To be a “winner” in capitalism requires an endless supply of disposable people. As inequality in the United States has widened, more and more Americans are dismissed as disposable “losers.” But there are policies that can reverse this pernicious trend, as Paul Buchheit shows in his new book, Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income. Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!
In the following lightly edited excerpt from Disposable Americans, Paul Buchheit examines the factors that have led to lower wages and less job security for most workers in the US, and the terrible material consequences that have resulted.
Our jobs are disappearing. In the not-too-distant future we might wait around for a package delivery, hurry off to class, grab a taxi downtown, consult with a financial advisor, meet the family for dinner, and then take the train home. All without being served by a single human being. No delivery person, no teacher, no cab driver, no financial advisor, no food server, no train conductor.
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That may be disputed by free-market defenders, but even today many of our traditional mid-level jobs are being handled by fewer human beings, as our workload is gradually surrendered to our own innovative technologies. The World Economic Forum says “we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution in which ‘smart systems’ in our homes, factories, farms, and entire cities will help get our work done.”
A variety of new jobs — and the dropping out of discouraged job-seekers — have padded the recent unemployment figures, but in large part today’s work opportunities are lower-wage and less secure forms of employment. The jobs that made the middle class prosperous — manufacturing, education, construction, social services, customer service, transportation, administrative support — have dramatically declined since the recession. Globalization is a big part of it. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the job loss from foreign import competition is not being replaced by jobs in other industries.
Another major factor is the rapid rise of alternative work arrangements in the “1099 economy” — contract and ‘gig’ jobs — which are impacting, according to a recent Harvard/Princeton study, “previously lagging sectors including transportation and warehousing, information and communications, education and health care, and public administration.”
For all the above reasons, traditional employer/employee relationships are fading away. High-level positions in engineering, project management, and finance are still in demand. But nine of the ten fastest growing occupations don’t require a college degree.
Yet our nation keeps making money. The 14 richest Americans made enough money from their investments in one year to hire two million pre-school teachers, about four times the number of pre-school teachers who currently have jobs in the United States. Total US wealth increased by a stunning 60 percent between 2009 and 2015, from $54 trillion to $86 trillion, but 3/4 of that massive increase went to the richest 10 percent of Americans.
The health of Americans is tied to our nation’s extreme inequality. The lowest-income people live up to 15 years less than those at the high-income end. As a result of their low pay and almost nonexistent savings, almost half of Americans would be unable to afford a $400 emergency room visit without borrowing money or selling personal items. The resulting stress leads to mental and physical illness, and perhaps worse. The Centers of Disease Control reported a 24 percent increase in suicides in the first 15 years of this century.
The correlations may not be entirely certain, but the evidence is accumulating. Our system of poorly regulated capitalism is causing destruction in American lives. As Thomas Piketty made clear in his book Capital in the 21st Century, the growth of capital has outpaced that of productive labor, to the point that our economy is driven more and more by the creation of financial instruments rather than real goods. Hence the redistribution of national wealth from preschoolers to billionaires.
Disposable Americans shows the impact of extreme capitalism on children; on the poor and the sick and the elderly; on minorities; on women; on workers, especially young Americans; on soldiers; and on all average Americans, including the middle-class and those just above and below, who make up approximately 90 percent of us, and who have become, as aptly expressed by Henry Giroux, increasingly disposable to the fortunate minority at the top of the wealth distribution.
The book describes a process of “Americide,” the gradual killing off of the once-vibrant middle class of our society. The violence begins with economic oppression. But the resulting disparities in wealth and income have increasingly caused physical damage, both in the health of the American people and in the surge in violence in our poverty-stricken urban communities.
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“As eloquent as it is convincing. Buy this book and give copies to everyone you know.” — Henry A. Giroux
I begin discussions of disposable Americans by telling stories from the past, at a time when prospects may have seemed dim for a vulnerable class of people, yet were in reality teeming with hopefulness, as new technologies were beginning to create living-wage jobs, and as social dependencies were being strengthened in the waging or aftermath of war. Those moments from the past are in stark contrast to the present day, in which technology generates low-income jobs, while globalization allows multinational companies to seek the cheapest labor in all corners of the world. These rapidly occurring changes have been exacerbated by the rise of an economic system — starting in the era of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman and Reaganomics — based on individual gain rather than on social interdependencies. And by the rise of a financial industry that has transformed the widespread fruits of productive labor into fees and interest and investment returns. The result has been extreme and ever-worsening inequality.
In an important sense, little has changed from past to present. Minorities and children and soldiers and workers and seniors are on one end. On the other is unimaginable wealth, for a relatively few people. Our nation started with dreams of equal opportunity. Then came deregulated capitalism. That brought opportunities for individuals who knew how to manipulate the markets, who had friends in high places, and who frequented the revolving door between business and politics. The wealth of John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, and then Vanderbilt and Astor, was comparable to the modern fortunes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the Waltons and the Kochs. The inequality we see today has a long history.
Yet there is hope. … But that hopefulness, if it is to bear fruit, will require society to begin catching up to technology, to recognize the changing paradigm of human involvement in the nation’s (and the world’s) progress, and to reevaluate the meaning of “progress.” All Americans, through their own efforts and that of their ancestors, have contributed to the dramatically productive society that has compensated fewer and fewer people over time. Everyone deserves a guaranteed living income. How that is to be accomplished — in a way that appeals to Republicans and Democrats, liberals and neoliberals, conservatives and progressives — is one of the objectives of the chapters in this book.
Copyright (2017) by Taylor & Francis. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Routledge.