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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Work, Work, Work: A Primer of Sorts

Uploaded: Feb 10, 2014
The current kerfuffle over the Congressional Budget Office's projections is the latest wolf-cry from the shepherd boys of the Right. The CBO report predicted that some US workers' full-time hours are likely to be voluntarily foregone in the economy, 10 years hence, due to ObamaCare's availability of health care that's unrelated to such full-time employment. The Report made clear what those hours were – and what they weren't. No matter – the TeaPers are on a mission to test Honest Abe's theory that you can't fool all the people all the time. Thus, they consciously miss-read the report, did a little arithmetic (2000 hours is called an 'FTE' – a full-time equivalent, or a working year on the job), and presto: Jobs Killar! OMG!

That continuing end-of-the-world mythology has been more than adequately debunked elsewhere. What may still be interesting to consider, and happens to reside in reality, is how our approach to 'work' has evolved over the eons. The way we organize and compensate effort depends on the nature of the economy in which we live. It needs to change again.

Hearken back with me, please, to the days of the hunter-gatherers. There were no jobs, per se, for those itinerants of Eden. Rather, labor for the group was assigned according to the two primary functions that define them. There did appear to be some gender-based division of work, as hunters were mainly men and the gatherers women and children. Lifetimes may have been relatively 'brief' in our terms, but studies suggest that subsistence needs were typically met by doing no more than six-hours/day of organized labor. Timing was based on need, and the hunters were required to supply only 1/3 of the tribe's calories. Forgive me, but that doesn't seem overly 'brutish,' especially for the clan of the Y chromosomes.

Then, in what was either the greatest single advance in human history – or its cruelest joke – came the advent of agriculture. The changes it required were many and fundamental – permanent settlements, defense of same, forward planning, storage of energy both in-kind and in livestock, and "property" rights. Farmers worked much harder, but also produced surpluses that freed others to provide other goods and services – tools, protection, healing, trading, song-and-dance, and shamans to intercede with various deities that could ensure an ample crop. But still, there wasn't much separation between life and work – they tended to merge with each other on a very small scale.

Society and cultures became ever more complex over time, and occasionally organized work into massive undertakings like pyramids, coliseums (but not Oakland's, quite yet), crusades, great walls, ship-building and aqueducts. Most routine labor remained on an intimate scale, however, and tended to be carried-on by masters and servants, or apprentices in those arts. Life and work remained essentially merged – there may have been at least some balance of bargaining power regarding terms and conditions of compensation (at least for those who were not indentured for some period of time, or life).

Enter the industrial revolution, with its massive productivity gains. Machines did the work of hundreds, and production lines supplanted individual craftspeople. The corporate form and the rise of finance fundamentally changed the typical scale of enterprise, as huge aggregations became possible – and immensely profitable. Labor became a relatively abundant resource, and the skills needs changed, too. Workers who earlier provided brute strength directly in mines or mills were instead engaged to tend expensive machinery that had replaced their brawn. Fitting men to machines, and trying to run them 24 hours-a-day, over-and-over, created the modern "job."

Massive progress, and bigger fortunes were made in America's first Gilded Age*. Basic industries like mining, lumber, steel and oil flourished, steam-powered rails expanded markets, the regulators who existed were either captive or otherwise pliant, unions were discouraged by both legal and murderous means, and wages stayed low among so-called 'wage slaves,' who remained in long supply. It was an essentially unfettered, laissez-faire environment, which begat huge winners and losers.

Waves of secondary industries arose early in the last century, such as autos and petrochemicals. The job remained the common currency of work, however, as the terms of competition did not change that much. Standardize, build the ever-larger, biggest plant you could, and then run the very hell out of it to max-out associated economies of scale. Any color Model T could be purchased, so long as it was black.

Jobs did begin to change as unions gained a foothold, using collective action to counter-balance the scale achieved by management. Several enactments began to recalibrate the legal scales as well, and the Industrial War Boards worked to keep factories humming/promote a modicum of labor peace during World War I.

The terms of Work really weren't transformed, however, until the 1930s. With business influence at a low ebb, FDR was able to ram through his New Deal: notably, for our purposes the Wagner Act (collective bargaining, with NLRB oversight), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA -- wages, hours, child labor) and Social Security. He also frightened the so-called 'scorpions' of the Supreme Court into a broader conception of the reach of federal power by threatening to increase their number with friendly liberals ("Friendly liberals" may be redundant, but I digress).

