Posts Tagged ‘history’


Special mention



As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about lynchings in the United States, and as part of the research for our Tale of Two Depressions course, I discovered that the inspiration for Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” later made famous by Billie Holliday, was the 1930 lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana.



The Equal Justice Initiative report, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” reveals a history of racial violence in the United States and finds at least 700 more lynchings—a total of 3,959 African-Americans who were brutally and often publicly killed from 1877 to 1950—than previously recorded in southern states.


Justin Wolfers has assembled some serious information. But, in my view, he has offered a less-than-serious explanation of that information.

The information is pretty straightforward: references to economists in the New York Times have grown over time and far outnumber mentions of members of other academic disciplines, including historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers. (The same is true, as it turns out, of the number of mentions in the Congressional Record.)

I have no reason to dispute the numbers. And they make sense to me—from my own reading of the Times over many decades and the fact that, “if you are running a government agency, a think tank, a media outlet or a major corporation, and don’t have your own pet economist on the payroll, you’re the exception” (to which I would only add, major university).

Wolfers’s explanation is, however, much less serious:

This economist is drawn to conclude that if our relative success is not due to supply, then it must be demand, which means that our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.

What I think we need to grapple with is the economizing tendency of bourgeois society. What I mean by that is the idea that, within contemporary society, all major individual and social questions are increasingly subject to an economic logic. Should I stay in school? What kind of job should I look for? How do we organize our households? Can we eliminate poverty? Should we lower the retirement age and expand Social Security benefits? And so on and so forth.

Given the way our society is currently organized, the answers to those questions are generally viewed through an economic lens and couched in an economic language. It’s a lens and language (borrowed mostly from mainstream economics) of incentives, tradeoffs, scarcity, costs and benefits, equilibrium, and so on. It’s a discourse according to which a system based on individual decisions, private property, and markets is considered sacrosanct. And it’s a project that seeks to economize—to subject to an economic calculation—all major individual and social issues.

If that’s true, is it any wonder that economists find themselves at the top of the heap?

family economies

As part of his analysis of changing household structure in the United States, Steven Ruggles [pdf] argues (following Stephanie Coontz) that “the traditional family is not the Ozzie-and-Harriet male breadwinner family that briefly prevailed in the mid-twentieth century.”

What Ruggles refers to as the “corporate family” (families with self-employed married men, except for those with wives who had an occupation outside the family business, most of which had family farms) predominated for hundreds of years before.

The male breadwinner category (in which the husband worked outside the home and the wife had no occupation listed)—the kind of household celebrated most famously by Gary Becker (in his 1981 Treatise on the Family)—represented a majority of marriages for just five decades—from 1920 to 1960—reaching a peak of 57 percent in 1940.

Dual-earner families have now predominated for almost a half century. Over the past several decades, female-breadwinner families have emerged as a significant new form, and now account for a tenth of all marriages.

Clearly, the changing structure of American households is a result of capitalism’s own “laws of population.” As Ruggles explains,

The transitions from corporate families to male breadwinner families to dual earner families resulted from largely exogenous changes in labor markets. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were few alternatives to family labor. . .There were relatively few wage-labor jobs available, and about half of them were unskilled laborers, who generally did not make enough money to start a family. There were as yet few factory jobs; in the skilled workers and operatives category, the most important jobs were miners, sailors, machinists, and overseers of slaves.

Wage-labor opportunities were far worse for mid-nineteenth century women than they were for men. The only significant category of female wage-labor employment was unskilled work, which almost exclusively meant work as domestic servants. Self-employment opportunities were also limited; most self-employed women were seamstresses or launderers. The tiny professional and managerial category—accounting for less than 1% of adult women in the mid-19th century— consisted almost entirely of teachers, who were rarely paid a living wage. The best jobs available for women were the 1.3% in the skilled worker/operative category; these were factory workers, and four-fifths of them were located in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

New England was the best place to be a wage worker, since it had the most advanced industrial sector and labor was in short supply; in the mid-19th century, New England had one of the best- paid workforces in the world. Even there, however, it was difficult to make enough money as a wage worker to live on, much less support a family.

