I recently saw Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” at a local playhouse. It was a fascinating play, the core of it revolves around relationships, loyalty and belonging. Wikipedia has a nice synopsis if you want more detail. It is set in the 1950s. A key part of the supporting context is two Italian day-workers who come into the US illegally and are staying with the family. From the discussion in the play, it seems this is common among this neighborhood – they’re cousins of the household. They work on the docks, and there are many references to how they’ll have to work off their passage and that’s when it will become difficult to get work. I found that so interesting, this idea (presumably based in reality) that the union or other association of dockworkers would essentially sponsor protected passage of illegal workers as an investment payback through their future wages. There must have been plenty of work to go around.
It captured my attention as yet another example of how it used to be those with capital took more risk, especially around employment. It seems to me to be akin to how employers used to hire employees and train them, whereas now it seems much more common that smart young people pay to go to various school and certification programs in hopes of getting a job. Now, if you don’t have capital, or friendly people who will front it for you on the basis of personal relationship, you don’t have opportunity. Even illegal immigration seems to be that way from what I read in the papers, that immigrants pay guides to get them across the border and it’s pay up front, no guarantees.
The personal example that brings this home for me is a young couple I know that came to Seattle for him to go to commercial dive school. They seem like the American dream – smart, good looking, hard working. But they still needed a lot of support from family to be able to go to school. Then they moved across the country where he could work, and he was as successful as he could be, but the economy and job opportunity market shifted. His opportunity for advancement dried up and he was unable to make it pay off. She had been putting herself through school but they were really stuck and in debt and it took more help from family to help them move back home to where job opportunities were better.
It’s disappointing to me to watch our economy shift to emphasize who you know over what you know. As Piketty says, we are shifting from an economy where people could do well through labor to an economy where you will only be able to do well through inheritance. Further, he suggests that such is the historical norm, and the bulk of the 1900s when it was otherwise in this country is the exception. If we want to be a country of opportunity, it will take dedicated work to get there.