The Book Club

Why American Workers Should Get Help

Dear Tyler:

Not to worry—we can find plenty of matters on which we disagree.

Let’s start with the most obvious. At the end of Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich calls for raising the level of unemployment benefits and adopting a system of national health care. You don’t address these directly, but I assume that you would oppose them on the same grounds you oppose job retraining programs: worries about political favoritism and bureaucracy. I agree with Ehrenreich and not with you. Let’s accept your first two points: Competition has become global and information technology has been revolutionized. Because of these developments, many American workers will lose their jobs. Why should they lose their health care as well? Under exactly these kinds of conditions, shouldn’t we, as a society, invest collective resources in preventing both the disruptions and the degradations that intensified competition brings in its wake? You say that we ought to be realistic. I agree. The realist in me says that if we can spot problems in advance and reduce their severity, we should.

There are moral as well as practical reasons why we should as a society attempt to mitigate the human effects of globalization. Tyler, do you really believe that the spread of global competition brings justice in its wake? I am perfectly prepared to acknowledge that it brings greater prosperity, at least in some countries, but I know no corporations interested in spreading justice. Justice does not come through the back door. Making it happen is hard work. Liberal democratic societies, including the United States, have spent at least a century using government to bring about a modicum of social justice for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in debilitating and demeaning situations. Are we to throw that over because competition has become global? What a loss, to ourselves and to others, if we did that.

You ask Ehrenreich and the left to adopt free trade with enthusiasm. But if free trade is inevitable, as you imply it is, then what does it matter whether it is endorsed enthusiastically or not? It is here. We have to deal with it. Let’s do so in ways that protect, not economic nationalism, but our maturity as a society that cares about the lives its citizens lead.

I cannot put fifty-something workers who suddenly lose their jobs at the bottom of my list of unfortunates. Like you, I have tenure; I will not face the kind of disruptions faced by the people Ehrenreich meets. That is why I try to put myself in their place, to imagine what it would be like to lose one’s job after devoting years to a particular company. Of course any money spent helping them could also be used to fight starvation in Niger. So let’s restore some of the tax cuts that help both of us so much and do both.

I am not worried that Ehrenreich’s book will have the opposite effect than the one she intended. Bait and Switch will not evoke much sympathy, given the disdain its author manifests toward those who have different religious beliefs or lifestyles than she does. But need it produce contempt? I doubt it. Ehrenreich may be clueless about how to find a job, but the people she discusses are not. Their problem, Tyler, is that there are so few jobs to be found. Calling them members of a class that is “the richest and freest human history has seen” does not help them deal with their anger, hopelessness, and dismal prospects for the future.

Between Ehrenreich and you, these people tend to get lost. She is too wrapped up in her own failed experiment to bring them to life. You are too trusting of the market to see how victimized they really are. Maybe one of them figured out along the way that Barbara Alexander really was Barbara Ehrenreich and will be inspired by that realization to write the moving account of what it means to be middle-class and jobless in America that Bait and Switch fails to be.