Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Blue Collar Blues"

Speaking of the magazine "The American Conservative," I've just had a book review appear in their pages. The review is still behind a pay-wall, but since it's not on the newstands anymore, I'll include the bulk of it for you here - as ever, free of charge.

"Blue Collar Blues"
Review of Stephen Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze
American Conservative, October 6, 2008

Juxtaposed in the business section of many bookstores are two books that attest to the existence of two Americas: one America that is enjoying wealth and mobility in our globalized era, and the other America – the working classes – who have seen their wealth decline and job security disappear as a consequence of those same forces of globalization. The first book – by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank – is entitled Richistan and describes the lifestyles of the nation’s growing, if still small, number of millionaires. The second is entitled The Big Squeeze by New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, and describes the losers in the global sweepstakes: the factory workers, the housekeepers at hotels, service-economy workers, even – increasingly – white collar workers whose jobs are subject to “outsourcing.” Frank describes a cosmopolitan class whose success comes increasingly by disassociating themselves from places and nations, and rather see themselves as global entrepreneurs; Greenhouse’s book describes the people who have been left behind – literally and figuratively.

The point of comparison for Greenhouse is the post-war America of the 1950’s. This remarkable, and likely singular, period of American history saw extraordinary economic growth as, in the aftermath of the World War II, America remained the only significant industrial power and assumed the role as producer for the world. Because of the need for constant and steady labor and the absence of significant competition from elsewhere in the world, the major corporations supported the creation of working conditions for middle- and lower-class workers that the world had never seen before: high wages; cradle-to-grave benefits; job security; willingness to allow the formation of and to negotiate with unions; massive additional support that went directly to the benefit of the local communities in which those corporations were based. It was a period in which the “working grunt” could expect a level of prosperity rarely if ever experienced by lower-middle classes, from home-ownership to foreign travel. For Greenhouse, this is the period marked by the existence of a “social contract” – in which workers agreed to work long and hard, and in return for which they were guaranteed lifetime job security, benefits and the prospect of a comfortable retirement.

As everyone knows, that social contract was fleeting: this idyllic period lasted perhaps 25-30 years depending upon one’s industry, roughly until the oil crisis of the 1970s, a period in which the U.S. experienced the limits of its power – militarily, economically and politically. While Ronald Reagan declared it to be “morning in America,” the terms of the social contract were in the midst of being re-written, almost always to the disadvantage of employment security and economic stability, if also to the benefit of the dynamic growth of the broader American and world economy. And here’s the rub: while the growth of overseas competition and the beginning of “globalization” spelled the demise of the “social contract” of the 1950s – meaning that American workers were faced with a cut-throat competitive environment in which labor was always expendable, wages began to stagnate, benefits shrink, and workers were forced to take more risk for their futures upon themselves alone – America experienced one of the greatest economic expansions of its history. Early on, however, it was noticed that Reagan’s promise that “a rising tide raises all boats” seemed to be increasingly evanescent: some were clearly riding out the stormy seas in yachts, but the dinghies of most others were taking on water. By the 1990s the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch was writing about “the revolt of the elites” and the “betrayal of democracy,” a divided culture in which elite beneficiaries of globalization no longer identified strongly with their communities or even the United States, instead seeing their destiny in the economic bounty of the global economy; while, meanwhile, ordinary workers who failed in the meritocratic sweepstakes found that their life prospects had dimmed, that job security had ceased due to “outsourcing” and widespread (and subtly sanctioned) illegal immigration, that illness was one’s own fault and problem, that retirement was probably not in the cards (there was always a job to be had as a “greeter” at Wal-Mart), and that the future of one’s children looked even dimmer than one’s own....

While the portrait of our troubled workplaces should unnerve any American committed to a stable future of American democracy, Greenhouse can offer only unsatisfactory suggestions for redressing the plight of America’s workers. Ranging from wan proposals to “change the conversation” and “jawbone” the issue, the major problem facing Greenhouse and similar mainstream authors who are rightly concerned with today’s workplace challenges is the extent to which the accept the current economic model. Throughout his book he accepts the logic of “globalization” – including massive levels of outsourcing and high numbers of illegal immigrants whom he admits suppress wages – to be “inevitable” and “unstoppable,” even as he readily cites workers who decry outsourcing as “unpatriotic” as well as a CEO of Intel who admits that ongoing loss of decent American jobs “will portend a dimmer future for young Americans” and wonders “what my grandchildren are going to do.” Among his proposals – in light of his claim to eschew “crude measures” to curb the effects of globalization – is a standard theme of recent politicians to increase funding for re-training in high-tech jobs requiring advanced degrees. He points to America’s leadership in scientific education as a way of fostering home-grown employment growth. But, surely, Greenhouse must know that a miniscule number of the workers who have lost decent jobs over the past several decades can hope to re-invent themselves as MIT-trained scientists? Inevitably, many if not most of those who would once have gladly worked as manual laborers – who actually have skills and inclination to do such work, and find pride in doing it – will not and are not pre-disposed to become successful free agents in the globalized system. Why should they be expected to? Is there no dignity in the work of hands?

