Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Robert Reich makes the case that what the economy needs is good paying middle class jobs, which require strong unions, and not necessarily manufacturing jobs, which aren't "coming back" anyway, at least in the large numbers of yesteryear.  I think he's right, and his points are worth exploring further.

So there are two points: unions and manufacturing.  Unionization in the past couple of decades has been most successful in the public sector, which is largely why GOPers are attacking public sector unionization.  Public sector and civil service jobs have been the backbone of especially the non-white middle class (another reason for the Grand Old White Party to attack them.)  How to successfully unionize people who work in offices etc. is a challenge that should be more widely and deeply discussed.  In my own experience, I was a lonely management supporter of unionizing efforts at the Boston Phoenix a very long time ago (I was a managing editor) but I was doubtful that aligning such a union with the United Electrical Workers would really work.  Newspaper jobs are very different from electrical workers jobs.  I assume those problems have been addressed since, but since few office jobs are actually unionized, maybe not well enough.

Reich's point about manufacturing jobs not coming back is based not only on jobs going overseas but a lot of erstwhile manufacturing work now being done by robots and other computerized machinery like CAD-CAM.  This is what used to be called automation, and its effect on manufacturing jobs was forecast back in the 50s and 60s.  Back then, manufacturing work itself was seen as having growing social and psychological problems.  The mindless repetitions of the assembly line was alienating and soul-destroying, besides factory work often being exhausting, dirty, unhealthy and dangerous.  The whole 9-to-5 was routinely portrayed as turning people into self-alienated robots, and self-destructive conformists. 

So while it is true that as President Obama says a healthy American economy and society must include businesses that make things--and there are lots of things to be made, especially in green energy industries--the current glorification of manufacturing does ignore some human and social problems and costs.  But one feared effect of "automation" may be less of a problem, though I don't know enough about it to be sure.  It was feared that with automation, workers would be even more distanced from involvement in their work--they would merely babysit the automation.  Any sort of involvement, even active monitoring, was considered less alienating.  As it turns out, at least some of computer technology enables what workers are left to be more involved in the manufacturing process.  They need to be more skilled, and more aware of the total process.  So they should be more productive and--don't tell any GOPers this--happier. 

But that still means fewer if "better" (and not necessarily better paying) jobs. As far as the effect of automation on employment, that was seen as inevitable, and so income supports such as the guaranteed minimum income were seriously explored, in theory.  That problem is of course much worse when even basic social support like the affordable healthcare act is castigated as some kind of satanic socialism.  We're a long way from seriously addressing this.

All of this can also be seen in the larger socioeconomic context of a much greater divide between the very wealthy and the not wealthy.  This interesting summary in the NY Times as well as other analyses that this has fundamentally changed American capitalism as well as American society makes this seem like a much bigger deal than it might appear.   I mean it's mind-boggling for me, sure.  I can't quite grasp that Casino Newt's biggest donor (of 10 or 11 million bucks) makes 3 million dollars an hour, or maybe it's $3 million a day.  It was a number too astonishing to take in, and I couldn't even figure it out, with my lame math skills.  I do know how all this makes me feel, which is that my current survival is by some sort of timewarp miracle, and that my near future survival is very very chancy indeed, and could be foreshortened pretty quickly. I don't even want to think about the long term (meaning twenty years say.)

This all adds to the more than occasional feeling that at some point--maybe even 1955--I got in my cardboard spaceship and set off on an intergalactic voyage.  Decades later I landed on a planet that looks a good deal like the one I left, but it isn't.  The planet is the same size, but several times as many people live on it, and the atmosphere is different (hotter.)  America is the same size (well, add Alaska and Hawaii) but there are twice as many people, and they appear to be twice the size.  Everything costs very much more but for some reason, I'm paid about the same as the 1970s, and less than the 1980s.  And that's just for starters, but apart from the mundane insight that things have changed, what I see suggests that the things that should have changed to address what has changed haven't changed, and left a lot of people feeling more than ordinarily alien in a familiar-looking landscape on a familiar-looking planet.   

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