WASHINGTON -- This is a funny kind of Labor Day. It seems that everybody in America is looking for work -- but the country that put capitalist success on the map for ordinary people can't remember how to do it now. That if you'd like to interview American CEOs, you'd better go to Beijing or Shenzhen rather than Cleveland or Detroit.
Yes, I am old enough, and my memory polished enough, to remember the "days of yore." Friends and relatives would come to our family cottage in Wisconsin and sit cozily on the porch over the lake. The men, who were the only ones who then "worked," barely talked about their jobs. It was a given that they had some kind of labor.
After all, this was America. This was the country that developed big industries. In Chicago, we didn't live too far from the enormous steel mills. There were small companies in most of the neighborhoods. We didn't go elsewhere for work; the foreign immigrants, who included many of my grandparents' generation, came HERE for work.
We were not rich, but we were happy. Most of all, we were confident. The future would be even better.
All that has changed. The unemployment rate soars, the deficit and debt go through the roof, and -- most odd of all -- no one talks about the real cause of the problems, which is something we are finally beginning to face this year: globalization.
Last week while going through my papers, I came upon a notebook from 1997 about the annual meeting of the leaders and thinkers of the world at Davos, Switzerland. Reviewing the endless speeches and seminars, I was struck by how everyone there simply assumed that globalization was going to save the world; that even laborers would have their lives transformed by corporations that relocated to labor-cheap countries overseas. Of course, there were no laborers at Davos.
The idea that American corporations should have any loyalty to the nation that spawned them and helped build them up by providing them with roads, airports, ports, the education of workers, a beautiful land and dignity in the world, would have been laughed out of the halls. But no one even spoke of this, much less laughed about it.
Men who went proudly to work at those steel mills in South Chicago and Gary, Ind., now work not at all. And despite all the talk that they would be "retrained" for the "service economy" to come, that isn't happening. Ah, but some people ARE getting rich.
"The simple fact is," Jeffrey Sachs, the director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, wrote in one of the few honest pre-Labor Day columns, this one in the Financial Times, "that globalization has not only hit the unskilled hard but has also proved a bonanza for the global super-rich. They have been able to invest in new and highly profitable projects in emerging economies. Meanwhile, as Warren Buffett argued this week, they have been able to convince their home governments to cut tax rates on profits and high incomes in the name of global tax competition. ...
"In the end, the poor are doubly hit, first by global market forces, then by the ability of the rich to park money at low taxes in hideaways around the world."
The run-up to Labor Day saw a few articles that showed how we Americans should be ferociously mad at our corporations. The Washington Post ran a front-page story about how some of the country's most famous multinational corporations refuse to give out figures on numbers of employees in the U.S. and those abroad.
"So secretive are these companies that they hand the figure over to government statisticians on the condition that officials will release only an aggregate number," the article says. "The latest data show that multinationals cut 2.9 million jobs in the United States and added 2.4 million overseas between 2000 and 2009. Some of the same companies that do not report their jobs breakdown, including Apple and Pfizer, are pushing lawmakers to cut their tax bills in the name of job creation in the United States."
Apple and Pfizer, indeed, are part of a coalition pushing Congress to give them a tax break on money they have outsourced overseas -- they argue that bringing the money "home" would spur hiring.
But then, even some of the CEOs whom President Obama has hired to advise him come from some of the companies that have ceased to call America "home." GE's chief executive Jeff Immelt is one. GE, as it happens, no longer pays taxes in America, and its number of overseas workers now exceeds 54 percent of its total employment.
Immelt recently said that companies just "got carried away" with outsourcing. "I'm a GE leader first and foremost," he insisted. "At the same time ... I work for an American company."
Could have fooled me.
Even the great Steve Jobs came in for some "constructive criticism." According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Apple says it directly employs 47,000 worldwide, approximately 30,000 of them working in the United States. But it employs no production workers; they work in China through Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned contractor with at least 250,000 people working on Jobs' creations. They were paid 50 cents an hour until a number of suicides, plus labor unrest, shook things up.
Happy Labor Day!