Plutocrats, Income Inequality and the future of Amateur Woodworking

To begin with, this post isn’t about politics.  It’s about economics, pure and simple.

No matter what your political stripe, most Americans will agree that the folks at the top of the income ladder have done very well over the last twenty years, very well indeed.  The rest of us haven’t faired nearly so well.  The group that is usually referred to as the middle class, has seen its spending power dwindle, year in and year out during the same period.

Joel Moskowitz, Owner of Tools for Working Wood, recently suggested that most of our population no longer puts a very high value on fine furniture and accessories.  As a consequence, the interest in fine woodworking, both doing it and purchasing it, seems to be on the decline.  I would argue that “taste” is, more often than not, a construct based on the availability of surplus wealth.  It’s as simple as this, if the ratio of your essential costs (food, clothing, shelter) to income is rising, then there’s every possibility that you’re going to be spending less on the finer things of life (like furniture and/or tools).

It’s probably safe to say that most Plutocrats are not woodworkers.  They’re too busy buying and selling governments, sending manufacturing jobs overseas and the like.  And it’s equally safe to say that most wood workers are, pretty much, middle class.  So here’s a bit of economic reality that even the most unschooled can understand:  Ten people making $100,000 per year, will, collectively, spend significantly more money (thereby improving the economy for everyone), than one person making a $1,000,000.  It seems to me that until we see the economic health of the middle class improve, we’ll continue to see the erosion of traditional “non-essential” businesses in this country.

Looking back to my youth, I remember that almost every guy in the neighborhood did some woodworking.  Everyone (mainly males), was introduced to woodworking in school (public schools), as a means to provide students with a skill set that would be valuable to employers involved in the manufacture of goods.  Now that traditional manufacturing has been decimated in this country, there is no longer the need for training in the “Industrial Arts”.

In recent years, organized labor has nearly been destroyed.  Its power to successfully negotiate higher wages for its members has been severely weakened.  The forty hour work week, that our parents fought for, is a thing of the past.  And that is truly unfortunate.  The middle class is not only poorer in income, it has less free time to engage in recreational activity.  And most unfortunate is that many members of the working class have come to the conclusion that the Plutocratic/Oligarchic combination has their best interests at heart.

There’s no punch line here, no hidden political agenda.  But the next time you talk to your Representative in the government, let him, or her, know that you think that there’s nothing more important than improving  the economic position of the middle class by ensuring that there are good paying jobs available to all Americans.  All of us will be far better off for your efforts.

 

 

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33 Comments on “Plutocrats, Income Inequality and the future of Amateur Woodworking”

  1. Dick Schultschik Says:

    well said!


  2. Nicely said. I’ve never heard it put just like that and I think you’re very right.

    I am a big fan of Wendell Berry and would recommend The Unsettling of America to anyone interested in the changes we have undergone in the United States since the 1970’s. He is a sage and a very kind man and should be more widely read, especially by those who do honest hard work.

    Grow things, build things, and consume less. That’s a lesson our grandparents knew all too well and we would benefit from the same lessons…


  3. I agree, very well said. Thank you for saying it and thank you for your blog. It’s people like you and blogs like this that are allowing the ever shrinking cohort of people trying to come up and survive in a craft tradition stay connected to each other, even if its only superficially. Its one of the few ways folks like me have left, to gather knowledge from the more experienced folks like you. Thanks again.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Thank you. Frankly, there are times I wonder why I bother with this blogging. But all it takes is the recognition that I may be helping a fellow craftsman by sharing the little bit of knowledge and experience I’ve picked up along the way and it makes the effort worthwhile. My guess is that most all of us feel the same way.

  4. Jeff Says:

    “this post isn’t about politics. It’s about economics, pure and simple.”

    Politics and economics are inseparable, and your last paragraph admits to this reality. The fact that you suggested talking to your Representative reflects a political philosophy.The specific suggestions that you make to your Representative will reflect a political philosophy.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      While in theory political and economic systems and methods are separable, they are, in reality, more often than not, very much intertwined. Certain economic realities affect all citizens, no matter their political persuasion. In an economy based on consumption, there must be consumers. This is especially the case when much of the economy is based on the consumption of “non-necessity” goods and services. For some reason, the United States has become reliant on outside sources for much of its food and most of its clothing (two of the three “traditional needs”). Shelter, due to the nature of its construction, remains a local enterprise. However, we continue to see a weak new housing market across most of the country. As the pool of “capable consumers” continues to grow smaller, the effect must surely be a continuing “slow recovery”.

