The Audacity of Despair

We were warned by the Rolling Stones back in the summer of 1966, in that sunny summer after freshman year at whatever college. On the radio that song did open with the classic line – “What a drag it is getting old.”

That was the warning, and maybe Mick and the guys were onto something – but we weren’t going to get old. We knew that. The sixties were exploding in wonderful ways, and surely the Stones song was about pathetic old folks who just didn’t get it, mocking them for being left behind. After all, Bob Dylan, two years earlier, had been singing about how the times, they were a-changing – and they were. It wasn’t just the civil rights movement – the fall of a whole way of thinking, confirmed by legislation on voting rights and fair housing and employment and all the rest. It was also the long hair and flower power and the sexual revolution and the new music – with sitars no less. The drugs were a bit of a bother, but at least weed turned out to be harmless enough. The old men at the country club could get all bleary-eyed and maudlin and bitter with their liver-destroying scotch, but that was their problem. They had been left behind.

Then we too got old, and it seems the Stones were right. It is a drag. The sixties changed everything, but then they changed again and again and again. No one could have predicted the personal computer and then the internet, or Wal-Mart and Starbucks and the Italians owning Chrysler, or the nation becoming one with no majority at all, only minorities, white folks included – and certainly no one expected to ever see a black president. It turned out that it was hard to keep up with it all, especially if you were a Republican. Conservatives by nature long for the past, or at least argue for maintaining the status quo. Change is dangerous, you see – it’s best to be careful and not make any sudden moves. Those are the guys, back in the sixties, who hated Dylan and the Stones.

We know where they are now, having lost an election again in this nation that is rapidly becoming one where no one at all is a majority anymore, as Kevin Drum explains:

Practically every ambitious politician in the party is making soothing noises about being nicer to Hispanics, lightening up on social issues, and compromising on the fiscal cliff, but the thing is it is all just talk. With only a couple of exceptions from some of the few actual moderates still left in the party, the Jindals and Walkers and Rubios are pretty transparently unwilling to change any actual policies. They’re as hardnosed as ever on abortion and taxes and amnesty. They just think the party should sound a little less hardnosed.

This doesn’t surprise Drum, but he is surprised “that a fair number of mainstream reporters seem to be taking these various statements at face value” as far as he can see. Where’s the actual moderation, the recognition that the world has changed once again?

He cites Ed Kilgore on where the folks will find themselves:

Yes, years from now conservatives will sit around campfires and sing songs about the legendary internecine battles of late 2012, when father fought son and brother fought brother across a chasm of controversy as to whether 98% or 99% of abortions should be banned; whether undocumented workers should be branded and utilized as “guest workers,” loaded onto cattle cars and shipped home, or simply immiserated; whether the New Deal/Great Society programs should be abolished in order to cut upper-income taxes or abolished in order to boost Pentagon spending. There’s also a vicious, take-no-prisons fight over how quickly to return the role of the federal government in the economy to its pre-1930s role as handmaiden to industry. Blood will flow in the streets as Republicans battle over how to deal with health care after Obamacare is repealed and 50 million more people lose health insurance. Tax credits and risk pools or just “personal responsibility?”

There’s a Rolling Stones song in there somewhere, but Kilgore isn’t impressed:

They are entitled to fight with each other all day long about how many zygotes could fit on the head of a pin, and how deeply the 47% have been corrupted into permanent serfdom. But the mainstream media really, really needs to show it understands this isn’t a fight about any kind of fundamentals.

No it’s not. It’s just a song about what a drag it is getting old.

It’s just that it’s too easy to make fun of them. They’re not alone. The world that arrived for those who graduated from college as the sixties ended is long gone too. There are no more Twinkies now, but more than that, the whole idea of having a reasonable job has gone up in smoke, as Paul Krugman notes:

The truth is that while single women and members of minority groups are more insecure at any given point of time than married whites, insecurity is on the rise for everyone, driven by changes in the economy. Our industrial structure is probably less stable than it was – you can’t count on today’s big corporations to survive, let alone retain their dominance, over the course of a working lifetime. And the traditional accoutrements of a good job – a defined-benefit pension plan, a good health-care plan – have been going away across the board.

Every time you read someone extolling the dynamism of the modern economy, the virtues of risk-taking, declaring that everyone has to expect to have multiple jobs in his or her life and that you can never stop learning… bear in mind that this is a portrait of an economy with no stability, no guarantees that hard work will provide a consistent living, and a constant possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And nothing people can do in their personal lives or behavior can change this. Your church and your traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of your 401(k), or make insurance affordable on the individual market.

