The Traveling Bra Salesman’s Lesson
by Caudia O’Keefe
Winner of the 2004 Shell Economist essay competition addressing the following question:
Import workers or export jobs?

It’s a little after 10 a.m. at a 20-vehicle flea market in rural West Virginia. I’m getting worried. I haven’t sold enough merchandise to pay for my $7 space fee and I didn’t have any money to bring with me, not even to make change. I reach into a carton of vintage clothing to mark down my prices. My fingers grasp something silky and slippery, a lacy slip Elizabeth Taylor could have worn in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Instead of the thin, cheesy polyester and shoddy workmanship I’m used to seeing in contemporary lingerie from the same manufacturer, the older slip features quality fabric and lace that is not only sewn on straight, but will survive a hundred washings and remain looking near new.

This isn’t what I notice first, however. It’s the original price tag from 1966. I’m amazed because 38 years later I can still decipher the sales codes printed on it, codes which were on thousands of tags exactly like it and part of my first paying job, given to me when I was eight-years-old.

My stepfather was a salesman during the 1960s, traveling California and the American southwest in his big, hulking Buick, selling bras, slips, and girdles to small department stores and five-and-dimes. Whenever he returned from one of his two-week trips, he brought several lunch sacks full of torn price tags with him, evidence of product sold. My job was to sort and count the tags, at a nickel for every hundred I recorded.

We lived in a three-bedroom home in an upscale Los Angeles suburb, owned two cars, and took annual vacations. My brother, sister, and I never lacked any of the benefits of a middle-class upbringing, a new school wardrobe each year, copious Christmas presents, private lessons, even horses when we were older. In a medical emergency we worried more about how to get to a doctor quickly than we did about paying the bill. All of this was affordable on my dad’s one sales job without incurring vast amounts of debt.

These days the same lingerie lines my dad marketed are now sold primarily in Wal-Mart. Instead of being crafted in the U.S.A. by American workers they are manufactured almost exclusively in China. Gone are the traveling salesmen who ferried clothing to small town variety stores across the nation, and their buyers who used to decide which lines to stock. Most of the old independent retailers no longer exist. A handful of chains have replaced them, with buying decisions made at the corporate level. Jobs which comfortably supported a family have been eliminated in favor of new ones paying so little employees are encouraged to apply for food stamps.

I have more in common today with the minimum-wage employees at my local supercenter, than my dad in his Buick cruising Route 66 with a trunk full of bras. Why? I’m currently stuck living in job poor West Virginia. With the exception of the occasional social worker position advertised at $19K a year, the positions listed in my local paper pay $6 or less per hour. When I held one of the area’s top professional jobs, as a 70- hour-per-week PR director for an arts organization, I earned just $1103 each month after taxes, no health insurance, no benefits. I understand too well the desire of unemployed and low-wage workers throughout the world who will make any sacrifice necessary, even to the point of moving some place where they are resented and vilified, in order to find work. I sympathize with the talented and skilled employees in India and Russia who are currently gobbling up my country’s offshored tech jobs. Given these nations’ past and current struggles with poverty or economic turmoil, I would do exactly as they are doing.

Unfortunately, few companies want to outsource quality jobs to West Virginia. Though I’ve spent the last two years trying to put together the $3,000 necessary to move myself and my mother, Grapes of Wrath-style, to another state with decent employment, I can’t even manage to keep our utilities and rent current.

Feeling isolated here, I’ve looked outward for answers and become a financial news junkie. I comb each new statistic, wait just as eagerly for the U.S. monthly payroll report as I would if I owned stock. I take it all in, the arguments for and against free trade, the fears of those who feel the exportation of jobs will lead to a “race to the bottom,” where America loses superpower status and becomes a third-world nation. I watch corporate spokespeople madly spinning their version of outsourcing’s benefits, cheaper prices and increased jobs at home. I note Alan Greenspan’s testimony suggesting that displaced workers must retrain themselves for the new jobs which will appear on the horizon to replace ones lost and unlikely to return. None who support this belief, however, can offer a list of the positions for which the jobless should school themselves. I sit in front of the TV where verbal combatants are engaged in a heated exchange over immigration reform. Should we be more compassionate, open our borders wider to financially depressed people willing to fill all those jobs Americans don’t want? Or do we need a 50-foot razor wire fence to protect native-born and naturalized citizens from the downward pressure on wages caused by tides of illegal aliens crossing into the U.S.?

