Category Archives: Capitalism

Education: A “Choice” of Public Good and Private Gain

During her appearance before the Senate confirmation hearing,  Secretary of Education nominee Betsy Devos displayed a shocking ignorance of many of the core issues involved in our nation’s education system. She had no idea about the debate over growth versus proficiency as the standard for measuring student performance (and even conflated the two principles). She seemed confused about the legal guarantee to an education for those protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. She was misinformed about the problem of student debt, and had nothing to say that was coherent about the numerous aid plans the Department of Education oversees. And she refused to answer when asked if she believed private schools should be held accountable to the same minimum standards required of public schools. Deovs’s historical support for charters and vouchers makes this last point all the more important.

Misdiagnosing the Problem

The advocates for so-called “education reform” (a linguistic mask for privatization), like Devos, insist that we need vouchers and charter schools as a matter of choice. This “choice” will naturally improve education in America.  This is one of those lines that sounds intuitively true, but when subjected to the slightest analytical scrutiny, it becomes apparent that this is more of an axiomatic statement of belief than it is a conclusion based on evidence.

“Choice” is not the problem with American education. Funding is. As a 2006 study of aggregated data at the state level found:

  • States with higher per-pupil spending outperformed their lesser-funded counterparts on the two measures best suited for comparing educational performance across states – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the SAT.
  • Local revenue is the most important source of funding for driving better educational performance.
  • School system quality is positively correlated to property values and property taxes.[1]

These conclusions present some serious challenges, especially regarding the question of how to increase property values in communities affected by a large inventories of vacant housing, higher crime rates, low employment, and other factors that depress home values. However, the research here clearly dispels certain myths often invoked in opposition to increasing public school funding. Two myths central to such opposition are: 1) Just throwing money at public schools won’t fix the problem, and 2) Public schools only benefit households who have kids attending them. As the study shows, more spending per pupil does in fact improve performance, and everyone in the community benefits from better schools (due to the numerous benefits that higher property values have for a community).

Public Cost, Private Gain

It should not be a shocking conclusion that better funding leads to better schools. Better funded school districts can recruit and retain better teachers, provide more resources for students, and maintain staff levels adequate for manageable class sizes. What is shocking is that Devos and others in the “reform” clique want to divert taxpayer dollars away from the public schools that serve all of the children in a community. Instead, these grand visionaries want to give those public funds to charters which are not obligated to serve all children in a community, and which operate with a primary motive of profit, not education. In short, Devos and other “reformers” want taxpayers to fund the entrepreneurs who see education as a lucrative enterprise rather than a public good.

There is perhaps no better example of how misguided it is to turn over public education to profiteers than the case of William Larger’s online charter, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Larger has exploited Ohio taxpayer dollars to purchase products and services from his two other companies which manage the charter – a lucrative scheme of self-dealing at the public’s expense. In return, Ohio got a school with a pitiful 38 percent graduation rate, which also accounts for 28 percent of the state’s dropouts – even though it only enrolls 1 percent of its students. And while taxpayers were subsidizing Larger’s profits, 589 school districts in Ohio suffered annual funding shortages of about $180,000 per district.

No one would claim that cases like Larger’s are representative. There are certainly many good charter schools. And there are many bad ones. That’s the problem. Discussion about charter schools are too often based on anecdotes and extremely narrow examples.

What We Know

Wide-ranging studies of charter schools are lacking, but there have been a few to date. Most notable is the 2009 study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).[2] In addition, there have been at least two meta-analyses studies which rigorously examined aggregated data compiled from numerous smaller studies.[3][4] There are four key conclusions taken from this research:

  • Charter schools perform better than public schools in reading at the elementary and middle school levels.
  • The advantages of charter schools over public schools are reversed by the time students reach high school – that is, charter schools perform worse than public schools in reading and math at the high school level.
  • Results vary widely from state to state.
  • In general, the overwhelming majority of charter schools performed no better, or worse than public schools. While 17% of charters performed better, nearly half (46%) were neither better nor worse, and more than one-third (37%) performed worse.[2][3][4]

Conclusion

So what do we make of all of this?

