"When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results."

--President Calvin Coolidge

 

As the quote above shows, capitalists put very little effort into explaining unemployment. They expend even less in trying to remedy it. They like unemployment because it helps them drive down our wages and benefits. They use our jobless brothers and sisters against the rest of us as what Marx called an "army of unemployed."

Capitalists under-report it

What usually appears in news reports as the unemployment rate is based on a survey. Jobless people are asked "Did you apply for a new job in the last period?" If they reply "yes" then they are reported as "unemployed." If they say "no" then they aren't unemployed, even though they may not have a job but did not seek one for any number of reasons. If, for example, they were lying in a gutter suffering from starvation because of long-term unemployment, but could not rise to seek a job, they aren't unemployed, according to the survey.

People looking for jobs

Actual unemployment would have to include jobless people who were unable to seek work. It would have to include people who had become too discouraged to seek work. It would also have to include people who have taken ragtag temporary or part-time jobs out of desperation, and thus did not have time to look for other jobs. From time to time, statisticians calculate the actual unemployment rate, and it generally comes out more than twice the "official rate."

Capitalists blame it on downturns

Within capitalist economics, unemployment is usually blamed on the periodic downturns in economic activity. They infer that the economy will "pick up" and unemployment will return to "natural" levels.

Capitalists blame it on workers changing jobs

The "natural" level, or "structural unemployment" is defined as the percentage of people who voluntarily gave up their jobs and have not yet selected new ones. The U.S. used to define it as 4% unemployment, but President Reagan did his best to re-define it as 6% as the "official" unemployment rate grew because of deliberate government policies.

Unions blame it on outsourcing and automation

After the Clinton Administration brought the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, American unions blamed increasing unemployment on outsourcing. With government encouragement, American corporations move more and more of their work to nations with fewer labor and environmental restrictions. In the "race to the bottom," they built manufacturing facilities in Mexico, then Central America, then in Asia as they sought the least restrictive environmental laws and the cheapest labor. They disguised this abandonment with talk of a "global society" and an "information economy" in America, but they were doing what capitalists must do, driving down production costs in hopes of raising their profits.

In the 1950s and 1960s, unions and knowledgeable economists often blamed unemployment on automation, or the replacement of human labor with machinery. The 1947 invention of computers, and subsequent improvements, greatly accelerated job losses. A romantic-comedy film, Desk Set, in 1957, gave a whimsical treatment to the replacement of a female library staff by a handsome computer analyst.

Even in Marx's day, long before computers were invented, it was entirely clear that capitalists tended to force more and more production from fewer and fewer workers. Not only is machinery used, as explained in our more technical lesson, but more sophisticated divisions of labor enabled capitalists to lay off workers. The best example of improved divisions of labor might be attributed to Henry Ford and the modern assembly line.

Capitalism itself is to blame

Whether jobs are lost because of improved methods of production, automation, outsourcing, changing jobs, or economic downturns, capitalism is the culprit and capitalists are the perpetrators of unemployment. If "our" economy were a rational economy seeking to bring the most benefit to all of society, there would be no unemployment. But capitalism is not rational, and it does not seek to benefit all of society. It isn't "ours" either. It benefits capitalists, and they don't care much about unemployment!

What's the answer?

If we oppose the outsourcing of jobs, we are called isolationists. If we oppose losing jobs to automation, we are called luddites. If we oppose fiscal and monetary policies that accommodate unemployment during capitalist downturns, we are called idealistic dreamers. If we demand jobs at all, we are called selfish. The answer is to disregard what they call us and organize ourselves to win what the capitalists don't want us to have.

Even a capitalist government can supply jobs

The U.S. government has never faltered in financing its imperialist wars. It does not hesitate to cover the losses of greedy bankers and unscrupulous schemers, but serious government action to help the jobless has not happened since the Great Depression. Under President Roosevelt, a great many workers were able to support their families through jobs created directly by the federal government. Many of the parks, buildings, and bridges that they created are in use in the 21st century. The books written by the Works Progress Administration Writing Project are still being read. The songs that Woody Guthrie wrote while in government employ are still being sung.

The jobs crisis of 2010, its causes and remedies, were described beautifully by a report of the Economics Commission at the CPUSA convention in May, 2010. It is available as a short video.

Cut the hours of work

In a rational society, workers would receive full benefit of their labor. Improvements in methods of production and/or new machinery would be welcomed, but the benefits would pass to the workers and not to a handful of greedy capitalists.

