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Book Review: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

September 29, 2014

Bait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American DreamBait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another book to add to the mountain of evidence that my homelessness is absolutely and entirely the fault of others. I graduated from college in 1999 and earned my master’s in 2005. Ehrenreich began this book in 2001 and published it in 2005. Every single person she profiled in the book was older at the time than I am now (38) and had higher salaries than I’ve ever earned ($50-60,000 range–the only time I got even close to the equivalent hourly rate my hours were in the single digits), and every single one of them ended up either doing a low-to-minimum wage job that I can’t do (I am medically limited to a desk job on account of scoliosis that went undiagnosed until 2005 when I was 29, L4-L5-S1 herniated discs, neurogenic bladder, sciatica in both legs, and plantar fasciitis in both feet, and have difficulty standing for more than very short periods, and use a cane if I expect to stand for more than an hour, and spasms that make the cane absolutely necessary–Social Security says someone with my age, education, and experience is not disabled by their standards because I can work a desk job, and Binder and Binder was no help, saying that the only way they could help me get SSD is if I got a doctor to write a note explaining why I can’t do a desk job, either, which isn’t true) or they have moved back in with their parents–my father passed away. As of September 2014, I have been homeless for 28 months after I was betrayed by a graduate school colleague who had me relocate for an $18,000 probationary salary and then let me go after three months, knowing at the time that he hired me I had been in housing court because I had lost the entirety of my savings to rent as I unsuccessfully searched for jobs that have seemingly all been exported to his native India.

Some of the critics of this book assert that Ehrenreich used false credentials that undermine her hirability, and while that is true (although her actual credentials are certainly the transferable skills they tell us are so important), she never really even got to the interview phase, and that doesn’t say anything in regard to the other people she met and discussed along the way. Another critic on here attacked her for complaining about religion at the faith-based groups. She mostly restricted this to those that were religious but did not explicitly advertise themselves as such (one used the word “fellowship” as the only clue for an event in the banquet hall of a Shoney’s, and proved itself to be racist and anti-Semitic as well as religious (128-131)), although she does criticize the way the majority of them send extremely contradictory messages.

I did find it laughable when she said the number of applications that she’d done being over a hundred. I have been tracking my job applications in an Excel file since the month prior to losing my job and becoming homeless. As of yesterday’s applications, I am on line 2,799. I have had 24 interviews in that time, ten of which were with staffing services, and many of the others were scams that had me wanting to bolt to the door but waiting for a socially acceptable moment without agreeing to anything.

Like Ehrenreich, at the time I was in housing court, I was presented with the AFLAC scam (train to work at AFLAC entirely at your own expense and working from your home office) at a similarly-decorated office in the Bronx. State Farm has been trying the same thing lately, as has Liberty Tax Service.

As someone without Ehrenreich’s money, but whose experience and ability is entirely in white collar work, I have experienced a lot of what she describes in this book, much of it foisted on me by the Department of Labor while I was on unemployment or various government subcontractors such as FEGS, Arbor WeCare, Project Renewal, etc. On my own, I went to a Career Clout meetup group (which is also an advertising ploy, hammered home when I attended a second meeting), which obviously had impact on her, because she mentions the career coach having her develop PAR statements (92). This system was developed by a guy named Lloyd Feinstein (sounds too much like Lloyd Blankfein for my liking) and stands for problem/action/response. The Career Clout style is intended to gear your resume toward hiring managers and to go above the heads of HR, but 99% of people don’t have the clout to reach over the heads of HR straight to the hiring manager. Even addressing the hiring manager by name in the cover letter is ineffective. I was doing that in every cover letter during my first year of homelessness (2012), and I got shot down a lot, not to mention all the people who kept telling me that the PAR setup is too negative to work, in spite of Career Clout’s very logical assertion that the employer hires people to solve problems.

The first part of the book deals with Barbara Alexander’s (she went job searching under her maiden name) dealings with three embarrassing career coaches, the incredibly upbeat and vapid Kimberly who is obsessed with MBTI, the validity of which Ehrenreich does an excellent job at skewering as no more valid than astrology (32-34, 227) via Annie Murphy Paul‘s The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children Mismanage Our Companies and Misunderstand Ourselves; Morton, who uses Enneagrams and very bad Wizard of Oz analogies (and I write this review as the L. Frank Baum (not that the MGM Wizard of Oz movie that is best known to the general public is anywhere close to Baum’s vision and themes) expert that Ehrenreich professes that she is not, and an allusion to the origin of the Tin Woodman on page 19 seems to epitomize one of the themes taken up in the book. Often, Nick Chopper would say that he was “careless” in having cut himself apart, knowing full well at the time of the telling that his ax was under a spell), and Joanne, who seems relatively reasonable (who is more a resume expert than a job developer, but says that lying on the resume is par for the course, but is in fact someone just trying to eke a living after her husband got–you guessed it–downsized.

