Framed: White Collar Unemployment

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White Collar Unemployment

The following phrases are recalled until further notice:

  • Just take a job, any job
  • Who Moved My Cheese?
  • Loyalty to the firm
  • The power of positive thinking
  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Right to work

DO NOT USE ANY OF THESE PHRASES IN CONNECTION WITH JOB LOSS.

If you or someone you know is currently using one of these phrases in connection with a job loss, please go immediately to Forward Framing for repairs.

Example of use (don’t emulate):

I don't want to just take a job to have a job. But I worry maybe I should. --Andrew Greber quoted on the Web

For the white collar worker who loses their job, taking just any job for survival usually guarantees that they are permanently relegated to lower paying jobs. It’s the equivalent of falling out of the lifeboat. Any stretch of survival jobs on a resume creates the same gap as unemployment. Job givers have a herd mentality. The thinking is: “If no one else wanted you, then you must have a defect.”

The message of Who Moved My Cheese? is that all can come to see it as a blessing, if they understand the nature of cheese and the role it plays in their lives. --Editorial Review from Amazon.com

Job loss is not a “blessing.” It doesn’t happen solely because we need a lesson. While it’s fine to draw on an experience to reach deeper meaning, which may lead to further personal growth, we should not confuse this with a moral cause. When you are laid off or fired, no one is blessing you. If you only look within yourself then you can miss the most important cause of all—that your company, your industry and/or your country were headed in the wrong direction and you are suffering as a result.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that the cheese is still in the maze somewhere you can get to it. Unless the maze itself changes, there may well be no possibility of you finding any more cheese, even cheese you would eat holding your nose.

The phrase “loyalty to the firm” reinforces the concept that employees should identify with their employers, promoting virtually any corporate behavior, rather than loyalty to their community and society. This has led to many types of corporate corruption and all but eliminated the professionalism that managers may have enjoyed in times of less grinding competition.

The phrases “The power of positive thinking” and “keep a positive attitude” have been misused in the job market to divert attention from the social and corporate responsibility for job loss to the individual. By making the individual solely responsible for their attaining employment, this meme allows corporations and society in general to escape blame and to continue policies that foster this job loss. It is only when corporations and society start to take on their full responsibility for the problem that it can be adequately addressed. While a positive attitude at an individual level is no doubt requisite for facing adversity, it cannot be used to cover up the responsibility of our society in setting up the proper markets.

The phrase “right to work” is designed to deceive the unwary into believing that this means they will be given a fair shot at jobs. In fact, what it is used for is to prevent unions from forming. The idea is that an employer has the right to associate with anyone they want, so they can hire anyone at any wage regardless of their union affiliation. This, of course, ignores the sticky problem of the other employees’ rights to associate with whomever they want. The result is an inequitable bargain between employers (who generally have a small number of jobs) against workers (of whom, it seems, there are always more than the number of available jobs). This is used to depress wages.

The Problem

White collar job loss in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. In many cases, those who are laid off become long-term unemployed, under-employed, or prematurely retired. The result is personal tragedy for millions of Americans and a vast underutilized resource for the market.

Those who lose white collar jobs often find the barriers to re-entry into the job market insurmountable. Many of these workers are in their forties or fifties. Employers discriminate against them because they believe that they are no longer able to think quickly or that they are totally burned out. (This ignores the weight of experience, which tends to more than compensate. If you are thinking the wrong things, thinking quickly will just get you to the wrong conclusion faster.)

Employers give unusual weight to continuity of employment. Those who are employed and who have been so since college are deemed more reliable employees. Once an individual is laid off, they begin to lose their ability to attract new employers even though their jobs skills may in fact be increasing (as they take additional training, for instance).

The large number of under-employed white collar workers became a significant problem during the early years of the George W. Bush administration through two main factors: the general downturn in the economy following the double-bubble of the late twentieth century and the sudden dropping of trade barriers by the U.S., known generally as “globalization.” These two factors combined to dump millions of college-educated workers on the market.

