The permanent revolution of the free market

Globalization's fall guy: "The Disposable American."

Published May 9, 2006 4:41PM (EDT)

Two weeks ago, I caught up with New York Times business reporter Louis Uchitelle as he passed through San Francisco on his book tour promoting "The Disposable American," his eloquent exploration of how corporate layoffs have mauled American workers over the last 30 years. Uchitelle was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a New York Times series "The Downsizing of America" in the mid-1990s, and he's been on the ground reporting the declining fortunes of labor in the United States for decades. Along with carefully documenting the step-by-step way that both Democratic and Republican administrations have legitimized the mass layoff as an acceptable corporate practice, Uchitelle brings us deep into the lives of those who have been laid off. He returns, time and again, to their individual stories, ultimately drawing a picture that is both sobering and depressing.

The story is hardly new. One can take as a starting point either Jimmy Carter's deregulation of the airline industry or Ronald Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers: Either way, the increasing incidence of mass layoffs as a valid business tactic has been one of the defining themes of my adult life. Uchitelle makes a valiant stab at explaining why this shouldn't be so, but amid a sea of free-market voices embracing creative destruction, his voice is lonely. Yes, Harley-Davidson and Southwest Airlines, which operate under a corporate mandate to avoid layoffs, are proof that given the right kind of management, even in the competitive global economy companies do not need to make firing workers the first line of defense, but they are lone outliers on this curve. Layoffs have become as American as apple pie.

Given that global competitive pressures seem only set to increase, it's a challenge to see how this trend can be reversed. But maybe if people paid more attention to Uchitelle's central argument, which he repeatedly returned to as we talked over coffee in a restaurant at a San Francisco hotel, we could start to push back.

Free-market rhetoric says that in a dynamic economy like that of the United States, new jobs are always being created and those who get laid off just have to get off their butts and find new ones. Arguments about policy amount to little more than tweaking a weak safety net: allocating funds for retraining and wage insurance that make only a minimal impact. What is missing, says Uchitelle, is any sense of the social impact of layoffs. Layoffs, he argues, are a mental health problem.

Uchitelle cites the work of several psychiatrists and psychotherapists who maintain that laid-off workers suffer from a range of mental health woes. Even if workers acknowledge that the layoffs were out of their control -- that their individual performance played little role in their unemployment -- they still can't shake the blow to their self-esteem, their feeling of failure. Uchitelle says there is a socioeconomic cost to society from the mental health devastation caused by layoffs that is not factored into the policy debate. We are no longer taking care of ourselves -- the social contract is in tatters, and there is a real price to pay for that.

One wonders whether there is any difference between the mental health impact of layoffs on older generations and on those who have grown up in the era of the free market's ascendancy and who have no memory or experience of an age where something as fairy-tale-like as "job security" existed. But there's a larger question raised by Uchitelle's exploration of the social costs of layoffs.

What is the mental health impact of globalization? As I was mulling over Uchitelle's book, I started reading "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism," by John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics. Gray is a fascinating, vivid writer who manages to be provocative in almost every paragraph. I could particularly imagine conservatives beginning to pull their hair out when he started to argue that the triumph of free-market ideology orchestrated by the Margaret Thatchers and Ronald Reagans of the world has paradoxically cut society loose from precisely the traditions and social mores supposedly held so dear by conservatives.

"The permanent revolution of the free market denies any authority to the past," writes Gray. "It nullifies precedent, it snaps the threads of memory and scatters local knowledge. By privileging individual choice over any common good it tends to make relationships revocable and provisional. In a culture in which choice is the only undisputed value and wants are held to be insatiable, what is the difference between initiating a divorce and trading in a used car? The logic of the free market, which is that all relationships become consumer goods, is denied indignantly by its ideologues. However, it is all too clearly evident in the daily life of societies in which the free market is dominant."

The permanent revolution of the free market... is what American workers face every day. Uchitelle documents without any possibility of refutation how the relationship between employer and employed has become "revocable and provisional." And as his very title indicates, workers have become the cheapest of disposable consumer goods, to be thrown away at a moment's notice when their utility has worn out, or fickle tastes have changed.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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