Thursday :: Aug 17, 2006

When The Rules Change

by pessimist

Ever see Roger and Me? If Michael Moore never made another movie in his life, he'd be remembered for this one. His presentation of the greed of corporate America and the devastation it creates in its wake was precient, as his 1980's Flint, Michigan became the model for the 21st Century American small town.

You can take issue with Moore, his methods, and his artistic license if you wish, but no one can refute his presentation of a nation which is eating itself and can't seem to do anything about it.

Just the other day, I wrote:

Take a look at this video by Peter Anderson, a photo montage put to James McMurtry's We Can't Make It Here Anymore, and try to remember for yourself what this country used to be like before it became a opportunity ghost town as depicted by Anderson. We [became] as 'free' and 'liberated' as the people of Iraq...<br>

You really have to see Anderson's video. In it's own way, he joins Moore in recording for posterity the very real decline of America, showing in a few minutes the effects of rampant greed in the visage of abandoned buildings once vital with commerce. The choice of James McMurtry's song to be the background only adds to the feelings of betrayal, as the refrain of "We can't make it here anymore" hammers home the idea that the loss of economic vitality isn't due to an inability to perform, but the denial of opportunity.

For individuals willing to dispense with the quaint notion of community, opportunities still exist, but one has be turn parasitic in order to take advantage of them. One can only be concerned with one's self and one's own well-being if one is to remain nimble and adjust to the changes as they occur. One can't be tied down to a child's education or a spouse's own employment development. Those who are get left behind, sadder and wiser in the knowledge that everything you were taught and expected to abide was all a big lie to keep you in your place while those who ignored them are the one's who 'met the challenges' to win the prize of getting to survive for another round of debasement and groveling - and the opportunity to pay handsomely for the flashy 'rewards' of employment combat to ensure that there is incentive to continue in the contest.

It's hard to face these realizations, that everything you did was to pursue folly, gaining only disdain and disrespect for believing the lies as promiscuously promulgated - work hard, and you will be rewarded! Raise a family and share the wealth. Obey the law and all will be well.


Working hard only encourages employers that more can be taken away to be given to themselves for being such astute managers. Raising a family to face worse travails than you is the betrayal of your future. Obey the law of the lawbreakers and lose your ability to make things right again.

Spending your money as you go only leaves you with memories of what you should have done instead, and yet if you save it, who is to say that it will still be there when you return for it? Spending it means that the economy is stimulated and someone is earning their own way as you do, but it leaves you nothing when you get old or sick and can't maintain the pace of earning yourself anymore. Not spending as you go means that you have little to make life enjoyable and worthwhile, enhancing the likelihood that you will be old and sick 'before your time'.

One has to wonder how much better off we would be if we didn't have all of the unrealistic expectations engendered in us by our consumer society. We are bombarded by messages instilling fear and insecurity into us to inspire us to part with our hard earned something in trade for a nebulous and temporary nothing.

Of what use, for example, is a Pet Rock? Yet it cost the owner $10 of hard-earned gain for something most of us already have in our back yards, minus the fancy packaging. The only winners were the collector of the rock, paid for his toil; the printer of the package, paid for his labor to create an eye-catching enticmeent; and the person with the inspiration to con people out of their money in trade for a delusion that a rock is a loyal and ever-present pet, ensuring that one will never truly be alone and uncared for.

By the way, that was the reason 'Wilson' played such a central role in Cast Away. It's what made the movie feel real. It was the key to understanding a situation with which we could identify - and fear.

But I digress.

My brother-in-law just returned from spending some time in Cuba, where he says the people really struggle to make ends meet. They have little, yet they are very social, and spend much of their time celebrating the truly finer things in life: the progress of their children, the company of their friends, the hope that the future will be better.

They aren't fond of Castro, but neither they do they look forward to the return of the capitalists who made it possible for Castro to triumph through conquering the abuse of their greed. In such an attitude, they seek a middle ground where one can get what one truly needs without becoming slaves to one's possessions - or being possessed. They have never had such a condition in their modern history, and they would like to try it. But others who have declared themselves superior on both politico-economic sides of the conflict which holds them in place have other plans for them.

