Keep an eye on the literal bottom line of the following series of payroll workforce tables from the Social Security Administration. Let’s use 2006 as our baseline, and see how real, or surreal, shit got in the heartland:
2007: Groovy shit, man.
2008: Oh shit.
2011: Thank you Jesus!
2014: Numbers unavailable at press time due to the leisurely pace of government, but while we await them in joyful hope for something not horrific, did anybody notice that the working-age population grew year over year throughout the secular payroll crackup?
(Please be reassured that the Social Security Administration traditionally provides equal protection under the law to all members of the American public without regard to race, color, creed, religion, proclivity to beseech all the angels and saints in heaven for intercession in our earthly affairs, proclivity to call Catholics pagan heretics for praying for the deceased, misappropriation of the Hail Mary for intercession in so vulgar a game as football, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, overuse of passive-aggressive hippie parlance, or unfortunate tendency to join Crystal Harris in referring to groovy shit as “fun stuff.” It is SSA policy to leave crude religious tests under government auspices where they belong: at the United States Air Force Academy.)
A 2.9% drop in a single calendar year in the total number of American workers declaring any payroll income at all at a time when the working-age population is increasing “just happens” in the same way that Hurricane Katrina “just happened.” In both cases, the living situation for a whole fucking bunch of Americans suddenly became very precarious, and the only thing that stood a chance of holding the line against total chaos was government intervention. The net compensation intervals on the charts that I linked start at $0.01-$4,999.99. Literally, if you declared one red cent in payroll income to the IRS in any year from 2006 to 2013, you’re on the chart. Congratulations on your accomplishment.
These charts include everyone from Bill Gates to the carny fry cook who, after being ordered into the walk-in freezer for a food safety lecture because a customer had seen him eating french fries straight out of the tray, decided, “gaaah, this job is bullshit,” and walked out. (That’s a true story from Hersheypark, except for the happy ending: dude sulked through his lecture and returned to the fry line. Look, they can’t always schedule the A Team.) There are probably people on that list who worked one partial shift in a calendar year and were lucky enough to work for an employer that doesn’t commit wage theft against its short-timers. The mean wage amounts in the under $5,000 intervals are consistently well under $2,500, so there are obviously a lot of short-timers in the mix. In 2013, the bottom interval of over 23 million workers had an average annual wage of $2,041. It’s possible to flake out of another minimum-wage position every month or two after a week on the job and still earn more by the end of the year than ten million Americans who earned enough payroll income to justify filing a 1040.
This does not, of course, count the tens of millions of working-age Americans who earned no payroll income at all and therefore had neither the obligation nor the incentive to file a federal tax return. In 2009, it also did not include a cohort of adults equivalent to something like the combined populations of Los Angeles and San Jose who suddenly found themselves unable to get so much as the chance to fail out of the 7-Eleven cashiering pool on day one. In-n-Out’s online recruitment and personality testing system shitcanned my application in 2010 or 2011. Perhaps it wafted yours into the ether on a one-way trip to Kafkaland, too. There’s no Out, just In, but not to worry, there’s plenty of room for comers to get screwed in the squeezebox.
It’s another Great Depression, all right. Just like the first time around, we have a mindboggling rogues’ gallery of Pollyannas, dogmatic agorist twits, work ethic scolds, fuckwads concern-trolling the treasury over all the money it will lose to relief programs, and sheltered bankers and industrialists popping out of the woodwork to insist that government is getting in the way of the free market’s exquisite process of self-correction, further softening the hands of a pampered generation, and threatening to destroy the greatest economy in the world with its tepid efforts to implement partial socialism. What we’re missing so far is any shared sacrifice by the well-heeled capital market cowboys who plunged us into this mess (many of the wealthy took Parris Island haircuts in the thirties) and a hard-knocks cultural touchstone like “Brother can you spare a dime?”. That is, if anything, we’re less able to properly deal with the consequences of letting every dipshit with a toe in the markets set his own limits for investing on margin, or even to understand what the fuck has been happening since the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, farmland ownership has been concentrated by something like an order of magnitude since the 1930’s, depriving millions of hard-up Americans the faintest chance of being able to crash back into a real economy from the pretend money economy that got their country screwed six ways to Sunday. Gee, wasn’t that a smart way to deal with land tenure.
