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The Big Lies of Liberalism

I guess what pushed me most surely away from liberalism is the dishonesty of its spokespeople and the myopia that it requires in its adherents. Consider the conclusion of Beth Shulman's recent op-ed meant to rally the masses by supposedly dispelling some myths about the problems surrounding low-income workers:

The world's richest country should not tolerate such treatment of more than a fourth of its workers. The myths of upward mobility and inevitable market forces blind too many people to the grim reality of low-wage work. A presidential campaign is the right time to begin a conversation on how to change it.

The line of thought that gets Shulman to this statement could be unraveled point by point, which would make it a great exercise in a classroom. It would also be worth arguing with anybody who might choose to take up the opposite side. But a deep deconstruction isn't necessary for my purposes with this blog. For one thing, one need only peel back the flimsiest of layers to reveal disingenuousness. Here's the paragraph at the beginning that explains that "fourth of its workers" phrase:

Fully 30 million Americans -- one in four U.S. workers -- earn $8.70 an hour or less, a rate that works out to $18,100 a year, which is the current official poverty level in the United States for a family of four. These low-wage jobs usually lack health-care, child-care, pension and vacation benefits. Their working conditions are often grueling, dangerous, even humiliating.

And indeed, this handy table from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that a family must have at least four members before it is considered "poor" at $18,000 per year. Furthermore, Shulman is surely folding together statistics to get her desired result. First: a family of four consisting of two adults will have two potential wage earners, who, at $8.70 per hour, would have a household annual income of over $36,000. That means that within that "one in four U.S. workers" are couples that earn well above poverty level. Second: one might argue that those households of four with only one adult make a good social case for marriage (and, in some cases, abstinence). Nonetheless, it would be worthwhile for society to help these families out in some way; the point is that they number far less than 25% of the working population, and if two one-parent households of four were to combine forces, that $36,000 per year would still be well above the poverty level for a family of eight.

In addressing arguments such as Shulman's, one runs into the problem that every paragraph points to the dishonesty of another. For example, in the blockquote immediately above, Shulman speaks of the "grueling, dangerous, and even humiliating" working conditions of low-wage earners. Yet, here is how she defines the group:

They are nursing-home and home-health-care workers who care for our parents; they are poultry processors who bone and package our chicken; they are retail clerks in department stores, grocery stores and convenience stores; they are housekeepers and janitors who keep our hotel rooms and offices clean; they are billing and telephone call-center workers who take our complaints and answer our questions; and they are teaching assistants in our schools and child-care workers who free us so that we can work ourselves.

Many of these strike me as jobs held by second-income members of a household, whether spouses or young adult children. Apart from that, few of them are "dangerous," none are inherently "humiliating" any more than any other job in which one interacts with others, and the definition of "grueling" would have to be stretched some to apply to retail clerks, for example. To be sure, Shulman defines laborers and manufacturers out of her target group in order to dismiss the "myth" that globalization "stops us from doing anything about this problem."

I'm going to stop following the thread of deception here, because, as I suggested, the entire essay unravels at the most mild application of critical thought. For a quick example, consider that Shulman complains that "the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage fell 30 percent during the 1980s," yet counts "Federal Reserve policies focused on reducing inflation threats" among the contributors to "the problem." However, this paragraph, which supposedly indicates "the myth of upward mobility," I just cannot pass up:

In a recent study following U.S. adults through their working careers, economics professors Peter Gottschalk, of Boston College, and Sheldon Danziger, of the University of Michigan, found that about half of those whose earnings ranked in the bottom 20 percent in 1968 were still in the same group in 1991. Of those who had moved up, nearly two-thirds remained below the median income.

Got that? Let's rephrase: over the course of 23 years, half of those earning in the bottom 20% had managed to climb out of that group. Of those who managed to make that improvement, one-third had moved all the way above the median income. In pointing this out, I don't mean to detract from the difficulties of those for whom upward mobility has proven to be a myth, but I am pessimistic (to put it mildly) about the chances of socialistic solutions to improve upon this record, particularly considering the degree to which Shulman ignores problems created by them and is dishonest about the need for them.

Beware when lawyers write books about solving the problems of the poor. If you're inclined to ameliorate the unjust distribution of money, you can start by deciding not to buy Beth Shulman's The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans. If the Providence Journal paid her the same as it has me for an op-ed, Shulman took in roughly the equivalent of twenty hours of minimum-wage work, and I'll bet she didn't find it grueling, dangerous, or humiliating in the least, although perhaps the third of quality ought to have applied.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 10:25 AM EST


I'm pushed away from liberalism, too, but I read the Shulman piece and this blog seems to have misunderstood the point. And, I would be interested in the counter-argument on the point. And, it's so easy to take pot-shots at lawyers. But the analysis has its own gaping holes.

