Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trouble with Normal

As I've gotten older, I've worried about my memory.  As far as I can tell, it hasn't gotten much worse.  I've always had trouble with some names, and when I catch myself fretting I remind myself that in my 30s I sometimes made large to-do lists that I'd tape up on the door before going to bed so I'd see them as I left my apartment each morning.  I don't feel the need to do that now.

If anything, I think other people need to worry more about their memories.  I quoted this in a post on this blog eleven years ago, for example:

At "Mechanical Devices, which supplies parts for earthmovers and other heavy equipment to manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., part owner Mark Sperry says he has been looking for $13-an-hour machinists since early last year," the Journal reports. Thirteen dollars an hour, 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year—that comes to an annual salary of $26,000. (In the adjacent Peoria, Ill., metropolitan area, per capita income was $39,965 in 2008.) Or take Emirates Airlines. When it held jobs fairs in cities like Miami and Houston, only about 50 people showed up, "compared to a global average of about 150 and as many as 1,000 at some events in Europe and Asia." The jobs don't require much in the way of education, and they come with benefits, free accommodations, and a starting salary of $30,000. But you'd have to move halfway around the world, to Dubai—an alien and expensive place. Would you uproot yourself and your family for $30,000 a year? Don't you think both of these employers would find many more interested applicants if they offered higher wages? 

That should sound familiar.  We're hearing roughly the same complaints about lazy Americans who "don't want to work" right now, from media and individuals who think that society owes employers not just a living but ever-increasing profits.  The pandemic blew a huge hole in people's mental space, and I keep hearing talk about "returning to normalcy" almost every day.  They have evidently forgotten a theme that even the corporate media played before 2020, about Americans "living paycheck to paycheck," that a sizable minority didn't have enough savings to cope with a thousand-dollar emergency, or even less.  Sometimes those concerns still surface in news reports, but always as artefacts of the pandemic and its effects in the economy, rather than issues that have been with us for decades.

Just a few weeks ago I was talking to a local bartender in her 30s.  She complained about the shortage of service workers in town, adding that people don't want to work, and blamed it on the additional unemployment benefits of the pandemic.  I pointed out that those extra payments had ended a month before, and reminded her about the paycheck to paycheck theme from before the pandemic; she said she remembered that, and looked thoughtful.   I told her about the great increase in people starting their own businesses in 2020, the increase in retirements, and so on, which she hadn't known about. 

Myself, I also remember that in the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan drove unemployment up to Great Depression levels to stop inflation, I heard breathless reports about the jobs recovery and dropping unemployment rates.  It was less often acknowledged in corporate media that the new jobs were mostly low-wage no-benefits gigs, often only part-time, so that many people were working two or more jobs to get by.  When it was admitted, it was usually in the context of an end to the fat, entitled post-World War II years, that American workers had become spoiled and took for granted that a man could support a family on his wages alone.  In fact wages had been stagnating since the 1970s, but Reagan, and Clinton after him, accelerated that trend.  It continued through the Bush, Obama, and Trump years until the COVID pandemic arrived.

That, I suppose, is the "normal" we're supposed to return to.  I'm glad that so many people remember it, and don't want to go back.  I'm not very surprised that corporate news media, whose job it should be to remember the recent past, have forgotten it; a lot of people never knew it, but the media reported the facts now and then.  That's why I rely on left media, who do the job so much better.