No word has been thrown around more during the USA presidential election of 2012 than "jobs". The single greatest failure of the Obama administration, according to Mitt Romney and his supporters, is the unemployment rate. More jobs, we are told, will save the economy, and Mitt Romney has pledged to create 12 million new ones. Here's a typical Romney quote about working women and day care.
“I wanted to increase the work requirement,” said Romney. “I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’”
It's so easy to tangle Mitt Romney up in his own words that there's often no sport in it. This quote caused Romney some problems because of the arrogance it expressed towards mothers who might wish to raise their children rather than put them in day care. But there's more to examine here. The final phrase of the quote -- "the dignity of work" -- is revealing in ways that go beyond gender.
The sacred ideal of the full-time job is one of the major themes of the Plutocrat/Randian wing of the Republican party, and, beyond that, of American culture as a whole. This comes out often in our current debates: the coddling of "job creators", the singular obsession with unemployment rates, the idea that health insurance is best managed by employers rather than by the federal government. This idea that we are better off trusting our employers than we are trusting the federal government is an idea that most of us who actually depend on full-time jobs for our livelihood can only laugh at.
The free job market, according to the Plutocrats, assures excellence through the profit motive, through natural selection. Unlike the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency of the so-called nanny state economy, an economy rooted solely in free enterprise and capitalist self-interest will invigorate and inspire us all. But what about the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency we all see inside the free job market?
Capitalism doesn't always produce excellence, and it's prone to nepotism, dysfunction and corruption. My disillusionment with the ideals of free-market plutocracy began twenty years ago, when I worked as a software consultant at the headquarters of the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street. The first shock for me (as I've related before) was that the bank's internal society was split in two. There were the rich kids from the prep schools, who tended to have gotten their jobs through family or expensive-college connections. Then, in dingier cubicles, eating lunch in a separate cafeteria, there was my society -- the multi-ethnic, no-family-connections gang of hard workers who were rewarded with good pay, but stood little chance of ever crossing over into the privileged side.
Advancement through hard work? Oh, we worked hard. But there was little opportunity to advance within my project team at JP Morgan, because my entire department was not doing anything important. It's hard to excel when your entire project's mission is a phantom. We spent two years building a demo for a new trading system that never got put into production. Nobody seemed to care whether it got used or not.
Sometimes my friends and I sat around trying to guess why our project was being funded. Perhaps it was some sneaky kind of tax write-off. Or maybe the bank higher-ups needed to tell their stockholders that they were spending a certain amount of money on innovative technology, and created departments iike mine so they could check off "yes" on an "innovate technology spending" checklist. Regardless of the business logic behind our phony project, the real world result was that there was no chance for any of us to advance ourselves through "excellence" in this job. It's pretty hard to be excellent when nobody cares about the work you're being paid to do.
I shouldn't complain, because my phony, pointless Wall Street job paid me fairly well, and was much more cushy than the average American job. Many Americans find similar levels of aggravation at their jobs, and are disgusted to work for businesses that emphasize low quality products or shady objectives, who report to bosses who got to be bosses through nepotism rather than skill, who are not given any information about how the business decisions that affect their work are being made, yet suffer when these business decisions fail, who sincerely try to rise to higher levels through extra effort and long hours but find their paths utterly blocked.
Sure, it's a free country and anyone stuck in a dead-end job can change jobs. But, when we depend on our jobs to provide for our families and even to provide us with health insurance, it's often not simple to make this kind of change. Also, many Americans are so discouraged and beaten down by one dysfunctional workplace after another that we have stopped believing we can improve our lives by making a change.
At its worst -- and it seems likely that this worst case happens frequently, constantly, all over this country and this world -- our imprisonment in dysfunctional and dishonest workplaces descends to conditions of psychological cruelty. Bosses and co-workers are often insensitive, but sometimes they are also sadistic. The spiral of despair and humiliation found in a dysfunctional workplace is similar to the spiral of despair and humiliation found in a welfare state. The more beaten down you get, the harder it is for you to lift yourself up.
It's amazing, absolutely amazing, how much freedom and beauty and fresh air and sunlight and joy and recreation and travel and fun and family togetherness Americans routinely give up, just to punch the clocks and collect their paychecks at jobs they hate. Two weeks of vacation a year? Half an hour for lunch? One week for paternity leave, one week to spend with your brand new baby? We live like this because we feel stuck, because the dreams have been beaten out of us, because we can't find a way out of the trap.
When I hear conservatives and Republicans speak of the evils of the "nanny state" -- giving away healthcare, education, transportation, you name it -- I try to ask them if they have thought much about the evils of the "nanny job". It's a topic that's been barely talked about at all. We need to talk about it a whole lot more.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Notes on an Insane Election Season. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Randian Moment.