Unskilled? No Problem!

Are we thinking about job training all wrong?

Atlantic staff writer Annie Lowrie contends that “Low-Skill Workers Aren’t a Problem to Be Fixed” and insists that the label “flattens workers to a single attribute, ignoring the capacities they have and devaluing the jobs they do.” While she makes interesting points, I don’t find her larger argument compelling.

Being a prep cook is hard, low-wage, and essential work, as the past year has so horribly proved. It is also a “low-skill” job held by “low-skill workers,” at least in the eyes of many policy makers and business leaders, who argue that the American workforce has a “skills gap” or “skills mismatch” problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Millions need to “upskill” to compete in the 21st century, or so say The New York Times and the Boston Consulting Group, among others.

Those are ubiquitous arguments in elite policy conversations. They are also deeply problematic. The issue is in part semantic: The term low-skill as we use it is often derogatory, a socially sanctioned slur Davos types casually lob at millions of American workers, disproportionately Black and Latino, immigrant, and low-income workers. Describing American workers as low-skill also vaults over the discrimination that creates these “low-skill” jobs and pushes certain workers to them. And it positions American workers as being the problem, rather than American labor standards, racism and sexism, and social and educational infrastructure. It is a cancerous little phrase, low-skill. As the pandemic ends and the economy reopens, we need to leave it behind.

It’s possible for a function to simultaneously be essential to society and yet require relatively little skill to accomplish. That’s true of the mundane tasks we all perform to keep our households running and those required to keep our stores stocked. In any industry, there are jobs that require more skill, experience, and talent to do well than others.

I see no problem with acknowledging this reality or in seeking to ensure that people who would like to find work that’s more well-paying or meaningful are equipped with the skills necessary to do so. The problem, as Lowrie suggests, is the inference that those who lack particular skills are therefore lesser citizens, unworthy of dignity and respect. But Lowrie goes further, arguing that these are inextricable.

The general policy prescription, however, is that we need to leave “low-skill workers” behind. Forget about being essential! These are the millions of Americans without the credentials and chops to succeed in tomorrow’s economy, any number of white papers, panels, and conference colloquiums will tell you. Indeed, the Obama White House, as part of its Upskill Initiative, posited that roughly 20 percent of American workers need to address their on-the-job “deficiencies” to “realize their full potential,” fretting that 36 million people “cannot compare and contrast information or integrate multiple pieces of information,” per one test.

This description, like so many descriptions of “low-skill workers,” is abjectly offensive, both patronizing and demeaning. Imagine going up to a person who’s stocking shelves in a grocery store and telling him that he is low-skill and holding the economy back. Imagine seeing a group of nannies and blasting “Learn to code!” at them as life advice. The low-skill label flattens workers to a single attribute, ignoring the capacities they have and devaluing the work they do. It pathologizes them, portraying low-skill workers as a problem to be fixed, My Fair Lady-style.

So, walking up to anyone and yelling at them about job training would be exceedingly rude. But, presumably, people in low-wage jobs like stocking shelves would over time acquire the skills necessary to compete for more satisfying, higher-paying jobs either in retail or elsewhere. Yes, it’s an essential job. It’s honorable work. But almost anyone can be trained, in rather short order, to do it. It’s the sort of work that we assume to be transitory, a step in a career progression.

In an ideal world, care-giving jobs like nannies or home eldercare workers would make a very good living. But, absent massive government subsidies, the sheer mathematics of that don’t work. If I’m making $100,000 a year—a pretty solid wage anywhere in the country and a damned fine one in many—I can’t very well pay $75,000 a year for childcare. So, either only the extraordinarily wealthy will be able to have nannies or nannies ill make a low-middle class salary.

Regardless, describing stockers or nannies as “low skill” workers doesn’t flatten them, ignore their other qualities, or devalue them. Indeed, outside of a conversation about public policy or career counseling, I don’t know why the label would ever come up. I made a quick grocery run this morning and encountered several folks hard at work in jobs that fit the category. Not once did I think, “That’s a low-skill so-and-so. Learn to code!”

The next section of the piece, though, is quite strong. She makes more directly the point she hinted at early:

Academics do use the term low-skill with precision, to measure changes in employment and pay and to compare different countries’ workforces. But in the broader political arena, this sneering language is often so imprecise as to be useless. The terms low-skill worker and low-skill job are conflated, for one, though those are very different charges.

And explains,

For individual workers, the problem, if any, is often not that they lack skills in general, but that they lack specific capacities or qualifications. A worker who came to the United States later in life might not be able to read or write in English, for instance. Is that worker really low-skill, or just in need of language classes? Many foreign-born workers cannot use employment certificates gained abroad in the United States. Is a foreign-born architect who ends up driving a taxi low-skill? Many “low-skilled” workers are young. Are those actually low-skilled workers, or just inexperienced ones?

So, absolutely, there are people with very high skills in low-skill jobs. Maybe they’re a master craftsman in a field where most of the jobs got outsourced oversees or mechanized. Maybe they’re a seasoned professional who fled their homeland and lack the language skills or credentials to work here. Maybe they’re an English PhD who’s waiting tables to supplement their pay adjuncting seven courses at four different community colleges. The solution for each of those problems is different and sometimes it’s not more training.

When business leaders and policy types talk about “low-skill jobs” or “low-skill professions,” things get even more imprecise. Frequently, they are lumping together entry-level jobs, jobs that do not require much education or a formal credential, jobs that do not require experienced workers, jobs without much opportunity for advancement, menial jobs, and—most of all—low-wage jobs. But those are all very different things, with wildly different policy implications. It is not a good thing for a country to have too few entry-level jobs, for instance. The country needs them, or else what are kids leaving high school supposed to do?

Again, this is right. “High-skill” and “low-skill” are an insufficient number of categories and they mean different things to different people. But this leads to an exasperating conclusion:

The most gutting problem with these terms is that many “low-skill jobs” held by “low-skill workers” are anything but. Many of these are difficult, physically and emotionally taxing jobs that, in fact, require employees to develop extraordinary skills, if not ones you learn at medical school or MIT. A great deal of skill is necessary to wash a lunch rush’s worth of dishes. A great deal of skill is required to change the clothes of an immobilized senior who might not want to have her clothes changed, or to wrangle a class of toddlers, or to clean up an overgrown yard at breakneck pace, or to handle five tables of drunk guys who want their wings yesterday. The kind of patience and equanimity it takes to be a good care worker? Not a skill, apparently. The kind of fortitude it takes to be a fruit picker? Not a skill either.

