Archive | September, 2012

Matt Yglesias’s China Syndrome

24 Sep

Commenting on the recent labor unrest in China, Matt Yglesias makes a comparison with the past and present of the United States.

Conditions in contemporary China have much more in common, structurally speaking, with conditions during the heyday of western labor activism than does anything about the Chicago teachers strike or the apparent American Airlines sickout. The rapid pace of Chinese industrialization means the average wage in a Chinese factories has managed to lag behind the average productivity of a Chinese factory worker (roughly speaking because it’s dragged down by the absymal wages and productivity of Chinese agriculture) which creates a dynamic ripe for windfall profits but also for labor activism. The repressive nature of the Chinese state is an unpromising ground for union organizing, but by the same token Chinese labor organizations have much less to lose (in terms of union-managed pension funds, union-owned buildings, etc.) if they break the law with “wildcat” strikes and the like.

Why are workers rioting in China? Because, says Matt, of the large gap between labor productivity and labor compensation there, which is similar to how things once were in the US and Western Europe but is unlike anything in the contemporary US.

Oh really? Since 1973, labor productivity in the US has risen 80.4 percent. Yet median wages have increased only 4 percent, and median compensation as a whole—which includes benefits—has only increased 10.7 percent.

This is hardly a state secret; mainstream economists talk about it all the time. Which is why I was so puzzled by Matt’s claim.

So I asked him about the discrepancy. He  responded: “I should explain the difference more clearly. US is a median issue, China is a mean issue.” I’m not clear what point he’s trying to make here, but it seems to work against him: if the mean worker wage in China is being depressed by very low wages in agriculture, that means factory work pays better than agriculture, so workers should be flocking to the factories. An increase in the labor supply is not usually conducive to labor activism.

Back to the US.  So where did all that productivity growth between 1973 and 2011 go? Writes Paul Krugman:

One third of the difference is due to a technical issue involving price indexes. The rest, however, reflects a shift of income from labor to capital and, within that, a shift of labor income to the top and away from the middle.

2/3 of the productivity, in other words, went to the “windfall profits” that Matt speaks of above. Not so unlike China after all.

And what about labor activism? Matt is right, of course, about the repressive Chinese state. But as I’ve long argued, a good deal of worker activism in the United States also gets repressed. One in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union. While it’s true that the American state is not the equivalent of the Chinese state, it’s also true that a great deal of repression in the US has always been outsourced to the private sector—even in “the heyday of western labor activism.”

Over the summer, when Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I were advancing our thesis about workplace tyranny, Matt repeatedly professed bafflement as to why we were even talking about this issue. Well, this is one reason: repression and coercion in the workplace actually prevent the union organizing that helps ensure that that growth in worker productivity translates into higher pay and benefits for workers.

Matt gets it. In China.

This post is cross-posted at Crooked Timber.

Hurting the Kids

18 Sep

Though the final contract has not yet been hammered out, here are just some of the things the Chicago Teachers Union have won with their seven-day strike [pdf]:

  • Almost 600 new art, music, and gym teachers
  • Guaranteed textbooks in the first day of class
  • $1.5 million for new special education teachers
  • $.5 million for reductions in class size
  • More than twice as much money for classroom supplies

No question: they’re hurting the kids.

NPR Says Karen Lewis is Too….Something to Speak for Teachers

18 Sep

Because of Rosh Hashanah, I’m a little late to this story. And now that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has voted to suspend the strike, it might be moot. But still, it’s worth noting.

On Sunday, the CTU voted to continue striking so that its members could have additional time to discuss and debate the terms of Chicago’s contract offer (which is still not final).

You’d think that decision would have been held up as a triumph of deliberative democracy. Here you had union members demanding time and space to discuss the rules that govern their everyday lives, not waiting passively for their leaders to determine their fates. If this happened in other countries, we’d call it a Chicago Spring (or something). Right?

Leave it to NPR to spin the story as a troubling sign of CTU President Karen Lewis’ potential failure as a leader and increasing inability to serve as a spokesperson for the teachers’ cause. No reason is given as to why she can’t serve as that spokesperson; no evidence is provided that she hasn’t. But, hey, there’s just something about her…What might it be?

Have a listen to the NPR report here.