No where does the quoted statement claim that a quarter of all families are trying to survive at $8.70 per hour. Nor does it claim that every worker earning $8.70 per hour is trying to support a family of four. It is simply a comparison that is meant to tell you something about the value of that wage.

The poverty line is an imperfect measure in many respects, but it is one that we have and use frequently, so it is often chosen to give the reader a measurement that gives context to a number.

What is the standard for defining "grueling" work or "humiliating" work? Where's the evidence that by that standard, the jobs that are listed fail to meet the standard for "grueling" or "humiliating."

A 20% success rate in upward mobility is great, but when the reward in a capitalist economy is that if you work hard and gain skills, you, too, will be able to get economic rewards, how do you explain the other 80%? I know you don't claim that the entire 80% who didn't make it are both unskilled and lazy. But, Shulman isn't DENYING the existance of the 20%, her essay points out that 80% is a pretty big number in the face of the wealth and economic growth in our country. What's wrong with pointing that out?

Lastly, where's the recommendation for "redistribution" in these quotes? You infer them from the piece, but a close reading of the entire Shulman essay reveals that she is advocating for intervention in the market that will provide more balance, that will correct a market failure, or whatever you want to call it.

It is revealing that you fail to choose something from Myth #4 to criticize. It's our economy - it's our so-called "free market" - and "we the people" have a say over what standards we want for working people. It seems that when the failures of a market economy are pointed out, someone hears/reads "redistribution" and then goes right for "socialistic," then "Socialism," then "Communism, " etc.

Elizabeth @ 10/07/2003 05:11 PM EST


Please don't think me dismissive, but I can't think how I should respond to you. Your comments about "gaping holes" notwithstanding, it is as if you haven't read what I've written. Shulman complains of the "treatment of more than a fourth of [U.S.] workers." That comment derives from this quotation:

Fully 30 million Americans -- one in four U.S. workers -- earn $8.70 an hour or less, a rate that works out to $18,100 a year, which is the current official poverty level in the United States for a family of four. These low-wage jobs usually lack health-care, child-care, pension and vacation benefits. Their working conditions are often grueling, dangerous, even humiliating.

It is nothing less than obvious that Shulman wants the reader to envision vast numbers of American families living in squalor. That she is being dishonest ought to be readily apparent in the fact that she doesn't anywhere suggest that some of this 25% of workers are members of multiple income families (which would negate some of that healthcare/benefits problem) and others are not families of four. If you're interested, there was quite a bit of discussion of Shulman's and my pieces at About.com. Suffice to say that the point is what she was, in your words, trying to tell "about the value of that wage"; obviously the wage would have a different tint if it were earned by the teenage son of a CEO. Only by attributing that salary as a single income to a family of four could she make it comparable to the poverty line.

You've also completely misread the numbers for upward mobility. We're talking about the bottom 20%. 20% is not the "success rate"; almost the opposite is true. The upward mobility comes in because half of the people in that bottom 20% moved up.

And that leads to the last point: the success rate and the upward mobility are great... thanks to the degree of freedom in our economic system. Nowhere do I use the words "redistribution," "communism," or even "socialism." I said "socialistic" --- having some qualities of socialism --- which any plan suggested by a lawyer to Democrats going on about "the workers" and unions is certain to be. Turn your attitude around, Elizabeth, because it is you who has "inferred."

As for "Myth #4," I left it alone because I thought I'd adequately made my point without delving into the aspect that has most to do with differences of assumptions. It's just an historical fact that our form of economy creates wealth and distributes it more efficiently and more equitably than any other system ever tried. Human nature is a force of nature, and people don't act like cardboard abstractions in some intellectual's theoretical games. That means that efforts to manipulate the economy will have unforeseen effects and tend to make the quality of living for the masses worse. Acknowledging this doesn't mean that we shouldn't seek to help those who can't get moving, but it does suggest ways in which to do that, and not to do it. Centralized, governmental efforts to force a mold on the economy benefit one group: the government.

I do appreciate your taking the time to comment, and I hope it indicates an openness to challenging your assumptions. But before you lecture me about the failures of the market economy, I suggest you learn to read a little more closely.

Justin Katz @ 10/07/2003 07:03 PM EST