January 24, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Dean Baker:
In his column today David Brooks provided a brief discussion that purports to show that the growing inequality is attributable to a mix of globalization and technology and the moral failings of the working class. A little reflection would lead people to reject both parts of this explanation.
The first claim ignores the way in which deliberate policy shaped globalization. The reason that wages are much lower and the skills expected are much higher for manufacturing workers than in the past is because it has been government policy to place U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with their much lower paid counterparts in Mexico, China and elsewhere. The predicted and actual result of this policy is to reduce the pay of manufacturing workers.
The government could have adopted the same approach to doctors, lawyers, economists and other highly paid professionals. There are many millions of smart hard-working people in the developing world who would be delighted to fill these jobs at much lower wages than their counterparts in the U.S. receive. However, the barriers that make it difficult for these people to work in the United States have not been lowered by recent “free trade” agreements and some have even been increased.
In other words, it was not globalization and technology that led to the upward redistribution of income, it was conscious policy. The vast majority of people in the United States who hold high-paying jobs are able to maintain their income because they enjoy far more protection than manufacturing workers.
Moral turpitude side of this story also has an important economic policy aspect. Parents who work long and erratic hours are likely to find it much more difficult to watch over their children than parents with decent paying jobs with predictable hours. Given the large number of workers, especially younger workers who are likely to be parents of young children, who have irregular employment and irregular hours, it would be surprising if many children were not having serious problems staying focused on their education.