The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences
by Louis Uchitelle
Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95
Anyone who lived through the last recession realizes no job is safe. Whether a textile worker in South Carolina or a computer engineer in Silicon Valley, everyone seems vulnerable to layoffs.
The erosion of job security in the United States is the subject of ''The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences," the first book by Louis Uchitelle, an economics writer for The New York Times. (Both The Times and The Globe are owned by The
Uchitelle explores this transformation by tracing a century of changing relationships among employers, employees, and communities, and profiling a cross-section of workers downsized, right-sized, and otherwise laid off. His goal: Explode the myth that layoffs make the economy stronger.
Economists, including former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, have said quick resort to layoffs creates pain but also makes the economy better able to withstand shock.
To attack this view, Uchitelle details the effect of job losses on factory workers at
He recounts the scandal of corporate executives' merging companies, laying off thousands, and reaping millions of dollars. He criticizes both national and local leaders for acquiescing to these practices.
Overall, Uchitelle fails to prove his thesis that layoffs have damaged the US economy. A big reason: It's hard to feel sorry for a lot of people in the book.
For example, among Uchitelle's victims of ''hidden layoffs" is a Procter & Gamble manager who, in her late 40s, accepts a generous buyout, leaves the company with $1.2 million in P&G stock, and complains she wasn't valued by her employer. Then there's the young public relations account executive who, because business is bad, gets a heads-up that she should probably look for another job.
She finds one at another firm, which boosts her annual salary by $9,000. Somehow, in Uchitelle's view, that counts as a layoff, too.
Rather than reasoned analysis, Uchitelle too often relies on melodramatic writing, nostalgia, and psychobabble to make his case. Maybe that's because the last 15 years of job insecurity described by Uchitelle also produced record economic growth and low unemployment.
Ultimately, Uchitelle's conclusions are suspect because he avoids honestly evaluating economic trade-offs. He suggests, for example, that we'd have had fewer layoffs had the nation not embarked on a course of deregulation.
True, perhaps. Certainly, telephone company workers were more secure in the monopoly days of Ma Bell. But Uchitelle overlooks that deregulation of telecommunications helped spawn a vast array of new technologies, products, and jobs -- perhaps even the information technology job that allowed the former P&G manager to accumulate more than $1 million.
Robert Gavin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.