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Why Americans are angry


Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka went to Harvard to deliver a speech on why working people are angry. It's worth a read:

For a generation, our intellectual culture has suggested that in the new global age, work is something someone else does. Someone we never met far away in an export processing zone will make our clothes, immigrants with no rights in our political process or workplaces will cook our food and clean our clothes.

And for the lucky top 10 percent of our society, that has been the reality of globalization — everything got cheaper and easier.

But for the rest of the country, economic reality has been something entirely different. It has meant trying to hold on to a good job in a grim game of musical chairs where every time the music stopped, there were fewer good jobs and more people trying to get and keep one. Over the past decade, we lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs — a million of them professional and design jobs. We lost 20 percent of our aerospace manufacturing jobs. We're losing high-tech jobs — the jobs we were supposed to keep. [...]

The fact is that for a generation we have built our economy on a lie — that we can have a low-wage, high-consumption society and paper over the contradiction with cheap credit funded by our foreign trading partners and financial sector profits made by taking a cut of the flow of cheap credit.

To think about this slightly differently, consider the way elites have treated the decline of journalism jobs and the decline of manufacturing jobs. Both sectors are fundamentally suffering from the same thing: A technological revolution that has made the large, well-paid workforces of yesteryear into a competitive disadvantage in the modern economy. But where the decline of manufacturing was greeted with sanguine talk about "retraining," the decline of journalism has been greeted with something akin to grief.

People notice that. Now, this isn't to accuse anyone of heartlessness. But "creative destruction" isn't easy to explain, and it's not very comforting to the destroyed. The problem, however, is that it's a very comforting concept to the people watching the destruction. It's a license not to worry about the death of aging industries. And the massive bubbles of the past decade or two made it easier to ignore the country's economic problems, because the massive expansion of credit made people who weren't getting ahead feel more like they were, which blunted the sort of polling evidence and popular anger that could have gotten more elites worried about all this.

Meanwhile, when creative destruction came at a white-collar industry like journalism, people in the field justified their terror because journalism plays a more important function than simply giving people jobs. But a lot of that terror has been about jobs, and understandably so. And when it comes at other "knowledge" industries, you hear a lot of concern about America losing its edge in, say, green energy, or microchips. So that also gets a special exemption from being written off as "creative destruction." You don't want America to lose the future, do you?

Elites are much better at being afraid of job losses in their world, but that hasn't contributed to a broader sympathy or -- dare I say it? -- sense of solidarity. Meanwhile, the game in Washington proved itself rigged in favor of powerful interests when Wall Street cracked and the banks got bailed out. So the economy can batter the working class and it's all part of the natural order of things, but the rich seem to get saved when things don't go their way. Why shouldn't people be angry?

By Ezra Klein  |  April 12, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Economic Policy  
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Yesterday I caught a few minutes of a discussion on CNN (Faroud Z____'s show, maybe?), during which a female pundit grudgingly admitted that it might be easier to endure unemployment in Europe because of the better safety net, but then claimed that people over there were worse off in other ways b/c "it's so much harder to get ahead."

At that point, I had to turn off the radio before I kicked it. And the most annoying thing is that she gets paid for repeating such vapid cliches.

Posted by: retr2327 | April 12, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

you could also title this post "when innovation and being efficient is bad"

and when journalism seem to crack (and papers went under) we saw a new rise of more and more blogs. Heck you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a blogger nowadays.

I'm wondering how the NYT's charging a fee for reading their material online will go over and what kind of effect that will have on readership starting in 2011.

While the 2000's were an abomination isn't it safe to think that the days of 5% unemployment are gone never to be seen again especially considering the upcoming immigration reforms as well as the population living longer and the fact that we need now several hundred thousand jobs per month added to keep up with the birth rate?

If we come to the realization that say 8% unemployment is the new 5% then I think we have a much more realizable goal.

Posted by: visionbrkr | April 12, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

"For a generation, our intellectual culture has suggested that in the new global age, work is something someone else does."

Meaning what? That the middle-class are all a bunch of out-of-touch, spoiled children? Is this a rant against the bourgeoisie?

"Someone we never met far away in an export processing zone will make our clothes"

What's that mean? That we should all have our clothes tailored? And make sure the tailor has met the folks who weave the fabric, who have met the folks who spin the thread, who met the folks who pick the cotton, and the farmers, and . . .

Lines like that are cheap shots that are without substance. Of course you get stuff from people you haven't met! Anybody who lives in any economic unit larger than a small village has gotten stuff made from people they haven't met, and that's been happening almost since trade and economic was invented.

