Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Great Divergence and Organized Labor

Part VI

The Great Divergence coincided with a dramatic decline in the power of organized labor. Union
members now account for
1983. When you exclude public-employee unions (whose membership has been
membership has dropped to a mere 7.5 percent of the private-sector workforce. Did the decline
of labor create the income-inequality binge?

The chief purpose of a union is to maximize the income of its members. Since union workers
members usually earn more than nonunion workers, and since union members in higher-paying
occupations tend to exercise more clout than union members in lower-paying ones, you might
think higher union membership would
increase income inequality. That was, in fact, the
consensus among economists
Freeman demonstrated in a
disparities among members outweighed other factors, and therefore their net effect was to
before the Great Divergence. But the Harvard economist Richard1980 paper that at the national level, unions’ ability to reduce incomereduce
income inequality. That remains true, though perhaps not as true as it was 30 years ago, because
union membership has been declining more precipitously for workers at lower incomes.
Berkeley economist David Card calculated in a
among men explained about 15 percent to 20 percent of the Great Divergence among men.
(Among women—whose incomes, as noted in an earlier installment, were largely unaffected by
the Great Divergence—union membership remained relatively stable during the past three
2001 paper that the decline in union membership
Card’s estimate suggests. To consider how, let’s return to the “institutions and norms”
framework introduced by MIT’s Frank Levy and Peter Temin* and further elaborated by
Princeton’s Paul Krugman and Larry Bartels.

In their influential 2007 paper, “Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America,” Levy and
Temin regard unions not merely as organizations that struck wage bargains for a specific number
of workers but rather as institutions that, prior to the Great Divergence, played a significant role
in the workings of government. “If our interpretation is correct,” they wrote, “no rebalancing of
the labor force can restore a more equal distribution of productivity gains without government
intervention and changes in private sector behavior.”

According to Levy and Temin, labor’s influential role in the egalitarian and booming post-World
War II economy was epitomized by a November 1945 summit convened in Detroit by President
Harry Truman. The war had ended a mere three months earlier, and Truman knew the labor
peace that had prevailed during the war was about to come to an abrupt end. To minimize the
inevitable disruptions, Truman promised labor continued government support. Truman even
coaxed Chamber of Commerce President Eric Johnson into making the following statement:
“Labor unions are woven into our economic pattern of American life, and collective bargaining
is part of the democratic process. I say recognize this fact not only with our lips but with our

An eventual result of Truman’s 1945 summit was a five-year contract between United Auto
Workers President Walter Reuther and the big three automakers that included cost-of-living
adjustments, productivity-based wage increases, health insurance, and guaranteed-benefit
which would be adopted by Big Steel and other industries, the
companies mimicked the Reuther pact. The federal government’s ongoing collaborative role in
the process was demonstrated in April 1962 when President John F. Kennedy, having talked the
United Steel Workers into accepting a moderate wage increase,
a price hike he deemed excessive (“a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the
public interest”), forcing the steel giant to back down. According to Levy and Temin, this display
of muscle “helps to explain why the reduced top tax rate” enacted two years later (it dropped to
70 percent) “produced no surge in either executive compensation or high incomes per se.” Fear
of attracting comparable attention from President Lyndon Johnson kept corporations from
showering the bosses with obscene pay hikes.

The Treaty of Detroit didn’t last. One reason was that, even as Truman was romancing Big
Labor, the Republican Party won majorities in the House and Senate and passed the
Taft-Hartleyover Truman’s veto in 1947. Levy and Temin don’t dwell on this, but in his 1991 book
Which Side Are You On?: Trying To Be For Labor When It’s Flat On Its Back
Geoghegan, a Chicago-based labor lawyer, argues that Taft-Hartley was the principal cause of
the American labor movement’s eventual steep decline:

First, it ended organizing on the grand, 1930s scale. It outlawed mass picketing,
secondary strikes of neutral employers, sit downs: in short, everything [Congress of
Industrial Organizations founder John L.] Lewis did in the 1930s.


The second effect of Taft-Hartley was subtler and slower-working. It was to hold up
new organizing at all, even on a quiet, low-key scale. For example, Taft-Hartley ended
elections, and sometimes more hearings, before a union could be officially recognized.

It also allowed and even encouraged employers to threaten workers who want to
organize. Employers could hold “captive meetings,” bring workers into the office and
chew them out for thinking about the Union.

And Taft-Hartley led to the “union-busting” that started in the late 1960s and continues
today. It started when a new “profession” of labor consultants began to convince
employers that they could violate the [pro-labor 1935] Wagner Act, fire workers at will,nothing would happen. The
fire them deliberately for exercising their legal rights, and
Wagner Act had never had any real sanctions.


So why hadn’t employers been violating the Wagner Act all along? Well, at first, in the
1930s and 1940s, they tried, and they got riots in the streets: mass picketing, secondary
strikes, etc. But after Taft-Hartley, unions couldn’t retaliate like this, or they would end
up with penalty fines and jail sentences.

