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Stephen McCauley's 'Alternatives to Sex'

Author Stephen McCauley first made a splash with The Object of My Affection, the novel that was later made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. His new novel, Alternatives to Sex, concerns a a gay fortysomething realtor with an addiction to cruising the Internet in pursuit of casual sex.

34:51

Other segments from the episode on April 10, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 10, 2006: Interview with Stephen McCauley; Interview with Louis Uchitelle.

Transcript

DATE April 10, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Stephen McCauley talks about his new book
"Alternatives to Sex," his career and life
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the new novel "Alternatives to Sex," Williams Collins, the main character,
confesses that for much of his life his addictive behavior had been of the
most deeply shameful kind, obsessive cleaning: vacuuming, ironing, even
secretly cleaning a sink or bathtub when having dinner at a friend's house.
Then he add promiscuity to his list of obsessions. The novel is a social
comedy about why and how he decides to end that obsession and practice
celibacy. William is a gay man in his mid-40s who works as a real estate
agent near Boston. Reviewing the novel in Entertainment Weekly, Jennifer
Reese described it as a sweet and funny book, nearly perfect. My guest is the
author of "Alternatives to Sex," Stephen McCauley. His other novels include
"The Man of the House" and "The Object of My Affection," which was adapted
into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd.

Let's start with a reading from the beginning of "Alternatives to Sex."

Mr. STEPHEN McCAULEY: "My decision to practice celibacy had nothing to do
with crudery or penance, morality or manners, dysfunction or fear of disease.
It had very little to do with sex. It was all about real estate. What had
started out one year earlier as a bout of benign computer dating, a euphemism
for online chatting, followed by brief encounters less then personal and
old-fashioned anonymous sex because you exchanged fake names with the person,
had turned into an almost daily ritual that had replaced previous pastimes,
such as reading, going to the movies, working, exercising, eating. I'm
exaggerating, of course, but by how much I'd rather not say.

For months I'd known that my habits were slipping out of control, but I
figured that as long as I acknowledged my behavior was a problem, it wasn't
one. And then one rainy September morning, I woke up and decided that too
much really was enough. I could feel trouble pressing down on me, like the
low, dark sky outside my bedroom window. `Do something about your life,' I
told myself, a directive that's usually, in my case, translated as `Stop doing
something.'"

GROSS: That's Stephen McCauley reading from his new novel "Alternatives to
Sex."

Stephen McCauley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How would you describe why your
character decides to give up sex?

Mr. McCAULEY: Well, the reason he claims is because he can't stand anymore
walking into people's grim, badly furnished apartments anymore. It's just
become too depressing to him. That's the rationale that he uses. I think
closer to the truth is that he can't stand this combination of physical
intimacy and emotional detachment, which is what he keeps encountering on
these online meetings.

GROSS: Your book is set after September 11th. How does that affect your
character's decision to try to be celibate?

Mr. McCAULEY: Well, you know, he says at one point that after September 11th
everyone was trying to decide between doing whatever it took to combat the
collective evil of mankind and do good, and on the other hand, putting all
altruism aside and doing just whatever it took to feel good. And this is the
conflict, the sort of moral dilemma that the main character in this book finds
himself in at the beginning. And I think it's something that, you know, a lot
of people that I know were feeling after September 11th. And one of the
inspirations for this book was that I had this friend who called me up shortly
after September 11th, and he told me, you know, I actually said, `How are you
doing?' And he said he was giving up his mistress because the whole crisis and
tragedy made him realize what was important to him, which was his wife and his
family. And a few months later, I bumped into him on the street, and he was
with this mistress of his and, you know, later he said to me, `Well, you know,
I realized after September 11th that, you know, we could all die at any
minute, and the most important thing is to do whatever you can to enjoy the
day and seize the moment.' And it was a little bit of that moral confusion
that I wanted to capture in the book.

GROSS: That's great.

Were you going through that at all in your own life?

