Nicholas von Hoffman on ‘The Big Squeeze’
Posted on Jun 6, 2008
You may be surprised to learn that the pleasant person from FedEx Ground delivering your package owns the truck which he or she has parked in front of your house. FedEx Ground drivers, you will find out in Steven Greenhouse’s “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” are not FedEx employees.
One of the strengths of Greenhouse’s book is that it puts the meat of specificity on the bones of labor statistics. “The Big Squeeze” is salted with interviews and biographies of people in dozens of occupations. It is instructive to read the statistics concerning highly trained people losing their jobs to people in low-wage countries, but the numbers take on painful significance when you are introduced to an electrical engineer named Myra Bronstein, working for Watchmark, a Bellevue, Wash., firm which develops software used by cell phone companies.
One day Bronstein and 17 of her colleagues got an e-mail asking them to report to Watchmark’s boardroom the following morning. As Myra and the other quality assurance engineers gathered in the boardroom, the director of human resources began giving out large manila envelopes. Once everyone was there, Myra recalled, “The head of HR said, ‘Unfortunately, we’re having layoffs, and you’re in the room because you’re being impacted by the layoffs.’ ” The 18 engineers were dumbstruck, but the head of human resources pressed on. ” ‘Your replacements,’ ” she continued, ” ‘are flying in from India, and you’re expected to train them if you are going to receive severance.’ ”
Drawing back the camera on employment conditions, Greenhouse writes that “Forrester Research estimates that 3.4 million white-collar jobs—some 260,000 a year—will be sent overseas between 2003 and 2050. Forrester forecasts that this exodus will include 1.6 million office-support jobs, 542,000 computer jobs, 259,000 management jobs, 191,000 architecture jobs, 79,000 legal jobs, and 30,000 art and design jobs.”
The author explains that these numbers are a small fraction of total employment in their respective fields, but the percentage of jobs held by college-trained white-collar workers in fields such as insurance, pharmacology, banking and information technology which can be shipped abroad in some instances ranges above 40 percent.
A few years ago many an American entertained the conceit that the natural world division of labor, á la Adam Smith and David Ricardo, would have the little brown and yellow people doing the heavy lifting jobs in ill-ventilated factories reeking of lead vapors, while large, highly intelligent, highly white citizens of the United States would enjoy a life of brain work and ease. It has not worked out that way, as Greenhouse shows his readers. Whether or not one’s job is actually sent abroad, the mere fact that it can be works not only to place a limit on what you can expect to be paid but depresses wages and salaries.
Gone overseas, besides jobs, is the capability of generating jobs. Technology, the industrial knowledge base and the necessary organizational skills to use these efficiently are also being exported. This puts additional downward pressure on compensation here at home and makes its contribution to Greenhouse’s doleful overall narrative of what has been happening to perhaps four-fifths of our working population for the last 30 years or so.
The writer’s central thesis is, “One of the least examined but most important trends taking place in the United States today is the broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers—white-collar and blue-collar workers, middle-class and low-end workers—that began nearly three decades ago, gradually gathered momentum, and hit with full force soon after the turn of this century. A profound shift has left a broad swath of the American workforce on a lower plain than in decades past, with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.”
Greenhouse’s main argument is so at variance with what we are told every day about the superiority of American everything, it makes you blink. We judge ourselves by what our politicians and our television sets say, which is that we are the best, most blessed and richest of people and getting more so. A rising tide floats all boats, President John Kennedy said, and the American tide keeps on rising, but Greenhouse shows that tens of millions of boats are either staying put or sinking.
A day seldom passes but a member of Congress takes the floor to remind us in mawkish tremolo that the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get into the U.S. are proof positive of the power of the American dream. If Greenhouse is right, and there is no reason to believe he is not, that American dream is just that—a dream.
“Northwest Airlines,” Greenhouse writes, apropos of some people’s dreams, “gave laid-off workers a booklet entitled ‘101 Ways to Save Money.’ But the booklet added insult to financial injury. ‘Borrow a dress for a big night out’ and ‘Shop at auctions or pawn shops for jewelry’ were among the tips it offered. And then it suggested, ‘Don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.’ ” Dumpster diving into the American dream. You can’t make stuff like that up, and this book is full of such revealing anecdotes.
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