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It is difficult to speak to a discipline like sociology, which has a diverse set of interests and various approaches to study society. However, Kevin Leicht’s recent post on this blog did just that and very successfully. The last time I checked, the post had been shared more than 200 times on Facebook. Many sociologists find his diagnosis of our intellectual illness accurate as well as brave and refreshing.

Leicht argues that, in an era of hyper-inequality, the study of inequality should shift away from between-group inequality to within-group inequality; from education to jobs and labor market institutions; from a narrow focus on diversity and sensitivity to an emphasis on the divide between haves and have-nots.

I think Leicht’s prescriptions are right on the money, especially at a time when Donald Trump gains increasing support from working-class Americans and Hilary Clinton called half of his supporters “a basket of deplorables.”  Indeed, one can argue that the current hyper-inequality began in the 1970s when the Democratic Party started to embrace college-educated professionals over their traditional blue-collar workers as their main constituency. Working-class Americans, lured by the Republicans with nationalism and the “Cultural War,” began to vote against their class interests.

But Leicht’s diagnosis does not cut deep enough.

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dollarIn early June, it came to light that last October, Walt Disney World Orlando eliminated the jobs of 250 data systems employees. The move made national news not because so many workers became jobless, but because Disney offered a severance bonus to employees who remained with the firm long enough to train the young immigrant workers who would assume their tasks.

The heartlessness of this move left workers and consumers reeling. A former Disney employee told a reporter for the New York Times, “It was so humiliating to train someone else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.” Outrage spread across news and social media, fueled by dismay that a company so closely associated with wholesome family entertainment would betray its workers in this way.

Many observers lamented loopholes in the H-1B visa program used to secure the replacement workers’ entry to the US, and endorsed reforms that would reduce impacts on American workers. Relatively few seem to grasp that Disney’s moves are rooted not in policy loopholes or corporate malfeasance, but instead are part and parcel of capitalism. Outsourcing, layoffs and swiftly severed ties – this is what capitalism looks like. As Karl Marx pointed out in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, workers, who under capitalism “must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The “increasing improvement” of production methods “ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Manual workers confronted this reality decades ago, as plants in the United States closed and production moved overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. Increasingly, professional workers are also feeling the pain of displacement. And there is only more to come.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons.

by Philip Cohen

There is a lot to be said for the common critique of economists: They see society as the product of freely acting, rationally calculating individuals for whom monetary reward is the primary source of motivation. Free markets, to them, are the pure expression of social function and economic growth through their realization is the only outcome that matters.

But people do not simply act rationally to maximize their economic rewards, because they can have incomplete or inaccurate information, ideological biases, conflicting desires or collective interests. Exploitation, dishonesty, violence, ignorance and demagoguery set vast areas of social life apart outside the model. The multiplying exceptions overwhelm the rule bringing the model’s utility into question.

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Source: Money, by 401(K). CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

by Elizabeth Popp Berman and Daniel Hirschman

There’s a puzzle around economics. On the one hand, economists have the most policy influence of any group of social scientists. In the United States, for example, economics is the only social science that controls a major branch of government policy (through the Federal Reserve), or has an office in the White House (the Council of Economic Advisers). And though they don’t rank up there with lawyers, economists make a fairly strong showing among prime ministers and presidents, as well.

But as any economist will tell you, that doesn’t mean that policymakers commonly take their advice. There are lots of areas where economists broadly agree, but policymakers don’t seem to care. Economists have wide consensus on the need for carbon taxes, but that doesn’t make them an easier political sell. And on topics where there’s a wider range of economic opinions, like over minimum wages, it seems that every politician can find an economist to tell her exactly what she wants to hear.

So if policymakers don’t take economists’ advice, do they actually matter in public policy? Here, it’s useful to distinguish between two different types of influence: direct and indirect.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

by Philip Cohen

The economist Justin Wolfers, writing for the New York Times Upshot, reports that economists increasingly outnumber other social scientists in mentions in the both the Times and — even more — in the Congressional Record. About 1% of Times stories use the word “economist,” more than three-times as often as they write “sociologist.” Here’s his figure tracking Times references:

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In the Congressional Record the economist-sociologist ratio is 20-to-1. I’ll show some other numbers, but first a little setup.

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Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson recently had an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on “How sociologists made themselves irrelevant.” He discusses how sociologists have had almost no influence on the design of policies dealing with poverty among black youth and related problems such as unemployment, gangs and incarceration, despite the fact that these topics have been core topics of sociological research for decades. He argues that the main problem is that “In the effort to keep ourselves academically pure, we’ve also become largely irrelevant in molding the most important social enterprises of our era.”

As a result, sociologists have been reticent to engage in public discourse. The main shapers of policy have been economists, who often come to radically different conclusions than sociologists, based on differing theoretical assumptions, which affect research design. For instance, sociologists find that moving people out of ghettos has strong positive effects on outcomes for black youth, while economists find that such an effect does not exist. Patterson wryly quips that the rational response to the finding that neighborhoods have no effect on youth outcomes means that scholars should advise their children move to the inner city to take advantage of low rents!

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A new study published by researchers at North Carolina State University tackles the challenge of shopping for, preparing and sharing healthful family meals.  In “The Joy of Cooking?,” Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton describe women in particular as struggling to enact cultural ideals associated with home-cooked meals.  Expensive ingredients, time pressures and picky eaters seem to conspire against them, with poor, working-class and middle-class mothers all feeling the pinch.

The study’s findings were hotly debated in recent weeks, with coverage and commentary in outlets such as Slate, PBS and The New York Times focusing almost exclusively on values and priorities.  Some praised the study for questioning the idealization of burdensome family dinners.  Others called for increased commitment to home-cooked family meals, citing the rewards of time spent together and noting how easy and rewarding meal preparation can be.

Because the debate’s participants have primarily viewed the issues through lenses of family and food rather than work, very little of the debate has broached the root causes of families’ mealtime struggles:  deteriorating employment opportunities, stagnant wages, and changing expectations of workers. Read More