Posts Tagged ‘union’

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April 28, 2014

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Clearly (after reading James Kwak’s review), I’m going to have to include a discussion of Helaine Olen’s book, Pound Foolish, in my ongoing project on the Prosperity Gospel movement.

The underlying problem with financial advice—besides the fact that most of it is wrong, conflicted (in the conflict of interest sense), or covert marketing—is that, even in the best case, it rarely works. The underlying financial problem that most Americans have isn’t that they buy too many lattes or pick the wrong stocks. It’s that they don’t make enough money to begin with, at a time when many necessities like health care and education are getting more expensive. . .

But the big question is why this stuff is so popular. As Olen points out, we haven’t always had a personal finance advice industry, and it’s only recently that financial education has been embraced as the solution to all our problems. One reason, she suggests, is that we live in an age of stagnant real wages and rising inequality. Add that to a culture that fetishizes individualism and rejects government support programs, and you have a market that is ripe for self-proclaimed gurus or self-interested advertising campaigns that claim that you can get ahead by (insert your choice) drinking less coffee, or going into more real estate debt, or buying a variable annuity, or picking the right stocks. The governments (state and federal) that promote financial education are like Marie-Antoinette advising people to eat cake; if they could eat cake in the first place, they wouldn’t need financial education.

Many of the people Olen talked to were too embarrassed by their financial plight to let her use their names in the book. Somehow we ended up blaming ourselves for the fact that we don’t have a decent minimum wage, real national health insurance, subsidized child care that made it easier to hold a job, or long-term unemployment insurance (other than in special circumstances). If we saw individuals’ financial struggles as a political issue—or a class issue—things might be different.

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I have to spend the rest of the day preparing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for class tomorrow (for the labor section of my course on Commodities: The Making of Market Society). But before I get to that. . .

The campaign against college players forming unions, as exemplified by Patrick T. Harker in his column today, continues to repeat the false impression that what the “student-athlete-employees” are demanding is to be paid for their efforts. (Even Joe Nocera, who has been very good on exposing the NCAA’s mistreatment of college athletes, makes the mistake.) No, what these employees are asking for is a voice in setting and enforcing the rules that govern their employment in NCAA-supervised athletic competitions—nontrivial things like how much time they are forced to spend in preparing for their sports, what majors and courses they can take, whether or not athletes who are injured will be given adequate medical care, and so on. No one—except the cavalcade of critics—is talking about making the athletes paid employees.

Sure, as Mark Thoma explains, rent-seeking behavior can explain at least some of the rise in inequality we’ve seen in recent decades. But why go through such tortured explanations, which require one or another deviation from perfect competition, when we can explain inequality in a much simpler manner, even when there’s perfect competition: surplus-seeking behavior. Because that’s what we need to focus on: the ability of a tiny minority in today’s economy to capture and keep the surplus being produced by the majority of workers. And how do they manage to get that surplus? Through high corporate profits that flow into CEO salaries, the growth of the financial sector, and capital gains, which in turn are taxed at low rates. And then, on top of those “normal” flows of surplus, we can consider various forms of market power that culminate in economic rents, which make the already-unequal distribution of income based on flows of the surplus even more unequal.

Speaking of inequality, how is it possible to write a paper on “Consumption Contagion: Does the Consumption of the Rich Drive the Consumption of the Less Rich?” in which Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse [pdf] describe yet another departure from the Permanent Income Hypothesis, and never mention Thorstein Veblen and his Theory of the Leisure Class?

And, finally, under the heading of “let them eat flip-flops and cheap lingerie from Macy’s,” Thomas Edsall does a nice job summarizing the literature that explains why American workers might be wary about the claims that everyone gains from free trade and how the arguments of free-trade zealots like Jagdish Bhagwati ring so hollow these days.

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