Unemployment and the Liberal Mind

by Andrew Loewen on February 1, 2013Comments Off

Dr. Payne is the go-to guy on unemployment (see his latest post), but here’s a passing note with news that the US economy contracted last quarter, HMV is folding up in Britain, and Best Buy and Future Shop are shuttering 15 stores in Canada, shedding workers.

The US contraction is in good part thanks to military draw down. Military Keynesianism: awesome paradigm. Meanwhile, the stock market is riding high despite the raging unemployment, the 1% is more flush than ever, corporate profits have recovered, and more than 1 in 5 American kids lives in poverty. Nearly half of all black kids in Obama’s America are poor. No doubt the “liberal media” presents this juxtaposition constantly on the news ticker. (Btw, yuh think there’s any correlation between Chicago apartheid and the children catching bullets with their tummies on the south side every day, mayor Rahm? No? It’s just that the ammunition clips on sale are too generous? OK.)

There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery – Paul Krugman, New York Times

What?! This from the guy who spent the nineties extolling the virtues of free trade? Ha. Of course not. The quote’s not from the NYT but the New York Daily Tribune. Karl Marx writing in 1859 (Marx had a high profile New York column from 1852 to 1861).

Layoffs at major retailers like HMV and Future Shop mean even fewer degrading, low-paying jobs for people, college-educated or otherwise, to shuffle between. As this video from UK grocer Ocado shows, shopping is being transformed by the internet and automated distribution centers. And those self-serve checkouts at Safeway have customers doing unwaged cashier work themselves.

USA Today:

Study: Nearly half are overqualified for their jobs

Nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs for which they’re overqualified, a new study out Monday suggests.

The study, released by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the trend is likely to continue for newly minted college graduates over the next decade.

“It is almost the new normal,” says lead author Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist and founder of the center, based in Washington. […]

Vedder, whose study is based on 2010 Labor Department data, says the problem is the stock of college graduates in the workforce (41.7 million) in 2010 was larger than the number of jobs requiring a college degree (28.6 million).

That, he says, helps explain why 15% of taxi drivers in 2010 had bachelor’s degrees vs. 1% in 1970. Among retail sales clerks, 25% had a bachelor’s degree in 2010. Less than 5% did in 1970.

But, but the problem is there aren’t any qualified people to fill the positions! I know it’s true because the guy with the MBA said so.

America Has Hit “Peak Jobs”

The Atlantic is already wringing its hands over “The End of Labor: How to Protect Workers From the Rise of Robots.” These days robots are in factories everywhere–but soon enough they’ll be doing plenty of service jobs too. Meanwhile, software is eating white-collar jobs.

Suddenly poor Paul Krugman is indeed referencing Marxism in the NYT.

Rise of the Robots

I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.

But I think we’d better start paying attention to those implications.

Of course Krugman’s message is that just because reality is Marxist doesn’t mean we should ignore reality, just Marx. Love that “back in the 1990s” btw, when “the capital/labor dimension” didn’t seem crucial. The liberal mind sure is historical! Dirtbag Montreal musicians are considerably more astute than conscientious liberal economists.

Whatever politics we had were born out of always being broke and living through a time when the dominant narrative was that everything was fine and always would be fine, for ever. Clearly this was a lie. But Clinton was president, the Berlin Wall was down, our economies were booming, and the internet was a shiny new thing that was going to liberate us all. The gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good. Meanwhile, so many of us were locked out, staring at all that gold from the outside in. – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

As things escalate, the good liberal mind – with its dream of “well-regulated capitalism” – appears more and more pre-Copernican, stuck in archaic patterns of thought, plodding on by rote, at a “stall speed” necessarily out of sync with the rhythms and intensities of ecological and economic crisis.

Massive unemployment, a surplus population of redundant humanity, is the new normal, while oceans acidify and glaciers calve. Thinking about these issues critically means reading beyond Krugman and Keynes. The ruling class learned its lesson from the postwar boom: full employment fuels working-class militancy, squeezing profits and threatening social peace. And despite 40-odd years of environmentalism, the social power needed to wrestle policy in line with science still doesn’t exist. I’ve gotta sign off and get back to my own crappy job, but for further reading on the employment question checkout the Polish Marxist Michal Kalecki’s seminal 1943 essay “Political Aspects of Full Employment.”