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Working Together or Being Worked

Are the wage earners working together for the benefit of everyone or are they being worked for someone else's benefit?

The basic economic model for humanity is based on specialization of labor. With the family as the lowest social structure, to provide a stable environment for
raising children, the adults can develop those skills that suit their personality and inherent abilities. Each has a choice of finding an economic entity (a company or organization, whether for profit, or with contributions from a government, or as a charity) that needs those skills or creating their own business to provide goods or services that are needed in the community.

An entrepreneurial spirit is usually based on bringing a needed product or service to the community. Sometimes a single person can be successful but typically true success involves a number of people working together, as in the case of a small business with some doing the production (either making the product or performing the service) while others managing the overhead (such as handling basic marketing and the phone/internet inquiries or dealing with the necessary paperwork like payroll or utilities).

When people are working together, complex tasks can be solved and completed more effectively. The most impressive feat of the 20th Century is putting a man on the moon in less than 12 years after the first orbital satellite launch (Sputnik). There were many problems to be solved but teamwork enabled the eventual success.

As companies get bigger, sometimes they do not treat their workers fairly. The latter half of the 19th Century and the early 20th Century contained many public demonstrations, often accompanied by violence on the part of the company and/or law enforcement personnel (Haymarket affair, Columbine Mine Massacre). The big issues at the time were the long work week (12+ hours/day, more than 5 days/week) and unsafe working conditions. As a direct result of those demonstrations, the 40-hour work week became common and companies were forced to address safety concerns.

The 1950s seem to be the start of a change in the American economic culture. This decade had the highest membership in union membership (1954 at 35%), where a union provides a mechanism for the employees to negotiate fair wages and benefits based on the performance of their company; if the company does not bargain fairly by not sharing enough to satisfy the demands of those workers then the union can go on strike depriving the company of their labor, to force new negotiations. The solidarity of the union is critical, where the people coming together as a unified party can force the company to address their demands. Often the publicity plays a part where the company with a strike is seen to not respect their workers. As the union membership has fallen over the past few decades, the average wages among the American workers has similarly fallen (since non-union workers in the same industry as a union often received similar wages for the company to compete for experienced workers) even as the American economy has continued to grow. As companies are able to avoid negotiating periodic wage increases, they are able to pocket the increased profits instead.

The prosperity of this middle class was accompanied by the installation of the Interstate Highway system that included urban highways for those of higher means to commute from more distant, more expensive homes. The upper ranks of executives were no longer members of the same community as their company and most of its employees. Those workers enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle could see the rich at the top having even more comfort while those below remained in their lives with less comfort, enabling a convenient reminder of what life could be like, for better or worse (the consumer culture).

With these changes, the big companies came to be managed more for their corporate earnings than for their goods and services. Competition in the marketplace became replaced by consolidation of competitors, bring more power and prestige to the managers of the merged company, as the original company workers, products and services were dropped.

These consolidation efforts, with the rise of multinational corporations, spanned political boundaries. Business leaders treated their employees as just another natural resource, so if the local workers were not agreeable to demands for lower wages or benefits, those jobs could be moved elsewhere to find willing workers. If the local government was not agreeable to demands for relaxed environmental rules, that industrial process could be moved elsewhere to find a willing government less concerned with its local environment.

With the concentration of power into these large companies and their major shareholders (the infamous 1%), the political process has also been corrupted. Now politicians are basically bought through campaign contributions and legislation is often written by corporate lobbyists having favor with those representatives.

For the last few election cycles, there have been too many politicians and media players pushing for continued tax cuts, or even further reductions, for the rich. The justification for this claim is supposedly an increase in job opportunities because if the big companies are not making enough money they probably won't be hiring new employees. Unfortunately for the American tax payers, this trickle down proposal is not justified. Corporate profits have been high while unemployment has remained high so the current tax rates have not helped increase hiring (here and here). When corporate managers are already making money, reducing their taxes just enables them to make more money. Tax rates are not a cost of doing business (where the company pays taxes as it uses the resources of the local economy, as it gives back to those that keep in functioning); they are just a negative impact on corporate earnings. Companies are not managed as if they are part of a community where everyone pays their fair share, as everyone is paid a fair wage for their labors.

If the people do not approve of the economic policies conducted by the local (or not) corporations, where is the path of accountability? When elected representatives, subject to a periodic election for their accountability, reduce tax rates because the economic 'free' market establishes the most efficient economic policies, they are obviously claiming that our government does not set an economic policy but instead that is set by the 'market.' Many communities have zoning laws to provide for appropriate behaviors in the local economy (for example certain types of businesses are not allowed to be next to a school) so economic policy set by a level of government is widely accepted. Corporate tax rates keep the corporation rooted in their community or state; they are the reminder to the corporation that businesses are part of the local social structure (not just an economic resource on the balance sheet).

Similarly, a number of politicians campaign on reducing corporate regulations, as if any rule having any detrimental effect on a company's profits is bad. These politicians are choosing to ignore the long history of pollution and worker abuse when no regulations were in place. Many acknowledge the global financial disaster peaking in 2008 arose at least partially because of the removal of US banking regulations in 1999.

It seems economic blackmail has become accepted in our current economic culture. Each person and each local community should be honored just to have a job (no matter the wage or working conditions) or just have the company present (no matter the pollution generated), much as the slaves in the 19th Century South should have been happy their plantation provided them with a place to sleep.

Since the country has been pushing for lower wages to improve corporate earnings for a few decades, much of the manufacturing base of the economy has been shifted to foreign countries so our consumer culture has been affected somewhat. Though advertising continues for the latest consumer items, the income remaining for many Americans after basic necessities continues to drop making an economic recovery more difficult. The economy is now based more on financial speculation (derivatives are loans using loans as collateral, not unlike a Ponzi scheme; computerized trading turning shares around quickly manipulating the market to capture small gains many times to accumulate much larger earnings) than on manufacturing. Many consumer goods are imported so their purchase is paying the wages of overseas workers not those in America.

Our economic culture has degraded to the point where people are being worked to the benefit of those at the top. We have lost the culture where people work together to bring products and services to the benefit the community. Instead most work to survive, trying to make the most of what is available to obtain some comfort.

With globalization (with multinational corporations and banks), humanity has a new layer to our social structure. The social layers now include the family, the local community, the local government (democratically elected in many Western countries), the national government (democratically elected in many Western countries but the expense of those elections now means corporate money pays for those representatives who are beholden to those corporate interests not the electorate), and the international ruling class (with no accountability to those affected by their decisions).

I have noted a few science fiction movies have suggested that human beings might learn something from intelligent alien beings as to how to survive, without humanity being so self destructive. The answer seems rather obvious, that mankind is being driven by a small privileged segment who use the rather reliable divide and conquer technique to move the masses to do what is demanded to benefit those at the top, whether that task is work for lower wages or attack the people in a foreign country. Until most people are mature enough to not fall prey to these political manipulations, we will continue to see death, destruction and misery for many while a few continue to prosper.

created - May 2012
last change - 05/27/2012
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