I was featured on an hour-long segment of The Joy Cardin Show, a call-in news program on NPR-affiliated Wisconsin Public Radio. We discussed some of the themes of my recent Atlantic essay and my book, such as how changes in the modern economy are hurting workers, especially those without a college degree (who still account for two-thirds of Americans over twenty-five). It was interesting to hear from the callers, a few of whom talked about how America’s elites look down on the working class. You can listen to the audio here.
Author: Victor Tan Chen
My Essay in The Atlantic: The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy
I’ve written a piece for The Atlantic about the hollowness of our modern economy and the effect it has on the working class. Here is an excerpt:
The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.
You can read more here. At the moment (before more Trump news pushes it off), it’s on The Atlantic‘s front page.
The Atlantic has published a piece I wrote about living in an extreme meritocracy:
Increasingly sophisticated data-gathering technologies measure performance across very different domains, from how students score on high-stakes tests at school (or for that matter, how they behave in class), to what consumers purchase and for how much, to how dangerous a risk—or tempting a target—a prospective borrower is, based on whatever demographic and behavioral data the credit industry can hoover up.… Statistical models that measure performance have biases that arise from those of their creators. As a result, algorithms are often unfair and sometimes harmful.… But as serious as their shortcomings are, the widespread use of decision-making algorithms points to an even bigger problem: Even if models could be perfected, what does it mean to live in a culture that defers to data, that sorts and judges with unrelenting, unforgiving precision?
Here’s the full story.
This post also appears on In The Fray.
I am pleased to return to Detroit to give a talk about my book at the 38th Annual North American Labor History Conference on Friday.
The Rise of Meritocratic Morality and the Failure of Institutions: A Study of Unemployed Autoworkers in the US and Canada
Friday, October 21, 2016
Session 4.3: Constraining Workers in the 20th Century
Wayne State University
McGregor Memorial Conference Center
495 West Ferry Avenue
A Minimum of Dignity
This weekend, low-wage workers from around the country will be arriving in my city, Richmond, to make a case for increasing the minimum wage. It’s the first-ever national convention for the Fight for $15 movement, which in the past few years has launched wide-ranging strikes and protests to raise awareness about how a $7.25-an-hour wage—the current federal minimum—just doesn’t cut it for many workers struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families.
There’s a long line of economic arguments in favor of, and opposed to, increases in the minimum wage. Among other things, opponents say it will raise prices for consumers, cause employers to slash jobs or cut back on workers’ hours, and put many companies out of business. Advocates say it will help the economy by giving workers more money to spend in their communities, encouraging the unemployed to seek out work, and reducing the stress and anxiety the working poor deal with, as well as their reliance on government benefits.
As important as the economic impacts of this policy are, however, it’s even more important to consider its cultural and moral implications. After all, that’s what drives much of the widespread public support for increasing the minimum wage, even among people who have never heard of, say, the elasticities of labor supply and demand. Many Americans just don’t think it is right that people who work hard should have to struggle so hard.
To be sure, the research on the minimum wage gives us little reason to despair—or cheer—over its impact on the economy. The most rigorous studies seem to suggest that it doesn’t make a big difference in terms of employment and growth. A 2014 open letter signed by 600 economists, including seven Nobel laureates, advocated raising the minimum wage to $10.10, noting that the “weight of evidence” showed “little or no negative effect” on employment for minimum-wage workers. Meanwhile, the increase would lift wages for them and likely “spill over” to other low-wage workers, too, possibly stimulating the economy to a “small” degree, the economists wrote.
Most recently, a University of Washington study of the increase in Seattle’s minimum wage to $11—on its way to $15 in 2017—tried to sort out the impact of the wage hike alone, sifting away the effects of other changes in the economy occurring at the same time. It found mixed results. A bit higher wages, but a bit fewer hours. Somewhat less employment, but no increase in business closings.
Make of these studies as you will, but it’s hard to argue that the sky is falling down in places where wage policies have changed. And while a higher minimum wage will give low-wage workers fatter paychecks, it obviously cannot, by itself, pull the working class out of its decades-long malaise of stagnant wages and growing insecurity.
