When Steve Jobs died, one fascinating anecdote rose out of the sea of words about the co-founder of Apple. Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson recounted a dinner attended by Jobs and President Barack Obama. "What would it take to make iPhones in the U.S.?" the president wanted to know.
Blunt as always, Jobs replied, "Those jobs aren't coming back."
Can President Obama or any contender for the White House face the American public today and say, "Those jobs are never coming back"? Many of those losses include the $25- to $40-an-hour manufacturing jobs that created a middle-class lifestyle for people without a college education and enabled them to own a second home, a boat and the third car in the garage. For African Americans who have been relative newcomers to middle-class prosperity, the harsh realities are having an even more devastating effect — as we have seen in black-unemployment numbers that run at twice the rate of whites, even if there was a promising dip in January.
Those jobs aren't coming back because a contract manufacturer like Foxconn can pay a young Chinese woman $6,000 a year to build iPads, iPhones and other products of our heart's desire. The Chinese worker feels fortunate to have that job and believes that she and her country are on the way up.
Growing numbers of Americans feel insecure about their jobs — if they have one at all — and worry that their country's economic status is going the other way. But when their leaders won't discuss the issues with them honestly, some Americans are left in the kind of limbo that makes Republican extremism, the Tea Party or white nationalism appear to be the answer.
It's not that our leaders simply don't have the guts to take up the issue of fundamental change; it's also that they don't have many answers. A decade or so ago, I had the intimidating experience of speaking on the same program at an alumni dinner as Arno Penzias, the 1978 winner (with Robert Wilson) of the Nobel Prize in physics for finding evidence to support the big bang theory of creation.
Penzias, who graduated from the City College of New York some 20 years before I did, was gracious, of course, but what he spoke about that night was no less profound than his great scientific work. He warned that the enthusiasm to embrace computer technology (which used to be called "office automation" back then) didn't address one of his biggest concerns: the loss of jobs.
He noted that, largely unnoticed, vast numbers of "middle men" were being eliminated by technology: file clerks, gatekeepers, cargo checkers, warehouse workers and middle managers. Techies had a jaw-breaking term for the process that reduced the human cost — "disintermediation" — but Penzias reminded us that real people were losing real jobs.
I didn't realize until later that Penzias' talk was a sly rebuttal to my enthusiastic paean to how computers were changing the way we worked and lived for the better — and this was way before Facebook and Twitter or widespread use of the Web, of course. I was then editor of PC Magazine, helming the biggest tech magazine at the time, and probably like much of the audience, I found his talk too downbeat and theoretical at a moment when computer sales were exploding and most of us believed that technology was bound to create a better world.
Now, as we sense a fundamental shift in America's role in the world economy, I've come to appreciate the foresight of that Nobel Prize winner. Computer technology and high-speed data connections have been major factors in the elimination of so many manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and Europe, by driving down production costs and enabling the management of workforces over vast distances. The latter development has also shifted a lot of professional and engineering work to India, China and other lower-cost labor markets.
Losing technology jobs wasn't anticipated at the beginning. There was a kind of colonialist expectation that the dirty, boring jobs would go elsewhere, but the good-paying blue-collar work and the creative white-collar positions would remain at home.
We didn't count on Chinese workers at Foxconn building iPads for less than we give people on unemployment, or Indian engineers designing complex information systems for companies 8,000 miles away at one-third the cost of a U.S. engineer. In fact, a recent government study found that 85 percent of research-and-development jobs created by U.S. companies were located overseas. And as some economists point out, tax cuts and corporate breaks won't help bring those jobs back.
Eternal optimists and free market ideologues keep saying that the new technologies will create new jobs. They do — but not nearly enough to fill the gap. Facebook, which could go public at a value of $100 billion, has a mere 2,000 employees — and generates a profit of about $500,000 per employee. Even glamorous Apple, with 50,000 workers, is dwarfed by "old" tech companies like IBM (320,000 employees) and HP (324,000 workers). The biggest employer in the U.S. in 2011 was Wal-Mart, with 2.1 million employees — most of them in low-paying retail jobs.
The new tech-driven companies like Facebook may be great for shareholders, but they are hardly making a dent in the unemployment rate. Municipal officials in tiny Maiden, N.C., learned that the hard way last November after the state paved the way for a new $1 billion Apple data center by providing tax breaks worth $46 million over 10 years. It turned out that the center would have just 50 employees.
President Obama has promoted green technologies and vocational education, and eventually they may indeed fill some of the void, but those are long-term solutions. These policies won't bring the unemployment rate down to the 7.5 percent or so that he needs in the next six months to get re-elected; and they may never create the vast number of jobs we need to grow as a country.
One consequence of this impasse may be a future with a description that is just not part of the American political vocabulary: lowered expectations and a reduced quality of life. We are seeing on our television sets what happens when the theoretical becomes reality. The scenes of violent riots in the cradle of democracy, involving angry citizens and heavily armored police, should have special irony for anyone with a Third World perspective. Now Greece — and maybe, sooner or later, Spain and Italy — will fall under the kind of austerity that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have traditionally imposed on developing countries.
Citizens of poor countries in Africa and elsewhere could tell the Greeks from their own experience: All this belt-tightening simply doesn't work. As the New York Times pointed out recently, Portugal has done everything asked of it — and has seen its economy continue to crumble. The cutbacks and sacrifice being demanded of Greeks — lower pay, reduced pensions and cuts in the minimum wage — are not very different from the kind of austerity measures that Republicans would try to impose to reduce the deficit if they gained control of the government.
One question that some scholars are asking is why cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York have not already broken out in flames over hard times. Policymakers are assuming that Americans have lost their capacity for outrage or protest and that more hardships can be piled on the poor in the future. For now it's Athens that is burning, but what is happening there is an important reminder that rage against a limited future is not exclusive to a particular nation or race — and complacency also has its limits.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's senior editor at large. He lives in Paris.