Rising income inequality in the United States has become big news over the last few years. Sociology and left political economy have always seen inequality as a structural outcome necessarily produced by the normal operation of capitalist economies. The recent concern shown by mainstream economists and some politicians is more curious, given that – with the exception of a three-year period in the 1990s and again in the 2000s – income inequality has risen steadily from 1968 to the present.
In the lede article in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that a critical topic has been glaringly absent from the presidential debate: the standard of living of Americans.
Hats off to Leonhardt and the Times for bringing this issue to the front page. Unfortunately, as is typical of the Times and other media outlets, the article was based exclusive on interviews with mainstream economists.
A particularly sharp juxtaposition between economic and sociological analyses of living standards and inequality was posed today with the publication of a symposium of sociologists in the journal Work and Occupations on Arne Kalleberg’s recent book, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.
Based on his interviews with economists, Leonhard lists the top two causes of “a decade of income stagnation” as automation and globalization. No one to blame here, just impersonal forces we can’t control!
Among a “second group” of forces, he notes rising health care costs and “shrinking” unions.
In contrast, neither Kalleberg nor any of his commenters highlight technology as playing an independent role in wage stagnation and growing inequality, unmediated by the decisions of managers and policymakers. Instead, Kalleberg focuses on the rise of low-wage work, driven by a shifting balance of power between employers and workers as employers, aided by policymakers, engaged in corporate restructuring to achieve flexibility.
Globalization is a key force here, indeed. But rather than viewing it as an impersonal force to which corporations respond, sociologists emphasize how globalization is actively created by American corporations through global outsourcing.
The Luddite sees industrial robots everywhere and, fearing negative effects on employment, begins to rage against the machines.
Seeing the same robots, the (liberal) economist exclaims, “What marvelous labor-saving technology. This will maximize productivity, and jobs that are lost in this factory will be replaced with high-tech jobs elsewhere in the economy!”
The Marxist sighs, and responds, “Is this some sort of joke? In the US today, seventeen percent of the American workforce – 27 million individual workers – is unemployed or underemployed.”
I imagined this scenario as I read the most recent entry in the New York Times’ consistently excellent series on the iEconomy, which focused on a new generation of robots being deployed in manufacturing.