Thank the Fed for Workamping
The Federal Reserve’s decades long program of inflation, as the cure to fix all things wrong with economy, has made retirement a luxury fewer people can afford. It’s not a story that’s well known. That the retail world is being taken over by Jeff Bezos’s Amazon is common knowledge.
The two trends crash together in Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland,” a book gushed about by reviewers at The New York Times. Bruder said at the Wisconsin Book Festival, “the economy is a mess,” and goes on to rail against greedy employers who don’t want to pay benefits and fund retirement funds.
Bruder’s book is chalk full of sad stories of layoffs, foreclosures, and lack of family support. At the same time, these nomads, workampers or rubber tramps, are a resilient bunch, who left behind the costs and responsibilities of real estate for “wheelestate” to survive their golden years.
This is where Mr. Bezos comes in. Amazon is a large employer of the workampers. “Incentivized by federal tax credits for employing elderly workers (25 to 40 percent of wages), the company aggressively recruits them, especially during the holiday season,” Parul Sengal writes for the New York Times. “Jeff Bezos has predicted that a quarter of all workampers will pass through his warehouses, working 10 hours or more a day, sorting packages.”
Not having the luxury of financial security and leisure time to play golf and bridge, “workampers ride a national circuit of jobs extending coast to coast and up into Canada, a shadow economy created by hundreds of employers posting classified ads on websites with names like Workers on Wheels and Workamper News,” writes Bruder.
The fact is, employers are eager to hire workampers. “They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up, work hard, and are basically slave labor,” seventy-seven year old David Roderick told the author.
The author lived in a van (named Halen) and traveled with the workampers for three and a half years. The people she befriended were cheerful and gracious, even after working grueling shifts at Amazon warehouses that could involve walking 15 miles punctuated with dozens of squats. A couple Advil, taken before and after work, are a must.
However, few dream of living in an RV Park, working for Mr. Bezos, then moving on to work for a forest service contractor, and then toiling in the pressure-packed, beat-the-clock, sugar beet harvest.
Contrary to how Bruder portrays it, this is not a minimum wage issue. Government provides employers incentives to hire temporary workers so as avoid paying margin killing benefits. The author doesn’t finger Uncle Sam for working these wanna-be retirees to the bone and shorting them on their hours, even in national parks. She saves her bile for the evil Amazon.
“Many of the workers I met in the Amazon camps were part of a demographic that in recent years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans,” writes Bruder. In the heyday of a place like Empire--the era of a strong middle class, complete with job stability and pensions--their circumstances had been virtually unimaginable.”
Yes, successive generations are now doing worse, as government has become an over leveraged leviathan. However, people don’t just curl and die, they persevere, with a smile. The author cites a wonderful quote from James Rorty who wrote during the Great Depression, “I encountered nothing in 15,000 miles of travel that disgusted and appalled me so much as this American addiction to make-believe.”
While Americans put on a happy face, central bank inflation robs people at the bottom and transfers wealth to those at the top. “Creating money out of thin air, which is what central banks and commercial banks are licensed to do, confers purchasing power on those who are able to use the money first,” writes Russell Lamberti on mises.org. “For this new money to obtain purchasing power, it must rob little bits of purchasing power from all the other money in the economy. Purchasing power is transferred from those who hold money to those who create new money at close to zero marginal cost.”
This explains how and why wealthy, creditworthy asset owners get richer while many poor people tend to resort to overconsumption and ultimately get poorer. Economist John Maynard Keynes, ironically a proponent of inflationary policies, famously noted that “by a continuing process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”
Ms. Bruder believes this is just the beginning. Most who fall on hard times won’t move into their vehicles. However, “Those who do are analogous to what biologists call an ‘indicator species’--sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem.”
The disease is inflation, workamping is a symptom.