Anyone remember what it was like to work in the late 1990s? The memories are fading fast as the years of persistent joblessness pile up -- years that began well before the big crash in 2008, when it was already self-evident that the Bush administration's claims that massive tax cuts for the wealthy were the sure route to full employment were an epochal load of hooey. Now even that seems like a quaint and distant memory.
In 1998, it was a workers' market: Everyone I know had a good job, and a lot of them were in the tech sector. Good benefits were a given, as were good salaries. If the working conditions sucked, there was always someone else who offered a better environment and maybe better pay too.
That was before the tech bubble burst in 2001. I spent that year working in investment journalism in a newsroom that primarily revolved around the stock market.
I remember remarking on a number of articles we published in which corporate honchos bitched bitterly about the fact that they had lost the ability to control their workers, to ignore their workplace demands, and to short-change their benefits, or whatever other steps they might take to shore up their corporate bottom lines and make their shareholders happier. I remember thinking at the time that the economic tides would inevitably turn, and the next time these folks wound up on top and it became, once again, an employer's market, they would make certain that they never found themselves in that position again.
We used to joke, back in the '90s, that a recession was the Republican way of shortening the lift lines. It's a truism that the wealthy despise having to share too much of their space with too many other people. And in the late '90s, they were having to share their space with a whole lot of freshly well-to-do people.
Well, that isn't an issue now. Problem solved. I imagine the wintertime lift lines at Sun Valley are pretty wide open these days.
Because the reality, of course, is that while the average CEO now makes (as of 2009) only 263 times what his average worker makes (down from a high of 525 times in 2000), they almost never in fact take the windfalls they reap from those huge tax breaks and actually invest the money in employing people. Instead, they ratchet up their bonuses and salaries another notch or two, buy another yacht or another condo in the Bahamas, and tuck the rest away in a tax-free account in the Caymans.
They're currently proving, by sidelining all this cash, that giving them tax breaks doesn't do a damned thing for job creation -- perhaps it does exactly the opposite.
Moreover, they continue reaping large salaries while worker payrolls are slashed. Now people just cling to whatever jobs they can, keep their heads down, and count their lucky stars if they still have work. Either that, or they join the ranks of the eternal jobless.
A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that the ongoing hoarding of large sums of cash by corporate CEOs was "not sustainable". But instead, not only have they sustained it, the hoarding and resulting joblessness have soured whatever faint signs of a recovery we saw in 2000-2010.
Another bit of conventional wisdom we keep hearing is that 9 percent unemployment may be with us for quite awhile. They seem to be institutionalizing the joblessness -- and are quite content to do so.
This was what my late friend Frank Church used to tell me:
One comment in particular, however, stands out in my mind these days. We were talking about America's future, and where the conservative cadre that was then taking over the Republican Party intended to take us. His expression darkened, and it was clear that he had a good deal of foreboding in this regard. "What I fear most," he said, "is the Latin Americanization of America."
He wasn't concerned, of course, with the arrival of Latinos on American soil (or what Pat Buchanan calls "Meximerica") except insofar as that could be manipulated to achieve this end. What he feared was that corporatist conservatives, if given free rein, would turn our standard of living into what you find in Latin America. That working Americans would one day be reduced to the level of near-serfdom that is the common way of life for millions of Latinos.
During the Clinton years, of course, this fear looked farther and farther remote -- everyone's wages were rising, jobs were being created by the millions, and our standard of living was never healthier. I began to think that we had staved off Church's specter, perhaps forever.
But then, I never imagined the Bush years, either.
The Latin American landscape is largely an oligarchy: a land ruled by the wealthy, for the wealthy, and at the expense of ordinary working people, who are left to fend for themselves for whatever scraps the ruling elite deigns to toss them.
The ruling elite in the United States like that model. That's how America used to be, after all, a century ago: eighty-hour work weeks were the norm, there were no vacations or weekends or health benefits, no workers' organizing rights. Child labor was common. There was no Great American Middle Class then, no consumer society. It was an oligarchy then.
They've even been explicit about wanting America to be driven to second-class status. Take Paul Broun the other day:
Well, Andrea, the thing is when someone is overextended and broke they don't continue paying for expensive automobiles. They sell the expensive automobiles and buy a cheaper one. They don't continue paying for country club dues. They drop out of the country club. We need to pay down the debt.
That's why they're perfectly happy to wreck the economy in the hopes it will be blamed on President Obama: It suits their ends anyway. If the oligarchy has its way, the lift lines are going to be getting very short indeed.