Why Do People Hate Teachers Unions? Because They Hate Teachers.

12 Sep

Like Doug Henwood, I’ve spent the last few days trying to figure out why people—particularly liberals and pseudo-liberals in the chattering classes—hate teachers unions. One could of course take these people at their word—they care about the kids, they worry that strikes hurt the kids, and so on—but since we never hear a peep out of them about the fact that students have to swelter through 98-degree weather in jam-packed classes without air conditioning, I’m not so inclined.

Forgive me then if I essay an admittedly more impressionistic analysis drawn from my own experience.

Like many of these journalists, I hail from an upper middle class background. I grew up in Chappaqua, an affluent suburb of New York. My parents moved there in 1975 for the schools, which were—and I believe still are—terrific. From elementary school through senior year, I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered.

Two of my social studies teachers—Allan Damon and Tom Corwin—had more of an impact on me than any professor I ever had in college or grad school. In their classes, I read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, Michael Kammen’s People of Paradox, Hobbes, Locke, Richard Hakluyt, Albert Thayer Mahan, and more. When I got to college, I found that I was considerably better prepared than my classmates, many of whom had gone to elite private schools in Manhattan and elsewhere. It’s safe to say I would never have become an academic were it not for these two men.

We also had a terrific performing arts program. Phil Stewart, Chappaqua’s legendary acting teacher, trained Vanessa Williams, Roxanne Hart, Dar Williams, and more. We put on obscure musicals and  destabilizing plays like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ronald Dunn, our choral teacher, had us singing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the works of Fauré. So inspiring were these teachers that many of us went onto organize our own plays, musicals, and a cappella groups, while we were still in high school.

Despite this, many kids and their parents held teachers in contempt. Teachers were not figures of respect or gratitude; they were incompetents and buffoons. Don’t get me wrong: like most people, I had some terrible teachers. Incompetents and worse. But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition. But among the upper classes it’s treated as the exclusive preserve of teachers.

It’s odd. Even if you’re the most toolish striver—i.e., many of the people I grew up with—teachers are your ticket to the Ivy League. And if you’re an intellectually ambitious academic type like me, they’re even more critical. Like I said, people move to Chappaqua for the schools, and if the graduation and post-graduate statistics are any indication—in my graduating class of 270, I’d guess about 50 of us went onto an Ivy League school—they’re getting their money’s worth. Yet many people I grew up with treated teachers as bumptious figures of ridicule—and not in your anarchist-critique-of-all-social-institutions kind of way.

It’s clear where the kids got it from: the parents. Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.

In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

No one, we were sure, became a teacher because she loved history or literature and wanted to pass that on to the next generation. All of them simply had no other choice. How did we know that? Because they weren’t lawyers or doctors or “businessmen”—one of those words, even in the post-Madmen era, still spoken with veneration and awe. It was a circular argument, to be sure, but its circularity merely reflected the closed universe of assumption in which we operated.

Like my teachers, I have chosen a career in education and don’t make a lot of money. Unlike them, I’m a professor. I’m continuously astonished at the pass that gets me among the people I grew up with. Had I chosen to be a high-school teacher, I’d be just another loser. But tenured professors are different. Especially if we teach in elite schools (which I don’t.) We’re more talented, more refined, more ambitious—more like them. We’re capitalist tools, too.

So that’s where and how I grew up. And when I hear journalists and commentators, many of them fresh out of the Ivy League, talking to teachers as if they were servants trying to steal the family silver, that’s what I hear. It’s an ugly tone from ugly people.

Every so often I want to ask them, “Didn’t your parents teach you better manners?” Then I remember whom I’m dealing with.

Update (September 13, 12:45 am)

I’ve gotten a fair amount of flak from liberals, on Twitter and in the comments, who claim I’m being unfair to liberal critics of the teachers union—I’m not taking their arguments seriously, making assumptions about their elitism, etc.

I want you all to have a listen to one liberal critic—Andy Rotherham, who has a column at Time— on the Diane Rehm Show.  This is what he says (at 50:30):

Part of this strike, it’s pretty clear, is that the union needed to have some theater for its members, let them blow off some steam, and that’s increasingly obvious.

Remember, he’s talking about a union led by an African-American woman, in a school district where 40 percent of the kids are black. Look at ‘em all, blowing off steam.

