Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

I was thinking about the American work ethnic. The economically well off like to blame the poor for not working hard enough. They seem to be suggesting that any person willing to work can do just as well as they did. The implication is that, therefore, all poor people are inferior and deserve what they get (or don’t get).

If the poor person can’t find a job, it’s there fault that so many jobs have disappeared in this country. If they are working several jobs just to pay the bills, it’s there fault for not getting a college education to get a better job. If they get a college education and still are unemployed but now also in debt, it’s because kids are lazy these days and they should have gotten a practical skill like plumbing. And on and on.

God forbid we look at larger environmental causes that are putting many Americans in impossible positions.

Just work harder. That is just the worst thing to tell most people. The one thing Americans don’t lack is a love of work. I see homeless guys working harder than the average employed person. They walk around non-stop all day, every day collecting cans or looking for stuff thrown out in dumpsters that can be sold at consignment store. Even the guy standing with a sign asking for money for endless hours year round, rain or shine, cold or hot, hardly can be called lazy.

Maybe we should ask why there are so many unemployed. Maybe we should ask why the permanently unemployed aren’t counted as part of the unemployment rates. Maybe we should ask why there are so many poor and homeless in a country with so much wealth, land, resources, and housing.

I had another thought about what we should be asking. With the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on prostitution, the war on the poor, we have created a large criminalized underclass that works in a massive black market. Many of the people called unemployed and those never even counted are actually working jobs, but it isn’t official taxed employment.

In some countries, the black market might be larger than the legal market. Realizing the significance of the black market, a few countries have begun to include the black market in their calculations of GDP. It’s an interesting thing to do. Everyone knows the black market exists, but it is something one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite company, especially not in mainstream media and politics.

To talk about the black market would mean we would also have to talk about all the problems related to the black market. That is where the resistance comes in. That is what someone like Bill Cosby can’t mention when speaking of blacks needing to work harder. My guess is that as jobs in the legal market have disappeared jobs in the black market have increased. Whole markets such as for drugs have grown into profitable businesses because of illegalization. Even the police stations have been raking in the money through confiscations because of the illegal drug business.

The government knows about all this, either choosing to do nothing about it or lacking the political will to take action. Another example is that of illegal gun sales, which shows how the legal markets overlap with the illegal markets. In some cases, the government knows which gun dealers are selling guns illegally, but the government doesn’t at present have the regulatory power to enforce the law.

It’s not just the ghettos where the black market operates. The majority white rural communities have become major markets for the manufacture and use of meth. In poverty-stricken Appalachia, along with meth labs, marijuana crops are one of the major sources of income of the mostly white residents. Heck, it isn’t even just poor people. Lot of big businesses and big banks are involved in illegal activities that are rarely investigated or prosecuted.

The black market is massive beyond imagination and it is global. There probably is no way to separate the legal and illegal markets for how closely they are intertwined. There are many business owners who simultaneously operate legal and illegal businesses. That is how the Mafia operated.

The problem obviously isn’t a lack of people working, not in any simple sense. Yes, there are some people genuinely unemployed, either they can’t find work or they choose to not do illegal work. What if your only choice was to sell drugs, be a prostitute, work for an organized crime group, or not work at all? Sometimes refusing to work can be a stance of moral principle. As legal jobs disappear, this maybe a decision more Americans have to make.

Should we respect someone for working hard, no matter what kind of work they are doing? What is it that we want to value and promote as a society? Just hard work at any cost for any purpose?

The complaint someone like Bill Cosby has about poor blacks isn’t really that they aren’t working hard, but that they aren’t working hard in the way and for the purpose he thinks they should. But what other choice do they have? Not every poor black guy can become the next wealthy Cosby. Our entire system is built on the necessity of there being a vast impoverished underclass of surplus labor. Working harder doesn’t change that. Working harder doesn’t make racism and classism go away.

So, whose work counts? What kind of work counts? Why? And to what end?

