How we view our history and future can be skewed, or even screwed if we don't see either well. I promised my readers I would…
Jobs, Jobs and Job
Jobs, we all want jobs. Or so we repeatedly hear. I don’t join that throng. I’m at that place in life where I only want to do what I want to do, and that is to serve this wayward, wanting world. Yet, as I listened to C-SPAN programs of election debates across the country in this 2014 election season, “creating jobs” was the main mantra. Millions of offshored jobs, and then a lasting recession. People are desperate for jobs, any jobs, doing any work, for any pay. We’re out of work and we’re out of worth.
It isn’t your fault; things have changed. The GDP and employment used to rebound fairly reliably from recessions. From WWII to the 1980’s it took 6 months to recover from recessions. But in 1990 it took 15 months. In 2001 it took 39 months. For our recent one, it’s 41 months and counting.
We heard lots about the “job creators” from the very politicians who avoided mentioning those with lots of money to create jobs ─ weren’t. There is an estimated $20 Trillion stashed in off-shore tax havens. Even industries that depend on currency – that is, the constant turn-over of money – are afraid to invest for fear there is no one able to buy their stuff.
It isn’t as though the wealthy want to create jobs to give people a fair chance in life or to be nice to them. Most jobs are simply functions that earn more than they cost. People are paid money in a job to earn their employer more money than it costs the employer to hire the employee. It can be a fair deal, each providing the other with something they need. And it can be an unfair deal where many are like slaves while a few get rich.
When I was building rock walls I came upon a big opportunity to build a thousand feet of 4 foot high rock retaining wall with 7 sets of steps, all in a hurry. I became an employer and hired the same people I had been working for. We put up the wall on time. I paid them all the wages they were due, all the taxes on those wages, and had so much money left over I shared the profits in bonuses with them and still made myself plenty. It didn’t seem fair to take so much when we had all worked about the same.
Earlier, as an employee, I might have resented “taxes” when I saw a portion of my wages taken by the government. What I didn’t realize then was that the taxes were mostly a sort of savings and safety net for me. The bulk were for Social Security, which now, gratefully, I live on. I don’t join that shallow slogan that ‘government is our enemy.’ It may be one of our only allies, though we’ve lost the faith that it can be and should be.
I barely noticed that my employer had to match my contribution and then pay all these other little taxes, like state and federal Unemployment, Workmen’s Compensation Insurance, and for some jobs, Holiday, Vacation, and Sick pay, Health Insurance, and Retirement. What I barely noticed as an employee I very much noticed as an employer.
All the expenses and reporting suddenly were upon me. I saw how it is employers can resent taxes and government regulations. The forms from the government are demanding and seem demeaning. Even the font on the forms seemed angry and arrogant. Small type in boxy letters demanding detailed compliance to obscure offices for unstated reasons on arbitrarily-numbered forms ─ is off-putting.
Yet, I came to see it was all part of an integrated society-wide system that tends to our overall economic needs in life, for emergencies during it, and for some income in the final phases of it. But this sense of reciprocity and shared life needs seems now lost. We’re losing the sense of “we’re in this together,” even though we ultimately are.
I think a lot of non-understanding and consequent resentment – towards employees and the unemployed, towards the employer, towards the government – would be lessened if everyone were to be taught the reasons for these various taxes and if employees were to realize all the extra nagging bookkeeping and costs employers must do and pay.
Instead of “we’re in this together” for employers and employees, or our relations with our government ─ or for relations with our environment for that matter – we assume self-interest. Unions and manufacturers, employees and employers, business and our environment – we’ve come to see each as having to fight for their share.
For over a half century, the sharing hasn’t been fair and it hasn’t gone well.
I can remember thinking, “I can do better than my Dad.” He was a mechanical engineer making about $6000 a year in 1950. Now I make double that! Except that income in today’s dollars would be more like $60,000, and I make only about a fourth of that.
