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America in Decline: Richard Sennett

In the race to the bottom, the worship of profit and the self-healing market, education, retraining workers, social mobility and intercultural learning fall by the wayside. The US imports engineers and programmers. School districts spend 600 times more for sports than for natural sciences.

The sociologist Sennett explains why Americans lose faith in capitalism and the future of their land

[This interview published in: suddeutsche.de, 9/17/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.sueddeutsche.de/wirtschaft/90/310023/text/print.html]

Germany will cope better with the consequences of the financial crisis than the United States according to the American sociologist Richard Sennett. The 65 year-old teaches at New York University and the London School of Economics. His research focus is working conditions in industrial society. He criticizes the high flexibility demanded in globalization. His first important book was "The Rise and Fall of Public Life" (1977). Beyond his research area, he gained recognition in 1998 with "The Flexible Person." In his latest book "Craftmanship" (2007), he analyzes the development of artisan and industrial skills in history. Sennett grew up in one of Chicago's poor sections and has American and British citizenship.

SZ: Professor Sennett, the United States is mired in its worst financial and economic crisis in decades. How will this affect American society?

Sennett: The consequences are enormous. This society has covered up or ignored inequalities in the past by living on credit. Through sub prime loans (second-class mortgages) and the many credit cards that most Americans have, an illusion of growth arose that is now destroyed. People lose their jobs and their homes and can't afford the usual consumer level any more. This has a deep significance. Americans believed they were the victors in capitalism. This self-assurance has disappeared and been replaced by a feeling of defeat.

SZ: Do you have evidence for that?

Sennett: The field of work is my area of research. Our crisis is not only a financial crisis. It involves the deficient capacity of the American worker to survive in competition with the rest of the world. America has not developed those abilities in the broad population as in Europe or China. The false financial boom of the early 21st century nourished the illusion that the fundamental loss of these skills was unimportant. Now the people see they were deceived.

SZ: In other developed countries, jobs disappear and migrate to the former third world. What is different in the US than in Europe?

Sennett: That depends on what European country we speak of.

SZ: Let us take Germany.

Sennett: It may surprise you that Germany is better able to cope with this crisis than the US. German workers are better trained. Germany still exports high-tech machines all over the world. The German system of apprenticeship is excellent. The US has an effective illiteracy rate of 28 percent.

SZ: Are you serious?

Sennett: Someone is effectively illiterate when he or she cannot read a simple contract or a long text. The education level is very low. The US imports engineers and programmers because it doesn't have these skills. I know that sounds strange. America is a rich country but is in decline. Regarding politics, the voters must choose on November 4 between nostalgia and an uncertain way. US labor market statistics are manipulated, dressed up and brightened.

SZ: What do you mean concretely?

Sennett: Both Senator McCain and his partner Sarah Palin represent the longing for a past, well known and certain world. In contrast, many democrats are aware that things are going wrong, workers are weakened and some consumer models are self-destructive. What they will do with this knowledge is unclear.

SZ: How are workers weakened? Unemployment in the US is lower than in Germany.

Sennett: One of the reasons why statistics lead to such conclusions is the fact that the 1.5 million persons in US prisons and those who work part-time are not included. A false picture arises. The skills are the crucial point. A teacher can immediately tell the difference between the graduate of a good American high school and a German graduate. As a rule of thumb, American high school graduates need one to two years to catch up to European persons of the same age group. Further down it looks much worse. Our businesses have too few incentives to retrain their workers. They buy labor where they can find it; they don't invest in workers. 40- and 50 year-olds are often marginalized because no one makes the effort to bring them to a modern level. That is the difference between the American and the Japanese auto industry. Sometimes Germans who talk about the stupidity of American workers irritate me...

SZ: Has anyone in Germany really said that?

Sennett: Yes, very often. But Americans aren't stupid. They simply don't have any retraining possibilities.

SZ: Can't Americans make up for this deficiency through innovation?

Sennett: A few top firms do this. But Wall Street and Silicon Valley give a false picture. The average US firm is not innovative but rather inflexible in dealing with workers and customers. This can be measured in the American export capability that eroded in the last years. In contrast, German and other European export businesses are always more innovative and flexible. Nokia is innovative; Microsoft only has a monopoly.

SZ: One consequence in the US seems to be growing protectionism.

Sennett: The problem is raised to a moralizing plane. If the Chinese are better, this can only mean that they play unfair. However this moralizing may collapse. If the Chinese currency were floated or released, that would not help Americans much since the Chinese will purchase their goods elsewhere.

SZ: Do Americans have a sense of crisis?

Sennett: I have interviewed workers for 15 years. A deep uncertainty about the future of jobs is more and more striking. This feeling of uncertainty does not emerge in any statistics. Yes, people are aware of the crisis but they have no name for it.

