The Cake is a Lie

Tenth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

After reading last week’s post you may be thinking that War is such a wonderful thing that we should just forget about peace and just promote nonstop full-time worldwide warfare –and then no one need ever be out of a job ever again.  While this is a strategy that governments have flirted with throughout time, the cold hard fact is that War has reached the very end of its usefulness in human life.  Always possessed of a hideous side beneath the mask of glory,War has become so dysfunctional and destructive that we are fast approaching the point where one of us has to go –either humanity or War.

But what went wrong?  How could such a longstanding relationship have turned so sour?  And what about all the things we just last week claimed make war such an ideal employer?

  1. It creates jobs:  True, but by crippling bodies and destroying infrastructure, it can ruin productivity at the same time.  And War also “cooks the books” so to speak when it comes to lowering unemployment.  Sometimes it does that by creating more jobs –and sometimes it does that by killing off the potentially unemployed.
  2. It matches people with jobs:  True, but the vast majority of wartime jobs are generic “cannon-fodder” positions, base-level soldiers with no particular prior skills, qualifications or future prospects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It is true that War can bring out the finest and highest in human nature, bravery, honor, ingenuity, courage and so forth.  But War also notoriously brings out the worst and the most base in human nature, including rape, torture, murder, and genocide.  And in terms of helping us discover which ideology is better than which other ideology, war is actually a terrible method..  Figuring out which ideology is better by fighting a war is like figuring out which computer is better by using each one to bust open boulders.  The characteristics that lead it to win such a contest have nothing to do with the important aspects of the computer, and even the computer that emerges victorious is likely to be damaged beyond repair by the exercise.

Even with all these nasty characteristics, War presents itself well enough and performs well enough as an economic engine that it has remained a perennial part of the human experience for untold generations.  Yet there has been a fundamental shift in recent times that has made War unsustainable.

NEXT WEEK:  Why War must be stopped.

War, What is it Good For?

Ninth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

I’m a huge hippie pacifist. But with all due respect to those great Motown songwriters, Mr. Whitfield and Mr. Strong, the answer to the above question cannot possibly be “absolutely nothing.”  In every generation, in nations across the world, in human societies since the dawn of recorded time, people have gone to war. We must be getting something out of it. Our species –all evidence to the contrary –just isn’t that stupidly self-destructive to keep on pursuing warfare for no reason whatsoever.

There are multiple answers, but one of them is that war, as awful as it may be, is a highly successful Employment-Creation System, under the criteria we established in past weeks.

  1. It creates jobs:  In addition to the millions of people employed directly on the frontlines as soldiers, war employs many millions more in activities directly or indirectly related to war-efforts: in munitions factories, in agricultural production, and so forth and so on. At the conclusion of wars, new jobs are created in cleaning up and rebuilding after the destructiveness of the battles.
  2. It matches people up with jobs:  There’s a large range of specialty positions in most armies, so recruits can theoretically be matched with positions that suit particular skills, interests and talents, ranging from electronics to cooking, to strategic planning.  There’s also ample numbers of positions available for people who are particularly ambitious, or who have exceptional leadership qualities.  In addition, there are roles in armies for people who would have grave troubles fitting into civilian life –people with a strong desire to kill other human beings, for example.As far as how jobs get assigned, however, we’re back once again to the old Feudal pyramidal hierarchy.  In place of a king, the armed forces have a Commander-in-Chief, in places of Dukes and Barons, the armed forces have Generals and Majors, in place of the lower aristocracy, Sergeants, and in place of the peasants, privates.  Ultimately, the responsibility for creating the jobs goes back to the Commander-in-Chief, who decides what countries to invade, and so forth.  The details of carrying out those orders, where to build a base, where to attack, etcetera, are determined by the military hierarchy, and the orders are carried out somewhere close to the bottom of the pyramid.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Armies tend to use “the carrot” during peacetime (“see the world!”  “get money for college!”  “gain valuable skills”) and “the stick” in more desperate times (enlist or go to jail, you coward!”) but beyond these more superficial motivators is something altogether deeper and more primal.  Summarized neatly by the U.S. Army’s longtime recruiting slogan “Be All That You Can Be,” War does indeed provide the challenges that push humanity to its highest heights, not only as individuals, but also collectively –at least in theory.For nations as well as at the level of each soldier, a major portion of the attraction of war is the concept of being tested to the absolute limits (and of course emerging victorious).  And in the big picture, war isn’t just about national interests and secure borders,  but about field-testing an entire ideology, an entire way of life and belief system.  That’s why nations meet on the field of battle –to find out “are we right, or are they right?”Islam vs. Christianity.  Capitalism vs. Communism.  Catholics vs. Protestants.  Fascism vs. Democracy.  Fight it out and may the best ideology win –and then spread.  That’s the unspoken promise of war.  After all, everyone loves a winner.  Why else would Germany and Japan have re-patterned their societies after the example of the United States after the conclusion of World War II?

