Job Quality

^ many jobs are being added, but most jobs are barely worth having. Not a good economy at all.

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Supporters of President Trump are praising the new official jobs report. In it, we find 266,000 new jobs for November 2019. Wages also rose by 3.1 percent, higher than expected. You can read the report here :

Unfortunately, the official report doesn’t represent facts on the ground. First, and so reported, a lot of the official growth results from the big GM strike ending. More significantly, the quality of jobs in the current economy subverts the impression left by their increase number. A far more accurate picture is displayed in the following Forbes magazine article :

Our economy is that of a highly stratified work force, one that resembles all too well the hardcase economy of imperial Rome in its best century : at the top, a small circle of the very rich; who are served technologically by a substantial force of well trained “comfortables” ; all of whom are serviced, every day, by an enormous army of helots (slaves in imperial Rome). (And of course underneath all these, a swarm of unemployed who exist on doled out bread and entertainments.)

Rome’s viciously stratified economy broke at the first shock — in the 250s — and wasn’t restored even to modest working until 40 years later, only to collapse completely in the 5th Century. It is not an edifying story — told remorselessly in many books on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — and we should worry a lot about its recurrence today.

Do I exaggerate ? I don’t think so. As the graph heading this column makes clear, job quality has fallen a lot in the past thirty years and resides at very low levels. Service work and retail jobs – which are a kind of servicing too — abound: food workers of all sorts, retail clerks, home health aides, janitors, hotel room cleaners, pot shop cashiers, delivery drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers, airplane clean-up crews — and many more, you name it — make life bearable for the “comfortable” and comfortable for the rich. Neither class, the Comfortables and the Rich, could for one day live their lifestyles without the low-paid help of our economy’s helots.

After the Depression, almost 90 years ago, families began to learn how to live without dependency on helots. Family servants all but disappeared; doing one’s own chores became almost the norm even among the rich. In those decades, it was relatively easy for a worker to rise, or at least to accumulate substantial savings, enough to buy a home, maybe two homes. The typical house cost about two times annual household income; rents took maybe one-sixth of family earnings. Taxes were high, but the economy was expanding rapidly even as those working in it took home a major share of the entire national earnings. These were good times for workers.

Then came the securitization of mortgages — banks, which were almost the only mortgage lenders, could now sell their loan portfolio — and house prices began to rise rapidly. Easily fungible mortgages continue, and house prices continue to climb, even as the family earnings for most workers have refused to rise much. House prices in “hot spots” have risen 2000 to 10,000 percent since 1977, yet family incomes have risen only about ten times. What is the result ? Home ownership, once a universal national priority, now eludes most, and in hot markets eludes nearly everyone who is not at least a Comfortable. Only by having families double up, or triple — eight to sixteen people to a home — can low wage workers find a way to buy.

So much for the home ownership situation. The effects of low-quality, low-wage work impact well beyond the real estate markets. The millions of workers who earn from $ 10 to $ 16 an hour, at 30 hour jobs that carry no benefits, live lives encumbered almost completely by work, bill paying, and doing crucial family errands. They can’t take vacations, they can barely pay for a night out once a month. They can’t buy quality clothing, or, in many cases, afford to keep a car legally on the road (many are forced to drive without insurance, or even with suspended licenses because they can’t pay traffic tickets) or pay for day care for the kids. Yes, their lives are better than for the entirely work-less — the low wage worker at least has work to give him or her some sense of purpose and maybe a good credit rating. But by no means is his or her life anything anyone would choose who sees how the Comfortable live (much less the Rich).

There is no reason why government tax policy and wage laws cannot ameliorate this situation. Work should never be compensated at a less rate than is needed for the worker to prosper; to feel good about her life; to not feel inferior to those he meets at a socializing. This is why I am an all-in supporter of strong unions, which work to increase wage earners’ pay and benefits.

Union activity is, however, not enough. Companies must begin to treat their employees as assets, not as cost items. That means major GAAP reform. Government can chip in : the minimum national wage should be $ 12 an hour, $ 21 an hour in “hot markets.” Frankly, even that is not enough. To belong to the Comfortables, you need an income of at least $ 80,00 in the “hot spots.” Add kids, and you can make that figure $ 125,000.

Rome had one economic bonus : it was easy to move from the slave class into the Comfortables if you had a skill or could acquire a patron. It is far less easy to move in our economy from helot to Comfortable. Low wage workers tend to lack the technological dexterities that are prerequisite to obtaining Comfortable-class jobs. As for becoming rich, maybe a lucky few, who have a great idea, or extraordinary skill at something, and receive some breaks along the way, can rise to the Rich class, but hardly anyone else will do that. Yet once so ensconced, tax breaks now in law enable Rich persons to build enormous, unusable wealth (even if most of that worth is a paper figure dependent on a healthy stock market). This concentration of unusable wealth in the hands of a very few is economic absurdity, by the way. What economic good is gained by amassing dollars that can only be parked ? Capitalists at least invest their funds. They take the risk. What does a billionaire with his money parked in a money market account do except to hinder the economy by keeping his vast sums out of service ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


One Comment

  1. 100% spot on. The fact that almost half of the people in our country work in low paid jobs is a national travesty. The bargain with businesses and the rich should be thus: if you want to keep your employees low paid, then you must bear a more progressive tax structure so we can make sure they have health care and education for themselves and their children.


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