To summarize: Taft-Hartley halted labor’s growth and then, over many decades, enabled
management to roll back its previous gains. Big manufacturing’s desire to do so grew more
urgent in the 1970s as inflation spun out of control,
industries faced stiffer competition from abroad. Even before Ronald Reagan’s election, Levin
and Temin write, the Senate signaled the federal government was rapidly losing interest in
enforcing Truman’s 1945 pact when it killed off, by filibuster, a
easing union organizing in the South.

President Reagan’s 1981 decision to break the air-traffic controllers’ union and to slash top
income-tax rates killed off Truman’s 1945 pact entirely. Although Reagan was a onetime
Belt manufacturing jobs that the proportion of private-sector workers who belonged to unions
dropped to 16 percent in 1985, down from 23 percent as recently as 1979. Reagan’s hostility to
unions was further reflected in his choice of
Relations Board. Dotson had previously worked as a management-side labor adversary for
Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, and (presumably with both lips and heart) believed
minimum wage
stuck at $3.35 an hour for close to a full decade. Similarly, President George W. Bush, another
two-term Republican, later let the minimum wage remain at $5.15 (to which it had risen during
the presidencies of his father and Bill Clinton) for two months shy of 10 years, by which time its
buying power had reached a

Academics may argue about the significance of any one of these decisions. Raising the minimum
wage, for instance, reduces income inequality to a degree that some experts judge
others judge
characterization) and Princeton’s Bartels (who leans toward the “substantial” one) agree is that
policies like setting the minimum wage don’t occur in a vacuum; they are linked to a host of
other government policies likely to have similar effects. Bartels emphasizes partisan differences
and Levy and Temain emphasize ideological ones that occur over time, but both constitute
changes in the way Washington governs. Levy and Temain concede that the ideological shift was
influenced by changing circumstance (inflation
embraced, and the increased income inequality that resulted, were not inevitable. The proof, they
argue, lies in the fact that other industrialized nations faced similar pressures but often embraced
different policies, resulting in far less income inequality.

Geoghegan’s latest book,
looking at Germany. German firms, Geoghegan writes,

don’t have the illusion that they can bust the unions, in the U.S. manner, as the prime way
of competing with China and other countries. It’s no accident that the social democracies,
Sweden, France, and Germany, which kept on paying high wages, now have more
industry than the U.S. or the UK. … [T]hat’s what the U.S. and the UK did: they smashed
the unions, in the belief that they had to compete on cost. The result? They quickly ended
up wrecking their industrial base.

Geoghegan’s book went to press too soon to report that Germany is now experiencing
that’s leaving the United States in the dust
the lesson
States to stimulate its economy (a conclusion that Krugman, his fellow
already labelled “foolish”
government policy in Germany is much more supportive of labor; for example, during the
recession it paid businesses to keep workers employed (something the United States was willing
to do only for state government workers). The idea that pro-labor policies can produce an
economy that’s both more egalitarian
Detroit—has, regrettably, become unfashionable.

“[U]nions are not the answer to increasing prosperity for Americans workers or the economy.”

*An earlier version of this installment misidentified MIT’s Peter Temin as “Peter Temlin.” The error resulted from a typo on the
cover of Levy and Temin’s paper as it appears on an MIT Web site.

unemployment—has lately been
The traditional economic argument against raising the minimum wage—that it increases low-wagecalled into question.
The Chamber’s current position on unions, laid out in a 2008 white paper, is … um … somewhat different:

Happy Holidays! Delay in Posting the Great Divergence

SOOOOO Sorry for the delay in posting the next chapter in the Great Divergence. I do plan to do this soon.

That is one thing about having a couple of diseases. Crap happens!

We did adopt a new member to the family that is about 10 months old and FULL of UNBELIEVABLE ENERGY.  But, I knew when we got him that he would be a hand full and was willing to deal with it in order to help myself hopefully regain a lot of the strength I have lost in the last couple years.

After falling numersous times, I am still in it and he is sticking by me. When I do fall or have a problem, he comes running over to me to help and lick me till I am soaking wet!

It is obvious he has already been through training but, a condition of the adoption was that we attend more obediance classes. He is SO smart and quite the character! He knows just about all the commands and some that surprise us. But, like I said...he is SO ACTIVE.

He loves to run and will run next to me as I drive down the road in my mobility scooter. He is so good. We took him to a dog park this weekend and there must have been 30 dogs there. It is a HUGE fenced in place at one of our favorite lakes/Parks where Mason use to run all the time. Anyway, there were several Great Danes, Labs, Pit Bulls, even a small Chihuahua that stayed mostly in his mom's arms!

But, Pepper loved it and all the dogs. He can bolt like lightening and then stop on a dime. I guess Border Collies are good at that.  He would do that and the dogs chasing him would all fall over him since they could not just drop and stop like he could. 

Because of the weather it was pretty muddy and any water puddle he would find...for some reason...he would plop right down into it! So, he got very muddy!! We decided to see if he would go in the lake to get the mud off, since we had a new bed in the back of the car....and we were amazed at how he just jumped in when we told him to "go get the ducks!" Looks like we will be spending a lot of time there, especially when the weather gets better.