Thus was born the modern 40-hour-based job, built in the 1930s to serve a relatively static industrial economy of regular hours and careers of stable duration: company men, gold watches, 30-years-and-out on the line. 'Fringe' benefits like employer-sponsored health care were added after World War II to attract and retain the best-and-brightest. The American economy flourished; it didn't hurt that the rest of the first world's factories lay in post-war ruins.

But then the terms of competition began to change. The late 20th century and early 21st have spawned what commentator Robert Reich has called The Age of the Terrific Deal: anything you want, from anywhere in the world, faster, cheaper, tomorrow. New technologies undermined the primacy of pure size in favor of speed and adaptability in the competitive sweepstakes, trade and markets opened-up, and people started to become superfluous again – across all collar-types, this time.

There was-and-is a war on overhead expenses – the more costs you could shift into the 'variable' column from 'fixed,' the better you could run the race. Human capital is among the largest costs of most businesses: people were shifted from an asset to a necessary evil, overhead to variable cost, to be jettisoned, or 'right-sized' whenever possible. Look to our own Silicon Valley for the model: in the Knowledge economy, companies are more narrowly built around their peculiar competitive advantage – they tend to get swing- (and staff) capacity from vendors and temps. Work is inherently unstable, with double-digit numbers of employers across any one career. The stagnation of the middle class is not unrelated to this phenomenon.

Our systems, including our legal system as it pertains to work, remain mired in the Industrial Age, and serve current circumstances more poorly all the time. The FLSA has been spruced-up a bit, but its basis remains planted in industrial soil. To serve the Knowledge economy, more fundamental change will be needed – including a comprehensive legal overhaul that reinvigorates the middle class as a market for the stuff we make.

I'm not certain what changes will take precedence, but some of them will impart greater flexibility to work in the more flexible new economy. Frankly, that kind of flexibility is what's reflected in the CBO report. Folks who are freed-up from a static Full-Time Job because they get their health benefits elsewhere will work flexibly, which is a good thing that's consonant with what the economy will need.

The CBO prediction is but a tiny ripple in the wider sea-change to come, but this much is clear: change is gonna come; the status quo will leave the current US 'job' increasingly out-of-step with the realities of 21st century 'work.'

* we're in a second, more pernicious Gilded Age now. At least those Carnegies, DuPonts and Rockefellers made stuff – today's bunch just moves money around after taking a handsome cut of it.
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Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 12, 2014 at 12:59 pm

It?s a matter of supply and demand.

There?s a plentiful supply of low-skilled workers worldwide who will work for pennies.

Low-skilled workers have very little leverage to demand higher wages and benefits. If workers demand too much, businesses will move jobs to where labor is cheaper.

Tom doesn?t offer much in the way of solutions, other than to say, ?a comprehensive legal overhaul that reinvigorates the middle class? is needed, whatever that means.

Liberals like Tom think the government can somehow alter the laws of supply and demand. That doesn?t seem to be working too well in most of the welfare-state countries of Europe, which are mired in chronic debt, high unemployment, stagnant economic growth, and high prices for goods and services.

The tighter the government squeezes, the more jobs will move away, making everyone collectively worse off.

Posted by Dimitri Pisarov, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Feb 13, 2014 at 5:31 pm

Whew. Lotsa wind-up, but not much of a pitch. And even the wind-up isn't enough to get the pitcher out of the Little Leagues.

So, after hunting and gathering (no mention of male violence against kept women -- i.e., forced labor), pyramid building (no mention of slaves -- i.e., forced labor), agriculture (no mention of serfs -- i.e., forced labor), industrial revolution (no mention of wage slavery -- i.e., forced labor), we then suddenly find ourselves today needing legal changes in order to, um, 'reinvigorate the middle classes'. Okay. I guess. Like everybody in the middle classes gets their own vibrators, or pot-imbued gas masks? Or something? Whatever.

Out of Cushing's thin and stringy gruel we're supposed to understand that these economic systems and the forms they take just, you know, like, happen. Nary a mention of slave revolts, peasant revolts (e.g., in Germany, Russia, and today continuing in China), industrial labor strikes and the State doing the bidding of Capital by smashing the CIO some decades back and continuing to smash unions today.

