One of my blog posts that got a bit of attention was this one-What if a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed? In that post, I pointed out that waiting for a collapse was a rather foolish proposition because it is already happening. The problem is, people tend not to see it because it does not conform to certain preconceived notions of what a collapse “should” look like-notions fostered by Hollywood rather than by history, including shelves empty of food, dry gas pumps, ATMs unable to dispense cash, and chaos and rioting in the streets.
Also, the unevenness makes it hard to detect. Gasoline was indeed rationed – but only in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. There are still plenty of suburbs, but total miles driven is slightly down for the first time ever, the average age of cars on the road is at an all-time high, and many of those homes lie empty and deserted. The pumps still dispense gas, but you’re paying more for it without a corresponding raise in salary. Some areas are gentrifying and gaining population, whereas others are virtual ghost towns. There is indeed mayhem and civil war in the streets – but it is in Syria. There are indeed deactivated ATMs, but they are in Cyprus. An unknown wag coined the term Detroitification, and I think I will co-opt it. Like a spreading mold, it’s coming to a town near you.
We humans are designed by evolution to respond to immediate threats, but slow-motion catastrophes simply do not register or generate any source of alarm. Another of the underlying themes of this blog is to remind people that it is indeed happening, but is subject to what I’ll dub the Gibson Principle – the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. If you look closely, though, you’ll see the subtle signs everywhere. See for example – California water managers despair over snowpack, and FAA to close 149 air traffic towers as budget cuts bite. If every single one of these towers ever reopens, I’ll run through the streets naked.
Just as I attempted to gain notoriety by being the first to actually predict collapse, I will now predict the date of the arrival of the post-work society. It is right here, right now.
A lot of commentators talk about how we’re going to have to deal with the post-work future as if it is some sort of far-off distant theoretical proposition that we’re eventually have to come to terms with. But I would argue that, to a great extent, we are already living in it. And we’re not doing a very good job of coming to terms with it. Like the collapse, it is already happening. It is just in disguise.
What prompted there thoughts was a recent piece on NPR’s Planet Money, also broadcast on All Things Considered and This American Life, about a sharp rise in disability claims since the beginning of the economic downturn. The story is blunt- much of the poor working class (what Marxists might term the lumpenproletariat) is surviving by disability checks from the government because they have become economically redundant and cannot find any sort of work whatsoever. This is aggravated by low levels of education – such people cannot find a nonphysical job where they do not have to lift and carry, work with their hands, drive, or stand on their feet all day, and even those jobs are drying up like puddles on a sunny day. Others are older, laid-off factory workers who have not been to school since their teens, and are essentially unhireable.
So, given the atrocious health of the working classes (usually due to smoking and a poor diet), they parlay any health malady into a permanent disability claim. And if their claim is denied, a massive cottage industry of pit-bull lawyers stands ready to fight until the claim is approved, with the government paying the lawyers’ fees if the government loses, which they often do. In most cases, once they go on disability they leave the work force permanently. And when they go on disability they receive health care, which is unavailable any other way.
These people are essentially statistically invisible – not counted in unemployment statistics, or any statistic that measures the health of the economy or the lack thereof. And they are totally dependent upon this money for survival.
It makes sense on some level. It’s a rare person in modern industrial society, even those of us who are working full time, who does not suffer from one malady or another, including the dreaded diseases of civilization – diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, asthma, ADD, anxiety, depression, sleep apnea, etc. And we’re getting sicker by the day, especially if we eat the standard American diet and are subject to the chronic stresses and isolation of modern American life. Heck, our own anatomy practically guarantees back pain or carpal tunnel for most of us at some point.
The situation was exacerbated by the anti-poor “welfare to work” nonsense promulgated by former President Clinton as a way to get Republican votes. While promising to get people off of welfare and into the jobs that were rapidly being offshored and automated out of existence, he reallocated the bulk of the costs for welfare to individual states. Disability remained the purview of the federal government, however. The result was predictable – cash-strapped states, unable to print their own money or raise taxes on businesses without them fleeing to other states, took people off the welfare rolls and put them on disability. in fact, they paid private companies specifically to do this. So the decreased welfare rolls touted by Clinton were in reality just moving people from state-funded welfare to federally-funded disability.
