Bait and Switch

Book by Barbara Ehrenreich

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on September 1, 2005.

Walking through a park on a sunny summer day in Portland, Oregon last week, I got a glimpse of the world Barbara Ehrenreich so brilliantly chronicles in her new book "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

Thirty or more people were sitting on lawn chairs and blankets under a big oak tree, in a semicircle around a middle-aged woman with a flip chart, an executive-business-style suit, and the air of a teacher. Those in the circle mostly wore casual clothes, and the average age seemed mid-forties, although there were a few as young as mid-twenties and a few who looked to be in their sixties. Two men in the group -- both in their fifties, from their appearance -- had gone to the trouble of dressing in business suits, although they looked painfully uncomfortable sitting on their lawn chairs in the open park.

As I walked by and caught wisps of the lecture, the woman was extolling the virtues of "cheerfulness" and rhetorically asking her students, "Would you want to hire you?"

Welcome to the world of those who have fallen out of America's white-collar middle class, and are tapping into their IRAs, 401-Ks, and overextended credit cards to pay for seminars and workshops to learn how to get a replacement job.

Multimillionaires like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Snow, and Alan Greenspan are exulting in their massive tax breaks over the past four years, saying the economy is just fine. George W's last tax break even reduced the maximum income tax to 15 percent on people who "earn" their livings by sitting around the swimming pool waiting for the dividend check to arrive in the mail.

But for those who need a paycheck every month and are willing to work for it, the reality of finding and keeping employment in America is growing increasingly desperate. Out of this reality has grown an entire new industry -- perhaps one source of those mysterious new jobs the Bushies keep telling us are being "created" -- of selling hope to the white-collar unemployed.

In "Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled why and how America's blue-collar working class would feel despair when conservative trade and economic policies such as those espoused by Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush reign. In "Bait and Switch" she expands her view to America's under-siege middle-class white-collar workers.

As with "Nickel," Ehrenreich's new book is a compelling and vivid first-person chronicle of her own undercover adventures in the "new" American workplace. But, while she had been able to obtain work in "Bait," she is unable to find a single real job in her newest efforts.

It's not, though, for lack of trying. From middle-aged lechers, to evangelists who want to sell her salvation on a CD (to help her pray to get a job, of course), to self-help courses that wrap pseudo-physics around pseudo-psychology, Ehrenreich discovers an amazing underbelly to the white-collar job-seeking world. And while exhaustion and by-your-fingernails survival was the theme of "Nickel," in this sequel she finds terror and despair.

All of this grew out of the abandonment of traditional "FDR liberal" economics and trade policies by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, followed on by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Bill Clinton continued many of these policies by pushing through NAFTA and GATT/WTO. These seemingly academic policies, and sloganeering like Clinton's "the end of welfare as we know it," have had a real impact on real people.

For example, in 2002, the BBC reported that in both Australia and the United Kingdom, "the suicide rate increases under conservative governments."

The BBC added:

"Conversely, the lowest rates occurred when state and federal governments were both [run by the liberal] Labour [Party]. "Middle aged and older people were most at risk. "When the Conservatives ruled both state and federal governments, men were 17% more likely to commit suicide than when Labour was in power. Women were 40% more likely to kill themselves."

While the researchers confined themselves to those two countries, they did quantify their data:

"Overall, they say, the figures suggest that 35,000 people would not have died [in the UK] had the Conservatives not been in power, equivalent to one suicide for every day of the 20th century or two for every day that the Conservatives ruled."

While Barbara Ehrenreich stays away from the "cause of the problem" through most of the book (other than frequent, and often humorous, aside comments), she brings to life in a chilling, vivid, and deeply felt way the reality of white collar unemployment and underemployment.

Ehrenreich's book is both compelling "good reading" and powerfully insightful. Once you start reading, you'll be mesmerized. When you finish, you'll be an activist!

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