Just Around the Corner: The Paradox of the Jobless Recovery

Stanley Aronowitz, Just Around the Corner: The Paradox of the Jobless Recovery (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

Stanley Aronowitz’s Just Around the Corner is a timely commentary on the structural unemployment currently afflicting the United States. Unlike most recorded recessions (except that of 1991-92), the so-called recovery from the most recent recession, which officially ended in November 2001, has coincided with periods of job loss punctuated by sluggish job growth. Further, many of the new jobs that have been created are contingent. To highlight the problematic nature of much recent employment growth, Aronowitz distinguishes paid work from what he calls a “real job,” which includes benefits such as health care, pensions and vacations, and an informal contract for permanent employment and protection from arbitrary discharge.

Chapter one provides “A Snapshot History of America,” in which Aronowitz argues that US history has been characterized throughout by an activist state operating in the interest of business. From the military-driven expansion of the 19th century through the New Deal after the Great Depression, the military Keynesianism of WWII and the market-making activities of the Marshall Plan in Europe after the war, there has never been a free market. However, US global economic dominance began to wane in the late 1960s as Europe and Japan began to reclaim their markets and US corporations neglected to invest in advanced technologies. These events and the productivity crisis of the 1970s provided the conditions for the hegemony of neoliberal economic doctrine, comprised primarily of antipathy toward all forms of state regulation of the economy and the principle that labor should compete with itself on a global scale.

In the second chapter Aronowitz traces the development of neoliberalism in the US, from President Carter, who signed bills deregulating the trucking and banking industries, to Reagan, who effectively established neoliberalism as “the new state religion” (50). The bipartisan neoliberal agreement was solidified by Clinton -– and the Democratic Leadership Council — who facilitated passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and so-called Welfare Reform, which requires recipients to participate in work programs.

In the third chapter, Aronowitz discusses the post-Fordist strategy pursued by US-based transnational corporations since the 1970s, which he defines as consisting of four main elements: dismantling much of the US industrial structure, including the power of organized labor; outsourcing, both within and outside the US; heavy investment in labor-destroying technologies; and new forms of work reorganization, including just-in-time production. The result of this strategy has been “more work but fewer jobs” (104).

The penultimate chapter turns to “The Price of Neoliberal Globalization.” Most of this chapter focuses on the decline of the US labor movement, which has abandoned direct action and shows little willingness to lead a political movement for public goods. Without leadership from organized labor, there is little hope for serious opposition to neoliberalism. However, an alternative to neoliberalism is necessary because the neoliberal view that the private sector should be the exclusive source of new jobs is based on economic assumptions that are rooted in the 18th century. These assumptions no longer apply in the present environment, where the economy is a global system and investments are mainly devoted to labor-destroying technologies and/or outsourcing abroad.

In the final chapter, Aronowitz provides “A Real Jobs and Income Program,” based on the Keynesian argument that full employment requires government intervention to create public jobs. The primary program is public investment in jobs dedicated to expanding public goods, from improving the material infrastructure and the physical environment, to providing quality education, healthcare, and care for the elderly. He argues that such investment can be paid for through progressive taxation and slashing and reorganizing the military budget. In addition, the Federal minimum wage should be increased and the Wage and Hour Act amended to reduce the workday to six hours and the workweek to 30 hours (with anything above being overtime); a basic income guarantee should be implemented; trade agreements should be (re)negotiated to include labor and environmental standards, wider representation in the drafting process, domestic-content standards, and requirements that businesses pay taxes (60% of all US corporations paid no taxes in 2003); and corporate behavior should be better regulated.

Aronowitz’s book is provocative and forcefully written. However, it seems to lack a clear sense of its intended audience. It relies on very broad-brush arguments and does not contain any data analysis; its main arguments are supported by historical anecdotes. As such, it appears to be intended for non-specialists. However, it is written in a style that may presume too much basic knowledge for such a readership. For instance, concepts such as Keynesianism, military Keynesianism, involuntary part-time work, and public goods, are frequently mentioned but never defined, and not discussed in significant detail until the final chapter.

A related problem is that the book contains a great deal of assertion but little systematic evidence. Even where basic economic statistics and trends are discussed, these are in most cases not buttressed by citations of actual data or references to scholarly work. Examples include discussions of the female labor force participation rate (63), economic recovery (75), the beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts (82), the unemployment rate and extent of involuntary part-time work (86), health care statistics (122), employment statistics (134f), the employment effects of NAFTA (145), or the extent of corporate avoidance of taxes (147). Thus, for non-specialists, there is no way to evaluate any of these statistics or to follow up.

Further, there is a general lack of supporting material to the argument; few scholarly books and almost no journal articles are cited. I found this vexing despite my basic affinity with Aronowitz’s perspective. Readers are left, for the most part, to accept or reject his entire case based on its rhetorical persuasiveness. But each step of the argument is contentious -– the extent of state-capital alliance before the rise of neoliberalism; the sources of US global economic decline; the institutional and employment effects of post-Fordism; the political economy of neoliberalism in the US -– and would be far more persuasive if argued at a finer grain and backed with appropriate data and references.

The final chapter exemplifies all of these problems. There are no data on how increased wages and reduced hours affect inflation, investment, etc. The discussion of a basic-income guarantee -– a provocative proposal that the left should certainly be fighting for -– is presented in one paragraph without reference to any other sources. This lack of elaboration is most unfortunate. While I agree with most of the book’s conclusions, including the desirability and plausibility of Aronowitz’s policy “program,” I doubt that readers who were not already on the same page could get there.

Reviewed by Matt Vidal
University of Wisconsin
mvidal@ssc.wisc.edu

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