What is the moral equivalent of work?

November 22, 1995|By Richard Reeves

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- ''Do you see any good news about jobs out there? I'd love to hear it!'' said Bill Posey, a member of the Florida House of Representatives, after I had spoken to legislators here about leadership and power and all that. Asked about the greatest domestic problem for future political leaders, I had said: ''Finding a moral equivalent of work.''

What do we do if there is not enough work to go around in a country and a democracy built on the work ethic, where self-esteem is rooted in what you do and how much you make?

I don't know the answer. But I do think our democracy is based on a prospering middle class -- and I wondered aloud what would happen if there were millions and millions of unemployed or underemployed men and women who had been in decent-paying white-collar and skilled blue-collar work. After all, one factor in revolutions has always been the existence of an underemployed educated class.

''The unemployed part of it has already happened in my district because of aerospace cutbacks,'' said Mr. Posey, a Republican who represents the central Florida area from Kennedy Space Center to Disney World in Orlando.

No economic hope

''I don't have to pay attention to the numbers or the newspaper stories about downsizing,'' Mr. Posey said. ''There is no economic hope here. Older engineers are laid off and who needs them anymore? The young ones are in white-collar slave jobs, and when they burn out they'll be replaced by a new crop of college graduates.''

Flying on to Jacksonville, I saw more news of a kind in one of those USA Snapshots in USA Today. This one was in the business section, reporting that the pay ratio of chief executives and average workers in big American corporations had gone from 41-to-1 in the mid-1970s to 187-to-1 last year. The average annual pay of all the workers in companies with more than 25,000 employees went from $8,000 to $20,000 in that time, which in real dollars is actually a decline in pay.

And the average pay of the big bosses in those companies? That number went from $326,000 a year to $3.7 million a year. That is the economic equivalent of rape.

Then I turned on ''Morning Edition'' on National Public Radio, and a sports commentator named Tim Green was talking about the '' musical stadium game being played by cities that want National Football League teams. Jacksonville was one of those cities, spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a beautiful new stadium and other things for the benefit of the owners of the Jacksonville NFL franchise, the Jaguars. They could have called them the BMWs.

Well, thought I, ordinary fans love it, too -- take me out to the ball game, tailgating and all that. Wrong again. Mr. Green, who analyzes games for the Fox TV network, went on to say:

''I know that a lot of blue-collar people who once could attend the games can no longer do so. This is sad, but you can't fight it . . . Thankfully, the game itself is a great spectacle no matter where it's played, no matter who's sitting in the stands and no matter how much the players are being paid. Fortunately the game still stands apart from the business.''

It does? You could have fooled me, and the blue-collar fans who can no longer afford the spectacle. Good old capitalism! Even in Rome's declining days of bread and circuses, the blue-toga six-pack guys could go to the circus.

Our guys, though, not only are not going to sit in corporate skyboxes in the new stadiums; they are not even going to get to see the boxes where America's elite will be signaling thumbs up and thumbs down on slaves of all collars.

Seen through a glass

''Maybe we are talking about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty,'' I said to Mr. Posey.

''I want to believe it's half-full,'' he said. ''But if it is, I can see it's still leaking. We're not making anything the world wants.''

''Well, airliners,'' I said.

''They're auctioning off the McDonnell-Douglas plant here this week,'' he said. ''The jobs there are long gone.''

Mr. Posey had the quote of the week recently in the Palm Beach Post: ''Unless people are independently wealthy, they're going to work, they're going on welfare or they're going to steal. There are no other alternatives.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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