jobs are servicing Joe Q. Public, who himself is among these ranks. So just imagine how it will be when Joe Public can't sell John Everyman the goods and services that Jack Citizen used to make at a defunct or corrupt corporation. A lot of jobs will simply not be supported, because the support system is the general public who works in the same fields, and the general public won't be buying because they can't pay for stuff that isn't purely for survival. Gone are the days when a man could work on a Ford factory line and earn enough money to buy the product he makes. No, now he can’t afford it because he is out of that job, and while the company is now manufacturing offshore, they are making a killing, charging way more than ever back here in the states. Today’s reality is that you work at Taco Bell for $6.50 an hour, but you have to spend that much and more for dinner from Pizza Hut (owned by the same company, thereby putting your hard earned cash back in the hands of your company). Barbara Ehrenreich found that as a full time Wal Mart employee, she could barely afford to buy some clothing that was marked down without putting her budget out of whack.

You know, you and I do a lot of things from day to day that sort of allow us to feel like we are somewhat more sophisticated, because we can afford to get the cell phones, buy the Starbucks, put shiny spinning spoke wheels on our SUVs and so forth. We sort of live this falsely premised affluent life, while still living from check to check. So do the dudes who sell you the cell phones, the Starbucks coffee, and the spinning spoke wheels. They are in it just as much as you or I. Economically, it isn't too far away from what every other economy does, except for one thing: the utter uselessness of this stuff. These things are just fluff. Icing without the cake. Most other economies are premised on everyone having something that someone else needs, and will pay or barter for. But let's just say that, in an agrarian society, the farmers make the crops and then everyone buys them because everyone needs them. The shoemaker gets business from almost everyone, the people who make clothing and real, functional devices are needed and patronized. In the traditional economy, the network of support is strong, but it is based on need, not illusion of need generated by shrewd advertising. There are still those who do a niche job that only a privileged few can afford, but mostly, there is a network of people meeting each others needs. It's sort of old fashioned by today's standards.

But in our economy, the entire boat is tipping to one side because we have either given up or lost our connection to our smaller scale communities and socioeconomic systems. We are selling each other pieces of an imaginary life that is only transitory while we can sell stuff that is made in far away places and brought to us by complex systems of transport and legal mumbo-jumbo. But the fact remains. You won't need that digital camera from Wal Mart or Best Buy when you can't feed your family. What you will need is food. But you are probably dependent on the food that you can buy at a store, or at McDogfood's. And the store or restaurant is dependent on trucking, which is dependent on oil, which is dependent on our government fighting wars do defend or secure new supplies, which is dependent on...

Ignorance. Apathy. Greed.

So we can afford all this shit. Big deal. We can afford it because it is cheap. It is cheap because companies will do any draconian act it takes to make and sell stuff in volume in order to get maximum profit, including offshoring and loss of local jobs, etc., but now that we are out of work, we can’t afford the stuff we used to make! (That is, without the promise of credit, but notice we are going more and more in debt, both as individuals and as a nation because we spend money we don’t have in order to maintain a lifestyle we have convinced ourselves we can’t live without.) Our own prosperity has done us in! When we made or bought only what we needed, we had a good thing going. It all hovered near stasis. But even for all the great things all our college educated people do in business, science, humanities, and politics, somehow they, we, have missed the point. The real ignorance that is not only tolerated but encouraged by corporations is what will do us in. For the sake of a cheap widget or a piece of the good life, we have sold out our communities. As Jim Kunstler said, every few dollars you save at Wal Mart on a hairdryer takes untold amounts of money out of the community. Kunstler says we are sleepwalking through history. We are. Otherwise we could say, no, we don't need that DVD player made in [insert name of unheard of third world country here], we need to patronize the local economy (and that doesn't mean Wal Mart). Okay, maybe there is no DVD maker in your community, but would you suffer without it if it meant you had a respectable job as did everyone in your area?

The market for entertainment is great. But it too is another empty future. There are some that say that the growth of the entertainment market sort of coincides with the trend toward overseas production, service economy, etc. I read a book called The Global Trap for my final English essay last semester. In it there was talk of what is called "tittytainment," which is basically the new opium for the masses. About "tittytainment":

The perspectives, as they were presented, were concentrated on two central concepts: “the 20:80 society” and “tittytainment”. According to this expert knowledge, the two-third society that Europeans have feared since the eighties is no longer an adequate description of the future division of wealth. Because of the technological development, only twenty percent of the able-bodied part of the population will suffice to maintain production and economic growth in the next century. Left is four fifths of the able-bodied without a job. As a way of pacifying these 80 percent, tittytainment has a large support. The expression, introduced by Jimmy Carter’s former security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, is a combination of entertainment and tits where, instead of sex, is referred to the nutritious milk from a nursing mother. We are talking bread and circus for the masses.

Entertainment as a pacifier? Who would have thought? You put people out of work (or, if you are a Republican you say "big business should be free to 'stay competitive'," even if it means laying off whole workforces), and then you give people something to keep them happy. Entertainment is more fun than education for most people, and if, in the same broad stroke, you make it somewhat harder to get an education, you can keep people where you want them, which won't be a challenge to the powers that be. Boom! Hierarchy where 20% of the WILLING and ABLE (not the sick or disabled, or unmotivated) workforce are able to produce enough to get EVERYONE by, while 80% watch TV, play video games, or just plain do nothing. Keep people entertained, keep them couch potatoes, they won't want to leave the TV because the "reality" shows are too exciting to miss. If you can accomplish that, they won't be able to read philosophy, political science, or learn about art or science. No, they won't learn how to be revolutionaries, nor will they want to. Give these out-of-work people some food, entertainment, and a jail cell for when they go out and commit survival crimes, and you have a fine control over the populous. Wait a minute—isn’t that what Brave New World was about?

Now, you wouldn't let that happen, would you?

So, why do we think doing manual labor is below our dignity? Why have we turned all these critical tasks over to the immigrants who will do it because it is a step up from wherever they came from? Hard work builds character, and this nation, at its greatest, relies on good character, not a bunch of college educated people who are so smart and clever they utterly fall into a trap of their own greed, which plays nicely for those who would profit off the illusion that we are a better society because we have eliminated the need to do our own work. Our immigration problem is due in part to our system of education and capitalism that attracts people way from the rural life, leaving no native born American to do the job, thus making the job free for an illegal immigrant who would work for a fraction of the cost that an American would.

So what if you aren't college educated? For ages and ages, farmers and laborers weren’t college educated, but they held the most critically important profession of all. Craftsmen who made furniture or weavers that made clothes were also key members of society. There is no shame in contributing to society, whatever job it is that you do, but realize some are more critical than others. Kelli likes to remind me that she is set up to go into old-fashioned press printing and book making when the time comes. There is no shame in working for a living, if it means you can actually have a life. Freedom and character weren't won by sitting on the couch watching "reality" TV. And, in the last four years (coincidentally a time when reality TV just shot up in popularity), look at all the freedoms that we have lost, or are setting ourselves up to lose. Turn the TV off, get off the couch, learn a real trade, read a fucking book, and pay attention. The 20/80 society may not be here today, but if we keep on sleepwalking through history, it will arrive.

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