Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Top Five List Nobody Wants

Dawn Kawamoto's latest Business Tech column for CNET News reinforces our general intuitions with some hard numbers:

U.S. job cuts announced in January soared to 241,749 across all industries, marking the largest monthly cut in the past seven years, according to a report released Wednesday by Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

This top five sectors in this report are the following:

  1. Retail: 53,968
  2. Industrial goods: 32,083
  3. Computer industry: 22,330
  4. Pharmaceuticals: 22,063
  5. Aerospace-defense: 17,800

Note that, taken together, these sectors account for 148,244 of the cut jobs, which is a little more than 61% of the total. Nothing here is particularly surprising, and I suspect we shall encounter a variety of different readings of these numbers by purveyors of different economic theories. The statistic I personally would like to see is the percentage of layoffs in the sectors, particularly those in the top five. If we are going to have any serious conversations about reform (remote as that possibility may be), whether it be in theories of political economy or boots-on-the-ground economic practices, then we need to recognize that these numbers may augur changes in the "world of work" itself; and those percentages may be useful in reading the entrails, so to speak. Put another way, these numbers may reflect consequences anticipated by books such as Barbara Garson's The Electronic Sweatshop, so blithely ignored by what I once called "the evangelical hogwash of The New American Workplace, by James O'Toole and Edward E. Lawler III." There is no question that we need to return to a social order that provides a fair day's pay for a fair day's work; but, before we can do that, we shall have to clear our minds, which have been addled by the Kool-Aid of technology evangelism, and figure out just what "a fair day's work" is going to be in that social order.

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