BOOKS & THE CULTURE Good Times for Whom? The Economy is Whizzing On You and Me BY CHRIS GARLOCK THE STATE OF WORKING AMERICA: 1998-99. By Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, John Schmitt. Cornell University Press. In early April, a trainload of fed-up Washington Metro subway passengers, ordered to disembark in the middle of rush hour, rebelled, and refused to leave the subway cars. “Metro Riders Stage Mutiny on Packed Train,” reported the Washington Post the next day. The Post quoted Georgetown University sociologist William F. McDonald, who assured the paper that it would be a mistake to attribute this behavior simply to anger or frustration. “People haven’t been in a situation like this before,” McDonald explained, “and don’t know what’s going on. They’re without norms…. They just figure they’re going to lose out, and are not willing to go on the next train.” The Post didn’t mention whether Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, or John Schmitt were among the Metro mutineers. It’s a good bet that these Economic Policy Institute economists could have provided a more cogent explanation for what happens when people have finally had enough. Their new book, The State of Working America 1998-99, is a bleak but welldocumented portrait of a country that is not working. Oh, we the working class are working all right. But our country isn’t. Unfortunately, most working Americans won’t have time to read this book. That’s a crying shame, too, because it’d be a lot more useful to them than, say, the latest breathless report on new stock market highs. They’d learn, for instance, that amid all the happy economic talk of low unem ployment and a booming stock market, me dian family income rose by just $285 from 1989 to 1997. I’m no math whiz, but my calculator tells me that’s roughly thirty-six dollars a year. You could take the family out for a celebration, if you like, but I don’t think you’ll be able to afford champagne. Observer readers know full well that the much-hyped economic “boom” of the nineties is a Wizard of Oz-like hot-air balloon filled with over-heated huffing and puffing by a convenient nexus of interests among Wall Street, political leaders, and the corporate media. But the daily deluge of good economic headlines, business-page investment advice, and profiles of the latest millionaires can make even the most confi dent of us feel distinctly Chicken Littlish. So if you’re looking for evidence that the sky really is falling, consider this book. The State of Working America has been pub lished every other year since 1988 by the Economic Policy Institute, and is a wel come and much-needed antidote to the cur rent epidemic of economic boosterism. In digestible as the hundreds of charts and graphs may seem, they’re far more palatable than the full-color ver sions that run in USA Today, and which come from the wrong end of the horse. It’s a familiar story told here, “one of great disparities,” as the authors put it in their Executive Summary twelve pages of excoriating and brilliantly succinct economic analysis that alone is worth the cover price, and which should be required reading for every politician and C.E.O. in the country. ALuseful example of how Working America shreds the pretty tissue of good-news pronouncements is its dissection of the improvements in wages of 1997 and 1998, which generated the usual congratulatory headlines. First of all, it’s hardly good news that by 1997 families were finally able to claw their way back up to their 1989 income \(especially since the cost of living has not cooperated by staying this level not by getting paid bet ter, but by working more. A lot more: 247 more hours, or six more full-time weeks. On top of which, an 8 percent increase in worker productivity over the same period of time meant that the average family was working harder just to keep from slipping backwards, while missing out on gains from its members’ increased productivity. And while four desperately needed min imum-wage hikes in the nineties \(viru ings for millions of low wage workers, they are blips in the twenty-year decline and * Natterroys cut 3,11 11lobs in 1997 whit itS CEA ralted in MI minim\( in compensttion’NeWS Itch 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 14, 1999
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