PBS Politics and Economy
David Brancaccio talks to Doug Henwood
BRANCACCIO: Give us a sense of where we are, with our working lives. Here,
now, in the 21st Century. There are challenges of the low-wage work. But what
about, you know, with some new skills, some education, maybe those workers
can lift themselves up into the middle class? Or maybe their children could.
HENWOOD: Well, if they're lucky. But the record of upward mobility in the
United States is not anywhere near as happy as a lot of people would like to
think. Most people stay roughly in the income category they were born into.
That their parents occupied.
And the United States isn't particularly mobile compared to other countries.
We think of this as the great land of upward mobility, but that's really not
that much more mobile in either direction than western Europe. And we also
have a very, very large low-wage workforce. About the largest in the northern
And also people don't exit from that very quickly. They just sort of stay
there for much of their working lives. It's not really a point of entry into
the labor market. But for most people where they're going to have a long-term
BRANCACCIO: I mean, surely we all know people who grew up in poverty and
moved on to middle class and beyond. But you're saying that actually this
isn't representative? Or it's just not as true as we think it is?
HENWOOD: It's not as true as we think it is. And if people move, they move a
notch. They don't move four or five notches up the ladder.
And this has been true for many, many decades. But, you know, we have the
widest distribution of rich and poor in the developed world. And surprisingly
the smallest middle income category in the developed world. Which is of
course exactly the opposite of what most Americans would think.
BRANCACCIO: What would account for this?
HENWOOD: Well the best predictor of your own education is your parents' level
of education. The best predictor of your income is your parents' income. And
there are reasons for this. If you're born into a lower middle class family,
say, you're going to probably go to schools that aren't as good as people who
are further up the income ladder.
You're going to grow up in a household that doesn't have books. You're not
going to develop the connections that people need to get to move up in the
world. Certainly people do it. There's no doubt about it.
But it the odds are really, really against you.
BRANCACCIO: You're full of surprises here, Mr. Henwood. You also just
mentioned that the middle class is small? I mean, I've seen those statistics.
The ones that show that if you ask Americans most of them say they're middle
HENWOOD: Yes, you're right. That most… many Americans, a very large majority
of them probably think of themselves as middle class. But if you look at… if
you define this strictly in income terms, incomes you know, around the
average, we have the smallest percentage of our population in that middle
income category of any of the developed countries from which the numbers
BRANCACCIO: So we may not be as upwardly mobile as we think. Our middle class
is smaller than we think. But surely we're a productive bunch. I mean, we get
a lot of work in a short amount of time, we Americans.
HENWOOD: Well, we work a lot. There's no question about that. But the
absolute level of productivity, what an American worker produces in a year is
sort of the middle of the pack of the rich countries. Places like Sweden and
the Netherlands actually produce as much or more in a year.
BRANCACCIO: Well, I was looking in your book. And I saw a graph here about
work hours necessary to make average yearly family income.
HENWOOD: It's almost a straight shot upwards, about 45-degree angle. It just
keeps relentlessly rising. You know, certainly incomes have gone up. But
we're working much harder to make those incomes.
BRANCACCIO: The number of weeks you would have to work so that you'd earned
HENWOOD: Right, yeah. So the, you know, average… we know that our average
incomes have been rising. But what we don't know is that we're working a lot
harder to get that.
You talk to almost anyone who works at an office or a factory these days and
there are fewer hands on deck. But people are almost expected to do more
work. Somebody leaves or somebody gets laid off, you know, somebody else will
take up that job in addition to his or her own job.
And I think that is throughout the whole economy. We've had, I think the
productivity numbers really underestimate the length of time people are
working to provide this miracle of productivity. Because what they measure is
what people are paid for. Not the actual hours that they put in.
And in a lot of cases, for example, in the computer industry, the government
statistics assume that white-collar worker worked 35 hours a week. Now, no
one in the computer industry would find that anything but hilarious.
BRANCACCIO: In fact, for anybody who ever wanted a little bit more vacation,
it looks like the United States may not be the place to be.
Do you see these statistics? On average, the Swedes get 25 to 35 days off.
The Italians about 30, a lot of countries 30. What about the United States?
HENWOOD: Well, we have very short vacations, maybe an average of two weeks
and there's no legal mandate to offer vacation. A lot of Western European
countries, even southern… Latin American countries, they mandate four weeks
of vacation, paid vacation, a year.
There's no such mandate in the United States. And even people who are
entitled vacations, according to surveys, a lot of people don't take them,
because it is perceived as a lack of dedication to the work effort. And
they're reluctant to appear lazy.
We have the longest… among the longest work years in the world. If you look
at the number of hours a worker puts in a year.
The only-comparable country would be South Korea, where they probably work
slightly longer. Japan used to be ahead of us. But they had their recession,
and they've fallen down.
