This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 6, 2010 8:46 AM. The previous post in this blog was Sold, American. The next post in this blog is Who's your dud, cont'd. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day 2010

There have been 128 previous Labor Days in our country, and surely some of them were bleaker for American workers than this one. But we must say that this year, the nation's workforce looks as beat up as it has ever been in our boomer lifetime. The unions are fading -- except for the government employees' unions, and even they have to be looking over their shoulders these days. It's going to take a while, but their day of reckoning is also coming.

National unemployment officially stands at 9.6%, which is a bad enough number, but then one realizes that those statistics have been kept in a dishonest way for many years. The real number of people out of work is higher, much higher, than that. And some people are realizing that they aren't going to be able to collect unemployment forever. What's next for many of them is pure welfare.

What can be done? It's hard to see any easy way out. We've pretty much stopped manufacturing in the United States. "Protectionism" is out, and global trade is in. With the occasional exception of plants like the Intel installation out on Portland's far west side, there are few factory jobs left in America. Countries whose residents are far, far worse off than American workers do all the making of goods any more, and multinational corporations go where the labor is cheaper to make their profits. Making profits is what they are set up to do.

Both political parties have been perfectly willing to play along with this. Nobody made more money for multinational corporations than Bill Clinton, and so it's hard to lay the current problems solely at Republican feet. Reagan was a union breaker, but Clinton accelerated a domestic job loss that's hurt labor much worse. Technology provided a boom, but the whole point of a lot of technology is to automate tasks previously performed by unions. What's good for Silicon Valley is bad for Detroit.

Without workers, there are few consumers. Without a large army of optimistic consumers, there won't be an economic recovery.

Perhaps what we need is a new type of certification -- sort of like the "LEED" craze that the real estate sharpies have developed to market to the greens -- that gauges how much the proceeds of particular goods benefit workers in our own country as compared to stockholders, overpaid executives, and workers in other lands. Sort of what the union label used to mean. The hippies here in Portland have their "buy local" thing going, and that's good as far as it goes, but we'd like to see a similar campaign in which "local" is the United States, and somebody trustworthy (not the corporate marketers) does some hard analysis of which products are more "local" than others when it comes to jobs.

Many of us would likely be willing to pay a premium at the store to do a small part to bring American labor back to its feet. Paying the money to the government in hopes that it's going to help just isn't too appealing as the darkness stubbornly lingers.

Comments (23)

There are going to be tons of different ways this economy will hurt us, but one I've noticed is with the musicians and artists. It actually takes courage to venture out from the safer careers and try something that's a long shot, but there was always a safety net of mundane, mind-numbing menial jobs you could fall back on if things went bad. Those jobs are no longer there. I heard some employees at a coffee shop fighting over hours, and it was pretty grim.

So the inclination will be to play it safe. Don't dare to do anything too different. Of course, the beauty for those of us who are already out there, is we have the music or art to keep us sane, and the desperation to do some of our best work.
I am in a pure state right now: If I want to eat, I have to write something funny. It's very basic. It's like venturing out of the cave to hunt. It's not boring, but being a struggling artist or musician back in the day was a lot more fun.

This is not to say there is no artistic outlet in regular jobs. I was watching some workers pour concrete and there was definitely some personal expression going on. These were not cogs in a machine. They were artists and it was fun to see.

To the workers of America.

There are a bunch of websites that feature American products. One has to take some of them with a grain of salt. I was looking for American made clothing and used such a site a few years ago. I purchased Carhartt blue jeans and t-shirts. At first they were made in the USA and as time went by little by little the items were marked fabric made in the USA assembled in some foreign country. Now even their t shirts are totally made off shore. It is really hard to find domestic made clothing and shoes at a reasonable price levels anymore.

Good thoughts. If you want a good book that's got an optimistic take on all this that isn't all Pollyanna, try Jeff Rubin's book "Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot smaller: Oil and the end of globalization"


Shorter Jeff Rubin: Offshoring jobs is an artifact of labor being a big part of a product's cost. When the cost of shipping goods exceeds the labor costs, the goods will be made as close as possible to the markets.

Lots to chew over in the book - like, if we're busted, whether we'll be buying much of anything - but at least you don't want to open a vein when you're done.

