Sunday, August 7, 2011


image © mishka henner

In an article in the New York Post, Linda Chavez reports and muses on the big interview Eric Cantor did recently with Peggy Noonan:

‘‘It’s almost as if the president and his party really are bent on promoting a welfare state and then thinking about . . . our free enterprise system second,” Cantor said. “And their emphasis . . . has been in trying to promote programs of economic redistribution. And if you hear them speak, it’s always about ‘everybody should pay their fair share.’ And I think the difference is, we believe everyone should have a fair shot.” That succinctly describes the different worldviews of liberals and conservatives.
Liberals are always trying to come up with programs and policies that even out the differences between individuals. Liberals want to take a bigger chunk of money from those who earn more because they’re harder workers, are brighter or more skilled, have invested more in education or just happen to have been born into a wealthy family. And they want to use that money to create programs to help the less fortunate. Our federal income-tax system is based on this principle.
Conservatives aren’t as concerned about evening out inequalities between individuals and would rather encourage individuals to pursue their own interests, for better or worse. Most conservatives believe that government shouldn’t penalize hard work, risk-taking and success by insisting that government take a larger share of the fruits of those efforts.

Kinda funny coming from a man who talked himself into a government job that includes premium health care support in perpetuitity, and a life-time pension--all on the taxpayer's Roosevelt dime.  But this is the weird and fundamental contradiction at the foundation of the "modern" Republican Party and its powerful supporting cast of rightwing pundits and a whole television network, Fox.  These alleged representatives get into office riding the stale cant of boilerplate such as "government shouldn't penalize hard work."  It sure doesn't apply to them though, now does it.  What "hard work"?  Mr. Cantor's on vacation again, after an grueling summer of sitting in air conditioned rooms with his elite peers and refusing any compromise with reality until a contrived but real deadline forced the Administration to accede to a "Satan Sandwich" of a bill which didn't even stop S&P from pronouncing the US credit status to be less than AAA.  He toils on, night and day, vacation or not, upholding the right of every American to be an "entrepreneur."  Even in his sleep, Mr. Cantor toils on, for all of us.

Does the typical voter even think about this "entrepreneur citizen" idea, or does this voter just register some below consciousness tickle of warmth at the mention of the phrase.  I've done construction work--masonry mostly--for 25 years or so.  It has been nice, a perk even, to have been working for myself, an entrepreneur citizen.  That meant I could keep my own schedule, and in particular, keep my hand in the music world, where gigs come along as they do, and to be able to play professionally you really do need to be able to play--both available and with your physical skills intact.  Masonry too--particularly when it was accomplished using stones--was its own reward as well for me, the reward of being able, for hire, to fashion beautiful objects out of stones, the reward of being in some small sense in contact with the ethos that gave us all the Lion Gate at Mycenea, for just one example.  Not that any of the stones I worked with weighted 12 tons.

So maybe the folks up in Richmond who voted Mr. Cantor his lifetime health care and pension did it because the artist in them is soothed by his support of entrepreneurship.  But there's another side to this entrepreneurship.  When I entered the building trades nearly everyone was becoming an "independent contractor," which is another term for entrepreneur.  And what this nice term meant and means is that working people do not get any benefits, are not officially "hired" by anyone except on a day or job basis, usually pay for their own health insurance (if they have any), and can depend at best on the good will of a network of independent general contractors (most of them with no or very few employees) for a continuing supply of work (or, as us musicians might call this supply, gigs--since construction has become exactly like the music biz, which is possibly why I found transitioning back and forth in the two worlds a reasonably confortable experience).  The advantage of this world of entrepreneurs, aside from how nice it feels sitting on a horse, on the open range, sun casting purple shadows on the Sierras in the far distance, dogies nursing, the murmur of the herd as it beds down, the smell of wood smoke and beans as cookie sets up the campsite, the...

Well as I was saying, the advantage in this dreamy work of entrepreneurs is that employers save quite a lot of money.  When times are good they can stash more money away, or buy an SUV or a beach house or a boat, go on vacations just like Mr. Cantor.  When times are really good and they've been really lucky (or worked so goldarn hard they have had to manufacture more hours in the day and more days in the year to even manage to get the job done) some of these entrepreneurs can even give money to Mr. Cantor to assure his commitment to a nation of entrepreneurs.  And conversely, when times are bad (as they are these days), these entrepreneurs can simply hunker down, with no concern for employees with nothing to do, or retired employee pensions, or any of that stuff.  Because there were no employees, just subcontractors, other entrepreneurs.  And at a more abstract level of talking, the savings come with and are part and parcel of a removal of any responsibility to the folks who are making the employers the big bucks.  Everyone's an entrepreneur, after all.  Instead of official layoffs and accompanying unemployment benefits, it's just "sorry boys, ain't no droving today, we'll give you a holler in the spring." 

Back in the good years, the Clinton '90s, quite a few subcontractors I knew expanded, "hiring" their own crews of sub-subcontractors.  When this area began to see a sizeable influx of Mexicans and Central Americans, primarily due to big chicken processing plants coming to the area and advertising for the cheapest labor available, some of these people got the hell out of chicken processing and into better jobs, such as sheet-rock installing, and plumbing, and house painting, and masonry.  Often they were "hired" (or even actually hired in some cases--this story is not monolithic) by established subcontractors, who then in some cases became managers of a labor force, made more money, bought SUVs and beach homes.  And so forth.

Meanwhile, in the bigger picture, millions of American jobs went far, far away.  Construction has to happen pretty much where the objects being constructed reside.  Meat processing has to happen, pretty much, in places where the meat can arrive alive, blinking its eyes at the wonder of a world on wheels.  Shirts and televisions and microwaves and computers, on the other hand, can originate far far away, where people work for pennies a day.  As a guy (an American no less) in a PBS documentary about the textile industry in Guatemala said with a straight face back in the late 1980s, the workers down here don't get brown lung. The workers down there mostly don't get older either.  Passing strange, that. 

I know a couple of "entrepreneurs" who spend every working day driving around my county in an elderly small pickup hunting for scrap metal, which they sell for about $65.50 average cash money.  Some days, if school isn't in session, their kids ride around with them all day.  That way the kids learn the entrepreneurial spirit I reckon.  What with the disciplining S&P has just administered to President Obama, Congress,  and our economy generally, could well be the price of metal is going to rocket down to where it was two years ago, and these folks will be "earning" half or less what they're making this summer.  If the damage is severe enough it'll drive gas prices down again.  If not, not.  Hey, it's the cowboy life, and S&P might end up looking a lot like Clevon Little in a cowboy hat. 

But the fundamental question is, why do people like Mr. Cantor, people who believe so deeply in the spirit of American entrepreneurship, strive for careers in the government they hate and want to destroy?  Mr. Cantor is a success--but not at entrepreneurship.  Unless what he does can be translated, with a deeper analysis, an MRI so to speak, into one of the world's oldest "trades."  We all know what that is.  Like Hazel used to sing, "Don't put her down, you helped put her there."  Yep. 

Note: the photograph is from Mishka Henner's collection of google map photos, a controversial ebook called "No Man's Land" about which much can be discovered by operating the google:

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