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Challenging the Oligarchy

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In the NY Review of Books, Paul Krugman reviews an interesting book by Robert Reich:

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few
by Robert B. Reich
Knopf, 279 pp., $26.95

Back in 1991, in what now seems like a far more innocent time, Robert Reich published an influential book titled The Work of Nations, which among other things helped land him a cabinet post in the Clinton administration. It was a good book for its time—but time has moved on. And the gap between that relatively sunny take and Reich’s latest, Saving Capitalism, is itself an indicator of the unpleasant ways America has changed.

The Work of Nations was in some ways a groundbreaking work, because it focused squarely on the issue of rising inequality—an issue some economists, myself included, were already taking seriously, but that was not yet central to political discourse. Reich’s book saw inequality largely as a technical problem, with a technocratic, win-win solution. That was then. These days, Reich offers a much darker vision, and what is in effect a call for class war—or if you like, for an uprising of workers against the quiet class war that America’s oligarchy has been waging for decades.

1.

To understand the difference between The Work of Nations and Saving Capitalism, you need to know about two things. One, which is familiar to most of us, is the increasingly ugly turn taken by American politics, which I’ll be discussing later. The other is more of an insider debate, but one with huge implications for policy and politics alike: the rise and fall of the theory of skill-biased technological change, which was once so widely accepted among economists that it was frequently referred to simply as SBTC.

The starting point for SBTC was the observation that, around 1980, wages of college graduates began rising much more rapidly than wages of Americans with only a high school degree or less. Why?

One possibility was the growth of international trade, with rising imports of labor-intensive manufactured goods from low-wage countries. Such imports could, in principle, cause not just rising inequality but an actual decline in the wages of less-educated workers; the standard theory of international trade that supports such a principle is actually a lot less benign in its implications than many noneconomists imagine. But the numbers didn’t seem to work. Around 1990, trade with developing countries was still too small to explain the big movements in relative wages of college and high school graduates that had already happened. Furthermore, trade should have produced a shift in employment toward more skill-intensive industries; it couldn’t explain what we actually saw, which was a rise in the level of skills within industries, extending across pretty much the entire economy.

Many economists therefore turned to a different explanation: it was all about technology, and in particular the information technology revolution. Modern technology, or so it was claimed, reduced the need for routine manual labor while increasing the demand for conceptual work. And while the average education level was rising, it wasn’t rising fast enough to keep up with this technological shift. Hence the rise of the earnings of the college-educated and the relative, and perhaps absolute, decline in earnings for those without the right skills.

This view was never grounded in direct evidence that technology was the driving force behind wage changes; the technology factor was only inferred from its assumed effects. But it was expressed in a number of technical papers brandishing equations and data, and was codified in particular in a widely cited 1992 paper by Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Kevin M. Murphy of the University of Chicago.1 Reich’s The Work of Nations was, in part, a popularization of SBTC, using vivid language to connect abstract economic formalism to commonplace observation. In Reich’s vision, technology was eliminating routine work, and even replacing some jobs that historically required face-to-face interaction. But it was opening new opportunities for “symbolic analysts”—people with the talent and, crucially, the training to work with ideas. Reich’s solution to growing inequality was to equip more people with that necessary training, both through an expansion of conventional education and through retraining later in life.

It was an attractive, optimistic vision; you can see why it received such a favorable reception. But while one still encounters people invoking skill-biased technological change as an explanation of rising inequality and lagging wages—it’s especially popular among moderate Republicans in denial about what’s happened to their party and among “third way” types lamenting the rise of Democratic populism—the truth is that SBTC has fared very badly over the past quarter-century, to the point where it no longer deserves to be taken seriously as an account of what ails us.

The story fell apart in stages.2 First, over the course of the 1990s the skill gap stopped growing at the bottom of the scale: real wages of workers near the middle stopped outpacing those near the bottom, and even began to fall a bit behind. Some economists responded by revising the theory, claiming that technology was hollowing out the middle rather than displacing the bottom. But this had the feel of an epicycle added to a troubled theory—and after about 2000 the real wages of college graduates stopped rising as well. Meanwhile, incomes at the very top—the one percent, and even more so a very tiny group within the one percent—continued to soar. And this divergence evidently had little to do with education, since hedge fund managers and high school teachers have similar levels of formal training.

Something else began happening after 2000: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2015 at 2:26 pm

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