NEXT WEEK:  The horrible downside of war.

Back to the Future

Eighth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

It may seem odd to look back at Feudalism, universally considered one of the most unpleasant and backwards economic systems ever invented, as the first stop on the quest to replace Consumerism.  However, in order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you’ve been. Consumerism’s ways of meeting the employment-creation criteria may seem like the most natural and obvious ways possible, but a lot of that comes from the fact that we are already immersed in a Consumerist system.  Feudalism actually meets the same criteria, but in a much more primal way.

  1. It creates jobs:  Unlike the “franchise” model of Consumerism, where everyone works together to create jobs, in Feudalism the ultimate responsibility for creating jobs falls on one person, the King.  The King sets the agenda for the overall big projects of the nation, typically invading other kingdoms, or building mighty works like castles or cathedrals or –if you have a extraordinarily enlightened King –kingdom infrastructure.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Feudalism’s model for job distribution is extremely simple, yet in its own way, elegant.  If you’re a Duke or equivalent aristocrat, you work directly for the King.  You send men for his armies, food for his table and his court, and money to pay for his projects.  Each of the Dukes is surrounded by a host of minor lords, who support the Duke in the same way the Duke supports the King.  And each of those minor lords has a small team of servants and larger assembly of slave-like peasants who work like dogs to keep him and his family in what passes for a lifestyle of local luxury (and to generate the thin margin of excess that gets passed upwards).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It doesn’t seem like much of a booby prize for a modern observer, but even the work of a peasant in a Feudal system is ultimately the work of the nation as a whole.  Each person’s individual labor goes not only to support and sustain his or her own life, but also in support of all the King’s grand projects.  This is why a King who demands too much of his subjects is ultimately a more successful King than one who demands too little.

It may seem like so much ancient history, but actually Feudalism never completely went away.  A modern multinational corporation is nothing but a Feudal society dressed up in a nice shirt and tie.  The CEO is the King, the Vice Presidents are the Dukes, the middle managers are the minor aristocrats, the entry-level white collar workers are the servants, and the factory workers are the peasants.  Instead of invading other kingdoms, they take over markets.  However, unlike in Feudalism, there is at least some social mobility in corporate life.  It may be rare, but people do occasionally travel from somewhere near the bottom to somewhere near the top.

At any rate, the purpose of looking at Feudalism is not to posit it as an actual improvement over what we have now, but to see how very possible it is to meet the same employment-creation criteria in very different ways.

NEXT WEEK: War

The Downside to Consumerism

Last week we looked at the upside of Consumerism, the ways in which it functions well as an employment-creation system.  This week we’ll look at the darker side of our trusty economic engine.  Seventh in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

The question of course, is this:  If Consumerism works so well, why are people out of work?  Who turned off the jobs spigot?  As it turns out when we take a closer look at how well Consumerism meets our criteria for a great employment-creation system, the picture isn’t nearly as rosy as we painted it last week.  Let’s take a look at the criteria again.

