Wednesday, September 21, 2011

That Should Still Be Us

I saw an article in our local paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, entitled, Industries Fear New Wage Rules. The article was exploring the new wage rules that are being imposed by the Department of Labor on industries that hire immigrant workers on H2-B, temporary work visas.  Wages are projected to increase, on average, almost 50 percent - from $7.43 an hour to $11.18 an hour under the new rules. The higher wage is in line with the minimum wage paid in most regions. The reporter interviewed a number of small industry owners such as oyster processors, reforestation services, and even hotel owners for the impact of the upcoming change in the law. Not surprisingly, the owners are not happy, feeling that the increase in the wages they will have to pay will drive many of them out of business. Not a good deal.

But what struck me in the story was a couple of paragraphs in the article:

Employers say that they rely on foreign workers for the dirty, back-breaking tasks that Americans aren't willing to do - even with the current high unemployment rate.  And, they stress, they're required to document their efforts to hire Americans before the government permits them to hire foreign workers.

Further on, the article states:

Susan Pentz, 60, who along with her husband owns the 18-room Harborside Motel on Ocracoke Island, has been bringing in two housekeepers each tourist season for the past decade. She turned to foreign workers, she said, after struggling to hire locals and discovering that those she was able to hire soon quit or showed up only when they felt like it. "The bottom line is, I ended up cleaning the rooms because... no wanted to do that kind of manual labor," Perez said.

I read this article just after I finished reading Tom Friedman's and Michael Mandelbaum's new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. The authors of the book are trying to get us to focus on the multiple forces are in play that are causing us to slide from the leadership position we have enjoyed since at least the end of World War II.

The Big Challenges in their minds are:

  1. Globalization and  the Information Technology Revolution
  2. The Return of Strong Middle Class Jobs
  3. Rising National Debt and the Deficit
  4. The Need for Green and Clean Energy
They spend quite a bit of time documenting each of these areas in what amounts to a rehash of other news articles and their own past opinion pieces. Still, the case is compelling that these are. indeed, major issues that need to be addressed.

To address these issues, they outline what they call the Five Pillars of Prosperity:

  1. Providing much better public education for more and more Americans
  2. Continuing to build and modernize our infrastructure
  3. Keeping America's doors open to immigration
  4. Government support for basic R&D
  5. Implementing limited but necessary regulation on private economic activity
The authors make the case that we basically got fat and happy when we won the Cold War.  At just that moment, we should have been redoubling our efforts to compete in a global economy. Instead, we borrowed our way to an unsustainable way of life.  But the bills have now come due on both a personal and national level. Worse, the current political system is so broken as to prevent any meaningful action to address the Big Challenges. 

Their solution? They think we need a strong, centrist, third-party Presidential candidate. They acknowledge from the outset that the candidate most likely won't win. But the candidate could force whoever does win to take note of their more centrist platforms. They even suggest three past third-party candidates who did just that - Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose candidacy to continue to build Progressive reforms in 1912, George Wallace in 1968 who forced Washington to pay attention to the South, and Ross Perot in his 1992 bid to address national budget deficits (they didn't mention Ralph Nader).  Each of these candidates caused the incoming President to enact reforms that the Third-Party candidate strongly campaigned to bring to the nation's attention. The authors call this strategy political Shock Therapy. 

And what does all this have to do with the history of technology? Everything. This country was built on the backs of immigrant labor manning the steel mills and garment sweatshops. The entrepreneurs who built American business developed countless new technologies that changed our way of life. Think telephones, automobiles, televisions, personal computers, and cell phones. To make all of these objects that we now take for granted required more and more skilled labor in the factories. A Middle Class with rising expectations that their lives would be better, and their children's lives better yet, was born, at least in part from a strong public education system. By comparison, for the last decade, data indicates that the Middle Class has not advanced economically one dime. In fact, they may be worse off than they were ten years ago.

Technology and democracy have always played key roles in making the United States a place where people wanted to live. For many in the Third World, it still holds that attraction. But I agree with Friedman and Mandelbaum - something needs to change and change fast. We are well past the dithering stage. 

The immigrant workers who come to North Carolina to take temporary jobs are looking for a better life, just as millions of immigrants did before them. They are willing to do what Americans are not, and I'm not just talking about the menial jobs they do. They are willing to leave their home country and families to try to make a little better living than they can at home. How many of our own, even highly-educated people, are willing to leave their country for better opportunities in China or India?  Not as many as those who come the other way for poor wages and lousy living conditions. 

Let's try to get technology back to producing the jobs we need to help all of us be in the position where we can look forward to a better future.  We are still the best hope for a brighter world. 

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I totally agree with the Big Challenges and the steps we need to address them, but I never understand why Friedman thinks a "centrist" party would solve them. After all, his agenda is pretty much identical to Obama's, but it is consistently thwarted by the Republicans in Congress. The solution as I see it is not a third party, but a Democratic party that stands up for what it believes in (including all the things Friedman lists) and takes the fight to the voters. Otherwise a third-party nominee might just give us President Perry.

All that said, I think you're absolutely right about the role of technology in all of this, both historically and now.