Like the attempt some years back to argue that people who weren’t good at reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving could nonetheless be “intelligent” if they were good at picking up emotional cues, this gets at a perfectly good point in a decidedly unhelpful way. Yes, a lot of these jobs are hard. Yes, some people who are “high-skilled” in their professions lack the traits that would make them good at these jobs. But that doesn’t make them “skills.”

And, it would seem, the thing that really bothers Lowrie is something else altogether.

Who are we if our policy language demeans those skills and those workers? We are ourselves, I suppose, which is to say that the low-skill label is a social construct that at least in part reflects the structural racism and sexism endemic in our economy. We understand jobs to be low-skill because of the kinds of people who hold those jobs; we see certain skills as valuable because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; we ignore other skills because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; and we shunt workers into “low-skill” jobs due to circumstances out of their control.

The point is not that all jobs require the same skills or the same capacities. The point is not to dissuade workers from spending more time in school or training. The point is not that all jobs are equally difficult. The point is that we scarcely stop to recognize how our biases inform our understanding of what skilled work is and whose work matters. As the Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has demonstrated, women joining a given profession tends to “reduce the prestige” in that profession; she calls this the “pollution theory of discrimination.” Other research shows that pay starts dropping when women show up. Similarly, Black workers being overrepresented in a given profession is associated with depressed wages. The same dynamics are surely at play in how we distinguish between low-skill, low-pay and high-skill, high-pay work. The terms are, in part, euphemistic, a proxy for social capital and compensation, a way of justifying 20-something McKinsey consultants making 10 times what veteran groundskeepers do.

LeBron James, a Black man whose formal education ended in high school, made more money, by orders of magnitude, than I, a white man with a PhD, will make in my entire lifetime, by the time he turned 19. Indeed, his rookie salary of $4 million a year, while paled in comparison to the 7 year, $90 million endorsement deal with Nike that he signed at the same time, is more than I’ll ever make even not adjusting for inflation. For a variety of reasons, we simply value some jobs astronomically more than others. As hard as it is to earn a doctorate, being the best basketball player on the planet is an almost infinitely rarer skillset.

But, of course, athletics is perhaps unique in the Black-dominated occupations in this regard. It’s almost certainly true that, by and large, professions that are dominated by white males have historically been higher-earning. But, even acknowledging the social and cultural barriers, the solution is almost always skill attainment. A Black woman will earn far more as a nurse than she would as a low-skill orderly or custodian at the hospital—and far more, still, as a cardiovascular surgeon or anesthesiologist.

At issue here, again, is not just rhetoric. The pandemic has helped us recategorize many “low-skill” jobs as “essential” jobs—jobs integral to the functioning of the economy, but whose importance so often does not translate into fair pay and good benefits. But I fear we are losing that paradigm shift as the world normalizes again. Cashiers and receptionists and delivery drivers and parents’ helpers will once again be seen as economic deadweight, not vital economic utilities.

I find this argument frustrating. Yes, cashiers, stockers, floor sweepers, and all the rest perform vital functions. We can go far longer with, say, our Political Science departments closed than our grocery stores. It doesn’t follow however, that those in vital but entry-level jobs should therefore earn more than those in jobs that take years of study to master but are “non-essential.”

Lowrie’s husband, Ezra Klein, made the point in a recent episode of his eponymous podcast that, had he been born a couple centuries earlier, his talents would have been far less valuable while his liabilities, like poor uncorrected vision, would have loomed much larger. Those of us in the learned professions should really be cognizant of that fact. Our relative success in navigating the current economy is something of a historical accident.

So, we should absolutely not look down our noses at those not blessed, by sheer accident of birth and historical timing, with the right talents to thrive. To the extent a given individual can’t learn to code or is otherwise untrainable for the sort of jobs that earn a decent wage, we need to figure out how to create a safety net and social structure that allows them to support a family in a dignified manner befitting our modern social circumstance.

But I don’t think Obama or President Biden are wrong in arguing that, for those who are trainable, that entry-level jobs don’t become exit-level jobs. And, it seems, neither does Lowrie.

White House after White House, Republican or Democratic, has pushed retraining and upskilling initiatives that put the onus on workers to improve themselves in order to improve their job-market prospects and the American economy in general. In so doing, they make individual what is clearly a governmental and societal problem. The supposed lack of “skills” among American workers reflects the country’s intergenerational poverty crisis, the brutal cost of higher education, the inaccessibility of quality and affordable child and health care, and the barriers it puts up for immigrant workers, as much as it does anything else.

How are you supposed to upskill yourself if you’re earning $11 an hour and have no benefits? If you dropped out of your associate’s program because you cannot afford not to work? What kind of technical training are you supposed to do if you’re taking care of young children? What is the point of upskilling yourself if you get paid off the books because of your immigration status? Is learning to code really going to help you overcome the felony charge on your record?

These are all excellent questions. But most of the politicians touting “upskilling” are proposing answers to most of these. And, indeed, arguments for free community college or government-subsidized training programs are inherently about making what would otherwise be an individual-level problem a governmental and societal one.

We’ve been very slow to recognize child care as a barrier to training and maximization of potential in the labor market. Indeed, most of us probably didn’t think about it all that much until the pandemic shut down the skills. (And I say that as a man who was suddenly widowed with a not-quite-3-year-old and a 5-month-old to take care of. Despite spending a hefty chunk of my income for childcare for eight years or so afterwards, it never occurred to me that it was anyone’s problem but my own.)

The issues of illegal aliens (or whatever we want to call those here seeking employment in violation of our immigration laws) and felons are even harder to solve, in that they’re as much social as they are political. I’m more amenable that most Americans to a much-more-open immigration policy but then we’re unlikely to have a flood of Security Studies PhDs. And, while I very much think those who have paid their “debt to society” deserve another chance, I must confess that I would always prefer a non-felon to a comparably qualified individual who had done hard time recently.

But this just seems like wishful thinking:

Would workers upskilling themselves even do anything? Running the economy hot and pushing the unemployment rate toward scratch tends to solve the problem of worker-workplace mismatch. Higher labor costs also push employers to invest in making jobs better and training their own workforces. Workers, moreover, tend to be pretty good at equipping themselves with in-demand skills when they have the resources to invest in themselves and when companies are hiring. The problem lies not with American workers, but with American jobs and American policy infrastructure. Too many jobs pay too little. They’re too dangerous. They offer too few benefits. They offer no union representation. They are inaccessible to millions of Americans who are pushed out of the labor market by illness, disability, poverty, the arrival of young children, or discrimination.

All jobs could be good jobs. But only policy makers and business leaders have the skills to make that happen, not workers.

