The Simpsons Gets Political - SE01 E01 - The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire
Sundays are a time for family. But as mine live three-hundred miles away from me I've had to improvise. So on this blog at least. Sundays are a time for a specific family. Namely - The Simpsons.
Basically, the idea is that each week I'm going to take an episode of the Simpsons, working through from Season One, Episode One - and ending whenever they decide to give up the ghost or more probably about Season Eleven after which is gets pretty unwatchable, and relate a political issue via the medium of a Simpsons episode. This combines my two greatest passions, gassing on to anyone who'll listen/read about my political beliefs and The Simpsons.
Starting with, as I said;
SE1 E01 - The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire
Script synopsis: It's Christmas time in the Simpsons household, and to hide the fact that he didn't get his Christmas bonus, Homer takes a second job as a store Santa. When his employers as Santa deduct ridiculous fee's and charges, accrued in the course of doing the work, from the $120 he'd been expecting for his work - he goes to the dog track with Bart in an attempt to get more money and 'Save Christmas'. He bets on a losing dog, Santa's Little Helper. Santa's Little Helper is then abandoned by his owner and adopted by the Simpsons. A Merry Christmas is had by all.
Issue: Failure to pay someone for the full value of their labour. Or as a Marxist might put it, expropriation of the surplus value produced by the labourer by the capitalist. But what is surplus value and what do we mean when we say it is 'expropriated'?
Encyclopedia Britannica give a fairly good, although not perfect and I do hope to explain why, over-view of this;
"Karl Marx held that human labour was the source of economic value. The capitalist pays his workers less than the value their labour has added to the goods, usually only enough to maintain the worker at a subsistence level. Of the total worth of the worker’s labour, however, this compensation, in Marxian theory, accounts for only a mere portion, equivalent to the worker’s means of subsistence. The remainder is “surplus labour,” and the value it produces is “surplus value.” To make a profit, Marx argued, the capitalist appropriates this surplus value, thereby exploiting the labourer."
Entry on Surplus Value, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Author(s): The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Last Updated: 20/07/1998, Original: HereMarx himself actually speaks about it more in terms of a tendency as opposed to an absolute, so wages will tend toward subsistence level, all other things being equal - a level below which they cannot go any lower, otherwise there would be no workers as they would all have starved. Obviously.
This is based on Lasalle's so called "Iron Law of Wages" - which states that over time wages will tend toward zero(0). He also avoids using morally loaded terms like "appropriation" preferring the, in his view, morally neutral term "expropriation". So, editors of Encyclopædia Britannica - close but not quite. 6/10.
But alas, an explanation of the phenomenon;
The idea of "expropriation of surplus value" is that in the production process we begin with raw materials, the worker creates a product from these and you then sell this product to a market. In a typical capitalist enterprise labour is taken to be a cost of production, much like the cost of the raw materials. The profit then goes to a third party - the capitalist. The issue being that the capitalist had no part in the production process. Thus, when they take the profit, what has essentially taken place is theft.
To use an example outside of the Simpsons, a fast-food worker at Subway, is presented with raw materials - so in this case bread, salad, meat and cheese, they then craft these into the finished product, a sandwich. That sandwich is then sold to the poor fuck who forgot to pack last nights left over bolognese for lunch, but they wanted meatballs and there isn't an IKEA nearby - so why not get them between bread served by some poor cunt making £3.50 an hour? (I shit you not, look here)
So, let's say the cost of the materials was £1.00, the cost of procuring them was £1.00, and the cost of having the business in a certain place with the utilities including the bureaucracy associated with running the business is £1.00.
The cost of producing the sandwich was £3.00, not including the workers labour. If it is then sold for £5.00, there is a profit of £2.00. The worker is then paid £1.00 to provide them with means to live and carry on making sandwiches. Then there is £1.00 left over and this (assuming these figures are correct, which they aren't) is paid to the beneficial owners of the business, in the case of Subway this is a holding company called Doctors Associates Inc. - which is beneficially owned by one of the co-founders and, one would assume, the family of the other, who is now deceased.
The question then that is begged; why do the beneficial owners get the profit and not the people involved in the production process?
Often reality likes to illustrate issues for us to, not just the Simpsons. So take the case of Subway again, why is it that an 'Apprentice Sandwich Artist' is paid £3.50 per hour for doing the same job, as a 'Sandwich Artist'(1) - who is paid £7.50?
I do not wish to diminish the work done by those who make sandwiches in Subway, but it is my contention that it is not a skilled profession in such a way that one would need to undertake extensive training to become competent. In the sense that a bricklayer, a plumber, a nuclear technician or a sculptor might.
I wonder if there is a craft guild for Sandwich Artists, I wonder what happens when one becomes a master Sandwich Artist? One can only imagine the sacrifice that these people must have to make for their craft, they are truly artisans - and Subway are truly benevolent in providing the means by which they might break into that most protectionist of all occupations, that of the fast food worker.
Clearly then, that is bollocks. The company is doing what it can to pay the least that it can to those involved in the production process.
It is funny, is it not, that the minimum on offer at Subway is the minimum they are legally allowed to pay people? It would be even funnier if these figures are, just by chance, also the amount of value added by each worker per hour. For my part I doubt it(2).