      • Jeff Says:

        I swing back and forth from focusing on this as a cultural problem to being concerned about the very structure of our economy. The cultural problems relate to the lifestyle values of our society. The structural concerns relate to the faltering triad of Mining (or if you prefer….responsible use of natural resources), Manufacturing, and Agriculture without which, no industrial economy can survive.What is different now than when these 3 legs were strong…say in the ’50’s and ’60’s? What changed? Or…is the Industrial Revolution itself unsustainable and are we now arriving at the end of an era that could never sustain itself?

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        I can’t help but think that the Industrial Revolution is a phenomena that has, indeed, gone through many changes since the 18th century. I think what has remained constant is the unbridled greed that drives so many people, all around the world. I believe that is one of the most legitimate functions of government is the establishment and regulation of an environment in which enterprise and hard work will be rewarded but greed, that puts the common good of the nation at risk, is penalized. Hey, call me a dreamer.

  5. Matthew Says:

    Well said! Why is that so many woodworkers are so conservative? The grumpy old white guy stereotype is not doing our craft any favors. I guess just because we are woodworkers does not mean we are immune from the same sorts of influences that cause many to support a philosophy that undercuts their own class.


  6. Thank you for this post. I am a full-time woodworker and I have stayed away from fine furniture opting instead to make things for the middle class. Things that can be made efficiently like business card holders, wooden spoons and buttons. There is sadly little market for fine, time intensive projects. Personally, I couldn’t care less about the economy but I am saddened by the cultural poverty of america that values tech gadgets over the handmade. With cell phone bills in the triple digits, people can afford a $1000 end table.

    • Matthew Says:

      I personally struggle as well with the fact that I make furniture that only a few can afford. I guess it would be easier of me to just accept the fact that we live in an oligarchy and submit to the political philosophy that believes that selfishness is a virtue. However I just can not bring myself to do it. It’s an old dilemma; the arts and crafts movement had the same problem; the difference being that people valued handcrafts to a greater extent than they do now (arguably). As makers, we try to make the argument that buying quality once is more economical in the long run than buying crap several times over. This is a tough argument to make to consumers accustomed to a throw-away consumer culture.

      Great topic and good discussion.

  7. paul6000000 Says:

    Agree with you about everything except this middle class focus because I feel it’s the self-interest of the middle class that brought about the current situation.
    Tax funded services and regulation have been gutted because the plutocrats have convinced the middle class that taxes can only serve to coddle idle minorities and criminal politicians.
    When we start fairly serving the interests of the working poor, then they’ll have money to shop somewhere besides Walmart and the paradigm might start to shift.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      It’s unfortunate that so much of the middle class finds it easier to identify with the elites than with the working poor. Hmmm, it’s just hard for me to understand how someone who is making $40,000 a year feels that he/she has more in common with someone making $750,000 or more a year, than with his neighbor who’s making $20,000. I mean, the math is pretty simple, right? Hmmm, do you supposed we’re “being played”?

      • paul6000000 Says:

        Nicely put. Cable info-tainment has taught us to identify with celebrities and fear our neighbours.

  8. J. Dunn Says:

    Wow.

    I’d suggest renaming your blog, “Occupy Woodwork”, as you bemoan the demise of unions (that have financially crippled many municipalities), and have been derogatory of the “1%” in previous posts.

    Maybe you should spend some time contemplating what people have done to get into that 1%. Things like completing 25 years of education, working 100 hours per week, going “all-in” to build a business that provides goods or services that people are willing to spend their hard earned money on.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Well. I’d like to share a little information with you, my friend. I’m nearly seventy years old. I’m a Viet Nam veteran. I’m a father. My children’s occupations are Lawyer, Businessman and Teacher. I worked my way through school after the service. I was the vice president of a ship yard and, as such, spent a fair amount of time with legislators in Washington and at the state level. I had my own successful restoration business. I know quite a bit about working and I know an awful lot about business (as well as history and philosophy). I wonder if you’d like to share a little bit more about yourself and your experience. Meanwhile, I think I might consider your suggested renaming. It has quite a nice ring to it.