It’s clear that the mainstream media and the national political establishment have put their heads into the quicksand. This isn’t as novel as it may seem. We have the Great Recession because, well, the Great Depression was really bad and we can’t have another one, so we’ll talk our way out of economic reality rather than trying to improve it with policies that make a lick of sense. Not coincidentally, we also have mainstream media blackouts on the racial nature and severity of black-on-white street assaults. The newspapers of the thirties responded to the stock market crash and its ramifications with a fair amount of cheap boosterism, and they capitulated to requests from police chiefs that they neuter their reporting of certain armed robberies and kidnappings for ransom, lest they alarm the public and inspire copycats.
It’s understandable that major media outlets would be beholden to their scumbag advertisers, but American politicians, being popularly elected, are harder to explain when they defend the indefensible cretins who got us into this mess. The revanchist Depression-era industrialists, of course, assumed that they had the political class safely in their pockets and became infuriated when Roosevelt showed his true colors. Thankfully, saner minds, both FDR’s and those of the wiser industrialists, prevailed, no mean feat at a time when Europe was teetering on the brink of engulfment by a remilitarized Germany. It makes some sense that we moderns would have Chateau Heartiste as our redux of Father Charles Coughlin, at least as a marginal figure and an object lesson in why reform cannot wait, but there’s a certain derangement in the political class today not understanding that this shit is serious. Elizabeth Warren is quite a dark horse to be our second coming of FDR, and not made of the purest ethical stuff, perhaps, what with her conveniently part-Cherokee youth, but if she sounds bad, take a look at the alternatives. Hillary Clinton? Fuckin’ A. At the state level, we’ve been blessed with cryptofascist crooks like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and Bobby Jindal and authoritarian kooks like Nikki Haley and Ken Cuccinelli, the MRA Froot Loops who came within a few votes of the Virginia governorship.
It’s worth asking how mountebanks and wackos like the ones on this very incomplete list continue to achieve anything remotely resembling political success by foaming at the mouth about the paramount importance of the internal locus of control and the evils of basic government services at a time when American society has so obviously been ravaged by unchecked individualism. At the risk of being a bit facile, one explanation is Boomers. They vote, and the rest of us don’t. Case closed: if the bailiff will please take the defendants into custody and seize their assets for redistributive purpose, the court would like to dismiss the jurors and thank them for their service. Of course, we, in our presumable capacity as something other than the Second (?) Greatest Generation, could start fixing this by fucking showing up at the polls for a change, but just because I usually see something worth voting for or against on my permanent vote-by-mail ballots doesn’t mean that my age peers do.
We could also stop being headfaked by the ridiculous insinuation that it’s somehow unbecoming or unethical to register to vote in closed primaries under the affiliation of a party whose platform we don’t positively adore. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of Trojan Horse registration, and a lot right with it. It’s a good way to annoy wingnut asshats and encourage political leaders to appeal to voters who aren’t completely fucking insane. If I recall correctly, I’m still registered as a Humboldt County Republican, and bitch yes, I voted for Moonbeam 2:1 and Moonbeam 2:2. I might not have voted for him twice if the California GOP didn’t keep coughing up tech moguls for the gubernatorial races, but that’s why I became a Republican (LOL) in the first place: to do what I could to kick the reality-optional Steve Poizner to the curb posthaste, in what turned out to be a doubleheader of midterm #WINNING. Look, if Pete Wilson gets to infest the California GOP as a governor emeritus, I get to concern-troll it as a California voter, and so do you, if you choose to accept the challenge. As voters in closed-primary states, we can be as chameleonic in our affiliation as we damn well please. The stability of party affiliation figures, sad to say, suggests that more than a few of us aren’t politically savvy enough for our own good. It’s a republic, if we can keep it, but don’t worry, if we can’t, the fine likes of Hillary Clinton and Scott Walker will.
