I continue to ponder last Friday's jobs report in part because I'm still puzzled by the cheer of Main Street media. I guess you can get beaten so badly that what was once thought of as ho-hum can be viewed as glorious. I remember years ago James Earl Jones starred in a television show ¡§Paris¡¨ that lasted just a single season. In that show, however, a critic remarked at Jones' amazing acting ability, pointing to a scene where Jones bites into a hot dog. Just released after years in prison, Jones' character, Paris, walks to the hot dog cart and takes a healthy bite into the street meat. The expression on Jones' face revealed a kind of joy that could only come from not having the simple pleasure of eating a hot dog in a decade.
I think of that scene when I hear talk that 243,000 jobs in a single month is somehow magical, and all is now well in the land. I¡¦m a rose-colored glasses kind of guy, and I've asked people to be in this market, but I hold no illusions about the jobs market. It's a mess and getting better at such a glacial pace that it has everyone ready to applaud any bit of okay results. What does this say about America as a nation? I like a good hot dog, especially those sold on New York street carts, but the day one melts in my mouth like a good steak means I'm in difficult financial and emotional straits. In fact, I pray and work like a dog so that day never happens to me or anyone in my family.
Terra Cotta Soldiers
It's a blessing to have a job these days, but we shouldn't have to leave it up solely to divine intervention. In addition to all the folks that dropped out the jobs market, an equally disturbing trend is the 5.5 million long term unemployed. This is a staggering number that amounts to a giant army of idle, formerly proud, workers. These folks could be the legacy of failed policies, bad politics and a nation that accepted mediocrity in place of greatness.
In this (not so) brave new world of thy brother's keeper, the government makes it too easy to give up and sit on the sidelines. But we know even when we are taking from the rich and battering corporations that nothing is free. These idle workers will be expected to pay back a debt. Indeed, these chronically unemployed Americans might be compelled to be something of a modern day living version of China's terracotta soldiers. They may be guarding the ruling class in perpetuity.
In 221 BC the future First Emperor of China ascended to the throne at age 13. By 246 China emerged from its warring kingdom period to become a united country and Qin Shi Huangdi was its leader. Although a magnificent warrior and military leader, Emperor Qin created a unified nation that had been at war since 475 BC. But once established, he created a ruling system that relied on a civilian administration system that included regional governors. Of course his system of legalism was the administration of punitive laws. During his rule he introduced China to:
- Uniform written script
- Standard currency and coins
- Standardized weights and measures
- Agricultural infrastructure that included irrigation canals and storage granaries
- Standardized weapons with components that were easily replaced
Emperor Qin created a network of roads 4,000 miles in length and 40 feet wide, with the center lane reserved for the Imperial family. Barriers on the edge of the kingdom were built to deter nomadic attackers and became the basis for the Great Wall. Ironically many in China believe the First Empire failed because of overspending, including its 270 palaces and the construction of Ebang Palace, which is considered the most lavish dwelling in history. Ebang Palace's upper floor gallery could seat 10,000 people. Despite his amazing resume as innovative leader, Emperor Qin is known more for his terracotta soldiers.
In 1974 a clay terracotta soldier was discovered and soon Chinese archeologists were uncovering one of the most magnificent finds ever. A mausoleum designed for a magnificent life after death, complete with an army of soldiers. Up to 7,000 of these clay soldiers have been unearthed along with chariots, horses and weapons. The craftsmanship was so impressive that each clay figure had customized heads, hats, shoes, mustaches, ears, and facial expressions. The higher ranking soldiers were also the taller soldiers. It is a marvel for sure and one that speaks to ultimate grandeur for a leader that oversaw China springing into a single nation.
In-fighting, scheming, and weak leadership saw Qin's successors fall within four years of his death.
More than 2,000 years later another great empire is struggling to match past greatness. Of course America already has standardized weights, measures, weapons, coins, and even language, but it must find a way to rekindle its past glory. And while it is clear infrastructure spending has been in the playbook from day one, there was really a time when it not only created short term jobs but also connected nations to facilitate prosperity. There's room for such spending now, but not the kind of stuff where a new bridge is going to be built next to an existing bridge. In fact, we might have too many bridges to nowhere already that aren't paid for and cost Americans tons of money.
In some ways Emperor Qin would be proud if he could walk out of his mausoleum and see the greatest empire in the world today. There is certain grandeur among the ruling party that has usurped power from Congress and individual states while ruling through intimidation and punitive laws. (Before Qin most of China believed in Confucianism leadership that stated a well-run state uses the same precepts as governing a family: mutual obligation and respect.) It took more than 700,000 laborers to build Qin's eternal tomb, which was a pretty good jobs program, except most were buried to preserve secrets.
The First Emperor of China had grand ambitions in life and death, which is a lot more than I could say for America right now. Of course, individuals have ambition even in a climate where success is criticized and entitlement encouraged. But the nation has to hitch a ride to outer space with China or Russia and has $16.0 trillion in debt. By holding back the greatness of this nation, we have now created living terracotta soldiers, frozen in past glory, with facial expressions of doubt and frustration. It¡¦s not too late to stop this mausoleum from becoming permanent and to get these warriors back to work.
For many, their feet have already turned to clay and soon it will be their hearts and minds, too.