He has really pushed me to the limit. I think I have fallen numerous times as well as having to make sure he is excersised all the time.  I am exhaused and in a LOT of pain but, I know that this will be good for me in the long run.

He loves to sit on the patio with me and watch all the deer. Everyday we get visitors as you have seen or read from other posts.  One was a huge Buck that was not scared of me or anything. I guess with those 4 points, he doesn't need to feel any fear!

I will post the next chapter very soon. Hopefully today or tomorrow. But, for now, enjoy the pictures!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Can we blame income inequality on Republicans?

Part V
The Great Divergence by Noah

9 The percentage of the labor force that used computers increased at a faster rate in the 1980s than in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the mid-to-late late ‘90s that a majority of workers used computers.

Overall, pre-tax income increased 1.42 percent annually for the 20th percentile (poor and lowermiddle-class people) and 2 percent annually for the 95th percentile (upper-middle-class and rich people). The White House during this period was occupied by five Democrats (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton) and six Republicans (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II). Bartels plotted out what the inequality trend would have been had only Democrats been president. He also plotted out what the trend would be had only Republicans been president.on politics," Hacker and Pierson point out in their new book, Winner-Take-All Politics, "only a fairly small fraction is directly connected to electoral contests. The bulk of it goes to lobbying…." Corporations now spend more than $3 billion annually on lobbying, according to official records cited by Hacker and Pierson (which, they note, understate true expenditures). That's nearly twice what corporations spent a decade ago.
Until recently, the consensus among academics—even most liberal ones—was quite different. Economists argued that the Great Divergence was the result not of Washington policymaking but of larger "exogenous" (external) and "secular" (long-term) forces. In June, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that spending by the federal government made up 23 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, after averaging 18.5 percent during the previous four decades. But even with federal spending at this unusually high level (necessitated by a severe recession), Washington's nut remains less than one-quarter the size of the economy. Most of that nut is automatic "entitlement" spending over which Washington policymakers seldom exert much control. Brad DeLong, a liberal economist at Berkeley, expressed the prevailing view in 2006: "[T]he shifts in income inequality seem to me to be too big to be associated with anything the government does or did."
My Slate colleague Mickey Kaus took this argument one step further in his 1992 book The End of Equality, positing that income inequality was the inevitable outgrowth of ever-more-ruthlessly efficient markets, and that government attempts to reverse it were certain to fail. "[Y]ou cannot
decide to keep all the nice parts of capitalism," he wrote, "and get rid of all the nasty ones." Instead, Kaus urged liberals to combat social inequality by nurturing egalitarian civic institutions (parks, schools, libraries, museums) and by creating some new ones (national health care, national service, a revived WPA) that remove many of life's most important activities from the
"money sphere" altogether.

Finding ways to increase social equality is an important goal, and Kaus's book remains a smart and provocative read. But the academic consensus that underlay Kaus's argument (and Long's more modest one) has lately started to crumble.

Economists and political scientists previously resisted blaming the Great Divergence on government mainly because it didn't show up when you looked at the changing distribution of federal income taxes. Taxation is the most logical government activity to focus on, because it is literally redistribution: taking money from one group of people (through taxes) and handing it
over to another group (through government benefits and appropriations).

Another compelling reason to focus on taxation is that income-tax policy has changed very dramatically during the last 30 years. Before Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the top income tax bracket stood at or above 70 percent, where it had been since the Great Depression. (In the
Compression, as the economy boomed and income inequality dwindled, the top bracket resided at a level that even most Democrats would today call confiscatory. Reagan dropped the top bracket from 70 percent to 50 percent, and eventually pushed it all the way down to 28 percent. Since then, it has hovered between 30 percent and 40 percent. If President Obama lets George
W. Bush's 2001 tax cut expire for families earning more than $250,000, as he's expected to do, Tea Partiers will call him a Bolshevik. But at a whisker under 40 percent (up from 35), the top bracket would remain 30 to 50 percentage points below what it was under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford. That's how much Reagan changed the debate.

But tax brackets, including the top one, tell you only the marginal tax rate, i.e., the rate on the last dollar earned. The percentage of total income that you actually pay in taxes is known as theeffective tax rate. That calculation looks at income taxed at various rates as you move from one
bracket to the next; it figures in taxes on capital gains and pensions; it figures in "imputed taxes" such as corporate and payroll taxes paid by your employer (on the theory that if your boss didn't give this money to Uncle Sam he'd give it to you); and it removes from the total any money the
federal government paid you in Social Security, welfare, unemployment benefits, or some other benefit. Reagan lowered top marginal tax rates a lot, but he lowered top effective tax rates much less—and certainly not enough to make income-tax policy a major cause of the Great Divergence.

In 1979, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent (i.e., rich people) was 42.9 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. By Reagan's last year in office it was 32.2 percent. From 1989 to 2005 (the last year for which data are available), as income inequality continued to climb, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent largely held steady; in most
years it remained in the low 30s, surging to 41 during Clinton's first term but falling back during his second, where it remained. The change in the effective tax rate on the bottom 20 percent (i.e., poor and lower-middle-class people) was much more dramatic, but not in a direction that would
increase income inequality. Under Clinton, it dropped from 8 percent (about where it had stood since 1979) to 6.4 percent. Under George W. Bush, it fell to 4.3 percent.

