Swans Commentary » swans.com August 15, 2011  



The Great Satan


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - August 15, 2011)   I am beginning to believe Hollywood is far from the liberal Mecca that political conservatives claim it to be. Recently the Captain America movie was released and that moment was perhaps historically significant since it is based upon a comic strip released during the World War II period to strengthen American patriotism and mock Hitler's Nazi ambitions.

The release of the movie could not be any more antithetical to liberalism but that is not to say that Hollywood is or has been historically immune to selling movies used to promote American exceptionalism or give us a feel good story that blankets dubious American problematic domestic or foreign policy.

I somewhat allowed Hitler to drop out of the discussion (obviously fighting Nazism was a righteous goal) but I want to draw a parallel in a point blank question: who is the enemy now? Who is now the Great Satan? Our triumphalist narratives have seen America defeat Nazism, defeat communism, and apparently Islamic extremism with bin Laden's killing. Islamic extremism (much less Islam itself), until the Norway bombings, had been interchangeable with terrorism in the American consciousness. But for some reason, persisting social ills such as poverty and joblessness, the very fruits of the current recession, seem to not evoke a sense of urgency to combat them: as if they are almost natural occurrences within capitalist economies. I often chuckle when free market economists (recently the Obama administration has echoed these same assumptions) claim that joblessness has resulted because skill sets have diminished, and that there are a lot of jobs out there now but that people who are unemployed lack the skills to take those jobs.

This is a false conception that seems to view capitalism as a merit system, where the winners always are the best skilled and the losers are always the least skilled. Aside from this explanation of capitalism as an inherently Darwinistic system (another bad assumption), we should look at how the system actually works. First, we've noticed recently reports of employers summarily rejecting the applications of jobseekers who are currently unemployed. (1) This is a hiring process that does not even take into consideration the applicant's skill set and accomplishments and instead views being employed as a merit in its own right.

But this says nothing about the applicant's ability to do the job: it simply associates the state of being unemployed or impoverished as an impediment to ability without any demonstration. If a Web wizard can produce a good Web site, his economic status seems to be accidental and have no bearing on his skills.

Skill or merit have always been, at least in recent decades, a fuzzy issue for employers because, on the one hand, they cannot always pay top dollar for the best applicant. On the other hand, employers also fear that if they do hire the best applicant, the applicant will bolt for a higher paying job. So, many times employers will hire the least skilled applicant who is less of a risk to leave the job for another. They can pay that applicant less than the higher skilled applicant and train the lower skilled applicant to do the job.

Or the employer, if it has access to world labor markets, can simply outsource or hire foreign laborers to work for pennies on the dollar in a highly skilled position. This is another misconception of capitalism: that it will pay the most skilled the best salary. Access to foreign labor markets by American employers gives them access to markets in which the quality of living is lower and consequently wages are lower.

Where's the patriotism in that?

Second, this summary rejection of job applications has also come at the expense of accessing applicants' credit reports. Employers have also resorted to the tactic of equating creditworthiness with job worthiness. This is un-American for two reasons. First consider that it was the recklessness of the financial industry that caused this recession. Creditworthiness ought to work both ways. But second, the continuing economic crisis has forced individuals to rely on credit for some of the most basic necessities because of the lack of jobs or stagnation of wage increases. So, many US households are carrying debt. Another corollary is that the student population is not finding jobs and many students are graduating with $20,000 or more in debt, (2) they will be in the job lines in debt or pushed to the brink on their debts. Denying them employment because of their debt keeps them from paying it down. The only areas where creditworthiness ought to be a factor is in financial-related positions, but even that is somewhat laughable considering that we actually had financial industry insiders, insiders who probably had good credit, who nonetheless took the American consumer for a ride.

So where is our triumphalist narrative on poverty and joblessness? Hollywood, far from being the liberal behemoth, is afraid of taking on these subjects but it is merely doing the same thing that the White House, Congress, and the corporate media are doing: pretend that unemployment is not a human tragedy of epic proportion. Enough about there being plenty of jobs available and too few people skilled enough to take them: American employers have no reason to hire now because they have long decided that they can do with the number of employees that they have. But I would even suggest as well that perhaps we have peaked at our creative potential. Green energy, for example, will take long to catch on and by the time we are actually facing an oil shortage, the current oil magnates will have long had their hands all over the technology. ExxonMobil, Conoco Phillips, and a host of other companies already have divisions devoted to research and development of green energy. But the collective will for green energy is nonexistent and will continue to be so until a real oil shortage takes hold of markets.

The Great Satan is not terrorism. The Great Satan is not the federal government, as the Tea Party degenerates would like to proclaim. A society where more individuals have not only moderate wealth and access to basic public services tends to have less social tension that those that do not. But right now, debt brought on by unemployment, underemployment, and wage stagnation is decimating the middle class, driving down innovation, and clearly creating only an obscenely wealthy class and poor class. The Great Satan, that which caused this crisis in the first place, is the combination of financial industry misdeeds and the economic ideologies that permitted them to occur. I do not understand why no one has made the suggestion that the primary drawback of laissez faire economics is that businesses get to make their own rules about how to deal with consumers and the public. With no common moral framework or incentive to guide businesses to act morally towards consumers and to the public, businesses are left to their own whims. And in any historical instance in which businesses were left to their own whims, the desire for profit often superseded the goal of doing right by the consumer. Most importantly, the sickness of this economy is that businesses and the wealthy appear to be profiting from the very joblessness and unjust wages they say is caused by taxes and government regulation. So far we have had an extension of the Bush tax cuts and other tax incentives given to businesses in the most recent stimulus package. But this anemic job growth should once and for all shatter the free market myth that there is a direct or indirect causal relation between tax breaks for the wealthy and businesses and job creation.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/.   (back)


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1.  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/opinion/20sun2.html  (back)

2.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/22/average-student-debt-2400_n_772276.html  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 15, 2011