The Thinker

My Wall Street Rescue Plan

Upset about large payments to AIG employees to encourage them not to quit? Join the rest of us angry taxpayers. In some cases these payments amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars per employee. AIG says they are necessary to keep these valuable employees from quitting. It is hard to imagine where else these employees would go with the financial industry in a tailspin. 724,000 jobs were lost last month alone, which is far more than forecast. They should feel lucky to have a job.

Moreover, if they were let go they might have to get a real job. AIG workers, like many of us white collar workers, may find their jobs feel a bit surreal at times. Today many of us are blessed with careers, not jobs. Careers are jobs that require significant education and that at least in theory you should enjoy. The rest of America gets by with working class jobs where you are not particularly valuable and are easily replaced. This is reflected by their inadequate wages and the sad fact that many of them are shuffling two or three jobs trying to make ends meet. Health insurance? For the working class, most of them cannot afford health insurance premiums, in the unlikely event their employer offers health insurance in the first place.

For a well paid white collar dude like me it helps to get grounded every once in a while. This week, like I usually am twice a year, I am in Denver. Actually I am in Lakewood, Colorado, in a hotel near the Denver Federal Center, which today was nearly socked in by a blizzard. From eight to five this week I am helping to manage a set of people testing some upgrades to a software system I manage. At five p.m., I get to go back to my hotel. While I do not have a car at my disposal as we carpool to save money, there is plenty of company and convenient restaurants in walking distance. I have several hours every evening to socialize with my coworkers or just relax in my hotel room, where I can surf the ‘Net, watch HBO or blog. It’s a bit like a partial vacation at my employer’s expense.

For most in the working class, an 8 to 5 job, Monday through Friday with weekends off must seem surreal. Moreover, I would think they would puzzle over the fact that we are so well compensated to basically sit around all day, look at our computers, type things into them, talk to other people on the phone and chat with fellow employees. Most of us never get our hands dirty. That is not the case at Jason’s Deli, which sits on Union Boulevard in Lakewood adjacent to the Denver Federal Center. Twice so far this week I and a few coworkers have ventured to Jason’s for lunch. It is the closest restaurant to our building and the food is both good and relatively inexpensive. It also offers a modicum of exercise, since it is about a mile walk there and back.

The people who work at Jason’s Deli work harder than any other group of people I have ever seen. Granted I am at the deli at lunch, which is its prime time. Often a line stretches out the door. It pays to arrive a little early to avoid the line at Jason’s. We queue up to order the usual: soups, various hot and cold sandwiches and to create a salad at their enormous salad bar. While the food is good, I often spend much more time watching the people at Jason’s than I do savoring their food or even the company of my coworkers. There but for the grace of God go I. There, but for the incompetence of our federal government, employees at AIG get to stay in their well moneyed white collar jobs and get fat retention bonuses instead of working for a living like the employees do at Jason’s Deli.

Maybe Jason’s employees do see Jason’s as a career. I’ve been coming here two or three times a year now and I recall the same lady behind the register and even the same Hispanic busboy. Maybe the days go fast because they never seem to stop. The energy level coming from each employee in the place is phenomenal. So to say they bustle in their work is to damn them with faint praise. They work frantically trying to keep up with the demand and the lines. The sandwich makers have a system which must be efficient but involves a lot of scurrying and yelling to each other. The cashier has an exceptional voice. She must have one to be heard over the din of the diners. “One bowl of red bean rice soup!” she will bellow, with many variants, to the assembler across the aisle.

Patrons queue up at the salad bar, which is next to the drinks machine, which seems to never stop servicing people. While we search for a table, a busboy scurries through the dining area frantically removing plates, bowls, silverware and glasses from tables so that other patrons can take their place. It is a crazy sort of ordered chaos. Jason’s is not a high tech place. That it works at all depends on the relentless energy of its employees. No doubt behind the walls is another crew of cooks, dishwashers and ancillary personnel necessary to choreographing this daily event.

Of course I have no idea what Jason’s pays its employees. I hope they are well compensated because they more than earn whatever salary they are paid. As a class, restaurant workers are near the bottom of the compensation scale. Republicans looking for a model of American industry need look no further than this Jason’s. Naturally they would not take one of these jobs even if they were desperate, but it models everything they claim to believe in: hard work, duty, obedience and doggedness. It likely lacks a whole lot in the compensation department. I don’t know how much the general manager of this restaurant makes, of course, but I am willing to bet he works twice as many hours as I do probably for half my salary.

The late Mao Zedong had a peculiar way of making sure people in the cities knew what the real world was about. He shipped them off to the country where they slaved away on collective farms using farming instruments that were medieval. Most likely most of those sent away to these collective farms loathed the experience because hard work and poverty are not natural proclivities for most human beings. His passing and China’s embrace of capitalism no doubt came not a moment too soon for those he sent to the collectives.

I wish as penance for their sins that the Wall Street brokers and those at AIG who brought us our latest financial calamity could spend a couple years working at this Jason’s Deli. It could be the American version of China’s Cultural Revolution. It is clear that many of these people do not understand where wealth comes from. It comes from exploiting the bottom feeders of the labor market like the good and hardworking people at Jason’s Deli. They daily perform minor miracles of food delivery.

Yet I strongly suspect their souls are being crushed, their lives shortened and their bank accounts emptied so we can enjoy really good and inexpensive food. Perhaps if these Wall Street brokers are lucky enough to return to Wall Street, rather than invent new collateralized debt instruments, they will create investment products that can move hard working employees such as those at Jason’s Deli out of the bottom of the labor market into something that resembles a middle class lifestyle. They too should have the realistic expectation of one day having an 8 to 5 job.

Two things are abundantly clear to me: the workers at Jason’s deserve it more than Wall Street barons and even well educated people like me. Also, if you could somehow educate the employees at Jason’s in the ways of finance, I am confident they would do a much better of managing my money than the crooks on Wall Street have done.


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