{Empty title} | The Nation

Henry Ford argued publicly that capitalism works best when every firm treats its workers as consumers. Marx observed that trade can be a search for consumers to replace local worker-consumers displaced by, among other things, efficiency, the increase in their own productivity. Another way to replace such lost worker-consumers is switching resource allocation from production of necessities for the poor and cheap, mass market items to luxuries for the richer. One utopian capitalist solution is near universal shareholderhood in virtually automated production. If worldwide, it would end Marx'as chase for new markets, but could resemble the bread and circuses culture of welfare, or state, capitalism at the extreme. What Ford urged was a private policy choice. Recent US optimum-employment variations, public and private, have included working husbands and spending, stay-at-home wives, make-work as public works or private featherbedding, protectionism, cheap foreign non-worker resources to subsidize wages and margins, and financed trade deficits.

Unions create artificial labor shortages to increase wages and benefits, which a global hiring hall defeats by bringing home (as imports, electronic signal or guest workers) an army of un- or underemployed replacements. China, India, Mexico and others have thousands of workers well-enough educated to replace domestics with a wide variety of skill sets. What electorate will vote to equalize world employment and compensation at its expense? To most voters this is suicidal foreign aid. Capitalist fundamentalists in a welfare state might get workers to see themselves as consumers, anti-abortionists or potential entrepreneurs for decades during which job exporting and guest-worker labor (lawful or black market) made no sucking noises, believing that growing the economy by increasing capital investment to produce more jobs would stay homegrown, not be diluted, much less absorbed abroad. Assembling imported parts at home while servicing R&D and financial needs abroad would help some home job markets, and could be touted as a model of relative trade advantage and successful global competition. At any given time, the numbers of workers affected and of dollars made and lost make this either a tactical or a strategic political problem.

But the difficulty is basic. Who makes what for whom and why? We do each other's washing; we divide labor, give up Adamic self-sufficiency to trade shoes for bread, for futures contracts, for a song. Full employment without inflation could be a socialist workers' paradise or a laissez-faire heaven and hell of winners and losers, all busy. But busy and productive as possible? Such a fit, even for a moment, even among launderers, is an ideal. There will be gluts and shortages, machine and worker excess capacity, and opportunity costs since no kulak or computerized Gosplanners can fully or even robustly appreciate in real time the permutations and combinations of land, labor, capital, invention and consumer preference. Economies are also the creatures of politics. Workers--minimum wage, union, yuppie--are both a factor of production and, as citizens, the ultimate beneficiaries of their state's actions that determine their actually existing economic system. The state may create a bourgeois civil society--a playing field of laws and law enforcement where a game (goals and rules) allocates scarce resources by NGO decisions within the limits set by the state--but nearly all the players are also voters who change the rules, a little or a lot, as variously valued, emerging democratic majorities. Recent history suggests that as long as work is valued as a commodity, and capital and natural resources are as well, this particular game will probably not produce economic equality, though tax and transfer policies may set and tweak educational opportunities and a social safety net the goal of which is creating as many stakeholders as possible, each for as long as possible, in business cycles of production and consumption. The result is a busyness that occupies the spectrum of productivity and efficiency, and is the liberty, real and illusory, and the interlocking fraternities of winners, contributors, dependents, illegals and the discouraged.

Why we buy is certainly part of this, and perhaps even the opening dialectical move in teasing secrets from so much data and past interpretations.