All bets are off. It wasn’t like this ever before, and Krugman goes on to argue that this is exactly the kind of economy that should have a strong welfare state:

Isn’t it much better to have guaranteed health care and a basic pension from Social Security rather than simply hanker for the corporate safety net that no longer exists? Might one not even argue that a bit of basic economic security would make our dynamic economy work better, by reducing the fear factor?

That’s not what the Republicans argue, as they’re not acknowledging the world has changed forever. They argue that government is generally useless and corporations never are, as the profit-motive makes them awesomely efficient and, in the end, actually benevolent. Corporations are people too, my friend. Mitt Romney actually made that argument – and anyway, if you don’t like what a particular corporation is doing, man up and take a damned risk and start one of your own. It’s a free country after all, so stop whining.

That’s easier said than done, even if Mitt Romney made it big with, as he has said, no help from anyone at all. Not everyone has a rich father who provided a first-rate education and a Rolodex of influential rich friends. For the rest of us it’s no stability and no guarantee that hard work will provide a consistent living, and every single day that possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those of us who have worked in systems management know that last part all too well. You never get used to your job being eliminated in this week’s restructuring or the new outsourcing contract. Sometimes you’re traded to a new team, but then sometimes the whole league is disbanded. It keeps you on your toes, until you just walk away.

That’s our new world, and it is a drag. Still, as you might expect, politicians say it will get better. The current thought is that manufacturing will return, which is an odd notion from the early seventies that we still make things in America, or that we can once again, and should, just like in the good old days. Old folks say such things, but of course, that’s not the new world. There’s a new McKinsey Global Institute report on global manufacturing output and employment – all those good manufacturing jobs haven’t gone to Asia after all, and they’re not coming back. All those good manufacturing jobs have been going to robots, and the trend is accelerating. It’s a new world.

Neil Irwin discusses this:

In 184 pages, the in-house think tank of the global consulting giant presents a picture of manufacturing as among the most dynamic sectors of the U.S. and global economies, driving higher productivity and standards of living. But it also shows that what we usually think of as a traditional manufacturing job isn’t coming back.

Manufacturing things that lots of people want to buy is wonderful for any economy, except it really doesn’t create jobs:

Manufacturing contributed 20 percent of the growth in global economic output in the decade ending in 2010, the McKinsey researchers estimate, and 37 percent of global productivity growth from 1995 to 2005. Yet the sector actually subtracted 24 percent from employment in advanced nations.

“Manufacturing makes outsized contributions to GDP. It makes outsized contributions to overall productivity growth. It drives prosperity,” said James Manyika, one of the authors of the report. “But purely on employment, it has been declining over time.”

Get used to the new world:

It is a story of robotics and other technologies improving at a remarkable rate, eliminating the need for factory floors crowded with workers doing manual labor. In the newest factories, one can look across an airplane hangar-sized floor and see only a small handful of technicians staring at computer screens, monitoring the work of the machines. Workers lifting and pushing and riveting are nowhere to be seen.

That means that the manufacturing jobs that do remain are very different from the old world, in which a man (it was almost always a man) without much education could show up at the door of a factory and have a multi-decade career at middle class wages assembling things.

Rather, at least 30 percent of “manufacturing jobs” are things that would look to most people like white-collar service jobs: Sales, engineering, design, that sort of thing. While machines have gotten very good at building cars, they can’t design a car or develop a marketing plan. That number is a remarkable 55 percent in a category of manufacturers that the McKinsey researchers call “Global technologies and innovators” and includes makers of semiconductors, medical devices, and other advanced goods.

That’s not even manufacturing. Cue the Rolling Stones song about getting old, and Matthew Yglesias adds this:

The key point is that the world as a whole has been increasing its output of manufactured goods. There’s more stuff than ever before. Americans have a little bit more stuff than we used to have, and the pace of goods acquisition has risen even faster in poor places like India and Brazil – but on net, global manufacturing employment declined from 1996-2006. Factory jobs were certainly added in China, but they weren’t one-to-one displacing factory jobs in the West. Rather, the geographical shift in manufacturing employment is just a small ripple on the surface of the ocean – the big trend is simply toward more automation and more productivity.

Yglesias is actually okay with that:

If you think about what the typical American family needs more of it is not manufactured goods. People need cures for illness and educational opportunities for their kids. They need more time to spend on leisure activities and with their family. They need jobs they enjoy. The idea of promoting more widespread affordability of health care services by boostering the share of the population that works in factories is a bizarre Rube Goldberg mechanism compared to directly focusing on improving the health care sector’s ability to deliver useful treatment to people.

