Values in the Workplace

“The Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of the human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.”
E.F.Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

 

The popularity of the disruption politics of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is fueled by the resentment the working classes have against how they have been treated by the higher classes; the golden parachute and rentier classes. A first analysis pits the wage class against the salary class. It acknowledges that the stagnation and reversal of earning power among working class families was the predictable result of the orgy of offshoring, aka exploiting the poorest of the poor capable of doing the job and keeping up wage pressure at home. This transformation of the American economic landscape into the so-called service economy provided the means by which executive salaries could increase hundreds-fold. Trade agreements created the increased inequality in the dictatorial corporate hierarchies we have come to think of today as normal.

I am not interested here in the lords and ladies of the upper echelon, for although they are disproportionately influential based on their numbers they are also increasingly irrelevant as the age of Caesars dawns. It is important to keep the feet of the 1% held to the fire, responsible for the choices they make, if we are to avoid the worse possible future scenarios but focusing on these few hundred families can distort the larger picture.

There is little question that this offshoring development created two Americas. In one people work hard at back breaking jobs for poverty wages and despite full time employment regularly require the services of food banks, pay day loan outfits, and all too often are forced to choose between food and medicine, clothes or car repair. The other America is wealthier and able to make the existing economic arrangements provide for the basic needs of a family, though here too most people are only a pay check or two away from serious financial hardship.

This salaried class basically consists of all those people in America that work with a computer for their employment; members of the so-called information economy. This is a first order simplification but it captures something fundamentally true about American cities. Has it ever struck you how odd it is that just about every window in every skyscraper in every city is a place where a human being will sit and type, day after day, year after year?

In this non-wage America money works differently. Here it is not unusual for a company to spend a half a million dollars or more wining and dining big wigs over a weekend convention or to spend twenty or thirty thousand dollars to fly a few people to meetings here and there. Here is the America of the first class plane ticket, the $600 a night hotel room and the $80 meal. The point is that this is not the 1%; it is the business perk lifestyle enjoyed by a much larger percentage of the working population. Just like the 401K and substantial bonus checks, these are perks the salaried class have come to expect.

Only the cold-hearted and blind can fail to see how such economic inequality between the wage and salary workers feeds resentment among the less privileged. Its strength and depth shouldn’t be underestimated. To get the whole picture though we need to recognize that resentment within the salaried class also runs deep and wide. The benefits of business are not widely distributed. The golden parachute club enjoys cars and homes provided on their company’s dime, along with cushy tax arrangements and types of stock not shared with their salaried employees. Giving a person a salary has often become little more than a legal means of insisting they give their companies countless hours of underpaid overtime.

So far this analysis is fairly mainstream. I would like to point out just how unexpected this new radical mainstream really is. No one living on Establishment Avenue expected Sanders’ anti-corporate message would gain a national platform this year or that Trump, a businessman outsider, would take the GOP anti-government message and turn it against big business. These outsiders bring a radical critique to the sacred cows of globalization; they have piped an unexpected tune which has proven to be unexpectedly popular. The radical nature of these critiques remain inconceivable to the pundits who are trying to get all this to fit back into the box of elections as usual. We should not lose sight of just how radical mainstream conversations have become here. This is what the twists and turns of history look like from the inside, from the perspective of those living through them.

Being mindful of the ecological aspects of the changes we are going through this first order critique, though useful as far as it goes, does not go far enough. For a second level of analysis of this resentment phenomenon we ask about the nature of work itself.

How meaningful is what you do everyday? Does your work contribute to the overall well being of your family and society, and does it promote the healing and respect for the earth and its living systems that is so desperately needed right now? It is one of the defining characteristics of our times that the great majority of the jobs available for the wage or salary worker have little justification other than pumping wealth into the pockets of the already wealthy.

Every business claims to be serving the greater good. It is a psychologically necessary justification their customers and employees need to maintain the image of themselves as good people, even as they participate in the unsavory aspects of valuing profit over people and the planet, as every corporation legally must. When every business “provides a service” clear distinctions between the helping professions and other professional activities becomes blurred. Why we prefer things this way is obvious enough; it helps to hide our economy’s dirty little secret. What’s that? A Skull and Bones blood pact in the closet of the Bavarian Illuminati? Not exactly.