I only bring up Cuba because they already are, and have been, as we are becoming. They are the example that deprivation on the 'communist' side is no different than that of the 'capitalist' side, for they experienced both in sequence in the last century. For many of them, nothing changed economically when Castro took over any more than it did politically. Batista's secret police took out as many Cubans as Castro's did, so who really cares who is in charge when one already has nothing?

It's worse when one had some of these things and lost them - or knows that loss is coming, unstoppable. It means that unpalatable choices will have to be made, and the consequences from choices not selected will still be felt. Retraining while still employed (if one happens to be so lucky!) takes time away from the family, weakening its bonds, and making it more likely that the strains of lifestyle changes will destroy the family, as has already happened to some of my friends - and doesn't guarantee that one will be employed in the future.

Unable to stop layoffs, government has taken on the task of refitting discarded workers for "alternate careers." The presumption — promoted by economists, educators, business executives and nearly all of the nation's political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike — holds that in America's vibrant and flexible economy there is work, at good pay, for the educated and skilled. The unemployed need only to get themselves educated and skilled and the work will materialize. Education and training create the jobs, according to this way of thinking. Or, put another way, an appropriate job at decent pay materializes for every trained or educated worker.


That was the myth. It evaporated in practice for the aircraft mechanics, whose hourly pay ranged up to $31. Not enough job openings exist at $31 an hour — or at $16 an hour, for that matter — to meet the demand for them. Jobs don't just materialize at cost-conscious companies to absorb all the qualified people who want them.
[Y]ou cannot earn an engineer's or an accountant's typical pay
if companies are not hiring engineers and accountants...
In the blue-collar world, aircraft mechanics are at the top, and these were painful economies for them. They are the highly skilled people who repair and overhaul the nation's airliners.

Each mechanic in the room had completed two years of collegelike schooling to qualify for the exacting task of dismantling and rebuilding airliners every five years, the work carried out at the maintenance center. Several compared their role proudly to that of a pilot, claiming as much credit as the pilots for the safety of air travel.

Now they were falling out of this high-level world, in most cases for good.
They were unlikely to match or come close in their next jobs to the level of pay that would soon cease. They would be newcomers again in the work force. They must learn how to get a foot in the door, the [career counselors] speakers that evening unceremoniously told them.
Their careers were gone, and the grief at this loss must be absorbed in order to move on.

It wasn't just grief that these skilled tradesmen had to ingest. They followed it with their pride:

Ben Nunnally, then 44 and the president of Lodge 2294, rose and without moving from behind the head table inserted into the proceedings some impromptu advice of his own, exercising his authority one last time as their union leader. While he had the mechanics in one room, Mr. Nunnally said, he wanted to caution them about the unemployment checks they would soon be getting. If they did not file promptly on Jan. 25, their last day, they could waste two weeks in collecting the first check.

Even if the unemployment pay arrived on time, it would be little enough: $336 a week for 26 weeks, way below the nearly $1,100 a week or so that the mechanics had been earning at United. Mr. Nunnally, however, made no mention of either amount. "We have no choice but to offer as little conflict as possible with United and hope that will avoid more layoffs," he said afterward.

Such a diet only causes indigestion:

It was a wasted hope. Three months later, in April 2003, United abruptly laid off the 1,100 remaining mechanics, including Mr. Nunnally.

Saying that the country should solve the skills shortage through education and training became part of nearly every politician's stump speech, an innocuous way to address the politics of unemployment without strengthening either the bargaining leverage of workers or the federal government's role in bolstering labor markets.

But training for what? The reality, as the aircraft mechanics discovered, is painfully different from the reigning wisdom. Rather than having a shortage of skills, millions of American workers have more skills than their jobs require. That is particularly true of college-educated people, who make up 30 percent of the population today, up from 10 percent in the 1960's. They often find themselves working in sales or as office administrators, or taking jobs in hotels and restaurants, or becoming carpenters, flight attendants and word processors.

The number of jobs that require a bachelor's degree has indeed been growing, but more slowly than the number of graduates, according to the Labor Department, and that trend is likely to continue through this decade.

On average, there were 2.6 job seekers for every job opening over the first 41 months of the survey.

