Labor Pains

If you have a job, congratulations! And if you have a job, you’re probably feeling like it’s a mixed blessing. Sure, that paycheck coming every couple of weeks is great when you’re trying to pay bills and live your life. But there’s a bittersweet quality to punching the proverbial clock (even though that’s something very few of us really do). Just read the economic news, and it tells you what you already know: unemployment is high (officially at 9.6% as I write this), wages are stagnant (i.e., few raises), and consumer spending is tepid. It’s a narrative that’s been part of our nation’s story since 2008. Two years into the Great Recession is not something that fills anyone with pride, and it goes to show you that while economic indicators are moving in positive directions, just under the surface there’s a kind of sinking feeling that it could all go south if say another country goes bankrupt, companies start laying off workers to boost their bottom line, or if consumers don’t buy enough goods through the holiday season. The fragile nature of our economy is something I think we can see every day, and part of what keeps it going, is, yes, the velocity of money changing hands, but also the way in which people generally feel about their money — and whether to part with it (spending on goods and services) or hoarding it (saving it for a rainy day). If there’s a general optimism in the culture, people are more apt to take risks (for most, these are small scale risks like buying a car, appliances, taking a vacation). But if there’s fear and uncertainty, then people react accordingly and, well, kind of look like this:

As we head into the fall elections, there’s a great deal of hope among Republicans that they will be able to be take over both houses of Congress and stymie President Obama’s efforts to make reforms that they fundamentally disagree with. That hope rests in large part to keeping any sense of optimism out of the culture and drive home that fact that the sky is indeed falling. If you like to keep your blood pressure low, you probably avoid the noise machine of the Right. Most of the time, the bat sh*t crazy stuff doesn’t make it out of their echo chamber, but there are some things that cross over from the fringes to the mainstream that make one wonder what, if anything, they have to do with one’s day to day life. For example, take the whole brouhaha over the Park 51 mosque that’s being proposed to be built in New York City. You know it more from the misnomer (which is also meant to be read in all caps): GROUND ZERO MOSQUE!!!!!! Oh. My. God. How can we have freedom of religion in this country for Muslims? That’s just not right…right? Or how about the fact that Obama’s birth certificate is FAKE!!! Oh. My. God. How could millions of Americans vote for a foreigner for president? That’s just not right…right? Or what about illegal immigration? Oh. My. God. How can we let millions of illegals come here and take our jobs, or have babies just so their kids can be American citizens? That’s just not right…right? Do you see what’s happening here? It’s the reinforcement of “otherness;” a shoring up of a fragile identity that needs to be reassured that the “Big Bad” out there is not you (if you fall into what constitutes a “real American.”)

In economic flush times, stoking the flames of nativism by constantly pointing out what is foreign, different, or “other” doesn’t work all that well. But we’re living in a some pretty bad times; times when uncertainty about one’s job, one’s prospects of “getting ahead,” one’s economic future is very fuzzy. People are not feeling like the things they had taken as truisms are, well, true anymore. Case in point: work hard, and you’ll move up the economic ladder is not necessarily true anymore. Or how about going to college is a good way to insure that you’ll have a job and won’t necessarily get laid off when bad times roll around? Um, not really true. So, when many of the truisms get decentered, people look for answers to why this is happening. And because we’re a culture that’s getting their news from opinion makers (the Limbaughs, the Becks, The Facebooks, and the Stewarts) rather than news sources (Why trust the news? They are a bunch of liberals who are just feeding you propaganda), we’re primed to accept certain opinions as fact (even if they are false) and discard or ignore information that explains what’s happening. And as opinion and cult of personality ascend in popularity, people’s ability to critically think about what’s happening in their world shrinks, and they look for simple answers and scapegoats to answer their questions.

How do you combat this? Well it’s not simple, but some policy prescriptions our president should keep in mind involve a few things:

1. Focus on jobs and job creation — and keep focusing on it! (a good start is what Obama laid out today).
2. Address our reliance on deficit spending by trimming a bloated military budgets and closing tax loopholes.
3. End the hot war in Afghanistan (which Obama is trying to do), and go after Al Qaeda in a more stealthy manner.
4. Be optimistic about your policies.
5. Be passionate about what you believe (and repeat it often).

For us who don’t buy into the negativity coming from the Right, combat it by pushing your elected officials to act in your interests.  It sounds corny, but writing a letter to the president, your senator, or representative is something that does work (though it may not seem like it).  I know people who work in politics, and they say that letters from people really do have an effect on how an elected leader acts.  Remember all those people who supported Democrats and Obama in ’08?  Where have they gone?  They are still there, but just because your guy or gal got elected doesn’t mean the hard work is finished.  So let’s learn a lesson from those who came before us:  working people just like you and me did the heavy lifting of pressuring the government to reform the rules of society so we could have 8 hour working days, rights in the workplace, a minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and a whole host of things we take for granted.  But it happened because people gave a crap about their lives, the lives of their friends, and the lives of their kids, and they engaged in the hard work of reforming the system through democratic participation.  If you do your part, politicians will do theirs.  If they don’t, you can always elect someone who will.

Time to get back to work.

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