Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More On Fairness

Barbara Ehrenreich made me late for work this morning.

No. Really. OK, a movie she was in that was playing on LinkTV made me late. And if you missed my side note yesterday, The American Ruling Class is one more reason to support LinkTV.

You may know Ehrenreich from her writings in Time Magazine. If you're a with-it Progressive, you know her books, like Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America

Which brings me to this morning's appearance on LinkTV. The American Ruling Class is a mythical tale of two young men-- one rich, one poor-- graduating an Ivy League college, and being presented with the crossroads of choices: sell souls to Goldman Sachs and make a lot of money, or keep your souls and give back to society. It is, in short, a study of the American oligarchy. Or plutocracy. Whichever terms you feel best fits. Who rules America, really?

Back to giving. I didn't get to watch the whole thing...late for work, remember?...but I did catch a critical scene for the purposes of this blog.

Lewis Lapham (the film's protagonist and its writer) squires one young man to breakfast at the IHOP. There, they encounter Ehrenreich, working as a waitress, struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage and tips, already a hundred dollars behind on her rent budget for this month.

She sits down with Lapham and one young man, and makes the most astounding observation. Yes, many of the wealthy "give back" to society, to the tune of millions of dollars each year.

But look at what the working poor give to society: cheap labor.

A billionaire who gives away a million dollars a year is giving one-tenth of one percent of his net worth. Even a "good Christian" making a hundred thousand a year and tithing ten thousand is only giving away ten percent of his income.

But the working poor?

In order that you can have cheap lettuce, or mass-produced sneakers, or convenience stores open around the clock, they give 100% of their livelihood, often at a dear cost to themselves. Working two and sometimes three jobs, they struggle and fight to survive so you can have goods to buy on eBay, or cereal on your grocer's shelves.

We owe these people something. Why?

Look, throughout history, even slaves got some form of healthcare coverage, at the very least adequate to keep them working the fields for the master. It was cheaper to heal them than to buy a new slave and integrate him into the farm culture. Even slaves got some form of education, because it was more efficient to communicate with someone who could speak your language.

Slaves got got food and clothing and water, and a place to sleep. Granted, it was far from adequate, but today's working poor don't even have these guarantees any longer. Lose your job, lose the apartment or trailer you are living in, lose your money for food and clothing, and forget about insurance! If you're making $10,000 a year and insurance costs (minimum) $1,200 a year, who in their right mind would buy insurance?

The American Ruling Class (released in 2005, ahead of the housing bubble burst) notes the staggering amounts of money that Americans earned in the 1990s and early '00s, but also notes that most of the jobs that wealth created were low-wage, no benefit jobs that were almost guaranteed to ensure a serf class, forced to tolerate the most ignominious working conditions in order to bring you your iPod.

We owe them a lot. We owe them our lives and lifestyles, and it's about time we started paying them that debt.