Coming Soon? Brace for 80% Less Salary or $2-a-Day Pay

She’s the world’s wealthiest woman you’ve never heard of and she’s saying something you probably wish you hadn’t: “Gina Rinehart, world’s richest woman, makes case for $2-a-day pay“,the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Australian mining heiress has a problem. The cost of running a mining operation in Australia cannot compete with Africans willing to work a continent away for $2 per day.

There’s a certain elementary logic to Rinehart’s argument. If the two nations are selling raw materials at vastly different prices because of vastly different costs of labor, her operation loses. In a worse-case scenario, it might not even make sense to go on operating. From Rinehart’s perspective, profit is the objective and benevolence is a job — never mind if the jobs she creates fails to compensate workers well enough to keep the lights on. She’s precariously positioned on that slippery slope so common to today’s political and trade debates: It could be worse: no jobs.

The world’s richest woman has a point. But it doesn’t pass the sustainable-future test.

Some 25-years ago when global “free trade” was hawked by conservatives and liberals as a win-win for business interests and the world’s impoverished alike, the promise was to “raise all boats”. Indeed, in many ways it has. Rural Third World peasants — depending on how one looks at it, born into a harsh or bucolic life — have left land and sea to toil in immense factories, working 12 or more hours for dimes a day to sew our garments, assemble our toasters and televisions, print our books and increasingly, even, to can our food. As a result: An entire generation of aspirational laborers now shares the dream of a more affluent life in the big city — pay no mind to the slums. If not reality, it’s hope that keeps the wheels of progress rolling.

Perhaps out of nostalgia for the past we downplay the social, economic and environmental ramifications of the world’s most populous nations, China and India, following our same choppy path to progress. We were once like them: Fearless, youthful economies, willing to strip entire mountains and topple entire forests for a fast buck (and in some parts of the country, we still are). Still, what needs to be asked at this juncture in the global trade game doesn’t get its due but is having its way with us just the same.

Who says our Third World trade partners must start where we did — to make the same mistakes from child labor and water unfit to drink to the foreign-policy blunders of a voracious economy jockeying for access to other nation’s natural resources?

Whether by romanticism or a misread of history, those of us in the First World rarely pause to question if the type of progress the world has made is the kind of progress that can or must continue unchecked and unchallenged, unrefined and unexamined.

Isn’t the benefit of progress chiefly that it can be shared?

The task, seemingly, was straightforward. Before formalizing trade relationships, establish common human rights, currency and environmental rules of play so as not to touch off the dreaded “race to the bottom”. Instead, we apparently assumed the influx of Western money would do the talking for us, free markets, democratize governments and civilize those who would seek to exploit others.

The massacre of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in its time, should have signaled the intellectual and political free-trade hopefuls that something was amiss. The 21st Century ushered in yet another reminder: the promise of the Arab Spring evaporated into something resembling less the democracy we had hoped for, more the sectarian rule we feared. Still we persist in the hope against hope that opportunity, for its own sake, is the best policy.

What if it’s not?

The cracks in the globalized foundation are beyond dispute now: The American Dream is under siege like never before. Europe is straining under the yoke of a common currency and uncommonly high debts. Yet China, for all its recent effort to dominate world trade, is not to blame. The threat of being pulled under by emergent economic powers that share little in common with our political value system is largely a beast of our own creation: Made in the USA.

Presidential candidates, in the worst economy in decades, remain paradoxically vague. The culprits underlying greater income inequality and the perception of lessening opportunity are catchalls: Apparently, just about everything in the West is too pricey: labor, taxes, regulations — even minimum wage. And with 7 percent of American workers represented by unions, on AM talk radio and elsewhere, they nonetheless shoulder the lion’s share of the blame.

With no shortage of conjecture — too often the kind that builds on stereotypes and divides friend, family, “haves” and “have nots” — it is long overdue to put economic dogmas to the test. Can the United States of America, one of the few and the blessed nations to become a freedom- and living-standard envy of the world, afford to downplay diminishing wages, increasing personal and government debts, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, monetary policy that punishes savers, severe trade deficits, and the unrealized hope that the educational and ecosystems can keep pace with these changes and challenges?

