The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: unemployment

Election 2015: Politicians Should Understand Precarious Work

92570157IT’S A TOPIC THAT SEEMS to be all around us. Economists, social activists, researchers, corporate execs, educators, media commentators, labour researchers – all of these have spent the last few years focusing on “precarious work” as an omnipresent reality in each of our communities. That’s also true for my own city, London. Tomorrow morning, at King’s University College, there is a conference on this very issue featuring two noted Canadian economists. You can find out more about it here. The more people attending events such as these, the quicker we’ll start asking ourselves if temporary or precarious work is the kind of future we want in Canada.

The future of work itself is increasingly occupying Canadian conversations, but not in the political realm, even with the election now well underway. The key platforms of the parties talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but that has always been the case, and following each recession in the last 30 years, the job numbers continue to decline. There is a disconnect between proposed policies and present realities and we’re no closer to solutions that we were three or four elections ago.

Author H. P. Lovecraft noted that, “from even the greatest of problems, irony is seldom absent.” He might as easily have been referring to political life, since few jobs carry such uncertainty as being a politician. You can be greatly appreciated but lose because of a split vote. People might like you but not your leader. Or you might not have performed to voter’s expectations. When times are difficult or confining, as they are now, no politician is beyond the desire of the average voter for change.

When times are good, policy can be predominant. Yet if change is in the air, politics becomes about passions, anger, euphoria, disillusionment, even despair. In such a context, the politician can feel like the most vulnerable employee on the planet.

Why, as a consequence, can’t communities get more serious attention from political folks on such an issue, especially considering they have “lived experience” on the matter? Was Abraham Lincoln right, then, when he told a friend, “A statesman is he who thinks in the future generations, and a politician is he who thinks in the upcoming election?” Or how about Paulo Coelho’s take on it?

“Culture makes people understand each other better.  And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers.  But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.”

The issue here isn’t about people having any kind of job, but of citizens inhabiting healthy jobs that permit them to contribute to their respective communities. It hard to build a culture of prosperity and inclusion when your life is taken up with worrying if you’ll still have your job next week, next month, next year. Politicians should understand that as well as anyone, but why can’t they make precarious work part of this election campaign in ways that are relevant and not merely aspirational?

Too many people are living out William Shakespeare’s observation in The Merchant of Venice: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live.” Following this election, a greater or lesser number of MPs are going to live through that experience, perhaps wishing, once feeling the crunching nature of loss, that they had shown more attention to the precarious work file while they were still in the position to make change.

The Real Creator of Jobs

consumers-620x400

IN RESPONDING TO NICK HANAUEER’S observation that “the pitchforks are coming,” one of the .01% noted that the democracy has successfully “tamed” the masses, to the point where violent responses to growing economic inequality are no longer likely.

One wonders what that person must think of the millions marching in the streets of Paris in response to a brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the hundreds of thousands marching in streets across the world seeking change in the world’s financial system. These demonstrators might not carry rudimentary weapons like pitchforks, it’s true, but on the other hand, armed with smartphones, websites, petitions, cameras, and powerful texting abilities has meant that they can actually enter into the consciousness of the world in ways never seen before.

Hanauer understands the distinction, saying forcefully that modern revolutions come gradually, then suddenly. He believes his financial peers just don’t get it, despite all their supposed acquired intelligence.

But his greatest frustration is reserved for just how unnecessary it all will be.

“If we, the elites, do something about it, if we adjust our policies in the way, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression – so that we help the 99% and preempt the revolutionaries and cries – that will be the best thing possible for us rich folks, too. It’s not that we’ll escape with our lives; it’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer … My suggestion to you is: Let’s do it all over again. We’ve got to try something. These idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying my customer base. And yours too.”

It was when he realized this that Hanauer decided he wanted to try changing the conversation. He calls it “middle-out economics,” and it’s compelling stuff. It simply asserts that if workers have better jobs and more money, businesses have more customers.

In this he hits on a great truth that has been overlooked. The financial elite is fond of saying that governments don’t create jobs. Well, if recent years are any indication, neither do corporations. It is, in fact, middle-class consumers, not rich businesspeople, that are the true job creators. When businesses have more customers, they require more workers to fill the demand. It is a thriving middle-class that created the rich, not the other way around. Endanger that middle-class and it’s inevitable that fabulous wealth will prove fleeting.

Hanauer is compellingly effective when exposing the underlying fallacies of elite assumptions. For those calling for smaller government, it will never happen, he claims, if so many people keep falling through the cracks. “You have to reduce the demand for government and that hasn’t happened under conservative Republican leadership – in each case, the size of government and debt has mushroomed under their watch.” He isn’t trying to be partisan, he maintains, but it should be obvious to all sides of the political spectrum that the more people out of work or facing financial insecurity, the greater will be the call and need for government intervention and support. It’s inevitable.

