Monthly Archives: June 2012

“Job Creators” and “Capitalists Like Me”

It’s one thing when one of the world’s wealthiest capitalists argues that he is not being taxed fairly because he is not being taxed enough, as Warren Buffett did last August.  But it’s quite another when a wealthy capitalist explains why the kind of gross inequality of income the U.S. now has is actually bad for business.  That’s what Nick Hanauer did in a TED University talk last month about “job creators”:  “In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are consumers, the middle class. And taxing the rich to make investments that grow the middle class, is the single smartest thing we can do for the middle class, the poor and the rich [emphasis added].”

Hanauer is a super-wealthy venture capitalist who was an early investor in Amazon.com and founded a couple of internet start-ups that were bought by Overstock.com and Microsoft – the latter for a tidy $6.4 billion.  In his TED talk he denied being a “job creator,” and with directness, humor, and plain-spoken common sense, he attacked the notion that folks like him create jobs.  It’s only 6 minutes long, but it sparked an internet fury when TED refused to post the speech on its web site, as it ordinarily does.  Time Magazine’s links-rich retrospective of the controversy that forced TED to post the speech can bring you up-to-date if you didn’t know about it.

Certifiably successful capitalists (and Buffett and Hanauer make Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney’s $250-million net wealth look mediocre) arguing that they should be taxed more is the classic man-bites-dog story that is supposed to attract journalists.  In both cases Buffett and Hanauer did eventually get a fair amount of attention, but only because they are savvy entrepreneurs who made extraordinary efforts to get that attention.  Once attended to, however, they are treated as outliers, interesting personalities, eccentric curiosities – sort of like men who bite dogs – rather than initiating discussion about the issues they tried to raise.

Who or what creates jobs?  How could our tax system be fairer – and simpler?  And what is the connection between jobs and taxes?  These are big issues that should be at the center of the political debate in this year’s election, as the two mainstream political parties have very different answers to them.

First, there is a sense in which capitalists – whether investors, owners, or top management – do create jobs.  They make decisions to start or expand businesses that require new employees.  The question is why they decide to start or expand businesses.  Is it because they have a lot of spare money, or is it because they think they can sell lots more of the product or service they provide, thereby making a handsome profit?  In general, both spare money and profit opportunities based on potential consumer demand are necessary.  But what is more necessary at any given time varies in specific economic circumstances, and the question becomes an empirical one about our current circumstance.   Here’s where facts and figures matter, and we are fortunate to have an extremely clear set of them to answer these questions.

There is lots and lots of spare money in the hands of rich people and corporations, so much that they don’t know what to do with it all, and there’s not enough in the hands of workers and consumers.  This could be a temporary situation based on the continuing slow growth of the Great Recession, but the well-documented huge and growing inequality of income in the U.S. clearly suggests that there is a long-term and worsening problem of insufficient consumer demand.  When the top 10% get about half of all income, with the top 1% getting the lion’s share of that, the bottom 90% does not have sufficient income to provide the consumer demand that would provide enough profitable opportunities for capitalists to use their spare money to expand businesses and, thereby, create jobs.  This is what Nick Hanauer means when he says “the true job creators are consumers,” not “capitalists like me.”

The Republican economic program – whether Mitt Romney’s, the Ryan Plan that was passed in the House of Representatives more than once, or the approach of GOP state governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – responds to a diagnosis of the problem that will not stand empirical scrutiny.  Reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals assumes that capitalist “job creators” are not creating enough jobs because they do not have enough spare money, which is clearly not the case.  Massive, if largely unspecified, cuts in government spending at all levels will further reduce total demand (the sum of consumer, investor and government spending) and, thereby, economic growth.  The combination of cutting these taxes and government spending will further worsen income inequality, making the insufficiency of consumer demand even worse – initiating a new and potentially “greater” recession, as it has in England.

The Democratic economic program – from President Obama’s weak and late-arriving American Jobs Act plus the tax plan in his 2013 Budget to the full-throated Congressional Progressive Caucus’s People’s Budget – increases taxes on top earners and increases government spending for a wide variety of activities that would increase the number of jobs and, thereby, overall consumer spending power.  It assumes that rich people and corporations have enough spare money and that workers and consumers need more.

These are startlingly different directions.  They cannot both be right, and compromise between them, besides being very difficult, would likely involve dilution not correction.  But these are the choices we face this year as American voters.  Both facts and logic favor the Democrats, but that will matter only if they, and especially the President, have the wit and courage to insist on explaining them to so-called “low-information voters.”  So far the President has favored gimmicks like the Buffett Rule rather than clear explanations of why a thorough redistribution of wealth and income is necessary and in the common good.  The President and other Democrats need to make their economic case clearly and boldly.  They should not wait for the occasional capitalist superstar to bite a dog.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

Working Hard? Or Hardly Working?

