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More on Paul Theroux, The Greatest Monster in Known History For Caring About American Workers



As soon as Dylan Matthews flagged Paul Theroux’s editorial in the New York Times as a monstrosity for caring about the fate of the American working class, I knew it was inevitable that the Voxxers and associates would gang up on him. It started with Annie Lowrey. She made the very perceptive point that in fact Mississippi is not exactly like Zimbabwe. Wow, you mean Theroux might have made a rhetorical point? That’s what you want counter here? Obviously, Mississippi is not literally as awful as Zimbabwe.

But what’s far worse is her response to the poor of Mississippi:

Nevertheless, Theroux, in his travels, repeatedly asks people in low-income communities in the South whether the Clinton philanthropies have done anything to help them. “It really bothers me that Clinton does so little here,” one woman tells him. “I wish he’d help us. He’s in Africa and India, and other people are helping in the third world and those countries. We don’t see that money. Don’t they realize our people need help?” Not in the way that people in Zimbabwe do, lady. Not even close.

Really, that’s your response? Not, “you are poor and you have a legitimate claim that American policy has made you downwardly mobile. We should do something about that. Let’s think about how, starting with taking your concerns seriously.” No. The response is ideology hoisted upon this woman from 30,000 feet, as if Lowrey is outraged a worker would actually be concerned about her own poverty. And it’s “There’s someone far away who is poorer. Your only hope of having a job or attracting help is to become poorer than them. Let’s see how you do.” There are so many other ways to respond to the struggling American working class but the apostles of globalization in mainstream Washington media are blind to them all. And for solutions to this poverty, Lowrey is again unable to understand anything about the American working class:

Rather than stealing back a shoe manufacturing plant, in other words, train Americans in faster-growing sectors like nursing and information technology, and give better support for the laid-off and the long-term unemployed.

First, it’s amazing she uses the same language of jobs being “stolen” from China that Americans talk about when they lose their jobs overseas. This just reinforces the idea that globalization is a zero-sum game, with the American elite class openly rooting for poor Americans to lose. She then just falls back on the same cheap “solutions” that are always discussed and are totally disconnected from people’s lives. The idea of training Americans in fast-growing sectors runs up against at least one big problem–it assumes that everyone can and should go to college. And that’s just flat unrealistic for millions of high school graduates (and non-graduates) every year. Apostles of globalization always talk about education as the solution, but we already know from the struggles of recent college graduates that there aren’t massive number of jobs at the end of the rainbow, especially jobs that allow you to pay off the student debt. There are many, many Americans who are simply not cut out for college. Less than 50 percent of my cousins, nieces, and nephews have gone to college. What are they supposed to do? There’s also lots poor people in Mississippi who can’t simply just be retrained into a decent job. We have to have good-paying jobs for people who are not college graduates. If we want a stable society, working people have to be able to live decently whether or not they have a college education.

Yet this obvious point is simply dismissed out of hand. Moreover, a lot of those IT jobs are going to be outsourced themselves in future years, as will many other currently middle-class jobs. There’s little reason a lot of that can’t be done overseas. As for better assistance, how is that going to happen with this Congress? It’s not. The jobs are actually disappearing right now and the former employees are actually poor right now. Calling for slightly better benefits is not an acceptable response given that this simply is not going to happen. Meanwhile, it serves as a cheap cover for people actively rooting for American jobs to disappear.

Like Yglesias, Matthews, Klein, etc., Lowrey pushes an ideological point counter to the supposedly data-driven journalism these people are about–that capitalism as it is presently practiced is awesome for the world’s workers and thus it’s OK if Bangladeshi workers die on the job since that nation is rising a bit economically because of the apparel industry. Nothing is ever mentioned in any of these articles about the actual struggles of developing world workers. Nothing is ever mentioned about how Vietnamese and Bangladeshi and Honduran workers feel exploited and are fighting for a more equitable system, one that gives them a job and ensures that they don’t die from the factory collapsing upon them. Nothing is ever mentioned about how the Rana Plaza workers were scared to go inside their own factory because they could see the cracks in the walls or about how when they resisted going to work, they were told they would be docked a month’s salary if they refused. Lowrey could talk about the complexity of these issues and ground her ideology about globalization in the lived experience of workers to say “there are some good things here and there are some really bad things here and maybe we can do better on the latter.” No, that never comes up. It’s literally, “globalization is awesome for the developing world.” And the analysis from this group of Washington friends is never any deeper than that.