Eventually she makes her way to the self-proclaimed inventor of Career Coaching, Patrick Knowles, and her portrayal of him as a pathetic failure is even more palpable than Patrick Swayze’s performance as the mad and pedophilic guru Jim Cunningham in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Knowles’s behavior with Cynthia, while not pedophilic, is almost as disturbing (78). This is probably the best part of the book, and where Ehrenreich displays incredible gifts as a writer, more than her uses of words that I, an English major (Ehrenreich states that hers was chemistry), had to look up in the dictionary — “moue” (114) and “koan” (153). She then follows another bit of advice that I have never been able to do successfully, and at which Barbara Alexander also failed–turning the tables on someone and making their meeting with you into an episode in which you aggressively prove to them that they need your services. I have never heard of this sort of aggression working in real life actually working, and the Guerrilla Marketing gurus that keep e-mailing me can provide only one definitive example–a guy who worked on a construction site uninvited. Given my physical condition, were I to try this, all it would do is result in a lot of insurance headaches for the employer I had chosen as my victim. I asked for white collar examples of something like this (I’ve heard the story more than once, and believe it is probably apocryphal), and so far, none have been forthcoming. In 2013, I alerted Marvel Comics that the previous year I had applied to an assistant editor position for which proofreading was a major component of the job, but that an early issue of Morbius, the Living Vampire (a title on which I would have loved to have worked, though it was canceled after only nine issues) that somehow “bare with me” had made it into the dialogue, which makes no sense in a scene between two straight men. It was in a word balloon and not a message, so the error can’t be attributed to a character. This didn’t get any more of a response than my three attempts to get permission to move forward with my opera based on The Man-Thing, which thus far exists only in sheet music notebooks until I can find singers unafraid to sing texts that are, legally speaking, plagiarized, albeit with credit. She likens the career coaching field to Eric Fromm’s novel, Escape from Freedom, “which was an attempt to understand the appeal of fascism” (89).

Her assault on networking is merciless:

Why, when job searching could be totally rationalized by the Internet through a simple matching of job seeker’s skills to company needs, does everything seem to depend on this old-fashioned, face-to-face networking? After all, there’s going to be an interview anyway, right?

“It’s about trust,” Ron answers opaquely, not to mention “likability.” “The higher up you get in the executive ranks the more things depend on being likable. You’ve got to fit in.”

…It’s distracting to think that our major economic enterprises, on which the livelihoods and well-being of millions depend, rest so heavily on the thin goo of “likability.”

Getting up in the executive ranks as a result of “likability” is our society in self destruct mode, since, as Cathy O’Neill points out, that’s what got Tim Geithner into position to destroy the global economy to begin with. And Ehreinreich even has Jim Lukaszewski admit on page 159, that CEOs are out of touch, isolated, and “idle,” that is, lazy. The highest-paid people in white collar employment are the laziest. Those of us scrambling unsuccessfully to find employment are dubbed lazy by our now-Orwellian society, while those on the right, who do the most name calling, love CEOs and generally refuse to admit that they do little or no actual work.

The Gap gets capitalized both when she mentions her clothing from said store and when dealing with what she finds to be insurmountable in terms of the resume. I’ve covered mine by describing myself as a freelancer with clients (all real, unlike Ehrenreich’s), to no avail. She discusses invisibility and futility (171) in spite of her ENTJ MBTI result (mine is INTJ, which is supposedly only 1% of the population, which ought to make me extremely desirable as an employee, except that the “diversity” that employers claim that they want is illusory, as Ehrenreich details on page 229), which went from being desirable to “like all those fairy-tale characters who are unfortunate to get what they wished for from an overly literal-minded wish granter” (my favorite example of this is the DC horror story in which a guy gives his soul to Satan for a copy of every comic book ever published and a house big enough to hold them all, only to be suffocated by the delivery down the chimney of every comic book ever published throughout the entire universe). One guy tries to hobnob at the Capital Grille (spelled Capitol Grill), an upscale restaurant, as a waiter, also unsuccessfully (172). I went into one of these places with Monica Hunken and others on September 17, 2012, singing about getting money out of politics and was forced to leave by the staff. The New York Times shows that this businesses is doing extremely well because it caters to the wealthy, while businesses that cater to the middle class are failing.

Then she gets into the complete uselessness of job fairs, which are strictly for sales jobs (198). No matter what industry they claim to be about, it’s always for sales within that industry. Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but here it is in a published book. I hate sales and have never been successful at it, even with things I believe in, like my own works of fiction and drama. I went to one for media jobs, and it was mostly door-to-door sales trying to get people to change their cable company. A 58-year-old out-of-work machinist who was one of my roommates in my previous shelter went to one of these job fairs, told me it was all sales, and said that the line was wrapped entirely around the block such that they kept it open long past the 3 PM stated ending time to be fair to everyone that arrived, though no employer was really equipped to recruit more than twenty people, and, as with every job fair I’ve attended, they tell you to apply through the website. They say that they’ll flag it because they met you, but given the number of applications these jobs get, I seriously doubt if that is true, nor did any of them actually respond when I applied, even the ones who gave me their e-mail address and told me to write to them when I had finished the online application.