Measuring tax impacts is not an exact science. There are many ways to define rich, poor, and middle class, and many variables to consider. Some experts have looked at the same data and concluded that effective tax rates have gone up slightly for people at high incomes. Others concluded they've gone down. The larger point is that you can't really demonstrate that U.S. tax
policy had a large impact on the three-decade income inequality trend one way or the other. The inequality trend for pre-tax income during this period was much more dramatic. That's why academics concluded that government policy didn't affect U.S. income distribution very much.

But in recent years a few prominent economists and political scientists have suggested looking at the question somewhat differently. Rather than consider only effective tax rates, they recommend that we look at what MIT economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin call "institutions and norms."
It's somewhat vague phrase, but in practice what it mostly means is "stuff the government did, or didn't do, in more ways than we can count." In his 2007 book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman concludes that there is "a strong circumstantial case for believing that institutions and norms … are the big sources of rising inequality in the United States." Krugman elaborated in his New York Times blog:
[T]he great reduction of inequality that created middle-class America between 1935 and
1945 was driven by political change; I believe that politics has also played an important
role in rising inequality since the 1970s. It's important to know that no other advanced
economy has seen a comparable surge in inequality.
Proponents of this theory tend to make their case not by measuring the precise impact of each thing government has done but rather by charting strong correlations between economic trends and political ones. In his 2008 book Unequal Democracy, Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist, writes:

[T]he narrowly economic focus of most previous studies of inequality has caused them to
miss what may be the most important single influence on the changing U.S. income
distribution over the past half-century—the contrasting policy choices of Democratic and
Republican presidents. Under Republican administrations, real income growth for the
lower- and middle-classes has consistently lagged well behind the income growth rate for
the rich—and well behind the income growth rate for the lower and middle classes
themselves under Democratic administrations.
Bartels came to this conclusion by looking at average annual pre-tax income growth (corrected for inflation) for the years 1948 to 2005, a period encompassing much of the egalitarian Great Compression and all of the inegalitarian Great Divergence (up until the time he did his research).
Bartels broke down the data according to income percentile and whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican. Figuring the effects of White House policies were best measured on a one-year lag, Bartels eliminated each president's first year in office and substituted the year following departure. Here is what he found:

In Democrat-world, pre-tax income increased 2.64 percent annually for the poor and lowermiddle-class and 2.12 percent annually for the upper-middle-class and rich. There was no Great Divergence. Instead, the Great Compression—the egalitarian income trend that prevailed through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—continued to the present, albeit with incomes converging less rapidly than before. In Republican-world, meanwhile, pre-tax income increased 0.43 percent annually for the poor and lower-middle-class and 1.90 percent for the upper-middle-class and rich. Not only did the Great Divergence occur; it was more greatly divergent. Also of note: In Democrat-world pre-tax income increased faster than in the real world not just for the 20th percentile but also for the 40th, 60th, and 80th. We were all richer and more equal! But in Republican-world, pre-tax income increased slower than in the real world not just for the 20th percentile but also for the 40th, 60th, and 80th. We were all poorer and less equal! Democrats also produced marginally faster income growth than Republicans at the 95th percentile, but the difference wasn't statistically significant. (More on that in a future installment.)

What did Democrats do right? What did Republicans do wrong? Bartels doesn't know; in Unequal Democracy he writes that it would take "a small army of economists" to find out. But since these are pre-tax numbers, the difference would appear to be in macroeconomic policies. (Tne clue, Bartels suggests, is that Republicans always worry more than Democrats about
inflation.) Bartels' evidence is circumstantial rather than direct. But so is the evidence that smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer. We don't know exactly how tobacco causes the cells inside your lungs to turn cancerous, but the correlation is strong enough to convince virtually every public health official in the world.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists at Yale and Berkeley, respectively, take a slightly different tack. Like Bartels and Krugman, they believe that government action (and inaction) at the federal level played a leading role in creating the Great Divergence. But the culprit, they say, is not so much partisan politics (i.e., Republicans) as institutional changes in the
way Washington does business (i.e., lobbyists). "Of the billions of dollars now spent every year

According to Hacker and Pierson, industry began to mobilize in the early 1970s in response to liberalism's political ascendancy (which didn't end when Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969):

The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, 2,500 did. The number of corporate [political action committees] increased
from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980. […] The Chamber [of Commerce] doubled in membership between 1974 and 1980. Its budget tripled. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) doubled its membership between
1970 and 1979.

examples and make arguments that are a little more speculative. We'll look at one such example in the next installment.
The resultant power shift, they argue, affects Democrats and Republicans like.Academics who believe that government policies are largely responsible for the Great Divergence don't breeze past the relevant mechanisms. Bartels writes at length about repeal of the estate tax, and the decline of the minimum wage; Hacker and Pierson about financial deregulation. But their approach to them is more impressionistic than comprehensive. They offer

Liberal politicians and activists have long argued that the federal government caused the Great Divergence. And by "federal government," they generally mean Republicans, who have controlled the White House for 20 of the past 30 years, after all. A few outliers even argue that for Republicans, creating income inequality was a conscious and deliberate policy goal.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Part Four: Did computers create inequality?

