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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

These Are the Good Old Days

In 2011 I retired from my job as a “Customer Care Representative” for a well-known Wisconsin-based company that sells clothing, bed and bath items, and luggage through its catalogs and website. When I started working there in the mid-1990s it was unique – in my experience at least – in its dedication to serving the customer, and to its supportive attitude toward employees. The company’s founder had a simple approach: “Take care of the customers, take care of the employees, and everything else will take care of itself.” Another of his principles was to provide quality merchandise at a reasonable price. The company had a folksy, middle-American feel, proud of its lore that many employees came to work after milking cows on their family dairy farms. I was stunned when the CEO handed me a Christmas bonus of two weeks' pay after working there for only two months.

Over the years these principles became eroded, especially in the taking care of the employees part. Because of "competitive pressures," fewer products were made in the U.S., and employees were obliged to up-sell customers through a variety of means. Fewer workers were given full benefits, and those with health insurance were pressured to use their health benefits less often. Hours of work were reduced as Internet sales gradually took over the sales function. The great employee-friendly CEO was fired in 1998. For many years the company was the sole sponsor of Garrison Keillor's radio show A Prairie Home Companion. That ended in 2005, as Keillor became more outspokenly political on the air.

When the founder of the company sold it to a corporate behemoth in 2002 these trends accelerated, and in 2005 the call center where I worked closed. Nearly everyone at the center lost their jobs – almost 400 in total company-wide – and we were told we could be hired as temporary help at the company’s  farther-away main headquarters for the Christmas season. Very few chose to do this, but I did. I worked there for the next six years as a “flexible part-time” employee. Eventually I became eligible for limited benefits, and signed up for the reduced 401K retirement program.

By 2011 I couldn’t stand the increased pressure to sell more and do other things to hustle customers. A new approach was instituted, called “performance metrics,” where everything possible to measure employee behavior is turned into numbers that can be graded. We were all instantly not good enough, and some people felt so insulted that they quit or retired. The company backtracked somewhat, being slightly less stringent with its scoring system, but the metrics approach remained.

Retirement was an immediate drop in my income, so I needed something to supplement my meager Social Security and IRA payouts. I did a couple of short teaching stints, and in 2014 I returned to my old job. Because I had been gone for three years, I was hired as a new employee at the lowest pay rate.

It was worse than when I had left, far fewer workers, and most of them relegated to taking calls for the parent company’s rewards program. There was an air of depression pervading the building, with everyone, including supervisors, wondering how long their jobs would last. It was like a ghost town - or a graveyard - with most of the seats empty.

One thing that stood out when I was rehired was that I was told that because of “Obamacare,” no one is allowed to work more than 29 hours under any circumstances. If you signed-up for extra shifts and your weekly total went over 29 hours you would be terminated (fired). The reason for this restriction is that under the rules of the Affordable Care Act employers are required to provide health insurance for all employees who work 30 or more hours a week. Thirty hours is the official dividing line between part and full-time work. In order to be unequivocally in the part-time range, no one - under any circumstances - would be allowed to work more than 29 hours.

I was surprised at how casual the company was to blame Obamacare for this situation, but let it pass. I needed the job. I lasted through the Christmas season, and when I was offered the opportunity to stay as a continuing employee, I declined. It wasn’t worth the money or the stress. I was invited back for last year’s Christmas season, I declined, saying “This is the best job I ever had. I want to keep it that way.” I was invited back again this year, but didn’t bother to reply.

Nowadays I just live more frugally. I canceled my Internet connection, trimmed other expenses, and learned to avail myself to things that are either free or inexpensive. I get a discount at the food coop and other businesses for riding my bike and wearing a helmet. I can get double dollars at the farmers market that I go to. I take free yoga and meditation classes. My health care at the VA is free because of my income level. The one expense that I can’t control is dental care, so I have to be diligent in flossing and eliminating sweets.

My situation is far from unique in this country, and, while difficult, is far better than conditions that face the vast majority of people on this planet. I’m lucky compared to my former coworkers. The anxiety, fear and resentment that they feel about their jobs and their future is something I barely escaped. They have families that depend on them to provide a decent level of subsistence, and that subsistence has become more precarious every passing day.

Among the things that came to mind when pondering the extremely unlikely election of Donald Trump was that this feeling of unease is likely shared among most people in this country, and that it is also likely that it is what made the difference in this election. We are a country of unhappy people. The American Dream is over. It will never come back.

Trump promises to bring the American Dream back with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, but he will not only fail, he will fail miserably. He has no intention whatsoever to increase employment, job security, pay, benefits or working conditions. His plan to end trade agreements will not bring jobs back. He likely won’t end the agreements anyway.

What he will do is create a crony system, where those who pay – whether with money, fealty or compliance – gain advantage. He will not behave any differently as president than he has in his business and personal life. Our already corrupt system will become even more corrupt by several degrees of magnitude. His Supreme Court appointments will be cronies. His Attorney General will be a crony. His EPA Administrator will be a crony. His Secretary of the Treasury will be a crony. All of his department heads will be cronies.

Obamacare will very likely be repealed. Uninsured workers will then be able to work more than 29 hours, but it will matter very little. At best it will mean more hours for fewer workers. It likely won’t even mean that. With Obamacare repealed, it is unlikely that those with increased hours will be able to afford the health care that is no longer covered by insurance.

Melting at the northern Polar ice capThere is a saving grace of sorts. As I have written many times before, our failure to deal meaningfully with climate change will be our undoing. Our twin failure to deal with the unsustainability of our infinite-growth economic system will accelerate our undoing. With Donald Trump as president this undoing will happen sooner than it would otherwise. A completely corrupt system will self-destruct quickly under corrupt circumstances.

So maybe it is better that Donald Trump is our next president. His failure in office will be almost immediate. His bluster, arrogance and bullying will not be much help when the effects of climate change go into overdrive. They won’t be much help when the economy drops. They won’t be much help when the anxious and fearful people who supported him become more intensely anxious and fearful. When they turn on him he will not have the personal strength to keep them in line. We may think that his supporters are an unruly bunch now, but wait a year or two. Unruly will seem like the good old days.

Here's a song.  Here's another. And this. Another by Richie Havens. And, of course, this. And this. Here's one for the incoming Trump Administration. Here's a song I heard today for the first time. This CSN&Y song keeps coming up. Neil Young. Leonard CohenAnother Leonard Cohen. And this, which I listened to many times in my Army days.


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