Capturing Elephants

Elephant Walk

Elephant Walk ~ Philip Brent

An old joke says that all you need to capture elephants is an empty milk bottle, tweezers and binoculars. You look through the wrong end of the binoculars. When you see the elephants, you pick them up with the tweezers and drop them in the milk bottle.

I believe we’re practicing a form of this delusional thinking in the workplace and in the world at large. It’s a skewed version of the American Dream. Initially, this dream became the nation which grew from the seed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. This fine declaration, flawed by what it omits and what it assumes, has been twisted in the latter half of the twentieth century. The core of who are, it has been used to push us into our current crisis. Its focus has shifted and become more detrimental in the past decade. It has brought us to where we are today. First, a recap of recent furor to illustrate how dangerous this has become.

Those who have jobs, or positions, live in subliminal fear of suddenly becoming redundant. Who can possibly feel safe? People still working anything close to full time attempt to do the impossible on a regular basis. One person may be doing the work three people formerly did, or may have unrealistic obligations and requirements as part of their job description. I imagine many people could provide examples of how their jobs and their lives have become more stressful and complex. There are fewer jobs to go around, resulting in more stress and greater traffic. Service jobs once offered the way into financial stability, but even this sector is not safe. According to Paul Davidson of USA TODAY, reported April, 2011, the Hackett Group noted about 663,000 large-company jobs in information technology, human resources, finance and purchasing have been offshored since 2002. The consulting firm estimates, another 375,000 similar service jobs will be moved abroad. More than a third of the U.S. white-collar jobs, which existed in 2002, will have moved offshore by 2016. Statistic Brain reported 1-1-2014 that 2,637,239 total jobs were outsourced in 2013 to twenty-four different countries. Jobs including 53% manufacturing, 26% distribution, as well as IT Services, R & D, and Call Center jobs. Call centers, a constant target of anger for many Americans, came in at only 12% of the total.

All this leads to more fierce competition for minimum-wage jobs, as more skilled and semi-skilled workers are forced to join the hunt for retail and fast-food jobs. Earl Ofari Hutchinson in an article for the Huffington Post, September, 2014, cites the stock argument of the National Restaurant Association and others that slinging burgers … is mostly for kids, immigrants, or unskilled workers, and for them it’s a boon since it’s their first entrance into the labor force. Hutchinson labels this a myth and says the Bureau of Labor Statistics places the current average age of fast food workers closer to 30, Many, once middle-class Americans with few other job options, are driven to fast-food work. They may have families and mortgages, as well as child care and out-of-pocket medical expenses no longer supplemented by their employer. Now, they compete for entry-level jobs along with those teens, immigrants and unskilled workers to find some way to survive. Finding jobs where hours are kept part-time, and benefits are nonexistent. Hutchinson also cites a BLS survey that found a fast food worker is the poorest paid of any worker in the country. The average pay for fast food workers is barely 9 bucks an hour. Many, however, make closer to the obscenely low $7.25 hourly minimum wage, an average of $15000.00 per year.

Minimum wage is insufficient to being able to live above the poverty line. David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal reported in April, 2011 that Corporate America isn’t doing its part to help bring America out of its economic malaise. The paper surveyed employment data by some of the nation’s largest corporations, including General Electric, Caterpillar, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Chevron, Cisco, Intel, Stanley Works, Merck, United Technologies, and Oracle and found that they cut their workforces by 2.9 million people from 2001 through 2011, while hiring 2.4 million people overseas. Some wag once wrote: The merely difficult we’ll do today, the impossible may take until tomorrow. We no longer feel we have even that much leeway.

Despite these figures, some people blame immigrants, legal and especially those undocumented, for their lack of jobs and low wages. With approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants currently, those opposed say they drive down wages, giving them a competitive edge over American workers, while dissuading companies from large-scale investment in technological improvements. Yet their opponents argue that delaying those innovations, which will make more businesses automated, actually saves jobs. The main argument in support of undocumented immigration is that migrant workers do jobs that Americans do not want to do.

