The State of the Union Address from President Obama, and the reactions to it, were sadly predictable. Take, for example, the issue of the economy and “getting America back to work,” a refrain we have been hearing for a decade during which corporate profits and CEO salaries have exploded, not enough jobs exist for all those seeking work and millions who are employed are still destitute. Parenthetically, the chauvinist conceit of referring to the United States as “America,” thereby consigning Canada and every country in Central and South America to nonexistence, is a matter for a separate article.
What did the president have to say about jobs? “An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years. An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil… Let’s do more to help the entrepreneurs and small business owners who create most new jobs in America.” He, of course, emphasized the apparent moral imperative that anyone who works full time should make enough to be part of the “middle class,” whatever that is (also the subject of another article).
Responses from the Republican Party similarly provided nothing new. Before the speech, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he would host local leaders and “job creators” hurt by the president’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline extension as his guests in the House gallery. Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole said, “The president called for a ‘Year of Action,’ and certainly the country would like to see reforms that benefit the American people. That’s why the House of Representatives has passed dozens of bills that would benefit job creators, bring new jobs and improve the workforce.” Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst proclaimed, “Rather than further increase the tax and regulatory burden on job creators as (the president) proposed, he should take a page out of the playbook for the Texas Miracle and cut taxes, slash spending and reduce the regulations that kill jobs.” Tennessee Congresswoman Diane Black chimed in by declaring that “instead of approving commonsense energy projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, this administration has saddled job creators with red tape and over-regulation.” Indiana Congresswoman Susan Brooks summed up the GOP’s view by asserting that Obama’s proposals “will impose unfair burdens on job creators and the hardworking Americans they employ.”
Both “sides” of this discussion embrace business owners and entrepreneurs as “job creators,” a term created by the Republican propaganda machine to justify lowering taxes on the super-rich. They embrace – and do all they can to sell us on – the notion that these people have magical powers. They “flip on the lights” and, miraculously, jobs bubble to the surface from the black hole of unemployment. They do Zeus many better. All that could spring fully formed from his forehead was Athena, but jobs spring from these gods one after the other, fully formed and begging to be filled. All these selfless creatures seek in return is to be let alone so they may wave their wands of creationism freely.
The joint emphasis on owners of capitalist enterprises as the source of jobs reflects both political parties’ dependence on contributions from rich donors and turns the relationship of employees and employers on its head. Or, more precisely, it reflects a way of looking at the world that seeks to preserve current economic relationships as natural and inevitable, which is akin to looking through a telescope from the wrong end.
During Europe’s feudal period, kings and their sycophants, who controlled the media of the day, proclaimed that they ruled by “divine right.” Their “subjects” were conditioned to believe they were necessarily subjects because the kings were born as kings. It took centuries, but eventually those erstwhile subjects realized that kings remained kings only because they viewed themselves as subjects. When they recognized that monarchy was not the natural or inevitable order of things, the reigns of the kings – and, indeed, the entire feudal system – were doomed.
Similarly, we should question the idea that business owners, especially transnational corporations, are “job creators.” They do not create jobs, they hire employees in pursuit of profit. If they do not anticipate making money from the labor of their employees, they will refrain from “creating” any jobs. If they can make greater profit by laying off employees, they will not hesitate to do so. Just as his subjects were conditioned to view the feudal system from the point of view that benefitted the king, so too are employees today conditioned to look at our economic system from the point of view of the bosses. But if we look at the same system from the point of view of employees, their bosses are not job creators, they – the employees – are wealth producers. They make profits for their employers. They are not employed because of the beneficence of business owners and entrepreneurs, but because those business owners and entrepreneurs expect to profit from their sweat and skill – and when they stop making profits, they will be out of work.
Sam Walton did not make Walmart what it is today. That is not to say that he never worked hard, though his family has no need to any more. Rather, it was the hard work of the millions of employees being paid starvation wages, many of whom are now dependent on government benefits to survive, that enriched the Waltons. The debate in Congress is, of course, over how much those benefits should be cut, while no consideration is given to reducing benefits enjoyed by transnational corporations or their owners.
Nor do Donald Thompson, McDonald’s CEO, or Daniel Schwartz and Bernard Hees of Burger King produce the profits that pay them their astronomical salaries. Those salaries – and the dividends paid to shareholders – are the product of the work of the fast-food workers who, if they are fortunate, can barely pay for the basic necessities of life.
Looked at from the point of view of the workers, the idea of increasing the minimum wage is not a question of whether or not it is a good policy, or whether “imposing” such a requirement on business owners unduly burdens them. Nor is it, as the Democrats would have it, simply the right thing to do for fellow human beings, although it is surely that. What neither party is willing to say it that it is a matter of justice and right because, but for those workers, the presumed “job creators” would themselves be starving. They are imposed upon by being forced to enrich their bosses while barely managing to subsist. Few are saying it today, but the old Wobbly hymn said it clearly:
It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade,
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid,
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made.
The nature of work and the kinds of jobs to be found in the United States may have changed, but that fundamental truth remains. Owners are not job creators, their employees are wealth producers.