Sunday, September 02, 2007

CEOs vs. Slaves

Growing disparity in the boardroom and in the basement. Ehrenreich is perhaps the most astute and insightful social critic in America today in her examinations of the social and political forces that have run amok and created dislocation and even collapse in the economic well-being of the culture. Her willingness to wrestle with the oligarchy is cause for not just literary applause, knowing there is indeed someone with a forceful education (and refreshing acid wit) who speaks truth to power, but also one who is not fooled by the wealthy and their dress-up clothes. She enjoys pulling their pants down, and they wonder where the breeze is coming from. -MS

Photo of Barbara Ehrenreich by Robert Birnbaum (courtesy of the photographer)

By Barbara Ehrenreich, AlterNet
Posted on May 31, 2007, Printed on May 31, 2007
Recent findings shed new light on the increasingly unequal terrain of American society. Starting at the top executive level: You may have thought, as I did, that the guys in the C-suites operated as a team -- or, depending on your point of view, a pack or gang -- each getting his fair share of the take. But no, the rising tide in executive pay does not lift all yachts equally. The latest pay gap to worry about is the one between the CEO and his -- or very rarely her -- third in command.
According to a just-reported study by Carola Frydman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Raven E. Saks at the Federal Reserve, 30-40 years ago, the CEO's of major companies earned 80 percent more, on average, than the third-highest-paid executives. By the early part of the 21st century, however, the gap CEO and the third in command had ballooned up to 260 percent.

Now take a look at what's happening at the very bottom of the economic spectrum, where you might have pictured low-wage workers trudging between food banks or mendicants dwelling in cardboard boxes. It turns out, though, that the bottom is a lot lower than that.
On May 16, a millionaire couple in a woodsy Long Island suburb was charged with keeping two Indonesian domestics as slaves for five years, during which the women were paid $100 a month, fed very little, forced to sleep on mats on the floor, and subjected to beatings, cigarette burns and other torments.
This is hardly an isolated case (see my book, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, co-edited with Arlie Hochschild.) If the new "top" involves pay in the tens or hundreds of millions, a private jet and a few acres of Nantucket, the new bottom is slavery.

Some of America's slaves are captive domestics, like the Indonesian women in Long Island. Others are factory workers, and at least 10,000 are sex slaves lured from their home country to American brothels by promises of respectable jobs. CEOs and slaves: these are the extreme ends of American class polarization.

But a parallel kind of splitting is going in many of the professions. Top-ranked college professors, for example, enjoy salaries of several hundred thousand a year, often augmented by consulting fees and earnings from their patents or biotech companies. At the other end of the professoriate, you have adjunct teachers toiling away for about $5000 a semester or less, with no benefits or chance of tenure. There was a story a few years ago about an adjunct who commuted to his classes from a homeless shelter in Manhattan, and adjuncts who moonlight as waitresses or cleaning ladies are legion.

Similarly, the legal profession, which is topped by law firm partners billing hundred of dollars an hour, now has a new proletariat of temp lawyers working for $19-25 an hour in sweatshop conditions. On sites like, temp lawyers report working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in crowded basements with inadequate sanitary facilities. According to an article in American Lawyer, a legal temp at a major New York firm reports being "corralled in a windowless basement room littered with dead cockroaches," where six out of seven exits were blocked.

Contemplating the violent and increasing polarization of American society, one cannot help but think of "dark energy," the mysterious force that is propelling the galaxies apart from each other one at a speed far greater than can be accounted for by the energy of the original big bang. Cosmic bodies seem to be repelling each other, much as a CEO must look down at his CFO, COO, etc. and think, "They're getting too close. I've got to make more, more, more!"
The difference is that the galaxies don't need each other, and are free to go their separate ways nonchalantly. But the CEO presumably depends on his fellow executives, just as the star professor relies on adjuncts to do his or her teaching and the law firm partner is enriched by the sweated labor of legal temps. For all we know, some of those CEOs go home to sip their single malts in mahogany walled dens that have been cleaned by domestic slaves.

Why is it so hard for the people at the top to graciously acknowledge their dependency on the labor of others? We need some sort of gravitational force to counter the explosive distancing brought about by greed -- before our economy imitates the universe and blows itself to smithereens.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of many books, essays, and a columnist for several publications, including The Progressive. Her recent titles include "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream." One of my favorite books from her is "Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America".

I also highly recommend her other newly released book, "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy". In the acclaimed Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species’ attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

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