Love of Labor

September 5, 2010

When you’re on the phone this weekend, talking to tech support in India about your product made in China, try to remember that it’s Labor  Day in America.  The holiday was originally intended to honor the men and women (and, sadly, the children) who labored so hard to build this nation.  Now The Day of the Laborers is just another 3-day weekend, the semi-official End of Summer.  Like the Ramadan cocktail parties in Brave New World, we tend to drain our commemorations of any real significance.

In addition to your last beach visit and your last BBQ, Labor Day will allow you to shop some AMAZING THREE-DAY SALES, with BLOW-OUT PRICES on crap made by Chinese laborers.  Your grille and your beach umbrella come from there, too.

But Labor Day is fun.  The only people who hate Labor Day are conservatives.  For them, Labor = Communism.  They can view society only in Ayn Rand’s false dichotomy of Karl Marx vs. John Galt, of collectivized industry vs. robber-baron capitalism.  Yet there is a middle way, where a truly free market coexists alongside a strong social network, and with regulations to protect everyday people from exploitation.

The archetypical image of The Laborer is a posterized factory worker in overalls, short-billed cap, burly biceps below rolled-up sleeves, sledge hammer clutched in raised fist.   This icon hearkens back to the era when organized labor fought for and won the fair wages, safe working conditions, and livable retirements they deserved.  True, many unions later exploited their power.  The Teamsters, for example, is nothing less than a mafia.   But no one can deny that labor needed to organize to end its terrible exploitation, or that exploiting workers is a bad thing.  No one except libertarians, that is.   The fact that school teachers in America are so dependent on their unions and on strikes to get fair pay is a sad, sad indictment of our priorities.

Too much is made of the strife between blue-collar and white-collar workers, when in reality, the two ought enjoy a symbiotic relationship.  Both classes work, usually very hard, and both make indispensable contributions to our society.  Both should be paid fairly, neither too little nor too much.   As someone who has personally done nearly every kind of job imaginable, I appreciate all honest labor.

We all saw the ugly face of “Creative Class” elitism bared during the obama campaign, but I have often encountered the inverse, what I call “blue collar bushido.”  Once, in a business office, I overheard two secretaries: “what is it exactly that managers manage?  I mean they just sit at their desk all day.  We’re the ones who do all the real work — the typing, the filing, the answering of the phones.”   Years later, when our start-up was struggling, I suggested to my partner that we ask my dad, a retired senior executive, to oversee some projects.  “You and your dad don’t know how to get things done,” she sneered, “you just know how to get people like me and my dad to do the actual work!”  (My dad & I can do both, actually.)  Blue collar and white collar have coexisted since at least the first city-states. They need each other. The rancor of their rivalry should not exceed that of the annual Army-Navy game.

There’s also a third class, with growing influence in America —  a small, elite cadre of financiers, stock market players, business magnates and investors.  We could call them “gold collar,”  but the term “workers” would be too generous.  Or we could refer to them by their technical name: “Tapeworms.” Though but a tiny fraction of the population, these tapeworms possess most of the total wealth.  Their lust for wealth consumes their entire existence, so they must constantly acquire more — which they do primarily by exploiting the real workers, blue and white.   Even worse, these gold collars don’t actually produce or provide anything to earn their riches.  Like the parasites they are, they simply have positioned themselves in the flow and suck it off their host.  Meet a few of these tapeworms lurking in our collective gut:

Bill Gates:  Rewarded each year with $2,100,000,000 for having once bought DOS for 50 grand off the guy that actually wrote it, then preventing anyone from writing anything else useful;

Warren Buffett:  Won $62,000,000,000 gambling on whether other people made or lost money;

Koch Brothers:  Reap $100,000,000,000 p/a from coal mining that lays waste to entire counties, kills miners both fast and slow.   A slice of their profits is parlayed back into the GW denial industry they single-handedly set up;

Tony Hayward: Collected a $1,600,000 severance package — equal to one year’s salary — plus a $1,000,000 p/a pension for life, for overseeing unethical business practices … oh, and for being the cool-headed, quick-thinking, forceful presence should a crisis ever occur;