"immigrants with no rights in our political process or workplaces will cook our food and clean our clothes"

He's got quite the life. Immigrants don't clean my clothes and they only cook my food when I eat out, which ain't that much, and then only some of the time. Normally when I eat at a Mexican or Vietnamese restaurant. Even at my favorite nearby Japanese restaurant, it's not immigrants cooking my food, unless you consider 5th generation Irish/German/Italian/Anglo-Americans to be immigrants. By which standard, I am an immigrant. And a native American.

"journalism plays a more important function than simply giving people jobs"

I expect (an I expect you would agree) that most people consider that their job or industry plays a more important function than simply giving people jobs. Nurses, butchers, bakers, milkmen, full-service gas attendants, the guy who can show me where the solenoids are at Radio Shack--all feel their job plays an essential part of life. And while nobody wants to lose their job, most of them would be distressed to find their industry disappearing, or being significantly reconfigured, even if they would personally be taken care of.

To summarize my rambling, Ezra makes a good point about creative destruction, and people's perspective on it, while Richard Trumka sounds like a highschool Marxist who just discovered he doesn't own the means of production.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 12, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Nope, he's all wrong.... and we don't think that highly of "white collar" journalists.... who don't hold a higher function (how egotistical)... all they do is blow wind for the left over the last 40 years... get real, the "press" doesn't do it's job any more.

As for why we're angry.... well 1/2 pay income taxes, 1/2 don't... so almost certainly 1/2 are angry about that.

We now can go to jail if we don't buy health insurance... the ongoing erosion of freedom is something to be angry about.

Obama keeps spreading the wealth around... the problem is those he gives the wealth to are not good keepers of the wealth... and the wealth he's taking belongs to people that actually earned it.

Basically, we're mad because our country is changing from a place to excel with a small safety net.... to just one crappy giant leaking dragnet.

Posted by: docwhocuts | April 12, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

@retr2327: "a female pundit grudgingly admitted that it might be easier to endure unemployment in Europe because of the better safety net, but then claimed that people over there were worse off in other ways b/c 'it's so much harder to get ahead.'"

There could be an element of truth to that claim, but it's good to compare apples to apples. Ergo, Europe may have higher taxes and a superior social safety net, but those things do not inherently cause unemployment, or make it more difficult to get ahead. Laws that make it almost impossible, or destructively expensive, to ever fire or lay anyone off can exacerbate unemployment. It's a blatant disincentive to hiring to micromanage the circumstances under which and employee can be let go.

Many European countries can have more invasive regulations and make it harder to start a business. They may have minimum wage laws that can discourage hiring young or inexperienced workers. Most of the things that negatively impact businesses, employment and the economy in Europe are not directly related to social welfare or punitive taxes (all those these can have an effect) but to other efforts at "central planning" and social engineering where the government presumes they can pass a law outlawing unemployment and actually have it work.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 12, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse


Seems like you are catching on to that capitalism thing. Not bad for someone in the media world!

Posted by: michiganmaine | April 12, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

"Immigrants...only cook my food when I eat out,"

Um, who do you think picks the strawberries and the lettuce you eat? Who do you think is on the line processing the chickens and butchering the steers? Who mucks the stalls and pours hog effluent into the lagoons?

Your other comments are equally ignorant.

Posted by: theorajones1 | April 12, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

It's worse than described. The jobs that we are losing are jobs making soimething, mostly useful things. The job growth has been in finance, where people just push paper around and take a cut.

The loss of leadership in tech is directly traceable to our lack of a real commitment to educating our workforce--to educating other people's children. Our lack of leadership in green tech is traceable to the outsize influence of big oil and big coal, especially in the last Admin.

It isn't even the top 10%--its the top 5% or 1% who have taken all the gains of the '90s and the naughts, with nothing but their avarice and lavish lifestyles to show for it. Oh yes, and a wrecked financial system which, now that they have theirs again, they won't let anyone reform.

Posted by: Mimikatz | April 12, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Take that, David Brooks! As Matt Taibi recently observed,most working people in the U.S. are barely making enough to get by, and have tedious, difficult, unrewarding (I would add insecure) jobs. But conservative pundits only fail upwards, like members of the Bush administration.

Posted by: nancycadet | April 12, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Thank Bill Clinton. He signed NAFTA and things have been going downhill since.
A technological revolution that has made the large, well-paid workforces of yesteryear into a competitive disadvantage in the modern economy. What a load! Moving jobs to china and mexico because of cheap labor didn't need a technological revolution, it just needed a box truck.

