You capitalist swine (working title)
Let’s get this out of the way nice and early.
WTF America is a comedic take on American culture as viewed by an outsider. Remain calm.
So, for large parts of my life, not that my life covers any great deal of ground in terms of time, I have been both out of work, and a filthy socialist. I say this, not because I have any die hard position, I’ve just try to benchmark my political affiliation to what I consider to be the most compassionate way to live. Another point is that I spent 5 years on the dole. So to travel back to the heady days of 2005, I was a 17 year old idealist that was ready to go to college, and I did. The celtic tiger was in full swing, and there was plenty of money to be made for those that were willing to work in Ireland. My dad, as he has done for most of his life, was working outside of Ireland and making fantastic middle class money as an electrician, and telecoms fitter, as he had done most of his life. He had a very specialized skill set and with all the money that was flooding the economies of the world during the 2000’s he was able to pay my way through University. University tuition in Ireland and the UK was not that expensive, so don’t think that he was making millions.
I did well in University, but my degree was in Media studies and film studies. I fell into various journalism courses because the field intrigued me, so I was very interested in the news, politics and government. So throughout 2007 and 2008 it became apparent that there was a falling apart of everything on the way. I graduated in the summer of 2008 and I signed onto the dole, as there was little work going. The economy always seems aware that there’s a downturn coming before the people in charge do, and the whole thing went to shit in the Autumn. They called it the financial crisis, then the housing crisis, then the credit crunch, and lately I’ve heard the remarkably bullshit phrase – consecutive quarters of “Negative growth.” Negative growth is shrinkage. It was a recession in all but name. I signed on to the dole, and caught a little break in November when I was able to work for 11 days as an extra in a horror film.
And that was it for 5 years. I graduated from University debt free, so I got off easier than most but when you’re over qualified for every position and nobody wants to hire, you good luck getting a job. In rural Ireland, in a town that is sustained largely by tourism, you’re fucked. At it’s worst the unemployment rate in my county in my age bracket was 40 percent. That’s not an environment that allows you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Boots are a distant dream to the rural unemployed. As the economy contracted businesses closed, meaning fewer jobs were available, and the negative cycle continued and deepened for years.
Now to the socialism part. I received 212 euros a week for the first year or so, but as the government tightened its belt the christmas bonus went away, and then we were dropped down to 188, and those under 24 started to drop down lower and lower, until those trying to enter the workforce at the age of 18 would be expected to survive on 50 euros a week. That means you will be living with your parents, which is not something that helps them, or you, or your personal growth or job prospects. The negative cycle continues.
Without that 188 euros a week, my friends and I wouldn’t have been able to rent a house together and live there for two years, independent from our parents. Every penny we received went back into the economy, and the local economy at that. When the region is depressed, high welfare payments help immensely, because it at least lets businesses keep the lights on, and it keeps those people with jobs employed.
Economic migration is not just something that’s native to the Irish psyche, it’s necessary. Rural areas are hit doubly, because young people without prospects either move to towns and cities, or they leave the country entirely. I, one of many with a degree, left the country but not for economic reasons. I left for love, but every few weeks my sister was attending going-away parties. She’s had dozens of friends leave for Australia, New Zealand, Europe, England, and she had even considered moving to Canada at one time. Irish emigration seems to plague every generation. Most of my father’s bracket of the family, and there were 8 of them, had emigrated. My family has been spread as far apart as Queens in New York, and Eastern Europe. My grandparents left the country for work. Their parents left the country for work. A lot of this is because when times become tough, during recessions and crunches and negative growth, successive governments have taken the same conservative policies. I don’t say ‘conservative’ to invoke the US GOP, but policies that cut spending and raise taxes. These policies in Ireland have served to squeeze poorer people, and instead of spreading their money around it comes in, and immediately goes out again.
I’ve identified as socialist because of what I’ve seen in Ireland. I’ve seen wages shrink, and welfare payments shrink, and I’ve seen the rich and powerful continue to be rich and powerful as the rest of us get offered training in industries that can’t support us, or we’re offered work-fare. And work-fare it certainly is. 40 hour jobs have been turned into ‘internships’ that pay 50 euros a week. From experience – that 50 is eaten just in the commission of the job, so you lose out if you take one of these internships, and a lot of the time, no job materialized from this internship.