Richard Grasso: Director of the NYSE, earned $145,000,000 each year for sending the other parasites home each day by banging a gong. His salary nearly bankrupted the 168-year old Exchange;

Goldman-Sachs:  Like a thick ball of heartworms, GS threatens to choke the life out of its host – America.  GS hit paydirt  — $4,000,000,000 — on the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage bond market which it created.  GS amasses mountains of money by shuffling around other people’s money, and by betting that those people will lose their money in one of GS’s schemes.  When GS bet wrong, we bailed them out with TARP.  GS used our cash to give its executives $1,000,000 bonuses for a job well done.

In ever increasing numbers, these tapeworms are ensconced in senior executive positions.  In my father’s day, most business execs worked their tails off doing real managerial work, and were paid fairly and in proper ratio to other positions.  Of course, many of them were probably like my dad, a son of blue collar workers and grandson of day laborer immigrants, none of whom ever shirked or loafed a day in their life.  Today, the tapeworms at the top of the org charts have no concept of what real work is.  Instead, they are masters of office politics, of posturing, of indulging in privilege and cashing in on power.  Their business decisions concern only the short-term profit of stockholders — and themselves.   The fact that most of them spend all their waking hours at the office says more about their lack of an healthy personal life than their diligence.

One such executive tapeworm is Meg Whitman.  Born with a silver spoon in her mouth,   famous as the former CEO of eBay,  Whitman is running for governor of California on her putative managerial skills.  Meg has a plan to create jobs.  And Meg actually has a long track record of creating jobs — in India and China, that is.  As the California Labor Federation warns in a video, Whitman’s M.O. has been to join a company in a senior position, offshore the jobs of entire departments, make a couple mill’ on the side with insider trades, then move on to the next hatchet job.

In 2002, Whitman also inadvertently axed her own position at eBay.  Notorious for hounding and berating her employees, one day Meggers got so upset with the maid … er, senior marketing director, that she shoved the woman to the ground.  Whitman left eBay pronto to join that squirming mass of bloodworms, Goldman-Sachs, where she’d already been earning (sic) $475,000 to sit on their board.  Proving that, for a tapeworm there’s no conflict of interest when it’s all about your self-interest, Whitman had steered millions of dollars of eBay’s investments to GS.  This year, Whitman accepted a $105,000 “thank you” campaign donation from GS.  And now she wants to apply her work ethic to California.  If Whitman wins, she’ll join a thriving colony of gold collar parasites infesting government.  Worms in the gut are debilitating.  Worms in the brain are fatal.

So this Labor Day, workers of the world, toast yourselves.  And while you’re at it, unite!  After all, you’ve got nothing to lose, except your intestinal parasites.

(c) 2010 by ‘tamerlane.’  All rights reserved.



All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Boots

August 11, 2010

The other day, I went shopping for cowboy boots. I tried on a pair from an unfamiliar brand — Smoky Mountain.  They were so comfortable that I wore them out of the store and kept them on all day.  It wasn’t until the next morning, when I pulled them on to do my barn chores, that I saw the “Made in China” label.

For some time now, I’ve tried to boycott Chinese products, for reasons given below.  It can be hard.   Practically everything, from tools to kitchen utensils to pet food, comes from China.  Even if you’re prepared to spend a bit extra, most retail stores carry little or nothing else.


I’m Just a Material Cowboy, Living In a Material World

Packaging can trick you.  Not for a second would I have considered a pair of boots from Anping Julong Animal By Product Manufacture Co. Ltd.  I assumed (admittedly, without thinking too hard) that these boots, in their buff box with a woodsy green logo of a mountain range topped by “Smoky Mountain” in Cooper typeface, came from east Tennessee or North Carolina.  In my subconscious arose an image of doughty Appalachian folk in plaid shirts lovingly hand-crafting my new boots in a bat-on-board workshop surrounded by tall pines.  I now know that my leather-upper-balance-man-made-materials footwear was slapped together by slave labor in some pollution-belching factory in Guangdong Province before traveling across the Pacific in a 40′ container.

