WHAT’S SO ETHICAL ABOUT THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC? A Labor Day Meditation

What drives this train of thought is all the stuff I’ve been reading lately about how Social Security can be saved only by people retiring later. Since the SS retirement age is already creeping up slowly but surely, I’m not sure what else these guys have in mind. They could, of course, be following in the steps of Otto von Bismarck, who came up with the idea of retirement pensions in the first place back in the early 1800s, and who deliberately set the retirement age at 65 because, back then, that was the age by which most people were dead. So maybe the SS doomsayers want to raise the age to where most people are dead nowadays. Which, in the US, is somewhere between 77.5 and 80.

But that raises yet another issue. Raising the retirement age won’t necessarily increase the number of geezers and crones working for a living. What it will undoubtedly increase is the number of senior citizens looking for work. Unemployment and underemployment among older workers is already higher than in the general population; older workers take twice as long to find new jobs as their younger counterparts, and are far less likely even to get responses to their job applications, much less interviews and offers.

Presumably those recommending an increase in retirement age know this. They are the same people who brought us “welfare reform” back in the 1990s. Back then, the welfare moms who were moved into the work force actually had a good shot at getting employed, though not necessarily in full-time permanent jobs with benefits. That was a blip, an economic oasis in the desert most of us have been slogging through for the last 35 years. But the long-term result, and quite possibly the intended result, was the same as the result of raising the retirement age—more people looking for work.

The strategy of the New Deal was the very opposite: use Social Security to get the elderly out of the workforce; use Aid to Dependent Children to get widows with children out of the workforce; use stricter enforcement of child labor laws to get children out of the workforce; use Unemployment Compensation to give the jobless time to look for good jobs instead of day-to-day scrambling. In an era when there are 5 applicants for every available job, that strategy looks pretty good.

However, we Americans think holding a paid job, any job, is not just a nice way to keep hand and mouth together, but a moral and psychological benefit in itself. It means being “self-reliant,” which is in and of itself always Good for You. We also like to think that everybody who is really willing to work can get work. Having a job, any job, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. And, contrariwise, not having a job is a deliberate choice, and proof of being a lazy, greedy, ripoff artist and freeloader.

We also think that, if somebody isn’t employed, the way to get him/her onto a job is to cut off all other means of survival. We think we’ve proved that, because once people run through their Unemployment Comp benefits, they stop reporting themselves as unemployed. Which must mean they’ve found work. What it actually means is that there is nobody to report themselves to, and no reason to take the time and the trouble to do it. It almost never means they’ve taken a job they had been turning down for the preceding 99 days.

And finally, we think that if people aren’t employed, that means they aren’t working, and are of no use to society. I still think of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in this context. There aren’t many people in his exalted position that I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with, but he’s one of them. Not because of the Anita Hill stuff, but because of the way he bad-mouthed his sister for accepting welfare (and, he said, becoming “dependent” on it.) Turns out that she went onto welfare to care for their elderly aunt and uncle, who had raised them both. If you have never cared for two elderly relatives, or even one, believe me, it’s a full-time occupation. Brother Clarence contributed neither time nor money to this duty. Well, okay, he had a wife and a kid and a career to tend to, so that’s kind of understandable. But then, to bad-mouth the person who did take on that burden, because she didn’t have a paying job? Well, the sister, being a good Christian, has never said a word against him. The Wired Family has no such compunctions. Welfare did for Justice Thomas’ family exactly what it was intended to do—enable families to care for their own under the most difficult of circumstances. There should be no shame attached to those who accept it.

And then there’s my godson’s father, Tim Preston, of blessed memory. My godson has Down Syndrome, possibly with a touch of autism. His parents were just about the only people who could understand his speech. Tim got a bunch of paper routes for local publishers, and the two of them would go out delivering papers a couple of days a week. In the course of that work, Tim would introduce his son to the world—loading dock workers, bakery clerks, guys at the gas station—and make the encounters a joy to everybody on all sides. The money wasn’t much. But the earning of it accomplished two crucial things: it created a life for the young man, and it gave his mother time to develop a professional practice. And then Tim was killed by a collision with a truck. The owners of the trucking company provided the widow with the mingiest possible settlement, based, of course, on the fact that Tim didn’t have a “real job.” His widow has had to give up her profession. Fortunately, she and her son get Social Security survivor’s benefits. What she does, staying home with her son and managing his life, isn’t a “job” either, of course. Somewhere out there, a conservative is thinking of the two of them as freeloaders who should be forced to get “real jobs.” It would be good for them, he is thinking. It would free them from being dependent on the dole.

The other part of this American Mythos is that jobs, those sources of all personal good, are “created” by business. Therefore anything that is good for business is good for jobs, and for those who hold or seek jobs. We woo and coddle businesses; our local governments give them tax cuts, land, and all kinds of breaks in local regulation, all because they “create jobs.” The fact that one of the breaks we often give them is the right to shut down and move away or sell off or even leave the country without consequence, thereby destroying jobs, makes this adulation of business a bit counterintuitive. The fact that businesses often cut jobs in order to make their stockholders happier doesn’t exactly make sense either. There is almost nothing many businesses won’t do to avoid hiring American workers at wages sufficient to live decently in America. Move the jobs out of the country; move immigrants (whether legal or not) into the country; move jobs around the country in endless flight from unionization (some economists refer to this practice as “rotating the crops”) –whatever it takes.

Which leads us right back to the beginning. One of the things business wants to do in pursuit of forcing wages down and eliminating fringe benefits entirely is to increase the number of people looking for work, even as they do everything possible to decrease the number of jobs available to American workers. This is not only “rotating” the crops, it is creating a bumper crop and then plowing 80% of it back into the ground.

Such policies might be at least marginally acceptable if our culture as a whole were willing to recognize unemployed people as providing at least one major service to the economy—keeping other people’s wages low and making stockholders happy—and often other major services to their own families as well. Why not hold occasional ceremonies to distribute medals to the casualties of the war against inflation? Why not honor those who hadn’t “made the cut” in an increasingly selective employment market, for having so valiantly tried, and so heroically endured?

But this is the grim final feature of the American Mythos: we honestly believe that the only reliable way to motivate civilian workers to do the Right Thing and refrain from doing the Wrong Thing is Fear Itself, the fear of losing a job, or not having a job, or never again having a job. It doesn’t work in the Army, of course. What works in motivating soldiers is the bond between them. That works even when the brass has betrayed them and the politicians are ignoring them. It works even when the giving of medals and commendation is shamelessly politicized. If we can’t offer workers at the bottom of the food chain a living wage, can’t we at least give them honor and comradeship?

Okay, in keeping with our earlier pledge to focus on our visions of the good in political discourse, Red Emma’s vision of the good is a world in which everybody who wants to work for wages can find work, everybody who needs to work for their own families can have the resources to do it, and anybody who can’t find work can at least feel like a normal human being. Would this increase the number of freeloaders in our economy? Not sure. Dunno. This may depend on how one defines “freeloader.” Let the reader decide.

Red Emma

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