We have come to serve the economy rather than the economy serving us. We ask people to suffer to save the system that produces suffering, instead of creating a system that seeks to eliminate suffering.
I have a confession to make. In the series of articles I have supposedly been writing about income inequality, I have really been writing about something else: need. Let’s not fool ourselves or think I have been naïve. Raising the minimum wage or making minor redistributions of wealth, while likely to help many in materially significant ways, will not even minimally move us toward something remotely resembling income equality. The average American workers or unemployed and underemployed souls wouldn’t suddenly find themselves rubbing shoulders with Jamie Dimon or some other fabulously wealthy CEO, even if such an infinitesimal narrowing of the wealth gap were politically orchestrated. What we are really talking about when we engage the issue of income inequality is finding a way to help those in “low-wage” jobs or in need of work earn enough to meet their basic needs, not actually equalizing incomes.
I am coming clean because I feel our political discourse is decidedly impoverished because of the absence of discussion about NEED. We dance about it in indirect ways, talking about raising the minimum wage, helping small businesses so they can hire, lowering taxes, creating middle-class jobs, etc.; but rarely, if ever, do we hear anyone talk about creating, or re-creating, an economy designed to meet basic human needs.
Perhaps ironically, New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bell most recently and unwittingly raised the issue of need when analyzing why he trails Democratic incumbent Cory Booker in the polls. “Single mothers particularly,” he said, “are automatically Democratic because of the benefits. They need benefits to survive, and so that kind of weds them to the Democratic Party.”
Did a Republican just admit that we have people experiencing real need in this country who really do require what meager assistance is available just to survive? While it easy to hear, as some have, in these comments the same old tired Republican rhetoric lambasting the poor and lazy for their dependence on government handouts, his exact words actually mark a telling departure from typical Republican double-speak regarding need.
Routinely issues of need get recast in our limited bi-partisan political discourse into the vocabulary of jobs; and when Republicans speak about jobs, they typically do so with forked tongue, at once berating individuals for being unwilling to work (and hence opposing the extension of unemployment benefits because they disincentivize work) and also excoriating President Obama for his failed economic policies for not creating jobs. Obviously, the approach begs the question, how can we blame people for not working when there is a scarcity of jobs?
Quite glibly, apparently. Just take Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who in a recent gubernatorial debate, defended his record of having created only 5,800 jobs (against a loss of 13,000!) when he promised 250,000 for Wisconsin, by asserting, “We don’t have a jobs problem; we have a work problem.” If Wisconsin citizens weren’t so lazy and possessed some initiative, Governor Walker would have created another 250,000 jobs!
Similarly, Republican lightning rod Newt Gingrich, in the height of the Great Recession in November 2011, dismissively admonished Occupy Wall Street protesters to “take a bath” and “get a job,” while around the country, from 2009 through 2012 the country witnessed the following scenes: in May 2012, 20,000 people applied for one of 877 jobs at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama; in Summer 2011, 18,000 people applied for one of 1,800 jobs at a Ford plant in Louisville; also in 2011, more than 41,000 people applied for one of 1,300 jobs at a new Toyota plant in Tupelo, Mississippi; in 2009, 65,000 people applied for one of 2,700 jobs at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
The approach is akin to blaming thirsty people in a desert for not looking hard enough for water—except with this key difference: in our world we arguably have enough water, but our system withholds it from those who can’t find jobs in an economy in which jobs are scarce, operating on a logic that not only defies social reality but is illogically punitive and inhumane.
If we were to recognize the reality of need in our country and understand that our current economic system actually generates inequality and deprivation, as Jeff Bell unwittingly did, we might actually begin to focus policy-making on re-making the economy to meet rather than exacerbate human need.
At times we almost get there, but the habit of political thinking in U.S. culture tends almost invariably to retreat from critique of our economic system, into blaming people for not doing enough to succeed in a system that affords little opportunity.
For example, a recent Harvard Business School study “An Economy Doing Half Its Job,” as you can tell from its title, highlights a malfunction in our economy manifested in the fact that working-class and middle-class citizens continue to struggle coming out of the recession while large and mid-size businesses are faring quite well. The study calls this divergence “unsustainable.” Despite its critique of our current economic system, the main recommendation has nothing to do with repairing the system or even with redistributing wealth; instead, the study calls for American workers to increase their value by acquiring skills to compete in the global economy.
The folly of this approach, as well as its prevalence as a default habit in American political discourse across the board, is evident in a rather conventional speech President Obama gave in April 2012 at the University of Iowa. While addressing college students and discussing the need to address the debt burden caused by student loans, Obama expressed his desire for everyone to graduate college and succeed. U.S. culture loves this story of the individual’s rise to success through education, ingenuity, or pure hard work. We love it so much it clouds our thinking. Certainly we can agree we live in a society in which anybody can make it. We see evidence of this fact all the time. But we don’t live in a world in which everybody can make it. Even if every person earned an advanced degree, would there be jobs for everyone? Additionally, we would still need people to perform the socially necessary though stigmatized “low-wage” work. Yet we neglect to recognize this reality that our economy generates inequality and need, that it is inveterately an economy that does only half its job.
During the Great Depression, while people stood and starved in breadlines, farmers poured milk down sewers and burned crops in order to create scarcity to raise prices; that is, in order to get the economy working again, food was destroyed while people went hungry. This scenario presents quite a contradiction and underscores the degree to which our economy has become more important than the people living in it. We have come to serve the economy rather than the economy serving us. We ask people to suffer to save the system that produces suffering, instead of creating a system that seeks to eliminate suffering.
When will we fully recognize there is a problem with our economy and work to create a system that works for people and stop asking people to suffer to prop up an economy that doesn’t work for people?
Perhaps when we truly recognize need.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.