According to a project: “The Immigration Debate,” undertaken by University of Michigan students Andrew Wallace, Matthew Kretman and Scott Strogatz: The issue is heavily debated, and each study that is done inevitably has some form of bias. A main argument against undocumented immigration is their use of government services. Many argue undocumented immigrants cost our government substantial money from benefits such as education, health care, food assistance programs, and welfare.  Often this results when these immigrants have a child on U. S. soil. The child is an American citizen, and therefore, has the rights to these government services.

The counter to the government services argument involves contributions to the United States economy. Much of what is earned by this labor force filters back into our economy through spending, while their lower wages help ensure lower prices for American consumers. The Immigration Debate concludes: … do undocumented workers have more of a positive or negative impact on the U.S. economy? There is no definitive answer… The difficulty in performing a true cost-benefit analysis makes … undocumented immigration … a polarized issue, with no clear end in sight.

While you may have decided this is all a long way from capturing elephants, I believe these are the symptoms which point to the heart of this trend. In recent years, we’ve heard more and more about the 1% at the top of the economy and even the 1% at the top of the 1%. According to Economic Policy Institute: From 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation, inflation-adjusted, increased 937 percent, a rise more than double stock market growth and substantially greater than the painfully slow 10.2 percent growth in a typical worker’s compensation over the same period. Why do we tolerate this? I believe it is because we have been and are being constantly manipulated. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”

Exactly this kind of motivation and manipulation is how we are taught to view the United States and the influence we have in the world. Our America, the land of the free, home of the brave and the finest place on Earth is also the America of manifest destiny, subjugation of indigenous people and the rape of the land. Our country has displayed both ends of the spectrum. Currently, it’s leaning toward the latter, where we subjugate large portions of our population, and do what we do simply because we can. We must strive to become the better America, but will not, unless we rethink or live up to our own values. And, here’s the rub. We all grew up firmly believing the American dream: that if we worked hard and stayed focused we could rise as far as we ourselves would take us.

Further, that it is our duty and obligation to want this. This is reinforced through our media and rhetoric. Advertisements present images of beautiful women and handsome men living large. These people drive the fastest, sexiest and most powerful cars. They wear fine, hand-tailored clothing and live in mansions where they play with the latest toys. Yet, somehow, they still look like us. Thus, we are beguiled to believe and convinced we must acquire these luxuries or pretend that we have them. Told, that if we do not have them or want them, that we do not matter. Not only that, but we also must be connected in the same way, to the same people. We must have the most high-tech phone, tablet, pad or other new trinket, chock full of the latest apps, which in turn will offer us opportunities and motivation to acquire still more. We must always seek the latest and greatest, no matter what we are talking about.

This approach mid-century was relatively harmless. Sure, those at the top had more, but we were doing all right. As advertising and media became more sophisticated and we more jaded, the stakes rose alarmingly. This lust for the latest and greatest drove hedge fund managers to commit fraud in a delirium of profit that crashed our economy. It sharpens the paranoia of hawks, who have lobbyists and weapons makers whispering in their ears, leading to our endless war. While the masses are still sold the same dreams and fantasies, but have almost no way to even pretend to be part of this exclusive club, but who go deep in debt trying. The people who live like the people in ads have ascended so far up the mountain, that we have trouble convincing ourselves we can ever reach such heights. This belief in the American Dream, with little hope of actually living it, is our elephant. Our pachyderm is in the room with us, and so far away we suspect we’ve imagined it.

To capture this elephant, we need three things. We need binoculars, tweezers and the latest, high-end, zillion-pixel phone. One way this works is if you again look through the wrong end of the binoculars. This way, you convince yourself that your fear is so small, and the distance so unbelievably great that you are better off pretending it doesn’t exist and from then on, ignoring it. Conversely, you can look through the correct end of the binoculars, discover how close your fear lives and how distant and ethereal this manufactured paradise appears. Capture this image with your smart phone, and use it as a reminder of reality whenever you fear you are succumbing to the pressure applied. Oh, and the tweezers, you can do one of three things. Keep them, if you still plan to try and catch those mythical elephants. Leave them at home, so you’ll never be mistaken for anyone other than yourself when traveling. Finally, you can use them to give yourself a sharp poke in one eye, on the theory that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.


Previously published on LinkedIn Publishers and Bloggers



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