Posts Tagged ‘government’

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Federal government jobs are a pretty good deal, especially for workers without a professional degree or doctorate.

According to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), wages for federal workers with a high-school diploma or less are 34-percent higher than comparable workers in the private sector. And, when you include benefits (especially defined-benefit retirement plans), their total compensation is 53-percent higher. For federal workers with a bachelor’s degree, the numbers are 5 percent (for wages) and 21 percent (for total compensation). Only federal workers with a professional degree or doctorate are paid less than their private-sector counterparts (by 24 percent), resulting in a total compensation that is also less (by 18 percent).

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The problem is, it’s not easy to get those jobs. In contrast to what many people think (my students included), federal employment (excluding the U.S. Postal Service) makes up only 1.4 percent of civilian employment in the United States—just a bit higher than before the Second Great Depression (when it stood at 1.3 percent) but far below what it was in the late 1960s (when it was 2.8 percent).

So, to all those who complain about the growth of the “government bureaucracy,” they should be reminded of the small percentage of total employment represented by federal workers—and the fact that most federal employees (60 percent) work in just three departments in the executive branch: Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.

And for those who argue that federal employees are compensated better than their private-sector counterparts, there’s an easy solution: raise the pay of private-sector workers and improve their benefits!

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Banksy, “Untitled” (2009)

On first glance, liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Let me explain. In the article I referred to yesterday, conservative Arthur Brooks invokes the “dignity of labor” as the reason anything and everything should be done to stem the fall in the labor-force participation rate of white men and get them back to work.

If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

Some may ask whether making people necessary is an appropriate role for government. The answer is yes: indeed, it represents a catastrophic failure of government that millions of Americans depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others. However, it’s not enough to merely make people feel that they are needed; they must become more authentically, objectively necessary.

The single most important part of a “neededness agenda” is putting more people to work.

Well, as it turns out, one of Brooks’s liberal critics, Lane Kenworthy, actually agrees that working for someone else and producing more than one needs has “significant virtues”:*

It imposes regularity and discipline on people’s lives. It can be a source o mental stimulation. It helps to fulfill the widespread desire to contribute to, and be integrated in, the larger society. It shapes identity and can boost self-­esteem. With neighborhood and family ties weakening, the office or factory can be a key site of social interaction. Lack of employment tends to be associated with feelings of social exclusion, discouragement, boredom, and unhappiness. Societies also need a significant majority of people in paid work to help fund government programs.

No matter the fundamental differences in the policies they advocate, Brooks and Kenworthy are in fundamental agreement that people should believe in the dignity of work and government policy should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the white working-class—get back to work.

I have already dealt numerous times (e.g, here, here, and here) with the argument that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified. But the question remains, why should the government be brought in—in the eyes of by both conservatives and liberals—to make sure people are forced to have the freedom to acquire that dignity?

The answer actually lies in an unexpected source. According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither Brooks nor Kenworthy can count himself among those with such insight.

*This is even after Kenworthy admits “employment is not always a good thing.”

The need for a paycheck can trap people in careers that divert them from more productive or rewarding pursuits. Paid work can be physically or emotionally stressful. It can be monotonous, boring, alienating. Some jobs require a degree of indiference, meanness, or dishonesty toward customers or subordinates that eats away at one’s humanity. And work can interfere with family life.

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Before the new Republican administration has a chance to implement its campaign promises and dismantle the social safety net, it’s useful to remember who in fact is assisted by the existing programs.

According to a new study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, people of all races and ethnic groups who lack a bachelor’s degree receive significant help from the safety net. But white working-class adults stand out.

Among working-age adults without a college degree, 6.2 million whites are lifted above the poverty line by the safety net — more than any other racial or ethnic group. In addition, the percentage of people who would otherwise be poor that safety net programs lift out of poverty is greater for white working-age adults without a college degree than for other adults without a college degree.

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But we also need to remember how brutal U.S. capitalism is, before government programs are taken into account.

In particular, as can been seen in the table above, the poverty rate before taking income from government programs into account is more than three times higher among working-age adults without a college degree (30.4 percent) than among other adults (8.7 percent). And while poverty rates are lower for white adults without a college degree (24.3 percent) than for other adults without a degree (43.1 percent for Blacks and 36.2 percent for Hispanics), 1 in 4 white adults who lack a degree is poor before accounting for government benefits and tax credits.

The fact is, government anti-poverty programs are so important—for white, Black, and Hispanic Americans—precisely because capitalism in the United States generates so much poverty among its workers, especially those without a college degree.

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There is no stronger indictment of U.S. capitalism than the fact that, over recent decades (especially since 1980), there has been almost no growth for people in the bottom 50 percent of the distribution of income.

As I showed a week ago, according to recent data by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, from 1979 through 2006, the share of pre-tax income going to the bottom 50 percent of U.S. households fell from an already-low 20.1 percent to an even-lower 13.5 percent—while the share of top 1 percent soared, from 11.1 percent to 20.1 percent.

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There’s even a large and growing gap between average (pre-tax) national income and the average of the bottom 50 percent. That ratio increased from 2.5:1 in 1979 to 4:1 in 2014.

Even in absolute terms (illustrated in the chart at the top of the post), the bottom 50 percent has gone nowhere. Their average pre-tax income actually fell from 1979 to 2014 (in real 2014 dollars)— from $16,632 to $16,197. It’s true, households that find themselves in the bottom half have been helped by tax credits and government transfers. But in 2014, that only raised their post-tax income to, on average, $25,045.

And that’s not even the whole story. If we exclude expenditures on medical care (Medicaid and Medicare, including rising prices for medical treatment), that post-tax income falls to $21,293. And if we calculate their cash income (and thus exclude in-kind transfers), it falls to $17,654—an embarrassingly small increase over their pre-tax income of $16,197.

As Piketty, Saez, and Zucman explain,

The aggregate flow of individualized government transfers has increased, but these transfers are largely targeted to the elderly and the middle-class (individuals above the median and below the 90th percentile). Transfers that go to the bottom 50% have not been large enough to lift income significantly. Given the massive changes in the pre-tax distribution of national income since 1980, there are clear limits to what redistributive policies can achieve.

The unequal distribution of income in the United States is now so obscene that, even with government transfers, the bottom 50 percent are forced to struggle to survive on incomes that, in 2014, came to less than 2.5 percent of those in the top 1 percent.

Is it any wonder that the presidential candidate who promised to continue business as usual, to do no more than maintain the existing set of programs, ended up losing?

And, by the same token, does anyone expect the winning candidate, who promised to shake things up on behalf of the working-class, will actually do anything to fundamentally improve the circumstances of those in the bottom 50 percent?