These economic analyses provide important context, but the policy question really boils down to one of values. America has always prided itself for being founded on principles rather than a single cultural persuasion, and Americans have held onto few principles as steadfastly as the value of hard work. An honest day’s toil should get you by. And yet we have millions of Americans who work full-time and are still in poverty. We have millions working at global corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s that pay their workers so little that their business models rely on government to pick up the tab—by providing Medicaid, food stamps, refundable tax credits, and the like.
Adapting our laws and our economy to match our principles will take time. With any change, there will be some who gain, and some who lose out, more than others. But overall society will be better off—and it’s not just because some people will make more than they used to.
When we pay living wages, the culture changes, too. As Katherine Newman found in her classic study of fast-food workers, No Shame in My Game, part of what makes it hard to take a low-wage job is not that people don’t want to work—it’s that society has such disdain for those making chump change behind a McDonald’s counter or in a Walmart stockroom. (This is also one reason that immigrants—who aren’t under the same sorts of social pressures as the native-born—will do the poorly paid jobs others won’t.)
In the research for my book about the long-term unemployed in America and Canada, I came across one man out of work for more than a year after the car-parts plant that employed him shut down. He had avoided having to live on the street by moving into his mom’s house. When I spoke to him, he had just given away his last unemployment check to his daughter so that she could have something of a normal Christmas.
“I’m forty-three years old and living off my mother,” he told me. He was ashamed about accepting his family’s help, but he felt he had to do it. What he wasn’t willing to do, though, was work at a fast-food restaurant. He had put in twelve years at a respectable job, he pointed out. “I don’t want to throw on a goofy hat.”
If we believe that certain jobs are so undignified that we won’t even pay someone a decent wage to do them, then we shouldn’t be surprised that people with a decent amount of self-respect won’t do them. Opponents of raising the minimum wage seem to be blind to this. They talk about the economic pros and cons of wage laws as if those were the only things that matter. But people in the real world don’t just have balance sheets, they also have pride.
If you don’t think that making economic policy based on principle is realistic, then consider the extent to which it has already occurred—in the direction of greater income inequality. In 1965, CEOs made 20 times more than a typical worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute; in 2014, they made 300 times more. Part of this shift was due to global competition and changes in labor and financial markets, but some of it can be linked to the dwindling sense of obligation that those at top now have toward their workers, as Mark Mizruchi and other scholars have noted.
As many of today’s corporate leaders see it, making obscenely larger amounts of money than their employees do is no longer cause for guilt. The boardroom culture tells them they deserve it. And so they continue to push for changes in tax laws to make sure the economy’s outcomes reflect their own principles of self-profit.
Indeed, in other rich countries with different social norms, the gap between CEO and worker pay is nowhere near as extreme—and the minimum wage tends to be much higher, too. These countries have clear notions of what’s fair and appropriate to pay for a day’s work, and they have chosen to pursue practices and policies in line with those beliefs.
Even those of us who want government to do more for the working poor often forget the importance of this broader cultural context. Yes, we should take advantage of targeted, technocratic solutions such as earned-income tax credits that make low-wage work pay better. But it should trouble us that these policies often amount to having the government subsidize employers who refuse to foot any extra labor costs. Furthermore, having a company pay a higher wage and having the government supplement that wage are very different things. Or at least they are when we look from the vantage point of flesh-and-blood human beings—as opposed to that of the rational-actor stick men in economic models. We brag about our paychecks, not our tax credits.
What we pay those at the bottom also has something to say about the dignity and connectedness of our society as a whole. If every wage is a living wage, those of us who are more fortunate won’t be living in such a different world from those sweeping our floors and serving our food. An entry-level job won’t be such a laughable and undignified proposition that a kid in a poor town or neighborhood won’t even consider taking it over a flashier (and deadlier) gig on the corner. If we think people are worth more than a pittance, they will act that way—and treat others that way.
In a sense, it’s fitting that Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, a city with a history of stark racial and economic inequalities, should host the Fight for $15 convention. The old plantation-based economy disappeared not because it wasn’t profitable. It disappeared because it wasn’t just. If we truly believe in our values, we should make our economy reflect them.
This post was first published on In The Fray.
