The Value of Labor, or Lack Thereof

Brad DeLong may seem to be hyperventilating in this post, but he is on to something.

Second Gilded Age Cultural Studies Watch, or O Michael Berube! Thou Shouldst Be Blogging in This Hour!

In a Super Bowl commercial–a commercial that I thought was astonishing for a company that is in the process of a slow-motion layoff of half of its hourly workers–GM broadcast the Robot’s Loser’s Progress yesterday:

GM Reveals Its Obsession in Super Bowl XLI Ad – Everyone at General Motors obsesses about quality these days – even the robots in the assembly plants. During the CBS telecast of Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4, GM will launch …a new 60-second TV spot, called “Robot,” …. [T]he spot features a small robot that is part of a GM assembly line. Unfortunately, the robot makes a tiny mistake: it drops a screw. The line shuts down and the employees in the plant banish the little robot from the premises. The robot’s anguish over its mistake helps to remind consumers that every 2007 GM car and light-duty truck is now covered by a 100,000 mile/five-year powertrain limited warranty, and illustrates GM’s obsession about quality…

What doesn’t tell you is the robot’s post-firing Loser’s Progress: the robot works a succession of lower-paid jobs, gets increasingly depressed, and at the end of the commercial commits suicide by throwing itself off a bridge–before waking up and realizing that it was all a bad dream.

In another Super Bowl commercial, Kevin Federline dreams about being a rap star while in “reality” he works the fryolater at a fast-food restaurant:

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Federline advert causes offence: A US advert starring Britney Spears’ estranged husband, Kevin Federline, has angered a fast food trade group. The 28-year-old pokes fun at his stalled music career as he daydreams of hitting the big time while serving French fries at a takeaway. The National Restaurant Association says the advert suggests restaurant work is “demeaning and unpleasant”. But advertiser Nationwide Mutual Insurance insists Federline is the only one being mocked.

The commercial will be shown on 4 February during the Super Bowl – US TV’s highest-rated broadcast, commanding the highest fees for advertising. Rapper Federline, also known as K-Fed, launched his music career amid a blaze of publicity but only sold 6,500 copies of his debut album, Playing with Fire, in the first week of its release…

I am not imagining this, am I? The underlying background assumption of these commercials is contempt for the men and women who serve the fast food and work the loading docks and deliver the pizzas and staff the call centers of America, isn’t it? The executives of GM and Nationwide Insurance and their creative ad professionals think that denying the dignity of labor is the road to selling annuities and SUVs to the fiftysomethings with spare cash watching the Super Bowl, isn’t it? This is a Sign of the Apocalypse for our current Second Gilded Age, isn’t it? Or am I overreacting?

This is out-of-my-league. We need a Trained Professional Cultural… Studies Person… A Trained Professional Cultural Student… A Trained Professional Cultural Studier… We need Michael Berube or Bitch Ph.D. or Bad Subjects or The Valve here, as soon as possible.

Apologies for the technical difficulties on our end, in not being able to embed a viewing window in this post, but you must view the Robot commercial to appreciate DeLong’s comments.

It doesn’t take a cultural studies expert to parse the meaning of these commercials. Once upon a time, a man (and it was usually men in those days) who did an honest day’s work was accorded respect, even if he was a shoeshine boy. Some of those menial positions, like being a runner on Wall Street or a clerk in an accounting firm, could and did serve as an entree to better jobs. Even though manufacturing jobs led nowhere, they were well enough paid to compensate for the repetitiveness (and sometimes danger).

But now it seems, no one works for the satisfaction of working (oh, say, unless you are an artist) but for the money. By definition anyone who has a low end job is a loser. As the Robot story shows, even those jobs are precarious. Make one mistake, and your life as you know it is over. Really over.

The message of the Super Bowl commercial, that a fall is long and painful, doesn’t just apply to the working class. It’s a warning to all of us. Recall that during the dot-com bust, former six figure earners were luck to find employment at Home Depot. They had narrow skills that were suddenly in oversupply.

As we pointed out in an earlier post, this is the downside to income disparity that isn’t often discussed. With fewer safety nets and (generally) low levels of savings, many people are exposed to a large reversal of fortune if they lose their job. That in turn creates a great deal of stress, and also severely limits one’s bargaining power with one’s employer (you can’t run the risk of saying no). The combination means that people in societies with high income disparity have worse health, at all income levels, than members of societies with lower income disparity.

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