You want optimism? I can't help hoping that somehow the weakening of America is going to lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. Israel must realize that America can no longer afford wars like Iraq - now seen as costing 3 trillion. Maybe this is the time for a settlement - wait, let me rephrase that - a peace settlement. One can dream.

In general, optimism in bad times is the way to go. You can become emotionally paralyzed if you remain worried and down.
The key is not to dwell on how good you had it before, but just look at the situation you're in and ask, "Would you take this? Would you start from this point if you were dead and they just beamed you down into this life?" I think most people would say, "Hell, yes."

Bill, there are lots of "artists" out there in the so called trades. The folks who still do HVAC work and work sheet metal, wood workers, plumbers, electricians, painters and general contractors, who take care of the rest of us when the pipes back up, the roof leaks, or the window breaks. And let's remember the mechanics who fuss with our funny automobiles to keep them running. A good many of these people have to be smart, creative, problem solvers to succeed in their chosen professions, and the so called college grads do not always appreciate or value these skilled jobs.
I believe we need to de-emphasize the liberal arts "would you like fries with that?" degree as the end all be all of education and get people back working in the trades of the 21st century.
Today, I salute the folks who do the jobs the rest of us cannot or will not do.

What we need is a News Media with enough spine to inform consumers of when a Union (public or private) has gone to the extreme and allow us to use our dollars and/or vote in deciding whose effort to support.

Don't forget Oregon's own clothing line, Oregon Prison Blues. "Made on the inside, to be worn on the outside!"

Sorry this is so long -- struck a nerve....

Hooray to the folks out there trying to make a living in the trades. It's a tougher road than any time I can remember. As a culture, we have so devalued the "blue-collar" trades and eliminated the opportunities for people who want to work with their hands. People who at the end of the day, want to point to something tangible and physical and to say, "I made that". At the risk of sounding like a Chevy commercial, those are the folks who built this country. My hat's off to all those machinists, welders, woodworkers, mechanics & plumbing people out there still making a living with their hands and their brains. It ain't as easy as it used to be.

A major aspect of the decline in manufacturing in the US is the loss of support for skilled workers in the trades. With the collapse of unions, vocational education and apprenticeship programs have become nearly non-existent. In order to compete with global just-in-time manufacturing against countries with labor costs a fraction of a US living wage, and subsidized cheap global shipping, jobs that used to require well-rounded trades-people with mastery of their field have been replaced by specialized, single-function "machine operator", assembler and laborer positions at much lower wages. The educational opportunities for workers to learn an entire trade have nearly dried up. A job in the trades now, looks a bit more like skilled labor than skilled craft. People in the trades are just as smart, motivated and as talented as ever, but the support structure has simply evaporated.

The result being that we've lost many of our skilled, journeyman-level (see, even the term is outdated) workers. Much of the skill and knowledge that fueled the industrial expansion of the last century has retired and hasn't been replaced. And over the last 40 years, as we've pushed to channel our kids into white-collar "knowledge worker" careers and to look down on anyone who works with their hands, so much of that skill, knowledge and craft just quietly faded away.

I saw this myself -- I was one of those "journey-person" level workers. I left my trade 15 years ago to work in high tech. The day I walked out the door for the last time, I took 20+ years of experience with me, and my company was unable to find a qualified replacement. Nothing special about me, it's just that they'd quit teaching the skills I had. Over the course of my career, I saw the same thing happen over and over, every time some grey-haired master craftsperson closed their toolbox for the last time for a full-time fishing career, they'd be replaced by a lower paid worker with a narrow range of skills tuned to their particular daily tasks, or that portion of the business would just be let go.

We built this country on tangible things -- we made the best stuff in the world. (it hasn't necessarily been a good thing: pollution, resource depletion, over consumtion, imperialism -- a different discussion though.) But, ultimately, we produced our way out of our own market: while we refuse to work cheap, we insist the stuff we buy is. The current thinking that we'll borrow our way back into prosperity is simply foolish. When we lost our ability to make stuff, we lost our right to the economy that it created.

portland native: . . .I believe we need to de-emphasize the liberal arts "would you like fries with that?" degree as the end all be all of education and get people back working in the trades of the 21st century. .

I too respect all who do the good work in the trades.

However, I have lamented that the liberal arts has been downplayed in our society to the point where people were discouraged from a liberal arts education.

