Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Economics Update

Most astute Republicans, and all Libertarians, will tell you that one of the biggest problems with people like me is that we lack the brainpower to get our heads around the tenets even of basic economic theory. As fun as it must be to sit back and make sport of such absolute and colossal ignorance, it unfortunately is the kind that, according to these rational, rigorous thinkers, has consequences, not least among them the destruction of the very foundations which have undergirded the superior way of life the people of this country have always heretorfore enjoyed.

I have to own that I was wholly ignorant of economics, and its centrality to every aspect and detail of all our lives, until I was well into my 20s. When I was a child in Pennsylvania even as late as the 1970s there were still plenty of people who had jobs like working in coal mines, steel mills and factories. Among the many confusions which the existence of these occupations caused me was the circumstance that almost everybody I knew viewed the main object of a young person to be to avoid getting stuck having to work having to do this kind of job while at the same time seeming to believe that most people who had white-collar jobs were paper-pushers who were essentially getting off easy in life; certainly it could not be said of them that they worked, in the sense that a coal miner worked, regardless of how much each got paid. Nowadays of course these horrible industrial jobs, even coal mining, that were presented as a kind of cruel punishment for people who couldn't figure out how to get away and do anything else, are lamented almost hourly in some depressed, meth-ridden corner or other of the once proud and mighty Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This was an outcome that no one seems to have seen coming. The existence of these jobs, and especially their in retrospect relatively decent levels of pay and security, were taken for granted, as the kind of permanent bottom, or last refuge, of the male employment ladder, but a floor at least beneath which anybody willing to make the effort of turning up every mind-numbing day for 40 years was guaranteed not to fall. This was a rather foolish assumption--I excuse myself because of my status as a child--but the point is that the existence of even these living wage jobs tended to make money and career-savviness themselves much less of a consideration to me growing up than they are to this generation. I knew there were certain people around who were considered by my parents to be well off to the point of occupying a stratum of society where the likes of us were unwelcome, but I didn't have any very good sense of what that had to do with me, or that the acquisition of money really was a serious matter that one was supposed to spend one's formative years preparing to spend one's adulthood doing, until I was pushing 30.
As if this wasn't bad enough, I find as I get older and require ever more money, that I feel I deserve it, based on what I am doing to receive it, less and less, which is probably the worst attitude for embarking on midlife in this country that it is possible to have. In the arrogance of youth I at least considered my time to be highly valuable, and even in situations where I was a poor or indifferent worker, felt myself entitled to be well compensated for having to sacrifice some of it. I could have been doing so many other things, after all, most of which centered around socializing or missed opportunities to get girls, though I suppose if I could ever have gotten any girls at work like other people did that would have made all the lost Saturday nights a little less painful to endure. Now however I have lost the sense that my time in itself is particularly valuable, especially as employers know that at my age and in my situation I have to pimp it out to one of them, and calling out forever because I wake up and feel like going to the beach with my friends is no longer a choice which I can flaunt before them. When I calculate how much money the company is paying me each day to show up, sit in their offices for eight hours, and basically make sure that various forms are organized and in order and procedures followed, it seems an excessive sum, though in fact it is not very much by the standards of contemporary society; however, since I do not have such much in excess to pay to someone else, the thought of doing so strikes me as rather astounding. Also I have the old vestiges of that Pennsylvania attitude towards paper-pushers, a term by the way I have not used derogatively, and which applied to lawyers, accountants, and all kinds of people viewed as respectable and necessary professionals today, since around the time Reagan became president, as well as guilt about people with 'real jobs', and consider that people who pick fruit or stack shelves at Wal-Mart all day do a great deal more work than I do and usually for quite a bit less compensation.

Before I start wondering how I can live with myself, however, I take note of the attitudes of the people one reads about in August publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Us Magazine, where all that matters is the number of dollars one can extract from what one does, not its relative actual value either in itself or in comparison to other forms of work. Getting one's head around this and accepting this, that the value the market sets and that you can get from the market, is the only and absolute value, as well as that what one personally does merits an especially high level of compensation, is the key to breaking through every barrier of class that is thrown up before one until one attains the top. I was very much struck by this in reading not merely about bankers and top businessmen but in the next level, or next but one level, that of the people who cater to their peculiar requirements. Many of the crowd involved in the Tiger Woods scandal for example seemed to me to be awfully well-compensated for such tasks as organizing exclusive parties, keeping secrets, finding and providing numerous available women of the high roller's preferred type, all of which people have to be paid, but in such a manner as to somehow insist that a level of respectability and even gentility is being maintained. The market dictates that such specialized skills are in much higher demand than those of ordinary shelf-stocking, or clerking, and therefore one ought never have any guilt or shame about how came upon one's money. I remember coming upon an episode of Sex and the City, which I thought a satire on modern civilizational decline, but apparently this is not obviously the intent, in which the lead character is taken to bed in a posh hotel by a rich man, who rises early the next day while our heroine is still sleeping in the luxurious bed, leaving behind an envelope with $2000 or something in it. The heroine is briefly--very briefly--insulted by the gesture, which we are to understand is a blow to her ego more than anything else. I think she proceeds to buy some shoes and treat her friends to lunch at the Ritz or something like that. It is no secret, of course, that this program is written by male homosexuals of a particularly narcissistic strain, a group which unfortunately a lot of intelligent young women seem to look up to, amusing though they may be in (very) small doses.

There is an exercise I have seen going around the internet where you are supposed to turn to page 56 of the nearest book to hand and write down the 5th sentence on the page. In the name of self-promotion I decided to look at the volumes of my own novel and see what this experiment turned up:

Volume 1: A few of the harsher women had stood in the shadows to the side by a row of berry bushes and ridiculed her, but she had known nothing of that.

Volume 2: I feel sorry for him, but am I going to break into tears about it?

Not bad. I have one baby crying and a three old banging on my keyboard as I desperately try to finish this post. I may have to give up this blog soon. It's getting to the point where it's really hopeless to write anything, and the articles that get done aren't well-written nor even make any sense. Someday, I have to believe, I will get my old semi-clear, semi-placid mind back again, but that is looking like years away at this point.

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