The evidence available suggests that funding levels have a clearly positive affect on educational performance. The evidence also suggests that while a small number of charter schools perform better than public schools, the overwhelming majority of charters are either the same or worse than public schools. Therefore, if charters are generally no better than public schools, then why divert public money away from the public schools and into for-profit ventures with no proven benefit? If better funding positively affects educational performance, then why not increase the funding to the public schools, which serve all children? Why should taxpayers subsidize the private profits for the sake of similar or worse academic results? Why set up a two-tiered system where both public and for-profit schools receive taxpayer dollars, but the for-profit schools are not held accountable to the same standards of curriculum, testing, or evaluations?

There may be valid answers to some of these questions, but “choice” is not an adequate answer to any of them.

And one more question for the road: Could it be that the charters that do outperform public schools might do so because of things that could just as easily be done in public schools – less high stakes testing, smaller class sizes, and greater autonomy for classroom teachers? Of course, implementing these reforms in the public schools would require that politicians decide to set aside ideological pursuits and instead listen to educators about what actually works. That decision is the real “choice” we need in education.

***

[1] Mackenzie, J. (2006). Public School Funding and Performance. Christina School District (DE) Board of Education. Newark, DE: FREC/CANR, University of Delaware.

[2] Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2009). Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. https://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf

[3] Betts, J. R., & Tang, Y. E. (2008). Value-added and experimental studies of the effect of charter schools on student achievement. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Summary_of_Achievement_Studies_Fifth_Edition_2009_Final_20110402T222331.pdf

[4] National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter School Achievement: What We Know. 5th Edition, April 2009. http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Summary_of_Achievement_Studies_Fifth_Edition_2009_Final_20110402T222331.pdf

A Brief Explanation of Socialism – and What It’s Not

There seems to be a lot of confusion across the board about Socialism. Whether it is coming from those who claim socialism as their own, or those who cry out against it, misconceptions abound. Having read my fair share of political philosophy over the years, and more than my fair share of history, I thought I might offer an explanation as to: 1) why socialism is so misconstrued in popular discourse, 2) what socialism is and has been, and 3) what is NOT socialism.

Let me get one distracting and erroneous argument out of the way before we begin. It does not matter what a political candidate calls him/herself, and it does not matter what voters or the media call someone either. Words mean things. Those meanings do not cease to exist because people spectacularly misuse words with stunning frequency. How many times have you heard some one say “literally,” when they obviously mean “figuratively”? To my great surprise, my wife grew up calling green bell peppers, “mangos.” Green bell peppers are not mangos, though, no matter long and self-confidently she had referred to them as such. Likewise, whatever a politician like Bernie Sanders may call himself is kind of irrelevant.

The term socialism has been distorted in American discourse over the years, largely as a result of our nation’s interactions with Soviet Communism. Modern popular conceptions of socialism have been filtered through the experiences of Bolshevism, Marxist Leninism, Stalin, the rise of a Soviet empire, and decades of antagonistic Cold War. As a result of political rhetoric as much as anything else, many Americans equated the term socialism with the repressive, authoritarian regimes of Soviet communism. Thus, Americans came to use “socialist” and “communist” somewhat interchangeably during the Cold War, and often in ways that had very little relation to their actual meanings in political philosophy. The word “socialist” became little more than a blunt political instrument used to bludgeon the opposing party, regardless of whether a particular policy stance had anything to do with real socialism. It’s a practice still popular today. By merely equating the opposition’s policy with “socialism,” politicians could (and can) immediately put their rivals on the defensive and sow seeds of doubt in the minds of American voters.

Yet, socialism is not synonymous with authoritarian, Soviet-style communism. That’s not to say that there is no relationship between socialism and communism. There is a relationship there, but that is not saying much; there is also a relationship between capitalism and communism in political philosophy. To understand the relationship between capitalism, socialism, and communism, we inevitably have to address the political philosophy of Karl Marx. It may be surprising to some that Marx viewed capitalism as a vital and necessary stage of economic development. It was not the final stage of economic development for him, though. Marx argued that economic development would naturally proceed past capitalism. Socialism, as Marx viewed it, represented a transitional stage between capitalism and his more fanciful ideal of true common ownership (communism). The link between communism and socialism, therefore, was in the proposition that the means of production should not be undemocratically consolidated in the hands of a few “Robber Baron” capitalists, but instead they should be socially owned – by the state at first (socialism), and eventually held in common property (communism).

What does this mean, having social ownership of the means of production? Put simply, the “means of production” are those elements of economic productivity that are not labor – capital, infrastructure, and so on. Socialism, then, is the proposition that certain elements of these means of production should be controlled by the government.