That ratio would have been even higher, according to the bureau, if the calculation had included the millions of people who stopped looking for work because they did not believe that they could get decent jobs.
So the demand for jobs is considerably greater than the supply, and the supply is not what the reigning theory says it is. Most of the unfilled jobs pay low wages and require relatively little skill, often less than the jobholder has.

From the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004, for example, more than 55 percent of the hiring was at wages of $13.25 an hour or less: hotel and restaurant workers, health care employees, temporary replacements and the like.

Seven of the 10 occupations expected to grow the fastest from 2002 through 2012, according to the Labor Department, pay less than $13.25 an hour, on average: retail salesclerks, customer service representatives, food service workers, cashiers, janitors, nurse's aides and hospital orderlies.

The $13.25 threshold is important.
More than 45 percent of the nation's workers, whatever their skills, earned less than $13.25 an hour in 2004, or $27,600 a year for a full-time worker.
That is roughly the income that a family of four must have in many parts of the country
to maintain a standard of living minimally above the poverty level.
Surely lack of skill and education does not hold down the wages of nearly half the work force. Something quite different seems to be true: the oversupply of skilled workers is driving people into jobs beneath their skills and driving down the pay of jobs equal to their skills.
Both happened to the aircraft mechanics laid off by United.
By the spring of 2004, however, out of more than 800 mechanics from United who had gone through [the retraining] program or were still going through it, only 185 were working again.

Despite their skill, 33 of those 185, or 18 percent, were earning less than $13.25 an hour working in warehouses, on construction jobs, in restaurants or in retailing.

Some were "throwing boxes," as the mechanics put it, for FedEx, which paid them only $10 an hour at its shipping center in Indianapolis. They took the work, which entailed loading and unloading air freight packages, for two reasons: FedEx offered them company-paid health insurance, which some of the mechanics desperately wanted, and they saw in the job a gamble worth the hardship, given the glum alternatives.

I talked earlier about 'being numble' and able to adjust to changes:

Only 15 of the re-employed mechanics had regained their United wage level or exceeded it, and 8 of those 15 did so by becoming aircraft mechanics again. Several of the mechanics, stifling reluctance and resentment, had left Indianapolis to work for the companies that United and other airlines were using to do heavy aircraft maintenance. They were mostly younger mechanics with relatively little seniority when United laid them off and were still low on the wage scale, earning $19 or $20 an hour, which is what the outsourcing contractors also paid them. For the contractors, however, $19 or $20 an hour was top pay.

These nimble and young survivors aren't loaded down with family and financial obligations, because they had not had the time to acquire them before United laid them off. 'First hired, first fired' worked out benficially for them in that they were first in line for the few jobs left in their industry.

But what of the others?

They must start from scratch in their search for a job... When searching for work in other fields, the mechanics will find themselves taking entry-level tests that more and more employers require of job applicants. In preparation for those tests, [the retraining] center offered training in algebra — mainly fractions and decimals — and in spelling.
Mistakes in these basic skills can mean rejection for a job...
The process was like a funnel: wide at one end, where all the laid-off workers go in, and narrow at the other, where a limited number gradually emerge into retraining and, if they are lucky, new jobs at decent pay.

Mark A. Crouch, a professor of labor studies at Indiana University, used another analogy to describe the recycling of laid-off workers.

He called it a "burial program."

This is the world I'm soon facing. I'm not an airline mechanic, but I'm in similar straits. My job functions are being outsourced at a rate which should be frightening, but I'm so tuned in already that I have been taking steps for years to limit my economic debt exposure.

Even so, it's a hard road I face. I'm not young, and I have family anchors that don't uproot easily - I still have minor dependents. I'm not strung out financially, but neither am I wealthy. It's taken everything I had to get solvent, and there is no reserve.

The businesses of which I am part owner are also facing cutbacks thanks to the economic policies which put others into similar positions where the real necessities have to be separated from the wants, and my businessess lose in that process, lowering my income possibilities.

I've only just started this phase of the journey, so I don't know yet what I'm going to do. I only know that my prospects haven't been so bleak since I first joined the workforce.

I won't belabor you with the specifics of my travails, but the generalities will be frequent topics for future posts - just so you understand where I'm coming from when I present them to you.

I just don't intend to die off and decrease the surplus unemployed population.

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