In case the stuff we’re wading through isn’t deep enough already, let’s compare the results of globalization on working people versus elite people.
We’ll begin by talking about a fellow we’ll call Vernon, because that’s his name — he was my dad. In 1945 Vernon was serving in the Army Air Force in England, but when Germany surrendered he was shipped back to the States to be trained for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Fortunately for Vernon — to say nothing of your humble blogger — that turned out not to be necessary, and Vernon was instead mustered out of the army after V-J Day.
Vernon set off to look for a job — he would soon have four kids — but fortunately jobs were easy to come by in the post-war boom. Although he had only a high school education, Vernon quickly found a job in a mill that manufactured stainless steel pipe. He was bright and hardworking and likeable and over the years he rose slowly from working on the extrusion line to being line boss, a kind of junior foreman. (An extrusion line converts sheet steel into pipe.)
But by the 1960s the earliest tendrils of globalization had begun to wrap cold fingers around America’s factories. For decades powerful unions had negotiated high wages and stringent work rules and compliant management had meekly gone along hoping to ensure labor peace. What the hell, they were thinking, we’re only competing with other American mills so it’s a level playing field.
But the field didn’t stay level for long. In the mid-1960s globalization didn’t mean China and India, it meant Germany and Japan. Following their defeat in World War II and the virtually complete destruction of their industrial bases, both countries rose from the ashes — often with US help — and their new, modern mills and low wage rates began to outcompete America’s factories.
By the time I graduated from high school it was already tough to find factory jobs, and it would get much, much tougher as the years went by. Less remarked upon was the impact of globalization on the internal operations of factories like Vernon’s. With their very survival at stake, management belatedly got tough with the unions, but the latter weren’t budging. This led to strikes, lockouts, strikebreakers beating up guys on the picket lines, management homes being firebombed, and so on. It was a swell time to grow up in a dying mill town.
Unable to work with the unions, management turned to automation, and suddenly the historically mechanical operation of extrusion lines got a hell of a lot more complicated. Despite that, it also took many fewer workers to run them.
Management began hiring college graduate engineers to keep those lines running, and began laying off guys with high school diplomas. Men like Vernon, who had seniority and who had slowly risen in the ranks, began slowly to sink back down in those ranks. By the time Vernon retired in the mid-1980s, he was the office mail boy.
For three decades every American economist touted the benefits of globalization as a win-win for everybody. They paid no attention at all to the vast job losses, numbered in the millions, that destroyed the economic viability of working families. Why was this? It was simply because economists are highly educated PhDs whose lives were much improved by globalization. In fact the lives of everybody they knew — highly educated people like professors, doctors, lawyers, journalists — were all improved by globalization. The economists, and the professional people in their circles, didn’t know any working people.
Suppose, for example, that you weren’t a high school graduate in the 1950s like Vernon, but a top-notch professional person — a lawyer, let’s say. You would live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. You would drive a nice car and join the country club. You would make five times what guys like Vernon made. But even so, you didn’t live in a fundamentally different world from working people. Millworkers didn’t live in your neighborhood, of course, but they likely lived nearby, probably within easy walking distance. Your daughter went to school with their sons and you had to worry constantly that the damn girl might marry one of them.
But fast-forward half a century or so and if you are now a top-flight professional — a lawyer, let’s say — you have risen in the world considerably. You live in a very nice neighborhood (probably an affluent suburb) in a very nice house and you drive several very nice cars. You belong to so many snooty clubs you can’t keep your membership numbers straight. You earn not five times what a factory worker earns, but fifty times as much. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about your daughter marrying a working class boy because the girl will go from nursery school through college without ever laying eyes on one.
Next up: Happy 200th Anniversary!