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Lewis Lapham on the job situation in the US (ca. 2010)

Posted in politics

I first heard of Lewis Lapham in a Sunday Edition interview with Michael Enright on CBC Radio. I remember being impressed with him, and also recall hearing at the time that he edited a literary/journalistic sort of journal called Lapham’s Quarterly. From a copy of that journal from 2010, I enjoyed his opening essay on unemployment titled “The Servant Problem.”

His preamble speaks of how much the news media look to outperform each other in their “showings of concern” for the unemployed. He quotes the official unemployment rate at 9.4%, but notes that it’s probably nearer to 17%. He says that the stock markets and the country’s corporate profit margins have largely weathered the storm of the recession, but that “unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.” He continues:

Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don’t question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man’s work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help.

The framing of the country’s unemployment trouble as an unfortunate metastasis of the servant problem should come as no surprise. The country is in the hands of an affluent oligarchy content with Voltaire’s reading of its rights. During Ronald Reagan’s terms as president, the income that individual American families received from rents, dividends, and interest surpassed the income earned in wages. Over the last thirty years, the wealth of the emergent rentier class has been sustained by an increasingly unequal sharing of the gross domestic product; the percentage of GDP accounted for by manufacturing fell from 21 to 14 percent, and the percentage accounted for by finance rose from 14 to 21 percent. The imbalances become greater over time; as between compensations awarded to the high-end baskers in the sunshine and those provided to the low-end squatters in the shade, the differential at last count in 2009 stood at 263 to 1. With wealth comes power in Washington, so it’s also no surprise that the government, whether graspingly Republican or scavengingly Democratic, adopts the attitudes and prejudices of the monied sultanate. So do most of the nation’s news media, their showings of concern expressed in the lawn-party voices of the caterers distributing the strawberries.

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