Inflation and banking keep tricking us. A house that costs about $4000 in 1938 would cost about $65,000 now (16 X) if all that factored in was inflation. But buying on credit puts the final cost at $245,000 now (61 X). Of course, wages have inflated too. An income of $1731 in 1938 inflates to $28,671 now. So, while wages and housing have increased equally about 16 times due to inflation, our income, assets and abilities haven’t stayed equal because of interest on loans. Our wages have been flat for decades while our costs for housing, health care, transportation, energy, education and taxes have all inflated enormously.
But here’s the kicker: the only thing we’re griping about is the taxes. All the rest we assume are fair and we can’t do anything about them anyway. To the extent our government might address those other rising costs is deliberately undermined. How can we reign in usurious banking, or the Fed, or overly expensive health and education when the only agency to address or regulate such things has become our collective whipping boy? We diss, defund, and destroy the only government we have, the one that was to be ours after hundreds of years of self-government. Ironic, ey?
Pay no attention to the CEOs who made 30 times the typical worker’s wage in 1960, or that it was up to 75 times by 1990 and 300 times by 2001! Though they get that high pay to eliminate our jobs while investing in distant slave-like labor and robots, they’re called “job creators.” Ironic.
Pay no attention to the Pew Research reports that show most Republicans and 90% of Democrats favor a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. We’re told this is a “job killer” and that the poor “job creators” can’t afford it.
Pay no attention to the $20 trillion hidden in off-shore tax havens or the almost universal tactic of avoiding taxes. Let’s undermine our government and assume instead that private corporations will look out for our best interests – like Enron did.
We’re stuck in technological and economic changes far more complex and endemic to our times than anything Obama did or could fix. So we tend to place great hope in entrepreneurs who innovate new businesses, like Steve Jobs did. Jobs founded Apple Computers, a giant of jobs.
Steve Jobs was a wizard of design. He, like a Zen monk, said, “Be as simple as you can be and you will be astonished at how uncomplicated and happy your life will become,” excellent Zennish advice. He put that meditative tool into the very design of the Apple computers, iPods, and iPhones.
Simple, but able. His designs were far more consumer-based than the dominate business computer model. “Put power and beauty in the hands of ordinary people and see what happens.” Suddenly, our culture could forget manufacturing and grow adept with information. We can do more art and play games watch movies and track stocks, but we forget how to make and maintain our own stuff. We import from distant places, generating huge profits for ever fewer people. Soon we have a glut of computers and cheap stuff, but our lives, businesses and government are being emptied.
I have thousands of dollars of now worthless computers in my garage. I have magnificent access to information on the Web, along with viruses, targeted ads, and invisible snooping on me. I love computers when they work, which can be as much as a fourth of the time! Friends, it all feels vapid and precarious.
So, yes, I admire Steve Jobs for being a tenacious innovator, but no, I don’t admire him for putting Apple’s address in a state that avoided paying taxes in the state it actually used. I don’t admire the so-called “job creators” who are riding on their enormous wealth to nowhere. They make millions of times more than we do, but they aren’t millions of times happier.
But who cares? There is almost no care for those without jobs. Save yourself and compete. Join the unemployment process to compete with others in driving wages down. Ignore that we’ve been “trickled down on” for decades, and instead praise and elect those who will do it more.
Richard Wolf, writing about all the subsidies Detroit gave to its auto companies (that then re-invested it in other countries) notes that to have a “middle class” equal to that of the 50s and 60s, we’d have to have one person from the family making $130,000 a year. To be “well-off” it’d have to be $150,000. Today, only one in eight families has this. Almost 90% don’t and don’t know what to do about it. Even our total wealth is down. Our wealth (equity in our houses, cars, bonds, and savings) went from about $87,000 in 2003 to $66,000 in 2013. Collectively, we’re declining.
Why do I bring you all this dismal news in a sermon? To remind us all that we’re in something together that is beyond us individually. Typically, people don’t act well when stress and strife are on the rise. We get anxious. We don’t spend. We don’t speak up. We put up with jobs we don’t really believe in. We start to turn on each other. We grow cynical and apathetic about our government. We can’t fix it. We can only watch it decline and try to cling to those we love and where we’re trying to live.
