Saturday, December 28, 2013

When Believing in Work Is Not Enough

Your home, ten minutes after the bank decides to foreclose. Looks the same, right?

Though, truth be told, I've often considered work to be an intrusion into my otherwise slovenly existence, I've worked all of my adult life, often with two to three jobs at a time. The reasons I did this were not always clear to me; I suspect having kids might have been a factor. Also, too, if you're addicted to travel, you have to find ways to pay for it.

I say this to make clear that when I protest the inhumanity of our current state of income inequality, and pose the question what are we going to do about it, I mean that an apparent answer strikes me that we're likely to do nothing about it at all. And that's because I feel many of us have been disenfranchised: We simply do not have access to the levers of government that can affect these things. It's depressing but true.

And when I pose the question of how many of us feel that we'll be better off in five, ten, or twenty years, I do mean to say that, given the wealth distribution curve, our lack of access to the levers of power, or lack of access to opportunity generally, most of us aren't likely to have a more glittering future.

Of course, I can imagine some of you saying, "If you don't have enough wealth, why don't you just get a job, or a better job, or two jobs, or work hard to get a raise at your current job, or move to North Dakota where they have a labor shortage? Or maybe you could start your own business or come up with the next big tech thing. Or go back to school and get some training and quit your grousing!"

My answer to that is that there's absolutely nothing wrong with anything you suggest. And I am absolutely sure that the overwhelming majority of Americans who are in need of more income -- or any income, for that matter -- have tried all of the options and that many of them in fact have improved their economic situations.

But the key point is that while hard-working America does soldier on with all the Randian fervor we can muster, we're still falling behind while the very wealthy are capturing the bulk of the new wealth. The rich are getting richer, and most of us are not. That's why they call it income inequality.

It's not called work inequality or lazy inequality or welfare inequality. It's called income inequality because our incomes are not only unequal, they are wildly so.

I didn't get a raise during the last five years I taught high school, while the amount I had to chip in for my benefits steadily increased. During the last three years, I had more and more unpaid furlough days, too. And what's funny was that, given the economy, I was supposed to feel grateful that I even had a job, and I guess I was grateful.

During that whole time, the banks and insurance companies were getting bailed out and very few bondholders were "getting a haircut." That was reserved for public servants like myself.

After listening to "our failing schools" screeds for quite long enough, I looked at my situation and retired at 62, fed up with being under-appreciated and underpaid. I was grateful I had the good sense to max out my the two annuities I qualified for as a teacher and maxed out my IRA contributions yearly, too. And I was satisfied that working at as many as three schools at a time while also doing private tutoring and writing a weekly local tech column had provided enough of a retirement that I could afford a modest lifestyle. I'd made it, just barely, but I'd made it.

But while I was making it, I had friends around me working their asses off to have a nice home in Brown's Valley, an F-150 and a Honda Fit in the driveway, and something resembling a decent August getaway with the wife and kids. And all of a sudden it's 2008 and half of them have maxed out credit cards and houses under water. Some of them got foreclosed on, some let their houses go in short sales, and others limped by with interest-only loans, knowing that when they retire, they'll let the house go for almost no profit and move to a manufactured home in some more affordable state.

In the meantime, the income distribution curve will continue to diverge.

Looking at this chart convinces me that we're screwed and those fierce believers that say, "Why don't you just get a job, hippie freak?!!" don't really understand how our country works right now.

I had seven years of college and my last five years resembled that down slope on the end of the blue line on the graph, much as the rest of the 90 percenters' income did, as well.

So, when working harder doesn't get you ahead, we've all got problems as a society. Of course, if you've got enough money and access to power, it might not bother you as much.

But don't believe anybody who says Americans deserve to live like this, and don't believe any rich conservative warning against "class warfare." That's just code for "we've got it, and we're not giving you any of it."

So far, they've won the argument. So far.

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