January 07, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay

Brought to You By Peet's Coffee.

As I've said before, if Barack Obama is reelected, then Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis should win the Most Valuable Player award going away. The official unemployment rate, U-3, keeps dropping, now down to 8.5%, despite two facts that would appear to make such a development mathematically impossible. (1) The actual number of jobs in America has not increased, holding steady at around 140 million. (2) The working age population continues to increase, month by month, year by year, and is now about 250 million. Using our fifth grade math, we can simplify terms and create the fraction 14/25. To convert this to a percentage, we divide the numerator by the denominator, and we get about 56%. 56% of the working age population in the United States, other than those in prison, the military or mental hospitals, have jobs.

I would guess that a very large percentage of those with these jobs hate their work and wish they didn't have to work. Such thoughts usually bring me around to thinking about Emile Durkheim, the famous social theorist who gave us the term "organic solidarity" to describe the economies of advanced industrial nations. Durkheim was referring to specialization, that rat-race arrangement that Henry David Thoreau, writing around the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, tried to warn us against. Society in modern countries has become a kind of "organism," a complicated, interrelated contraption in which we perform specialized functions to satisfy our various "needs," such as the need to undergo a weekly spiritual lobotomy while watching "American Idol" or "Dancing With The Stars."

Nevertheless, despite this proliferation of "needs," the actual requirements remain those of the evolved homo sapiens, as described in Walden: maintaining one's vital heat. With modern technology, this is not really that hard to do. For example, I wear clothes, as all non-nudists do. I buy mostly discount clothing at Costco, stuff arrayed on the big tables. Khaki pants, jeans, polo shirts. It's all cheap and it gets the job done. You don't have to spend more than 12 bucks for a pair of pants made in India or Vietnam. I have shirts in my closet that I've had for 20 years. They're in good shape, too; I'm easy on stuff. America makes about 7% of its own clothing these days, down about 80% over the last 40 years. At the next layer of heat maintenance, I have a house. It's about 50 years old, in decent shape, and it retains heat, not as well as it should (it's an American house), but it's warmer in here than outside. I heat it with a furnace fueled with natural gas. America produces a lot of its own natural gas. The electricity for the lights and the various gadgets in the house is furnished by PG&E, and this utility (very hip and committed to the battle against climate change) produces power through natural gas, hydroelectric dams and nuclear power, for the most part. I use compact flourescents for the lighting.

I eat fairly low on the food chain, and much of the food, including the beef, is produced locally. We have a big "local food" movement in my county, and it works fine.

So that's it. All of my needs are met. I can stay alive with what I've just listed above. When you think about it, America needs far, far fewer than 140 million people with jobs to get the things done I've just listed. Farming, for example, has mostly become agri-business and is not labor intensive except for certain crops at harvest, and probably more Mexicans and Guatemalans do that work in America than Americans. As noted, we don't make our own clothing anymore; 12 year old girls in Asian countries handle that for us. The energy industries hire a lot of people, but increasingly that work is mechanized as well. Auto manufacturing and sales in the USA are on a steady decline; the 250 million cars and trucks we already have are increasingly being kept for longer periods of time as the economy stagnates. You can fix your beater instead of replacing it every three years just for show, and avoid investing a ton of dough in an immediately depreciating hunk of metal, leather and rubber.

We need trades people, of course, plumbers and carpenters. We need doctors (far fewer than we have and better allocated to useful specialties), accountants and lawyers, although we could probably get by better with about 1/4th the number of attorneys we have. We need teachers to train people in the skills they will need to participate in the "organic" society, an admittedly kind of circular logic.

I really wonder what the "core" number of workers that we need to make society function actually is. It's pretty easy to list completely superfluous professions and occupations: nail salon workers; cosmetic plastic surgery people; tanning salon owners; party planners; wedding planners; florists; financial planners; workers in luxury car factories; personal trainers; 90% of the movie stars and movie makers; radio "personalities;" 90% of the politicians; professional athletes; NASCAR drivers; runway models; anyone named Kardashian; tabloid publishers, editors and writers; 85% of the real estate brokers; the lower half of the island of Manhattan; 80% of federal employees, most of them duplicating work that could be done at the local level; 80% of those in the military, many of whom simply serve because the "organic society" doesn't produce any real jobs; everyone in the fast food industry; all workers in the defense industry other than those making nuclear bombs and the means to deliver them, just to show the world we should be left alone (the only meaningful "national defense"); hundreds of other occupations and preoccupations. My guess is that the common estimate that 20% of the people do 80% of everything necessary is not far wrong, so that 80% of everything could be accomplished by about 28 million people (20% of 140 million, the work force) strategically and intelligently placed in American society, and the remaining 20% is probably, after all, not necessary. So 222 million working age Americans are just kind of futzing around pretending to do something necessary that we don't actually need.

I'm serious, actually, and you probably sense I'm not far wrong. Most jobs in Durkheim's world are completely unnecessary, and many of them (when you consider the extreme degradation of the environment, to the point of human nonviability) are positively harmful and dangerous (consider this list from Desdemona Despair, a depresso-blog about ecological catastrophe: www.desdemonadespair.net/2011/12/50-doomiest-stories-of-2011.html). We're living on the edge because of our calamitous overuse of the Earth.

I think this is why we became a "consumer society." There's really not enough to do of an essential nature, so we just make shit up to do and call it "necessary." Thus, when the total jobs number stays stuck for years and years on end, we try to figure out what's "wrong" with the economy. What's wrong with the economy is that it doesn't make any sense to begin with. What we're trying to do, again, is to create the excess wealth within the economy that will allow millions and millions of people to pursue the superfluous and unnecessary occupations they used to have, and we're having a very hard time doing it. For about 30 to 40 years, we did so by leveraging the existing capital stock of the country (debt and mortgaging against bubble prices) to disguise the fact that the economy had run past its actual usefulness.

Thus, if humanity survives (a very iffy proposition), we will do so either along the lines of the Buckminster Fuller fantasy, where the vast majority of people do not work and are maintained in their vital heat by technology and a small cadre of workers, or we will revert to Thoreauvian, generalist competence, abandoning Durkheim's World. Either way, the times they are a-changin'.

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