Journo looks into boom and bust


Strong>The Short Goodbye: A Skewed History of the Last Boom and the Next Bust
By Elisabeth Wynhausen
Melbourne University Publishing, 2011
219 pages, $29.99 (pb)

From writing stories about workers being sacked during the 2009 global financial crisis, Elisabeth Wynhausen, a journalist at Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, got a taste of the real thing when she was handed a pink slip of her own.

When she lost her job, 20,000 others a day were losing theirs in the US and 1000 a day in Australia. She also lost $68,000 from her pension fund. At age 62, this scuttled her retirement plans just as the plummeting stock market indices and shonky fund managers were burning through the retirement dreams of tens of thousands.

The Short Goodbye is Wynhausen’s able attempt to report the reality of the global economic meltdown.

It takes up the real economy inhabited by most of us and the plush niche of the financial sector, where the authors of economic woe were busily engaged blowing debt bubbles, and pumping trillions of dollars of other people’s money into exotic, impenetrable financial instruments. They had the presence of mind to insulate themselves with fat bonuses against the inevitable explosion of toxic debt.

So, while 77,000 manufacturing workers in Australia were sacked in a year, nine big Wall Street banks in the US handed out US$33 billion in bonuses after being bailed out with $175 billion of workers’ taxes.

About 35% of Australian workers who were “restructured” out of one job to another in 2009 had their pay cut, 29% had their hours cut and 33% lost entitlement to paid leave. But remuneration went up by 19% for the 200 top companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

The economic crisis provided a welcome excuse for employers to sack the most experienced workers and those most likely to demand decent wages and overheads like occupational health and safety.

Employers could then impose their holy grail of workplace “flexibility”, using labour hire firms, outsourcing and replacing full-time jobs with part-time jobs.

In Australia, part-time jobs acted as a shock absorber to keep the official unemployment rate down. But the reality of underemployment and unemployment was grim for those whose fate this was ― including Wynhausen, who bitterly sampled her new world of Centrelink and the job agencies, “places that seethed with human misery”, arcane rules and futile training courses.

Starry-eyed economists, journalists, business leaders and politicians, who had never read their Marx, celebrated the end of boom and bust before the latest bust. They also, says Wynhausen, ranted about “the threat union power posed to the economy”, keeping up the vitriol as they hypocritically talked austerity after huge public bailouts, “even after the crisis proved the threat came from above not below”.

Wynhausen’s pink slip, in retrospect, is not surprising. She had always sided with the have-nots. The latest capitalist crisis allowed News Limited to revoke the licence of their “bleeding heart liberal” and get on with the job of turning the GFC into a footnote, cultivating their senior executive bonuses and shifting the costs of capitalism onto the working class.