NOTE: And on a lighter note… (Just kidding!) This post has absolutely nothing to do with international education or Viet Nam. It’s about just one of the many things that’s wrong with the US economy, meaning the entire society – back in the day and now more than ever. The following vignettes were learning experiences that I could mention as “fun facts” in an interview, if the topic ever came up. (It has.) For the majority of my fellow citizens, my “learning experiences” are a substantial portion of their waking lives and more than a few of their nightmares.
For the uninitiated, The Man is a slang phrase, used in the United States, that may refer to the government or to some other authority in a position of power, according to its Wikipedia entry. In this case, I’m obviously talking about corporate power.
A Trip Down Memory Lane AKA Life is for Learning
When I was a university student, I had, like most students, a series of low-paying, un- or semi-skilled jobs to supplement my income and to broaden my experiential horizons. The lessons I learned in the course of my “ethnographic research” were a well-deserved and much appreciated bonus.
For example, I made belts and other leather products for a time. I enjoyed this and was actually pretty good at it, perhaps too good because my boss came to view me as a threat as if I was going to drop out of school and compete with him. (I enjoy a life of the mind but also like working with my hands.)
I worked in a pharmaceutical factory. That was good money at that time, over $4 an hour (!), as I recall, but drop-dead boring. Human beings weren’t made to be dispensable cogs in a corporate machine. I moved furniture one summer but didn’t quite fit in with “the guys,” most of whom were racist, misogynistic, and just plain angry. That was backbreaking work in which the “old guys” were in their mid- to late-30s.
The highlight of that experience was a $20 tip some guy gave each of us for a job well done. The fact that I remember this over four decades later is an indication of the impression it made on me at the time. I can even remember what he looked like. It wasn’t the money but the spirit of generosity.
I was even a security guard for a night. I looked sharp in my spiffy albeit ill-fitting uniform but quickly turned in my silver badge because I realized I preferred to sleep at night and, more importantly, I didn’t want to get injured protecting someone else’s property for the princely sum of $5 an hour, or any amount, even if it was public property, i.e., a local high school. All I had to defend myself with was a flashlight in the pre-cellphone era. That was the second and last time I put on any kind of uniform. (The first time was as a Boy Scout, a clambake I blew as soon as I could.)
Another McJob was working in a call center that sold coupon books. I quickly discovered I wasn’t cut out for sales, especially if I didn’t believe in the product (or service) I was selling. Ungrateful wretch that I was, I told the boss what he could do with the “job” after a day or two. I had that luxury.
Jack, Jill, and the American Dream
Here’s one job I had for a very short part of a summer. While my memories are not fond, it was a valuable learning experience. I was… drum roll…trumpet fanfare… an ice cream truck driver!
My employer was the Jack and Jill Ice Cream Company, founded in 1929 by Max Schwartz in Philadelphia. Max initially sold ice cream on the streets of Philly. Seven years later, he must have had an epiphany and the company purchased its first ice cream truck, according to its Wikipedia entry. (Why did it take him so long, I wondered?) Its slogan is Making Memories Since 1929. This is my eminently forgettable Jack and Jill memory from a summer in the mid-to-late 1970s, when I was much younger and not as wise.
Yes, Max named his company after the 18th century English nursery rhyme that begins with this verse:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after
(This is kind of what it felt like working for J&J sans Jill.)
Sounds like a good opportunity, right? Working for myself – kinda. Hard work, personal incentives, and all that jazz. The American Dream in miniature. Unfortunately, it worked out much better for Max and Co., aka The Man, than for me.
Drivers buy their own ice cream at a wholesale rate and then sell it at the marked up retail rate. Then there’s the cost of using a vehicle that was on mechanical life support. Think of it as an ice cream sales variation on the theme of multi-level marketing (MLM). As time wore on, I felt more and more like a dupe.
Here’s the kicker. The unscalable barrier to profitability is that it was the company that assigned the route. Maybe because I was new or because of a more nefarious reason, I was routinely sent to southern Delaware, what many condescending Northerners call “Slower Delaware,” to sell ice cream in a low-income neighborhood in the Dover area. (DE was a divided state during the US Civil War. Its two US senators, one member of Congress, and governor are currently all Democrats.) That’s 51 miles or 82 kilometers one way, in case you’re counting. That’s farther than Philadelphia, Jack & Jill’s hometown!
Looking back, I’m sure the company rep was sitting in his air-conditioned office in Wilmington with his tattoo-covered arms folded and a smug smile on his jumbo-sized face, a cheap beer in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. Life’s good! for some people.
The kids were happy to see me, as I drove around on sultry evenings ringing the hell out of my ice cream truck bell. They would come running out of their houses like Pavlov’s dogs. From a financial perspective, the problem was that they could only afford the least expensive items on the menu like popsicles and water ice.
The altruistic part of me wishes I could have played the part of an ice cream Robin Hood and simply given them the pricier and tastier items like sundaes and dreamsicles – at the company’s expense. More importantly, it made me sad to think (and know) that these children would have limited choices and opportunities in many other areas of their lives simply because they were born into a lower social class and had a different color of skin. (It was a dark corner of US society that I would later study as a researcher.) I had plenty of time to ponder this depressing reality on my long drive – rock and roll blaring – back to the company headquarters in the place of my birth, Wilmington, founded by a distant ancestor.
