Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Secret Lives Of Wage Slaves

There's a Russian church near my house, to which I have paid occasional visits over the last year or so. On one of my visits, a recently married young man volunteered to translate for me. (A good thing, since my Russian is rather horrible – almost nonexistent, in fact.) After the service, we got to talking and he found out that I play guitar. So he asked me if I could teach him. I told him that I'd be glad to teach him – for free. Thus he has been coming to my house once a week for the last several weeks to learn.

I'm a big fan of learning the fundamentals of music, including learning to read notes in standard notation. This is something that many guitar instruction books and teachers gloss over, preferring instead to teach a few chords and the tabs (tablature) to a few American pop hits. On the other hand, what I have been doing with my student is to teach how to read notes on the musical staff and how to play them in first position. Later, we will hopefully move on to more fun stuff.

My student does not mind my approach, and in fact he seems eager to learn. But last week, I have to admit that he sounded like he hadn't been practicing as much as he should. We have covered all six strings in first position, yet when he was playing the short version of “Spanish Study” in Frederick Noad's black Solo Guitar Playing book, he was missing some of the notes on the lower three strings.

So why wasn't he practicing as he should? Was it because he was losing interest? Was it because I was a boring teacher? Or was it because of his job, which involves on-site customer service for office equipment, and which had forced him to be on the road from 7 in the morning to 7 at night on the day he came to my house? And is it reasonable to suppose that his job regularly requires such long hours?

Why work so hard, one may ask. That's a very good question. Maybe it has to do with the fact that our cost of living is so elevated, even now. My friend is a renter. Rent for a one bedroom apartment in our town runs over $1,100 a month according to this source: Portland, Sweet Sixteen? For Singles. Rental homes cost around $1200 a month on average, although some smaller homes can be had for around $900. My friend rents a house, but I haven't asked him how much he pays each month.

(I have another neighbor, with a wife and young son, who lives very near me in Portland, yet works in Salem. He's on the road before the sun rises, and when he comes home on weekdays, he has time only to eat and get ready for bed. He's hemmed in by his circumstances, with a lack of other jobs of his type to which he could easily transfer. He's been trying to sell his house so he can move closer to where he works, but selling is next to impossible in these times.)

My guitar-learning friend also needs medical insurance, I am sure. This is especially true because of his wife, who will one day have a baby, I suppose. I've heard that having babies can be quite expensive ($6,000 to $8,000 for a normal delivery and $10,000 to $14,000 for a caesarian section if you're not insured, according to this source: http://pregnancy.thefuntimesguide.com/2009/01/cost_to_have_a_baby.php). Even those with insurance must pay over a thousand dollars for a delivery. By the way, in 1950, the cost for a normal delivery was eighty-six dollars and thirty-three cents. (Source: The Cost of Having a Baby... in 1950) The American infant mortality rate was lower in 1950 as well.

My friend drives a relatively new car. It's not an extravagant car by any means, yet it is the sort that a man would buy if he was starting a family. I know that such cars are not cheap. If a man wanted to buy a “family-mobile” like a 2009 Honda CR-V, for instance, he'd have to pay around $22,000 for a base model. With a 48 month loan and interest rate of 8.25 percent, monthly payments would run around $540 a month. And that doesn't count insurance, or the spike in operating expenses that will come once oil resumes its rise in price. (This is one reason why a car-dependent society is such a bad idea.)

Housing, health and transportation costs are just three examples of how people like my acquaintances are being squeezed by a predatory economic system whose masters seek to make all necessities as expensive as possible in order to maintain their profit margins. But that system has nibbled away at the working class in other ways, namely, in the stagnation or actual decline in worker wages even as worker productivity rose in the period from the 1970's until now. (Sources: http://monthlyreview.org/0607wkt.htm; http://washingtonpolicywatch.org/2009/03/12/looking-past-the-banking-crisis-stagnating-real-wages-part-1-of-3/ and http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/5/21/733001/-No-Sustained-Economic-Growth-without-Real-Wage-Growth, to name just a few.)

The average salary for white collar workers in the U.S. in 2005 was $39,629 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, many people with technical degrees earned significantly more than this. (Of course, many of their jobs are now vanishing.) If we assume that my friend has a bachelors degree from an accredited university, he can expect to earn a million dollars more over his lifetime than someone with only a high-school degree – at least, that's what most advocates of higher education say. But what with the inflation of tuition costs over the years, at least one source (http://www.aei.org/outlook/100034) claims that this million-dollar figure should really be whittled down to around $120,000. Of course, all depends on what subject your degree is in. If my friend took out student loans to finance his tuition, he's probably still in the hole today. (See also Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_tuition#Hyperinflation_of_college_costs.) For what it's worth, I don't think my friend has had much post-secondary education.

As the prices of key necessities continue to be artificially inflated while the real earning power of working-class people continues to decline, those ordinary people who continue to rely on the system of the “official” economy begin to resemble children clinging for dear life to a merry-go-round that's spinning faster and faster out of control. Those who fall off or let go are dashed cruelly to the ground, yet to keep hanging on requires all one's time and strength. The merry-go-round is on the verge of breaking, yet those who are still hanging on have no energy left for learning to adapt to life without the merry-go-round. There's very little strength or time left for learning skills like gardening, or for beginning the steps of adaptation to economic collapse. In fact, there's not even time to learn to play the guitar.

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