The way in which we order our lives, policies and expectations — particularly the role of technology in creating vs. displacing jobs —- must be examined.

Do we produce for the sake of producing and compete for the sake of competing — or should technical and economic progress exist for the sake of improving quality of life? Should our definition of success hinge on that of the few, the highly talented, educated and well connected — or that of the ordinary, everyman in his and her capacity to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives“, as candidate Mitt Romney put it?

Buffeting the chaotic sea of public opinion are prevailing cultural assumptions surrounding old, individualistic aims confronted by new, inadequate financial realities. Our grandparents’ generation was one in which a single breadwinner could support a household working a blue-collar job. Today, particularly in high-cost areas of the country, the gainfully employed, college educated — even childless —- struggle. Others launch seemingly successful households, by all appearances living out the American Dream, only to do so at their parents’ and in-laws’ expense. In other words, instead of one or two breadwinners sustaining a single-family household, increasingly “it takes a village”.

For a culture steeped in tales of striking out on one’s own at a tender age with nothing but the clothes on one’s back, rising from rags to riches in the process, social immobility isn’t a reality we are prepared to accept.

In 2005, for the first time in US history, the average household owed some 130 percent of their annual income, writes Nan Mooney in “(Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents“. Is the cost of a refrigerator or an Internet connection really to blame for our slipping grasp? Does an iPhone or a gym membership endanger retirement planning or place individuals and families one crisis away from financial ruin?

To hear the pundits talk, yes. Americans, who fewer than 30 years ago left public universities without crushing debts, who worked jobs they did not expect to lose, who steadily ascended the income ladder, building equity in their homes and money on their investments, do not seem to fully appreciate how radically things have changed in the 13 years since we fretted over Y2K, crossing the threshold into a new millennium. American families lost nearly 40 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010 alone. Grocery prices are on the rise, too. Gasoline represents nearly 10 percent of consumers’ monthly spending, nearly double what we spent in 2004 — and still the price at the pump edges closer to the suffocating $5-per-gallon mark. Healthcare premiums for families have climbed nearly 90 percent in the past decade, Mooney writes. Colleges are turning away students and career changers eager to enroll even as they push the ones they do admit into two- and six-figure debts, crimping graduates’ spending power for decades. Real inflation — as tabulated by the pre-globalization formula that through the late ’80s accounted for rising food and energy prices — reveals still more about why consumers “remain cautious” month after month, quarter after quarter.

Opportunities that were possible for the children of middle- and working-class parents fewer than 15 years ago are increasingly the province of those born to the political elite, successful entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, media personalities, sports stars and celebrities.

That’s not the America most of us grew up in. And it’s not the state-of-affairs most wish to pass on to the next generation.

It is not without irony that the very people who have suffered current-day financial realities the least shout from the highest bully pulpits, insistent that little has changed that a solid work ethic can’t overcome. Who are these people who would have us believe that our eyes and ears deceive us? They are our talk radio hosts, our well-heeled TV commentators; they are our retired parents or grandparents who have successfully cleared the home stretch — they are even our siblings and peers that went into dentistry rather than information technology, finance rather than teaching.

Except they’re wrong.

In her 2008 book Mooney asks: “Why the dramatic change? The economics are simple and well documented. We’re earning less and having to pay for more. Earnings for college graduates have remained stagnant for the past five years, but the cost of housing, healthcare and education have all risen faster than inflation. The share of family income devoted to ‘fixed costs’ like housing, child care, health insurance and taxes has climbed from 53 percent to 75 percent in the past two decades.”

The math doesn’t add up. From little more than 25 percent disposable income comes saving for a rainy day, cash for job retraining and the presumably “irresponsible” act of personal spending — stimulating the economy the old-fashioned way. And yet for increasing numbers of Americans, even those unscathed by a long spate of unemployment, lurks the sinking suspicion that more pain than gain this way comes. According to Rasmussen Reports, just 14 percent of the Americans surveyed in July 2012 — a new low — are of the opinion their children will be better off than they were.

