Home > Uncategorized > The condition of the black working-class in the United States – 9 charts

The condition of the black working-class in the United States – 9 charts

from David Ruccio

Before he was killed, George Floyd worked as a truck, a bouncer, and a security guard. Ahmaud Arbery worked at his father’s car wash and landscaping business, and previously held a job at McDonald’s. Breonna Taylor was a certified Emergency Medical Technician who had two jobs at hospitals in Logettyimages-1216644292uisville, Kentucky. Eric Garner worked as a mechanic and then in New York City’s horticulture department for several years before health problems, including asthma, sleep apnea, and complications from diabetes, forced him to quit. Trayvon Martin was the son of a program coordinator for the Miami Dade Housing Authority and a truck driver; he washed cars, babysat, and cut grass to earn his own money.

All of them, and most of the other African Americans who have been killed in recent years (by the police or other Americans), were members of the black working-class in the United States.

The history of the black working-class begins, of course, with slavery and then continues—with almost-incessant violence, from slave patrols through lynchings to beatings and deaths at the hands of law enforcement and incarceration by the criminal justice system— through southern sharecropping, the Great Migration out of the rural South to the urban factories of the Northeast, Midwest, and West, and the panoply of jobs that currently exist in the public and private sectors of the United States.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the most recent period—thus, from the end of the Great Migration, which roughly coincided with the assassinations of the two great Civil Rights leaders of the period, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Even at the end of the Great Migration, more than half of the black working-class population remained in the South. But the region itself was changing, in large part because of the infrastructure associated with the spread of military bases and the subsequent industrialization of cities and towns in the non-cotton south—without however eliminating the anti-union, low-wage legacy of southern economies.

Meanwhile, in the North (both the Northeast and the Midwest), a large portion of black migrants managed to secure factory jobs. But the same migration channeled other black workers into the high-unemployment ghettos of northern cities, which if anything were worsening with the passage of time.

While in the first half of the twentieth century, labor unions had been anything but a positive force for black workers, by 1973 unionization rates among black men were over 40 percent, while rates among white men were between 30 and 40 percent.* And by the late 1970s, almost one quarter of black women—nearly double the share of white women—belonged to a union.


But, in 1972 (the first year for which data are available), the black unemployment rate was more than twice (2.15 times) that of white workers—which has persisted as an average, through the ups and downs of both unemployment rates, for the entire period down to the present.


What about workers’ wages? In 1973, average (median) real wages of black workers were only 78 percent of white wages—and, while the percentage has varied over the decades (reaching a high of 84 percent in 1979, no doubt due to the influence of labor unions), by 2019 the percentage had fallen even lower, to 76 percent.


The wages of the black working-class (just like those of the white working-class) exhibited a clear hierarchy based on gender in the early 1970s. Black women earned on average 69 percent of what black men did (while white women’s wages were even less, about 62 percent of their male counterparts). But then some of the gaps began to decrease: between black women and men (as well as between white women and men). In fact, by 2019, black working-class women’s wages were 94 percent of those of black men (although, by then, white women’s wages were higher than both black men and women). But the wage gap between black and white men had actually grown—from 24.5 percent (in 1973) to 31.7 percent (in 2019).


The gender composition of the black working-class both reflected and contributed to the changes in wage gaps over the past five decades. In 1972, the labor force participation rate of black men was much higher than that of black women: 78.5 percent compared to 51.1 percent. But the gap between the two rates has declined dramatically over time, both because the rate for men has fallen (largely due to the increased incarceration rate of black men) and the increase in the rate for women (as they became increasingly engaged in employment outside the household). So, even though both rates have fallen in recent decades (mirroring the nationwide decline in the labor force participation rate, the gray line in the chart), the changes between 1972 and 2019 for both groups are striking: the rate for black men had declined to 68.1 percent while that of black women had increased to 62.5 percent.

