Ever think about what life will be like in America after the recession passes? If it passes? What if the economic collapse we’ve seen—and that’s just what it is, a collapse—does permanent damage to the U.S. economy, from which this country never fully recovers? Clearly the measures we’re taking to jump-start the faltering economy will have long-term repercussions, not the least of which may be some serious inflation. And many other forces are at work.
I have a creepy feeling that in the future—maybe not immediately, but over the next generation or so—we are going to see a steady third-worldization of America. Eventually, American wages will be driven down to the levels that workers in Third-World countries are forced to accept, the middle class will almost disappear, and our social structure will consist of a small, hyperwealthy upper class and masses of working poor. Really poor.
Ah, you say; she’s up on her pessimistic soapbox again!
Well, let me tell you what makes me think this.
The Copyeditor’s Desk has lost its bread-and-butter client, a graphic design studio that packages books for print-on-demand publishers. “Book packaging” entails performing any or all of the various tasks that have to be done to create a book and take it to print. Our client has been copyediting, designing, laying out, proofreading, and producing camera-ready copy for its customers, and it has been hiring us to do the copyediting and proofreading. Suddenly, this nice little source of income has dried up, despite raves of satisfaction from the client.
Where has the wellspring gone? Well, I’ll tellya: There’s an Indian entrepreneur in town who lives here but owns a large operation in Delhi. This gentleman shows up at all the same trade meetings that we do…and at all the same trade meetings where our client goes. He told me that he can take a book from raw manuscript all the way through to camera-ready copy for $2.00 a page. That includes copy- and content-editing, fact-checking, negotiating with authors, book design, page layout, indexing, and generation of camera-ready PDFs.
Our lowest rate—for copyediting alone!—is $4.50 a page. Even when we’re reading pretty easy copy, that rate produces a just barely acceptable income. If we run into a problem that slows us down, it soon morphs into an hourly rate somewhere near minimum wage.
To compete with this guy, we would have to charge something like 30 cents a page, no matter how easy or difficult the copy. So editing a 300-page manuscript would earn us a grandiose 90 bucks. That’s a project that can take a week if the copy is clean, well written, and accurate, and upwards of a week depending how messy and poorly written the copy is (and self-published books can be very bad, indeed).
Ninety dollars a week. In a good week. Think of that.
You know, a print-on-demand publisher doesn’t care whether the book is literate, accurate, or correctly formatted in Chicago style. All he cares about is that the author gives the go-ahead to print it. Our client sees that most of her clients’ authors don’t know any better, and that a good 90 percent of them don’t care. So…why pay a living wage to an American editor when you can get someone in India to work for $90 a week?
This is the type of worker—competent enough and cheap—that Americans compete with in the global economy. With everyone and his little brother unemployed and not enough jobs to hire all the people who have been laid off, many Americans are going to have to accept wages on this order just to put bread (and only bread) on the table. As more workers agree to accept depressed pay because any income looks better than no income, pay in general will drop. Eventually, we’ll all be working for what people in India, Thailand, and Pakistan are paid.
Which ain’t much.
Remember, our country doesn’t have the safety nets required to provide lower-paid workers a decent lifestyle. We don’t have adequate access to affordable health care. We don’t have adequate provisions for retirement. We don’t have adequate child care. More civilized countries do: taxes and global competitive pressures push take-home pay down, but the taxes buy a social system that provides for citizens. Consider, for example, this interesting article by Russell Shorto. Recounting his experiences during a stay in the Low Countries, he reports that every parent receives an annual cash “child benefit,” cash underwriting for schoolbooks, and reimbursement for as much as 70 percent of the cost of child care. Employers are required to give workers four weeks of vacation time and a vacation payment of 8 percent of their annual salary; the unemployed also receive vacation pay from the government, “the reasoning being that if you can’t go on vacation you’ll get depressed and despondent and you’ll never get a job.” In addition, a third of dwellings in the Netherlands are part of a public housing system run by independent real estate cooperatives, which provide homes at below-market rates not as hovels of last resort but decent places even for people with respectable incomes.
Well, say you, that’s fine if you don’t mind the government confiscating half your salary.
But folks. Half of our salaries is confiscated! My take-home pay is about 60 percent of gross, and that’s only because I have ridiculously cheap health insurance—when I paid $220 a month (for one person) my net was closer to 50 percent of gross. Shorto paid $390 a month, no copays, including dental coverage, for insurance that covered all his family of four’s medical care and also paid 90 percent of the cost of his daughter’s braces; in the U.S. he paid $1,400 a month for a policy that covered no dental care and was shot through with copays, deductibles, and exceptions.
Health insurance, required retirement savings, required parking charges, long-term care insurance, and disability insurance are, in fact, forms of taxation. You have to pay for it—you don’t have a choice. You’ve got to have health insurance; no one should have to choose not to be able to go to a doctor. If you have any assets, you’d bloody well better have long-term care insurance, especially as you get older. If you have a family to support and you think you’d like to continue eating after you get hurt or seriously ill, you’re a fool not to carry all the disability insurance you can afford. If you have kids to put in day care and health insurance full of copay holes, you’ll be needing that Flex plan. What is the difference whether you’re forking over a chunk of your pay to a private party or to the government? You’re still forking it over.
If you’re not earning enough to afford amenities like health insurance and halfway decent child care (if you can find it!), you’re out of luck. So…what is going to happen to Americans’ standard of living when large numbers of us are permanently out of work and when folks who can find jobs are looking at wages competitive with those in the Third World? It’s hard to conclude anything other than that we will have a Third-World standard of living.
We need to take another long look at social systems such as the one in the Netherlands, which, as Shorto points out, grew out of a private-enterprise tradition and a deep religious tradition, much as our own has done. If we’re to survive as a “developed” nation in the post-recession global era, we’re going to have to revise the ways we provide for our citizens.