Labor theft: How your life is stolen from you bit by bit

Worried businessman image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici. Farmer image courtesy Sura Nualpradid. Both via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Worried businessman image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici. Farmer image courtesy Sura Nualpradid. Both via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Labor theft: No one really knows when it first began. But certainly as soon as one group had the power over another, the subjugated group was put to work. There are well known examples of slavery throughout ancient history, perhaps most notably in Egypt.

While certainly the indigenous people of North and South America practiced various forms of slavery at times before European invaders arrived, it was only with the arrival of the white man that the practice became so efficient and so systematic.

The arrival of Columbus could be considered the critical turning point in this dark history. The discovery of the New World set off a fascinating economic boom with wealth extracted from the local population and shipped off to Europe.

The history taught today in the U.S. skips quickly from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. In those 128 years, however, a great deal happened. Columbus himself became a tyrant and entire tribes were completely obliterated in the Bahamas. When there were no more locals left to exploit, the import of black slaves from Africa began. This practice quickly spread to the farmland of what would become the southern United States. In South America, a conveyor belt of ships began filling up local settlements with Spaniards. The Spaniards had equally devastated the cities of that continent, wiping out the Incas and replacing their epic civilizations with adorable Colonial towns. And yes, coerced labor was widespread there, too. Tending crops, digging in mines, moving stones.

Yep, it’s still happening

In North America, we have a rich tradition of stealing the labor of others. It stains our conscience and pulls at the patchwork of our country, even today. In 1607, the settlement at Jamestown started things off with indentured servants. These people worked off their debts for a set period of time before being set free. It was a difficult life, but would seem like heaven compared to the nightmare that would come later. By the mid-1600s black slavery was fully part of the American culture, so accepted that it seemed as normal as not having slaves seems to us today. Even today there are millions living in slavery here and around the world.

We pretend it doesn’t exist even as we benefit. It’s always been this way. We think of the people living in the “free” North as against slavery back in the 1800s, but I’m sure they all wore cotton shirts. We abhor exploitation of labor in the abstract. We get all worked up about it, even as we read about it on smartphones created with exploited labor. Our fingers are encrusted with diamonds dug from mines by enslaved hands.

Our long tradition of stealing labor, of moneyed interests exploiting the work that created their wealth, crops up in new and surprising ways all the time, as much as we try to ignore it. Often it hides in the shadows and goes by other names, but it’s still with us, yes even here.

Our own workforce is frequently exploited. This modern version of labor theft comes in many forms and companies use many tactics to keep us trapped. Let’s look at a few:

Cheap overseas manufacturing

Think about it: I can say with almost 100% certainty that everything you’re touching right now was made in China. Why? Because the American appetite for low prices is a perfect fit for China’s abundant supply of untapped labor. Setting aside the exploitation of China’s workforce for a moment, the other effect of globalization has been the disappearance of America’s good manufacturing jobs. Factory workers who still have jobs in the U.S. now have to compete with very low cost workers in other countries. Countries without labor protection and safety laws.

Undocumented workers

One has to love the hubris of the American right wing as they demonize “illegal immigrants”. After all, the party obsessed with big business has been instrumental in ensuring millions of foreign workers stream into our country to find cheap work. Why? So our “expensive” labor will have cheap competition.

High unemployment rate

Want to talk about cheap competition? How about millions of people thrown out of work? Why import a bunch of cheap labor when we can just make our own, right? No, I’m not saying these criminals crashed the economy on purpose to create cheap labor. But I am saying it’s just another opportunity to drive down the cost of labor. Not only is there always someone else willing to work more cheaply, but you’re less likely to demand a raise or move to another company if there are limited opportunities out there.

Wage theft

Wage theft is a tried and true form of labor theft. It’s pretty simple. Have someone work for you, then don’t pay them. I know a lot of hired day laborers run into this a lot, especially undocumented workers who have no recourse. But others who work legally often have portions of their checks stolen by shaving hours or not paying overtime.