They — you — are not imagining things.

Dong Tao, a Credit Suisse economist, in a November 2010 CNN interview, put it bluntly: To “re-balance” the world economy the Chinese must consume more — and Americans must earn “at least 80 percent less salary”. Shocking though such a revelation may be, the mass media didn’t touch Tao’s statement with a 10-foot pole. The Internet, for all its reputation as a repository for everything ever said or written, is also a place where information disappears. (After a brief spate online, CNN’s interview transcripts for that conversation are nowhere to be found.)

The question that keeps making the rounds in this election year is this: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

In an era fraught with “tied hands”, domestically and globally, it may matter less who occupies the Oval Office — less than the pundits and partisans would have us believe, in any case. Why? Because there are no easy answers, no magic-bullet policy decisions, no quick fixes, no sure bets. Deficits are skyrocketing, money is devaluing, automation and rock-bottom Third World labor continues to undermine First World wages — and, increasingly, our counterparts in the Third World are sharing in the pain as the “sure thing” of Western consumerism ramps down.

The piper is calling.

The erosive economic forces with which we grapple are not personal or even particularly American — they’re global. The year ahead promises to be one in which corporate profits, propped up by deep payroll cuts and unprecedented infusions of liquidity into the realm of high finance, take a tumble as the reality of a weakening consumer class works its way up to Wall Street where, for the moment, the band plays on. The Federal Reserve will exhaust its bag of tricks while Democrats and Republicans, for all their efforts to deflect blame, continue to come up short on solutions.

The two parties have become so good at pointing fingers they’ve forgotten how to make the tough and unpopular decisions — to lead.

For all the uncertainty, it isn’t the election or the political grandstanding that deserves our sole concern. The public mindset matters too. Some three years post recession, one from which we never truly recovered, one wonders how long it will take for the gravity of this worldwide crisis to hold the attention of the percentage of the American population that doesn’t read newspapers, dismisses the “liberal media” out of hand, isn’t all that attuned to the world beyond their own backyards, and yet jumps, stubbornly and often at the price of great personal resentment, on the usual suspects — the freeloading, big-spending “lazy American” who assuredly wants little more out of life than to shamelessly shill for handouts. (Apparently slackers come in spades in Australia, too: Rinehart is purported to have said her fellow Aussies can make a respectable living if they drink and socialize less.)

The 47 percent of Americans Gov. Romney dismisses as “victims” in a May 17 fundraiser will nevertheless be his constituents should he become president. Will the nation’s would-be commander-in-chief acknowledge that years of kowtowing to special interests by those on both sides of the isle who claim the title of public servant has done more to victimize the nation than any basement-dwelling, election-day skipping, moocher ever could?

Seemingly, not.

Former comptroller general, David Walker, put it best during his “Fiscal Wake Up Tour“, documented in the 2008 film “IOUSA”. With the backing of the nation’s best-known liberal and conservative think tanks, he warns that the United States faces the prospect of increasing taxes, dwindling services and a lack of funds for basic expenditures like national defense. His is a prescient call to action issued well before the controversial implementation of TARP and the $16 trillion-dollar deficits of today.

The future is here, ready or not.

The throws of crisis are not the time to launch a witch hunt in search of easy targets. Ours is a time to ask not what one can do for oneself but for the good of one’s country. Over 200 years into the American story, individualism is alive and well — the self-made desire to have more, do more, be more. And yet national pride in this age of global trade and travel, passe though it may seem in today’s climate of privatizing nearly every source of shared glory, deserves its due too. Patriotism, after all, is an inclusive notion. Rather than rationalize a climate of infighting and backbiting, perhaps it’s time we began in earnest to watch each others’ backs.

In the interest of a more perfect union, we’re gonna need all the cohesion we can get. And when tough people encounter tough times, seeing the best in ourselves — one another — is the American way, too.

