The Devastating Transformation of Work in the US

Quote: “Corporate profits and income inequality have grown in large part because US firms have successfully taken advantage of the weak state of unions and labor organizing … to transform work relations. Increasingly, workers, regardless of their educational level, find themselves forced to take jobs with few if any benefits and no long-term or ongoing relationship with their employer.”

Reports from the Economic Front

Two of the best-known labor economists in the US,  Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the rise of so-called alternative work arrangements.

Here is what they found:

The percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements – defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers – rose from 10.1 percent [of all employed workers] in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.

That is a huge jump, especially since the percentage of workers with alternative work arrangements barely budged over the period February 1995 to February 2005; it was only 9.3 in 1995.

But their most startling finding is the following:

A striking implication of these estimates is that all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements. Total employment according to the…

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We Are Stronger Together, But Let’s Get to Work!

You’ve probably heard variations on a well-known slogan this year. Two I’ve heard are “Make America White Again” and “Make America Great for White People Again”.

It’s unlikely, however, that you’ve heard variations on Hillary Clinton’s slogan or even know what her slogan is. She never wears a silly hat that has it plastered on the front.

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Yes, that’s it: “Stronger Together”.

I agree with the sentiment, of course, since we are stronger as a nation when we work together. But “Stronger Together” hasn’t caught on, certainly not as much as “Make America As Great As It Was For White Men In 1955”.

In fact, there were at least two articles this week that said Hillary needs a better slogan, something that would express an overarching theme, something you could put on a t-shirt or a stupid hat. The Guardian actually called their editorial “Hillary Needs a Slogan to Sum Up What She Stands For”:

Mrs. Clinton seems to have a hundred carefully costed policies but not one eye-catching slogan. She radiates a sensible incrementalism. She campaigns in prose, leaving poetry to her predecessor. This is a mistake. She needs to focus on what is driving discontent in America: an economic system that no longer defuses high levels of inequality with opportunities for all….Mrs. Clinton needs to find a resonant theme to sum up her policies: a Marshall Plan for the middle classes would not be a bad idea. Monday is her chance to show she is motivated by the common good. Mrs. Clinton should seize it.

I’m not sure many Americans could identify the Marshall Plan today, but you get their drift. A columnist for Bloomberg View contributed “Clinton Needs a Better Slogan” the very same day:

The Democratic nominee does have 40 bullet-point programs on everything from child care to mental health to the Middle East. But she has no memorable rallying cry to capture her candidacy and rationale to be president.

To test that, simply ask a bunch of Clinton supporters to summarize in a sentence or two what her candidacy is about. You usually get multiple paragraphs in response.

This is more a political than a substantive issue. Slogans are no substitute for governing policies….Still, a catchphrase can be a powerful and moving expression of a candidate’s authentic ambitions.

Yes, a simple catchphrase could finally help undecided voters make up their minds between two candidates as different as Hillary and Voldemort.

So I got to thinking. What might be better than “Stronger Together”?

First, it occurred to me that Hillary has said her primary goal as President will be to get the economy working for all of us, partly by improving the labor market in a number of ways.

Second, Hillary is known as a hard worker. Even Republican politicians agree that she has a remarkably strong work ethic. Indeed, people often suggest she works too hard and needs to lighten up (all those position papers, for example).

So I came up with this:

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I like “Let’s Get To Work” for several reasons.

It summarizes Hillary’s primary goal as President, an improved economy for all of us, not just those at the economic top.

It reminds people that she’s a hard worker who has lots of ideas and the energy and temperament to get things done, even to get things done with the Republicans in Congress, as she did when she was First Lady and a Senator.

It brings to mind the backlog of work to be done in Washington, all the projects and initiatives that have gone nowhere because of Republican opposition (increased infrastructure spending, a higher minimum wage, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, etc. etc.).

For older voters, it might even evoke memories of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or, more recently, the growing economy we enjoyed during Bill Clinton’s administration. And there could hardly be a more welcome promise to the unemployed and underemployed than “Let’s Get To Work”.

