Thursday, March 7, 2013

Putting America To Work

Monrovia, California

March 7, 2013

They say that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.  This I believe, but I also believe that insanity can consist of, or be brought on by, the first part only—doing the same thing over and over.  By this definition a great deal of work in the modern world is a form of insanity.  Socialists call it wage slavery; most others call it something like drudgery, tedium, or the daily grind. 

On the other hand, the maintenance of sanity does require that things be predictable to a large extent.  No one is comfortable mentally when things are constantly changing in ways that are beyond his control.  The predictable things of life—hunger, pain, emotional responses of all kinds, sleep—do lend some stability and are, after all, what get most of us from one end of existence to the other more or less intact.  Going back only a few centuries, the task of most people was pure survival—struggle to obtain food, protect themselves and their families from danger, and to reproduce and carry on the species.  This was repetitious to be sure, but it was usually fulfilling when it was done successfully.  Why was it fulfilling?  Because the results were tangible and immediate and, with any luck, lasting, and because the alternative was oblivion.    

By contrast, pure repetition within a smaller context breeds an insanity and instability of its own kind, especially when the results are less immediately and existentially tangible.  I suspect that the idea of variety being the spice of life is for most of humanity a comparatively new and frivolous concept.  It may have arisen because people are not really mentally equipped to work in the modern sense of the idea of work, that is, to go somewhere and devote all their time to the performance of specified duties in the service of others, whether it be things as disparate as waiting on customers, stamping out parts on an assembly line, caring for sick patients, or repeatedly representing people before the law.  This kind of work came about as a result of the needs of a wider society which made specialization and compartmentalization of tasks more necessary, and fit into what became known as the Social Contract--the idea that a sovereign (now usually called a government) would assume the tasks of protecting people from imminent harm against enemies from without (other invading governments, for example) and within (crime, fire, disease, etc.), in exchange for service and payment to the sovereign.

When the lives of ordinary people were no longer simply a matter of day-to-day survival against the elements and predatory animals and humans, work started to become narrower and more specialized.  Instead of all persons doing a little of everything to stay alive, most people began to do a lot of only one thing in exchange for the currency with which to purchase all the other things necessary to stay alive, like food and shelter. 

This kind of modern work is just about all we think of when we say “work.” In fact, pure survivalists and  hunter-gatherers aren’t even referred to as or grouped together with “workers.”  We don’t say, when referring to primitive folks in the jungles of New Guinea or the Amazon, for instance, that they go about their day working at jobs.  We imagine they live simple (and oftentimes dangerous) lives, but we don’t call them workers.  We call them people.  We call them this the way we call cats cats or elephants elephants.  It's not meant as an insult, but instead to convey the idea that they are behaving as they are required to do to exist as a species.  And when it comes to cats and elephants we usually don't presume to expect them to do anything other than to be themselves. 

People who appear to perform ground-level survival tasks within a modern society that is supposedly operated under the Social Contract--those we call the “homeless” or “panhandlers”--are not grouped with other workers either, even though they often spend many hours a day trying to accumulate a little of the same money the rest of us utilize to live our lives.  We say they are unemployed.  Indeed, they usually characterize themselves as such because they attempt to exist within a larger society that only values the kind of repetitious work I referred to above.  A guy at the end of the freeway exit holds up a sign that reads, usually somewhat apologetically, “Homeless, no job, need work, have children to support,” and so on.  Such a person is doing pretty much the same thing the rest of us do to make a living—performing the same task over and over again for money.  The fact that the money travels directly from the pockets of the givers into their pockets without benefit of paychecks or taxes does not alter the plain fact that they’re out there trying to earn a living by means of a specialized endeavor.  That endeavor might consist of holding up a sign or collecting returnable bottles and cans, but it’s a job nonetheless, and a hard job any way you slice it.  Try standing in one place holding a sign for hours at a time enduring scorn and collecting your pay a quarter or a dollar at a time.  Try picking through dumpsters and trash cans and pushing a shopping cart filled with returnable items and miscellaneous potentially-useful stuff around all day, protecting it and yourself from others who want what you have.  Tell me that trying to stay clear of the police—heavily armed men who don’t want you around—isn’t a dangerous proposition, no matter where you live.  Thus, I suppose, those who live at the margins of society are both workers and hunter-gatherers, fighting for the right to literally survive every day, while trying to survive the way the rest of us do, by collecting money to use to buy things they can’t produce themselves.

Which brings me back to my original thesis, namely, that work goes hand in hand with insanity.  It is well known by those who study the so-called “homeless,” by which term is meant those who do not have a traditional regular indoor place of their own to sleep or hang around in, that many of them are mentally ill.  Partly this is because, in the name of humaneness (and also to save lots of money), governments have closed their mental institutions and turned people out onto the streets.  Many suffer from various psychoses, meaning that they perhaps don’t possess the mental organizational skills necessary to perform what we call regular work, which for most of us consists of the often maddening process of doing the same thing over and over again hoping for different results, or at least hoping for relief from the monotony of it all.

Examining such street folks is instructive.  It shows that work both produces insanity, but also that if insanity rises to a sufficient level, work becomes impossible.  And it also reminds us of the insanity of the persons with whom and for whom people work—the imperious and whimsical bosses in the case of traditional workers and the selfish potential alms-givers in the case of panhandlers and bums.  Virtually every person who comes into contact with a beggar is essentially his boss, who can hire or fire him at will.  Add to that the grim fact that in some cases beggars aren’t independent contractors, but work for more highly-placed persons (like the kids who worked for Fagin in Oliver Twist) who put them on the street to earn for them then take some of what they gather each day.  After a while it becomes nearly impossible to tell the difference between traditional work and the marginal work of the street people.