###

RESOURCES

Where Free Market Economists Go Wrong | Reason

So-Called Free Trade — Bad Policy and Wrong Debate | Huffington Post

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets | Amazon

Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed | Amazon

American Competitiveness: The New Untouchables or The New Half Truth?

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry David Thoreau

In “The New Untouchables “, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that in this downwardly mobile economy there is no room for average. Extraordinary is what it takes to survive and thrive in the modern workplace.

I get that.

Yet for all my appreciation for education — I hold two degrees so I do, in fact, lean in favor of Friedman’s premise that education is key to American competitiveness — his education-as-a-panacea argument oversteps its reach.

Most strikingly, Friedman’s description of a successful “untouchable” American worker isn’t a portrait of educational endowment at all. Friedman’s favorite descriptors, instead, refer to personality attributes: entrepreneur (risk taker), creative (visionary), analytical (critical thinker), and persuasive (charismatic). The obvious problem with Friedman’s pin-the-tail-on-the-wrong-donkey premise is that temperament is inborn — teachers, let alone parents, cannot instill personality characteristics that are not there to begin with.

Friedman’s eagerness to finger the usual suspects — schools — also ignores six reasons why Americans are at a competitive disadvantage in the global era. Here we examine those realities, and the future these changing times have in store.

First, there are more of us occupying this country — and this planet at large — than ever before. At some point, the mathematics of population growth have to matter. The sheer number of people in today’s workforce suggests more and more people are competing for the same jobs even as we adopt more and more technology to displace human hands. That’s not a sign of a lack of education; it’s a sign that business owners comprehend that productivity gadgets and gizmos don’t require breaks, a salary or workers’ compensation.

It comes down to the numbers.

Second, I would argue the inverse in response to Friedman’s suggestion that there just isn’t enough talent to be had here in the States. Over the past 50-some years there are more colleges turning out more graduates on an annual basis than employers of the past had access to. Many foreign nationals, in fact, come to the US for higher education opportunities. On the flip side, there are only so many engineers, M.B.A.s, lawyers, scientists and the like universities can churn out before higher-end fields become saturated in much the same way low-end jobs are chalk full of contenders.

It’s no longer merely a question of whether there are clear winners and losers on the academic front.

Job scarcity is a threat, in part, because of the decades-long trend of mergers, acquisitions and a globalized labor pool. Consider: There are generally fewer than a dozen heavyweights in a given industry — everything from mainstream media to appliance manufacturing. This trend does not bode well for domestic job expansion. And if jobs aren’t available to begin with, it is tough to gain a competitive advantage even with above-average potential. So what we are seeing, in this author’s opinion, is an over-supply of talent.

But that doesn’t mean the proponents of Friedman’s dire self-fulfilling prophecy won’t get their wish.

With less competition in a given industry there is less demand for the eager young grads institutions of higher learning infuse into the job market each year. With shrinking demand and a greater supply of contenders, salaries may also take a nosedive. America at large may become competitively disadvantaged in the years ahead precisely because the “good jobs” of today are no longer perceived as a source of steady employment or adequate pay thereby diminishing American college students’ willingness to pursue them.

Already, the very cure that causes the “employment insecurity” disease is well underway: Calls for immigration reform permitting more foreign grads to take up permanent residence in the U.S. as a form of “insourced talent” are originating from Google, Microsoft and Susan Hockfield, MIT president and author of an October 19, 2009 Wall Street Journal opinion piece ironically titled “Immigrants Create Jobs and Win Nobels“.

Sure there are a lot of average people who aren’t cut out for the highest levels of business, government and academia. Just the same, there is also an ample supply of bright, talented American citizens who, for all their desirable qualifications and qualities, will nevertheless find themselves competing toe-to-toe against peers who are just as capable and “deserving” of a career break as they are.

Somebody has to lose.

Third, failure to thrive in this Brave New Economy isn’t always linked to failing schools, as Friedman argues. Good health is arguably the number one prerequisite to productivity. Healthcare is such a hot topic precisely because we cannot remain competitive if, as a country, businesses and individuals are increasingly diverting money out of the real economy just to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of healthcare.

