The Out of Control Wealth Redistribution of the Obama Era

More and more it seems as though a certain subset of Americans – most of them found on Fox News – like to complain about the redistribution of wealth in the United States. We live in an era, exclaim the talking heads, of redistribution and class warfare.

They are correct, and they are winning. Wealth redistribution is occurring on a scale not seen in the modern era – from people around the country who truly believe in the rewarding value of hard work to a tiny portion of the population who, although they work extremely hard, are rewarded not only for their work, but for your work, and your neighbor’s work; for the work of their children’s teachers and the person who sells their ties.

I was really struck yesterday by Joseph Williams’ piece in the Atlantic, chronicling his experience with working a retail job after losing his creative-class job at POLITICO due to what he admitted were some personal mistakes.

As a sales clerk at a sporting goods store earning nearly fifty percent more than the federal minimum wage, Williams was nevertheless forced to work under constant suspicion of theft, in a job where he was subject to pat downs upon leaving, scolded or arriving on time and not early, and expected to stay late without extra pay in order to save his company on cleaning costs:

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.

And expected never, during any point of this, to sit down:

It didn’t matter if it was at the beginning of my shift, if the store was empty, or if my knees, back, and feet ached from hours of standing. Park your behind while on the clock, went the unspoken rule, and you might find it on a park bench scanning the want-ads for a new job.

Worse, Williams was kept at 30 hours or below because to employ him for more hours, the company would have had to spend extra money to provide him with health insurance and the other benefits that we like to think of as part of the bargain for which so many have fought and died throughout history: a world where hard work and dedication can lead to a life with a certain level of comfort.

The easiest defensive reaction to a piece like that, of course, is judgement against the writer: he made professional mistakes, pled guilty to a crime (one that I don’t mean to trivialize), and didn’t have skills that were applicable to the modern jobs market. And those are all valid criticisms.

But the story that runs through his narrative is the truth, not just for Williams but for millions of people throughout this country. It surfaces in a hapless laid off office manager in House of Cards, in horror tales from Black Friday, in empty-nest parents who return to the marketplace finding themselves left hopelessly behind. It popped up in an episode of the radio show “This American Life” last spring, where a reporter went to a county in Alabama with the highest rate of its citizens on disability benefits of any county in the nation.

Here, a reporter interviews a woman who previously worked in a fish plant and as a nurse’s aide before qualifying for disability payments:

Chana Joffe: In your dream world, if you could have a different job that you could do with your back, what would that be?

After 45 minutes, the woman was finally able to answer:

Ethel Thomas: You asked me a while back what would be the perfect job. I thought about it, and I said that the perfect job, it would be like I would sit at a desk like the Social Security people, and just weed out all the ones that come in and file for disability.

The reason for this career aspiration, it turns out, is not that Ethel Thomas has some deep-seeded need to protect the benefits she receives from others she deems unworthy, but that it is the only job of which she can conceive that would allow her to sit.

More and more, the economy is divided into two categories of jobs: the white-collar jobs where workers complain about sitting too much, and the service-sector jobs – at restaurants and in retail – where the workers are expected to stand and smile politely for the benefit of their customers.

This is not to say that there is not a need in the economy for these jobs, or that opportunities do not exist for some people to pull themselves out of impoverished communities like Hunt, Alabama in order to make it into the creative class, later to develop back pain from sitting too much. But we need to concede that not every member of the American economy has the means to pull themselves into such a job – there are too few slots, and if nobody worked in the service sector it would leave a hollowed out economy.

An economy composed entirely of people employed in investment banking would function just as poorly as an economy composed entirely of retail salesclerks (although I imagine the former would more quickly turn to cannibalism in order to survive). But often, in our political conversations we throw out decades of progress in the labor movement and treat the latter as though their lack of leverage qualifies them for less than human treatment.

Let us not forget who demands the conditions faced by many of these former middle-managers who found that their services had been turned obsolete by the internet, grandparents whose savings vanished in the financial crisis, or single parents trying to create a better life for their children. They are treated like thieves, called upon to replace laid-off custodial staff as an add on to the job for which they are paid, and kept below the threshold where they might have access to a safety net in pursuit of greater and greater profit. If the company that employs them fails to take these steps out of compassion or out of values held over from an era long past, they are set upon by private equity and cut to the bone, all in service of the higher equity prices and bigger dividends for the sacred shareholders. American workers produce the most they ever have for the lowest costs. But they rarely receive the reward. 

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The decision to squeeze every last drop of capital out of every single unit of labor is invariably made in the service of the shareholders of the company. But how many of the shares belong to people who work for that company, sweat for that company, smile for that company and how many to the people who drag around excel tables for the company that bought them?

I bet you ten thousand bucks that some of these guys are major Democratic donors, too

I bet you ten thousand bucks that some of these guys are major Democratic donors, too

This was not an accident. It is the result of a relentless push towards deregulation, towards increasingly opaque financial products, and a belief that all this serves to grease the economy. And it has, to the point where countless people slip and fall. You can argue that those people made the wrong choice in a capitalist society, and in some cases you may be correct. But in so doing – in arguing for a meaner, leaner economy, you also must argue for an economy where the wealth is concentrated a tiny minority from other people who want nothing more than to work, raise a family, and retire in comfort. You must argue for an economy that resist any effort against stagnation, where people who fulfill their end of the social contract nevertheless find themselves increasingly dependent on the scraps trickling down from above and where every dime diverted to dividends is torn from the skin on the backs of the workers who might once have earned it.

That is the true wealth redistribution of the Obama era, and to have any hope of fixing the economy we must first fix that. To do so is not socialism, but rather humanism: a belief in the dignity of life and of work. The modern economy should not exist as a binary between soul-crushing hours in dream-crushing professions and quality family time spent laboring in poverty – between the Scrooge of the world of Dickens and his struggling but cheerful factotum, Bob Cratchet. Real economic growth comes not in a vertical trickle like urine from the heavens, but in a horizontal flood buoyed by the contributions and confidence of all that if they paddle hard enough, they just might float.