I believe that holistic views are needed in our world. The focus on technology without a humanistic aspect to it is causing many problems. The focus on the economy and trumping human considerations also causing much pain to many. I may be wrong but I have thought that it is this lack of a liberal arts view that is causing our world to think less of most human concerns. I am thankful for my education as I believe it has taught me as best as possible even in these dire times the value of the art of living and quality of life matters. Much can be taken from a person as far as material goods but one still can have a foundation of knowing of good writing, and having been taught other values in order to better deal with these times. What would this world be like without music for example?

I suspect we would all be better off in this world if a liberal arts education had been the core value of leaders. Certainly, those in Wall Street and Congress are on another path. They all need to take a sabbatical and go back for a liberal arts eduction. At the very least, they need the sabbatical to join the rest of the people not in "their special club".

This is my sense of things, perhaps someone else has stats and/or information on the direction of our education and the liberal arts colleges of today.

Clinton didn't exactly do the foreign trade thing all by himself. He had a lot of help from Congress and for one of his terms, it was ruled by the Repugnicants.

Manufacturing is kind of a gimme as gone. But what's killing this country now is the infamous H1B visa which is built on more lies Richard Nixon's cabinet ever told. There are out of work people in the fields where H1B visas are being given away so that corporations can get cheap and usually not that skilled foreign labor. Those American professionals who work along side the unskilled ones must train them and pick up their slack. Meanwhile, most of them want to go back home and so we are in fact training foreign nationals to help their nation's compete with us in the technology sector. And now I understand that H1Bs are not just going to tech sector jobs but also to medical sector jobs. Only many of those workers cannot even pass US licensing exams.

As for the trades, in a way I don't have a lot of sympathy because of the years of discrimination against women and minorities.

As for liberal arts, there are some interesting things going on. My alma mater now offers a dual degree programs (5 years not 4 so the mandatory liberal arts distribution requirements get met) with an engineering degrees from CalTech, Dartmouth, or UMass. Of course due to the H1B visa nonsense, I am not sure I would tell any American to get an engineering degree (unless you were dualing it a hard science like physcis).

Some wise college president once said at a commencement, I believe, that:

Some people think the purpose of a university education is to get a better job, or lead a more interesting life. But it's not. The purpose of a good education is to be able to tell when another person is speaking rot.

I wish I knew who it was that said that. I think it was an English university.

Jack, I don't dispute your general thesis, but you write: "Reagan was a union breaker, but Clinton accelerated a domestic job loss that's hurt labor much worse." In fact, there was spectacular job growth during the Clinton years — and even manufacturing grew, though modestly. U.S. manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 at 19.4 million. By the end of the Reagan Administration that number had shrunk by 1.5 million. And manufacturing jobs continued to slide, more or less steadily, to 16.7 million by the time Clinton took office. That slide was arrested during the Clinton years: When he left office, 17.2 million Americans were employed in the manufacturing sector. (And the value of the good produced in the manufacturing sector rose, in constant dollars, by more than 50 percent in the period.)

Numbers here: ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/suppl/empsit.ceseeb1.txt

I too have lamented about the wonderful skills and craftsmanship that have been lost. Working with hands is so basic and a good thing.

What I was attempting to bring out is that if we had leaders who were taught to think things through and the result and impact of their decisions, we might have had a different story here. If they were taught respect for human values, we would have a different story here. Instead we have career politicians. If they even cared, other than their campaign funds and working for the corporations, but alas this is what we got.
I remember when NAFTA happened, this and the ramifications of what it meant sickened many of us. I wondered what happened to our strong unions.

Clinton = NAFTA and WTO. Both bad moves for workers, great only for the Phil Knights.

A nobel idea but experience says to not get overly optimistic.

New cars are labelled with the percentage of US/Canadian content (15(?) years now), and we know which car companies are US owned and operated (shareholders totally and bondholders mostly wiped out in two of three cases, Ford's stock price still lower than than mid-1990's so no real return to capital there, it's all gone to the unions).

Yet I look up and down the street and I see hardly an American car. As someone who has always, always bought American (Ford, Dodge, Chevy or Jeep) I can't help but to notice how the Progressives in my neck of the woods talk one sort of game and live quite another.

It is frustrating enough when there aren’t many products Made in USA, but seeing Frozen Vegetables in a store here with a stamp: Product of China just went over the top for me.