The result is that black women, who in 1972 made up 44.9 percent of the black civilian labor force, now comprise 52.5 percent. The share of black men has thus declined—from 55.12 percent to 47.5 percent.

income shares

While the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling Jim (and Jane) Crow laws were appropriately celebrated, the movement never succeeded in eliminating systemic or structural racism—from employment and housing discrimination through health disparities to the racial biases of the prison-industrial complex. Moreover, the initial progress in narrowing the wage gaps within the working-class coincided with a new assault on American workers and the dramatic growth in inequality in the U.S. economy as a whole. Racial capitalism in the United States therefore changed beginning in the late-1970s, leaving the American working-class—and, even more so, black (and Hispanic) workers—further and further behind the tiny group at the top.

By 2020, the increasing precarity of the black working-class made its members more exposed to physical attacks and police murders, the ravages of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the negative effects of the economic crisis.



Last year, 24 percent of all police killings were of black Americans when just 13 percent of the U.S. population is black—an 11-point discrepancy. Mapping Police Violence also showed that 99 percent of all officers involved in all police killings were never charged.


The latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans (compiled by the the APM Research Lab) is 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites, and they’re dying above their population share in 30 states and, most dramatically, in Washington, D.C.

job loss

Even as the rate of layoffs has largely slowed over the past two months, black job losses rose in May and June relative to those of white workers. In fact, according to the New York Times,

For long stretches of the pandemic, black and white employment losses largely mirrored each other. But in the last month, layoffs among African-Americans have grown while white employment has risen slightly. Now, among all the black workers who were employed before the pandemic, one in six are no longer working.

And all indications are that the economic recovery, if and when there is one, will be both long and painful, especially for the African American working-class.

It has become increasingly clear, especially in recent weeks as a national uprising has responded to the deaths of Floyd and many other black people at the hands of the police, that these incidents did not happen in isolation. It is therefore time for the American working-class—black, brown, and white—to overcome its divisions and confront the problem of racism head-on. That’s certainly how the Executive Board of the Communication Workers of America sees things:

The only pathway to a just society for all is deep, structural change. Justice for Black people is inextricably linked to justice for all working people – including White people. The bosses, the rich, and the corporate executives have known this fact and have used race as one of the most effective and destructive ways to divide workers. Unions have a duty to fight for power, dignity and the right to live for every working-class person in every place. Our fight and the issues we care about do not stop when workers punch out for the day and leave the garage, call center, office, or plant. . .

Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. No amount of statements and press releases will bring back the lives lost and remedy the suffering our communities have to bear. We must move to action.


*According to Natalie Spievack,

In 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act gave workers the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, less than 1 percent of all union workers were black. Union formation excluded agricultural and domestic workers, occupations predominantly held by black workers, and largely left black workers unable to organize.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, unions began to integrate. The manufacturing boom brought large numbers of black workers north to factories, the civil rights movement focused increasingly on economic issues, and the more liberal Congress of Industrial Organizations organized black workers.

  1. Daniel Linotte
    June 26, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    Key data indeed.

    Would be interesting to have more figures on wealth, health, education and social mobility.

    Assessing the impact of social policies is also important for reforming and improving them. However, it may take a lot of time to meet the needs and expectations. Redistribution policies could help fill some of the gaps perhaps.

  2. Ahmed Fares
    June 26, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    The high wages earned by unions workers are borne not by corporations but rather by non-union workers. This is because corporations earn their returns on equity after all costs, including the cost of wages.

    There was a time when a GM auto worker was making $150k/year ($50/hour + $25/hr in pension and post-retirement benefits). This at a time when a tenured professor was earning $90k/year. GM turned around and passed along those wage costs in the form of higher car prices, which in effect lowered the real wages of car purchasers.

    This is easier seen in the case of public sector unions, whose members earn higher wages than their private sector counterparts. We all pay for that in the form of higher taxes.

    So no, unions do not increase the labor share. What they do instead is redistribute that labor share in the favor of union workers, at the expense of non-union workers.

    Unions like to say that they’re “sticking it to the man”. Except that in this case, the “man” is us.

    • Calgacus
      June 28, 2020 at 12:11 am

      This is all preKeynesian logic. And quite false, unsupported, contradicted by empirics and history. Hidden full employment and perfect market, perfect competition assumptions.

      This is easier seen in the case of public sector unions, whose members earn higher wages than their private sector counterparts.

      Traditionally, public sector work is lower paid, but more secure than private sector. Why your arguments are wrong is most easily seen in this case.