Mr. McCAULEY: Yeah, I think I was. I mean, of course, you know, like
everyone, I sat watching this and feeling that something big had happened,
something had really changed and that nothing would be the same. And then,
you know, after a few months, it was like, `Well, yeah, but what exactly has

changed? And what is different?' And, you know, like a lot of writers I know,
the question quickly became, `How am I going to write about this? And can I
really write my domestic comedies and little comedies of manners in the
aftermath of this?' And, for me, the decision that, `Yes, of course, I can,'
was really finding ironies like that in the way people were responding to it,
which I found very funny and, on another level, kind of touching.

GROSS: Your character is also a realtor so, you know, he's addicted to
finding men through the Internet, and he's also dealing with people who are
selling and buying homes. So he's dealing with people selling and buying
their homes and people selling and buying each other.

Mr. McCAULEY: Yeah, exactly. And there are a lot of similarities because as
a real estate agent, he's invited into people's houses and he gets to look at
what's in their cabinets and closets and their medicine chests. And it's a
very intimate kind of profession, and people reveal a great deal about
themselves, and it's the same way, you know, that he meets these guys online
and then he goes and goes into their houses. So it's another way of getting
into people's lives.

GROSS: Now, you know, both the online dating and the real estate profession
have a lot to do with writing. I mean--what I mean is in online stuff you're
selling yourself. I mean, you're flirting through your language, through your
personal ad. And in real estate, like you're selling your home through the
way your house is described in the classifieds. Have you given a lot of
thought to how they compare and differ in the style of writing that they use?

Mr. McCAULEY: Well, that's a really perceptive question because they are
really--they're very similar, you know. The essential quality of most real
estate ads, as far as I can tell, is taking a potential minus and turning it
into, you know, this great advantage thing, you know, tremendous potential.
And the language of real estate ads is very coded. And once you begin looking
at them carefully and researching them a little bit, you can tell, you know,
right away what it means when it says it's a cozy apartment. Well, that
probably means it's 300 square feet.

And there are similar codes that people use in their online dating ads, you
know, to describe themselves in the best possible light, which usually means
some kind of exaggeration or evasive language.

GROSS: And they're both about like evoking fantasies. You have fantasies
about what your new life will be like in your new home or fantasies of what
your love life will be with this new person.

Mr. McCAULEY: Yeah, exactly. Especially in real estate. I just know so
many people who are completely obsessed with real estate these days, which is
one of the reasons I wanted to write about a real estate agent. And the
people that I used to spend an enormous amount of time talking about, you
know, the ways that they were going to fix up their lives by finding a perfect
spouse or the perfect partner, or fix up their relationships by doing this or
that. It just seems to me that suddenly they stopped talking about all of
that and were talking about, you know, how they're going to buy a better
apartment or they're going to fix up their houses. And everything got shifted
onto real estate. And I'm not sure if that's a product of age. It probably
is. But there was almost like a kind of giving up trying to fix your personal
life and just going straight for the concrete details like, you know, a better
house, which is--but what they were really talking about, of course, was, you
know, `My life will be better if I move into a better condo or if we rehab the
kitchen' and, you know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: Now, your character who is trying to be celibate and give up his
online dating dating.

Mr. McCAULEY: Yeah, dating. Any...

GROSS: Dating sounds so prim, doesn't it?

Mr. McCAULEY: It does, really.

GROSS: But, anyway...

Mr. McCAULEY: I think that's what he really wants, actually. I think he
really wants to be dating someone and talking to them and so on. Instead, he
shows up, and there's the 40-minute encounter that has some physical intimacy.
And he's always--then in the aftermath of that, he'll say, `Oh, gee, you've
got a tan. Have you been on vacation?' And the person he's with will say,
`That's kind of a personal question, don't you think?' And it's that sort of
thing that really gets to him.

GROSS: Well, you know, you write about your character during the period of
his promiscuity he was embarrassed and would keep intellectual books on his
night table to make it seem like he spent his nights at home catching up with
Simone de Beauvoir. But when he was monogamous, it made him feel unmanly and
he'd cover up and tried to leave the impression he was leading a wild
promiscuous life.