And of course Vox itself was not going to let this go. Charles Kenny was tasked with producing the ideological uniformity of that publication on this issue. There’s little more of interest here except for a bit more discussion about the long-term economic poverty of the South and for talking about wonderful Lowrey’s take was, without noting the obvious conflict of interest that she’s the editor’s spouse. But read it for more of the same if you want.

Meanwhile, one can actually talk about issues of global poverty and American poverty in complex ways that lay out ideas to help workers around the world. That was my goal in Out of Sight. Jeff Spross does the same in The Week. First, he dismisses Lowrey’s points as the ideology they are. Building off those awful dismissive lines she writes to the lady in Mississippi, he rebukes her:

I don’t know what the term is for the class-based equivalent of “mansplaining,” but those last two lines exemplify it. I am all for placing the least of these at the center of our moral calculus — but not to shrug when the not-quite-least-of-these wind up under the bus.

Lowrey points out that the $30,000 per person Mississippi’s economy generates every year is far higher than Zimbabwe’s $1,700, which is a fair point. But this is also why inequality is of much greater importance in the developed world: That $30,000 is an average, and thus can hide vast differences in distributions. Mississippi’s Gini coefficient — a measure of inequality — is one of the highest of any state in the country. Plenty of Mississippians get way less than $30,000 a year.

More importantly, these sorts of comparisons are part and parcel of the American preference for “absolute” poverty measures. But impoverishment is a social relation as much as an economic relation. As Adam Smith pointed out, a linen shirt is “strictly speaking, not a necessary of life.” But day-laborers in Smith’s day still couldn’t interact in public or seek work without one. There are plenty of present-day examples of this same dynamic.

It boils down to what economic spaces and resources you can access. Because everyone’s income is someone else’s costs, that access is inevitably determined by the relative gap between incomes. This is precisely why calculating “real” incomes is such a fraught and tricky business. So yes, the poor in Zimbabwe are worse off than the poor in America. But that comparison between two utterly different social contexts is not as illuminating as one might think. And it certainly doesn’t justify calling on Americans to ignore their own immediate experience in favor of viewing all economic matters from 30,000 feet.

Right. And that’s what Lowrey, Matthews, Yglesias, Klein, etc., do. They have no ability to talk about poverty in the United States or in Bangladesh with any tactile feel, nor do they see this as a problem. This is how you get column after column defending the current system of globalization by saying it’s OK for Bangladesh to have weaker workplace safety laws or calling Theroux a moral monster for caring about actual workers in the United States or Lowery telling off a woman who wants a job. Anything below 30,000 feet is just noise to them. And that positionality leads to people making terrible policy. Spross continues by stating that it’s not an either/or for workers in the US and the developing world:

What’s infuriating is there is a third way. The mid-century socioeconomic order in the U.S. was not the only way to ensure the gains of economic growth are broadly shared. Strong unions, a large welfare state, universal health care, progressive taxation, monetary and fiscal policy focused on full employment, criminal justice reform, smarter benefits policy, and smarter trade policy would all combine to keep the American economy egalitarian while we open up to trade with the rest of the world. The zero-sum trade-off between the U.S. and China is not a fait accompli.

The smart and respectful way to carry out this conversation would be to acknowledge Theroux’s anger (and the anger of his interview subjects) as justified, then move on to how their economic errors lead them to some morally queasy conclusions they don’t need to hold. To his credit, Vox’s Charles Kenny basically pulled this off, though even he couldn’t resist beating Theroux for failing to be a good universalist. Lowery merely waved at more education and moved on.

The point is to connect their anger and their mobilization to concrete ideas and proposals — in this case, to the third way of an egalitarian America helping to lift up the global poor. This will require respect and engaging people where they are, plus a recognition that we’re all flawed. And it will require making sure the not-quite-least-of-these know that we’re committed to their dignity and livelihoods, too.

Yet again, we already know from their many writings during American strikes that Matthews and Yglesias have never seen a labor struggle they would actually support. I don’t know about Klein and Lowerey but I can guess it’s mostly the same. Ultimately, this group of writers is really uninterested in helping workers gain power over their own lives, whether through American unions or protesting on the streets of Dhaka and Hanoi. They generally support good social policy emanating from Washington that will have a positive affect on most Americans, like the ACA, but it extends no further. And if these people rise up and go on strike or talk about the real poverty in their lives, they are told that it’s OK for their nation to have worse safety regulations (and presumably then for their employers to dragoon them to work) or that it’s worse for those people over there, so sit down and be happy with that.

And what kind of response is that?

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