Wednesday, September 21, 2005


a storyteller’s look at the New Era

by Ricardo

Copyright © 2005 by Author


What is the Phantom Industry? Look around you. You are standing in the middle of it. It is the ultimate economic phenomenon of our epoch, a sociopolitical entity that employs and benefits, in one way or another, as much as 80% of the American workforce and has branches and outposts throughout the world.

It has a brief but storny history.


1. In the Beginning

The U. S. Constitution was ratified before the Industrial Era came into existence. To all intents, the Republic’s overall political structure was implemented in the days of agricultural quasi-feudalism, which goes to show that the economy, though a powerful factor in a country’s makeup, does not have to dictate how we the people should live and be governed, at least not all the time.

Influenced by Karl Marx, historians found they had to classify Capitalism as an epoch unto itself, confusing, as is their ghastly habit, politics with reality, economy with history, and the joy of scientific honesty with the paycheck. Originating in the Age of Industry, Capitalism was merely an economic system requiring many hands to be productively employed by relatively few companies. Once hired, most employees were asked to perform simple, mindless, repetitive tasks. Under Capitalism, large firms rather than individual specialists took it upon themselves to produce and deliver to the so-called consumer anything and everything, from the basic staples to luxuries.

The end of that ponderous era came in sight once the first assembly line was set in motion by Henry Ford in the early years of the Twentieth Century.

Some analysts anticipated gleefully new possibilities and prospects. Others, less tediously optimistic, pointed out that automating production of goods might leave many folks without a job. To offset everyone’s fears, the optimists maintained that mechanized labor was going to create a lot of spare time for everyone which they could use to improve their spiritual standards, take long gratifying vacations in exotic regions, learn to appreciate art more, vote, and so on, and Santa Claus would eventually show up to pick up the tab.

In the end, neither view proved valid. Reality hardly ever lives up to people’s, much less economists’, expectations. Even though scientific fortunetelling differs from the traditional version in that more people pretend to take it seriously, the methods and the end result are similar. The lingo-ridden vagueness of prediction is resorted to in order to safeguard the fortuneteller against exposure as a fraud. Some forecasts come true periodically (albeit hardly ever two in a row from the same source) to prevent the layman’s complete dismissal of the entire field.

World War One created a great, if mostly artificial, demand for many more hands in the workplace. Military supplies had to be produced in large quantities. Even before it was over, though, drastic political changes occurred everywhere, most notably in the Russian Empire. The most radical group of people ever to convene on that country’s territory seized and maintained power against tremendous odds, making a wild, ill-informed, and monstrously misguided attempt to humanize the Age of Industry, already a thing of the past then, by introducing (supposedly) some basic Christian values to it. Greedy as radicals always tend to be, they had no desire to share their power with anyone, and I mean anyone, including God, whom they cheerfully decided to exclude God from the equation. Their mistake (indeed, everyone’s mistake today, almost a century later) was to expect Christian ethics to work without the Ultimate Judge of Such Matters, much as if one were to expect a high-speed train, finely designed and assiduously assembled, to work without electricity. Nevertheless, the Socialist Revolution in Russia forced certain folks elsewhere to examine their own conduct. Unless they wanted more revolutions, they had better mend their ways and start treating the workforce as if it were composed in some degree of sentient human beings. It was already too late. It was no use. Whether oppressed and exploited, or appeased and unionized, most of the workforce had to be laid off. Machines were faster, cheaper, more precise and, having no immortal souls, less cumbersome.

The downfall, known in the U.S. as the Great Depression, came on top of many panicky decisions and annoying results. Resurrected by World War One, the Age of Industry was still grotesquely alive but could not go on unless products were purchased, consumed, and purchased again: hard to accomplish with half the consumers out of work and half the newspapers suggesting, with irritating consistency, that Socialism might be a healthy alternative after all.

(The onslaught of ideological nuances so befuddled the period’s thinkers, it never occurred to any of them that Socialism, and even Communism, however Utopian, were Capitalism’s siblings rather than antipodes, since they, too, were thoroughly industrial, required employment of many, discouraged individual thinking, and were just as eager to sacrifice fuzzy numbers at the altar of the Gross National Product. It does not make much difference in the long run whether a few dozen corporations are running the show, or just one (i.e. the Federal Government), and how many of them are state-owned. As for the peculiar treatment by the Soviets of their own population, why, you wouldn’t expect folks who have openly renounced God to behave charitably. One can govern with promises, handouts, and some guns, or promises, no handouts, and a lot of guns. It is strictly a matter of preference and has little to do with the economy.


