Our Economic System Is Killing Workers

WorkmanYou may have noticed a lot of talk about this new paper by Angus Deaton and Anne Case, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century. It seems that middle aged people are living longer, but not white men. (I can’t say about black men, because the study didn’t look at them — but I assume it is the same for them.) A lot of people are speculating why this can be. But it doesn’t seem hard to understand at all. For people in the middle class, life really has become worse.

I know what economists say: people are so much richer today. This certainly is the best of times. But there is something wrong with that thinking straight off the top. Productivity is up. GDP is up. But wages are only barely up. And I doubt that they compensate for all the extra things that people have to buy. It’s not enough now to just buy a television and get a free signal. Now if you want anything at all, you need cable. You have to have a computer and internet now and you didn’t have to have them in the past. Is it good to have them? Sure! But now if you want to find a job, you have to have them. And that isn’t calculated in all these economic discussions of increased standards of living.

But that’s not the main thing from my standpoint. We now live in the Uber economy. People cobble together livings. When they don’t, they live in a world where they work for some company that doesn’t pay them as much as their parents and grandparents made. What’s more, they can depend upon being laid off at the slightest sign of an economic downturn. It’s kind of hard to plan for a life with kids and a house when you don’ know if you are going to have a job next year. Where is the meaning in a life like that?

Obama used to talk about creating a society where if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would thrive. He doesn’t talk much about that anymore. Instead, he talks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and about how that’s going to improve our economy. Of course, we’ve seen our economy improve a lot over the last 40 years. But we haven’t seen the lives of working people improve. So who cares? Obama seems to be telling us something: if you work hard and play by the rules, well, you’re a sucker.

The main thing that I’ve noticed in my life is that this kind of society is one that creates great uncertainty and anxiety in people’s lives. For the first time in my life, I feel fairly secure because I’m working for a number of people. They don’t even pretend to be loyal to me. And that’s great! I’d rather know where I stand. And also, since I’m good at my work, I can be clear with them: if something better comes along, they can enjoy finding something to replace me. But most people aren’t in my position. And they shouldn’t have to be. Mediocre workers ought to be allowed to have decent lives too.

It should come as no shock that middle age workers are dying off due to stress related illnesses and suicide. We’ve created a society that doesn’t value people as people. We don’t provide them ways of finding meaning in life. And without meaning what is the point of life? I know what the conservatives and the economists will tell us: it’s all about making money. But only truly messed up people would think that. Unfortunately, they are the people who control this country.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

20 thoughts on “Our Economic System Is Killing Workers

  1. What was interesting is how little the view towards work has changed-people still believe you should go the extra mile for employers. I see it on articles when there is some creepy thing employers are now doing to their employees (like tracking how much time they spend in the bathroom or check their Facebook or whatever)-no one says “this is inappropriate behavior and you should tell your boss to stop. Or band with your fellow employees and tell your employer no.”

    One person actually said that he told his employer that he refused to take a work cell phone home unless they paid him for the time he was expected to have it with him. He quite rightly pointed out when others expressed their shock that the employer does not own him so if they want his services outside his normal work hours, they need to renegotiate his contract and pay him for that time. Americans don’t think that way.

    • I’m shocked whenever I hear an employer complain that employees aren’t loyal. The truth is that employees stayed loyal long after employers started laying them off at the slightest sign of recession.

      • Exactly-you saw it with the car unions taking their lumps despite the fact that the workers were not at all at fault for how the business was being trashed by the management (who naturally did not suffer any real consequences.)

        But boy the media certainly loved claiming all of Detroit’s woes were down to the big bad unions.

        • Oh, that Detroit nonsense makes me want to bite off human heads. One does not have to dig very deeply into the city’s history to realize unions had absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to do with its current problems. Unions and decent wages probably kept Detroit functioning a few decades longer than it would have without them.

            • Well, robots are great (when they work). The problem is that we have an economic system that does not allow the increases in productivity to be equally shared. Something’s got to give. It doesn’t matter how many robots you have if there are no people to buy your crap.

