The Moment of Truth — January 12, 2002

We Have Always Depended on the Unkindness of Stranglers

Hi, I’m mejeffdorchen and this is the Moment of Truth, that ineffable something Richard Corey was missing in his life, and the bullet that set him free.

Can I just give a little wake-up call here? I mean, can I just request that everyone step out of the flow of business-as-usual and check something out? Take a look at something as if you haven’t already been numbed to it? It’ll only take a few minutes.

Look at Boeing. All right, granted, they didn’t get the Pentagon contract to build the x-ought-two splattering goose or whatever. I just want to remind everyone that we’re in the twenty-first century, here in Advanced Industrial Nation Number One, and a giant corporation dumped 30,000 workers in one day. Boeing, 30,000 people working for Boeing are out of a job, just like that.

I mean, since the tech bubble burst, thousands and thousands of jobs have been lost. We all know that. But, listen. The propaganda side of the spectacle argues that these giant corporations are good. Under extreme capitalism, these giant corporations are to business evolution what Homo sapiens is to biological evolution. The highest order, the most complex, the most adaptable, the most likely to survive. They are the social organizations that want to dominate our future. But I ask you, what is the good of them if they dump 30,000 workers in one day? And this has happened time and time again. Ford dumped 35,000 workers this year. It’s very disconcerting. It’s very volatile. This is not a stable social condition, when the most powerful suppliers of livelihoods are dropping thousands of workers at a swoop. I’m not saying these people are going to starve. I’m not saying “how rude” or “unexpected.” I’m just saying, here in the most advanced capitalist democracy, in the fifth or sixth or so millennium of recorded history — in 2001! In the future! We’re living in the future! — and capitalism is cranked about as high as it can go, and still 30,000 people will be let go from one single company, and not from an unsuccessful one, but from what our society touts as one of its alpha-organizations — 30,000 workers in a day.

That’s unacceptable. I’m sorry, that’s just ridiculous. It’s idiotic. Why do we stand for this crap? It’s bad for the nervous systems of the people of the future, by which I mean the people of now. It’s bad for the cohesiveness of society. This is how we want the rest of the world to organize itself? This is the promise of capitalism? Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in a week have their fortunes utterly altered in response to a fluctuation in accounting numbers? Can that be? Are we talking about a society that can land a space probe on an asteroid? Are we really talking about a society that can make dinosaurs come to life in a hemispherical movie theater? A society that can ship live Maine lobsters 5,000 miles simply as a matter of everyday trade? A society than can pack 1000 songs onto one digital listening unit?

To me — listen to this analogy, cuz it’s a rough one — but, I’ve seen, in busy busy cities, all the power to the traffic lights — which are already a great idea, mind you — all the traffic lights at an intersection lose power, and even in the absence of those traffic lights during rush hour, drivers at that intersection take turns, they know the rules, eventually everyone gets through the intersection, for the most part amicably. But to me, thirty thousand workers in one day from one company, to me that is as if the traffic lights went out at an intersection and instead of everybody taking turns, they just shut down the city. Threw up their hands, couldn’t think of a better idea. No business today, stay home, the traffic lights aren’t working. We can’t figure out what to do. Let’s just give up.

It’s not a one-to-one analogy, it’s more of a this-is-as-illogical-as-that analogy.

Because, well, this giant organization had a dip in orders. So they dump thirty-thousand human beings out of their jobs, change their lives in a major way. It’s like we gave up finding a real solution and chose the stupidest, most inconvenient, annoying and destructive one we could think of instead, short of executing these people. They say, “Whoops, a dip in orders. Well, we’ll never need you guys again. We’ll never have as many orders as we had when we accumulated you guys. Goodbye! We can’t support you. If we get more orders we might call you, but we’ll probably find cheaper workers instead.” Or in the case of Boeing: “We’ll rent planes to the US military at a substantially higher cost than it would cost the Pentagon to buy them outright, allowing us to hire back 2,400 people.”

Which is in fact what happened. A few days after Boeing upheaved 30,000 lives, they got this amazing deal from our crazy government. Which means that, assuming the 2,400 people hired were from among the original 30,000 people that were fired, 27,600 people are triply screwed: 1) they were fired. 2) they are now going to pay the salaries of legislators who just made a new and insanely profitable deal with the company that just fired them. 3) that deal is to the taxpayer like having Exxon-Mobil drill for oil in his or her ass, painfully wrong.

What a great system, huh? Makes you feel really human, really worthwhile.

Have you heard about the stranglers’ game? Have you heard about how things work in the future, all you angry Argentines overthrowing your government because under international financial pressure it pegged your currency to the dollar and your economy collapsed and a third of you are out of work? Here’s how we do it over here, in the future, in advanced capitalist nation numero uno.

Everything’s gotta grow. And stock prices have to rise. When stocks go up, investors make money. When investors make money, they reward the company — how? — by giving the executives raises.

Why don’t they reward the workers? Ah, workers are not viewed as contributing to a rise in profits. Even if a company’s productivity increases, this is attributed to actions by the executives, actions such as implementing efficiency measures, improving production technology, firing thirty thousand workers in one day, etc. Even if the WHOLE COUNTRY’S productivity hits a record high, workers don’t get rewarded.

Well, if workers don’t get rewarded with higher wages when profits raise stock prices, when DO they get higher wages? Wages go up when labor markets tighten. High demand for labor equals low unemployment — less availability of workers — small supply plus big demand equals higher price for labor.

Thus, executives are rewarded for their perceived achievements. Workers, however, are priced like crops. Too much corn or too many workers, prices or wages go down. Too little corn or too few workers, they go up. Actually, this supply and demand model doesn’t work for corn anymore, because of tariffs and subsidies. Corn has a better deal than people do, more safety nets for corn. Corn’s value is protected.

In fact, human beings may be the last things that DO follow the law of supply and demand. Potatoes and radios have been freed from reliance on volatile market forces to earn their bread.

Go ahead and deny it, capitalist pigs. Silicon Valley, tech workers? Rewarded for their good work? Nope, wages rose cuz demand for tech-savvy nerds exceeded supply. Oh, some nerds were rewarded for their good work, early on, in small companies in which everyone knew each other. But the growth game, the stock market, the endless embiggening of everything, the desire for an ever-swelling economy — all these guarantee that, of many fledglings, a few will emerge to dominate, and will strangle the weaker and slower-growing. So from among slews of entrepreneurial nerds, a few big brutes arise to strangle the undergrowth, and the other nerds are forced to work for them and become dependent on supply and demand to regulate their wages, just like potatoes did in medieval times.

Try to escape the medieval potato race. Try self-employment? Taxes on giant corporations, who guarantee workers an uncertain future, have been cut. Meanwhile, the self-employed have to make more money each year just to pay last year’s taxes. They, these stranglers, really want you in the potato market, they’re gonna mash you into a potato no matter what you do. More potatoes, lower wages, right? Gotta limit the ways a medieval potato can change its destiny, control its value, have its value more tied to its merits. Must disempower the medieval potato.

Workers owning stock in their own companies is no answer, as would be evident even if we didn’t have the sickening spectacle of Enron to point to. The stock price is not affected by the workers’ achievements, as noted before. Unless one is a strangler, living off the perceived profitability of a giant corporation, one’s income remains tied to the supply and demand of human meat.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course, like small businesses that avoid getting strangled by fitting into particular niches. But the system can only support a few of those.

But it can support even less stranglers.

Now in Argentina, investors suddenly looked at real life and realized that the Argentine peso was just floating in mid-air, with nothing supporting it but an analogy to another currency, so they dumped the whole country. These global investors, these stranglers, have unlearned what few lessons were half-learned from the Crash of 29 and the Great Depression. And the medieval potato has been union-busted and reaganomicked and WTOwed into forgetting how to protect itself.

And somehow the stranglers think that manipulating interest rates and profits and stock prices, by rewarding only those who play at the highest levels of the stranglers’ game — they think the real world below their dreamlike arena will somehow respond to their numerology by buying lots of things. They think they’re gonna get people to buy things! By showing us all the money THEY have! Oh, yeah, seeing how rich YOU are really makes ME wanna shop. Especially when I see how much of the money YOU have used to be MINE!

They don’t get that there’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a potato. It can only go on for so long, the tax cuts for the stranglers, the strangler strategies to move more and more wealth into their control. The strangler is a gardener drinking more an more water and letting less and less of it get to the garden. Then they say, “Hey, potatoes, things are great, look how full of water I am! Sprout some more leaves, I have so much water — it must be available to you, too!”

And each year they take a higher percentage of water and allow less and less to dribble to the potato. And eventually, even if the DOW hits a million, the garden itself will be undeniably dry.

Bottom line: consumer confidence will respond to propaganda for only so long. Eventually employment and wages, both in quality and quantity, have to improve. Or you ain’t gonna sell me dick.

You stranglers can’t play this stupid game forever. The paper universe will one day have to look down and see that its prosperity is based on nothing evident in the material world: the bursting of the tech bubble writ even larger. Oy vay, we’ll say. And some of the most powerful stranglers will survive the collapse, and a war and some governmental programs will rebuild the actual economy the stranglers strangled. And then the strangulation game can start all over again.

Or we can try something new. Something more closely and tangibly attached to real people and the things they do and need and the things they can make, grow, and help with. Does the world need bigger and bigger numbers representing what it can accomplish? If those numbers have nothing to do with the well-being, freedom, and happiness of everyone, I think not.

The battle between stranglers is a good engine for producing things, but a bad one for determining the value of people and what they make and do. Can we agree on that? And can we agree that increasing the wealth of the already wealthy may have outlived its usefulness as a mechanism for stimulating the economy at this point in time?

The main mechanisms we have asserting the value of human beings beyond the price supply and demand dictates to them are these five things: 1) the pursuit of quality in our endeavors; 2) philosophies and spiritualities; 3) civil declarations like the one of Independence, the Universal one of Human Rights, the Sermon on the Mount, the original Dr Seuss version of the Grinch, even — yes — the Communist Manifesto; 4) the richness of our inner lives; and 5) of course, our interpersonal relationships. This accounts for the popularity of those five categories of things; we love those things! — we’ll call them the Nice Five. But somehow capitalist competition has overshadowed them all in defining human value. How can we attain a better balance between production and the values of the Nice Five?

Well, that’s the decades-old question, isn’t it? Lopsided wealth has too much power, and the Nice Five don’t have enough.

Simple, then, the task before us. All we have to do is tweak a little, adjust things so corporations have less power and the Nice Five have more. How do we do that?

Give me a couple weeks to think about it. I’m open to suggestions, by the way. In the meantime, I’m mejeffdorchen saying Happy New Year from the Moment of Truth.