2. Once the Dust Had Settled

The period immediately following World War I was anything but rosy. The machines were taking over. France, in her own salacious way, alleviated some of her economic problems by bleeding Germany (World War One reparations, etc.), but Germany and England were hit very hard indeed. Unemployment rates skyrocketed everywhere. As oftentimes is the case, governments around the globe proposed tough measures and took none. The debates went on until the famous market crash put and end to them.

Some politicians and businessmen spent the following couple of years trying to pick up the pieces of an era long gone by, the one Henry Ford had sent packing, to no avail. There was no way for the average consumer to obtain an income other than by hiring himself out to someone who could use a pair of hands and, in some special cases, a brain. It was an impasse. Only a portion of the workforce could be employed, but the entire country had to have an income to be able to purchase the results of employment.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy’s distant relative and, some years later, Stalin’s good friend and drinking buddy, was the one who decided the situation was, well, unacceptable. A man of wit and considerable political courage, he deviated from his immediate predecessors’ laissez-faire approach by actively seeking, and eventually finding, a sensible solution.

Redistribution of wealth was out of the question. It generally is. Folks will not part voluntarily with anything that might conceivablybenefit others.

Roosevelt looked at the tax revenue and decided to make good use of that. He could not simply give the money away: governments, if they wish to be taken seriously, must never indulge in direct charity. Instead, he explained that the country was in dire need of railroads, highways, bridges and such (which was true), and that his administration was quite eager to compensate those willing to construct same.

This new approach soon became an integral part of the economic picture. Those who produced the basic staples and so on were taxed; the resulting funds were transferred to those who produced the improvements. Simply put, it was a well-organized attempt to find a meaningful occupation for everyone. The New Deal (as the new approach was dubbed) was, in fact, a noble idea. Little by little, the outdated conventions of the Industrial Age would fall away, 20% or so of the workforce would easily provide the food, clothes, and shelter for everyone, whether employed or not, allowing the rest of the country to work on various improvements and innovations. Sooner or later, anyone would be able to take as much time as they wished to find and realize themselves in any of the numerous available fields. Those still uncertain about their true vocation would be given enough public assistance to be able to afford passable living conditions.

Thus the Republic was going to show the world a healthy alternative to humanity’s unrealized and seemingly unattainable dream (i.e. Communism, Star Trek style). A superior alternative, too, since there was seemingly no need for gory social experiments, radical leaders, or incongruous ideologies.

But there was Germany, and there was France, and there was Japan, and there was World War Two.

The capture of Czechoslovakia by German troops was pointedly ignored. The division of Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin, who reckoned they had their own economic experiments to conduct, was also ignored, although there was less flippancy this time around. German planes rained bombs on London. The English started paying attention. France was, of course, occupied, but since the cafés were active, the Metro still functional, and the Opera performed more regularly than it does today, everyone decided that it was okay. Then came Hitler’s invasion of Stalin’s territories. Some people looked up from their desserts. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was, in fact, covered by the press.

As it progressed, the new World War confused and frightened almost everyone. The Age of Industry had to be rescusitated once again. Millions of hands were once again needed at plants and factories everywhere. The New Deal was put on hold indefinitely.


3. Once the Dust Had Seettled Once More

When it was all over and the shock wore off and the tragedy of the 400,000 dead was somehow accepted, America found herself in a state of mindless euphoria. Some years later, the ephoric fog lifted, revealing a new challenge and a new and amazing field in which some folks could now make a living.

Computers looked very promising at first, the way Ford’s assembly line had looked promising earlier. Some economists objected, realizing that just as Ford’s innovation had done millions of laborers out of a job, so would the computer relieve (interesting word) multitudes of clerks (a lot of whom would have been factory workers in a different epoch: the rapid proliferation of so-called office jobs was the first postwar echo of Roosevelt’s New Deal, distorted and rendered meaningless; pencil pushing is easier, to be sure, than bridge and railroad construction). Then someone had the bright idea to let the democratic (or was it Communist?) principle take over: share and share alike. Instead of replacing a thousand workers with one mainframe machine and one operator, why not give each of them a terminal? Later on, the concept was further improved by introducing every clerk to his or her own Personal Computer. Now every dozen clerks required a technician to maintain their computers for them, and every five technicians a supervisor to oversee the maintenance and attend to the employees’ morale.

