Serf’s Up: My Hopeless Appeal to Low-Wage Conservatives.

I am in the midst of the one of those ethical dilemmas that on one hand frustrate and on the other open up to broader, more substantial issues. The occasion is the impending graduation of another group of majors for whom we have done the best job we can of preparing a casserole of skills and temperaments to apply to a meaningful life of work. Their prospects are not as bleak walking out the door as were those of last year’s group, but they face the likelihood of competing with a greater than usual number of people from that group who are still on the market.

My related dilemma regards unpaid internships. On one hand they are bad, because they give companies an excuse to have work done without compensation. On the other hand they are good, because they provide a concrete conduit between the worlds of academia and employment. A significant percentage of my program’s students can point directly to either companies at which they worked or people with whom they worked as interns as the stimulus for their employment. So on the whole I support the free and liberal use of professional unpaid internships, because the people whose futures have been entrusted to me and about whom I care benefit from them.  My response to those who claim that internships are abusive comes in two parts: first I doubt that in most cases an intern takes the place of the employee the firm would have to hire were no internships available. The duties performed by interns rarely require the skill set of a full time, committed employee. The duties performed by the intern would much more likely be farmed out to several other already employed people who were probably already overworked.  Second, the argument that the university is in effect paying the worker for the company (in the form of course credit) is also only true to a degree. In any pedagogically responsible internship program, the student is not being given credit for doing the work. The work is in essence a “lab” the experience in which is being analyzed and evaluated by assignments performed with the internship advisor in addition to the work.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I still believe people deserve to be paid—and to be paid fairly—for the effort they generate to get people above them on the ladder paid more. I support internships, because they provide an exception to the ethical belief that people should be compensated for their work that is convenient to me and mine. My categorization of internships as an exception does not resolve the argument; it merely displaces it.  When I broad my perspective on the issue of fair compensation though, I see that more and more stress is being placed on more and more low wage workers in the name and serving the interests of more and more convenient exceptions and tricks of language. Those pressures should concern all of us, because they not only subjugate low-wage workers, they are in the process of making sure than an ever growing percentage of the employed population will become low-wage workers.

The people on the left and the right agree on one thing: The middle class is under attack. Our disagreement though is on maybe the most fundamental reason why—that a huge number of well-intentioned but misinformed low-wage conservatives are carrying the banner for the army that is seeking to defeat them.

Problem One: Religious faith in the fairness of capitalism.

It makes perfect sense that there is a significant crossover between nominal believers in God and nominal believers in free markets. They are used to believing in invisible forces and depending on those forces to be beneficent. The jury is still out on God, but not on capitalism. Money is always Old Testament. The physics of money are simple—unregulated income travels up!  If money really circulated like the atmosphere, there would be clouds on the ground for half the day.  The industrial revolution did not create the middle class. The insistence of reformers and ethical politicians created the middle class when they demanded that people not be treated like replaceable parts of the assembly line—that you couldn’t shove a kid down a mine, because he worked cheaper than his father, that the next guy’s willingness to work was insufficient permission to lop a guy’s arm off with a dangerous machine.  The mass of laws and regulations that provide basic protections for workers have become so much a part of daily life that they have become invisible. So workers can decry government involvement in their lives even while they depend on it for their health and safety. As I have said before, most literal Christians, Libertarians, and radical free-marketers wouldn’t call themselves those things if they really had to be those things.

Americans who at once decry government interference in business and farming jobs out to foreign countries need to realize that the only way the “free” market will return those jobs to us is when we agree (or submit) to work for those substandard, nonliving wages. When that is the case, you had better hope your savior is watching, because he is going to have to stretch those loaves and fishes a whole lot farther than before. When those grandkids whose economic futures your are so concerned about are the ones who earn pennies a day, you might not so smugly add “and darned grateful to get them.”

Problem Two: The “workin’ Man’s Antipathy Toward Unions.

