Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

To Be Determined

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Total Black: $63.69
Total Red: $230,859.71

Visit any doctor’s office and you’ll find mounds and mounds of magazines.  US.  People.  Reader’s Digest.  I never understood why Reader’s Digest.  Who reads that any longer?  And typically among those stacks you’ll find one or two “serious” magazines, typically Newsweek or Time.  The last time I visited the doctor for the medical experiment, mentioned back in Another Update on Efforts, the cover of Time from September 21, 1999 caught my eye.  It read: “Out of Work in America: Why double-digit unemployment may be here to stay—and how to live with it.”  Not an attractive prospect.  I didn’t have time to read the article because my medical experiment visits are always rushed from room to room and examiner to examiner.  But I also didn’t want to leave behind that information.  So I swiped the magazine. 

Bad.  I know.  But the office had so many magazines already.  Who’d miss this one?  Besides it was already a month old.

At any rate, I finally got a moment to sit down and read the article by Joshua Cooper Ramo titled, “Jobless in America: Is Double-Digit Unemployment Here to Stay?”  In it Ramo looks into the cause of rising unemployment, but he first notes a curious predicament in the United States today.

“The problem is related to a hiccup in an economic rule called Okun’s law.  First mooted by economist Arthur Okun in 1962, the law (it’s really more of a rule of thumb) says that when the economy grows, it produces jobs at a predictable rate, and when it shrinks, it sheds them at a similarly regular pace.  It’s a labor version of how the accelerator on your car works: add gas, go faster; less gas, go slower. . . .  [T]his just-add-gas relationship may now be malfunctioning.  The American economy has been shedding jobs much, much faster than Okun’s law predicts.”

And it doesn’t look poised to stop.  Ramo goes on to say that “[f]rom December 2007 to August 2009, the economy jettisoned nearly 7 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  That’s a 5% decrease in the total number of jobs, a drop that hasn’t occurred since the end of World War II.  The number of long-term unemployed, people who have been out of work for more than 27 weeks, was the highest since the BLS began recording the number in 1948.”  The emphasis—perhaps unneeded—is mine.  This is startling.

I touched on the concern about the unemployed a bit back in Laborious Labor Day.  But back there I wasn’t focused on its resolution so much as the treatment of the unemployed.  Ramo’s article, however, seems to hint at a bleaker future.  In fact, he quips that “[w]e’re a long way from Hoovervilles, of course.  But it’s not hard to imagine, if we’re not careful, a country sprouting listless Obamavilles: idled workers minivanning aimlessly through overleveraged cul-de-sacs with no way to pay their mortgages, no health care, little hope of meaningful work and only the hot comfort of angry politics.”  What an image.  So vivid.  So sad really.

But what’s the solution?  I know that the law firm partners I worked for used the economic downturn as pretext to jettison quite a few associates.  In their monkey-see-monkey-do way the law firm followed-the-leader and increased salaries in tandem with competitor law firms.  Within my first year I received two raises.  Well, I didn’t; my entire class did.  Law firms ballooned with associates, so I suppose I can’t blame them for seeing and seizing their out.  But they could’ve structured another way.  They could’ve reduced our salaries, reduced our hours, or both.  They could have kept us on and switched us all to an hourly wage.  There’s a novel idea, effectively making us contract attorneys but by retaining the “associate” title.  Instead they just dumped us on the curb, like used trash, something I mentioned back in The Dearly Departed.  And we were now no longer their concern.  But that is, in fact, what concerns me.

Ramo notes in his article that “the 1930s option, to have the government directly employ millions of people in labor fronts, is not an option today.  ‘There’s no way to create real jobs using this approach,’ says Harvard professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger.  In the 1930s, you could throw 10,000 people with shovels at dam or road projects.  Today the work of 10,000 shovels is done by a few machines—and it was a lot easier to persuade farmers to switch to ditchdigging than it would be to get laid-off hedge-fund traders to switch to sewer repair, appealing as such an idea might be.”  Witticism aside, Ramo makes an interesting point, one for which I must admit my prior ignorance.

When the economy tanked and the reach of the Great Recession became clearer, I, too, thought the answer may lie in large government projects.  Telephone polls, for example, are extremely inefficient, not to mention ugly eyesores across America.  Why not switch to underground cabling and install fiber-optic cables—or whatever technology is most current—instead.  No more cars crashing into telephone polls.  No more downed electrical lines in hurricanes or bad storms.  Or how about upgrading our railroad system.  The government owns much of Amtrak; why not upgrade our railway system across the country?  But Ramo’s point is well taken; how many laid-off lawyers will put their laptops on the shelves and pick up a mallet instead and head out to wack down spikes in the sweltering Scranton sun?  Just to name a town that needs railway overhaul.  (And wants it!)  How many out-of-work bankers would swap their balance sheets for a backhoe and go to work each day building levees in the Gulf?

But maybe that’s not the point.

Sure, there would be a few—perhaps quite a few—and I can just see Anderson Cooper interviewing Blake Green, some lawyer-turned-laborer who sings us all the praises of manual labor, how he now understands what his grandfathers knew coming home tired but content from a hard day on the job.  He’ll tell us all about his efforts in submerging our power lines—and the beauty of a skyline cleared of those ugly black wires and barren brown poles.  Or perhaps a 60 Minutes piece about Samantha Jacobs, some stock market analyst from Chicago who now tends to the organic farm she’s built with a Build America’s Future loan—a sort of fin-de-siecle Recessionista in the guise of J.C. Wiatt from the 1987 film Baby Boom.  Yeah, sure . . . we’d have those few.  But in reality the bulk of the professionals would eventually work their way back into the systems from which they were shed.  Or go back to school.  Few highly educated can stomach manual labor.

Instead maybe the point is this: it may not be as easy to put those shovels into the hands of 10,000 people; but we still can do it. We can put people to work on important projects.  Perhaps not necessarily vital projects like a dam.  But something to make our infrastructure better.  Remember that bridge in Minnesota that collapsed?  Are all our buildings in California truly earthquake-proof?  And yes, I acknowledge that those shovels would tend to fall into the hands of men.  Such public works projects don’t typically create many pink positions.  But all these reasons—because many unemployed are highly educated, because these would be temporary jobs, because such jobs would mostly employ men—they’re not reasons not to do it.  They’re reasons to do these and other projects.  But let’s not cut off our noses to spite our faces.

The problem with unemployment in American now is that the truly unemployed are those who’ve lost their jobs because factories or warehouses or service plants shut down—and won’t reopen again.  What are we doing to help them?  How will we make the transition from the industrial era to the post-service industry.  Clearly we can’t expect them all to work at K-mart or Wal-Mart?  I just don’t understand the plan.  What do CEOs and other business leaders expect all those employees to do?  You certainly can’t keep a dying business in a town simply out of concern for the employees, especially if it will mean a slower death ultimately.  But why are employees the first to go?  Ramo’s article noted that those 10,000 shovels now-a-days can be replaced by a few machines.  But they don’t have to be.  Who’s holding a gun to the foreman’s head saying use those machines or else?

I’m left with more questions than I started with.  Something that started yesterday in Why? I guess it’s all yet to be determined.

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