Every job can be a “good job” in the sense of providing useful experience and a pathway to higher-paying positions. But it’s absurd to think that every job generates enough economic value so that its holder can support a family of four in a middle-class lifestyle working 40 hours a week.

A Pew study from a year ago estimated that,

Middle-income households – those with an income that is two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income – had incomes ranging from about $48,500 to $145,500 in 2018. Lower-income households had incomes less than $48,500 and upper-income households had incomes greater than $145,500 (all figures computed for three-person households, adjusted for the cost of living in a metropolitan area, and expressed in 2018 dollars).

Whether that’s a useful definition of “middle class” is debatable but it encompassed 52 percent of the US population, so it’s probably close enough. And, as the same link notes, “middle” varies enormously by locality.

Regardless, let’s call $48,500 the threshold. Let’s say someone works 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. It would require an hourly wage of $24.25 to earn that. I’m not sure the average Walmart greeter, Safeway cashier, AMC ticket clerk, or Safeway produce stacker generates anything like that much return on investment—and that’s before Social Security matching, unemployment, worker’s compensation, and other mandates the employer has to cover.

Andrew Yang is the latest in a long line of people pushing a Universal Basic Income. I tend to agree with Paul Krugman that giving people like me $1000 a month extra would be absurd and that giving poor people $1000 a month would be inadequate. Still, it has slowly become obvious to me that we need to figure out how to provide security and dignity to those who can’t make it in the modern economy. And maybe the answer is to fill the delta between 40 hours at minimum wage and the lower threshold of the middle class.

Ultimately, I think this is a productive line of inquiry. Americans, and American men in particular, are incredibly prone to derive their sense of self-worth from their work status and their ability to provide for their family. The economy is increasingly driving down the demand for those without certain kinds of skills and, while creative destruction remains very much a thing, society is increasingly unable to keep up.

I don’t, however, think that the answer is pretending that those who are low skilled are instead merely differently-skilled and would be paid the same as those with in-demand skills if only politicians were smarter and businessmen less greedy.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Society, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Lowrie has interesting points and given that it is more accurate to refer to workers that we have called ‘low skilled’ we should refer to them as ‘low compensated’. It is not that they all don’t have skills, it is just that those skills are undervalued in the current economy.

    Tangentially, it is being reported that as the retail economy emerges from its covid slumber, that restaurants in particular are having difficulty attracting employees. The conventional wisdom is that this is because of the enhanced level of unemployment support. But a more intriguing argument is emerging that there is growing evidence that restaurant workers have taken the covid break as an opportunity to retrain and develop skills that are more highly valued.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m pretty sure the solution is just to relabel ‘low-skilled workers’ as ‘superstar workers.’ Progressives seem to think most problems can be fixed by re-labeling.

    That said, no one in a well-run restaurant is low-skilled. Try keeping up with dishwashing during a Saturday night rush, or carrying five tables all seated with ten minutes of each other, or cranking out 200 covers as you swelter in 120 degree heat. All that takes skills. Not education or credentialing, but skills.

    People overlook the fact that there can be upward mobility within the restaurant world if you improve and expand your skills. Dishwashers become prep cooks, prep cooks become line cooks, line cooks can make the jump to chef or manager. I started waiting tables and shift-managing in 24 coffee shops. Later I was in a tuxedo doing essentially the same job but with some added knowledge of food and wine, and earning a decent living.

    Society has also changed its opinion of what work should be. My daughter has been forwarding tweets and articles outraged at jobs where people had to work overtime, weekends, nights, without breaks, without a fixed schedule. Poor babies, welcome to the first 18 years of my working life.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    Every job can be a “good job” in the sense of providing useful experience and a pathway to higher-paying positions. But it’s absurd to think that every job generates enough economic value so that its holder can support a family of four in a middle-class lifestyle working 40 hours a week.

    Do these jobs need to be done? Would we, as a society, be better off either raising the economic value of that job (raise prices, increase efficiency) or leaving it undone, as opposed to the current situation?

    And, when the people who work these jobs are often getting benefits from the government (food stamps, Medicaid, utility assistance, housing vouchers…) we are often paying more for that labor indirectly.

    But, presumably, people in low-wage jobs like stocking shelves would over time acquire the skills necessary to compete for more satisfying, higher-paying jobs either in retail or elsewhere. Yes, it’s an essential job. It’s honorable work. But almost anyone can be trained, in rather short order, to do it. It’s the sort of work that we assume to be transitory, a step in a career progression.

    Back when America had factory work, and unions, a lot of people made decent money in manufacturing. Most of that was “low skill” work by the same metric of how long it takes to learn a particular task. Short order cook is arguably more complicated.

    In an ideal world, care-giving jobs like nannies or home eldercare workers would make a very good living. But, absent massive government subsidies, the sheer mathematics of that don’t work. If I’m making $100,000 a year—a pretty solid wage anywhere in the country and a damned fine one in many—I can’t very well pay $75,000 a year for childcare. So, either only the extraordinarily wealthy will be able to have nannies or nannies ill make a low-middle class salary.

    Let’s ignore that you’ve decided the nanny should make $75,000 rather than $40,000 or some other number in between. And, you have a wife, who also makes some money. And even when your first wife died, there was likely insurance money.

    Does your kid need their own nanny? Or, can your kid and, say, 3 other kids of the same age, have a shared nanny? Can we improve nanny productivity?

    It turns out hiring another person to augment your lifestyle ought to be pretty expensive, if we want that person to also have a decent life.

    And if we don’t value the people who perform services for us, and are ok with them not having a decent quality of life… why not just have slaves? It sounds like an absurd argument, but why is it ok to exploit someone a little bit, but not a lot?

    Let’s turn that around — can a society function without poor people? I don’t mean “if the poor people went Galt, would society collapse?” The answer there is absolutely yes. I mean can society function where the wealth is not concentrated at the top, and so even the people at the bottom can have a decent, middle-class life?

    I don’t know. Jesus famously said that “the poor will always be with us” (the Gospel According to Andrew Lloyd Weber and Time Rice), but was he right?

    It might be that there simply isn’t enough money so if we gave everyone the same amount we would all be poor. There might be perverse incentives that develop. It might collapse entirely. It might cause hyper inflation. It might be a very bad idea.

    But, are we anywhere near the point where any terrible breakdown in society would occur? The answer there is clearly no. The minimum wage in the Netherlands is pretty high compared to ours, and they haven’t descended into chaos. We might not ultimately be able to eliminate the concept of the working-poor, but we can test that limit, and raise the standard of living for our working poor until we start seeing problems.

    We can exploit our lower classes less.