Mr. McCAULEY: Right.

GROSS: Could you talk a little bit about being uncomfortable with both sides,
with both ends?

Mr. McCAULEY: You know, I think there is some of us who are uncomfortable
with whatever we're doing.

GROSS: right.

Mr. McCAULEY: And, you know, that if you're being promiscuous, it seems like
it's a bad thing somehow. And, you know, if you're being monogamous then, you
know, that seems unmanly, that you should be more aggressive sexually. And,
you know, `What's wrong with me that I'm able to be faithful, you know, for a
long period of time?' And so that's the kind of character that this is, and
those are the sort of ironies of people's behavior and attitudes towards
themselves that I just love writing about.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen McCauley. His new novel is called "Alternatives
to Sex." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen McCauley is called "Alternatives to Sex."

Your character William is also obsessive about cleanliness, about cleaning and
ironing. He'll even do other people's ironing because he's so into it. Why
did you create him that way?

Mr. McCAULEY: I love the idea of someone whose emotional life is basically a
mess who spends enormous amounts of time cleaning up their physical
surroundings. And I did a lot of--well, I don't--I wouldn't say a lot of
research, but I did do a certain amount of research into cleaning. You know,
and there are volumes, Terry, of books out there about the proper way to house
clean. And there's a great book called "Home Comforts" by Cheryl Mendelson,
which is about 900 pages, and it tells you everything you ever need to know
about the way to fold fitted sheets and so on and so forth. And then there's
a whole subcategory of books that tell you how to clean the house with a lot
of food products, for some reason. It's like, you can use lemonade mix and
Coca-Cola to clean the sink. And I began buying a lot of this stuff and doing
a lot of house cleaning using these products, which seemed completely insane.
And after a while I figured, you know, and there's something about--it's sort
of this alchemy, you know, that you're taking one product that's designed for
one thing and using it for a completely other purpose, and it seemed really
interesting and really amazing to me. And then, you know, one morning, I
decided it would really just be easier to use Ajax instead of hauling all this
food out of the cabinets and, you know, try to wash the bathtub with it.

GROSS: So did you...

Mr. McCAULEY: I don't know if that answers the question.

GROSS: Do you do a lot of cleaning yourself at home?

Mr. McCAULEY: I do a fair amount. I'm a pretty messy person, but I do like
to clean. It gives the illusion that, you know, you've really accomplished
something when you--when you've cleaned the bathtub or something. In fact,
it's one of the reasons that I almost never write at home because I find that
I'm often, you know, house cleaning instead of writing, so.

GROSS: Is it incompatible for somebody to be obsessive about, you know,
cleaning their surroundings, you know, a sparkling kitchen, a totally clean
bathroom, dining room and at the same time have lots of sex with strangers
they have no idea who these people are?

Mr. McCAULEY: I think it's completely in keeping. I think that people
compartmentalize their lives and don't make sort of those connections. Or
because they feel a little bit uneasy about that, you know, entering a
stranger's house and having physical contact with them within 10 minutes, then
they go home and try to do a Lady Macbeth routine, you know, and clean the
sink and start vacuuming obsessively, so.

GROSS: One of the men whom your main character sees is--you describe him as
`a right wing nut whose politics were in such conflict with his erotic
appetites, it felt almost like my moral duty to have sex with him from time to
time to point out to him what a hypocrite he was.' Do you know people like
that?

Mr. McCAULEY: Absolutely.

GROSS: People whose politics and sexual behavior are completely at odds with
each other.

