Friday, October 16, 2009

The Ikea Conundrum - free labor comes with a price tag.

I feel pretty bad about tossing cold water at a friend who was excited to have stocked his new Euro-style apartment (OK, it's not "Euro-style," it's actually in Europe!) with cool Ikea furnishings. But he baited me with his comment that Ikea is all over Europe like Walmart is all over the United States. I couldn't stop myself when he made the case that Ikea was essentially different from Walmart, which we all know, essentially, to be evil.

There has been an accelerating trend among first worlders in the globalizing economy, toward self-service pricing. Hang on a minute, and I'll tell you what I'm talking about.

I know that at this very moment, we're all hoping and praying that all that economic growth will get back on track, so I won't make any claims about how the overinflated bubble couldn't have gotten any bigger no matter how much new hi tech we injected into it. I will limit myself to a very peripheral observation.

Lots of us on both sides of the political aisle have long remarked about how our American economy has been very good at exporting our pollution and low-skill jobs, while importing ever cheaper goods. China has been our most important dance partner in this deadly tango, since they have so many mouths to feed (a Chinese language pun on "population," literally).

Liberal and Conservative differences often seem to come down to whether this is a good or a bad thing, this particular modeling of economic efficiency.

China seems to have driven a pretty successful bargain, now holding so much of our debt, and even being the preferred and maybe only spot for high quality manufacture of so many of our Western inventions. And they're catching up with us in the billionaire-count sweepstakes!

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes sits Europe, poised at the pinnacle of the first world, but somehow avoiding the savage pitfalls America has always been known for. While also avoiding our soaring successes.

Recently, they welcome and provide for third worlders more readily than we do, even though we invented that shtick too. They find ways to care for their sick, and promote healthy public education. They give their workers actual vacation. They don't always let the lowest common denominator rule their day.

I understand they even have rules about suburban sprawl, big box developments, and the fictional retail prices which allow the monopolistic retailers to crowd out the small village green stores in this country. They enforce level playing fields all over the place, and always notice the dangers of corporate gigantism, like that of Microsoft, well before we get a clue.

Lots of liberals here look to the European model as a kind of approach to Utopia, where quality art still has a public space, and literary discourse still has some play in the news.

For a while, during the seeming anomaly of Clintonomics in the midst of our long right wing nightmare, there was lots of excitement about how no labor could ever be cheap enough to outproduce the educated workforce we could create if only we wanted to. That if only we would invest in the bottom 50% of our children - the ones so miserably failed by our public schools - then we would be able to bootstrap our economy back out of the danger zone we thought we then were in.

Now, I love Bill Clinton as much as any other misty eyed liberal who was almost driven to insanity by what followed him. So much so that I've almost entirely given up on any real investments in education as a prime driver of our economy. That notion seems so clouded and distant now, as we face new economic terrors. And anyhow, those dangers - remember way way back when Japan, Inc. was our foe - turned out to be almost entirely swamped underneath our irrational exhuberance. We could almost forget about misery at home, with so much perpetual and perpetuated hope for true universal freedom from want.

Here in New York State our blind but colored governor just announced that he has no choice but to make drastic cuts in education, or face California-style credit-rating bankruptcy in the very near term.

He's at the absolute bottom of his popularity, even repudiated by our color-neutral President, and so finally now has the courage to do the one thing which seems as though it might get the Republicans on board with him. Almost like how President Obama got John Boehner to go along with money for social security stipends to dampen the pain of the first year in memorable history when there was no cost of living increase for our seniors.

I can't disagree with our governor, especially as it really does seem that he has no choice. Make cuts and they will come.

And I am going to make the extremely illiberal claim that investments in education truly are a case of putting the cart before the horse. I don't think that there ever will be a time when everyone has the "smarts" to contribute other than unskilled labor to the economy.

I think unskilled labor still requires a human being to get 'er done, whether at the checkout counter, in the coal mine, or on the assembly line.

OK, maybe not all those places. It is undoubtedly a good thing - a very good thing - when we can have robots take our places in grindingly dull jobs. It is especially good when they can replace us on the front lines in war or to dismantle bombs. Unless you're on the other end of the argument, I guess.

But much of what I've needed to know in my life, I never learned in school. I learned it on the job, or by rubbing shoulders with people who don't think the way I do. Well, OK, that's pretty easy for me, since I think in ways that make ordinary people wince.

But what happens when the dignity of our unskilled workers gets traded away right with their jobs? What happens when you have to write up a resume just to be the one of a million who can get the well-paid factory job? I think that might be a lot like importing hopelessness.

Our dreams of freedom from want have become freedom to want, and then to be able to get some approximation of what it is we really want down the hill at Walmart.

Obama just won the Nobel prize for reinventing our proudest American export: Hope. Now what will we do at home?

I think that whenever any one of us agrees to do it ourselves rather than to hire some local labor, we might actually be contributing to the wrong direction for our economy.

They make it really easy down at Home Depot, that biggest big-box store. They'll show you how to make your house look like all the other ticky-tacky, with standards only an amateur could love.

