Posts Tagged ‘class’

highered-race

Funding for public higher education has been decreasing in recent decades and, as schools rely increasingly on tuition for revenue, student debt has been rising.

That much is pretty well known. What is less a matter of public knowledge and debate is the link between growing racial and ethnic diversity and the decline in funding. I, for one, hadn’t considered it before. I knew the cuts in higher education hurt working-class Americans but I hadn’t thought about those cuts in relation to the increase in minority populations.

Until I read the article by Scott Carlson [ht: mfa], in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: mfa], who explores the issue in some depth. Carlson looks back at the history of public higher education (including the GI bill and the Reagan-era cuts in Pell Grants), the dog-whistle politics that have limited access for minority- and first-generation students (beginning when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and continuing with William J. Bennett, President Reagan’s secretary of education), and the undermining of the idea of public colleges and universities as an affordable way for working-class youth—white, black, and brown—to obtain a high-quality postsecondary education.

Since Carlson’s article will soon be out of reach behind a paywall, I want to quote at length his discussion of what has been happening in Arizona:

If the federal government doesn’t expand access to education, more of that burden will fall on states. In many of them, individuals and families now pay for a greater share of college costs than taxpayers do. Some places, like Arizona, have been going the way of California years ago.

Arizona’s legislature is whiter, more male, and more Republican than its population. And lately, that state — which has a clause in its constitution proclaiming that higher education “shall be as nearly free as possible” — has passed deep cuts in funding and big increases in tuition.

One of the leaders of that drive is John Kavanagh, a Republican state representative and community-college professor who has made headlines for his anti-immigration stance and remarks about Hispanics and Muslims. In an interview with The Chronicle, he was more measured, saying that the state has had to raise tuition to close a budget gap.

In 2012, he sponsored a bill that would require all students, regardless of income, to pay at least $2,000 toward tuition, in part to ease the burden on middle- and upper-middle-income students. He believes students should have “some skin in the game,” and bristles at the notion of poor students’ paying less, thanks to tuition revenue that gets redistributed as aid.

“I don’t think it’s a good policy to take money from one student to pay for another student’s tuition,” he said. “There is no reason that even a poor student can’t pay a nominal tuition, given that they are going to earn a lot more money than people who don’t have college degrees.”

But Alfredo Gutierrez, president of Maricopa Community College’s governing board and a former Democratic state senator, doesn’t buy the straight argument against subsidies. The state has been extraordinarily hostile to education, he says, a pattern he believes is tied to race. State funding for the Maricopa system had been going down since 2009, he says, until it got none last year. Half of Maricopa’s students are nonwhite.

“The deterioration to the K-12 system, the community-college system, and the universities will ultimately have to be paid for,” Mr. Gutierrez says. “If this trajectory that we are on continues, this will be an extraordinarily ignorant, uneducated state — certainly not a place that can deal with the economy of the future. And it will create a permanent underclass. There will be little ability to escape poverty.”

But Arizona, he predicts, is on the cusp of change. The Latino population is growing so fast that in six to 10 years, Arizona could flip over politically, possibly taking the state in a different direction, one that is more willing to invest in the education of immigrants and minority groups.

“Perhaps we have lost a generation,” he says, “but there is still a real opportunity to make a change.”

But Arizona is not alone. The deterioration of public education at all levels has been occurring across the country and, like much that has been happening in the United States in recent decades, it represents an attack on those least able to shoulder its effects: the children of the working-class, in all their racial and ethnic diversity.

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The working-class—at least the white working-class—has become the main theme of the post-election narrative in the United States. That’s not surprising since, as Jim Tankersley explained:

Whites without a college degree — men and women — made up a third of the 2016 electorate. Trump won them by 39 percentage points, according to exit polls, far surpassing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 25 percent margin. They were the foundation of his victories across the Rust Belt, including a blowout win in Ohio and stunning upsets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The last time around, these voters comprised more than one-third of the Americans who voted for Barack Obama—and Hilly Clinton failed to duplicate that success, especially in any state that mattered in the final electoral-college tally.