Mr. McCAULEY: You know, I have a couple of friends who are married who are
out having sex with other men at the same time, and there's something about
the Internet that makes this kind of behavior possible and, in a way, "safe,"
quote-unquote, because you don't have to really reveal your identity and so
on. And these are just people I, you know, actually talk to and have
friendships with. And when the issue of gay marriage came up in
Massachusetts, which is where I live, just took such a hard line on it, you
know, about that this was destroying the family and the sanctity of marriage.
And, you know, this is someone who had just told me these lurid stories about
how he'd spent the weekend connecting with people online and so on. And that
kind of hypocrisy is just something that I find, you know, completely
appalling and outrageous and at the same time sort of hysterically funny, to
tell you the truth, so.

GROSS: Now, your main character's closest friend Edward, you describe him as
the only child of a pair of religious fanatics.

Mr. McCAULEY: I wanted to have a character who was, in a way, a little bit
damaged by this religious fanaticism because he is rejected by his parents and
they make life very difficult for him. And at the same time, he just wants to
continue trying to please them and makes great efforts at taking care of them
when they're sick and they're elderly and so on. And, you know, I think that
this is true for a lot of people, maybe especially true for gay kids who are
raised in families where there is this kind of religious fanaticism. It's
very damaging. It's very hurtful in a lot of ways. And it seems so
completely out of keeping with the--at least in theory, the principles that
the family is trying to live by.

GROSS: Let me read something that your character says about his thoughts on
religion and spirituality. He says, "For the most part I am baffled by
spirituality. Religion, spirituality's sturdier cousin, has its drawbacks,
for example, being the cause of 85 percent of violent conflict in the world.
But at least religions have specificity, systems of punishments and rewards
that are spelled out in detail. Religions have a narrative drive in them and
they have, in some form or other, God, that main character to end all main
characters."

Do you agree with your character here about religion and spirituality?

Mr. McCAULEY: Yes. I think one of the reasons I write is I like putting my
opinions and my observations on things into my novels and into the mouths of

these characters who resemble me in some ways but in most ways do not. But,
yeah, you know, lately my view of religion is just I'm really baffled by
people's attitudes towards religion and the way they use it as an excuse for
so many things. And also, again, you know, after September 11th, it seemed
that people were becoming more religious when it seemed to me, `Well, gee,
isn't that one of the causes of this problem right now?'

And as for spirituality, I really have no idea most of the time what people
are talking about when they talk about spirituality and they say they're on a
spiritual quest. And it usually involves some slightly tacky elements like,
you know, scented lavender pillows and weird music that's completely atonal.
And it's just stuff I don't really get.

GROSS: Have you ever had religion or spirituality in your life?

Mr. McCAULEY: I was raised Catholic, so I'm not sure what that means. I'm
not a particularly religious person, and I don't know if I'm spiritual or not
because I don't really know what spiritual means. I spend an enormous amount
of time doing yoga and I have since I was about 15 years old, and the
only--one of the main drawbacks of it for me is when I see people kind of, you
know, gazing off into the distance with this blank stare as if they're having
a kind of religious experience, when it seems to me it's a perfectly
interesting and useful way of exercising. I can't take it too much further
than that.

GROSS: Stephen McCauley's new novel is called "Alternatives to Sex." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, "The Disposable American." Louis Uchitelle talks about
layoffs and their consequences. And more with novelist Stephen McCauley.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross back with Stephen McCauley. His new novel "Alternatives to
Sex" is about a 40-something gay real estate agent who is obsessed with
cleaning and with cruising the Internet for casual sex. The novel follows his
attempt to give up the second obsession and become celibate. McCauley is also
the author of "The Object of My Affection," which was adapted into a movie
starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd.

How old were you when you came out, and was it a big deal in your life or was
it kind of obvious and everybody already knew and was comfortable with it?

Mr. McCAULEY: No one was comfortable with it at all. I think I was probably
about 16 when I realized what my sexual inclinations were, you know, in my own
head and sort of made peace with it. And I saw it as somehow connected to all
of the political turmoil and the social movements, you know, feminism and
civil rights in the '70s. And then when I began the process of coming out in
a more public way, such as, you know, to my family, I was probably about 19 or
20. And that was very difficult, and it was very painful. My parents, who
have always been extremely loving and supportive and very warm people, were
somewhat conservative politically and had a little, you know, religious
Catholic way of thinking about things, and it was very difficult. And there
were several years where we didn't communicate very much and, you know, I lost
contact with one of my brothers for a number of years. So it was kind of a
painful experience in a lot of ways.