We've built bicycles for years now on Christmas morning, puzzling through supposedly English translations of directions that must have originally been Chinese. But now the actual design of things - and I have Ikea in mind here - is done with the packaging and shipping and ease of final assembly by the consumer, fully in mind from the outset.

And they've managed to sell it as a kind of style. Almost like blue jeans, where for guys like me it's really really hard to tell the difference between the $20 working model and the $200 designer version.

So my argument is this: When each one of us gloats about our inner laborer by our willingness to do the driving so that our stores don't have to come near to us; When new is always assumed that much better than antique; When we actually find it a challenge to park as near to the big-box entrance as possible; When we get our only real exercise walking those incredibly long aisles to find stuff on those incredibly well capitalized shelves; When we've killed off all the competition except for the Big Box warehouse brand, then we've really killed off any chance for self-expression.

We've become the robots that we thought were supposed to do the dull stuff for us. And we think as alike as the ticky tacky houses we live in. No matter how big they are.

Sometimes we can ask the retiree clerks and they will guide us. I find it amazing that they all actually do smile back, especially the young ones, just entering the perpetual pre-retirement treadmill, with kids at home to feed. Wage slaves up against the wall or over it.

When we accept the goal to find the cheapest price, even when that means that we are the end-of-assembly-line lowest skilled set of hands in the process, wielding the in-box provided hex wrench, and looking proudly over our creation which solves the problem of furnishing our stage-set living space. . .

When we allow our news to be fed to us because we don't even have time along our commute to read a newspaper. I mean even though we'll talk ourselves literally to death or text ourselves into the face of oncoming truck traffic, no-one thinks it would be safe to read the newspaper while driving.

Oh hell, I'll stop. But many of you will have noticed by now that the price of a fast food "meal" (I think that term has been debased to mean face-stuffing appetite suppressant) exceeds the cost of actual food at the local diner.

Many of you will also have noticed that you can often beat WalMart by having the FedEx guys bring the goods right to your door when you buy them at Amazon, right off the Internet.

I was amazed the other day when my shiny new chimney cap was delivered. I gave up on being able to buy the thing locally, and so I found it on the Internet. It was brokered by Amazon from a warehouse web-front-store not so very far from here in Albany, New York. And when the delivery guy came to the door, I wondered aloud to him how they could possibly afford a second trip to a guy like me way out in the middle of nowhere (with five or six Walmarts exactly the same 35 minutes away in any given direction) who's almost never home. And he told me, hell, he makes 80 deliveries a day right here in my neck of these woods. No sweat at all.

So, we're all being turned into drivers, the lowest commodity skill of them all, even though our average speed over the life of our cars is maybe five miles per hour?! And shoppers who stalk the shelves or the search engines for bargains. And assembly line workers at the end of the line.

All because we still control the world's capital, even though we might no longer hold it? Which means that we can afford to do this in our leisure time, and even like it.

But when we absorb the actual laborer to our inside do-it-yourself pride of price-accomplishment inner laborer, haven't we also killed off the neighborhoods which I actually do remember as a kid? Where not all of our friends had the same style parents. And where we played outside without nightmare imaginings about what might happen to us.

Well, when the price of oil makes delivery that much more expensive again - whether self driven delivery or servant-driven; when ships will have to be nuclear to justify outsourcing our manufacture to China and piracy off the coast of Somalia gets that much more deadly; when our own cars are gridlocked down to say 3 miles per hour on average; then we might begin to wake up to the insanity of our present arrangements.

No, I'm not arguing back to the land, back to the misty days of apple pie at grandmas after a long horse and buggy ride. But I might be arguing that we'd solve a lot of our educational challenges just by strolling the sidewalk, rubbing shoulders with less educated neighbors, and sending our kids to school with them.

Come to think of it I actually do strenuously object to the whole idea of education as an economic input. And I don't even have to object to the whole idea of unskilled labor as beneath my dignity. I already resemble that remark! I am the lowskilled laborer beneath my own dignity.

It's kind of like that old chestnut joke about the rich guy who asked the beautiful woman if she'd sleep with him for a million bucks. She thought for a minute and answered, "well, sure, OK?" And then he wondered if she'd do it for, maybe $500 and she got mad and yelled at him "what do you think I am a prostitute!?". And the urbane suave and sophisticated buyer shot back, "sweetheart, we've already established what you are, now we're just negotiating price."

I'm just a laborer. And you can have my services for free!!


David said...

to be fair, I enjoyed the BUILDING of the furniture much more than purchasing or using it, since I like to piece things together. And could I have afforded to, and had some means of transporting it, I would have been very pleased to have purchased gently used furnishings.

Lex said...

I disparage none of the pleasures; not the purchase, the transport or the living in some comfort with the result. I question only the summation, and wonder how we can avoid the limitation of our choices to only those which get mediated by the logic of capital concentration. I wonder how we can allow more than pinnacle accomplishment. You make my point by what would have pleased you more, could you but afford it.