Three Things We Learned

There is no silver lining to the cloud of horror that descended on America last week. And the avalanche of pain, terror, and death we have witnessed may be just the beginning.


But life, as always, slowly picks up and moves on. Despite the nagging sense that it is unseemly to begin thinking about the economic consequences, the country is once again back in the market. Investors are selling the stocks of insurance companies and airlines, buying those of military contractors and companies that will benefit from the new security-conscious society. Economists are calculating the gains and losses and guessing about the odds of a recession.


Many are engaged in burying the dead and tending to the survivors, or facing the awesome responsibility of satisfying the national demand for action that serves justice rather than multiplying evil. Those of us who are going back to business have an obligation, as we do, to reflect on what we have seen.


The attacks of last Tuesday revealed some truths about the American political economy that have been obscured in recent years.


One is just how much of our economy is made up of what used to be called the "working class" -- the non-supervisory, non-college-educated people who make up 70 percent of our labor force. For the last half-dozen years the media saw economic trends through the eyes of the glamorous, globe-trotting, business executive -- to the point where it seemed to many that they must represent the vast majority of American workers. And one could hardly find a more fitting symbol of the new global economy than the World Trade Center -- surrounded in the evening with a herd of sleek limousines waiting to serve the masters of the universe at the end of the day.


And yet, it turns out, that the building was run by thousands of data clerks and secretaries, waiters and dishwashers, janitors and telecommunication repair people. The roll of trade unions mourning their dead is long: firefighters, hotel and restaurant employees, police, communication workers, service employees, teachers, federal employees, pilots and flight attendants, longshoremen, professional engineers, operating engineers, the electrical workers, federal employees, building trades, and state, county, and municipal employees.


And many were in no union, meaning job insecurity, no benefits, and certainly no limousines.


A second insight revealed by the awful gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline was how ill-served we have been by a politics that perpetuates the illusion that we are all on our own and, in particular, holds the institutions of public service in contempt. For two decades, politicians of both parties have celebrated the pursuit of private gain over public service. Shrinking government has become a preoccupation of political leaders through deregulation, privatization, and cuts in public services.


One result is that the U.S. is the only major nation that leaves airline and airport security in the hands of private corporations, which by their very nature are motivated to spend as little as possible. So the system was tossed in the lap of lowest-bid contractors who hired people for minimum wages. Training has been inadequate and supervision extremely lax. Turnover was 126 percent a year and the average employee stayed in airline security for only six months. Getting a job at Burger King or McDonald's represented upward mobility for the average security worker. In an anti-government political climate the airline corporations were able to shrug off the government inspections that consistently revealed how easy it was to bring weapons on board. The competition for customers sacrificed safety to avoid any inconvenience. How else to explain the insane notion that a 3-1/2 inch knife blade is not a weapon?


Private provision of public services has been the dominant philosophy of government in our time. Only natural, the economists told us. People were motivated by money. It's human nature. "Greed is good," said the movie character in the send-up of Wall Street -- a sentiment echoed by politicians of both parties. "Collective solutions are a thing of the past . . . The era of big government is over. . . . You are on your own." Public service was "old" economy, just for losers. A teacher in New York City schools starts at $30,000. A brand new securities lawyer starts at $120,000. Does anyone believe that this represents sensible priorities?


And does anyone believe that the firefighters who marched into that inferno did it for money? Does anyone think that people working for a private company hiring people for as little as possible would have had the same motivation -- would have been as efficient? At the moment when efficiency really counts?


When the chips are down, where do we turn? To the government's firefighters, police officers, rescue teams. To the nonprofit sectors' blood banks and shelters. And to Big Government's army, navy, and air force. During his campaign, the president of the United States constantly complained that the people knew how to spend their money better than the government did. Overnight, we just appropriated $40 billion for the government to spend however it sees fit. Who else would we trust?


The stock market itself made one point. Despite calls for investors to exercise patriotic restraint, the market opened with an avalanche of sell orders, driving the Dow to its largest point loss in history. As one broker said, "This is how capitalism is supposed to work." Just so. The market is about prices, not values. Finally, perhaps we learned something about our national identity.


It is common -- almost a cliché -- among political philosophers and pundits to define America as an "exception." For many, America's exceptionalism means that it is the best place to get rich. For others, it is our unique set of laws -- our Bill of Rights. Still others see America not in national terms at all, but as a patchwork of ethnic groups and regional interests.


There is some truth in all of these views. But those who risked and gave their lives -- both the public servants and the brave civilian passengers who rushed the terrorists and forced the airliner down in Pennsylvania before it could get to Washington -- are unlikely to have acted out of reverence for the deregulated market or for our court system or for some ethnic or religious loyalty.


Everything we know tells us that they acted as human beings responding to the agony of other human beings, or trying in one last desperate effort to spare their country more damage, not because it is the world's superpower but simply because it is their country. No country has a monopoly on simple patriotism. If America is, as the politicians often remind us, the "last best hope" for humankind, then it is not because we as individuals are exceptional and different from the rest of the world, but because we are much the same -- full of the normal set of human traits, which at times of stress often bring out the best in us. It is obvious that we can no longer rely on our exceptionalism to keep us safe. In the coming weeks and months and years we are likely to be reminded of that. To get through this, we need to be disabused quickly of the illusion that we are all on our own. America's strength, like the strength of any other society, is in our ability to be there for each other.




Jeff Faux is the President of the Economic Policy Institute, Epinet.org, where this and other related commentaries can be found.


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