[Paleopsych] NYT Mag: New World Economy

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Dec 29 02:36:59 UTC 2005

New World Economy

[Joel Garreau's new book, _Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of 
Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies--and What It Means to be Human_ (NY: 
Doubleday, 2005) has just arrived. I am signed up to review it for _The 
Journal of Evolution and Technology_ and commenced reading it at once. 
Accordingly, I have stopped grabbing articles to forward until I have 
written my review *and* have caught up on my reading, this last going on 
for how many ever weeks it takes. I have a backlog of articles to send and 
will exhaust them by the end of the year. After that, I have a big batch 
of journal articles I downloaded on my annual visit to the University of 
Virginia and will dole our conversions from PDF to TXT at the rate of one 
a day. I'll also participate in discussions and do up and occasional 
meme. But you'll be on your own in analyzing the news. I hope I have given 
you some of the tools to do so.]

    The Way We Live Now

    In recent weeks, looking toward next year's midterm elections,
    leaders of both parties have engaged in highly charged arguments
    about withdrawal from Iraq, Medicaid shortfalls and allegations of
    Republican corruption. Anyone bothering to peruse the rest of the
    front page, however, might have noticed a few items that seemed
    tangentially related, but that, together, tell a story that is far
    more consequential for the next 50 years of American life. First,
    just before Thanksgiving, General Motors, buckling under the weight
    of $2 billion in losses, announced that it now planned to lay off
    30,000 workers and scale back or close a dozen plants. A few days
    later, at the traditional commencement of the holiday season,
    thousands of American consumers began lining up in the dark hours
    of morning to be among the first to pile into Wal-Mart, hoping to
    re-emerge with discounted laptops and Xboxes under their arms.
    Wal-Mart has now inherited G.M.'s mantle as the largest employer in
    the United States, which is why these snapshots of two
    corporations, taken in a single week, say more about America's
    economic trajectory than any truckload of spreadsheets ever could.

    G.M., of course, was the very prototype of 20th-century bigness,
    the flagship company for a time when corporate power was vested in
    the hands of a small number of industrial-era institutions. There
    is no question that rising labor costs hurt G.M., but that obscures
    the larger point of the company's decline; caught in the last
    century's mind-set, it has often been unable or unwilling to let
    consumers drive its designs, as opposed to the other way around.
    Must the company keep making Buicks and Pontiacs until the end of
    days, even as they recede into American lore? Many of the workers
    G.M. decided to lay off last month were its best and most
    productive. Their bosses simply couldn't give them a car to build
    that Americans really wanted to buy.

    As it happens, G.M.'s inability to adapt offers some perspective on
    our political process, too. Democrats in particular, architects of
    the finest legislation of the industrial age, have approached the
    global economy with the same inflexibility, at least since Bill
    Clinton left the scene. Just as G.M. has protected its outdated
    products at the expense of its larger mission, so, too, have
    Democrats become more attached to their programs than to the
    principles that made them vibrant in the first place. So what if
    Social Security and Medicaid functioned best in a world where most
    workers had company pensions and health insurance and spent their
    entire careers with one employer? The mere suggestion that these
    programs might be updated for a new, more consumer-driven economy
    sends Democratic leaders into fits of apoplexy.

    While G.M. rusts away like some relic from the last century,
    Wal-Mart beckons us toward our shrink-wrapped and discounted
    future. Wal-Mart's founding family is said to be wealthier than
    Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined, and yet more than half of
    the company's employees don't receive health care, and its enduring
    quest to bring us lower prices drives down wages everywhere. Here
    we have the model for globalization as Republicans envision it - a
    world in which rugged entrepreneurialism is overly romanticized and
    the unskilled expendable, and where shareholder profits are the
    only measure of success. Republicans have embraced the future of
    the global marketplace, but to them the future looks a lot like
    "Road Warrior."

    The debate over Wal-Mart centers on whether it is, on the whole,
    good or not so good. Jason Furman, a Democratic policy expert, has
    prepared a persuasive report for the Center for American Progress
    in which he notes that Americans may have saved as much as $263
    billion last year - that's $2,329 per household - by shopping at
    Wal-Mart, which amounts to the equivalent of a massive tax break.
    This argument over Wal-Mart's virtue or villainy is interesting but
    ultimately academic; it is like having had an argument, at the dawn
    of the microchip, about the merits of automation. The service
    economy is a reality of our time, and it would be wishful to expect
    that its engine can sustain the middle class in the way that
    industry once did. Wal-Mart didn't ask to be the new G.M., and even
    if it wanted to treat its employees as generously, it couldn't;
    Furman concludes that Wal-Mart's profits would be obliterated by
    adopting companywide health care or a significant raise in wages.
    It makes little sense to blame one company for the pain caused by a
    profound economic transformation.

    What would be more constructive, probably, is a total reimagination
    of the basic contract between government, businesses and workers -
    a process that Clinton tentatively put in motion but that has since
    stalled as both parties retreated from the vexing challenges of
    globalization. After all, if you were going to sit down and create
    a system for our time, it probably wouldn't look much like the one
    we have. Does it make sense to expect businesses to finance lavish
    health care plans when foreign competition is forcing companies to
    cut their costs? Isn't government better equipped to insure a
    nomadic work force while employers take on the more manageable task
    of childcare - a problem that hardly existed 50 years ago? If
    government were to remove the burden of health care costs from
    businesses, enabling them to better compete, wouldn't it then be
    more reasonable to create disincentives for employers who are
    thinking of shipping their jobs overseas? Isn't the very notion of
    a payroll tax for workers antiquated and inequitable in a society
    where so many Americans earn stock dividends and where a growing
    number are self-employed? If they were to spend more time debating
    these and other longer-term questions, our politicians might have
    some small hope of leaving a legacy to match their predecessors' -
    a legacy better than the choice between the New Deal and no deal at

    Matt Bai, who covers national politics for the magazine, is working
    on a book about the Democratic Party.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list