Debt

Taking on large amounts of debt has reached the level of sport in America. It’s like a competition to see who can rack up the most debt before they tip over. The party-time of endless shopping has a downside, though, when the realization comes that this debt has left you trapped in your job. Being trapped means you have little alternative but to keep working for whatever you can get.

Health care system

Attaching one’s health care to one’s job was always a terrible idea. It was a movement driven by labor unions — misguidedly in my opinion — to drive toward health coverage. At a time when most workers were unionized, I guess it made sense. Unfortunately this handed a massive amount of power to corporations. At its absolute worst before the Affordable Care Act was finally passed, the chronically ill were truly enslaved to their companies. Others were simply forced to work for less and less money as health costs were shifted onto workers. Many people worked many extra years, not for money, but for health coverage.

Worker “productivity”

Worker productivity is a euphemism for squeezing more work out of each employee. Now I don’t blame companies for wanting to get the most out of their labor dollars. Even as a fellow employee, I would be totally aggravated by people who took the paycheck, but did little, if any, actual work. The problem, however, is without any union framework or a balanced economy, there is no countervailing force on the employee side. I once knew a guy who worked nearly every night doing the work he didn’t have time to complete during the day. He was a director, but he sat on the couch each night instead of playing with his kids, entering new SKUs into the database. What the hell? This is an entry level job, but he was doing it for the company for free, on top of his regular job. Why? Because he had kids and a mortgage and a low self-esteem. He was terrified of taking another conference room beating for not having his work done. I don’t mind putting in a few extra hours when a project calls for it. Certainly work doesn’t always come in nice eight-hour bundles. But every night? I would have been out of there before my lips could form the words “fuck you.”

America has managed to turn the purist word in the world — “freedom” — into a brand name. We pretend we’re free as we’re forced into work by our massive mortgage, car payments and school loans. Worse, we buy “cheap” stuff made elsewhere, thinking we’re saving money and yet are taking money out of our own economy to send elsewhere, driving down our own wages.

Is your labor being stolen?

If you’ve been working for the same pay for years or are being pressured to work nights and weekends, you may not have a lot of immediate options in the short-run. However, in the long run, you do have some choices. Stay out of debt, drop the mindless spending, build up your passive income and pretire as soon as possible.

Look, if you’re regularly working 16-hour days, your company is stealing from you.  And it’s worse than stealing a few dollars from your wallet. They’re stealing your LIFE. You only get so many hours on this planet. Sell them as needed but don’t let anyone take them from you.

‘OMG, I’m SO BUSY’

Pretired Baby doing a little swinging before the Seahawks game.

Pretired Baby doing a little swinging before the Seahawks game.

Lately I’ve been feeling increasingly time-crunched. I often joke I may need to go find a job just so I can have some free time again! I’ve even screeched those most emasculating of words, “OMG, I’m SO BUSY!”

The house is a mess. No, really, it’s getting embarrassing. This blog has been getting crusty from neglect (although traffic keeps rising — thank you!). I haven’t found the time to figure out how I want to invest my $100,000. (Although I’m somewhat dragging my feet while I watch what goes down with the government shutdown.) I haven’t been able to read many of my favorite blogs. I’ve got a book that is due back to the library soon and there’s still quite a bit of it left.

Ack!

But am I really that busy? I remember this excuse being used so commonly when I was working that I banned it from my excuse book, replacing it with “Sorry, it’s still a few items down on the priority list.” It seemed more honest than “I haven’t had time yet.”

You haven’t had time? Gah, how I hate that excuse (even when I catch myself saying it)! Because, really, we all have the same amount of time each day.

One of my favorite sayings is “the only way to get more time in each day is to steal some from the night.” Because it’s really about how we choose to spend our time — there isn’t an unequal distribution of hours each day depending on how important we think we are.

When I was working, the people who were most likely to give me the “I’m too busy” excuse were inevitably the ones spending the most time screwing around. In fact, I believe that if you want someone to do something for you, look for the busiest person. No one goes to the people who aren’t busy because they can’t get anything done. Frustratingly, some of the “too busy” folks were buddies of mine so I could see what they were really doing on Facebook. Hmm, seems like you weren’t TOO BUSY to spend eight hours playing Call of Duty all weekend, were you? 

