Recently I read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. She is a PhD biologist who decided to have a career as a political activist instead of as a scientist. She is a self-proclaimed social democrat. When she was in her late 50s, her editor suggested she take a year off and try to live on the minimum wage or the going wage for that kind of work. Her objective was to feed and house herself on what she could earn working in jobs like waitress, Wal-Mart associate, Merry Maids and dietary assistant in a nursing home. Eventually she failed but not before she had collected enough data to provide some fascinating insights into the invisible world that we know is out there but try to avoid acknowledging. I can sum it up in one short quote: “They go hungry all day so that we can eat cheaply.”
She describes the lives and aspirations of some of the millions of Americans working hard for as little as $7.00 an hour, a wage that leaves them far below the current agreed poverty level. Most of those that she talked to thought that if they just worked hard enough and pleased their bosses, eventually they would succeed and make enough to feed and house themselves and those they were responsible for and eventually get health insurance and perhaps even save a little. For most it was an illusion. The market economy may be an efficient allocator of resources to factors other than labor, but it is not getting the job done for millions of workers. When I summarized Ehrenreich’s story for a conservative friend of mine, his only reaction was to ask why she didn’t double up with someone to share the rent. The question came from so far out in left field that I couldn’t answer.
I remember something from a lecture by John Diebold back in the early sixties when I was a management intern at the Labor Department. His vision of the future was a world where production was handled by computerized machines. For people there remained only two kinds of jobs, computer science and it’s management and financing on the one hand and jobs it wasn’t worth designing a machine for like bed making. It didn’t turn out quite the way he foresaw it, but the results are about the same. The computerized industrial structure is in place as is the corporate management structure to handle production and distribution and the financial sector to service business and itself. On the other side we have the bed makers. To them you can add burger flippers and Walmart Associates rehanging the cheap clothes their customers have left on the dressing room floors. There are plenty of sophisticated machines servicing the economy, but they are located abroad and operated by skilled Chinese and Indian workers. The purpose of a business in a market economy is to make money for its investors, and businesses are doing just that.
We tell young people that if they get a good education and work hard they will succeed and will live the middle class American dream. Unfortunately, there is little incentive for business to pay them wages that will enable them to do this. The good paying jobs aren’t there now and I see no reason to expect that they will be there some time in the future. Meanwhile conservative politicians are moving wherever they can to weaken organized labor and remove the only mechanism other than government capable of representing workers’ interests. As I was mulling this over, a college classmate whom I hadn’t talked to in 55 years called to let me know that I was a “lost alumnus” and to suggest that I attend our 55th reunion.
I haven’t been back to Holy Cross in Worcester since June 13, 1956 when I graduated and was commissioned an ensign in the US Navy. I looked at the class website and found that many of the people I would have liked to see are no longer with us. Among the survivors, one name popped out. Let’s just say Neil. He was the kind of good friend in college, who would take me home with him to Hartford during holiday vacations because I had no place to go. My family moved to Los Angeles after my freshman year and I could only get home at Christmas.
I Googled Neil. He’s retired but still sits on some corporate boards. In May 2010 the value of the stock he held in the company from which he retired as CEO was $209 million. I asked myself how he did it. He was third in his high school class; I was first in mine. I don’t think I saw his name on the graduation honors list at Holy Cross; I was cum laude, just barely. Neil may have been better athletically though neither of us played varsity sports. Certainly Neil was more personable than I was and just seemed to know more about getting along in the adult world.
I think I know why Neil was so financially successful. Neil Jr. was the son of Neil Sr. --- plus a lot of hard work and some luck, but we all have that. Neil Sr. was a lawyer in Hartford. I liked him a lot, but I was too naïve at the time to know that there were many kinds of lawyers and then to ask him what kind he was. On the basis of Neil Jr.’s career, I can only assume that Neil Sr. was a corporate lawyer or at least could tell Neil Jr. what one was and give him a gentle push in that direction. So after the obligatory three years in the navy, Neil went to Harvard Law and then to Sullivan and Cromwell. Talk about your ideal career plan!
I have few regrets about my own career path. After the navy, I travelled all over the world as a Foreign Service officer and was party to some interesting international negotiations. Along the way I learned several languages, became a pretty good economist and later, in a financially secure retirement, was able to indulge my interest in studying and teaching art history and travelling to almost every corner of France and Italy to eat well, drink the local wine and look at art. But it was all by accident. When I entered college and when I finished, I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do with my life. I knew nothing about careers, about what people did at work, except a little about journalism, and I suppose I knew what teachers did and maybe doctors. I did not know anything about economics or finance or banking or corporate structure or how government and politics work. Fortunately, I had all the educational tools that Neil had and lots of encouragement from my parents to read and study and to work hard at whatever I chose to do with my life. And I was born in the smallest birth year in the 20th C. I cannot recall one iota of career counseling at home or at school, except some encouragement from the Jesuits to become a priest.
Maybe the lack of career counseling at home was my grandfather’s fault. He wanted my father to follow him into medicine and refused to pay for anything but medical school. My father tried it, couldn’t stand it and went out and got a job on a newspaper for nothing a week until he proved himself. I’m sure he wanted to avoid doing the same thing to me, so other than encouraging me to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton and arranging scholarships to whichever one I wanted, he never said anything. For better or worse, I rejected the only advice he gave me and let a Jesuit persuade me to go to Holy Cross. I do not recall a single opportunity for career counseling in high school at Regis in Denver or Fordham Prep in the Bronx nor any at all in my four years at Holy Cross. Regrettably, I don’t think I did any better by my own children, although they had the advantage of attending public schools and secular universities, which do provide counseling.
My point in dragging my personal history into a discussion of employment and counseling is that people who have all the advantages I had are going to be o.k. They may not end up with a $200 million nest egg, but they will have interesting careers and finish their days secure and comfortable. But what about those who are less fortunate? We can think right away about the children of single parents who didn’t finish high school and the children of various ghettos* who are scheduled for failure almost from the day they are born. Some will be lucky and be inspired by a teacher or some other mentor, but too many won’t. Unfortunately the way the structure of the job market seems to be developing, it’s not going to be just the trailer park* and ghetto raised children who never find a well paying job. It’s going to be high school and even college graduates. We can invest in raising their skill levels and counsel them until the cows come home on how to seek and develop a career, but if business has no interest in hiring them, it will all be in vain, except that we may have some really well educated and interesting people hanging around in parks wondering where there next meal is coming from. Not everyone can work in health care.
I don’t know what the answers are. Once you get a degree in economics, you can’t buy into protectionism. There is only so much you can do with redistribution through government, and most people are opposed to that except for the programs that benefit them personally. Once in a while you see an in depth TV news story about some small company that decided to give its workers a stake in the business and the reported results are always good, but a move like that requires owners and managers who are willing to look at their businesses long term. The German model may hold some promise. Firms there seem to be committed to their workers, recognizing them as a valuable resource in which they have invested substantial amounts of time and money. Because the workers are well paid, they can be active participants in the domestic economy, which, of course, serves the interests of business. Henry Ford knew this in his own crude way, but we have all forgotten that lesson.
*To say someone lives in a trailer park or a ghetto does not imply criticism. It simply says they are poor but not so poor they have to live in their car or under a bridge.