By Noni Mausa
Let’s Play “You Be The Sucker!”
Let’s see. Business and banks have heaps of money – and aren’t hiring, spending their money, or loaning it out. Meanwhile, a few million working-age Americans have no money and no work, and many are young, strong, highly trained and capable. Business is complaining that they can’t get suitable employees for some sectors. But they aren’t training them, and in sectors where wages are low, they aren’t raising wages. Houses stand empty, while thousands are homeless or living in cramped conditions with family or friends. They are all playing “Don’t Make Me The Sucker.” It’s like a game of musical chairs where no-one gets off their chairs except the terminally benign or naïve. You can crank up the music all you want, but nobody’s moving.
And in this game, they’re all correct. If any of them moves without all the others moving, they get to be The Sucker. For instance, what if the unemployed went first? Suppose they went to the zero lower bound of wages and offer to work for free till the economy improves, “to show willing,” as the Brits say. But the losses they would court – loss of unemployment support, loss of time for real job search – are hardly balanced by the slim possibility that the humble homage they pay to the source of all human worth, the employer, will in the future be rewarded by a decent wage and steady work. Giving something for free hardly ever raises its price. In a rising economy this could work, for some. In a stagnant one, the unpaid employee is the sucker.
But the employer is in a fix too. There’s no fence that keeps his success from nourishing the business-slackers around him. If he goes first, and pays his people a living wage, his employees will spend their dollars at the cheapest stores – the ones who didn’t waste their time and money on wages and benefits. The generous employer creates customers for others, not for himself. If he goes first, he’s the sucker.
Even if new employees were his for free, enlarging his business when there are no customers is a recipe for failure. He briefly nourishes other businesses by building a bigger plant, investing in machinery and training, and what comes of it? He gets to be the sucker. Banks trying to make loans in a time of stagnation are obvious suckers. Where’s the profit in loaning at 3.8% when the risks of default are not only high, but controlled by other, unpredictable, even fraudulent actors in the financial arena? If hegoes first, he’s the sucker.
Businesses who need specialized employees are suckers if they try to train them or take them through apprenticeship. Where’s the guarantee that the employee won’t take his skills elsewhere – to a business that can offer higher wages because they didn’t waste money in training? If a business trains first, he’s the sucker. Each one alone is a sucker for trying to do what, in a functioning economy, makes sense. In stagnation, only fools try to go first, and not one in a hundred succeed if they try.
So obviously what we need, right here, right now, is a nation of fools. Can anything get all the players off their chairs in back into Mr. Fezziwig’s dance? Nobody trusts anybody, and rightly. The smaller players can’t do it, and the giant ones hardly need to. But something needs to be done. As our wise Mr. Pratchett said regarding the game foote-the-ball, “…a tactic was for players to cluster thickly around their own goal so there was no possibility of anything getting past them. I regret however that if both teams do this you do not have a game so much as a tableau.”
And a tableau, however individually sensible, is not an economy.