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Thursday, May 8, 1997



Aiming for the Green

My, my, the Tiger Woods cavalcade keeps rollin' along mightily, don't it. Perhaps not since Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner, with their boyish post-Beatle-esque shag haircuts and Ipana smiles, has such a perception of All-American wholesomeness abounded across the land. His emergence as a lodestone for the country's longing is not a little scary. The clamor about Woods seems to be of a pitch which precludes hearing what he reveals -- or doesn't reveal -- about himself, in any other way than what people are predisposed to believe about him.

It appears that everyone wants a piece of this guy, and in the process of imprinting their projections upon him, Woods moves further toward entropic dissolve. Clearly, a major element of his appeal is his blank-slate guilelessness, a quiet aplomb and self-containment born of an adolescence spent on the fairway rather than at the mall or on the street corner. As a consequence, watching Woods face the public is almost an exercise in pathos.

Those who want to claim him as their own under the banner of racial exclusivity questioned his initial self-designation of ethnicity, causing him to finally tweak his lineage into the all-encompassing category "Cablinasian." He advanced that definition recently on the Oprah Winfrey show, in an appearance which probably marked the first occasion in which he ventured beyond his media image. Not surprisingly, he was accompanied by his father, Earl, whose presence confirmed that this is as adept an operation as anything we have seen since Colonel Tom Parker groomed Elvis. The senior Woods fielded the brunt of the questions, stating that Tiger's choice of racial identity is "academic." He had raised his son, he said, to be a human being and a good person.

So, as Earl Woods would have it, we're beyond race -- which is both good and bad. Good for the obvious reasons, not the least of which is that class then becomes our primary focus; and bad, because race and class impinge upon each other here, as they have throughout our history. But it is doubtful that any considerations of such subtleties are a part of the marketing plan of Tiger Inc. Woods père, the former Green Beret and president of the company, gives every indication that his sheltered son's apparent naiveté on these matters will remain undiminished.

* * *

Tiger's bland assertion to Winfrey that he had "nothing stirring inside him" must have been sweet music to Nike CEO Phil Knight, although it was certainly redundant. Knight's people have long been aware of Woods' placid temperament, and for the past few years have envisioned him as a $40 million complement to the moral somnolence Michael Jordan has provided them when it comes to Nike's global labor practices. I wondered in a column a few weeks ago whether Woods' concern for exploited Asian workers in his mother's home country who make the clothes he wears had abated as a result of Nike's agreeing to independent monitoring of offshore sweatshops. But of course my speculation was moot: I sensed that if he wasn't utterly oblivious to the issue, his various handlers would ensure that he wouldn't be unduly distracted by it in future. Indeed, it would be a bit of a stretch for someone who grew up around country clubs to have witnessed the erosion of work in the lives of similarly-hued inner-city residents, and to have also noted that many of those jobs are now performed for a pittance outside the country.

This is the young man the country has taken to its heart. These days, success will have us absolve almost anything, and most spectacularly when the elect exhibit that storybook graciousness we harbor as a remnant of our basic democratic instincts. That those two impulses are at odds, is surely at the root of Tiger's dilemma and, to varying degrees, yours, and mine. We will accordingly greet the latest news of Tiger's Nike association with different reactions and responses. Woods' new contract with the company is reportedly worth $60 million and includes a head-to-toe line of Tiger apparel, bearing his own logo, which will be churned out by Asian factories and their 12-14-hour-a-day workforces.

How we assess the above presupposes an extant capacity deep within the American breast -- dare I say a yearning ? -- for simple extrapolation. Consider these other new developments: 10,000 Nike workers in Indonesia demonstrated two weeks ago, burning cars and ransacking the offices of a factory which refused to pay them a $2.50-a-day minimum wage. In Vietnam, some 800 workers at a Nike shoe factory, mainly women, went on strike in late April over the factory's refusal to pay minimum wage, strict control of access to toilet facilities, allowing a maximum of two glasses of water per day, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and corporal punishment. In March, a supervisor at a Nike sub-contractor in Vietnam was found guilty of forcing 56 women workers to run three miles around the factory for not wearing regulation work shoes. Twelve of the women were hospitalized.