Pretired Baby has been waking up early lately and since he gets 90 percent of my attention when he’s awake, it cuts into my “me” time. My side consulting work has been very busy lately and I’m still picking away at the basement project during the handful of hours each week when the baby is awake and Pretired Mama can take care of him. We have breakfast, play for awhile and when he’s ready for his nap, I race to take a shower and begin my work for the day. When he wakes up, it’s lunch, maybe a trip to the park, more playing and then naptime again, when I race for the computer again for an hour or so. Then it’s time to make dinner, play, take a bath and finally bedtime for the baby. And then TV. Sweet, sweet TV. And Twitter. Sweet, sweet, Twitter.

After I’ve rested enough, I’ll stumble back to the computer for some blog writing or maintenance.

The days are flying by. Weeks are flying by. That voice in my head is sternly warning me that I “need to be getting something done.”

But am I really that busy? I still check Facebook umpteen times a day. I have time for TV most nights, where I glaze over and rest a bit. I still shower almost every day. Meals with my son are leisurely and usually hilarious. The kitchen is staying under control. Groceries are finding their way in the door and down my gullet. I even have time for drinks with a buddy once a week. I get close to eight hours of sleep every night. The schedule is firmly blocked out to ensure no Seahawks game is missed. (Go Hawks!)

So I’m not really busy at all. I’m filling my time with what is important to me, and mostly that’s Pretired Baby right now. Many of the other things impacting my time are self-inflicted as well, such as blogging or the basement project. And isn’t this what pretirement is supposed to be about? Doing what one WANTS to every day instead of schlepping to some job you hate?

I’m one of those people who when I’m not “too busy,” I’m bored. There is no in-between. And I always try to remember that we all get the same 24 hours. Using them as best I can should be the goal, not trying to squeeze more and more into those same hours.

The house can stay messy another week. The blog will be fine. The basement project will be done eventually. We’re going to the park. And we’re going to play on the swings. For as long as we want.

How many times have you blown $1,000?

Ever wondered how many times in your life you’ve blown $1,000?

$1,000 x 300 = $300,000

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In past posts, I’ve noted a few of my focus numbers for pretirement. For example I’ve targeted a goal of around $300,000 (plus paid-off mortgage) as my freedom number. (Think $600,000 for a couple.) I’ve also remarked on how many households pin their core monthly non-mortgage expenses at around $2,000 per month ($1,000 per person). This includes my own.

So if you’ve been aggressive and paid off your mortgage in record time, you are likely looking at monthly core expenses near that magical $2,000/month (for two people). And, of course, if that seems insane, you’ll probably want to examine your spending rates. However, if we accept that number, then we can safely say your Pretirement Fund number is probably somewhere around $300,000 for each person. It might be a little higher or a little lower based on your personal investment yield, taxes and other factors, but just to keep things simple, we’ll use round numbers for now.

In my own situation, I’m a little shy of that number, which is why I’m only semi-pretired today. I have too much net worth locked up in my house and, of course, made many dumb investing and spending mistakes over the years.

Which begs the question: How many times have I blown $1,000? It’s an important, but troubling question. Have I done it 300 times? More? It makes me want to go back and slap earlier me across the face.

Let’s take a look: (Making guesses at the exact amount in most cases.)

Over-improved my first home$30,000+30
Luxurious vacations over the past 20 years (At least $3,000/year on average)$60,000+60
Bought new car (Stupid, stupid)$40,000+40
Eating out (Maybe $40/week on average for the last 10 years)$20,000+20
Over-improving current house$30,000+30
Various electronics over past few years$15,000+15
Furniture purchases$10,000+10
Random other crap$20,000+20
TOTAL$225,000225

So because I’m Pretired Nick, you might assume I’m some sort of Frugality Ninja (hey, good URL, someone should snag that!). But, really, I’ve been just as much as a big American spender as anyone else. OK, maybe not as much as most people, but still pretty bad. But I’m not here to shame myself before all of you, but rather to show HOW EASY it is to reach pretirement by doing nothing more than staying employed and cutting back on the spending.

