Working for a Living is an Epic Fail!

The New York Times recently published an article on the growing problem of long term unemployment. Called Caught in a Revolving Door of Unemployment, Annie Lowrey’s article featured Ms. Jenner Barrington-Ward, a 53 year-old African American college graduate who was laid off from a $50,000 year administrative position 5 years ago. She has not been able to find a full time job since, and now is homeless and bankrupt. She cannot get Medicaid because she has no fixed address. She told the Times, “After working since I was 15, I have nothing to show for it.”

The article also mentioned two other people: Stan Hampton, a 59 year-old Iraq war veteran in Las Vegas, who has not had a job since leaving the military in 2007, and 53 year-old Robin Hastey of Cornwall, New York, a married woman who lost her job in 2009. Her husband, who was also unemployed for a spell, now makes half of what he used to make.

The article discussed the difference between cyclical and structural unemployment. Cyclical indicates a slack economy, while structural indicates a mismatch between the skills employers want and the skills workers have.

But the article did not really say what needs to be said: The economy does not require everyone to work in order to produce all the goods and services the country needs. Yet at least 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months are expected to “earn a living”, “pay their way” and, as former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, “take care of their lives”, without sucking on the government teat as big corporations and the ultra-wealthy do.

The article hinted at another problem: Factors that have nothing directly to do with one’s qualifications for a job such as age, race, or single parenthood play a big role in hiring decisions. A higher level or education, once considered a meal ticket, can not be a disqualifier. (“You’re overqualified. You’ll get bored and leave.” I heard that at age 25.)

Ms. Barrington-Ward said a review of her credit rating destroyed two job prospects. Employers look at a person with a poor score and consider her irresponsible, or an embezzlement risk. But you can’t pay your bills if you do not have a job. So if you cannot get a job because you haven’t been paying your bills, you are stuck in a Catch-22 from which you may never emerge.

Unemployment itself can be a bar to finding a job. Ms. Barrington-Ward told the Times that she had been told, “point-blank to my face, ‘We don’t hire the unemployed.’”

I hope you felt cognitive dissonance upon reading that statement.

I recently saw a chart produced by the Economic Policy Institute that came to my attention via a Twitter message from Prof. Robert Reich at UC Berkeley. Reich served in the Clinton Administration as Secretary of Labor. The chart showed that there are more job seekers than jobs in every sector of the economy. Yet the GOP is insistent on cutting social safety net benefits on the grounds that they discourage people from seeking work! Frightened workers vote for these Republicans because they anxious to believe the propaganda that some lazy, bad people want to take what they have worked so hard to make. That way they can delude themselves into thinking that the call from HR announcing their layoff can never come.

When is everybody going to accept the plain fact that working for a living is an epic fail?

Stop scoffing. There is a difference between working and working for a living. Working, which I endorse, is done to deepen one’s human experience and/or to provide oneself and one’s community with NEEDED goods and services. Working for a living is about being profitable to another person or entity to get a sliver back with which to fulfill one’s own needs. What people do not see is that employability rests all on the employer’s desires. His needs, his bottom line, his prejudices, etc. What the worker needs doesn’t count, which is why the long tern EMPLOYED are looking for a scapegoat; they are not feeling secure.

More and more people, like Ms. Hastey’s husband, are thrown out of the economy and can only come back, if at all, if they accept significantly lower wages. The bills are constant or rising, the wages are stagnant or lowering and the jobs are more precarious. Yet the worker is to blame for his or her own misfortune? I don’t think so. It is the money-jobs system, be it capitalist or market socialist, that marries resources to employment but CANNOT provide good jobs for all.

Even if full employment were achieved for a time, there would still be problems. When employment is high, too much is produced and inventories soar. When this happens, people get laid off. It is the business cycle. But we live linear lives within this cycle. The mortgage, credit card, utility and food bills keep coming. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan looked at mortgages and credit cards as tools of labor discipline. That function of debt explains why policy-makers do not take seriously suggestions that mortgage principal be lowered for people whose mortgages are underwater, i.e. property values have dropped since the mortgage was taken out and, despite faithful payments, the “homeowner” owes more than the property is worth. It is in the best interests of the banksters  and other corporatists that their fellow Americans are debt slaves.