We get the politicians we deserve, it is frequently said. One should hope that we never have to say the same of our heroes. I understand those who submit that this kid is a golfer, and doesn't pretend to be anything else, so leave him be. But you'll have to excuse me, his lack of elementary awareness is repugnant. As a golfer, he's a man among men. As the human being his old man professed to have raised unencumbered by the pertinent shades of yellow and black, he remains a boy.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997



Don't Do That Voodoo

WARNING: The following contains very large numbers, representing large numbers of very ordinary people.
The wizards in Washington have been casting some remarkable spells. First they conjured up "the end to welfare as we know it," meaning the end to the safety nets that had protected thousands of poor people from indigence (according to my dictionary, "a level of poverty in which real hardship and deprivation are suffered and comforts of life are wholly lacking"). Then last Saturday, with fanfares and full imperial regalia, they enthroned a resplendent new era in which unemployment is at a 25-year low, economic growth is at a 10-year high, and -- this is a direct quote from The President -- "our economy is now the strongest it's been in a generation." The mainstream press celebrated with prominent front-page coverage: in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle you could hear champagne corks popping behind Robert A. Rosenblatt's description of an age when "the booming economy generated new jobs at a rapid pace." The stock market leaped in a graceful grand jeté that would have made Baryshnikov proud, jubilant that, miraculously, the decline in the jobless rate had not produced omens of inflation. The populace huzzahed, reassured that the dreaded warlock Alan Greenspan, with his cauldron of ever-rising interest rates, had been driven from the gates (at least until May 20, when the Federal Reserve is considering raising rates again).

But after wading through the first gleeful sentences in my newspaper, I realized that this economic emperor is stark knobby-kneed naked. I noticed, first of all, that the Department of Labor, which prepared the figures, doesn't say that employment is up. In fact, a lot of people (some 6.7 million) are still looking for work, and the most flagrant category of unemployed -- African American male teenagers -- has grown from last year's 34.9 percent to 37.3 percent. Half of the "decline in the jobless rate" came from a decrease in the workforce: the number of people with jobs remained nearly the same in April as in March, but for some reason fewer people were available to work. There has actually been a reduction in the past six months (from 63.1 percent in October to 54.2 percent in April) in industries generating new jobs in our booming economy. And on the average, people with jobs earned one percent less in April than they had in previous months.

"People with jobs" -- this is the magic phrase that flips His Imperial Majesty upside down and whisks off the last tattered pieces of his once-dazzling figleaf. The Job has been sanctified as the talisman necessary for a prosperous and stable society and, led by Milwaukee, one city after another is moving its poorest residents from welfare to workfare. But an ingredient must be missing from this witches' brew, because something has gone awry: at a time when the unemployment rate has fallen to a media-worthy 4.9 percent, the official poverty rate remains somewhere around 13 percent. Nearly 64 million Americans are employed in civilian jobs, but at least 35 million people in the United States live in poverty. (I say "at least" 35 million because official statistics take time to prepare and the most recent figure, 36.4 million, is for the year 1995.)

Whatever happened to the idea of earning a living wage? Doesn't anyone (except the people who don't make one) think it's fundamental to a decent life? Or have the holders of well-paying jobs gotten so out of touch with the nitty-gritty of daily existence that they simply have no conception of what constitutes a living wage? Even if they cannot cross the imaginative hurdle into empathy for a person trying to feed, clothe, and shelter a family on the minimum wage, all they need is a little elementary arithmetic, using numbers provided by the Department of Labor and the Bureau of the Census, to understand the situation intellectually. The official poverty threshold in the United States in 1996 for a family of three (one parent and two children) was $12,517. Let's say that a single parent works full-time at a job paying $5.15 an hour, the new minimum wage that will go into effect on September 1, 1997. His -- or more likely, her -- annual earnings of $10,712 will leave the family short by $150 a month. (For a family of four, with a threshold of $16,029, the task is a little easier. If the father has a full-time job, the mother can work half-time, take better care of the children, and still make up the amount needed. A nice, neat solution, except that most poor families are headed by single adults.) Even if the parent lands a better-paying job -- a real achievement these days for a high school graduate with no further training -- the family is still likely to fall behind. Full-time jobs are hard to find: in a period when factory overtime rose, the average workweek in private industry was only 34.6 hours.

Thirty-five million poor people, more than the combined populations of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, participate in an economy that is busily producing the highest profit margin of the past generation. They live in poverty for many reasons, which mostly converge at one point: they are not paid enough for their work to allow them to escape. What is the wisdom in investing our nation's future in an economy where inequalities -- and inequities -- in the distribution of wealth are increasing? And what is the wisdom in bragging about it?

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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