Posts Tagged ‘workers’

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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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Clearly, 2016 was a good year for CEOs. They’re on track to set a post-recession record for capturing their portion of the surplus.

According to a new Wall Street Journal analysis, median pay for the chief executives of 104 of the biggest American companies rose 6.8 percent for fiscal 2016—to $11.5 million. At the very top was Thomas Rutledge, CEO of Charter Communications, who took home $98.5 million last year. (Here’s a link to the compensation of the other CEOs in the study.)

By way of comparison (using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), average wages for production and nonsupervisory workers rose 2.5 percent, to $21.86. And their annual pay rose by the same percentage, to $36,725.

If you’re keeping track, that means the ratio of average CEO to average worker pay in 2016 was 299.5!

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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.

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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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One of the courses I’m offering this semester is A Tale of Two Depressions, cotaught with one of my colleagues, Ben Giamo, from American Studies. It’s a comparison of the conditions and consequences of the two major crises of capitalism during the past hundred years, the 1930s and the period after the crash of 2007-08.*

It just so happens the Guardian is also right now revisiting the 1930s. Readers will find lots of interesting material, from some evocative street photography from the period (including bread lines, hunger marches, and various protests) to classics of political theater (from Bertolt Brecht and Federico García Lorca to John Dos Passos and Clifford Odets).

I’ve been writing about the Second Great Depression, in mostly economic terms, since 2010. For the Guardian, the idea is that the situation then, in the 1930s, offers lessons for us today—partly for economic reasons but, increasingly, given the victory of Donald Trump and the growth of other right-wing populist-nationalist movements in Europe, in political terms.

Larry Elliott focuses on the economics. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake many commit, by starting with the stock-market crash of 1929—which, as it turns out, was the trigger, but not the cause, of the First Great Depression. He does a much better job examining the different responses to the two precipitating crashes (yes, there were lessons were learned, especially in the United States, with the quick bailout of Wall Street), including identifying those who were left out of the post-2009 recovery.

Wage increases have been hard to come by, and the strong desire of governments to reduce budget deficits has resulted in unpopular austerity measures. Not all the lessons of the 1930s have been well learned , and the over-hasty tightening of fiscal policy has slowed growth and caused political alienation among those who feel they are being punished for a crisis they did not create, while the real villains get away scot-free . A familiar refrain in both the referendum on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election was: there might be a recovery going on, but it’s not happening around here. . .

The winners from the liberal economic system that emerged at the end of the cold war have, like their forebears in the 20s, failed to look out for the losers. A rising tide has not lifted all boats, and those who do not consider themselves the beneficiaries of globalisation have grown weary of hearing how marvellous it is.

The 30s are proof that nothing in economics is inevitable. There was eventually a backlash against the economic orthodoxies and Skidelsky can see why there is another backlash happening today. “Globalisation enables capital to escape national and union control. I am much more sympathetic since the start of the crisis to the Marxist way of analysing things.

And then, of course, there’s the political backlash, the topic of the most recent piece in the series. Jonathan Freedland begins by noting the differences between the two periods: the fact that ultra-nationalist and fascist movements managed to seize power in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s, which has not (yet) happened in the more recent period. Trump, for example, has criticized the media but has not (yet) closed any sites down. Nor has he suggested Muslims wear identifying symbols.

These are crumbs of comfort; they are not intended to minimise the real danger Trump represents to the fundamental norms that underpin liberal democracy. Rather, the point is that we have not reached the 1930s yet. Those sounding the alarm are suggesting only that we may be travelling in that direction – which is bad enough.

There are other warning signs, which suggest closer parallels between the 1930s and today: the shattering of the faith in globalization’s ability to spread the wealth, the growing hostility to those deemed outsiders, and a growing impatience with the rule of law and with democracy. Then, as now, capitalism faces a profound crisis of legitimacy.

In the end, Freedland takes comfort in our having a memory of the 1930s: “We can learn the period’s lessons and avoid its mistakes.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that economic and political elites in the 1930s also had vivid memories—of the great crashes of 1873 and 1893 and, of course, the horrors of the “war to end all wars.” But those events were forgotten amidst more short-run memories, including their joining to put down workers’ actions, including the widespread attacks after the 1926 general strike led by the Trades Union Congress in England and the anti-union “American Plan” during the 1920s on the other side of the Atlantic.

The more or less inevitable result in both countries was growing inequality, as large corporations and a tiny group of wealthy individuals at the top managed to capture a larger and larger share of national income—thus creating a financial bubble that eventually crashed, in 1929 just as in 2007-08.

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The memory of the 1929 crash certainly didn’t prevent the most recent one, nor did it create a recovery that has benefited the majority of the population. In fact, it seems the only lesson learned was how it might be possible, in recent years, for those at the top to recovery more quickly than they managed to do after the First Great Depression what they had lost.

It’s that rush to return to business as usual, characterized by obscene levels of inequality, and not the lack of memory of the 1930s, that has created the conditions for the growth and strengthening of populist, right-wing movements in the United States and Europe.

 

*As is my custom, the syllabus is publicly available on the course web site. Readers might find the large collection of additional materials—music, charts, videos, and so on—of interest. They can be found by following the News link.

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It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the numbers that the wage share of national income is historically low. And it’s been falling for decades now, since 1970.

Before that, during the short Golden Age of U.S. capitalism, the presumption was that the share of national income going to labor was and would remain relatively stable, hovering around 50 percent. But then it started to fall, and now (as of 2015) stands at 43 percent.

That’s a precipitous drop for a supposedly stable share of the total amount produced by workers, especially as productivity rose dramatically during that same period.

The question is, what has caused that decline in the labor share?

The latest story proffered by mainstream economists (such as David Autor and his coauthors) has to do with “superstar” firms:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most. . .

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.

It is true, industry concentration has increased dramatically in recent decades (as I explain here). And the wage share has declined (as illustrated in the chart above).

Here’s the problem: exactly the opposite argument is the one that prevailed in the United States for the earlier period. Economists at the time argued that American workers earned a relatively high share of national income because they worked in concentrated industries, such as cars and steel. Thus, their collectively bargained wages included a portion of the “monopoly rents” captured by the firms within those industries.

Now that the wage share has clearly fallen, and shows no signs of returning to its previous levels, economists have changed their story. In their view, market concentration leads to a lower, not higher, wage share.

Why has there been such an about-face in economists’ story about the causes of the declining wage share?

What all the existing stories share is that they avoid identifying anything that has been done to workers as a class. Whether the story is about technological change, globalization, or now superstar firms, the idea is that there are larger forces that unwittingly have created winners and losers—and the losers, if they want, need to acquire the education and skills to join the winners. But don’t touch the basic elements of the economic system that has created such disparate and divergent outcomes.

As it turns out, the presumed rule of a stable wage share turns out to have been an illusion, an exceptional period of relatively short duration during which workers’ wages did in fact rise along with productivity. That wasn’t the case before, and it hasn’t been true since.

The actual rule, as it turns out, is that the wage share falls, as the rate of exploitation increases. That’s how capitalism works, at least much of the time—through periods of faster and slower technological change, higher or lower levels of globalization, more or less concentrated industries.

Sure, under a particular set of postwar conditions in the United States, for two and a half decades or so, the wage share remained relatively stable (and not without pitched battles between capital and labor, as Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard have shown). But that ended decades ago, and since then workers have been forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work under conditions that, even as productivity continued to grow, the wage share itself declined.

Mainstream economists have finally recognized the fact that workers’ share of national income has been failing. But they continue to formulate stories that deflect attention from the real problem, the relative immiseration of workers that has them falling further and further behind.