Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Inequality: Cultural Controversies

Charles Murray's new book on American inequality, Coming Apart, seems to have some interesting points (I haven't read it yet), but it is also generating some controversy.

David Frum has written an exceedingly biting commentary on Murray, suggesting that Murray's work does not do enough to address the cause of growing inequality and the stagnation of the middle class.  He takes issue with the following passage from Murray:

In one respect, the labor market did indeed get worse for [working-class white] men: pay. Recall figure 2.1 at the beginning of the book, showing stagnant incomes for people below the 50th income percentile.** High-paying unionized jobs have become scarce and real wages for all kinds of blue-collar jobs have been stagnant or falling since the 1970s. But these trends don't explain why [working-class white] men in the 2000s worked fewer jobs, found it harder to get jobs than other Americans did, and more often dropped out of the labor market than they had in the 1960s. On the contrary: Insofar as men need to work to survive - an important proviso - falling hourly income does not discourage work.
Put yourself in the place of a [working-class white] man who is at the bottom of the labor market, qualified only for low-skill jobs. You may wish you could make as much as your grandfather made working on a General Motors assembly line in the 1970s. You may be depressed because you've been trying to find a job and failed. But if a job driving a delivery truck, or being a carpenter's helper, or working on a cleaning crew for an office building opens up, why would a bad labor market for blue-collar jobs keep you from taking it? As of 2009, a very bad year economically, the median hourly wage for drivers of delivery trucks was $13.84; for carpenter's helpers, $12.63; for building cleaners, $13.37. That means $505 to $554 for a forty-hour week, or $25,260 to $27,680 for a fifty-week year. Those are not great incomes, but they are enough to be able to live a decent existence - almost twice the poverty level even if you are married and your wife doesn't work. So why would you not work if a job opening landed in your lap? Why would you not work a full forty hours if the hours were available? Why not work more than forty hours?

Frum's response:
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today's money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He's working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.

Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you'll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That's not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren't married, and you don't go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
How you can tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the "work" part left out is hard to fathom.
A lack of opportunity and the hope of real advancement will in turn lower the incentive to work and to strive.  Faith in advancement for a variety of sectors of the economy will reinforce popular support for the market economy.

Alec MacGillis offers some interesting points on the role deindustrialization has played in increasing inequality.

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