      • J. Dunn Says:

        Since you ask…I was born and raised in Flint, MI, the birthplace of General Motors. I come from a GM family, both union and salaried and have seen way too many abuses to have any support for unions.
        I paid for undergrad with the GI Bill and working in a lumberyard amongst other jobs. Paid for medical school with student loans. Did a 5 year surgical residency, often working 36 hours straight.
        Joined a practice, built a new clinic, a surgery center, we employ about 40 people, and are engaged in doing active good for folks on a daily basis.
        Anyone who wants what I have is welcome to do what I did to get it.
        Never in my life have I whined that I did not earn enough. When I was unsatisfied with a job, I got a better one. Much easier to blame the man.

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        I salute you. I’m rather surprised that, as busy as you are, you can find time to read these woodworking blogs and take issue with an old man who has no agenda except to share the knowledge that he has been given stewardship of. I wonder, would you be as willing to share your medical expertise with your friends and neighbors for free? And, I wonder what your thinking is about someone who takes a lifetime to fully develop his craft. Are his or her efforts no less valuable than yours? I wonder who is complaining here?

    • Matthew Says:

      According to Thomas Pikettys’ “Capitol in the 21st Century”, increasingly what people have done to become members of the 1% is be born with daddies money. Is that the sort of “going all in” that you mean?

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        Many folks who read the blog weren’t around in the 1980’s. It became popular for investment bankers to buy companies who had successful employee retirement funds. The investment banks would simply liquidate the retirement funds, as they were considered company assets. The government stood idly by…

      • Matthew Says:

        I am sure that the bankers and mortgage lenders that literally stole 40% of the value of my home were working really hard at it. They probably put in 60 hr work weeks!

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        Several acquaintances of mine are commodity brokers. They’ll be the first to tell you that they spend their day “gambling” with other people’s money. Hmmm…let me see, brokers pay taxes on the capital gains schedule. And yet, we have a movement to include a VAT tax scheme that will make the products of the individual craftsman even less attractive to the prospective purchaser. All of the tradesman that I know work a sixty hour week, at minimum. That’s the sixty hours that they get paid for. Then there are all of the other hours, when they’re doing quotes, picking up materials, etc., this time is never included in the mix. Obviously, I made a huge mistake in career selection. I should have been one of those guys who just “made money”.

      • J. Dunn Says:

        My folks did not pay a dime towards my education. They fed me, housed me, and worked me like a rented mule. Going all in means borrowing in the millions of dollars with joint and several liability (which means that if things went bad I’d be on the hook for my share as well as that of my partners). It meant risking money that could be lost with a stroke of a pen…Congress could decide physicians shouldn’t own surgery centers that compete with hospitals, or imaging centers, or labs, ad nauseum. Going all in entailed the possibility of profound loss.

        So, after a lifetime of unrelenting effort, I get to listen to folks who have often made a cascade of bad decisions complain about the greed of the 1%. Heavens.

        The 1% are just people. They are neither morally superior or inferior to the 99%.

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        My Goodness! I simply must apologize. I must not have been clear that my post was not intended to speak to anything but the arithmetic of our economy. After all, the American way is to work hard. And it sounds to me that you have done just that. I have spent more than fifty years tending and learning my craft. I now share that knowledge with any who are interested with no expectation of compensation, other than that they will guard that knowledge as it is a treasure. That, in my moral experience, is my responsibility, as I have been entrusted with temporary guardianship of the wonder of this knowledge. Perhaps, with your busy schedule, you would be happier if you were not distracted by something as worthless as the posts and opinions that you find here. That said, you did not answer my question as to whether or not you would be willing to share the knowledge that you have been given stewardship of without expectation of compensation. BTW, my children, who are not physicians, will be paying student loans for a very long time.


    • Hey, J. Dunn, I’m sure there are blogs on FoxNews that you can contribute to about how much harder you’ve worked than other people but you should probably downplay the role the government has played in your success (GI bill, dad’s union position, etc.) but belittling other’s views because they don’t believe in your distorted view of reality only makes you look ridiculous, not enlightened. People are tired of doing hard, honest work and being taken advantage of by corporations, lawyers, real estate speculators, etc. The corporation have had their reign since the 70’s and things have gotten progressively and substantively worse for most Americans. You can try to belittle their frustrations if you would like, but you only cut yourself off from the very spirit that made this country great, not support it.

