Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" and "Bait and Switch"

Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Heny Holt, 2001. ISBN: 0-8050-6389-7; Amazon link.

Author, scientist and jorunalist Barbara Ehrenreich, complete with the pride of her career and Ph. D. in Biology, went underground and lived a minimum wage life in several states to find out if people really can fairly be expected to “make it” on their own. The specific context for her journalism project was, of course, welfare reform: the laws sweeping most states forcing people (most notably single mothers) off of welfare after five years to go back to work. But there is a broader context regarding social justice in a competitive meritocracy that is quite disturbing indeed.

She tried various jobs—waitressing, cleaning, minimum wage retailing—in some states such as Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, and at the same time attempted to live on the minimum wage by living in substandard housing such as trailer parks and shared rooms. Consistently, she found that she was treated with suspicion by all employers, with their “survey” personality tests, drug screening, suspicion of theft, draconian rules about “gossip” and even bathroom breaks. And not surprisingly, she could not find acceptable housing on her own, a situation that could not work for families or single mothers.

There is a bigger context to all of this than just welfare reform. Here is a hint:

“But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough: the appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others.” (P. 201).

I used to hear this all the time from the far left in my young adulthood, that even the middle class, not just the rich, consisted of parasites who lived off the toil of others. What seems scary, then, during this time of war, recession, corporate scandals, the loss of wealth, and endless layoffs is falling out of the middle class into the poverty class and living out the rest of one’s life in some kind of servitude without much self respect. As Ehrenreich points out, these jobs all require extreme regimentation, that many “spoiled” middle class and upper class people could not survive. (She points out the aerobic demands of cleaning jobs and the mental concentration and memorization of retail—she felt like she had “Alzheimer’s” while she has a Ph. D!) Yet, it does seem that the poverty trap does extend much more to those with specific problems beyond just job loss. The problems include lack of English skills, alcoholism or drug dependency, mental illness, and sometimes physical unattractiveness and handicap. The American paradigm is tell “fending for yourself” and finding one’s special talents to bootstrap oneself out of the cellar. But the merciless fact of logic is that, in a free society of “personal responsibility” where there are winners, there will also be losers.

There is a lot of discussion these days as “good” jobs, especially in information technology, are outsourced to lower wage areas of the world. At the outset, American workers are now competing with workers in part of the world where there is less individual freedom and lower standards for employers in the workplace. Yes, as a matter of principle, there should be minimum working conditions standards in countries when we buy goods and services from companies that operate in those countries. Imagine a time machine taking you to America before 1861 if you could “outsource” work to slaves in the South!

But it’s time to stop whining about outsourcing! People used to moderate affluence and professional working conditions may find themselves having to start over in the “low wage” world, and accepting its regimentation (wearing uniforms, graveyard shifts, time-clocks) or wind up homeless, without health care and possibly dying prematurely and being unable to provide for a previously established family. This is a kind of “free market” cultural revolution. Perhaps, besides labor unions, the answer to improving working conditions at the low-wage end is to induce more formerly middle class people to work in this world (and a few executives, too!), Politicians are unwilling to talk about it with complete candor, especially conservatives. It is very brutal! The fact is that anyone caught in this situation is facing competition for his standard of living from other parts of the world that is becoming increasingly resourceful and indignant. In the long run, exportation of jobs this way does raise living standards worldwide by reducing costs for everyone. If I buy inexpensive garments or electronics from overseas, if I take advantage of low-cost technology to promote my writing, I have to face the other side of this. In the long run, everyone has to get used to the idea of “paying your dues” to benefit from global efficiency, and some people will be dropped in the ditch along the way if they can’t compete as individuals as others take away their opportunities (even as the total pot grows slowly). It’s really always been that way. Remember how it was in the days of Vietnam, what happened if you couldn’t compete in academics.

Of course, politically we have to be conscious of the ethics and human rights records of societies that we trade with (and export jobs to). And people have a right to bargain collectively for their jobs, pay, and working conditions. But union activism (possibly leading to calls for protectionism) needs to be balanced by employee education, professionalism, ability to keep up with technology, and downward competency expectations. And even all of this is a two-way street.

