The phrase “Appointment in Samarra” is usually associated with the 1934 novel of that name by John O’Hara. But its origin is the 1933 play, Sheppey, by Somerset Maugham. Near the end of the play, Maugham recounts the Arabian fable of Death and the Servant. The speaker is Death:
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said,” Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
I think about this fable from time in time in recent years, spurred by the growing distinction between what our federal government says it wants to achieve in employment and what its policies are rushing toward. The rhetoric is about jobs and getting people to work, and contributing to society. In contrast, policies continue instead to rush to replacing employment with benefits, to ignoring tax reform that would contribute to job creation, to failing to address misuse of the H1-B program and overstaying of visas by college educated workers from other countries.
The past few days have brought several news items in California that illuminate these trends. Last Thursday, Los Angeles Times reporter Tiffany Hsu detailed the declining workforce participation in California and the nation—the lowest since the 1970s. Also, last Thursday, California political and government strategist Garry South took the opportunity of the PPIC conference to decry the narrowing of the tax base . On Friday, Jennifer Gollan of the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the misuse of the H1-B program
The national job numbers were released on Friday, and there was much celebration about the 321,000 payroll jobs added, and a sustained recovery. But the monthly numbers should not distract us in California to deeper trends. Though disparate in subject, each of the news items of last week are elements in our shift to benefits rather than employment, and greater economic/social divisions in society regarding tax payment. Each of these are elements in our own galloping to Samarra.