U.S. workforce: permanently downsized?

Who's to say U.S. corporations aren't all too comfortable with high unemployment and plenty of cash?

July 11, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Those of us who managed to hold onto our jobs through the four U.S. recessions since 1981 have grown used to seeing the workforce around us downsized, with human beings "outsourced" or replaced by machines and new technologies. We've also seen the economy bounce back and even expand, though our wages remained flat during most of that time. A couple of those recessions didn't do much permanent damage.

But something's different now. With Friday's breathtaking government report noting only 18,000 new jobs in June after only 25,000 in May, with U.S. unemployment at 9.2 percent — and at least 8 percent for the last 28 months — you're allowed to wonder if we haven't entered an era of downsized permanence.

The nation's biggest companies are seeing nice profits. Salaries and bonuses for corporate executives are up. But companies and banks are sitting on billions upon billions in cash reserves, too cautious to invest in the domestic jobs that might move the country forward again, content to continue cutting costs (primarily labor) or to send jobs offshore instead of investing to expand their businesses.

So who's to say this won't be a permanent condition?

Who's to say U.S. corporations aren't all too comfortable with this? Why should they spend more on salary and benefits when things are going pretty well — productivity is up — with unemployment north of 9 percent?

Pardon my pessimism (or you can call it cynicism), but while the great American class war continues, with the wealthiest elite becoming even wealthier and with Wall Street hardly skipping a beat after the economic meltdown of 2008, I don't see any sudden pangs of corporate conscience or patriotism pushing us into a grand expansion.

Six months ago this week, President Barack Obama invited 20 corporate executives to Blair House to urge them to begin hiring and investing for the good of the country. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! "We focused on jobs and investment and they feel optimistic that, by working together, we can get some of the cash off the sidelines," Mr. Obama told reporters after the meeting.

But Rep. John Boehner, the House speaker-in-waiting at the time, sent out a Tweet that called the meeting a "nothingburger."

Wishful thinking on Mr. Boehner's part, of course, but he appears to have been correct. Today, government estimates on cash reserves held by U.S. corporations run from $1.6 trillion to $2 trillion, a record.

In earlier recessions, there was acceptance of the cyclical nature of the American economy as well as faith in the innovation that marked the nation's global leadership. Something will come along, we told ourselves. At high school and college commencements, someone always expressed confidence that, as bad as things looked, there would be another period of growth, and it was just ahead, fueled by something we couldn't yet see. Yes, new technologies would eliminate jobs, but there would be plenty of work for retrained workers in the Information Age.

OK. But I know IT professionals who haven't been able to find work through the Great Recession. "There are too many of us," an unemployed friend in that field told me last year.

There was consumerism, of course. Plenty of spending, plenty of plastic, plenty of debt. Seventy percent of the American economy was based on people buying stuff, including houses, from other people.

Well, we know how that worked out.

So here we are — in a period of sustained high unemployment (with more than 400,000 people applying for jobless benefits each week for the last two months) and a stalled recovery, while companies that laid off workers during the recession are seeing healthy profits again, and the CEOs of the 200 top American companies saw their compensation go up last year by 23 percent.

Americans understand and, unfortunately, accept all this. We know about the corporate suits and Wall Street. Their greed is just a fact of life. All the government needs to do is cut spending and keep giving tax breaks to the rich. Corporate America — not the federal government — will stimulate the recovery, and it will all trickle down.

Who believes that anymore? The population keeps growing. Where are the hundreds of thousands of jobs going to come from to meet the demand? And why should U.S. corporations create them? Because the president asked them to? Because it's the right thing to do? You could laugh, but it wouldn't be respectful to our fellow Americans who are unemployed. More than 6 million of them haven't worked in six months or more.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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