But to relate this to the episode, and to Homer specifically, it might be useful to know his salary(3);
|"Let the bears pay the bear tax, I pay the Homer tax." Credit: imgur|
I feel like it is safe to say that Homer is being underpaid for his work as a Nuclear Technician(5)(6) - especially given that, in the United States at least, nuclear power plants tend to be quite lucrative operations(7) - the New York Times characterising the older ones, of the type that Homer works in(8), as "cash cows"(9) in an article from 2011.
It is possible however that, Homer is paid so little during the year, but that this is made up for by a yearly bonus. It is possible that Springfield Nuclear Plant has a similar structure to that of say, John Lewis - who operate as a partnership and pay an annual bonus to staff;
"The most tangible advantage of being a Partnership is the annual bonus, where we distribute a proportion of profits equally to Partners (Employees) as a percentage of salary."
John Lewis Partnership, Pay and Benefits, Link: Here.(10)Let's not just admit the possibility, let's say that is actually what happens - cos' ya' know, why not? Would he not be justifiably aggrieved to hear this announcement from his 'Boss, and Friend, Mr. Burns'?
"Hello. I'm proud to announce that we've been able to increase safety here at the powerplant without increasing the cost to the consumer or affecting management pay raises. However, for you semi-skilled workers, there will be no Christmas bonuses. Oh, and one more thing, Merry Christmas!"
Mr. Burns, SE01 E01 - The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.(11)Homer Simpsons is nothing if not a man who loves his family. Given that the family were relying on that bonus as a means of subsistence (Alright, maybe I'm stretching it here) - he needs to go out and get another job to supplement his income from the plant.
So imagine his joy when he found out that he could be a mall Santa in the evenings, after his shift at the plant, and receive $120.00 for his work? It seems that capitalism will always provide for those who are willing to work hard enough - and Christmas might, after all, be saved!
Christmas Eve will come and there will be $120.00 with which to save Christmas or, for those of you who didn't watch the video, more accurately $13.00.
Which is broken down as.
"$120.00 gross, less social security, less unemployment insurance, less Santa training, less costume purchase, less beard rental, less Christmas club."
Cashier, SE01 E01, The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire(12)I reckon that seems fair, right?
*I hope to at one point adjust all of the figures for inflation - just because I'm cool like that - if you're reading this I haven't yet done it, but will try and get round to it soon.
(0) Marx was unwilling to attribute it to Lasalle, see The Critique of the Gotha Programme Pt. II - for my part I don't think there is any such thing as an original idea anyway and I'm happy to let him have it, he did after all stick the word "Iron" onto it - according to Marx.
(1) Rates of pay in Subway - here and here. If the second link is dead then try - here. Figures correct as of March 2017. For minimum legal rates of pay here.
(2) I would have liked to link to a profit statement for the holding company, Doctors Associates Inc., but as the company is privately held this is not a matter of public record. If anyone from Subway is reading this and considers the work done to be wholly philanthropic in nature, say operating at a loss, or break even for a significant number of years merely for the joy of it and wants to provide the figures to prove this, or if they have done calculations as to the amount of value added per employee per hour and found that they do, after all, match the legal minimum then I will happily issue a full retraction, apologise and eat nothing but your sandwiches for a year, by way of penance.
(3)This is taken from the episode "Much Apu About Nothing", which is in a different season. However, the Simpsons is assumed to all take place contemporaneously - which is to say at the same time in the present. Which could really fuck with your head if you took that notion seriously, given that we're now upto twenty-eight seasons - and all this stuff is meant to be happening in the same year.
(4) Exchange rates correct as of 21/03/2017
(5) The median annual wage is $80,260 for a Nuclear Technician in the United States (Figures correct as of May 2015 - See: Here)
(6)He gets promoted to, or more accurately fired and then re-hired as, Nuclear Safety Technician in "Homer's Odyssey"
(7) Analysis here.
(8)Based on the "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk" episode - in which we also find out that Mr. Burns neglects basic upkeep for the plant, making it even more profitable - we can assume. Although in reality failing to maintain plant capital (equipment) generally leads to worse productivity and thus lower profits, but whatever we're just splitting hairs here.
(9) Article here.
(10) I am under no illusion that John Lewis are some paradigm of ethical capitalism however, given that they cut the bonus for the fourth year running (whilst also increasing executive pay this year by 6%)to the lowest level in 63 years - despite profits increasing by 21%. According to the Guardian: here.
(11) Tbh, I hope this is how they announced it at John Lewis - the pop culture reference would have taken some of the edge off of what might otherwise have been a difficult experience. (See Footnote 10 - above.)
(12) If this was real life then the company, let's call them "Mall Santa Inc.", would likely be owned by a holding company called "Santa Associates Inc.". A company which might also own "Unemployed Mall Santa Unemployment Insurance Inc." "Mall Santa Training Inc.", "Mall Santa Costumes Inc.", "Mall Santa Beard Rental Inc." and "Mall Santa - Santa Christmas Club Inc.". That's just my inclination, but then - I always was a cynic.