Clinton’s supporters want to blame their campaign debacle on racism (in addition to sexism and nativism) and, in recent days, have expressed their fear that responding to Trump’s victory by reaching out to the white working-class will lead to people of color being marginalized. It seems they’re returning to and rehashing the old, tired debate of class versus identity politics.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Bernie Sanders managed, however maladroitly, to put together a message of economic populism that challenged mainstream Democratic identity politics. He reiterated that view after the election:

Let’s rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of well-paying jobs. Let’s raise the minimum wage to a living wage, help students afford to go to college, provide paid family and medical leave and expand Social Security. Let’s reform an economic system that enables billionaires like Mr. Trump not to pay a nickel in federal income taxes. And most important, let’s end the ability of wealthy campaign contributors to buy elections.

In the coming days, I will also provide a series of reforms to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor. We must open the doors of the party to welcome in the idealism and energy of young people and all Americans who are fighting for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.

Second, as Ben Casselman has pointed out, it’s far from clear Donald Trump will be able to keep his promises to the white working-class.

Trump, if he sticks to his campaign pledges (a big “if”), will probably do little either to help the working class or to hurt the elites, at least economically. What’s more, this simple dichotomy completely leaves out the people who stand to lose the most, based on what little we know about Trump’s plans: poor and low-income families in urban and suburban areas.

Third, and perhaps most important, there’s no necessary contradiction between identity and class politics. The Democratic establishment and American liberals presume such a contradiction is hardwired into the U.S. polity and electoral politics. But, in order to move forward, we need some fresh thinking about the possibility of a real working-class politics.

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We need to keep in mind that, historically, political movements around identity were also informed by and infused with working-class politics. Consider, for example, International Women’s Day, which was originally called International Working Women’s Day—the earliest observance of which was held in 1909, organized by the Socialist Party of America, in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Or the Civil Rights Movement, which in 1963 organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history. One of the March’s key demands was “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” In both cases, movements for new identity-related rights were based on working-class organizations and class-defined forms of grievance and redress.

We also need to understand, as Chris Dillow has pointed out, “the very notion of a ‘white’ working class plays the ruling class’s game of divide and rule.”

This isn’t just because it pits class politics against identity politics, but also because it imputes a racism to workers which is perhaps just as prevalent – and more damaging – among the boss class. It downgrades the many other genuine problems workers have, such as stagnant wages, insecurity and workplace tyranny. And it has the absurd implication that ethnic minorities aren’t part of the working class too.

The flip side is that the interests of the working-class are—or at least can be, with the appropriate discourses, identities, and forms of political organization—the interests of most people. As I argued in Sydney, the working-class can “challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to abolish the wages system itself.”

As Dillow succinctly put it,

the working class is not a problem in politics. It’s the solution.

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Class issues became central to the 2016 presidential campaign in ways that I can’t recall for any other election in my lifetime. And even now, during the post-election debate, the references to class remain widespread.

It’s not that the discussion of class in relation to the election has been particularly interesting or revealing. Americans, especially political pundits, still fumble around with what class means and how it can or should be defined. And one would be hard-pressed to find anything even close to or informed by a particularly Marxian notion of class in the many books, articles, and columns that have appeared in recent years.

So, while I move ahead with my own analysis of the class conditions leading up to Trump’s victory and the class implications of Trumponomics, I thought it would be useful for readers to list in one place references (in chronological order, from oldest to newest) to some of the pieces I’ve written (pertaining only to the United States) over the course of the past couple of years.

Class wars

“There are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid”

Health and class

Race and class

A coming class war?

Class and children

Class and the Goldilocks principle

Class warfare—Democratic and Republican style

Trump and trade

What’s class got to do with it?

Middle-class nation?

Generation screwed—and working-class

Vicious cycle of class inequality and segregation

“Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class”

Class politics

Middle-class cities?

Class myths

Higher education for the working-class

Flat or falling

Class struggles in America

What about the white working-class?

Condition of the working-class in the United States

Institutions and inequality

Feminism and class politics

Blame globalization?

Mainstream economists, globalization, and Trump

To be clear (as I’ve written many times before), I don’t think one can or should reduce the election to class—to attempt to explain its conditions and consequences only or even primarily in terms of class. That would be a serious mistake. But it would be equally mistaken to ignore or overlook class in attempting to make sense of what is going on right now in the United States.

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Over the course of this past year, I warned on numerous occasions (e.g., here, here, and here) we needed to pay more attention to the ways class politics were playing out in the 2016 presidential election.*

Now, it’s true, there was considerable attention before 8 November on white working-class men. But the other members of the American working-class were largely overlooked.