I believe it’s positive, inclusive and relatively specific. Plus, it sounds less like a reaction to her opponent’s campaign of bigotry and exclusion than “Stronger Together”.

Since we’re living in the era of electronic sharing, I submitted my proposed slogan to Hillary and her campaign and also sent it soaring into the Twitter-verse. I’ve also shared it with a few live human beings of my acquaintance.

Of course, I know it’s late to fully adopt a new slogan, and so far all I’ve got back from the Clinton campaign is a form letter thanking me and encouraging me to volunteer.

But hope springs eternal! Perhaps, when Hillary offers her closing remarks on Monday night before an audience of 100 million or so people (minus me), she’ll wind up her two or three minutes with a ringing call to action: 

Let’s get to work!

Hey, maybe she’ll even cite a guy from New Jersey as the source of this new, exciting summation of her candidacy. Stranger things have happened!

And if you doubt me, consider this editorial in The New York Times from tomorrow’s paper: “Hillary Clinton for President: Our endorsement is rooted in respect for her intellect, experience and courage”. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s the last paragraph:

Through war and recession, Americans born since 9/11 have had to grow up fast, and they deserve a grown-up president. A lifetime’s commitment to solving problems in the real world qualifies Hillary Clinton for this job, and the country should put her to work.

You can thank me after the election.

Cutting the Cord (Thanks to a Hard-Working Man)

The Verizon website said their technician would get to our house around 9:30 pm to do our installation. The anonymous dispatcher said it would really be around 8:15 (only three hours after the original 5 pm deadline).

So it was a pleasant surprise when the technician called at 6:30 to say he’d be at our house in fifteen minutes. He arrived as promised and quickly got to work.

Four hours later, he was done. Among other things, he’d had to string 350 feet of cable from our basement to a telephone pole two blocks away, working in the dark on a hot, humid night. It was an impressive performance.

When we thanked him and said good-night, we assumed he’d be dropping off his van at some Verizon garage and then get home by midnight or so. No, he’d actually be driving to Newark to do some work for another customer. He explained that Verizon is forcing their previously-unionized technicians to work 60 hours a week.

We didn’t ask what time he started work yesterday. But on a good day, if all goes well, he puts in 12 hours. That’s not 12 hours in an air-conditioned or heated office. That’s 12 hours of driving around, in good and bad weather, carrying equipment, going up and down stairs, climbing on roofs, drilling holes, stringing cable, attaching electronic gizmos to inside and outside walls, while also dealing with people like us. Sometimes in the dark. 

Do you think it would be a good idea for Verizon to hire and train more technicians, so their employees wouldn’t have to work 12 hours a day (or more), five days a week? We all know the corporate business model is to get as much work as possible out of workers while providing as little compensation as possible, but there are lots of Americans who could use a decent job. It would be good for the country and even good for the corporations if they’d spread some of the wealth around.

A Month of Unwritten Posts Condensed Into One

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of reading material on the Internet. Nevertheless, since I haven’t done my part lately:

You might hear of a new Quinnipiac University poll, according to which Fox News is the most trusted network news in America. The poll found that 29% of American voters trust the news on Fox more than any other network. However, the poll also found that 57% of American voters trust either CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC or MSNBC more than Fox. In other words, 29% of us trust the right-wing propaganda “news” delivered by Rupert Murdoch, and twice as many of us trust the other kind, the “mainstream media” news that Rupert doesn’t own. So it’s bad enough, but not as bad as it sounds.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll found that 53% of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, even though the ACA has resulted in more people getting health insurance than the Obama administration predicted, while contributing to slower growth in overall healthcare spending. A Bloomberg article helps explain this discrepancy. First, many people think they can do without the comprehensive health insurance the law mandates and resent paying for services they’ll never need (like maternity care) or don’t think they’ll ever need (like rehabilitation). Second, more than half of the big companies in America have told their employees that the ACA is forcing them to pay even more for health insurance.

