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Economic Crisis

Cheats, Shoots and Thieves: The No-Depression Gang's New Slang

Among the various memes one encounters in the wilds of the Web, two of the most durable have been those of the so-called “birthers” (those who maintain that President Obama is definitely a foreign-born usurper, probably a communist and possibly a soccer fan) and those of the Federal Reserve and its ever pliant partner, the U. S. Treasury Department.

On the former I can say very little ( The Situationist, however, presents this interesting “birther” profile). Certainly, to that 80 percent of Americans who do not have a passport, Obama can only appear as being of flirting American-ness.

On the latter I can say a good deal more. “Green shoots” are this year’s UFOs: certain folks claim to see them everywhere, while a good many others nowhere. It’s a frustrating thing. I know people who’ve seen a UFO, but I know many more people who haven’t — and I haven’t seen one myself.

So, as one of the un-paranormal, I can say from where I sit things look pretty freaky.

The whole “green-shoots” thing puzzles me particularly, predicated as it is on an even more puzzling “jobless recovery” (another meme that’s been rattling around the blogosphere). The latter seems to range beyond the strange late-70s phenomenon of stagflation. It suggests that market rallies now enjoy absolutely no relationship to conditions on the ground — job growth, credit expansion, consumer spending (all of which have stalled or contracted).

Could it be that all these “green shoots” taking root in a still-contracting job market are simply bailout monies churning through the financial markets, goosed along with liberal massaging by the President’s Working Group and its fabled Plunge Protection Team?

Such speculation threatens to carry one off to the lunatic fringe, which, along with birthers, is populated by an unprepossessing gaggle of Birchers, goldbugs, Goldwater-bearers, as well as the usual equal-opportunity paranoiacs. Something … um … unusual is certainly afoot, though. The August 11 edition of Bloomberg featured this article on the current recovery’s strange magic. The lead says it all:

The productivity of U.S. workers grew in the second quarter at the fastest pace in almost six years as employers slashed payrolls to bolster profits.

The dry, matter-of-fact phrasing makes for a singularly misleading lead. What’s remarkable is (à la Pierre Macherey) what it doesn’t state directly: namely, the factors contributing to increased productivity. The causal relationship is so apparent as to hide in plain sight. Today’s slashing is yesterday’s lashing. American workers are as afraid of lay-offs as hapless Southern slaves were of the overseer’s whip.

And a frightened worker is a productive worker. In case anyone should wonder just how productive, the Bloomberg story serves up some hard figures:

Productivity, a measure of how much an employee produces for each hour worked, rose at an annual 6.4 percent pace, more than forecast, after a 0.3 percent gain the prior three months, Labor Department data showed today in Washington. Labor costs fell by the most in eight years.

Technological improvements may be partly responsible. But equally responsible, I’m certain, is the constant — and now probably quite insistent — exhortation to “best practice,” a sordid little corporate meme, dripping with obsequy and thinly veiled menace; a phrase meant to sound encouraging but is, if parsed correctly, coercive rhetoric meant to extract surplus value from laborers.

Slob growth: downsized Americans to seek solace in tittie-tainment.

Slob growth: downsized Americans to seek solace in titty-tainment.

Generation Bubble’s own Rob Horning makes a similar observation in a column for Pop Matters. “What happened to the worker’s bargaining power?” he asks:

Have firms squeezed it away by extracting more productivity from fewer employees? Has the shift to an economy that makes fewer and fewer tangible things and deals instead with information lead to a structural, fundamental devaluing of labor?

Economist Arnold Kling has argued that in the current crypto-recovery, “we are superimposing a heterogeneous labor force on top of a trend of rapid productivity growth.” Translated into English, that means that lost jobs aren’t being replaced with ones that the unemployed can actually perform, while those lucky enough to still be employed are being worked harder to keep output levels stable.

Connect the dots and the picture points to most of us being totally useless, relegated to animal existences of  “titty-tainment” and barely-there welfare, while a small auxiliary of skilled peons does the work of nations:

Smaller workforces have helped stem the slump in profits. For the second quarter, 72.2 percent of S&P 500 companies beat consensus earnings estimates, just below the 72.3 percent share five years ago that was the highest since at least 1993, data compiled by Bloomberg showed as of yesterday.

Welfare states require huge sums of revenue — as well as an ideologically mobilized populace given incentive to work for something other than the potential to make piles of cash. If Americans were able to clear this ideological hurdle, the problem remains of selling the tiny contingent of overworked employed on pumping pap to the idle masses.

Most Americans will perhaps never be cured of the desire to become rich, but, if the trend reported in the Bloomberg article continues along its present course, they’ll surely be cured of the means.

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Anton Steinpilz

Rob Horning

Ylajali Hansen