These are nice ideas for crowdsourcing political reform, but they don’t address the national derangement of spirit that impels Americans to brightside and be brightsided without respite. In effect, Hersheypark Happy is national policy. Hersheypark Happy was annoying enough as a Hersheypark personnel policy, so it’s little wonder that Americans are so heavily medicated. It’s slightly Godwinian to note that the Brezhnev politburo oversaw an aggressive campaign to involuntarily commit dissidents to psychiatric hospitals, but there is a certain soft totalitarianism to the social controls used to enforce the national policy of compulsory happiness on the American people.
This happiness isn’t exactly a natural state. For one thing, it’s routinely obvious in casual interactions with strangers that the sunniness is forced, or at least it should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with basic gameface bullshitting practices and paying attention. It’s also close to inconceivable that such shallow fakery would naturally arise in parts of the country that were heavily settled by Scandinavians or Finns (too sullen and reserved), Asians (too reserved), Irishmen or Italians (too temperamental), Scotsmen (Braveheart, Gordon Brown), or Jews (too neurotic). Even the English, who are the closest thing Americans have culturally to a mother people, don’t normally act like that. A much more natural sunniness is common among blacks, Mexicans, and some other Latin American peoples, but these groups are considered marginal and eccentric in mainstream power circles, so much so that their members are generally expected to aggressively code-switch and get their inner honky on before being given a shot at the mainstream bigtime. Besides, black women, especially middle-aged and older ones from poor to middling backgrounds, are very unlikely to act like another person is being a buzzkill for appearing genuinely unhappy. They don’t expect an elaborate justification for why another person isn’t feeling his best, probably because they don’t have to be reminded that life can be hard sometimes. (Trashy ghetto-ass bitches (their term, not mine) are another matter. They appall classy black people from their own neighborhoods, by the way.)
In other words, this sunny-side-of-life horseshit is another All-American outburst of positive law. Mind you, it’s mostly a tacit campaign by non-state and quasi-state actors, but it’s still a campaign of positive law waged in diametrical opposition to natural law. In the recent Facebook gaslighting scandal, for example, it wasn’t Facebook’s users who proposed the manipulation of their newsfeeds to highlight preening nonsense and exclude downer posts from their own friends. That was the doing of Zuckerberg and his cabal, under guidance from shadowy Department of Defense goons. The general assumption of Facebook’s users is that they’re receiving a more or less representative feed from the individuals and organizations they have chosen to follow. Newsfeeds are being polluted by a rising tide of “suggested posts,” e.g., embarrassing clickbait garbage about things like the fellow who supposedly divorced his wife after noticing a man hiding under the bed in a photo that he had taken of her, wifey being a teenager sitting on a dorm-style twin bed, but as bad as this crap is, it isn’t in the same league as selectively shitcanning posts that both parties assume will be fully accessible by scrolling down the homepage.
In the past few years, Facebook has increasingly been vulgarized and turned into part of a crude social control used to intimidate dissidents with threats that they’ll be punished for publishing controversial comments. It was nothing like this for the first few years after I joined Facebook in 2004. Back then, it was a decidedly amateur community devoted exclusively to social interactions. As I mentioned above, though, its progressive degradation has rather little to do with commercialization per se. The problem isn’t that it’s become laden with advertisements, or even that it’s become laden with really shitty advertisements that show contempt for the intelligence of its users. It’s much worse. Businesses of all sorts have swarmed Facebook with their PR pages; some of them show no decorum at all in their self-promotion, and their customers can be just as bad. Taking the ethics down another notch, it has become not uncommon on Craigslist for a help wanted ad to ask applicants to like the business on Facebook, a boundary violation the likes of which would have floored most job applicants twenty years ago and would still floor many applicants if done face-to-face today.
But these are just cases of individual organizations behaving embarrassingly. There’s no saying for sure that they wouldn’t have found a way to do something equally disreputable in print or in the flesh fifty or a hundred years ago, and conversely Facebook does not inevitably draw out crass behavior from commercial users who are naturally inclined to be decorous. What it has drawn out of the social control hive mind is a litany of admonishments to users, especially younger ones, to watch what they post. This is patently inimical to free speech. It is designed to have a chilling effect, and it will have a chilling effect if the target audience doesn’t figure that it’s coming from busybodies who ought to fuck off.
