2008 is Dark: Redefining Work and Refining America’s Work in the World, Part II

The following interview was conducted December 9, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This a continuation of an interview with Robert Blain, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Dr. Blain is the author of several books, including Real Money, Sociology For Everyone, and Weaving Golden Threads: Integrating Social Theory, and influenced the Provisional World Parliament to adopt the “hour” monetary unit.

Click here for Part I of the interview:


I am in the process of interviewing the philosophy instruction Raymond Darr, who, because he holds seemingly opposite views as your own, I asked about your economic and international theories. As to your idea of the “hour,” he wondered if you would be willing to “trade salaries with him.” He commented on making much less, but also that that shouldn’t matter; he teaches the same number of classes and such. He also defers to you by saying you are smarter, but that shouldn’t matter, as he understands your proposed system.

That’s a question I’ve thought about and am asked a lot. And my response to it is I am not promoting it as an individual responsibility, but rather as a system. Raymond Darr is underpaid. We need to convert everything to time, and then we do that we would find we’re both underpaid. He’s a lot more underpaid than I am, okay? But the place to get the adjustment is not from me, it’s from the C.E.O.s of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

I was just listening to the Congressional testimony this morning. They’re grilling these guys about one of them taking $90 million from their company. Another got a $1 million salary and now has a $400,000 pension. The congressmen are asking them why they didn’t know the companies were in trouble while taking all that money, as they gave mortgages to people and knowing nothing about their income our their ability to pay back. Then packaging those mortgages as if they good, and themselves making a fortune. They had no clue about it? There’s a sensitivity that we need to put limits on the top. My fear is that the limit will be too high. I am telling my class that $10 million as a lifetime earning should be the limit, because at $50 an hour it would take you a hundred years to make. So it’s a reasonable amount.

Does the equality of earning extend outside of economics, to other parts of our lives? Talking about this idea of yours. my dad one day asked me if I would be willing to average a 4.0 grade average with someone’s 2.0, so that we could both have a 3.0. I take the question to mean to explore: what do you do with the over and under performers? Is that a logical extension?

I believe we should use the same standard. Using the $50 GDP, that’s the standard. If you came to me and were looking for a job and I;m hiring, you would show me your credentials. You would may your case on the table and I might say to you, “Well, I’m really impressed by your background, however, you’re going to start new with me, and it’s going to take some time for you to learn the job. So I will pay half-time, which is to say $25 an hour. We will review your progress in three months. And if you are performing satisfactorily I’ll give you full-time.

If a worker has been part of the company for ten years, and comes to me and makes his case he deserves an increase, I might agree and in seeing his value give him time and a half, or $75. Which is to say that using the same standard does not mean everyone gets paid the same. This would apply to your question about grades. I have a grading scale of points that I distribute for each my course’s requirements. Attendance, quizzes, whatever. They all have assigned points from which you add them up for the final grade. Now I apply the same standard to everybody. But if somebody performs at 60%, I don’t average that with somebody that’s getting an A. The person who got an A got more points through more work and I learning more material. In the same way $50 is the standard wage—an hour of money for an hour of work.

And it would be up to the employer to set the requirements?

Absolutely. Negotiation is critical. That’s the beauty of money. Money centralizes decisions and gives us the freedom to negotiate anything we want. The problem is, as we’re seeing now, that we don’t have a meaningful standard. The guys who are making $90 million probably think they are being underpaid because actors get that for a few movies. Or athletes for their sport. Or Warren Buffet, Bill Gates. These last guys have billions, so the guy that’s “only” getting millions think that he must be making a sacrifice precisely because nobody knows by what standard they are earning their wage.

I can see how ideally if might work vertically: worker, manager, executive. They all have a different job, but would be paid the approximately the same for it. But less clear to me is how it would be done horizontally, say, for an office floor of workers doing different tasks at different rates.

I would hope and expect that income would come very close to equal over time because we would recognize that there’s not that difference. Take any job at all, like the chancellor of this university. And watch what we does with his day, follow him around. Observe his daily schedule, and then total up his work into a salary. It would be nice to do this for his secretary too, and compare. I think you would find that most of the time work is created for other people and it’s unnecessary.