Posted by: obrier2 | April 12, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Ezra has a good post here - as far as it goes. I believe he is touching on an attitude which has evolved into a malaise that has pervaded our leadership throughout this country. I remember a conversation I had about 20 years ago with a colleague who was upset his son could not find a "real" job for the summer instead of "flipping hamburgers for McDonald"s" - his words. It may simply be the upwardly mobile position to take that our children should always have better opportunities than we had or our parents had, perhaps an unrealistic point of view.
This has led to an attitude that acquiring an advanced education diminished the value of certain jobs that needed to be done and were perhaps essential to the functioning of our civilization but now were also below our dignity to do. I've had many a friend who aspired to another job or position, because they imagined that they would a. make a lot more money b. have less demand on their time and c. have more prestige.

As a consequence of this attitude, a lot of jobs were created that did very little to make this a more productive country.

Posted by: shangps | April 12, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

@ theorajones1: "Um, who do you think picks the strawberries and the lettuce you eat?"

During the summer? I know exactly who picks it. Me. During the winter? When it's locally grown, it's mostly 2nd to nth generation people.

"Who do you think is on the line processing the chickens and butchering the steers?"

You don't think any regular folks process chickens or butcher steers? Anywhere? They aren't all immigrants, depending on (a) where you live and (b) the chicken and meat comes from.

"Who mucks the stalls and pours hog effluent into the lagoons?"

We don't pour the hog effluent into the lagoons. It goes into some very fine boutique soaps and skin creams. Waste not, want not, I always say.

"Your other comments are equally ignorant."

Well, thanks for setting me straight.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 12, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"Creative destruction" is an interesting and attractive process when it's used to characterize some historical events, but at the time it's occurring it does have a bit of the Mr. Micawber about it.

Posted by: bdballard | April 12, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Ezra, that's very well put. It reminded me of what Dean Baker said about the way globalization and free trade put low wage, unskilled workers in a harsh and basically rigged competition with ultra low wage workers from emerging economies, while college and grad schools graduates were carefully protected from labor market competition coming from similarly skilled workers from abroad.

Posted by: rp521 | April 12, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Indeed. It's a damn shame that Democrats haven't been more able to capitalize on that anger, because it's exactly the thing they claim to be better at. Great post, Ezra.

Posted by: dhs08 | April 12, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Our hell-bent race to automate every conceivable process, to ultra-micro-miniaturize, to consolidate is the great impetus for job loss. All of the efficiency and economy efforts I name (and many more) are useful in some contexts, but in recent decades, their purpose is to further increase profit and power of corporations and corporate leaders. There is no real reason why for 200 years Americans bought and wore clothes and shoes made in this country by factories and crafts-persons here and today we do not. There is no reason, particularly, why goods manufactured here have to cost more - relatively - than those made elsewhere. Except that by doing so, heads of industries have figured out how to pay themselves and major stockholders more.

And this should bring our focus to the real crime. Everything in our world that has value has value because of the labor of someone. From oil and coal that heats and powers us to copper and steel and plastic all are formed, mined, shaped, forged by the efforts of human beings. Yet our economic systems are set up to reward not the work that creates but the cleverness of those who gain control of natural resources, products, and delivery. Today, there is no real valuing of people and their efforts to make, do, and provide possibility for others. Just saying, you know.

Posted by: Jazzman7 | April 12, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

This is an economy of k_ssing rich b_tt. That is the gist. Americans have believed that if they gave the rich what they wanted (job destruction) we would get perks in the forms of goods: houses, electronics. And endless credit.

This arrangement, which always required a lack of integrity not only on the part of the rich elites, but also on the part of voters, has broken down - and also been exposed, in gory detail.

Now voters feel betrayed. But they did in fact support these feed the rich arrangements for decades, as long as it was the other guy whose job was destroyed.

Now it is an economy-wide swathe of job destruction. Only the rich get their rear ends protected. We live in fear and shrinking security, income, benefits.

That is the reason the Tea Party will never break out from their fringe. We are suffering from the institutional power of rich elites. American individualism and 'freedom' will only help them oppress us. We need govt as never before, just to live. We need to be represented by govt, or our society will descend to thuggery and hereditary elites.

Posted by: mminka | April 12, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

We have, as a nation, developed a mindset that undervalues labor in general. It's right to be concerned about a brain drain, but the computer on which I type this comment is a paperweight if a high school graduate with chipped fingernails didn't wire my house properly, and I don't want to think about what it would be like if my plumbing crashed and burned. People do that work, and they need to do it well for everything else to work (someone has to build the roads, fix the cars, etc). It's about time we started to value them.

