About Time for the Pitchforks

Ezra Klein:

This is a moment when an implicit but ugly fact of our economy has been thrown into unusual relief: Our economy relies on poverty — or at least the threat of it — to force people to take bad jobs at low wages. This gets couched in paeans to the virtues of work, but the truth is more instrumental. The country likes cheap goods and plentiful services, and it can’t get them without a lot of people taking jobs that higher-income Americans would never, ever consider. When we begin to see glimmers of worker power in the economy, a lot of powerful people freak out, all at once.

In the United States, whether you earn a comfortable living or struggle to keep a roof over your head depends less on how hard you work but on what work you do. This doesn’t necessarily track with training and education. Even if your job requies specific training or a college degree, it might very well fall into the low-paying end. Social workers, teachers, and journalists come to mind.

All the years I was in publishing I couldn’t help but notice that people in sales and marketing got the big salaries and spacious offices, while most of the editors and editorial production people were paid either less or a lot less and worked out of cubbyholes with never enough space for all the manuscripts and proofs. It was explained to me that sales and marketing people “bring in dollars” while editorial and production do not; we were just cost.

The really low-paying jobs are in the service and food industries. These include health aides and day care workers.  These include the people who grow, process, distribute, and prepare our food. This is work that has to be done. For years whenever people talk about income inequality, somebody starts chirping about how people who want more money should get better training. But that’s not really the answer. Work that needs to be done should pay enough so that someone doing it full time can earn a living. And by “earning a living” I mean that individuals working full time at those jobs should not have to depend on food stamps and Medicaid.

If employers don’t want to provide health benefits for their low-income employees, they should start supporting Medicare for All or some other universal taxpayer-funded program, instead of whining about their costs going up.

I call your attention to an article from the June 2013 Harper’s, Education Is Not the Answer by Jeff Madrick. In spite of the time lapse it still seems pretty current. Among other things, he points out that during the recovery from the 2008 financial sector crash the typical American household saw its income fall every year. Further, “The percentage of American adults with college degrees, meanwhile, is greater than ever, having grown in the past decade from 26 to 30 percent. Every year our country is better educated, while wages remain stagnant or fall.” And with more college graduates in the job market, employers began hiring them to do work a high-school grad used to do. At the same pay.

I liked this part also: “The labor economists David Card and John DiNardo have shown that in the postwar period inequality rose fastest between 1980 and 1986, before rapid advances in computer technology began to affect the job market.” Um, gee, what else happened between 1980 and 1986? Reaganomics, anyone?

Fast forward to July 2020, and A college degree is not the solution to U.S. wage inequality by Kathryn Zickuhr at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Zickuhr addresses some of the same themes as Madrick in 2013 and disagrees with the prevailing notion that income inequality is caused by a “skills gap.”

Yet this focus on individual workers misses the structural conditions that constrain workers’ options and ability to share in economic growth. This issue brief examines recent data-driven research that demonstrates the skills gap is only a small and relatively unimportant explanation for the college wage premium because it fails to account for declining worker power and the role of monopsony in the labor market. These more important explanations for the college wage premium—and its recent decline—underscore why policymakers need to improve the underlying labor market conditions for all workers, instead of shifting responsibility to those already struggling in an uneven playing field.

Now, as the economy re-opens, employers are finding it harder to hire people. Republicans naturally fell back on the old strategy of forcing people to take whatever work they can get or face homelessness, and Republican governors yanked enhanced employment benefits prematurely. I understand some Senate Republicans are trying to stop the enhanced benefits for the whole country. There is all kinds of data showing that the extra $300 a week really isn’t the reason people aren’t jumping to take back their old minimum wages jobs — see, for example, The real reason employers can’t hire enough workers by Jill Filipovic at CNN — but you can’t tell a conservative that. The peasants must be punished to make them work, they say. In so many words.

The labor shortage is starting to affect the stock market, which may be the real reason so many Republican politicians are concerned about it.

Some employers find themselves doing the unthinkable and offering higher wages. But if it’s too soon to tell if this is the beginning of a trend or just a temporary blip.

Today in the New York Times we see From Appetizers to Tuition, Incentives to Job Seekers Grow by Nelson D. Schwartz. A lot of companies are adding education benefits like tuition reimbursement to their benefits packages. “As generous as the incentives may seem, they can be cheaper than across-the-board pay raises,” the article says. Of course.

We know the rich have been getting richer at a fantastic pace these past few years. The U.S. tax code is all about taxing income from labor over good ol’ wealth, which hasn’t helped our inequality issues much. See also The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax at ProPublica.

This may help. Over the weekend the G7 nations agreed to a minimum 15 percent tax rate on the profits of foreign subsidiaries of multinational corporations. Paul Krugman explains why this is a big deal.