I suck in as much information as I can take before crying uncle, the attack dog political ads about job creation, the surveys and polls and yelling and screaming from experts and average Americans alike.

Two realities stand out from all the rest.

Geography can no longer prevent jobs in developed regions such as North America and Europe from migrating to cheaper, emerging markets. The outsourcing jet has already left the terminal, cleared international airspace, and has enough fuel onboard to reach the far ends of the earth nonstop.

Meanwhile, those workers whose jobs have fled are crowding into that empty terminal, clamoring for protections against what they perceive as theft. They see a worker in China being paid pennies for a job that use to guarantee a nice middle-class life for their families and they’re so frustrated they don’t know which they want to do more, cry or shoot something, preferably a politician. They may cry, but thankfully they don’t shoot. Instead they pour every ounce of their attention into complaining to those same politicians, charging them with an impossible task, returning things to the way they were.

I know first hand the dangers of refusing to let go of the past. A decade ago I was a published writer with a promising career in fiction. Fiction publishing at that time was in the midst of a corporate sea change devastating to authors of the type of books I wrote. Not only wasn’t pay increasing, fewer and fewer books were being bought. Not wanting to give up a career that was my whole life, I sought to adjust to my shrinking income by progressively relocating to areas of the country with cheaper and cheaper costs of living. I moved from pricey California to a slightly less expensive northern New Mexico to Florida, rural Virginia, and finally, with my money gone, any momentum I’d once had long expended, and all contacts evaporated, I came to a disgruntled rest four years ago in West Virginia.

Similar to my experience with publishing, Americans who have lost their jobs since January 2001 are having to adjust to the idea that the next one they find is likely to involve a pay cut. According to the U.S. Labor Department, 57 percent of those workers who found re-employment earned less than they did at their old jobs. One third took a cut of 20 percent or more in order to be employed.

What happens if, as several studies suggest, outsourcing continues to ramp up and those same workers are thrown on the street once more? Will their next job pay even less? Could scores of computer programmers, financial analysts, and paralegals end up like my West Virginia neighbors, huddled around a card table in a supercenter break room, using a Styrofoam cup for an ashtray while they grouse about their lives?

Back in the 1970s, my stepfather saw his career as a traveling bra salesman coming to an end. Though he adored the freedom of the open road, he didn’t balk. He mourned and moved on. He studied for a real estate license and found a new life as a highly successful broker.

The question is not whether it is good or bad to import workers or export jobs. The problem is that society has hit an emotional road block. My country is one tremendously divided, with pro-business and pro-worker stubbornly pitted against each other. We’re anxious. We’re angry. Neither side wants to give and nothing can be solved until we acknowledge one crucial fact.

The past is dust. Those mythic decades, during which The American Dream was considered to be our natural right, are over. We need to wake from our state of denial, accept this golden era’s passing, and get on with life. Once we agree that the past cannot be recaptured, we will at last open ourselves to solutions we haven’t yet considered, to business and immigration models which are still waiting to be invented. Working as willing participants of change, we will devise ways to keep businesses from discarding employees like so much surplus machinery, while making certain there is profit for all. Ingenuity will be given free reign and the synergies we so badly need to solve this international crisis can finally come together.

Standing in that West Virginia flea market, I look at the vintage, never worn slip in my hands. Back in my home state of California, at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, it would fetch $35 or more. Here, I’ll have to price it at $1. In fact while I’m doing this, a woman approaches me.

“How much?” she asks.

I tell her, while pointing out that the slip is in mint condition and of a superior quality to comparable ones made today.

“Will you take a quarter?” she asks.

Hurry, I urge my country. Before it’s too late. Only when we admit that the future awaits us can we embrace a more inclusive and thrilling successor to outmoded 20th century ideals, a goal without boundaries or limits, not The American Dream, but The Global Dream.