The hour was early, the morning was grey, and the new year was only days old. It was not a time when one’s powers of concentration are especially keen. But when I heard, or thought I heard, a radio announcer mumble something about job figures for December, I cringed out of sympathy for the poor fellow. If I had heard correctly, and I wasn’t sure I had, surely the announcer had made an awful mistake. He had just stated, on live radio, that the nation’s economy had created only 1,000 jobs in December. A thousand jobs? Impossible!
He or his writer obviously had misplaced at least one zero, maybe two. Or maybe I simply had misheard him, or maybe he was talking about job creation in New Jersey, where I live. Still, 1,000 jobs didn’t sound right, even for a small state like mine.
As it turned out, I had heard correctly. The United States of America, home of the greatest economy in human history, in fact had created only 1,000 jobs in December. The experts had been anticipating more than 100,000 new jobs.
Wall Street, it seems unnecessary to add, barely shrugged. There’s a bull market underway in lower Manhattan. Nobody wanted to call off the party just because the richest country in the world managed to create only 1,000 jobs in a month.
Then again, job creation is a complicated business these days, as any number of highly skilled unemployed people can attest. American companies may not be creating jobs here at home, but they are certainly doing so abroad. That’s an old story, of course, but recent years have brought a new twist to a depressing tale entitled The Death of the Great American Job. In the early 1980’s, American companies successfully moved thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs overseas. American factory workers were told that they could no longer compete with the exploitable masses in the developing world. Get some education, workers were told, and all will be well. Go to a community college! Learn a skill for the great new information age!
Millions did just that. And now thousands are out of work as the nation’s corporations move white-collar, information-age jobs to India, Ireland and other countries where labor costs are lower than here at home. There are no comforting words for these workers, no pats on the back and promises of a brighter future through better education. Instead they are dismissed as innocent but unavoidable sacrifices offered to appease the secular gods of free trade.
What can you do? That is the lament of free-trade cheerleaders, nearly all of whom are ensconced in jobs that won’t be moving to the Pacific Rim any time soon. One nationally known commentator lashed out at New York’s Senator Charles Schumer and the economist Paul Craig Roberts for writing an essay expressing doubts about free trade dogma. The only reason people like Senator Schumer were having second thoughts about free trade, the commentator said, is that the new losers happen to be highly educated professionalsthe kind of people U.S. senators might actually know. He suggested that this was a bad reason to doubt free trade dogma.
I think it’s a darn good reason. In fact, I wish more politicians and policymakers came face to face with the consequences of the laws they pass and the policies they embrace. I wish more leadersand commentatorswere exposed to the often chilly winds of free trade. They often denounce protectionism, but they operate in a world well protected from free tradeunless you can imagine a day when Congress is outsourced to Indonesia and media companies hire pundits from Central America to replace, say, CNN’s Capital Gang.
It surely is imperative, and highly moral, to encourage development in poor countries. Free trade, it is said, can help achieve that laudable goal. But it is also fair to wonder if free trade dogma is being used for less than altruistic purposes. You don’t have to be a mad conspiracy theorist to suggest that corporate America is using free trade to intimidate an American work force it considers to be too expensive, too demanding and too independent. The history of unregulated capitalism, it must be said, suggests such possibilities. More than 100 years ago, capitalists pitted immigrants against native-born workers to drive down wages and suppress union agitation. Today, in a supposedly more civil economy, multinational corporations use the specter of free trade to keep American workers in line. Is that such an outlandish proposition? I don’t think so.
Only one presidential candidate, Richard Gephardt, dares to quibble with free-trade orthodoxy. Everybody else has signed on, more or less, to the notion that American workers must learn to compete with dollar-a-day workers in the third world. I find that notion morally repugnant and profoundly un-American.
A century-and-a-half ago, some of the champions of Victorian-era free trade said that nothing could be done to prevent mass starvation in Ireland, even though the country was overflowing with food. But those crops, you see, were designated for export, and exported they were. A million people died.
Today, Americans who played by the rules are losing their jobs, because corporate America can make bigger profits off the backs of the exploitable poor elsewhere.
Those who dare question this arrangement can expect only condemnation.