Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Want fries with that?

A very well-done essay.


...In the 1980s it became apparent that decades of MBA managers who had NOT been promoted from within the workers had produced an unforeseen side-effect; the United States had forgotten how to manufacture products! Our MBA managers, trained to be interchangeable from one industry to the next, lacked the in-depth insight that comes from growing up with a product, and often simply did not see the flaws in the products whose creation they purported to manage.

It is human nature to trivialize or minimize that which one does not know, and as MBA managers grew into corporate officers, they carried their lack of respect for the products into the executive suite. The end result was a corporate culture that ceased to grade their performance on the basis of quality products and instead kept score using the price of their company stock. Products ceased to be the main focus of America's corporation and were relegated to the status of "necessary evil" as the socially required entry ticket to the gigantic open-air casino called Wall Street.

As American products continued to decline in quality and foreign manufactured products displaced them in the stores, American corporations, rather than address the problem with manufacturing, hit on the idea of closing the US factories and sub-contracting the manufacture of products to the very countries whose manufacturing was already surpassing that of the United States. It was a quick fix, with even quicker profits for those first few companies to taker advantage of offshoring.

Then, as more companies started offshoring their manufacturing (aided by generous tax credits from the US Government) a funny thing started to happen. Retail sales began to decline in the US. We started seeing one disastrous Christmas shopping season after another (culminating in the current year where the holiday goodies started showing up in stores in August). US companies had forgotten a simple truth than Henry Ford had recognized more than a century ago; your workers are also your customers. Ford made a point of paying his workers a high enough wage that they could afford to buy the cars they were building. Those working class drivers became Ford's best advertising, and Ford and the community around him prospered...

...Corporate culture still couldn't or wouldn't see that the problem was of their own making. Your workers are your customers. You cannot lay off workers without laying off your customers. It's the same group. Regardless of the layers on layers on layers, every investment sooner or later got down to the workers either being able or not able to earn enough money to buy things...

...Rather than take the long hard path back to knowing how to manufacture products (most top American manufacturing experts had already been lured to other countries), Wall Street decided to make money itself the product. They took money (or debt), repackaged it, spun it around, piled it into interesting artistic shapes, tied a ribbon around it, and re-sold it. The theory was that if you had enough money and shook it back and forth hard enough, it would grow all by itself. And in the arcane world of corporate bookkeeping, it looked like it was working.

Except that what was really going on was that corporations were actually accumulating debts and selling them as investment opportunities, simply assuming that someone else would eventually have to square the accounts. But again, American manufacturing was clearly on the wane. We were not exporting enough products (no, not even bombs and bullets) to pay for all the excess debt piling up around Wall Streets favored get rich quick schemes...

...Our nation's workers are its wealth. As mentioned above, the workers are the fundamental force of our economy, something Wall Street forgot. But those workers have to be motivated to be productive, and right now, it's hard to get enthusiastic about another 14 hour day when everything you ever thought you worked for vanishes in the blink of an eye as your company gets raided, your pension plan vanishes, your job evaporates and the guys who did it skip out with a $40 million severance package...

...So here we are in the United States at the dawn of the 21st Century. Millions of Americans have seen a lifetime of work invested in their homes evaporate before their eyes while Wall Street's royalty wallows in riches. Careers to which workers have devoted a lifetime are vanishing and the promised "retraining" amounts to asking if the customer wants fries with that order...

There is nothing we can do to save the overall American economy. The robber barons are not willingly going to bring factories back to this country and the government is not going to make them.

All we can do is to try and make our individual communities as self-sufficient as possible, and we do this by reaching back, back into the past, before factories, before wally-wort. We reach back and relearn how to do small scale production of household necessities to be sold in our own local communities and farmer's markets, built or crafted or produced by our own local workers, for the benefit of our own local families. No "economies of scale," no uber-efficiency creating more cheap junk than anyone can possibly use in a lifetime - just our own husbands and fathers and sons learning the skills, crafts, and trades needed for our own local community. This has two main objectives: living wages for local workers and preventing our money from being sent off to benefit corporate CEOs and their financial well-being instead of our own. For those with professional education who having living wage jobs in the "outside" world, buying local ensures that income circulates throughout their own community instead of being sent away to giant transnational corporate headquarters.

It's a commitment we have to make to ourselves and our children, knowing that products produced by people earning a living wage will, of course, cost more than products produced by de-facto slave labourers in exploited third world countries. That means we will be buying more wisely, not just buying more. Our consumerist worldview is going to have to be scaled back somewhat, for the good of our people and the good of our community. The unsustainable greed-fest that has been Western consumerism must be replaced by quality of living, simple tastes and appreciation for hand-craftmanship, not by the quantity of material goods which by any historic measure are luxuries beyond the imagination of past generations.

The unsustainable Western consumerist paradigm will end, one way or the other. We can't continue to presume our 5% of the world's population is entitled to use 40% of the world's resources. We can't continue to buy what we need with no income. And we certainly cannot continue to give our hard-earned money to CEOs who earn 400-600x what their workers earn and still suffer from the delusion that their workers can survive on sub-living wages (that they themselves would not tolerate for one hour, much less the rest of their lives).

Either we will form a plan to transition away from it and restore the incomes and dignity of our communities, or it will crash and burn and we will crash with it. That's it. Those are your choices. There aren't any others. Leave the system or fall with it - pick one.

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