Wednesday, April 7, 2010




During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain touted their plans to "create American jobs." No matter what subject they discussed--the environment, the military, the schools--they always related it to the "jobs question." The fact that they talked so much about jobs reveals just how much Americans love jobs. In 2008, Americans were certainly worried about jobs; unemployment was rising after the worldwide financial collapse. They wanted jobs. The candidates understood that. So they talked about jobs.

Since 2008, it has not gotten any easier to get a job in America. Unemployment steadily rose through 2009. Many people lucky enough to get a paycheck during this time got it from some "sub-level" job with no benefits and no entitlements. Americans started to panic about their economic futures on a scale not seen since the 1930s. Why? Because there were no jobs out there. No one was hiring. Skilled workers and professionals compromised; they took jobs with much lower pay and responsibilities than they deserved. That, in turn, left unskilled workers holding the bag. There simply were not enough jobs to go around.

Meanwhile, the old American rhetoric continued to churn: "You must have a job. Go to school to get a job. Learn in order to work at a company one day. You can even learn how to find a job by writing a good resume with the right kind of paper. You can learn how to interview properly, answer employer questions and wear the right suit to the meeting." Yet millions of Americans who followed the program did not get what they expected. Graduates who did everything right found themselves completely unable to land even an entry-level scrub job.

"What happened?" they said. "I got all the right grades, wore the right clothes, wrote the right resume on the right paper and answered the interview questions the way I was supposed to. And I didn't get the job?" Either that, or the employer just wasn't hiring in the first place.

Americans are rightly confused about why it is so difficult to get a job. After all, our history has somehow given rise to an expectation that everyone easily gets a job in this country. When we look back through history, it seems Americans have always been working. Europeans immigrated here to work. They built things. They worked in factories. They worked on farms. Later generations continued working. It was almost a matter of right. Historically, then, America has symbolized work: We provided work as inexhaustibly as our mighty lakes provided fish and our vast plains provided wheat. We were the great "Land of Opportunity." There was always something to do here; and we needed all the labor we could get.

Times have changed. But popular expectations have not. That is why Americans are confused about why it is so difficult to find a job these days. And that also explains why modern jobs are not as appetizing as they were in the past.

Americans simply do not understand how the modern free market system works. To understand why jobs are no longer so appetizing or available anymore, we must investigate how labor operates in the free market system. In essence, jobs are scarcer and more demeaning today than in the recent past because employees are little more than expendable instruments calculated to win profits for employers. At the same time, employee advocacy has fallen, while employer power has grown.

We can begin our investigation with two basic premises. First, people only engage in commercial activity for large profits. Second, jobs are contracts for labor offered by those who intend to use the worker's productive capacity to win larger profits. As such, they are not entitlements; they are private, discretionary relationships that may be terminated at any time. They are, so to speak, a "matter of grace" bestowed by those with enough money to pay.

These two premises lead to two basic conclusions. First, because people only engage in commercial activity for large profits, they offer employment to others on the implicit understanding that they will further their ultimate profit goals. That means that employees are only as good as their profit potential. If they do not further the ultimate profit goal, they are expendable. Second, because employment is a matter of grace, not right, employers assume a necessarily superior position over their employees. This results in a permanently unfair relationship in which one party takes almost all the benefit from the other's labor. All the while, he subjects the other party to ruthless control, discipline and indignity. When the laborer works, in other words, his time is not his. It belongs to the employer. And it all inures to the employer's benefit.

We can more closely understand these conclusions by focusing on the "profit premise." The "profit premise" is the best way to understand both why it is hard to get a job and why existing jobs are so precarious. The "profit premise" takes all the guesswork out of employment. It takes all the subtlety and uncertainty from the equation. Rather, it simplifies the inquiry to simple arithmetic: "Does this employee yield more profit to me than he costs me in expense?" Employees, after all, only have value to the extent that their labor vaults the employer toward greater profit. But the problem is that employees also represent an expense. It is impossible to have profit if expenses outweigh income. In that light, employees must "pull their weight." If they do not justify their cost in profit, they will be fired. And if the employer simply does not have enough money to "purchase" an employee in the first place, he will not hire anyone.

This explains why no one is hiring these days: Companies do not have enough money to spend on new employees. Private employers are usually corporations. Corporate officers, in turn, must answer to the shareholders. The shareholders want profits. If new employees mean threatening the existing profit level, corporate officer cannot spend money on new hires. If they did, they would disserve the corporation and undermine the very reason why people do business in the first place: To make money, not lose it. Corporations have no duty to the public; they only have a duty to deliver a constant profit stream to their owners. Corporations would actually violate their raison d'etre if they hired people as a "public service."