The reasoning behind these admonishments is that kids these days have no sense and, left to their own devices, will publish things that are reckless, ill-considered, powerfully regrettable, or even criminal. This is a red herring. Anyone whose social media musings are truly tortious or criminal is likely to be saying things in real life that are bizarre enough to provoke intervention from other people. But the censoriousness is not narrowly targeted to the asymptotic tail of social media comments that are truly mindboggling in their stupidity or antisocial belligerence, like making criminal threats or boasting about the details of one’s recent crime spree. Most of the objections are to speech that is merely salacious, like posting nude photos that a hiring manager or university admissions officer might come across in the course of an internet search for dirty pictures, or controversial, probably as a consequence of its expressing a substantive political or social opinion that hasn’t been whingingly neutered in the interest of total social approval and might piss off people who disagree with it and are too constitutionally petty to tolerate any public divergence from their own precious opinions.
Basically, it’s another cheap shot from the professional political correctness scolds. One of the latest Washington political scandals has to do with a Republican Congressional staffer who was fired after (warning: partisan hack content) racially disagreeable comments about “animals” and “hood rats” that he had made on his personal Facebook page were publicized months after the fact. The consensus framing of this scandal is ass-backwards. Benjamin Cole is a lower-ranking version of Julia Pearson, just the latest staff peon to be thrown to the dogs by a cryptoaristocracy that has an extremely high firing threshold for its own moral turpitude. He looks like he’s a dickhead and a creep in his personal life, but what he’s being punished for, in effect, is for being inartful and racially inflammatory in his critiquing of ghetto social pathologies that were an ongoing problem in his own neighborhood and the endemic violent crime that is a serious ongoing problem in various, mostly poor minority, neighborhoods in the Washington metropolitan area. You can bet your Saturday Night Special that the average Congressman or Cabinet secretary who felt the least bit menaced by the same individuals in bougie-ass Northwest would have the Metropolitan Police, or maybe the feds, running them out of the neighborhood immediately, with no opportunity for backsass from servant or mendicant. It’s only the little people who don’t have back channels at their disposal to compel greater-than-equal protection under the law. And it’s atherosclerotically rich that a Republican member of the House would pile onto one of his own middling-high staffers for being a racist. These asshats almost never call for an immediate end to the War on Drugs and the prompt release of its incarcerated victims on the basis that it is obviously being used as a pretext for antisocial racists in law enforcement to brutalize racial minorities. One gets the feeling that maybe they’re so slow to admit to this social destruction because they’re hardcore racists themselves.
First they came for the keyboard Klansmen, and I said nothing because I was not a keyboard Klansman. The point isn’t that Benjamin Cole is speaking some kind of irreducible, objective truth or that his truculent thoughts on the Negro (Mr. Bundy’s buddy again) are the same as my thoughts or yours. Our experiences with black people may be different, and Cole sounds like a gratuitously racist nutjob. The point is that he’s a no-name peon who has been fired for expressing controversial sociopolitical opinions on a personal web page on his own time, and that this is a rotten, dangerous precedent. We’re on a slippery slope, and what lies downhill isn’t just a succession of ever more absurd Niemöller references. Fred Reed calls the hypocrisy of this capricious regime the “DC Bob.” He isn’t talking about McNamara, either, although that wouldn’t exactly be better. This is a country where one can get fired without compunction for offensive off-the-clock comments that were made in a fit of exasperation over disorderly behavior in one’s own neighborhood. Land of the free and home of the brave my ass; a society in which normal people kowtow before grandstanding demagogues who only pretend to give a shit about racial equity is functionally a very large plantation. We apparently put up with this tyranny because we’ve been told that if we keep our mouths opportunely shut and our noses to the grindstone, one day we, too, can be massa.