    I guess I’m a socialist incrementalist. Probably the worst kind of socialist and the worst kind of incrementalist.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    But a more intriguing argument is emerging that there is growing evidence that restaurant workers have taken the covid break as an opportunity to retrain and develop skills that are more highly valued

    That argument assumes no laborers entering the workforce.

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  5. Tony W says:

    Great piece, thought-provoking!

    I’m not sure why some academics believe that “tomorrow’s economy” doesn’t feature any more Waffle House restaurants, but the fact is that we need people who can bring the sort of organizational and customer service skills to a job like that.

    There is definitely a chicken-egg problem here. Those who are not predestined for desk jobs will always seek out the jobs that exist, for which they are qualified (meaning they can get hired). Employers could do more to make the jobs more interesting, but toilet cleaning will never be interesting (and you don’t want it to be).

    The fact is that some people care deeply about having their impact on society through their work. Others see their job as a means to an end, and want their impact to be in the arena of family, or social organizations, or volunteering, or church.

    That’s okay.

    The problem here is defining success too narrowly – our schools crank out little FTEs and we applaud them.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Tony W:

    but toilet cleaning will never be interesting (and you don’t want it to be).

    I did that for a couple years. Not interesting, true, but even with the primitive tech of the era (portable radios and headphones) I kept my mind occupied. With today’s tech you could use the time to learn a language, listen to audiobooks of the classics, learn some history, etc… Wage equivalents suck today relative to the old days, but there are compensations.

  7. Northerner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Let’s turn that around — can a society function without poor people? I don’t mean “if the poor people went Galt, would society collapse?” The answer there is absolutely yes. I mean can society function where the wealth is not concentrated at the top, and so even the people at the bottom can have a decent, middle-class life?

    It seems to be working in some European countries like Denmark. They still have a big wealth gap, but from what I’ve read even the poor have a decent, middle-class life (at least in absolute terms of decent housing, decent food, free time to pursue interests rather than working around the clock just to survive). I suppose it partly depends upon what middle-class life entails, but I’d argue that having the necessities of life comfortably met is the core of it.

    And there’s really no reason that standard can’t be met in every one of the richer nations (say via a universal guaranteed income as suggested by communists like Milton Friedman).

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  8. Modulo Myself says:

    America just has an extreme lack of respect for people who don’t ‘succeed’. That’s why so many people go into debt for college–because they know how non-college educated people are talked about. Anything that cuts into that prejudice should be welcomed.

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  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher:

    Do these jobs need to be done? Would we, as a society, be better off either raising the economic value of that job (raise prices, increase efficiency) or leaving it undone, as opposed to the current situation?

    The beauty of our system as currently run it that we don’t have to make that analysis. We can simply declare that these jobs are “low skill,” and the people working them don’t deserve to make more. Dr. Joyner has a point when he implies that the real problem is all of those bleeding hearts like Annie Lowery trying to fix what isn’t broken.

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  10. JKB says:

    Lost in this is the, sometimes, value of being in a niche rather than in the overt essential field. The importance of being unimportant. Even a “low-skill” worker in a low skill job can garner good wages if they aren’t a large cost in the overall product or project.

    In Sir Hubert Henderson’s short textbook, Supply and Demand (1922), with a foreword by John Maynard Keynes himself, there is a less momentous but deeply intriguing section titled “The Importance of Being Unimportant.” It expresses the unintuitive idea that, under the right conditions, it is desirable to be a very small part of something big.

    A good example in Henderson’s book is the dynamics of setting wages for workers at different stages of production. In the manufacture of steel, coal miners were extremely important — coal, once converted to a purer form of carbon, is needed to remove the oxygen from iron ore — and their strikes could inflict severe economic damage. (Indeed, a coal strike may have played an indirect role in the sinking of the Titanic.) But the miners’ leverage was limited because a big wage increase would have severely damaged the British steel industry in the near term, and because steelmakers could have eventually switched to American or European coal. Smelting workers, by contrast, were also indispensable, but they managed to extract high wages because the cost of their labor had a much smaller impact on the steelmakers’ bottom line.

    Actually, Henderson was standing on the shoulder of a giant, Alfred Marshall, who had made parallel observations on the building trades three decades earlier. In the late 19th century, masons and carpenters were much more important than plasterers to housing construction, a reality reflected in the fact that their wages accounted for a substantial part of building costs. But the plasterers had the upper hand in wage bargaining because builders could more readily absorb the cost of plasterers’ demands to keep construction on schedule.

    So you either up-skill in an overtly essential job, or you maintain competence, and perhaps only firm-specific skills, in an necessary job but one that is a niche.

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  11. JKB says:

    Those of us in the learned professions should really be cognizant of that fact. Our relative success in navigating the current economy is something of a historical accident.

    If you read historical documents, you come away with the ideas of monk/professors who wrote about lords and ladies. The brutish existence for the other 99.9% of humanity is, shall we say, glossed over. Then we come to the very recent blip in human history when capitalism has enabled millions to imagine themselves in the Medieval 0.01% of scholars and writers. But it is very recent that writing was anything but a hobby. And a tiny, tiny few enjoyed patronage to write flatteringly of their patron or conduct research into intriguing ideas.

    How odd so many who enjoy this unearned benefit of capitalism argue so vociferously for the end of capitalism. Even the Soviet Union at it height engaged in trade based on capitalism, they just denied their slaves the liberty to better themselves by keeping that which they earned and using it to generate wealth for themselves by participation in markets and enterprises.

    In the precapitalistic ages writing was an unremunerative art. Blacksmiths and shoemakers could make a living, but authors could not. Writing was a liberal art, a hobby, but not a profession. It was a noble pursuit of wealthy people, of kings, grandees and statesmen, of patricians and other gentlemen of independent means. It was practiced in spare time by bishops and monks, university teachers and soldiers. The penniless man whom an irresistible impulse prompted to write had first to secure some source of revenue other than authorship.

    –Mises, Ludwig von (1956). The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    there is growing evidence that restaurant workers have taken the covid break as an opportunity to retrain and develop skills that are more highly valued.

    Good, if true.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    People overlook the fact that there can be upward mobility within the restaurant world if you improve and expand your skills.

    Absolutely. And, indeed, even the “low-skill” job of waiter is well understood to require a lot of skill in a busy restaurant to do well—and pays very well indeed at higher-end places that command big prices. Waiters are a dime a dozen; good ones quite a bit more.

    @Gustopher:

    Let’s ignore that you’ve decided the nanny should make $75,000 rather than $40,000 or some other number in between.

    I picked $75,000 because, around here at least, that’s a solid but not extravagant income. It’s basically what a starting GS-11 makes. And, I picked it to illustrate that that there’s no way even a pretty well-off person could afford to pay a nanny that much (let alone all the benefits a GS-11 would get).

