Thursday, August 11, 2011

Out of Balance

The most important element of a successful society is balance. Since the beginning of time, life has been a tug-of-war between the Haves and the Have-nots. I don't expect this to ever change unless we become much more highly evolved than we currently are because most of us don't think in long-range societal terms but in short-term personal ones.

Henry Ford thought that the ideal ratio between management salaries and production worker wages was seven percent. Thus if the punch press operator made $7 an hour; the vice-president in charge of sales made $49 an hour. That gave plenty of room for executives to be rewarded with what was considered affluence in their era.

Today, the ratio of pay between the board room and factory floor is roughly 344 per cent. In other words, lunch bucket employees now have to work almost a year to earn what the CEO is paid in a day!

In the on-going struggle between the Haves and the Have-nots, the Haves almost always win. In fact, I can't think of a time or a place where they didn't ultimately prevail. Even in countries overtaken by revolution, whose new political leaders rallied under the cause of "power to the people", the end was the same, no matter what political ideology was professed. Did "the people" gain power in Cuba? Did they gain power in Russia? Nope, the new Haves might have had different faces than the old Haves but unfortunately, their greed and lust to accumulate power and wealth resulted in the same old-same old behavior.

Most Have-nots are satisfied if they can live their lives with some semblance of security. Give them enough to feed their families and provide a decent home, send their kids to school and have a few little perks on the side and they generally won't make waves. The Power People can go about their business of buying influence and running the country pretty much as they please. Just keep your corruption at a tolerable level. Give your employees a little pat on the head now and then in the form of a raise or an extra holiday or even just a freakin' plaque to commend them on their attendance and they'll hang right in there with you.

The country runs most smoothly when there is a large contented middle class. That was the case during most of my working years. The Auto Workers and Steel Workers were the elite of the blue collars but the rest of us made enough to buy cars and make house payments and go on vacation now and then.

But the collective Haves, by their very nature, are never satisfied. They always want more and resent having to share. So employers discover that they can hire temps in place of permanent employees and save on benefits. They can mandate overtime rather than expanding their work force. They can hold their workers up on give-backs on their hourly rates. They can renege on the pensions and health insurance they promised their retirees. They can force out the 50-Somethings (and thus, save oodles on health insurance costs). And if all that isn't enough, hell, let's send the jobs to Mexico or China or India where workers are happy with slave wages and we don't have to be bothered by our demanding American employees at all!

And while Management is doing all that, Business jumps whole-hog into the screw-the-people pool. Bankers devise slick tricks to sell bogus mortgages. Insurance companies write the small print to exclude pre-existing conditions...and they get to define pre-existing. Pharmaceutical companies sell pills for $10 a piece that cost them a penny to produce. Instead of 50 ways to leave your lover, credit card companies compete to come up with 50 inventive ways to raise your interest. ("You let your library book go overdue, we're raising your rate!" - whee, isn't this fun?) The predators further lobby the ever-buyable Congress to make it more difficult for their prey to go bankrupt to escape from the entrapment of  massive medical bills and usurious credit card fees and ballooning mortgages.

Until, finally, the Have-nots are on the floor with the boot of the Haves on their neck.

But what the Haves always forget is that the relationship between us and them is symbiotic. Each side needs the other to prosper. If they no longer require our services as employees, we are still necessary as consumers. When we are dumped out of the labor market, we no longer buy cars and clothes and carpet. We no longer go to movies or stay in motels or attend sporting events.

Now, instead of paying our way, we're a drag on society. We're collecting unemployment insurance and living in subsidized housing and buying our food with food stamps. Our kids are in the free lunch line and we're going to the emergency room when we get sick.

We're paying less into the coffers of our country and state and county and city although we're taking more out of them.

It's a vicious freaking circle but in their arrogance, the Haves don't see that, believing as they do that everything begins and ends with them. Because of their selfish short-sightedness, consumer confidence is down, the Dow is dropping and the deficit is rising. Unemployment is at 9+ per cent (with the "real" rate being closer to 16).  Our houses are worth less than we owe on them. The newly-graduated are burdened with backbreaking loans.

And we, the Have-nots, are getting angry but here is what seems to be somewhat different in the U.S. in 2011 than I ever remember before. It used to be that a majority of the working class supported one another. Thus, unions struck and picket lines weren't crossed. Poor people marched and their fellows cheered them on. The Have-nots voted for politicians who seemed sympathetic to their causes.

Today in America, we have a militant and influential Tea Party crowd who have thrown their lot in with the Haves. They have more sympathy for Bill Gates and his onerous taxes than they do Joe Six-Pack on the unemployment line (even though, ironically, Bill himself doesn't think he pays his fair share of taxes). They side with Management against the Unions. They decry entitlements in favor of survival of the fittest.  "Down with Social Security! Bring back the Poor Farm!"

To me, their beliefs are in total opposition to their best interests. Have they never been unemployed and frightened for the future of their family? Have they never been sick and scared and without insurance? Do their parents not depend on Social Security to live a dignified old age? Would they let their children go hungry before they stooped to accept food stamps? Are they so sure of their own superiority that they don't believe they could ever end up in that place or do they believe that the over-$200,000-year crowd will reward them for their fealty, like the Squire who gives an extra helping of porridge to the peon who betrays his fellows in their revolt?

So, once again, as so many times in history, society is top-heavy in favor of the Haves. As we should know from past experience, our economic situation will remain dismal unless we change that equation. For that to happen, both the Haves and their Tea Party sycophants have to believe that is a desirable goal. I don't see any signs of that yet.