A key historical feature of political socialism has been its goal of bringing vital sectors of the economy under public control. For instance, in its 1912 platform, the American Socialist Party advocated “collective ownership and democratic management of railroads, wire and wireless telegraphs and telephones, express service, steamboat lines, and all other social means of transportation and communication and of all large scale industries.” They also sought “the extension of the public domain to include mines, quarries, oil wells, forests and water power.” They proposed the collective ownership of patents as well. No contemporary politician (even a self-described Democratic Socialist like Bernie Sanders) would even think about suggesting this kind of stuff. No major political figure of the post World War II era has either campaigned or governed on the idea that the government should take ownership of Comcast, AT&T, Exxon, or United Airlines.

The Socialist Party of the past did not confine its goals solely to nationalizing certain industries, though. They also shared some goals in common with the other political parties. Those who are unfamiliar with the finer points of American political history might be surprised by a few of the elements found in the 1912 Socialist Party platform. The Socialists were arguing for things that we, regardless of party affiliation, take for granted in today’s world – a five day work week, restrictions on the use of child labor, the right of women to vote, and the “absolute freedom of press, speech and assemblage.” Does their support of such policies makes those things socialist? Of course not – a point to keep in mind in today’s political environment. These points express values that reach across party boundaries. They are not particular to socialism, and neither are regulations or public services that have traditionally drawn support from across the political spectrum.

Left unchecked, capital has a tendency to accumulate, leading to monopolies and a consolidation of power that undermines the very idea of free competition in the marketplace. Regulating that tendency has been championed by both major parties since the late 1800s. Just because the Socialist Party also supported such regulation does not mean that regulation itself is socialist. The same is true of public services. Many of the earliest water and sanitation services in the United States were privately owned, and we found out from experience that the private sector is actually quite bad at making these services accessible to all citizens. So we put the provision of water under the control of municipal governments and managed them as public utilities. That has some shades of socialism, but the truth is that in America even public utilities are not totally public. They are often operated as public-private ventures. In other instances, businesses use the apparatus of the state to extend their profit capabilities. That is far from socialism; that is neoliberalism. For example, even though they are private companies, UPS and FedEx depend on the United States Post Office to carry about one-quarter of the parcels they handle because those companies simply cannot make money delivering packages to distant rural areas.

None of these things are socialism, per se. If socialism does exist today, then it is a mere shadow of its former self. Socialism in America only exists now in political parlance as a synonym for taxes, public services, and regulation. However, I think it is safe to say that these things are not socialism. The public provision of schools, police, firemen, nurses, hospitals, roads, Social Security, Medicare, food or aviation inspectors, public libraries, parks, or the U.S. Military – these are not efforts to take state ownership of the means of production. They are efforts to, in the words laid down in the Constitution, “promote the general Welfare” of the members of our society.

And just to be clear, other services like food assistance and unemployment are not socialism either. If they are, then so are corporations. One of the most oft repeated claims about the virtues of capitalism is that it allows people the freedom to take a risk and reap the rewards of that risk. Yet, we have laws that give corporations special protections when their risks go bad, and the price of their failures often falls to the society at large. For example, when financial institutions started gambling with people’s money and retirement funds in derivative markets backed by questionable securities, they didn’t assume the risks of that venture themselves. Instead, American taxpayers bore the brunt of that risk through a government funded bailout in order to keep the global economy from collapsing. What is the “limited liability” of an LLC if not a socialization of the risks of entrepreneurial capitalism?

Socializing the risks for corporations through “limited liability” is no different in principle than socializing the risk of an average citizen. A factory worker whose company is looking to move production overseas faces the risk of unemployment. Why not have unemployment insurance to spread that risk out among us all, many of whom could easily face similar risks ourselves at one point or another? Or why not provide a free lunch to a child in a public school whose family is in poverty? I promise… it’s not socialism if you do.

“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”
–Hubert H. Humphrey

 

Upcoming lesson… Neoliberalism (though you could probably just watch this video explanation)

 

The Wild West of Bottled Water

At a time when southern California residents are asked to ration their water usage due to prolonged drought, Nestlé is taking vast quantities of water from the area for its Arrowhead brand of bottled water. As the Desert Sun reports, no one is really sure how much water Nestlé is taking. The company operates on reservation lands in the Cabazon basin owned by the Morongo band of Mission Indians and are therefore exempt from the local water agency’s oversight and reporting requirements. Although the numbers have not been independently verified, the Morongo report 601 acre-feet of water diverted or pumped from Millard Canyon in 2013 – about 200 million gallons, or enough to supply 400 typical homes in the area. For the water agency and the parched local communities, the bottling operation is understandably a cause for concern.

