Posts Tagged ‘working-class’

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FellP20171002_low  Surrounded By Water

work harder

According to the Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness represents a growing health epidemic in the United States.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

As it turns out, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also inhibits people’s ability to think creatively and work productively.

Murthy also notes that people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their families. So, he suggests that “the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections” and that employers should follow a series of steps (from evaluating the current state of connections in their workplaces to creating opportunities to learn about their colleagues’ personal lives) in order to create “an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”

The one thing Murthy doesn’t suggest is giving employees more of a say in their workplaces. He takes it as a given that there is a small group of employers, who hire workers and decide how work will be done, and a much larger group of employees, who follow the diktats of their employers (although he does acknowledge that perhaps half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles).

Therefore, Murthy doesn’t even consider the possibility that workers might want to play a decisionmaking role in the places where they spend the majority of their waking hours—and that making decisions as a community or collectivity, instead of just working for someone else, might play a significant role in reducing loneliness on the job and in the wider society.

We already knew a great deal about the perilous condition of the American working-class and the terrible condition of the American workplace. Now we know that American workers are facing an epidemic of social estrangement and individual loneliness.

It’s about time, then, that we rethink the way corporations are structured and allow workers to play in role in deciding—equally and democratically—how workplaces are organized and how corporations manage their operations.

That one change in the economy would have enormous implications, by improving the condition of the working-class, their workplaces, and the degree of loneliness.

208_cartoon_wages_to_nowher_large

They keep promising, ever since the recovery from the Great Recession started more than eight years ago, that workers’ wages will finally begin to increase. But they’re not.

Sure, profits continue to rise. And so is the stock market. But not wages. And mainstream economists can’t come up with an adequate explanation of why that’s the case.

U3-wages

We’ve all heard or read the story. According to mainstream economists, as the unemployment rate falls (the blue line in the chart above), a labor shortage will be created and workers’ wages (the red line) will begin to rise.

That’s the promise, at least. But the official unemployment rate is now down to 4.4 percent (from a high of 9.9 percent in 2009) and yet wages (for production and nonsupervisory workers) are only increasing at a rate of 2.3 percent a year—much less than the 4 percent workers saw back in 2007 when the unemployment rate was pretty much the same.

What’s going on?

One of the things going on is the Reserve Army. The existence of a large pool of unemployed and underemployed workers competing with other workers for the available jobs is keeping wage growth at a very low rate.

full-part-time

Consider, for example, the growth of full-time (the green line in the chart above) and part-time work (the purple line) in the United States. Since 1968, the two kinds of employment increased more or less simultaneously—until the most recent crash. Notice in the chart that, as full-time employment fell (from 121.9 million in 2007 to 111 million in 2010), part-time employment soared (from 24.7 million to 27.4 million). But then, even as full-time work began to increase again (reaching 125.8 million in August 2017), part-time employment remained high (27.6 million in that same month).

part-time

And it’s that pool of part-time American workers (in addition to the pool of surplus workers in other countries, increased automation, and low wages in the retail and food-service sectors) that is keeping most workers’ wages from growing.

Mainstream economists keep promising the American working-class an increase in wages. But neither they nor the economic system they celebrate is able to deliver on those promises.

The fact is, the longer those promises are proffered but remain unmet, the more frustrated workers will become. And the more likely it is they will demand a solution—a radically different economic system that doesn’t rely on a Reserve Army and can actually deliver on its promises to workers.

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Mark Tansey, “Coastline Measure” (1987)

 

I’ve been over this before.

But I continue to be amazed at the ubiquitous, facile references to science, evidence, and facts and the derision that is directed at the proposition that we live in a post-truth world. On topics as diverse as climate change, globalization, and the role of the working-class in electing Donald Trump, commentators invoke Truth, with a capital t, as an obvious, unproblematic characteristic of making statements about what is going on in the world.

To me, they’re about as silly—and dangerous—as attempting to measure the coastline using a tape measure.

This is the case even in studies, such as those conducted by Tali Sharot [ht: ja], about the supposed diminishing influence of evidence and the existence of confirmation bias.

The very first thing we need to realize is that beliefs are like fast cars, designer shoes, chocolate cupcakes and exotic holidays: they affect our well-being and happiness. So just as we aspire to fill our fridge with fresh fare and our wardrobe with nice attire, we try to fill our minds with information that makes us feel strong and right, and to avoid information that makes us confused or insecure.

In the words of Harper Lee, “people generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

It’s not only in the domain of politics that people cherry-pick news; it is apparent when it comes to our health, wealth and relationships.

At one level, this makes sense to me. There’s a great deal of confirmation bias when we try to make sense of various dimensions of lives and the world in which we live.

But. . .

I also think people are curious about things—information, experiences, and so on—that don’t seem to fit their existing theories or discourses. And, when they do attempt to make sense of those new things, their ideas change (and, of course, as their ideas change, they see things in new ways).