It helps to see the "hiring problem" in strictly economic terms. It demystifies the issues. From a job-seeker's perspective, it also makes life in the job market much easier to understand. After all, the "profit premise" makes all non-profit-related concerns irrelevant: It does not matter what clothes you wear to the interview. It does not matter what paper you use to print your resume. It does not even matter how smart you are or what school you attended. No, all those things mean nothing compared to the ultimate question: Does the employer have enough money to invest in your labor potential? If he does not--or he fears that your labor potential will not generate a suitably high profit level--you will not get the job. It does not matter how charming you are, or how good looking or even how qualified. All that means nothing next to the real issues: (1) Does the employer have enough money to gamble on you? and (2) Will the employer make a big profit on your labor?

In other words, your own talents and will have nothing to do with the employer's decision to hire you. If the economy is bad and the company is unwilling to threaten existing profit levels, you will not get a private sector job. End of story.

Understanding the "profit premise" also helps clarify why companies lay people off. Existing employees present a different question than new hires. Once a private business hires someone, a new relationship arises. The employer has new concerns. Before hiring, the question was whether the company had enough money to invest in another person's profit-creating potential. After hiring, the question is whether the employee is adequately productive. From this point, the employer takes on a more evaluative role. He investigates whether the employee is working "hard enough." He compares the profit generated with the amount he must pay the employee in wages. If the wages are greater than the profit--or if the profit is not sufficiently greater than the wages--the employer lays the employee off. He says there were "cost concerns." The investment did not pay off. So the employer cuts his losses and dismisses the employee. After all, it is voluntary relationship. And the employer can say "good bye" whenever he wants.

Of course, the above scenario assumes that the company has enough money to continue employing people. When the economy tumbles, or when the company suffers overall losses, it loses the ability to continue paying its existing employees. In that case, it does not matter how qualified or productive the employee may be. When continuing to pay wages threatens overall profit levels, employees get cut. That's the "profit premise" at work.

All these examples lead to a more abstract conclusion: Employment is a vastly unfair relationship. Having a "job" not only subjects the employee to ruthless economic appraisal under the employer's "profit principle." It also places him in an institutionally inferior position. Despite all social expectation to the contrary, employment is not a right in the United States. It is a matter of grace. This is significant because a "relationship of grace" is no equal relationship. Rather, only lords, Gods, sovereigns and those with greatly superior power bestow "grace." And only pathetic petitioners and sinful beggars seek grace from their acknowledged superiors.

Some may say that it is an exaggeration to call employment a "relationship of grace." But close analysis confirms it. In a "relationship of grace," a suppliant party seeks the benevolence of another party known to have strength, power and influence. The suppliant throws himself on the master's mercy in a plea for grace. One imagines a lowly feudal peasant begging his local lord for a loan, throwing himself at the lord's feet. Then the lord, with a condescendingly smug look on his face, extends his ring for the miserable peasant to kiss. Once the lord gives his grace, the peasant bursts into tears and thanks the lord for his benevolence. The lord can then count on the peasant's complete dedication in paying back his grace, even if he exacts a sum far higher in obligation than the sum he bestowed in grace.

Isn't this what happens in a modern employment relationship? Isn't this what job-seekers must do to win approval from their lordly potential employers? Don't they have to debase themselves and claw the floor and kiss rings? Don't they indebt themselves to the employer for his generous decision to throw them a few shekels? Isn't it just as pathetic and despicable as this?

No matter what "career experts" say, I cannot escape viewing the quest for private employment in these "feudal" terms. Landing a job requires more than a healthy economy and an employer who can afford to pay you. It also requires a subservient mindset and the willingness to sacrifice individual dignity for "grace," namely a paycheck. To win that grace, employees must kiss the symbolic ring every day. They must shlep to and from their jobs. They must stay awake. They must attend to meaningless tasks intended solely to enrich their employers. They must remain in an obedient position to receive commands for at least 8 hours a day. To add insult to indignity, they must bear all this so that their employer makes a bigger profit. And when they finally go home, they are both physically and spiritually drained. They have neither the strength nor the will to enjoy their own lives. Rather, they live for the employer. They live for their modern feudal lords.

Inwardly, employees thirst for their precious two days (or less) off. They yearn for time that belongs to them, not their lords. But is that not ironic? After all, they fought so hard to get their jobs. They bowed and scraped and sacrificed everything to get hired. Now, once they commit their waking lives to their employer's profit, they dream about the weekends. Is that not somehow disloyal to the lord they pledged to serve? Or at least "less than diligent?"

If you need proof for this proposition, just listen in on some honest employee chatter. Just note how often they mention what they plan to do next weekend or what they did last weekend.

So is this what it's all about? Are these the magical "jobs" everyone wants? Are these the symbols of our strength as a nation? Is this how we all should spend our lives? As expendable economic instruments to be cast away the moment we fail to justify our costs to our employers?

Perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps that is why there is so much unhappiness in our society. Perhaps the unending pressure to have a job stands at odds with what we want as individuals. Yet jobs always win; "what we want" always loses. And we can only ignore "what we want" for so long until we start feeling really, really bad about life.

Worse, what do we gain for all this unhappiness? A paycheck. Only the employer really wins. He doesn't care whether you're happy or sad. You are just a variable in the income/expense equation. You are a figment of the "profit principle," no more.

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