Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wage-earning declines

At work we've been engaged in a lot of advocacy on low-wage work, which is becoming the economic model for more and more of the US economy.  The progressive in me finds it outrageous and heartbreaking the way that wealthy corporations and billionaires, in collusion with a co-opted media and corrupt political class, have systematically destroyed first the working class and then the middle class of this country.  It's all fairly straightforward, however they may try to dress it up with economic theory, political theater, media doublespeak, and individual rationalization: an exercise in raw power to steal more and more away from the lives of average Americans in order to draw more toward themselves.  

(From a personal standpoint, at least, my outrage is made less corrosive by a lack of envy.  The amount of self-delusion and anti-humanity necessary to be a CEO or billionaire in this world seems a kind of pitiful little hell - even though they remain oblivious to it.)  Still, the pain they cause is very real, and people do suffer and die because of it.

But the non-progressive in me sees hope in the destruction of an unsustainably consumerist middle class (if only it would be quickly followed by the destruction of an unsustainably rapacious upper class).  There is no doubt that the lack of jobs is creating havoc in people's lives, but there is another way to read a chart like this one:

On the one hand, the plunge from the year 2000 to today represents tens of millions of people ejected from the workforce against their will, and a crash in what workers can insist on in a "weak labor market."  This has been devastating to families and local economies.  On the other hand, it also represents a statistical return to the mid-eighties.  The mid-eighties weren't a time of economic distress - in fact times were pretty good.  But the percentage of people earning wages was lower. Not all teens were declaring taxable income (though many of them might have been mowing lawns or shoveling snow, and the old Mom and Pop businesses made use of their family members); there were more women who were occupied in the domestic economy rather than earning a wage and outsourcing that work (to food companies, etc.); more elders were retired, being grandparents, serving as unpaid caregivers, and so on.

There are better economies that can be built that don't entail half the US population trading their hours for wages.  And there are better lives that can be built when more people disengage from these wage-payers, who increasingly are heartless mega-corporations who mean none of us well.  A service economy of low-wage workers is a rat eating its own tail.  If the downward trend on this chart can mean we stop slaving for them and start working for each other again -- then I have to say, I'm all for it.

It's going to be painful, but as the doomers say, "collapse now and avoid the rush."