It was easily missed in President Obama’s speech on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington DC. It was a short passage on the challenges facing the country and the impediments to realizing Dr. King’s dream—The President said:
“We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963 the economy’s changed.
“The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class, reduced the bargaining power of American workers.”
Yes, the President essentially said American workers are now at a disadvantage versus the rest of the world. This kind of hang-dog, but entirely honest rhetoric was entirely absent from last year’s presidential campaign when candidates toed the familiar course of only expressing hackneyed sentiments about American greatness and promise. In this country upholding the notion of U.S. primacy and superiority is realistically the only way to get elected.
And until this speech I have failed to hear officials of either party or even establishment economists mention the insidious forces which inevitably are leading to at least a leveling and more typically a decline in the standard of living for a considerable majority of Americans. That the President made mention of these forces and their impact may be the start of a turn in our political leaders confronting Americans directly with their dilemma and finding reasonable solutions in coming to terms with how to deal with it.
In my discussions with various business colleagues and friends, I hear the same old line about how we have always found ways to develop a new industry to employ more workers and raise wages. Then there are the calls for improving education to give everyone a chance.
But they fail to see that regardless of what we do, technology and globalization combine to give the rest of the world a chance to benefit from our discoveries and innovations at our workers’ expense. It started with offshoring factories decades ago and now it impacts just about every job (except those in the multinationals executive suites) thanks to the internet.
So having the President acknowledge the problem is a step forward—the next steps are for the country to accept our predicament and work together to deal with it. As Mr. Obama intoned:
“The good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations, where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That’s one path. Or we can have the courage to change.
“The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate.”
Put another way—turning dreams into reality is a hard business. This time will be no different.