Little Practical Difference
Skim, or read, Livia Gershon's incisive Salon article, "Tom Friedman's bizarre fantasy; Here's who he needs to meet," and you will find no reference to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, "neo-liberalism," or President Obama. But you will find
“There is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation,” Friedman writes. “Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever.”
It’s a subtle sleight of-hand that draws on things we all know — lots of decent working-class jobs have left the country or been automated out of existence. The twist is that he acts like this is true of all low- to middle-skilled jobs. Factories are increasingly automated, iPhones are made in China, a table-side console could replace waiters, and, voilà, the only work remaining in the country is being a super-innovative techie of some sort.
This is not an oversight. Friedman doesn’t ignore low-wage jobs just because they’re beneath his notice. Pretending that they simply don’t exist is the product of a worldview that treats corporate decisions, and government support for corporate needs, as a fact of nature: Decent jobs that demand little formal training haven’t been transformed into bad jobs by the erosion of the minimum wage, the decline of unions and the upward redistribution of companies’ budgets. They’ve simply disappeared in a puff of technology.
Wednesday's speech by President Obama at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington contained a few nods to liberal populism which, though perhaps sincere, were meant to mollify those of us concerned about the decline of socio-economic mobility and growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. The Chief Executive stated
For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.
I termed that the speech's "most meaningful portion," made even more eloquent when Obama continued
And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.) The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.
We shouldn't fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963 the economy's changed.
It was at first and even second glance an impressively rare synopsis of the economic straitjacket in which the nation finds itself. The President noted "the twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class, reduced the bargaining power of American workers."
While not directly addressing the March, President Obama, or New Democrats, Gershon writes of Friedman's analysis
Pretending that they (low-wage jobs) simply don’t exist is the product of a worldview that treats corporate decisions, and government support for corporate needs, as a fact of nature: Decent jobs that demand little formal training haven’t been transformed into bad jobs by the erosion of the minimum wage, the decline of unions and the upward redistribution of companies’ budgets. They’ve simply disappeared in a puff of technology.
But In most respects, Friedman's disturbing worldview is strikingly similar to that of Obama. The NYT columnist fails to acknowledge "factories are increasingly automated, iPhones are made in China, a table-side console could replace waiters, and, voilà, the only work remaining in the country is being a super-innovatie techie of some sort." He implies low-wage jobs have "disappeared in a whiff of technology." Similarly, President Obama refers to forces which "have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class," jobs magically disappeared into thin air. He mentions "global competition" uncritically while Friedman asserts the middle-class job often "requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world."
Neither man is particularly troubled by the trade imbalances which characterize globalism. Obama does concede "working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate," but only while "corporate profits soar." This is hardly a concession, given that- in and of itself- an increase in corporate profits is beneficial to society. But nowhere does he (or Friedman) suggest that those profits may be soaring on the backs of those workers, whose pay and benefits companies have tamped down to maximize profits.
Admittedly, the President gave a shout out to the importance of a minimum wage increase, observing
Entrenched interests -- those who benefit from an unjust status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal, marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools -- that all these things violated sound economic principles.
This was, however, pretty weak tea, and there is little indication, despite frequent (such as here, here and here) criticism,that even Friedman would oppose an increase in the minimum wage. But he fails to understand, Gershon finds, "the idea that low wages aren't the natural product of a (mythical) free market but of business and government decisions."
With his superior intellect and experience as a community organizer, Barack Obama presumably recognizes the controlling impact of business and government decisions upon the ever-growing inequality in American society. But he fails to acknowledge the impact of the decline of unionization, even eschewing the term "union" for the less controversial "workers." Nor does he cite cite the "upward redistribution of companies' budgets" and, like Friedman, evinces little discomfort with the export of American jobs. With a worldview mired in fantasy, Tom Friedman deserves considerable criticism, but not while the President of the United States is seemingly immune.