In an article in National Affairs, Jim Manzi, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute says that the world’s economy has changed dramatically in the last twenty years or so, and neither American political party knows how to deal with the new economic reality. He says that basically Republicans have become free market fundamentalists, but fail to appreciate that the free market can create a variety of unfavorable conditions that have a negative impact on society. He says that Democrats, in contrast, are far too focused on maintaining social cohesion, often at the expense of a vibrant economy. It is a fascinating article that I recommend to anyone interested in understanding the changes and problems of the modern world. It is currently available on-line at: http://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/keeping-americas-edge
I want to address one of the issues that Manzi discusses. He notes that modern businesses need to be flexible to compete in the world economy. If a business is not flexible it will lose out to more flexible competition from other countries. Flexibility means that a company must be able to quickly shift production, merge with other companies or spin off certain production lines, close unprofitable lines of business and nimbly open others. It also needs to be able to find and hire the best people, and on the flip side, let unproductive people go. This flexibility is fundamental to competition and vital to success.
But this flexibility for business equates to lack of stability of workers. The papers are full of stories of companies cutting workers, many due to the recession, but others in order to compete with foreign competition. Downsizing and outsourcing were common throughout the last decade. Some studies indicate that the average worker today will change jobs ten times in his or her career. Companies must be flexible, and so too must be workers. But this flexibility equates to a lack of stability. Polls indicate widespread anxiety among workers as they contemplate company bankruptcies, mergers, layoffs, and outsourcing.
Workers are citizens and voters. And polls indicate widespread concern among the voting public. One recent poll I saw indicated that 60% of the respondents felt that their children would not enjoy the same quality of life and lifestyle that they did. This economic uncertainly leads to political uncertainty. I personally believe that the recent interest in new and untested politicians (including both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin) is due in no small measure to the believe that the old politicians did not do well by the economy and the public.
That is one issue, but the more fundamental issue is that what is good for business is, in this case at least, not good for politics. A modern economy needs – truly and fundamentally needs – flexibility. But that flexibility leads to social and political anxiety.
People entering the workforce in America today know and understand that they will not work for a single company their entire career. They will not work forty years of GM, or Sears, or IBM, or AT & T, and retire with a gold watch and a nice pension. They will change jobs frequently, and as a result they are largely responsible for planning and saving for their retirement. They have no sense that loyalty to a company will result in the company protecting them, not because the company is venal, but because the company is fighting for its own survival in the uncertain seas of the world economy. That is the new economic reality. It is unsettling for workers, and since workers are voters, it is creating political uncertainty as well. And that is the new political reality.