Long-term high unemployment is a grave problem – but it’s also just the most visible sign of a deeper one. This larger problem, currently one without a name, is the prospect of an America in which many millions of Americans are destined to become “surplus.”
Here’s the issue: We have more people who need or want jobs than our existing economic structure provides.
The tragic irony is that the rising number of these “surplus people” does not mean we have run out of meaningful work. In fact, we may not survive without the reconstruction of our environmental, physical and social infrastructure – a reconstruction that may be difficult to achieve in our current economic system.
The surplus problem arises out of the very nature of capitalist economies, particularly the form led by U.S. corporate elites today. These systems seek short-term profit by excessively reducing labor costs and jobs, failing to invest in essential public goods and inevitably generating serious but historically manageable macroeconomic crises that build a surplus population.
While surplus status produces resignation and hopelessness, it is also beginning to produce social unrest.
Today, millions of Americans are already surplus. The most visible group consists of those who are officially unemployed, the “marginally attached workers” (those who were too discouraged to look for work in the past month despite having looked before) and the underemployed, those who work more in order to get by.
There’s a second crucial group of surplus people: those who have been squeezed out of the labor force, such as soldiers, prisoners and students who want to work but are unable to find jobs. A third group consists of those hired to do “make-work” – the classic “dig holes and fill them” jobs, typically created by governments seeking to dampen social unrest and sustain consumer demand.
The official U.S. unemployment rate is 8.3 percent, or 13 million people – a number so large that many feel President Obama cannot win re-election unless it declines by November. When we add the 2.5 million “marginally attached” and the 8.2 million underemployed, the surplus numbers reach about 24 million.
Today’s surplus poses a more intractable problem than in earlier eras, largely because of three forces. The first is globalization and the new corporate strategy to outsource jobs at all skill levels, currently highlighted by the intense controversy about Mitt Romney’s company, Bain Capital, an early leader in outsourcing during the 1990s .
In the 19th-century British Empire, corporations “insourced” rather than outsourced, shutting down flourishing textile industries in India and relocating them to Britain. That won’t happen again. In 2011, when President Obama asked Steve Jobs whether he could start building his magical computers in the U.S. instead of China, Jobs said (in a view echoed by Dell CEO Michael Dell), “These jobs aren't coming back.”
A second complication is the new technology itself, even though historically its many positive effects have included creating more jobs than it destroyed. Robotics and the digital revolution, as controlled by today’s corporate elites, now make outsourcing more profitable while eliminating entire job categories.
A third and most important surplus dynamic is the ever tighter marriage between corporate and political leaders — with corporations, backed by unlimited political campaign funds unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, now the senior partners. This drastically erodes the ability or motivation of political leaders to solve the surplus crisis with policies that benefit the broader public.
We need millions of new “green jobs” to save the planet and millions of new social-service jobs to sustain a civilized society. But unfortunately this new path is dependent on public investment, which business leaders and their political allies find too threatening to the pursuit of short-term profit. So they reject a Green New Deal of massive public investment and the creation of worker-owned, community-owned or nationalized companies that could rebuild the nation's infrastructure, serve the public interest and generate sustainable new jobs.
In the absence of such change, the surplus crisis is now both economic and spiritual. Surplus people suffer the same depression described by Betty Friedan in her classic "The Feminine Mystique," which chronicled the expulsion of women from the workforce after World War II – women who were then “locked up” in the new American suburbs. The ensuing female malaise, which Friedan famously labeled the “problem with no name,” created much the same despair now seen among millions of surplus people.
But while surplus status produces resignation and hopelessness, it is also beginning to produce social unrest and movements such as the Tea Party and the Occupy movement.
Occupy, in particular, seems to recognize that our political economy is profoundly irrational. It has not clearly named the surplus problem, nor has it politically mobilized behind specific solutions. But it offers a glimmer of hope for a solution in which citizens act to reclaim their own societies from the architects of surplus.
Perhaps, through such grassroots movements a fundamentally new order can be established to create new, sustainable jobs for the surplus population. That would preserve both the planet and our civil life together.
This program aired on August 6, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.