      We all pay for that in the form of higher taxes.

      Backwards logic. The taxes we pay come from government spending, like on public sector union workers wages. Government spending doesn’t come from taxes. No matter how many times this is said, it is not true, was never true, cannot be true. The arrow of time is a one way street, and the absurd neoclassical / mainstream story that people have been propagandized into swallowing for 50 years is going the wrong way on this one way street, whose traffic cop is named God.

      Unionization could conceivably “redistribute” that way and occasionally has. But the overwhelming trend is that it increases the labor share and employment and equality, because “capitalist” economies are almost always run in order to strangle full employment. As time goes on we get ever farther from the classical capitalist economy where this sort of logic makes real sense. It hasn’t for around a hundred years in the USA.

      • Ahmed Fares
        June 28, 2020 at 6:49 pm


        “Traditionally, public sector work is lower paid, but more secure than private sector. Why your arguments are wrong is most easily seen in this case.”

        You have it exactly backwards, except for public sector jobs being more secure.

        “The average total compensation of U.S. government workers for all education levels is $134,784 per year (in constant 2015 U.S. dollars), which is 17 percent higher than the average annual compensation of comparable private sector workers.”

        The data used in the above quote is from the Congressional Budget Office. See the chart in the link below:


  3. Nat Uerlich
    June 26, 2020 at 11:36 pm

    Your comments lead me to revise an Al Smith quote thus:

    —–The cure for the (alleged) evils of unionization is more unionization.

    The closer unions come to representing 100% of working people, the more they will be able to increase labor’s share of the pie thru political* as well as economic means.

    Mass introduction of democratic governance to firms would be a reasonable next step.

    * E.g., pressing for a legal requirement of full employment

    • Ahmed Fares
      June 27, 2020 at 4:07 pm


      In the case of 100% unionization, wage increases would be offset by price increases, leaving real wages unchanged. That is if we consider that capital is stored labor, in which case all we have in a production function is labor.

      We saw this in the inflation of the 1970s. What started as an oil price shock led to unions battling for wage gains, which led to higher prices, which in turn meant that wages would have to rise more, an so on. That wage-price spiral eventually led to double-digit inflation.

      Real wage gains can only come from increases in productivity.

      • Nat Uerlich
        June 27, 2020 at 10:08 pm

        Ahmed Fares

        I’m sure we agree that 100% unionization would eliminate one of the two issues you raise in your initial comment, i.e., a presumed skewed distribution between union and non-union workers without an increase in all labor’s slice of the economic pie. (So too, of course, would 0% unionization, but I believe unions are a good thing on the whole.)*

        Regarding the second issue, well-summarized by your closing sentence (“Real wage gains can only come from increases in productivity.”), I think we almost agree here.

        Seems to me you’re making an unstated assumption, namely, that the current pie slices are to be taken for granted. If so, then we differ on that point.

        The size of the slices varies, and not simply for economic reasons. This is where political power–something too often invisible to economics–is crucial. I expect strong and imaginative unions would find political means to push for changing the current distribution of GDP between labor and capital.

        When a “fair”** division of the pie is reached, then your last sentence comes into play.

        P.S. There are nuances to these comments. naturally, but they’re secondary.

        * The effect of 100% and 0% are true by definition.
        ** Fixed slices would be unlikely.

  4. Ikonoclast
    June 27, 2020 at 12:08 am

    In countries which permit unions, one could say that non-unionized labor has itself to blame. If workers won’t join unions, if they won’t commit to solidarity and to fighting the bosses in an organized fashion, then they reap the natural outcomes of that failure. Workers and potential workers need to take some responsibility for their own position. If workers won’t organize and fight, the capitalists won’t give them anything beyond bare subsistence. More than that has always been won by worker struggle. This isn’t the whole picture of course. The phenomenon of the “labor aristocracy” also exists.

    “In Marxist theory, those workers (proletarians) in the developed countries who benefit from the superprofits extracted from the impoverished workers of developing countries form an “aristocracy of labor”. ” – Wikipedia.

    The labor aristocracy has arisen historically in developed countries, developed regions and certain specialized industries with high levels of capital investment, highly productive labor because of mechanization and thence the resultant superprofits. The modern process of global labor arbitrage works against the labor aristocracy phenomenon but does so in favor of the capitalists, not the workers.

