Posts Tagged ‘workers’

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Peggy M. Hart, The Magic of Coal (1945)

As I have argued many times on this blog, representations of the economy are produced and disseminated in many different spaces (in addition to academic economics departments) and through many different media (in addition to the usual, mostly mainstream economics textbooks).

One example of this proliferation of economic representations is children’s literature. Children are the targets of educators and writers, most of whom (at least these days) are determined to make sure children get the “correct” understanding of key concepts and institutions. And, for the most part, they mirror the kinds of knowledges produced by mainstream economists, albeit with language and illustrations appropriate for children.

Scholastic offers such a list (which features Homer Price by Robert McClosky, through which students learn the “law of demand”). So does Choice Literacy (which includes Tomie dePaola’s Charlie Needs a Cloak, “good for discussing the four factors of production”). And then there’s the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, which groups books by concept (such as Markets and Competition, Opportunity Cost, and so on).

Motoko Rich’s view is that “By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center” (and that may be true of books that teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving) but, at least for the books on the lists provided by economics educators these days, the tendency is much more mainstream, if not purely neoclassical.

That was not always the case, as Kimberley Reynolds [ht: ja] explains, in the Soviet Union but also during the interwar period in the United Kingdom.

The fact that children’s books can have a strongly formative influence upon the young has often attracted the attention of new leaders and regimes. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his followers harnessed the power of children’s books to shape culture. Some of the artistically vibrant work that resulted from co-opting leading writers and artists is currently on exhibit at London’s House of Illustration with the title, A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. In interwar Britain too, a group of socially and aesthetically radical children’s books underpinned the work of making Britain a progressive, egalitarian, and modern society. But unlike their Soviet counterparts, these books have since remained a largely hidden secret, with most scholars of the period overlooking them altogether.

A good example is Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal, which was published as a Puffin picturebook in 1945. It was the British equivalent of the Soviet “production books.”

Production books detailed the production process of economically essential resources such as coal or steel. Emphasis was placed on the difference between the capitalist and communist machinery used to create these resources; where capitalist machinery was shown to feed greed and overproduction, communist machinery provided a helping hand in creating a prosperous future everyone could enjoy. Thus production books clearly directed the child reader’s attention to a wider political narrative beyond the specificities of the text.

Production books were aesthetically modernist, combining ideas from abstract painting with typography to create a visual language strikingly different from what had gone before. Pictures held a machine-like appearance, using straight lines and elementary forms. By championing newness, it was conveyed to the child reader that they had the potential to be aesthetically innovative. Rather than simply encouraging them to learn to copy what was already seen as beautiful, aesthetic modernism puts more at stake for the child; if whatever they create has the potential to be considered beautiful, there is more incentive for them to attempt to create. Similarly, if a transformed communist society is shown to be a plausible alternative to today’s society, there is a greater incentive for the child to become an activist to help bring this society about.

Apparently, the Magic of Coal contained all the features of a production book:

Reference is made to, ‘our gas works’ and ‘our community, implying collective ownership, and all images are aesthetically modernist. Thus it is an example of the attempts of a popular front of left-wing publishers to bring the production book genre and its associated radicalism to Britain in the interwar period.”

As such, it was quite different from what passes today for children’s economics literature:

Taking the child on a journey, it tells not only of the production of coal but also elevates the miner as an important and  respectable member of society. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards a political goal.

The text focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism.

The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ before or after work, challenging class boundaries as it suggests that before he enters the mine, a working-class man looks like, and therefore is like, any other man going about any other business. The text also tells us of the miner’s life outside of work, mentioning societies, theatre visits and higher education, indicating that the miners are not only important members of coal-fueled, modern society, but also respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture.

I don’t know if children’s economics books of this sort—whether about coal mining or Wall Street—are being written and produced today. If they’re not, they need to be. If they are, then they need to be included in the lists that promote the economics education of children.

There is—and there needs to be—a lot more than mainstream economic ideas in representations of the economy, both inside and outside the official discipline of economics.

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Apparently, Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price [ht: sm] recently received a gift from his employees, a new Tesla.

Price and Gravity gained fame last year when the young CEO announced to much fanfare a plan to raise pay to $70,000 a year for all employees, after a phase-in period. Price said he would also make $70,000, dropping his salary from more than $1 million annually. . .

Gravity spokesman Ryan Pirkle said the gift was thought up and organized by Alyssa O’Neal, an employee who he said was one of the “most impacted” by the raise.

A gift for a gift. Price decided to raise the salaries of his employees, and they reciprocated by buying him a new car.

It’s a heart-warming story. But, as I wrote a year ago,

I’m not prepared to celebrate Price as a “good capitalist,” as against all the “bad capitalists” who are choosing to increase the gap between average workers’ pay and the enormous payments to CEOs.

My point is a actually somewhat different: first, that capitalists—whether in Columbus or Seattle—do lots of different things, and presuming they follow a simple rule (whether profit-maximization as in the usual neoclassical story, or the accumulation of capital in many heterodox stories) means missing out on the complex, contradictory dynamics of capitalist enterprises; and second, that other kinds of enterprises (in which workers themselves make the decisions about how the surplus is appropriated and distributed) would do even more, on a wider scale, to transform the dynamics of the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. economy.

It’s the difference between an individual gift and a gift economy. In the former, workers are forced to rely on the benevolence of their employer, to whom they feel beholden; in the latter, because they participate in appropriating the surplus they produce, workers actually have the means to regularly bestow gifts on themselves as a collectivity, on whatever bosses they may have chosen, and on the wider society with which they have a reciprocal relationship.

Now, that’s a gift economy worth celebrating.

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A new report from McKinsey & Company, “Poorer than Their Parents? Flat or Falling Incomes in Advanced Countries” (pdf), confirms many people’s worst fears. As it turns out, the trend in stagnating or declining incomes for most workers (including the middle-class) is not confined to the United States, but is a global phenomenon.

Brexit and Trump are just the tip of the iceberg. Because of flat or falling incomes, many workers across the rich countries are angry and want change.

According to the authors of the report, as much as 70 percent of the households in 25 advanced economies saw their incomes drop in the past decade. That compares to just 2 percent of households that saw declining incomes in the previous 12 years.*

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In the United States, fully 81 percent of households suffered a decline in market income between 2005 and 2013. But, as it turns out, after taxes and transfers, falling market incomes were turned into flat disposable incomes. (The situation elsewhere, such as in France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy, was even worse, in terms of both market and disposable incomes.)

Here’s what the U.S. numbers mean: employers were able to take advantage of declining labor incomes (since only upper-income households experienced strong wage growth, which is really just a distribution of the surplus to most of them), thus increasing corporate profits; while workers, through taxes on their wages (and thus not a distribution of the surplus), were forced to pay to finance programs that helped reverse some of the effect of declining market incomes.

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Another major consequence of flat or falling incomes is a dramatic increase in inequality over the course of the past two decades. Since I’m quite critical of comparing inequality indicators (e.g., Gini coefficients) across countries (as I explained here), what is most relevant is the change in inequality indicators for individual countries and, especially, the difference between market-income and disposable-income indicators. Thus, for example, when the authors of the report calculate “net Gini” (market Ginis minus the effect of taxes and transfers, the middle line for each country in the chart above), the United States ends up reversing market inequality the least—scoring 35 in 1993 and 37 in 2005 and 2012.**

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The final major economic consequence, in the United States and elsewhere is that today’s younger generation—regardless of level of education—is increasingly at risk of ending up poorer than their parents. As readers can see in the chart above, wage incomes declined for all segments of the labor force in the 2002–12 period but, in all three countries, wage income declines were most severe for younger workers (under the age of 30). The average decrease in the wage income of these young workers ranged from 2 percent (for higher educated workers in France) to 27 percent (for medium educated workers in Italy). In the United states, lower educated young workers faced a decline of 15 percent, similar to that of medium educated workers; while even higher educated young workers saw a decline in their incomes.

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And then, of course, there are the political consequences of flat or declining incomes. The authors of the report note that

The people who felt they were not advancing and believed this was a persistent problem expressed sharply negative views of foreign trade and immigration. They were nearly twice as likely to believe that “Legal immigrants are ruining the culture and cohesiveness of our society” as those who were advancing or neutral, and one-and-a-half times as likely as those who were not advancing but hopeful about the future. Nearly 70 percent of them also agreed with the statement “Cheaper foreign labor is creating unfair competition to our domestic businesses,” compared with 43 percent of those who were advancing or neutral. Fifty-six percent of them also believed that “The influx of foreign goods and services is leading to domestic job losses,” compared with 29 percent of the advancing or neutral respondents and 41 percent of those who were not advancing but hopeful about the future.

By implication, failure to correct flat or falling incomes could lead to a rise in the number of people who see flat or falling incomes as a persistent problem and lose faith in tenets of the global economic architecture.

That’s the source of the challenge to the self-professed expertise of mainstream economists (who tend to celebrate a market-based global economy), as well as movements as diverse as Brexit, the Trump campaign, and the insurgency within the Democratic Party represented by Bernie Sanders.

But the authors of the report are not done. The natural final question is, what are the prospects for the future? Their conclusion is, to say the least, sobering. If present trends continue—including the decline in labor unions, the continuation of job-displacing digital technologies, the rise in temporary and part-time work, and overall slow growth—it is likely

an even larger proportion of income groups in advanced economies—from 70 to 80 percent—could experience flat or falling real market incomes in the next decade to 2025 than did during the 2005–12 period.

As I see it, the existing set of economic institutions can neither accommodate nor preclude the possibility of an even larger portion of flat or falling incomes for the foreseeable future. The current economic system has failed, even on its own terms.

The situation is so dire that the authors of the report (who, remember, did this research for McKinsey, the most prestigious management consultancy in the world) note that “the idea of a guaranteed basic income has attracted renewed interest as policy makers seek to grapple with flat or falling incomes in the middle class, high youth unemployment, and the prospect of further job losses to digitization.”

A universal basic income is certainly a start. It’s a recognition of how dire the current situation is and how ominous the future prospects are for the majority of the population—workers, the middle-class, call them what you will—within the advanced countries.

But it’s only a start. The widespread nature of flat or falling incomes in the United States and across the rich countries, and then the dire forecast looking forward, mean it’s time to imagine and create a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

 

*In general, the analysis in the report appears to be carefully done. I do, however, have one criticism. The major comparison is between two periods: 1993-2005 (when most incomes were rising) and 2005-2014 (when they were falling). That’s fine. All of the data of which I am aware (such as real wages and average 90-percent incomes) confirm much the same trends. The problem is, it was in the mid-1990s that workers’ incomes were at their lowest. If we extended the analysis back to the mid-1970s, then we’d discover that, across the entire 1973-2014 period, workers’ incomes have been generally flat (with both short-term increases and decreases within that long-term trend).

**On a scale of 0 to 100, where a score of 100 indicates complete inequality (one person earns all of the income) and a score of 0 represents completely even distribution of income across the population (each citizen earns the same amount). Numbers in the high 40s for market income and high 30s in the net Gini coefficient (after taxes and transfers) indicate an obscenely unequal distribution of income in the United States.