Unfortunately, although I brought joy to many children, my work was not of a charitable nature. Obviously, the self-interested side of me would have preferred a route in a high-income neighborhood, say, in the northern Wilmington suburbs, where Mommy and Daddy gave their darlings money to buy whatever their little ice dream-deprived hearts and stomachs desired. Then I could have sold the big-ticket items like ice cream sandwiches, sundae cups, and drumsticks. I didn’t have a trust fund to rely on, after all. (I was assigned to this lucrative route once, as I recall. Oh, happy day.)
The most obvious difference between the two neighborhoods, aside from race, social class, and property values, was the fact the the kids in the Dover ‘hood had pocket change in their eager little hands while their peers in the tonier northern Wilmington ‘burbs had bills in theirs. When you’re trying to save money, bills always trump coins.
Wage Slavery as Destiny for Many
The bottom line, quite literally, is that it ended up being a lo$ing proposition and a sham, one of many lessons learned over the years about the much-vaunted American Dream. Saddled with a gas-guzzling truck that had long since entered its twilight years, combined with a long drive, and poor sales, I quickly realized it was time to pull the plug on this experiment in sales and firsthand lesson in sociology. Rigged system: 1; Worker Bee: 0. Ring a bell?
It worked out well for Max, Max, Jr., or whoever the hell owned the company at that point. I’m sure he, she, they laughed all the way to the bank. Not only are you selling your labor at a low-ball rate, but there’s an unavoidable element of exploitation that some low level “boss” can tweak using whatever criteria strike his fancy. The system works like a charm for some but not for most. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, this wage slavery was a temporary experience that I could leave in the dust and write about years later on this venerable blog with a knowing smile. Still young but wiser, I knew it wasn’t my destiny and that I had other options. For millions of US Americans, it is their grinding fate and their life – with no escape. And that’s for those who have a job, or more than one, in the ongoing COVID-19 era in the US, where the unemployment rate has approached Great Depression-era levels, not to mention the most valuable existential benefit of all, health insurance.
Meritocracy as a Myth
Any time I hear people talking about meritocracy in the US, I think of this quote from a 2017 Bill Maher “New Rule” sketch about Jared Kushner and other children born into the country’s upper classes with golden ladles in their maws: People who come from money love to call the people who don’t entitled ‘Oh, they’re dead set against the underprivileged getting special consideration because that disincentivizes self-reliance and it’s not achieving through merit.’ Meritocracy is the last thing that they want because if you had that they would stop winning. (The voice he uses for the part that begins with Oh and ends with merit is probably what the guy in the above photo sounds like.)
The Importance of Race in “Merit”
As I mentioned in a 21 June 2020 post BLM, ALM, and “Minority White” in 2045, I have ancestors who sold Native Americans into slavery in 17th century New England, bought and sold black people like so many cattle, and waged a civil war to preserve a society in which slavery was a lynchpin of the economy. Once I came of age, thanks to a series of formative experiences, I realized that I had inherited and benefited from white privilege. If I have been successful in my professional life, it is not only because of hard work and luck; race, gender, and social class have all played a key role. I have never had any illusions about that. They have opened doors at pivotal moments and allowed me to go through life without harassment and hatred. To believe otherwise is to live in a world of cultural mythology.
The Answer is a Clear and Resounding NO
A colleague on LinkedIn recently shared a Forbes article entitled Can Higher Education Get America Back To Work? by Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. What’s not to like, right? After reading it, my first thought was “Good advice but following it is not going to change the current (and stark) economic reality in the US. There were fundamental structural problems long BEFORE the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This is primarily a political issue that transcends higher education and education in general. It is the economy that provides the jobs not the education system. In the recent past, many of the jobs created in the service sector have been of the “wage slave” variety. That’s one reason why the number of people in the US earning less than $30,000 a year accounts for 46.5% (!) of the population. Now the wealth inequality part of the equation. The wealthiest three billionaires in the U.S. – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the U.S. population combined.
Whenever I hear about job creation, the first questions that pop into my head are: 1) What kinds of jobs? 2) Do they pay a living wage? 3) What are the benefits? 4) How secure are they? 5) What are the working conditions like? 6) What is the workplace governance like? As we all know all too well, not all jobs are created equal. For its part, higher education should look at the quality, relevance, and cost of the education and training it provides. (Student loan debt is a record $1.6 TRILLION.) What is the ROI?, and I don’t just mean financial.
Can You Spell O-l-i-g-a-r-c-h-y?
My Jack and Jill Ice Cream experience is a microcosm of the US economy except that the sociopolitical and economic situation is now worse than ever. While there are a number of non-economic factors that explain the election of Donald Trump as president, including white nationalism, racism, a sense of betrayal and anger, and a political system that is essentially rigged because of the Electoral College, an obvious driver of political instability is unprecedented income and wealth inequality.
The US has long since been an oligarchy at the national level with both parties, what Gore Vidal referred to in 1975 as the two right wings of the Property Party, doing the bidding of the wealthy. Those who control the levers of power that have benefited them and their families so richly are not likely to voluntarily relinquish control. The system “as is” is too damn profitable. That’s human nature, especially in societies that place a premium on self-interest, greed, and success defined primarily as one’s net worth.
Shalom (שלום), MAA