Governments are in the crosshairs of the 1% not because they are big or small, but because they can legislate regulatory control and nothing scares the wealthy class more. And so the assault on government continues. Yet despite this reality, Hanauer believes that both the right and left sides of the great political divide are slowly finding common ground on the need for a common approach to save capitalism from itself. “Perhaps that’s one reason the right is beginning, inexorably, to wake up to this reality as well,” he says. If he’s right, then unbridled capitalism doesn’t have much time left. In the next post we’ll examine if politics can actually begin to formulate a plan to pull it all back from the brink.

Mayors: Poor Choices

pageCover-CitiesOfOpportunity

IT’S ALL TOO COMMON FOR CITIES ENDURING DIFFICULT TIMES to resist getting serious about poverty. They place their emphasis on economics, jobs, education, or trade – those aspects that appear more like an investment than a drag on the community like, say, social programs.

But mayors are getting smarter, though it has taken them decades to get around to it. They are comprehending that even a robust economic recovery can be derailed by all those human resources that were left out – unemployed, underemployed, those suffering in mental illness, students, or the homeless. Mayors are paying attention to considerable research showing that the drag on any local economy from sustained poverty could ultimately derail any meaningful recovery or more prosperous future.

As a result, we are now hearing of more robust initiatives from the mayoralty level than we have seen in decades.

  • Last month, the mayors of North Carolina’s largest cities met for a summit on the alarming growth of poverty in the region. In fact, they have organized a series of high-level summits to get their collective head around the problem and deliver results. The hope is to meet quarterly and move from city to city. The session will begin with a meeting with faith leaders from the various cities because of their extensive work in assisting the poor.
  • Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary has called together the city’s best minds, along with those living through real experiences of poverty, to come up with “one big idea” to pull the municipality together in order to eliminate poverty and homelessness.  “The system could be working better,” he says.  “While it’s true that much of this is in the responsibility of the federal and provincial governments, somebody has to take leadership and my office will take on that responsibility.” The challenges will be huge, but he has set two years as the time frame for coming forward with solutions.
  • A few months ago, at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the “Cities of Opportunity Task Force,” that will bring together mayors from across America to leverage the power of municipal governments to advance a national strategy, led by cities, to fight poverty and create equity. “Poverty is a threat to our fundamental values and an obstacle to the nation’s growth, but it is being lived out in cities and we will be the problem solvers and centers of innovation to find solutions. As mayors, we are on the front lines; it is our responsibility.”
  • This year the city of Edmonton started its own mayor’s task force for similar reasons. It’s comprised of leaders from various sectors. As Edmonton Mayor Don Ivison puts it: “Shifting poverty from charity delivery to practical solutions is what we are fighting for, and we are excited about it.” Ivison had made this a commitment during his election campaign and is as good as his word. Leadership is coming from various levels, but it is his ability to bring the entire community together that has infused the effort with a new sense of hope and commitment.

You can see where this is heading – mayors are stepping up, not with mild or aspirational talk, but with commitment and hard work towards tackling poverty itself. This shouldn’t be of any surprise, because the deepest issues for people struggling on the margins are being lived out hundreds of thousands of times each day in our cities. This will not be solved if mayors don’t seize the opportunity and demonstrate to senior levels of government the human resources that lie in their own respective communities.

As that guru of cities development, Richard Florida, put it recently: “Poverty remains an endemic part of our life, shaping everything from our politics to our health and happiness. Overcoming it requires nothing less than a new set of institutions and a wholly new social compact.”

He might as well have added one thing more – a wholly different breed of mayors to lead the charge. Poverty is not merely a blight on our cities; it is a deep and chronic failure of human imagination and willpower.

Preparing For Survival

It wasn’t all that long ago that even Friedrich Engels spoke of how wealth could lift the economic burden from millions:

Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization.  The struggle for individual existence disappears.  Then for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones … It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” 

What can we say to all this now?  In a generation we have gone from thinking that wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everybody.  The first part has become the reality while the second lies in ruins.  In the period of a decade we have gone from people feeling worn down and depressed from being unable to find work to experiencing the same emotions from the rigors of holding down two or more part-time jobs.  In the period of a generation, work has gone from edifying the soul by giving it value to undermining it by forcing it into banality.jobless

The historic decoupling of consumption and production hasn’t let to some kind of utopia but a kind of global disruption that has dislocated key sectors of modern society.  This is even true in the emerging economies of the developing world, where the spread of wealth in those nations is causing an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor.  In other words, greater parts of those populations will be working longer hours for less remuneration – a mirror image of the affluent world.

Where we once hoped for a better world, driven by equity and progress, we now faced the real chance of massive global unemployment and the spread of poverty.  We are rapidly entering an age of cheap people and very expensive machines.  As the world heads headlong, driven by a global financial juggernaut with few checks and balances, the link between labour and prosperity will be a part of our past, not the future.

