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December 2, 2009

Fixing Jobs: Normal Isn’t An Option

-- by Dave Johnson

This post originally appeared at Campaign for America's Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture as part of the Making It In America project. I am a Fellow with CAF.

The “Jobs Summit” is Thursday. Are they going to try to get things back to normal? I hope not!

“Normal” isn’t an option anymore, because it is what led to where we are.

The financial sector bailout is based on the idea that things will get back to “normal” if the credit machine is restarted and consumers and businesses are able to borrow more. The stimulus is based on the idea that the economy is an engine that runs smoothly and just needs to be restarted and things will get back to “normal.” While we wait for “normal” to return the government is stepping in to make up the slack in demand, and to help those hit hardest by the downturn. (Never mind that COBRA subsidies start expiring as you read this and unemployment has been extended and extended.)

The idea that you can get the financial sector and the economy back to “normal” desperately assumes that a sustainable “normal” existed in the structure of the 20th-century western economy. It assumes that there really is an “invisible hand” that takes care of things without human intervention. It assumes that perpetual growth of consumers and their incomes and of consumables could just go on and on.

This all assumes that “normal” was OK. This is such a nice, comforting idea. It is wrong.

What if that “normal” system really was unsustainable and that is what led to its collapse? What if there was a limit to how many jobs can be outsourced, wages cut, factories closed, people born, trees cut down, fish taken from the sea, nutrients taken from the soil, water taken from the aquifers? And, of course, the big one: what if there is a limit to how much carbon can be put into the atmosphere?

If people and nature and markets finally reached a limit, and things broke down -- what then? What then is we need to give up on returning to that “comfortable” dream and get to work designing a sustainable system that benefits and respects all of us and the planet we rode in on.

We need a restructuring, a redesign, a new direction. Our "normal" system has turned into a low-wage, everything-to-the-top economy and this must be restructured.

The Restructuring

The core of what needs to be restructured is that we have a system where people with power and wealth benefit when they figure out how to cause other people to receive lower pay and benefits -- or just lose their jobs. The incentives come down to this: if someone can figure out how to cut your pay and benefits or just get rid of you (“eliminate your position”) they get to pocket what you were making, and you get nothing. If you don't own the company you're out of luck.

Now that is a perverse incentive if there ever was one. (Another perverse incentive: People with power and wealth benefit when they "externalize" costs like environmental or health damages. If they figure out how to hurt you or the planet without having to pay the costs of healing those harms, they get to pocket the savings.)

In the past this perverse incentive was mitigated by people banding together in governments and/or unions and forcing the wealthy and powerful to share. But modern marketing science has been successful at making people believe that government and unions are bad for them.

This was also mitigated by the ongoing need to find people to do the jobs that needed to get done. But with continual improvements in technology this need is reduced. For example, here is a story about a factory that builds large-screen TVs without any employees.

Also, this perverse incentive assumes an infinite pool of customers to sell to, ignoring that the transaction of benefiting from eliminating a job also eliminates a customer. But modern business has become so efficient at job elimination that this comes into play. Who will be able to buy theTVs that the employee-eliminating factory makes, if all the employees are eliminated and have no income?

Three decades ago productivity and wages decoupled. Where wages used to always increase along with productivity Reagan initiated an era where that increase was no longer shared, and the benefits of our economy now increasingly flow to the few at the top. Now they have all the money, and everyone else is loaded with debt from just trying to keep things "normal."

You might be lucky enough to still have a job today but you probably haven’t had a raise for a long time. And if you did rising costs of health care, etc. took it back. But even if you are ahead, what about tomorrow? Do you have a job that absolutely can't be outsourced or replaced by technology? If you think so I have news for you, millions of newly-unemployed can see that you have a rare necessary job, and they're all going to try to get it from you.

So good luck with the Jobs Summit. But if we don't hear about a fundamental restructuring that involves changing basic ideas of what work means and who "owns" the companies and shares the wealth in a technologically advanced, overpopulated and overproducing world, well, I won't think we're hearing the answers we need to hear. Put more simply, my example of the employee-eliminating TV factory is becoming more and more real. But certainly something can be done with a situation where there are plenty of TVs being made, and everyone has a lot of free time because there aren't enough jobs. How obvious is the answer to that?

Yes, I'll be posting ideas so check back for future posts on this. In the meantime please leave a comment with your ideas.

Posted by Dave Johnson at December 2, 2009 7:57 AM


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