I recently found myself enjoying the PBS production of Downtown Abbey, one of those classy period British soapy things with impeccable acting, costume and set design all inatended to make you forget that you're essentially watching a soap opera. Downton is essentially Upstairs Downstairs for a new audience (though I understand that the original series is being remade for some strange reason), but I'm a great deal older than I was in the 1970's. When you look at a series like this from the perspective of America 2011, watching its upper class that takes for granted its wealth and position, and its working class where the older servants delude themselves that spending your life in service to people who can't fathom being in any state of want that doesn't involve lust is perfectly OK, and younger servants find themselves with doors slammed in their faces if they dare dream of a better future, it's hard not to see the BEST scenario for the future we face.
In 2003, PBS dipped its toe into the waters of reality TV with a group of series in which they took contemporary people and put them in vintage settings, including the mores and social class structure of the time. The best of these, Manor House, showed its cast actually living this kind of socioeconomic divide. It's worth the time to go over to the show's site and poke around, because there's a wealth of information about actual life during a time of this kind of class divide and income inequality.
Yesterday we saw some improving job numbers, and the "official" unemployment rate finally dropped below 9%. But as Robert Reich points out, these numbers don't tell the real story:
Overall, the number of unemployed Americans – 13.7 million – is about the same as it was last month. The number working part time who’d rather be working full time – 8.3 million – is also about the same.
But to get to the most important trend you have to dig under the job numbers and look at what kind of new jobs are being created. That’s where the big problem lies.
The National Employment Law Project did just that. Its new data brief shows that most of the new jobs created since February 2010 (about 1.26 million) pay significantly lower wages than the jobs lost (8.4 million) between January 2008 and February 2010.
While the biggest losses were higher-wage jobs paying an average of $19.05 to $31.40 an hour, the biggest gains have been lower-wage jobs paying an average of $9.03 to $12.91 an hour.
In other words, the big news isn’t jobs. It’s wages.
For several years now, conservative economists have blamed high unemployment on the purported fact that many Americans have priced themselves out of the global/high-tech jobs market.
So if we want more jobs, they say, we’ll need to take pay and benefit cuts.
And that’s exactly what Americans have been doing.
Employers have demanded wage and benefit concessions from their unionized workers and often got them. Detroit is creating auto jobs again — but new hires are getting about half the pay that auto workers were getting before. Airline workers are taking home 30 to 50 percent less than they did years ago. And so on.
Conservatives say it’s not enough. That’s why unions have to be busted – and why some governors are seeking to abolish laws requiring workers to become dues-paying union members in order to get certain jobs. Hence, the fights brewing in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, millions of non-union workers have accepted cuts in pay and benefits just to keep their jobs. Health benefits have been slashed, pension contributions from employers dramatically cut, wages dropped or “frozen.”
Millions of private-sector workers have been fired and then re-hired as contract workers to do almost exactly what they were doing before, but without any benefits or job security.
The current attack on public-sector workers should be seen in this light. The charge is they now take home more generous pay and benefit packages than private-sector workers. It’s not true on the wage side if you control for level of education, but it wasn’t even true on the benefits side until private-sector benefits fell off a cliff. Meanwhile, across America, public-sector workers have been “furloughed,” which is a nice word for not collecting any pay for weeks at a time.
At this rate, the unemployment rate will continue to decline. But so will the pay and benefits of most Americans.
And that is the reason for the finger-pointing at union workers. These people are the canaries in the coal mine, only because they are vocal and organized. People like the long-distance truck driver now working as a dishwasher at a Red Lobster aren't heard from, but while they work minimum-wage jobs where the hours are kept just low enough that they don't have benefits are understandably going to be resentful of those who still earn a living wage and have benefits and a defined retirement benefit. The problem is that stripping these things away from unions is not going to solve the problem. Because if your new job that you finally find after being unemployed for a year pays ten bucks an hour, so your take-home is around $350 a week, where are you going to even find a place that's habitable to live, let alone pay for groceries and an old jalopy to get yourself to that job? Yet this the source of the "job growth" for which Barack Obama was patting himself on the back yesteerday. And Americans are getting tired of pundits like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, whose jobs are never going to be outsourced or eliminated, telling the people who go to "the Applebee's salad bar" that they have to suck it up because The World is Flat or that older people (presumably excepting Brooks himself) are going to just have to shut the fuck up and die already.
I'm currently involved in a rather spirited discussion at my local Patch site with people who simply refuse to give me a decent answer about why "shared sacrifice" simply cannot involve even one penny more paid in taxes by billionaires. First, these people challenge me on "What do you regard as 'rich'?" This, for those who do not live in the New York metropolitan area, is designed to Get The Liberal To Cite What Is A Middle Class Salary Here. If the mortgage on a POS cape cod like mine is $2000/month, and you're paying ten grand a year in property taxes, and you have three kids, two of whom are in college, $150,000 or even $200,000 a year in salary doesn't make you "rich". So you cite a figure like $10 million per year, which I think we all can agree makes you "rich". So then they cite people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and their foundations. First of all, voluntarily setting up a foundation to do good works may mean you're not the kind of rich scumbag that, say, Dick Fuld is, but somehow I don't think that Bill Gates' lifestyle has suffered one iota since diverting a good chunk of his money towards his foundation. It's not really a "sacrifice" if you don't feel it.
What I've told these people is that if I had to pay, for example, $2000 more a year in federal taxes at my income level, but within five years our nation's economy would be on a sound footing, I'd do that in a heartbeat. And I don't even have children who are going to need a nation that doesn't look like a Mad Max movie. If I had to pay more in state taxes to get my state back on even keel within five years, I'd do it. And those numbers really WOULD make a difference to what I take home. So why is it such anathema to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a few thousand more a year?
(Bonus read: Paul Farrell.