Beyond that, few esoteric explanations matter when perfectly down-to-earth explanations suffice. When an individual charged with hiring decisions has too many promising applicants to choose from among, what assets wins out on the last round of interviews? That extra year or two of experience? Those additional GPA points? Or would it be more honest to conclude that it comes down to how well an applicant clicks with his or her interviewers? Hands-on experience, even a social or physical attribute — whatever it may be that fits a manager’s self-styled view of the proper candidate — is just as likely to make the deciding difference.

On the flip side of the coin, there is a perverse disincentive to hire the best qualified candidates. For one, they tend to be more experienced and/or highly educated, thereby commanding greater salaries. For another, few people in the position to do so hire individuals with the obvious capacity to perform so impressively that it will ultimately threaten their own job security. Friedman is right in the sense that education and talent ought to insulate Americans from the pitfalls of a failing global experiment.

Unfortunately, it does not.

Fourth, where one lives also figures largely into one’s ability to compete. Like the tough-luck stories that abound on the streets of Hollywood, those who flock to saturated markets — Los Angeles, New York, etc. — may, ironically, find fewer opportunities to leave a lasting, positive impression due to the sheer number of people in the area who are equally worthy of consideration. An over-supply of applicants for a given position, in turn, may make it more challenging for employers to select optimal talent vs. expedient talent. Translation? Being a big fish in a vast ocean still makes you a little fish. To argue, therefore, that education can somehow imbue success and that lack of it underlies a failure is a misnomer.

It’s impossible to underestimate the economics of supply and demand.

Fifth, it’s a mistake to assume that a Third World factory worker is more “competitive” as Todd Martin, former PepsiCo and Kraft Europe executive, suggests to Friedman. Third World workers come inexpensively, and that’s one competitive disadvantage that will only heighten the more educated the American workforce becomes. Why? Because talent doesn’t come cheaply — nor do the salaries of increasingly educated job seekers struggling to repay oppressive student loan debts as a direct result of their herculean efforts to rise head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Getting noticed in an increasingly competitive job market only ups the ante — and the price tag of success.

Sixth, the assumption that Third World products are better made by virtue of their “efficiency” is also flawed. When frequent replacements and upgrades are factored into the cost of ownership, inexpensively manufactured Third World goods are, ironically, quite pricey. Case-in-point: In 2005 I replaced a 30-some-year-old GE refrigerator made in the US as well as an old but functioning washer and dryer. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t trade anything old and working for something new, sleek and modern. Why? Because the major appliances I purchased new in 2005 — all have had repeated major breakdowns requiring multiple service calls, dozens of hours on the phone, weeks waiting for parts.

Even when consumers spend top dollar, the manufacturing source and quality of today’s big-ticket items are often quite similar — with merely a change of window dressing to imply otherwise. That’s what happens when there are so many market consolidations that an appearance of choice is just that: little more than a dozen or so name badges owned, in truth, by the same handful of Big Players. It is almost laughable the degree to which consumers on complaint websites proclaim that they will never buy brand “X” again, only to unwittingly state that they intend to replace such-and-such item with brand “Y” — yet another brand or subsidiary of the very same company who manufactures brand X!

Market concentration doesn’t grow jobs any more reliably than it promotes healthy competition.

Sparing one another the hassle and headaches of poor quality goods isn’t the only reason to care, however. The build-it-to-last ethic of decades past was, perhaps, the ultimate expression of “Green“. Why? Because durable goods were seemingly less likely to break down, destined for a landfill in an absurdly short time frame. By contrast, “planned obsolescence” is the new norm, with a trend of shrinking manufacturer warranties to attest to the low vote of confidence manufacturers assign to their own products. Longevity isn’t a valued trait in a disposable society, but if we really want to go Green perhaps we should rethink the “dept-trap consumerism” cheaply designed and manufactured products facilitate. Sadly, modern rhetoric would have us believe that pride in one’s workmanship — a refusal to sell junk to unsuspecting consumers — is “noncompetitive”.