GROSS: Did your parents have the attitude that if you really cared about your
family you would change?

Mr. McCAULEY: Yes, actually. That was stated in those terms. And,
fortunately, I didn't really see that as an option. And so I just kind of
felt, `Well, you know, this is really who I am.' And it's funny because I
always think of myself as having, you know, incredibly low self-esteem and not
much of a sense of who I am. But I think the reality is that it's sort of
like being a writer, you know, I find it very difficult and I think this a
totally crazy profession. And every once in a while, I sort of haul out these
materials about applications to nursing schools and so on and so forth, but I
guess, you know, there's something in me that makes me feel like, `You know,
writing is really what I want to do and what I have to do.' And that being gay
is just an integral part of my personality and who I am and probably has since
birth.

GROSS: How old were you when you knew you wanted to write?

Mr. McCAULEY: I think I probably always knew that I wanted to write. I was
always reading when I was a kid, and I was always writing when I was a kid.
But it wasn't something that was especially encouraged in my family, oddly
enough, and I think it was seen as a little bit subversive because no one else
in my family really read for recreation. And so I was always been told, you
know, `Put down that book' and `Why aren't you watching TV like the rest of
us?' And that kind of thing. But it seemed like a very audacious goal, you
know, to want to write books. And so it took me until I was in my probably
mid-20s to begin to do it seriously.

GROSS: Did you have any writing jobs before you started writing books?

Mr. McCAULEY: No. Before I started writing books, I taught kindergarten and
worked in a travel agency for a long time. But, no, I really avoided writing
in every possible way. And I teach off and on. Right now, I'm teaching at
Brandeis. And I tell my students that, you know, when I was in college--and
this is really true--every semester I would sign up for a writing class and
I'd go to the first class, and they'd say, you know, `Go home and write
something and bring it in next week.' And I would rush down to the registrar
and drop the class because it was just so intimidating to me. So I avoided it
for a long time.

GROSS: Your writing is really funny and your perceptions about people just
really make me laugh. Are you able to like go through life that way, too?
Does life often seem like a comedy to you or is it only when you sit down to
write that you can force it to be funny?

Mr. McCAULEY: You know, like a lot of people I know who write things that
they intend to be comic, I'm really depressed most of the time, and, you know,
sort of drag myself through my days and never find what I'm writing even
remotely funny because the process of putting it down on paper is so painful
to me. So, I guess, no.

But, on the other hand, it comes--you know, taking a comic or ironic point of
view on things has always been my number one defense against things that make
me uncomfortable or unhappy. And so, I don't know, maybe I've just
contradicted myself.

GROSS: Well, no. As a matter of fact, I wanted to read one of your sentences
that combines the depression that you say you have with your humor. And this
is about antidepressants. And your character says, `I was embarrassed by the
fact that I wasn't taking any mood-altering drugs myself. It seemed so
arrogant not to be depressed these days.' I think that's hysterical.

Mr. McCAULEY: Well, you know, I took antidepressants for about six months.
And the reason I took antidepressants was because, of course, everybody I know
is taking antidepressants, and everybody is saying that, you know, they just
felt like finally they've tapped into their full potential and they had
become, you know, the person that they could become. They had become the best
that they could be. So I took antidepressants for about six months, and I
thought, you know, `If I have finally tapped into my full potential and become
the best I can be, that is really depressing.' So I had to get off those pills
right away.

GROSS: One more thing. Again I'm going to quote your main character,
William. And he says--and I want to remind our listeners that, among other
things, he's obsessed with cleaning and with other men. And he says, "I
always try to give the impression that I was above superficial concerns about
age, weight, sex, laundry and most of the others things I was obsessed with."
And it just leads me to wonder, did you ever go through a period of writing
where you thought you shouldn't be writing certain types of social comedy that
other people might think of being shallow in their concerns, you should tackle
like the great issues of the day?