Especially when those who promoted the UGB here “density in order to save farmland” carry on about that good plan. That agenda if continued will mean scarce garden space for most, instead a community garden plot to have to pay for each year and if available. I also noticed our farmlands that used to grow food are much occupied by growing street trees for planner’s urban agenda. Sorry, but I am not a devotee of this plan.

Meanwhile food prices going up and up and shipping costs from China? Not to mention safety issues. This is crazy making.

But then what isn’t crazy making these chaotic days? This fits right in.

I'm one who builds things, and have for 30 years. I built my own home which I expect will be here well over one hundred years from now because of how I did it.

When I began in 1980 the trades were predominantly white men with no college. What I've seen over these 30 years is a deterioration of skills and that willingness to do things in a fashion that reflects skilled craftsmanship. I virtually had to stand over every trade and make certain they did not botch the job.

I think this speaks to many of the recognized problems in our society we all discuss frequently.

What I see missing from this conversation was a recognition that our standard of living got out ahead of the bell curve and we are regressing to the mean, just as those developing nations are making their way upward. As many are now finding real estate does not always go up, the same can be said for economic progress and living standards.

It seems the combination of obligations within our larger corporations (manufacturing base) such as retirement, and our labor laws and regulations, drove investment offshore and we are reaping what we have sown (see Ross Perot). You can blame anyone or all from politicians to unions to lawyers,... and both parties, but it remains that we will pay as a consequence, while those countries in which their economic development ascends with their cheap labor, low regulations and Govt. interference, less onerous tort laws, etc... and subsidized investments move upward.

Investment always seeks the safest and highest return with the lowest regulation and risk.

This is going to be a very difficult adjustment for many and those jobs dependent on the expendable surpluses of the higher wage earners will not find patrons as in the past.

What I see coming is more unemployment that makes more foreclosures a certainty feeding another cycle of self perpetuating declines in GDP and govt revenue, which will in turn feed upon itself as they divest the employment rolls while cutting expected services, and those people then compete with the already unemployed. This will go on for some years.

The FED won't be able to find a way to stimulate consumption to reinvigorate confidence and people simply won't spend so demand and therefore jobs won't be created. It seems that policy now rules rather than law so that business will not invest until they know just what those regulations are, or they will go elsewhere.

If the FED can't do it by redistributing $ 2 trillion over two years in three attempts, what is the number? It won't matter and they can't stop what is coming. I've no idea on what they plan as far as our US govt retirement obligations... That is another nail in our collective coffin.

Not a pretty picture, but the warning signs have been with us for years.

My father grew up in London with bombs raining down on his elementary school in the Battle of Britain. He left school at age 14 to become an apprentice. He became a member of the royal guild of carpenters, cutting his teeth working on the Royal Albert Hall and the Museum of London. He emigrated to Virginia in 1958 amidst a horrible
post-war economy. His 12 years of training got him a job teaching wood shop in a high school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He flourished combining his teaching job with a healthy furniture building sidelight. He passed on his skills, genetically and holistically to my younger brother. I became the first person in my family to go to college and then law school. My brother is in Seattle building furniture and cabinets. Customers ask for him by name, his work has been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. He can afford his rent, just. His days are filled with conception, measurements, material acquisition, hard labor and satisfaction. Sometimes, I sit at my desk and ponder why society values what I do about 800% more than what he does. Then I realize that he has no credit card, owns no real estate, has no interest in politics, fashion, reality shows, sports or religion. Somehow, it all makes sad sense.

Grady - I'd buy American cars if they were designed and built as well as Japanese cars. Frankly, American style, amenities, and overall performance (mileage and raw power) just don't get it. My first car was a brand new '72 Dodge Challenger (318 with torqueflight and positraction). It was fairly fast off the line and it was easy to squeal the tires but the brakes sucked, acceleration suffered at high speeds, and it wasn't that stable in high winds at highway speeds or at very high speeds. Being a V8, it was a gas guzzler for its overall weight. I've rented Fords and Chryslers in recent years and they suck. The Ford had less than 10K miles and had to be hauled off as the engine failed. The PT Cruiser was a piece of junk and uncomfortable as all get out and the Neon was a joke. I was in a "full sized" Chevy rental that was a total pain to enter and exit.

There are two things that need to be said here, though this is not original.

