The Level Playing Field


If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

— Barack Obama, speaking at a July 2012 campaign appearance in Virginia. Republicans quickly jumped on his comments, taking them out of context in order to convince business owners he was insulting them and their hard work and initiative.

If anyone needed a reminder there is no such thing as a level playing field, the recent college admissions scandal ought to have brought it home. There was no surprise about wealthy parents greasing the skids to get their children into prestigious universities, and no surprise about the willingness of those institutions to bend their own rules to the breaking point in order get more money in their coffers. The admissions dance between wealthy patrons and their preferred institutions of higher learning has never been particularly secret, either, as can be seen with the admission of Jared Kushner to Harvard in 1999.


There’s enough hypocrisy and corruption in this latest scandal to go around many times, equal in its way to college admissions standards being contorted for the benefit of the athletic program and wealthy and amoral alumni supporters who want top athletes for the school no matter how deficient their academic qualifications. Any sober scrutiny of that boondoggle would cause the implosion of most major athletic programs at schools large and small. Poorly qualified students have always entered the doors of academia, whether the ticket they or their parents proffered was wrapped in large amounts of currency or in the promise of athletic prowess.

The Education System in Britain, 1914-1918 Q30858
Eton schoolboys digging potatoes from an allotment allocated for wartime vegetable production on the school playing fields during the First World War. Photo by Horace Nicholls (1867-1941) archived in the Imperial War Museum. Unfortunately, times of dire emergency and full mobilization are required to get the rich and their progeny to pitch in and work like everyone else.

The interesting aspect to examine after the latest revelations is the idea of meritocracy, which seems to offer a delusion of an open society to the poor and the unlucky. Rich, successful people want everyone to believe they achieved their exalted station entirely through their own merits. Many of them fervently believe this themselves. They take little account of the advantages afforded them by the society at large, and especially by dumb luck. This society’s adherence to the tenets of meritocracy results in rich, successful people giving themselves too much credit for their good fortune and poor, working people accepting too much blame for their abysmal circumstances. Meritocracy serves the purposes of the rich in allowing them to excuse their selfish behavior and to have disdain for the poor.

The way the system really works on behalf of well-off individuals and organizations is that they are made to believe a successful business or investment is all their own doing, and therefore they immodestly grab the larger portion of the profits for themselves, while unsuccessful endeavors are the fault of others, usually the workers, who need to accept blame and financial losses in the form of wage cuts or termination of employment. Privatized profits and socialized losses – that’s the American Way. Top executives sit on the boards of companies to look out for the interests of other top executives, members of what has largely been an Old Boys’ Club for as long as elites have dodged responsibility to the greater society, which is to say forever.

An excerpt from the “Dumb Americans” section of George Carlin’s 2005 Life Is Worth Losing performance. Warning: foul language.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with Wall Street bonuses – not pay, but bonuses only – over the past generation, it would stand at $33 an hour today. The people on Wall Street do provide the necessary economic service of concentrating investment capital, but that service is not as vital nor the work as important as portrayed in the 1980s television advertisements for the investment firm Smith Barney, in which the actor and producer John Houseman pompously announced “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” Hogwash! And it has only gotten deeper since the 1980s, to the point we’re all drowning in it, and Wall Street investors would have everyone believe they are the driving force of the economy, not the workers who actually produce useful things. Better education is needed, starting with teaching that rich does not necessarily equate with deserving, and that money is not a measure of worth beyond its contribution to the common good.
— Ed.


The Pause That Refreshes


Editor’s note: There was no post on this website last Friday, April 27, because it is healthy to take a break and go fishing once in a while.


“The pause that refreshes” was a slogan coined in 1929 by Coca-Cola marketers, and nearly a century later it remains one of the most memorable advertising slogans for Coke, or for any other product. It was also in the 1920s that Henry Ford instituted a new policy at his automobile manufacturing plant to shorten workers’ shifts to eight hours and their work week to 40 hours, a model that soon became the standard throughout American industry. In 1938, the federal government established with the Fair Labor Standards Act a minimum wage and rules for most workers to receive time and a half payment for hours worked over 40 in a week.

Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen An afternoon's rest
An Afternoon’s Rest, an 1885 painting by Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen (1855-1941).

It’s still up to the states to regulate breaks and lunch time off for workers, and many do so in a minimal way, if at all. It may come as a surprise to some workers that their breaks often come solely at the discretion of their employer or, if they are with a union, because breaks are written into the contract between the union and management. Even bathroom breaks can be a source of contention between labor and management. It is a wonder then to consider how much conditions for workers have generally improved since the early years of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when 12 and 16 hour days were not uncommon and workers’ welfare and safety were entirely their own lookout.