Now alerted, I pulled out all my boots & shoes.  With the exception of two pairs, my Justin packers and my sturdy, Wisconsin muck boots, all were from China.  I reeled.

Marketing doesn’t have to be deceptive.  There’s no sin in effectively communicating a product’s benefits, even if its primary benefit is low cost.  The Smoky Mountain mark, however, is a deliberate lie.   It fooled me into believing I was paying a premium (the boots were as expensive as Justins) for an American product.  Neither the box nor the company web site give any indication who Smoky Mountain is or where they are from.  Somewhere out there is a rich bastard who just got a littler richer by first exploiting a Chinese laborer and then duping me.

We Americans, though, need scant help with our self-deception.  We complain when  jobs get shipped oversees, yet we exclusively bargain-shop.  Granted, most of us were raised to view bargain-hunting as praiseworthy thrift, but in today’s global economy, ostensible bargains come with an hefty, hidden mark-up.

The graver problem is not how we shop, but why we shop.  Instead of buying things we need or would enjoy using, we buy things for the sheer thrill of acquiring them.  This pleasure in finding & acquiring must originate from hunter/collector days if not earlier, but in a world where artificially lowered prices combine with a culture obsessed with possessions, our primeval instincts have been perverted into a mad, insatiable lust.


Birth Of An Addiction

The perversion of the American work ethic into the American acquisition addiction can be dated fairly accurately.  Near the end of WW II, when, after seven years of a brutal depression, and another five of a tough (by our standards) war, average Americans craved,  & felt themselves deserving of, the gamut of comforts and luxuries.  By happy coincidence, we had just undergone massive expansion of  our manufacturing base while obliterating that of our competitors.  US-made TVs, autos, dish washers, blenders and baseball gloves were all plentiful and affordable.

Steadily, we frittered away that huge lead.  Germany started offering high- end products at acceptable prices, while Japan flooded the market with acceptable products at low-end prices.  Meanwhile, our bulwark industries, especially auto, ossified and disgorged inelegant crap.  Somewhere along the line, the American people morphed from producers into “consumers.”

Jimmy Carter, in a serious buzz kill, tried to warn us.  We were instead drawn to Reagan’s siren call, telling us America had never been healthier.  Reagan unleashed the dogs of capitalist consumption and the rich got richer and trickled down some table scraps to the rest of us.  People started having to work longer and longer hours, while real wages stayed flat and productivity actually went down.  But the rich kept getting richer.

When they shut down the steel mills and the factories, and shipped those jobs oversees, they told us we were transitioning to a “Service Economy.”   When they shipped all the service jobs oversees, they told us we now had an “Information Economy.”  And now we’re down to a “Jobless Economy.”


The Pawn Shop School of Economics

Through these many decades of steady decline, we Americans have stubbornly clung to that shopping habit we first picked up in the late forties.  To maintain our habit, we first used up our savings (individual and collective), and then we went into debt.

Our primary pusher has been East Asia, and more and more, China.

A savvy drug dealer, China is intimately familiar with our special cravings and caters to them fastidiously.  What? I must choose between the DVD, the swing set, or … these spiffy new boots?  I want them all now! Thanks to China, I can afford them all at once — with the caveat that the DVD will break within 6 months, the paint on the swing will poison my kids, and if I saw the factory my boots were made in, I’d probably retch.   Products from China are cheap because because unethical means are used to keep costs down.  The raw materials increasingly come from poor countries, where the Chinese come in, strip the land of everything of value, then leave.   Chinese factories are inefficient, polluting nightmares, with horrific working conditions.  The products are shoddy to the extreme.  So they fall apart.  Which isn’t really a problem, because we buy them not so we can use them; we buy them so we can buy them.  Everything revolves around getting that next shopping high.

How have we been able to pay for this sustained and growing trade deficit?  Like any desperate junkie, we’ve pawned off our valuable possessions, our national assets.  Twenty-five percent  of US debt is in the hands of foreign nations, a doubling over the past two decades.  We now owe China almost one trillion dollars.


