Twenty years ago, when I started out as a writer, the problems of mass prosperity were the ones that intrigued me most. America was then, as I thought it would always remain, the great middle-class nation. And in the permanent affluent society, questions of taste and waste and marketing and alienation were what really mattered, now and forever. When moved to consider workplace issues in those days, I instinctively placed them in the category of brutal-things-settled-long-ago: Without even thinking about it, I connected the word "labor" to the word "history."
It's not a mistake anyone can make any longer, whether they are pondering the voting patterns of working-class Hoosiers or the driest statistics in the record book. Median "nonelderly" household income, we find, fell consistently through the first half of this decade, despite the solid economic growth enjoyed by the country as a whole.
Some nonmedian folks did just fine, of course: The top 20% of households earned more, after taxes, than the rest of the country combined in 2005, while the topmost 1% of the population took home more than the bottom 40%. The top-earning hedge fund manager of 2007, in fact, made about as much last year in nominal dollars ($3.7 billion) as J. Paul Getty, one of the richest men in the world, was worth in the mid-1970s.
Real hourly wages for most workers, on the other hand, have risen only 1% since 1979, even as those workers' productivity has increased by 60%. What's more, American workers now clock more hours per year than their counterparts in virtually every other advanced economy, even Japan. And unless you haven't read a newspaper for 15 years, you already know what's happened to workers' health insurance and pension plans.
I confess that I am fascinated by the mechanics of this huge social reconfiguration – in the same sense that I am fascinated by the industrial procedures of a slaughterhouse, or by the strategies that enabled small Confederate armies to win victories for slavery over much larger Union forces. How the big change was brought off is the subject of Steven Greenhouse's important new book, "The Big Squeeze," which is also my source for many of the statistics in the preceding paragraphs. Aside from the outsourcing, offshoring, and firing-at-will that make up the best-known weapons in the corporate arsenal, Mr. Greenhouse reveals how managers extract unpaid work through an array of ingenious tricks, from eliminating bathroom breaks to electronically erasing hours from workers' records.
The most extreme cases are described in a remarkable book by John Bowe called "Nobodies." Mr. Bowe's subject is "modern American slave labor," a term he uses without hyperbole, since his book tells how certain of our fellow Americans have actually forced others to work for them involuntarily. The trademark contrivance these bosses employ is debt bondage, the oldest management trick of them all. Their victims are generally migrant or "guest" workers, whose labor they have exploited from the tomato fields of Florida to the garment factories of Saipan.
The feeling I get from absorbing all these facts about the state of labor comes close to the nauseated dread that washes over me when I stay up late to read one of those what-if stories in which Hitler wins World War II. Could this really have happened to my country?
It has not merely "happened"; it has been done to us. The distinction is an important one to keep in mind as we survey the ruins of the affluent society. What has overtaken America's working people is not a natural disaster like "globalization," and not even some kind of societal atavism in which countries regress mysteriously to their 19th-century selves. This is a man-made catastrophe, a result that proceeded directly from the deliberate beatdown of organized labor and the wrecking of the liberal state.
It is, in other words, a political disaster, with tax cuts, trade agreements, deregulatory measures, and enforcement decisions all finely crafted to benefit one part of society and leave the rest behind. Few of the voters who gave Ronald Reagan his landslide victories, it is fair to say, intended for this to be the outcome. They wanted their country to stand tall again, certainly; they wanted the scary regulators off their backs, maybe; but I can recall no conservative who trumpeted those long-ago elections – or any of the succeeding contests, for that matter – as a referendum on plutocracy.
So let us have one now. Instead of pleasant talk about "change" and feats of beer drinking at the corner tavern, let us hear our candidates address this greatest issue of them all: What kind of country are we to be? A land of equality? Or a bankers' utopia – where the law of the land has achieved mystical oneness with the higher law of classical economics, and devil take the bottom 80%.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Read This And Weep; An Obituary For America -- And It's Just About All True
Thomas Frank in, of all places, Fox Bidness Journal: