Posts Tagged ‘working-class’

L0lwacX

Apparently, “late capitalism” is the term that is being widely used to capture and make sense of the irrational and increasingly grotesque features of contemporary economy and society. There’s even a recent novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford.

A reader [ht: ra] wrote in wanting to know what I thought about the label, which is admirably surveyed and discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Anne Lowrey.

I’ll admit, I’m suspicious of “late capitalism” (like other such catchall phrases), for two main reasons. First, it presumes and invokes a stage theory of development, which relies on identifying certain “laws of motion” of capitalist history. That’s certainly the way Ernest Mandel understood and developed the term—as the latest in a series of necessary stages of capitalist development. For me, the history of capitalism is too contingent and unpredictable to obey such law-like regularity. Second, “late capitalism” is meant to characterize all of a certain stage of economy and society, thereby invoking a notion of totality. Like other such phrases—I’m thinking, in particular, of “globalization,” “empire,” and “neoliberalism”—the idea is that the entire world, or at least what are considered to be its essential elements, can be captured by the term. As I see it, capitalism exists only in some parts of the world, some but certainly not all economic and social spaces, and, even when and where it does exist, it assumes distinct forms and operates in different modalities. Using a term like “late capitalism” tends to iron out all those differences.

So, I’m wary of the notion of “late capitalism,” which for both reasons may lead us astray in terms of making sense of and responding to what is going on in the world today.

At the same time, I remain sympathetic to the idea that “late capitalism” effectively captures at least some dimensions of contemporary economic and social reality. Here in the United States, there’s clearly something late—both exhausted and exhausting—about contemporary capitalism. In the wake of the worst crises since the first Great Depression, growth rates remains low, leaving millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed. Wages continue to stagnate, even as corporate profits and the stock market soar. And the unequal distribution of income and wealth, having become increasingly obscene in recent decades, has ushered in a new Gilded Age.

As Lowrey explains,

“Late capitalism” became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism. Nordstrom selling jeans with fake mud on them for $425. Prisoners’ phone calls costing $14 a minute. Starbucks forcing baristas to write “Come Together” on cups due to the fiscal-cliff showdown.

And, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

What is less clear is if “late capitalism” carries with it a hint of revolution, whether it contains something akin to the idea that the contradictions of capitalism create the possibility of a radical alternative. Even if contemporary capitalism is exhausted and we, witnessing and being subjected to its absurdities and indignities, are being exhausted by it—that doesn’t mean “late capitalism” will generate the political forces required for its being replaced by a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

But perhaps that’s asking too much of the concept. If it merely serves to galvanize new ways of thinking, to recommit us to the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” then we’ll be moving in the right direction.

Fig1

Think about it: food makes up a large (5.5 percent) share of the U.S. economy. But millions of American workers struggle to put food on the table.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (pdf), the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides over 40 million low-income people with the means to purchase food in a typical month.*

Moreover, the share of SNAP households with earnings has been growing since the 1990s. As is clear from the chart above, the share of all households with earnings in an average month while participating in SNAP rose from 19 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2015. Among households with children and a non-elderly, non-disabled adult, about 60 percent have earnings while participating in SNAP.

And it’s pretty clear why American workers are forced to turn to SNAP:

  • They work in occupations that pay low wages.
  • Their jobs often have scheduling practices that contribute to workers’ low and volatile incomes.
  • Most low-wage jobs lack benefits such as paid sick leave and health insurance.

The result is that roughly 14.9 million workers, or about 10 percent of all workers in the United States, were in households where someone participated in SNAP in the last year.

The problem is that, for millions of working Americans, work does not itself guarantee steady or sufficient income to provide for themselves and their families. Thus, they are forced to turn to SNAP to obtain supplementary income to buy food.

SNAP, of course, is not the solution. It’s a social bandaid applied to a private problem of an economy that thrives on employing workers at low wages, on irregular schedules, with few benefits.

Creating a social economy—in which people who do the work have a real say in how the economy is organized—is the only way American workers will finally be able to put food on the table.

 

*United States Department of Agriculture outlays increased by 48 percent from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2015, with the largest increase coming from food and nutrition assistance programs:

overview_fig01

Print

Special mention

Number_One_or_Number_Two_590_503 195219_600

mortality

We don’t need Louisiana Detective Rodie Sanchez coming out of retirement to solve the crime against the members of the working-class currently being committed in the United States.

We already know many of the details of the crime. We also know the identities of both the victims and the serial killer. The only real mystery is, what’s the country going to do about it?