1. A "Buy American Program" will not work to restore manufacturing jobs to the U.s. The loss of the manufacturing base is a natural evolution of a post industrial economy. What is needed is for those countries with whom we have a trade deficit to use their dollars accumulated from their trade surplus to spend in the U.S. We should demand that China, India and Japan repatriate their dollar balances with purchases of American goods. This is in their best interest also, if your customer is not economically strong it will not be a good customer.

2. The second thing that must happen is the restoration of economic growth for the middle class. Those of us who rail against the long term trend towards the distribution of income at the highest end are accused of "hating the rich". We don't hate the rich, our goal is to become them. The issue is that without growing real income in the middle the economy will lack the purchasing power to drive growth. For 50 years economic and tax policy has been to concentrate wealth at the upper end, and now that the middle class has run out of debt capacity, its spending is too low to grow the economy. Tax and Economic Policy that provides for growth of real income for middle American must take place for economic growth to restart.

Note: Do not be optimistic. After the election tax policy which continues the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, cuts or eliminates the estate tax, lower corporate taxes and reduces tax enforcement against upper income tax cheats will be the nation's policy.

mark - I work for one of those larger corporations and let me tell you that very few of them provide much for retirement as in pensions and health care. Daimler Trucks still takes care of its long term employees but it's rarer than rare. What we are lucky to get is a bit of match in corporate stock for our 401K contributions and possibly some annual profit sharing that's a tiny fraction of our salaries. I cannot even fully buy health coverage in a group plan when I retire. My employer used to enable that. No more and not for over a decade.

I see this picture a bit differently than you do. I blame banks and financial institutions for a lot of the excesses. As a young adult, I could not get credit. Certainly no one gave college students credit cards when I was in college. And once I had my first adult job, it took me a long time to qualify for credit cards and I had to work my way from department store cards to bank cards. I had to put 20% down on my first house.

But then financial institutions quit being conservative. A 20 something could get a house in Irvington with a mortgage where payments were all interest and it still wasn't enough to cover things for a couple of years. There were basically no downs on loans like that.

I used to get showered with credit card offers. For awhile I had my phone listed to my dog's name (a play on her AKC name). She got credit card offers (but I told her that until she could fill out the form and sign it, she was not getting a card.... ;-) ).

And while many individuals were spending well beyond their means, some of us had been taught not to do that. But the banks were just enablers to all the madness.

As for the lack of pride in workmanship, I will save my rant on that since I am pretty sure Jack would pull a post like that. But suffice it to say, it's white men as well as everyone else the way I see it. It's all about entitlement and not working to earn it.

LucsAdvo, I always do the best I can buying an American car, period, even when the quality issues weren't in the rear view mirror as they mostly are today. I've had no major complaints about my last three vehicles ('97 Ford Taurus, '07 Dodge Caravan and '06 Jeep Liberty) and paid less for each than what I would have paid for, let's say, the equivalent Toyota, Honda or Nissan. From what I've heard, the PT Cruiser is a car (toy) to be avoided. But I think it wouldn't take a whole lot of looking to find an all American car that will do well for you regardless of your needs.

Mark's comments do a good job of laying out parameters of the structural hole we've gotten ourselves into and why we shouldn't expect any political, fiscal, monetary or tax reform bag of tricks will pull us out. Time and structural change are needed while we settle back into a realistic, less is where we need to restart from mode. While unemployment will remain high, my guess is that until then is we will be more or less in the stagnant/slow growth mode, rather than in a continuous economic (in terms of GDP) decline.

Gotcher JOBS! riii-cher:

The Obama administration plans to offer Saudi Arabia “the largest U.S. arms deal ever,” which will include $60 billion in advanced aircraft such as jets and helicopters. The administration, which must get approval of the deal from Congress, says doing so may create as many as 75,000 U.S.-based jobs.

Well, sure, the trade is somewhat off-kilter where we send the Saudi Royal Family advanced aircraft to protect the Palace(s), and Saudi Arabia sends us airplane hijackers. But, hey, it's a living ... for a soulless laborer.

Of course, "The Largest Arms 'Deal' EVER" and "75,000 U.S. JOBS" is NOT news enough for TV to tell the public.

After all, even-handed unbiased TV at all costs avoids tipping the political balance by gilding a feather in Obama's cap. ... or is the war-selling news a tribute to the rightwing fascists? Sheesh, it's so hard to tell the difference these days between goosee and the gooser ....


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