I hasten to add that I have no overweening sympathy for panhandlers.  I don’t feel sorry for them, but I certainly wish them no ill, and will often give them some spare change or a dollar bill if they ask.  But I don’t really like the ones who try to play on my heartstrings by declaring themselves to have fallen upon especially hard times or to be somehow more deserving of my largesse because of their status as, say, military veterans or family men or former ordinary wage slaves.  I am invariably reminded when I see the placards of such individuals (certainly geared to the same mushy mentality that causes people to buy everything else in our society) of the classic New Yorker cartoon of the guy sitting on the sidewalk holding a sign reading, "I am blind and my dog is dead."  Asking for money from strangers should be a quick honest transaction based upon a request simply for the money itself and not for buy-in to someone's personal drama.  It should call for just a yes or no (or a look away without slowing down) on the part of the would-be donor.  My motto is “Ask and ye may receive, but spare me the sob stories and bullshit.”  And I don’t care what they intend to use the money for, either.  Drink it up, stick it in your arm, buy food, whatever.  Not one of my employers ever asked me what I was going to use my money for, so what right have I to ask a panhandler the same question?

But as readers of the blog know, I have a bit of an agenda.  Given the inherent insanity of all forms of work, from wage slavery to panhandling, maybe the sanest and most honest way to get money, if one really needs it, is simply to receive it from the government for doing nothing, if one is without sufficient funds to make ends meet.  How could that be less madness-producing than what goes on now?  In my scenario those who do happen to work for a living in the generally accepted way, paying taxes and all that, ensure, through the government, that some of their money goes to support those who don’t make as much.  The richer we are, the greater percentage of our excess money should go to such support.  Properly administered on a progressive basis that wouldn't make those of us who are well off any less so, but it would make many other people less poor.

What could possibly be wrong with that?  It is, I think, a natural function of the Social Contract, wherein the sovereign agrees to provide protection to the people in exchange for certain payments, in the form of civic service, obedience to laws reasonably calculated to preserve public order, and in the form of money from those who have it.  And, despite the dire predictions of the lying liars who run our capitalist economy and the millions who thoughtlessly believe them, there will still be plenty of people who will wish to engage in the modern insane form of work in exchange for money.  Oh my God, socialism! you gasp.  Well, we should be so lucky as to have a system that guarantees an equal or even moderately equitable distribution of resources to all, but for now how about just a system that doesn't require that we all trot along behind the Walrus and the Carpenter until they're ready to feed?

Far from being the cure-all for our national economy, encouraging everyone to work for a living has and will continue to produce an excess of superfluous commerce—far too many retailers selling the same merchandise, far too many choices for simple things like coffee and sandwiches and fried chicken, and far too much utterly useless crap.  We hate to walk down the street and see beggar after beggar, but we somehow don’t mind passing endless stores that sell the same shit, whose employees or owners are trained to try to convince us that their shit is, for some reason, better than that of the guy next door to them.  But since it's done under the banner of free enterprise we tolerate it.  Nonsense.  We suffer from such a surfeit of consumer goods and services that we are in this country like the very opposite of those beleaguered denizens of the Stalinist dictatorships of yore who waited in long lines for shoes and nylons and meat and such.  The jobs our politicians say we need, or that we should all get off our asses and go out and get, are for the most parts jobs in this already repetitive and glutted and low-paying area of commerce.  On the other hand, look at the inherent efficiency of a government properly run.  When roads are needed and must be paid for by tax dollars, people don’t say, “Hey, let’s build five times as many roads as we need, and let the public choose which of them to drive on.”  When teachers and police and firemen (government employees all) are needed we don't say, "Let's hire ten times as many as we can afford to and let them loose to compete with each other for students, or to invent new crimes to prevent, or to set fires so they can extinguish them."  But that’s exactly what happens when it comes to blue jeans and toys and cups of fancy coffee and television sets.  
The word "entitlement" has been given an almost pornographic connotation in our society.  But we are a citizenry founded on the outrageous principle that we are entitled to things.  Life, liberty, and equality, for example.  Freedom of expression, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.  How much more presumptuous as a society can we get?  Yet the people who run the economy wish to deny us virtually all these entitlements, substituting instead freedom to express our preference for who should win on American Idol, freedom to worship money, freedom to want everything, and freedom to fear everyone.

The practical consideration underlying my modest economic proposal is that there simply isn't enough actual necessary work to be done by everyone in our country.  Take away the extra claims on our income by repetitious retailers of consumer goods and services, and many of us would have more money to spend, or to give, and many many more of us would be unemployed.  What then, you ask?  Well, take away even a modest bit of the enormous accumulated wealth of the top ten percent of the population and there would be enough for everyone--enough to feed them, clothe them, educate them, and provide them with medical care.  Even enough to maintain our worldwide imperial military presence, if we remain foolish and arrogant enough to wish to do so.  

During the Great Depression, as people love to wistfully call it, the government attempted to give people jobs, to get them a bit of money for doing a bit of something.  The critics of the day (i.e., Republicans) called these "make-work" jobs, implying that they were an unnecessary and veiled form of welfare, as if welfare were something inherently evil.  But look. Over the past two centuries we've dedicated ourselves in our nobler moments as a country to eliminating chattel slavery, to eliminating child labor, to reducing peonage, and we've tried to make occupations like coal mining and vegetable picking and laboring in sweatshops easier and less dangerous and backbreaking.  Why not take the next step and look at work itself?

Experts and opinonmakers are fond of saying that work is inherently good and ennobling, but so far nobody has really proved that.  Ask a wealthy heiress if it's true; ask a lettuce picker if it's true; ask a child if it's true; ask your pet cat if it's true. I'm reminded of a quip I saw tacked to the inside of a person's cubicle somewhere:  "Nobody on his death bed ever said, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'"

You want fries with that?

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