The investigation itself is being painstakingly carried out by Anne Case and Agnus Deaton (pdf). They show, with abundant statistics, that mortality trends in the United States run counter to those in other rich countries, where they have been steadily declining for decades.

mortality2

The headlines, of course, have been about one group—middle-age white non-Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—whose mortality rates, especially those attributed to “deaths of despair” (drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality), increased from 1998 through 2015.* The focus in on that group for a number of reasons, including the fact that increasing rates for them (as against blacks and nonwhite Hispanics) have all but erased the racial gap in mortality among non-college-educated Americans—and, of course, because of the prominence of “white working-class” voters in explanations of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

But we also need to go beyond the headlines and understand that, while rates for different ethnic and racial groups in the United States have moved in opposite directions in recent decades, the rates for working-class blacks and Hispanics are still very high—and, in recent years (as can be seen, in the case of blacks, in the chart at the top of the post), they’ve also begun to rise.

That’s the real crime story. All three groups within the American working-class—whites, blacks, and Hispanics—are being killed at abnormally high rates compared to the populations of other rich countries.

And the serial killer? Case and Deaton have a much more difficult time working in this area. That’s because they follow the headlines and emphasize the differences in the long-term trend rates and lose sight of the larger picture. So, they discount the role played by income inequality and, instead, endorse Charles Murray’s story about the decline in traditional American virtues among working-class whites (which I wrote about back in 2012).

The fact is, the labor-market factors identified by Case and Deaton—which have negatively affected whites, blacks, and Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—have become more severe as inequality has soared and the social safety net ripped apart in the United States from the early 1970s onward. The upward trend for whites and the narrowing of the racial gap, as significant as they are, shouldn’t hide from view the more general problem (as I wrote about in 2015) of a large and growing gap between the life expectancies (for both men and women) of those at the top and bottom of the distribution of income in the United States.

American TV is currently captivating viewers with stories of people accused of committing horrific acts. It’s time, however, to focus on the story of an economic system that has created its own killing fields.

 

*Mortality increases for whites in midlife have also been paralleled by morbidity increases, including deteriorations in self-reported physical and mental health, and rising reports of chronic pain.

3782631801_d413a10a89_o1

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.

fredgraph

No one ever accused American conservatives of being particularly original. They started with a story about the failure of government programs and they stick with it, against all evidence.

Originally, conservatives targeted African Americans, who (so the story goes, e.g., in the Moynihan Report) were mired in a culture of poverty and increasingly dependent on government hand-outs. In order for blacks to regain America’s founding virtues (so the story continues)—especially marriage and industriousness—well-meaning but ultimately destructive government programs should be abolished so that they would once again be able to enjoy the security of marriage and dignity of work.

That exact same story has now been transferred to the white working-class. Anyone who’s read Charles Murray and J. D. Vance will recognize the “the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face.”

The latest version of that story was penned by the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, who cites Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as the original sin, which “deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity.” According to Brooks, “rural and exurban whites” have been left behind “every bit as much as the urban poor” because they’ve come to “depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others.” Real dignity, argues Brooks (echoing a long line of conservative thinkers), stems from people being “authentically, objectively necessary.” And that means working—or at least looking for work.

That’s why Brooks cites the declining labor-force participation rate in the United States beginning with the War on Poverty.

The first problem is, the participation rate has been declining since the mid-1950s, long before Johnson’s program was enacted. As readers can see in the chart at the top of the post, the labor-force participation rate for white men (the red line), which stood at 87.4 percent in 1955, had fallen to 84.2 percent by 1964 and then dropped to 76.6 percent in 2007 (on the eve of the latest crash). If we calculate the change by decades, it dropped by 3.2 percent points in the first decade and then by less then 2 percent points in each succeeding decade.

It makes as much sense to blame the declining labor-force participation rate on Chuck Berry as the War on Poverty.

But notice also that, from the mid-1950s onward, the labor-force participation rate of white women soared—beginning at 33.4 percent (in 1955), rising to 37.3 percent (in 1964), and peaking at 60.2 percent (in 2007). In the terms set forth by Brooks, that increase in dignity more than makes up for the falling rate for men. And much of the increase for women comes after the War on Poverty is enacted.

Instead of mourning the fall in men’s participation, why isn’t the increase for women deemed a great success by Brooks and other conservatives?

The only possible answer is American conservatives hold a nostalgia—an extremely selective nostalgia—for a particular moment in U.S. history. They envision a white working-class made up of men most of whom are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work outside the home, with wives who for the most part stay at home, care for their husbands, and raise future workers. At the same time, conservatives forget about the unions that made it possible for workers to earn a family wage—not to mention the Jim Crow laws and bracero programs that created barriers for black and Hispanic workers to compete for the jobs white working-class men were able to find.

So, no, there never was a Garden of Eden—and, thus, no original sin.

wage share

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.