Nestlé’s extraction of water despite potentially threatening ecological conditions highlights a hallmark of the culture of capitalism. For whatever economic benefits the capitalist culture may bestow, like other cultures it has its own set of values and beliefs regarding the natural world. In his classic study of the Dust Bowl, Donald Worster summed up those values thusly: First, “Nature must be seen as capital.” Second, “Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement.” Third, “The social order should permit and encourage this increase of personal wealth.” In other words, as Worster went on to say, “The community exists to help individuals get ahead and to absorb the environmental costs” of such pursuits.

These maxims constitute the internal logic of capitalism as it relates to the natural world. The consequences of that logic, however, do not play out equally everywhere. Place matters. The ecological conditions in one geographic area may absorb some the harshness of such imperatives. Elsewhere, where ecological conditions are less forgiving, acting according to these maxims results in brutal consequences for individuals and communities.

The West – that geographic area of the nation extending west of the 98th meridian, where average annual rainfall is below 20 inches – is exactly the kind of landscape where the ecological circumstances are less forgiving. It is a “marginal landscape,” meaning that it is an environment not particularly favorable to permanent human settlement, and such settlement is only maintained at great effort and is always tenuous. Look at a precipitation map of the United States and it becomes apparent that the West is categorically a different place than the rest of the country with a different set of environmental realities with which to contend.

Average_precipitation_in_the_lower_48_states_of_the_USA

Much of what we have come to know as the culture of the West was the result of adaptations made to those environmental realities. Walter Prescott Webb noted these adaptations and the world that made them necessary in his work, The Great Plains (1931). As Webb argued:

For two centuries American pioneers had been working out a technique for the utilization of the humid regions east of the Mississippi River. They had found solutions for their problems and were conquering the frontier at a steadily accelerating rate. Then in the early nineteenth century they crossed the Mississippi and came out on the Great Plains, an environment with which they had had no experience. The result was a complete though temporary breakdown of the machinery and ways of pioneering.

The kind of crops settlers could plant, their mode of transportation, the form and function of their houses, the style of husbandry and cattle raising, their weaponry, even their property laws – all had to be adapted in response to a new environmental reality. As Webb put it, the 98th meridian represented such a stark change in the lived reality of westward settlers that “practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered.”

Part of Worster’s argument in Dust Bowl was that the culture of capitalism, with its inherent set of values relating to the natural world, ultimately led to catastrophe when those values were applied to the marginal landscapes of the West. In response to a war ravaged Europe clamoring grain, increasing numbers of farmers (encouraged by grain speculators) plowed up the Great Plains at a rapacious pace in order to plant wheat. When the pendulum of alternating decades of drought and rain swung back toward extreme aridity in the late 1920s and 1930s, the wheat withered and died. The soil, once clothed by hardy native grasses, then lay bare and exposed to the blistering winds of the open lands. The result was the Dust Bowl, a disaster that destroyed lives and livelihoods, uprooted families and communities, traumatized a generation, and wreaked havoc on the nation’s agricultural economy.

Nestlé’s bottling operation in the Cabazon basin, while far from the scale of the Dust Bowl, is but one more example in the long history of the West where the pursuits of industries bent on ever expansive profits apply a logic ill-suited to a marginal landscape. Like other incidents in that long history, the corporation operates within a culture that sees nature as merely an instrument for further monetary gain – burdening the community at large with the  ecological costs of that pursuit.

 

“Two Americas,” One King

Standing in front of an audience gathered at Grosse Pointe High School, a suburb of Detroit, in March of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “There are two Americas.” One America was flowing with the “milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” while another America lay steeped in “a daily ugliness…that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”[1] At the heart of the “other America,” according to King, was the economic problem: unemployment, underemployment, poor-paying, and poor quality jobs for a great number of the nation’s citizens – especially citizens of color.

