Sunday, June 24, 2012

Speaking of where the jobs are ...

In the previous post, I asserted:
Tech, being concentrated on intellectual property, doesn't need a huge number of people to do anything: it needs a limited number of people to think of things. To the extent that the tech industry makes tangible goods, those goods are made overseas.

... Tech is a high-profile but totally insufficient source of employment.

I had been thinking of the kind of work performed by software companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Companies like these don't have retail arms, nor do biotech firms like Genentech. Even companies that make hardware, like H-P and Dell, don't tend to have their own stores; those that do, like Dell and Gateway (if either still has any), have a vanishingly small number.

The exception to the foregoing, of course, is Apple, which has a robust, growing and high-profile retail operation. In spite of that high profile, I confess I had completely forgotten about these stores until I ran across the New York Times' lengthy piece discussing some former workers' dissatisfaction with their pay and working conditions.

It's worth reading the whole piece, especially if you've always suspected there was something a little, well, off about the Apple fans of your acquaintance — if, in other words, you've wondered if they didn't qualify as "fanatics" rather than mere "fans". However, if you simply can't be bothered to read it, then at least note this telling statement:

The Internet and advances in computing have created untold millionaires, but most of the jobs created by technology giants are service sector positions — sales employees and customer service representatives, repairmen and delivery drivers — that offer little of Silicon Valley’s riches or glamour.
In other words, these service jobs are no more likely to elevate you into the middle class than working at Walmart or Starbucks. And yet, these jobs constitute the majority of those created by high tech. The high-paying jobs are quite few, by comparison, and totally inadequate to creating a middle class.

The Times article simply reinforces what I said in that last post: this country isn't creating things any more, but instead is providing services. Since altogether too many of those services are not worth a great deal of money, the majority of people aren't making a great deal of money — hence, fewer and fewer people can genuinely afford the kind of life that we have convinced ourselves we require. And my guess is that even if you're frugal, you're still having a tough time making ends meet on the salaries offered by most of the service jobs out there today.

To dig ourselves out of the hole we're in, we must do something either to lower our overall costs (so our limited incomes go further), or to increase our overall income. Neither of these is easy to do, and don't believe any politician who tells you otherwise (I'm looking at you, Mitt Romney).

And while we could think in terms of fixing our services-based economy to work better (again, either by lowering costs or increasing incomes), wouldn't it be nice if we started to restore our self-respect and our national security by restoring our ability to build tangible goods again at the same time? I'm not just talking about making new and modern factories: I'm also talking about not forgetting the hard-won lore and wisdom of the people who spent years observing and understanding what it takes to build things, big and small — tapping these people's brains before they're all dead and we have to relearn what they knew on our own.

What I'm talking about is anathema to free-marketeers because I'm talking about creating and implementing a national strategy, one that places the interests of the entire nation above the interests of shareholders. It's an audacious thought, to defy Adam Smith's invisible hand — and yet, this is what some of the U.S.'s most successful competitors like Germany and China have done. There are probably pitfalls to be avoided along the way (China's in particular is not a model we should emulate), but before you dismiss the idea out of hand, ask yourself this:

Has the last thirty to forty years of free-market sloganeering — in particular, the mad dash to deregulate everything in the name of unfettered capitalism — left this country better off? Has it left you better off?

If you answered "yes" to either of those questions, you're either part of the 1 percent, or you haven't been paying attention. Enron and the toxic-mortgage meltdown are the best-known catastrophes that arose from reckless deregulation in the last decade, but they're merely the tip of a very ugly iceberg. More shoes are waiting to drop (one fell on Jamie Dimon recently), and some of them could be much less abstract than the ones we've seen so far: for instance, I have a bad feeling about the long-term health consequences of hydraulic fracturing, which is not subject to clean-water regulations promulgated by the EPA (thanks to shady dealings between the energy industry, Congress and the George W. Bush administration).

Jobs, deregulation, declining wages, increasing costs: it's such a tangled web we allowed big business to weave. Yet we have to start untangling it, if we're to keep alive at least some of what makes our nation great. And time's a-wasting.

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