What changed things was when workers started to organize and bargain collectively in the late nineteenth century. It is a misconception to think the worker holiday of May Day started in communist countries, because it actually began in the United States, and has come to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago, Illinois, in May of 1886 when workers on strike and demonstrating for an eight hour workday ended up in deadly confrontations with the police over the course of two days. Unionization continued wringing concessions from management through the first half of the twentieth century, and from 1945 to 1975 the percentage of the non-farm workforce belonging to a union peaked at over 30 percent. In the years since, union membership has declined to less than half that, and the remaining unions, many of them organizations formed for the benefit of state employees such as teachers, are under attack from Republican controlled state governments.

A discussion of ways of coping in life from the 1964 film of The Night of the Iguana, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, directed by John Huston, and starring Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Burton as the defrocked Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon.

None of that changes the need of people concentrating on their work to take a break from it every once in a while throughout the day, and for weeks or more at a time throughout the year. Robots have no need of breaks, but for the time being there are still jobs robots cannot do and those jobs will require the talents of fallible, sometimes frail humans. Enlightened management can choose to view breaks for workers as beneficial to both parties, since a more rested worker can be more productive in the long run than one who is run ragged. Less enlightened management may consider the burnout of workers as the cost of doing business, believing they are easily replaceable cogs in management’s profit making machine. That mindset prevailed over a hundred years ago, before Henry Ford, who was by no means enlightened in all areas, nonetheless saw that his workers and people like them were the buyers of his automobiles, and raised their wages and improved their conditions in the interest of maintaining a kind of partnership with them, rather than treating them wholly as chattel, as cogs in the gears of production.
— Vita


All Honest Work Has Dignity

“No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” ― President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933.


Ms. magazine Cover - Fall 2013
Ms. magazine cover – Fall 2013. Cover by Liberty Media for Women, LLC.


Whether a person works at a computer in an office or scrubs floors in an office building, all honest work has dignity and deserves respect and the worker deserves a just, living wage. This concept, noted in ethical and religious teachings throughout history, and codified in legal and humanitarian documents in the United States and other countries, has been honored more in the breach lately because of growing income inequality which exalts the obscenely overpaid executive over the line worker on whose back the executive rides. The Fight for $15 movement has shaken up the situation over the past few years, but in the current political climate it appears that raising the minimum wage to a living wage will be left entirely up to the states. It’s similar to the situation of addressing human-induced climate change or greed-induced health care reform, where the federal government is paralyzed by ideologues and corporate shills, and if meaningful action is to be taken at all it has to be taken by the states.

It was in the 1980s that we first started to see many adults, and even some retirees, working in fast food joints on the line, rather than just in management. At the time it was jarring to see the retirees working in that environment, wearing the hideous uniforms and taking orders from people less than half their age. We have since gotten used to the sight as another token of the diminished expectations of the new service economy. The statistics on fast food workers show the average age has increased to 29, up from the 1950s and 1960s when the majority of workers were indeed teenagers. Nevertheless the perception clings of awkward youths working behind the counter temporarily for spending money while they lived with their parents before moving on to maturity in the pursuit of a higher wage American Dream. Nowhere is there a mention in law or religion that a worker’s wages are an unimportant, trifling matter because they are not needed for basic support, but that is the justification service sector companies, and fast food companies particularly, use to explain why they pay a majority of their workers the stingy federally mandated minimum wage, or a tiny bit more.

Fast food workers on strike for higher minimum wage and better benefits (26162729410)
Fast food workers on strike for higher minimum wage and better benefits. Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 14, 2016. Photo by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue.

Charles Wilson at GM
Charles Wilson at GM, 1948. Wilson was the head of General Motors from 1941 to 1953, when President Eisenhower selected him to be Secretary of Defense, a post in which he served until 1957. In 1950, at the height of American economic power, Wilson was the highest paid chief executive in the country at $586,100, or about $5.6 million in modern terms. He paid 73 percent of that income in taxes – $430,350. General Motors in 1950 was a major driver of American prosperity, and its workforce was highly unionized.

What might have been a fair wage for a teenager in the 1950s and 1960s, one who was decidedly uninterested in joining a collective action to seek a higher wage for his or her temporary job, is not a fair wage for an adult supporting an adult’s responsibilities over the long term in 2017. If fast food executives are going to engage in moral relativism regarding the wage scale for their workers, then they need to apply it even after the demographics have changed and no longer work in their favor. They also need to explain how it is they can’t afford to pay their workers more, yet they can pay the typical CEO at a rate 1,200 times that of the average worker, a rate which outstrips the ballooning income inequality throughout the rest of the American economy. It wasn’t like that back in the Good Old Days, back when America was Great. But of course they haven’t addressed those questions. Instead they’ve claimed they’ll have to raise prices, which will drive away customers, which will cause them to drop workers and turn to automation where possible. Is it honest, dignified work then to cheat your employees, to cut corners on your customers, to chisel on your taxes, all so that you can present an attractive financial statement to your shareholders and stuff your own already overflowing pockets with more money?
― Ed.