For some reason, no matter what I try, the alignment on my blog is getting messed up. Hope it isn't too hard to read.
"What you earn," Bill Clinton said more than once when he was president, "is a function of what
you can learn." That had always been true, but Clinton's point was that at the close of the 20th
century it was becoming more true, because computers were transforming the marketplace. A
manufacturing-based economy was giving way to a knowledge-based economy that had an upper class and a lower class but not much of a middle class.

The top was occupied by a group that Clinton's first labor secretary, Robert Reich, labeled
rearranged, juggled, or experimented with" using "mathematical algorithms, legal arguments,
financial gimmicks, scientific principles, psychological insights," and other tools seldom
acquired without a college or graduate degree. At the bottom were providers of "in-person
services" like waitressing, home health care, and security. The middle, once occupied by factory
workers, stenographers, and other moderately skilled laborers, was disappearing fast.

Did computerization create the Great Divergence?

Our story begins in the 1950s, at the dawn of the computer age, when homo sapiens first began
to worry that automation would bring about mass unemployment. Economic theory dating back
to the 19th century said this couldn't happen, because the number of jobs isn't fixed; a new
machine might eliminate jobs in one part of the economy, but it would also create jobs in another

8 Reich’s January 2008 Berkeley lecture, “How Unequal Can America Get Before We Snap?,” an
excellent introduction to the topic at hand, is available on You Tube.

For example, someone had to be employed to make these new machines. But as the
economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard J. Murnane of Harvard have noted, computers
represented an entirely different sort of new machine. Previously, technology had performed
physical tasks. (Think of John Henry's nemesis, the steam-powered hammer.) Computers were
designed to perform cognitive tasks. (Think of Garry Kasparov's nemesis, IBM's Deep Blue.)
Theoretically, there was no limit to the kinds of work computers might eventually perform. In
1964 several eminent Americans, including past and future Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and
Gunnar Myrdal, wrote President Lyndon Johnson to warn him about "a system of almost
unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor."

Such a dystopia may yet one day emerge. But thus far traditional economic theory is holding up
reasonably well. Computers are eliminating jobs, but they're also creating jobs. The trouble,
Levy and Murnane argue, is that the kinds of jobs computers tend to eliminate are those that
require some thinking but not a lot—precisely the niche previously occupied by moderately
skilled middle-class laborers.

Consider the sad tale of the bank teller. When is the last time you saw one? In the 1970s, the
number of bank tellers grew by more than 85 percent. It was one of the nation's fastest-growing
occupations, and it required only a high school degree. In 1970, bank tellers averaged about $90
a week, which in 2010 dollars translates into an annual wage of about $26,000. But over the last
30 years, people pretty much stopped ever stepping into the lobby of their bank; instead, they
started using the automatic teller machine outside and eventually learned to manage their
accounts from their personal computers or mobile phones.

Today, the job category "bank teller" is one of the nation's slowest-growing occupations. The
Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a paltry 6 percent growth rate during the next decade. The job
now pays slightly less than it did in 1970, averaging about $25,000 a year.

As this story plays out in similar occupations—cashiers, typists, welders, farmers, appliance
repairmen (this last already so obsolete that no one bothers to substitute a plausible ungendered
noun)—the moderately skilled workforce is hollowing out. This trend isn't unique to the United
States. The Japanese have a word for it: kudoka. David Autor, an MIT economist, calls it "job
polarization," and he has demonstrated that it's happening to roughly the same extent within the
European Union as it is in the United States. But Autor readily concedes that computer-driven
job polarization can't possibly explain the entire trend toward income inequality in the United
States, because income inequality is much greater in the United States than it is in Europe.

Another problem that arises when you try to attribute the income-inequality trend to computers is that the Great Divergence began in the late 1970s, well before most people had ever seen a
personal computer. By the late 1990s, as businesses stampeded to the Internet, inequality
slackened a bit. If computers were the only factor driving inequality, or even the main factor, the opposite should have happened.9 A final problem is that the income premium for college or
graduate-level education gradually slackens off at higher incomes, even as income inequality
intensifies. If computers required ever-higher levels of education to manipulate ever-growing
quantities of information in ever-more rococo ways, then we'd expect the very richest people to
be the biggest nerds. They aren't.

Here, then, is a dilemma. We know that computers put a premium on more highly educated
workers, but we can't really demonstrate that computers caused the Great Divergence. What is it that's so special about computers? Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz offer
an interesting answer: Nothing!