The sorts of re-training and education programs advocated by Greenhouse and others assuredly assuage the guilty conscience of liberal elites who lament the “inevitability” of globalization even as they happily play in its privileged fields. In commending such programs, Greenhouse reflects his bias as a “symbolic analyst” by privileging the globalized system that has fostered a divided America, even while implicitly suggesting that public policy ought to favor those who have the ability to join “Richistan” rather than those who are inevitably unwilling or unable to become migrant workers in a global marketplace (as a sop, he also proposes better poverty programs, presumably for those who don’t make the globalization cut). But why should public policy favor this outcome, rather than one that supports other goods – including decent jobs at living wages for people who work with their hands and are members of particular communities that they are not willing to abandon?
Greenhouse concludes that globalization has been a net boon for Americans, but in fact much of the evidence mustered in his book suggests otherwise. True, it has assuredly been a benefit to the denizens of “Richistan,” and it has also made available to the consumer cheaper products now manufactured in low-wage markets. But Greenhouse – and others like him who promote “economic efficiency” above all – don’t ask whether the trade off of cheap products from China (and our scandously high levels of national and household debt) is worth the price of stable jobs in stable communities. Greenhouse doesn’t question whether the situation he has aptly and wrenchingly described doesn’t suggest a world in which a certain kind of economics has trumped the very reason for economics: to make it possible for human beings to thrive in communities where they can put down roots and raise good families, where their contributions can be appreciated and where their children can expect a decent future. We have made a certain economic logic – efficiency, GDP growth and upward mobility – into an end in itself while abandoning a commitment to certain other goods of life which are supported by a decent and humane economy. An economy exists to make possible human flourishing – to provide the goods of human life for and among our fellow citizens, allowing in particular the flourishing of those goods that go beyond “mere” economics – family, community, worship. If our current economy is undermining the prospects for those goods among a vast swath of our countrymen, haven’t we ceased to understand the basic purpose for an economy in the first place? If we are going to begin “jawboning” about anything, this question would be a good place to start.

2 comments:

Black Sea said...

". . . Greenhouse can offer only unsatisfactory suggestions for redressing the plight of America’s workers."

"Throughout his book he accepts the logic of “globalization” – including massive levels of outsourcing and high numbers of illegal immigrants whom he admits suppress wages – to be “inevitable” and “unstoppable,” even as he readily cites workers who decry outsourcing as “unpatriotic” . . . "

"But, surely, Greenhouse must know that a miniscule number of the workers who have lost decent jobs over the past several decades can hope to re-invent themselves as MIT-trained scientists?"

"Greenhouse concludes that globalization has been a net boon for Americans, but in fact much of the evidence mustered in his book suggests otherwise."

". . . by New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse . . . "


Mystery solved.

SursumCorda said...

I no longer remember how I ended up at your blog -- possibly through Mars Hill -- but I'm glad to have found it. This post inspires two comments:

(1) Though I have personally been hurt by outsourcing and then again my offshoring, if I take a larger perspective I can't help thinking that sending jobs overseas is a far better form of "foreign aid" than what is usually meant by that term. At least the money directly benefits the working people, and I suspect a lot more of it gets to them when it doesn't have to filter through governmental bureaucracies. I buy "Made in the U.S.A." whenever I can, but can't say that it's inherently better to feed an American family than an Indian one.

(2) I've lived in six decades, and don't see that any one of them is necessarily better or more hopeful than another. Our children face different challenges from ours, but I would not go so far as to say that their futures look "dimmer." The classical virtues of thrift, hard work, sacrifice, moderation, and self-control still reap benefits. Whenever I look at my children's situations through aging eyes and am tempted to feel sorry for them, they remind me that it is their future, not mine, and they are enjoying life, and are full of hope for the future.