Ask yourself if any of this makes sense for non-banksters. When enough people start asking “Why must we earn a living? Aren’t we already living?”, we can start to create another system. For me, that system is demonetization, which some people call non-market socialism or the gift economy. Some would recognize it as “family values”. All those reading this survived childhood because of careGIVER gifts. You did not pull a dollar out of your diaper whenever you wanted milk. To this day you belong to a circle of family and friends who give and take without pricing or accounting.

If we can extend these everyday family and friends relationships to the world at large, we can get rid of money and jobs, and can sever the tie between getting the resources of a decent life and the whims of employers, oft-manipulated and corrupt markets, and the inherent problems of the business cycle.

This does not mean that we won’t work, but that our work will be more purposefully aimed at producing the goods and services we need rather than at making money, or making someone else money. Work will be in better balance with the rest of our lives because we will have and honor leisure more. We can have universal justice, peace, prosperity and ecological sustainability if we stop creating scarcity through the money-jobs system.

Justice means giving everyone their due. Satisfying human biological needs (food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare) as well as social needs (education, communication, transportation, the tools of chosen trades or professions, and the leisure time to enjoy private life and social engagement as desired. No more hunger, homelessness, or sense of not belonging anywhere. Those who think that they are due more because they head large corporations should consider the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA):

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory….Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Or as I like to say, what are the billionaire Koch Brothers personally doing to bring any of the products of their vast economic empire into your home?

Peace is more than the absence of war; peace is not even thinking about fighting. Too many wars have been fought over land and resources throughout human history. Ending money will end much of the reason for war. R. Buckminster Fuller, author of Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity, said in 1981:

We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before – that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.

If, indeed, Fuller was right, we no longer have  a reason to fight or compete for resources. There are only excuses of greed, exceptionalism, or habit: age-old encrusted hatred of the Other that masks the ancient sin of coveting the neighbor’s goods, to attempt to justify economic violence.

We have a distribution problem rather than a production problem. People who claim they are for peace must face this issue as much as the issue of nuclear proliferation. Civil unrest is mounting in the world because growing inequality is creating desperation. The abolition of monetary systems that create much scarcity in the world is an important tool in building peace. That does not mean we will do without any tokens of exchange, at least until we have adopted the values that will enable us to sustain a true gift economy. But no one ever launched a battleship over supermarket coupons.

Universal prosperity is an outcome of universal justice. Without the burden of the struggle to survive, people will be free to offer their talents to the community in ways that best suit them individually. By honoring the diversity of the community, we can have a diverse choice of goods and services, instead of what the corporations decide to sell us by mass production and convince us we need by mass advertising.

Ecological sustainability, the ability of the ecology to heal and renew itself while continuing to fill the needs of all species that share the earth, is more likely if we do not waste resources on goods made solely for monetary profit. We waste natural resources creating things just to keep markets active, people employed and profits rolling in. Fossil fuels, fresh water, metals and woods are soon dissipated and most end up in landfills. Annie Leonard of The Story of Stuff, said in her first movie:

Guess what percentage of total material flow through this system is still in product or use 6 months after their sale in North America. Fifty percent? Twenty? NO. One percent. One! In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport—99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months. Now how can we run a planet with that rate of materials throughput?

But, in order to figure out how to develop a gift economy, we must first face the questions: Why must we pay to live on the planet we’re born on?  Why must we earn a living when we are already living? We must be willing to challenge ideas that are fundamental to the way we live, such as owing, earning and deserving. We must discard Margaret Thatcher’s old bromide that “There is no alternative” and our parents’ explanation that “That’s the way it is” so that we can think of alternatives. Everything that humans have ever made or done has begun as an idea in a human mind.

Time to start thinking new thoughts.

[Image courtesy of Images for Free at Google,com]


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