    “Global labor arbitrage is an economic phenomenon where, as a result of the removal of or disintegration of barriers to international trade, jobs move to nations where labor and the cost of doing business is inexpensive and/or impoverished labor moves to nations with higher paying jobs.” – Wikipedia

    We see once again the importance of worker solidarity and the need for this solidarity to be extended internationally. The more we permit super-exploitation in poor countries, the more we push down wages and push up unemployment in developed countries. In addition, environmental destruction is sped up in undeveloped countries and regions undergoijg capitalist super-exploitation . The super-exploitation is pushed into the natural world and destruction of the natural world accelerates.

    • Ahmed Fares
      June 27, 2020 at 4:22 am

      “the capitalists won’t give them anything beyond bare subsistence.”

      First, the Kalecki Profit Equation assuming a closed economy with no public sector:

      P + W = Cw + Cp + I

      where P is the volume of gross profits (profits plus depreciation), W is the volume of total wages, Cp is capitalists’ consumption, Cw is workers’ consumption and I is the gross investment that has been made in the economy. Since we have supposed workers who do not save (that is W = Cw in the preceding equation), we can simplify the two terms and arrive at:

      P = Cp + I

      Note that what workers earn (W) and what workers spend (Cw) are the same and cancel out. In that case, capitalists, in the aggregate, cannot earn excess profits by reducing wages because profits are not a function of wages. Which means that as wages are falling, prices are also falling, leaving real wages and the labor share unchanged.

      • Ikonoclast
        June 27, 2020 at 10:05 am

        If you want to try to prove things by using accounting identity equations then you should include all stocks, flows and circuits of the numéraire (fiat money) in the economy. If you leave things out, you get an incomplete equation leading to an absurdity. It’s also the case that the financial economy and its identity equations do not fully capture the real economy. In addition, a static equation does not capture the behavior of a dynamic system over time.

        To expand on the above, the public sector and government cannot be left out because fiat money creation and taxation cannot be left out. Private debt money creation cannot be left out. Time progression cannot be left out. Money supply growth cannot be left out. Real economy growth cannot be left out. The (fraught) relationship between money supply growth and real economy growth cannot be left out. Issues of inflation and deflation cannot be left out; meaning among other things the unreliability of the numéraire itself and its clear inability to measure anything objectively.

  5. Ahmed Fares
    June 27, 2020 at 3:54 pm


    While it’s true that things like government deficit spending and private debt money creation can add to profits, for a while at least, my point still stands that reducing wages, in the aggregate, will not increase profits.

    Given that there are limits to deficit spending and private borrowing, then the profit equation boils down to what I stated, i.e., profits for the most part are equivalent to investment.

  6. June 27, 2020 at 10:42 pm


    Thank you very much for a good – and timely – post.

    Professor Fares would seem to have a “few” differences with you. The role of unions in economic “progress” is a long and fraught topic and would take up at least one posting the length of David’s just to get started. If you believe that the the Golden Decades in the US and Western Europe, 1945-1975 were indeed that, the best we’ve seen for equality and a decent life for the bottom 60% income demographic, it was achieved despite the role of unions in spreading the income from wages more equitably. The causes for the Western democracies economic decline, qualified by Germany and Japan, and now political decline, are worthy of much debate, as is the union role, alleged or real. Those who fight for national health insurance and equality for Nature can look at the AFL-CIO response to the Green New Deal and shake their heads, heads that were bashed in by some union workers supporting Nixon in NY City in May of 1970. Karl Polanyi was a non-Marxist mild socialist who took note of the cross class allianced in Britain in the second half of the 19th century, and we today can hang our heads in sadness over substantial working class support, white working class support for Trump.

    By the way David, when I expressed, in some of my last postings at the Daily Kos, my disappointment that the black leadership class in the US was so conservative and actually hurting black workers and those left behind in the ghettos, urban and now suburban, centrist Democrats really went after me – “how dare I a white person…” criticize black leadership. It didn’t help much to cite Nina Turner and Cornel West as sharing my view.