Mr. McCAULEY: Terry, that's why it takes me, you know, five years to write a
book, because I think there's a part of me that assumes if, you know, I'm
writing this, it must be shallow and insignificant. And so, therefore, I have
to, you know, stop and start all over again. And, at a certain point, my
deadline is just--you know, there are so many deadlines piling up behind me
that I've missed that I just have to forge ahead.

But, yeah, I mean, I really like writing about the daily lives of rather
ordinary, not particularly heroic, people. And I think there's a real virtue
in that. On one level, those are the kinds of books I tend to like to read,
you know, Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler and those sorts of writers. But if I'm
doing it, I think, `God, this is so shallow and insignificant and, you know, I
really should be writing about, you know, global issues.'

GROSS: Do you ever try it?

Mr. McCAULEY: No. Well, you know, I try to slip in a few observations here
and there that does seem to have some greater significance than the daily
lives of these characters.

GROSS: Your novel "The Object of My Affection" was made into a movie. Was it
like 1998 or something?

Mr. McCAULEY: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: With Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. So are you like buddies with
them? Does it make you good friends when they star in an adaptation of your
book?

Mr. McCAULEY: Not exactly. You know, I went to see a play in Vermont who
had Tim Daly, who was also in the movie, in it. And I went up afterwards, and
I introduced myself, and he said, `Well, you know, we were all told not to
read the book because we would just find it confusing.' Because the movie was
so different from the book that, you know, there were characters that weren't
in the book and there were characters in the book, of course, that weren't in
the movie, and everyone's motivation was entirely different. So, no.

I feel a little bit guilty because, you know, every time Jennifer Aniston's
life takes a difficult turn like, you know, Brad Pitt leaves her for Angelina
Jolie, the movie shows up on TV again, and there's this tiny, tiny little
spike in book sales. So I'm sort of secretly a little bit pleased, even
though I don't wish her any, you know, bad luck, of course.

GROSS: Stephen McCauley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. McCAULEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Stephen McCauley's new novel is called "Alternatives to Sex."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, three myths that have been used to justify layoffs. We
talk with Louis Uchitelle about his new book "The Disposable American."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: New York Times writer Louis Uchitelle talks about his
new book "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences
TERRY GROSS, host:

Layoffs became a mass phenomenon in American life about two decades ago.
Until then, writes Louis Uchitelle, companies tried to avoid layoffs. They
were a sign of corporate failure and a violation of acceptable business
behavior. In Uchitelle's new book "The Disposable American," he examines how
layoffs became standard management practice and what the consequences have
been. Uchitelle is an economics reporter for The New York Times. He
describes three myths that have been used to justify layoffs. For example,
corporations promise that layoffs would eventually have a payoff for America.

Mr. LOUIS UCHITELLE: The idea of a payoff for America is that on the
horizon, once we get our companies efficient, the layoffs will stop, and we
will reach an equilibrium in which everyone has job security again. And that
was a promise that was much stated 10 or 15 years ago. It has never been
realized because the layoffs go on. In fact, they seem to get more frequent
as the years pass and the promised equilibrium in which layoffs stop in a very
sufficient society never materializes or has not materialized.

GROSS: Let me get to something else that you say is a myth, and that is that
laid-off workers must save themselves, that they have lost their job because
their value to their employers was less than their cost in wages and benefits
so they must raise their value with more education and training. Why is that
a myth?

Mr. UCHITELLE: Well, what we have embraced in America is an individualism,
and it says, in effect, people as the global economy or the more efficient or
more computerized economy comes into place, people have to equip themselves to
deal with it. And if they don't or if they're in jobs that don't require
skill, they are subject to losing their jobs. But all they have to do is
avail themselves of education and training, and they will equip themselves to
qualify for the good jobs that are out there. The myth in this is that there
aren't enough good jobs out there for all the qualified people, but we like
the thought that education and training will get--will re-equip you for
another job and give you the promised security in the work force. It's
politically easier to deal with. It takes the government off the hook. It
takes unions off the hook, for that matter, and it certainly takes the
companies off the hook. You blame the worker.

