Monday, March 3, 2014

The Band Played On as the Job Market Sank

The anti-union billionaire Penny Pritzker, Obama's Secretary of Commerce, was on MSNBC this morning saying Americans needed to be trained for the jobs that are available to close the skills gap (she's big on the tech sector). Like most government officials, business leaders and economists, Pritzker, didn't specifically mention what jobs were open and/or identify what skills were needed by millions of unemployed Americans. Many say the STEM crisis is just a big myth—especially those who are unemployed and have decades of experience with just such skills, and are more than willing to train for any additional skills if needed, if someone would just tell them what skills employers are looking for.

Speaking of which, Apple has gone on a hiring China.

The GOP has been pushing an oil pipeline, saying it will create a gazillion jobs. But per the TransCanada website, the Keystone XL pipeline would only create a mere 20,000 jobs. That's not much of a job creator when considering the U.S. might have close to 48 million Americans unemployed (if we were counting all our "discouraged workers", those who are no longer counted as part of the labor force).

Today America heard the cable news channels gush endlessly over Ellen DeGeneres selfie on Twitter, but nothing was ever said about the pain and misery that millions of unemployed Americans are still suffering; nor have we heard about any new proposed extension of unemployment benefits—even though the economy and jobs remain America's #1 national crisis—and the top priority for most Americans. Gallop Poll (February 2014) Unemployment Rises to Top Problem in the U.S.:

"Americans have a new No. 1 problem. Nearly one in four Americans mention jobs and unemployment as the most important problem facing the country, up from 16% in January."

But by listening to cable news channels, one would think we're hearing the band play on as the Titanic was sinking.

For years, some cable news stations have promoted the notion that there have been "lots of jobs for lazy slackers", but only when it's convenient for them to do so. Otherwise, they will say just the opposite—that the Obama administration has not done enough to create jobs. The GOP will complain about the number of people on food stamps, but doesn't support raising the minimum wage (so people can get off food stamps). The Republicans will say there are lots of jobs available when they are against extending unemployment benefits—but they will also say that the Obama administration has been lying about the real unemployment rate (And it now seems that the best measure of job creation is: Don't count the unemployed).

It appears that everyone (the politicians, the media, economists and business people) are all ready to give up on millions of the long-term unemployed (and 6.6% might be the new normal for an unemployment rate). So we can suppose that technology, offshoring and guestworker visas will continue to displace American workers, and our economy will continue to create fewer jobs than what is needed to get everyone back to work. That's a shame: not just for middle-age workers who were laid off, (and remained unemployed for 6 months or longer because they were never rehired again), but also a shame for all the new high school and college grads who are also trying to enter the labor force for the very first time (currently outnumbering retirees by 3 to1).

What will the next generation of Americans be left with? Menial and low-paying non-union jobs at Walmart and McDonalds's if they can't afford the best and most expensive private schools and colleges? The labor force participation rate peaked in 2000, and has be declining ever since—and it is predicated to keep declining until the year 2022. Some say it will continue to decline until the annual number of retirees equals the number of high school and college grads (or if the government stops counting the number of people not in the labor force, currently over 92 million.)

"Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered" (1973) is a collection of essays by British economist E. F. Schumacher was who was a respected economist that worked with John Maynard Keynes. He was opposed to the tenets of neo-classical economics, declaring that single-minded concentration on output and technology was dehumanizing. He held that one's workplace should be dignified and meaningful first, and efficient second, and that nature (like its natural resources) is priceless.

Here's what E. F. Schumacher wrote, in his chapter on Buddhist Economics in his landmark book:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely, that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanization which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man's skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave. How to tell one from the other? "The craftsman himself", says Ananda Coomaraswamy, a man equally competent to talk about the Modern West as the Ancient East, "the craftsman himself can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsman's fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work".

It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in the multiplication of wants, but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man's work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products. The Indian philosopher and economist J.C.Kumarappa sums up the matter as follows:

"If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his freewill along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality."

In a world of globalization, multinational corporations and an ever increasing number of people looking for work in a slow economy, there simply won't be enough jobs going ahead into the future. And the jobs that will be created will be low-paying and de-humanizing (That's a fact). 21st century America holds very little hope for the next generation of workers. Not only is that a shame for future American workers, it's also a shame for American Exceptionalism.

And if President Obama continues to surround himself in a bubble with anti-union billionaires like Penny Pritzker, how can we ever expect anything to get better? Especially if our government will not tell us what skills we need for what jobs. Is it a big national security secret? Or is the real number of unemployed and desperate Americans the biggest secret of all?

A question for Penny Pritzker: The BLS currently reports only 10.2 million are unemployed. If they all had Ph.Ds in a STEM related field, could her friends in the tech sector create 10.2 million jobs for them, or would they all have to move to China?

But still, the band plays on—as the media gushes over celebrity Tweets and other trivial nonsense.

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