So how does that compare to here? Well, I see conservative policies at work, and I see low welfare payments, and I see low wages in certain industries, and I see the government and the people get mad at the poor for being poor when the deck is so clearly stacked against them. But I’m a filthy pinko, so that’s likely tainting my world view. Most of what my University degree taught me was to analyze and pick apart the information that is presented to me through the media and the news. And I see the same reams of bullshit being presented time and again, election cycle after election cycle, and the poor and middle class never seem to get ahead because the messages tell them variously to be afraid of each other, or envious of each other.
When I consider it, I’ve been poor most of my life. I haven’t been destitute, I’ve never been clothed in rags, I’ve always been fed. But sometimes I’ve been very very close to not being fed. Food insecurity, heat insecurity, housing insecurity, transport insecurity – these things are the new poverty and they impact very heavily on your decision making. For about a week at one point after I moved here, we were tight for food and making do with food that we’d received from a food bank. It’s hard to work when you’re hungry. If you analyze riots around the world, look how often they occur around massive food insecurity. If you can’t eat, you have fuck all left to lose, and you do get angry. Being hungry in America highlights class inequality, and you become aware of it. And then you hear people sigh when someone produces an EBT card (Electronic benefits transfer – food stamps now come on plastic, to those that didn’t know) and it’s bullshit. People are mad at other people for being poor.
Back to the bootstraps. I work now, and I’ve been working for a year. Is it totally unreasonable for me to assume that I’ll get along just fine without working? Kind of, but kind of not. The difference here is that I was able to find a job here. I’ve been ghostwriting; and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. My income pays the combined rent and utilities for our apartment (Because rent and utilities are already combined) and it’s such a gratifying feeling. It feels fantastic to be able to care for yourself, and your partner. And for a while, your step-son. Providing for your loved ones is a great feeling. Watching your income not match your expenses is not a great feeling. Working 3 jobs between 2 people to make ends meet does odd things to my little commie heart. I want to rail and rage against the inequality, but sometimes the system just is the way it is, and you need to adjust.
I can be a agitating red-or-dead oik, or I can work and then eat and have a roof over my head. One wonders what impact this has on the general population when it comes voting and civic engagement. Many people are just happy to not be starving. I’m happy to not be starving.
When I lived under the horrifying socialist Irish system, I was happy but stagnant. You gained a little, you lost a little. There was no work, but you wouldn’t starve. You might have to live with your parents, but you had money with which to do things. That weekly check helped you, helped your community, helped your local businesses, helped your country. Here my paycheck does a similar thing, but it only really helps me, my wife, and my landlord. It was difficult to grow and gain ground under the socialist system, but it’s difficult to grow here if you’re battling food insecurity. (By the way Ma – relax, I’m eating just fine. Better than ever. Don’t be worrying about me. Or be sending me food, I’m not going to starve. Keep the tea coming though, these people are savages when it comes to tea)
In this first year of (pretty much) gainful employment I’ve gained the perspective of work. I’d heard that working is satisfying, and that people go insane without working and I’m with them now. Not working, getting that payment from the government every week, that’s pretty crushing. You take it because you need it, but it can drive the fire out of you pretty quickly. After 5 years of collecting that money, you’re ready to run for the damn hills. You want to do something, you want to do anything, you want to earn a paycheck just to know how it feels. Being unemployed is depressing. The work that I’ve been doing isn’t depressing. I’ve realized lately that I enjoy my work. I get paid well for relatively few hours of work, I’m stimulated creatively, and this is what I went to University for – I’m using my degree, and I’ve got to say I think I’m pretty damn good at my job.
But my internal commie bristles at the injustices I see here. But it bristled at the injustices I saw and still see back in Ireland. All around the world your average working stiff still hasn’t recovered. The stock markets have more than recovered. Stock brokers aren’t losing too much sleep these days, but I know that there are people all across the world right now that are deciding between heat and food. People who are deciding between bills and rent. Deciding between their children getting books and buying new clothes that they’ve needed for the last 5 years. They say the economy has recovered: well, bully for the economy. Doesn’t help most of us, most of the time.
So do I prefer socialism or capitalism? Well I’ve never lived completely under one or the other. Ireland and the US both have a somewhat mixed system, it’s just that the US leans more towards capitalism and Ireland leaned more towards socialism. The leaning never seems to lean towards the benefit of the common man, the working stiff, the unemployed youth. Me. My dad.
But we continue, because that’s all we really can do. We do the best to love our jobs, we do our best to work hard to provide for our loved ones. We work within the systems we find ourselves surrounded by and we do the best we can.
This chapter has been quite dense and relatively comedy free, so let’s close with a joke shall we?
A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a pub, and approach the bar. The bartender turns around and says “The fuck is this? Some kind of joke?”