Friday, March 31, 2006

Globalization, or, what happened to the boats?

I've been a regular reader of the Economist for some years now. They write competent, challenging, college grade English, and it's interesting to read an outsider's view of American politics. The Economist believes firmly in free trade and globalization; rich countries shouldn't protect their agriculture and industries with tariffs, because it starves people in poor countries who would like to produce agriculture and industrial products for less money, were it not for the tariffs. The mantra is that the rising tide of prosperity raises all boats.

They argue the case persuasively; but I don't live in a poor country whose boat will be raised by the rising tide. I live in the richest country in the world, and around me I see boats stranded by a tide that seems to be going out, as the manufacturing jobs go to China and Mexico, the coffee is grown in Vietnam, and the beef comes from Argentina. And oh, yes - the computer and call center jobs are going to India. The Americans who used to work in factories, or on farms, or for that matter do several kinds of skilled and semi-skilled work which don't necessarily involve a college degree, are now doing - what?

The February unemployment report says unemployment is 4.8 percent, or 7.2 million people, down from 5.4 percent and 8 million people a year earlier. That's a lot of people who'd like to work and can't; but it's OK because it's only 4.8 percent, so we aren't in a recession or anything. Still, there were another 1.5 million people who aren't even trying to find a job; they've given up. And yet: the trend is up. More people are working. What are they working at? Greeting people at Wal-Mart? Flipping hamburgers?

Free trade may be good for the poorer countries of the world; but the net effect in the United States seems to have been to shut down a lot of factories because it's too expensive to pay people the amount that Americans need to make to live on. You can only manufacture things that are cheap enough for Americans to buy, if you pay the people who make them so little that Americans can't live on the wage. What's wrong with this picture?
Henry Ford understood that his business would prosper more if he paid his workers enough that they could afford to buy his products. Somehow that idea has gotten lost, in the race to be the cheapest.

Another piece of this puzzle turned up in a recent Chip Johnson column in the San Francisco Chronicle: local companies can't get high school kids to consider jobs as refinery technicians, assembly line workers, or construction guys. Of course, the ones who will consider it often can't pass the math and science parts of the employers' entrance exams; but that's another rant. I've read other articles about construction bosses who say the American kids they try to hire, won't show up, can't be bothered to do the job right, don't like the hard work. So maybe it isn't just that there aren't jobs.

Some of us discussed this in another thread: Americans seem to have decided physical work is beneath them. Working with your hands is no longer a "good" job. People who chopped their own wood and churned their own butter built this country; now, nobody wants to do vocational training; they want a white collar job. Hey, folks: there's nothing wrong with manual work if you do it carefully and with pride, the way my dad did it for 31 years. Somebody has to tune the engines, fix the plumbing, run the factories (now a species of computer job that you do wearing a hard hat and steel toed boots). So there are two issues:

1. Nobody wants to pay a living wage for blue collar work.
2. Nobody wants to do blue collar work.

I don't know what the answer is; but it worries me. It's not a good world where a few people are really really rich and everybody else is unemployed and broke. France was that way, around 1789; and the 25 years or so after that in France were not amusing at all.


  1. Anonymous9:40 PM

    I read the economist also and share your concerns also but I'm from a slightly different, still western culture. I wonder if we haven't got something terribly wrong along the line. I've worked hard all my life but now I'm tired. Is the capitalist system and continual growth for the sake of growth the right way to be thinking when we all have so much stuff we don't need? I was much amused when the recently departed buttonwood columnist said much the same thing in her parting comment. But what is the alternative?

  2. You've got a point, anonymous. I, too, have worked hard all my life and am tired (although having gotten up at 5:30 AM for a meeting may have more to do with that than my work history). I too sometimes wonder what good all this Stuff does us (then I look at my book collection, oh well; but I DON'T have an IPOD). I don't know what the alternative is either, but I have an awful feeling we're going to have to figure it out one of these days.

    I also don't know how long Americans can continue to use 25% of the earth's resources while producing almost nothing anymore and owing money to the entire rest of the world. When this house of cards falls, it's going to land awfully hard.

  3. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Maybe the two points are related. Living in rural Missouri like I do, there are lots of kids who would be happy to work in blue collar work; they just can’t make enough money doing so. Most of the blue collar jobs available now are “skilled” positions; welding, plating, etc. The old “unskilled” blue collar jobs have, as you noted, gone out of country.

    On a different (though I think related) note, I have noticed a “dumb-ing down” of a lot of the kids I know. Not just about political issues but just a general lack of concern for the world around them. I know this is a generalization, but most of the 14 + (even into their 30’s) I know are more concerned about what they can do to entertain themselves than improve themselves. This doesn’t bode well for the future of a country where the “dumb” jobs are leaving.

  4. Stephen, did you see Cynthia Tucker's op-ed column on Saturday? Her mother needed some muscle to finish a house, and Cynthia, the dedicated liberal, tried to hire some of the local young black men to work on it, at $6 an hour. Her experiences are interesting; they shook her. They echo the comments I've heard elsewhere about the jobs "Americans won't do." Too bad my dad's gone; he'd have taken a job at $6 and hour, and done good work, too.

  5. Anonymous6:16 AM


    Interesting article, thanks for the link.

    You know, when I was in High School (which was about 20 years ago) my fiends used to “buck hay” as a summer job. For the urban challenged this involves throwing bales of hay (each weighing about 50 lbs.) onto a truck or trailer moving slowly through a field. I worked for my dad in construction. My friends made from 5 to 10 cents a bale; I made about $4 an hour. I wonder how many kids would take those jobs now?