Monday, February 26, 2007

Reason #16--Everyday People Dying Every Day

As much as I enjoyed many things about the Oscars last night--it's nice to see the recognition of Latino filmmakers and wins for Martin Scorcese, Forrest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson--the adulation of Al Gore made me pretty ill. (At least that CEO married to William Friedkin had the humility to acknowledge that there was nothing particularly unique about having a cause in that crowd.) But most disturbing was the suggestion by the filmmakers of An Inconvenient Truth that this is an important response to Katrina, implying even that Al Gore--one of the architects of the dismantling of welfare in the 90s--doesn't have the blood of the Katrina dead on his hands. It's obscene to call him a hero in that context.

The terrifying possibility that Katrina might be reduced to an issue that can be addressed in terms of climate change misses the point of the violence that storm uncovered--the homicidal violence of poverty and neglect and a system that demands we ignore the murder of an entire class of people cast out.

This brings me to another reason we should be studying Marx in general and Wage, Labor & Capital in particular--Marx's analysis of profit. Marx's big picture ends with why the capitalist system gives us no choice but to fight it. He describes why it can't last; it can't keep from eating itself, and the longer we ignore the forward momentum, the higher the human toll in suffering.

But what fuels the train starts with the fundamental nature of profit. While Marx describes an inescapable fundamental law, like inertia, those who defend capitalism turn superstitious and vague when explaining where profits come from and where the system is going. For starters, they ignore industrialism much less the service economy we live in today. They will insist that supply and demand means that we exchange things of roughly equal value fairly so that everyone thrives. That's a system in which no one would get rich. And that's a system in which the split between the rich and the poor would not continue to widen as it has for over 3 decades now.

Marx's explanation of profit is pretty simple to sketch out, but he did the math over and over again to make sure we got the point, most extensively in Capital, but the concise version is in WL&C.

It goes, roughly, like this. If I cook you a meal and trade that for an equivalent product of time, labor and resources--maybe a bowl you have made that I can use in my work--neither of us gets rich. But if I employ cooks and staff to feed 200 people a day, I can make more money by taking a percentage of my staff’s labor. That percentage that I squeeze out of my workers accumulates, and I get richer.

As Jared Diamond explains in his Pultizer Prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel (a book even an uber capitalist like Bill Gates declares as “a foundation for understanding human history”), all societies that produce rich and poor are essentially the same. “The difference between a kleptocrat [a ruler everyone agrees gets rich by stealing from the people] and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a public benefactor, is merely one of degree..."

Again, to paraphrase Wage, Labor & Capital, the fast food cook's pay has nothing to do with how hard she works, but the franchise owner’s profits do. Whether no one comes in the restaurant all day long and the total intake for the restaurant is less than $48 or whether the the restaurant makes $2000 that day, enough to pay the bus person, the server, the cook, the host, the bussers and the supervisor their combined $300 and profit by 5 times that, the cook gets paid the same.

The cook’s work has been paid for a set price just like the groceries that stock the restaurant's freezer or the salad bar, or the stove and dishwasher the employees use to meet customer's needs.

Even profit-sharing plans today are not figured on the individual's real output or the quality of a day’s work. Those profit sharing plans are figured to allow, first and foremost, for the profit of the company’s major share holders, who can generally buy out the employees whenever they wish.

The system is not built on the value of any individual's labor but on the potential of a class of people to be exploited. And it sure as hell has no respect for the individual who does not hold wealth. This is why today corporations have more civil rights than people do; why it's easier for a corporation to declare bankruptcy than a person. It's also why we'd much rather talk about global warming, inconvenient as it is, than the root cause that ties all of our environmental issues to the reasons why we leave our poor to die as a matter of course, whether or not they get washed down the street.