Well, Cushing tells us it's just the economy, or something like that. And today's economy has Capital showing its fluidity along with its muscle, all at the expense of workers -- skilled as well as unskilled -- and, hey, what are workers to do but adjust? Cuz, as the broken record SPCT continues to parrot, again ... and again ... and again ... it's that transcendent, universal "law" of supply and demand that keeps workers struggling merely to survive. (Of course, if the result of that "law" is one huge Monopoly, and a lot of jobless workers, so be it because, hey, it's the "law." Watch enough Fox News and you can utter such hair-brained platitudes too! Hey, see that ComCast-TimeWarner merger? Supply and demand. It's a law! Or, look, see the state's protection of scab workers? Supply and demand, Baby! They're laws. God made them. Adam Smith, shortly before he was roundly debunked by over two centuries of economists, said so.)

But I digress.... Laws -- real laws, positive, man-made laws -- are never enacted until the people who build the pyramids, who harvest the crops, who build the machines, demand it. Today we have workers mobilized around the globe attempting to unionize WalMart's labor slaves. We have fast-food workers, hotel and restaurant workers, janitors, transportation workers -- kinna hard to export these -- agitating for a more just distributive system. The legal changes that Cushing opaquely references can and will only be a consequence of the actions of those people who are most affected by Capital's new form of money grab: industrial and service workers, skilled workers throughout the tech industry, peasants, the unemployed, and their ability to organize.

Giving deference to changing economic forms a la Cushing, without consideration of the human blood spilled throughout human history in order to bring such changes about, leaves one wafting in one's own clouded superficiality while uttering such hollow platitudes as 'gosh, we need to change laws to reinvigorate the middle classes'. Which laws are those, Cushing? Oh, you don't know, but they sure are coming? Well, they exist right in front of your nose. But you'll not recognize them as long as you promote a view of historical change that fails to acknowledge how those changes took the form they did only as a consequence of human struggle. VIVA BART WORKERS. VIVA OCCUPY MOVEMENT. VIVA FAST FOOD WORKERS. VIVA workers in N. Carolina who face the task of defeating a Senatorial candidate who, so far, has received $8.2 million from the Koch Brothers. VIVA UNIONS, yes, in spite of the billions spent by the rich to suppress them in their efforts to further disempower workers and to assault the dignity of their work.

Spare us the milquetoast lament about unions losing membership. For such losses exist only as a measure of how much work needs to be done. The question is which side one is on in the battle to bolster workers' efforts to bring about a qualitatively different distributional system and, hence, a world where justice doesn't mean 'just us'. It's pretty obvious where Cushing and his convenient foil, both stand. The pseudo-lib hides behind an ideology of law; the Fox News watcher spews the mythic law of supply and demand. Neither is willing to join hands in solidarity with working Americans. Both stand on the wrong side of history.

Posted by Peter Kluget, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 14, 2014 at 11:40 am

Interesting comments. To take a little of the heat out, I'd just note that I suspect that spcwt may under-appreciate the fact that the "law of supply and demand" is entirely dependent on other laws which we voluntarily impose on ourselves and each other, such as:
1. I can't steal your stuff.
2. You can't kill me if I get in your way.
3. You can't monopolize something so as to drive up its costs.
4. If you agree to sell me a widget for $10, I actually have to give you the money, and you have to actually give me the widget.
4. You can prevent me from competing with you on price if the product involved contains your "intellectual property."
5. The thing called "money" exists and has a relatively stable value.
etc. etc. etc.

In fact, the entirety of economic activity is the product of a complex tapestry of interrelated rules which are agreed upon, tacitly or overtly. The slightest bit of tinkering with those rules (which in fact happens every day) will change the balance, creating new winners and losers.

I have watched that happen over the past 35 years. The growing imbalance of wealth between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (and "have-a-little-bits") didn't just "happen." It was the predictable result of a tilting of the rules in favor of the wealthy and powerful that seeped through the tapestry starting in the late 1970s. It is subtle and complex, and the folks with the money to pay to study it are (perhaps understandably) for the most part not really interested in doing so.

The problem is, if you tilt the table too far in your direction countervailing factors arise - as Dimitri points out. In the unlikely event that a Republican were to ask me for advice about what would be best for the affluent, I'd advise tilting the table back a little the other way. Reasonably comfortable (I suspect Dimitri would prefer the term "co-opted") masses are unlikely to get together and force a re-jiggering of the "rules." Make them too unhappy and all the reality shows and cheap Big Macs in the world won't prevent serious unpleasantness.

