The Truth About the "Jobless Recovery"


Over at The American Street, Mark Kleiman asks “Is the jobless recovery a product of management ideology?” It’s a remarkably stupid question for a smart man to ask. He writes as if there’s something new in this.

Of course managers always want to control costs; it’s part of their job. But companies used to boast about how many jobs they created and how well those jobs paid. Now that seems to have changed.

Michael Parenti predicted a decade ago when the Soviet Union fell that with the competing system gone, corporations were no longer going to see any reason to support a higher standard of living. So it has proved. But that’s the only real change; the owner class has despised workers since the time of Ancient Rome. If the existence of the Communist system goosed them toward the creation of a middle class to brag about, that pressure has been aleviated and they’ve simply reverted to type.

A Commenter named “paul” who’s had some experience of high-level economics courses wrote to clue Kleiman in to the realities of what prospective managers are taught:

Of course it’s ideological, not least because of the implicit lesson in many introductory economics curricula that doing something heartless is justified by the cold, cruel, yet rational laws of the marketplace, whereas doing something compassionate or equitable is at least prima facie a suboptimal economic choice.

Duh. Mr Kleiman notes, naively and inaccurately, that

If managing like Ebeneezer Scrooge was something to be embarrassed about twenty years ago, and something to boast about today, then one would expect somewhat more Scrooge-like behavior now than then: perhaps enough more to show up in aggregate wage and employment data.

I also wrote an answer, specific to that statement but also to his general point. Here it is.

It boils down to this: Owners don’t like having employees. Owners see us as pains-in-the-butt: we want days off to take care of sick kids, we rebel against 80-hr work-weeks, we want health care, some vacation time, managers that don’t abuse us, etc etc etc–and this all costs them money. They don’t give a damn about creating a middle class because, like most people who only accept reality when it hits them upside the head, they don’t see the connection between a healthy middle class and their profits.This is a psychological reality and has been for well over a century, Henry Ford notwithstanding. 20 years ago I worked for a company that spent more than $150,000 developing a machine that would replace 2 workers making less than half that much. The machine worked but had to be repaired constantly and replaced every year or so. Even tho in this particular case real people would have been more cost-efficient, the company continued to throw between $70 + 80,000/yr at this machine rather than give the job back to actual people.

I’m not denying paul’s point, or Mark’s,only saying that there’s nothing new here. Owners will grab any excuse–economic theory, automation, competition–any excuse to cut their workforce and/or pay it as little as they can get away with. Since industrialization clued owners in to the utopian dream that employees could be done away with entirely, owners have been chasing that rainbow and rewarding anyone who came up with a new tactic. This is just the latest round.

Managing “like Ebeneezer Scrooge” has never been “embarrassing”. I’m sorry, Mark, but I’ve been working-class all my life, I’ve spent over 40 years in factories of various kinds, and to me that’s the statement of someone who’s never actually been there. Not once in the last 40 years have I seen a manager “embarrassed” by Scrooging his employees unless it was a good man ordered to do so by his bosses. Not once in 40 years have I so much as heard rumors of a manager who’d been disciplined, let alone fired, for treating his workers like shit unless there was a lawsuit involved. I have, otoh, known a number of instances when managers deliberately treated their employees badly in order to get a promotion–and got it.

They look at us the way Cicero looked at the tenants in his slums–we’re a mob, unruly, stupid, and contradictory. We’re lazy, we steal, no matter how little they’re paying us we’re not worth it, we’re little better than animals and we need somebody with a whip and a gun present at all times to keep us from reverting to the jungle. The vast majority of owners feel that way; that’s what drove them to be “owners” in the first place: they needed to set themselves apart from “the herd.”

That attitude was held in check for a short period (the end of WWII to the mid-70’s) by the power of unions and pro-labor govt policies. When Reagan proved the unions could be busted and changed pro-labor policies to pro-corporate policies, the era was over. Welch was one of the first to figure it out, that’s all, and he took advantage of it. Since then they have been chipping away at established pro-worker institutions like the 40-hr week, overtime pay, the living wage, pension plans, health insurance, and vacation pay. We have now reached the point predicted in the sci-fi of 50 years ago when automation and globalization can eradicate both us and the middle class and still make a profit. They pile onto each of us the workload of 3 people and call it “productivity”; they make us compete for the lowest possible wage and call it “efficiency”; they cut our health care and steal our pensions and call it “fiscal responsibility.” But really it’s the same old crap in a new dress. They’d just like us all to go away and stop pestering them. We’re rabble, a drain on their pocketbooks and stock portfolios. If we can’t afford their outrageous rents, let us live on the streets. If we don’t make enough to feed our families, let us starve and decrease the surplus population.

Scrooge works as a character because he represents an attitude that’s been prevalent among the owner-class since the time of Ancient Rome, not because he’s an exception. And if we allow the plutocrats to control our society as they did, we will suffer the same fate.

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