Tuesday, September 6, 2005

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September's anti-Book of the Month

The topic of Slate's Book Club this week is Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream . The book is about Ehrenreich's efforts to create a fictional persona and land a job in "media/public relations work." Along the way, the career self-help industry is mocked.

Let's see how the reviewrs went for it. Hmmmm.... Tyler Cowen didn't like it very much:

Our sleuth makes a mistake analogous to the one that marred Nickel and Dimed. In that earlier experiment, she entered life as a low-income worker, yet without many support systems. She had no church, no family, and no reliance on friends for financial or even moral aid. It is no wonder she found life so tough and capitalism so demoralizing. She lived an ordinary "lower class" life, yet with upper-middle-class, modern, academic morals and methods.

This time she cuts herself off from networks and personal contacts. She does recruit some friends to lie for her and back up her vita, should anyone call and ask about her past. But there is not a single voice to spread the word about her. Nor can she fall back on accumulated experience and contacts, for that would reveal her identity. So, she stalks the job world as a paper ghost. Alan, I wonder what would you—as a rational employer—make of a 60ish-year-old woman who appears out of nowhere and has no pre-existing contacts, offers, or networks? And what job is more a matter of personal contacts than public relations?

Ehrenreich is clueless when it comes to job searching. The book jacket describes her "series of EST-like boot camps, job fairs, networking events, and evangelical job-search ministries. She is proselytized, scammed, lectured, and—again and again—rejected." The reader is never sure if she goes through all this to express her contempt for the participants in those enterprises, or if she truly believes this is the best way to look for a job. At one point she visits a Web site and pays $200 an hour for a weekly phone consultation; she is then told to fantasize about her ideal job. A worthy anecdote, yes, but should I assume this very smart woman was doing her best?

Nor was Ehrenreich a model interviewee. For one meeting she was late. She was asking for salaries of $60,000-$70,000, and at least once she asked for $100,000. Her (phony) résumé is stacked with a long succession of short-term contracts, none showing much commitment. One interviewer tells her she seems "angry."....

On the topic of practical experience with a process, let me offer mine. Through my work in my university, I have been involved in interviewing, hiring, and working with a media and PR person. First, we knew people who knew the hire; personal recommendations were an important signal of quality. Second, had a candidate behaved as Ehrenreich did, she would not have made the first cut.

Well, one would have expected Cowen, a free market economist, to dislike Ehrenreich. Surely Alan Wolfe, the other reviewer, who believes that capitalism, "cause[s] needless suffering to far too many innocent people," has a more positive take?

He does not:

Dear Tyler:

No, actually, I cannot muster much, if any, enthusiasm for Bait and Switch. If anything, you may be too kind to Ehrenreich. The least of her problems is her cluelessness about what it takes to find work. I found even more disturbing her tendency to lecture those who lack her presumably superior understanding of how the world works.

Do not read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Kieran Healy weighs in on Ehrenreich and suggests an intriguing alternative read.

posted by Dan on 09.06.05 at 03:06 PM


I don't plan to read this, but I have read Nickel and Dimed. Cowen's statement about that book is nonsense. Ehrenreich was trying to live the way a typical low wage worker would. In fact, she had some advantages (knowledge of English) that many such workers don't have. Cowen seems to think that she should have quietly accepted her lot as a low wage worker rather than struck to so-called 'upper middle class" dreams.

That being said, Ehrenreich's old book showed a lamentable lack of knowledge of economics. She ranted on at length in that book about how the house cleaning company she worked for charged her services at $22 per hour, but gave her only $5 or $6 per hour, ignoring all the costs that are involved in the cleaning company's number). She also spent a lot of time blasting Wal Mart (where she worked), ignoring the fact that Wal Mart actually helps to provide cheap goods for lot sof poorer Americans.

So she's economically illiterate and obsessed with class warfare.

posted by: erg on 09.06.05 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Cohen's remarks make one think that maybe Cohen never actually had one of those nasty jobs. He (or she) says

" She had no church, no family, and no reliance on friends for financial or even moral aid."

Um, yeah. That about sizes up the situation for a lot of poor people. Thats why they are poor. If they had those supports very often ... they stop being poor.

But family, church and morality are desparately fickle supports, as people who are poor know. A nice university job, like Cohen's will do wonders next to poverty boosted by a good work ethic. Church might be great, it might not. But nothing works like 50 grand in the bank. Thats just how the game is set up.

Capitalism is great. It produces all sorts of really useful things as well a oceans of things that are just useless and stupid. It creates wealth and it creates poverty. It is not a perfect system and no sane person ever said it was. It has to be governed and its failings have to be recognized.

Thats why I like "Nickled and Dimed". It said, "no the system doesn't always make everyone free and happy."

Capitalism is not abstract like Communism. It does not guide toward a distant hopeful good. It charges off in one direction or another, much like a force of nature. If you can ride it, you get rich. It you can't, it eats you. Why is this hard to accept?

posted by: exclab on 09.06.05 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Nickel and Dimed is a fine book, or at least a fine idea for an essay that was stretched into too long a book. The new one sounds daffy, but who can blame her, after a best seller comes another book, who thinks Steven Levitt's next book will be as entertaining as Freakonomics?

In the US the low minimum wage makes it much more difficult than in other Western countries to get up the ladder.
For instance in Australia the minimum wage is $AU11, which in Australia will buy you about as much as $US11 will in the US.

This is reflected in recent income group mobility statistics that show that the US is no longer the 'land of opportunity' that it once was and that people are more mobile in other developed countries than the US, wheras this was once the opposite.

The US is also richer than almost all other reasonable sized countries. The low minimum wage and higher high wages may contribute or they may not.

exclab, there are many flavours of capitalism. The US's current finance capitalism is just one of them. In them it is easier to get wealthy than in any other system that has ever been tried.

posted by: sien on 09.06.05 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

I completely agree. There are many kinds of capitalism as there are finches. Capitalism changes. Its not a creed or a right. What I object to is the assumption taken by many that the poor are some how ignorable because they don't fit the model of a creedful, righteous capitalism; the idea the capitalism is a destiny or a good. Capitalism, in every form I have heard of, creates poverty. I don't that means we shouldn't have it. We just have to be aware of its flaws. It always has flaws. So you have to maintain it. Just like a machine or beuracracy.

posted by: exclab on 09.06.05 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

exclab posted:

"Capitalism, in every form I have heard of,
creates poverty."

CREATES poverty?

Does that mean other economic systems have no
poverty? Or that they were hugely prosperous
overall and when turned 'capitalist' they went
into the dumpster?

You may want to read about [or google] conditions
in the former Soviet Union or Communist China
BEFORE they switched to their current mild forms
of 'capitalism'.

excepting, of course, a tiny group of the
elite, that system hasn't CREATED poverty.


The problem in the US is that while many
people are 'well off', a still large
percentage of folks - say 15-20% - are

But compare that percentage to non-capitalistic
Africa. Or the Arabian Pennisula.

The proto-socialist model of Europe may
be more to your liking. But you need to
check back in, say, 20 years to see if
that model has survived. The trends,
except to Jeremy Rifkin, don't look
so encouraging.

While US capitalism may not be the best
of all possible systems, it sure seems
to be working much better than anything
else that has been tried.

posted by: ted on 09.06.05 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

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