All talk of going Green aside, standardized manufacturing processes have made it difficult to make the case that company “A” is making a better product than “B” or “C”. Consequently, the maxim “You get what you pay for” has never been more suspect. True, you may get more for your money, but that does not necessarily translate into significantly better quality. What differs most dramatically is the amount of money corporations throw into slick ad campaigns, and the perception consumers have of branding and value.

It would be one thing if high-end boutiques were selling products made by First World craftspeople with higher price tags thanks to First World production costs. But when both low-end retailers and high-end retailers are selling inexpensively made foreign goods, who, exactly, are they fooling? Fairly or not, Third World origination suggests that income and human rights disparities favor corporate bottom lines. In the Third World, after all, it is not uncommon for workers to be denied bathroom breaks, sick days, maternity leave and most of the other benefits and protections Americans consider “civilized”. It is not surprising, then, that workers are more productive when they spend most of their lives in the confines of a factory, fearful that their only other option is a life of abject poverty and/or prostitution.

In short, the Third World is the modern-day economic equivalent of the pre-Civil War Old South: a place for slave-like child and adult labor, often conducted under sweatshop conditions. As if that weren’t questionable enough, outsourcing trends pose an unacceptable risk to national security as well.

So how does all of this tie in?

Unless Americans are willing to stoop to similar lows to compete with workers abroad, it’s not possible to rationally conclude that education, talent or entrepreneurship on the part of American workers will level the economic playing field anytime soon. America’s competitive disadvantage, rather, speaks to corporate opportunism — and to the politicians in recent decades who have crafted immigration, economic, trade and taxation policies that have enabled such heavily skewed commerce to become the norm.

Moreover, if being properly educated, creative or analytical adequately described, as Friedman suggests, the entirety of American competitiveness, I suspect we would see fewer reckless gambles on Wall Street and more evidence of long-range thinkers putting the brakes on short-term gain (scams) in the lead up to the Great Recession. In the real world, however, the “right reasons” are not always the cause for getting ahead — or, conversely, for falling behind.

THE WAKE UP CALL

So why care whether or not a newspaper columnists gets it so wrong? Because generalizations and simplifications aren’t a starting point for progress. Economists are projecting a ~10 percent national unemployment rate that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. That can only mean more bankruptcies, more foreclosures and a greater amount of “dead weight” on America’s ability to compete. Only by taking a long, hard look at the unvarnished truth do we have any hope of fingering the right culprits, crafting the right solutions and ultimately reviving Main Street before the American Dream becomes a distant memory of a bygone era.

Doing nothing is not an option.

If Middle Class wages continue to decline as we move further into the 21st Century, who will consume the products and services entrepreneurs on both sides of the oceanic divide offer? Will young Americans, contemplating the grimness of their economic future and/or the need for ever-more costly and impressive academic résumés opt for traditional marriage and family life — the nation’s greatest driver of new purchases, everything from strollers and diapers to single family homes and minivans? Should Main Street’s economic House of Cards continue to crumble, will Third World workers have their own Friedmans urging them to blame themselves when factory orders dwindle and the newly affluent in Asia and India begin to see their own hopes and dreams falter? Or will they see it — we see it — for what it is: globalized economic forces beyond any single individual’s immediate control?

As kind-hearted as sweatshop proponents paint it — that throwing out more life preservers will rescue Third World residents from a life of “primitive agriculture” — building more life preservers than boats is a plausible scenario. Economic growth, after all, relies on expansion. For much of the world’s history markets were local, national, then regional. Globalization isn’t a sure-fire path to success: It’s an experiment that presupposes that natural resources will support endless growth. And it begs a simple but profound question: What happens when all markets are tapped out?

Working and Middle Class people — the majority of us — may not be the most educated, creative or adequately prepared lot, to hear Friedman and his corporate pal, Todd Martin, hash it out. But that doesn’t change the reality that the American Middle Class must earn a living wage in order for the economy — ours and theirs — to thrive. Yet it is telling that in Louisiana, a state with fewer college grads to begin with, Curt Eysink, director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, indicates that there is an oversupply of degreed residents “we cannot employ” because job growth projections favor vocational trades and the service sector — primarily low-wage occupations such as ticket-takers, cashiers and customer service representatives that are not so prone to the insourcing/outsourcing phenomena.