The Bloomberg article says that the coverage mandates aren’t making health insurance more expensive. The mandates are merely “pooling the cost of that coverage across more people”, which is why fewer people are having trouble paying for healthcare. Furthermore, employers are blaming an ACA provision (the so-called “Cadillac” tax) for immediate cuts in benefits and higher insurance payments, even though it’s unlikely that these employers will ever be subject to that provision.

But does it matter what the facts are? According to a very interesting article by Heather Cox Richardson, Professor of History at Boston College, America’s right-wing doesn’t accept the importance of empirical evidence or rational argument. She traces this amazing attitude back to William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1950s book God and Man at Yale. Richardson says that:

Buckley rejected the principles that had enabled social progress for centuries and laid out a mind-boggling premise: The Enlightenment, the intellectual basis of Western Civilization, was wrong.

Rational argument supported by facts did not lead to sound societal decisions, Buckley claimed; it led people astray. Christianity and an economy based on untrammeled individualism were truths that should not be questioned. Impartial debate based in empirical facts was dangerous because it led people toward secularism and collectivism—both bad by definition, according to Buckley. Instead of engaging in rational argument, Buckley insisted, thinkers must stand firm on what he called a new “value orthodoxy” that indoctrinated people to understand that Christianity and economic individualism were absolute truths.

If we accept the premise that Christianity and economic individualism (the idolatry of the “free market”) are absolute truths, it makes sense to reject any contradictory ideas, however well-founded those ideas are given the empirical evidence.

For example, the governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, inherited a $6 billion deficit from his predecessor, a self-styled “fiscal conservative” who wouldn’t raise taxes. Dayton convinced the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and increase the minimum wage. Republicans predicted, as always, that businesses would leave the state and unemployment would rise. What actually happened was that the deficit turned into a surplus, unemployment went down and Minnesota now has one of the best economies of any state. Forbes Magazine (a bastion of capitalism) recently ranked Minnesota as having the 7th best “economic climate” and the 2nd best “quality of life” in the nation.

But if you believe that higher taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage are absolutely wrong, since they conflict with your “understanding” of morality and economics, it’s understandable that you’ll reject the evidence. Nothing that conflicts with absolute truth can possibly be true.

To end on a positive note, however, consider that Larry Summers, a leading economist and Wall Street-friendly Democrat, is now arguing for a relatively progressive set of policies. According to an encouraging article by Thomas Edsall of the New York Times, Summers has concluded that “free market capitalism, as now structured, is producing major distortions”:

In order to stem the disproportionate share of income flowing to corporate managers and owners of capital, and to address the declining share going to workers, the report calls for tax and regulatory policies to encourage employee ownership, the strengthening of collective bargaining rights, regulations requiring corporations to provide fringe benefits to employees working for subcontractors, a substantial increase in the minimum wage, sharper overtime pay enforcement, and a huge increase in infrastructure appropriations – for roads, bridges, ports, schools – to spur job creation and tighten the labor market…. Summers also calls for significant increases in the progressivity of the United States tax system.

Summers has advised both President Obama and Hillary Clinton on economic matters, so it’s a positive sign that he now advocates more worker-friendly policies.

Finally, with our harsh winter finally winding down, I want to express my sincere appreciation for everyone who has to work outside or travel to their jobs during terrible winter weather. Many such people aren’t able to take a day off or “work at home”, because you can’t drive a snowplow or staff your boss’s restaurant from your living room. I also want to express my profound appreciation for whoever devised the snow shovel with a bent handle. I’ve used one for years and there’s nothing better for shoveling snow while avoiding back pain!

