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Americatowns Abroad: One Bleak Vision of American Workers' Future

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As Wall Street bandies about the odds of another recession, American workers have bigger worries than fluctuations in GDP: The economy just doesn't seem to be working for them anymore. With globalization and technological advances allowing US companies to grow while shedding labor and shifting it overseas, even times of recovery aren't providing new jobs or wage growth.

Things are bad enough in sectors like manufacturing, which has lost a third of its domestic jobs in a decade. But, as Don Peck writes in next month's Atlantic magazine, we haven't even really started to feel the effects of technology-driven efficiency on middle-income white-collar fields like information technology:

Computer software can now do boilerplate legal work, for instance, and make a first pass at reading X-rays and other medical scans. Likewise, thanks to technology, we can now easily have those scans read and interpreted by professionals half a world away.

In 2007, the economist Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, estimated that between 22 and 29 percent of all jobs in the United States had the potential to be moved overseas within the next couple of decades.

Perhaps it's these kinds of structural changes that are causing widespread economic pessimism: This summer, a poll found 40% of Americans think the US is in permanent decline.

So what happens if the economy never finds a use for millions of American workers? Here's the International Herald Tribune's Anand Giridhadas, with a not-so-sunny vision of where we're headed:
Throughout history, for millions of people in less prosperous societies, the solution to such circumstances has been obvious: You sail away.

So could America, that great nation of immigrants, become in harder times a nation of emigrants? Could the metropolises of China one day have Americatowns?

Imagine a bustling one in the heart of Beijing. Local Chinese stream past, scratching their heads at those Americans who come just for money, never learning China’s language or customs, living in their own little world. The signs are all spelled out in Roman letters — even for local outfits like Zhongguo Jianshe Yinhang (China Construction Bank) and Hong Gao Liang (Red Sorghum, a fast food joint).

America's economic refugees could open franchises of fast-food joints and restaurants serving American cuisine abroad, Giridhadas muses. What else could they do? "American emigrants might possess a special talent for salesmanship, working as real estate agents or car dealers to sell to the world products so closely associated with American liberty. Laid-off American factory workers might make terrific foremen in China and India, where entry-level labor is plentiful but the pool of potential managers is woefully thin."

Let's say Asian manufacturers don't thrill to the idea of importing foremen, and American laborers are forced to compete on their factory floors. Would even fast-growing countries like China actually want a huge influx of US workers? Maybe, if it helps slow down the growth of wages there, as the New America Foundation's Michael Lind wrote for last year: "Like American capitalists, Chinese and Indian capitalists might learn that ethnic diversity impedes unionization, while the mass immigration of North Americans to East and South Asia would keep wages in those regions competitively low for another few decades at least."

Lind goes on to suggest an alternative to gradually shedding the American working class:

... a new social contract, in which the American people, through representatives whom they actually control, would ordain that American corporations are chartered to create jobs in the U.S. for American workers, and if that does not interest their shareholders and managers then they can do without legal privileges granted by the sovereign people, like limited liability.

In other words, rewriting the basic rules of capitalism. Not exactly the kind of debate you can imagine Congress taking up. But maybe it's time to start kicking around the unthinkable ideas.
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.