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If a conspiracy suggestion is on the Front Page, does it still count?  If it's a hint, a whisper, an intimation, rather than a direct call-out, does that exempt it?

A note:  this is my first real 'it's been bugging me for a couple of days and I have to write about it' diary, so please read the whole thing before you decide I'm just doing this to tick people off.

I know quite well that there are major class divisions in this country, and that the differences in income and wealth got to the WTF point years ago.  I don't know how to fix it, but I do know that solving any problem calls for not getting sidetracked into simplistic explanations.

I like the work Laura Clawson has been doing - usually a lot - but this does not add to the solution.  Yes, productivity and wage growth started to diverge in the early '70s, but there are more complex reasons for that divergence than are apparent in the graph.  Follow me below the confused octopus for a fuller explanation of my thoughts on this.

Line graph showing productivity and hourly compensation, 1948-2011. Until the 1970s, the lines rise together. Starting in 1973 and accelerating in 1978, they diverge sharply as productivity keeps rising and compensation flattens out.
Original graph from Thursday's FP diary
A little background here - my mother was a secretary.  Back in the '50s I used to tag along with her when she had to work on Saturdays, so I saw the whole range of what was a 'modern' office at that point.  Plug board telephone system, manual typewriters, seven copies of every letter in different colored paper for various files that needed to be kept up, etc., etc..  When I was an engineering student, I hung around with the secretaries while I was doing co-op work, because they were the only other women around. After I got my degree in 1970, I did a lot of clerical temping during my burnout periods.  So, I've got a pretty good idea of how the clerical workforce changed over the period.

Okay.  Here's my alternative explanation.  Up until the 1960s, the vast majority of changes in workforce productivity were in non-clerical jobs.  Clerical productivity pretty much stagnated.  Beginning in the '60s, all kinds of changes in office systems started showing up.  I tend to think that the first major change was the Xerox copier, but it might have been the telephone switchboard.  To say that secretaries embraced those changes would be to vastly understate the reaction.  And then came the electric typewriter.  And the IBM Selectric.  And the IBM PC.  And WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3, each of which was a really great addition to the workplace.  And computer networking, the internet and T-1 lines, and... Clerical productivity soared over a period of about 30 years.  A study from 1986 shows how the clerical sector "The most numerous occupational group in the economy" was responding to new technology at that time.  It also shows the slowing growth of the sector, even while businesses were expanding.

When you make farming, or auto production, or packaging, or pretty much anything that produces a consumable product more efficient, that means you can produce more product with the same workforce.  When you make clerical work more efficient, it means that you need fewer clerical workers, and most of those you do need are for work which requires less training than it did before.  When a secretary/typist is a perk of upper management rather than a necessity for anyone who generates correspondence or reports, that's a major change in staffing.

My guess (and it's only a guess) is that the shift in clerical productivity and the downgrading of the average clerical position accounts for about half of the discrepancy between 1970 and 1990.  The rest of it?  Well, when efficiencies in production in consumable products get to the point that you can outproduce the needs of your consumers even with a reduced workforce, the incentives for increasing production tend to vanish pretty rapidly.  Once that happens, it's a buyer's market in employment.  If you don't have to worry about competing with other companies to hire good people, the incentives that would make you offer more money and better perks to hire someone vanish just as fast.  I think we hit that tipping point in productivity in a lot of industries in the '80s (maybe even earlier), and the number of industries in which it's happened has been growing ever since.

None of this means the current situation is a good one, only that, one step at a time, each one seemingly a pretty good idea at the time, we've gotten ourselves into a situation where the workforce simply can't use all the people who want to work, at least in the terms we're used to, because we're too good at what we do.  

Are there people taking unfair advantage of this?  Hell, yes.  All over the place. Do we need to do something about it?  Hell yes.  Did it happen because of some vast 40-year conspiracy? Sorry, but I don't think so.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shockwave, FG, Mr Robert, Seneca Doane

    At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh....

    by serendipityisabitch on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 11:43:58 AM PST

  •  Here is the problem (18+ / 0-)

    and the reason Laura and others write what they do ...

    It's reasonable that manufacturing, and service industries have become more efficient. Part of that efficiency is the increased productivity of the workforce ... More product for less input.

    The direct result of that is that the workforce add more value to the company, per head, and contribute more than before to the profit line.

    The issue is the share of that success.

    Executive rewards have risen through the stratosphere while the pay of those below that level has flat-lined.

    They are contributing more, but not being rewarded. Indeed, some companies are using the current climate to reduce benefits, even though their companies have no financial imperative to do so.

    This is called GREED.

    It is a conspiracy, but not a theory. That is why we write about it, and calling Laura out is reasonable, but it will probably result in her writing more, and remaining just as pointed in her analysis.

    I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
    but I fear we will remain Democrats.

    Who is twigg?

    by twigg on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 11:59:36 AM PST

    •  Fine by me. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      twigg, Mr Robert

      As I said, I like Laura's work.  I have no problem in reading more of it.  And I don't dispute the existence of greed, or its impact on the mess we're currently in.

      But conspiracy is something else, and unnecessary to posit in this situation.  I'm not saying there aren't, or haven't been conspiracies among various groups, although I suspect they're usually short lived when you're dealing with the ultracompetitive people who are raking in the cream.  

      Point is, I don't see the need to add a vast long-term conspiracy to make this particular chart make sense.

      At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh....

      by serendipityisabitch on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:17:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I didn't think you were necessarily (7+ / 0-)

        objecting to anyone.

        The "conspiracy" is not a matter of a group, or several groups sitting down an implementing some master plan they have devised. It doesn't work like that.

        What has happened is that a variable group of wealthy people, and politicians have steadily influenced policy, often in small shifts, that have tipped the balance towards making them richer and more powerful.

        The richer and more powerful they have become, the more they have been able to influence the regulatory framework and laws they operate within.

        Until you end up with "Right to Work", which basically gives them total control, and Citizens United which goes a good way to making sure they keep it.

        It's like a creeping menace that really isn't organised except through the astroturf groups, yet amounts to the same thing as any other conspiracy.

        I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
        but I fear we will remain Democrats.

        Who is twigg?

        by twigg on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:25:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  In the last recession, banks made profits. (7+ / 0-)

          The ones that got too close to the edge got bailouts.
          The massive drop in "wealth" was taken up largely by unlucky homeowners who saw their housing investment evaporate, many of whom were ultimately made homeless, in workers whose 401 K's etc. disappeared, jobs that were permanently lost, people who lost their health insurance and were ultimately bankrupted, etc.

          This is just one example of the way Wall Street/1% rigged the system and used the consequences of technological progress as rationalization and diversion.

          We could also look at how the working class in this country was sent off to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect Wall Street investments, and the way the unfettered greed of the oil profiteers caused the spike in gas prices that brutalized the working class and burst the credit default swap bubble which caused the recession.
          The diarist makes an arguable point about "conspiracy" but opens up a massive can of worms.

          You can't make this stuff up.

          by David54 on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:51:08 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Good effort and a little bit brave, so (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        serendipityisabitch, cynndara

        worth a tip.  No problem asking probing questions like this.

        Plaintiffs' Employment Law Attorney (harassment, discrimination, retaliation, whistleblowing, wage & hour, &c.) in North Orange County, CA.

        "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back."
        -- Saul Alinsky

        by Seneca Doane on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 02:02:53 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thank you. (0+ / 0-)

          What I was taught was that if you can get the questions right, you're half way to the answer.  And to do that, you can't afford to assume that you already know the causes of the problem.

          At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh....

          by serendipityisabitch on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 02:30:55 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Well there's certainly been a conspiracy to (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Tom Anderson

        smash the unions, beginning with the PATCO debacle. If labor is strong, then rising productivity means rising wages and benefits. If labor is weak, then rising productivity means unemployment and declining wages and benefits.

        You are basically trying to make the case that "market forces" are responsible for what has happened to American wages, but making that case requires pretending that there is no class war in the United States, and believe me, there fuckin' A is, rooted in the one dominating foundational fact of our modern economy: Whatever else happens, the plutocrats must get their vigorish on their accumulated financial assets. This vigorish results in exponential growth in their accumulated financial assets, which then requires exponential growth in production to supply the next round of vig. Whenever We the People fall a little behind in the vig, they break our kneecaps with a dose of recession and unemployment. This is how our economy is constructed. Everything else the economists have to say, whether the Krugmans or the Friedmans, is meaningless banter while this central fact goes unrecognized.

        To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

        by UntimelyRippd on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 08:06:57 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  to add a bit (not implying I don't agree 100%) (4+ / 0-)

      less than ethical companies are finding out what they can get away with in terms of driving productivity from a labor force too scared not to toe the line.

      Growth has become secondary to hyperprofitability.  Ethical capitalism has lost it's way.  Maybe my glasses are too rosy in hue, but I have worked for several highly ethical corporations that strove to provide an environment conducive for productivity, not coercive.

      I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not.…We're better than this. We must do better. Cmdr Scott Kelley

      by wretchedhive on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 02:07:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Who is contributing more? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      There is not just a pay divergence but a skill divergence also.

      Workers are more productive... because many jobs have been reduced to pushing a button while the real workers (machines) do the work.

      Look at secretarial work as described by the diarist. Prior to 1980 or whatever, you needed to know how to spell. Now you don't, because grammar software tells you when you screw up. Or look at industries like electrical test. In previous years, lots of complex equipment usage and know-how. Now you just plug the thing into a machine and press 'go'. Before today, we needed a lot of doctors/lawyers just to look up things in books. Now computers handle a lot of that. What do you think this does to wages?

      Workers are more productive, but it's not because they're doing anything different, working smarter or harder or whatever. It's that their productivity has been insanely augmented by machines, so you get two striated classes of unskilled workers and machine operators, and a few highly skilled professionals keeping the whole thing together. No middle skilled workers, hence no middle class.

      (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
      Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

      by Sparhawk on Sun Mar 10, 2013 at 12:43:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Kurt Vonnegut wrote about a future when... (14+ / 0-)


    .American industry is run by a tiny group of wealthy and powerful managers and engineers, while the vast majority of the population are stripped of their well-paying industrial jobs and forced to live as poor, powerless menials.
    That was the premise of "Player Piano"which I read back in the 70s.

    My hope are "green" jobs and infrastructure.

    And perhaps taxation of the 1% to go in this direction.

    The "Player Piano" world is not a conspiracy, rather a paradigm or even an ideology as some may have pointed in the other diary.

    Still, the reality is what it is and we must work together to change it.

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:04:19 PM PST

    •  Confiscatory taxation of the 1% in order to fund (0+ / 0-)

      fundamental social needs -- education, health care, transportation, housing -- is the key. Without it, we will inevitably spiral deeper and deeper into neofeudalism.

      To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

      by UntimelyRippd on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 08:09:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "My guess (and it's only a guess) is ... (24+ / 0-)

    ... that the shift in clerical productivity and the downgrading of the average clerical position accounts for about half of the discrepancy between 1970 and 1990."

    That's a pretty big hook to hang your premise in this diary on since it is a guess. I like the story you tell; it's the conclusion I have a problem with.

    Although there remain a lot of questions, there is a reasonably good overview here.

    But let me give my personal experience. When newspapers shifted to computerization, two middle people were taken out of the mix, the typesetter and the paste-up artist. Over the past 35 years, reporters and their editors have taken over the work of those two individuals, making themselves more productive.

    The argument can be (and is) made that it was solely the capital investment in computers that made this happen, so the productivity gains should accrue to the capital(ist). But it's a false argument. In fact, what happened was that reporters and editors learned new skills, took on new tasks and became responsible for what had once been somebody else's job. The task of "paste-up" became more efficient, but it was ADDED to the tasks someone else was already doing while those who had previously done it had to find new jobs or retire.

    Given that the reporters and editors had to learn these new tasks and add them to their job description, why didn't the productivity gains get split more equally? Similar circumstances can be found throughout the economy.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:04:36 PM PST

    •  Best description I've read MB. (7+ / 0-)

      I often read where remaining workers did not add more "value" to their work product as the explanation. I thought it begged the question of why is a worker who is more productive not more valuable?

      "There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.".. Buddha

      by sebastianguy99 on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:27:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I remember a trade show at Columbus Circle for (5+ / 0-)

      the printing industry in the late seventies with a large banner about "DESKILLING IS HERE".  Even if my memory is hazy (it is), that was certainly the quite visible theme of the period.

    •  Well, it was only a guess. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mr Robert

      Partly because there weren't a whole lot of solid studies I could find in the area.  In fact, the only one I was comfortable with after reading through it was the Upjohn study I linked.

      But when I was growing up, one of the major job choices for a woman with a highschool education and reasonable typing skills was an office job.  Most of them paid pretty well, though not up to what a man could earn with the same level of education.  Today, that option is a whole lot less common, since unless you're in upper management you're pretty much expected to type your own documents. And since typing is still a 'woman's skill', having to know how to type wasn't considered something people had to be paid more for.  It probably was one of the considerations when reporters started having to type up their own work, too.

      As to why productivity gains in general didn't get split more evenly, my guess (again!) is that it simply wasn't thought about unless there was strong publicity after the fact.  When a manager was being judged on how well his bottom line did, then cuts to staffing that didn't impact the quality of his product simply let him breathe a sigh of relief.  What his company makes up after the fact to justify the changes is their problem, not his.  (note, I'm talking about 1970s/'80s changes, so I stuck with the male pronoun)

      The point of the diary, though, was simply to say that there was at least one other possible explanation for this curve than teh ebil rich.  To riff off the old saw - never attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by collective shortsightedness.

      At least half the future I've been expecting hasn't gotten here yet. Sigh....

      by serendipityisabitch on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 01:04:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Or the skew in productivity gains could... (7+ / 0-)

        ...merely be a result of the inevitable capitalists' effort since capitalism began to grab as much of the "surplus value" created in an enterprise for themselves as they could and curtail as much of it as possible from being accrued by their workforce.

        Just a side note: most reporters (or the rewrite desk) began typing their stories soon after typewriters were invented. Then the typesetters typed them again. The switch to computerization wasn't merely a matter of electrifying the keyboard. It was a matter of transferring work from three people to one and scooping up 100% of "gains in productivity" even though this meant devoting somewhat less time to the work that had been done previously. So, you either worked longer hours without compensation for them, or you gave short shrift to something you had previously given your full attention to.

        Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

        by Meteor Blades on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 01:47:27 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Anyway you slice, you just made shit up n/t (0+ / 0-)
    •  Precisely. (0+ / 0-)

      If labor had any power, then the increased productivity of the editors/reporters would have meant that they made more money, while their less fortunate redundant co-workers would have been retrained into other occupations that would also pay more than their previous work.

      To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

      by UntimelyRippd on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 08:11:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sure It Did. We Made Massive Changes in Tax Policy (13+ / 0-)

    and regulations beginning in the 70's and leaping ahead in the 80's allowing business to have more market share, and allowing arbitrarily great additional individual compensation to be mostly taken home rather than being mostly taxed away beginning around half a million a year in today's dollars.

    With those changes it makes sense to concentrate gains and wealth mostly at the top because the gains can now be kept. To do that you need to hold down wages and pay as little as possible to suppliers. Add free trade and you can get labor costs down much more by moving the manufacturing production that had been the ladder to the middle class for the working poor.

    Before we passed these policies in the New Deal, we had highly concentrated wealth just like today, with most of the people being working poor. When we passed them, we had a great shift of wealth to the middle class, with the bottom 80% holding about half the nation's wealth at our peak. As we've weakened these policies the wealth concentration has gone back to Gilded Age levels and the working classes are losing income and wealth again.

    The conspiracy goes back to 1933 and the outrage of some of the rich over the New Deal. Today's rightwing revolution began in the mid 60's, the Powell Memo of the 70's laid out the overarching strategy for how to get rightwing thinking into the universities and media, by founding a series of strategy and propaganda thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation, while getting politicians into office to pass these policies.

    The technology isn't that important. Hamilton recognized that low paid foreign labor could make many items cheaper than Americans, and skilled foreign industrial production could produce in other sectors where it was too costly to set up production here. So we set up tariffs and became able to make clothes and shoes and stuff here because the foreign made goods had some disincentive on them to remove their competitive advantage.

    Jesus these regulatory changes were huge, and they were developed by specific individuals and institutions working together beginning a decade before the productivity changes began to appear, that others have named and dated in great detail that I can't do.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 12:08:44 PM PST

  •  Here is what should have happened (6+ / 0-)

    When technology reduced the number of workers needed to produce the work performed wages should have gone up so that wages paralleled the productivity curve.  That is, we should have had 40 and 50 dollar an hour jobs and like 20 an hour at McDonalds and such.

    Instead the businesses took that money out of the pockets of workers and plowed it into the "markets".  This money needed to go somewhere and where it went drove up price inflation while stagnating wages.

    Right now we suffer from the same exact problem. Every dollar not appearing in wages is driving price inflation at the expense of everyone.

    This process does not make business sense. If the only thing the business owners understand is to maximize profits in the immediate term - quarter over quarter (which has been the norm for quite a while) - then it leads to the current fiasco and looming disaster.

    At some point the divergence in wages from prices will lead to consumers unable to afford to buy products. We already see that consumers aren't buying much beyond food, shelter, gas, etc. That low price foreign made items exist in stores doesn't change the situation either. Eventually those prices will rise beyond what can be afforded. It is why when gas prices rise all other spending crawls to a halt.

    Henry Ford had it right. You have to pay your workers enough so that they can afford your products. If you don't eventually your customers will disappear.

    If the wealthiest put the productivity gains into new businesses and more jobs and higher wages we wouldn't have the problems we are going through. Keeping that money for themselves and continually rolling it over in Bernanke's (previously Greenspan's) casino is the tragedy and travesty that has destroyed tens of millions of households and millions of small businesses over the past 3 decades.

    Serial looting doesn't end well for those doing the looting. We are, right now, experiencing 1780s France and we don't have much longer to go before something has to give.

  •  And it was only a matter of time (4+ / 0-)

    until advances in communications and automation enabled unskilled workers in the (formerly) Third World to take many of our jobs. We blame corporatists or NAFTA but in reality the hunger of those (formerly) desperately poor people drove the process. It absolutely sucks for the American worker, no doubt about it. But our hegemony on high-paying jobs could not last forever given that we are a nation of 300 million on a planet with over 7 billion.

    •  We didn't have to allow our plutocrats to (0+ / 0-)

      send that work abroad, just because they could.

      You are correct that our hegemony could not last forever, but the reality is that those foreign workers receive a drop in the bucket compared to what our masters (and theirs) take in. We aren't required to organize our economy around the production of disposable consumer goods of dubious authentic value. That's a choice that has been made for us, by people who understand that creating/providing the things we really need will not generate the always-necessary "profit".

      It is all about return on barren financial assets.


      End of story.

      To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

      by UntimelyRippd on Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 08:17:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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