    Thanks David, for pointing out the tough life circumstances of the black victims of police racism. I’m afraid that’s getting lost in the legal and political context.

  7. Ikonoclast
    June 28, 2020 at 12:12 am

    Ahmed Fares,

    I am wondering how your theory explains the long-run fall in labor share. In this case it is for the USA.


    More to the point, since you will argue the need for a global view,:

    Click to access w19136.pdf

    The graphs at the end of the above paper show the story. The empirical evidence refutes your theory. When empirical evidence comprehensively refutes the theory, then the theory is wrong no matter how superficially convincing and elegant the equations are.

    If increases in productivity are captured by capital and not labor, then capital’s share of wealth increases. In a very limited closed accounting identity system, as you proposed (“assuming a closed economy with no public sector”) this cannot happen. But in the real world with a wider (but still closed) accounting identity system with time series phenomena, there are further factors at work. As you admit “government deficit spending and private debt money creation can add to profits”. Albeit you argue “there are limits to deficit spending and private borrowing”.

    There probably are limits as you argue but the limits have not been operational over a 40 year time series. That time duration matters. It is a a working lifetime for many people. Thus we see that the profit share can be skewed for a a working lifetime. This is not inconsequential for all those people whose entire working lifetime is affected.

    If this skew happens in a long period of low growth (so-called long run or secular stagnation), then Thomas Piketty’s central insight comes into play:

    If r GT g then inequality (of wealth) increases, where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy.

    Structural and financial changes in the economy occur which fundamentally alter the economy and how it experienced by workers and capitalists. Via regulatory capture, capitalists get the policies they want. A key policy now is deficit money printing with most of the extra printed money (really electronically printed) going to the capitalists and little going to labor. This can prop up their profits for decades: not an inconsequential period. This makes donating politically for regulatory capture a paying investment. The second key policy is Q.E. (Qualitative Easing) which amounts to debt-free money but only for big capitalists in the main, and for some micro-investors who are astute enough to play with futures, puts and so on. As opposed to debt-free money for big capitalists, working consumers can pay up to 20% and more on credit card.

    These differentials, over time and over class, structurally alter the wealth distribution of the economy with real effects on real human beings,especially workers, the unemployed and the poor. An abstract, simplified equation of a simplified model simply does not capture what is happening in empirical reality. It is an impoverished model which excludes too many relevant factors.

    The final further factor, is covered by (among other writers) Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse. Increasing automation progressively removes labor from the equation. Eventually, wealth creation could in theory proceed mainly or totally from machines with little or no need for human labor. This would raise a specter to terrify workers and capitalists alike. Not to mention that it must also entirely disconcert doctrinaire orthodox Marxists who are most likely unaware that Marx himself actually predicted this dialectical overturning of the labor theory of value itself by means of the automation of physical AND intellectual work.

    Why would this specter terrify workers AND capitalists? For workers it is clear. There is no need for their work. They must become permanently unemployed and no longer even a “reserve army” of labor. There never again will be a need for their labor, at least under advanced automated production conditions. Where is their income to come from then? For capitalists it ought to terrify them if they consider that the great mass of permanently unemployed will have nothing to do except become permanent lumpenproletariat (a mass criminal underclass) or else a permanent revolutionary class if they have access to higher ideas and a sense of broad solidarity. Crime and revolution (as diametric opposites in very important ways) will become the sole occupation and the new work of the mass unemployed without income from ownership. Much of the young intelligentsia (the mass of educated young with no jobs and huge student debts) will have both the motivation and the theorizing / visualizing ability to see and fight for a new shape for the whole political economy and the entirety of society.

    In a fully connected world, the biggest revolution in history is imminent. It will of course be vastly complicated by the problems of limits to growth and ecological collapse. I like to say sometimes that our economists, theorists, logicians and mathematicians have been looking at inked symbols for too long. They need to look out the window and see what is happening.

  8. Ahmed Fares
    June 28, 2020 at 1:40 am


    “I am wondering how your theory explains the long-run fall in labor share.”

    It’s a measurement error due to how intellectual property is accounted for.