Are you a workaholic? According to the latest research there is more than one kind. Typical workaholics are “pushed” to their work and may suffer from poorer relationships at home and at work, as well as heart attacks and other illnesses caused by stress. But the latest discovery is people who qualify as “engaged workaholics,” who are “pulled” to their work because they love to work. According to Danish researcher Wilmar Schaufeli, these engaged workaholics “work because work is fun.” They also suffer less burnout, and perhaps fewer health deficits, than the typical workaholics.

I raise this question because Comedy Central just broke out its third season of Workaholics, an addictive show about three continuously baked twentysomethings who work as telemarketers. The three office mates/house mates are not “aholics” when it comes to work, but they are addicted to just about everything else: weed, rap, booze, porn, shrooms, acid, and wizards. Seriously, they love wizards.

The buddies on Workaholics have the same names as the actors who play them, Blake (Anderson), Adam (DeVine) and Ders (Anders Holm). Their boss is a woman—a barracuda with a soft spot for the slackers, and the plots usually revolve around a wild party, sometimes taking place at the suburban tract house they share, and sometimes taking place at work, like the time they camped out in the office while tripping on mushrooms, or the time they brought drugs on a business trip and were able to close an important deal by plying their client with acid.

However poor the work ethic of the characters on Workaholics, their real life counterparts probably qualify as “engaged” workaholics. Blake and Adam met at Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, and after they found Anders at The Improv they began uploading sketch comedy to the internet in their spare time. Before they made it big, Blake, the show’s front man, with a mop of orange ringlet curls and a caterpillar mustache, was simultaneously going to school, delivering pizza, and becoming an internet phenomenon.

Fortunately for the show’s 2.2 million viewers per episode, mostly men between the ages of 18-34, the comedy trio took off. A Comedy Central executive saw one of Mail Order Comedy webisodes and agreed to bankroll their pilot. Ironically, of course, Blake, Anders, and Adam hit it big making comedy from their own nerdy, druggy, loserish lives. Most Americans are not so lucky. Any real worker who came to work as drunk, hungover, and stoned as the boys on Workaholics would be terminated.

Season one of Workaholics debuted in 2011 and featured wacky workplace intrigue, peppered by drugs, a bitchy boss, indecent exposure, and potty humor galore. The hilarious pilot featured a sadistic work place drug tester who threatened to expose the merry band of bromancers for the druggies they were. In an action sequence inspired by the film Die Hard, Blake busted through the office’s ceiling tiles, crawled through the air ducts, and broke into the room containing the vials of urine waiting to be drug-tested.. Blake then contaminated the samples with his own stream. In the final scene, the bested drug tester fell for one of the boys’ favorite pranks, stooping down to pick up a rolled up dollar bill filled with dog poop.

You wouldn’t think that a comedy this juvenile would have much to say about real workers, but the employees of TelAmericorp can be devilishly wry in their commentary on the modern-day dead-end-job. Almost every episode involves a real life situation that workers face in the new recessionary economy, such as getting fired, being denied vacation time, being fired for striking, being denied a raise or  a promotion, losing health insurance, being evicted, and failing a drug test. While the resolutions to these conflicts are often wildly fantastic and hallucinatory, and would never resolve a similar situation in real life, the jokes in each episode have nearly as much bite as an episode of The Office, that short lived 1990s comedy, Working, starring Fred Savage, or the 1960s comedy I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, which I reviewed last month.

During a memorable episode in the first season, for example, Blake, Adam, and Ders stumble across a group of strikers. “What are you on strike for?” The workers reply: “More pay, better hours, health insurance.” The boys are confused, but in a good way: “Now let me get this straight. You guys are standing outside, not working, and yelling? Strikes are awesome! Strikes are freaking cool!” Later in the episode the boys stage a strike of their own when their boss refuses to let them celebrate, as is their tradition, “half Christmas” in July.

Many television reviewers and interviewers have noticed that Workaholics echoes the current economy. MTV Geek observed that, “the show is…about these guys working these crappy jobs just so they can have enough money to party, and it’s all happening in the context of this pretty crappy economy.”

But is it possible that the recession is making some workers rethink the workaholic treadmill? American productivity, which has risen aggressively over the last decade, was down significantly last quarter. As the Associated Press reported, this could mean that “companies are struggling to squeeze more output from their workers.”

Tim Jackson, an Economics professor at the University of Surrey, took up this idea in a recent New York Times Op Ed, “Let’s be Less Productive.” He makes the radical suggestion that we try to loose ourselves from the vice grip of efficiency and productivity and revel in “slow work,” taking time to expand the professions that require craft and care for others—including hospital work, the arts, and education.

On Workaholics, the characters definitely revel in non-productivity, and they do care a lot for each other at the end of the day. As with most fraternities, theirs is built on fantasies of sexual exploitation, usually thwarted, of course, because they are wannabe players. Ultimately, their fraternity is closer to the old union brotherhood than you might think. Blunt in hand, they stick by each other, go on strike with each other, contaminate drug tests for each other, close business deals for each other, fight drug dealers, mean office mates, and cold-hearted ladies for each other. On Workaholics there is just enough brotherly love and slacker-class-consciousness to keep me coming back for more.