GROSS: Now, another statement that you say is a myth, and that is the pros
and cons of layoffs are entirely measurable in dollars and cents. You write
in your book you were actually surprised to find how great the psychological
costs of layoffs are.

Mr. UCHITELLE: Yes. When I started this book, I did not expect to find so
much psychological damage. People are interpreting a layoff in America today
as a statement that they lack value, and it's a considerable blow to
self-esteem. We have sort of a life narrative that feeds into our sense of
ourselves. Work is one of them. And this declaration that you don't have
value destroys that. And as various psychiatrists have told me, it triggers
sort of dormant personality traits that would lay dormant all your life if you
didn't have this sort of traumatic trigger, if you will.

GROSS: In looking how we got to the point that we're at today where layoffs
are so large and so common, you go back to 1981 and you look at the air
traffic controllers strike. Why do you think that strike is a turning point
in the history of American layoffs?

Mr. UCHITELLE: It was one of the barriers that I mentioned to layoffs, was
the idea that you could go out on strike and have your job back when the
strike was finally settled. You didn't have to be afraid to go out on strike
because you would be replaced with the replacement, someone who took your job
permanently. And that barrier came down with Reagan's decision in 1981 to
replace 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in one fell swoop and replace
them with people who were new to the industry. And those air traffic
controllers never came back. It was a trauma for the union movement. Almost
immediately afterwards, the number of strikes declined because Reagan had, in
effect, announced that replacement workers, who were technically legal, they
could be hired legally to permanently replace strikers. But no company had
dared to do it or had done it very infrequently. There was a norm against it.
Reagan broke that norm with that decision. And it was one of the turning
points, it was one of the barriers that came down and opened the way to
acquiescence to layoffs.

GROSS: Something else that you note in the same year is that Jack Welch
became the head of GE, 1981. You describe GE as the company that invented the
modern American layoff. What do you mean?

Mr. UCHITELLE: Well, Jack Welch came in with a very interesting concept. He
saw that he couldn't compete with every overseas supplier of the products that
General Electric made, so he decided that he would keep the companies that did
the best, that were the most profitable, spin off or sell the companies that
were least profitable and acquire companies that looked like they had a good
future to them. And every time he acquired or sold some operation, there were
layoffs. It helped to pay for the layoffs, because money had to be borrowed
very often to fund the layoffs. And it was a way of adjusting staff. And he
was successful with General Electric with his acquisition and merger activity.
And because he was successful, he became a model for other companies that also
got into this buying and selling of companies. And that was another barrier
down.

But the people who paid for those acquisitions, for the debt that was often
floated, were the workers whose salaries were cut, labor costs were cut and
the money channeled, if you will, into the costs of the acquisition.

GROSS: My guest is Louis Uchitelle. His new book is called "The Disposable
American: Layoffs and their Consequences." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Louis Uchitelle. He's an economic writer for The New York
Times, and his new book is called "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their
Consequences."

As cities tried to lure big corporations to set up headquarters or factories
in their areas because it's good jobs, it's good for the economy. And that's
what Indianapolis tried to do when it lured United Airlines to build an
aircraft maintenance center there. And Indianapolis was actually competing
with over 90 other cities. Indianapolis won. United, you know, opened up
this maintenance center there. So what did Indianapolis have to do to compete
well enough to get United to choose their city?

Mr. UCHITELLE: All right. Well, keep in mind first that United had decided
to build this maintenance center. Having decided, it went out and said,
`Well, what's the best deal we can get from the various competing cities?' The
best deal they could get was Indianapolis. And with the contribution of the
city and the state, Indianapolis and Indiana, which put up close to well over
$250 million floating a bond issue and which turned out to be nearly half the
cost of the maintenance center. In short, United having decided to build the
maintenance center, got a bunch of cities to compete and got one of the
cities, Indianapolis, to bid enough to pay for almost half the center.

