Economic Apartheid

Okay folks, feel free to skip ahead down to the bottom if you want to cut to the solutions I suggest might help us all. Otherwise please continue and thank you!

I appreciate Thomas Piketty’s work on the nature of income inequality in the western world and specifically in the United States. It’s a very large tome, so I’ll give you what I got as the bottom line. The rich got richer, and are still getting a lot richer, while the rest of us are treading water or slipping beneath the surface altogether.

His suggestions as to our possible remedies to this unsustainable level of income disparity include making high quality higher education equally accessible to the rich and the poor. I think that is a good point, as poor and middle class students are not as likely to attend Ivy League Universities as the rich are. Consequently they are not as likely to have the same economic opportunities. Remember we all learned that separate is not equal.

But I am not sure better and more education is going to be enough to help restore the middle class anymore, not given the exponential advances in mass automation, corporate trade treaties like the TPP (The Trans Pacific Partnership), & entrenched political corruption that keeps our priorities below that of the political donor class. There are already many college graduates who have moved back home with their parents, or been forced to take low paying jobs that will never lift them get out of debt.

The most common job held by a man in the U.S. involves driving a vehicle, and yet companies like Google, Uber and others are working day and night to automate these jobs out existence with driverless car technology. It’s as if they are purposely trying to remove as many human beings from the workforce as possible.

Recent studies have determined at least fifty percent of the current jobs in the United States are vulnerable to being eliminated due to automation and only so many of us can become coders writing code to automate away the jobs of the rest of us.

So where will all these displaced and discarded human beings turn when they have no way to earn a living? Perhaps we can look at what is taking place in Hong Kong where the poor, disabled and displaced rent “cages” stacked on each other with small mattresses inside them. All we need do is look at the recent reports of a spike in early deaths of white blue collar workers from overdoses and suicides to answer this question.

Do they have any plans to help the large numbers of American, and other workers (this is a multinational crisis), whose ability to feed their families will be torn away from them? Do they care?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter if they care or not. What matters is that we all care, and start demanding adjustments be made to our economic system that decreases the suffering of the increasing number of internally displaced workers.

We have people who have been discarded by our shifting economy. They are sometimes referred to in speeches declaring the need to do “something” to help those who have “dropped out of the workforce” and given up looking for work. Unfortunately, the nationwide plan to retrain workers for “better jobs” after losing their good blue collar factory jobs due to NAFTA has either totally failed or never occurred at all.

The other remedies Mr. Piketty mentions are, enacting more progressive tax policies, and raising the minimum wage so that capital will flow back into the general economy creating more widespread growth. While both would certainly help a lot, neither is likely to occur without a widespread American political revolution of the kind Senator Bernie Sanders is calling for in his run for the Presidency. Senator Sanders is quite right. It is going to take all of us.

I believe if we are to be honest with ourselves, and each other, about the true plight of the American and Western advanced economy’s work forces, we must acknowledge the end of the era of the healthy industrial workforce. We are moving to a reality where it’s more important who you know than what you know.

We are moving to a society separated by the professional and investor class on one side of the economic apartheid wall, and the lower ninety percentile in service jobs on the other.

Since 2008 we seem to have focused on what’s widely deemed to be full employment as a goal to recover from the great recession. But even achieving full employment at bear subsistence levels, simply creates an increasingly stressed out, and prematurely dying population. In fact side effects of such a society include increasing numbers of people suffering with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, diabetes and other life ending ailments. This “survival economy” is I believe connected to increasing, persisting, racial injustice and unconscionable levels of mass incarceration.

Even raising the minimum wage won’t take into account the much more rapid rise in profit taking (skimming of the top) that the rich and super rich have now institutionalized.

Therefore, let us pray! No, seriously. We will have to deliver ourselves to salvation. I believe enacting what has come to be known as a “basic income” is perhaps one viable solution. Some of the most conservative economists and thinkers in the nation now support this idea of a basic guaranteed income as a more cost effective replacement to the current social safety-net programs. Everyone who is capable of working should have access to a job that provides the dignity of a living wage, and if the private sector is not capable or willing to produce these jobs the government of, by, and for the people must do so!

The problem with a basic guaranteed income or government produced jobs is we would be dependent on the government providing them for our very survival. That puts us in a similar vulnerable position as we are currently in depending on the “free market” multinational corporate world for decent paying jobs when all they care about is finding cheaper labor and resources.

The solution

The most powerful solution that I see is this, we must move from being corporate owned workers to becoming worker owned company partners.

Cooperatives (think Costco, Winco Foods & others), or worker directed enterprises, are co-owned by the workers and sometimes customer members who participate in various levels of decision making. These shared decisions range from from income distribution, to product marketing strategies, to hiring and firing co-workers. These types of companies seek to maintain full employment and beneficial outcomes for customers and the communities where they operate as a goal and higher priority above the typical corporate goal of higher quarterly shareholder profits.

Many of you have seen a recent video of a company gathering their workers to tell them their jobs were being “moved” to Mexico by their owners. Had this been a worker owned cooperative very likely a vote to close down and move the factory to Mexico would have been held and would have resulted in not closing the factory in order to make more money elsewhere by using cheaper labor or avoiding environmental safety regulations. Worker Owned companies keep their jobs and earnings not just in the United States but in the communities where the workers and their families live.

What we need is a convenient inexpensive way to startup a new Worker Owned company similar to the ease of using a website like in creating a new LLC Corporation. We need worker owned versions of Etsy, Ebay, Amazon and even Facebook and Twitter! Top down business structures that put all the decisions in the hand of C Class employees and a handful of wealthy board of directors resembles a dictatorship more than a democratic republic in form.

Turns out if you put all the decision making power in the hands of a few people they decide to keep most of the economic gains for themselves. We see this with the huge income ratio disparity between CEOs and their American work forces which can be higher than 500 to 1 and thousands of times higher when taking stock options into account!

If we want incomes to rise we must put share the decision on income levels with all of the stake holders in companies and that is what Worker Owned cooperatives specialize in.

Our economy is seventy percent powered by consumer spending. If we keep spending our money with multinational corporations, many of which exploit us as workers, while they irresponsibly exploit the Earth’s natural resources in ways that endanger our lives and those of generations to come.

We will all just continue to sink deeper into the quicksand of this new “income apartheid economy” of the haves and the have-nots, until we consciously choose to separate our labor and spending from those who currently choose exploitation over cooperation.

We must therefore use technology like mobile apps as tools to empower us as consumers to spend our money wisely, to spend money on independently owned companies, and those who respect workers and the well being of our planet.

Apps like this exist now, and can be used to scan barcodes of products and report to us if the company uses Fair Trade standards in the treatment of workers and the environment or not. Then it’s up to us to spend our money like our life depends on it, because it does.

It is also important to arouse the general population to vote in every election for pro-reform candidates who will work to remove corruption from our electoral process. There must be a year round citizenry process where people can gather to teach, to learn, and when necessary to protest about public policy in order to pressure elected officials to fight for our priorities. We must teach civic empowerment from an early age, and continue it as a life long birthright of every citizen.

Joseph Segal is a writer, web developer, and Love Revolutionary who can be reached @joesegal and also here at sign up for my newsletter and get early releases of my next articles and special bonuses.