Kathy M. Newman

The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

Later this week, scholars, artists, and activists from around the world will gather at SUNY Stony Brook for the How Class Works conference, organized by Michael Zweig and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Working Class Life.  We’re a diverse group, coming from about a dozen countries and a variety of academic fields and organizations.  Over the course of a few days, sociologists will talk with poets, graduate students will hang out with senior scholars, and community and labor organizers will discuss strategy with political scientists and literary scholars.  This combination of diversity and informal interaction creates an engaging, friendly, and lively atmosphere, and it keeps people coming back to working-class studies conferences year after year.

But with the exception of a significant group of international scholars from Turkey, Africa, and China, most of those at the conference will be white.  Several times over the course of the conference, people will suggest that, as a community, we should be concerned, maybe even ashamed, about our lack of racial diversity.  If we were really committed to social justice, the commentators may seem to imply, if we were sufficiently self-critical and open and inclusive, our interdisciplinary field would be much more multicultural.

But it isn’t.  And that isn’t about a lack of commitment, intellectual engagement, or organizing effort.  From the beginning, working-class studies has been deeply involved in critical discussions of both the diversity of the working class (or as our British colleagues perhaps more accurately put it, the working classes) and the theoretical and political intersections among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. New working-class studies scholars have not generally suggested that class matters more than race.  Rather, we argue that class deserves focused attention within the context of broader discussions of inequality, difference, and culture.  The founding program in working-class studies, the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, got its start as part of a national project on diversity in higher education sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  In 1995, when we applied to that program, we asked whether “the working class would be invited to the diversity banquet.”  As the program organizers told us, we were the only people raising questions about class in the context of multiculturalism.

That emphasis remains a key element of working-class studies.  It’s been the primary theme of several conferences, and a significant proportion of the presentations each year focus on variations of the theme.  At this year’s conference, for example, about 20% of the paper titles explicitly reference race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and more than 25% more address class in non-U.S. national contexts, including papers on the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Europe.  A few more papers consider the latest addition to critical discussions of diversity: religion.  Of course, many of those who will speak about the intersection of class and race are white.  Indeed, one of the strengths of working-class studies is that it has encouraged so many white scholars to apply class as a critical concept in looking at issues of race and ethnicity.

And yes, a number of conference presenters will discuss issues facing the white working class.   Working-class studies is concerned that many, some would even say the majority, of whites have been exploited and excluded from so-called “mainstream” culture, marginalized as “white trash,” and stereotyped as racist and reactionary.  At best, the white working class has been elided into the more privileged white middle class, who benefit from more political, economic, and cultural capital.  As my colleagues and I suggested 17 years ago, the white working class has an important place in discussions and activism related to diversity.

None of which is to say that we should stop thinking about the whiteness of working-class studies as a problem. A more racially-diverse working-class studies could help to deepen and complicate our conversations about how class works.  Over the past 17 years, we have pursued a variety of strategies to reach out to colleagues of color: sending the call for papers to organizations that focus on ethnic studies, attempting to collaborate with such groups, organizing conferences around the theme of intersections, inviting keynote speakers whose activism or research focuses on race, and through personal contacts. The international participation in this year’s conference offers evidence that such efforts can bring more diversity to the movement.

Yet almost two decades of outreach have made working-class studies only slightly less white.  Why is it so hard?  Part of the problem must rest in the history of race and class relations in the U.S. (and in other countries), as the elite have repeatedly pitted working-class whites and blacks against each other (Michelle Alexander provides a useful overview of this in The New Jim Crow).  And part of it probably reflects the way some leftist scholars have argued that class should subsume race and gender, advocating for a class-based solidarity.  These twin histories might well make some scholars of color uncertain about whether working-class studies is the place for them.

But it may also be that working-class studies has too little to offer to those whose  work focuses on race, who may find similar ideas and similar camaraderie in critical race theory (CRT).  For me, working-class studies provides important ways of thinking about structural inequality, cultural difference, and shared identity and experience. For contemporary scholars of race, the same core can be found within CRT.  Consider, for example, this excerpt from a definition of CRT from the UCLA School of Public Policy:

Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.

Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.

Substitute class for the references to race in this passage, and the result would sound very much like some core ideas in working-class studies, which wrestles with the “many oppressions” facing the working class and which strives to make working-class narratives available because they challenge the class-based social hierarchy.

New working-class studies and critical race theory share some significant intellectual DNA.   The key to making the link may not be to bemoan the lack of racial diversity at the working-class studies conference but rather to actively seek out opportunities for in-depth conversation across these two fields.  We have much in common, and we have much to learn from each other.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies