By DAVID GREEN
In the 1960s, the term "blaming the victims" was coined to describe sociologists and politicians who blamed poverty, especially among African-Americans, on personal characteristics rather than deep-seated historical, economic and social patterns. While such rhetoric is still with us, what's new is the propensity to blame the economic struggles of the majority on individual characteristics, choices and behavior: complacency, unrealistic expectations, greed, debt, poor planning, and unwillingness to sacrifice.
More specifically, rhetoric about education is rife with the reduction of macroeconomic problems to micro-educational problems. We are told of a "skills gap" for which there is no evidence in the economic data; such evidence would reveal rising wages as employers compete for scarce skilled workers. Students are told that their only viable strategy is increased years of schooling, even though unemployment for college graduates has increased from 1 percent in 2000 to over 4 percent at present, much higher among younger workers, along with an explosion in student debt. Neither individual achievement nor reformed schooling can address unemployment that is rooted in lack of consumer demand, made even worse by policies of austerity fueled by misguided hysteria over the national debt.
We have the most experienced, educated and skilled work force in history. In spite of four decades of stagnant wages for the majority, productivity has continued to increase incrementally. There is thus no evidence that deficits in training, education or productivity explain the alleged inability of American workers to "compete" with foreign workers. What explains this is very simple: conscious and profit-driven economic policies have put low-wage American workers in competition with even lower wage and non-unionized foreign workers. The game is rigged and non-protected American workers lose, especially as they see unions undermined.
What remains is a labor market that has been transformed. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has this year published two reports that describe this transformation. In "Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?," a good job pays at least $37,000 (2010 dollars), with health insurance and a retirement plan. "Our estimates, which control for increases in age and education of the population, suggest that relative to 1979 the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs."
In "Bad Jobs Rising," a bad job pays less than $37,000 per year, lacks employer-provided health insurance, and has no employer-sponsored retirement plan. "By our calculations, about 24 percent of U.S. workers were in a bad job in 2010 (the most recently available data). The share of bad jobs in the economy is substantially higher than it was in 1979, when 18 percent of workers were in a bad job by the same definition."
To put this long-term trend in worse perspective, it's important to understand that since 1979, U.S. per capita GDP has increased in real terms by at least 60 percent.
While almost none of these real gains have accrued to the majority of workers, in sharp contrast gross institutional profligacy ("creative destruction") has accompanied the personal gains of the financial class. In the conclusion of his informative book "The Age of Greed" (2011), which covers four decades of neoliberalism, Jeff Madrick writes: "Wall Street professionals got fabulously rich. They channeled hundreds of billions of dollars into wasteful investment that could have been spent on energy, transportation, and communications infrastructure, health care and medical research, education, technical and business R&D ... The question is not whether Wall Street bankers contributed enough to the economy to warrant their compensations, but how much they cost the economy in the damage done."
In academic terms, the recent report "Reassessing the Impact of Finance on Growth" concludes: "... a fast-growing financial sector can be detrimental to aggregate productivity growth. Looking at industry-level data, we show that financial sector growth disproportionately harms industries that are either financially dependent or R&D-intensive."
From World War II to 1970, macroeconomic policies were driven by federal investment, which included public education at all levels and research; gains widely reverberated throughout the economy. Since then, policies have been increasingly driven by private financial machinations, regardless of regressive effects on the society as a whole, especially in terms of inequality. Bain Capital as a poster child aside, both political parties have avidly supported this agenda; Republicans have been more honest about it.
At the micro-level, students have almost no choice but to compete for increasingly scarce resources. This will do nothing, however, to address the bleakness of their collective future. As this becomes apparent, the winners will have to dream up more imaginative ways to blame the inevitable victims of such a system for their personal failings; the losers, especially when clearly in the majority, may view things differently.
David Green (firstname.lastname@example.org ) lives in Urbana and contributes to UPTV's News from Neptune, which is dedicated to the work of Noam Chomsky. He has a Ph.D. in sociology of education. He has also published articles on the website Counterpunch; this article is dedicated to the memory of its late founder, Alexander Cockburn.