Happy Parasites and Moochers Day
For this, our country’s annual recognition of the contributions of working people (or as I like to call them, “wealth creators”), I thought I’d examine the current up-is-down understanding of economics by the average citizen – particularly the average self-described conservative citizen – and the entireity of the business media.
My first thought was about how we have a Labor Day for honoring workers, but no Masters of the Universe Day for honoring our Galtian (aka “Job Creator”) overlords…then I was reminded of the question that most kids get around to asking their parents at one point or another, and the inevitable response they get in return: “how come there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day but there’s no Children’s Day?” which is usually answered with the universal response: “that’s because every day is Children’s Day.” And so it goes in our country and economy: we spend one day of the year recognizing the people who actually do the work that generates the wealth, and the rest of the days lauding the people who profit from their labor and trying to help them profit even more. But fear not; I’m sure in the near future Fox News will point out how heartless we’ve been for not setting aside a special day for recognizing the contributions of those who own us all, and will whip up the anger and rage of the barely sentient lifeforms who make up their viewing audience in favor of creating such a holiday. It will be a working holiday of course; it would be just wrong to make it a paid day off. In fact, it probably should be a day in which we all contribute our labor, free of pay, in gratitude to those who out of the goodness of their hearts “give” us jobs.
It wasn’t always so. We’ve gone from a nation where, as recently as 40 years ago, an elected official wouldn’t dare insult workers by suggesting they were overpaid or otherwise a drag on national progress and productivity, to one where the ordinary people whose work creates the wealth of the nation are routinely insulted with the suggestion that they are superfluous. Teachers and other public employees are regularly derided for what is described as overly-generous compensation and benefits plans, while at the same time the value of their work is given short shrift. During the last few very difficult years, we’ve been treated more than once to claims by elected officials – who are, after all, our employees – that the unemployed are lazy and merely riding the dole, completely ignoring the reality that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around – the result, in many cases, of these same public employees’ efforts to stymie economic recovery in order to bolster their own chances of electoral success.
The fact is, the history of our country, like the history of the rest of the world, is a history documenting the theft of labor. Up until the 1860’s we were at least honest and forthright about it; no one, not even slaveowners themselves, was under any delusion that slavery didn’t constitute the theft of labor. This theft isn’t unique to capitalist economic systems, either – the Soviets were every bit as guilty of stealing the labor of the many for the benefit of the few, and to make things worse, did so in a particularly heavy-handed way that brooked no objection or dissent.
In the past 40 years, labor theft has made a big comeback here in the US; not surprisingly, this has coincided with the erosion of the power of unions. Lest you think the term “labor theft” is being overly dramatic, consider the following: at this point in time, the six members of the Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune built by founders Sam and Bud Walton, have a net worth equal to that of the poorest 41% of Americans. That kind of discrepancy can only occur when people are not being fairly compensated for their labor, and in fact, we know this is what is going on with Wal-Mart: the company is rabidly anti-union and regularly uses tricks such as the 35-hour workweek to avoid paying for health insurance for workers; it relies on slave and near-slave labor overseas for producing products at the lowest possible cost to stock its stores; it’s been caught red-handed breaking minimum-wage and other labor laws, particularly when dealing with illegal workers; and it shamelessly offloads the consequences of underpaying its workers onto federal, state, and local governments, going so far as to hold seminars to instruct workers on how to apply and qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs that we all pay for. Wal-Mart isn’t alone in these practices, either – the majority of profitable chain businesses in the US are also underpaying their workers. It’s just that Wal-Mart offers such a glaring example of why all the whining about how put-upon the so-called “job creators” are is such patent bullshit. Seriously, is it possible that these 6 people contribute more to the country’s GDP than the 41% of Americans whose net worth their fortunes exceed? Not a chance. And that’s before we even consider that these folks are the heirs of the men who actually had the bright idea and built the company. No, the heirs didn’t build that – so why should it be priority number one in this country to make sure they not only get to keep it all, but that we make it even easier to help them get even more?
As I’ve noted before, a capitalist economy is kind of like a huge poker game – it can only keep going as long as more than one player has some scratch in the game. It also mimicks a poker game in the tendency for most of the wealth, over time, to accumulate into just a few hands. When that happens, it’s game over.
None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with a business owner generating some profit from the labor of his employees. That is, after all, the whole idea behind capitalism. The question is, how much of that profit should go to the owner? The truism that one of our political parties, most of our wealthy citizens, and the entire business media would like for us to ignore is that no one has ever become a billionaire through his own labor alone. Wealthy people become wealthy as a result of how successful they are in profiting from the labor of others. Sometimes, they have a good idea, which coupled with the labor of others, generates great wealth for them. And oftentimes, they just are good at profiting from other people’s labor. In the 2000’s, we saw productivity gains of 20% in the US, none of which went to workers, who were, after all, the primary generators of those gains. And so we find ourselves today in a position where 6 people are worth more than 41% of our citizenry – 6 people who didn’t “build that” but rather, inherited it.