The January 2004 The American Prospect has a detailed account of the low-wage problem, “Can We Give America a Raise?: The problem of low-wage work” with contributions by Christopher Jencks, William Serrin, Harold Meyerson (on Wal-Mart), Merrill Goozner, Ayelish McGarvey, Matthew Yglesias, Joan FitzGerald, and Robert Kuttner.

On April 1, 2004 Jim Lehrer NewsHour on PBS, author David Shipler discussed his book The Working Poor: Invisible in America (February, 2004, Knopf, ISBN 0375408908). One of his points is that underpaid low-wage work artificially elevates living standards for middle class and upper class Americans, and that corporations who pay low wages and benefits are getting “corporate welfare” from government who supplement care for the working poor. Furthermore, the lack of medical care, poor diet, and other problems hamper the ability of low wage workers to move up in a meritocratic society. Again, there is a temptation to bring on the “pay your dues” type of thinking.

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005, Henry Holt: Metropolitan, New York, ISBN 0805076969) is Ehrenreich’s sequel, this time about downward mobility in the middle class, in the face of corporate downsizings and buyouts, and especially offshoring, all motivated by short-term thinking and investor capitalism.

Here, Ehrenreich posed as a job seeker, looking for a communications job with a major corporation, perhaps a pharmaceutical company or a hospital chain. She went through the outplacement and headhunter companies, the boot camps, the networking, some of it even “faith based.” She took the personality tests. Not to her surprise but perhaps her chagrin, she found all of this conducted in very bad faith. Plenty of career consultants were all too happy to collect thousands of (fake) dollars from her for all kinds of advice ranging from resumes to interview styles to dress and appearance. The corporate world seem to be like a popover appetizer for dinner—a lot of air and not too much substance. The recruiting practices seemed not to even make real business sense.

Particularly disturbing is the intellectual dishonesty of the endeavors. Barbara, after characterizing herself as a writer, early on distinguishes between journalism, which is supposed to be objective and faithful to the truth, and public relations, in which one is paid to announce the company line. Toward the end of the book she characterizes what companies seem to be looking for, as “passion,” a willingness and eagerness to put the company’s aims above all else.

I have encountered some of this since my own “retirement” at the end of 2001. I went through the outplacement companies and interviews that ended in sudden disappointment. Trying to tack on to I.T., I encountered a system where people move to distant cities for W-2 contracts with no benefits, and where very specific technical matches are required for the job. But, because of my twelve years in insurance, I have also been approached at least twice to become financial planning advisor and life insurance agent. One company would have paid for all my training but would have prohibited my having any outside income (even when all of my income would come from commissions), an arrangement which would prevent my pursuing attempts to sell my own writing. They said this was required by securities law but I suspect they wanted my soul.

Ehrenreich talks about some of these Faustian deals, as she found a couple of these “jobs” herself toward the end of her search. She recommends much more political and social solidarity among the middle class, whose members have gotten used to competing with each other individually as a kind of social Darwinism exercise. She also mentions Chaiman Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, where professionals and intellectuals were forced to toil in the countryside as a kind of political purification brought on by their having been “parasites” on the manual labor of others.

This last point seems relevant to me. When I worked as an individual contributor in information technology, with no direct reports or public visibility or sales culture, I still made six or seven times what minimum wage workers get, with good benefits. Of course, too, we have outsourced out dirty work to near slave-like conditions overseas. The “decadent middle class” offers a personal moral hazard; executives can tap our moral vulnerability. I sensed this in the late 1980s when (my career seemingly threatened by leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers) I would work so much unpaid overtime to keep my own systems perfect, because weaker programmers were already falling out. I got a break in the 1990s partly because of the Internet and partly because Y2K concerns kept my skills in demand until after the millennium turn.

I would find myself, while making myself indispensable in a world of numbers and dumps, working alone, drifting away from socialization and meeting the needs of others, in order to enjoy a relatively sheltered, comfortable lifestyle. Even I could make enemies this way. Things changed after 9/11 for me. What is needed to get the social justice that Ehrenreich seeks through political solidarity is a way to hold every individual person accountable for any advantages he or she had, by expecting the sharing of burdens in an individual way. This is the “pay your dues” philosophy. It would seem that Ehrenreich missed the opportunity to argue along this subtle path.

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