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Friday, June 24, 2005

Two Tickets On That Grove City Bus

Talking about politics is something of a bore in 2005; it'd be the same refrain over and over again. I've taken it as a given that the next three years are going to be much more about combatting bad ideas and keeping the gains of the last century rather than proposing anything new, so discussions of substantive policy seems pointless.

Which is why, back earlier in the month during one of my periodic fits of inability to blog I've had lately, I was following this interesting discussion at the brand new TPM cafe about "politics in the information age." I find the line of discussion appealing because it's one of the few places where the topics cross-pollinate these days.

The semantic arguments about what exactly the "information age" is, whether it is a mere metaphor or something closer to tangible are tedious, but the way that people make their living is definitely changing before our eyes. The age where people worked the same job from early adulthood through retirement is but a distant memory.

Some of these changes are liberating, and may leave America as a whole more prosperous than before. People feel less stuck in bad jobs or work environments. It's easier to be upwardly mobile as the world grows smaller and more opportunities become available to more individuals.

But like just about any change, there are some fairly significant drawbacks. There are fewer and fewer jobs where you know you're going to be able to make a decent living. At first it was only unskilled and semi-skilled labor that could be done much cheaper overseas, and now it could be just about anything. Whatever your skills in the workplace are now, they stand a good chance of becoming obsolete in fairly short order. The degree you spent years and thousands of dollars attaining stands a greater chance of being worthless than ever before. In a sense, the freedom to make your own bargain with the marketplace this new age holds may be illusory.

Displacements will be more common than ever. More people than ever could find themselves unemployed or underemployed, and possibly even without any means of support, for extended lengths of time while they retrained, retooled, or relocated. Planning one's life path towards retirement, particularly for families, could become essentially impossible for all but the most fortunate and best-positioned among us.

My point is not so much to decry these changes as it is to point out that the risk that anyone regardless of social strata could find themselves in the same position as the protagonist in Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City," saddled with "debts that no honest man can pay." It won't be just the proletariat that populates the Springsteen back catalog anymore.

I am profoundly upset with the present U.S. government not so much because they caused this shift to happen; many of the factors behind these trends started under earlier administrations, and some of them are either partially or entirely beyond the control of whoever holds the keys to any branch of government.

I am profoundly upset because their solutions to these challenges are either to do nothing, or to amplify the potentially destructive effects of these sea changes. The answer to private-sector pensions and health benefits being more uncertain than ever before should not to make Social Security dependent on the vissicitudes of the marketplace. The answer to ever weaker bargaining positions for labor, whether organized or not, should not be policies designed to weaken them further. The answer to more and more families a paycheck or two from disaster should not be one attempt after another to make the already comfortable even more so. The answer to more families being driven to bankruptcy by skyrocketing health costs should not be a finance industry-driven bankruptcy bill that sticks people with health care costs they can't pay and can't discharge.

My point is not to try to bring back some idyllic time, like the 1950s except perhaps without McCarthyism or Jim Crow. That's not really possible now, though it might sell well electorally with some people. But a society that is forcing everyone into incurring more risk probably should not be simultaneously locking in a set of ground rules that punish those who happen to stumble ever more harshly. The future ought not so closely resemble Atlantic City or "Atlantic City."


At 3:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow . . . again, very well-written, but I wish I hadn't read it at 3:30am. ;-)


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