Productivity Disconnect

In a thought-provoking piece for National Journal, Jonathan Rauch suggests political actors are failing to come to grips with the central economic problem of our era:

If the American economy were an automobile, you would say the transmission is failing. The engine works, but not all wheels are getting power. To put the matter less metaphorically: The economy no longer reliably and consistently transmits productivity gains to workers. The result is that many millions of Americans, in particular less-skilled men, are leaving the workforce, a phenomenon the country has never seen before on the present scale.

Rauch emphasizes the plight of non-college-educated men for a simple reason:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s [David] Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

Rauch goes on to discuss the far-more-controversial suggestions that unemployable men are being spurned as marital partners by more-successfully-adapting women, not only reducing marriage rates at lower ends of the income scale but also making men socially useless, which contributes to their alienation from the economic mainstream. This, of course, is music to the ears of conservatives who have long claimed that the decline of the traditional family is a major factor in economic inequality. They are less likely to embrace Rauch’s argument that there’s a fundamental economic problem at the root of the decline in two-parent families.

However you evaluate Rauch’s dystopic picture of a downward economic and moral spiral among non-college educated men, what’s striking about the issues he addresses is how remote they are from day-to-day political discourse. Yes, progressives often advocate policies–such as support for the right to form unions and bargain collectively–that might be framed as efforts to help working folk capture more of the wealth their toil is creating, or at least prevent progressivity gains from perversely making them marginal to the entire economy. And conservatives are arguably coming at the problem at the back end by seeking “tough-love” measures to make alienation from the work force as uncomfortable as possible–a sort of “self-deportation” strategy for the welfare state.

But the more central issue of the divergence of today’s income patterns from the historic model that inspired the entire American Dream myth of upward mobility and shared prosperity ought to be much more central to our politics. Those who privately think all good things are derived from the efforts of wealthy “job-creators” ought to be willing to look working folk straight in the eye and tell them they are as a class simply redundant and are living on the grudging charity of John Gault. And those who claim to be advocates for “working families” ought to be far more forceful in arguing that those increasingly locked out of the benefits of the great American wealth machine have a moral claim on society that requires a fundamental change in how we view personal merit and “success.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.