    Intellectual property and the decline of the U.S. labor share: https://equitablegrowth.org/intellectual-property-and-the-decline-of-the-u-s-labor-share/

    “Capital consumption has been taking a much larger bite than it used to because business has been investing far more than it once did in equipment and software rather than in structures (factories, offices, stores); and equipment and software depreciate much faster than structures. Since capitalists must keep replenishing their capital just to maintain the same level of output, net rather than gross measures belong in the denominator. Instead, the BLS uses gross measures, which helps create the illusion of a downtrend in labor’s share.” —https://reason.com/2018/08/28/are-american-workers-getting-shafted/

    As for your point about automation, there is nothing to fear. Tim Worstall has covered that by saying that as far as robots go, there are only two end states. He assumes a robot called an iEverything (it does everything).

    However, now let us think about the existence of the iEverything. It does, as he says, make everything. Excellent, we’ve solved our economic problem of scarcity. The only things we’ve got left to worry about are positional goods. Which are not, in the grand scheme of things, something to worry about very much. But here’s the problem–we cannot end up with machines that produce everything and us all needing an income to buy one.

    There are only two possible end states. One in which we get to consume what the iEverything’s produce–in which case we don’t need a job nor an income, do we? Because everything is being made by the machines.

    The other possible end state is where we don’t get to consume what the machines produce. Then we will need jobs, obviously, in order to gain incomes. But if we don’t get to consume what the machines produce then we all will have jobs. Because we’ll be exactly where we are today. We all work to produce things of value that others can consume and we get to consume those things of value which other people produce in return. That is, we’ve either got the machines producing everything and we get everything or we’re stuck with the current specialisation and division of labour which we all work at today.

    It’s not possible to have the end result that Reich posits–that we don’t get to consume what the machines produce but also don’t have jobs. And the reason he ends up in this position is because he doesn’t understand economics, doesn’t have a model which he’s working through to see what might happen. Either we get to consume machine production in which case we don’t need jobs or we don’t get to consume machine production and we’ve all still got jobs. There is no other possible end state. —https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2016/10/01/robert-reich-sure-doesnt-understand-economics-ieverything-and-the-universal-basic-income/#
    [end quote]

    • Ahmed Fares
      June 28, 2020 at 2:50 am


      Further to my comment, I found this at the bottom of the Wikipedia page just under the graph you linked to:

      “Some researchers propose that the decline in wage share in the United States can be attributed solely to a change in accounting for intellectual property projects.”


      • Ikonoclast
        June 28, 2020 at 3:36 am

        That world might work if we were all prosumers who each owned an iEverything system. I would see it as a system (of robots and natural systems) rather than just as a single stand-alone robot. This is perhaps more than a quibble. It implies everyone would need to be a landholder (even if just of a small suburban allotment or plot) in order to have the footprint for accommodation, solar power, vegetable patch etc., all tended by the plot-distributed iEverything system. I presume each domicile would have 3D printers too (for metals and plastics) for making goods and artifacts (or rather robotifacts).

        I still feel you discount the change process and its impacts on people during transitions. And where exactly does the well-being of real people come into your neat theory? Indeed, where does real production (as opposed to nominal income in the numéraire) come into your theory?

        Your logic and math are entirely of the numéraire in the formal system without concern for what is happening in real systems (real people, real economy, real environment). Your (seeming) assumption is that if a formal theory with a formal numéraire is neat and logically-mathematically complete, then all of a complex reality described and then “governed” prescriptively by the formal theory will be neat and complete as well. I can assure you it is not so and it will not be so.

        The entire panoply of real variables (as opposed to nominal values) is completely left out of your theory. It cannot possibly describe the world accurately nor prescribe effective operations in, for and of the world’s real systems accurately or optimally or equitably or sustainably. I am wondering what such a neat, simplistic nominal theory would be good for. What would be its practical application to descriptions of, or prescriptions for, real world problems?

    • June 28, 2020 at 4:40 pm

      Says Ahmed: “The other possible end state is where we don’t get to consume what the machines produce. Then we will need jobs, obviously, in order to gain incomes. But if we don’t get to consume what the machines produce then we all will have jobs. Because we’ll be exactly where we are today. We all work to produce things of value that others can consume and we get to consume those things of value which other people produce in return”.

