Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rage Against The Machine

I stopped at my local convenience store, a brand ubiquitous in New Jersey, before picking up my kid to drop her off at school. In the parking lot, there were the usual assortment of contractor's trucks with their owners sipping coffee and smoking, the fog of both combining in the chill morning air to make individually-sized clouds. I imagined that these men were tired at the early hour, contemplating the jobs they were going to do today and thinking about what was next. Their pickups and vans, variously festooned with ladders, buckets and gigantic toolboxes, steel and copper pipe, wire and wood, idled dutifully.

Inside, I stopped at the ATM. I usually carry no cash, instead faithfully relying on my bank card to provide for me and to also track my spending. Next to the cash machine was a lottery dispenser with four columns of five rows of tickets. A man was counting out a large quantity of twenties, oddly cheering himself on. He looked up. "Sorry, man," he said and moved his cigarettes, coffee and cash to the magazine rack. People are awful polite around these parts. I withdrew what I needed and as I walked to the counter, he was at the lottery machine, buying tickets, one after another. His version of a 401K, I thought.

When I got to the counter, I saw that the attendant was a guy I had seen last on Saturday night when I came down for cigs because I couldn't sleep and didn't want to run out. He was about my age, maybe a little older and very well-spoken. Behind the apron and cap could have been a former captain of industry, someone who took one risk too many in business or misplayed the office politic. Maybe he just got too old.

I'd been thinking about this guy for the last few days. This morning, I struck up some conversation. I asked him if it had been busy so far. "It's been about average, though post-election, one would think there's be more movement on the papers," he said, gesturing to the magazine rack which indeed had big stacks of newspapers. Most of the front pages either had images of deposed Democrats or victorious Republicans, whose hands were held high in salute. I nodded. On his hand, I saw he wore no wedding ring, but he did has another ring, gold, with a beaver motif. "MIT?," I asked, pointing to his ring. There was no one behind me in line, so I took a chance. He seemed to fold into himself and shortly answered, "Yeah. What can I get you?" I asked for my brand and said, "So, are the Republicans going to fix this job market for us?" He turned back with the read and white pack and seemed to brighten a bit. He said, "Not for people like us. Six ten, please." I gave him the cash and requested I also get back two fives. He wished me a good day and went into standby mode, ready for the next customer.

After dropping my kid at school, I wondered what his story was. MIT grad, a little past middle age, working nights at the Seven Chek: what phenomenal life event befell this gent? I went back to find out. His shift was ending and I asked if we could talk. He looked at me like I was crazy. I told him that I was a freelance writer thinking about on piece on the underemployed. He said, "Give me a few minutes," which I did. For the purposes of this piece, let's call the MIT clerk "Paul." He met me outside. I asked him how an MIT grad came to be working overnights at a convenience store in the northwest corner of New Jersey. On condition of anonymity, this is what he said: "I was an engineer with (company name withheld) and they just decided one day to ship a third of the design spots to India and China. They laid off more people last month. My department was wiped out. They said they wanted to increase competitiveness. So, they took the most experienced people they had and fired them - overnight." He emphasized the last word. He explained that, at his age, 55, it was virtually impossible to get employed. I asked if he thought retraining would help. "Retrain for what? I have all of the latest certifications. There's nothing more for me to learn at this point." So why not just collect unemployment until you can find something in the field? "My unemployment ran out and it just so happens that they (congress) didn't re-up (extend) it, so what should I do?" Did you think about moving? "I have a house here. We're renting out right now and staying with my wife's brother. It's impossible for me to just move." I apologized and thanked him for talking to me. I didn't tell him that what he had just told me made me very queasy.

Think about it: excellent education, excellent experience, excellent credentials, no work. And no prospects of work, except for Quik Eleven, maybe WalMart, if they loosened the hiring purse strings and did some seasonal acquisition of staff. But neither of these entities would be filling a position that required an expert engineer. And it isn't as if Paul doesn't want to work - he's working, but it's a waste.

If Paul's case were an isolated incident - maybe he just doesn't play well with other, you might surmise, though his resume says otherwise - it could be written off as sour grapes. But in the last ten years, more high-paying, skilled and expert technical jobs have either gone away or gone overseas than have been created. And the majority of those enjoying employment at that level in this country are between 25 and 40 years old. Further, according to Emy Sok, an economist in the Division of Labor Force Statistics, older people, once out of work, stay out longer than their below 40 counterparts, by as much as twelve weeks. And when they do find work, it's part-time or ex-career.

America is supposed to be globally competitive, but that apparently doesn't mean the utilization of the most powerful resource we have - brain power. "Our most important asset is our people," say the corporate talking heads. They fail to mention that those "people" are likely enjoying a chauffeured commute to work from their luxurious homes just outside of Mumbai or Shanghai. They leave out the part where those resources are trained right here in America where, on graduation, they go home, back where the Good Life is actually achievable. And that's our newest export: The American Dream.

Our government has made Paul's plight a surety by encouraging foreign corporations to "invest" in the U.S. market and create jobs, but take their profits and the taxes that go along with them back overseas. These foreign companies aren't evil, just good business people. At the same time, newly-elected Republican Senator Rand Paul and his cohorts, like Alaska's Joe Miller and California's Meg Whitman variously oppose or question the validity of a Federal minimum wage. Connecticut's Linda McMahon, who spent an incredible fifty MILLION dollars or her senate campaign, and lost, by the way, didn't dispute the need to review the needs of business in terms of the minimum wage. Recently, at a National Independent Federation of Businesses event, she said, "I think we ought to look at all of those issues in terms of what mandates are being placed on businesses and can they afford them." And if they can't? Off with the heads of the workers?

I live in an area of the state that's pretty red. It's not uncommon to see confederate flag and "Impeach Obama" bumper stickers next to silver silhouettes of a girl lacrosse player on the back of a Town and Country or F-250. But I would like to doubt that my neighbours are secretly all militia members, running off to shooting practice just as soon at they drop little George off at Tae Kwon Do practice. Yet, there seems to be some confusion about how things like how government stimulus spending actually creates jobs that generate taxes, that keeps people from sucking up unemployment insurance resources, that helps to reduce home foreclosures that keeps taxes flowing into municipalities that rely on real estate taxes to fund operation like local schools, police forces and fire departments. That's a pretty straight line from A to B. Same thing with "Obamacare," which was, after all, passed by both houses of congress, both Democrats and Republicans. The health care reform is meant to REDUCE health insurance costs by spreading out the risk. It's like going to a restaurant and equally splitting the bill, see? Your friend may be ordering lobster while you're ordering a hamburger, but one day, you'll inevitably be going for the surf and turf and the scales will be in balance. Also, your daughter can't be denied a life-saving liver transplant as was the case with seventeen-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan last year. Yes, she died. The real Death Panels? Could it be the health insurance companies?

Those contractors sipping their very hot coffee outside where Paul is working because he has to, career essentially done, will benefit from more government, from Obamacare and job creation. Yet, they oppose it. Why? Because they don't want to be told what to do? Republicans have their daily talking points and Fox telling these folks the way it's going to be. The Democrats, unwilling to offend anyone, say nothing. Change is coming, say the newly victorious Republicans. In the meantime, Paul's making his own change - two-fives-for-a-ten at a time.