Hillary Clinton and the Art of the Impossible
Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday brought to mind the wide gap that separates those in this country who want sweeping change and those who favor incremental reform. It’s played out during the presidential campaign, obviously, in the fierce primary clashes between Bernie Sanders and Clinton, and between Donald Trump and his Republican rivals. But it’s also a tension that can be seen in Clinton’s own politics.
Today, Clinton is the centrist foil to Sanders’s bold and radical idealism. She has explicitly described herself that way. “You know, I get accused of being kind of moderate and center,” Clinton told supporters last September. “I plead guilty.”
It’s easy to make the case Clinton has never really been a liberal, much less a progressive. As she noted in her autobiography, she was once a “Goldwater girl.” Raised in a conservative household, she volunteered for the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 (whose archconservatism later inspired the Reagan Revolution). In her first year of college, she served as the president of the Wellesley Young Republicans.
By then, however, she was supporting moderates—Rockefeller Republicans like John Lindsay, the mayor of New York, and Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican and the first African American US senator. Her politics shifted further, as it did for many young people, as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement made her question the policies and norms of the day. In his biography of Clinton, Carl Bernstein quotes a letter from around this time in which Clinton described herself as “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.”
Her first major speech—one that unexpectedly made headlines—was the address she gave at her Wellesley College graduation in 1969, the first year that Wellesley featured a student speaker at its commencement. Clinton went up on stage following the commencement speaker—who that year was Senator Brooke. In her speech, a young Clinton mingles her characteristic pragmatism with an uncharacteristic idealism—a bold demand for transformative change.
Brooke had criticized the disruptive protests of the day as “unnecessary” and “ineffective.” “Potential allies are more often alienated than enlisted by such activities, and their empathy for the professed goals of the protesters is destroyed by their outrage at the procedures employed,” he said. Brooke then highlighted the “measurable progress” of recent years, including the drop in the poverty rate over the past decade. Change within the system works, he concluded.
In impromptu remarks at the beginning of her speech—words that incensed university officials—Clinton chided the senator:
Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That’s a percentage. We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they’re just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective.
A practitioner of the “art of the possible”—that seems to describe perfectly Hillary Clinton’s reformist politics of recent years. And yet five decades ago, she was talking—eloquently and off the cuff—about a more profound kind of change.
Glimpses of that younger, idealistic Clinton came out in her husband’s remarks on Tuesday, as he described her legal work on behalf of children and the poor. But even after Bill Clinton was elected president, Hillary Clinton could still sound at times like the socialist Vermont senator she’d face decades later in the primaries. When White House advisers critical of her single-payer health care plan called it unfriendly to business, she bluntly told her husband, “You didn’t get elected to do Wall Street economics.”
How much things have changed for Clinton: from a First Lady berating her husband for doing Wall Street’s bidding, to a presidential candidate being berated for doing Wall Street’s bidding. By the time of her 2000 Senate campaign, Clinton was projecting an image of being anything but business-unfriendly—one that she further cemented by developing, as New York’s junior senator, close ties to the financial sector. In terms of policy, she advocated piecemeal reforms. “I now come from the school of small steps,” she said.
Her critics might call this shift a sign of her inveterate duplicity—her willingness to do anything to get elected. More charitably, you could call it a symptom of a political post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s clear that she was chastened by the catastrophic failure of health care reform. She was humbled, too, by the disastrous 1994 midterm election that swept Republicans into power.
But in her acceptance speech on Thursday, Clinton seemed to be trying to bridge the gap between her younger and older selves. She spoke of “big ideas.” She spoke of “understanding.” She spoke of “healing.”
I refuse to believe we can’t find common ground here. We have to heal the divides in our country. Not just on guns. But on race. Immigration. And more. That starts with listening to each other. Hearing each other. Trying, as best we can, to walk in each other’s shoes.
It was the sort of touchy-feely rhetoric that might have come from the lips of George McGovern, the unabashedly liberal Democratic senator whom she and Bill Clinton campaigned for after college.
Of course, even as she appealed to ideals rather than policies, Clinton turned to what her campaign calls the central motif of her career: action. As in her 1969 commencement speech—when she made the brash statement that “empathy doesn’t do us anything”—she stressed the long and hard struggle for political change. But also like in that earlier speech, she made a conscious effort to balance that pragmatism with idealism—in her words, “action” with “understanding.”
