We’ve All Been Sent to the Cornfield

For ten years I lived in Champaign-Urbana, which is in east-central Illinois. In 1867 there was a problem with the right-hand side of the state curling up on humid days, so they decided to weigh it down by putting a big school there. The resulting University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Champaign would later win the first place of the hyphenation in combat) became an island of learning in a sea of corn. When we arrived in 1993 the mall was at the northern edge of town and you literally saw the paving end and corn begin, stretching to the horizon. If you drove for a few hours you could get somewhere like Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, or, God help you, Kankakee, but any less and you were in a field. One felt as though the city had at some point displeased Billy Mumy and had been exiled to a crop-laden nether-dimension.

I arrived there with thoughts of Network Administration dancing in my head. Having learned about Novell Netware at my previous job I imagined I could come to town and get set up as some place’s network guy, either maintaining one or setting them up. I had overestimated both my own abilities in this arena and the amount of demand in the area. The job I had lined up turned out to be a crappy sales job at a crappy little computer store run by a petty little tyrant. I began a series of such jobs and discovered the ugly secret of Champaign-Urbana.

Having a major university in the middle of nowhere was a boon to the city. Not only was it churning out students at a regular rate, it also brought in partners of students. There were a ton of smart kids who were tied to this very small area. As a result, there was a skewed labor market. Employers knew that they could treat workers however they wanted, pay whatever they wanted, and anyone who didn’t like it was free to leave and hey, on your way out, tell the next person in line there to come in.

A couple years later at one of my crappy jobs we found an org chart for the business that was several months old. We went through hi-lighting the people who were no longer there and when we were done a good three-quarters of the chart was in yellow. And, it was pointed out, this didn’t include the people who came after the chart was made and had already left. This place had no problem burning its workers out because there were always more ready to take their places. There would never be a shortage of people needing a job who couldn’t leave the area and thus had to take whatever was offered.

I tell this story because Tuesday in Wisconsin we saw it decided that this is exactly how the labor market should work. Workers should be kept lean and hungry, desperate for whatever scraps management decides to toss their way, should their dancing amuse the bosses. If someone wants to rock the boat by suggesting that they’d like to see their own home every now and then instead of their work desk, that person can be sent to look at as much as their home as they want to until they can’t pay the rent anymore and a new peon can take his place. If you don’t like this arrangement, that’s fine, get your own enormous pool of capital and start your own business.

If you’re ever at a loss to explain why the Republican Party is behind something, see if it could make labor cheaper for someone. That’s usually the case. For the Republicans (and for once I’m speaking of the actual corporate party leaders, not the Evangelicals they’ve fooled into supporting them) the majority of Americans exist solely to work, consume, and die, their lives serving only to line the pockets of their corporate owners. Our culture reflects this, as health care is inexplicably tied to employment and employment is inexplicably tied to credit rating. As long as you can be squeezed for nickels you can have medicine, but once you use up your financial resources, we’re through with you. Send the next applicant in.

This is why I keep saying that high unemployment is only a problem if you’re looking for a job. If you’re the one handing out jobs, it’s a solution. And the ones with the cash, the ones pouring money into Wisconsin to destroy unions once and for all, they’re the ones who benefit from a glut of weakened and dispirited labor. Give it a few years and we won’t have to farm out low-paying, tedious, long-houred, dangerous factory work to the Chinese, we’ll have people in Iowa begging to assemble iPhones for pennies an hour just to get the healthcare they need because they can’t afford to eat any food except garbage and because they live in environmental wastelands. Now that markets are global, nobody cares if the guy down the street can’t buy your goods or if in fact nobody in the city or country can — someone somewhere can, you can grab the profits, and stash the money somewhere else until it’s ready to buy you a Senator to take care of some pesky speed bump in your way.

Meanwhile, morons who get their view of the world from these same corporations happily vote against unions, against a sane health care system, against bank reform, because they’re told that anything which might give them the tiniest bit of leverage against their financial betters is Socialism and Class Warfare and Un-American. Only a Hitler-loving Stalinist would object to not being able to get heart medication because you got fired from your job once your bare-bones benefits package interfered with someone’s plans to re-do their bathroom in Italian marble. And also meanwhile these same corporations shake their fingers at Obama, not because he’s failed to give them every single thing they want, but because he hasn’t shown them enough deference. They’re going to support Romney because, by God, he’s one of them and he knows who the true Masters of the Universe are. And they will continue to pour millions of dollars into making other people experience “austerity” (a Republican, after all, is a person who will give a politician $100 in order to not have to give a poor person fifty cents.)

Those miserable days in Champaign-Urbana still haunt me. I am thankful that I now have a very good job at a very good place (located in Champaign-Urbana, I should point out) yet sufficiently terrified of what would happen if I should lose that job. I have many friends who are out of work and experiencing just how horrific the job market is. We don’t need it to get any worse than it already is, but there is a well-heeled minority which has shown that it feels things still could get better — for them — and a poorly-educated majority who is willing to make this happen.

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