Perspectives: A Review of 2011
(Swans - December 19, 2011)
As the latest unemployment numbers, which show improvement, are bandied about by pundits and academics who see the statistics as either validating their economic theories or invalidating those of their ideological opponents, I must remark about how this year has been one that has put economic theory ahead of the human tragedies that have unfolded because of lingering joblessness, continuing bank failures (yes, these are still occurring), and entire countries (e.g., Greece) teetering on the precipice of financial ruin. All of the big corporate networks still somehow believe that the current economic malaise can be filtered through the lens of either laissez faire (i.e., classical liberalism) or Keynesianism (i.e., interventionism) economics. The laissez faire economists claim that excessive government spending has led to the current state whereas the interventionists' claim that the loosening of controls over the financial sector has led to the current situation. Each side blames the other for the situation as well as blaming the other for not accepting its prescription for improving the economy: that is, boosting the economy to push unemployment down to an "acceptable" level. Yet both approaches are problematic, not only because they hold that there ought to be an acceptable level of unemployment (as opposed to finding unacceptable any level of unemployment) but that government -- whether through positive or negative force -- can steer the market in a bountiful direction. Both positions seem to hold that the market is a mechanism that can change direction with the pull or push of a lever here or there. I used to think this way myself but this is a mistaken assumption.
This idea of the market as a mechanism -- which is unmistakably an Enlightenment conception -- still dominates political and economic discourse as a given. But 1) is the market truly a mechanism, and 2) do individuals within a market economy all make informed rational choices? We have learned this year that the markets rejoice or swoon based upon short-term indicators such as current unemployment numbers, consumer index adjustments, retail numbers for the holiday season: all what I refer to as atomic facts. They are isolated, trivial bits of data: neither in and of themselves predictors of future economic growth or decline. But with respect to unemployment data, employers have simply stopped hiring, and while our political leaders talk about creating jobs, there is no will to do so: corporations, as opposed to jobless individuals, still are the ones who line the pockets of politicians and influence votes. If it was in the interests of corporations to hire en masse, our political leaders would immediately jump on that train. The fact that Newt Gingrinch can still manage to get away with claiming that poor kids need janitorial jobs programs to give them an incentive to work speaks volumes about the attitudes of our political system toward the less fortunate: that in essence, if you are poor or unemployed, you are entirely responsible for your state. We are a far cry from 2008 when banks were called out by both Republicans and Democrats for their reckless greed. Unfortunately, it is lost on people that banks helped to foster this crisis but we also have to consider other factors such as the exportation of labor, which has enabled rich nations such as the United States to allow their businesses to ship jobs overseas and provide tax cuts to those businesses. In essence the political establishment has paid companies to close shop here to emerge in foreign lands where a legal respect for labor is nonexistent.
The problem with the entire way that America does business is that it simply sees labor as a cost and not an investment. According to this model, labor is expendable whereas the dollar never is: product or service quality be damned, as long as the worker can produce something that a consumer will pay for. But to see labor as an investment gives the worker the incentive to produce at a higher quality than he or she would otherwise do and take pride in what they do. Being a disposable worker or temporary worker, because of uncertainty regarding job security, is a distraction that can interfere with worker concentration and his/her commitment to production goals. It is no mistake that in recent years, news of product recalls is ubiquitous (you can see numerous listings on the Web site of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission). Since workers are no longer viewed as investments, employers have favored short-term growth over long-term growth because they view workers as interchangeable and therefore replaceable. Yet greed, in the form of the need for short-term profit (and lots of it), is an irrational force: something that does not factor in to the decisions of supposedly rational agents in a free market economy.
I ride a bus daily to work: a bus that connects the D.C. metro to Howard County, MD. This bus service is consistently terrible: the drivers often run late and the company that runs the bus service (which receives county and state funding) often will knowingly send out buses that have mechanical problems. Complaints about the bus service go unresolved as drivers who have a history of incompetence still drive for the service. But because this bus service provides the only connection between D.C. and Howard County, the bus service feels no need to upgrade its service or fire problem drivers: that is, it continues to provide the lowest passable level of service because it has no competition that will otherwise make it compete for customers or strive to retain existing customers. But this is the discussion that we are not having in the media: that American companies, both public and private, have lost the commitment to quality because as consumers, we've encouraged this with our long and steady diet of the cheap and accessible, from shopping at Walmart, from absorbing Kardashian reality TV, to identifying intelligence at the high school or college level with passing a cookie cutter, standardized exam of isolated, trivial facts that requires not one iota of critical analysis.
I heard Obama on the tube yesterday discussing the middle class and how galvanizing support for the middle class is a moral imperative. What? Where has this Obama been? Last I heard Obama speak similarly, it was on the campaign trail before he was elected. All that I have to say here is to not be fooled by this new-found commitment to the middle class by this president; because the last time I checked, Wall Street shucksters, hustlers, and insiders, such as Timothy Geithner, still sit in Obama's inner circle of economic advisers.
I won't say too much here except to discuss what is now the cult of technology. The nationwide sadness over the death of Steve Jobs a few months ago took on an almost religious fervor. Are we to now view technological innovators and enablers as godlike? Should we expect the same outpouring of emotion when Bill Gates dies, when Linus Torvalds dies, or when Mark Zuckerberg dies?
We are a society that not only cannot be without its technology but that certain forms of technology are necessary to one's survival or social standing. I know friends, family, and pupils of mine who have told me that they would plunk down a thousand dollars for a cellular device if it was simply the "latest" thing.
The myth of technophilia is that the most recent is the best or most efficient, which requires that the consumer continually spend money, even if the most recent toy satisfies his or her needs.
Who would have thought that in this post-metaphysical, post-religious age that we would still have a need to make messiahs out of the Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerbergs of the world? That the material wealth these individuals generate for themselves and others should be of no surprise, which factors in our worship of them -- they should not be taxed because they innovate. Do they? Or do they make us more dependent upon the tools that they create? Strange that the dependence upon another man's (or woman's) creation -- which is what technology essentially is -- should be so lauded.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)