Laid Off in America

Laid Off in America

The Disposable American by Louis Uchitelle

The Disposable American
by Louis Uchitelle
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 283 pp., $25.95

The Disposable American appeared in bookstores at the same time that protesters in France were filling the streets objecting to a law that made it easier to lay off young workers. The American press was aghast at the French protests. The headlines tell the story: Wall Street Journal: “The Decline of France”; Washington Post: “French take to the Streets to Preserve their Economic Fantasy”; New York Times: “France’s Misguided Protesters.”

All these articles argued that labor laws and social protections in France are outmoded and must be reformed. What France needed, according to these stories, was fewer labor protections and less job security; in short, the kind of “flexible” labor markets favored by corporations in the United States.

The French government’s rationale for its new labor law was a flawless example of what passes as economic reasoning these days. If you make it easier for employers to fire people, they will be more likely to hire people, thus reducing France’s appalling unemployment rate of 9.6 percent.

The protesters, not burdened with advanced degrees in economics, couldn’t find the logic in the government’s proposal. Fire more people so more people can be hired? They understood that what corporations call flexibility—the right to fire workers at will—is what workers experience as disposability.

Which brings us to Louis Uchitelle’s important and out-of-fashion book. Important because Uchitelle asks crucial questions about today’s economy. Why do we accept as inevitable the huge number of layoffs? Why is the standard of living of millions of workers declining in the world’s wealthiest economy? Why do the most vulnerable bear the burden of economic change? Why have the Democrats abandoned their historic commitment to full employment and tight labor markets? Out of fashion because these questions are not part of the political debate in the United States.

Uchitelle, an economics correspondent for the New York Times, is a relentless reporter, driven to understand how layoffs, which were once seen as a sign of corporate failure and a violation of acceptable business behavior, gradually became standard management practice. Conservative estimates are that layoffs have affected at least thirty million full-time workers in the last two decades. Uchitelle makes a persuasive case that the real number is probably twice that. The undercount is important because it “suppresses the alarm that would prompt us to pull back from such damaging behavior.”

The Disposable American tells all sides of the layoff tale. Uchitelle presents a portrait of the three chief executive officers who ran Stanley Works, the tool manufacturer, from 1968...

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