Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

GRADUATION DAY, 2004

It was Graduation Day here at CU-Boulder. Before I headed off to celebrate with my students, I checked the hedline on the front page of the New York Times: "Growth of Jobs Reinforces Hopes of Sustained Turnaround." "You'd be hard-pressed to find a dark lining in this cloud," the chief economist at told the Times. The Washington Post was trumpeting the same good news: "íWe are firmly on a track of economic expansion,í said William Cheney, chief economist at MFC Global Investment Management."

Iím not sure exactly what kind of businesses the are. I suspect they donít produce anything Iíd find useful. I suspect they are a bunch of people sitting in front of computers, moving money from one rich personís account to another rich personís account. I donít doubt it was all good news to them.

Then I remembered Noam Chomskyís rule for reading the mainstream press. You can learn a lot there, but you must read from the bottom up. The really important news is usually buried at the end of the story. Further down in the Timesí piece, I read: "Economists do not expect job growth to get much better." Even closer to the end, I read: "Hourly wages increasing 5 cents last month to $15.59 for the roughly 80 percent of the workforce that falls into a category the Labor Department calls Ďproduction or non-supervisory workers.í" And: "Still 1.6 million fewer jobs than in February 2001, when employment peaked."

At the end of the Post article I learned that 8.1 million Americans are still looking for work. 4.6 million more jobless people say they want a job, but they are not counted among the unemployed because they have stopped looking. Another 4.6 million people say they are working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job. Thatís over 17 million people who want to work full-time but canít find the jobs.

The average full-time worker who got that nickel raise last month, bringing the average salary up to a grand $2800 or so a month Ė before taxes and deductions Ė probably never deals with outfits like National City Corporation and MFC Global Investment Management. Try raising a family on $2000 a month or less, take-home. Gas is $2 a gallon. A movie and ice cream with the family can easily run to $40 or $50 in one night. Maybe the average family can do that a few times a year.

Thatís better than the families of the17 million who are unemployed or forced to work part-time. They certainly canít invest with those bankers who canít find a dark lining in this economic news. The average American and the average investment banker live in totally different worlds.

Which world will my graduating students enter, I wondered. Theyíve studied hard for four years or more. A surprising number of them did not do all that studying just to get a toehold on the corporate ladder. They want to understand the world they are living in. They want to understand why there is so much inequality and unnecessary suffering. And they want to do work that will help reduce the inequality and suffering. They want to apply their learning to serve others.

Some of them will find jobs with social conscience and consciousness. Too many, though, will not. Those jobs just arenít there. They will have to take whatever they can get, if they can get anything at all, just to pay the rent.

The system is rigged against them. The vast majority of our national resources are devoted to pursuing profit. Rich people have plenty of money to hire other people to help them make more profit and get richer. Rich people also have plenty of political influence, to make sure that the vast majority of our resource remain devoted to profits, not people.

While the Bush administration has watched nearly 3 million jobs disappear, it has worked hard to keep those rich folks happy. The Bushies made the rich happy by putting all those people out of work. That reduced the purchasing power of the public, which helped to kept inflation down, so that the return on investments in years to come would be worth something. Of course the Bushies also made the rich happy with a generous tax cut for the upper crust.

Bushís economic planners stole a page from the first Reagan administration. They depressed the economy when they came into office, figuring things would go back on the upswing during the next election year. And they would take credit for making it happen with their enormous tax cuts. If you get all your news from mainstream sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post, youíll believe thatís just what is happening. It worked for the Reaganites, who called it trickle down economics. It may work for George W. Bush, too. But there was once a guy who called it "voodoo economics." His name was George H. W. Bush.

Letís not jump on the Bush-bashing wagon too quickly, though. Things are not likely to be all that much different if John Kerry is living in the White House this time next year. Kerry is very much in the Bill Clinton mold. The so-called economic miracle of the Clinton years did provide more jobs, but the average pay of the average worker barely increased during those eight prosperous years. If the fruits of prosperity were distributed more fairly under the Democrat, it was only marginally more fair.

If we want a society where there is real economic justice Ė and where all the eager young graduates who want meaningful jobs to help people can find those jobs -- we will need more than just a change of party in the White House. We will need a profound structural change in our economic and social priorities.

Itís not a utopian dream. 60 years ago, in his State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that it is every Americanís right to have a full-time job at a decent wage. And he said (really; this is true) that there is no reason why anyone should earn more than $25,000 a year. In todayís dollars, that might be $250,000 or a bit more. Imagine if everyone earning more than a quarter-million had to turn all the excess back to the government. Imagine if all that money went into human service jobs. Imagine if all those services were free. Imagine if they were provided by college graduates like my students, who are really smart and caring and devoted to serving peopleís needs.

As the ceremonial speakers always say, this graduation day is not an ending. Itís a commencement, a beginning. What we begin Ė the changes we begin to make in our society Ė are up to us. Let us go forth.

 


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