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        Amen. Hallelujah. Amen

        BTW, been to your site. Very nice work. I’ll keep visiting. I appreciate your comments and welcome any of your experience that you want to share here.

  9. J. Dunn Says:

    This country was not made great by those laying claim to victim status and wailing as loudly as possible. It was made great by folks who sucked it up and drove on while addressing injustice as they could.

    Thinking that the man is keeping you down is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking that the sky is the limit is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know which I teach my kids.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      I agree wholeheartedly! This country was made great by the average citizens who worked hard, played fair day in and day out. That said, I would think that anyone living in or near Flint Michigan would have, long ago, come to the conclusion that no matter how hard you work, no matter how loyal you are, when big business decides to “pull out”, an awful lot of people, good people get left behind, through no fault of their own.

      I don’t think that it’s a question of blaming “the man”. I do however, think that there are two kinds of Americans. There are those Americans who believe in the common good, and believe that if they are above average, they have a responsibility to share their gifts with their fellows. It’s a simple concept. In French it’s called “noblese oblige”, in English, it’s simply “to whom much is given, much is expected”. Then, there appears to be another type of American. This is the one who seems to have become very fond of the color purple and seems to have a renewed interest in concepts like the divine right of kings. This kind of thinking, of course, is what spurred our original misunderstanding with “Mother England”.

      And again, you seem to have missed my original point. One man making $1,000,000. will not add as much to a consumer based economy as ten men making $100,000 each will. I’m sorry if that indisputable fact spurs your disdain for the working class. But it’s simple arithmetic. Economists on both sides of the line agree. It’s just the way it is.

      I’m a little surprised that you haven’t addressed the question I posed several times before: Would you be willing to share the knowledge over which you have stewardship without expectation of compensation, with you fellows? Or is it simply all about the money?

      • J. Dunn Says:

        Doctor derives from the Latin verb docere…to teach. We routinely teach med students, residents, nurses, therapists, etc with no compensation, in addition to providing untold thousands in charity care. We participate in the local HS mentoring program, helping kids with a career interest in medicine.

        Not sure of the point of your question. Are paid instructors all greedy bastards now? This would include elementary teachers, college professors, yoga instructors, add in North Bennett Street and the College of the Redwoods while you’re at it.

        You might as well just advocate for, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” This would be the logical endpoint of your rhetoric. Be sure to enjoy the worker’s paradise of Cuba, Russia, Crimea, China.

        Also, whenever I am “given much” I’ll accept the “much required”…so far no one has “given” me jack, they only want to mooch. But you probably look at a weight lifter and think his muscles should be forcibly redistributed. Or look at a smart kid’s GPA and want to redistribute his grades.

        As to your example: How many of the $100,000 wage earners are going to build their own factory, start their own business, buy a farm, invest in capital equipment? What if the guy making $100,000 a year saves and scrimps and invests and becomes wealthier than his neighbor…should he be penalized?

        Are you advocating confiscation of wealth? Your arguments are devoid of the mention of freedom and liberty. Do you hate these concepts? Do you volunteer to educate people on the benefits of freedom, or are you simply all about class envy and coercion?

      • D.B. Laney Says:

        Wow. For someone who’s obviously doing so well, you sound awfully angry.

  10. D.B. Laney Says:

    It’s interesting that this post has caused the “stir” that it has. I guess it just goes to prove that there is a large divide in this country. One thing I have learned over my lifetime is this, there are radicals on the left and radicals on the right and neither of those groups ever accomplishes much that positively affects the nation (any nation) as a whole. It is the people who can cooperate and compromise, when necessary, that do most of the work and create a better world for us all.

    I think it’s time to end this thread. This blog is about woodworking when all is said and done. Republican, Democrat, Right, Left are all welcomed here. Civility and reason should be the order of the day. Let’s get back to woodworking, for the time being.


  11. I do believe this thread deserves a memorial service. To witness its death before it generates little but heat is a shame indeed. Maybe the good doctor could flush out his thoughts of China and the workers paradise in view of the fact that with the help of well paid lawyers and lobbyists, our corporate management thought nothing of shipping thousands of jobs there and in there scheme of more profits, their accumulated brains seemed to have went blank when time to think “what about America and American workers?” Because you have the power, the savvy, the connections to accumulate enormous wealth does that make it right? And maybe more importantly does that create a healthy sustainable country?. If not who should be the arbitrators? Should the wolves be in charge of the hen house?


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