Economy In Ruins: Why No Social Outcry? The global financial meltdown is sparking protests throughout the world. Except that is, in the United States, where the worst financial crisis in recent history is being handled with relative tranquility. But some experts say that might not be good. Author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich explains why.
NPR logo

Economy In Ruins: Why No Social Outcry?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104001212/104001208" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Economy In Ruins: Why No Social Outcry?

Economy In Ruins: Why No Social Outcry?

Economy In Ruins: Why No Social Outcry?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104001212/104001208" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The global financial meltdown is sparking protests throughout the world. Except that is, in the United States, where the worst financial crisis in recent history is being handled with relative tranquility. But some experts say that might not be good. Author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich explains why.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, know what I want for my next Mother's Day? That mothers stop judging each other. It's my Can I Just Tell You commentary, and that'll be in just a few minutes.

But first, we go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things often kept hidden due to stigma or shame. And we've been talking a lot in this space and throughout the program about all the various feelings that come with the recession and with widespread unemployment.

For many people, it brings a sense of shame, of failure. But what social critic and writer Barbara Ehrenreich wants to know is, why aren't more people more angry? From Chile to Turkey, the global economic meltdown has sparked protests and energized labor movements but not here in the U.S., where the prevailing theme has been dust off your resume and stay positive.

But in a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Ehrenreich takes a very different view. She says it's time for Americans to get a little more angry and a lot more politically involved. So we called her to talk about it. She was kind enough to stop by our D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. BARBARA EHRENREICH (FREELANCE WRITER): I'm glad to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to begin with a clip from a roundtable discussion we hosted a couple of months ago, in January. We spoke with young people who are college graduates, who couldn't find jobs or who had been laid off from jobs that they really enjoyed and despite their qualifications were still unemployed. Here's Mimi Wong(ph). She's an NYU graduate who was unemployed at the time. Here it is.

Ms. MIMI WONG (College Graduate): It gets really easy to get overwhelmed with the situation. I mean, if you'd talked to me last week, I was probably in a bit of depression, wondering what would what would happen to me. What I think, part of our generation, what we're good at is like adapting, and yeah, there's a bit of panic, but then you start sending out your resume again. You accept that this is the situation, but we are educated, smart young women, and we just feel like we'll figure things out.

MARTIN: What's wrong with this attitude? What's wrong with staying positive and trying to pick yourself up and move forward?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EHRENREICH: No, I'm all for trying to keep in as good a mood as you can. But what worries me is something I first noticed about four years ago, and that is that laid-off white-collar workers, or people like the person we just heard from who can't find a job at all, are told that job-searching is a full-time job, that it's going to take you eight hours a day, in which you essentially pretend to be working.

You're supposed to get up in the morning, suit up in your corporate clothes, go into a preferably another room that you have a computer in, not, you know, the kitchen, and act like you are working. If you can sort of talk a friend into pretending to be your boss, too, that helps. In other words, you sort of mime the whole thing. It's a fantasy shop.

Now there are things to do. You know, you can put your resume up on all those Internet job sites. You can apply for jobs on the Web. You can do that. You could easily spend 16 hours a day doing that, but whether it's effective, nobody knows. In fact, I have hardly ever met anybody who found a job that way.

So what, you know, worries me is that by telling people that's what you're supposed to do when you're unemployed, we don't have people doing what they do in France. Now, I'm not talking about turning over the police cars and burning them. I'm just talking about, hey, let's get together and talk about what's going - what is wrong with an economy that can't use our skills?

MARTIN: But - a lot of the young folks we talk to are, by definition, young. They have the option of moving back in with their parents, for example. But what if you are the parent and you're unemployed? If you have a mortgage, if you've got kids who need medical care, you yourself need medical care, do you - what option do you have other than to hit the pavement all day, every day, until you get another job? What other choice is there?

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well you - I mean, there are - one thing you have to face is that the odds are so much against you today. It's not your fault. You know, there isn't - we have the highest level of unemployment now in 25 years. The jobs are just not out there. Even in peak prosperity - let's go back to 2006-7, before the whole thing imploded. We were not generating, in this nation, enough jobs, professional, white-collar jobs, for all the people we graduate from college.

You know, so there was the fabled story then about the college graduate, you know, with the expensive Ivy League BA who ends up in Starbucks. Of course, now it's hard to find a Starbucks that's open. So, you know, we've always had that problem. The first thing is to get it out of your mind that it's your fault that there is something wrong with you.

MARTIN: But what about the role of personal responsibility? I mean, one of the issues has been that less educated workers, their unemployment is deeper, longer than more educated workers. I just want to play a short clip from another roundtable conversation we had. This one was from young adults who did not go to college and who are now facing some very difficult times. This is a young woman named Carrie Martinez(ph) speaking and here is what she had to say.

Ms. CARRIE MARTINEZ: For me, it was more myself well, you know, I had a great family but I was a rebel teenager and, you know, I chose to go my own path. And looking at it now, it's really frustrating that I didn't stick with high school. But we all have our ups and downs and everything and I would love to go to college but it doesn't seem like I can do it right now. If the economy does get better I would love to, you know, go to business school and open up my own salon someday.

MARTIN: But what about the role of your own choices in…

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, okay, let me throw that sort of back at you Michel, then. You also have a personal responsibility for your society. You also have a personal responsibility for the fact that we have no safety net in this country. Now, I talked over the weekend to a man, not a college educated man who has lost his job and is applying for what is, you know, usually called welfare. And he is shocked, shocked at the hoops you have to jump through and the fact that it's almost impossible. See, he is a single dad now, unemployed, raising a child alone. And he thought that all people on welfare were like, oh lazy cheats. So, now he is finding out. Well, I say it was our responsibility -personal responsibility all along to watch that safety net, 'cause here it is, we need it and it is not there. What you did or didn't do has something to do with that.