All economies experience expansions and contractions. But our country is also going through a (hopefully) one-time adjustment to outsourcing. This is like the flood following a dam breaking. For years, the barriers of distance and tariffs prevented goods from moving freely over large distances and protected the markets in the U.S. This created huge disparities in income between technologically developed countries and the rest of the world. The combination of free trade agreements (see Framed: International Trade Agreements), relatively cheap oil, and cheap telecommunications has allowed these barriers to fall at the same time. This leveled the playing field for wages. That was a tremendous benefit for corporate profits, but it also meant that a huge chunk of the aggregate wealth of U.S. citizens flowed overseas.

Some jobs generate wealth, others disburse it. A job that takes a material resource and reforms it so that it is more useable creates wealth. A job that packages and moves a product without making it more usable disburses it. In losing mining and manufacturing jobs to other countries (principally China), the U.S. has transferred wealth creating jobs to other countries while keeping wealth disbursing jobs.

As a result, companies in the U.S. are losing intrinsic value. To make up for this, they must demand higher and higher returns from those who are working for them. This has forced them to cut staff while asking those remaining to increase their job performance. Unless this trend is reversed, corporations in the U.S. will continue to cut staff (both white collar and blue collar workers), attempting to get more wealth out of less employees.

This is why the relative recovery of the economy, especially the stock market, has not resulted in a huge upsurge in jobs for white collar workers. Companies continue to see increased profits as their global reach grows, but that has only resulted in a modest need for additional workers at headquarters. Increasingly, white collar workers in the U.S. are as unneeded as their blue collar friends were in the 1970s and 1980s. And some headquarters have already flowed off shore with the jobs. Many “U.S.” companies are incorporated offshore—to avoid U.S. corporate taxes.

The end result is that the main ticket to the middle class—a college education and a white collar job—has been deleted as a viable option for most U.S. citizens. These trends are not helpful to our country, which counts on the middle class to curb the radicalism of the ownership class, provide hope to those in poverty, and create the economic conditions of stability. This has created all the social conditions necessary for the United States to sink to third-world status as a debt-ridden country that doesn’t produce enough wealth internally to keep up its standard of living. The conditions for producing true wealth, wealth for the middle class (not just the ownership class), need to be restored.

Rebuilding the Middle Class

The Democratic Party needs to lead the way to restoring wealth to the middle class. It can do that through the following actions:

  • White collar activism
  • Special programs for white collar unemployed
  • Addressing the underlying dynamics of globalization

White Collar Activism

First, the white collar unemployed need to begin organizing politically to show their numbers and put pressure on corporations and on federal and state governments to begin to address their issues. Here are some specific issues to address:

  • Employees are assets, not liabilities. Where does the labor force show up on the balance sheet? Is it listed as an asset? How can GAAP be changed to make sure that employees are properly valued?
  • Employees should be diverse. Does the company value and promote differences of opinions or are all employees required to go along to get along? Are older workers properly valued for their experience? Does hiring look for people with rough edges or just for the meek and the compliant?
  • Taking on an employee should not mean taking on their healthcare. Most sophisticated societies take on healthcare as a mutual activity. Minimal standards of healthcare should apply to all citizens, so that they can be freed up to take on any job—or be out of work—without having to risk their life over it. (See also Framed: HSAs (Health Savings Accounts).)
  • White collar workers are professionals. What are the professional standards for managers? What do we, as a society, expect from our executives? Should there be a professional organization that holds them accountable?
  • White collar workers have traditionally not been unionized. Should they be? Which kind of workers should be part of unions? Should it be illegal for a salaried employee to be required to represent a company in union negotiations?
  • White collar workers deserve respect for their service. White collar jobs are no longer always easy jobs that people get by being promoted from blue collar ranks. How can the stresses placed on them be better publicized? How can their skills be better appreciated?

White Collar Unemployment Assistance

The government needs to step in to address the structural problem of white collar workers dumped out on the streets. Current unemployment insurance and assistance through the Employment Development Department (EDD) is geared to industrial age unemployment that is cyclical in nature. We are facing post-industrial knowledge worker unemployment that is structural. The program must be supplemented for white collar workers.

