I hope President Barack Obama read about Maddie Parlier as he was working on his State of the Union address. Parlier is the subject of Adam Davidson's illuminating article in the current issue of the Atlantic.
Parlier's father abandoned her when she was young and crashed his car while driving drunk, killing himself and a family of four. Maddie is smart and hard-working. She did reasonably well in high school but got pregnant her senior year.
She and the father of her child split up, which put the kibosh on her college dreams because she couldn't afford day care. She temped for a while. Her work ethic got her noticed, and she got a job as an unskilled laborer at Standard Motor Products, which makes fuel injectors.
Parlier earns about $13 an hour. She'd like to become one of the better-paid workers in the plant, but, in today's factories, that requires an enormous leap in skills. It feels cruel, Davidson writes, to mention all the things Parlier would have to learn to move up. She doesn't know the computer language that runs the machines. "She doesn't know trigonometry or calculus, and she's never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn't know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is."
A good attitude and hustle have taken Parlier as far as they can. It's hard, given her situation, to acquire the skills she needs to realize the American dream.
Davidson's article is important because it shows the interplay between economic forces (globalization and technology) and social forces (single parenthood and the breakdown of community support). Globalization and technological change increase the demands on workers; social decay makes it harder for them to meet those demands.
Across America, millions of mothers can't rise because they don't have adequate support systems as they try to improve their skills. Tens of millions of children have poor life chances because they grow up in disorganized environments that make it hard to acquire the social, organizational and educational skills they will need to become productive workers.
Tens of millions of men have marred life chances because schools are bad at educating boys, because they are not enmeshed in the long-term relationships that instill good habits and because insecure men do stupid and self-destructive things.
Over the past 40 years, women's wages have risen sharply but, as Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project point out, median incomes of men have dropped 28 percent and male labor force participation rates are down 16 percent. Next time somebody talks to you about wage stagnation, have them break it down by sex. It's not only globalization and technological change causing this stagnation. It's the deterioration of the moral and social landscape, especially for men.
The idiocy of our current political debate is that neither side seems capable of talking about the interplay of economic and social forces. Most of the Republican candidates talk as if all that is needed is more capitalism. But lighter regulation and lower taxes won't on their own help the Maddie Parliers of the world get the skills they need to compete.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have shifted their emphasis from lifting up the poor to pounding down the rich. Democratic candidates no longer emphasize early childhood education and community-building. Instead they embrace the pseudo-populist Occupy Wall Street hokum - the opiate of the educated classes.
If Obama is really serious about restoring American economic dynamism, he needs an aggressive two-pronged approach: More economic freedom combined with more social structure; more competition combined with more support.
As a survey of nearly 10,000 Harvard Business School grads by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin makes clear, to get companies to locate their plants in the United States, Obama is going to have to simplify the tax code, cut corporate rates, streamline regulations, make immigration policy more flexible and balance the budget over the long term.
To ensure there's skilled labor for those plants, Obama would have to champion different policies: successful training programs like Job Corps, better coordination between colleges and employers, better treatment for superstar teachers, more child care options and better early childhood education.
This agenda is libertarian in the capitalist sector and activist in the human capital sector. Don't triangulate meekly toward the center; select bold policies from both ends. That's what would help Maddie Parlier and millions like her.
© 2012 New York Times News Service