Political Animal


December 06, 2012 10:58 AM Productivity Disconnect

By Ed Kilgore

In a thought-provoking piece for National Journal, Jonathan Rauch suggests political actors are failing to come to grips with the central economic problem of our era:

If the American economy were an automobile, you would say the transmission is failing. The engine works, but not all wheels are getting power. To put the matter less metaphorically: The economy no longer reliably and consistently transmits productivity gains to workers. The result is that many millions of Americans, in particular less-skilled men, are leaving the workforce, a phenomenon the country has never seen before on the present scale.

Rauch emphasizes the plight of non-college-educated men for a simple reason:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s [David] Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

Rauch goes on to discuss the far-more-controversial suggestions that unemployable men are being spurned as marital partners by more-successfully-adapting women, not only reducing marriage rates at lower ends of the income scale but also making men socially useless, which contributes to their alienation from the economic mainstream. This, of course, is music to the ears of conservatives who have long claimed that the decline of the traditional family is a major factor in economic inequality. They are less likely to embrace Rauch’s argument that there’s a fundamental economic problem at the root of the decline in two-parent families.

However you evaluate Rauch’s dystopic picture of a downward economic and moral spiral among non-college educated men, what’s striking about the issues he addresses is how remote they are from day-to-day political discourse. Yes, progressives often advocate policies—such as support for the right to form unions and bargain collectively—that might be framed as efforts to help working folk capture more of the wealth their toil is creating, or at least prevent progressivity gains from perversely making them marginal to the entire economy. And conservatives are arguably coming at the problem at the back end by seeking “tough-love” measures to make alienation from the work force as uncomfortable as possible—a sort of “self-deportation” strategy for the welfare state.

But the more central issue of the divergence of today’s income patterns from the historic model that inspired the entire American Dream myth of upward mobility and shared prosperity ought to be much more central to our politics. Those who privately think all good things are derived from the efforts of wealthy “job-creators” ought to be willing to look working folk straight in the eye and tell them they are as a class simply redundant and are living on the grudging charity of John Gault. And those who claim to be advocates for “working families” ought to be far more forceful in arguing that those increasingly locked out of the benefits of the great American wealth machine have a moral claim on society that requires a fundamental change in how we view personal merit and “success.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Rich on December 06, 2012 11:07 AM:

    College boy/girl liberalism is Abigail part of the disconnect. Even the call to organize, etc. only occurs at the margins. Liberals have to confront their own out of touch snobbishness and condescension.

  • c u n d gulag on December 06, 2012 11:17 AM:

    I'll be 55 in a few months, and if I was 10 years younger, I might consider going back to college and getting a new career.

    But, even if I recieve generous grants, how will I pay those loans back?

    I'm also physically handicapped, with a virtually useless ankle, a painful hip - probably from years of compensating for that ankle, and a badly arthritic back. And I also have arthritis in my hands. So, any jobs as far as factory or skilled labor are out.

    I'd go back to bartending, which is what I did for years in between corporate gigs - but obviously, I can't.

    The only real option, outside of some sort of Customer Service or office work, is teaching - and that's not exactly a booming field right now.
    Besides, in NY, despite already having a BA in Communications, not only would I have to take 2-3 years of college courses to get a teaching certificate in some field of study, I'd also have to get a Masters. And how do I pay those back on a starting teachers salary?

    So, I'm kind of stuck to put it nicely - COMPLETELY FECKED, to put it realistically.

    My only hope, is for SS Disability - and I've been told my chances are not good.
    Though I'm disabled, apparently I'm not disabled enough.

    I'm one of "The Lost Men" in 21st Century America.

  • c u n d gulag on December 06, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Oh, and don't think I haven't tried for CSR jobs in the last few years. I applied for pretty much every one that I saw.