$100 x 10 = $1,000

So you don’t think you’ve blown $1,000 all that many times? Let’s break it down: how many times have you blown $100? Dropping a hundo is easy. I sneeze a hundred bucks into a tissue just about every week! My numbers above are definitely under-counting the drip by drip of small purchases. Gas for the car, art, gifts, new shoes I didn’t really need, tools purchased unnecessarily and so on.

Have you dropped $100 just 10 times in the past year? Month? If you dropped $100 per week, that’s $5,200 each year. Doesn’t sound like that much money until you realize that’s five $1,000 bills that could have gone toward your pretirement fund — nearly 2 percent of what you needed right there!

I listed out just my big, memorable purchases above totaling to $225,000. If I had cut back just by $100 per week on average for the past 15 years (something that would have been very easy for me at various times), I’d have more than the remaining $75,000 needed to reach my Pretirement Fund goal.

$30,000 x 10 = $300,000

Or to frame things in terms of time, let’s say you’ve realized 40 years in a cubicle isn’t for you and you’d like to tough it out through 10 more years of your career and then be done. You’d need $30,000/year ($2,500/month) for each of those years on average (again, ignoring your mortgage and growth on the money).

But $2,500 a month seems like an impossible amount to put aside month after month! The thing is, many households have monthly budgets of $6,000-$8,000 or even more. Obviously housing costs are by far the biggest drag on people, but it’s also TVs, vacations, clothing, random plastic crap, lattes and car expenses.

I realize it’s too late for many of us. We can’t go back and add many years of savings to our lives. But like the Chinese proverb says: There are only two times to plant a tree — 20 years ago and today. Regardless of where you’re starting, build a spreadsheet, decide on your goals and build a plan to get there.

$100,000 x 3 = $300,000

It always comes back to real estate with me. Like I have mentioned many times, we really have more house than we should have given our goals. Should we choose to downsize — something we’re seriously considering — that should free up at least $100,000 that I can put toward my Pretirement Fund, putting me over the top! Or I could work a couple more years and save that up quickly given that I have very low expenses.

Which way will we end up going? We really have no idea at this point. But you’ll be the first to know as we wrestle with this final step toward pretirement right here in front of all of you!

Hopefully the math lesson wasn’t too silly for everyone. The point isn’t to teach my readers basic division and multiplication, but simply to remind that breaking big problems into smaller problems always makes things easier and that small spending, even $1,000 here or there, can really add up and keep you working much longer than you want. I’m living proof on both the negative and positive sides of that equation.

So what do you think? Does breaking your goals into bite-sized chunks help you get there? And how many times do you think you’ve blown $1,000? 

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What can we learn from the government shutdown?

We all know the government shutdown is stupid. What else can we learn?

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As we all now know, the dipshittery in Washington, DC has reached feverish levels and the U.S. government is “closed.” (Or more specifically, many non-essential services are on furlough.)

While I could rant and whine like most of the internet is doing right now, I thought my time might be better spent taking a look at what we can learn from this latest ridiculousness. So here we go:

Our political press sucks

OK, maybe we already knew that, but give me a break! How bad does this have to get? The corporate media is simply regurgitating press releases and repeating the framing of the leadership. And worse, framing it as just another dysfunctional fight between two equally stupid political parties. This is not accurate!

For example, look at this idiocy from USA Today:

As fights go, Wall Street views the slugfest between Democrats and Republicans over the government shutdown as the undercard event. The main bout is the coming showdown over raising the debt ceiling and making sure the U.S. has enough cash to pay its bills and avoid the unthinkable: defaulting on its debt.

To frame this as a partisan infighting is completely misleading! ONE side shut down the government in an exploitative move to overturn the results of an election.

Republicans hate America

Sorry to be blunt, but it’s true. What else can we conclude from a party that is willing to injure its own country just to get its own ideological way? If Russia threatened to cause this much damage to our country unless we capitulated to its demands, we’d consider it an act of war. Why do we consider a threat from within to be any different?