Yes, Goldin and Katz argue, computer technology had a big impact on the economy. But that
impact was no larger than that of other technologies introduced throughout the 20th century,
starting in 1900 with the dynamo that Henry Adams famously swooned over at the Paris
Exposition. Between 1909 and 1929, Katz and Goldin report in their 2008 book, The Race, the percentage of manufacturing horsepower acquired
Between Education and Technology
through the purchase of electricity rose sixfold. From 1917 to 1930, the proportion of U.S.
homes with electricity increased from 24 percent to 80 percent. By contrast, from 1984 to 2003,
the proportion of U.S. workers using computers increased from 25 percent to 57 percent.
Computer use has spread quickly, but not as quickly as electric power did during the early part of
the 20th century. "Skill-biased technological change is not new," Katz and Goldin wrote in a
2009 paper, "and it did not greatly accelerate toward the end of the twentieth century."

Contemporary culture is so fixated on the computer revolution that the very word "technology"
has become an informal synonym for "computers." But before computers we witnessed
technological revolutions brought on by the advent of the automobile, the airplane, radio,
television, the washing machine, the Xerox machine, and too many other devices to name. Most
of these earlier inventions had much the same effect as the computer—that is, they increased
demand for progressively higher-skilled workers. But (with the possible exception of radio) none
of these consumer innovations coincided with an increase in inequality. Why not? Katz and
Goldin have a persuasive answer that we'll consider later in this series.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2010: An earlier version of this story misstated Kasparov's first name as

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Did Immigration create the Great Divergence? Part Three By Timothy Noah for Slate

 In June 1970, when I was 12, my family moved from New York to California. We didn't know it
at the time, but our migration came at the tail end of a historic trend that predated California's
entry into the union. Starting with the 1849 Gold Rush (which prompted Congress to grant
statehood), California had been a place whose population grew mainly because people from
other parts of the United States picked up and moved there. In the 1870s, Hoosiers tired of the
cold and settled Pasadena. In the 1930s, Okies fled the Dust Bowl and followed Route 66 to the
Central Valley. In the 1940s and 1950s, engineers descended on South Bay to create an
aerospace industry. My family's migration came about because television production had been
relocating from New York City to Los Angeles for about a decade. (My dad was a TV producer.)

After 1970, people kept coming to California, and new industries continued to sprout there (most
notably in Northern California's Silicon Valley). But the engine of population growth ceased to
be native-born Americans leaving one part of the United States for another. Instead, California's
population grew mainly because foreign-born people moved there. The catalyst was the
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased up on immigration restrictions generally
and on restrictions affecting non-Europeans in particular. Since 1970, the foreign-born share of
the U.S. population (legal and illegal) has risen from 4.8 percent to 11 percent. More than half of
U.S. immigrants now come from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
Although a substantial minority of immigrants are highly skilled, for most immigrants incomes
and educational attainment are significantly lower than for the native-born.

Did the post-1965 immigration surge cause the Great Divergence?

The timing is hard to ignore. During the Great Compression, the long and prosperous mid-20thcentury
idyll when income inequality shrank or held steady, immigration was held in check by
quotas first imposed during the 1920s. The Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson saw a
connection. "By keeping labor supply down," he wrote in his best-selling economics textbook, a
restrictive immigration policy "tends to keep wages high." After the 1965 immigration law
reopened the spigot, the income trend reversed itself and income inequality grew.

But when economists look at actual labor markets, most find little evidence that immigration
harms the economic interests of native-born Americans, and much evidence that it stimulates the
economy. Even the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro sent 125,000 Cubans to Miami—
abruptly expanding the city's labor force by 7 percent—had virtually no measurable effect on
Miami's wages or unemployment.

George Borjas, an economics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, rejects this reasoning.
Looking at individual cities or regions, he argues, is the wrong way to measure immigration's
impact. Immigrants, he observes, are drawn to areas with booming economies. That creates a
"spurious positive correlation between immigration and wages," he wrote in a 2003 paper.
Immigration looks like it is creating opportunity, but what's really happening is that immigrants
are moving to places where opportunity is already plentiful. Once a place starts to become
saturated with cheap immigrant labor, Borjas wrote, the unskilled American workers who
compete with immigrants for jobs no longer move there. (Or if they already live there, they move
away to seek better pay.)

Instead of looking at the effects of immigration in isolated labor markets like New York or Los
Angeles, Borjas gathered data at the national level and sorted workers according to their skill
levels and their experience. He found that from 1980 to 2000, immigration had reduced the
average annual income of native-born high-school dropouts ("who roughly correspond to the
poorest tenth of the workforce") by 7.4 percent. In a subsequent 2006 study with Harvard
economist Lawrence Katz, this one focusing solely on immigration from Mexico, Borjas
calculated that from 1980 to 2000, Mexican immigrants reduced annual income for native-born
high-school dropouts by 8.2 percent. Illegal immigration has a disproportionate effect on the
labor pool for high-school dropouts because the native-born portion of that pool is relatively
small. A Congressional Budget Office study released a year after Borjas' study reported that The Age of Turbulence, the former Federal Reserve chairman7
among U.S. workers who lacked a high-school diploma, nearly half were immigrants, most of
them from Mexico and Central America.

