Posts Tagged ‘education’


When I ask my students that question, they don’t really have an answer. That’s because, like much of the rest of the U.S. population, they don’t have much experience with unions, either directly or indirectly—not when the union membership rate has fallen to below 11 percent nationwide and is only 6.4 percent in the private sector.

And if you pose that question to neoclassical economists, the response is: labor unions cause unemployment, by setting a wage rate that exceeds the equilibrium price for labor. According to the neoclassical story,

while union workers (“insiders”) may benefit, unemployed non-union workers (“outsiders”) lose out. So, their overall conclusion is, unions ultimately hurt workers and cause increased inequality. Unions should therefore be discouraged.

For my students who have taken a course in mainstream economics, that’s pretty much the only answer that will be offered to them.*

But what if we look back to the heyday of unions—to the period that begins during the first Great Depression (when the Wagner Act was passed and unionization rates once again began to rise) and extends through the 1950s?

According to a new study by Brantly Callaway and William J. Collins, who utilize a novel dataset compiled from archival records of a survey of male workers in five non-Southern cities conducted in 1951, unions played an important role in reducing inequality, especially at the bottom of the wage scale.


Thus, for example, at the 10th percentile, union workers earned 20.3 log points more than comparable non-union workers—while the difference at the median was smaller and, at the 80th, the difference turns negative.


For less-educated workers (those with less than a high-school education), the premium at the bottom was similar (at 19.1 log points) but the advantage persisted across all percentiles. And the union wage premium was relatively large, and it remained so, throughout the Black income distribution. The clear indication is that the emergence of industrial unions after 1935, which sought to unionize production workers along industry rather than craft lines, opened more better-paying union job opportunities for both less-educated and Black workers.


Callaway and Collins also conduct some counterfactual estimations concerning wage inequality, by looking at what would happen if union workers had been paid according to the non-union wage schedule. Their Table 4 (Panel A), shows that in terms of all measures—overall inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and the 10th percentile), lower-tail inequality (the difference between the 50th percentile and the 10th percentile), and upper-tail inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and 50th percentile)—inequality is significantly higher in the counterfactual “no union” scenario than in reality. In other words, the overall wage distribution was considerably narrower in 1950 than it would have been if union members had been paid like non-union members with similar characteristics.

As I see it, there are two lessons that can be drawn from the Callaway and Collins study. First, in terms of U.S. history, unions played a significant role in mitigating the effects of competition among workers, both raising workers’ wages and reducing inequality among workers. Second, with respect to economic theory, their research shows that simple supply-and-demand stories (which neoclassical economists use to attempt to explain inequality in terms of skills and levels of education) are profoundly misleading precisely because they leave out institutions.

One of the most important institutions in the postwar period in the United States, when economic inequality was much lower than today, were labor unions.


*If students were exposed to something other than neoclassical economics, they’d learn that unions do many other things, including helping non-union workers, through: (1) the threat of unionization (nonunion employers worried about a possible unionization drive may match union pay scales to reduce the demand for organization), (2) the ripple effect (like minimum-wage increases, union wage rates for production workers can lead to increases in wages for those above them, e.g., their managers), and (3) the moral economy (unions help institute norms of fairness regarding pay, benefits, and worker treatment that can extend beyond the unionized core of the workforce). They might also learn that, historically and by examining the experience in other countries, unions have often defended and promoted the larger interests of workers—in their enterprises (by demanding a say in decisions about such things as safety and jobs), nationally (by contributing time and money to political parties and campaigns), and internationally (by cooperating with and assisting unionization efforts in other countries).


That’s what Mirella Casares gets as her “benefit” package from working at Victoria’s Secret. The package doesn’t include health or retirement contributions.

As it turns out, Casares is not alone. Far from it.

Many American workers, because of the precarious nature of their jobs and household finances, are concerned (as reflected in the word chart above) with “money,” “bills,” “health,” and “retirement income.”

According to the Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2016 by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (pdf), about 30 percent—or approximately 73 million adults—are either finding it difficult to get by or are just getting by financially. Even more, almost half (44 percent) of adults say they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

One of the major reasons is American workers simply aren’t being paid enough. That’s why more than half (53 percent) are forced to spend more than they earn and therefore don’t have the ability to save. They also face extraordinary health (approximately 24 million people, representing 10 percent of adults, are carrying debt from medical expenses that they had to pay out of pocket in the previous year) and education expenses (over half of adults under age 30 who attended college took on at least some debt while pursuing their education). Therefore, they have to borrow money and rely on family and friends to make ends meet.

The other reason is because of income volatility. About one third of American adults indicate that their monthly income varies either occasionally or quite a bit from month to month. Thirteen percent of adults (40 percent of those with volatile incomes) report that they struggled to pay their bills at least once as a result of income volatility. One of the major causes of that volatility is variable work schedules: seventeen percent of workers have a schedule that varies based on their employer’s needs, and just over half of those with a varying work schedule are usually assigned their schedule three days in advance or less.

One of the consequences of being underpaid and subjected to variable work schedules dictated their employers is American workers have found it necessary to turn to multiple jobs and informal work. According to the survey, 9 percent of all adults, and 15 percent of those who are employed, report that they worked at multiple jobs. In addition, 28 percent of all adults report that they or their family earned money through one or more of informal and occasional activities (such as babysitting, selling at flea markets, and performing tasks through online marketplaces) in the prior month.

The United States is now eight years into the recovery from the Great Recession and the benefit to American workers consists of little more than 3 bras and a bottle of perfume.


Young Americans are caught between two contradictory messages. On one hand, they’re told to go to college, to maintain pace with new technologies and job requirements. On the other hand, they’re told to “get out”—because, for most, a college education is simply unaffordable.