Specifically, this means programs that identify specific white collar jobs to be filled and tracking a small pool of existing unemployed or under-employed workers for each of those jobs. Companies should be required to take unemployed American workers before any workers can be hired from overseas. (That means you don’t get an H1-B unless you’ve taken some number of workers from the unemployed rolls first.) The government should tax companies sufficiently to provide unemployment compensation and training to those signed up until they are employed (rather than for a fixed period of time), because this is the only way to incentivize the companies to hire them. This would mean that laid off workers would go into a pool where they would not lose their houses or their healthcare just because a company decided to discard them.

Appropriate Globalization Management

The United States must address the problems created by unrestricted globalization if there is to be enough money in our economy to address white collar unemployment. Ideally, the rest of the world would be brought up to our standards of living, not the other way around. To do that, we have to manage the rate at which jobs can be sent overseas. We know things are amiss when someone in this country is training someone in another to do the job from which they are being laid off. If both workers don’t have a job after the new person is hired, something is wrong. Look at Framed: International Trade Agreements for information on addressing problems of globalization.

Realigning the Frame

Rebuilding After Bush: The initial message for the next presidential race should be “rebuilding after Bush”, “cleaning up after Bush” or “repairing the damage Bush caused.” This focuses attention on the many problems that Bush either created through incompetence (such as the New Orleans disaster) or allowed to happen and could not adequately respond to (such as the terrorist threat) and sets the stage for a positive Democratic platform that would address all of these problems. Specifically, Bush has “neglected our jobs” and been “asleep at the switch” when it comes to globalization.

Smart America: The Democrats must be the first to introduce a follow-on message into the news cycle before Republicans can use their media advantage to capture that advantage. The natural follow-on to rebuilding after Bush is to put forward a series of policy changes that we think will rebuild the U.S. These initiatives should come under the umbrella of “Smart America” because “smart” trumps “strong” every time. Whenever the Republicans play the “we’re strong on . . .” card, Democrats should shake their heads, mutter “there they go again” and talk about how important it is to be smart about the issue rather than wasting money and other resources on it. The specific Smart America initiatives for white collar job loss might include:

  • Smart unemployment response that identifies a new job for each unemployed worker that they can compete for and get training for, while paying their essential bills and keeping them moving forward in their career.
  • Smart corporate tax policy that rewards companies that provide well-paying and respectable jobs for U.S. citizens while rewarding them for simultaneously improving conditions abroad.
  • Smart corporate ethics policies that reward companies for improving professionalism within management ranks and being good corporate citizens.
  • Smart globalization policies that require suitable minimum wages, fair treatment of unions, and adequate environmental protection policies in any countries that want to trade with us without tariff barriers.
  • Smart healthcare policies that make basic health coverage available regardless of where, or whether, the person is employed. Companies should not be able to compete better in the market because they shortchange their employees on healthcare coverage.

The Democrats must introduce new initiatives while the Republicans are still contending with and reacting to the old ones. Democrats must develop and put into action whatever initiatives are necessary to dominate the news cycle.

What Progressives Value and Want

Sustainability. Economic activity should be sustainable indefinitely. This means refraining from exploitation of both humans and the environment. Fairness. Those born to less fortunate circumstances should be provided education allowing them to advance according to how hard they work and jobs that pay a living wage—a wage that is sufficient to support life from birth to natural death including decent retirement, as well as enough to permit the raising of children who will carry on in a sustainable way. Consistency. The rules should not change so quickly as to cause severe disruptions to people’s lives. Major changes should be phased in. When large changes are required, assistance should be provided to those who are in the way of that change.

Responses

TBD

Counter—Phrases to Describe Republican Right to Work and Other Irresponsible Concepts

Use the phrase “Right to Live” to describe the right to have a job at a living wage. This means both that workers should have the right to unionize and that the minimum wage should be at least the living wage for the area in which the job is located.

Potential Ads

TBD

Other Resources to Draw On

Notes

Remember: The Democrats have a positive program for the country. We believe that, bad as our corporations may sometimes be, they’re our corporations and we need to own them. That means that we have a responsibility to set the rules for corporations so that they serve the common good and don’t run amok to wreck our country or our world.

Current conditions have led to a plethora of layoffs. These are having an adverse affect on our society. This is a kind of externality, the dumping of costs onto the commons by private enterprises. It needs to stop. Democrats must use their power to stop it. They can by reframing the argument as noted above.

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