Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Is a Job a Job?

I'm going to get off the topic of school vouchers and get up on top of my economic soapbox for a moment to comment on the national news of the day.

It's all over the major news outlets, so I'm sure you've heard that Ford is planning to close 14 plants and cut 30,000 jobs over the next six years. When combined with the cuts announced by GM in November, that makes for 23 plant closings and 60,000 worker firings between the two companies alone in the coming years.

The auto companies are quick to point out that they're not leaving the US, they're merely heading to the southern part of the country. What's important to note in this, however, is that job quality is not making the trip. The new workers who sign on with these companies can expect much lower pay and much less in benefits, all this while annual inflation makes it so that a dollar can get you less and less each year.

It should come as no surprise that wages are taking a beating these days. After all, it's been happening throughout the course of deindustrialization in this country over the past quarter-century-plus.

Just take a look at Milwaukee's Third Ward. What used to be a thriving industrial center that built middle-class families has been transformed into an upwardly mobile haven that houses the wealthy and their children. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad something was done with the Third Ward. Plus, it's cool down there. It's a happenin' place to be for people and to build for companies. But what's not happenin' down there is the building of a middle class like it used to be.

The same is true of other Midwestern cities. Take the mill district in Minneapolis, where union employees used to work for companies like Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury, collecting good wages with good benefits for their families. Now the big Gold Medal Flour sign that stands along the Mississippi River is attached to a museum--the Mill City Museum, a relic of the past. Now high-priced condos and lofts line the banks of the Mississippi while Hummers line the streets.

Every time the president and others (Governor Doyle included) point to our low unemployment rate, we should be asking ourselves and, ultimately, them: Is a job a job? While the effect of economic policies will never be perfect, the intent of those policies should be to strive for perfection. In my America, perfection is when everyone has their basic needs covered (health care, quality housing, good education, etc.) and where no one prospers at the expense of others (see a report on CEO salaries in comparison to workers here, an editorial on how hard it is to really track the true salaries of CEOs here, and a report here that shows how congressional rules make it easy for those in power to give handouts to big companies while trampling on the needy).

There is no question there are people in this country living the American dream, just look at those condos and Hummers. But is it still achievable, as it once at least seemed to be, for those who do not?

Thanks for letting me do that. It feels good to paint with a broad brush on national issues for a bit. It's sort of like political yoga. I'll have another post up on the school voucher issue later in the day.

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