Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Equivalency Exam: Soybeans and Labor

Strong societies form, grow and improve through capitalistic activity. Up to a point.  A point Western society passed 20 years ago with the Internet’s arrival.

We’re now one global economy, people.  Mourn the atavistic American Dream all you want, but crying won’t change a damn thing. (I’m sad, too. But I’m a capitalist who hates delusional thinking more than I fear change.)

Modern capitalism mystifies. Owning the means of production no longer puts you in charge of your economic destiny. Being a worker – whether unskilled or multi-degreed – puts your labor on the global market to be priced, diced and sliced as a commodity. It’s galling. It’s also reality. Many of us have yet to accept this fact.

I winced while reading the August 17 NYT story about union workers fighting wage cuts at the highly profitable Mott’s factory:

Tim Budd, a 24-year employee who belongs to the union’s bargaining team, said he was shocked by one thing the plant manager said during negotiations.
“He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down,” Mr. Budd recalled. “He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour. It made me sick to have someone sit across the table and say I’m not worth the money I make.”

I empathize with and share Mr. Budd’s plight. But so does the lawyer whose practice competes with Mumbai attorneys; the North Carolina chocolate artist whose livelihood is threatened by one guy, Anthony Ward, who’s managed to corner the world cocoa market; the sick-making Mott manager whose job can end any time the Dr Pepper Snapple board decides to shutter his plant.

We are all at the mercy of this merciless system. I don’t see how individuals can win within its confines. And I don’t know what will happen next. Revolution? Maybe.

Or maybe we’re asking the wrong question.

Mr. Budd laments having his worth diminished via lowered wages. True, in economic terms. But what if we started asking ourselves about worth-metrics outside the capitalistic system? Could societies improve through people uniting to increase worth that cannot be measured in dollars? It’s difficult to wrap our brains around the concept, so entrenched are we in money-minded methodologies.

I believe we should try. If global capitalism is a game we cannot “win”, let’s find another. I’ll play if you will.