That’s the claim being made about Obama’s proposal to outlaw discrimination against the unemployed. It’s a very old argument that surfaces everytime government has to step in to prevent businesses from ruling out entire classes of people as potential employees. A good example of these arguments against fairness can be found in a Chicago Tribune op-ed column of 9/22/2011, “The wrong help for the unemployed,” with the subtitle, “Employer discrimination is not the real problem.”
Its basic point is that such a law isn’t needed because the practice is not widespread and once the economy improves enough, hiring eventually will include those currently unemployed.
It’s easy for white males (like the column writer) to believe this because many have never experienced discrimination. As everybody who isn’t a white male knows, job discrimination still is widespread, often precisely because the white males making hiring decisions are clueless about their own prejudices. Laws against this aren’t terribly effective, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed.
Once again, the old claim is made that market forces on their own will lead to rational hiring policies because companies want to hire the best people available. In reality, when market forces operated without fair-employment laws, businesses demonstrated they wanted to hire only the best white, heterosexual, physically able males available for the highest-paying, most desirable jobs.
In the past several decades, business has enjoyed freedom from hard-won regulations intended to curb their most egregious misbehavior. The results include financial devastation for middle-class investors, homeowners, the unemployed and – as usual – the poor. This will remain true as long as American business remains relentlessly focused on profit as its first, last and only goal, an obsession used to justify all kinds of unjust practices because profit has been enshrined as sacred.
When businesses make job growth their top goal instead of profit, unemployment will ease and the economy will improve. But we’ll always need laws restraining market forces and their use to protect employees, consumers, communities and even businesses from their own worst instincts.
Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune writes a column called “I Just Work Here. ” His latest on how to survive a layoff (August 22, 2011) offers the advice of two supposed experts on employment and interviews with a couple of people who got lucky following their advice. It prompted me to write to Rex with a comment on their advice and a request that he do a little more reporting. That letter and a link to his column follow:
Please allow me to offer a different perspective than the one in your column, “After layoff, stick with job search, stay positive.”
I understand your goal was to present helpful advice, and the standard format is to interview people who should know the broader issues and a few who got lucky.
Their advice is the conventional wisdom. It has changed not an iota in decades, despite the enormous differences between unemployment now and at any other time in our history except the Great Depression. It’s no more useful now than it would have been then, when it would have been obtuse and insensitive to tell people lined up for free soup that to get a job they just have to stay positive and not give up. In reality, it took federal programs, government regulations and a war to resurrect the job market.
The theme of stick-to-it-and-keep-smiling advice, although not true, is clear: “Your employability is in your hands,” “…you’re responsible for your employability.”
The message? If you can’t get a job, it’s because you as an individual didn’t successfully overcome the massive systemic hurdles of outsourcing, consolidation, mechanization by technology, corporate dominance of politics and global economic malaise. You, as an individual, failed to hang on to your tiny piece of a rapidly shrinking pie as business giants gobbled it up and hoarded their huge shares for multimillion-dollar executive salaries.
“Individual situations differ.” This discourages people from looking at the big picture and realizing they may not be to blame.
“Stay positive.” This is almost impossible emotionally and an unreasonable demand to make of people who’ve been ejected from the job market despite their experience and skills, even after accepting subsistence wages, long hours and few if any benefits.
I understand you are obliged to present the views of sources deemed to be experts. But aren’t you also obliged to examine their statements critically, to see whether their comments fit with reality? Imagine, for example, telling any of the former journalists you know that they must simply “steel themselves” after countless rejections. How will it help for them to keep believing in and chasing after the one-in-a-million chance of landing a job that offers pay commensurate with their skills?
When people use that stay positive, keep-trying approach at the casino, where the odds aren’t much different than on the job market, they’re considered to be impaired.
Tweaks such as a focused cover letter, informational interviews and networking will work for a few people in a few situations. Change that results in good jobs for millions of people requires organized action ranging from voting blocs to disruptive protest.
You hold a privileged position as someone with a platform that can influence many people. I ask that you consider reporting on a different approach to joblessness, one that depends on people getting angry, getting together and acting against the causes of joblessness.
This might require expanding your database of sources. You can find plenty of them at the website www.bad-influence.org.
Although I disagree with the views presented in this particular column, I enjoy “I Just Work Here” and wish you much continued success with it.
On the first warm, sunny day of this year, I spent the afternoon lounging on the old couch that sits on the back screened porch.
Even though it was a weekday, and thus a work day, I did no work that afternoon. I crocheted, watched the birds, enjoyed the warm breeze, admired the clouds, let random thoughts flit through my head, listened to the first frogs chirp and then took a nap. My dog snoozed in a sunny spot on the floor nearby, while my cat stretched out on my torso for her own nap.
According to conventional wisdom, I “wasted” this time because it wasn’t devoted to work that earned money. Although it contributed greatly to my happiness, brought me peace of mind and let me indulge in a creative pursuit, it left me open to criticism as lazy, self-indulgent and possessed of an inadequately developed work ethic.
To which I say, Good for me. As individuals, families, communities and a country, we’d all be a lot better off if we spent less time enslaved by that part of our American heritage known as the Puritan work ethic.
Although the reference to Puritans usually gets dropped, their hideous work ethic lives on, like the half-life of radioactive waste that is able to sicken or kill for hundreds of years.
It lives on in jobs that claim the bulk of our waking hours, leaving little left for our families, less for us as individuals and almost nothing for the community. Time is the currency of our lives, and Americans spend too much of it grinding away at work. Even worse, we feel guilty about doing anything that isn’t work.
We have stunted our capacities for joy, creativity, spontaneity and friendship. These must be nourished, and that takes time, a precious “commodity” that conventional wisdom demands must be spent laboring.
Let’s deconstruct the Puritan work ethic:
- · Puritans came here seeking religious freedom. This is a half-truth. The whole truth is, Puritans were narrow-minded, hypocritical religious bigots who came here seeking freedom from persecution for themselves. They didn’t hesitate to practice the very types of persecution they fled, including banishment and execution for those whose beliefs differed from theirs.
- · Real work is hard. Our religiously fanatical forebears distrusted pleasure and suspected that anything enjoyable smacked of sin. Thus, drudgery became a virtue.
- · Real work never ends. Idleness was thought to be the gateway to rebellion and sin. Any time not spent working, praying or reading the Bible was not only wasteful, but dangerous.
The Puritans were control freaks. They understood that keeping people too busy and tired to think rendered them docile, obedient and unlikely to question authority. Today, our jobs do this. Work has become our religion and the god we worship is money.
By that standard, I’ve become a heretic. It’s my belief that nobody should have to labor more than four hours a day for basic sustenance. The rest of our time – our lives – should be devoted to making ourselves happy, nurturing our families, enjoying our friendships and improving our communities.
What a subversive idea.