Sunday, November 10, 2019

Old Volumes

Back in the day, Slate Magazine had a feature called "The Book Club." A small group of notable writers would read a book, and then discuss it in a series of letters to the other members of the group. In 2005, Tyler Cowan and Alan Wolfe discussed Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. I was wandering around the Web, and stumbled across their correspondence. I'm pretty sure I'd read it before. Despite the elapsed time, some of it sounded familiar.

The basic premise behind Bait and Switch is the difficulty of finding white-collar work, and to make her point, Barbara Ehrenreich poses as a job-seeker. Mr. Cowan opens with what he sees as the primary problem with Ms. Ehrenreich's experiment; apart from a few people who have agreed to be bogus references for her, she has no network.

She had no church, no family, and no reliance on friends for financial or even moral aid. It is no wonder she found life so tough and capitalism so demoralizing.
Fourteen years on, however, I wonder if more people are in that situation than might have been the case back in the day. But that's somewhat beside the point. In the third installment of the back-and-forth, Mr. Cowan says the following:
It is unfair that a 56-year-old is now expected to compete in a world for which he was never prepared. But we ought to be realistic. These transitional costs are borne by a class that has been about the richest and freest human history has seen.
Tyler Cowen "Why It’s Harder for White-Collar Workers To Find Jobs"
The conflation between an unprepared 56-year-old worker, and the greater class of people to which he belongs has always been baffling to me. Were you to apply the same logic to the Camp Fire in California, like so: "It is unfair that the residents of Butte County had their homes and/or livelihoods wiped out in a wildfire. But we ought to be realistic. This disaster was borne by a state that has been about the richest and freest human history has seen," you'd be tarred and feathered in the streets for being a callous bastard. And as Mr. Wolfe points out: “Calling them members of a class that is 'the richest and freest human history has seen' does not help them deal with their anger, hopelessness, and dismal prospects for the future.”

The fact that many white-collar workers in this country are (arguably) not required to really compete for jobs is not a sufficient reason to treat those who are required to compete, but unable to do so, as unimportant. Being competent at a line of work, while necessary, is no longer sufficient to remain employed, and it's way past time that we stopped thinking that way. We're overdue for teaching a greater competitiveness in the overall job market (not just a single profession).

Obviously, for some people, this new mode of looking at the world will come too late. They're going to wind up largely unemployable, given the market and the other workers who compete with them for the same limited pool of suitable jobs. But I would submit that it's actually less callous to acknowledge that they're screwed, yet we aren't going to aid them, than to pretend that the affluence of their peers renders them above needing aid.

I suppose that one could say that capitalism is best played as a team sport. People's faith (or civic) communities, families and friends should be stepping up to be the backstop that prevents them from losing hope that modern capitalism will work out for them. But I'm not sure that's really an answer, as it simply presumes that the general public should be sharing their limited resources. It's true that much of the pain that the once-affluent (and now-unemployed) are feeling is actually a benefit to people around the world, who are now less poverty-stricken, because they have the opportunity for the work that was taken from their first/second world peers. Mr. Cowan was correct when he noted that "economic justice is being more widely spread, not eroded." But this, I think, is one of the problems that many people have with concepts of economic justice; poverty simply being more widely spread, rather than eroded. Of course, it may be better to be unemployed in the United States than in Niger, but without ready access to the subsistence forms of living that many third-world citizens have grown up with, the end state may be more severe. While it makes sense that it's more just to have an equal percentage of out-of-work people in the United States as it does in Niger, one wonders what Americans would see in this to recommend it, especially given that the difference in salaries between the two nations is likely to simply be taken as increased profit.

As an aside, Mr. Cowan also advocated "lowering the corporate income tax as a means of encouraging white-collar re-employment." It's a standard free-market solution, but he'd already acknowledged that: "[A]lthough the U.S. economic recovery appears robust, labor markets still show signs of slack. Larger-than-expected numbers of workers have stopped looking for work. Wages are flat even though measured unemployment is falling. Anecdotal evidence does not suggest a rush to hire labor. Something is plaguing labor markets, but we do not know what." Why would lower taxes trigger a rush to hire labor? If there isn't enough demand for goods and services that more labor is needed, lower taxes are simply going to go straight into the pockets of investors in one way or another. And why propose a solution of spending via the tax code, when one doesn't know what the problem is?

Aggregate gains are cold comfort to the person whose individual status is eroded or destroyed. But when individuals benefit without a corresponding decrease in someone else's standards of living, the aggregate benefits by definition. This points to a potential change in how to look at things.

P.S.: There are four letters total in the series, if you'd like to read it. One. Two. Three. Four.

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