The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Insanely Great

It Is “Equal Opportunity” These Days Because Almost No One Has Any

Despite his deserved reputation for moderation, New York Times columnist David Brooks is still a conservative at heart. As a result, he has despaired lately of President Obama’s move toward populism as well as the lack of traditional values and work ethic in American society. However, his fairness also causes him to do some serious self-contemplation from time to time. The story of Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier, featured in an article written by Adam Davidson, co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, in the current issue of The Atlantic, moved Brooks to just such introspection.

Parlier is a twenty-two year old woman who labors as an unskilled worker in the “clean room” of Standard Motor Products’ fuel-injector assembly line in Greenville South Carolina. Parlier grew up in the area. Her father abandoned their family when she was young, ultimately dying drunk in a car wreck that he caused.
Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier in the
“clean room” at Standard Motor Products

Parlier grew up poor but principled. She was a good student and a regular churchgoer who did not drink, do drugs, or have run-ins with the law. By her senior year in high school, she already was taking a few classes at a nearby technical college, with plans to earn a four-year college degree after graduation. Unfortunately, she also met a boy her senior year and got pregnant.

Parlier kept her baby and graduated from high school with honors but the father of her child soon left her. As a single mother, she could not afford daycare while she attended classes and her remaining family members were all too old, sick, busy, and/or poor to give her much help. She got a temp job at Standard Motor Products washing walls. Her work ethic so impressed plant supervisors that the company offered her a job.

Parlier makes about $13 per hour in a non-union shop. She works hard and does a good job. She would love to advance to a skilled position, which would enable her to earn enough money to own her own home, travel somewhere nice on vacation, and save for her child to go to college. Sadly, the knowledge gap between unskilled and skilled workers is so great that Parlier needs schooling or training to bridge it. Standard cannot cost-justify extensive training for someone who might not succeed and school is already inaccessible to Parlier for reasons already mentioned.

Parlier does not have a bad attitude and is not looking for a handout. She freely admits her own bad choices as a teen helped place her where she is today. She does not whine about bad breaks that were beyond her control, such as the loss of her father. In spite of this, she is unable to realize her American Dream and break out of the working poor into middle class affluence.

As Davidson concludes, “Maddie represents a large population – people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need.” Brooks concurs, “A good attitude and hustle have taken Parlier as far as they can.”

Even worse, Parlier’s situation demonstrates how disadvantaged households tend to pass on a negative legacy to future generations. Brooks writes, “Across America, millions of mothers can’t rise because they don’t have adequate support systems as they try to improve their skills. Tens of millions of children have poor life chances because they grow up in disorganized environments that make it hard to acquire the social, organizational and educational skills they will need to become productive workers.”

Brooks goes on to rue that neither Republicans nor Democrats have policies to help Parlier. He condemns liberal populism for “having shifted [Democratic] emphasis from lifting up the poor to pounding down the rich.” But he also finds fault with conservative populists as Pollyannaish. “Most of the Republican candidates talk as if all that is needed is more capitalism. But lighter regulation and lower taxes won’t, on their own, help the Maddie Parliers of the world get the skills they need to compete.”

In fact, some conservatives seem ready to argue that Parlier does not have a problem so much as she is part of the problem, as her wages are ten times those of unskilled workers in China. However, in the same issue of The Atlantic, financial editor Jordan Weissmann debunks low wages as the sole or even primary reason for China’s competitiveness. “China's labor advantage goes well beyond the low-skill workers . . . The country also excels at educating middle-skill ‘industrial engineers’.”

Chinese universities graduate roughly six hundred thousand engineers a year, versus only seventy thousand in the United States. Yet as Weissmann points out, their education is akin to a two year degree from a community college. This gives them exactly the skills necessary to work in high-tech production lines.

Brooks posits that “successful training programs like Job Corps” will be required in order for the U.S. to achieve something similar and regain our global competitiveness. Alas, many on the far right condemn such government intervention as socialism, not to mention also unaffordable at a time of massive deficits. Moreover, Davidson shrewdly observes that such programs “suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go disproportionately to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and – not least – family support.”

Tweaking educational/training policies as well as how to pay for them may be necessary but at least these are attempts at real solutions to a complicated problem. It may feel comforting to say that anyone can do anything in this land of plenty if they just try hard enough but bootstraps only pull up so far. I agree that America should not guarantee equal outcomes for all but we must face the fact our country is increasingly unable to provide equal opportunity either. What is more, the average to which most can aspire is slipping into the less-than-rosy standards of bygone days.

A retreat into the past is exactly what some think is the solution. This makes Brooks sigh in another recent column, “I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.” I find his self-honesty interesting because I once issued a similar diagnosis about the Tea Party, although, in my case, I saw age rather than race as the key demographic (i.e. substitute “an older America” for “white America”).

Fear that America’s best days may be (nearly) past was a potent and prominent theme from Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana when he delivered the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address last week. “When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true . . . In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe.” Daniels warns America is ready to “drift, quarreling and paralyzed, over a Niagara of debt.”

Daniels also evoked the late Steve Jobs of Apple as a capitalist hero, proclaiming he had “created more [jobs] than all those stimulus dollars the President borrowed and blew.” I wrote last time how Jobs once blew off an Obama query on how to bring back Apple factory jobs from oversea. Yet he also made it clear at that time he did not share Daniels’s doom and gloom outlook. “I'm not worried about the country's long-term future. This country is insanely great. What I'm worried about is that we don't talk enough about solutions.”

Part of the reason we do not talk enough about solutions is that we too often ignore problems standing right in front of us, like Maddie Parlier, preferring to look at them though the rose colored glasses of our personal wishes and political ideologies. To continue doing so by the justification that America is “still the greatest country on Earth” ignores that we are increasingly becoming a kind of insanely great and not in the good way meant by Jobs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

13 dollars per hour for unskilled workers is fine with me. I base my judgment on the fact an oil driller makes a little above 30 dollars an hour in the gulf south.They also pay a floor hand above 27 dollars an hour.
I would think she could make 20% more by proving herself dependable etc.