      “We will need jobs, obviously, in order to gain incomes [and] consume those things of value which other people produce “? That is not at all obvious! “Where we are today”, lots of people have unearned incomes and others have only the income kindly (or frightened) people give them; nor are most of the things produced “of value”.

      I would say it is much more obvious that everyone needs an income in order to be able to grow up and to do work worth doing. (That remaining an aspiration for too many ill-educated and/or handicapped people). It seems to be NOT obvious only to those who have not completely grown up to discover the value of our world and of people other than themselves.

      • Ahmed Fares
        June 28, 2020 at 7:16 pm


        Tim Worstall used an extreme example to make a point.

        Personally, I believe we’ll always have work. If you recall just before the Corona virus hit, the US unemployment rate was at a fifty-year low. When you consider that frictional unemployment is around 3%, that’s a full employment economy. This despite all the automation that is taking place.

        US unemployment rate falls to 50-year low of 3.5%: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-49934309

  9. Ikonoclast
    June 29, 2020 at 2:02 am

    I would take unemployment figures with a grain of salt just as I take inflation figures with a grain of salt. Capitalists, and the governments they have captured with political donations, have strong incentives to deliberately mis-measure each. Unemployment figures tend to be strongly under-counted due to the failure to measure under-employment, to take account of workforce participation rate changes and to measure the undocumented and the incarcerated, especially in the USA. The slave-labor of the incarcerated scarcely counts as proper employment.

    A lack of jobs is going to be a persistent feature of the future due to technological advances. It is not inconceivable that necessary work could be halved by future technological advances. At the same time we can see a lot of current jobs are “bullshit” jobs in the capitalist system.

    “In ‘Bullshit Jobs’, American anthropologist David Graeber posits that the productivity benefits of automation have not led to a 15-hour workweek, as predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, but instead to “bullshit jobs”: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

    The author contends that more than half of societal work is pointless, both large parts of some jobs and, as he describes, five types of entirely pointless jobs:

    – flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants
    – goons, who oppose other goons hired by other companies, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists
    – duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive
    – box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it isn’t, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers
    – taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who don’t need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals.

    Graeber argues that these jobs are largely in the private sector despite the idea that market competition would root out such inefficiencies.” – Wikipedia.

    I agree with Graeber, although it has to be said his classifications are somewhat frivolous rather than seriously delineated. Marxist theorists have done some serious thinking is this arena by pointing out how much work is performed in the capitalist system to protect unequal distributions of wealth, to promote personally and environmentally.damaging over-consumption and so on. It is true that many worthwhile jobs could be created in health, welfare, human services, ecological services, renewable energy and sustainability.

    Even allowing for the above last point, worsening scarcity of work will continue as a feature of technological advance so long as that advance continues. We need to move to a system where a guaranteed universal basic income is an inalienable birthright of each citizen of a nation. The problem of money incentives to work is largely an invented problem which is part and parcel of capitalism. Many people demonstrate, that with an assured living, they will work voluntarily by volunteering, community work, hospital work, charity, church work, caring work, creating shared commons and applications, creative commons and so on. The desire to be social and useful is deeper and more fundamental than the inculcated and enforced crude cash nexus of capitalism.

    If people don’t want to do some work (say noxious and hazardous work for low pay) it is a good indication that such work should not be done at all in a high-tech society capable of doing new and better things in better ways. It is a good indication of the need to find a better way to do things and to automate such work where it is absolutely essential. Onerous, hazardous and noxious work is usually only enforced because it is embedded in a system which places the externalities of loss of amenity and life as costs on the worker while the capitalist gains excess wealth for the bullshit (non)work of merely owning stuff.

    I know what I am talking about. In my youth I worked in gravel pits, a fibro (asbestos) factory, cleaning toilets, on remote grazing farms for little more than board and on building sites with threatening bosses and corrupt union thugs. (Unions ain’t perfect either.) Much of the work I performed at that time was onerous, hazardous and noxious. Capitalism is a shit-show for under-payed workers. Protected intellectuals in ivory towers have little to teach me. I taught myself. The books of the philosophers and political economy theorists were all there in the public libraries. More power to public and commons assets! Now such texts are online. The freeing of the mind from capitalist propaganda continues.

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