Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




Total Pageviews

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FACTS AND FIGURES

One of the most illuminating publications of the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the Current Population Survey, "a national monthly survey of approximately 60,000 households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics." I have just been looking at the annual summary for 2009, the most recent set of tables now available. In the past, I have written impressionistically about America becoming a "banana republic." I should like to supplement those remarks with some data drawn from the tables. I find these data extremely illuminating, and perhaps you will as well.

The first datum that jumped out at me was the total number of full-time wage and salary workers sixteen years or older, in 2009. The number comes in just a tad under one hundred million -- 99,820,000, to be precise. This is, when you think about it very low for a country of three hundred million. Even when you subtract those under sixteen, those sixteen or older who are in school, those retired, and also -- an important group -- those who are self-employed in one way or another, it still always surprises me that only a third of the total population consists of full-time workers being paid wages or salaries [the distinction is whether a worker is paid by the hour or gets an annual salary].

The median weekly earnings for this one hundred million were $739, which, assuming a fifty week work year, comes to $36,950. The crucial word in the last sentence is "median." It means that half of all those employed full-time -- fifty million, or so -- earned $36,590 OR LESS, and the other fifty million earned $36,590 or more. The mean, or average, weekly earnings, annualized, are roughly ten thousand dollars more, because the high end includes people making simply enormous salaries. I say "annualized" because, of course, there is no guarantee that all of the workers full time employed when the survey is taken are able to sustain fifty weeks of full time employment in that year.

As you would expect, when the figures are broken down by age, by gender, and by race, we see wide variations. The median for those 16 to 19 is $344; for those 55 to 64, it is $841. The median for all white workers is $757, for Hispanic workers, $541, barely 70%. The 13.6 million workers who are members of unions have median weekly earnings of $908. The 84,9 million not represented by unions have median earnings of $710, more than 20% less. Men as a whole have median earnings of $819, women of $657. And so on.

When these statistics are discussed, attention is usually focused on the racial and gender disparities, and with good reason. But I want in this brief discussion to talk a bit about what is revealed by that term, "median." Since half of all workers were making less, on an annualized basis, than $36,950, it seems to make a certain intuitive sense to call that a "middle class annual wage or salary," and yet virtually everything said by politicians, media commentators, economists, and others treats $75,000 or $100,000 as a "middle class" income. In 2009, to find workers who, on an annualized basis, earned in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year, one must look to the top tenth [the tenth decile] of all workers.

To be sure, these are not figures for household income, which one would expect to be rather larger as a result of households sending two or even more wage earners into the labor market. So it is. In 2009, median household income in the United States was $49,777. But that is still half of the $100,000 that the media routinely treats as "middle class."

The simple fact is that America is a good deal poorer than is commonly supposed. Because we are a nation of more than three hundred million, even the top tenth has thirty million people in it, so it is very easy for the media -- and for economists as well -- to treat that small fraction of the total population as the norm. Then too, the more money people have, the more space they take up, what with housing, second homes, acreage around their larger homes, and the like. So casual visual evidence seems to support the illusion that $100,000 buys a family an average, or "middle class," existence.

The Current Population Survey is an enormous document, and one can fruitfully spend a great deal of time paging through it and making little calculations. How many Black dentists are there in the United States? What percentage of Hispanic women have college degrees? What is the range of salaries earned by people doing "managerial" jobs? If you are weary of endless political commentary devoid of factual content, I recommend spending a few hours with it.

Thus URL should get you started: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2009.pdf

8 comments:

Chris said...

I'm pretty curious as to the cognitive dissonance between the average, and even elite, American's hatred for unions, and the fact that as you point out, the working class is better off financially if they belong to a union. How can this hurdle be surmounted?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This has been a source of frustration for me for half a century. There was a time when the "union label" was a mark of distinction, and being a "good union man" was a source of pride. I think what is needed is more than just getting the facts out. Somehow the emotional associations with the term "union" need to be reversed. This is one more example of the way in which people routinely act against their self-interest, and not because religion or other "social issues' matter more to them.

English Jerk said...

I wonder if the shift in attitudes towards unions proceeded at a steady pace, or if it proceeded unevenly. Were there big shifts during periods of systematic anti-union propaganda (following the Red Scare, for example)? If not, then the cause might be elsewhere (maybe resentment from those currently making 20% less?). It seems like it would be a hard thing to assess, but having a rough causal account of the shift in attitudes seems like it would be useful if we're to figure out how to counteract them.

Gordon said...

It does seem like much of the anti-union sentiment today (at least when people like Governor Cuomo talk about the public sector) is directed more at benefits and pensions than pay. Nobody complains about teachers being paid too much (and so much the opposite is true), but almost all media seem to argue that these pensions are draining state budgets, and generous pensions with supposedly lengthy breaks and little work aren't justified.