That’s certainly true of Black and Hispanic workers as well as white working-class women. The presumption was, because of the nature of Donald Trump’s campaign (as well as his past boorish behavior), working-class voters other than white men would flock to Hillary Clinton and ensure her victory.

As it turns out, the majority of women (54 percent) did vote for Clinton. But white women didn’t (by a margin of 10 points). And white women without a college degree even less: only about one-third (34 percent) voted for the Democratic candidate, while the vast majority (62 percent) went for Trump.**

The Clinton campaign was clearly counting on the support of universal “sisterhood.” But it failed—in no small part because it forgot about “economic inequality, or more specifically, economic inequality among women.”

As Kathleen Geier explains,

economic inequality among women is just as large, and has been growing just as fast, as economic inequality among men.This economic divide among women has created one of the most significant fault lines in contemporary feminism. That’s because professional-class women, who have reaped a disproportionate share of feminism’s gains, have dominated the feminist movement, and the social distance between them and their less privileged sisters is wide and growing wider. In the decades since the dawn of the second wave, educated women gained access to status jobs, but working-class women experienced declining wages and (because of the rise of divorce and single parenthood among the working class) shouldered an increasingly heavy burden of care. Yet mainstream feminist groups and pundits have consistently stressed the social and cultural issues that are most important to affluent women, while marginalizing the economic concerns of the female masses. . .

The class divisions between women came to a head in the 2016 election, when Big Feminism failed women, big-time. Mainstream feminists sold women a bill of goods, arguing that the election of a woman president would improve the lot of women as a class. . .

if you’re a woman living paycheck to paycheck and worried sick over the ever-diminishing economic prospects for you and your children, you’re unlikely to be heavily invested in whether some lady centimillionaire will shatter the ultimate glass ceiling.

The upshot is, both the Democratic Party and the feminist movement are badly in need of reform when it comes to class politics.

Again, here’s Geier:

Feminists would be well-advised to ease up on pop culture navel-gazing and corporate pseudo-feminist drivel like Lean In. They need to shift their central focus from the glass ceiling to the sticky floor, which, after all, is the place where most women dwell. A feminism that delivers for working-class women by addressing their material needs could expand feminism’s base and bring about a much-needed feminist revival. A feminism that delivers for working-class women by addressing their material needs could radically expand feminism’s base. And should feminism once again become a vibrant bottom-up mass movement instead of a top-down elite concern, there’s no telling how far it could go.

Most U.S. feminists know this. But they—and, with them, the working-class—were betrayed by the kind of feminism sanctioned by the elite, which was and remains silent on class politics.

 

*Although, as I explained, “American politics has always been about a lot of things (from nativism and racism to foreign entanglements and so-called cultural issues).” Still, while U.S. politics shouldn’t be reduced to class politics, ignoring or marginalizing class issues leads to a fundamental misunderstanding—on the part of politicians, pundits, and pollsters—of what is going on out there.

**According to Clare Malone,

Preliminary exit poll results show that while she won women by 12 points overall (Trump won men by the same margin, a historic gender gap), Clinton lost the votes of white women overall and struggled to win women voters without a college education in states that could have propelled her to victory.

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The Guardian reports that “white and wealthy voters gave victory to Donald Trump.”

Of the one in three Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year, a majority voted for Clinton. A majority of those who earn more backed Trump.

Yes, that’s right, according to the CNN exit polls (as in the top chart above). Both parties received majority support from their traditional income bases.

But, in comparison to 2012 (in the bottom chart, also from CNN), the movement was in the opposite direction: Clinton lost considerable support from low-income voters (from Obama’s 60 to her 52 percent) and didn’t gain enough from higher-income voters (up from 45 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2016) in order to defeat Trump.

In the end, as Thomas Frank has explained, American liberals are the ones who put Trump in the White House:

The American white-collar class just spent the year rallying around a super-competent professional (who really wasn’t all that competent) and either insulting or silencing everyone who didn’t accept their assessment. And then they lost. Maybe it’s time to consider whether there’s something about shrill self-righteousness, shouted from a position of high social status, that turns people away.