        • Last year I wrote an article that got a lot of attention, News Bias Is a Choice to Lack Diversity. It was in part about how reporters don’t care about unions because it is outside their world. Ezra Klein doesn’t hang out with people in unions. So they are presented as the bad guys who are keeping the prices high on sporting gear or whatever.

          • It is true they don’t. And they make no effort to go forth and meet with the people at the bottom. As little as I like him as a person, Matt Taibbi at least does that in his reporting.

            • My direct experience with reporters is that the best ones are not the nicest people. I’m with you on Taibbi. But some of that may just be braggadocio because he’s really kind of a softy.

            • The brazen side of him may be a Russian thing, he used to live there. Euros are much more direct about their political opinions, for good and ill. I can see where it might be off-putting.

              • That is not my problem with him-he should be aggressive in pursuit of a story. My problem is that he is sexist and if his descriptions of his activities around women are accurate, possibly worse. So I don’t like him as a person and I would probably not want to be around him in meatspace. But that does not mean I will not read his reporting because he does a good job there.

                • Fair enough!

                  That was going to be my only response until I got this error message: “ERROR: Your comment was too short. Please go back and try your comment again.” Now that’s a criticism I haven’t seen before!

  2. First, how is productivity measured? I’ve seen reports of rising productivity during mass unemployment over the past couple of decades. Is rising “productivity” just a matter of fewer people having to do more work (under the threat of losing their own jobs and with possibly unpaid and unreported overtime) to make up for the lost employees?

    Second, regarding mortality rates, see Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. The basic premise of the book is that an animal’s stress response is bad for the animal’s body if active for too long. In particular, non-human animals typically have short-term stressors, so they aren’t prone to ulcers and other unhealthy things. (Sapolsky’s frequently repeated example is of a lion chasing a zebra.) Humans, on the other hand, have imaginations, can think of the future, and are thus subject to long-term psychological stressors that keep the stress response continually active and ultimately cause – or make a person more susceptible to – health problems. (The argument in the book is considerably more nuanced; e.g., non-human animals that live at the bottom rungs in groups with social hierarchies suffer psychological distress and, in some cases, those at the top rungs do too, although not in the sense of bearing a heavy burden of responsibility.)

    The first half of the book describes the effects of long-term stress responses on the body and reminded me of Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s deeply troubling How We Die book. Sapolsky particularly portrays poor people and people with depression as living, without their being necessarily aware of it, in a constant state of “fight-or-flight” response, which is deleterious to their health. This, of course, applies more generally to people living with “great uncertainty and anxiety”, as you say.

    (My comment keeps being rejected as spam; I hope this portion isn’t!)

    • Spam filters are necessary but they should be better. Thanks for persisting. I wasn’t aware of the book but I will look it up. It makes sense. Stress definitely makes one more susceptible to illness, one would have to be blind not to see that. It’s sort of the same argument made in “The Spirit Level” from a different angle.

    • I’ve requested the book. It sounds very interesting — and very much in line with my thinking. There is this stat that once people make above a certain level of money (roughly $70,000), they don’t get any happier. I think this is about stress. Once people get a life that is secure, they don’t have to worry. If only we could provide that for everyone! And it wouldn’t involve making everyone rich — just financially secure.

      I’m sorry the system is rejecting your comments. It is probably because of the email address that you use. For the record: they don’t show up in public, and I don’t collect them to make mailing lists or anything. I should make this clear in the TOS. But I do occasionally email people if there is some reason for it. I think that’s happened once or twice in the six years (Tomorrow!) of the site.

  3. (Ah, the missing portion is causing it; let me remove the YouTube link.)

    For those interested, see “Stanford’s Sapolsky On Depression in U.S. (Full Lecture)” at YouTube (“watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc”) (50 minutes in length!)

      • Hi! I did try the “a href” at first and the post was rejected; removing the “a href, /a” bit resulted in the post being accepted. Hmm?! I will try my real E-mail address from now on; the old E-mail address I put in was more relevant during the Bush administration!

        • Ha ha! I tricked you! Now you will be on my Viagra mailing list!

          I’m in the process of making changes to the blog. One I should do is allow people to preview their comments. Even I make mistakes and I do this stuff 16 hours a day.

          I appreciate your tenacity with it, however. Hopefully we can make it all work better as time goes on.

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