Look out below
IN HIS book “High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families,” Peter Gosselin writes movingly of the personal wreckage endured by many Americans in today’s volatile economy. Gosselin, the Los Angeles Times’ national economics correspondent, chronicles in detail the emotional, physical and economic devastation caused by outsourced jobs and insurance companies that rescind coverage to the seriously ill, as well as the roller-coaster fortunes of U.S. workers competing in the global marketplace.
Gosselin paints a portrait of an America where citizens suffer profound dislocations because of vanishing safety nets and can expect to be discarded by corporations without comparable job prospects or benefits. The human cost, which he adroitly conveys, is heartbreaking. It is also, as he notes, widespread. He illustrates wild income swings that have left the poor, the middle class and even formerly well-do-do families suddenly struggling to survive. These dramatic plunges from lost jobs have now “reached into the majority of working American households.”
The relentless efforts of corporations to maximize profit has a human cost. For example, when Rebecca J. Rowlands was diagnosed with cancer, her insurance company, Blue Shield of California, promptly cut off her benefits in a process known as “post-claims underwriting,” or “rescissions.” Rowlands, her health deteriorating, fought back and won a settlement. But during that legal fight, as Gosselin notes, her chemotherapy was delayed for a prolonged period, saddling her with “increasingly severe medical problems” that are likely to leave her with “a six-figure medical debt.”
“High Wire” is filled with such tales: of people crushed by credit card debt, mortgages they should never have been granted, predatory lenders, as well as sudden and catastrophic unemployment caused by “outsourcing.”
Gosselin estimates that 60% of American homeowners no longer have enough insurance to replace their houses in the event of fire or other disasters but may not know it until they try to file a claim. That’s because most residential insurers are legally permitted to simply mail out hard-to-decipher notices of major policy changes, including the fact that full replacement costs are no longer covered. He shows that inadequate coverage and protections run the gamut -- healthcare, employment, worker safety and more.
Gosselin fails, however, to lift his reporting, based on a series of articles for The Times, into the coherent narrative needed in a book. He never steps back to make a broader, compelling argument about the orchestrated forces that are transforming our nation.
Managed capitalism, which allowed most Americans to prosper in the latter part of the 20th century, has been gradually dismantled. We now have a government that serves the interests of corporations rather than those of its citizens. The book’s lack of an examination of what this transformation means for our future gives a cut-and-paste feel to the individual stories, which is accentuated by charts and graphs. He includes too many leaden recapitulations of material in previous chapters.
The chapters, organized under such headings as jobs, health, housing, education, the poor and retirement, allow Gosselin to show pieces of the puzzle. They are important pieces. But unless we grasp that there is a dark logic to this transformation, that an engorged and empowered new oligarchy holds our economic and political life hostage to corporate interests and profits, we cannot grasp the grave implications for our future. Gosselin appears to tacitly accept this transformation, even as he describes its pernicious effects.
“The furious pace of technological progress, the global doubling of the workforce in the early twenty-first century, the emergence of such giants as China and India with their huge and well-educated legions of workers have rewritten the playbook,” he writes. “The old world in which business and government promised working families reasonably stable lives can never be restored.”
Is our transformation into a corporate state inevitable? Is it part of the march of human progress? Is globalization a force of nature? Do we really face no other alternative?
Those who promote the idea of totally free markets, including economists, television pundits, Washington think tank experts and elected officials, have successfully inoculated most of us from asking these questions. This is not a matter of an abuse here and an abuse there. The rise of a corporate state undercuts our most fundamental rights as citizens, creating a society in which we are forced to subordinate our common welfare to the higher priority of corporate profit. The corporate state champions, as our elite business schools do, little more than personal greed and self-interest. It disdains the public good. And the global consequences are terrifying.
Gosselin looks back to the Mayflower Compact, the 1620 agreement among the first colonists to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic” that would create laws and regulations “as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” The Mayflower Compact is a noble idea, as long as you don’t happen to be a Native American. So clearly, Gosselin does understand that many of us face serious problems without hope of government assistance or corrective regulation.
The U.S. economy has 3.2 million fewer jobs today than it did when President George W. Bush took office, including 2.5 million fewer manufacturing jobs. In the last three years, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. workers has been laid off. Among full-time workers who were laid off, roughly one-fourth are now earning less than $40,000 annually. According to the the U.S. Labor Department, 15 million workers are unemployed, underemployed or too discouraged to job hunt. There are whole sections of the United States that now resemble the developing world.
And the assault on the middle class is under way. Anything that can be put on computer software -- finance, architecture, engineering -- is being outsourced to workers in countries such as India and China at a fraction of the pay and without benefits. And a college education, Gosselin points out, is no longer a guarantee of a stable job. Instead, many young men and women are stuck with dead-end, low-paying jobs and massive student-loan debt.
The power of national, state and judicial authorities to respond has been neutralized through huge corporate campaign contributions, political action committees and armies of lobbyists. The consent of the governed has become an empty phrase.
We are now enduring an election year in which the mainstream political debate does not confront the advanced destruction of our democracy by the corporate state. Tens of millions of Americans want and need a single payer, not-for-profit healthcare system, but corporations are not about to see their profits diminished. But the two main candidates discuss everything except a not-for-profit system.
“High Wire” lacks the wider perspective found in books that also address this transformation, such as David Cay Johnston’s “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense” or John Ralston Saul’s “The Unconscious Civilization.” This is a pity, especially since the reporting is often first rate. Gosselin’s work is an important addition to the debate about our future, but the author’s failure to directly confront the leviathan of corporatism keeps his work trapped in the confines of daily journalism. *