Thursday, October 28, 2010

60 Minutes and the Woes of White Upper-Middle Class America

I saw this 60 Minutes segment and a few things occurred to me. First of all, it had the feel of some self-sorrow, with white upper middle class Californians bemoaning their hardships of having lost their $150K jobs right at the worst time when their kids are grown and their fun was supposed to start. The bad luck of it all! Never mind that none of them had ever envisioned the worst case scenario or took appropriate pains to prepare. One woman forlornly remembered for Scott Pelly that before she was unemployed she was a "shop-a-holic...but not anymore {sigh}". We love living in a free market economy when times are good, wearing clothes and watching TV's assembled with slave labor, but then whine about the consequences when the inevitable crunch occurs to us. Yeah I get that there are a bunch of people hurting but the 60 Minutes episode was enough to make me puke. There are plenty of people in this country and the rest of the world who have it worse than the San Joseans in that piece-- none of whom appeared to be starving. I wonder how Pelly's self-indulgent woe-is-me story plays in Vietnam, Flint Michigan, Zimbabwe, or Allen, South Dakota.

The second issue is the lack of labor mobility in this country-- some of it due to health care and some of it is due to the current crisis being a housing problem, thus preventing folks from just picking up and moving to Nebraska (which has an unemployment rate of about one-fourth the national avg). Not everyone can afford the luxury of living on the west coast and just waiting for a software engineering job to land in their lap. I'll bet my next paycheck the Walmart in Lincoln NE is hiring today. The first woman featured in the 60 Minutes piece is a woman who is 54 year-old, who lost her job over a year ago, now without a home and whose children are grown. Why is she still in San Jose, ground zero for white collar unemployment? Is there no Greyhound service from California to Nebraska?

The third issue, and the one that needed to be addressed in this piece, is to ask how long is it appropriate for the government to provide unemployment insurance? We pay into this as a defined benefit and is it correct to extend this benefit forever? If 99 weeks is not long enough, then what is? 122 weeks? 156? If someone is unqualified for any job now, what will be different in 2, 3, or 4 years? I understand the economic issue that such benefits have a Keynesian stimulating effect with a positive multiplier, yada yada yada... but at some point these individuals will need to do something: either move, get an entry level job, or get re-trained. Paying them for another 20 weeks only delays the inevitable. Doug Francone was making $200K per year as a pencil pusher and lost his job over two years ago. That's a million dollars over 5 years-- what the fuck did he do to earn that amount of coin, and what the fuck did he do with it all? On top of this, he and his wife have received $470 per week for 99 weeks-- that's a $46,000 benefit paid partially with federal tax money above his defined benefit-- and now that this has run out, he has depleted his retirement savings and is back to square one. I have empathy for him, but ask, what else does he want us to do for him? He was likely overpaid for a decade while his wife stayed home with the kids and they have "nothing" to show for it except two wonderful, literate kids. That's a lot, that's more than most people have in this world-- now move to Nebraska and get a job.

My father told me long ago that an economic crisis will occur in my lifetime, 'bank on it'; it might be triggered by a nuclear attack, a worldwide infectious epidemic, a global war, an earthquake, a meteor, a Great Depression, an alien invasion from betelgeuse, zombies... or a bankster fraud-- who knows what flavor it will be, but it will occur, and it will have an economic after taste that will taste like shit. The fact is that every generation has had some such disaster and that fact ain't ever gonna change. The safest plan to prepare for this scenario is to attain some skill that will be marketable no matter what happens, when the fabric of society is torn asunder and the hounds of hell are upon us. Those skills are (not in any order): plumber, mechanic, primary/emergency* doctor, nurse, farmer, engineer. The list is very short. If you design video games for Nintendo, or work as the secretary for someone who designs video games for Nintendo, note that your job is not on that list.

The downside of pursuing those safe jobs is that for those intervening years that the economy is humming, your value will be discounted and you'll labor at a mind-numbing job for below-market wages. You may even have to slave away in a veritable backwater dealing with obese people who smell, eat Doritos all day and cannot spell the name of the town in which they live. This is not San Jose, California. Mind-numbing. But the upside is that when (not if) disaster strikes, you'll be fine. Alternatively, one could do something supremely interesting, intellectually challenging, with the potential for notoriety, fame or wealth or a high-paying job-- but then he/she would leave themselves vulnerable to the vicissitudes of all the meatheads who are running the asylum when the inevitable occurs. Why would someone do this? How bad can a mind-numbing job be? My father told me this as I embarked on my college career, appealing to my judgement and leaving the big decisions to me.

We live in a milieu-- a situation, an environment-- and we all must be aware of our environment and how it works. In modern USA, our situation is thus that we have free markets, poor regulation, no national health coverage, and lackluster safety nets; we liberals may not like it, we may think that it weakens our nation, we may think it leaves us vulnerable, but it's still our reality. So if we live our liberal lives, enjoy the nearly free food, the cheap consumer products, the safety of our streets and the quality of our schools, we should still be aware that these things all come with a potential downside. Quietly, we may have noticed that an asshole became president in 2001 and our Congress was Republican, or we may have missed it. We may or may not have noticed that we are fighting two foreign wars, we've dismantled out regulatory apparatus, we've used deficit spending to enrich defense contractors and the financial industry while ignoring the growing number of folks without health insurance or adequate education. What the fuck could possible go wrong? When the GOP took office in 1995 and Bush became president in 2001, these should have been viewed as sentinel events, calls to sound a red alert because Congress turned on the fan in 1995 and Bush started shoveling the shit into it in 2001.

But it's not really George W. Bush's fault-- he is merely a product of our society. Half the population votes against their own best interests every two years like clockwork. They get up, shower, get dressed and march off to the polling place to cast a ballot for some entrenched, corporatist fucktard because he promises to to save blastocysts or put the word "God" on all highway overpasses or challenge Kim Jong-il to a knife-fight or treats the flag like a sexual fetish or some such nonsense. This is our country, and we should all know it by now. If it hadn't been Bush in 2000 then it would have been Sarah Palin in 2004 or maybe Chuck Norris is 2008, but disaster was bound to happen one of these years. Actually, I'm surprised that it took so long to wreck this country, it's just testament to our social safety nets, governmental education, and other institutions that have taken two generations to build up despite the whining by the GOP and RWNJ's. And who knows, we may survive after all---

---... oh wait, elections are this Tuesday and the Republicans are going to re-take the House? Never mind.

I realize that this treatise exhibits my full-throated cynicism, and nobody is completely safe from the travails of a black swan event in our complex dynamic economic system, but the 60 Minutes story struck a chord. When I lose my job and my family is cast out of our home without health insurance or food, the final insult to my dignity will be when Scott Pelly knocks on my door to call attention to my wasteful decadent lifestyle and my lack of foresight for all the world to critique. I hope that I can resist the urge to be interviewed, close the door in Mr. Pelly's face and return to watching Jersey Shore on my 55" Samsung in my peaceful penury.

*"primary/emergency" refers to those specialties that will be in demand no matter what happens. The current health care debate highlights this perfectly: while reimbursement for specialists is on the chopping block, salaries for primary care are slated to go up. Nurses are still in high demand, with agencies importing Filipino and Indian nurses by the plane-load. I predict that reimbursement for obstetrics will be salvaged while laparoscopic robot hysterectomies for Medicaid patients will go away. I can give an entire dissertation on essential versus non-essential health care, but that's another time.

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