Friday, August 25, 2006

Shape of things

Barbara Ehrenreich whomps on Wal-Mart’s ass, as is her wont.

When Wal-Mart workers can't afford health insurance or new school clothes, the whole working class begins to flail. Furthermore, the Wal-Mart business model increasingly betrays what was once the operating principle of American capitalism, as explained by Henry Ford the First: You've got to pay your workers enough so that they can buy your product; that's what keeps the system going. When the American majority can't buy the very goods they manufacture or sell, that system is cruising for a bruising.

I’ve seen a lot of this myself. By the nature of my work, I’ve spent a little bit of time at a lot of companies over the past few years and, although the people I work with are not quite as low on the economic ladder as Wal-Mart employees, it’s easy to discern the same trends.

Companies are under constantly increasing pressure to cut expenditures and from what I’ve seen they do not go about it intelligently. All too often the decisions on who or what to cut are based on petty office politics rather than competence. And as the more competent people are laid off or bail out, the product suffers and profit declines. Meanwhile, those remaining are required to work ever more hours for which they are rarely paid. Either they are salaried workers or hourly types being offered comp time in lieu of overtime. Of course that comp time is in no way officially tracked and rarely collected. And raises are limited to 3 or so percent annually and promotions are generally out of the question.

Meanwhile only speculators or trust fund babies can afford to buy a house. I made the mistake of calling a realtor about a house I saw the other day. It is an old house, early twentieth century, fairly large but not particularly well built. It needs repairs, has a very small yard, sits near a noisy freeway in a generally ugly neighborhood in a not trendy part of the city. 1.6 million. What’s that in monthly payments? $11,000 dollars. My sister bought a house just like it in a small town in Indiana for $29,000 total a few years ago. People making $80,000 with a couple kids in New York can’t begin to afford a house and have to live paycheck to paycheck just to make the rent and very basic living expenses. And I’m not even talking about Manhattan, or even trendy Brooklyn.

And most of these companies that aren’t paying squat are very profitable. All of the squeeze is to make ever higher returns for the shareholders and top management, most of whom are arrogant sociopaths, many of whom are incompetent at everything besides gaining power.

Ah well, what can you do? Live well and prosper, emotionally at least, while we can. How will the inevitable crash play out? I guess we’ll just have to see.