And as for that other great Clinton initiative – training laid-off workers for the “jobs of the twenty-first century?” Well, as we now know, it turns out that the jobs of the twenty-first century are performed by robots or by people in Asia. Not to mention fifty-year old workers are not going to get in much experience before they retire, and are going to want more money than a twenty-year old. Instead, older workers who lost their blue collar jobs and had been out of school since their teens ended up filing for disability en masse. Although the idea of retraining was played up in the popular media, everyone involved really knew it was a joke and that these displaced workers were unemployable. These workers are just hoping to float along until they turn 65 when they are eligible for Social Security and Medicare, and they don’t have to permanently search for a nonexistent job, go through the litigation hassle, get sick or injured, or worry about suddenly losing their benefits.
So the attempt to turn us all into “knowledge workers” didn’t work out so great. After all, even “knowledge workers” are on the virtual unemployment line nowadays. I can tell you from experience that a college degree, solid work history, verbal skills, reasonably agreeable personality and even professional licensure do not allow one to sleep soundly at night. Everyone who feels secure raise their hands. See for example Gawker’s collection of stories from the unemployment line.
The impression one could easily take from this is that people are “cheating” the system. But to me the truth is that many people are “unemployable” in the conventional economy for any number of reasons. There are people with health issues who could do nonphysical work, but no such work is on offer, especially in economically deprived areas. There are people with low education who cannot find any sort of work that’s doesn’t involve lifting, working with your hands, driving, or standing on your feet all day, and they just can’t do that. There are people who could work, but cannot put in a conventional 40 hour week because of various issues, so unemployment is far more secure than the precarious job market. There are older workers who’ve lost their job, and no company is going to want to hire “retrained” workers nearing the end of their career with so many candidates on offer. What else are these people to do? No one seems to know.
And the factual claims of the story have been challenged. This Media Matters story deals with some of the claims made in the story. Also, there was a story from NSFWCORP (now locked) that pointed out that the major sponsors of the story were banks and insurance companies who stand to profit from privatising the system. I myself found the timing, and the prominence, of the story a bit suspicious from the start given the sudden push from both parties to “reform” the system because it is “unsustainable.” For those who follow the media – NPR is one of the more insidious forms of propaganda because it appeals to intelligent people who are repelled by the Right’s propaganda mills, yet still pushes the conventional “neoliberal” line. The moniker “National Petroleum Radio” has been applied due to lucrative sponsorships from the oil and gas industry, and its reporter Adam Davidson has been called the “Lord Haw-Haw for the one-percent.”
Nonetheless, I think the story exposes some important truths. One is that a large number of Americans are living in post-work society not by choice. And another is that the claims about retraining and getting people off of welfare are sheer and utter nonsense. And finally, we are completely in denial and living in a fantasy world in this country about all of this. Here is one particularly notable part of the story to me:
There used to be a lot of jobs that you could do with just a high school degree, and that paid enough to be considered middle class. I knew, of course, that those have been disappearing for decades. What surprised me was what has been happening to many of the people who lost those jobs: They’ve been going on disability.
Four years ago, when I was working as a reporter in Seattle, I did that story. I stood with workers in a dead mill in Aberdeen, Washington and memorialized the era when you could graduate from high school and get a job at a mill and live a good life. That was the end of the story.
But after I got interested in disability, I followed up with some of the guys to see what happened to them after the mill closed. One of them, Scott Birdsall, went to lots of meetings where he learned about retraining programs and educational opportunities. At one meeting, he says, a staff member pulled him aside.
“Scotty, I’m gonna be honest with you,” the guy told him. “There’s nobody gonna hire you … We’re just hiding you guys.” The staff member’s advice to Scott was blunt: “Just suck all the benefits you can out of the system until everything is gone, and then you’re on your own.”
Scott, who was 56 years old at the time, says it was the most real thing anyone had said to him in a while.
Scott tried school for a while, but hated it. So he took the advice of the rogue staffer who told him to suck all the benefits he could out of the system. He had a heart attack after the mill closed and figured, “Since I’ve had a bypass, maybe I can get on disability, and then I won’t have worry to about this stuff anymore.” It worked; Scott is now on disability.
There simply aren’t enough jobs for the workers in the society. And despite the conceits of economists, people are not infinitely malleable, interchangeable cogs that can simply be plugged in wherever to fit the economy’s needs, whatever they may be. They are people, with interests, abilities aptitudes and needs.