    You’re of course right that someone making $100,000 probably shouldn’t expect to have a private nanny for their kids. But it’s one of the jobs Lowrie used as an example. And, I’d argue, we don’t tend to think of multi-family caregivers as “nannies” at all but “daycare—a much lower-tier job on the “skill” and pay scale.

    @Tony W:

    The problem here is defining success too narrowly – our schools crank out little FTEs and we applaud them.

    I fully agree with that. But Lowrie seems to be arguing that all jobs should be more-or-less valued equally, both socially and remuneratively. I don’t think that’s feasible.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    We can simply declare that these jobs are “low skill,” and the people working them don’t deserve to make more.

    Except that I don’t do that. I don’t think it’s even a matter of desert. The guy who sweeps up at the barber shop deserves respect and a fair wage. But he’s almost certainly going to make less than a decent barber, who’s probably going to make less than the barber who owns the shop.

    Jobs like flipping burgers or ringing up orders at McDonald’s used to be done by high school kids. Hell, one of my high school classmates was an assistant manager at one of them by senior year while going to school full time, getting straight A’s, and being the drum major in the band. The fry cook simply isn’t worth $40 an hour to the franchise owner.

    I agree with many in the thread that there are cases where people are paid less than they’re worth to the business, with excess costs like healthcare, school lunches and the like passed on to the taxpayer through the welfare state. But I think we’re increasingly going to have a larger chunk of society who have to be subsidized because they don’t have the skills, knowledge, and ability to function in an increasingly-technical economy.

    1
  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I am always struck by the fact that whenever we have these conversations, people always try to answer the question of “What can people do to improve their situation?” or “What can government do to improve the lot of low skill workers?” It never seems to occur to anybody to ask what business can do. I mean, the system as is, is constructed for their benefit, to maximize their profit potential. Don’t they have some responsibility here?

    I laugh because they are the ones who complain the loudest and longest about their inability to find workers with the proper skill set. They are the ones who are always saying Americans don’t want to work anymore. As tho all they should ever have to do is sit back while the country goes out of it’s way to supply them with whatever they need to rake in the bucks. And we, the people of this country do it while we cut their taxes and strip regulations down.

    I can’t say it is a solution for everything but in construction unions fill the void we are talking about here. Can’t speak to the details in the other trades but the carpenters has a 7 year apprenticeship program with 2 weeks of paid training every year and mandatory journeyman upgrade classes every year after. In return the contractors get a well compensated and motivated work force that actually knows how to build stuff in the safest manner possible. They can hire guys for a week, a month, a year, and lay them off at any time no questions asked because sometimes a job might require a hundred carpenters for 2 weeks and just 2 dozen for 6 months.

    I had dozens of certifications and many times one specific cert was why I was sent to a job site by my rep, or transferred to a different one by the contractor i was working for. The contractors made money. We made money. Everybody was happy.

    Of course, they don’t have the system down south. You get what you pay for.

    10
  14. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I think a system like you describe makes a lot of sense for skilled tradesmen, who companies tend to need sporadically and have no possible idea of how to manage, or for massive manufacturing concerns like the auto industry, where a huge amount of workers across a range of skillsets are needed. I honestly don’t know how it would work in the restaurant business or retail sales.

    In an ideal world, absolutely, businesses would train their workers and compensate them well to retain them for the long term. But the nature of a whole lot of our economy is that people will simply leverage those new skills to find another job. I don’t think there’s much loyalty in either direction.

    Regardless, I don’t know that anything is going to solve the problem of entry-level workers not making a lot of money. That’s really the nature of entry-level work in just about any sector.

    1
  15. Mimai says:

    This is one of those articles that frustrates me. I waver between being frustrated at the author and the medium. I’ll take them in turn:

    I’m pleased she gave this topic airtime. And she did indeed make some important points and raise some important questions. But the article was a conceptual mess. Among other things, she tried to shoehorn the topic into her own worldview (oh the irony), and she couldn’t get out of her own way.

    This is perhaps most evident in her framing of this along the “oppressor/oppressed” axis, which is relevant but of a different flavor than racism/sexism. She couldn’t seem to step outside that narrow lane when approaching this topic. Here’s one example of an assertion without evidence or sufficient argumentation:

    The same dynamics are surely at play in how we distinguish between low-skill, low-pay and high-skill, high-pay work.

    I was also frustrated by the nearly exclusive focus on “skills” and the lack of attention to “people.” Yes, she made a point about distinguishing skills from workers, but this still took too narrow a view of people.

    The overall effect is one where people are considered to be programmable bots. No attention was paid to temperament and personality, which (in my opinion) are at least as important as “skills” and in many cases, more important.

    Although she didn’t use this language, the article was really talking about goodness of fit (workers to skills to jobs to economy). This is all very relevant except that she failed to consider the “human” in “workers.” Without such consideration, any efforts to upskill (add that to my list from yesterday’s thread on disgust triggering words) or enhance educational opportunities are doomed to fail.

    Now the medium. I think this topic is way too important and complex for a single article in a popular magazine. It could work as a series, but I suspect that is not in the works. So maybe some of my ire directed at the author is better placed on the medium…but not all of it.

    This topic is better suited to book form. Indeed, Matthew Crawford has written a lot about this specific topic and adjacent ones…..in book form no less. He’s not the only one, but I do appreciate his approach to the topic(s). YMMV.

    Finally, I do want to highlight something that James wrote that struck an off-note for me.

    The issues of illegal aliens (or whatever we want to call those here seeking employment in violation of our immigration laws) and felons are even harder to solve…

    Clearly, James was aware of the, er, provocative label “illegal aliens.” And we’ve had recent discussions around here about the term “felons” (not sure if James read/participated in those). My point is that instead of using a simple and less inflammatory label, James decided to write “illegal aliens” and then spill even more ink writing a parenthetical to it. Odd.

    2
  16. The article is a lengthy exercise in sophistry, jumbling a number of things that are different and trying to brew up outrage from the differences.

    Credentials, skills, prerequisites, and cost of entry are different things but the reality is that the fewer the prerequisites and the lower the cost of entry the less the job will be worth paying for.

    IMO the question that is being dodged is why have we as a society been trying to maximize the number of jobs with few prerequisites and low cost of entry? It’s been the informal national policy for decades. The Germans even have a term for it. They call it “the American system”.

    5
  17. Slugger says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You deserve a great deal of respect for what you have achieved, and your net asset value probably reflects a real materialization of that respect. However, you’re atypical. What happened to all the others who worked with you? We have to create meaningful opportunities for the six out of ten and not just for the one in a hundred. In the US the top 1% has outpaced the bottom 50% in share of the GDP. https://baystreetex.com/index.php/2020/05/22/income-inequality-usa/
    An increasingly disempowered proletariat is a powder keg.
    I’m a 1%er who had a father who was an ordinary laborer and a stay home mother who sewed for extra money. I also had the chance to have some conversations with a day who went to school with Dick Frankensteen and got his nose broken at the Battle of the Overpass. My friend was proud of what the UAW achieved but regretted that the union didn’t pursue a larger agenda.

    2
  18. Andy says:

    Fundamentally, labor is a market and is subject to the forces of supply and demand (but not only to those forces). So it’s not about “skills”, it’s primarily about the labor market. There are simply many more low and no-skill workers compared to the number of jobs available and as long as that remains the case, then wages will be low. That’s not just true for low and no-skill labor, it also explains why there is a very large range of compensation for people who have PhDs despite the fact they all require similar commitments in terms of education.

    And government policy plays a big role in this as well. The rise of credentialism is mostly about gatekeeping to restrict the supply of labor to justify higher wages. Plus, our trade policy over the last several decades has sought to do the same thing by exporting almost any low-skill job that can be exported. Meanwhile, at the other end, we import lots of low and no-skill workers.

    Much of this seems lost on those who lament the glory days of union labor, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the power of unions historically aligns with market labor forces.

    As Modulo mentions, there are cultural factors as well. The educational-industrial complex has been propagandizing our society for decades that education in the form of a college degree is what everyone should strive for as the ideal and that those who don’t are somehow losers who can’t cut it. And this trend has pretty much driven everything except college-prep out of American high schools – kids are no longer even exposed to non-college options that used to exist in various “shop” and “home economics” courses. In the school district I live in, for example, all those skill-based courses don’t exist anymore. This educational industrial complex also likely explains why there is a glut of Ph.D.’s chasing a relative handful of tenured positions and the current state of adjunct faculty.

    4
  19. James Joyner says:

    @Mimai:

    Clearly, James was aware of the, er, provocative label “illegal aliens.” And we’ve had recent discussions around here about the term “felons”

    I’ve written quite a bit about these issues over the years. My only real point in this post is that Lowrie does her argument a disservice by lumping these people into it. Just completely different issues.

    @Andy:

    This educational industrial complex also likely explains why there is a glut of Ph.D.’s chasing a relative handful of tenured positions and the current state of adjunct faculty.

    There’s some of that. But, mostly, it’s two things: 1) The older generation of tenured professors simply refused to go away. It used to be customary for them to gracefully retire at 60, certainly no later than 65. Now, they stay on until they’re dragged out by the heels. (And I say that as someone who, while not in a tenurable position, is now 55 and likely to hang on for quite a while longer.) 2) When a tenured professor finally retires, they’re typically not replaced by another tenure-track professor. The bean counters that have taken over the academy have decided that it’s far cheaper to have the grunt work done by teaching assistants and poverty-wage adjuncts. It’s terrible for the long-term health of the institution but they’ve managed to get away with it for a generation now.

    2
  20. Mimai says:

    @James Joyner:

    Yes, I understand that you have written about these issues. And I also understand your overall point – I agree with it. It’s just that I found the “illegal aliens” bit (with the parenthetical) to be odd. Unnecessary. If I were being uncharitable, gratuitous. And apparently with full awareness.

    I didn’t intend to hijack the thread, merely to point this one thing out.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy: You say many things here that are pertinent and that I agree with, but it seems to me that there’s a bizarre blind spot in the middle of them.

    Fundamentally, labor is a market and is subject to the forces of supply and demand (but not only to those forces).

    Correct! Not a free market, of course — like all markets in this country, it’s regulated on both the supply and demand sides. More on that below.

    There are simply many more low and no-skill workers compared to the number of jobs available and as long as that remains the case, then wages will be low.

    Yes and no. Wages for janitors and shelf-stockers would be higher if people had to live on the market wages, without either government subsidy or government suppression of organized labor. The free market equilibrium also includes occasionally hanging ownership from lamp-posts, when wages are insufficient for living. The question of whether the current subsidy mechanisms are the best possible, at the best level, is still open.

    And government policy plays a big role in this as well.

    Correct! See above. And also:

    The rise of credentialism is mostly about gatekeeping to restrict the supply of labor to justify higher wages. Plus, our trade policy over the last several decades has sought to do the same thing by exporting almost any low-skill job that can be exported. Meanwhile, at the other end, we import lots of low and no-skill workers.

    I find this an odd set of government interventions to focus on.

    Credentialism is a mix of government interference to protect the public and regulatory capture by existing power structures. Nobody wants a society where anyone can hang out a shingle as a surgeon. Nobody needs a society where cutting people’s hair requires a degree and a certificate and guild fees.

    Trade policy is beyond my expertise. I won’t opine.

    “Importing lots of low- and no-skill workers” seems to me to get some things backward. The people who pick our strawberries and clean our hotel toilets would make a lot more if they were in the country legally — the laws that they are violating are a pure subsidy to business, as currently enforced. It would be an interesting natural experiment to see how much wages would rise in the absence of an almost unlimited low-leverage workforce.

    Much of this seems lost on those who lament the glory days of union labor, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the power of unions historically aligns with market labor forces.

    I’m not quite sure what you meant by this, but I don’t see anything in what you said above that recognizes that the current impotence of unions is entirely driven by “right to work” legislation and other government interference in the market, driven by regulatory capture. If government were neutral toward organized labor, the current situation would be very different and we’d be having a different discussion.

    4
  22. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    And, I’d argue, we don’t tend to think of multi-family caregivers as “nannies” at all but “daycare”—a much lower-tier job on the “skill” and pay scale.

    And by devaluing this work, are we doing our society a disservice?

    We choose the pay of work unrelated to the value that work provides in many instances, because “those people” don’t deserve more. And while you don’t come out and say it, and when pressed to examine it you don’t believe it, your argument has a lot of what I would refer to as background societal biases.

    And you justify it with the “we” above, as in “we don’t tend to think of multi-family caregivers as “nannies” at all but ‘daycare’—a much lower-tier job on the ‘skill’ and pay scale” — a curious use of “we” that you try to exclude yourself from with scare quotes on skill — and will also refer to “the market”.

    I mean, I get it, I do it too — daycare involves children, and thus it’s women’s work, and every family used to have a woman in the house that would do it for free, so how can it have value? The thought process is way more subtle than that, but if you grow up in America, you’re going to absorb a lot of that, and it’s going to slip in.

