Sunday, April 02, 2006
Differing Goals and Issues for U.S. and European Workers
There was an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor today contrasting the recent labor strikes in Europe and the U.S. Students in France are protesting against a new policy that allows young workers to be fired more easily from their first jobs. Apparently, a lot of people in France - particularly those who work for the government - get to hold onto their jobs for life. Dreary, office-bound, pen-pushing jobs at that. The spectacle of "wild youth" demonstrating for the right to join a bureaucracy is ironic enough to give one pause, and certainly worthy of the culture that invented the theater of the absurd. The demonstrators in the U.S., on the other hand, are foreign born workers who simply want the right to work, whether they get fired or not. No one in the U.S. entertains even the fantasy of permanent employment anymore.
The problem with those permanent jobs in France is that there are two few of them to go around. It's like a game of musical chairs where the spell between rounds can last decades. Unemployment is a lot higher over there than here, despite the likelihood that workers in the U.S. are forced to find new jobs far more frequently. The author of the article suggests that the flexibility of the American system, versus the rigidity of the European one, makes our economy more dynamic - although he admits that neither system is perfect. The elasticity of the American job market would not exist if American firms did not have the power to hire and fire at will. To survive, the Europeans may have to become more like the Americans, and say au revoir to their four day work weeks, their six week vacations and their jobs for life. As a chronically overworked and too often downsized American, I will miss knowing that there is still some place left on earth where the grass always at least appears greener.
Deregulating the job market in Europe may give its economy a shot in the arm in the short term, but we in the late stages of a "flexible" economy know that things can swing the other way entirely. For what is the "flexibility" we're talking about other than a lack of resistance among the work force to the will of the bosses? Now the bosses are becoming the Immovable Objects that obstruct the flow of the economy, extorting tributes from the shareholders so vast that they nullify the profit of the companies they were hired to salvage.
The best economic system is not one at the absolute mercy of either the workers or the bosses, but one that synthesizes their demands, allowing a little "rigidity" and "flexibility" to factor into both sides of the equation.
For more on the recent European labor unrest, see the articles below:
?For workers in the Europe, US, different aims?, from the Christian Science Monitor
"Paris Strikes: More 1984 than 1968" from Spiked-Online
"Youth vs. Youth" from The City Journal
Middle Class People Living In Their Cars
According to a recent article in The New York Times, enough middle class people are living out of their cars these days that a whole culture has sprung up around "keeping up appearances" even if you have no place to hang up your hat. The Times focused on one gentleman who lost his trucking business to Hurricane Katrina and now shuttles his way across America as one of the "mobile homeless", spending his time in coffee shops and showering in gyms, and carrying a set of house keys with him to make people think that he actually has a home. He doesn't maintain this ruse just out of middle class vanity either. He does it for self-protection, as the homeless are frequent victims of crime, ridicule and police harassment. This is a man with a son in college. The article identified another man, homeless for nearly a year, who still lives out of his car despite occasional gigs as a Web developer.
I had an ex-girlfriend years ago who, despite having an M.S. in Telecommunications from N.Y.U., lived out of her car for months - so I know what this looks like and how it makes you feel. The difficulty of keeping clean, the inevitable bad diet, the physical exhaustion from the need to remain always vigilant when you live in an urban area virtually out of doors. The sheer challenge of surviving this way precludes the likelihood that people who live in their cars can be alcoholic, drug-addicted or insane. They are people capable of handling a full-time job for sure, but can't even afford something as fundamental as shelter.
I live in a part of the United States where a 2 bedroom slab ranch can cost you over 350,000, where a one-bedroom apartment in a shabby and crime-ridden neighborhood might cost you 1,500 a month. In fact, those figures are probably conservative, if not ludicrously out of date. What happens to families who fall victim to the untrammeled forces of the "market" so revered by the neocons? What happens to the 45 year old marketing rep or computer programmer who finds himself or herself rendered "old" by the precious "market"? What even about the educated young? I also live in an area where there are thousands of fresh college graduates floundering at the bottoms of vast Grand Canyons of student debt. How do these kids survive? And it's not like the cars themselves are cheap either. SUVs cost what houses did thirty years ago. Maybe that's not a mistake, maybe it's a sign - maybe the damn gas guzzlers are meant to be the McMansions of the future. Or at least once they've done enough global warming to make life on the street a little cozier...
"Keeping It A Secret As The Family Car Becomes A Home" from The New York Times
Without A Net: Middle Class And Homeless (With Kids) In America, by Michelle Kennedy