Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cult of Personality

Perhaps the worst thing about looking for work in this dismal economy is the fact that there are precious few job-hunting resources available to unemployed citizens. And those that exist are mostly a joke.

Case in point is the Portland Career Center’s weekly Unemployed Professionals Workshop series, which I attended last week. I had hoped the workshop would provide some useful insight to help me narrow my job search, or even advice on how to craft a 30-second “Elevator Speech,” even though I absolutely abhor the thought of selling myself like a TV advertisement.

Unfortunately, neither of those items was on the workshop agenda. Instead, the audience received a protracted and useless seminar in the importance of personality testing.

The meeting presenter specialized in workplace personality tests (think the Myers-Briggs Indicator Type, which most people have taken at some point in their lives), and walked the group through one. The purpose of this test (the “DISC” personality profile), she explained, was to help us better network with potential employers. DISC identifies test-takers as one of four easily categorized “personalities”: Dominant, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientious.

Discovering one’s individual personality “type” may seem like a fun Friday afternoon bonding activity to some employers, but the fact is these pseudo-psychological exams are not rooted in any scientific basis, whatsoever.

According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves, psychologists have long resisted the concept of categorizing individuals as “types.” Understanding that, as a “C,” you are more prone to careful analysis and questioning than others does not confer upon you any specific workplace skills or knowledge. More importantly, it does not get you a job.

Furthermore, because tests like DISC are based on such generalized, preferential answers, one can take the test four different times and never end up with the same results.

So, why the continued reliance on these pop-psych exams, you ask?

Because—and here is the truly frightening part—obtaining a job in the 21st century has little to do with one’s education, experience, or skills. It is primarily about one’s attitude and personality. Employers want to hire someone who is “likable.” In fact, potential employers focus 85-90 percent on a candidate’s likability and the remaining 10-15 percent on skills and knowledge, according to the Career Center literature. The personality type companies are increasingly looking for resembles that of a high school cheerleader more than a hard-working, educated and experienced professional.

This, in essence, is how an ignorant, inexperienced, uncultured moron like Sarah Palin can become a viable candidate for president.

No doubt a pleasant, upbeat employee is more desirable to share an office with than some of the misanthropically maladjusted co-workers I have had the misfortune of working alongside at various jobs. But, as was often the case with these likable co-workers, at the end of the day, they frequently lacked even the basic skills and education necessary for the job. Indeed, this scenario would be humorous if it were not the reality in most workplaces.

Barbara Ehrenreich comes to similar conclusions in her 2005 book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. In the book the author and social critic attempts to get hired as a PR consultant for a corporation, only to discover how frustratingly difficult it is to get a professional job in America. (The book is a follow-up to her highly praised, Nickel and Dimed, in which Ehrenreich goes undercover as a blue-collar laborer to see if she can make a living on minimum wage.)

“What does personality have to do with getting the job done?” Ehrenreich asks when encouraged to take the Myers-Briggs Test by a perky, overpriced career coach.

She goes on, “For all the talk about the need to be a likable ‘team player,’ many people work in a fairly cutthroat environment that would seem to be especially challenging to those who possess the recommended traits. Cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance: these are the qualities of subordinates—of servants rather than masters, women (traditionally, anyway) rather than men.”

Indeed, intelligence can actually be a character detriment in the job search. Employers loathe critical thinkers for the simple reason they are difficult to control and more prone to dissent.

The late comedian George Carlin put it best: “They [the corporate business leaders] don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and realize how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago.”

And that, ultimately, may be the real purpose behind the Career Center’s emphasis on personality tests and positive thinking. Even so, one wishes local services for job seekers could offer more substantive, practical information. Upon leaving, I was not sure which I found more disheartening: The workshop itself, or the Brave New World-mentality which now permeates the hiring practices of corporate America.

“The owners of this country know the truth,” Carlin adds in the same skit. “It’s called the ‘American Dream’ ‘cause you have got to be asleep to believe it.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Not Getting By in America

You will have to forgive the clich├ęd metaphor, but for unemployed Americans looking for jobs, it’s a jungle out there. Despite the media’s perpetually rosy economic outlook, the truth is this horrible recession is far from over. Far from it.

While the national unemployment rate reportedly dropped to 9 percent last month, such estimates are misleading. This narrowly focused figure does not take into account the growing number of unemployed Americans who have given up looking for work, nor does it factor in the alarmingly disproportionate rate of unemployment among African Americans. When these additional factors are considered, the real unemployment rate is closer to 20 percent according to most experts.

Meanwhile Wall Street continues to enjoy record profits. J.P. Morgan-Chase, Morgan-Stanley and Citigroup announced massive profit turns at the end of 2010, while regular Americans struggle just to make ends meet. J.P. Morgan posted profits of $4.83 billion last month, according to the Boston Globe.

All of this threatens the financial stability of those in the middle-class. As more and more middle-class Americans are forced to take on entry-level, minimum-wage jobs simply to survive (jobs many of these workers are essentially overqualified for), the working-class poor, who typically rely on such blue-collar, labor-intensive jobs, are pushed further out of the job market entirely. And unlike middle-class workers, the poor usually do not have the benefit of “rainy-day” savings they can rely on in a pinch.

As NY Times columnist Bob Herbert writes in a recent piece (“A Terrible Divide,” Feb 8, 2011), “Standards of living for the people on the wrong side of the economic divide are being ratcheted lower and will remain that way for many years to come. Forget the fairy tales being spun by politicians in both parties—that somehow they can impose service cuts that are drastic enough to bring federal and local budgets into balance while at the same time developing economic growth strong enough to support a robust middle class. It would take a Bernie Madoff to do that.”

Indeed, this country has never seen a greater gap between the rich and the poor. Currently the upper one percent of American society owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent combined. Think about that for a minute.