Perhaps even more important, while people like Sharot acknowledge that people often “accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye,” they never consider the possibility that the people who are conducting the research concerning confirmation bias are themselves subject to that same bias.

Why is it always people out there—you know, “the ones who are thinking about health, wealth, and relationships”—that cherry-pick the facts. What about the so-called scientists, including the ones who invoke the Truth; why aren’t they also subject to confirmation bias?

Sharot invokes “the way our brain works”—without ever acknowledging that she and her coinvestigators also use one theory, and ignore or reject other theories, to make sense of the brain and the diverse ways we process information. Others rely on the “scientific evidence” concerning climate change or the gains from globalization or the existence of a resentful white (but not black or Hispanic) working-class, which in their view others deny because they don’t believe the obvious “facts.”

What’s the difference?

I can pretty much guess the kind of response that will be offered (because I see it all the time, especially in economics): the distinction between everyday confirmation bias and real, Truth-based stems from the use of the “scientific method.”

The problem, of course, is there are different scientific methods, different ways of producing knowledge—whether in economics or cognitive neuroscience, political science or physics, anthropology or chemistry. All of those forms of knowledge production are just as conditioned and conditional as the way nonscientists produce (and consume and disseminate) knowledges about other aspects of the world.

As for me, I can’t wait for this period of fake interest in capital-t Truth to pass. Maybe then we can return to the much more interesting discussion of the conditionality of all forms of knowledge production.

min-wage

A couple of weeks ago, I published a guest post, by minimum-wage expert Dale Belman, about a controversial study of the effects of an earlier decision in Seattle to raise the local minimum wage to a level much higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Now, in Trump’s America, we’re seeing exactly the opposite: an attempt, on the part of the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature, to roll back local minimum wages to levels that are no higher than the state minimum of $7.40 an hour.

Of course, that’s already happened in other places, such as Ohio and Alabama, which affected minimum-wage workers in Cleveland and Birmingham. And, in all these places, Republican legislatures have used the arguments mainstream economists—but not most empirical studies—have offered them: higher minimum wages might seem to be the best way of helping low-wage workers but, since they lead to a loss of employment (either though dismissals or automation), workers earning at or just above the existing minimum wage are actually hurt.

Well, I’ve dealt with that argument many times on this blog, including a post I did in July of last year, in which I argued that employers’ profits were the real obstacle:

The fact is, when employers threaten to let workers go (or not hire additional workers) if the minimum wage is increased (or mainstream economists make the argument for them), they’re attempting to protect their bottom line. If they kept their existing workers, so the argument goes, their profits would fall; and if they wanted to maintain their current level of profits, they’d have to fire some of their workers and replace them with one or another form of automation. It’s all about pumping out the maximum profits from their employees.

Profits also enter the story in a second way. Private employers see the possibility of compensating for minimum-wage-related job losses—by offering workers public relief and by creating new jobs through public programs—as a challenge to their existing control over workers, jobs, and ultimately profits. That’s the second reason they oppose an increase in minimum wage, because they know full well society has the means to make up for their willingness to eliminate jobs. But then their own role in the economy and the profits that come from that role are called into question.

For both those reasons—the threat to fire workers and the threat to their monopoly as employers—profits are the real obstacle to raising the minimum wage.

Republicans and business groups in Missouri, as elsewhere around the country, are doing all they can to push back on the wave of municipal minimum-wage increases in order to safeguard those profits—with the same boiler-plate rhetoric:

“We can’t let the biggest economic engine in the state, St. Louis, become an island that employers avoid due to higher labor costs,” Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry President Daniel Mehan said in an interview Friday. Elevated city minimum wages would cost workers jobs, encourage businesses to automate, and create confusion along city borders, he said.

What makes Missouri unique is the higher minimum wage in St. Louis, of $10 an hour, had already been in effect for months before the state pre-emption law kicked in. And workers were already experiencing the benefits:

Bettie Douglas, a worker at a St. Louis McDonald’s restaurant, expects to take a pay cut this week, though she said her manager hasn’t informed her of a new rate. Before May, the 59-year-old received $7.90 an hour, she said. Ms. Douglas, an activist seeking higher minimum wages nationwide, earned about $63 more a week because of the higher wage floor, money she said allowed her to have her water turned back on and buy school supplies for her teenage son.

“It’s made a big difference,” she said Friday. “It’s still a struggle, but I had a little extra to pay my bills.”

Some employers will of course take advantage of the new law and roll back their workers’ wages. But others aren’t convinced it’s a good idea:

“People would be angry and then they wouldn’t do a good job and they’d be resentful,” said Harman Moseley, whose STL Cinemas operates four local theaters, including the Chase Park Plaza, Moolah Theatre and MX Movies.

Of course, workers are going to be angry and resentful—and perhaps even more.

There are, I think, a couple of lessons here: First, working-class movements to improve their lot can in fact succeed, making it difficult—but, of course, not impossible—to roll them back. Second, there’s a reason why working-class Americans are suspicious not only of their employers, but also of politicians and the government. That’s particularly true when politicians are so closely aligned with their employers.