  1. It creates jobs:  An unlimited supply, right?  Not really.  Theoretically the kinds and quantities of consumer goods that can be produced (and thus the number of jobs producing those goods) are only limited by people’s imaginations.  But in reality, there’s an actual limit to how much people want to acquire.  Most people in the First World already have far more consumer goods than they need to live a comfortable –one might even say luxurious –life.  This leads to the problem we discussed in week three (“The Global Pyramid Scheme“) of markets drying up.There are a number of ways in which consumerism compensates for this effect, but they all have problems attached to them.  One way is by making cheaper, more disposable products that wear out faster (such as blenders that break on the third usage) –which is wasteful.  Another way is to stimulate people’s desires for new and different products –which involves making them unhappy with what they already have (as in the case of cell phones that are already out of date a month after being sold) .  A third way is to promote ostentatious excesses (such as the purchase of giant gas-guzzling automobiles).  In addition to making our lives unhappy and filled with cheap crap, these techniques also accelerate the depletion and pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.  Consumerism is a driving force behind impending shortages of such vital and irreplaceable resources such as clean water, oil, fish populations, trees, and unpolluted air, a trend pushing us in the direction of an ever-accelerating environmental disaster.One cutting edge “solution” to the problem is the invention of “virtual” consumer goods, simulated objects that are bought, sold, coveted and “gifted” on various websites and in various virtual reality environments around the internet, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to World of Warcraft and Second Life.  These objects don’t draw a lot of resources, they don’t take up any physical space, and people love them.  It’s a perfect solution, except for the fact that people are now spending huge portions of their lives in the pursuit of shiny objects that don’t, strictly speaking, even exist.  Plato would be horrified.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Apparently not as well as it once did, but that’s more of a symptom of jobs drying up than the cause.  A more serious concern is Consumerism’s poor prioritization of projects, since it elevates trivial industries (say, the marketing of soda pop) to positions of central importance, while letting projects vital to the future of humanity (such as preventing mass extinctions) languish.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where we run into real problems.  As you recall, Consumerism makes jobs meaningful through the money you earn from working those jobs, and money is meaningful, not just for its raw purchasing power, but because it allows us to each measure our own self-worth against that of those around us.  But reducing everything to money has its downside as well.  It’s nearly always possible to increase your profit margins (at least in the short term) by doing some bad or immoral thing such as clear-cutting the forest primeval, farming out your labor to five-year-old workers in a Third World country, or putting sawdust in the chicken nuggets.

The upshot of all of this is that Consumerism is faltering.  People are no longer in tune with its devil-may-care, spendthrift ethos, and the loss of confidence in the Consumerist philosophy is having a very real effect on global markets.  Furthermore, the stopgap measures that gave Consumerism an extra century or so of viability have run their course.  Now like the snake eating it’s own tail, Consumerism has begun to consume itself –one reason, perhaps, for current pop-culture’s tendency to endlessly regurgitate and redigest it’s own recent past.

The problem, of course, is that Consumerism is what is keeping Capitalism afloat, and when it comes to Capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, there is nothing else.  Competing systems, such as Communism, have been much worse.  But is Consumerism the only possible employment-creation system that can rescue Capitalism, or are there other options?

NEXT WEEK – Feudalism

Spend ’till you drop

Sixth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Let’s take a good hard look at our old friend Consumerism, the dominant Employment-Creation System (ECS) in the modern world.  In many ways it works quite well, and it fits all the criteria we outlined last week.

  1. It creates jobs:  Consumerism creates what has always seemed to be an unlimited supply of jobs, all revolving around the manufacture, marketing, sale and distribution of consumer goods –the famous fabulous prizes of Capitalism.  Blenders, cars, t-shirts, posters, paperweights, computers, microwaves, gold teeth, embroidered wall-hangings –the list goes on, and on, and on.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Consumerism distributes jobs via what might be called the “franchise” method.  Anyone can buy into Consumerism at any point in time –just create a product and put it on the market.  You’ve just manufactured your own job, and if you’re successful enough, you’ll create jobs for other people as well.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where the true brilliance of Consumerism comes into play.  Many, perhaps most, of the jobs in a Consumerist system are not intrinsically meaningful.  With notable exceptions, consumer products aren’t saving lives or making the world a more beautiful place.  However, each and every job in the Consumerist framework has a quantitative value attached to it –that value being the amount of money you get for performing it.  The amount of money for a Consumerist job is related to the amount of money earned by selling the consumer products that generate the job.  The amount of money earned by selling the product is in turn based on the price of the object.  The crucial part of the whole thing, the part that makes it all work, is that the prices are quasi-objective.  No one person or government sets the prices, they are all assigned automatically by the actions of people buying and selling on the open market. In other words, we all set prices collectively, by establishing through buying and selling what we are willing to pay for things.The utility of this system of evaluation is that it gives us all a way to measure our own self-worth, i.e. in terms of dollars and cents.  In our society, under the Consumerist system, your status, your value as a person in society, is roughly equated with your purchasing power, your accumulated wealth.  The day you first get a job, you secure entry into a global system that allows you to compare yourself –quantitatively –to every other person in the system at any given time.

    This in turn provides the motivation that keeps people working.  True, for people at the very low end of the income scale (a vast number of people, largely invisible to the those above them), the primary motivation is survival, the need to purchase the essentials of life, food, shelter and clothing.  For everyone else, however, no matter how it may be disguised, the goal is status, the getting ahead in the system represented by accumulating more money and more goods.

NEXT WEEK – The Downside of Consumerism