The GOP Price of Living (and Dying)

Those of us of a certain age have seen the economy expand, then contract, then expand again on many occasions. Things have changed, though – from Reagan’s “revolution” to GHW Bush’s “voodoo economics” through the unprecedented wealth transfer that has happened during Bush II’s reign, there’s a fundamental difference. In that difference lies the reason that I’m a progressive Democrat

Commentary By: Richard Blair

The BeavI’m old enough to remember when the nuclear family was really the American dream: 2.2 kids, a house with a modest mortgage, mom met the kids at the school bus stop in the afternoon because she didn’t work outside the home, dad came rolling in later in the afternoon, dinner was served, homework was done, then maybe some TV (3 VHF channels and a couple of UHF “independents”). Rinse, spit, repeat.

The promise of technology and automation was never that Americans would lose their jobs to machines, but that the machines would make the jobs more efficient and lead to a better quality of life for everyone. LBJ’s “Great Society” was a product of progressive thinking – that yes, indeed, it was possible for the previous generation to leave the next generation just a little bit better off, and so on and so on.

In the past, I’ve ranted about how there was a palpable shift in the overall demeanor of big business back in the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Perhaps I was a bit closer to it (“the shift”) at the time because of the point that I was at in my career – I’d been with the same employer for a couple of years, making a pretty good wage, and I was the sole breadwinner in the family. That was my role; that was the real role in life I thought I was supposed to play. But I could sense, even back then, that something was terribly amiss. I just couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. Something strange was happening in the work place that augured an uncertain future.

Allow me to use a personal story as a segue into a larger discussion on why I’m a progressive Democrat.

The company I worked for during the Reagan years made a very rapid transformation from a truly “family oriented” employer, to a “bottom line” company. Harvard Business School was just starting to churn out Michael Hammer-cloned MBA graduates using the “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap model of business education. The heady days of merger and acquisition really got cranking around the time of Reagan’s second inauguration. The atmosphere in the workplace shifted dramatically in the space of what felt like just a few short months. In fact, the change was so dramatic that, even in the quasi-professional / technical role that I filled, it was becoming obvious that the only way to survive was for those in my technical specialization to organize with a local labor union. And so we tried – I tried. I was very active in the effort.

I was active in the effort for several reasons, but the most important was that the HBS graduates were starting to fling around the specter of competition and deregulation and corporate survival as if to generate a self fulfilling prophecy. And, to a degree, the HBS’ers did just that. What a union offered, even a professional / technical union, were rules that the company and employees had to live by. I reasoned that, without a legally binding employment contract, non-represented, non-management employees were flying by the seat of their pants and without a net.

In the long run, I was right.

The company used a couple of really shady tactics, aided and abetted by a Reagan-reconstituted National Labor Relations Board ruling, to defeat the organizing effort, and the union local was not prepared well enough to respond. The threat of layoffs never emerged for the rank and file union members in the company, but the professional and technical specialties started to be purged in the late 1980′s, as folks like me began to simply make too much money.

As my salary and 401K grew, I clearly recall sitting at my kitchen table one night and amortizing the value of my salary and benefits 20 years into the future. I somberly recognized that evening that the company couldn’t sustain me and hundreds of my coworkers into the future. At some point, even a modest three or four percent increase per year in a fairly decent salary becomes like compounding interest to the bean counters in a company – and it was clear that something had to give. So the professional ranks started taking hits in terms of layoffs, “performance-based” firings, and early retirement package offerings to those in the organization who held the corporate institutional memory.

Here’s an example of how quickly the changes occurred, and why I worked so hard in the union organizing effort.

At one time, the technical and professional folks made time and a half for overtime (because the company would never compensate their professional people less than their union workers, don’tcha know…). Out of the blue, the non-represented technical workers were required to put in at least 45 hours a week to qualify for time and a half. The uncompensated five hours per week was euphemistically dubbed “professional time”. And then one day, word came down from the executive suite that overtime was completely gone for the professionals. You worked what you had to in order to get your job done, no matter how long it took or how much additional responsibility you had to assume because the guy’s desk next to you was suddenly vacated late on a Friday afternoon (the favorite time to issue pink slips), and there was no replacement for him or her.

But you know who didn’t go? The company never touched the union rank and file, because of the contract. There are still guys working for the company in union positions who were there when the great middle management purge of 1990 took place.

I was fortunate enough to see the handwriting on the wall, and started doing some serious programming work on the side back then, and that led to my ability to leave the company on my own terms in the mid-90′s. After all, computers were where the big money was, Tim Berners-Lee was rolling out the HTTP protocol, and the dot com boom was just getting underway. My services were in pretty high demand, and I brought not only my computer experience to a booming market, but my mature business acumen. It was a great combination that worked for awhile, and I made a pretty good living. And then the dot com bust hit.