Pissing off some scold or concern troll by being too honest isn’t exactly the Trail of Tears. What actually does suck is inadvertently alienating friends by being needlessly obnoxious; I’ve done that online, and occasionally in person, and I feel bad about it. It can be painful. Even so, it’s a hell of a charmed life for that to be a person’s worst hard knocks story. If being a pill to your friends is that upsetting, grab a box of tissues and go watch The Good Lie. Holy shit: lions, janjaweed, refugee camps, the abandonment of family and community for self-improvement and the betterment of loved ones, immigration fraud. It would have actually become a fairly happy tale with the addition of a Mexican drug smuggling crew to put the ones left behind on a panga in Ensenada and drop them on a beach in Cambria in the dead of night, but these guys are businessmen, and I guess coke and meth pay better. (Incidentally, this is the same relationship that your checked baggage has with air freight pallets and United Airlines.)
Americans like to take offense over trifles, but don’t let anyone tell you that it can’t be lucrative, or at least pleasantly self-aggrandizing. Threatening to put another person’s controversial online outbursts on his permanent record is probably more intimidating and less embarrassing than “waaaaaaaahhh you’re annoying me.” I still have an outstanding friend request from a college acquaintance whose Facebook page is an endless, insufferable barrage of Democratic Party talking points. I barely knew the guy in the first place, and this is the second time that he’s sent me a friend request after I defriended him because his stream of platitudes was constantly getting on my nerves. One of the hallmarks of adult civic and social responsibility, however, is to refrain from making a god-awful scene about the unconscionable offensiveness of other people’s obnoxious rants until they’ve suffered professional retaliation. This dude annoyed the hell out of me, and lately he has competition from a closer college acquaintance, a woman who I’d conservatively estimate earned six or seven times what I did last year and won’t shut up about “equal pay,” but shouldn’t it be enough to argue that people like these, and Benjamin Cole, are assholes?
Rather few people in the American political class actually want self-reliance and meritocracy. These are rules that they’ll gladly waive in the interest of their own self-advancement or in the interest of cutting someone else down, which sometimes amounts to self-advancement by other means, as that shithead’s regression into unemployment and banishment from polite society means relative advancement for those who weren’t voted off the island, like Special Snowflake. This is, after all, a country where Dan Cathy’s low-value thoughts on the institution of marriage, especially as the institution applies to Dan Cathy’s not being an immoral divorcé, are officially relevant to whether or not normal people should Eat Mor Chikin. Advertising the intrinsic virtues of Chikin wasn’t bringing in Mor Biznis, so Cathy and the crew decided to raise the utterly extraneous specter of religious tests. It does not bode well to have a zeitgeist in which workaday citizens take the profane instructions of their quasi-religious business and political leaders seriously enough to cash-mob a fast food chain on the spurious belief that it has been besieged in a frontal attack on religious liberty.
This sort of prissy, cutthroat mentality infects human resources “professionals,” who are always excited to hear another justification to serve man. Let’s say I want to be president someday. Posting controversial material on Facebook could get in the way of my becoming a junior fry cook at In-n-Out. Irrelevant, prejudicial wedge-issue donnybrooks are just another excuse for predators in management to blacklist employable candidates. Congressional staffing is basically a spoils system operated for the benefit of the children of cronies and judiciously-tongued sycophants. There are no civil service protections in place to shelter staffers from retaliatory demotion or firing on account of irrelevant off-duty speech, and imposing civil service protections would probably infringe on the independence of members of Congress. The de facto erosion of the civil service becomes much more of a problem in executive branch departments, notably including the State Department, that have come to be overrun by unqualified political appointees.
It’s easy to see how nearly three percent of the existing American workforce could lose its entire livelihood in a single calendar in this climate. The civil service is being eroded from without, the labor unions are being strangled by corporate interests and the mercenary government officials in their pockets, the WPA-style government work programs are desultory, and nutty starve-the-beast extremist in elected office are politically viable. Staffing firms around San Diego get away with administering intrusive background and personality questionnaires to American applicants but not to Mexicans, since somebody has to keep the joint in running order, and it might as well be someone who is unenfranchised and meek. The fundamental problem is a horrific one: this is a society in which it is, with limited caveats, considered acceptable, even righteous, to kick decent people in the gut while they’re down. No “abundance mentality” can fix this. No daft “family values” that ignore the structural and cultural nightmares of American business can fix this.
One does not simply decree a Christian nation into existence, unless its citizenry is a diorama of the Last Supper.