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Bread and roses

from David Ruccio


Mainstream economists and politicians have answers for everything.

Lose your job? Well, that’s just globalization and technology at work. Not much that can be done about that.

And if you still want a job? Then just move to where the jobs are—and make sure your children go to college in order to prepare themselves for the jobs that will be available in the future.

The fact is, they’re not particularly good answers. And people know it. That’s why working-class voters are questioning business as usual and registering their protest by supporting—in the case of Brexit, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the 2017 snap election in Britain, and so on—alternative positions and politicians.  

On the first point, it’s not simply globalization and technology. Large corporations, which employ most people, are the ones that decide—in the context of a global economy and by developing and adopting new technologies—when and where some jobs will be destroyed and new ones created. They use the surplus they appropriate from their existing workers and utilize it to determine the pattern of job destruction and creation, in order to get even more surplus.

Thus, in April 2017 (according to the data in the chart at the top of the post), employers eliminated 1.6 million jobs in the United States. In January 2009, things were even worse: corporations destroyed 2.6 million jobs across the U.S. economy. Of course, they also create new jobs—often in different companies, industries, regions, and countries. That leaves individual workers with the sole decision of whether or not to chase those jobs, since as a group they have absolutely no say in when or where old jobs are destroyed and new ones created.

What about their children and the advice to go to college? We already know the idea that higher education successfully levels the playing field across students with different backgrounds is a myth (and sending more kids to college doesn’t do much, if anything, to lower inequality).

Now we’re learning that, when states suffer a widespread loss of jobs, the damage extends to the next generation, where college attendance drops among the poorest students.

That’s the conclusion of new research Elizabeth O. Ananat and her coauthors, just published in Science (unfortunately behind a paywall). What they found is that

local job losses can both worsen adolescent mental health and lower academic performance and, thus, can increase income inequality in college attendance, particularly among African-American students and those from the poorest families.

Their argument is that macro-level job losses are best understood as “community-level traumas” that negatively affect the learning ability and the mental health not only of young people who experience job loss within their own families, but also of the other children in states where the destruction of jobs is widespread.

So, the problem can’t be solved by forcing individual workers to have the freedom to chase after jobs and send their children to college. Nor is the predicament confined to the white working-class. In fact, the effects of job losses are similar, but even worse, among African-American youth.

That’s why Ananat argues that

white working class people and African-American working class people are in the same boat due to job destruction. Imagine the policies we could have if folks found common ground over that.

And, I would add, those policies need to go beyond the “active labor market policies”—such as “rigorous job training and active matching of worker skills to employer needs”—the authors, along with mainstream economists and politicians, put forward.*

We also need to reconsider the fact that, within existing economic institutions, employers are the only ones who get to decide when and where jobs are destroyed and created. Giving workers the ability to participate as a group in the decisions about jobs—within existing enterprises and by assisting them to form their own enterprises, would improve their own mental health and that of the members of the wider community.

Such a change would also transform young people’s decisions about whether or not to go to college. It’s not just about jobs in the new economy. It would allow them to demand, as women in Lawrence, Massachusetts did over a century ago, both “bread and roses.”


*Policies to help “disadvantaged workers, especially African Americans, Hispanics and rural residents,” also need to go beyond encouraging the Fed to keep interest-rates low. That still leaves job decisions in the hands of employers.

  1. patrick newman
    June 21, 2017 at 11:46 am

    To make the changes suggested above implies a strong and intervening state – both locally and nationally. Apart from one elderly senator from Vermont where is the political movement to convert the cries for social and economic justice into political action?

  2. June 21, 2017 at 4:35 pm


    Thank you for this. Readers might want to consider something I have referred to in another set of comments – on a Lars column – that, of all places, the Clinton’s think tank put out in the early hours of May 16th, in advance of their “Ideas Conference” for 2017: a “Marshall Plan” WPA type of guaranteed job program, but limited to high school educated voters only…yet take a look at the presentation, it is Neoliberalism running scared enough to intervene in labor markets, which has been for 30 years, and still is in Euro Ruling “triangles” an absolute taboo for the periphery which needs it the most: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2017/05/16/432499/toward-marshall-plan-america/

    I had my hopes about what this represented dashed pretty quickly, after spending about a day listening to all 19 or so tapes, of speakers and panels: the Democratic Party didn’t have much enthusiasm for the briefing ideas that I’ve linked to, and had no depth on them the few times they were referenced.

