Is A Good Life Possible Without a Good Job? (Hint: The Answer Has to be Yes)

The NYT takes on a question that’s increasingly relevant to many of us

12 Angry (White) Men

In America, a good job used to be key to a good life, argues New America fellow Michael Lind in the NYT. Now that’s changing.

Slowly, incrementally, Americans have been moving away from a system in which a good job with a generous employer was the key to having a good life to a new system in which even people with low-wage jobs can have access to the basic goods and services that define a decent life in a modern society.

The government must pick up the slack — and whether Americans are aware of it or not, it has been doing so already.

Lind is careful to refer throughout to a bipartisan “consensus” on this issue, referring to experts on both sides who acknowledge that the government must take over where business has left off, as though that conclusion is a fait accompli. I find that mystifying, as I can’t recall any of the sixteen or so Republicans running in the primary saying we needed to expand government so that it can take better care of its citizens. But if we can pretend a bipartisan consensus into being, all the better.

It’s also worth noting that millions of Americans don’t have or never had access to the kind of “good jobs” Lind is talking about — homemakers, for example, who spend their prime working years doing unpaid work on behalf of their children, families, communities and schools. Maybe at one point they could rely on their husbands’ pensions and benefits; they can’t anymore, not as a class. Their husbands may not have the kinds of jobs that come with pensions and benefits, either. Many of the jobs being created these days are the low-paying, less stable and generous ones. Even while working full-time, employees can’t raise families, support wives, and save for retirement when they make only $8 an hour, especially in the more expensive parts of the country.

This, Lind says, is both why Government is stepping in to compensate, and why it needs to: with earned-income tax credits, with the Affordable Care Act, and so on.

You can blame corporations for being parsimonious — and, in some ways, they are at fault. Consider this Atlantic piece by Alana Semuels about Fairfield County, CT, which has become an epicenter of income equality.

Finance Is Ruining America

Large parts of Bridgeport and other CT cities are blighted, Semuels argues, citing a new book by journalist Rana Foroohar, because of the abrogation of responsibility — and the shift in focus to profit at all costs — by once influential local hirers like GE.

As Foroohar explains in her book, in the 1980s, as Wall Street demanded big returns from General Electric, then-CEO Jack Welch focused on expanding GE Capital, a division of the company that sold financial products — a bit of a departure from the company’s original mission of making things. GE Capital became the largest issuer of commercial paper in the world and borrowed billions of dollars to make even more money. GE Capital made up 60 percent of GE’s earnings growth between 1990 and 2005, according to the company’s 2015 annual report.“Under Welch, GE came to rely on financial wizardry rather than new technological breakthroughs to satisfy investors,” Foroohar writes. Between 1996 and 2015, CEO Jeff Immelt’s pay jumped 433 percent, to $32 million from $6 million, according to the company’s annual reports. (Immelt recently listed his New Canaan home in Fairfield County for $5.5 million.)

But as GE Capital was making money, GE was laying off staff, outsourcing jobs, and shifting more costs onto employees. Welch laid off 100,000 in five years and cut research-and-development spending as a percentage of sales by half, according to Foroohar. GE closed an Indiana refrigerator plant and relocated some of the production of models to Mexico. It cut 2,500 jobs in a turbine division to save $1 billion. In 2007, it shuttered a 1.4 million-square-foot plant in Bridgeport that had once, in the heyday of American manufacturing, made clocks, fans, radios, washing machines, and vacuums, and employed thousands of people. In short, investors were getting wealthy, but working class-people weren’t sharing the rewards. Instead, they were losing their jobs.

As GE began generating huge profits, it didn’t reinvest earnings in communities; it closed factories, laid off workers, outsourced jobs, and rewarded its CEO by spraying him with dollar bills a la “Magic Mike.” Since then, the money has continued to not trickle down bur rather to pool comfortably, and expand, in the spacious, roped-off backyards of top executives in places like Greenwich.

On the other hand, not every employer is GE. Lots of small and medium-size businesses are struggling to cope with massive increases in the cost of health care coverage, for example. But whatever the motive or the reasoning, the fact remains that even workers fortunate enough to have full-time jobs cannot anymore rely on those jobs for pensions. That leaves retirement as an open question. Relatively few Americans has a 401K or equivalent account. Beyond Social Security, which isn’t generally enough to live on — the median payout is ~$1300 a month right now — what can or should the government do to help older people? What is the government’s responsibility?

Employer-provided, defined-benefit pensions with guaranteed benefits are also becoming a thing of the past. Among workers fortunate enough to participate in employer-sponsored retirement plans, defined-benefit pensions alone plummeted from more than 60 percent in 1979 to fewer than 10 percent in 2011, when around 70 percent of workers with employer plans had 401(k)’s. Roughly half of American workers don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

So it’s no surprise that nearly half of working-age families have no retirement savings at all — and for individuals between 56 and 61, the median retirement account holds only $17,000. Here again, many Democrats and Republicans agree that the answer is to detach retirement security from particular employers, though it should still depend on how much you work. [emphasis mine]

Uh. Democrats and Republicans agree that the answer is to detach retirement security from employment? Since when? Do they agree on a solution, too? Because if jobs won’t provide, government must, but as far as I understand, Republicans are trying to prune government back, not encourage it to grow several sizable new branches.

Also, while we’re on the subject of politics, Lind points out that many benefits citizens receive — right now! — are obscured one way or another. That means that some people don’t know what’s available, or even what they’re already getting, whereas others have some stake in “preserving the fiction of a small federal government by relying on the hidden welfare state to deliver benefits.” Gee, I wonder who benefits from that fiction?

2016’s Most & Least Federally Dependent States

In short, there are serious electoral ramifications to that kind of mass misunderstanding about how supportive government is and what kind of a role it plays in the lives of working- and middle-class families.

Middle-class American voters often underestimate how many government benefits they receive, while overestimating the cost of means-tested welfare for the poor. Unfortunately, the preference of American policy makers for what the political scientist Steven Teles calls “kludgeocracy” — indirect, complex, off-budget mechanisms rather than simple public programs financed through higher taxes — seems likely to persist. [emphasis mine]

When people believe benefits don’t go to them, and go instead to their seemingly less deserving or less hardworking neighbors, or worse, those ne’er-do-wells the next town over, they have a tendency to feel resentment, often along racial or ethnic lines. And then they vote for the candidates who mirror that resentment.

Lind is, in essence, offering a Democratic Party solution to a national problem and pretending he has some kind of magical bipartisan buy-in. That’s silly. But he’s also arguing that the government needs to get better and more consistent at providing for us since our jobs no longer will, and it needs to get better at the PR part of things, too, and all of that is smart. Otherwise, even while Americans are taking cash-stuffed envelopes with one hand, they will be pointing at the worthless, shiftless freeloaders with the other. They won’t even realize they should be saying, “Thank you.”

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