The Great Retraining Lie

There is a cruel economic hoax being played on millions of American workers, a hoax that unfortunately is being promoted by too many Democrats. The hoax is this: that workers who lose their jobs to so-called "free trade" can simply be retrained to do something else that will be a good substitute for what they have lost. This is a lie.

Right now, there is a bill moving through Congress to expand the so-called Trade Adjustment Assistant program (TAA), a program that I have found distasteful from its inception. Basically, the concept is this: if you lose your job because of trade, the government will spend money to retrain you. Rep. Charles Rangel is pushing a bill (approved last week by the House Ways and Means Committee) that would expand TAA to cover workers in services industries and allow the government to certify entire industries as eligible for TAA money (right now, the certification is done company by company); Sen. Max Baucus is working on a companion Senate version of Rangel's proposal.

I am going to give both Rangel (my very own congressman) and Baucus the benefit of the doubt--I'm going to believe that they sincerely think that what they are doing is a good thing. On its face, the idea of being trained can seem like a wonderful thing. But, Rangle and Baucus are sadly misguided and they are, intentionally or not, reinforcing a brutal economic model.

When we accept the idea of retraining workers, we accept the framework of discussion about the economic system that is being imposed on workers here and abroad. Boiled down to its basics, it goes something like this: "globalization" is inevitable so just get over it. There will be pain for some because that is the cost of progress. To ease that pain, we will throw some money at the "problem" of displaced workers.

Typically, I find that the people most in favor of the concept of retraining are those people who think they are never going to lose a job to so-called "free trade." That would be our elected officials, pundits, and a whole lot of economists. A whole lot of other folks buy the idea that this is a fair deal--without understanding both the realities for the people who are losing jobs and, frankly, that so-called "free trade" is driving down wages even for those people whose jobs are not directly tied to international trade.

The first task is to paint a real picture of life after losing a job. Louis Uchitelle recently observed this:

Across America, more than 30 million people have been forced out of jobs since the early 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and regaining lost incomes has not been easy. Nearly 50 million new jobs have been created over that same period, according to the bureau, so there are always new opportunities but more often than not at lower pay. Among those who have lost work, only a third held new jobs two years later that paid as well as those that were lost, according to the bureau's surveys of displaced workers. Another third of those displaced were in jobs that paid, on average, 15 to 20 percent less than their previous employment -- while the final third had dropped out of the labor force entirely.

So, the truth is the vast majority of people who lose jobs never get the same income back--retraining or not.

The retraining scam, which has irked me for many years, fits very nicely into the larger frame that I've ranted about for way too long (here is one example): the idea that we can accept the great economic model represented by so-called "free trade" because if we just get educated, we will also fit quite nicely into the brave new world.

The problem with education, and the subset called "retraining," is that the global economy is based not on competition over skills but competition based on wages. No matter how smart you think you are--and, by the way, those people who say we have the smartest workers in the world should pay attention to the racist sentiments inherent in that idea--there will always be someone who will do your work for less if there is no minimum standard. So, education, which in the abstract is nice, is the wrong answer to the question of how people will have any kind of economic stability.

The second task is to ask: Why is this push for expanded TAA happening now? The people who have been pushing so-called "free trade" understand that their economic model is on the ropes. The pending so-called "free trade" deals with Colombia and South Korea are going nowhere, and the proposed agreements with Peru and Panama are also encountering opposition. Even the majority of Republican are opposed to so-called "free trade." In an October 15th piece on Rangel's proposal, The Wall Street Journal wrote that:

The lawmaker's approach is based on the idea that the best way to bolster support for free trade is by dealing head-on with some of the anxieties it creates among American workers and industries.

Indeed, the deal on TAA was expected to be a trade-off with the Bush Administration--Democrats would support so-called "free trade" agreements and, in exchange, the TAA would be expanded. By the way, the OMB is now recommending that the president veto the House TAA bill because the Administration opposes expanding the program's reach.

The third task, I believe, is to ask: why should we accept this frame? Why should we accede to the notion that we accept a brutal economic system that requires millions of people to be "retrained"--which is, at the very least, given the circumstances of the retraining, a humiliating and degrading experience. The very words of the program mask its implications: people are being "assisted" so that they can "adjust" to the new, brave world.

This is not inevitable. The entire debate over trade is simply about setting the rules, the terms of engagement over how trade should take place. These rules are not like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Workers should not have to accept the notion that massive job losses and a hammering down of wages is a natural consequence of "globalization."

And Democrats should stop enabling the imposition of an economic system by throwing a few bones to workers. Rather than try to ease workers' "anxieties" (as if this is some condition that should be treated with some Prozac) and retrain them like zoo animals, we need Democrats to put a halt to a vicious economic model that is doing grave harm to workers here and abroad.