In the decades since Dr. King made the “Two Americas” speech, median wages stagnated or declined for most Americans. Household incomes rose slightly, but only because more families became two-income homes (those increases, however, have been largely off-set by the rising cost of childcare for working parents). Low-wage, no benefit service jobs replaced better-paying manufacturing work. Housing prices and college tuition outpaced inflation, putting the promise of gainful employment and property beyond the grasp of an increasing number of Americans. And just as in King’s day, these painful circumstances disproportionately have affected citizens of color. In short, the gulf between the “two Americas” is expanding.

In September 2011, protestors calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street” rhetorically quantified the “two Americas” as the ninety-nine versus the one percent. Critics dismissed these protestors as envious and lazy with little grasp of the real world. Some politicians chastised their vocal protests as divisive, saying it was the product of a misguided logic – a logic that concluded the lack of wealth for some is the result of wealth unduly captured by others. In response to that logic, Senator Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor that December to say “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it.”[2] Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana echoed the mantra of “haves and soon-to-haves” during the Republican Party’s televised response to the State of the Union Address the following month. The point, it seemed, was to rebuff talk of income inequality by arguing that it was only a matter of time before everyone made good on the American dream – so long as they were willing to work hard. All you need is time and the determination to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Dr. King dismissed the notion that time would eventually alleviate inequality, saying “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” He also rejected the pernicious myth of what he called the “bootstrap philosophy.” Congress, King noted, was more than willing to doll out federal subsidies to large scale farmers and businesses. Not much has changed on that front. Today, many lawmakers are similarly generous to corporate interests while simultaneously cutting aid to the most vulnerable members of our society. Take the enormous budget overages of the Pentagon’s contract with Lockheed-Martin to develop the F-35 fighter jet. Those budget overages attract little or no attention from the very legislators who, in the name of fiscal responsibility, trenchantly defend recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This despite the fact that just the budget overages alone in the fighter program would pay for SNAP cuts two to three times over, or that most SNAP beneficiaries are children, the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor. To make matters worse, the warplane is to be manufactured in Britain, not the United States, so Americans in need not only lose food assistance but are robbed of manufacturing job opportunities as well.[3] Dr. King probably put it best when he said, “that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.”

Although King’s “two Americas” referred to economic and social conditions, perhaps the more critical cleavage, one that directly affects the success or failure of policy initiatives aimed at abating inequality, is a philosophical one. As a people, we seem to be divided into two camps: those who see the influence of structural factors in our lived circumstances, and those who disregard structural explanations for economic disparity. The champions of the “bootstrap philosophy” sometimes praise the pioneer spirit and individualism that settled the West and made America an industrial giant. Yet they ignore the land grants, irrigation works, coerced labor, legal innovations, and public investments in communication and transportation that made such growth possible. They fail to grasp the structural underpinnings of the success they admire, and so they also fail to see structural forces that contribute to poverty and want as well. Instead, anecdotes and nostalgic appeals to rugged American individualism confirm, in their eyes, that both success and failure are solely the result of personal character. Consequently, they reject government efforts to address inequality as aiding the undeserving.[4] Unemployment benefits, for instance, have come under the axe in recent months, justified on the grounds that they diminish a person’s motivation to find work. The abiding logic being that those who are out of work just don’t want to work – as if joblessness today were a choice rather than the mathematical reality of too few jobs for the number of people seeking employment.

Low pay, lack of education, homelessness, and prohibitively costly healthcare – these are not moral failings or God’s punishment. Only by recognizing that individual choices and opportunities are circumscribed by structural realities will we be able to adequately address the widening chasm between prosperity and scarcity in our country.

As our nation continues to wrestle with the increasingly polarized social divisions and economic inequality highlighted by Dr. King more than four decades ago, perhaps his prescriptions for change offer us some guidelines. As he instructed his audience at Grosse Pointe to do in 1968, we must dispel ourselves of the myths of inevitable progress and “bootstrap” individualism, understanding that there are forces beyond the individual contributing to poverty and want. We need to recognize the potential of government as an institution for improving our lives. We have to reorder our national priorities in a way that values the care of the vulnerable over the incessant desire for war. And we must summon the courage to take direct action in the face of injustice. These were the lessons King sought to impart near the end of his life.

Although the man is now gone, his words and vision are as applicable today as they were that March day in 1968. They are words of our time, and of our society. King’s description of “two Americas” is as much a portrait of where we are now as of where we were then, and his hopefulness for change can be our hopefulness; his dream can be our dream – if we choose to stop making King a token and honor the message as well as the man.



