Labor Day with not enough jobs to go around

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By Roger Snodgrass

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” is a memorable and usually misquoted paradox from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It describes a ship stuck in the middle of the ocean, but it applies symbolically to many other situations.

One of them is about work and unemployment.

As we celebrate Labor Day weekend, the painful truth is that there is too much to do but not enough work to go around. Another way to say it is that we have a lot of work that needs desperately to be done everywhere, but there are not enough jobs to do the work.

It’s something like the findings of the Indian economist, Amartya Kumar Sen, who won a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his research in welfare economics.

His book on poverty and famine begins with the observation that starvation is a condition people experience when they don’t have enough to eat, but it is not necessarily because there is not enough food.

He goes on to uncover many other factors that bear on why people are starving, including issues of supply, distribution and ownership and especially deeply structured matters of inequality.

To say people are starving during a famine because of a lack of food is an oversimplification, just like saying people are unemployed during a recession because of a lack of work.

It turns out there are some major glitches in the cash register that serves as the national mind that has turned the indicators into mush. It’s not that there is no work, but rather that the economic system can’t pay for the work that needs to be done.

It’s like the place in the Coleridge poem where the sailing ship reaches a windless territory known as the horse latitudes, and “slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea.”

Now that the economy can’t use its immense housing inventory as a virtual cash-card, it’s paying for some of those discounts on the backs of a reduced work force.

The point to be made this labor day is that working people. They are lucky in a sense, but they are working harder than ever. Some may not be happy about how hard they are working, but they are forced to buckle under increasingly onerous conditions simply to have a job.

The unemployment jungle looks very scary.

The national unemployment rate is now 9.7 percent and some would say we are lucky at that, while others fear that the extra pain shaved off the top will have to be paid by other means in the years to come.

Minorities’ unemployment rate is even higher, 12 percent for Latinos and 14 percent for African Americans.

New Mexico is relatively lucky. According to the Department of Worforce Solutions most recent numbers, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.0 percent in July 2009, up from 6.8 percent in June and 4.2 percent a year ago.

But again that doesn’t count the toll that is being taken in terms of health and resilience on those who are still in harness.

Remarking on the tough times, Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis called this week for Americans to have a day “on,” rather than a day “off.”

“Sure, we can still have picnics and barbecues and use the day to do last minute back-to-school shopping, but let’s do something else too,” she said in a speech in Chicago. “Let’s use Labor Day as a day where we all personally commit to play a role in the recovery of our economy and our nation. Let’s use the day as an opportunity to mentor a young person, or volunteer at a Veteran’s center or just help a friend looking for a job.”

Of course, it doesn’t only have to be Labor Day weekend and these are not the only ways to have a day “on.”

We also need to stop pretending that we have a few little cuts that can be patched up with a little extra volunteer work.

America that came out of the big depression of the 1930s was a completely different country than the one that went in. And before we made it out, as we should remember again this weekend, we had to fight for our lives.