Work, which has anchored our modern value system since the days of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously close to becoming untethered to the ability to acquire wealth.  The centuries-old theory that to be a responsible and productive human being is to work, to engage oneself in the production of goods necessary to the overall well-being of society, is under great stress.  Where once people looked at their retirement years as a time of worth and pleasure derived from a lifetime of work, they now view it as a time of diminishing returns.

We have come full circle following a grand historic reversal.  In ancient times, labour was often little more than basic existence for the majority, while for the elite there could be a life of leisure, learning, and public participation in things like citizenship and politics.  But as the work of the oxen gave way to the wheel, which gave way to the steam and internal combustion engines, an entire middle class of workers was created which, paid well for their labour, paid well for the products they could acquire.  The more that model worked, the more robust the economy became.

Not any more.  Where 150 years ago 80% of Canadians worked on farms or ranches, today that number stands closer to 2%.  What happened in the agricultural economy in the last century is now taking place in the industrial economy, leaving increased levels of unemployment or underemployment in the wake.  And already we are beginning to spot a similar trend in the service sector, which has traditionally paid lower labour wages than its industrial counterpart.  Even the information sector is giving way to mechanized efficiencies that is inevitably reducing its dependence on the human contribution.

What this all is leading up to is some remarkable social and economic dislocation in the populations of both the developed and developing world.  We hear not a whit of this from the political class, but the main fallout from the lack of preparation for this incoming jobless tsunami will be in our communities and will have direct effect on our families and neighbours.  As author John-Talmage Mathis put it: “When the noise is gone, and the air is still … prepare for survival.”

 

Valueless Work

Eberstadt3

WE THOUGHT IT INVIOLATE, the link between work and production.  But like the relationship between democracy and voting, or citizenship and responsibility, historic alliances appear in decline.  We just so happen to live in a generation in which change has been so profound that the foundations of stability that we have counted on for centuries seem no longer dependable. 

History appeared to concur with Aristotle: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”  Yet history now seems to be at a pivot point.  Once a sense of fulfillment is hollowed out of human toil all that is left is drudgery.  But for those on the top of the economic pile work has become commodified – a means to an end that thinks little of work’s value other than it ability to form a product.  In a very real sense, the modern labourer has become a problem, a drain on modern business, with the result being a race to the bottom for labour standards, wages, and worker input.

Upon entering an era of ironies, we find ourselves forced to deal with some increasing contradictions – employability replaces employment, people without jobs, jobs without people, numerous part-time jobs replacing full-time ones, employment numbers going down because people have stopped looking for work altogether.

Modern employers rationalize all these changes by saying that efficiency is the order of the day and that they are only seeking more flexible arrangements to take advantage of modern markets.  Such things are code words revealing that, to them at least, the dignity of work is no longer a profitable pursuit.  As advocate Sara Horowitz put it: “What this means in reality is people are working increasingly without benefits, and increasingly without the protections of labour legislation: pensions, minimum wage, occupational safety, unemployment insurance, age discrimination.  The list goes on.” 

Technology has increasingly rendered the worker superfluous to the bottom line.  In fact, author Jeremy Rifkin talks repeatedly about the disappearance of work as we know it, and a painful transition into a “near workerless information society.”  The likelihood that employment in advanced societies has already reached its peak now stands as a real threat not only to communities, but to economies as well.  How can people purchase when their spending capacities decline each year?  If work is still the way people earn their livings, how can any future be productive if people can’t find the jobs required to sustain such a construct?  If money can be made from money, why would investors or companies show any interest in making their profits in the historic fashion by hiring workers?

All this is just another way of saying that modern economic growth is less linked to human labour than at any other time in human history.  Wealth without work: who would have imagined such a possibility in previous generations, save for those who already had wealth through investment?  

Economic history was premised on a kind of delicate balance between work and wealth – one couldn’t exist without the other.  The natures of both riches and the various kinds of labour were variable, but the symmetry between both was a sure thing.  This arrangement provided the income people needed to survive as well as the productivity required for economies to flourish and progress.  Because of this importance to the greater good, work was endowed with a kind of meaning and value that reflected its importance.  Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic” helped to codify it, but its true meaning has been with us for more than a millennium.

But there was more.  Holding work was also having status in the community, even when it was the most mundane of labour.  One provided for their family.  They had skills that could be put to good use for the economy or the community.  Diligent work also became one of the undergirding virtues of a society.  Yes, there was abuse from the bosses, and the ever-present desire to keep wages low to maintain high profits, but the work meant something and reflected a greater outlook and impact on society.

No seasoned observer can confess that this is the case today.  As employment becomes more scarce, work itself often takes on a meaningless quality, especially with the rise of the service economy.  All this is transpiring when more wealth is being generated than at any other time in human history and where those in the upper tier of wealth are seeing fantastic gains on their investments.

This isn’t a trend; it’s a disaster in the making.  Though one of the greatest problems of the age, politicians have no answer for it.  And yet we poke along in the kind of myopic hope that somehow things will turn around.  They will not, and it’s time to put the problem front and centre.

%d bloggers like this: