The Problem

The Problem October 9, 2011

There is no longer enough purchasing power in the hands of people who will spend it to grow the economy. For the last 30 years, the oligarchy tried to swap in easy credit to put (unsustainable) purchasing power into the hands of the people who were no longer getting meaningful raises, but of course, debts eventually need to be repaid.

There is an old saw – “A rising tide lifts all boats.” – that is, economic growth makes everyone better off. This can be true, but if all the water is dammed up in the yacht harbor, then the only boats rising are the yachts of the rich, while the rest of us are left to languish aground in the shallows. This is where we’ve been for the last 30 years.

The arguments of the Apologists Of Wealth have become more and more ludicrous.

I’ve read that the current young generation is lazy, unlike their industrious parents and grandparents. Well, I work at a tech start-up in San Francisco, and I’m here to tell you: the young people in my office work 50, 60, even 80 hour weeks without complaint.

I’ve heard that young people today are childish hedonists who don’t know the meaning of sacrifice. Older people have been making that claim about young people since dirt was new, and (as always) it is horse dung. I mean, who do you think is busy getting their legs blown off in Iraq and Afghanistan? Plus, unlike their parents and grandparents, none of them are draftees. But that aside – hedonists? Most of the guys I work with don’t even have girlfriends. I’ll admit this probably has something to do with the fact that, due to a diet consisting mostly of Cheetos and Red Bull, their complexions look as if they’ve been subjected to carpet bombing by the Air Force, but mostly that they work insane hours.

Can you find hedonists among today’s young? Sure. It’s worth recalling, however, that the much-fetishized “greatest generation” spent the 1920s and thirties dancing until the wee hours at juke joints and guzzling gin.

Cui bono?

The B.S. only serves to deflect well-deserved blame from greedy people who have rigged the game so that the lion’s share of the benefits of economic growth go to them (see chart).

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Great post!!! I agree with everything you said basically! In addition, it is worth noting that in the past the old canard that, “young people today are childish hedonists who don’t know the meaning of sacrifice,” was the conceptual slurry used only by old farts and overwrought politicians. But today, after a generation or two of big-bucks influence and incursions into the once-critical realm of academic deliberation, the same thought appears there. Only it is shored up with leading and tendentious “analysis”, all of it essentially rigged by arbitrary limits of that very same analysis. Sadly, Catholic academia seems to be leading the way in this, and the wan works of Christian Smith, several published by ye olde tony university presses, couldn’t be a better example. Ironically, that old cranky attitudes are the stuff of academic analysis is the surest proof of present decadence.

  • “the young people in my office work 50, 60, even 80 hour weeks without complaint…, their complexions look as if they’ve been subjected to carpet bombing by the Air Force, but mostly … they work insane hours. ”

    Workaholism is a disease, and, like all other addictive diseases, it is progressive and fatal if not arrested. The pusher (employer) makes money, the addict is oblivious to the damage done to those around him. Except that the modern workplace lionizes the workaholic, while other workers who would have jobs if everyone worked a sane schedule are “lazy.”

    http://www.workaholics-anonymous.org

  • Rodak

    Actually, I believe it’s the case that the “Millennials” are typically very serious, very focused, and very hard workers. They are not rebellious, on the whole, and are very willing to take direction from persons established in those professions and educational disciplines on which they have fixed their sights. They will be prepared to make effective use of opportunities available to them. If there are any opportunities available to them…

  • I agree with Frank! Work can be beautiful but should only take up a third of one’s life. This country puts way too much value on contributing to the economy by generating money (as opposed to participating in God’s creation through labor), and not enough value on cura personalis.

  • Robyn

    It was actually the parents of the “Greatest Generation” who were mad hedonists in the 1920s. That’s the decade in which those who fought WWII were born!

  • Dan

    Well there is some truth to the criticism of the younger generation. There is a notable and material difference between the younger generation and the older one. It’s not about work ethic – the main difference is that young people now have a “what can the company do for me” mentality as opposed to a “what can I do for my company” mentality. This creates a producer/consumer mentality rather than a relational mentality. Why should I spend countless hours and dollars investing in my human resources only to have them jump ship after 2 years?

    • You’re pointing the blame at workers, Dan (or seem to be) – I think worker’s attitudes toward employers match the employer’s attitudes towards them. There used to be something of a bargain between employers and employees: you gave them 30 to 40 years, and they gave you job security, benefits, and took care of you in your dotage with a defined benefit pension. The era of mass layoffs and buyouts and downsizing and Tom Peters and putting your pension money in the casino 401(k)s took care of that. The owners broke that implicit contract; workers’ behavior is an understandable response to the new reality.

      • Dan

        That’s exactly the difference I’m talking about. It’s not really important how it got there – you can just as easily point to young people’s short attention span and lack of desire to be like their parents (I mean really, who actually gets a job thinking they’ll stay there for 30 years these days). I try my darndest to create a different kind of company – one centered around respect for employees and flexibility for family life, and I often find it isn’t reciprocated whatsoever among the Gen Y’ers. They’ll drop you like a dirty rag as soon as they get bored with what they’re doing.

        • It’s not really important how it got there

          But it is important. The claim is that young people today are lazy, which is nonsense. The changes in the overall job market explain the rather mercenary attitude toward work that young folks have these days: it is not a moral failing of some kind, it is an understandable reaction to a changed world – and that world changed because the power structure wanted it to. You think workers enjoy competing against one another for the few scraps the oligarchy allows them?

      • Dan

        You think workers enjoy competing against one another for the few scraps the oligarchy allows them?

        Then why is the average lifespan at a company of a Gen Y software developer only two years? You’d think they’d be grateful to have a well paying job with a company that treats them with respect and provides them flexibility? But no, when they get bored, they’re gone.

        The claim is that young people today are lazy, which is nonsense.

        That’s not the claim I’m making. The claim I’m making is they’re selfish.

        and that world changed because the power structure wanted it to.

        No power structure that I am aware of wants to train employees and lose them in three to five years at best.

        Look, you blame the corporations for making the people want to jump ship, but it could just as easily be the people’s fickleness that make the corporations more mercenary. The reality is that society has changed, and loyalty to one’s employer simply doesn’t exist for most of the younger generation. Employment has now become a consumer/producer relationship, just like everything else in society. TV to small? Trade it in for a bigger one. Bored with your girlfriend? Dump her for a new one. Job not fulfilling? Trade it in for a new one!

        Here’s a perfect example from a company I know and an employer I know very well: A major project (and by major, I mean absolutely critical to the survival of the company) was behind schedule and coming up on its deadline. The president of the company had a chat with the young and very talented project manager about the seriousness of the project, and whether he needed any additional help because he understood the pressure this young manager was under. The young manager committed that he would see it through, regardless of what it took, and that he was motivated. The president took him at his word. Three weeks before the project deadline, the young manager accepted a better job somewhere else and emailed in his letter of resignation. The company is still around, but barely, and still may not survive because of the damage this had done.

        This type of thing is completely unheard of among the older generations, but is far too common among the younger ones. You can’t place all the blame squarely on the corporations for this. You can’t create a society centered around “personal progress” and “job fulfillment”, while dangling the carrot of “more money=happiness” and then lob the blame on the employers for creating this environment.

        • Dan – so workers are victimizing corporations? That just seems implausible.

          A major project (and by major, I mean absolutely critical to the survival of the company) was behind schedule and coming up on its deadline. The president of the company had a chat with the young and very talented project manager about the seriousness of the project, and whether he needed any additional help because he understood the pressure this young manager was under. The young manager committed that he would see it through, regardless of what it took, and that he was motivated.

          If it had turned out that, halfway through the agreed-upon time-frame, the company had realized that they could pay two people in India half what they were paying one project manager and still complete the project, and then kicked him to the curb (there are now millions of examples of this sort of scenario). The employee would have no recourse, might not be able to feed his family, and the commentariat would still be saying of people him “Today’s workers need to realize the world has changed, and the old rules about job security don’t apply any more…”.

          I think you and might find agreement in the following: We need to rebuild a society where economic relations are based on something other than mercenary greed and ruthlessness.

      • Dan

        In summation, it’s easy to blame the other party until you walk in their shoes. I used to work for a union, so I know exactly where you’re coming from. But now I run a company, and I know a lot of other people who do too. Let me tell you, everything they told me in the union about how employers actually work is mostly junk. Employers lose sleep over layoffs and cutbacks, and would do everything in their power to ensure that every good employee would stay for 30 years. As an employer, I’m not trying to squeeze more profit when I streamline operations to line my pockets, I’m trying to ensure that my employees have a job to come back to the next day, because new competitors have emerged and are undercutting my prices.

        Until you’ve had to stare someone in the face and tell them they’re getting laid off, or fire someone who is trying really hard but continues to screw up (guess what – it’s not an evil desire for profit that makes you fire them – it’s the other employees who make you fire them, because they get jealous that someone is making the same salary but operate under different expectations), then you really shouldn’t comment on the motivation of employers. For every evil big bank or cash-bloated Apple Inc, there are tens of thousands of smaller companies that actually care that their employees have a job to come back to morning after morning.

      • Dan

        Dan – so workers are victimizing corporations? That just seems implausible.

        How so? Is a software developer who accepts a job, gets the training, and then moves on so that his resume looks nicer and he gets more money not victimizing a corporation? There are real human beings working in these environments that have to deal with the fallout from this type of selfish activity.

        In any case, I do agree with what you proposed. But changes need to happen on both sides. You’d be surprised how much a company achieves or fails to achieve is an aggregate of the attitudes and personalities of the people that make up the organization. If organizations seem evil, it’s mostly because people are evil.

        • Would you agree that the problem is, in part, systemic, and thus calls for systemic solutions?

          • Dan – I would add that what you seem to be eliding is the imbalance in power between corporations and individuals – Exxon-Mobile made more in profits last year than many states bring in in total revenue.

            Capitalism, absent some restraint, tends to concentrate wealth and power upward. What, other than calling for more morality among the elites, do you propose to do about that?

    • Didn’t read this entire sub-thread, but why should people ask what they can do for their company when companies value monetary capital more than human capital? Companies rarely ask what they can do for their people, and yet companies would not exist without the people that work there (whereas without the companies they work for, most people would have at least their health and family, God willing). Most large companies just view employees as negative dollar signs rather than human beings. Work is a group effort as well as an opportunity to participate with God in creation (to form things in our image and likeness). In capitalism, work is just a means to generate profit, rather than a good in and of itself.

  • Paul DuBois

    I appreciate Dan’s input and there is no likely truth to it. My experience from the other side is quite different. I work at a large company spun off from a larger company. The total lack of loyalty shown by management to employees is startling. Lower level managers are often left doing all they can to try to develop some sort of community at work, but are constantly undone by management.

    Briefly, we went bankrupt because of years of mis-management and union problems. They were both at fault, though other companies survived with the same union and workers. When I came to work here I was surprised by the loyalty of the workers and the pride they had in their jobs, company and division. It really seemed extreme! Even the hourly workers were very proud of their company and loyal to it. The company began combining divisions and while it was still profitable shipping jobs overseas whenever it could. As it combined divisions, it changed names and at one point told employees they were no longer allowed to have coffee cups and other items showing the former 75 year old names at work. Top level managers were cycled through the divisions; these managers had no history with the divisions or loyalty to them. The result of these moves and many others was to squeeze pride out of the employees.

    Next we were told our pensions would be frozen. After many people were forced to retire, the company first removed promised health care benefits in retirement and then defaulted on the pensions of the retirees resulting in a loss of up to 70% of income for retirees, in addition to many who were forced to retire, now paying for their health care. When we emerged from bankruptcy we were all made to sign employment forms that repeated many times that we were “at will” employees who could be terminated for any reason or for no reason. Our employment was on a monthly basis and no other promise or commitment was made.

    Virtually every employee, including me, joined this company with a plan of retiring from it. We have been very loyal to the company. The level of loyalty we currently feel is not so high. When my son (a gen Y’er) was hired by another large company, he was hired as a contract worker so they do not have to offer him any benefits and can get rid of him at the drop of a hat. This was not his choice; it was the company’s. Exactly what advice should I give him concerning company loyalty? If he is offered a higher paying job, should he take it? Why wouldn’t he, if his company could get a lower salaried employee, they would hire them.

  • Kurt

    Employers …would do everything in their power to ensure that every good employee would stay for 30 years.

    Like a defined benefit pension?

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    You will be happy to know that Catholic reactionary Robert Sirico has delivered himself of a new “poverty cure” and has a website to back it up. His little trailer that was shown on Catholic cable’s news show, featured the feel-good vibe recently employed by Father Robert Barron to jazz up his presentations for the Catholic faith. Ugh! In this case it was to bolster —incredibly!!! — scenes of poor people in African supposedly saying “No more Aid.” Ah yes, helping people with financial aid is really the problem for sure. Sirico is a great exemplar that vast foolishness has no real check when it is combined with vast vanity. The only real comparison for people like this is with “philosophers” like Fitzhugh who shilled for slavery in very florid and elaborate ways in the past. But he will be treated worse than Fitzhugh, for sure. In Sirico’s case it is combined with the existential fact that he evinces a sad part of gay culture, as someone who once flamboyantly self-identified as gay. . Namely, the bitter old gay man who turns on the world because he never found love. Bulls-eye! Sirico, once the ardent gay activist, turned on his own community, because he never could find love. Now he has turned even on the disadvantaged in our society, because his schemes for them with libertarian free markets have come to ruin. Finally, he has moved on, ridiculously, to curing poverty in places like Africa. Perversely, he wants to provide a rationale for destroying aid to poor nations. In his destructive impulses, and great talent at bizarre rationalizations he resembles only one character. Sirico is the Catholic Pol Pot.

    • Um, let’s maybe dial it back a notch, PPF? Sirico has done some pretty loathsome things in his outreach to the authoritarian Catholic right (on EWTN and elsewhere), but comparing him to genocide perpetrator Pol Pot is a bit much.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Matt,

    Are you trying to take all the fun out of this?? Of course you are right in a strict sense. Though the capacity for crazy fabrication and blithe avoidance of the mammoth suffering of others that such would inevitably engender is strangely similar. It is strange that Sirico also went on about the Occupy Wall Street crowd being enthralled by “abstractions”. What else is this loon’s economic theory?? I have no explanation for the guy, and even less for the utter weirdness of his presence at this moment in Catholic culture. But I have not been “on the ground” in Catholic culture for the last 25 years, so I can’t account or even conceptually locate this bizarre and delusional libertarianism that has crept in. That it flouts Catholic social teaching is not even the worst part. Worse still is that it seems to use the the Thomistic rationale of certain societal aspects being “prior to the state” to smuggle in oligarchical motives pure and simple, disguised as moral campaigns. Truly, the best I can come up with for the guy, besides comparing him to a colorful historical caricature, is a more anecdotal explanation. Sirico was apparently at Catholic U. in the seminary at the same time I was. But he was at the Paulist house. If the average seminarian was a somewhat nutty for sure, the Paulists were 20 times crazier. But fun. Sirico seems to have jettisoned the fun, left the Paulists, and now is just demented and crazy. That is what Catholic cable is about. I admit it is a guilty pleasure for me. My TV tastes are pretty low.

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