With all this talk of recession, and the inevitable nostalgia for easier and more prosperous times, it is easy to forget that for many people the ‘business cycle’ is just an empty phrase. Not everyone shares in the wealth generated by higher growth rates; as Barbra Ehrenreich puts it in her book, Going to Extremes: Notes from a Divided Nation, the US has become so unequal that citizens are beginning to occupy two different economies “one for the rich and one for everyone else – and the latter economy has been in a recession, if not a depression for a very long time.”
A prolific author, Ehrenreich has produced over a dozen books which deal primarily with inequality in its various forms. However, two of her more recent offerings take on new significance in the current economic climate. The first is Going to Extremes, a collection of essays which gives an overview of life in a fractured economy; the second, Bait and Switch, is a first-hand account of the difficulties which middle-class jobseekers experience when they try to re-insert themselves into the corporate jungle. Together these two books provide a clear picture of what life is like for those at the top, middle and bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
Going to Extremes is composed of a series of observations on the growing inequality between rich and poor in the US. Sometimes her articles are triggered by a statistic; sometimes they spring from a news story or an anecdote. But whatever their inspiration, they are always perceptive, thought-provoking and deeply personal. Although other areas of inequality are invoked, it is the stark contrast between the richest and the poorest in American society that is most striking. Characters leap out us: the temporary lecturer who had to commute to his job every day – from a homeless shelter in Manhattan; Lorraine, a friend of the author, who had no health insurance and found out too late that she had end-stage breast cancer; the Wal-Mart employee who couldn’t afford to buy his uniform on his $7-an-hour wage. The list goes on. Going to Extremes is a catalogue of the social and economic injustices heaped on the working classes by a system which has no real place for them.
And lest we think that the college-educated middles-class has been prospering, Ehrenreich gives us Bait and Switch a darkly comic tale of her quest to find employment in corporate America. The author meets a plethora of career coaches, CV doctors, and motivational speakers all of whom seem more interested in getting the most amount of money out of her than in actually helping her find employment. She also attends various ‘networking’ events with newly- and long-term unemployed people. Some of their stories are truly tragic, and it is unsettling to read about the dark fate of so many college-educated and highly skilled corporate employees who did everything ‘right’ but, in the words of one informant, find themselves “working for $7/hr., having their student loans in perpetual deferment, living at home with their parents, and generally existing in debt which they feel they may never get out of.” At the end of the author’s almost year-long period of job hunting, she was $6000 poorer and all she had to show for her efforts were a jazzed-up résumé and a lone job offer which would have required that she work from home, provide her own materials and – strangely enough for someone who would have been selling it – buy her own health insurance.
If her tales are bleak, her message is simple: whatever the US economic system is, it is not working for millions of people who should be benefiting from it. At times tragic, sometimes sarcastic, always passionate, Ehrenreich relies on humour to get her point across. She is at her funniest when she unleashes her righteous anger on a broad range of targets from scheming HMOs and greedy life-coaches, to incompetent CEOs.
Although the situation of many of the people Ehrenreich meets is wretched, the tone of her books is not one of hopelessness. Rather she is highlighting that something is very wrong in the US (and, by extension, across Western developed economies) and that it has been wrong for a very long time. Although some of her proposals are not meant to be taken seriously (for example, that children with no health insurance should take out pet insurance instead and, for a mere $33, they will be covered for minor and major procedures, up to and including chemotherapy), her insights are valuable – particularly at this time. The fact that the world has been going through a global recession means that the status quo has been disturbed. The state of flux will not last but it will last long enough for us to decide what kind of economic system we want in the future.
There has never been a better time for pushing through radical change: conservative special interest groups have been weakened, and more and more people are looking to their governments to provide a solution to the problems with which their economies are confronted. The American example is a case in point. Ehrenreich’s research was carried out during the Bush years when tax cuts for the rich and increased military spending was the norm. Today, President Obama is pushing a mildly progressive social agenda and may very well succeed in getting his plan for universal healthcare passed. If he does succeed, it will make a huge difference for millions of Americans like the ones described by Ehrenreich. America is a test case. If radical change to the economic system can be brought about in that most liberal of economies, then it is just possible that it could take root in other developed nations too.