~ TV beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on work“Ahhh, work: the curse of the drinking classes.”
~ Oscar Wilde. No, seriously.
Much of the field of economics is devoted to analyzing the phenomenon called work. Essentially, there are things you want done, and it is human nature to want other people to do them so you don't have to do them yourself.
When there is a body of work you want done, and a body of bodies you can get to do the work for you, then it's customary to divide the work into the amount that you want each body to do for you. Consequently, each one has a job. A person thus gainfully employed is known by the Yiddish term, schlep.
When there is no other way to induce or trick the schlep to do the work, it's customary to give him something of value. This is called the pay for the work.
But there's always another way. Two of the most commonly used are:
- The schlep gets told that the business survives on informality, and being a stickler on trivial points such as bounced paychecks is a sign of bad teamwork. (Although things got very formal when you arrived ten minutes late last Tuesday.)
- The Vice President in his silk business suit appears in the workplace and declares that this insistence on timely payment disappoints me.
History of work
The first people who seemingly had to work for a living were the Egyptians. The Pharaoh was so fed up seeing people lying around that he ordered the building of the pyramids. This was the planet's first Stimulus Program, as the huge mounds of stone served no purpose but to house the Pharaoh when he clocked out of this world and into the next one. The economy turned really bad a few years later and the Pharaoh ordered one pyramid disassembled and moved five yards to the north as a more intensive Stimulus Program. In those days, no one asked, "What is this all for?" as such questions tended to be answered with death. The need to work was quickly learned, compared to the present, when it remains unlearned after four years of college.
- Work under the Jews
The concept of work as a moral duty had to wait for Judaism, but even they believed that debts could be written off after a while. However, they had no concept of original sin, and no box of afterlife tortures to frighten those who didn't punch in on Sunday. It is because work was formalized in Biblical times that the economic terms surrounding work are described using Yiddish.
- Work under the Christians
When the Christians took over the Roman Empire, they legitimized the six-day work week, declaring Sunday the day of rest. (Sunday was originally named for the Sol Invictus Imperial cult.) This was a change from the Roman system, where they partied for a solid week, once a year, and then were on for 358 straight. Of course, for the clerics, Sunday was the God workday, which means they had the other six off. For aristocrats, work was a diversion for those less well-bred; only the nobility had the right to leisure. God was fine with having peasants do your work, as long as you gave generously to the Church to pay priests to do your praying.
- Christian reformers
This was how it would be for the next 15 centuries. Then Martin Luther marched to Wittenberg and said he "had a dream" and that the road to salvation wasn't giving money to the Pope but instead working your breeches off. In a speech he nailed to the Bishop of Wittenberg, Luther said God actually approved of people working hard; it would make them appreciate how lucky they were to be granted life in a wicked world.
That this essay comprised 96 theses despite making only five or six solid points was because Martin Luther had stumbled onto the concept of overtime. Much of the material was developed during late-night sessions with only candles for light. The true lesson, that your best work isn't done during the fourteenth hour of the workday even if you're being paid time-and-a-half, would remain undiscovered.
In Geneva, Jean Calvin went further and said that, even if God had predestined everyone for Heaven or Hell, hard work might grant you at least an interview with the Divine Authority before the eternal flames licked your ass.
In England, where the Anglican Church became official, Elizabeth II tried to keep a balance between fun (which she liked) and work (which she didn't). She was opposed by the hard-line workaholics, the Puritans. They eventually decided that England was too "lazy" and took ship to the Americas to make a fresh start and enshrine the idea that if you worked hard, God would reward you. Or so it said on the tin.
The United States was founded and grew westward under the dominance of the Protestant work ethic, which held that you are less Godly duded up and chanting Latin in church than you are plowing the field in overalls and muttering small Anglo-Saxon words. (For females, Godliness involved both being a mother and being a virgin.) The pinnacle of this ethic was America's hallmark twin institutions, child labor and the sweatshop, whose latter-day repeal epitomizes the nation's decline, a decline accelerated by uncontrolled immigration of people from places where work consists of looking up and waiting for lunch to fall out of a tree.
Work in the United States
Amount of work
When the Pilgrims colonized America, there were famously only several thousand jobs. Currently, there are nearly two hundred million jobs in the United States. No one knows how or why that number increased, because for most of the history of the U.S. there were no jobs programs at all.
During the Bush administration, there were hundreds of jobs programs, but the number of jobs decreased. Everyone knows why this happened; jobs were being "outsourced" and sent "offshore", though no one has ever seen a job pass through Customs, and no one has ever gone to prison for being caught smuggling a job into or out of any country. Even two people carrying a desk across the border would attract suspicion.
Now, the pro-labor Obama administration has turned the tide. It has proposed higher business taxes, new rules for employer-provided health insurance, and certification of unions without those pesky secret ballots. His Secretary of Labor has touted her tighter enforcement of wage-and-hour and job-safety laws. And still no one is hiring. Go figure!
Every government in the world believes that any job done by a foreigner results in exactly one fewer job for a voting citizen. This is why tourists are not allowed to do anything useful during their vacation, even in the case that one's wallet gets stolen, and the most prosperous countries in Latin America throw a fit if you bring along a gadget that might be used productively, such as a computer or a movie camera.
Both Bush and Obama have ministered to a weak economy with "stimulus programs", where the government pays the schleps to do work that either would have been done anyway, or would not have been done anyway. Whichever is the case, you can see the utility of stimulus programs.
Where does the pay come from? Economists believe it is one of the following:
- From our grandchildren
- It is borrowed from Red China, which will never call for repayment, or even for us to abrogate our defense treaties
- The pay isn't real, but the schleps are too stupid to notice.