The number of factory jobs grew rapidly; there were only a handful of mills in 1825, but by 1850 there were over a million manufacturing workers, and there were six million by 1900. In the late 19th century clerical jobs for men also grew rapidly, followed by professional and managerial positions in the early 20th century. The growth of well-paid wage labor job opportunities for men undermined the economic underpinnings of patriarchal authority. Once sons had the option of leaving home for the high wages and independence of town life, they had little reason to remain at home under the control of their fathers. By 1910, the number of male-breadwinner families exceeded the number of corporate families, and the percentage continued to grow until World War II.

The post-war boom in demand for wage labor accelerated the shift away from corporate families, but the percentage of male-breadwinner families began to decline rapidly as the dual-earner marriages grew explosively. Women made considerably less than men, and at first their wages rose more slowly, so the gender gap in wages expanded from 1940 until the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, median full-time wages for women age 25-29 rose dramatically, from $13,500 in 1940 to $37,600 in 1974 as the percentage of women working full-time increased from 25% to 40%. When we look at all men and women. . .women do not register until 1968, since that was the first year that more than half of 25-29 year-old women were in the wage labor force.

Before the 1920s, women generally left wage-labor employment when they married, and marriage bars restricting women’s employment remained widespread until the 1950s. Unprecedented demand for wage workers created pressure to overcome institutional barriers to change. As the economy heated up and the marriage boom reduced the supply of single women, the marriage bars disappeared.<

Dissatisfaction of women with the male breadwinner system helped to fuel the supply of married women’s employment. The desperate boredom of housewives Freidan described was compounded by technological and demographic change. The increasing use of labor-saving household devices—especially washing machines—together with parity-specific fertility limitation, meant that women in male-breadwinner families had more available time in the second half of the twentieth century than in the first half. As married women flooded into the paid workforce, the stigma that had surrounded married women’s participation in wage labor quickly disappeared.


Special mention

Keystone Jobs 01

Wall Quotes - Abraham Lincoln - Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed

It is a glaring omission in his otherwise remarkable discussion of the relationship between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, An Unfinished Revolution, that Robin Blackburn neither discusses nor does he include the text of Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress (the equivalent of what we refer to today as the president’s State of the Union), of 3 December 1861.

Composed at least in part as an answer to Jefferson Davis’s President’s Message of 18 November, in which Davis decries the actions of a president turned despot and celebrates the slave South’s “unconquerable will to be free,” Lincoln responds as follows:

It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government–the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.

In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class–neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families–wives, sons, and daughters–work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

Lincoln was, of course, no socialist—although Marx did believe the victory over slavery in the United States would help create the conditions for the general emancipation of the working-class. Thus, Marx composed a message from the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln to congratulate him on his reelection in 1864.

For Stephen T. Ziliak, the fact that “capital despotism is on the rise again,” requires a fresh look at Lincoln’s idea that “labor is prior to and independent of capital.” For Ziliak,

The biggest problem of democracy is not the failure to fully extend political rights, however important. The promise of political and human rights is not perfectly fulfilled, true, though many gains have been made.

The bigger problem is economic in nature. The threat today is from a lack of economic democracy—a lack of ownership, of self-reliance, of autonomy, and of justice in the distribution of rewards and punishments at work—from the appropriation of company revenue to the lack of protection against pension raids and unfair taxes, capital despotism is rife.

The answer, Ziliak suggests, is the formation of worker-cooperatives and the expansion of the National Cooperative Bank so that it can supply funds to build and grown cooperative enterprises.

capital efficiency is not the definition of economic justice. Capital is a subtraction from labor, not the reverse. We mustn’t ever forget again what Lincoln told Congress not long after the start of the Civil War, when the capital relation was on many people’s minds: “The error,” Lincoln warned, the corruption, “is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.”