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Truthout: Are American Workers Just Getting What They Deserve?

April 5, 2011- If you don’t think American workers are being inexorably scr*wed by our governing establishment’s embrace of “free” trade, stop reading right here.  If you do, I have a dark question for you, one that may have occurred to you in private already:

Did we bring this whole mess on ourselves?

That is the gauntlet thrown down recently by, among others, one Ray Buurmsa, a columnist for the Holland Sentinel in Michigan.  He writes (original here):

So you’re an American employee. Maybe you make car parts. Maybe you’re an engineer or designer.

Maybe you’re an accountant, store clerk or tradesman. Whatever you do, you’re probably stupid or lazy. Yes, I wrote it, and I mean it. You are either stupid or lazy. Maybe both.

Now, I’m not referring to your work ethic or job performance. No, most of you are competent and devoted to your profession or vocation. I’m addressing the way you view economics and employment. I’m challenging your gumption to advocate for yourself and your fellow Americans. Here’s what I mean.

Remember the Reagan standard? Are you better off today than you were a decade ago? Two decades? Three? Unless you make more than $380,000 a year, the answer is no. In fact, your standard of living over the last quarter century has actually decreased while millionaires have added 30 percent to their net wealth. Why? Two reasons.

First, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs went overseas while the politicians you elected did nothing to stop them. Yet you continue to elect leaders who offer nothing but tax cuts, as if that would stem the flow of disappearing jobs.

Did you demand your leaders address America’s trade imbalance or continuous outsourcing of jobs? Did you demand your leaders require foreign countries to buy a dollar’s worth of American goods for every dollar of goods they sell here?

No and no. You didn’t bother. You simply crossed your fingers and prayed, “I hope my job’s not next.” You made concessions to your employer and hoped that would stem the exodus of jobs, or at least yours. How’d that work for you?

Not exactly polite or patriotic, is it?Feel-good journalism this is not.

But then again, without self-criticism, we can all just ride to hell in a handbasketwhile smiling all the way.  Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t tell Americans, “Way to go, boys. You’ve done great. Just keep at it and everything will be fine.”  They told us when we were wrong.   Sometimes things won’t be fine.  And yes, sometimes the mess is our fault.

So—can ordinary American workers be blamed for their economic plight?

To some extent, they can, simply because yes, they did vote for the clowns who have made the mess we’re in.  (Or didn’t vote at all, which isn’t much better.) But there are important caveats to this fact.

For a start, let’s remember the fact that, in the words of that great Los Angeles philosopher, private eye Phillip Marlowe, “Voters elect, but party machines nominate.” So have we had real political choices, or just two slightly-different dishes (from the same kitchen!) on a steam table of political school lunch food?

And that’s leaving aside, of course, any number of value issues concerning the integrity of elections or the fact that the courts have removed any number of key decisions from electoral control.

Could we have “demanded,” as was suggested above, that things be otherwise? Perhaps. But the problem is that for millions of ordinary people to “demand” something, this takes leadership.  An elite. The “e” word.  A million people marching for civil rights on the Mall in Washington in 1963 was an inspiring sight, but those people didn’t just materialize. They were organized to be there, a process that went back decades and required a small number of talented individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Without leadership, no mass movement.

Here’s where I get pessimistic, because the hard fact is that most of the people capable of exerting leadership in our society have been bought.  For a start, there is the blunt fact that trade policy, and economics more generally, is both complex and relevant to making money.  So most people who are able to master it are able to hoist themselves into the top 10-15% of population whose interests on trade issues diverge from everyone else’s. As a result, American society is, to a significant degree, self-decapitating with respect to all economic problems where the interests of the mass and the elite diverge.



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