Immigration clearly imposes hardships on the poorest U.S. workers, but its impact on the
moderately-skilled middle class—the group whose vanishing job opportunities largely define the
Great Divergence—is much smaller. For native-born high-school graduates, Borjas calculated
that from 1980 to 2000, immigration drove annual income down 2.1 percent. For native-born
workers with "some college," immigration drove annual income down 2.3 percent. Comparable
figures for Mexican immigration were 2.2 percent and 2.7 percent. (For all workers, annual
income went down 3.7 percent due to all immigration and down 3.4 percent due to Mexican
immigration.) To put these numbers in perspective, the difference between the rate at which the
middle fifth of the income distribution grew in after-tax income and the rate at which the top
fifth of the income distribution grew during this period was 70 percent. The difference between
the middle fifth growth rate and the top 1 percent growth rate was 256 percent.

Another obstacle to blaming the Great Divergence on immigration is that one of Borjas' findings
runs in the wrong direction. From 1980 to 2000, immigration depressed wages for college
graduates by 3.6 percent. That's because some of those immigrants were highly skilled. But the
Great Divergence sent college graduates' wages up, not down. To reverse that trend would
require importing a lot more highly skilled workers. That's the solution favored by Alan
Greenspan. In his 2007 book
proposed not that we step up patrols along the Rio Grande but that we "allow open migration of
skilled workers." The United States has, Greenspan complained, created "a privileged, native born elite of skilled workers whose incomes are being supported at noncompetitively high levels
by immigration quotas." Eliminating these "would, at the stroke of a pen, reduce much income

Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, proposes a different
way to think about immigration. Noting that immigrants "accounted for one-third of the U.S.
population growth between 1980 and 2007," Burtless argued in a 2009 paper that even if they
failed to exert heavy downward pressure on the incomes of most native-born Americans, the
roughly 900,000 immigrants who arrive in the United States each year were sufficient in number
to skew the national income distribution by their mere presence. But while Burtless'
methodology was more expansive than Borjas', his calculation of immigration's effect was more
modest. Had there been no immigration after 1979, he calculated, average annual wages for all
workers "may have risen by an additional 2.3 percent" (compared to Borjas's 3.7 percent).

The conclusion here is as overwhelming as it is unsatisfying. Immigration has probably helped
create income inequality. But it isn't the star of the show. "If you were to list the five or six main
things" that caused the Great Divergence, Borjas told me, "what I would say is [immigration is] a
contributor. Is it the most important contributor? No."

years old. It’s possible that immigration is currently having a greater impact on the wages of the nativeborn
than past data indicate. For example, illegal immigrants are currently believed to constitute 20
percent to 36 percent of construction workers in low-skill trades. But a
engineering department at the University of Maryland found that in the Washington metropolitan area,
illegal immigrants actually constitute 55 percent of construction workers in low-skill trades. Is that finding
accurate? If so, does it reflect a local anomaly? A recession blip? Or are the national numbers too low? It
could be years before we know. A D.C.-based labor lawyer of my acquaintance, who blogs under the
pseudonym of “Sir Charles,” recently estimated that in the D.C. metropolitan area the construction
industry typically pays undocumented workers about $13 an hour to avoid paying native-born and legalimmigrant
workers about $30 an hour. “In the past year,”
$4, and $12--yes, $12--n hour for various groups with whom I work.”
A caveat is in order. Economists work from available data, which at the national level is often five to 10recent survey conducted by thehe wrote, “I have negotiated wages cuts of $2,

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Great Divergence

Part Two:

Most discussion about inequality in the United States focuses on race and gender. That makes
sense, because our society has a conspicuous history of treating blacks differently from whites
and women differently from men. Black/white and male/female inequality persist to this day.
The median annual income for women working full time is 23 percent lower than for their male
counterparts. The median annual income for black families is 38 percent lower than for their
white counterparts. The extent to which these imbalances involve lingering racism and sexism or
more complex matters of sociology and biology is a topic of much anguished and heated debate.
But we need not delve into that debate, because the Great Divergence can't be blamed on either
race or gender. To contribute to the growth in income inequality over the past three decades, the
income gaps between women and men, and between blacks and whites, would have to have
grown. They didn't.
The black/white gap in median family income has stagnated; it's a mere three percentage points
smaller today than it was in 1979.3 This lack of progress is dismaying. So is the apparent trend
that, during the current economic downturn, the black/white income gap widened somewhat. But
the black/white income gap can't be a contributing factor to the Great Divergence if it hasn't
grown over the past three decades. And even if it had grown, there would be a limit to how much

It is possible to argue that the black/white wage gap grew worse during the past three decades, for instance by factoring in blacks’ higher incarceration rate and lower participation in the job market. It has also been shown that, within income groups, blacks enjoyed less upward mobility during this period than whites. But the Great Divergence is a phenomenon that’s measured according to family (“household”) income, so in examining whether black/white income inequality contributed to it, I’ll consider only the 30-year change in black family income relative to white family income. And that change is nonexistent.