MARTIN: You know, there are many countries in Europe as you point out and around the world have other safety nets and worker protections that you think Americans should fight for. But they are still in trouble. People are still hurting.

Ms. EHRENREICH: But it's not as devastating, by any means. I mean, if you are unemployed in Germany right now, you have, there is really not a clear limit to when your benefits will run out. You know, you could keep renewing it. It's not seen as something stigmatized either if you have to do that.

MARTIN: The argument though is that their economies will recover more slowly. It may be less traumatic in the short run but in the long run more stagnant.

EHRENREICH: What do you mean to say?

MARTIN: It will take longer for their economies to recover.

EHRENREICH: What is the economy? You know, right now the emergency to me is not that banks, you know, Bank of America needs $35 billion or something. Emergency to me is that there are people who have been working two or three jobs, have lost one or two of those jobs, who are facing foreclosure, who have children to feed, that's an emergency. And see, we have an economy that is all about the stock market or the health of the banks, that's not looking at real human experience. And I think the economies of say, Germany, France, Scandinavia do much better because they are people oriented.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. We are talking about a piece that she published recently in the Los Angeles Times called "Trying to find a job is not a job." Keeping the unemployed busy is an exercise in denial and social control. Tell me about that social control part, what do you mean by that?

EHRENREICH: Well I don't mean to sound paranoid or something but we have so many devices to keep the unemployed busy. For the white collar person it's that fantasy job where you pretend you're working. For the blue collar person now it's likely to be retraining. You have to be retrained, you better. Now sometimes there will be programs to help you. And, you know, sometimes government programs, sometimes you'll be doing it on your own at the community college.

The trouble with that, and it's always good to learn things, but the trouble with that is we don't know what to retrain people in. Where are those jobs? Now we can't all be nurses. We can't all be RNs, which seems to be the, you know, a booming area. So, there is you know some, I've talked to people who've been through retraining and retraining and retraining to be laid off again and again or not find a job.

So, I say that's wheel spinning. And you could almost see it if you want to be a tiny bit conspiratorial, as a way of, well, let's keep American workers so busy when they're unemployed that they can't make trouble about the fact that there aren't jobs for them.

MARTIN: What should people do? What should they be doing with that time?

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, I'll give you an example. In Bangor, Maine there is a group called Food And Medicine. Accent on the and, that you should be able to afford both even if you are unemployed. And they're organizing unemployed workers and they're asking questions like, well, all the paper mills that we worked in are closed down. What are we going to do with those? How are we going to live? Fort Wayne, Indiana. A project to organize unorganized people both the white collar, the blue collar, everybody, and ask, what do we really want in our city? What would we want to be making or doing that would make a viable economy?

People are beginning to come together like that. I work with a group called United Professionals - unitedprofessional.org which is particularly for white collar people to volunteer, to get involved, advocate for things like extended health insurance. I mean, that's any health insurance, excuse me, and extended unemployment benefits.

MARTIN: Why do you think that - do you think that your views are radical, do you think that your views are more widely shared than perhaps people acknowledge? Or you think most people just haven't thought about it that way? I'm just curious because the dominant narrative we hear is, re-training, keep focused, very sort of individualistic.

Ms. EHRENREICH: Now I say - yeah, is it radical or is it just old fashioned American get together solve the problem. You know, we have traditions in this country of putting our heads together, putting our skills together and solving a problem. And I think all the - all this funneling of the unemployed into re-training that may not lead anywhere or these constant internet searches and networking groups and so on is not - you know, not the same as saying, can we - how are we going to get together and figure out how to survive, whether we're doing that by neighborhood, by occupation, whatever.

MARTIN: I just wonder if it's that the political consensus has moved in a different direction.

EHRENREICH: Well, I'm doing my best to move it in my direction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What - what do you think would be - what direction would you like to see this organizing take? What should people be organizing around? Say if people read this piece and say, you know what, you're right.

Ms. EHRENREICH: Well, one thing obviously is universal health insurance. I mean that's one of the things that makes jobless so calamitous in the United States compared to other countries. Is that you lose your health care at the same time. So we have to really be getting the numbers out there on pushing for universal health insurance.

MARTIN: You know, Barack Obama obviously agrees with you on the goal of universal health insurance, but he's among the people who's talked a lot about education and re-training. We had a short clip, but we don't really have time to play it. But what he said just on Friday was if we want to come out of this recession stronger than before, we need to make sure our workforce is better prepared.

Someone who doesn't have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does, which of course true. Do you think he's just misguided or you think he's just saying what you think he needs to say, that's politically palatable?

Ms. EHRENREICH: I am pushing him, all right. I voted for him, I campaigned for him, did everything like that. But I am pushing him now to say, let's look at some more basic things. We have a lot of skills right now that are going to complete waste. You know if somebody has been a welder or a mechanic or an accountant for all these years, that's a skill, don't say they have to go learn something all over.

MARTIN: Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of The American Dream" and "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America". She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. If you want to read the piece that we were talking about we'll have a link on our website. Barbara, thank you so much for stopping by.

EHRENREICH: Oh, my pleasure.

MARTIN: And now we want to hear from you. Do you think unemployment is a chance for personal growth, an opportunity for political empowerment? And if you've lost your job, do you think re-training programs are a solution or a waste of time? To tell us more about what you think, please call our comment line 202-842-3522 again that's 202-842-3522, please remember to tell us your name or you can go to our website, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org and blog it out.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Recent Op-Ed by Barbara Ehrenreich