Getting Clean

Every recovery begins by acknowledging that you have a problem.  Capitalism and its twin, consumerism, are destructive diseases.  Possessions and comforts can provide happiness, but the obsessive pursuit of them only brings woe and devastation.  Anyone who tells you capitalism is a good thing is either evil or insane.

The second step is to take some concrete actions to curb your addiction.  Ideally, the government could stage an intervention.   The regulations on business & finance, never terribly strong, that were lifted in the eighties, could be reinstated in force.  US firms that offshore jobs could lose their right to do business in the US, with their CEOs stripped of US citizenship.  Perhaps granting “most favored trading nation” status to countries that rig their currency or who permit inhumane labor practices is not such a hot idea, after all.  The FTC could also crack down on deceptive advertising.  The “America’s Choice Seafood” brand with its red, white and blue logo, would instead have to display a red star and the slogan “China’s Rape of the Oceans.”

Don’t hold your breath — the government was long ago bought and sold to the capitalists.   The GOP has always been the champion of laissez faire, but of late Democrats have shown they differ only in degree … and hypocrisy.   The libertarians behind the Tea Party movement don’t think capitalism and offshoring have gone far enough!


A Seven Step Program to Recovery

No, we must clean up our act ourselves.  Here’s a suggested recovery plan each of us can implement:

1. Tune out the propaganda. Advertising is shrewdly — and scientifically — designed to tap into your primal emotions: don’t let it brainwash you.  Instead, practice an healthy internal dialog:  No, that new laptop will not make me sexier. My closet is already full.  My existing stereo still works.  I can slice an hard-boiled egg perfectly fine with a knife.

2.  Don’t Buy Chinese. Read the label on every item before tossing it into the cart.  If it’s from China, toss it back.  This will be hard, as most items in most stores only come from China.  The Dollar Store is off limits.  For products from other foreign countries, practice discretion.

3. Buy American. If you plan your purchases, and are willing to spend a little more for better quality, buying American is entire feasible.  A great place to start is this site with links to hundreds of US makers of quality products.  You can even find china made in the USA!

4. Buy Used. Regardless of where it was made, a used item won’t have to be re-made.  As a bonus, it’s usually missing that wasteful packaging.

5.  Make an Inventory, Make a Plan. Like I did with my shoes, check what you own and see where it came from.   Next, assess your regular and upcoming purchases, and craft a plan to alter your buying habits, buying American or even abstaining.   I did this exercise with my barn attire.  I’m stuck with my Chinese cowboy boots, but my next pair will definitely be American Justins.  I have an Australian hat (a nice country), and new, hand-crafted American gloves, but I need another pair, and these ones from New Mexico look nice.  I found some exquisite and very reasonably-priced leather belts from Illinois.  My Wrangler 13MWZ’s are almost non-negotiable.  Wranglers are made in Costa Rica, another nice country that protects its environment and offers universal healthcare.  But if I wanted, I could find suitable US-made substitutes.  Compiling this list took me about 30 minutes.

6. Spread the Word. Tell everyone you know that you’re a shopaholic but that you’re on the road to recovery.  Ask them not to buy you gifts made in China.  Like AMERICAN MADE on Facebook.  If you’re the agitating type, write letters to inform retailers and wholesalers that from now on, you’ll only buy quality, preferably American-made, products, and never Chinese.

7. Compile a “Sound of Music” List. As in “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens … these are a few of my favorite things.”  It’s a safe bet that high on your list will be intangibles like snowflakes and kittens, time spent with family, quiet walks, sunsets at the beach, home-cooked dinners with friends.  And if so, then why not focus on enjoying the real happiness those things provide, instead of the effervescent pleasures of material acquisition?

Perhaps we will finally hear what Jimmy Carter was trying to tell us thirty years ago — our personal value does lie in what we do, not what we own.

(c) 2010 by ‘tamerlane.’  All rights reserved.