I went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, going door-to-door in New Bedford, Massachusetts on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school. I remember meeting a young girl in a wheelchair on the small back porch of her house. She told me how badly she wanted to go to school—it just didn’t seem possible. And I couldn’t stop thinking of my mother and what she went through as a child. It became clear to me that simply caring is not enough. To drive real progress, you have to change both hearts and laws. You need both understanding and action. So we gathered facts. We built a coalition. And our work helped convince Congress to ensure access to education for all students with disabilities.
It’s a big idea, isn’t it? Every kid with a disability has the right to go to school. But how do you make an idea like that real? You do it step-by-step, year-by-year … sometimes even door-by-door.
Clinton has been described—and has described herself—as a “work horse, not a show horse.” In Thursday’s speech, she could have said more more about her background and experiences to soften her hard-nosed public image and connect with voters. After all these years in the political spotlight, she still comes across as (at least relative to most politicians) a private person, one who is uncomfortable with making a personal connection from far across a stage. As she noted, “The truth is, through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part.”
Luckily for her, many Americans can, in theory, relate to that kind of personality type—because it describes who they are, too. Clinton hasn’t done enough to relate to voters in this way, but her speech on Thursday was a step in that direction, stressing to them her indefatigable determination—an oft-ignored, almost folksy trait in a political system increasingly fueled by Hollywood-style celebrity and telegenic charisma.
But I’m here to tell you tonight—progress is possible. I know because I’ve seen it in the lives of people across America who get knocked down and get right back up. And I know it from my own life. More than a few times, I’ve had to pick myself up and get back in the game. Like so much else, I got this from my mother. She never let me back down from any challenge. When I tried to hide from a neighborhood bully, she literally blocked the door. “Go back out there,” she said. And she was right. You have to stand up to bullies. You have to keep working to make things better, even when the odds are long and the opposition is fierce.
Bill Clinton is a master of the politics of personal connection; Obama, a master of the politics of inspiration. Those traits matter mightily for any president, who must often rely on charm offensives and the bully pulpit to advance policy. Obama once implied that his hope was to “change the trajectory of America” and put the nation on a “fundamentally different path,” in the ways that his predecessors Reagan and Kennedy did. How would he do that? Through persuasion as much as policy—by tapping into the culture of the moment as much as altering the structure of law.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, we’ll learn whether a modern president of a quite different temperament can also succeed in this task. Her strength—as she admitted half-jokingly on stage—is in the unglamorous work of rolling policy boulders up political hills.
And yet her speech also reminds us that there is still something of that young college grad in Hillary Clinton. There’s still a belief in big ideas—a boldness that the Sanders campaign, among other things, has helped stir in her again. There’s still an ambition for something more than small steps—for a politics of the impossible. If she can rekindle that part of her, she may put this country on a fundamentally different path.
This post was first published on In The Fray.
Boston College talk on Storify
Updated March 31: Note the new time for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s talk is 2:30 pm.
This is truly an honor: Boston College has invited me to speak at a conference on economic inequality in April. The conference caps off a year-long interdisciplinary faculty seminar that focuses on when inequality becomes pernicious and how we can alleviate problems caused by the growing gap between rich and poor.
Growing Apart: The Implications of Economic Inequality
Saturday, April 9, 2016
140 Commonwealth Ave.
Chestnut Hill, MA
Meet the Author
I won’t have to go very far for my next book talk—it’s on my own campus. Please join me at VCU’s renovated library on Thursday, March 24, 2016, at 7 p.m. It will be held in the lecture hall (Room 303) at the VCU James Branch Cabell Library, 901 Park Ave., Richmond, Virginia. The event is open to the public, and admission is free. Click for more event details.
Information on future events can be found here.
Yours truly will be on the hot seat at an Author Meets Critics panel at the Eastern Sociological Society annual meeting in Boston on Sunday.
I’m very honored to appear with panelists Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University; Juliet Schor of Boston College; and Tom Shapiro of Brandeis University.
Session 341 runs from 8:30-10 a.m. at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, 50 Park Plaza at Arlington St., Boston, Massachusetts.
Additional events listed here.