Posted by Dimitry Pisarov, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Feb 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Peter, I agree with you that there are many rules, presuppositions, obligations that form the warp and woof of what you term the tapestry of Capitalism. But I don't think they have much bearing on this mythical thing SPCT calls the 'law of supply and demand'; for, simply stated, there never has been nor will there ever be any such 'law' outside of sterile little pedagogical models that may be illustrative to young minds in the high school classroom but that break down once the actual workings and logic of Capitalist ownership, control and exploitation are spelled out.

If any rules have primacy in Capitalism, it is those that help ensure that owners do not too terribly cannibalize one another (e.g., overlapping Boards memberships, state 'regulations', lobbies in govt and govt officials in lobbying). There are others -- minimum wage, collective bargaining -- which are meant to make Capitalism just palatable enough for workers who are forced to sell their labor as a condition of survival (not at all unlike prostitutes do when the sell their bodies in the, um, 'free' market).

Whether there is explicit or tacit acceptance of those rules should not be glossed over too lightly. If workers, say, instead of being fed the myth of 'free exchange' were instead asked to consider the many ways their labor was forced labor, where they are made to forfeit their labor, to sacrifice their bodies and minds (and often their lives and dignity) to owners/controllers of production who extract the products of workers' labor in order to create ungodly profits and advantages for themselves and their progeny, we'd probably be having a different discussion.

Be that as it may, I don't think Capitalism in America merely needs some tinkering, or a slight tilting of the table. This corrupt, naked and raw predatory system requires serious overhaul -- not as a palliative that might keep the masses in ipods and potato chips, but so as to change the very conditions of work and how the fruits of one's labor are to be justly distributed.

As someone who is solidary with organized labor, and sensitive to the ravages of Capital, I am not content to simply hear you or Brother Tom wax upon how the tilted table needs to be tilted back to where it was before Reagan, or back in those Eisenhower glory days. For miners, air traffic controllers, telephone operators, food servers, field hands, those "glory days" never existed. The table is rotten, through and through. Appeals to merely tilting it a bit, this way or that, indicates a certain blindness not merely to the atrocities of outcome -- e.g., the indignities of forced labor in capitalist America -- but also to the possibilities of real overhaul contained within the workers' movement.

Some workers, and most organized workers, agree with me. That is why unions are so important, and so feared by Capital. Unionized workers, because of their everyday experiences with work, tend to be familiar with the logic of capital, its blood-sucking nature, and the effects it has on the life experiences of workers and their families. Historically, unions have shown a willingness to engage the system, not through idle speculation about "changing laws to alleviate middle class angst," or "balancing the table", for neither of these is possible given the very logic of Capital. Rather, organized workers engage the system in very material ways -- shutdowns of fast-food restaurants, the Occupy Movement, hard-earned money contributed to political campaigns. The irony is always delicious when those who underscore the recent declines in union membership, usually in the same breath, complain about undue union power in the political realm.

Imagine what American politics would look like if the majority of workers were organized, unafraid to mobilize themselves around common values and interests. It is, of course, no small wonder then that Capital exerts itself in every possible fashion in order to stave off anything that might remotely resemble such a scenario. I think you and Brother Tom, with your rather meek solutions, deflect from the real task at hand. The dam is seriously backed up and we need more than ostensive liberals wringing their hands about the middle class's buying power or the setting aright of a tilted table.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of another community,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 11:55 am

Interesting conversation -- thanks all. There are several lenses represented here, from S-P's blithely dismissive social darwinism to "Dim's" view of everything as a class struggle.

Unsurprisingly, I find myself in agreement with Monsieur Kluget's 'take' on the best response available to the Currently Fortunate. Instead of fighting a short term-focused rear-guard action to protect their current piles, they'd be wise to sponsor some retipping -- to avoid the eventual imposition of a more drastic set of solutions, but more importantly to ensure that the nearly exhausted legal/economic system that has served them so well is reinvigorated -- always to their greater benefit. Call it the Buffett solution (after Warren, although some of Jimmy's more pensive musings fit here directionally).

I do wonder if S-P ever ponders what his approach to life would be, if he found himself on the other side of the Great Divide-and-getting-wider.

I'll take issue with a few comprehension points, as both slaves and wage slaves were mentioned in the blog. And while I agree that legal change tends to trail social change, it's often more evolutionary than revolutionary, at least through my lenses.

