It's well known that the death of America's labor unions coincides with a staggering rise in income inequality, though the link between the two has never been as obvious as it seems. Many academics argue that unions play a relatively minor role in the equation, instead blaming educational disparities and the shifting makeup of the economy. But now comes a major new study from Harvard sociology professor Bruce Western that suggests that the decline of unions is as important as any other factor, explaining a full third of the growth in of income inequality for male workers.
The loss of labor unions explains a full third of the growth of inequality for male workers
Western and co-author Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, looked at the period between 1973 and 2007, when inequality in hourly wages spiked by 40 percent. During that time, union membership for private-sector male workers fell from 34 percent to 8 percent (female workers were never as unionized as their male counterparts). Their paper in the August issue of the America Sociological Review concludes that deunionization's biggest effects on inequality were indirect:
1) The threat of unionization caused non-unionized employers to raise wages; that threat disappered along with unions.
2) Unions occupied a bully pulpit; knocking them off left the moral case for equality vulnerable to attack. (What do you mean Viacom's CEO isn't worth $85 million?) 3) Workers lost their Washington lobbyists, and with them, any hope of winning political battles for better wages and benefits.
These ideas are nothing new. Kevin Drum ably explores them in his March/April Mother Jones essay, "Plutocracy Now." Yet the Harvard study bolsters them with a rigorous regression analysis of census data, showing empirically what many pundits have long suspected. "Our study underscores the role of unions as an equalizing force in the labor market," Western says. If only proving their importance was as easy as figuring out how to replace them.
For a few days in September 2008, as the Republican Party kicked off its national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Twin Cities were a microcosm of a deeply divided nation. The atmosphere around town was tense, with local and federal police facing off against activists who had descended upon the city. Convinced that anarchists were plotting violent acts, they sought to bust the protesters' hangouts, sometimes bursting into apartments and houses brandishing assault rifles. Inside the cavernous Xcel Energy convention center, meanwhile, an out-of-nowhere vice presidential nominee named Sarah Palin assured tens of thousands of ecstatic Republicans that her running mate, John McCain, was "a leader who's not looking for a fight, but sure isn't afraid of one either."
The same thing might have been said of David McKay and Bradley Crowder, a pair of greenhorn activists from George W. Bush's Texas hometown who had driven up for the protests. Wide-eyed guys in their early 20s, they'd come of age hanging out in sleepy downtown Midland, commiserating about the Iraq War and the administration's assault on civil liberties.
Remember last week, when Texas Governor Rick Perry sounded a lot like a gay marriage supporter? Well, nevermind. All that talk about how states should be allowed to decide for themselves about allowing same-sex matrimony might have been great national press fodder, but it was too good to last. Yesterday, Perry appeared on the radio show of the Family Research Council to set things straight:
The real fear is states like New York will change the definition of marriage for Texas. That is the reason the Federal Marriage Amendment is being offered. It's a small group of activist judges and really a small handful, if you will, of states and these liberal special interest groups that are intent on a redefinition, if you will, of marriage on the nation for all of us, which I adamantly oppose. Indeed, to not pass the Federal Marriage Amendment would impinge on Texas' and other states' right not to have [gay] marriage forced upon them.
Of course, the Federal Marriage Amendment would also prevent any state from legalizing gay marriage at home. Which means that Perry thinks gay marriage "should be New York's perogative," except when it isn't.
As Americans lose ever more jobs and economic clout to China, the pressure's mounting for us to become more Chinese. Enter Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose 2012 presidential campaign slogan might as well be, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." In many ways, Texas is the China in our own backyard, a big, brash upstart that's created thousands of jobs by playing economic hardball. Admirers of the Lone Star State have dubbed its economy the "Texas Miracle," but maybe a better name would be the "Texas Tiger."
Red states: China: Deflates the value of its currency by 40 percent to subsidize exports and job creation.
Texas: Since 2003, has doled out $732 million in tax credits and subsidies to companies that relocated to the Lone Star State.
Eco-impunity: China: World's top carbon emitter would rather burn cheap coal than sign a climate treaty.
Texas: Nation's top carbon emitter was only state to refuse to comply with new federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.
Tea party: China: Effective corporate tax rate of 16.6 percent is less than half the US rate.
Texas: Top corporate tax rate of 1% is fourth lowest among US states. Bonus: No personal income tax.
China: Tainted milk, poisonous toys, glow-in-the-dark pork: Product scandals are common. Court convictions, not so much.
Texas: "Hurt? Injured? Need a lawyer? Too bad!" writesTexas Monthly, pointing out that the state's tort reforms force everyone from the hospitalized to homebuyers to fend for themselves.
Of rice and men: China: Suffers from "a lack of adequate (even basic) social protection for a large portion of its 1.3 billion population," according to the International Social Security Association.
Texas: Ranks 46th out of 50 states in per-capita spending; new budget slashes another $15 billion from social services such as Medicaid, mental health centers, and legal aid for the poor.
Free-market cronyism: China: "Princelings" such as vice-president Xi Jinping and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai have gotten rich by trading on their connections.
Texas: "Good ol' boys" such as corporate raider Harold Simmons and real estate mogul Harlan Crow have gotten rich by trading on their political donations.
Pray for rain: China: Encroaching desert consumes a million acres of land a year.
Texas: The worst drought in history has turned large parts of the state into a moonscape.
Last night, PBS Frontline and the Center for Investigative Reporting aired "Pot Republic," a great documentary on the marijuana business in California. It kicked off with a scene from a party at WeGrow, the so-called Walmart of Weed, and a screen shot of my cover story, "Weedmart." True to Frontline's form, the segment turned up some dirt on how medical marijuana is providing a cover for drug smugglers who resell California pot for three times its local value in places like Dallas, Texas. The Mexican cartels are also getting in on the game. At 2:30 EST today Frontline will host an online chat with "Pot Republic" correspondent Michael Montgomery, WeGrow co-founder Derek Peterson, and law enforcement officials. You can watch the Frontline segment here: