Like many people working in web technologies I work on contract. My most recent contract has ended. It’s sort of freeing and nerve wracking all at once. Freeing because I can collect unemployment, nerve wracking because unemployment doesn’t last forever. More than that it has me thinking about the state of employment and how it works, specifically in light of the “compromise” that was reached in Washington DC yesterday. The compromise to not tax the rich, not tax corporation, but rather to slash spending broadly. As if this whole financial crisis wasn’t manufactured. This compromise will do a few things to employment 1) it will have a chilling effect on whistle blowers in the workplace, 2) it will increase criminal activity, and 3) if we’re lucky, it will have a massive backlash.
The slashing of trillions of dollars in spending means that the already fragile social safety net in the United States is likely to allow more people to “slip” through the cracks, and by slip I mean be pushed. Starting with Reagan there has been a notion that the mentally ill are better taken care of by their own wits on the street than by professional caregivers in a medical setting, same goes for junkies and other non-functioning drug addicts. The impact this has on the families of those people is immense and harmful. This is most immediately apparent in the lives of children. As hard as it is to have a drug addict for a parent it is only made harder by the lack of services available. One easy conclusion for children to make is that society at large doesn’t care about them. But what does this have to do with work?
When the economy isn’t doing well people are anxious about keeping their jobs. When the economy isn’t doing well and there is no safety net people are so anxious that they’ll endanger their health and well-being to keep their jobs. This includes things like not demanding a respirator because your manager might fire you for asking them to comply with OSHA, or dumping chemicals into a drain even though you know you shouldn’t, I’ve seen these things happen on work sites I’ve been on and it has never been pleasant. I don’t expect that suddenly all workplaces are going to turn into an homage to “The Jungle,” rather slowly as the economy errodes away at the financial health of businesses owners and managers become more tense, more willing to cut off anyone who steps out of line. After all there are a lot of people without jobs who would happily comply with the bosses orders.
This also has an impact on what people expect in a job. Particularly if you work on contract. Things like asking for medical and dental coverage are off the table. As a contractor it’s up to me to provide those things for myself, even if the job market is too competitive for me to charge enough to afford such things. Having no insurance for the last year I often wondered if I would be able to get “charity” care that is offered by some Catholic hospitals (chances are I wouldn’t).
Seattle crime statistics show, amazingly, a 6% drop in major crimes, howeer there was an increase in car theft¹. I think this is a not too surprising. More people out of work means more people trying to get by. And most people aren’t violent. Unlike what some pundits would like people to believe the world isn’t populated by savages barely containing their violence. Rather it’s full of people trying to take care of themselves and their loved ones the best way they know how. So when push comes to shove and you’ve got no way to pay your phone bill it’s more likely, I think, that you’d steal something rather than kill someone. I suspect that the five finger discount is going to become a much more popular method of payment as the economy continues to flounder.
Sweet, blessed, backlash
Things are very different now than they were during the Great Depression. Yet there are similarities. The differences are too many to recount. Some of the highlights though, in some ways we are a slightly more just society (think civil rights movement), communications technology has radically altered people’s ability to find and disseminate information, the ability of moneyed interest to directly influence elections is immense, and the use of social science, particularly psychology, against the general population (advertising, political and otherwise) is at an all time high. It appears that the people who run Washington (the Koch brothers) are perfectly content to endanger the lives of everyone so long as they are making money. Their ideological claims ignore the vast amount of benefit that they have, and continue to, derive from public goods (roads, dams, police, teachers, etc). But they’ll continue to erode the social safety net until their is nothing left. Eventually, presumably, people will throw all of the idiots in DC out. There are a number of ways to do this but I think publicly funded “clean” elections are the key.
As for me, right now, I’m just trying to get through nursing school and figure out whether or not there will still be an unemployment check coming.
1. Seattle Police, 2011, “2010 Crime Statistics” http://www.seattle.gov/police/Crime/10_STATS.HTM