Friday, October 23, 2009

One in a Million

When the Late Sam Walton set out to provide quality goods at the lowest-possible prices to rural and small-town America, he may have set in motion a stunning demonstration of the law of unintended consequences. While Mr. Walton found ways of lowering the prices of tens of thousands of clothing and household items, he led the nation in exporting American manufacturing jobs overseas. The unintended consequence was that the American dream, as realized over two centuries of American generations, slowly sailed away from American shores as well.

Sam Walton Was Only one American citizen in a million. While Mr. Walton and other captains of American capitalism shipped the American dream off into the sunset, the 999,999 other Americans failed to notice the loss—just as much as Mr. Walton and peers presumably did. As the prices of goods fell, the other 99.99% of Americans began putting more of these cheap goods onto their credit cards and in other forms of cheap credit. America has gone through lean times before, and the reasonable expectation was that the good times would return again, with good-paying jobs, with job security, with pensions and home-ownership and a second car in every garage and—

But This Time, It’s Different. This time, though we have seen some huge spurts in job growth, such as in the high-tech industries, the overwhelming number of new jobs have been in service. These jobs have included the stereotypical tasks of flipping burgers at the fast-food place and manning the burgeoning army of twenty-four/seven convenience stores. And they’ve also included manning the customer-service phone banks of America’s leading companies.

These Are Low-Paying Jobs, not the kind that Americans are used to, as far as paying for the American dream is concerned. They provide an excellent avenue to the American dream for new-comers from lesser-developed nations, but they won’t pay the bills on sub-prime mortgages and home-equity loans.

The Fast-Food Jobs, at least down here in Texas, are gladly taken by members of minority populations. One enterprising fast-food purveyor in my neighborhood somehow got the idea of importing Mexican citizens, white-collar workers such as accountants south of the border, to come staff his restaurants in order to learn English. The fast-food pay here isn’t bad in relation to comparable pay in Mexico, and the opportunity to get paid for becoming bilingual has substantial value in the Mexican financial world, while the American franchiser gets a ready supply of top-quality workers at entry-level pay.

The Convenience Store Jobs (at least on The Simpsons, if not in  reality) provide opportunity for immigrants from India and Pakistan and surrounding areas. Taxi cabs are driven by the same international mix, as well as by slavic immigrants from former-Soviet bloc nations. Africa and the Carribean and all of Central America are represented in America's Service-Job World, as well.

And Those Call-center Jobs are shipped to India, to Indonesia, and to the Philippines.

All in All, the American Middle-Income Worker and below is.....screwed. He can’t afford to work for the low-paying jobs—and so he directs much of his anger at those who can.

No Wonder America Is Awash in angry “tea party” protests. Americans—especially all of the lower-income and middle-income Americans busy working two or more jobs, just to stay afloat—are too busy to think about what it might really be all about. They're just over-worked, under-paid, with nothing set aside for the future, and the cost of healthcare and higher education climbing higher and higher. As the new saying goes, “Outrage Is Easy.” It’s the hard thinking that takes time and energy—time and energy that most Americans don’t have available to themselves these days.

Something Is Happening Here, and we don’t know what it is. Do we, Mr. Walton?

The Irresponsibility and “Moral Hazard” of cheap credit and home-equity loans to middle-income American tax payers is well-known. This kind of irresponsibility is easily spotted, and easily criticized. (Over the past decade of this new century, Congress has put measures into law to target these irresponsible spendthrifts specifically: even as it has become easier and easier for banks and credit-card companies to tack on fees and to raise interest rates at will, it has become harder and harder for individuals to afford to pay for......bankruptcy.)

How Did it Happen? How did it come about that many of America’s most-conservative citizens got themselves into so much debt, with such lousy job prospects, no pensions, and the steep decline of their 401(k)’s?

The Answer Is Easy: While 99.99% of Americans were spending like there was no tomorrow, that other 1% of Americans earning tens of millions of dollars a year were making sure that the dream—the American dream that the other 99.99% were counting on—was shipped overseas.

One Nation, Indivisible. Even when the odds are 999,999 to one.


(with apologies to Bob Dylan and the Buffalo Springfield)

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