To ask which work we are to count is related to asking which people we will count. It is related as well to those who don’t get counted, i.e., those who don’t count, those who don’t matter. Who we value is inseparable from what we value, and what we value determines how we treat others.

Whose country is this? Is it the country of all citizens or only some? It is interesting to note that the Americans that often don’t get counted also get targeted by the criminal system and, as ex-cons, they also don’t get to vote. Talk about not being counted, not even politically as a citizen. When a large part of the population is economically and politically disenfranchized, when we criminalize so much of daily life, why are we surprised that social problems arise among the people most negatively impacted by such an oppressive system?

Work harder, really?

Working Hard, But For What?

There has been a lot of debate and discussion about what Bill Cosby has said about blacks. One thing he argues for is the need for hard work. The thing that he doesn’t understand is most blacks believe in hard work as much as most whites. But being a hardworking poor minority doesn’t get you very far in this country without all the privileges of race and class.

The cook at McDonalds making minimum wage, the self-taught unlicensed car mechanic working in an alley, the people doing yardwork for cash, the prostitute, and the drug dealer are all working hard. But they are working hard in a society that is working against them when they are poor minorities.

Those are some of the hardest jobs in the world. And some of the people working them are the among the most brilliant and talented around. The guy who works his way up from a high school drop out to the head of a gang is more hard working and innovative than the average manager you’ll find in other careers. I’m often reminded of the drug dealer who was intelligent and was well informed about economics (Social Environment & Human Potential):

“In the project, Venkatesh finds men and women who easily flit back and forth between the legal and illegal economies (depending, usually, on which pays more at any given moment). Drug dealers aspire to buy small businesses, and their subordinates move between legitimate jobs and the hustle of drug dealing and prostitution. What Venkatesh is able to develop, through the view J.T. grants him, is a new way of thinking about the ghetto and ghetto crime, as the consequences that come when morality is uncoupled from the law.

“J.T. is a good tutor. He is a learned and steady bureaucrat of the drug trade, a man with some college and management experience behind him. Most of his life is spent dealing with, somewhat endearingly, the small headaches of petit bourgeois career life—managing less-than-competent subordinates, handling the objections of Taylor Homes residents, and trying to restrict police access to the project.”

These people believe in the American Dream and try to live it best they can, under almost impossible conditions. They aren’t asking for handouts. They are solving their own problems, even when those problems are forced on them by the larger society.

Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood.

That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.

They do this all under the hardest conditions in America. It is quite impressive what humans are capable of. Imagine what poor minorities could accomplish if the larger society supported them instead of trying to destroy their lives?

If hard work mattered in this country, black communities would be among the wealthiest. If there was a way to measure it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the results showed the average black is more hardworking than the average white.

Cosby isn’t wrong in saying hardwork is generally a good thing. But it misses the entire point.

It seems to me that most Americans love to work, even in our off time when no one is paying us. If Americans have a problem, it is that we work too much and work so hard that we work ourselves into an early grave.

In a just and fair world, we would work less for more. But neoliberal capitalism tells us our only worth is our time spent in labor and our worth is measured by our pay check. That seems effed up to me. There is or should be more to life than work, especially the drudgery work most Americans have to do just to get by.

We live at a time when there are more people looking for work than there are jobs. With mechanization and computerization, those jobs aren’t coming back and even more jobs will be disappearing. The advice of working harder is cruel and ignorant, especially when directed at the most poor and disadvantaged, those least likely to be able to find a job no matter how hard they work or how much education they get.

That said, if we must speak of hard work, let’s talk about working hard to build stronger communities, to build more social capital, to build better schools, to build much needed infrastructure, to build housing for the homeless, to build more parks, to build a stronger labor movement, and to build an actually functioning democracy.

Why not use our hard work for things that matter and make the world a better place? Why not use all the hard work we are already doing in order to achieve great things in our communities and our country?