Revaluing Work: Class Division Exacerbated By Immigration Hits A Wall (Finally)
July 23, 2009, 05:00 AM
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The rapid changes in society caused by technology and bad public policy have had some negative side effects, to say the least. When computers began to come on like gangbusters, the big influential brains foresaw a brilliant future for America based on information technology. That vision might have been more accurate if not for outsourcing and cheap H-1b labor, but a Jetsons meme took hold, and the educational system retooled and re-imagined accordingly. No more icky manufacturing spewing dirt into the air: America`s future would be white-collar, educated and take place in a clean comfy office.

And as the knowledge economy looked increasingly like the hip New Wave, the blue-collar people producing things in factories became seen as old-fashioned and expendable.

A contributing factor was the rush to outsourcing that ripped the heart out of America`s manufacturing base. Business discovered cheap and exploitable labor offshore, and millions of middle-class blue-collar citizens were kicked aside. There was great suffering, but elites didn`t care because the affected people hadn`t graduated from college and therefore didn`t matter much. Anyway, that sparkly new future beckoned.

For those jobs that couldn`t be sent abroad to be done by exploitable non-Americans, the gates were unofficially opened to millions of legal and illegal foreigners, who came with a "Kick Me/ Pay Me Less" sign.

The dismantling of American manufacturing was well documented in the popular 1992 book, America: What Went Wrong?. By Donald L. Barlett and James Steele. The book started out as a newspaper series in the Philadelphia Inquirer and generated the paper`s largest ever reader response: 20,000 letters, calls and requests for reprints back in the days before email.

(The authors later authored the much-noticed 2004 Time Magazine     cover story on the porous border—and were subsequently let go in one of those coincidental media downsizings, another example of how bad things seem to happen to professional journalists who write critically about immigration).

Along with the changes in the way America made a living came a change in attitude. The class division between blue and white collar enlarged. It didn`t help that the blue-collar middle class was shredded by the twin evils of immoderate immigration and outsourcing.

The immigration part of the equation further downgraded the status of workers. Jobs that were once performed by Americans were increasingly occupied by foreigners receiving lower wages and laboring in workplaces that had become more dangerous. A generation of young Americans in many locales has grown up thinking that foreigners build houses and work in meatpacking plants. However, just a couple of decades earlier, those same occupations provided middle-class lives for previous generations.

Good sense is a rare commodity in public life these days, but there is a definite wave of resistance forming up against the rejection of honest work. The failure of the knowledge economy to bring a prosperity paradise has propelled growing doubt about how the work world has been redesigned, and people wonder what has been lost. Plus the new world of sterile cubicles has turned out to be unsatisfying to the human spirit.

A significant indicator has been the attention stirred up by Matthew B. Crawford`s recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft, coming from sources as dissimilar as the Washington Post and  Popular Mechanics.

It helps that the author has quantifiable intellectual cred—a PhD in political philosophy—so he has been taken seriously by the book reviewer set. A tough job market for professors set him on a path toward repairing motorcycles and reflecting on the value of manual labor. The May 24 New York Times Magazine carried his essay titled, The Case for Working with Your Hands.

"The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some "vintage" cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

After finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago in 2000, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university`s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift workshop I set up in the basement of a Hyde Park apartment building, where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm. "

As someone who has lived in both worlds, Crawford has the academic vocabulary and the experience to comment on the ingenuity required in automotive repair. (If you have listened to Car Talk, NPR`s humorous radio program of vehicle diagnosis presented by MIT graduates Tom and Ray Magliozzi, you already know that smarts are necessary to interpret mechanical symptoms.)

Crawford tells a cubicle horror story about an early academic job that consisted of writing abstracts about journal articles on topics that were often completely mysterious to him. Yet his superiors cared only that the numerical quota was met, not about the accuracy of his descriptions. The deceit nagged his conscience and compared negatively with his experience of motorcycle mechanics as honest and personally fulfilling work.

"Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don`t feel tired even though I`ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn`t ridden his bike in a while. "

The Crawford article struck a chord with many readers.

PatriziaNorth of Whitehorse Yukon:
Boy, was this ever an article that needed to be written! As a former teacher of college English, over and over again I saw teenage boys who were far too restless/unmotivated to be in a classroom. Yet that was where their parents wanted them to be, based on our society`s message that only "intellectual" jobs have prestige and value. [...] The other vital point that the writer makes is the moral value, the "soul shaping," of work that is concrete. One of the many ways in which we`re adrift, at least in the Western world, is our loss of connection between our senses and the natural world.

