At the corner of Wall and William Streets in downtown Manhattan, just up the stairs from the 2 and 3 subway stop, in front of the Cipriani restaurant frequented most nights by glitterati delivered in limousines and welcomed by non-whites in top-hats and tails, next door to where A. Hamilton lived when the new federal government worked in New York, one block from the stock exchange and from Federal Hall where G. Washington first was sworn-in as President, and three blocks from (a) Trinity Church where Secretary Hamilton and his beloved Betsy Schuyler are interred, (b) the Federal Reserve Bank of New York where Wall Street’s banks are supposed to be regulated, (c) T. Jefferson’s erstwhile residence as first Secretary of State, and (d) Zuccotti Park where the ‘Occupiers’ first modeled an ideal community in 2011, there stands a gray metal news kiosk. A bent, weathered old fellow clad in an oily tan jacket, who chain smokes and smells of cigars all the time pedals newspapers, magazines, and beverages here. It is always affecting to watch this man patiently plying his trade, patronized as he is by the pushy and chesty young shaved-headed men, cloaked in expensive but ill-fitting coats, who work here as traders. At least as remarkable this week, however, is a blue billboard on the kiosk’s east face. This reads as follows:
We’re not for everyone. Just the 1% that matter.
Elite Protection for the World’s Elite.
I am not making this up (though apparently Cinemax did). Sometimes circumstances throw up juxtapositions that are so rich in irony that you cannot outdo them, even by ‘mak[ing] [things] up.’ This week’s kiosk billboard is in a certain sense one of those cases, even if intentionally - and indeed brilliantly - manufactured as a television promotion. What could be more remarkable than the sign’s ersatz brazen appeal to financial elites who would probably rather not be exposed as elites, here at ground zero of their characteristic daily frenzies? Or its doing so within earshot or eyeshot of the homes of that apostle of the American ‘yeoman republic’ (Mr. Jefferson) and the founder of the Manumission Society of New York (Mr. Hamilton)? Or its doing so within eyeshot or earshot of the site where the first popularly elected national chief executive of the modern era (Mr. Washington) was inaugurated, of the symbol of democratized finance (the NYSE), of the symbol of popular government’s control over finance (the FRBNY), of the symbol and spiritual home of ‘the 99%’ (Zuccotti Park), and of that potent symbol of God’s stooping down to the humble status of man (Trinity Church)? And who could miss the significance of this company’s name – ‘Byzantium’ – as if lower Manhattan were a mosaic fortress of gilded beauty, Justinianian Roman Law order, and Orthodox spirituality rung round by ravenous Avars, Bulgars, Crusaders and Ottoman Turks?
I’d like to suggest, though, that the ironies here, rich and evident as they are, are nevertheless outdone by those on more subtle display worldwide in the lead-up to ‘Black Friday’ this week. And in this latter case, as it happens, the irony does not seem to be intended.
As some will have heard or have read, yesterday saw Walmart employees commencing a labor action for higher pay, while millions of other Americans began Giving Thanks and celebrating the Festival of Lights or the beginning of the Christ-Mass season by mobbing ‘big box’ stores in search of temporarily sale-priced goods – an ugly development which policy wonks now must ironically celebrate for its salutary effects on a still slumping economy. As some will also have heard or have read, the United States sent B-52 bombers into airspace over the East China Sea this week, to register American rejection of a recent unilateral assertion, by ‘Communist’ China, of sovereignty over the space in question.
What’s ironic about all of this, you ask? Well, consider: For nearly a hundred years, American laborers struggled for recognition of collective bargaining rights, then patiently but firmly collectively bargained for living wages and humane working conditions. Over time, their efforts bore fruit, and the nation in consequence became more prosperous, on fairer terms, than probably any society in history had managed to date. Yet then, nearly as soon as the victory had been won and American workers had grown able to purchase their own homes, send their children to university, and reasonably expect their descendants to live better than they had lived, it was all thrown away. Their government entered into multiple trade agreements that put American labor into competition with barely paid slave- and prison-labor toiling in inhuman conditions abroad – particularly, though not solely, in China. Unionized domestic manufacturing jobs dwindled, and American labor was left to seek low-paying, non-unionized ‘service’ and ‘retail’ jobs in their stead. By far the largest source of the latter, it turns out, is Walmart, which also turns out to be the principal emporium at which Americans purchase the aforementioned prison- and slave-manufactured goods whose ‘outsourcing’ to China and elsewhere has thrown American labor out of decently paying work in the first place.
