One of Romney’s big selling points is that he knows the “real economy” (much like some conservatives know “real America,” I guess) because he has experience as a businessman. Conservatives have started substituting business acumen for political acumen, making the mistake of comparing what’s required to run a country to what’s required to run a company. At first blush it almost makes sense: both oversee groups of people, both deal with budgets, both make decisions. But not only does that experience not necessarily translate to the White House, it also belies a deeper problem about the kind of economy we’re trying to recreate in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Viewing the country, and its economy, as a private business isn’t likely to create solid middle-class jobs.
“This American Life” had a recent episode called “What Kind of Country” that explored what kind of country Americans want this to be, but parts of it had more to do with what kind of economy we want. Take the example they give in act three: Colorado Springs. With a stretched city budget, local businessman Steve Bartolin, CEO of the Broadmoor Hotel, decided to look and compare it to running his hotel. After all, he tells the reporter on the story, “We have the same number of employees as the city… I look at us as a service delivery organization,” just like the city, apparently. They are both concerned with “how do you deliver the highest quality of service in the most efficient, cost effective manner.”
His main focus became how much both entities spend on their employees. “They’re running a 70 percent labor cost and we’ll run a 35 percent labor cost,” he says. “Any business person can look at that and say, ‘Jesus, we’re going to be out of business by 2014 at this pace.’” He writes a manifesto to the city council that ends up being circulated all over town: the city should lower starting wages for its employees, require them to pay more for their health insurance, and start contracting out anything it can to private businesses.
A city councilwoman explains that payrolls for the city government are higher than the hotel’s because it doesn’t control its own pension costs, which are mandated by the state. But she also makes a very important point: it has to hire people with more training and experience. City engineers and police officers can’t be hired on the cheap like the service industry workers at the Broadmoor.
And herein lies a big problem. What Bartolin proposed, basically, is to make government employees more like service employees. This is highly problematic, particularly for the black Americans and women who have long relied on public employment because it paid decently, offered good benefits and stability, and enabled them to move up the economic ladder. Public employment has been credited with helping to create the black middle class. If we make these jobs as unstable and low-benefit as service jobs, we’ll be taking away a huge boon from groups who have historically benefitted from it.
But we’re not just dragging public employees down to the level of service workers. In fact, the jobs our economy is best at producing these days are service jobs. As Harper’s recently tweeted, the chances that an employed American works in the service industry are six in seven. Those jobs have been growing very quickly: from 2010 to 2011, occupations like salespersons, cashiers, and food preparation workers grew by 3.2 percent. As Nona Willis Aronowitz recently reported, one in 10 employed Americans works in food service, making up 9.6 million people. And young people are taking a lot of those jobs: a quarter of people ages 16 to 29 who have a job work in hospitality, meaning travel, leisure, and food service. “A study of 4 million Facebook profiles found that, after the military, the top four employers listed by twentysomethings were Walmart, Starbucks, Target, and Best Buy,” she writes.
These are low-wage, low-benefit jobs that rarely pay much more than minimum wage (if even that) and offer schedules that can change on a whim. A report from the Retail Action Project in New York found that over half of retail workers made under $10 an hour – and 12 percent earn the minimum wage. Less than a third get health benefits through their employer. The Restaurant Opportunity Centers United reported that the average yearly income for restaurant workers in 2009 was $15,092, and less than a third make a livable wage. And what about those hotel workers who might be under the employ of Batolin? Non-managers make less than $12 an hour on average.
And unlike government work, these jobs offer little training and room for advancement. The sector relies on employee churn to keep labor costs lower. (Just ask Barbara Ehrenreich.) Service careers aren’t designed to advance much farther than flipping burgers.
Is this what we want our economy to look like? Do we want most jobs to offer wages that don’t cover basic expenses and to deny workers the benefits they need to stay healthy? Businesspeople would call this cost effective. I call this unsustainable.