BRANCACCIO: But what is it? The Protestant work ethic? Or are we just
HENWOOD: Well, I think it's the Protestant work ethic. A lot of Americans,
yeah, really are driven by work. To the point I think where it really damages
their own lives. But it's also that we have a very large low-wage sector. But
we don't have a lot of benefits.
A lot of the things that we… Americans complain about high taxes. But we have
relatively high taxes and don't get that much for it. You know. In other
countries people will have good benefit systems - healthcare taken care of,
reasonable income security if they lose their jobs. We don't have any of that
here to speak of. We have to work very, very hard, very long hours just to
make ends meet in a lot of cases. We have low wages, low benefits. And that
inspires people… forces people to work very hard.
BRANCACCIO: Even with all these fancy computers, computer networks, robots
and so forth, we're still working these long hours.
HENWOOD: Yeah, well, that's one of the paradoxes of this productivity
revolution. The statistics say productivity is rising. But I think a more
colloquial definition of productivity, ordinary people would think of would
be, being able to produce more stuff.
BRANCACCIO: How much I get done in a given day.
HENWOOD: Right. And we're not taking the dividends of that productivity in
the form of relaxing. You know, you'd think that productivity means that
machines are doing more of our work for us. But in fact we're working longer
hours and productivity is an abstraction.
BRANCACCIO: Well, your book is called AFTER THE NEW ECONOMY. Is that what is
after the new economy? These longer hours and technology not helping as much
HENWOOD: Well, it's kind of hard to say what's after the economy. I think
we're in this phase of longer term economic trouble. I think we're still
thinking of it as kind of a conventional business cycle. And the recovery is
just not coming, or it's coming very slowly.
And certainly some of numbers are looking up. There's no question about that.
Although the job market is the last place these numbers are looking up. I
don't want to be one of those people who are complaining about foreigners
taking our jobs. I think in many cases they're getting better jobs than they
would have otherwise. And a lot of the people who are getting jobs in India,
actually are doing very well compared to what they would have had if it
weren't for these outsourced jobs.
It's too bad that Americans are losing their jobs. But I don't want to like
set this sort of "they're stealing our lunch" kind of rhetoric. But if you
actually look at the kinds of jobs that have been created here and the Bureau
of Labor Statistics projects will be created over the next decade, it's
nothing like these high-tech fantasies.
Sure we've got things like systems analysts and senior managers. But those
are really in the minority - maybe a third of the top new jobs in the next
decade. What are far more prevalent are things like cashiers, home-help aids,
truck drivers. Really low-wage, in many cases.
And certainly not high skill jobs of the future that most people think are
compensating for it. There are what, like three times as many truck drivers
as there are people… computer programmers. And that's not going to change any
BRANCACCIO: Now, you do paint a pretty grim picture of what's really going on
in the American economy as you see it. Do we leave it there? Is there
anything that you would like to see done to sort of move the debate forward,
move conditions forward, if that's indeed how we live in this country?
HENWOOD: Well, I think the first step to progress is just seeing the way
things… the way they are, and stripping away the myth-making. So, that's, I
think, the most urgent task. But I would, you know, I have I guess a fairly
conventional socially democratic… social democratic political agenda, you
know. I'd like to see higher minimum wages, more unions, better social
benefits, national health care. You know, those sorts of things that are
almost ruled out now of polite political discussion. And they work very well.
And we have a almost $11 trillion economy. We can certainly afford it. But
they're just considered impossible. And that's the kind of thing that
respectable people don't bring up in public.
BRANCACCIO: But how? I mean, it's sort of like I've asked you, how do you
play the flute, and you said, "Well, you run your fingers up and down the
keys in the right order." How, if that is, indeed the goal…
HENWOOD: Takes a lot of practice, too.
BRANCACCIO: Lots of practice, lots of practice. But indeed, if that is a
goal, strengthening unions' rights and more universal health care, how do we
get there, do you suppose?
HENWOOD: Well, it's certainly not easy. We have a very demobilized population
politically. People have very low expectations of what politics can achieve.
And now, you know, I think after California, I think the "throw the bums out"
mentality is in the ascendancy.
But that's all a very negative agenda. And California, I think, is a perfect
example of this box that American politics is in. You have a state with
severe constraints raising revenues. People still expect relatively high
levels of public services.
And there's no money to pay for it. And people have a very hard time, you
know, connecting the dots in there. And California, I think, is an extreme
version of the thing that goes on nationally. People like to hear about tax
cuts and tax relief.
And the government is a big burden. The government's the problem, you know.
That Reagan quote still, I think, infects a lot of our political thinking.
But it's really the, you know, without that, we're all condemned to continue
this life of stress and overwork and having trouble making ends meet.
BRANCACCIO: The book is called AFTER THE NEW ECONOMY. Doug Henwood, thanks
for stopping by NOW.
HENWOOD: Thanks for having me.