Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Erosion of the American Dream

Last night, while in the car, I tuned into the Neal Boortz show in the hope that he would provide me with some blogging fodder. I was not disappointed -- he was in rare form and I soon found myself pulling over to the side of the road to make notes for responding to his comments via this blog.

I entered the program already in progress, so any errors I might make in regards to his comments stem from this.

He was on a tear about labor unions in general, and about how some American workers get paid "too much money". Naturally, he did not include the CEOs of major corporations in this estimation, as he was quick to point out to one caller, as not "just anyone" could perform those jobs.

Concentrating on the auto industry as an example, and highlighting GM in particular, he voiced the opinion that auto workers make "too much money" and get "too many benefits" in relation to the actual tasks they perform on the job.

Citing the law of supply and demand, he asserted that wages should be set according to the "brain power" and skills needed to perform a particular job.

Using the example of the worker who installs sound systems in SUVs, he said that nearly anyone straight out of high school could quickly learn to do this job, so the supply was greater than the demand, thus pay should be low for such jobs. Granted, there is a larger pool of workers with the aptitude to do this job than jobs further up the education scale, but he's missing a few points here.

A listener called in and pointed out that such a job is very labor intensive -- the worker has sixty seconds to complete that task before the next unit reaches him, and it takes fully 55 seconds of that time to perform the task. The CEO, on the other hand, spends a much lower percentage of his time during the work day actually engaged in work, and he's not doing it under a stopwatch. So, a job's worth isn't solely about "brain power".

An observer in a factory can see a routine, repetitive task being performed and think there's nothing to it. And there isn't -- when you do it once and at your own speed. But to do this same repetitive task quickly as you can, over and over, day after day, year after year, and it quickly becomes a rather onerous task, that many people soon burn out on and quit. Combine this with the ubiquitous orthopedic problems that often occur after years of doing such deadening work, and the supply pool of workers who can not only do the job, but stay with it year after year suddenly drops dramatically. As is true anywhere else, you get what you pay for and if the wages are low, the turnover will be correspondingly high. And companies lose money with "revolving door" jobs.

Boortz sneered at union members who lamented their jobs being taken overseas, saying that the jobs were not "theirs" to lose, but belonged to the company to hire, to fire, to downsize, and to import at will. He told a caller that if Americans were willing to work harder for less money, then maybe the jobs wouldn't end up being imported to Mexico. On a strictly technical level, he is correct that jobs belong to the company, but he doesn't get that the increasing trend of treating workers like disposable, interchangeable machine parts and away from an ethic of treating employees with loyalty as the most important asset that a company has is not good for the American economy or society as a whole.

He also pointed out, as if it were a bad thing, that GM's greatest expense is health insurance for its workers. Not surprisingly, he's also against a national health insurance system, that would relieve this burden from the backs of employers, large and small. Currently, one in seven Americans is uninsured, about 47 million Americans, a figure that Boortz believes is overstated (naturally!). And there is a growing trend among employers who do provide health insurance, to change to plans that have higher premiums and offer less coverage. So, in addition to the uninsured, millions more Americans are quickly becoming underinsured. All the while, health care providers are hiking fees for their services.

To sum up, Boortz apparently believes that only highly educated and skilled workers deserve a living wage and decent health insurance. If you perform a boring, mundane job that doesn't require higher education, then you don't deserve a living wage or access to adequate health care, because if you're being paid peanuts with no or inadequate health insurance, you certainly won't be able to afford to get it privately.

Is this the kind of America we want? Do we want a feudal, Darwinian "survival of the fittest" society, with a large underclass of American workers having to work 2 or 3 jobs just to keep a roof over their heads, who have little or no access to preventive health care that would prolong their lives? Does he think that it is a good thing that the American Dream is quickly becoming attainable for fewer and fewer Americans?

A healthy society needs people doing jobs at all levels -- our economy and standard of living would quickly grind to a halt if there was no one to flip the burgers, drive the taxis, build the cars, fight the fires, patrol our streets, teach the children, truck in the goods, and so on. All these jobs are certainly more necessary than being a radio talk show host, to use him as an example. And everyone deserves a living wage and the benefits that allow one to live a healthy, productive life, regardless of what kind of work they do. It's good for Americans and it's good for America.


1 comment:

oldmanlincoln said...

I always thought people should be paid for the amount of money they made for their employer or themselves.

I don't see how I could ever have retired at 41 had I stayed in Engineering, or in Education or anywhere else.

Corporations only pay enough to keep employees in debt.

Debt is one of the features of capitalism that makes it different from some others. Good employees are expected to be loyal and feel threatened or lose their jobs and get hauled into bankruptcy court because they can't pay their bills.

Our government, responding to special interest groups, came up with the idea of unemployment compensation, not for the benefit of the poor working jerk but for the benefit of the people holding the mortgages--big business.

If you were out of debt and did hot need your job for wages or "secturity," you should be able to pick up and go anytime you wish.

Pushing a broom is a very important job. Probably more important than most policicians, preachers and CEOs.

The problem is that the broom pusher is never paid enough to get himself out of debt. And that is exactly how the government and business wants to keep it.

Very interesting post. I really enjoyed reading it.