It never ceases to amaze me that poor people on the right applaud the ruthless use of leverage by rich people as great business and leadership but decry the application of leverage by people of lesser means as bullying and Socialism. The only leverage working people can use against entrenched wealth is the combination of their marginally irrelevant individual interests into a unified interest group.  The heads of corporations do it all the time. They assemble the financial leverage of millions of investors then preach about their “duty” to bully innocent people with slap suits, hound small time competitors out of business and force shoddy, even poisonous products on the public, while their underclass right wing spear carriers cheer them on. Every time working people combine their resources they are accused of being socialists. I have a suggestion for the low-wage right-wingers who do so. Look up the word “Socialist.” After that look up the word “Oligarch.” Now get your heads out of your butts and notice which ones we actually have.

Problem Three: The right wing fascination with the way things were.

By now, the few of you who didn’t recognize that this was a left wing screed and head over to Michelle Malkin’s blog have been forming rebuttals laced with references to Adam Smith and his friends. Adam Smith’s ship has sailed. The invisible hand is now just one wholly visible finger. Those theories no longer apply, because they were all based on the currency of land. The wealth of both the farmers and the tradesmen through most of the 20th century was based on real estate. The original draft of the Constitution touted the sovereignty of life, liberty and the pursuit of property.   Here’s the thing about property. There is only so much of it, and when it gets scarce you do without or you take it from somebody else.

The modern world’s economy is weaning itself from the currency of property. The last vestiges are not tracts of land; they are raw materials like oil and coal. The future economy isn’t vested in land; it is vested in bytes. It is vested in digital information. The supply of electrons is infinite. We can never use them up—although no doubt we will try. That reality allows two futures. The first perpetuates the old plantation model. When you run out of land, you keep huge tracts of it in the hands of a few people by building fences and depending on the law to keep the hoi polloi outside them. Then you manage the struggle among them for what’s left.  You can’t ever run out of digital “material” but you can still build that fence. You don’t wall off the endless tract of digital land; you round up the public and put them in a cage.  There is a door to the cage, but guess who has the key. In the material version, King George gave huge tracts of land he didn’t own to his rich friends so they could use their land to get richer. In the digital version, Bill Clinton built huge gates between the people and the content of the Internet, and then handed the keys over to a bunch of rich guys in the form of free bandwidth that was turned into lightly regulated plantations of Internet access so they could get richer.

They were so grateful for having been given this charity that they did two things. First, they bought politicians to create such restrictive copyright laws that within a few years there will be virtually no content post 19th century in the public domain. Walt Disney, the Christopher Columbus of media, created an empire by exploiting the public domain then used that empire to close the door behind him. Second, they were so grateful for the charity that they had been given—in a “free market” that bandwidth would have been auctioned off—that they instituted lawsuits to undermined the few trivial restrictions they had agreed to, kind of like thanking your spiritual advisor for enlightenment by hastening his trip to the great beyond. Once again, with limited access to the gate, some of us–the one’s with deep pockets–will be more equal than the others.

The bottom line is that there is no bottom to the line. Once money became digital, it became infinite. The mint can only process so much currency, but the banks can spin those digital dollars over and over and over, profiting from each pass, while we wait three days after we cash a check for the money to appear in our accounts. One of the reasons Goldman Sachs is in trouble is that when their customers put in buy or sell orders on stocks and money markets, Goldman’s own brokers would use that information to invest their own money seconds earlier based on the certainty of what was about to happen. That’s like the dealer in a TV poker game not only jumping in after we have seen the other player’s hold cards, but also getting to pick his own hand!

Let’s be clear. I am not telling low-wage or middle-income conservatives to become liberals. We have little in common and your music sucks. I am telling you that you need to re-evaluate the rules of the game. Your romantic and nostalgic dependence on the rules of the good old days is dooming you and all around you to the return of the feudal era where ten percent of the population had the chicken and the rest of us fought over the neck. Your rage is genuine, but your effort is weak. You think you are going to win the lottery, but you aren’t. You think you will come up with the next big idea, but you won’t.  You think you will parlay your impressive karate skills into a film career, then become a darling of the right wing media, but . . . actually there is a precedent for that.  If you are going to do it, do it now, because your time is running out. The sun is rising on a new day, and you have already been working for three hours.  The castle is on the hill, and there are gators in the moat. It’s a new dark age. Welcome to the plague.

Oh. . .  and do it with a smile on your face. Today is the company softball game. Serf’s up!

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About bigshotprof

College Professor in the Communication Studies department at Pace University. My personal life fall somewhere in the gap between less than you want to know and more than you need to know.
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