It's also my sense that the subjugation of women is a post-H&G phenomenon, that followed on the creation of rules around private property and its descent through the generations. There's an interesting book called 'Sex at Dawn,' that posits H&Gs as a pretty egalitarian social model -- to the point that sex was so widely distributed among tribesfolk that nobody really knew who sired which offspring. That great unknown makes for a communal raising of the young, and widespread interpersonal harmony. Property rights went and complicated EVerything, which is part of why the rise of agriculture is not an unmixed blessing.

I did learn a bit about Dimytri Pisarev, though, and that's appreciated.

Posted by Dimitri Pisarov, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Yes, Brother Tom, let's appeal to the Warren Buffets among us, before those unmentioned, unwashed masses (workers) get too rambunctious. Easier to give them another crumb or two, with legal backing, than to have them rise up in order to get what justice would dictate they deserve.

As for male on female violence in hunting and gathering period, we know very little. We can speculate that, even before this period, male on female violence was prevalent as women were vulnerable to men in their child-bearing state and succumbed to selective male violence in order to be protected from gang-based male violence. There still exist some hunting and gathering communities in this world -- e.g., Kung Bushman of the Kalahari, a relatively peaceful community marked by sporadic bursts of male against female violence.

As for Bro Tom's identification with Buffet vs. his silence regarding America's workers, I guess that simply must be a variant of his self-identification as a liberal. You know the type: Hey, all of us richies have to give our (forced) laborers just enough to keep them passified. Nice. Web Link

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of another community,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 2:28 pm

For somebody who forever strives, so mightily, to claim intellectual authority, comrade, you do a remarkably dishonest job of representing the material to which you respond. My observation, stated in the third person, that the 1%ers would be wise to adopt such a strategy was not an endorsement of it. Nor could it be confused as such, except consciously, in yet another needy attempt to belittle and discredit. When will you come to understand that trying to push me down doesn't lift you up? Let your ideas shoulder that load.

FWIW, I'm not under any particular delusion that they'll do it -- anymore than I think the workers of the world are about to rise up and burst their shackles. There may well be a good argument for collective action among 'wage slaves' across the collar spectrum, but working-class identification has always been a tough sell to American workers, and a fresh model adapted to the 21st-century economy would be required. These cannot be your grand daddy's unions and hope to succeed. Good luck rallying the Wobblies, comrade -- you may have been born a 150 years too late.

Also, while I have no doubt that there have always been individual incidents of inter-gender violence, I think the institutional forms of female subjugation -- of all kinds, not just violence -- got a big boost with the advent of private property.

Posted by Dimitri Pisarov, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Sorry, after plodding through your first-person blogs for several weeks, I didn't pick up on your sudden shift, unannounced, to a who-me? third person. I doubt anyone else did either.

It is telling, I think, that you cannot speak of organized American workers without locating them some one hundred years ago. You might have referenced Bart workers, fast-food workers, Walmart workers, the Occupy Movement -- but I guess that would simply be paying homage to your grand daddy's unions. Your disdainful "3rd person" reference to unionized labor and snobbish reduction of it to Wobblies, shows which side of the fence you tend to sit.

I don't have to claim intellectual authority, Comrade. That you seem so sensitive to this matter says quite a bit about yourself.

Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 6:02 pm


I actually don?t watch Fox News. It just sounds like I do. I can?t help it. Maybe you can help me?

I like what you write. I read all of your comments about how this website lacks diverse viewpoints. I agree completely! Tom and the other bullies discriminate against us just because we?re Trolls. Us Trolls have to stick together, you know? Troll Power!

I know you think I?m a fascist, but that doesn?t mean we can?t be friends, right? How did things go with your lecture series in Europe? Is the proletarian revolution still going strong? Did you stop by Highgate Cemetery in London to see where Karl Marx is buried?

Sorry you didn?t like my comments about working class conditions. I hadn?t thought about work being analogous to prostitution, until you mentioned it. I was taught to love work. I grew up poor. I started working at age 12 as a paperboy and haven?t stopped. I?m now part of the evil 1%. I thought I made my own success, but am told I didn?t do it after all. I got to where I am because of others. And my white privilege, of course. And male privilege. And probably other privileges I forgot to mention, of course. Success isn?t based on good choices, I?m told. I struggle to develop a dialectical understanding of things, as you have clearly mastered.

So thanks for the tips! Great suggestions. Maybe you and Tom and Huh? and I can go grab a beer sometime and discuss centrally planned economies and whatnot?

Posted by Walter Reuther, a resident of another community,
on Feb 20, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Without intending to rub it in, Comrade, what's your understanding of the reasons for the UAW's failure to organize the VW plant in Chattanooga?

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