[1] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” speech given at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan, March 14, 1968, http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf (accessed January 18, 2014). Unless otherwise noted, any quotes from King are taken from this speech.

[2] Sen. Marco Rubio, Congressional Record-Senate, December 16, 2011, S8708.

[3] Dave Gilson, “Is This Plane the Biggest Pentagon Rip-Off of All Time?” Mother Jones (December 13, 2013), http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/12/f-35-pentagon-budget-deal-cupcakes (accessed January 18, 2014); Alistair Osborne, “Lockheed Martin’s controversial US warplane project to boost more than 500 British companies,” The Telegraph (January 19, 2014), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/industry/defence/10582903/Lockheed-Martins-controversial-US-warplane-project-to-boost-more-than-500-British-companies.html (accssed January 19, 2014).

[4] Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).

Wage Labor, Choice, and Power

A recent article in The New York Times highlighted a bourgeoning trend in payroll management – employers paying their employees by means of a prepaid card rather than issuing a paper check or direct deposit. The idea is that employees can use it as a debit or ATM card to withdraw their pay. The problem, however, is that “in the overwhelming majority of cases, using the card involves a fee.” In some cases, the fees bring the pay of some employees below minimum wage.

The cards make plenty of sense for the employers, and are popular among food service and retail companies like Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Taco Bell. By some estimates, a company with 500 employees could save $21,000 a year by switching from paper issued checks to the new cards. They could presumably save just as much by paying employees through direct deposit, but the minimum balance requirements of many banks most likely prevent a number of employees in these low-wage jobs from maintaining an account. At any rate, employers would probably prefer the cards to direct deposit anyway, since the card issuers (including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup) offer cash incentives to the employers for using this method.

The article characterizes these practices negatively as the result of greed, and possibly illegal labor practices. Yet, such a characterization is informed by a number of assumptions. It assumes certain conditions: that under normal circumstances wage labor relations are fair and employers and employees meet each other under equal terms in the labor market. The actions of participants in the labor market are simply the result of choices with little or no regard as to the limitations of what choices are available in the first place. More broadly, working for cash compensation, turning your labor power into a commodity to be bought and sold, is regarded as so natural that it escapes scrutiny altogether.

One of the hallmarks of capitalist social and economic organization is the presence of wage labor as the dominant means by which people earn a “living” (or more accurately, the means by which they meet their needs). In the twenty-first century it may seem self-evident that people work for cash to attain the necessities and niceties of life. That has not always been the case, though. Household production, barter, trade, and kinship relations all greatly influenced where, how, and for whom most Americans worked before the mid-nineteenth century.

Wage labor’s emergence as our dominate form of work relations was intricately linked, and in some ways aided by the existence of slave labor. Many criticized the rising dependence on wage income as “wage slavery.” Yet, the existence of black chattel slavery as a social reality allowed proponents of the wage system in Northern manufacturing to dub it “free labor,” a rhetorical contrivance carrying the moral force of American ideals about freedom and liberty.[1] However, according to historian Seth Rockman, that rhetorical contrivance masked the “ability of those purchasing labor to economically and physically coerce those performing it–and to do so under the social fiction of a self-regulating market that purportedly doled out its rewards to the deserving in accordance with the laws of nature.”[2] Underpinning this “social fiction” were categories of people who could hardly have been called “free” in their choices of what type of work was available to them, or what compensation might come with that work: women, free blacks, children, debtors, the landless poor, and immigrants. To a great extent, the early growth of American industry and manufacturing relied on such groups of unfree labor.

The origins of American economic growth and capitalism should give us pause when we encounter assumptions about the “choices” of employers and employees in the marketplace. In a time of weak economic recovery following on the heels of an historically significant recession, do employees scrambling for an inadequate number of jobs meet on equal terms in the labor market with the employers offering those jobs? And if job-seekers “choose” to work for less than the currently employed, how does that affect the “choice” of everyone else whose wages are driven down in the process?  More importantly, in a global economy where capital can merely pick up stakes and chase cheap labor around the world, how are any workers secure in their livelihood? Without the intervention of the state, what power does an assembly line worker in a tire plant have to prevent his employer from moving production overseas when it becomes cost effective?



[1] For treatments of the historical relationship between categories of slavery and “free labor,” see Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Robert J. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870, Studies in Legal History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).

[2] Rockman, Scraping By, 11.