Huffington Post republished an article from the New York Times that outlines the impact of austerity on the job market. Deficit-cutting mania has impacted the unemployment rate by as much as 1%. It has also hurt economic growth, which would generate even more jobs. Without taking sides, the article describes inaction by the Republican Party, which has contributed to the current state of the economy. For my part, I would also take the President to task for not doing a better job of communicating the problem to the American people. His willingness to compromise and look for a “Grand Bargain” has made a confusing situation worse. Bottom line: Government action – not deficit reduction – will generate jobs.
Travis Waldron of Think Progress has written a thoughtful piece about tax cuts and their false promise of job creation. States that cut taxes most also had the slowest pace of job growth. Worse still, several of these states want to give more tax cuts and balance them by raising taxes on low and middle income families.
I’m not an economist, but I do know this: If consumers have less money to spend, there will be more job cuts. Austerity and tax cuts do not create jobs.
[On Sunday, this blog explores different aspects of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
The Right Kind of Work
Even when English majors studied Victorian literature, few learned the name of William Morris (1834-1896), who was a poet, novelist, essayist, artist, and textile designer. Morris believed that art and design go together. He also believed that most people could bring some kind of art or creativity to their work.
Penguin Books has published a small paperback collection of Morris’ essays that is entitled Useful Work Versus Useless Toil. The title essay addresses many concerns that still plague us in 2012. Morris criticizes the rich as doing no work and producing nothing. He says the middle class are little better because they aspire to be like the rich, people who “will not have to work at all.” Most people fit in neither of these classes. Their work is drudgery and supports those on the upper levels of society.
What should work be? Morris linked it to the word hope: “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure.” Hope of Rest is what it seems, having time to live outside of work, especially in retirement. Hope of Product is that we can make something of use, something “Nature compels us to work for.” Hope of Pleasure focuses on the kind of work that makes the person doing it feel engaged in body and mind. Morris’ vision of what work brings is radical beyond anything imagined today: “Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.”
Morris imagined a time when machines would let people enjoy more leisure time. However, he doubted that the current system would let such a revolution take place, since “capital” drove wealth to the upper classes and asked for more work from the lower. Clearly, this critique would make sense to the Occupy protesters in America and their fellow protesters in Greece and Spain, who are asked to endure austerity for debts run up by their governments and the banks they serve. Morris sums the problem up in these words: “For all our crowded towns and bewildering factories are simply the outcome of the profit system.”
For Morris, our society will change with our work: “To compel a man to day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment.” This sentence might initial make us think of factory works, the kind that Charlie Chaplin spoofed in Modern Times. But many people we know, white collar workers, face a similar torment of meaningless work in sales, analysis, and service. The workload is unending without any sense of producing a meaningful product.
Would Morris see our time as no better than his? To some degree, I think he would. Too many people work at jobs that give them no pleasure. They work for money. Most of the wealth they produce floats up and away from them. However, there is a trend that I think Morris would cheer: the craft movement. From small farms to craft brewers and coffee roasters to independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners, all are working with the kind of “hope” that Morris advocates. Mass produced products still dominate the market, but it is possible to enjoy and support the work of a craft worker. Too many people still buy Bud at Wal-Mart and eat breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner) at McDonalds. Often, it is all they can afford, the outcome of a rigged system. Even so, new options are growing by the day, which gives us hope that someday “useless toil” will give way to “useful work,” the kind of work that makes us happy.
Common Dreams reports on recent protests against in the U.S. and Canada. In one instance, Philadelphia is proposing to cut 40% of its public schools. In Canada, fees for university students have seen major increases (82%). The government added insult to injury by passing a law to restrict demonstrations by students. That didn’t stop a crowd estimated at 100,000 from protesting. The Philadelphia protest was much smaller, but it was still a sign of working people and the poor fighting back.
Access to education is the only hope the poor and working class have to enter the middle class. Everyone needs to think about how we enact “austerity” in a way that still gives people a chance at a better life. Better still, let’s replace austerity with investment.
If we don’t do that, democracy is a joke and capitalism is a rigged game.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is a great economist. That said, I hope his latest column misses the mark. Reich says the American economy has “stalled.” He attributes the problem to cutbacks in government spending, which we have also seen in several European countries. Then Reich digs deeper: “But widening inequality is the underlying culprit here. As long as almost all the gains from economic growth continue to go to the top, the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to boost the economy on its own.” This argument makes sense. Still, I hope he’s missing something.
Common Dreams reports on the global impact of austerity programs, especially how they are impacting job growth. Citing a recent report by the International Labor Organization, the authors note that countries embracing cost cutting programs have seen the worst job losses (in the U.S., see Wisconsin). They argue that government intervention will do more to spur job growth. I think the scariest news comes at the end of the article when the authors cite the ILO report finding “a downward spiral of wages.” Fewer jobs. Workers with less income and security. Who wins this game? The 1%.
Spain’s two biggest unions have called for a general strike this Thursday to protest deep cuts the government is making, big cuts ($40 billion) that will hit working people and the poor hardest. According to Katherine Ainger of the Guardian (via Common Dreams), 30% of working people will be joined on the strike by an “invisible” group of the unemployed, many of whom are younger than 30.
What’s happening in Spain and other European countries should be a wake up to citizens in the U.S. Austerity only benefits bankers and the investment class. The same people who devised schemes to put working people and the middle class deep into debt are now coming after the government’s money, which is our tax money. Rather than taxes going to fund schools and health care, it will be a brighter day for the fat and happy 1%.
Working people need to wake up and stand up. Hopefully, Spain will set a good example this Thursday.
In Greece, workers have responded to government austerity plans with a two day general strike. The country’s minimum wage has been cut by 22% and over 150,000 public workers are set to lose their jobs. Who will win? Bankers and their servants in the government.
Belgium firefighters turned their hoses on riot police in protest of an austerity plan that will raise their retirement age. Again, working people pay for the mistakes of politicians and their allies in the financial sector.
Police officers are striking for higher pay in Brazil, a country that does not have to play the austerity game. In this case, workers are using leverage by striking at the beginning of a popular tourist season (carnival) and just two years before the country hosts the World Cup. Criminals, naturally, have been taking advantage of police-free streets, which is forcing the government to call in the military to perform police duties.
Moral of the story: Working people are not happy with the governments that are supposed to represent them but only serve the interest of big money. Faced with low wages and cuts, working people are taking the only action that makes sense – stop working.