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Commentary on less-educated workers and jobs

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Message Robert Richardson



3-24-08 RR Commentary: I read, with a saddened heart, Tony Pugh’s March 23rd article “For less-educated workers, good jobs will be harder to find” (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/226/story/31074.html). It seems clear to me that as the socio-economic situation worsens, the traditional underpinnings of a stable society are being seriously eroded. As in Germany in the 20s and 30s, and in impoverished countries around the world now, the climate is favorable for the rise of religious, political and ethnic extremism. For the United States this has some chilling implications. During the current presidential debates we still see the residue of the old-fashioned conception of representative democracy. That is, the candidates (especially Obama) still propose a philosophy of healing, rapprochement, hands-across-the-aisle cooperation, and, despite Dubya's betrayal of the concept, a time of uniting rather than dividing the nation. It all sounds so encouraging, so evocative of old-fashioned American virtues, so nice and warm. Even McBush promises to run a "clean campaign." But even allowing for the possibility that the candidates are sincere, the prospects are not bright. Immensely powerful, yet largely unperceived, political and economic forces throughout the world move nations and societies in much the same way as tectonic plates are moved on the earth's mantle. Despite the superficial media frenzies about this or that crisis du jour, we generally are unaware of the subterranean forces that daily shape our destinies. And, just as an occasional volcanic eruption reminds us, dramatically, of the forces that are at work beneath our feet, so do occasional economic eruptions, such as the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, remind us of how powerful are the forces of unchecked greed combined with pervasive technology, and how little we perceive, let alone control, them.

    It would be naive to believe that large corporations (such as General Motors and Citibank) once were more benign, but that somehow they have changed and now are less patriotic, in the sense of preserving American jobs, or less compassionate, in the sense of feeling any moral or ethical responsibility for the consequences of their actions on workers or communities. Even a cursory reading of American history over the past one hundred years and fifty years will show an unbroken procession of economic brutality, ranging from children working in New England textile mills, to the savage anti-union Ford and coal miner strikes. Conscience and compassion usually did not play a part in this. But do keep in mind that despite these spasmodic horrors, they were essentially local phenomena, limited in scope and transient in their effects. GM automobiles were American-made because General Motors had no practicable way to do otherwise. How some corporative executives must have looked with wistful greed at the billions of low-wage (or no-wage) people in Asia and the developing world, while they, the executives, were forced by burgeoning unions to pay their workers decent wages. But there simply was no way to tap into that vast reservoir of impoverished and ambitious people. But then came World War II, and the technological genie was let out of the bottle. The world changed irreversibly. The impact of highly technological societies on some primitive people was devastating. Tribes in New Guinea and elsewhere saw this wonderful manufactured material as manifestation of Divine Grace and developed what anthropologists called "cargo cults" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). But the reactions of other people were less mystical and more pragmatic. And so we have the rise of very high technological competence in venues that previously were known primarily for water buffalo, rice fields tended by submissive women, and a wide variety of parasitic diseases. Lest you underestimate the scale of these changes, please note that two of the world's tallest buildings are not in the United States or Europe - they are the Petronas Towers 1 & 2 in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, built in 1998. Malaysia is one of the world's largest exporters of semiconductors, electrical goods, and appliances. It is part of Asia's equivalent of the U.S. Silicon Valley. Two of the Great Truths of the Universe are that intelligence is pervasive and colorblind, and that technology and innovation are indifferent to ethnicity.

    Now that corporations have the technological means for true globalization, they have seized the opportunity with a vengeance. I look back wistfully on the days of my youth, when GM really saw itself as an American corporation. It had to - there were no workable means for it to do otherwise. So the flags were waved, and the corporations held Fourth of July picnics. How sweet! How quaint! Much virtue was made of a situation that in fact could not be changed. But that was then, and this is now. Now I am not demonizing corporations, nor do I wish to sound like an aging socialist. Setting political stupidity and rampant greed aside, I should point out that there are some factors that make all of this both inevitable and irreversible. First, of course, is the indisputable fact that in the asylum in which we live, everybody, everywhere, is competing with everybody else, and always with the goal of personal (and/or national) enrichment and power. So, in an environment of perpetual threat we (read: everybody, everywhere) are forced to a embrace a response of perpetual conflict and confrontation. Also, with unchecked population growth, there simply are too many people competing for dwindling resources and finite space. And, of course, generating increasingly huge amounts of chemical, industrial, personal and biological waste. The prospects are quite grim.

