Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Fear of Being on the Outside

It is completely unfathomable how prosperous modern society is today. Things that even the poorest of society take for granted today would be considered exorbitant luxuries not that long ago. Less than 150 years ago, the fleets of Imperial Russia would travel halfway around the world just to provide fresh oranges to the House of Romanov. 10 minutes working at the average national wage would buy 3 of them today.

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, once opined that life without government was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". And that was back in the 1600s. But to people today, living under the House of Stuart (or the Lords Protector for that matter) would be just so.

Things we consider necessities now were completely unattainable to the average person just a century ago. Air conditioning in the summer, heating in the winter, cell phones (let alone their landline equivalents), fresh produce available year round, the internet, all of these things were unavailable for even the richest dynasties of Europe 200 years ago.

We worry about 8% unemployment today, but just 8% of the population today could create more wealth in one month than the entire workforce working full time for a year in the 1700s. Expectations have clearly changed. And we are vastly more wealthy and pampered now than we ever were. That goes for every man, woman, and child alive today in the United States.

I think this is something we all subconsciously realize. We have it so good today and that's what makes it even worse when we get fired or laid off. In the span of human history, nobody has it better than the fully employed American worker. And I think we all realize that we're insignificant. That the work we do is, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant.

But we get paid a king's ransom to do insignificant work. This is the paradox of modern life. During the "Great Recession", people clung onto their jobs despite lower real pay, longer hours, and bosses determined to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of them. And that's because they feared about being on the outside looking in.

Because the fact is modern society can easily continue with 8% unemployment. Or even 25% unemployment (just look at Spain). Or even 35% (the modern estimate of real unemployment during the Great Depression). And this is the most stark example of class divide. The people who are employed get to have full access to the luxuries and conveniences of modern life. But the people who are unemployed get stuck in a purgatory between modern life and life as most people in history knew it.

This, I think, is the reason why left leaning Americans favor wealth redistribution. Because life is absolutely miserable when you're unemployed and it gets harder and harder to try and catch up to everybody else the longer you're unemployed. It's a vicious cycle and a few million of the people who are currently unemployed (or who dropped out of the workforce altogether) will never get back to even, through little or no fault of their own.

It's a real issue. One that can't simply be dismissed because as society grows more and more prosperous, it will take even less of us to produce the total amount of goods and services for the entire population. When it seems that these economic cycles are completely subject to the whims of a rich minority, people feel cheated and that feeling quickly turns mutinous. Some unnamed rich person in Kennedy's Camelot once remarked that "I would rather give half of my fortune away than lose all of it (through revolution)".

Welfare is the modern bread and circuses for the unwashed, unemployed (some would say unemployable) masses. And it's the fear of being on the outside (or up against the wall) that drives people to support it.

No comments:

Post a Comment