When scientists put dogs in an electrified cage and repeatedly shocked them they winced and wined at the pain but wouldn’t leave when the door was left open. I think of this when reflecting on the last election. Those who utterly clogged and ruined our government were elected to run it. We stay stuck in our familiar cages, hurting, insecure, but ‘hanging in there.’
If you feel alone, you’re like lots of us, lost in a mutual mess, aware of great wealth for movie stars, athletes, and investors, but not great wealth or even bare wealth for most of us. Like Elizabeth Warren says, “The game is rigged.”
Partly, it is deliberately rigged by those who can afford to sway our elections and fund our politicians. Partly it is rigged by robotization, the creation of machines to do what people used to do. (It isn’t just the cotton gin that put people out of work.) Partly it is rigged by desperate people in foreign lands working in harsh conditions for paltry wages far lower than we can accept. Partly it is rigged by the mantra, the assumption, the slogan, that the market is somehow rational and virtuous. The market isn’t reliably virtuous, it’s regularly vicious. It doesn’t have to care about you or us, and it doesn’t care. We’re left to scramble for jobs, any jobs, doing anything, no matter how wasteful or destructive.
What do jobs give us? Pay, of course; we need money to live. But people want more than pay. We want worth. We want to put our life energy into something that we’re proud of, something fair, something that serves the whole, not exploits the whole. We want to feel good about what we do. We want to be good for our society and world. We’re trying to be good at this, to find “right livelihood,” but it seems the forces are against us.
Steve Jobs did everything right in terms of making new products and making money, yet he was cursed with pancreatic cancer. Just as Americans seemed to do everything right in terms of being church-going believers, we fell into empire decline, with rising unemployment and declining security. No jobs, no Steve Jobs, we’re like Job in the Bible.
Perhaps the oldest story in the Bible, the righteous man Job is tested by Satan with the loss of his empire and health. He did not complain he didn’t deserve it, as his three friends suggested. He did not blame God for being unjust or unkind for failing to protect His believer. Rather, though he dared to express his ire directly to God, he also admitted God’s wisdom and ways are far beyond Job’s ability to understand. He even prays to God to save his three theologian friends from punishment for their presumptuous logic. This very act of compassion brakes the cycles of doom besetting him and he is finally rewarded with more than he ever had, living 140 years more.
What could this mean for us? The jobs we think we so desperately lack and want – perhaps it is something else that we really want. Perhaps we really want to be proud of doing work that serves the whole of humanity and life, not that which just generates income upward to those who will never be happy with too much. We want pleasure and plenty in life, not just pay. We want self-worth from the work we do.
When all the abundance of our former wealth is stripped away, there’s no sense blaming God, thinking we know the reason for what seems like punishment. Perhaps the jobs were part of an unethical, un-ecological system that as much created waste and scarcity as abundance. And even if we’re like Steve Jobs, a modern wealthy wizard, we’re still susceptible to the ravages of life. It isn’t God punishing us and it won’t work to blame God for it. Elizabeth Warren is right to say the system is rigged. But that’s just the system. Beyond it, there’s random trouble for individuals and times of trial for whole societies. It isn’t explainable by theological speculation, or solved by railing at God, or merely believing.
But asking for mercy for our fellow-sufferers, by keeping a heart of compassion for those beyond us who think they know, but don’t, who don’t suffer as much as we do, but yet suffer, by reaching out of our own pain to ease that of others – this provides the magic relief. This turns the tale from totally tragic to mutually saved and redeemed. This is America’s trial.
America is like Job, seeing its once booming jobs and middle class drawn into a vacuum of loss and meaninglessness. Our practical and spiritual strength is tossed about and tested. We want worth in our work, fair pay for our life’s time, systems that generate abundance rather than scarcity. We see rich people as empty of happiness as the poor are of pay. There’s no sense blaming God. The forces are beyond logic and justice. Yet we’re mutually caught up in them. We’re all hurting. We’re like Job, lacking jobs. Even our rich are caught up in this. What can we do?
Don’t turn on yourself. Don’t turn on each other. Don’t turn on God. Turn to yourself and to each other with compassion and healing that is beyond blame and complaint. Move with a sense of mutuality. In our mutual care reside the keys that unlock our common healing.
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© November 9th, 2014