Makin' the NutBy the time I was forced back into the job market in the early part of this century, even though my skills were at their peak, my earning power was not. The conservative mantra was, “well, you work whatever you have to work at. McDonalds, whatever. There’s no shame in working hard.” Indeed. It got to the point where I took one of the first jobs that I was offered that was even remotely reasonable in terms of compensation. And then that job was “mergered and acquisitioned”, even though it was in the non-profit sector. The last several years have been a struggle, having come down from positions of both authority and responsibility. In the business climate that I was unfortunate enough to experience, at a certain age, it’s impossible to regain career traction, and you settle for the best job that’s available in order to make ends meet.

I know I’m not alone in my tale, and that there are many out there like me. My real income has declined significantly since the mid-90′s. In fact, I was 1040–²ing more per year in 1995 than I am today. And I’m working harder today than I ever did in my life, for a relatively thankless employer whose executive battle cry at the end of every quarter is: “We’re not making the numbers!! Panic! Panic!!” So, the sales force forward-sells our product line to make this quarter’s numbers at the expense of bookings at the beginning of next quarter. It’s an endless cycle of stupid business decisions that leads to bargain basement deals for our customers, less revenue for the company, and a repeating of the cycle again at the end of next quarter.

The company that I work for in 2008 is by no means exceptional in the modern corporate world. There is no “quality of life”, so to speak. I’m tethered to a cell phone and a computer 24 hour a day, 365 days a year, and I spend my time reacting to business crises rather than getting a break from the bonds. I am literally doing the same work that three people did 20 years ago. But my employer thinks this is ok. (The customers don’t, but that’s another story for another day.)

This is the life that the Republican Party brought to me, and why I’m such a strong progressive, even if I’m getting a bit long in the tooth. I’m angry. I’m angry with the business climate that has upended my life and that of millions of others like me. I’m angry that I’m good enough at what I do that I’m the “go-to” guy when there’s a steaming pile of business shit that someone else has left for me to clean up, but there’s no one to back me up when I have a less than stellar day at the office. I’m angry that at this point in my life I’m locked into a fairly dead-end position because of the paycheck, but more importantly, benefits that I can’t (again, at this point of my life) afford to be without.

In the past year, I’ve seen one of my closest business associates hang it up because it just wasn’t worth it anymore – he bailed out early when he had the opportunity, even as he was somewhat unsure of his financial future. Another (15 years younger than me) had a heart attack just before Christmas. He was back at his desk last week. He’ll never make it to retirement. Another is opting for early retirement in March rather than spend another minute with her nose stuck to the grind stone.

The nuclear family is a dream of the past. There are so many among us (thankfully, I’m not yet one of them) who have to work two and three jobs just to pay the mortgage, electric bill, and put food on the table because real wages have declined so precipitously in years recently passed. But the GOP thinks that’s all right, in fact, they’re proud of it. They think it’s just peachy that mom and dad have to work themselves to the point of exhaustion, and then on the other hand they wonder why the nuclear family has disintegrated.

There is more than just a mortgage crisis at hand, and I don’t think anyone in a position to say so really wants to admit it in polite company. There is a very real family financial liquidity crunch that is underway, and sooner than later, the crunch is going to affect all of us. The unprecedented wealth transfer from poor and middle income families to the uber rich is nearly complete. The folks at the bottom of the GOP-led financial pyramid scheme are nearly bled dry, and the pyramid is about to collapse. To sustain itself a little longer, the folks at the top of the pyramid will have to start an Amway-style ritual of financial cannibalism amongst themselves. I think that (to an extent) this is exactly what we’re seeing in the stock markets and big financial houses as the true meltdown begins. Is this is how it starts?

An executive of a collapsed subprime mortgage lender jumped to his death from a bridge Friday, shortly after his wife’s body was found inside their New Jersey home, authorities said.

The deaths of Walter Buczynski, 59, and his wife, Marci, 37 – the parents of two boys – were being investigated as a murder-suicide, according to the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office…

[He] was a vice president of Columbia, Md.-based Fieldstone Mortgage Co., a high-flying subprime mortgage lender that made $5.5 billion in mortgage loans and employed about 1,000 people as late as 2006.

However, it has since filed for bankruptcy and now has fewer than 20 employees. The company had recently filed court papers seeking approval to pay about $1.1 million in bonuses that would be divided among Buczynski and other staffers so the company could wind down its lending operations and go out of business…

Even in the last throes of corporate failure, the bosses reward themselves.

It’s only speculation, but perhaps this tragedy happened in part because the Buczynski’s were embroiled in some intractable sort of financial difficulty. Still, for each VP of a failed company that can’t take the personal pressure any longer and leaps from a bridge, how many more bodies and destroyed lives from the lower rungs of the economic pyramid have they left in their wake as they pursued the Republican holy grail of financial success and “A-list” cocktail parties?

When consumers stop spending, the economy is going to crash hard. Signs already point to a significant contraction in consumer spending, which is why George Bush today offered up a

Friday, August 5th, 2011 by Richard Blair |

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