The difference between the New Deal and this was that computers, when all is said and done, offer just one type of activity to those who wish to be important outside of the production of basic staples. Called upon to solve the problems of many, the new industry quickly hit the limit of usefulness and continued to expand into the murky area where production is replaced by something called, in lawyers’ lingo, work creation, ceasing to be a genuine industry and attaining phantom qualities far quicker than the economists, who always need a century or two to adjust to new ideas, expected.

The long-awaited new era was introduced painlessly and smoothly. Unfortunately, while inaugurating it, its advocates (or those at the helm, or whoever the hell’s job it was or should have been to provide justification and encouragement) neglected to toss in some new standards to go along with it. The code of ethics created specifically for the Age of Industry and inapplicable in any other era still prevails today. Relics of an epoch long gone by are still present in every aspect of our quite modern, and quite different, lives.

Each new epoch inherits some of the previous one’s customs and mores. Feudalism cheerfully adopted aspects of slavery. The Age of Industry gladly accepted the slavery and the clan mentality from the feudal lords. Nevertheless, every historical interval should have its own notions of such matters as honor, propriety, courtesy, education, and so on. Throughout history, each epoch knew enough about itself to be able to face facts when the going got tough. Except one.


4. Defining Factors

Our epoch appropriated the Industrial values and mores in toto simply because, what with all the wars, revolutions, bootleggers, Al Capone, atonal music, corny paintings and cornier politics, affirmative and alternative action, and what not, it did not have enough time to work out any new standards. As a result, we still view ourselves as members of Capitalist society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A child of Industry, Capitalism concerned itself mostly with production of goods. Look around you, city dweller. How many people do you know who actually produce anything tangible? We are told repeatedly that our generation has witnessed the Informational Revolution. How many well-informed people live in your building? We are told that the service sector is vital to our economy. But the idea that 20% of the population producing and delivering the goods (not really – a great deal of the goods is actually produced outside the Republic, in places that can be called industrial or democratic only in a coquettish context) while the remaining 80% are involved, in one way or another, in the service sector is, well, absurd. An estate that employs twenty laborers and eighty servants is not bad or inefficient. It is insane. The Phantom Industry is, apart from other things, aggressively anti-Capitalist. It resents competition and finds the idea of private enterprise distasteful. The truly enterprising spirit will seek to increase the quality of his product to get ahead of the competitors. The Phantom Industry’s idea of good business is to increase the promotional campaign’s mesmerizing effect by pasting up the entire world with vulgar advertising. Millions of brainwashed zombies, opening zombie wallets, purchasing zombie products with zombie money. The zombie CEO smiles at the zombie shareholders, and somewhat obsequiously they smile back. It works.

It might be possible to prove that the current state of affairs is somehow okay, just as it was possible 150 years ago to prove that slavery was somehow okay, if it weren’t for the fact that the service sector employees, who are busier than an average nineteenth century tycoon ever was, working long hours and producing so-called services, weren’t so burdensome. Not to the economy – after all, the economy will restructure itself around almost anything you toss it – but to the ecosphere.

Whoever committed us to the automobile culture – Benz, Ford, or Robert Moses – could not possibly have envisioned the resulting mess. The initial idea was to shorten the gainfully employed citizen’s trip to the workplace to ten minutes. As soon as mass production of cars took off, though, cities began to spread out to compensate for the private car’s considerable speed, and the congestion did the rest. Instead of an hour’s walk to work, it is now an hour and a half’s ride, with the hapless rider stuck in a ridiculous pose behind the plastic steering wheel, inhaling fumes and getting more disgruntled by the minute. Because most car buyers tend to purchase on credit (credit, incidentally, is a way of mortgaging one’s freedom) cars they cannot afford, the merest scratch or dent can depress them for months, marring even the ridiculously few vacation days the Phantom Industry still allows them to take.

In larger cities, in addition to the auto traffic, millions of people use trains and buses, shuttling between home and workplace. While immeasurably more fuel-efficient than the automobile, our urban mass transit is overburdened by millions of commuters whose work could just as easily be performed from home or, for that matter, not performed at all.