Yeah, I was really being unfair.

(Also on the show is the indispensable Diane Ravitch, who does a pretty excellent job — when Rehm lets her speak — of debunking the liberal shibboleths in this debate. If you’re wondering why I don’t engage the arguments more, it’s because Ravitch already has. Again and again and again and again.)

Every Time Terry Moran Speaks, a Butterfly Flaps Its Wings and a Chicago Teacher Makes 1/2 Her Salary

11 Sep

Terry Moran makes $20-30 thousand every time he gives a talk on the East or West Coast. Two Terry talks = one Chicago teacher salary.

Terry Moran: How much fucking money do you make a year?

10 Sep

This morning, I had the following little Twitter exchange with Nightline host Terry Moran about the Chicago teachers strike.

In our exchange, Moran links to this New York Times article to justify his claim that “teachers make an average of $74,000/school-year in Chicago and most were offered a 19 percent raise.”

A few points, in no particular order.

First, the Times piece doesn’t say the teachers were offered a 19 percent raise. It says:

Late Sunday, Mr. Emanuel told reporters that school district officials had presented a strong offer to the union, including what some officials described as what would amount to a 16 percent raise for many teachers over four years.

I’m not sure how Moran went from 16 to 19. Perhaps he read this tweet last night from Bloomberg journalist and self-described “coastal elitist” Josh Barro, which was making the rounds, and mistook management for the union. Barro, like Moran, was also operating on the wrong information, and later had to walk back the claim.

In any event, a 16 percent raise over 4 years works out, at best, to a four percent annual raise.

Except that…

Second, as Doug Henwood points out, Chicago is also asking the teachers for a 20 percent longer school day.  Once you take that and inflation into account, the four percent annual raise works out to be a cut, not a raise.

Third, according to the Chicago affiliate of ABC News—Moran’s network—David Vitale, head of the Chicago School District, says that the city is offering a 3 percent raise the first year, and 2 percent raises for the remaining three years of the contract. That hardly works out to a 16 percent raise. 9 percent at best. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Chicago resident and history grad student at Northwestern, explains to me, the city hasn’t revealed how it came up with that 16 percent figure, but the best guess is that it includes other things like step increases, which are based on seniority. Contrary to what Moran suggests, it is in no way is an increase in base pay.

Fourth, as Doug also points out, BLS statistics indicate that the average pay for Chicago teachers is $55-60 thousand, not $74,000.

And fifth, the Times takes great pains to stress that it is citing management numbers. Setting aside the fact that those numbers appear to be wrong, how hard is it for Moran—a journalist—to take that into account in his statements? Even the most simpleminded definition of objectivity—report both sides of the story—would suggest a certain degree of skepticism on his part.

Okay, that’s all that the level of the facts. But let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Moran had his facts right. There still remains this question, which I posed to Moran in a followup tweet and never got an answer to.

Just in case I wasn’t clear enough in my tweet, let me re-ask it here: Terry Moran, how much fucking money do you make a year?

Update (9:30 pm)

Doug Henwood just reminded me that his tweet about the BLS figure for average teacher salaries emphasized “Chicago metro area.” I left off “metro area.” That was my mistake. Should have caught that because it does make a difference.

Update (10:30 pm)

Washington Post blogger Dylan Matthews pointed me to various news reports and union fact sheets that state that the 20 percent increase in the school day for teachers never ultimately came to pass. The school day has been increased, but teachers’ hours haven’t, at least not significantly. It’s curious though how it is that a mere 500 additional teachers could cover the lengthened school day, as these reports suggest. Also the union fact sheet says that two holidays have been eliminated.  If anyone has any leads on any of this, please let me know. In any event, the 9 (ish) percent raise, over a four year period, works out to be…just about nada. As the commenter says, “So, to sum up, Mr Moron has managed to report a raise of under 2.25% [per year] for “many teachers” as a 19% raise for “most teachers.”

Might We Not Want a GOP Congress Come November?

7 Sep

This post from Digby makes me wonder: is the only thing stopping Obama from getting his desired Grand Compromise of cutting social programs in order to reduce the deficit the GOP’s refusal to raise taxes?  If so, might we not want the GOP to hold onto Congress this November?

Things you think about at midnight.


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