    (And this “you” is a generic you, which includes me… pronouns do a lot of subtle heavy lifting to distance people)

    But, do we want the labor force for child care constrained by which women weren’t able to get a job that pays a living wage? That seems like a recipe for bad outcomes.

    There are doubtless people who somehow like being around children, but cannot afford to take these jobs. And these people may provide a better environment for the kids.

    “The market” prices in racism and sexism into wages. Unskilled women’s work pays worse than unskilled work traditionally done by men, and if it’s a Black or Latina women, even less.

    And I think you get this. And I think you’re wary of it.

    But, “the market” also prices in classism — views that people who don’t earn a lot deserve to earn less.

    Here I’m less certain that you get it, and you’re definitely not as wary. I don’t always get it, and I’m not sure what we do about it.

    Often when there are discussions of unskilled labor and such, I’m reminded of a scene from Unforgiven:

    Daggett: You just shot an unarmed man
    Munny: Well, he should have armed himself

    1
  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I laugh because they are the ones who complain the loudest and longest about their inability to find workers with the proper skill set. They are the ones who are always saying Americans don’t want to work anymore. As tho all they should ever have to do is sit back while the country goes out of it’s way to supply them with whatever they need to rake in the bucks. And we, the people of this country do it while we cut their taxes and strip regulations down.

    And some of them even advocate that the government should subsidize their labor costs in addition in the form of UBI (I believe I see Jeff Bezos looking the other way right now).

    1
  24. Mimai says:

    @Gustopher:

    This “we” business also struck a chord with me, but I let it slide in my earlier comment (which was more than long enough). You (Gustopher) raise a good point. And kudos for owning up to your own culpability.

    And yet I don’t see a way out of it. Ultimately, given the reality of scarcity, decisions must be made. The rub is who makes such decisions. Or to frame it differently, is the starting point for decisional authority at the macro or micro level? I suspect that as an “Socialist incrementalist,” your priors are with the macro.

    A related point, I get annoyed by how often I see the “we” invoked in such discussions…more specifically, how it is used. Lowrie does it throughout the piece. And IMO, given the overall tone of the article (not to mention her other work), it is mostly used as a rhetorical cudgel – a “you low empathy bigots” judgment masquerading as a “I do it too” self-awareness

    She never does grapple with the messy specifics….at least not to my satisfaction. Sure, she may say that she is willing to pay X amount more for her tomatoes if that’s what it takes to pay the workers a “living wage”….and I would believe her (she strikes me as an earnest sort). But it gets messier when her policy preferences impose real costs on other people. And as with many/most things, such costs are disproportionately borne by the least advantaged among us. Which brings me back to my point about decision making authority (macro vs. micro).

    Is any of this new terrain? Of course not. But it does bear bringing to the forefront of such discussions. So again, I say, kudos to you (Gustopher).

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: ” It’s terrible for the long-term health of the institution but they’ve managed to get away with it for a generation now.” I’m not sure that the system you describe IS terrible for the long-term health of the institution, in fact. It may well depend on what kind of institution. For example, every 2-year college I can think of for which I worked was funded for some number X of full-time equivalent students, yet operated at up to 100% over its funding capacity because more than 50% of all classes (and close to 70 or 80% in departments such as English, and mathematics) were taught by adjunct faculty earning as little as 10% of what full-time faculty earn. I suspect that my experience in 2-years is not significantly different than that of adjuncts at 4-years–other than maybe needing more than the 3 schools I needed to cobble together work at. And the last I heard, all of the schools at which I worked are doing fine. I’m not sure what institutional damage you’re talking about.

    As to whether the model can be sustained for another 2 or 3 generations, I have no idea. Maybe society and the powers that be within it need to investigate the long-term value of shoveling people into (grade) 13-19 education systems as an alternative to paying full-time employees livable wages across the whole economic spectrum. The question of the utility of splitting full-time employment slots into 2 or 3 part-time jobs to lower operating costs in, for example, some retail fields can be postponed for another day and time.

  26. wr says:

    @JKB: Do you ever quote any writers on business who have actually observed anything that’s happened since, say, the Great Depression? This 1922 quote is actually quite contemporary for you.

    4
  27. JohnMcC says:

    There’s an op-ed in the NYTimes this morning that relates to this topic: The Woman Who Shattered the Myth of the Free Market. Zachary Carter.

    Lady’s name was Joan Robinson. She was an economist at Oxford who’s career overlapped Marshall’s. She collaborated with Keynes’ on his ‘General Theory’.

    The essence is that workers virtually always face a wall of monopsony; those who are purchasing labor almost always know what prevailing rates are and highly reluctant to raise the bar. I imagine that anyone opening a restaurant or a day care will know what cooks, dish washers and maitre ‘d’s make in general, for example. This is universally the experience of everyone I know and certainly is my experience. In a quaint turn of phrase, this used to be called “restraint of trade” when corporations did it to each other. Somehow it’s not when applied to the labor market.

    1
  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: In an ideal world, absolutely, businesses would train their workers and compensate them well to retain them for the long term. But the nature of a whole lot of our economy is that people will simply leverage those new skills to find another job. I don’t think there’s much loyalty in either direction.

    Damn right, loyalty is for suckers. I learned that fact of life a long time ago. Most recently my wife gave heart and soul to a company for over 30 years, but as soon as they figured out they could hire 2 20somethings for less than they were paying her? Out the door she went.

    At any rate, my main point stands: In these conversations employers get a pass, which is interesting because they are the elephant in the room. The elephant that stomps us peons flat.

    “All hail the sacred job creators…. ooopps, I mean job destroyers.”

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: And some of them even advocate that the government should subsidize their labor costs

    Govt already does. How many Walmart employees are on Medicaid? Children on SCHIP? Receiving foodstamps and WIC? Section 8? etc etc.

    2
  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Slugger:
    When I was a waiter I was just a waiter. I succeeded at that by working harder than anyone else. I took every shift. I covered every absence. Call me at the last minute to come in? I came in. At each new restaurant I started on lousy lunch shifts, quickly started getting dinner shifts, then got the prime shifts, then was made headwaiter or manager because an employee who is 100% reliable becomes indispensable very quickly. Having been an employer as well as an employee I can tell you competence and willingness are the magic ingredients.

    I took that same approach to get into writing – pick up an extra table, er, book? Yes. Always yes, always do it well, always do it on time. Talent is a necessary but insufficient condition. But add talent to competence and reliability? You’re unstoppable.

    I hesitate to go into ‘kids today’ mode, but I thought work was an opportunity not a burden. A privilege.

    3
  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    How many Walmart employees are on Medicaid? Children on SCHIP? Receiving foodstamps and WIC? Section 8? etc etc.