Government has only two ways to slow down the corrosive concentration of wealth that spells stagnation for a capitalist economy. One is mandating higher minimum wages, and the other is higher taxation on great wealth. For the past 30 years, one of our political parties has dedicated itself to blocking both of those mechanisms, and today we are living with the results. Rather than face the reality, however, they retreat further and further into fantasies about “job creators,” ignoring that most basic economic rule of supply and demand – jobs are only created when there is a demand for the goods or services they produce; they are not created out of the goodness of some multi-millionaire or billionaire’s heart, because spending money on hiring workers to do work for which there is no demand is roughly equivalent to setting the money on fire. Our economy sucks because too many people have too little money to drive the demand necessary for full employment; they have too little money because too few people are hoarding most of it.
I have recently had an epiphany, in which it occured to me that in this era of grotesque wealth for the few and growing poverty for the many, one of the most popular shows on television focuses on people who have a mental illness that causes them to hold on to physical objects for which they have no need or use. Millions tune in to tsk-tsk these poor, obviously ill individuals who live in houses stuffed with garbage, and then turn the channel to watch other individuals who do things like spend $100,000 on handbags, who they envy and wish to emulate. But how is one any different than the other? If hoarding is an illness marked by an inability to let go of anything and a desire to accumulate ever more, whether it is needed or useful or not, how is it any different to feel that $500 million, $1 billion, $5 billion, or $20 billion isn’t enough? Sure, the money hoarders aren’t living in garbage dumps, but isn’t the irrational need to continue accumulating more than you need or can ever use the same? The man, or woman, with a billion dollars could lose half of it today and it would change the way they live not one iota. So why do they fight so hard, and so dirty, for even more, at the expense of the people who have generated that wealth for them?
It will be a great day when we as a nation wake up and recognize wealth hoarding as an illness rather than a goal to emulate. In the meantime, would it be too much to insist that our national policy not be driven by the mental illness of a handful of people for whom even “all of it” would not be enough?
I’ll close my Labor Day rant, which might at first glance seem to have wandered a bit far afield, with this news item in which Australian mining heiress Gina Rinehart, one of the richest women in the world worth some $20 billion, complains bitterly about “class warfare” – not, of course, the warfare she and her peers have engaged in, but the “warfare” that results when the proles who made her wealthy question how the pie is being divvied up – and suggests the following:
“There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire,” she writes. “If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.”
Got that? The heiress, who didn’t “build that,” thinks the reason all you poors aren’t rich like her is because you’re laying about drinking. Looking at her, I can’t help but think it has yet to occur to her that perhaps she could spend less time eating. But I digress. Rinehart goes on to elaborate what’s wrong with Australia, and it’s strikingly similar to what Mitt Romney is telling us is wrong with America: rich people pay too much taxes, businesses are regulated to make sure they follow the rules, and poor people make too much money (the Australian minimum wage is about equivalent to the US minimum wage). She goes on to issue the same veiled threats we hear whenever our own MOTU are in danger of paying a few percent more in taxes: if you tax us, it will only hurt you, because it won’t be worth it anymore for us to continue to try to make scads of cash.
And this is where we bring it back home: when we recognize that these people suffer from a mental illness, we can stop worrying about their idle threats to “go Galt,” to take their fortunes and “screw you guys, I’m goin’ HOME.” They can’t do it; their illness won’t allow it. They must have more; they live for more. Making it a little harder for them to get it won’t stop them; it will merely insure that the rest of us don’t suffer as much as result of their illness.
So that’s my wish for this Labor Day – that people will wake up and recognize that the idle threats of the wealthy are exactly that; that they need us more than we need them; and that we will stop allowing a bunch of mentally ill people to dictate economic, tax, and labor policy. It’s a tall order, but not one that would be all that difficult to fill. All it takes is for us to recognize our own power – we are the source of their wealth – and their weakness – enough will never be enough.
Update: In the truth is stranger than fiction department, it seems my suggestion for Fox News to rile up the mouth-breathers was scooped by this essay in today’s Wall Street Journal. However, after reading through it and noticing that the author is a retired labor and employment attorney, I have a sneaking suspicion that the WSJ just got trolled, and like their brain-dead brethren who have yet to figure out that Stephen Colbert is a parody of a Fox News host, it completely eluded them that the author was being tongue-in-cheek.
h/t to commenter RSA at Balloon Juice for the link.