Millions of offices across the nation are illuminated and air-conditioned every day. Bulky airplanes roar into the skies, carrying Phantom Industry employees to conferences that, for some flimsy reason, cannot be conducted over the phone. Thousands of hotels receive guests who are neither tourists nor explorers. Business travelers (Phantom Industry, for the most part) outnumber tourists in the air – five to one? Seven to one?

Because the service sector is anything but an exciting place to be and hardly more than a sinecure masquerading as tangible business, the average clerk’s self-esteem does suffer a great deal.

Case in point: What does one tell one’s children when they ask what their important-looking parents do all day? The truth, i.e. nothing meaningful, is hardly a good reply when you’re facing your own children or the mirror. "You wouldn’t understand, honey. It’s too involved," is something one will fall back on sooner or later. Most children vaguely suspect that anything too involved must be meaningless. Inexperienced and lacking in basic knowledge as they are, children are known occasionally to possess, and make excellent use of, unfiltered wisdom. No matter. Sooner or later the little buggers will learn! They are, after all, future employees of the Phantom Industry. Today’s education standards, computer games and TV will leave them unfit for anything else.

Case in point: However skeptical and naïvely sarcastic they may be, our children already know and are resigned to the fact that the most important thing in the world, in the short run, anyway, is to have a job. The entire rentier class has been stigmatized to a point where a fairly well-educated and amicable person is reluctant to admit he or she has no permanent occupation for fear of being ridiculed as a useless freeloader. The great downfall of art can be at least in part attributed to the fact that the once glorious group of individuals who did nothing all day but attend exhibitions, visit the opera, and read books has all but ceased to exist, leaving all artistic and semi-artistic matters to the ill-informed and corrupt whim of Phantom-Industry sponsored and trained professional critics.

Case in point: The personal computer has been bought by, and is put to good use in, every school in the nation. They have yet to figure out how to use it as a teaching tool. Some of the banners and clip art look real cool, though.

Unreasonably loud, absurdly inflated, firmly entrenched in every civilized country on the planet (while the so-called developing countries dream of it and are oftentimes quite murderously jealous of those who already have it), the Phantom Industry requires astronomical amounts of energy to sustain itself. It is a wonder how Islamic dictators, who own most of the energy sources, still manage to keep all of the resulting wealth to themselves instead of sharing some of it with their subjects. The current state of affairs benefits them, not us. If we used the resources sensibly, they would not have the money to buy our weapons and technology to threaten us and their own people with. In that sense, they are far more pragmatic than the Western leaders.

But goodness gracious, what is to be done, one will ask, picking one’s molar cavity with a greasy fork? That, one will explain, is how the world is. We cannot change it. Better stick to what we know and not bother about the rest, right?


5. We Do Not Have That Luxury

Well, something had better be done before a real disaster (say, an ecological one; a major city wiped out by a flood, or half the crops destroyed by reckless genetic engineering and acid rain) does it for us. Catastrophic climate changes around the globe can no longer be doubted. The annual amount of floods, earthquakes, and typhoons is on record and can be compared to the previous decades and centuries. Ice is melting where until recently it had been sitting in its pristine glory for millions of years. Species are disappearing by the thousand. Our rivers, lakes, seas and oceans are contaminated. Researchers that still keep finding evidence to the contrary are invariably sponsored by the Phantom Industry (or in some cases by the panicking oil indusry faced with the very real possibility of having to dig so deep for whatever’s left of fossil fuels on this planet that the costs just might exceed the profits pretty soon). One may very well wonder whether any other type of funding is still available today.

Someone has to take the initiative. It does not have to be the Government (although it is, in fact, the Government’s job). As a matter of fact, it is everyone’s responsibility to examine one’s goals and ideals, if any, and take a closer look at the current economy crisis: a relic of an age long gone by.

The avalanche of layoffs by New York’s large companies not immediately involved in production of basic staples is symptomatic. When in order to save money a large corporation suddenly finds it can go on as usual without half its personnel, it is not unreasonable to ask what that hapless half was doing being on the payroll in the first place. Does kicking them out mean anything in terms of services provided? Exactly what kind of services would have to be cut, if any?