Is this a sign of things to come?

Without the discretionary income Middle Class Joes and Janes inject into the marketplace, globalized economies may become relegated to a small percentage of elite income earners pitching their products and services to other elite individuals. This may be a recipe for modern-day feudalism, but it’s no way to protect and preserve the merits of free-market capitalism, let alone a profitable market share.

As dire as it all sounds, this isn’t about being pessimistic. Opening our collective eyes is the first step in defending what matters most: family, community, culture — the United States itself. If that means rethinking our definition of progress in the 21st Century sans the usual set of partisan blinders, so be it.

This is no time for subterfuge.

If Friedman wishes to talk about education, he ought to contemplate the wisdom no book learning apparently can impart in America’s best and brightest CEOs and newspaper columnists: The foresight to realize one’s employees/coworkers are also one’s customers/consumers. That means that success at the top of the economic pyramid is only as long-lived as the Middle Class foundation upon which it rests. Excuse it, deny it, defend it, ignore it: the race to the bottom is a very real risk when good intentions go too far.

It’s foolhardy — and a threat to democracy itself — for a transnational conglomerate, an economy, a nation, to conduct business using the lowest common denominator as a competitive yardstick. And yet, globalization promises to outsource gain even as it insources pain. At best, this implies that if and when international economic and trade equilibrium is achieved Third World laborers will nevertheless be unable to sustain the lifestyle Americans have taken for granted — if only by virtue of how thin finite natural resources are stretched — whereas Americans should anticipate “economic insecurity” as a way of life. That’s why Friedman and friends argue so passionately that being wildly successful — untouchable thanks to one’s creativity, innovativeness and education — is the only position of safety (familiarity). The rest of us, apparently, are destined for a mediocre economic melting pot in a neocapitalist New World Order.

Cliché though it may sound, the proactive response to an uncertain future is civic engagement: voting wisely with one’s ballot and one’s pocketbook in support the kind of economy one wishes to see. For if there’s any silver lining to this Great Recession, it’s in bringing an abstract global issue close enough to home that we can reach out, touch it — and change it.

It’s not too late.

###

Resources:

America Out of Work: Is Double-Digit Unemployment Here to Stay? |TIME

Obama Adviser Summers Rejects ‘New Normal’ of Slow U.S. Growth | Bloomberg

U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio | NYT

Are You Prepared for a Jobs Depression? | ere.net

How Long will America Lead the World? | Newsweek

Cap and Trade Dementia | The American Spectator

Schools As Scapegoats | The American Prospect

Is it Time to Retrain Business Schools? | NYT

Go Global, Young Manager | Financial Post

Is a College Degree Worthless?/MSN Money

Don’t Get That College Degree! | NY Post

Cat Gets GED: Why GPAs, Degrees and Job Titles May Be Worthless | ITBusinessEdge

Too Many Doctorates Chase Too Few Jobs | San Francisco Chronical

The Three-Year Solution | Newsweek

Asking for Student Loan Forgiveness | Businessweek

Middle Class Facing Decline in Expectations, Economic Power | Retail Traffic

21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness (PDF)

Jay Mathews: Why I don’t Like 21st Century Reports | Washington Post

Friedman: U.S. Education System Endangering Global Competitiveness | Education Futures

A New Look at American Competitiveness | Entrepreneurship

The World’s New Superpower | Salon

The Almighty Renminbi? | NYT

The End of the Dollar Spells the Rise of a New Order |The Independent (UK)

China will Overtake America, the Only Question is When |The Independent (UK)

China’s Economy | Brookings Institution

Lax Oversight, Globalization Erode Product Safety | CNN

Technology Made to be Broken | CSMonitor

Appliance Anxiety — Replace It or Fix It? | NYT