But you couldn’t justify a set income if you walked in at 11 o’clock, left an hour later, and went golfing the rest of the day. You have to be required to put your time in, so that the job expands to the time allotted to it. That’s Parkinson’s Law.

How would you factor in difficulty or danger, the risk than an Alaskan fisherman undergoes as compared to the chancellor’s secretary?

That is where double-time, time, time and a half comes in. And we do that now. These guys working on the highways in the middle of the night and on weekends, they get paid a premium. And they deserve it. They’re risking their lives every time they go out there, and at night it’s very difficult work.

There’s plenty of room to pay people premiums, but we have to recognize that if you pay someone more, someone is going to get less. So we better do our darnedest to make sure that the less is an justified as the more.

To the other main topic we’ve discussed, I asked about Dr. Darr’s international views. He said, “As a conservative I believe in borders, language and culture. Our problems are our problems, just as France’s problems are Frances’s problems. I don’t want to be Germany, I don’t want to be France. I like our values and I don’t want to be France.”

That attitude does not acknowledge that the world is round. We have lakes in New England that are dead because of smoke from Illinois smokestacks. They built the stacks higher so the acid rain wouldn’t fall locally. But it’s carried in the atmosphere and brought to New England. In the same same we discussed how depleted uranium in Iraq finds its way back home through the air. Global warming is everywhere. We cannot exist well without being concerned about people in the rest of the world.

Did you know it’s dangerous for Americans to go anywhere else in the world? The State Department has warned people of the United States no to go to India. You are a target. The Mumbai massacre revealed that Americans were targets. And you cannot go to those countries without being recognized as well-off. We just don’t realize it. With what I’ve got on you make take me for a college professor. You can excuse the blue jeans and the stupid Crocs. But I couldn’t apply for a business position the way I’m dressed. I’d have to put on a suit and tie.

Yet when I was in Togo, or in India for that matter, I felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everybody knew I was well off. And I was, compare to them. I felt it. When I came home to the United States I remember being amazed when going out to eat. They give you a menu? Anything you want? Vegetables. Fruits. Steak.

In Togo their food is a big pile of rice and then there’s a piece of meat on top about the size of a silver dollar and about an eight of an inch thick. And it’s as tough as shoe leather. And don’t eat the vegetables because you don’t know where the water comes from. We have to be concerned about the rest of the word for God’s sake. We’re in it together, and what goes around comes around.

I want to get this as closely to Dr. Darr’s words as well: “The Unites Nations have been inconsistent. The U.N. wants us to quell a civil war in Sudan, but we have no American interests there. However, there are American interests in Iraq—and the U.N. wants us out.”

I’m surprised and sorry to hear that. The aim and goal of philosophy is to elevate our thinking and enlarge our perspective. To make us appreciative of our independence. To have a narrow and isolationist view is regressive. Perhaps he was just trying to aggravate you.

I recently spoke with a former faculty member. I don’t remember what started the conversation, but we got to talking about global warming. And he said, “There is no global warming.” I said, “You are trying to provoke me, aren’t you?” The way he was talking about it that he doesn’t think it exists. And that is not true.

The popular press went through 925 refereed articles and there wasn’t a single one that said there isn’t global warming. Yet the popular press is casting doubt: “We don’t know.” “We need more tests.”

It’s just like the tobacco company saying that it isn’t proven that smoking causes cancer. You know what? There is nothing proof of anything. Anything. You cannot prove anything. You can only talk in probabilities. Because the future isalways theoretical. We act as if everything true today will be true tomorrow. And we understand why we do it, because it allows us the ability to practically run our lives. But scientifically you always, always have only probability. There can always be an events that contradicts your conclusion.

However, when you go to the doctor and he says you have an infection and you’re going to have to take an anti-biotic, I bet almost all follow those instructions. Even though there’s no proof that the doctor’s right—just a very high probability.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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