Friday, December 09, 2016

Jobs, Wages and Income

Second in a series of posts where I'm trying to figure it all out - this one is going to be a little rambling.

Before diving into the real subject here, let me first say that the cabinet and other advisory positions that The Trumpster Fire has appointed so far are remarkably consistent with GOP ideology to an extent I didn't think possible.  We want an aggressive military and we believe that the US military has been emasculated by politicians since the early Vietnam days, so we appoint a crapload of generals to defense and security positions.  Check.  We think most of the rest of the federal government should do as little as possible, so we appoint a fast food mogul to Labor, a climate change denier to the EPA, a Wall Street insider to Treasury, a completely inexperienced hack to HUD, an enemy of public education to the DofEd and so on it goes.  And on top of that, we appoint a white supremicist media mogul as head of propaganda so he can ensure we keep sniping at each other so we don't pay attention as Ryan and McConnell attempt to dismantle the US government.  Mission soon to be accomplished.

So as we continue to dissect this damned election, we're supposed to be wringing our hands about how we overlooked the WWC (white working class) and focused too much on "identity politics".  Well, bullshit.  First of all, it's not identity politics - it's a fight for civil rights that didn't end with Brown vs the Board of Education or the Voting Rights Act or the Obergefell decision.  If any Democrat ever apologizes for that, they should be kicked out of the party.  The biggest shift though was a bigger focus on the poor rather than the middle-ish class which had had ALL of the spotlight in the previous couple of elections.  The Fight for $15 and support for the ACA was the right thing to do, but that shouldn't have stopped Democrats for also spending some time and energy on middle class problems.  It really is possible to do both and we absolutely hadn't done both before - it's just that the poorer folks didn't have anywhere else to turn and they were energized by President Obama.  Those same people appear to have come out and voted for Hillary Clinton but there was some obvious erosion that must be addressed without compromising what it means to be a Democrat.

I am still planning to walk through the minefield of talking about racism and sexism in a future post (yes, I am still a middle-aged Southern white dude, so THAT should be fun!) but let's talk a little about what the WWC actually say they wanted from a Prez candidate - the promise of jobs.  Real jobs, decent-paying jobs, manufacturing jobs (and by the way, mostly jobs that don't require a college education).

Well I hate to be the one to break it to you but those jobs are not coming back.  NO jobs are coming back!  North Carolina has bled thousands and thousands of textile and furniture and tobacco jobs over the past 30-40 years (most of which really didn't pay that well but you could live off of them) and there is not a damn thing that Donald Trump can do to entice them back.  Back in the mid-80s (long before NAFTA) I was working for Bluebell (before VF bought them) - makers of Wrangler jeans and Jantzen sportswear.  Can't get no more 'Merican that that.  Ed Baumann was the CEO or President at the time and he would go on and on about "buy American!" while all of the shirts we sold were being sewn together in Honduras. "Made in America", my ass.  Sure, somebody might open a small boutique textile mill now to make something that will be very expensive and marketed to upper-income people to make them feel better about it all, but it will be a very small drop in a very large bucket.  God love 'em for doing it, but it won't make much difference.  And I'll guarantee they'll run those shops with many fewer people than they used to because they'll automate the hell out of them.  And in the meantime all those WWCs will continue to be addicted to cheap clothes made in Pakistan by people working in inhumane conditions at sub-subsistence wages and sold to them at Wal-mart by our own version of those same people.  There was a story a few years ago on NPR about a US city that was buying manhole covers from India.  Imagine the cost of shipping the damn things but when they're being cast in foundries by barefooted guys in loincloths with no safety consideration and a high mortality rate, the cost of production is approaching zero.  That type of thing, by the way, is one thing that NAFTA and TPP and other trade agreements are supposed to address - raising safety and environmental standards in trading partners (which raises their costs of course) and helps make the US more competitive by making everyone play by the same rules. 

Don't think that manufacturing is the only problem.  Think health care at least is something that has to remain on-shore?  Don't be so sure.  Many of the advances like electronic medical records and telemedicine that really will help improve services and help reach under-served communities are already being used to move back-office and diagnostic jobs off-shore.  There are buildings in India with whole floors of MDs that do nothing all day but evaluate MRIs for patients in the States.  And why not?  It reduces the cost of medical care for us, right?  But it means fewer high-paying jobs for docs in the US.

Of course everyone knows about the off-shoring of IT jobs - the very technology that we support enables us to move much of that support to countries with lower labor costs.  But the move of other back-office services for major corporations like accounting, HR functions, legal etc really hasn't gotten much press but it is happening and happening rapidly.

Think the creative space is safe?  That guy that you hired for your graphic design work probably has ten jobs like that that he's "working on" simultaneously, which really means that he's farmed out the grunt work to people in Poland or Manila or Chennai.  It's all digital, so he can check in on progress, send stuff back for rework and spend 5% of the time it would take if he was really doing all the work himself.  Everyone is a photographer now, so stock photography is dead and most shrinking TV newsrooms now are making their reporters double as camera people.  Remember type-setting?  Remember film labs?  Remember buggy whips?  We don't need 'em anymore.

And I get it.  I've been working in technology since I graduated college in 1982 and it still amazes me the ridiculously cool things we've figured out how to do.  And despite what you might think after a 9 hour day of staring at a computer screen, I do think that technology and automation and all of that stuff have improved human life.  But the (possibly) unintended consequences are making life difficult for many, many people and the answers to that are not found in a glib phone call to Carrier or a threat to Boeing.  And of course Carrier is already signaling that through automation most of the jobs that were "saved" from moving to Mexico will be lost to automation.

Raising tariffs is a dumbass idea (go Google Smoot-Hawley if you aren't sure) and one that runs counter to everything the non-Trump part of the GOP stands for.  Congress would never stand for it and they'd impeach The Donald so fast you'd think he'd had a fling with an intern if he really pushed it.  Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do and I'm convinced that the negative impact on the number of jobs will be minimal, but it won't help the situation long-term and we just lost any chance of doing that on a wide scale for at least the next four years.  And with the majority of state legislatures in GOP hands and likely to stay that way through 2020, we'll lose another census opportunity to redistrict in a way that is less safe for Republicans and that four years becomes fourteen.

All of this is why I think raising the minimum wage and fighting for universal health care is only the start.  The logical and I think necessary move over the next 20-30 years will be to institute a guaranteed minimum income or even a basic income.  There are just not going to be enough jobs available to support the population.  So either a killer bug gets released that kills off half the population or we have a very large percentage of the population that has no work to do.  That doesn't mean that they're lazy, it doesn't mean that they find some jobs "beneath them" - there just will not be jobs available.

There's a difference between guaranteed minimum income and basic income (the former is means-tested while the latter goes to everyone, for example) and I've not done nearly enough research or thinking on this yet, but something is going to be necessary unless we blow ourselves up, drown in the rising oceans or hit a Captain Trips/Walking Dead scenario and that seems to be the best logical bet.  There are smart people out there that have been thinking about this for awhile and actually you can go back to a lot of the science fiction written in the late 60s and early 70s that posits a society where everything is automated and the basics are provided but they deal primarily with the effects that might have on the human psyche more than the mechanics of how the posited basic income (or basic needs met) would work.

But we're going to have to figure this out, including how to overcome the Puritan legacy that seems to continue to drive much of American discussion and thought 500 years later - the idea that nothing has worth unless it was hard to get.  We don't like having things handed to us (and we absolutely abhor seeing anyone ELSE have anything handed to them).  But now that the lack of jobs is hitting the white folk and not primarily people of color and geographies that have been traditionally poor, maybe they'll start to get the message.

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