The problem with today’s business school is that it endeavors to teach disciplines rooted firmly in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, an epoch in which, for various reasons, year-round employment was the norm. It was wrong even then, and it is no less absurd today than the jus primae noctis was in the Middle Ages – only we are just as accustomed to our ways as the nobleman and the serf were to theirs, and take the consequences as a matter of course.

In addition to being useless and annoying, the Phantom Industry is also meddlesome as no mother-in-law can ever hope to be. Genuine industries degenerate rapidly when they fall under its obsessive control. In architecture, nothing particularly beautiful or magnificent has been built anywhere in the world since World War Two. No great operas or symphonies have been composed. No great painters discovered. In literature, the handful of excellent authors have found their way into print despite the Phantom Industry’s wishes (running into a feisty independent publisher first, as a rule). The formidable scientific progress we habitually associate with our epoch does not exist. The vast majority of the inventions we utilize today are part of the Nineteenth Century’s legacy – the automobile, the train, the airplane, the streetcar, the refrigerator, the telephone, sound and image recording, etc. As for the computer, the binary method of mechanized calculation was invented by Leonardo da Vinci whose feudal superiors allowed their talented protégé prolonged time-offs.

Solutions can only be sought once the problem is defined. Let us try to define it.

The primary requirement of the Industrial Age was that 90% of the able male population be continuously employed. That is neither possible nor indeed reasonable today. Those who doubt this need only to look at their own careers. The illusion of ubiquitous employment, created by the Phantom Industry, is shattered instantly when an employee is asked to explain what it is he does for a living. Those who are lucky to have meaningful jobs are still able unabashedly to inform you that they are a farmer, a doctor, an architect, an editor, or an artist. Most people employed by the Phantom Industry will tell you they are in something, some branch or field the rest of the Republic could easily, and would rather, do without.


6. Seeking Solutions

However, if we were determined to burst the non-producers’ bubble and tell everyone in the Phantom Industry they could keep their current salaries and stay home, we would not be able to do so without wrecking their self-esteem and inviting mass suicides, riots, marches of gratuitous protest and random displeasure, and all other kinds of civil unrest.

The trick, then, is to find or create occupations for everyone that are more useful than damaging. Sounds a lot like the New Deal, doesn’t it? If it does, it is perhaps everyone’s responsibility to prevent this new New Deal from degenerating into a new Phantom Industry.

If in the process of introducing the country, and the world, for that matter, to a New Era (almost a hundred years late, and let us pray there are no distractions this time around) one would have to tell the automobile companies to turn their attention on the sorry state of the country’s railroads instead of trying to come up with yet another tank-like jalopy design; if millions of people, after deforesting the suburbs and finding, to their surprise, little satisfaction in owning plywood palaces with low ceilings and leaky Jacuzzis, have to be told that the little gardening they so lovingly do from time to time should become their primary occupation rather than hobby; if, in order to satisfy the rather large group of people who will be happy with neither gardening, farming, nor railroad construction, we have to build more schools, ski resorts, and opera theatres; if, in order to make TV a source of good entertainment rather than the monotonous brain-numbing tool for the perpetually bored, we have to ban advertising and introduce every company infesting the airwaves to the pay-per-view concept; then so be it.

Private gardening and small-time farming done by great numbers of well-paid citizens would render most genetic engineering of crops meaningless, incidentally solving that problem as well. Organic food for everyone!

Locally grown organic food would also solve the problem of obesity so many people are currently concerned about. With a little exercise and red wine, most folks can process any amount of food. It is how the food is grown and stored that opens the door to unsightly problems.

There is a number of concepts we have inherited from the Age of Industry that we should certainly keep. The symphony orchestra is one. Tourism is another.

I am far from suggesting that the idea of mass gardening and farming is the ultimate solution to our more immediate problems. For all I know it may be another trap that must be avoided at all costs, another way to replace production with work creation. Solutions, however, should be sought. New fields of activity need to be explored that will offer us occupations worthy of human beings, jobs that will allow us to keep our dignity.


7. State of the Union

The lawn is neatly trimmed, the plywood palace freshly renovated, the roads clean. There is the mall, the movies, and the train station. The sun is shining. Why is everyone so depressed? Small wonder. Farmland without farmers cannot be anything but depressing. One’s thirty-year mortgage depending on the well-being of the Phantom Industry is a harrowing proposition.

Such is the mess. The New Era is here. What we do about it is largely up to us.