impact it could have on the national income-inequality trend, because African-Americans
constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Women constitute half the U.S. population, but they can't be causing the Great Divergence
because the male-female wage gap has shrunk by nearly half. Thirty years ago the median annual
income for women working full-time was not 23 percent less than men's, but 40 percent less.4
Most of these gains occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s; during the past five years they halted.
But there's every reason to believe the male-female income gap will continue to narrow in the
future, if only because in the U.S. women are now better educated than men. Ever since the late
1990s female students have outnumbered male students at colleges and universities. The femalemale
ratio is currently 57 to 43, and the U.S. Department of Education expects that disparity to
increase over the next decade.
Far from contributing to the Great Divergence, women have, to a remarkable degree, absented
themselves from it. Take a look at this bar graph by David Autor, an MIT labor economist:

The graph demonstrates that during the past three decades, women have outperformed men at all
education levels in the workforce. Both men and women have (in the aggregate) been moving
out of moderately skilled jobs—secretary, retail sales representative, steelworker, etc.—women


more rapidly than men. But women have been much more likely than men to shift upward into
higher skilled jobs—from information technology engineer and personnel manager on up
through various high-paying professions that require graduate degrees (doctor, lawyer, etc.).
These findings suggest that women's relative gains in the workplace are not solely a You've-
Come-a-Long-Way-Baby triumph of the feminist movement and individual pluck. They also
reflect downward mobility among men. My Slate colleague Hanna Rosin, writing in the Atlantic,
recently looked at these and other data and asked, "What if the modern, postindustrial economy
is simply more congenial to women than to men?"
She might have asked the same about the modern, postindustrial family. The declining economic
value of men as Ward Cleaver-style breadwinners is a significant reason for the rise in single
parenthood, which most of the time means children being raised by an unmarried or divorced
mother. The percentage of children living with one parent has doubled since 1970, from 12
percent to more than 26 percent in 2004. Conservatives often decry this trend, and they rightly
point out that children who grow up in single-parent homes are much likelier to be poor. "Single
mothers seldom command high wages," confirmed David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, both
of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, in a 2004 paper. "They also find it unusually
difficult to work long hours." But it would be difficult to attribute much of the Great Divergence
to single parenthood, because it increased mostly before 1980, when the Great Divergence was
just getting under way.5 By the early 1990s, the growth trend halted altogether, and though it
resumed in the aughts the rate of growth was significantly slower.6
Also, single parenthood isn't as damaging economically as it was at the start of the Great
Divergence. "That's mostly because the percentage of women who are actually working who are
single parents went up," Jencks told me. In a January 2008 paper, three Harvard sociologists
concluded that the two-thirds rise in income inequality among families with children from 1975
to 2005 could not be attributed to divorce and out-of-wedlock births. "Single parenthood
increased inequality," they conceded, "but the income gap was closed by mothers who entered
the labor force." One trend canceled the effects of another (at least in the aggregate).
While we're on the topic of single versus two-parent households, perhaps we ought to consider
what a "household" is.
Stephen J. Rose is a labor economist at Georgetown best-known for publishing, since the 1970s,
successive editions of Social Stratification in the United States, a pamphlet and poster much
revered by the left that depicts economic inequality in the United States. In his recent bookRebound, Rose made an apparent 180-degree turn and argued that worries about rising income
inequality and a disappearing middle class were overblown. Rose built his case largely on the

By 1980 the proportion of children living with one parent was already 20 percent.
The especially worrisome trend of teenage births peaked in the early 1990s.

notion that the Census Bureau's preferred metric—"median household income"—was
The trouble, Rose wrote, was that households varied greatly in composition and size. A
household might consist of a single young man just starting out on his own or an elderly widow
in retirement. Neither would likely enjoy a high income, but that would be a function of mere
circumstance (the young man was just beginning his climb up the greasy pole; the retired widow
no longer worked at all) and need (neither was likely to be responsible for any children). Another
problem, Rose suggested, was that some households were bigger than others. Couples tended to
have larger household incomes than single people, but that was because they likely collected two
paychecks rather than one. The proportion of Americans living alone had for various reasons
increased over time; that needed to be taken into account, too. Correcting for all these factors,
Rose calculated that median household income was 30 percent higher than the Census' official
figure (about $50,000 in 2007).
That was the good news. The bad news was that even with these new calculations, Rose couldn't
deny the existence of a Great Divergence. "Under all circumstances," he wrote, "inequality has
risen considerably, and this is a bad thing for America. Those at the bottom of the income ladder
have benefited only minimally from the significant gains in overall production over the past three
Back, then, to the drawing board. Conventional liberal and conservative explanations about what
ails society can neither explain the Great Divergence nor make it go away.

How many of you actually get this or understand? I have seen so many follow and believe ridiculous people and their stories. I cannot believe the majority of our nation could actually be so naive, I refuse to believe it.
Some people prefer to compare median weekly incomes because women are more likely to take time off over the course of the year, but weekly incomes followed a near-identical trend. Among part-time workers, women now enjoy a higher median weekly income than men. This is mainly because female part time workers tend to be older than male part-time workers.
The usual suspects are innocent