But there is more. If the front page of Friday’s New York Times is to be believed, a great many Walmart and similarly situated retail employees are unable to afford even the cheap, often chintzy and toxic slave-produced products on Walmart’s and other ‘big box’ stores’ shelves. They can only buy these things by taking on consumer debt – debt that stems ultimately from … you guessed it, China and other newly manufacturing nations that have been steadily racking up trade surpluses with us, and debt that, when taken on in excess, fuels asset price bubbles and busts of the kind with whose sequels we’re still struggling. These same employees were also required to work on Thanksgiving Day itself, so as to ‘backwardate’ Black Friday back into Thursday and thereby monetize the one remaining non-monetized holiday we had left.
Walmart should not be uniquely blamed for this, of course, since if it did not skimp on wages it would be outcompeted by other 'big box' outlets that would. (That’s why civilized nations pass living wage legislation, after all – to forestall wage-cutting arms races.) Heck, it even emerges that Walmart has a heart too, since its management is both (a) encouraging non-starving employees to give generously to starving fellow employees, and (b) assisting its employees with filling out application forms for various forms of public welfare assistance. But this will of course bring further government expenditures of the kind that so agitate ‘austerians’ in our Congress, which of course will be piled atop further military spending needed to register our objections to further Chinese projections of military power across the East China Sea – projections that we make possible, indeed subsidize, by giving away both our manufacturing capacity and our living-wage jobs, and projections that we will finance our objections to by … borrowing from China.
Now I have suggested that this is all very ironic – more ironic even than the ‘Byzantium Security’ billboard in lower Manhattan. But is it merely ironic, or is it insane? Simply give away your manufacturing capacity and your living-wage jobs – the source of your nation’s broadly shared prosperity and power – to a nation you treat as your adversary. Thereby impoverish your laborers - the backbone of your nation and its economy - and subsidize your adversary. Next put your impoverished laborers to work in emporia that serve as no more than outlets for your adversary’s cheap toxic products – products which, though cheap, nevertheless few of your impoverished laborers are paid enough to afford. Now borrow from your adversary in order to provide public assistance to your impoverished laborers and to finance your military challenges to the new military adventures that your adversary is undertaking, which adventures, again, you have made possible in the first place by giving your adversary your manufacturing capacity and your living-wage jobs. Merely ironic? I’m going to go with ‘insane’ here. It looks crazy. It seems an abomination, a profound injustice, and a national suicide attempt all at the same time.
Is this perhaps our nation’s way of doing penance for all the injustice it did to the continent's original inhabitants after being assisted by them in the leadup to that first Thanksgiving Day? Were it so, I suppose we could say that at least it’s well motivated. I think, however, we might do a better job of it, and thereby repent more productively, were we to take these two steps: First, either bring the manufacturing jobs back home or require, as a prerequisite to continued liberal trade, that ‘outsourced’ employees be given ownership shares in all firms – domestic and foreign – that benefit by their being outsourced. (Share, in other words, those vaunted ‘gains’ wrought by ‘free trade’ with the victims of free trade.) And second, when domestic prosperity is thereby restored, get serious about aiding those worldwide who are ‘underdeveloped’ – not by immiserating domestic labor, but by assisting the development abroad of both (a) domestic technologies and infrastructures, and (b) internal, not external, markets for goods and services. Stop robbing Peter to pay Paul. Enable Peter and Paul to pay themselves and one another instead. Then we’ll have no more ironic Black Fridays.