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Friday: The Big Squeeze

Had a really good day yesterday.  I’m back in the saddle again, sort of.  I have some real work but, unfortunately, no job yet.  But I’m optimistic, especially because 6 months away from the workstation hasn’t resulted in any permanent damage.  It came back to me pretty quickly.

Well, technically, it’s not a unix system- yet.  It’s coming.

In the meantime, I’m not surprised by the recent census data that shows that 1 in 2 Americans is now poor or low income.  The problem with that article is that even though it mentions that college educated families are now suffering, it still emphasizes what we might consider the “typical” poor person.  That person doesn’t have a college education, may be unmarried, has a child “out of wedlock” (fornicators!).  The article is designed to comfort the comfortable.  It’s mostly the uneducated working class that’s suffering and they made some pretty poor life choices.

This would be highly inaccurate, as well as unfair to the struggling 18 year old who, after all, shouldn’t be punished forever for putting the cart before the horse.  It feels too much like The Scarlet Letter morality and that didn’t end well.  I keep featuring the trials and tribulations of the research industry because I’m close to it.  But what is happening in research is an indication of what is really happening to the middle class.  Over 100,000 of us scientists have been laid off since the crash and all the people that I know who have managed to find new jobs have taken very steep cuts in wages, in the neighborhood of 30-50%.  If they’re lucky to get that, they might not have benefits.  It’s funny that we have already readjusted our expectations so that if you are only getting 50% of your former salary but manage to get health benefits from your employer, you’re considered successful.

And we’re not talking about high school graduates with illegitimate children living on Baker Street.  We’re talking about people who have advanced degrees in hard sciences and who just a couple of years ago were making $80,000 plus per year.  Of course, that doesn’t go very far in the northeast unless you have a spouse who works.  It only sounds like a lot of money if you’ve never had to live in central NJ.  But imagine having to pay all of your former expenses (mortgage, utilities, car insurance, food) in one of the most expensive areas of the country, the NYC metropolitan suburb area, on half of that income.  That’s what’s so maddening about the current economic situation.  Our cost of living hasn’t dropped- at all.  Expenses are still the same.  It’s just that you are much less likely to be able to afford to pay them.

I call it The Big Squeeze and I blame the Republican party.  I’m not letting Democrats off the hook here.  They may be in denial thinking, “Oh, it can’t be that bad.  At least not bad enough that I actually should refuse this campaign contribution from Pfizer or {insert some large pharma here}.”  Um, it *is* that bad.  Really, really bad.  It can’t last forever.  I’m assuming that the s%^& is being timed to hit the fan sometime next year in the midst of the election season.  By mid-summer next year, we will see main street dry up.  There will be a lot fewer families taking vacations, kids taking piano lessons, people buying stuff.  There will be more foreclosures, fewer unemployment benefits and an even greater spike in the school lunch program applications.  There will be more insanely rabid Republican crazy voters who have lost all sense of proportion and “christian” charity.  It’s all designed to extract a giant scream of uncle from Americans.  Think of it as economic torture until we give in and sign our hard earned benefits and safety net away.

It doesn’t have to be like this and, honestly, I can’t figure out why the bonus class wasn’t content with the fists full of dollars they were making during the Clinton years.  But for whatever reason, the wealthy and well connected have this ridiculous idea in their heads that they’re the only ones who know how to work hard and that the rest of us are just slackers and parasites.  This is the biggest problem we’re facing.  We are running up against a misplaced attitude of self-worth among the Wall Street crowd.  They have some peculiar notion that because they are rich, they earned that money virtuously while the rest of us are dirty, stupid and lazy.

I’d just like to caution the Democratic operatives out there who may be reading this that that’s a hard argument to make to the research community who have been working their asses off in the past decade to please a management strata that never seems to be satisfied.  Now that I’ve been out of work for awhile, I’ve come to see how mentally abused researchers have been.  Every second of every day is consumed with the thought that the next day could be the last on the job and that their entire middle class existence could be wiped out with the delete key on some clueless MBA’s spreadsheet.  And there’s a sense that the MBAs think that this anxiety producing pogrom against their workers is a good thing, that it puts the fear of  “job creators” into them and teaches them the value of money.  But while unemployment is devastating financially and ruins relationships and is just hard on your kids, the one thing it has in its favor is that the worst has happened and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.  Oddly enough, it gives us time to actually think about science once again and find satisfaction in learning new things.

So, to all of you researchers out there who are losing everything, hang in there as best you can.  I don’t believe this will last forever and there is some evidence that small companies and academia will slowly be able to pick up the slack at vastly reduced salaries but perhaps, not so much layoff insanity.  But The Big Squeeze is too damaging to the economy and will have lasting consequences.  As Jane Caro says, what we are witnessing is a struggle between authoritarianism and small “l” liberalism.  Right now, it looks like the authoritarians have the upper hand.  But even their ravening nutcase followers are subject to the global economy.  I don’t know what it will take to get them on the streets side by side with the occupiers but if I were politicians, I’d be worried right now that maybe they’ve gone too far.  The poor are not just the fornicating 18 year olds with no place to live.  They’re now the labcoated men and women who used to do the science fairs at your kids’ schools.  They’re extremely angry right now and they vote.

In the meantime, it’s still a beautiful world.  That tends to make the current economic situation a little easier to bear.

PS. I will be visiting Philadelphia more frequently in the forseeable future.  If there are any bloggers there who would like to get together for lunch or dinner, email me.  Yes, the traffic is atrocious.