My guess is both of those lessons will be put to the test even more in Trump’s America.

KeefeM20150819

Last fall, just before the presidential election, I posted a report on the perilous condition of the American working-class.

Now, thanks to the Rand Corporation [ht: ja], we have a report on how terrible working conditions are in the United States.

Most Americans between the ages of 25 and 71 spend most of their available time in a given day, week, or year forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers. Thus, as the authors of the study note,

The characteristics of jobs and workplaces—including wages, hours worked, and benefits, as well as the physical demands and risk of injury, the pace of work, the degree of autonomy, prospects for advancement, and the social work environment, to name a few—are important determinants of American workers’ well-being. Some of these job characteristics also affect workers’ social and family lives.

Here are some of the major findings, which paint a picture of a work environment that is often stressful, taxing—both physically and mentally—and demeaning:

  • Nearly three-fourths of Americans report either intense or repetitive physical exertion on the job at least one-quarter of the time.
  • More than one-half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions.
  • Nearly one in five workers—a share the study calls “disturbingly high”—say they face a hostile or threatening environment at work, which can include sexual harassment and bullying.
  • Most Americans (two-thirds) frequently work at high speeds or under tight deadlines, and one in four perceives that they have too little time to do their job.
  • Only 57 percent of workers can take breaks when they want to, and just 31 percent can choose with whom they work.
  • Nearly two-thirds of workers experience at least some degree of mismatch between their desired and actual working conditions, and this fraction rises to nearly three-quarters when taking job benefits into account.

And those conditions spill over into the rest of workers’ lives:

  • About one-half of American workers do some work in their free time to meet work demands.
  • While many Americans regularly adjust their personal schedules to accommodate work matters, many (31 percent) are unable to adjust their work schedules to accommodate personal matters.

Overall, as the authors of the study conclude,

for many Americans, work can be taxing across a range of core dimensions, including at the physical, social, mental, and time levels.

What then?

As that prescient Manchester industrialist wrote to American readers 131 years ago,

The development of production on the basis of the capitalistic system has of itself sufficed. . .to do away with all those minor grievances which aggravated the workman’s fate during its earlier stages. And thus it renders more and more evident the great central fact, that the cause of the miserable condition of the working class is to be sought, not in these minor grievances, but in the Capitalistic System itself.

optimism

worry

pain

American workers, as I have argued many times (e.g., here and here), find themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

But of course, different segments of the American working-class experience that desperation in different ways, according to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

A new study by the Brookings Institution [ht: db] reveals that the degree of optimism, worry, and pain experienced by poor whites, blacks, and Hispanics varies according to where they live.

Some of the results are not all surprising, given what else we know about the condition of the working-class in different places within the United States. Thus, for example, the best places in terms of optimism for poor minorities are Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (the Southern cluster of states), while the most desperate states for poor non-Hispanic whites are the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, and Kentucky (which correspond, roughly, to the opioid and suicide belts in the heartland). A similar pattern follows for both worry and pain.

But there are some unexpected findings, at least for me, in the study. For example, the worst places for poor minorities (in terms of optimism, worry, and/or pain) include blue states like Washington, California, New York, and Massachusetts. And, as it turns out, for poor whites, the situation is desperate in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin.

The authors of the study admit that,

We cannot answer many questions at this point. What is it about the state of Washington, for example, that is so bad for minorities across the board? Why is Florida so much better for poor whites than it is for poor minorities? Why is Nevada “good” for poor white optimism but terrible for worry for the same group?

Politically, it is important to pay attention to and analyze the causes of these different placed-based levels of desperation for the various groups that make up the American working-class.

But it is also the case that overall, as I argued last November, the deteriorating condition of the U.S. working-class includes but goes beyond the obscene (and still-growing) inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth.

As both a condition and consequence of those inequalities, working-class Americans have suffered from mass unemployment (reaching 1 in 10 workers, according to the official rate, in October 2009, and much higher if we include discouraged workers and those who have underemployed), real wages that have been flat or falling for decades (now below what they were in the mid-1970s) along with declining benefits, a precipitous decline in unions (from one quarter in the 1970s to about ten percent today), an increase in the number of hours worked (both the length of the workweek and the average number of weeks worked per year), a significant rise in the incidence of “alternative work arrangements” (such as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers), and most people think good jobs are difficult to find where they live (by a factor of 2 to 1)—not to mention increasing mortality (for the first time since the 1950s), an increase in differences in life expectancy between those at the top and everyone else, high levels of infant mortality, a spectacular growth in the rate of incarceration, and increasing indebtedness (especially for student and auto loans).

Creating new economic institutions that actually lead to improvements in those circumstances will benefit all members of the American working-class—white, black, and Hispanic.

Then and only then will American workers feel more optimistic, have fewer worries, and experience less pain, regardless of where they live.