The other day I called Comcast to fix my Internet. After 45 minutes on hold, I was greeted by a woman with a Southern accent tinted with the familiar customer service industry’s “anything for you (because you are paying me)” enthusiasm. Within seconds it was clear something was awry; interspersed with this woman’s Southern service charm were extremely awkward phrases and totally bizarre inflections. Baffled and trying hard to suppress my laughter, I respectfully asked where this woman (I’ll call her Mary) was working from. Indonesia. Aha! She was faking it.

I embrace my inner grumpy old man when I say — what the hell happened to America?

Over 10 percent of our nation is unemployed, and this woman is employed by a U.S. company doing something that an American would almost assuredly do better. I didn’t mention that the Mary offered subpar help — I had to repeat most things I said, and she had to pass me on to a different department for help. As a temporary cranky old white man I felt an impulse to blame illegal immigrants for all of our problems. Remembering the Comcast situation that incited my anger, I was brought back to reality. Illegal immigrants are definitely not the ones running Comcast and outsourcing jobs to Indonesia.

The people responsible for that would be the management at Comcast. But can we really blame them? Their job is to maximize profit for their shareholders. If they can get away with paying workers in Indonesia with fake Southern accents, why bother paying for the real thing?

With no one readily available to pin the blame on, let’s return to the accent. As trivial as it seems, this farce hid something important.

Clearly Comcast’s customers would ideally like to interact with other English speakers, preferably an easy to understand American — if not, why train Mary to speak in such a way? Comcast’s management knows that Americans don’t take kindly knowing that these jobs are being shipped overseas. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that by equipping Mary with a semi-passable Southern accent, Comcast is hoping to dupe us into thinking they are employing Americans.

Possibly even more depressing than this pathetic attempt at deception was how well Mary grasped the lifeless, tired inflections of the American service industry. David Foster Wallace described the debilitating psychological effects of the “professional smile” and how it was a bane to both customers and employees. This should be the last thing we spread around the world.

Bumper stickers everywhere proclaim “Buy American.” What a brilliant way to shift the blame away from those that truly affect the economy. A more thoughtful attempt at bumper politics would read “Employ American.” It isn’t too hard to see where the jobs have gone.

The world is filled with incredibly cheap labor for American corporations to tap into. If a company gets large enough and wants to expand, it will move its production out of the U.S. When people from one place start demanding high wages, there are always poorer people to turn to. You don’t have to take my word for it — look around you. Detroit was once a bustling industrial center; now one in five people in the city are out of work. The workforce of the U.S. simply can’t compete for unskilled labor jobs that can be exported to developing countries.

I’d hoped that this article was going to be a diatribe against the global capitalist system and the neoliberal policies that take first world company’s jobs and move them to the lowest bidders in the third world, ensuring that everybody loses. Instead, with space at a serious limit and my deadline fast approaching, I’ll direct it towards Comcast.

The website consumerist.com, a consumer affairs blog that gauges customer feedback, voted Comcast the worst company in America in 2010. From my experiences over the years, that sounds about right. The CEO of Comcast makes 31.1 million dollars per year. He is also a heck of a squash player. He probably deserves to be punched in the face.

Jonathan can be reached at jaylward@umich.edu.

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