Posted by: dlk117561 | April 12, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Symbolically, the modern problem for American workers began around 40 years ago when companies started calling us Human Resources instead the old term Personnel. Rather than a glorified title, this was a clear indication that labor was to be considered another unit of production, interchangeable like parts in an assembly line, to be gotten at the lowest cost.

In the 19th century that lowest cost was achieved by cheap immigrant labor, the ancestors of many of us. Until the immigrant populations became large and faced exclusions laws — first the Chinese and Japanese in the West, the later Central and Southern Europeans in the East — corporations could use newly arriving immigrants as cheaper replacements. This effectively kept labor costs low, which are always around 50% of product costs.

Eventually, labor law and unionization pretty much put an end to the practice and labor politically was almost equal to capital. After World War II, we children and grandchildren of those waves of immigration enjoyed an unparalleled standard of living in exchange for our labor. Then the Reagan Revolution brought back that 19th century mentality and today it's cheaper to ship the production overseas. Maquiladoras were a going concern long before NAFTA.

There are other historical parallels to creating a "low-wage, high-consumption society." The Roman Empire achieved for its upper, aristocratic class by using slavery, conquest and monetary inflation. Ditto for many Meso-American and Middle-Eastern empires. Fortunately, we have gone that far ... yet.

But one way or another, it just doesn't pay to be called a Human Resource.

Posted by: tomcammarata | April 12, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

"Many European countries can have more invasive regulations and make it harder to start a business." -- Kevin Willis

I'm curious Kevin, whether you've actually worked in any European countries. As someone has, I can tell you that small and medium sized businesses are much more supported by legislation than here. Unlike the US, where small family owned businesses are a dying phenomenon, they are everywhere in Europe.

Posted by: Athena_news | April 12, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

What's the source of the data for that graph?

Posted by: akent07 | April 12, 2010 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra has stated the case well.
Its been a issue since this faction got controll of our economy in 1975 and began the changes that led to today.
Carter began it with his deregulation of the aviation, trucking and credit/financial industries, and appointment of Paul Volcker to implement
Friedmans monetary policies. Reagan locked these changes in the banking system in place by appointing Alan Greenspan, Volckers shadow, as the new head of the Fed for the next 20 years.
Clinton brought us NAFTA, but much much much worse he brought us GATT.

Here is a incredible interview by Charlie Rose of Sir James Goldsmith on the effects of GATT


“What is the good of having an economy which grows by 80% if your unemployment – people excluded from active economic life – goes from 420,000 to 5.1million?”

Posted by: WilliamBlake | April 13, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Remember when 1% unemployment was considerd normal, and laws were passed making it illegal for unemployment to ever exceed 4%?
Sigh. I do. Before Carter and the new world order.
Its a different world, and a different population, now.
But I hear, for example, Pittsburgh is beautiful now, the rivers clean the air clean all the old steel mills gone, most manufacturing. And a much smaller population so traffic flows easily, and cars are not parked any longer bumper to bumper on every street, plenty of parking now.

Posted by: WilliamBlake | April 13, 2010 12:51 AM | Report abuse

.... it just doesn't pay to be called a Human Resource.


A really memorable quote.
It started earlier, imo, were all blindsided by Carter. Even he did not realise what radical policy his advisers were having him do.
Carter had zero education in economics. One semester on personal finance. He depended entirely on advisers, and the top 4 were Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, Bert Lance and David Rockefeller. Everybody except Bert Lance were Trilaterals.

Posted by: WilliamBlake | April 13, 2010 1:32 AM | Report abuse

Nice ghoulish article … very fitting for the season and impressively damn interesting.

Posted by: aliceadams1347 | April 13, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Americans have lots of reasons to be angry. This anger should have been manifest for several decades, though it has started to fester only in the last few years. Better late than never I suppose.

But the anger of some Americans are selective and off target. Tea partiers come to mind....

Posted by: Lomillialor | April 13, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

A country that has seen the real income of the majority of workers decline in a consistant trend for thirty years should have some concern. One wage earner could support a family in the "70s, Two were needed until the '00s. Now the failure of Capitalism and Democracy makes an adustment necessary. It is obvious that a larger family group is needed to support a home and family. Polygamy will provide a domestic mother/ housekeeper and two or more workers to support a family. It is in the cards if there is no change in policies.

Posted by: cperrym | April 13, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

This is a good, surprisingly frank post about one of contemporary progressivism's major weaknesses. If it were to be followed up by many, many more on the same topic, and if other highly-placed liberal/progressive journalists and pundits were to begin following suit, that might just make a start in overcoming the vast gap in perception and feeling between liberal/progressive opinion elites and the ordinary working people whose interests they often claim, but have far too often failed, to represent.

Posted by: amileoj | April 13, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

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