The Surprising Facts About Work That Could Change U.S. Politics

If you believe the New York Times, talking about inequality is now out in the White House, while talking up opportunity is in. 

I get the reasons for this, and generally agree with Jared Bernstein and others quoted in the article who say that harping on inequality is a loser in America. But even if opportunity should be front and center, rhetorically, it's crucial that we explain why there isn't enough opportunity to go around -- which, of course, brings the conversation right back to inequality. 
 
As my colleague Matt Bruenig has written often, upward mobility doesn't solve many problems in the absence of a broadening of prosperity. When somebody moves up the ladder, somebody has to move down to make room for them. So your upward mobility may come because of my downward mobility. As another of my colleagues, Sean McElwee has written: "To give everyone a decent shot at life means not just making sure they can move into another quintile, but that no matter what quintile they end up in, they can live a fulfilling life."
 
This question is usually discussed in terms of income. But talking about the jobs picture may make things more concrete, and this is how political leaders can connect to ordinary Americans about the lack of adequate opportunity in a deeply unequal economy.
 
Many people know, or suspect, that there are too few jobs out there that can sustain a middle class life. The progressive political class needs to do a better job of solidifying that view into conventional wisdom, while also explaining the structural reasons why this is so. Otherwise there will always be space for the conservative narrative that blames individuals for their lack of success.
 
Affluent Americans in particular need to be better educated about the realities of the labor market. Many college educated people are simply clueless about how little most jobs pay, because they and all their friends don't work in the bottom two-third of the labor market. (They may also be checked out about the lack of jobs given that the unemployment rate for college educated workers is under 4 percent.) 
 
So it would be helpful for political leaders to just repeat, again and again, basic facts about the labor market: like how 59 percent of American workers earn less than $35,000 a year, 46 percent earn less than $25,000, and nearly a third of jobs pay under $15,000. 
 
Likewise, it's important to reiterate just how few good paying jobs there actually are: Only about 13 percent of workers may $75,000 or more a year, which people in many places might consider a base level for getting into the middle class.
 
Repeating those grim statistics always jars even me, and I write about this stuff for a living.  
 
Political leaders need to not only drum in these facts, but explain them: That the main problem is not that too few people are college educated, but rather that our economy doesn't produce enough skilled jobs. All the mobility in the world doesn't mean much if there's only good work for a limited slice of workers. 
 
Meanwhile, although progressive political leaders are doing a better job lately of explaining that less skilled jobs pay so little because capital has too much bargaining power and labor has too little, that narrative still is far away from becoming conventional wisdom. 
 
We have a lot of work to do in teaching Labor Markets 101 to America.
 

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