The conclusion of the book, in which she talks about the people she met along the way in jobs standing all day at Home Depot or in heavily physical blue collar jobs for which no intelligent employer would hire me as an insurance liability (204-211), has Ehrenreich looking forward to the Occupy movement and its revolt against capitalism that was forced underground and declared dead by the right-wing controlled media. The messages she receives throughout the book are contradictory, and she ties these bits together (221). The abusiveness of a Patrick Knowles, with his EST-like (her comparison) method of blaming the victim (this portion really rang home with me–I am “Bill” in David Friedman‘s The Thought Exchange–David has been through EST, and it seems to be a definite influence on his continued teachings), who blames the victim with the circular reasoning that because “you” are the common denominator in everything that happens to you, it must therefore be “your” fault, a logic that they would conveniently ignore if someone as physically bullying as they are psychologically were to punch them in the face and insist it was their own fault. A friend who wants to get on Dr. Phil to expose the abusive nature of her family suggested that I do the same, but from what I know of Dr. Phil, it’s easy to construct a fantasy in which he tells me I’m the only one to blame for my circumstances, hitting him, then as I’m dragged off by security or the police, telling him how it’s entirely his fault he got punched and his hypocrisy at having me removed. Ehrenreich expresses a similar fantasy about “pummeling” Mike Hernacki, Bruce I. Doyle, and Patrick Knowles (85). This she contrasts with the churches’ more positive methods about alliance with God (Ehrenreich states her atheism (134); I have been in the Unity church since age 4, and both Unity and the Thought Exchange have been called “Buddhism for westerners,” and the term “metaphysical malpractice” is often used when EST-like blame is distributed by Unity congregants, especially among those who are new, or pick and choose scraps from various metaphysical sources, such as Rhonda Byrne. My minister, Paul Tenaglia, thought Nickel and Dimed was brilliant but decried Bright-Sided, which appeared four years after this and seems like it may have been inspired by Barbara Alexander’s experiences with Kimberly. She describes both, ultimately, as fantasies of omnipotence that insidiously, if not deliberately, work to prevent people from confronting the social and economic forces shaping their lives.

Ehrenreich reaches the conclusion that I, as an Occupier, reached early on in the book, the need for collective action against the system (237), even citing Marx on the instability of capitalism on page 217, after an earlier reference to Marxism on page 162. “When skilled and experienced people routinely find their skills unwanted and their experience discounted,” Ehrenreich says, “then something has happened that cuts deep into the very social contract that holds us together.” Indeed, if you notice my 2014 reading challenge, you’ll see a lot of collected editions of Golden Age comic books. The notions of democracy reflected in these bitterly anti-fascist tracts makes me as a contemporary reader incredibly cynical of how much our society has taken a turn for the worse. Right-wingers point out that the United States is not a democracy, but a Representative Republic. More accurately, it is a Non-Representative Republic based in corporatism, which Mussolini said was the same as fascism. On page 223, Ehrenreich notes that “the job-generating function ranked higher among corporate imperatives. CEOs were more likely to stand up to the board of directors and insist on retaining employees rather than boosting dividends in the short-term by laying people off.” She even cites Claire Giannini, the daughter of the founder of Bank of America, saying that in her father’s day, executives took pay cuts to avoid laying off staff. I’ve heard only of non-profits like my church doing such things. In 1960s comics, many a villain (such as Calvin Zabo/Mr. Hyde and Klaus Vorhees/The Cobra in Stan Lee‘s Thor) gets started because they are offered a plum job that they don’t deserve. Usually their employer has doubts but thinks that they can afford to be generous, and it usually results in their deaths. This sort of thing happens metaphorically every day with the Geithners of the world, but I find it astonishing how easily these overtly unqualified people get white collar jobs walking in off the street and wonder if it was equally implausible when the stories were first published. I’ve never been able to get past security with my resume, and when I was still living at home after college, my mother demanded that I use a literal pavement-pounding technique, and when it failed after weeks and weeks, it led to her aggression against me that made living with her not an option in either of our opinions. She could not stand to read about these 45 year-olds in 2005 being forced to move back in with their parents. The economy hasn’t improved any since then. It’s been whitewashed with the numbers game, but the alternative media that is actually progressive has noted that all growth has been in minimum wage service sector jobs on an income that is not livable in even the poorest parts of Mississippi. I heartily endorse Ehrenreich’s conclusion, conservatively presented (“work for change”) as it is. I work with Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking, Occu-Evolve, Picture the Homeless, and the New York City Community Land Initiative, so I cannot honestly be accused of being lazy, feckless, or not working, even though I remain unpaid and cannot afford to move out of a homeless shelter, even if I did do work that is abnormally excruciatingly painful for me. There are yahoos out there who think I should be forced to “contribute” in such a manner. In Germany, it’s illegal to fly the flag that represents their beliefs.

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