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Age of Crushing Anxiety: How the Bottom Fell Out in America

How economic security was destroyed.

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The decimation of manufacturing wasn’t due to a sharp acceleration of manufacturing productivity—indeed, productivity increases were higher in the previous decade, which saw less job loss. What made the difference was trade policy. Economist Rob Scott has calculated that the United States lost 2.4 million jobs just to China in the eight years following the passage of normalized trade relations.

Offshoring has had an even broader effect on the jobs that have remained behind. Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist who was vice chairman of the Federal Reserve in the 1990s, has estimated that roughly 25 percent of all American jobs are potentially offshorable, from producing steel to writing software to drafting contracts. This has placed a ceiling on wages in these and myriad other occupations that can be sent overseas.

2013

Economists have long thought that labor’s share of the national income varied so little that it could be considered a constant. The immovability of labor’s share was called “Bowley’s Law,” after the British economic historian Arthur Bowley, who first identified it nearly a century ago.

In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, Bowley’s Law was swept away—along with many of the economic standards that had characterized American life. Today, the share of the nation’s income going to wages, which for decades was more than 50 percent, is at a record low of 43 percent, while the share of the nation’s income going to corporate profits is at a record high. The economic lives of Americans today paint a picture of mass downward mobility. According to a National Employment Law Project study in 2012, low-wage jobs (paying less than $13.83 an hour) made up 21 percent of the jobs lost during the recession but more than half of the jobs created since the recession ended. Middle-income jobs (paying between $13.84 and $21.13 hourly) made up three-fifths of the jobs lost during the recession but just 22 percent of the jobs created since.

In 2013, America’s three largest private-sector employers are all low-wage retailers: Wal-Mart, Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken) and McDonald’s. In 1960, the three largest employers were high-wage unionized manufacturers or utilities: General Motors, AT&T, and Ford. 

The most telling illustration of the decline of Americans’ work life may be that drawn by economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They calculated the share of good jobs Americans held in 1979 and in 2010. If only because workers in 2010 were, on average, seven years older and more educated than their 1979 counterparts, they should have been doing better. The two economists devised three indices of a good job: that it paid at least the 1979 male median wage ($37,000 in 2010 dollars), provided health benefits, and came with a 401(k) or pension. By those standards, 27.4 percent of American workers had good jobs in 1979. Three decades later, that figure had dropped to 24.6 percent. 

The decline of the American job is ultimately the consequence of the decline of worker power. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate management was increasingly determined to block unions’ expansion to any regions of the country (the South and Southwest) or sectors of the economy (such as retail and restaurants) that were growing. An entire new industry—consultants who helped companies defeat workers’ efforts to unionize—sprang up. Although the National Labor Relations Act prohibits the firing of a worker involved in a union-organizing campaign, the penalties are negligible. Firings became routine. Four efforts by unions to strengthen workers’ protections during the Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama presidencies came up short. By 2013, the share of private-sector workers in unions declined to just 6.6 percent, and collective bargaining had been effectively eliminated from the private-sector economy.