The American Dream, for them, looks more and more like “the sunken place.”

The Institute for Higher Education Policy [ht: mfa] is the latest group to document the unaffordability of a college education. While students from the highest income quintile (from families earning around $160 thousand or more) can afford most of the more than 2,000 colleges studied, low- and moderate-income students (bringing in around $69 thousand or less) can only afford to attend a tiny percentage of those colleges.

The Institute bases its conclusion on an “affordability benchmark” (the so-called Rule of 10, the idea that 10-year savings plus part-time earnings should cover the entire cost of a four-year degree) compared to the net price of a college education (equal to the cost of attendance minus grant aid). They then illustrate their findings with ten student profiles: five dependent students representing a different income quintile, and possessing attributes based on national averages for students in their quintile (Sonja, Hakim, Ava, Sergio, and Maria), and five independent students characterizing the diverse array of personal and family circumstances among independent students (Anthony, Traval, Aneesa, Jon Sook, and Mohammed).

As readers can see from the figure at the top of the post, while the student from the highest income bracket could afford to attend 90 percent of colleges in the sample, the low- and moderate-income students with fewer financial resources could only afford 1 to 5 percent of colleges.

Colleges were most dramatically unaffordable for students near the bottom of the income distribution, including all five of the independent students. Out of more than 2,000 colleges, nearly half (48 percent) were affordable for only the wealthiest student (with a family income over $160,000) and more than one-third (35 percent) were affordable only for that student and the next wealthiest (with a family income over $100,000).


Not only do working-class students face financial barriers in attempting to enroll in most colleges, which they can only afford by burying themselves and their families under mountains of debt. They’re also far less likely to complete their students, often because working long hours to finance their education gets in the way of their studies (not to mention all the other activities traditionally associated with being in college).

As the authors of the report conclude,

This inability for low-earners to afford an education or improve their station erodes belief in a nation founded on the rejection of entrenched social stratification.

The only question for the nation is, will this educational horror film have a happy ending?


Both Peter Temin and I are concerned about the vanishing middle-class and the desperate plight of most American workers. We even use similar statistics, such as the growing gap between productivity and workers’ wages and the share of income captured by the top 1 percent.

productivity top1

And, as it turns out, both of us have invoked Arthur Lewis’s “dual economy” model to make sense of that growing gap. However, we present very different interpretations of the Lewis model and how it might help to shed light on what is wrong in the U.S. economy—with, of course, radically different policy implications.

It is ironic that both Temin and I have turned to the Lewis model, which was originally intended to make sense of “dual economies” in the Third World, in which peasant workers trapped by “disguised unemployment” and receiving a “subsistence” wage (equal to the average product of labor) in the “backward,” noncapitalist rural/agricultural sector could be induced via a higher “industrial” wage rate (equal to the marginal product of labor) to move to the “modern,” capitalist urban/manufacturing sector, which would absorb them as long as capital accumulation increased the demand for labor.

That’s clearly not what we’re talking about today, certainly not in the United States and other advanced economies where agriculture employs a tiny fraction of the work force—and where much of agriculture, like the manufacturing and service sectors, is organized along capitalist lines. But Lewis, like Adam Smith before him, did worry about the parasitical role of the landlord class and the way it might serve, via increasing rents, to drag down the rest of the economy—much as today we refer to finance and the above-normal profits captured by oligopolies.

So, our returning to Lewis may not be so far-fetched. But there the similarity ends.

Temin (in a 2015 paper, before his current book was published) divided the economy into two sectors: a high-wage finance, technology, and electronics sector, which includes about thirty percent of the population, and a low-wage sector, which contains the other seventy percent. In his view, the only link between the two sectors is education, which “provides a possible path that the children of low-wage workers can take to move into the FTE sector.”

The reinterpretation of the Lewis model I presented back in 2014 is quite different:

What I have in mind is redefining the subsistence wage as the federally mandated minimum wage, which regulates compensation to workers in the so-called service sector (especially retail and food services). That low wage-rate serves a couple of different functions: it’s a condition of high profitability in the service sector while keeping service-sector prices low, thereby cheapening both the value of labor power (for all workers who rely on the consumption of those goods and services) and making it possible for those at the top of the distribution of income to engage in conspicuous consumption (in the restaurants where they dine as well as in their homes). In turn, the higher average wage-rate of nonsupervisory workers is regulated in part by the minimum wage and in part by the Reserve Army of unemployed and underemployed workers. The threat to currently employed workers is that they might find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or working at a minimum-wage job.

In addition, the profits captured from both groups of workers are distributed to a wide variety of other activities, not just capital accumulation as presumed by Lewis. These include high CEO salaries, stock buybacks, idle cash, and financial-sector profits (with a declining share going to taxes). And, if the remaining portion that does flow into capital accumulation takes the form of labor-saving investments, we can have an economic recovery based on private investment and production with high unemployment, stagnant wages, and rising corporate profits.

For Temin, the goal of economic policy is to reduce the barriers (conditioned and created by an increasingly segregated educational system) so that low-wage workers can adopt to the forces of technological change and globalization, which can eventually “reunify the American economy.”

My view is radically different: the “normal” operation of the contemporary version of the dual economy is precisely what is keeping workers’ wages low and profits high across the U.S. economy. The problem does not stem from the high educational barrier between the two sectors, as Temin would have it, but from the control exercised by the small group that appropriates and distributes the surplus within both sectors.

And the only way to solve that problem is by eliminating the barriers that prevent workers as a class—both black and white, in finance, technology, and electronics as well as retail and food services, regardless of educational level—from participating in the appropriation and distribution of the surplus they create.


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