Scrooge and the Jobless Recovery
Ebenezer Scrooge was a businessman whose single employee, Bob Cratchit, a married father of four, worked for starvation wages. In the opening pages of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, we learn that Scrooge believes he is overtaxed by the government and “cannot afford to make others merry.” He doesn’t see himself as a miser, but as a victim of a bad economy. When Cratchit makes even the most modest suggestion of better working conditions (an extra lump of coal on the fire, a single day off a year), Scrooge threatens him with unemployment.
On November 6, 2009, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate had climbed to 10.2%, representing 16.4 million Americans, double the number of jobless when the recession began in December 2007. The government also reported that an additional 808,000 people had become “discouraged workers,” those “not looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.” Perhaps most alarming in terms of race relations and future prospects, the unemployment rates for blacks was 15.4% and 25.7% for all teenagers.
The October 11, 2009 Sunday Telegram headline read, “Area’s jobless braving a grueling hunt.” In the past year, the number of unemployed people in Worcester County rose from 27,168 to 45,722, an increase of 68%!
Fred J. Barry II of Oxford, Massachusetts, told the Telegram, “Since the Depression, this is as bad as it’s ever been. No doubt in my mind. Anything I approach, there’s got to be 75 to 100 applicants.” Things are even harder in Worcester, where the unemployment rate is 10.8%, almost two percent higher than the state average.
Here at Saints Francis & Thérèse Catholic Worker, we experience the downturn from the point of view of the new homeless, who either lost jobs or had wages and hours cut to the point where they could no longer afford to live on their own. It is also difficult not to notice the many shuttered businesses around town. Times are hard indeed.
All this bad news for workers is that much harder to bear after the government spent nearly a trillion dollars to bail out banks and investment companies, arguing that the expenditure would ultimately benefit Main Street. But the New York Times reported on September 5, 2009, “Many experts envision a jobless recovery in which the economy grows but job losses persist.”
Indeed, the stock market has bounced back from a six-year low of 6,547 on March 9 to the 10,015 mark on October 14. Profits are starting to climb again. Why does this not translate into jobs?
Chief global economist at Decision Economics, Allen Sinai, told the New York Times, “I don’t think businesses will hire back anytime soon. Companies are rewarded by the stock markets for not hiring and keeping their costs down.” Indeed, despite increased US factory production in August, manufacturing cut 63,000 jobs. Not only are there fewer jobs for American workers, but many of those still employed are now being asked to do more for the same pay, all of which increases profits.
Schemes to make more money during hard times are shockingly cruel, but only an extension of recent trends. The Commerce Department reported on March 29, 2006, that “US corporate profits have increased 21.3% in the past year and now account for the largest share of national income in 40 years.” Market Watch noted the next day that “Profits have been so high because all the benefits from productivity improvements are flowing to the owners of capital rather than to the workers.” They noted that real wages that year were the lowest since 1966. In an August 13, 2009 article, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman, included a US income share graph which highlighted massive redistribution in wealth beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Office of Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis noted this increasing concentration of wealth in a March 1, 2004 statement which pointed out that the richest 1% of Americans own more than the bottom 90%.
In light of the fantastic amount of money that is increasingly being transferred to the super rich, who undoubtedly have the biggest voices in Washington, it should come as no surprise that the government’s response to the Recession has been what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich now calls “socialism for the rich.” Indeed, the view from outside the US is all too clear.
Are there any antidotes? Robert Reich argued in the January 26, 2009 Los Angeles Times that the US needs unions to restore middle class prosperity. He reminds us that in 1955, more than a third of working Americans were unionized, while fewer than 8% are represented by a union today, and that “less bargaining power results in lower wages.” Reich points out that while corporations were enjoying unprecedented profits between 2000 and 2007, non-union wages fell behind the rate of inflation. Typical families hid their declining for tunes by going into debt. Reich says, “Acording to the Department of Labor, workers in unions earn 30% higher wages and are 59% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance than their non-union counterparts.” Reich cites a recent poll saying 57 million workers would like to unionize, but that current laws make it easy for employers to stop them. He challenges the government to pass laws to make unionization easier and to increase the penalties for the mistreatment of American workers.
Writing for the Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz said on June 12, 2009, that the US had adopted a “new form of ersatz capitalism, in which losses are socialized and profits privatized.” Reckless corporations were bailed out to enable them to pay grotesque managerial bonuses and dividends. Stiglitz concluded, “In truth, this is not socialism, but an extension of long-standing corporate welfarism. The rich and powerful turn to the government to help them whenever they can, while the needy individuals get little social protection.”
As Catholic Worker personalists, we certainly support the persuasive power of unionization, but are not convinced that economic justice is simply a matter of legislation. We are drawn to Dickens’s parable of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion. Although the threat of Hell is part of the equation, the bigger draw for us is Scrooge’s growing awareness of all the joy he has missed by hoarding his money. When we are in the grip of wealth, we forget that Jesus’ message of service to the poor is good news. Too many preachers, anxious not to offend wealthy donors, soft-pedal Christ’s message that it’s hard for the rich to enter paradise. They mistake an invitation to change for a threat of exclusion.
Sirach (4:1-11) sums it up beautifully:
My child, do not refuse the poor a livelihood, do not tantalize the needy. Do not add to the sufferings of the hungry, do not bait a person in distress. Do not aggravate a heart already angry, nor keep the destitute waiting for your alms . . . . Gain the love of the community . . . . Save the oppressed from the oppressor, and do not be mean-spirited in your judgments. Be like a parent to orphans, and as good as a husband to widows. And you will be like a son or daughter to the Most High, whose love for you will surpass your mother’s.
The elation of the reclaimed Scrooge is not fiction. It is God’s promise to all of us who share our wealth. The love of the community and of God can never be attained through greed. Let this Christmas be a reminder for us all that the rapacious economic road that the rich in the United States have been walking is a road to misery, not only for those they shortchange, but for themselves. After all, wasn’t the Cratchit family, even in its poverty, happier than Scrooge? Let the good news be proclaimed, “Generosity, not greed, is the greatest good.”
(Editor’s notes: Originally published in the Catholic Radical (PDF). Copyright Scott Schaeffer-Duffy and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. The economic situation has continued to change from the writing until today. The lessons of Dickens and Sirach are, we expect, more timeless.)