Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Swing-State Essayist

If you know Sandy Woodthorpe, and you should, you already know she's a swinging lady. She wears several hats: writer, networker extraordinaire and leading citizen of Lake County's coolest little place, Fairport Harbor. As head of the National Writers Union's membership outreach in Ohio, she's the local face for this group (a unit of the United Auto Workers), and for some time she has organized a popular writers' forum series at the Mayfield regional library, whose latest installment is this evening at 7. More recently, Woody (click here, here and here to learn more about her) has steered her group to valuable collaborations with the Society of Professional Journalists and the Writers & Poets League (more about which in coming weeks), and she plans to soon merge her writerly listserv with that of her pal, the similarly formidable communications maven Susanne Alexander. All of which is helping the regional writing community break out of its stale little mini-conversations and engage in a larger, more fruitful discussion that will benefit everyone.

But this former California resident has also encountered a rough time in the shifting job market. Sandy's specialties, technical writing and video production, have been hit hard by the economic downturn. So she's decided to make lemonade from her lemons, savvily capitalizing on the national media's mania for reading every possible tea leaf in a swing state such as Ohio. In June, the Boston Globe published this absorbing op-ed piece about her job struggles, in which she elegantly placed her situation into the larger macroeconomic context. And in classic he-said/she-said fashion, it paired her piece with a very different take by National City Bank's chief economist.

The idea of Ohio as the ultimate swing state in this presidential election was kicked off in a big way with a very fine New York Times Magazine cover piece by Matt Bai (who formerly specialized in reporting about Russia) in late spring, which focused on the slow but steady electoral balance of power shift from the liberal northern part of the state to the conservative central and southern portions. That touched off the usual media herd dynamic. The Economist magazine, whose expanding coverage of the U.S. is often better and less driven by pack mentality than any of its domestic competitors, has also done a series of reports on U.S. swing states, though oddly it hasn't yet gotten around to Ohio. The New Republic and some others have just started their own installments.

But back to Sandy and her op-ed argument for a moment. She and I have an ongoing debate, enlightening to me at least, about various related subjects, most of which center around economics, the role of markets and the realities of human behavior. And I'd respectfully submit that she, like a lot of other writers and analysts who focus on the narrower economic issues at work in today's job market, are missing important larger structural changes that we'd all better wake up to before they sweep us out to sea. As it happens, many of these subjects are wonderfully dramatized in an engaging piece of literary journalism by Katherine Boo, published in the July 5th issue of the New Yorker (sorry, it's not online--you'll either have to head to the library or cop a copy from your dentist's waiting room). The piece, The Best Job in Town, describes how India's fourth-largest city, Chennai (formerly called Madras), has become Wall Street East and home to an increasingly wide swath of outsourced back-office America. And it has happened not merely because of brutal "wage arbitrage," in which companies scour the globe for the cheapest labor rates. The work is often performed with more care overseas by workers who are hungrier for lower-wage work, in the estimation of the story's subjects, a pair of young former American Wall Streeters, who founded the offshore company Office Tiger. "It had become apparent to them that not every typist and copyist working the midnight shift in their investment banks--the moonlighting actor, the artist with the ring in his nose--was putting his heart, soul and syntactical memory into completing the PowerPoint presentations they needed to be done, perfectly, by morning. Randy began to speculate that workers overseas might invest more care in the menial jobs that Manhattanites seemed not to relish."

For any American whose family got ahead through hard work after immigrating to this country, basically just about all of us, it's a powerful argument, and one not so easily dismissed, I think, by the simple-minded cant about "Benedict Arnold CEO's" (John Kerry, during the period when he was slavishly following consultant Bob Shrum's tired script) and CNN anchor Lou Dobbs' transparently pathetic attempt to ape the faux-populism of Fox's Bill O'Reilly. Through the inevitable hydraulic pressures of capitalism, companies will always seek out those hungrier (and yes, less-costly) workers, just as money will always splash its way into politics, no matter what barriers we may erect. I'd argue that we'd be smart to understand and react to these forces rather than trying to wish, shout or even vote them away.

I thought of Sandy again today, when I read this surprising little Washington Post piece about how writers--generally of the non-union variety--are the unacknowledged but essential players behind so-called "reality TV" series, a category which will comprise no less than 17% of the coming fall TV season's prime time schedule. The networks are loathe to acknowledge them with credits, since that defeats the myth of their unscripted nature. And since the entire niche is predicated on its considerably lower production costs, the networks are trying their best to keep them non-union. As I finished the story, I envisioned Sandy reacting like some latter-day Civil War general, studying the intelligence from the field before repositioning her big guns, oratorical and otherwise, to blast away in the direction of this latest perceived injustice. May she keep firing away in support of scribes, building creative community and reminding everyone of the importance of good writing. And here's hoping she also does well for herself while she's doing all this good for others.


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