By: Wayne Adkins
Slavery has been abolished in the United States since 1865. It is illegal for one human being to own another. But Americans are being owned and they continue to allow their owners to do it.
When I was a kid I remember shops on Main Street downtown in the small town I lived in. There were specialty shops with the names of local business owners on the signs. A place to buy mens suits, another for dresses, one for appliances and another for toys. There were restaurants nearby where you could buy a dish that nobody else in town had. Those shops are all gone now, replaced by the super Walmart and a handful of other chains. The restaurants are closed, unable to compete with the ubiquitous fast food chains. Some would call this progress. They say that it’s good for consumers to have competition which keeps prices low. The problem is that over time it actually reduces competition and drives prices up as a percentage of income by driving wages down.
In towns all across this country it looks the same. National chain department stores, national chain restaurants, chain hobby shops, chain grocery stores, chain auto parts, chain barber shops, and on and on and on. The mom and pop business model is dead. There is no way mom and pop can compete with the volume buying power of large national chains. Manufacturers can’t sell to mom and pop for the same price without risking their largest outlets pulling their business based on exclusive pricing models. There may be competition within a small town between two chain stores, but there simply is no competition from mom and pop.
Consumers can’t be blamed for patronizing the chain stores. Prices are lower and for many cost is the driving factor. That’s because the jobs in their cities and towns evaporated with the mom and pop businesses. Now the bulk of jobs available to most workers are in low paying unskilled positions at the chain stores. It’s really difficult to explain to someone struggling to pay their bills that they are making it harder on themselves by shopping at the cheapest store. Even if they are aware of the bigger picture they are powerless to change it today and today they have to eat.
This is a horrible situation for the disappearing middle class and the growing poor. But it has worked out really well for the wealthy few. The wealthy used to own large plantations where they could buy people to work and make them richer. But that involved risk and large outputs of capital. Slaves had to be purchased, housed , fed, and given medical care. There was an investment to protect. This was risky as owners couldn’t tell at auction which slaves in the future might get sick, run away, or be unable to breed. They also had to pay someone to manage and supervise slaves. They more than came out ahead over time because they had cheap labor working sun up to sun down, but it wasn’t exactly free.
Now owners don’t have to expend as much capital up front on their labor force. They have no investment in workers. They don’t have to house, feed and provide medical care for them. In fact, they don’t even have to pay them enough that they can provide housing, food and medical care for themselves. If they don’t make enough money to provide for themselves they can go somewhere else or get a second job, or a third. The problem for the worker is there is nowhere else to go. Sure, you can quit your job and go somewhere else. But where will that be? The chain department store? Another fast food place? A different warehouse? The worker has the illusion of freedom, but he has only moved from one plantation to another. He still must work from sun up to sundown to survive. Meanwhile the job he left is filled with another desperate worker who just jumped from some other plantation.
There are now industries popping up all over the country designed to further bleed the poor. Banks have leveled so many overdraft fees against people who live hand to mouth that they are now turning to pay day lenders to try to scrape by for another week. Have you not seen all of the check cashing pay day loan businesses popping up in this country? Stores offer to rent to own furniture and appliances to people who can’t buy them all at once and don’t have credit because they can’t consistently pay their bills. I have never seen as many thrift stores and consignment stores as there are in this country today. I am even seeing used tire stores for people who can’t afford tires for their car, but can’t afford to not have transportation to their multiple jobs. Forget buying a home for many Americans. That dream is dead. They can’t build credit while living hand to mouth and can’t save enough money for a down payment. So they have to rent in any of the proliferating giant apartment complexes where they will build no equity and are one emergency away from eviction and homelessness. We are trending more toward third world status than the American dream.
Meanwhile the political machine in this country is making sure that this continues. They call the wealthy “job creators” despite the fact that these chains have only displaced numerous jobs paying livable wages with fewer jobs paying minimum wages. They continue to provide tax breaks and loopholes to the wealthy accelerating the movement of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy few. The standard line is that “if the wealthy can keep more of their money through tax breaks, they will inverst it and create more jobs in the process”. The problem with that thinking is that it completely ignores the very purpose of investing in the first place. People invest money so that they can have more money in returns. So giving them more tax breaks only accelerates the flow of money to the top. They bail out banks who wrecked the economy and decimated workers 401ks with irresponsible and illegal behaviour without holding any of those individuals responsible. That only encourages more reckless behaviour.
We don’t live on a planet with infinite wealth. The two extremes would be that everyone on the planet owns everything equally or that one person owns the entire planet. Most would argue that we should be somewhere in between those two extremes. We are so much closer to that second example than the first that it is scary. “According to the Forbes report released in March 2015, there are currently 1,826 U.S. dollar billionaires worldwide, from 66 countries, with a combined net worth of $7.05 trillion, which is more than the combined GDP of 152 countries.”- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billionaire. That wealth doesn’t come from nowhere. They aren’t generating wealth out of thin air. The rich cannot get richer without the poor and middle class getting poorer. That is a fact.
Remember playing Monopoly as a kid? The guy with the most money would sometimes cut deals to keep bankrupt players in the game longer so they could continue bleeding the bank and building their own wealth? He owned almost everything on the board and it was obvious that no other player could change that. But he would let you stay in the game because you were going to pass go soon and he wanted that $200 too. Inevitably someone would reach the point where they couldn’t take it anymore and flip the board. Think about what that represents in real world terms. That’s where we are. Millions of Americans are running the economic gauntlet week to week trying to scrape by on minimum wages hoping to pass go on Friday and get another $200. Of course there are still some educated middle class types left. But their jobs depend on them going into staggering student loan debt to get a degree that may not even be useful to them in an environment where middle management is gone.
I am NOT saying that this is a deliberate, devious plot to enslave the American worker. I don’t think most companies are evil or don’t care about their people. What I am saying is that this is the result of unchecked capitalistic greed. Companies exist to make money. Being able to purchase large quantities at a reduced price allows you to sell for less and make more money. Being able to drive smaller competitors out of business allows you to make more money. Being able to eliminate worker benefits allows you to make more money. Being able to pay the minimum wage to part-time workers allows you to make more money. Being able to buy political influence allows you to keep tax breaks and make more money. Shipping jobs to cheaper labor markets overseas allows you to make more money. There may be no evil intent in that, but the effects are the same either way. How much money is enough? When does the board get flipped?
Slavery is illegal in the United States. But make no mistake about it, you are being owned. You can’t be literally beaten, but you are being beaten down. Sure, you get to choose which job you take, but the wealthy control the job market. Work for them here or work for them there, it doesn’t matter. You will work for them. You get to choose where you bank, but you will pay a banker. You get to choose where you shop, but the stores are all owned by a wealthy few. They will keep paying to keep the playing field tilted, to keep you misinformed, and to keep you voting against your own self interest. They have convinced you that you can’t even talk about things like “income inequality” or “redistribution of wealth” because those are things that only lazy losers looking for a handout say. They own you.