And this gap only threatens to grow wider. As Chrystia Freeland observes in a recent story for the Atlantic (“The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Jan/Feb 2011) this new generation of super-rich bourgeoisie has little regard for the working-class Americans it is rapidly leaving behind.

“Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few,” Freeland writes. “…But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.”

Meanwhile, Congress continues to shower the super-rich with unwarranted (and undeserved) tax-cuts while public-sector workers are forced to endure greater cuts in benefits and union protections. Many conservative state governments have called for eliminating teacher tenure programs entirely.

And the giant elephant in the room that nobody in the corporate media wants to talk about are the two biggest drains on our economy right now: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. taxpayers will pay a projected $119.4 billion for the 2011 fiscal year spending, according to National Priorities. (The share of the bill here in Portland, Maine, will be $95.7 million.)

The bloated military budget, however, is a sacred cow as far as both Democrats and Republicans are concerned. In America today we have money for protracted wars without end, but not for job creation or education.

“The United States can’t thrive with so many of its citizens condemned to shrunken standards of living because they can’t find adequate employment,” Herbert writes. “Long-term joblessness is a recipe for societal destabilization. It should not be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States.”

Much as it pains mainstream Americans to accept it, Karl Marx correctly anticipated our current economic meltdown. He understood, perhaps better than any modern day intellectual, the economic implications of class-struggle. Indeed, it was class-struggle that largely drove the democratic uprising in Egypt.

Perhaps it is time for Americans to take a page out of Egypt's populist playbook and reclaim our own country.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reagan Revisionism

February 6 was not just “Super Bowl Sunday.” It was also “Ronald Reagan Day,” as declared by Republican lawmakers—including Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage—in honor of what would have been the late president’s 100th birthday.

Besides the incongruity of celebrating the unofficial Ronald Reagan Day on a Sunday (if Congress is to make this an actual holiday, as some conservatives have proposed, let’s at least get a three-day weekend out of it), there are, in fact, a number of reasons to reflect on the legacy of the 40th president—though none of them good ones.

Since Reagan’s death, conservatives (and some Democrats, Obama included) have tripped over themselves to reclaim the “Gipper’s” mantle as representative of true Republican values. And in doing so, they have turned Reagan into a mythical icon that bears little resemblance to the man who actually occupied the White House during the 1980s.

Contemporary Republicans credit Reagan with balancing the federal budget, single-handedly ending the Cold War, maintaining lower taxes, and shrinking the size of the federal government.

But those of us who inhabit what a Bush staffer once infamously referred to as the, “reality-based community,” remember a very different President Ronald Reagan. In fact, in many cases, Reagan actually did the reverse of what many in the media credit him with.

According to Think Progress’ Alex Seitz-Wald, Reagan frequently raised taxes (11 times in total), tripled the size of the federal deficit, oversaw a massive expansion of government, and enacted tax-cuts that caused unemployment to soar to almost 11 percent. (Hmmm… Why does that last one sound so familiar…?)

“…Income inequality exploded,” Seitz-Wald writes of the Reagan tax-cut. “Despite the myth that Reagan presided over an era of unmatched economic boom for all Americans, Reagan disproportionately taxed the poor and middle-class, but the economic growth of the 1980s did little to help them.” Indeed, that gap has only grown wider in the last twenty years.

Author and journalist William Kleinknecht echoes similar sentiments of “The Great Communicator.” His book, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America chronicles how Reagan’s emphasis on deregulation and free-market purism stripped the country of jobs, blue-collar workers of basic worker protections, and were chiefly responsible for the current economic meltdown.

“It is remarkable that Reagan took none of the blame for the corporate scandals that marred the last years of the American century and ushered in the millennium,” Kleinknecht observes, “since they were largely of his making.”

“Without his tax, regulatory, and antitrust policies, there would have been no savings-and-loan bailout, no frenzy of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s, no unseemly scramble for overnight fortunes by arbitrageurs and raiders, no destructive obsession with quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment, no wholesale abandonment of ethics on the part of corporate executives. Nor would there have been an Enron, or a subprime mortgage crisis which sent shockwaves through the global financial system and placed the country on the brink of its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”

And that’s just on the domestic front. There was also that whole business of Iran-Contra—a highly unconstitutional act that should have gotten Reagan impeached, though you are unlikely to hear that assessment from the Reagan-worshipping, “Constitutionalists” in the Tea Party.

As for the claim—perhaps the Gipper’s best known “accomplishment”—that Reagan ended the Cold War, as Will Bunch argues in Tear Down this Myth, the Soviet Union likely would have fallen due to internal strife, regardless of the White House occupant at the time.

Reagan’s real contribution to the Cold War was ensuring the Soviets lost their bid to takeover Afghanistan by secretly funneling money, arms and training to the Islamist mujahidin fighters. One of the most prominent mujahidin commanders we backed was—wait for it!—Osama bin Laden. As Seitz-Wald writes, “…U.S. policy toward Pakistan remains strained because of the intelligence services’ close relation to these fighters. In fact, Reagan’s decision to continue the proxy war after the Soviets were willing to retreat played a direct role in Bin Laden’s ascendancy.”

Finally, despite the hyperbolic praise heaped upon Reagan, it is worth remembering how deeply unpopular he was while in office. According to a 2004 report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Reagan left the White House with a 63 percent approval rating, and averaged a 52 percent approval rating for his two terms. (It dropped to 46 percent during Iran-Contra, the report notes.) Indeed, no other modern president, save for George W. Bush, was as divisive as Ronald Reagan.

Clearly, the media suffers from a bit of selective memory when it comes to Reagan’s true legacy. Perhaps, like the president himself, too many journalists and pundits are experiencing a bit of dementia.