I was wondering if you could address those arguments. (You might already have--I discovered your blog somewhat recently.) It seems like the vast majority of media has taken the anti-union approach: the right and even the center-left say unions have too much power, while the left seems just silent on the matter. The one-sidedness gets a little frustrating.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Gordon, welcome to the blog. Let me say first that since this is not a subject on which I am expert, I called an old friend, Milton Cantor, who is a scholar of left-wing movements in America, and asked him when the anti-union turn occurred, and why. He said he would think about it and get back to me, at which time I will pass on what he tells me.

In the old days, unionzed workers were almost all in the private sector. The rise to prominence of public sector unions is really rather recent. The pensions and health care and paid vacations [as well as safe working conditions] were all fought for in bitter, sometimes violent strikes, and they made a major contribution to the ability of industrial workers to live "middle class" lives [see an earlier post on all of this]. I find it astonishing that these benefits have come to be treated as a kind of immoral self-indulgent luxury, at the very same time that the rich are leading ever more profligate lives. Notice that the median wages of unionized workers are still very low compared to what is routinely earned by professionals and middle management employees.

In my own work life, I have been struck [and depressed] by the inability of professors, especially at the elite schools, to recognize that they are salaried employees, and not independently wealthy grandees. I recall the contempt with which Lionel Trilling spoke of graduate assistants, at a public meeting, in the 60's, and the difficulty I had persuading some of my philosophy department colleagues to support our successful effoerts to unionize the faculty.

The demonization of labor unions has been caused in part by a successful PR campaign by pro-business groups, individuals, and media, and in part by the decline of manufacturing and heavy industry, always the easiest segment of the labor force to organize [s development Marx did not foresee, I am afraid.]

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Gordon, welcome to the blog. Let me say first that since this is not a subject on which I am expert, I called an old friend, Milton Cantor, who is a scholar of left-wing movements in America, and asked him when the anti-union turn occurred, and why. He said he would think about it and get back to me, at which time I will pass on what he tells me.

In the old days, unionzed workers were almost all in the private sector. The rise to prominence of public sector unions is really rather recent. The pensions and health care and paid vacations [as well as safe working conditions] were all fought for in bitter, sometimes violent strikes, and they made a major contribution to the ability of industrial workers to live "middle class" lives [see an earlier post on all of this]. I find it astonishing that these benefits have come to be treated as a kind of immoral self-indulgent luxury, at the very same time that the rich are leading ever more profligate lives. Notice that the median wages of unionized workers are still very low compared to what is routinely earned by professionals and middle management employees.

In my own work life, I have been struck [and depressed] by the inability of professors, especially at the elite schools, to recognize that they are salaried employees, and not independently wealthy grandees. I recall the contempt with which Lionel Trilling spoke of graduate assistants, at a public meeting, in the 60's, and the difficulty I had persuading some of my philosophy department colleagues to support our successful effoerts to unionize the faculty.

The demonization of labor unions has been caused in part by a successful PR campaign by pro-business groups, individuals, and media, and in part by the decline of manufacturing and heavy industry, always the easiest segment of the labor force to organize [s development Marx did not foresee, I am afraid.]

David Goldman said...

Thanks for the pointer—I find the Statistical Abstract of the United States similarly interesting:
http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/
—although there is almost too much information there. Still, when a political argument mutates into an empirical question (that does happen to other people, right?) it often has the information needed to attempt a back-of-the-envelope calculation or two.

As for the decline of the union movement—just this morning I saw this:
http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2011/01/17/110117ta_talk_surowiecki
—it's brief and breezy, but it does conclude with an interesting point about the vicious cycle of declining popularity that unions may be experiencing.

Murfmensch said...

I volunteered with a union drive and worked with a lot of organizers in the South. (I was lead organizer with ACORN in Arkansas for a few years.) Most of the people we wanted to sign up were inclined to vote for a union shop before the company hired law firms that specialized in anti-union PR.

Working class culture was not anti-union. Businesses were willing to lose money to defeat a drive. That seems like a cultural scheme is in play.

What I've seen and heard convince me that unions would be much larger if two things happened:

(1) If we had better labor laws. Companies could usually just call another vote. European laws would change percentages even grander.

(2) If unions spent more money hiring organizers. Euro unions don't have nearly as many people hired as stewards who lobby the employer. They spend more time lobbying the state.

Labor isn't dead. 7 to 8 percent is not nothing. They provided the margin of victory for Obama in a couple of states. Statistically, white males are majority democrats only if they are gay or in a union.

Elites are much more dismissive of unions than is the average American. Many people with degrees don't want to cede power to people without degrees. Many people don't even want to hear from someone who can't sound like they are at least heading towards a degree.