30 September 2010

Busy Work

I don't have the latest unemployment figures, but we all know they're bad.  Who would have ever thought we'd see people reach 99 weeks of unemployment?  That's three weeks shy of two years.  There is a common thought amongst the employed that laziness is the problem; that those "99-ers" could have taken a job somewhere, but just didn't want to because their unemployment benefits were "unfairly" high and discouraged them from seeking work.  I would caution anyone who feels this animosity toward the unemployed not to mistake your own good fortune for proof that you've done something right, or that someone else's misfortune is proof that they've done something wrong.  Have a little humility, folks.

And that's part of the problem.  If you buy into the idea that you're doing well because you deserve it, then when things go wrong you're faced with having to accept the dark, other side of that coin: that you deserve this, too.  Until you've actually experienced the sense of failure that comes with having to apply for government benefits, you cannot appreciate how de-valuing it is.  How empty and shamed you become.  How hard it is to even want to go anywhere for fear that someone will want to talk with you and ask the question, "What do you do?" and you'll have to answer that question.  I could elaborate, but Dawn Foster has already written an outstanding piece about the topic, and I encourage you to read it.  Go ahead; I'll wait.  (Isn't she great?)

If you've come back to me, thanks.  You already knew everything I've said so far, I'm sure.  So now let me introduce an angle I haven't heard anyone discuss.  Set aside the financial side of the unemployment mess for the moment.  You already know about how devastating it is to the families of the unemployed and how resentful the wealthy are about being taxed to pay into the system they don't personally need.  There's something I want to ask, and I'm afraid the answer isn't encouraging.

What have we, as a society, missed from all these lost jobs?  What goods or services were being provided that we really, honestly, miss?  There might be a favorite local restaurant you used to frequent with a special dish no one else offers.  I live in a town that has had at least one video rental store in business at any given time for almost 30 years.  Today, if I want to rent a movie, I have two choices: the Redbox kiosks, and my own Netflix account.  Thanks to Netflix's streaming, I've watched more movies for the first time this year than I have in ages.  I have no actual use for the now-defunct Movie Warehouse.  I feel bad that the people who owned the business had to close their doors, and I feel bad for those who drew their paychecks from the place.  But if you'd told me several years ago that if I didn't remain an active renting customer they'd be out of work, I'd have called it emotional blackmail and contrary to my own interests.

As consumers, the first thing we've done is cut down--or cut out--frivolous purchases...which means that those jobs lost provided frivolous things.  No one wants to hear it or say it, but there you have it.  The market has spoken.  Millions of Americans relied on jobs that contributed absolutely nothing of real value to our society.  And those jobs are gone, and we have only two paths before us.  We can find a way to return to our frivolous ways--though that seems shallow, now that we've adapted to our less indulgent lifestyles.  And it seems unlikely, given the attitude of the wealthy.  They're the only ones with the resources to put people back to work, and instead they not only want to keep their money circulating amongst themselves, but they've publicly fought against being taxed to help support the people they don't want to employ.

The other path before us is...actually, I have no idea what that other path is.  In science-fiction movies, they always depict a future where we've evolved beyond the frivolous and petty nature of contemporary society; we've never seen how we supposedly got from here to there.  We're going to have to navigate these uncharted waters ourselves.

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