Consider just the productivity figures released each year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are simple measures of the amount of wealth produced by a single American worker in a given time period. They are usually reported as a single-figure percentage change from one period to the next, and are usually dismissed as insignificant, because the changes aren't usually large. For example, productivity increased 2.8% from 1947 to 1948. One American worker, working one hour, created 2.8% more commodities than he/she produced in the previous year.

But what if those small annual figures were accumulated, like compound interest, for a longer period? The results are astounding! The chart below shows the cumulative increase in productivity from 1947 to 2009, with 1947 arbitrarily set to 100%. The 2009 figure is 400%!

 

Year annual% change increment new base
1947   100
1948 2.8 2.8 102.8
1949 3.3 3.3924 106.1924
1950 6.7 7.114891 113.3073
1951 2.7 3.059297 116.3666
1952 1.8 2.094599 118.4612
1953 2.3 2.724607 121.1858
1954 1.9 2.30253 123.4883
1955 4.2 5.18651 128.6748
1956 -0.7 -0.90072 127.7741
1957 2.6 3.322127 131.0962
1958 2.2 2.884117 133.9804
1959 3.8 5.091253 139.0716
1960 1.2 1.668859 140.7405
1961 3.1 4.362954 145.1034
1962 4.5 6.529654 151.6331
1963 3.5 5.307158 156.9402
1964 2.9 4.551267 161.4915
1965 3.1 5.006236 166.4977
1966 3.6 5.993918 172.4917
1967 1.7 2.932358 175.424
1968 3.4 5.964416 181.3884
1969 0.2 0.362777 181.7512
1970 1.5 2.726268 184.4775
1971 4 7.379099 191.8566
1972 3.3 6.331267 198.1878
1973 3.1 6.143823 204.3317
1974 -1.6 -3.26931 201.0624
1975 2.8 5.629746 206.6921
1976 3.3 6.820839 213.5129
1977 1.6 3.416207 216.9291
1978 1.3 2.820079 219.7492
1979 -0.4 -0.879 218.8702
1980 -0.3 -0.65661 218.2136
1981 1.4 3.054991 221.2686
1982 -1.1 -2.43395 218.8347
1983 4.4 9.628725 228.4634
1984 2 4.569268 233.0326
1985 1.6 3.728522 236.7612
1986 3.1 7.339596 244.1008
1987 0.3 0.732302 244.8331
1988 1.6 3.917329 248.7504
1989 0.8 1.990003 250.7404
1990 1.8 4.513327 255.2537
1991 1.5 3.828806 259.0825
1992 4 10.3633 269.4458
1993 0.6 1.616675 271.0625
1994 1 2.710625 273.7731
1995 0.4 1.095093 274.8682
1996 2.6 7.146574 282.0148
1997 1.5 4.230222 286.245
1998 2.9 8.301106 294.5461
1999 3.3 9.720022 304.2662
2000 3.4 10.34505 314.6112
2001 2.9 9.123725 323.7349
2002 4.6 14.89181 338.6267
2003 3.7 12.52919 351.1559
2004 2.8 9.832366 360.9883
2005 1.7 6.136801 367.1251
2006 1 3.671251 370.7963
2007 1.8 6.674334 377.4707
2008 2 7.549413 385.0201
2009 3.8 14.63076 399.6508

 

In other words, if an American worker made enough commodities to feed his/her family in 1947, he/she made four times as much stuff in 2009! If they made a living in 1947 with a 40-hour workweek, then they could be living at the same level in 2009 while working only a 10-hours!

Actually, even these irrefutable numbers understate the case, because the proportion of our population in the workforce was much smaller in 1947, before most wives were forced to compete for jobs.

Would we still have unemployment? No, because we could adjust working hours to "spread the work" to everyone available. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which forced companies to pay time-and-a-half overtime pay for hours over 40 per week, went in the direction of resolving the awful unemployment of the Great Depression. A few companies, most notably Post Cereals, have actually tried "spreading the work" but they cut the pay, too.

During the union upsurge of 1937-1947, American workers understood that cutting working hours is the only way to completely stop unemployment. They regularly demanded "30 for 40 with no cut in pay" to get work-week reductions without losing any job benefits.

We could end unemployment now and forever

The catch is, if we were to get that 10-hour workweek, we'd have to be living in a rational society.

**

"As long as one American seeks employment, the hours of labor are too long."

--American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers

 

 

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