Money is the means by which a modern society assigns value to its functional processes. That which it values most it pays most, that which it values least it pays least. Moneyed interests have the power to set the terms of these social arrangements and can pervert them to serve their own interests to some degree. Still, the role of pay as an indicator of value is not a wholly misleading piece of evidence. The dirty secret is that the lowest paid professions and jobs of all are those that serve human beings that are not a part of the powerful business perk class. The money earned by teachers and nurses, for example, has become the grist for numerous jokes and truisms. Working with the handicapped and injured, battered women and abused children, providing heat in a cold winter for the elderly poor or running the community food bank; all are valued at starvation wages. People whose ethic and character drive them to serve others in these helping professions are systematically taken advantage of; if you take care of our children, the sick and the elderly for the most part your work will never pay well. There will always be a crop of people whose compassion wins out over purely monetary concerns, so there is no need to pay these people a good wage to assure these jobs get done. See, the thing is, these jobs are meaningful in themselves. They provide a type of job satisfaction lacking in all those other professions dedicated to nothing more than selling another widget in our overcrowded marketplace.

Globalized industrialization seeks efficiency above all else, hence modern businesses are fascinated with big data, market polling and sophisticated statistics. They miss that the real point of employing a human being’s skills is to serve the community and in so doing develop both one’s heart and mind. Small business owners still often get this, tied as they are to the communities in which they live and operate. Wall Street sucking the blood out of Main Street has made all this just that much more difficult for us to deal with as a society. Employment is meant to serve mankind, but today we walk backwards into the future, believing mankind exists to serve the growth of the GDP. We pay lip service to alleviating poverty and hunger and serving one another through the cornucopia of our market offerings but look ’round the world and we must admit we do not put our money where our mouth is.

Take a construction worker as an sample of a wage job. Once such a worker could be expected to work on a school or two, maybe a hospital or library during their career and they would rightly take pride in the very real and substantial benefit doing so has brought to their community. Today such construction workers are more likely to spend their careers building hotels and skyscrapers for the business perk class. These are the lucky ones. Most of the service economy is the result of the complete abandonment of such good paying wage jobs, replacing the factory and canneries with 7-11 and Burger King. It removed the meaning a worker once had in their lives by being able to support a family well while doing right by others.

Good work well done brings dignity to those who labor. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay was once a bedrock value on Main Street. There was no shame in working for an hourly wage when it could provide for a small family.

This meaninglessness coupled to our employment is the real resentment I see in our country. Our lives are made up of one thing – precious time. Our circumstances are such that survival requires from us an ever increasing percentage of those hours. For each hour we ‘spend’ at work, or at school training for work, we are not with our friends and loved ones and we are limited in the degree of self-direction our lives are allowed to have. Other cultures are astonished how little time we have for ritual and retreat, study and art.

In today’s economy there is no job security remaining for most of the wage and salary classes. Not in keeping a job in this time of fly-by-night globalization nor in being taken care of after a lifetime of working. Without unions the wage class lost retirement benefits, without corporate stability and responsibility the salary class lost theirs as well. Also lacking is any conviction that by working hard we are creating a better world for our children. Upward mobility has all but ceased and by many measures has been firmly set into reverse for many, many people. It is one thing to ask a lot of work from people – and many are being asked to give hours of overtime like never before – but it is another to get nothing for it. The golden parachute class is seen as the architects of these arrangements and is universally resented for it.

Last week’s post looked at the rage built up around our dirty little secret concerning the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. This week we are examine the more widespread resentment which is like one notch down from the rage on the I’ve-had-enough scale. The dirty little secret here is that if the work you do serves others it will be paid a pittance, while if you serve a wealth pump money will be lavishly bestowed. The wage class resents the salary class because they were sold down the river to keep the salaried class buoyed up a little longer. The salaried class resents the golden parachute and business perk class because they were sold down the river to keep the financier and rentier class buoyed up.

This lack of meaning in the work we do is, however, more powerful than these purely economic resentments in the psychology of the American people. This affects everyone; wage, salary and rentier. Consumerism’s product in the age of limits is seen to be a hallow idol, an empty substitute for meaningful employment and a healthy ecological future. With meaninglessness people come to question if their lives matter; cogs in the gears of Homo Colossus, mass man faces an existential reckoning. Suicides spiking among unemployed Greeks and murder-suicide taking center stage in American schools seem not wholly unrelated to this anomie. The college graduates burdened with record debt and unemployable are getting lessons in the school of hard knocks taught from the same textbook.

I am wondering if maximizing individual wealth is now considered by the vast majority of people on this planet as insufficient justification for what business has become.

The business of America is business, quipped a businessman. Not necessarily. The business of America could be the cultivation of its people’s character and the organization of that mutual aid which serves as the glue of a healthy society. It is a question of values.

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