The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. The rest of us are treated as though we have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the “last thing standing” between us and the end of the world. It is a liberalism of the rich, it has failed the middle class, and now it has failed on its own terms of electability. Enough with these comfortable Democrats and their cozy Washington system. Enough with Clintonism and its prideful air of professional-class virtue. Enough!

labor-inequality

I understand readers’ attention is mostly focused on today’s election. However, it is not too soon to look beyond the results themselves, to consider the economic policies of the new administration. If Hillary Clinton is elected (as seems likely), reducing “labor market monopsony” appears to be one of the directions economic policy will be going.

 

For decades now, the labor share of U.S. national income (the blue line measured on the left-hand vertical axis in the chart above) has steadily declined, while the shares of income and wealth captured by the top 1 percent (the red and green lines on the right-hand axis) has increased. And in recent years, even as employment has mostly recovered from the Second Great Depression, the wages paid to the majority of workers have continued to stagnate (even while incomes of workers at the very top, especially CEOs and other corporate executives, have risen).

Might it be the case that employers are conspiring to keep workers’ wages down?

The idea that employers often try and ultimately succeed in keeping workers’ wages lower than they otherwise would be has been recognized seen at least the end of the eighteenth century—an observation made by none other than Adam Smith:

What are the common wages of labour, depends every where upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. . .

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things which nobody ever hears of. Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

However, it wasn’t until 1932 that we got the modern term for exercising market power on the purchasing or demand side of a market: monopsony. It should come as no surprise that it was invented by Joan Robinson (with help from classicist B. L. Hallward) and first utilized in her Economics of Imperfect Competition.

It is necessary to find a name for the individual buyer which will correspond to the name monopolist for the individual seller. In the following pages an individual buyer is referred to as a monopsonist.

Still, within mainstream economics, the idea that employers would operate as monopsonists—and therefore exercise power in setting workers’ wages—was mostly considered irrelevant, either overlooked or considered to be a minor exception (as, e.g., in the stereotypical “company town”) to the rule of perfectly competitive markets.

Now, however, that seems to have changed. The combination of slow wage growth, obscene and still-increasing inequality, and growing concentration among corporations in the production and selling of commodities (the classical case of monopoly) has put monopsony back on the agenda—at least for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf).

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Monopsony in the labor market serves an important explanatory role for Jason Furman and the other members of the Council because it creates a situation in which both wages (W2) and employment (Q2) are lower than they would be in perfect competition (W1 and Q1, respectively). In consequence, as a result of the shifting of the balance of bargaining toward employers, the wage share declines and both employers’ profits and the incomes of high-level corporate employees increase.*

What this means, in terms of policy, is a series of reforms designed to move markets closer to mainstream economists’ ideal of perfect competition: anti-trust enforcement as well reforms to labor markets (such as modernizing non-compete clauses, pay transparency, and affordable health care) that enhance the ability of workers to move between employers and move closer to “normal” wages.

The problem, of course, is that the theory of labor market monopsony, which pertains to individual employers, also serves to obscure the power wielded by employers as a class. When, as the result of a complex historical process, the labor market itself is created, a large group of people is forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, who own or have access to the financial resources to hire those workers. Under such conditions (as they are first created and then reproduced over time), even if individual employers exercise no market power at all (and take the wage as given by the market), workers’ wages are still only equal to the value of their labor power, which is less than the value workers create. Workers are, in other words, exploited—even in the absence of individual monopsony.

What monopsony does, initially, is lower the wage to a level below the value of labor power (thus making it difficult for workers to continue to sell their ability to work under customary conditions). Then, if such a condition persists, the value of labor power itself falls (as the value of the basket of goods that make up the workers’ customary standard of living declines), thus increasing the level of exploitation. That, of course, is exactly what has happened in the United States since the mid-1970s.

Enforcing anti-trust laws and reforming the labor market might lower the amount of individual employers’ power in the labor market, thus raising the price (and, perhaps eventually, the value) of labor power. But it would not eliminate the monopsony of the group of employers as a whole in relation to the working-class.

The only way to abolish that class monopsony and build a more equitable economy is to eliminate the central role and regulating principle of the labor market—by creating the conditions whereby workers are not excluded from participating in the appropriation of their surplus labor.

 

*It is also the case that, if there is significant monopsony in the labor market, an increase in the minimum wage (at least up to W1) will actually lead to an increase in employment (toward Q1).

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The Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney has posted the text of the talk I delivered at Gleebooks, 19 October 2016, as part of a “Class Acts in Political Economy” roundtable with Katherine Gibson and Adam David Morton.