    But it is important to understand what really is meant by industrial and financial globalization. GM and Citibank, although nominally US corporations, really do not see themselves in that way. For some time now, especially since the advent of instant electronic communication, these entities have seen themselves as international corporations with loyalties only to themselves But what do we mean by "to themselves?" To the stockholders? That is, to the millions of small-to-middling stockholders whose interests the directors so sanctimoniously proclaim? Nonsense. The stockholders of interest only are the small number of major players, investment funds, politicians, etc., who really are the shakers and movers, the hearts and souls of these corporations. If you still doubt this, and believe in the Tooth Fairy, please review the current horrific sub-prime debacle, the sly bailout that Bush handed to the banks (without a dime of relief to those being foreclosed) and the appalling and unprecedented witch hunt to bring down Eliot Spitzer, who had been blowing the whistle on the banks and mortgage lenders.. The rest is all window dressing to mask the self-interest that drives them, although the incorrigibly optimistic in the streets demonstrate and carry banners proclaiming this or that ineffectual cause.

   At a recent seminar given by an Indian mechanical engineer, a very articulate person of considerable professional expertise, a colleague of mine asked about a question on the immigration (not the corporate) application. Did the application ask if the candidate would accept a position at wages lower than an American counterpart would be offered? There was an uncomfortable pause, and the young engineer answered "yes." It seems clear to me that the only hope for the survival of what we used to call "the American way of life" lies in two areas, one of which is merely difficult, and the other virtually impossible: The merely difficult partial solution mandates the great improvement of American education at all levels, for without nationwide education that is competitive in breadth and quality, we shall be condemned to occupy the lower rungs of the worldwide economic ladder. In this critical endeavor the Bush administration and the Republican congress have been perversely resistant to what seem to be obvious approaches to redressing the issue. But why, one might ask, do not the huge and powerful American corporations that are the financial backbone of this administration demand an effective and competitive educational system? Because they really don't want it. Because, being truly international with loyalty only to their own profit and power, they prefer well-educated, low-wage Southeast Asian workers to well-educated, high-wage American workers. In short, there is a powerful economic disincentive for improving American higher education: there is no profit in it.

    The second partial solution requires that the economic and political rulers of America stop facilitating the competitiveness of foreign nations and corporations by selling off America’s industrial and military technology and infrastructure. The impossibility of this second partial solution flows from the disincentives of the first. From the perspective of the global corporations, there is no advantage in it, because they have the insanely short-sighted idea that it really doesn't matter where we purchase our military and industrial products, because they (the corporate powers) always can cut a deal with their foreign counterparts and come up with a profit. The poisoned thorn in that idea is that their confidence that they always will prevail is illusory; the future almost certainly will not reprise the easy successes of the past. Gunboat diplomacy is a failed anachronism, and when someone occasionally expropriates an oil company's refineries or nationalizes someone's industrial facilities (read: Nicaragua, for example), we really cannot send in a detachment of marines to cow the local strong man. God knows Iraq should be a cautionary tale, as were Somalia and Mogadishu, but doubts still remain that many in this administration have learned the lesson.

   Also, the lessons of history are instructive, although generally ignored. Recall, please, that as Hitler and the Nazis were rising, many German industrialists supported them, as did some of the generals. The industrialists thought that Hitler would shield them from the Communists, and the generals thought that he might be useful because he promised to restore the military, and although crude, he easily could be controlled. Wrong on both counts, of course, and thirty million people died because of that grievous miscalculation. We are wrong once again, and this time the cost is yet to be determined. And, saddest of all, the persons to whom we have entrusted the health and security of our nation, both Democrats and Republican, have betrayed us. The Republicans have been truer to their basic principles of untrammeled greed unmitigated by any significant constraints of conscience, and the Democrats have, typically, been contentious and profoundly ineffective. As then, so now. So it seems that if you want the job done with ruthless focus and effectiveness, regardless of destructive long-term consequences, vote Republican. If you want a reasonable and honorable solution, emigrate to another planet.

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Bob Richardson is a retired electrical engineer and information specialist. He lives in New England.
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