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Thursday, June 2, 2011 01:53 am

A sinking feeling about the economy

On May 17, 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a report entitled “Occupational Employment and Wages – May 2010.” This report summarizes the numerical skeleton of the economy we witness when walking through stores or malls. According to the BLS, “retail salespersons and cashiers were the occupations with the highest employment in 2010” (almost six percent of U.S. employment), and “the 10 largest occupations accounted for more than 20 percent of total employment.”

There is dignity in legitimate paid work, but unfortunately, the largest occupations generally pay low wages. The BLS data shows that “of the 10 largest occupations, only registered nurses had an average wage above the U.S. all-occupations mean of $21.35 per hour or $44,410 annually.” The three lowest-paying jobs among the 10 largest occupations are combined food preparation and serving workers, cashiers and waiters and waitresses.

I understand the geometry of labor hierarchies, but I worry about the sustainability of prosperity when CEOs and hedge-fund managers make millions, even when their performance is poor, while 25.4 million people earn painfully low wages. In an economy without strong unions and run by business leaders who conform to the gospel of Squeeze Labor to Cut Costs and Increase Executive Pay, who protects these workers from abuse? Who ensures that they earn a decent wage for the hours of their lives devoted to labor?

Meanwhile, Caterpillar and other companies unhappy about tax increases have mentioned the possibility of leaving Illinois. Governors and state legislatures race to the bottom, trying to reduce taxes and regulations to create such a business-friendly environment that major employers relocate to their state. If our 50 so-called United States act like 50 competing countries, our de facto national economic strategy is to move poverty from state to state every 10 to 20 years.

Our national economy has partially recovered from the 2007 financial crisis, but seven million jobs did not return. Many new jobs are part-time, low-wage positions, not family-sustainable ones. Since the productivity growth of recent decades mostly went to the top one percent of earners, many workers also have about the same buying power, or even less when adjusted for inflation, as workers in the early 1970s.

Many commentators tell us that higher gas prices are dampening consumer spending and, since about 70 percent of our economic activity is consumer spending, slowing our economic growth. Other commentators shrilly warn against taxes on gas that would raise the prices closer to what people in many wealthy countries pay for gasoline ($6 to $9 per gallon).

But relatively few commentators question the wisdom of letting your economy’s growth rely so much on consumer spending, when wages for most people aren’t rising and financial speculation, often a churning game of skimming profits off of the top of big buckets of money, is rampant. How do citizens in Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and other countries afford such high gas prices? How are their economies structured differently?

Each day I hope to stumble upon a reassuring and realistic plan, supported by a broad consensus among business and political leaders, to create an economy in which hard-working people can find good jobs that will allow them to buy houses and send their children to college. Many business and political leaders are avoiding this topic. Very possibly they do so because they do not want to admit the bleak limitations of their power or the shocking lack of intense strategic thinking about how to fix these structural problems.

Is this blighted economy really what American citizens will settle for over the next few decades?

Where ends our current path of maximizing profits for CEOs, hedge funds and wealthy investors by breaking the back of the middle class and stomping on the poor? No place that we will enjoy, I am certain. We really should construct a different path.

Nick Capo, an associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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