no jobs, no strong economy

March 15, 2004

I’m supposing that you all know what an oxymoron is—it’s a statement containing opposite meanings, as in “Central Intelligence Agency,” or “peacekeeper missile.” Or, in the latest language to enter our national vocabulary, “jobless recovery.” “Jobless recovery” is the term the talking heads have been using lately to describe the present state of the U.S. economy. It’s so new that economists say this is the first time they have ever seen such a thing. Perhaps it is the first time they have seen such a jobless recovery because, well, there is no such thing as a jobless recovery.

Let’s explore the concept. If the White House is so pleased at the recovery side of the economy, we need to figure out just who is in recovery — because obviously those without jobs who wind up in survival-level jobs aren’t in recovery. As a matter of fact, those folks are not only not recovering, they are getting deeper and deeper into debt, and more and more anxious. So not only are they not part of the recovery, they are getting sicker. And not only are they getting sicker, they don’t have the care necessary to even help them maintain their health.

I would imagine that virtually every one of you listening today is either caught in the jobless side of this weird equation or knows someone who is being affected by it. Let me rephrase that: how many of you are feeling recovered? How many of you are feeling truly hopeful about your financial future? How many of you have children who are about to graduate from college? After paying all that tuition, how many of your children have discovered that job hunting is like trying to climb a greased pole?

So, who is benefiting from the jobless recovery? I suspect that as I ask this question, the answer is obvious. It certainly isn’t most of us working folk who averaged a net savings of about $350 in taxes from George Bush’s version of a Voodoo economic plan.

The word “recovery” suggests a medical thing, as in recovering from an illness. Nowadays, those with the best chance of recovering from an illness are those who have or can afford health insurance. In this country where eighty million people don’t have any health insurance, the phrase “wealth equals health” is most certainly not an oxymoron.

On the other hand, only a moron would believe that we the people buy into this nonsense about a “jobless recovery.”

Now if you were just a worker for a company like, say, IBM, then you aren’t in recovery. On the other hand, if you are an executive with that same company, you’ve just saved tens of thousands of dollars on your income taxes, and you know that in a economy that is experiencing a “jobless recovery” you can provide fewer benefits, because most workers are just happy to have a job. And having made the decision to ship tens of thousands of jobs overseas and having significant personal and corporate assets in your stock portfolio (which is filled with companies doing exactly what IBM is doing), then you are probably not only feeling recovered, you are feeling darn good. God bless your nasty, greedy little heart.

I should be fair here to IBM — they’re certainly not the only company that uses these kind of practices to improve their bottom line. Under the venerable American adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” if you are an executive at a business like Bechtel or Haliburton, you’re also reaping billions in profits from the war in Iraq.

(Years ago Condoleezza Rice was very briefly a client of mine. God how I wish I had kept that relationship going. I think I blew it by asking her for a date. You get high with a little help from your even higher friends.)

Someone just told me that the price of gas in California has hit $3 a gallon and oil producers and distributors are making record profits. But if you have to commute to your new $7-$10 an hour job, you are not only not recovering, you’re beginning to think that you may be ready for the intensive care ward. But that is out of the question, because your new job doesn’t come with benefits.

Now, there are some industries that are in a recovery that you and I are paying for. The worst of it is that they were never really ill to begin with. Among the most consistently profitable industries is the pharmaceutical industry. Going again with the notion that it’s all about who you know, the Bush administration just passed a bill making it illegal to buy prescriptions from Canada, where a drug that retails for $60 in the U.S. costs only $20, or two-thirds less. And by the way, the pharmaceutical industry isn’t even hiring now, so as someone looking for work, you can find your recovery elsewhere.

In response to the high prices of prescription drugs in this country, several American cities (which aren’t feeling very recovered) have announced that they intend to examine buying bulk prescription drugs as part of their employee benefits package in spite of the new federal law. So Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that these cities would be prosecuted if they went ahead with this plan.

And I’m happy to report that John Ashcroft recently had gall bladder surgery, and is recovering quite nicely, thank you. Obviously, Ashcroft isn’t overly worried about the clause in the Patriot Act that makes his medical records available to just about any government agency that wants to look at them.

I have an old business colleague in Colorado who happens to be quite wealthy and is a die-hard Republican. Recently, we were talking about the Bush tax cuts and economic recovery plan and my friend just laughed. He said that given his wealth, it was like having the federal government throw money at him, not a cent of which he will use to stimulate anything because he already could buy whatever he needed or wanted. What my friend was telling me is that even though he was never ill, he is really enjoying his recovery.

Hey, I just had one of those brilliant ideas that I’m so well known for: this issue of outsourcing jobs is a very scary problem because nobody really knows what to do about it. Here’s my idea on how we can not only deal with it, but also mess with their brains: We all move to India. Now that would be a recovery.

The intractable problem of job outsourcing is that our system is not and never has been organized to protect the interests of working people. It is designed to protect the interests of capital, so that when a CEO says that he has to send jobs to India because it is in the best interest of his shareholders, he is right. I can’t blame him.

At the same time, there is a long-term problem with outsourcing that may come back to bite these guys in the butt. With technical and professional jobs leaving the country, the only expanding sector of our economy is the low-paying service sector. You know, the $7-$10 an hour jobs at retail stores. If you have one of those jobs, you are what economists call “underemployed,” meaning that you have a job, but typically have no benefits and don’t quite earn enough to pay all of your bills. That means that you most assuredly do not have any discretionary income. Of course, it is that discretionary income that allows people to purchase goods and services; goods that are made overseas because of rampant outsourcing and services that now comprise a huge part of this country’s economy.

Some economists are raising questions like “What happens when people here can no longer buy the things created over there?” and “What happens when the service sector collapses?” I heard one renowned economist last week say that the U.S. is in danger of becoming another third-world country — one that makes nothing and can’t afford the services that much of the workforce is dedicated to supplying.

How many of you are feeling recovered in this jobless economy? I’m a great believer in certain kinds of self-help programs. One of the most effective by far is Alcoholics Anonymous, which says the first step to recovery is admitting that there is something wrong, and that the second entails doing something about it. Now, in this case, it isn’t you that is wrong, it is a system that is wrong and corrupt. But the second step is similar: it is getting together with others, with your neighbors to fight for our recovery. Because in the end, we all get by with a little help from our friends.

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