Another job-creation idea is that there would be more work for the unemployed if the productive people did less of it. The United States pioneered the 40-hour work week; later, France dealt with a recession by mandating a 36-hour work week (18 hours, excluding time spent on smoking breaks and kissing co-workers on the cheeks). It stands to reason that, if you stopped working late, the guy in the back office would put down the copy of Hustler and instantly pick up the slack. Labor unions apply this theory to improve the common good, by frequently ensuring that no one does any work at all.
Countries from Zimbabwe to El Humidor have extended this theory, believing that peasants will have more work if the government ensures that other people do not hoard all the work to themselves. Both countries have broken up entire industries to redistribute work to the little guy (notably, the little guy carrying a sign in support of the Maximum Leader). This conveniently puts jobs under the control of people who know nothing about the business or even about work.
"Good jobs at good wages"
Michael Dukakis was the first U.S. Presidential candidate to advocate "good jobs at good wages", as opposed to the jobs that would exist if he were not President. Even though he never became President, the government has promoted this goal in the following ways:
- It ensures that jobs at a bad wage (anything under $7.25 an hour) are illegal, even if you and your boss agree to it.
- It sends inspectors into workplaces to ensure compliance, and that every job is safe and that none create a "hostile or threatening" work environment. This is judged by the prudish old maid who doesn't like the centerfold on your wall, the summer intern who is convinced that every sidelong glance means you hate him, the man who wears a dress to work and scares away the customers, and of course the young black man constantly inventing reasons why the rest of you are racists.
- To know where to send the inspectors, it requires registration of all employers. Radio commentator Mark Levin hired a professional from New York, and when the forms from New York State rolled out of his fax machine, regretted aloud that he had not tried Pakistan instead.
- Certain professions are entirely regulated. Notoriously, no one can become a licensed hairdresser in the District of Columbia without taking a long course in grooming white people's hair, and no one can become a cabbie in New York City without certification that his dialect is inscrutable.
The Humphrey-Hawkins Act gives the Federal Reserve the duty to promote "full employment". The only way it could do this is by making the value of the dollar go to hell. But don't worry, it also has the legal duty to defend the value of the dollar.
When a person cannot find work, he ceases to be a schlep and becomes a client, eligible to receive unemployment compensation. He will live a lifestyle to which the British have assigned the excellent term, being on the suck.
Regularly, and especially leading up to an election, Congress increases the amount of compensation available. In 2009, despite the immediate success of the Obama stimulus, Congress proposed 14 extra weeks of compensation for workers in states with high unemployment. This gave Congressmen from low-unemployment states the chance to shed tears in the hearing room; ultimately, they got 14 extra weeks, the high-unemployment states got 20 extra weeks, and the bidding ended. Workers throughout America can now get pay for over a year without working, and your Congressman proved he cares about your plight.
If this seems like a perfect con, there is a catch. The former schlep must report to the unemployment office periodically to prove he is looking for a new job. In most cases, he must prove he has gone to a certain number of job interviews every week. A typical job interview goes something like this:
- Employer: Well, then, what are your skills?
- Schlep: I glue together phonograph records.
- Employer: We don't produce phonograph records. No one does any more. What else can you do?
- Schlep: I'm very good with phonograph records. And my old job paid $15 an hour. That's what I'm worth.
Oddly, most such interviews do not lead to employment, and the schlep has no choice but to continue receiving benefits. On the third of the month, a new check will arrive, the schlep will be buying everyone drinks at the bar, and they will have to listen to him complain that "there isn't any" [work].
Work outside the United States
Economists analyze the phenomenon of work by dividing the world into regions: Richie-Bitches, European Maggots, and Sand-Diggers.
In Canada, work is similar to work in the United States, because of the phenomenon of imitation. However, Canadian workers tend to spend much of their work time throwing crumpled pieces of paper at each other and apologizing profusely. Occasionally, a game of "Balled-up Vital Document Hockey" is started. The victors of these games often expect tickets to the next game of their favorite hockey team.
In some enlightened European countries (as well as Britain and France), work consists mostly of surfing the Internet for pornography whenever the boss is not looking. For this, the workers expect health benefits and new snow scrapers.
In Japan, the activities constituting work are the same as they are elsewhere. However, the workers sit facing each other alongside very long tables. The boss sits at one end of the table and stares at all the workers; only thus can he keep them all working. The arrangement is unimaginable to Britons, except in boarding houses at mealtime. If an attack of "the giggles" breaks out, the boss frowns, and it stops. His boss appears from time to time. He usually sits in the corner and goes to sleep before long, but the workers all feel honored by his presence.
Economists use the term Second World to refer to the countries in which the Second World War was fought; roughly, the remnants of the old Soviet Union. In these struggling countries, which have at least cast off their yoke of central planning (freeing up time from the former "day job"), work consists mostly of scouring the Black Market for useful goods on the cheap, and reselling them for blue jeans or Marlboros without keeping any paperwork.
In the former Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe, work involves moving rocks, spitting on uranium to make it decay faster, or herding chickens into a pen with no walls. The pay is in pieces of toilet paper with the Russian currency sign on them. You can trade this paper for more of the same paper, and a stack of it was recently worth 3 American cents.
In the Third World (or as they are now known, the developing nations), work consists of various ways of combining utter absence of capital with total lack of job skills and dearth of usable raw materials. This takes the following forms:
- Dirt farming: scraping a monoculture cash crop out of drought-ridden soil for a multinational corporation
- Assembling products that the assemblers will never actually be able to buy.
Work here pays about US$1 per week, which is usually enough to either feed or clothe a family of four.