Francoise of Chicago:
You have no idea how much this article means to me. I suspect—hope—it represents the beginning of a shift in thinking. [...] When we were young, living in tidy blue-collar towns, working in a trade and building things was still a respected way to a good life. How funny to remember my work at the huge consulting firm in the 90s, hearing people talk about the tech industry and knowledge economy replacing the `old industrial model`, and then watching so many of those tech/knowledge jobs quitely blip overseas.

Michelle of Mansfield Ohio:
This is such a great and timely piece. As a college instructor I see many kids pushed into classes, and then a degree that they do not find interesting and which will most likely not serve them well on the job market. My father ran a small construction business for most of his life, and when it came to quantitative analysis or mechanical or spatial problem-solving, he was utterly brilliant. He had a high-school diploma; the rest of his education was outdoors, on the job. Our society needs to get over its white-collar snobbery, and high school guidance counselors need to rediscover vocational education as an equally valid career path.

You can listen to a June 12 interview with Crawford on San Francisco`s KQED, where he discusses the appeal of the trades, that jobs like mechanic resist easy dumbing down and are more intellectually engaging. The concrete results—the bike runs or it does not—provide tangible rewards that dealing in abstractions cannot. He believes that the widespread dismantling of school shop classes in the 1990s was a serious mistake. The Educational Establishment believed that everyone would be sitting in front of computer and therefore skills acquired about woodworking and auto mechanics would no longer be valuable. They were wrong, but their students paid the price.

Noting that a Mercedes no longer has a dipstick, Crawford thinks that the removal of tools and the awareness of how things work has also engendered a kind of passivity and dependence in the modern personality. He sees a larger effect in society—the knowledge worker may be narcissistic and disconnected from reality, while the washing machine repairman must be engaged and empirical because his effectiveness is directly measured.

Another promising sign: the promotion of blue-collar education by Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader of the California Senate. (Not many good ideas come from that quarter, so this item is welcome.) Perhaps the realization is dawning in Sacramento that the new dropout culture spawned by diverse immigration requires a more practical approach to workforce training.

If only Sacramento Democrats were as realistic about spending...

Bulldozing money toward California public schools (projected at $11,626 per student in 2008-09) has not helped graduation rates and literacy. The required high school exit exam to test basic proficiency in math and reading has proved tough in particular for English learner kids, only 72.8 percent of whom graduated in 2008. Similarly, graduation rates are declining in Los Angeles USD, with one study finding that only 48 percent of students there graduate on time.

So Vocational Ed looks more appealing on a pragmatic basis. Of course, many smart kids don`t want a joyless cubicle existence and would rather work constructively with their hands as well as their minds.

Charles Murray dissected sacred cows of the bachelors degree in a 2008 article, Are Too Many People Going to College? , subsequently expanded into Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing American Schools Back to Reality. He believes the foundations of a traditional liberal arts education should be taught in high school, thereby making a four-year college education less necessary for training responsible citizens.

"We now go from one extreme to the other, from the ideal of liberal education to the utilitarian process of acquiring the knowledge that most students go to college to acquire—practical and vocational. The question here is not whether the traditional four-year residential college is fun or valuable as a place to grow up, but when it makes sense as a place to learn how to make a living. The answer is: in a sensible world, hardly ever. "

The university establishment must not like the opinion becoming more widespread that their product is no longer a sine qua non. The ivory tower remains one of the most protected elite bastions in America.

Thus California`s once-exemplary K-college school system has been rocked at the student level because of the state`s fiscal meltdown. Classes and enrollment have been slashed while student fees are going up $662 this fall on UC campuses. Yet amidst this crisis, salaries at the top have rocketed into the stratosphere. A recent offender was the hiring of a new chancellor at UC Davis for a salary of $400,000 (a 27 percent increase over the predecessor) plus free university housing, an $8,900 yearly car allowance, a $100,000 relocation subsidy and other expensive perks.

Of course, nothing enhances respect for work like the lack of it—and the cratering economy is also stimulating critical thoughts about life and labor. The excesses and corruption of our own age`s robber barons certainly make the traditional values of the individual craftsman shine anew.

Such a revaluing of work is all to the good. A return to more traditional respect for honest labor, particularly the skilled sort, would do a lot to erase unnecessary class divisions that have arisen under the new order.

It has always been a lie for the Open Borders crowd to say there are jobs Americans won`t do (wages go curiously unmentioned). But it would be more difficult to foist that fabrication on a less class-conscious society.

Immigrants can pack up and go home because more Americans are coming to understand they were never needed in the first place.

Brenda Walker (email her) lives in Northern California and publishes two websites, LimitsToGrowth.org and ImmigrationsHumanCost.org. Her favorite memory of shop class is when a ne`er-do-well friend in high school made a professional quality banjo in wood shop when the other boys were building shelves and birdhouses. It made everyone in the school pay attention to him in a new way and certainly made shop class look more interesting.