    It's just that, between my age, and my experience - I was a CSR Trainer, and Training Manager - they aren't hiring us older folks.
    Too high a salary demand, I guess. Or else, future health care costs are their concern. Maybe TOO much experience for younger management types, who'd prefer pliable and inexpensive young minds. Never mind the low pay, if offered, I'd take it. I took a job at K-Mart as a CSR for minimum wage, but I couldn't stand, and, despite the ADA, in some jobs, they really can't make an acoomodation.

    And as for becoming a Trainer or Training Manager again, the area where I live doesn't have the companies around that would have those needs. And moving is out of the question, since I'm my Mothers care-giver.

    Besides, I'm over 4 years behind in the newest technology, so that's another death knell.

  • Virgil Bierschwale on December 06, 2012 11:26 AM:

    I can give you the contact info for people like myself that have worked in the STEM industry all of our lives and we can't buy an interview.

    Has nothing to do with a college degree and everything to do with the actions of these three camps.


    Keep America At Work

  • beejeez on December 06, 2012 11:46 AM:

    It's not just the no-college types hurting. Our college educations ain't doing us downsized middle-aged guys a heap of good, either. We don't have a wealth problem in this country; we're richer and more productive than ever. What we have is a wealth distribution problem.

  • dr2chase on December 06, 2012 11:48 AM:

    If people don't see their pay increasing, why should their productivity increase? All the mathematical stuff underlying economics is supposed to be based on equations, meaning it GOES BOTH WAYS. More pay for more productivity, AND VICE VERSA.

  • c u n d gulag on December 06, 2012 11:58 AM:

    In a horrible economy, people will do anything to keep their present jobs.
    They will work harder and harder, even if pay and benefits decrease, because they don't want end up to be someone like me.
    So, it's a seller's market.

    And I played that game as long as I could, before I couldn't take the travel, low pay, and complete lack for respect and appreciation for my efforts. Outright mental abuse was also a large factor.
    So I quite.
    But you know what? I'd come to hate that job SOOOOOOO feckin' much, that until I could find anything, quitting felt like liberation. Now, I'm a slave to growing poverty, with no signs of anything improving.

  • dr2chase on December 06, 2012 12:12 PM:

    Productivity gains are not so much in the hands of the workers but in the hands of the employer to devise more efficient systems and invest in equipment.

  • c u n d gulag on December 06, 2012 12:19 PM:

    Yes, and the more efficient systems and increasing automation means higher profits, and less workers, pay, and benefits, that the company is obligated to - making those who remain, more "productive," and those who don't, SOL.

    We can't fight progress. But we need to find to somehow accomodate actual real humans and include them in that progress.

    And believe me, as I'm sure you realize, I ain't smart enough to figure out how! :-)

  • emjayay on December 06, 2012 12:49 PM:

    The article and comments at National Journal discuss the major factors of globalization and a relatively sudden change in how just about everything is done at every level because of computerization and internet etc., using new skills and at the same time eliminating vast numbers of jobs and also making globalization and outsourcing much more possible.

    A number of the comments at NJ point out that liberalization of immigration laws in 1965, plus millions of illegal immigrants, is a big part in stagnation of working class wages. Studies by economists tend to dismiss this factor, but I think they are missing something. Something big.

    I also think that the lowering of capital gains taxes, which were equal to income taxes as recently as the Reagan administration, has skewed all kinds of economic and other factors leading to a huge portion of the profits in the US - which ultimately if not obviously come from the productivity of the economy - toward the financial sector to be skimmed off by the 1% instead of being distributed generally.

    Capital gains taxes going up even 5% to 20% in the fiscal cliff thing is almost enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. Plus although cutting federal government by a big percent, while bad in a lot of ways, reduces our ridicuous military spending substationally. As Howard Dean said recently, two out of three isn't all that bad.

  • dr2chase on December 06, 2012 2:07 PM:

    That second "dr2chase" @12:12PM above is not me, to the best of my recollection. I assume someone thought they were replying or something.

  • Fritz Strand on December 07, 2012 9:23 AM:

    Whatever you do don't bring up the impact of our defeatist trade policies on this issue.