A new book popped to the top of How the World Works' reading list this weekend -- New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle's "The Disposable American: Layoffs and their Consequences." A lengthy excerpt in the Sunday New York Times tells the story of laid-off United Airlines flight mechanics and their unhappy experiences with job retraining.
The facts are bleak: Although at one point Uchitelle notes that federal funds for training are far short of demand, the more salient point is that there simply aren't enough new jobs that pay an equivalent wage for workers to be retrained for.
In this case, United's outsourcing of aircraft repair to non-union labor within the United States was the primary culprit in breaking the machinist union's traditional power, but it goes without saying that the pressure exerted on other industries by globalization is having a similar result. Even more distressing is the data point that pouring money into education is no guaranteed cure-all. According to Labor Department statistics, "the number of jobs that require a bachelor's degree has indeed been growing, but more slowly than the number of graduates." College graduates are still doing well, says Harvard economist Lawrence Katz (who also makes an appearance in today's WSJ piece on growing wage inequality), "but on the margin, college graduates appear to be more vulnerable than in the past."
The main drawback to the excerpt is that readers are left with little sense of what measures Uchitelle might propose to address the problem. There's only one paragraph that hints at his stance: "Saying that the country should solve the skills shortage through education and training [has become] part of nearly every politician's stump speech, an innocuous way to address the politics of unemployment without strengthening either the bargaining leverage of workers or the federal government's role in bolstering labor markets."
I'm looking forward to reading the book and finding out just what Uchitelle means by that. If there's been a dominant economic theme in my adult life, which I date back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, when I was 18 years old, it has been that the federal government has consistently undermined the bargaining power of American labor. The question I have always wondered is, when does this finally turn around and bite the politicans who run this county in the ass? When do low and middle-class income earners start to vote in their own economic interest, rather than in favor of ever-increasing concentrations of wealth for smaller groups of people? It's a poser, to be sure -- I'd love to see a poll of the laid-off United aircraft machinists that would tell us how they plan to vote in the next election.