Yes, we really should make neat and useful things that everyone wants to buy – that’s great for the economy and technological innovation is awesome in and of itself – but it doesn’t take very many people to make those wonderful things, here or in China. People really don’t matter that much these days, making it a real drag getting old. They once did.

This might lead to despair, or it might lead to David Simon’s blog, The Audacity of Despair, where Simon reflects on the reelection of Obama:

I abhor a gloat. But the country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play – on a national level, at least – the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. Some in the Republican Party and among the tea-bagged fringe will continue to play such losing hands for some time to come; this shit worked well in its day and distracted many from addressing any of our essential national issues. But again, if they play that weak-ass game past this point, they are fools.

America is different now, more so with every election cycle. Ronald Reagan won his mandate in an America in which 89 percent of the voters were white. That number is down to 72 percent and falling. Fifty thousand new Latino citizens achieve the voting age every month. America will soon belong to the men and women – white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight – who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance.

Simon is a man who somehow didn’t get old:

You want to lead in America? Find a way to be entirely utilitarian – to address the most problems on behalf of the most possible citizens. That works. That matters. …

Eighty years ago, the Democratic Party became a national utilitarian enterprise, molding the immigrant waves of Irish and Italian and Jew into a voting bloc that stunned the political opposition and transformed American society, creating the world’s greatest economic engine in the form of a consumer class with vast discretionary income. The New Deal asserted for American progress – shaping and influencing administrations both Democratic and Republican – for three decades before running aground on the shoals of the civil rights movement, resulting racial fears and resentments, and, of course, the Southern strategy of political cynics.

It’s a matter of accepting that it’s not 1953 any longer, and it’s not 1968 either:

Change is a motherfucker when you run from it. And right now, the conservative movement in America is fleeing from dramatic change that is certain and immutable. A man of color is president for the second time, and this happened despite a struggling economic climate and a national spirit of general discontent. He has been returned to office over the specific objections of the mass of white men. He has instead been re-elected by women, by people of color, by homosexuals, by people of varying religions or no religion whatsoever. Behold the New Jerusalem. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a white man, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being anything. That’s the point.

This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against the next, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But remember it’s a drag getting old.

Still it would be nice if the old economy were back, even without many actual manufacturing jobs. There is something to be said for stability and at least a chance that hard work would provide a consistent living of some sort, and where the possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time was just silly paranoia. Republicans probably long for an America where there’s still a clear majority, of the right sort of people, and you pat the odd and colorful subgroups on the head and mutter nice words about how you really like them, honest you do. But that’s not to be. It’s a drag, but one must adapt to the new world, again and again and again. It’s just too bad there will be no more Twinkies.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Audacity of Despair

  1. Rick says:

    After reading your Krugman post, I’m struck by how it seems the roles have switched — hasn’t it been the Republicans who didn’t like change, while Democrats always embraced it? Now it’s Republicans who celebrate the vibrancy of the economy, with Democrats uncomfortable with the instability of it all.

    I always figured that the day might come when labor costs would rise overseas, as they did in Japan and Taiwan and are now in China, and would thus shrink the advantage of sending manufacturing jobs overseas, bringing those jobs back home.

    What I forgot is that robots and computers are replacing workers everywhere, so that if some big multinational closes a factory in China and moves the operations back to the states, this would not mean more work for scads of out-of-work Americans, since once here, the work would be done by machines. This is a major fact that ABC World News Tonight, with its rah-rah “Made In America” series, showing all those cheering workers showing off their wares, seems to miss.

    All that fear back in the 1950s that we would all be replaced by robots and computers was not misplaced after all, and all those boneheads who kept telling us we had nothing to fear along those lines were indeed boneheads. And all that bragging among politicians that the American worker is the most “productive” in the world seems to overlook the fact that it’s not hard to become more productive if you learn how to run some gizmo that can do ten times the work at 20 times the speed that you ever could — not to mention that it replaces nine other people who used to have that job. Even times looking good are really just times being bad.

    And I must say that Matt Yglesias, sounding like the voiceover in some classroom documentary film from the 1940s, sure paints a dismal picture of future life in America, in which we are all trying to amuse ourselves with “leisure” activities — like what, fishing? I hate fishing! — while those of us with jobs will all be taking each other’s temperature — and yes, I’m grateful for the healthcare industry, but if I had no choice but to find a job in it, I’m sure I’d rather just kill myself.


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