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Some Progress, But We Could Be Doing Much More

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine sums up the continuing success of the Affordable Care Act here :

The Commonwealth Fund has a new survey showing that the proportion of adults lacking health insurance has fallen by a quarter, from 20 percent of the population to 15 percent. (Most respondents, including 74 percent of newly-insured Republicans, report liking their plan.) Also, this week, the Congressional Budget Office again revised down its cost estimates for Medicare, which now spends $50 billion a year less than it was projected to before Obamacare passed. Also, the New England Journal of Medicine recently estimated that 20 million Americans gained insurance under the new law.

Just think what we’d be able to do in this country if the Republicans were reasonable or if there were fewer of them in office. We could have boosted the economy, for example, by investing in our infrastructure during this terrible recession instead of going crazy about the deficit. Below is a chart from Paul Krugman’s blog showing the “Great Disinvestment”, how public spending on construction has dropped in the past four years when it should have increased:

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Blogging Made Very, Very Easy (Political Economy Edition)

I could just quote Paul Krugman. With appropriate attribution, of course:

But how can the effects of redistribution on growth be benign? Doesn’t generous aid to the poor reduce their incentive to work? Don’t taxes on the rich reduce their incentive to get even richer? Yes and yes — but incentives aren’t the only things that matter. Resources matter too — and in a highly unequal society, many people don’t have them.

Think, in particular, about the ever-popular slogan that we should seek equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. That may sound good to people with no idea what life is like for tens of millions of Americans; but for those with any reality sense, it’s a cruel joke. Almost 40 percent of American children live in poverty or near-poverty. Do you really think they have the same access to education and jobs as the children of the affluent?

… This isn’t just bad for those unlucky enough to be born to the wrong parents; it represents a huge and growing waste of human potential — a waste that surely acts as a powerful if invisible drag on economic growth.

Now, I don’t want to claim that addressing income inequality would help everyone. The very affluent would lose more from higher taxes than they gained from better economic growth. But it’s pretty clear that taking on inequality would be good, not just for the poor, but for the middle class….

In short, what’s good for the 1 percent isn’t good for America. And we don’t have to keep living in a new Gilded Age if we don’t want to.

One of the comments at the Times website suggested we should stop talking about equality and talk about fairness instead. When we talk about equality, the right-wing response is “but people aren’t all the same  — what you want to do is punish success”. That’s not true but it’s a clever response. The natural response to talking about fairness is “life isn’t fair”. No, but we could and should make it more fair than it is. Not just for ethical reasons, but, as Krugman points out, for pragmatic reasons as well.

Two Pieces of Good News from Washington

Speaker of the House John Boehner allowed a straightforward “clean vote” on raising the debt ceiling instead of holding the world economy hostage again. Many right-wingers are outraged. Maybe one day Congress will get rid of the debt ceiling altogether, since raising it merely allows the government to borrow money to pay bills Congress has already approved.

Secondly, Janet Yellen testified before Congress for the first time in her new role as chairman of the Federal Reserve. It’s hard to understand why President Obama initially seems to have preferred someone else for the job. There is a nice, clear summary of her testimony from John Cassidy at the New YorkerThis is his conclusion (calling her “dovish” means she’s not an “inflation hawk”, i.e. fighting inflation isn’t her one big priority):

She’s a historic figure. I am not just referring to her gender. I’m talking about her approach to policy making, and the emphasis she puts on creating jobs and reducing unemployment. “Since the financial crisis and the depths of the recession, substantial progress has been made in restoring the economy to health and in strengthening the financial system,” she said toward the end of her prepared remarks. “Still, there is more to do. Too many Americans remain unemployed, inflation remains below our longer-run objective, and the work of making the financial system more robust has not yet been completed.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Fed chief come to office declaring that unemployment is too high, inflation is too low, and that we need to keep those Wall Street bounders in check. (Bernanke ended up saying some of these things, but he didn’t start out saying them.) In a post last year, I suggested that Yellen could be the most dovish Fed boss since … the Great Depression, and I noted that, “if Yellen does take over from Bernanke next February, there’s no reason to doubt that concern for the unemployed will remain her leitmotif.” Nothing she said today was inconsistent with that description.