GROSS: And what did Indianapolis think it was going to get out of this?

Mr. UCHITELLE: The promise from United, a sort of commitment, was there
would be more than 5,000 mechanics jobs created, aviation mechanics, never
mind the other jobs. These were, in those days, middle-class jobs, and
Indianapolis was looking forward to the infusion of more than 5,000 mechanics
living with their families middle-class lives. That's quite a big of support
for the city.

GROSS: What did Indianapolis get out of it?

Mr. UCHITELLE: They got, in the best moment, 2500 mechanics living in the
city, in the suburbs, spending their money, enriching the economy. And
then...

GROSS: That's about half of what they were expecting.

Mr. UCHITELLE: It was half of what they were expecting. And it was at that
point that a labor dispute developed between United and its mechanics. And
what had been going extremely well turned and went in the other direction.

GROSS: And United eventually shut down that center. So what was the lesson
to you in terms of cities luring companies through financial incentive?

Mr. UCHITELLE: I think it's money wasted. It's close to $30 billion a year
that we spend on what amounts to a zero-sum gain. For the nation as a whole,
it didn't make any difference whether the jobs were in Indianapolis or in
Denver or in some other city that bid for the maintenance center. The jobs
would have existed one way or the other. And what we've done then is divert
tax money to a zero-sum game, tax money that should be spent on teachers and
schools and other services. I think I once figured out that you could hire I
don't know how many thousands of teachers for the amount of money that we
spend, $30 billion a year, all the communities in America spend competing with
each other trying to get good jobs.

GROSS: We hear a lot about the global economy and a lot of companies have
moved their plants to other countries. A lot of companies have outsourced
part of their operations, whether that's 800 number phone calls or typing or
reading MRIs. Do you think that's driving down the wages of the people in
America who remain employed?

Mr. UCHITELLE: Well, it's a factor but we shouldn't let it get out of hand.
If you were to--the actual number of--they call it offshoring--jobs that have
actually left the country, while it's rising and rising rather rapidly, is
still much smaller than the outsourcing that takes place within the country.
That is to the south to less expensive cities or there is no outsourcing at
all. There are arrangements made with people to keep their jobs in a
community at a plant but at a lower wage. Caterpillar is an example of that.
The two-tier wage. The veterans continue to get the old wage until they
retire, and the new people come in at a much lower scale, and that's going on
not just at Caterpillar but in the auto industry. It's going on regularly in
Michigan in many small parts companies that are represented by the UAW. The
quid pro quo is that the UAW keeps it membership.

GROSS: Well, you know, another example of very well-educated people being
laid off in your industry, the newspaper industry. There has been so many
layoffs in newspapers. And, you know, you're talking about, you know, in part
a lot of reporters who are very well-educated, who are very good at what they
do and are losing their jobs. What's it like to see what you're writing about
hit your own industry?

Mr. UCHITELLE: It's not fun. It's not fun to see. I must say The New York
Times goes about this as well as anyone does. It works through buyouts as
much as possible, and they are voluntary buyouts. The guild comes in and
helps negotiate the nature of the buyouts, so that for the most part the
people who are leaving are people who more or less want to leave. It's still
disconcerting. But I've written a book that is not about stopping layoffs. I
can't do that. The global economy is not to be denied. Our hegemony that we
once had that allowed us to have any number of workers is gone, and there is
competition. But, on the margin, we've gone too far. We've made layoffs too
commonplace, too easy, and in the process, we have not as a people said, `Now,
look, we have this situation. We can't employ everybody. How do we do it?
How do we take every stake holder into account?' And that's what we're not
doing.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. UCHITELLE: Thank you. I've enjoyed this very much.

GROSS: Louis Uchitelle is an economics reporter for The New York Times. His
new book is called "The Disposable American."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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