    L. Randall Wray, who knows something about the topic, and Thomas Frank, who has been calling for this direction for decades, of course were not invited to weigh in…nor was the general public. Truly, this was a “foreign policy” from the elites to try to win back the white working class. But you know, a WPA type progam, and a jobs guarantee program like Wray advocates as an integral part of his Modern Monetary Theory presentations (and a book of that title) are not as easy to design as a all young needy male program like the CCC or WPA from the 1930’s. And we have the tricky ground of not having complete system collapse yet – just a collapse for the bottom 60% or so. And the jobs programs aren’t just needed for the working class: they’re needed for retirees from the middle class who can’t live on SS and Medicare’s stingy payments…

    Nontheless, the topic has been broached: capitalism as we know it is failing to deliver, and citizens can help design the work that they want and that objectively needs to be done to make our lives better, via publicly funded jobs. There is no shortage of people with leadership skills either: from the military and all those surplus mid-level managers tossed out during the 1990’s in the great purges of the old corporate “dinasaurs.”

    So many surplus people – yet so much in America that is not getting done: human, environmental and everything in between. And the money to pay for it…which is not yet seen in the term’s of Wray’s good explanation of how money, debt and deficits work in reality, as opposed to 19th century fantasy passed along via much of Neoliberalism: the income and wealth is stored in you know where, the top 1% and its top 20% per cent operatives…and they don’t know where to invest it, except that Red State rural America and the old urban ghettos don’t seem to have very high returns on capital.

  3. June 22, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Someone tells you don’t worry about the future, I’ll take care of it, that’s the time to look for the knife in the back, or throat if you prefer. Imagine a democracy where there is time to actually consider all the parts and potential ramifications of any change to economics or technology. With such an arrangement it’s actually possible to reject the new transportation of the automobile in favor of the solar carriage, but still choose the latest synthetic building materials and medical treatments. Just because a technology is possible we are not required to create or use it. We have choice. Similarly, we are not required to work simply for money. And even when we work (for money and enjoyment) there is always time for play and recreation. In such a democracy transitions from working to play, from one form of work to another, or even out of work altogether are soft and unforced. There is time to adjust both our lives and our relationships to the changes. Imagine! Apart from the obstruction of some political and economic elites and the fear of others what can stop the creation of just such a society?

    • robert locke
      June 22, 2017 at 11:05 am

      When I finished high school in 1949, I was ranked 31 in a class of 32 (a small school). My closest friend was ranked 32. I had never entertained the idea of going to college, so I worked on a farm digging ditches for a months and then joined the Air Force. 3 years, five months and 16 days later, I was discharged. I had the GI bill, so I went to College, a city college since my high school record was so dismal, but a city college in California would take anybody. Opportunity, with government help, was there for anybody who wished to seize upon it, no matter what time in life. I hated the idea of making money my aim, so I studied history, went on to get a PHD, then to retire with a good pension at age 68.

      My point, postWWII war Americans were among the most fortunate of Americans. We could study the humanities and have a full academic career, with tenure and good benefits. When managerialism invaded academia, this idyllic world changed. We turned academics into hired hands, who worker for the new managerialist caste, in institutions of higher learning where administrators had taken over and made money the object of an education as Thorstein Veblen predicted would happened, in his 1918 book about the introduction of schools of commerce (business schools) in American higher education. So the society you want, Ken, has disappeared under the reign of ceos in our era of managerialism. Managerialism has entered every aspect of American life; how you gonna change that?

      • June 22, 2017 at 1:00 pm

        Excellent thoughts, Robert. Between the military paying and national defense loans I earned five undergraduate degrees, three masters, and two PhDs and ended with a total debt of about $800. For many reasons, post-WWII America was the land of opportunity. Land grant universities and other public junior and 4-year colleges remained “public services,” committed to improvement of the public sphere and the lives of all American. I’ve labeled what you describe in changing that situation a Coup d’état. Carried out, as with most such devastation through fraud, propaganda, blackmail, and intimidation. What’s the history of resistance to socio-political coups tell us about reversing the coup. First, those who keep the coup on course and functioning must be removed from power. Second, grassroots resistance and non-compliance is organized. Peaceful non-compliance and refusal to cooperate. Depending on the organizers of the coup, these lead either to negotiations or physical violence. If the former, then begins the multi-decade process of reversing the coup’s impacts. If the latter, then begins the war. Today people in the US have just begun to consider step one.

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