Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)
By Jared Bernstein
San Francisco: 2008
225 pages; $26.95
The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker
By Steven Greenhouse
New York: 2008.
384 pages; $25.95
This year's polite term for the economic situation of so many Americans appears to be "squeeze," if the titles of these two books are any guide. Despite the similar terminology and theme, though, they provide very different types of account of the American economy, and even more so different levels of explanations for why what's going on is going on and what forces might be responsible.
Jared Bernstein has written an economics book for the general reader. Crunch is organized for the most part into two-to-three-page answers to laypeople's questions such as "What's it going to take for large-scale health reform to occur?" and "Seems like we're forever blowing bubbles. What is an economic bubble, why are they bad, and can they be avoided?" Answers explain basic economic principles, often critiquing dominant beliefs in the field of economics -- revealing unacknowledged ideological slants in economic analyses generally delivered as fact. The book therefore delivers a number of lessons, including the basic factual answers to questions, this critique of the field of economics, and an accompanying discussion of how the nation's economy is shaped by power relations. Bernstein's book is a valuable resource, accessibly written (if anything, I sometimes found the jocular asides and humorous tangents a bit overdone) and organized to provide the reader with concise talking points on the issues.
Where Bernstein seeks to explain the economy, with an eye to its macro-level organization and the immediate effects of that upon individuals, Steven Greenhouse's The Big Squeeze is descriptive, shying away from such attempts at broader analysis or explanation.
The Greenhouse book is depressing in two ways. One is a credit to its author; the other is not. The reporting is fine-grained and moving, telling the stories of dozens of American workers who have been "squeezed" -— abused, underpaid, overworked, downsized, and degraded. The reporting work is extraordinary; these are stories that everyone should know by heart until the revulsion that knowledge stirs banishes any more such realities from this nation. The success of Greenhouse’s reporting makes reading the book a miserable experience. What’s been done to American workers over the past few decades is appalling.
As stellar as the reporting involved is, and as complete a picture of the day-to-day indignities and oppressions of many American workplaces as it provides, ultimately Greenhouse’s failure to confront the implications of his reporting is nearly as depressing as the stories he tells. He opens the book with this question:
Not long after I began peering inside the nation’s workplaces as labor correspondent for the New York Times, I was taken aback by what I often found there—squalid treatment, humbling indignities, relentless penny-pinching. The United States may see itself as the City on the Hill, but many of its citizens labor in dismal swamps. Why, I kept asking myself, are there so many unseemly, even shocking things taking place inside the workplaces of the world’s richest nation?
And then, for hundreds of pages, he refuses to provide a direct answer it is more than clear he knows.
Time and time again Greenhouse painstakingly details how a major corporate employer lays off productive workers so that financial analysts will tell shareholders to be happy, how orders go down through the ranks for regional managers to squeeze individual store managers, who pass that squeeze down to cashiers and stockroom workers in the form of hours illegally deleted from timesheets, forced time off the clock so that a worker won’t be eligible for overtime, harassment and intimidation for any of a hundred petty reasons that will make a worker’s life miserable for the sake of a few cents more profit for the corporation. And time and time again, Greenhouse backs off of connecting the dots he has so painstakingly mapped.
In 9 of 10 stories he recounts, human misery is something attributable to corporate policy and corporate greed. It is not an accident, it is not a subject of regret. It is intentionally, rigorously inflicted, with wanton disregard for the law and for any sense of a morality based in anything but money.
Yet in this book Greenhouse will not step back and admit he knows it. Though throughout the book, the searing indignities and vicious abuses come at the hands of employers, when it comes time to draw conclusions, to suggest what could be done to improve the lot of America’s workers, his most strongly-phrased suggestions are directed at unions. Oh, he suggests more extensive and effective government regulation, and universal healthcare, but in a world in which "the typical CEO earns 369 times as much as the average worker, up from 131 times in 1993 and 36 times in 1976," it is union leaders whose salaries Congress should take action to limit. Having clearly shown that it is corporations that most need to change their practices to improve the lot of American workers, Greenhouse is unwilling to suggest that they be confronted in any meaningful way.
In other words, this is a book written by a reporter beholden to traditional media notions of objectivity and neutrality. The facts have a liberal bias, so the analysis has to correct for that. It is a sad commentary on reporting that a book written by someone who has, in his role as labor reporter at the New York Times, been one of the most important sources of information on work and workers in this country.
Reading Greenhouse left me desperate to read something that took these questions on, not just detailing the effects of inequality but analyzing it as something actively produced. Bernstein's book provided some measure of that, but precisely its accessible, convenient organization into brief, focused discussions of particular questions makes it more difficult to extract the overarching narratives contained within. For that, Bernstein's earlier book All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy might provide a more straightforward account, as does Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift.
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