Look, I don’t care if you’re a conservative person or not (we used to have sane conservatives in the Republican party once upon a time). Even a true conservative would have to look at the moves by this party as traitorous. They’re putting party over country and it’s sickening. Here’s an idea: win a couple elections and then you can do whatever you want.

It’s worth remembering that the Civil War wasn’t started because of “slavery” per se, it was because an earlier version of the tea party refused to abide by the results of the 1860 election.

Congress keeps getting paid during a “shutdown”

In one of the more disgusting moves, members of Congress keep getting their paychecks during a shutdown, even as the Capitol Police work for free to protect them. “I need my paycheck,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers in one of the more disgusting quotes to yet be made public.

One person stops this

As happy as I am to kick the Republican party in the nuts over this, in truth there are enough votes in the Congress RIGHT NOW to end the shutdown. But Speaker John Boehner is refusing to call a vote, demanding “compromise”. Again, it’s hard to figure this out from the corporate media, but it’s true.

Gerrymandering is the biggest political problem in America right now

Yes, our politics are totally screwed up right now. Repeatedly polling shows the American people are on a completely different planet than the Congress. Gerrymandering has left us with a Congress that chooses its own voters instead of the other way around. Republicans are running out of older, disgruntled white people to keep them in office so they simply have drawn lines capturing more and more bizarre boundary lines in ways to barely hold their majority. There were many more votes for Democrats in the last Congressional election than Republicans but the Rs held the majority. The system is broken. ALL congressional boundaries should be formed by bipartisan committees or by independent judges, not drawn arbitrarily by the beneficiaries.

Obama is paying the price for his earlier weak negotiating

President Obama may go down in history as one of the most ineffective negotiators with Congress. Early in his presidency, he took an overly deferential approach, while the Republicans continually moved the goalposts on him. Now in his second term, he’s realizing no one respects him and they assume he’ll cave if they just stick to it. Hopefully they’re wrong, but history hasn’t made me very confident in that.

The debt ceiling is a much bigger deal

It’s been obvious for some time that Republicans have been very anxious to destroy the economy so they can make the president look bad. It’s bizarre behavior that has never been practiced by the other party. But will they go to the extent of not paying our bills and destroying the full faith and credit of the United States of America in the process? If I was a betting man, I’d say Obama gives them some sort of face-saving way out of this and we bumble along until the next time. But if the level of crazy has gotten deep enough, this wackjobs could actually dismantle the world economy, apparently for no other reason than they want to make a point. I doubt they’ll pull the trigger, but I’m keeping my money uninvested for a while longer just in case.

It’s about Obamacare — sort of

Republicans tend to be much more strategic than Democrats. I definitely think the timing of the Obamacare launch and the shutdown are not coincidental. I’m sure they saw an opportunity to erase all the happy stories of desperate people signing up for insurance from the media. I do think they bit off more than they could chew and this could end up being their Waterloo. We’ll see. Obamacare was ALREADY funded so the idea they could stop it by using the U.S. economy as a hostage is weird, but then again, see my next point.

The GOP primaries are the driving force in American politics right now

What is making the Republican party so crazy? Well, obviously it’s gerrymandering as mentioned above, where hardly any Republican need fear a Democrat taking their seat. However, they do have one fear: Another, more right-wing Republican taking them out in a primary. Show one sign of weakness toward the black president and these guys are gone. It’s a phenomenon creating a self-selecting evolution toward more and more crazy. As long as these voters remain so easily manipulated or as long as parties can carve out seats to their own benefit, this continues.

OK, maybe that’s enough political talk for one day. I have no desire to turn this into a politics blog, but given how hard it is to figure out what’s happening by watching our national media, I thought I’d put together a short backgrounder (from my own biased perspective, of course). Thoughtful comments and opposing perspectives are welcome. Nonsense name-calling and uninformed political stupidity will be deleted. Have fun! 

UPDATE: Time Magazine gets it:

time-cover

 

 

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