Working for a Living in an Irrational Economic System

Our economic system is pretty funny, eh.

I don’t mean of the belly laugh sort, but rather the ironic variety (although a decent argument could be made that many elements of modern work life have the humour quotient of a Three Stooges skit).

There was a rally Thursday to support unionized cleaners working in Cadillac Fairview buildings in downtown Vancouver who are paid in the $12 per hour range. Cadillac, self-described as “one of North America’s largest investors, owners and managers of commercial real estate” and owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, has given its former $12 per hour cleaning contract to another supposedly unionized company that pays its workers $10.50 per hour.

These hard working people, mostly immigrant women, clean the offices of financial analysts, brokers, accountants, lawyers, executives and others, mostly men, who are paid five to many hundred times more.

Among the many ironies in this sad situation is the realization that the harder and more important the job the worse it pays. The more pointless and socially unnecessary the work the more cash is thrown at the person.

Keeping buildings where we work clean is pretty important. Making the clothes everyone needs to wear, picking the vegetables and fruit that keep us healthy, making sure urban sewers don’t get blocked, or picking up garbage are all important and difficult jobs, but how much are people doing this getting paid?

Gambling, on the other hand, pays extremely well, if it’s the sort that rich people do. Of course we’re told that what they do on Wall Street or Bay Street is part of the real economy and only what happens on the Las Vegas Strip is gambling.

But it seems to me, real gambling is when you don’t understand what is going on. Think about it: If I bet my pension on whether or not the little ball is going to fall in a red slot or a black slot, at least I can see what happens. If I hand it over to a mutual fund, I don’t have a clue.

How many of us really understand how the stock market works? Sure, we nod in agreement when the analyst comes on the six o’clock news and says: ‘Bond prices rose six basis points and the Dow dropped 43 points today on news the September durable goods figures were higher than expected.’ Say what?

If I put my hundred on the table the least they can do is show me the cards to prove whether I won or lost. On a Las Vegas craps table I see the pit boss check the dice. Cameras cut down on cheating. On Wall Street? No pit boss, no cameras, not even some guys named Guido and Tony to take a cheater out in the alley. Two years after some company steals ten billion, the government starts a court case that lasts another 14 years with appeals and at the end of it all, five rich guys lose their trading privileges.

But I digress.

If you want to earn the really big dough in capitalism you get a job in one of those Cadillac Fairview-owned buildings buying and selling numbers, letters and symbols that only exist on a computer screen. They call this working in the financial sector, but is it that much different than gambling?

And even better paid than those doing the buying and selling are the guys who give advice about which numbers, letters and symbols — that only exist on a computer screen — to buy and sell. Best paid of all is the guy who hires all these people and then sits back and lets them do their job. He’s called a hedge fund manager and can pull down a pay cheque of two million per week or more if he’s really, really good at convincing other rich people to let him “invest” their money.

Sure, some of these number pushers are smart and even have a lot of education, but is what they do socially useful? Compared to cleaners or seamstresses or fruit pickers or garbage guys?

They “make” money, that’s all, something that is supremely valued in our current economic system, but which when judged by any sort of authentic human experience is nothing more than fantasy.

It’s as if the world were one gigantic cornfield, but instead of harvesting it for food, we build mazes because they fascinate the people with money. Cornfield owners can earn huge profits if they invest in mazes. Trillions of dollars change hands, with the really big bucks going to the experts who design them and those who help people find their way through the mazes. But the people who grow the cornfields are paid barely enough to live on.

The truth is, the cleaners of Cadillac Fairview buildings — like the people who grow the corn — perform easily identifiable useful work. The same cannot be said for many of the people who work in the buildings.

What does this reality say about our economic system?

Gary Engler is an elected union officer and co-author of the just released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, an updating of the original designed to provoke discussion about the future of unions and the Left. Read other articles by Gary.