SZ: Are people changing their consumer behavior?

Sennett: No. That is part of the problem. There is a very American behavioral pattern. If you are unhappy, go shopping. The great multitude threatens to break down.

SZ: From an economic perspective, the solution is clear. The US is undergoing a purging crisis. There will be a higher national economic savings rate at the end.

Sennett: That doesn't function any more. We find ourselves in a stagnating economy. This affects our habits in a fundamental way. If we measured rightly, people would be shocked how few people in this land are really fully employed. It is an irony of history that immigrants as a rule do better than natives on the American labor market. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the consumer patterns of immigrants are different especially in the first generation. They try to save and don't become slaves to this consumer culture. Across nearly all immigrant groups, newcomers attach more importance to acquiring skills and education than those who have lived longer in the land. Koreans, Kenyans, Brazilians and persons from the Dominican Republic are classical examples.

SZ: What are the political consequences of the crisis you describe?

Sennett: Barack Obama feels his way in the problems. His first instinct was to be very protectionist. He has no detailed program for dealing with the problems, in any case beyond the purely financial aspect of the crisis. But the people in his camp think expansively. Obama has an excellent economic team. The republicans on the other hand are a party of fantasies. George Bush fantasized about global control. McCain's hallucinations have to do with strength as a quality of character. His partner Sarah Palin dreams of returning to the intact world of small American cities. For me, that is a decadent figure. If the republicans win the elections, the crisis will presumably intensify. Obama doesn't know exactly what he should do but he is a realist. He has mobilized many young people who all know the country must change. I hope he will be elected.

SZ: In January, you thought his nomination was impossible.

Sennett: I feared the racism in the US would prevent this. Now I am very glad to have erred.

SZ: Assuming Obama is elected and engages you as an advisor, what would you counsel him?

Sennett: First of all, I would say: Spend more money for the schools. That is our only future. Last year our school districts spent 600 times more for sports than for natural sciences. Can you imagine that?

SZ: What is wrong in the educational system? The whole world envies the US for its great universities.

Sennett: The elite universities are excellent but there are only a hundred of them. When you take a step down, there is nothing to envy any more. This is true everywhere. At the top, America is sharp. However the great multitude of the society threatens to come to nothing. Harvard is a dream but only a few attain Harvard. For everyone else, there is nothing comparable. The greatest myth about America is that of the "classless society."

SZ: In America the differences are greater than in Europe. Still there are many persons who rise very quickly from the bottom to the top.

Sennett: Those are the people you meet because you run in these circles. Still social mobility in the US has fallen since the 1970s. Whether someone born in poverty goes to Harvard is not central. The question is whether many people from poverty ascend into the lower middle class. The old model that every generation can expect a certain ascent is not true any more.

SZ: What is the reason for this?

Sennett: There are many reasons for this, the educational system and the rigidity of many American institutions. Normal US firms are not like Google. Then there is the state. For many black persons, social ascent began with a job in public service. Now this public service shrivels. A young woman who earlier became a secretary with the state can only find a very miserable job. Germany could be a model for the US.

SZ: Isn't there a way from so-called McJobs to better jobs?

Sennett: That is very hard. Let's talk about McDonalds. One thing must be conceded to McDonalds. The food is terrible but they really do something to promote their workers. But they are the exception. Another factor that hinders social mobility is the failure of many small firms. The percentage is much higher than in Germany or Scandinavia. One of the great mistakes of Bush's second term was the politization of the Small Business Bureau, a national institution to promote small businesses. The bureau became a benefice for well-to-do republicans - incompetent and useless. This is important but doesn't make headlines.

SZ: What role do unions play?

Sennett: If we in America had unions like the German IG Metal, we would be better off. Our unions only worry about their long-term members.

SZ: But isn't the American auto-union UAW that can compare to IG Metal jointly responsible for the decline of the auto industry.

Sennett: Why do you say that?

SZ: The UAW forces costs on corporations that European and Asian firms do not have.

Sennett: That is the question of the chicken and the egg. The UAW had to do this because its members wouldn't otherwise have any health insurance. Let me tell you something. Perhaps you don't think the German system of joint-determination is so good. There are certainly problems. But in America workers have almost no voice in their factories. Procedural justice is lacking when they want to complain about anything. Workers don't feel autonomous in their work, particularly in businesses that are restructured again and again. If we had self-determination, that would be different. For many American unionists, the conditions in Germany are like a dream.

SZ: Aren't German conditions marked by unemployment?

Sennett: Do you know what is striking in Germany and Scandinavia? They have joy in complaining.

SZ: Germans should stop their complaining!

Sennett: Yes. Europeans have had America as a model since the Second World War. America is not a model any more.

SZ: Do you think Germany is a model for America?

Sennett: Yes, in parts of its welfare state.

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