But if any good comes out of this terrible time, maybe it will be that the peasants finally learn they can push back. Let’s hope.

11 thoughts on “About Time for the Pitchforks

  1. Hmm…

    Maybe with this current economic shift, the 'hoitiest' of the "hoity-toities" will become 'alarmed' that the 'rabble' will finally be 'roused' enough, and that all of those 'hoi' get real 'P-O'd,' and that the result will be a war where at the end, it'll be their own well-tanned, perfectly coiffed, corpulent, '"hoity-toity" carcasses that are found DOA?!?!?

    I'd be a might a-scared o-that too if'n I wuz you.

    You could pay us now, or, you know, you WILL pay us later.

    Still not convinced?

    Ok, instead of being found DOA, even worse:

    Wounded badly in the last battle of the class war, you awaken to the pleasant smell of bacon cooking. 

    You think it's your wife making breakfast.

    "Hey, honey! Something's burning!  Baby, you're burning the baco…"

    Only to realize when you've come-to, that it's you that's being cooked!

    And look upon all of the hungry looks on the faces of those children of the poor. 

    All lined-up.  Each having a bowl and fork.

    Looking.  Staring.  Salivating. 

    At you…

    Bon appetit, MFer!!!

  2. The rabble have three choices.

    1) Roll over and be grateful for what the rich let trickle down. You won't starve as long as you can work because that's where their wealth comes from.

    2) Viva la Revolution. That's what the wingnuts claim we've been doing for years, burning down the cities in a commie revolution. I'm morally opposed to violence but sign me up for nonviolent civil disobedience.

    3) VOTE. This is where we have the most power, which is why it's what they are trying to prevent. We have horrible numbers in terms of turnout. If we wait too long, it's number two with bloodshed. Mostly our blood.

    • No. 3 is our best option, but if there is no legal counter to state legislatures giving themselves more "legal" options to throw out vote counts and ignore electors, all it might take is GOP control of the House, and even this may be moot.  To overcome, we'll have to have unheard, record breaking turnout numbers in 2022 and 2024.  But given how things are going for dems, and how they're responding, 2022 may be another 2010.

  3. ZOMG!

    Please see AOC on Chris Hayes' show tonight.

    She takes no prisoners on the subject of Manchin, AND our country's immigration issues!

    Man, I fall more and love for her every time I see her being interviewed!

    • We need many more AOCs. How many weeks did it take for someone to call out Manchin? Team D is like a bunch of hapless kindergartners….

  4. If editorial/production didn't produce, sales and marketing wouldn't have anything to sell.

    • "If editorial/production didn't produce, sales and marketing wouldn't have anything to sell."

      That's what I thought. With very few exceptions, most of the people who rise to the top executive positions in most industries come up through the ranks as sales/marketing people, and many of them have little idea how their products are made. That's certainly true of publishing. I guess they figure producing books can't be that hard. The problem is that these people often imposed stupid requirements about things like work flow and schedules that made our jobs harder and caused costly mistakes. And don't get me started on consultants.  

      Of course, another part of the problem is that employees in publishing editorial/production/art departments tend to be overwhelmingly female.

  5. Sales and Marketing was Ronald Reagan's strength. He sold trickle down to a majority of Americans in the 80's and it has become dogma here in the twenties. 

    40 years of austerity have not been beneficial to a majority of the worker bees.

    Also sold to the American public: lower taxes create jobs.

    Gubmint is the problem: putting money into the budget, and economy, even as the employer of last resort, is inflationary and even socialism.

    Inflation and socialism is bad…..for reasons.

    And finally marketing and sales has become much easier. All you have to do to keep wages low is convincing enough Senators and Congresspeople that living wages, secure employment and a healthy economy is bad for reasons above. 

    Lobbyists and Pacs are the bearers of this message. With swag, of course.

    Don't get me wrong, I would love to see a new era engaged for the lower end of the class system.  I fear the idea will have become yesterday's news  yesterday.

    We are too far down the rabbit hole.

    Too many metaphors. Tired. Need a drink.



  6. Up until the early 1970s, but varying by sector and geography, businesses rewarded increased efficiency by sharing increasing profits with labor. If the business made more labor got a cut.

    It was also true that any "decent" job, the majority of work came with benefits and a high enough wage to support a family on a single 40 hour a week income.

    It wasn't luxury but, assuming you have a drug addiction or a gambling habit, and assuming you were somewhat frugal,  it was enough to support a mortgage, have a decent car, pay bills and save for at least one kid's education and save for both emergencies and a modest retirement.

    All that went away. Presently most families can barely scrape by with two adults working 50 hours, or more. There are no savings.

    The difference is that both owners and operators of large businesses, and investors in general, are making a lot more money. Fact being that the extra profits are very close to the amount lost by labor. Quite the coincidence.

    Go figure.

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