Lots of responses to Paul Krugman’s column on the future of the labor force with computerization, especially the hollowing-out of mid-skill jobs:
But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.
So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.
What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.
There’s a lot of blogging responses to the piece (Delong, Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein). This invokes David Autor’s excellent work on job polarization (“Rising demand for highly educated workers, combined with lagging supply, is contributing to higher levels of earnings inequality. Demand for middle-skill jobs is declining, and consequently, workers that do not obtain postsecondary education face a contracting set of job opportunities”).
I’m surprised nobody brought up one of the more important recent pieces of work in making sense of the low-skill service economy, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Ehrenreich’s book is important for many reasons, but two jump out. First is that it challenges the economic (but also political) notion of what constitutes skills. The second one I want to focus on is that service industry work is difficult not just because of the low pay – though that is important – but because it is a degrading experience. The things people value about their work – the sense of autonomy, dignity, security and responsibility, the ability to participate in production with the virtues of a craftsman – is what is explicitly missing in the current low-wage service industry. As Loic Wacquant’s wrote in Scrutinizing The Street, his amazing critique of academic policy liberalism of the 1990s, when he looks at the idea that low-wage service industry work will provide dignity and opportunities for workers he finds (my bold):
Fast-food work is widely reviled not only because it is precarious, dull, soiling, and pays a pittance, but also because those who hold such jobs must display subservience to management and servility toward customers even when the latter are rude, scornful, and aggressive…
[the jobs] are irregular, episodic, and insecure; social relations on the kitchen ﬂoor are riven with distrust and brutality; and the pay they provide is so meager as to make it impossible to attain minimal ﬁnancial stability, garner savings, and project oneself beyond tomorrow…
Newman writes approvingly that American “culture confers honor on those who hold down jobs of any kind over those who are outside of the labor force. Independence, self-sufficiency—these are the virtues that have no equal in this society” (NSMG, p. 119). But therein lies the rub for fast-food employees and the fourth ﬂaw in Newman’s model: by complying with the holy commandment of work in that deregulated service sector, they bind themselves to capricious employers for famine wages and thereby desecrate the value of independence; by submitting to degrading mistreatment at the hands of managers and customers (company policy strictly forbids responding to their insults), they daily violate the ideals of autonomy and dignity that are also core American values. And thus they are disparaged and devalued in the very movement whereby they “seek salvation” through work…
But these prescriptions are at loggerheads with the central findings of No Shame in My Game, which conclusively shows that low-wage work in the United States, far from being a cure, is a root cause of material destitution and life insecurity in the urban core….inclusion into precarious wage labor (casualization) that maintains employees in a state of deprivation, dependency, and dishonor that is only marginally preferable to joblessness and “welfare dependency” and breeds many of the same secondary problems….The struggle for decent jobs, not just any job, has always been at the center of the life of American labor, black and white.
The situation is devalued to the point where, as Arin Dube and others have found, minimum wage laws can increase efficiency because it gives low-wage service employers less of an incentive to churn through employees.
This goes double for our most dangerous forms of labor. There’s jobs where you want to be able to take a vacation, and then there’s jobs where you don’t want your arm ripped off. Unions and workplace democracy are really important for that second kind of job. Meatpacking used to be one of the strongest union jobs – a decent, good job -and over 30 years it has disappeared into an informal, in-the-shadows industry. Union busting and corporate consolidation broke this, and now workers face huge dangers for significantly less pay. Graph from PBS:
And the stories are tragic. Here’s Eric Schlosser for Mother Jones, 2001:
Kenny Dobbins’ was hired by the Monfort Beef Company in 1979….Over the next two decades he suffered injuries working for Monfort that would have crippled or killed lesser men. He was struck by a falling 90-pound box of meat and pinned against the steel lip of a conveyor belt. He blew out a disc and had back surgery. He inhaled too much chlorine while cleaning some blood tanks and spent a month in the hospital, his lungs burned, his body covered in blisters. He damaged the rotator cuff in his left shoulder when a 10,000-pound hammer-mill cover dropped too quickly and pulled his arm straight backward. He broke a leg after stepping into a hole in the slaughterhouse’s concrete floor. He got hit by a slow-moving train behind the plant, got bloodied and knocked right out of his boots, spent two weeks in the hospital, then returned to work. He shattered an ankle and had it mended with four steel pins. He got more bruises and cuts, muscle pulls and strains than he could remember….While awaiting compensation for his injuries, he was fired. The company later agreed to pay him a settlement of $35,000.
Today Kenny Dobbins is disabled, with a bad heart and scarred lungs. He lives entirely off Social Security payments. He has no pension and no health insurance. His recent shoulder surgery—stemming from an old injury at the plant and costing more than $10,000—was paid by Medicare. He now feels angry beyond words at ConAgra, misused, betrayed. He’s embarrassed to be receiving public assistance. “I’ve never had to ask for help before in my life,” Dobbins says. “I’ve always worked. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old.” In addition to the physical pain, the financial uncertainty, and the stress of finding enough money just to pay the rent each month, he feels humiliated.
What happened to Kenny Dobbins is now being repeated, in various forms, at slaughterhouses throughout the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking is the nation’s most dangerous occupation. In 1999, more than one-quarter of America’s nearly 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness.
I mentioned a while ago the idea of pity-charity liberalism, where the goal of the liberal project is to give some sort of ex post compensation for brute bad luck instead of giving workers agency or power. I worry Kenny Dobbins’ story is a major success story for pity-charity liberalism. A job that was once strong and union now pays Mr. Dobbins little and chews up and spits out his mutilated body. Liberalism can be there for him with some health care and retirement benefits. He can even get compensated through a court settlement. Perfect compensatory insurance against bad brute luck.
Perfect except that he’s left humiliated and broken.