For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the fourth in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first, second, and third posts in the series.
As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engage one another and us in their desires to lead the nation as president, we’ll hear much debate on the issue of equal pay for equal work. Current studies calculate a gender pay gap in the United States with female pay ranging from 78-94 percent of male pay.
Work historian and commentator Richard Donkin credits the ingenuity of English Quaker Abraham Darby (1678-1717) for bringing about the regular job as we know it. Darby, the first of three generations in his family bearing the same name, forged irons pots at the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution. He and his workers lived in proximity of the forge; thanks to Darby and his forge a “job” was transformed from a specific task with no promise of continuity to a reliable source of employment.
In the early 1800s, before the introduction of mechanization, the English textile industry employed 250,000 workers. A generation later, after the establishment of mechanization, there were only 23,000 workers in the English textile industry. Many men lost their jobs; women and children were employed because they could be paid less and their smaller hands could work the machines better. The Luddite unrest of 1811-12 came about in reaction to machines (looms) replacing weavers, and has since served as the archetypal example of reactive protest against new technology. The modern world was emerging: value added to a final product with fewer workers required to make it was counter-intuitive and economically super-efficient, compared to what had existed previously.
Slavery – the horrible and extreme version of cheap labor – was not efficient by any marker. The human costs from this ugly institution yet haunt American society and many others. Slavery in the US was institutionalized (supported by laws) by the mid-seventeenth century and differentiated from indentured servitude – a very common practice for European migrants. The United States, despite its egalitarian foundations, was relatively late to abolish slavery (1863 and 1865). As other developed nations abolished slavery in the early part of the nineteenth century, indentured laborers from China and elsewhere filled the cheap labor void in developing countries, and in the US after the demise of slavery. Legal immigration, mostly from Europe, fueled Gilded Age economic growth around the turn of the nineteenth century. Since the 1920s, Mexicans and Central Americans have supplied America with its cheap labor fix. The inability of current American politicians to shape functional immigration policy as concerns Latin Americans has its roots in a mostly unacknowledged historic dependence upon cheap foreign-born labor.
Cheap labor is the name of the game and we all seek it whether we’re the ones doing the hiring or shopping for food or goods, looking to pay the lowest price for the best product. The overarching desire for cheap labor is a primary reason for the predominance today of economic globalization – the integration and interdependence of economies worldwide. Globalization has contributed to the stagnation of wages in the US, but the main reason why women in the US earn less than men goes back to what was seen in early nineteenth-century England with the beginning of mechanization.
Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press) describes the advent of women into the American workplace in the early twentieth century:
Women were unskilled, unorganized into any unions or groups, and crowded into a few occupations where their wages were low and their working conditions, in some cases, appalling. Firms preferred to hire women, for women were docile, cared most about their families, had little expectation of advancement, and posed no likelihood of joining a trade union or other form of protest. Most important, as machinery reduced the physical demands of work in many manufacturing industries, employers found that women could do the same work and were willing to accept a lower rate of pay (p. 274).
Naomi Klein, in her classic alter-globalization tome, No Logo (Picador, 1999), depicts similar conditions and expectations in our day for female workers in sweatshops in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Honduras. The exploitation of female workers, begun in England 200 years ago, has not abated.
In the United States, at least, we’ve come a long way since the early 1800s and 1900s. Today there are just as many women in American workplaces as men, and there is no longer a legitimate distinction of gender specific work. The lingering pay gap for female wages and salaries, however, suggests that the so-called free market is not invulnerable to prejudices and discrimination. The market will rightly seek out cheap labor, but the market yet needs prodding, corrections, and regulation in order to do its best for all concerned – including our mothers, sisters, and daughters.
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más – saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!