Friday, May 6, 2016

The America We Deserve

The local paper printed an article -- US productivity shrinks again in the first quarter -- in the business section a couple days ago about the ongoing decline in "productivity," which is an economic term meaning how much you can get out of a worker. The article states that rising productivity is necessary for higher living standards for workers, because it allows employers to make more money at a given level of expenses and therefore they can pay workers more.

Productivity has increased an average 2.2 percent per year over the past 68 years, but since 2007 its been headed downward, the article states.

Down at the end it says productivity is declining because wages are so low that it's cheaper for businesses to hire people to do things than to spend money to automate. It notes that the last time productivity shot up was during the 1990s when a lot of things were being "computerized."

In the 1990s I was driving local runs in the Chicago area. A distribution center where I picked up a load almost every day had just installed a computerized sorting system. Instead of sorting everything by hand, boxes moved around the warehouse on conveyors and then past the dock doors, which had semi trailers backed into them. Sensors read the bar codes on the boxes and when a box got to a certain place, an arm pushed it off the conveyor and down a roller and into one of the semi trailers. 

Now, I pick up a load two or three times a week in Albuquerque at a warehouse on Broadway near I-40. Everything is done by hand. Trucks are unloaded by hand, everything is sorted by hand, stacked on pallets by hand and shrink wrapped by hand. One or two workers and I roll the pallets into my truck with "pallet jacks", a kind of manual fork lift that you push by hand. 

All the workers in this warehouse are "temps," by the way.  That entire warehouse has only two employees, the boss and the assistant boss. Every afternoon they figure out how many workers they'll need the next day, and the next morning that many temps show up.

Who are these temps? People who couldn't find a job anyplace else. Presumable they are the people who were laid off in the 1990s when the warehouse in Chicago went fully automated. They've been going from warehouse to warehouse, and now temp agency to agency, their wages steadily declining until they make probably half what they made in 1990.

The article doesn't talk about that, or the fact that the extra money -- the money that used to be shared with the workers and steadily raised their living standards over those 68 years-- now all goes into the pockets of the 1 percent, or rather, into their bank accounts in Panama.

The article doesn't say that the living standards of Americans, on average, are on the way down. Because it's the business section. The paper doesn't have a labor section. No paper or TV or radio station has a labor section, and Democrats stopped uttering the word "union" a long time ago.

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