    To me this is the best argument for raising corporate taxes. If your employees are on the dole, screw you, pay more tax.

    4
  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My youngest works in that industry. He takes the same attitude.

    1
  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @wr: But aren’t von Mies et al.’s descriptions considered some kind of eternal truth among the loyal? I think it was von Mies who declared that when reality doesn’t perform according to what he declared were the laws of economics it showed that reality was wrong.

  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnMcC: The phenomenon you describe also is one of the arguments that some use to argue against a minimum wage as setting a ceiling on wages rather than a floor. In the argument, the minimum works against Say’s Law by strengthening the hold of the monopsony, if I recall. (The argument also relies on the notion that Say’s Law actually functions in the real world, which monopsony seems to argue against to begin with, but that didn’t stop the business majors from trying to make the argument.)

  34. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    To me this is the best argument for raising corporate taxes. If your employees are on the dole, screw you, pay more tax.

    For large companies, definitely.

    But, this is one of those things that I wonder about — is our society better off if businesses have to shoulder the entire burden of their labor, or does subsidizing labor help businesses get a toehold and create more jobs?

    And then, if the latter, is an expanded social safety net the best approach?

    If we subsidized businesses directly — say, 20% of $15/hr for 50 workers at 40hrs, 15% for the next 50… — we could target small businesses, avoid stigmatizing workers (they get cash, and as the business grows, who even knows if they are one of the subsidized workers?), and tie the subsidy to worker id (which would cut the ability to hire illegal immigrants, or at least the value)

    And then separate the safety net for those who cannot work, or cannot find work.

    I’m sure we would screw over the people without jobs, because that’s the American Dream, but it could lead to screwing over the working class less.

    1
  35. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Taking care of kids is hard work. It doesn’t require much in the way of formal training, so it’s classified as “unskilled.” I’m sure the fact that it’s historically been done by women or outsourced to women of color has indeed affected the perception and pricing. Still, the fact of the matter remains that the economic value of these jobs has to either be substantially less than that of those paying them—otherwise, the free-up parent’s going to work would be self-defeating—or they have to take care of multiple kids at a time, in which case the quality of the care necessarily lessens considerably.

  36. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    That is a very interesting idea. Hmmm.

  37. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: @Michael Reynolds: I very much agree that we should differentiate between small businesses and massive corporations in this discussion. Too many bear animus towards “business,” as if it’s just the Walmarts and Amazons who could just take a little less profit if they weren’t so greedy. Lots of local restaurants simply can’t afford to pay big wages when they’re struggling to stay afloat on current margins.

  38. Andy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I find this an odd set of government interventions to focus on.

    It simply demonstrates one of the ways the labor market is manipulated to affect wages. It is not a broad argument against credentials generally, though I think the pendulum has swung too far in that direction.

    “Importing lots of low- and no-skill workers” seems to me to get some things backward. The people who pick our strawberries and clean our hotel toilets would make a lot more if they were in the country legally — the laws that they are violating are a pure subsidy to business, as currently enforced. It would be an interesting natural experiment to see how much wages would rise in the absence of an almost unlimited low-leverage workforce.

    The point is that increasing the labor pool will tend to drive wages down. We have a lot of unskilled people coming to this country when it’s pretty clear we don’t have a shortage of unskilled labor.

    And I think the evidence that programs like the H1B visa program are used as tools to drive wages down is pretty strong.

    I’m not quite sure what you meant by this, but I don’t see anything in what you said above that recognizes that the current impotence of unions is entirely driven by “right to work” legislation and other government interference in the market, driven by regulatory capture. If government were neutral toward organized labor, the current situation would be very different and we’d be having a different discussion.

    The point is that the power of American-style labor unions (in contrast to those in Europe, which are quite a bit different), are affected by the labor market. When labor is more scarce, unions are in a stronger position, which was the case through the middle of the 20th century. In other words I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the power of labor was strongest when there was:

    – very little immigration (keeps the labor pool smaller than it otherwise would be)
    – racist union and government policy (ditto)
    – fewer women in the workforce (again, which keeps the labor pool smaller)
    – All the post-WW2/great depression effects that increased the number of jobs

    Note that the power and influence of labor have decreased in line with those factors which started to change in the 1960’s. I think the notion that government can make labor powerful again by forcing it on workers whether they want it or not will not work without a lot of other changes. But even more than that, the American model of labor unions is an outdated industrial model, and unions need to reform here.

    But that’s a subject for a different post

  39. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    The point is that increasing the labor pool will tend to drive wages down. We have a lot of unskilled people coming to this country when it’s pretty clear we don’t have a shortage of unskilled labor.

    This is the part I think you have backwards. The labor pool of people that exists is driven by the fact that there is demand for more people to pick strawberries and mow lawns and clean hotel rooms than the domestic labor pool was providing. So much demand that people are willing to climb walls and swim rivers and risk mistreatment at the hands of the police in order to fill it. That scarcity hasn’t resulted in increased wages only because the people providing labor at the margin are vulnerable, due to their legal status. If you waved a magic wand and made them all citizens tomorrow, their wages would rise significantly as they organized and demanded healthcare and living wages. Or, alternatively, if the US started prosecuting employers instead of deporting workers.

    And I think the evidence that programs like the H1B visa program are used as tools to drive wages down is pretty strong.

    That could be. I’m less concerned there because (1) we need the talent that US students are not providing, (2) they all make living wages, and (3) eventually those people become Americans, making us a stronger better nation. Which is what would happen with the fruit pickers and hotel cleaners, too, if we were smart enough to let them.

  40. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    I think the notion that government can make labor powerful again by forcing it on workers whether they want it or not […]

    I genuinely have no idea what you mean by this. Labor doesn’t need government help to make workers want to organize; it needs government help to permit workers to organize, and to prevent ownership from retaliating against union members. Adam Smith had some strong words on this topic, and none of them were anti-union.

  41. RK says:

    Skills are a definitely a loaded word. In STEM fields you will see many “highly skilled” people getting paid truckers wages, and treated very poorly. Often times jobs will require “artificial” skills, such that applicants that conform to a certain standard can be hired, IE they happen to know that one computer language that is taught at the India Institutes of Technology, or know how to push the button on a AI machine(the AI machine does all the work). You can look these things up as the h1b visa salaries have to be posted.

    https://h1bdata.info/index.php?em=&job=Associate+Professor&city=&year=2021

    In general the term tends to be used as a way to create a sort of a caste system and to fragment the overall political labor market in the US, untouchables if they were Hindu. We need more low skilled people, no we need more highly skilled, no we don’t need more of either. We’ll be just fine as Americans.