Some time ago Ezra Klein posted this truncated 2007 graduation speech from Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Sargent. It’s marketed as “one of the greatest, shortest introductions to economics — and to life.”
Here’s how it begins: “Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches.”
What follows is a rather straightforward list that feels right at home in an undergrad intro course. Some things we would like to have aren’t feasible to get. There are economic trade-offs in society, all the way down, and between what we know to be fair and what works best for the most. Incentives exist for everyone and for every social institution. Government spending and debt matter. Etc.
Fair enough, but like most undergrad introductions once you start taking more advanced courses these explanations of the world start to look like Swiss cheese (seriously, everything past Intro to Sociology is an exercise in unlearning Intro to Sociology). That’s because the world is infinitely more complicated than the narratives we weave for the tykes. Most academic professions seem to know that such ‘foundations’ are often only surface impressions that can sometimes be useful. Except, maybe, for economics — insomuch that it is often presented as such in politics and practiced in public policy. In that vein Sargent’s speech may make more sense in the context of who he is addressing, more so than having any significant explanatory value in our post-recession world.
It is especially interesting that the knowledge of economics should be thought of as “organized common sense,” because one of the first things you learn in social research is about the limits of describing the social world with it — mainly that it’s very unscientific. That is, if you were to sit down and think “How should I set about developing a methodological sound way of accurately describing society,” you most definitely wouldn’t aspire to organize common sense.
Yet Sargent’s designation may be appropriate anyway given that the lessons in his speech are a mix of platitudes and warnings against government mucking up the economic status quo, and treating the former as deviations from an unspoken baseline. That is a lot like common sense as a basket of knowledge. It isn’t really a bundle of observed facts, but a litany of social facts, authoritatively constructed, full of unacknowledged biases and generally ignorant of circumstances outside one’s own social group. Even within the group those facts can benefit some and not others, and thus end up entrenching the status quo for both as “just the way things are.” In that sense it is not truth as best as we know it, but truth as it’s defined by some for some.
Those social facts produce a lot of broader, erstwhile ‘natural,’ market outcomes. Still and all, common sense implies a venerated batch of salt-of-the-earth knowledge from the common man and woman — the economic sphere of which is the workplace. That space happens to be mostly low-wage right now, but has always featured one critical aspect that’s excluded in the “beautiful subject” of how our economy works; power.
I remember driving to work on a muggy pre-dawn Monday in the fall of ’08: the morning that Lehman Brothers collapsed and disabused most folks from thinking the economy was just experiencing hiccups. Specifically, I remember thinking “Crap, this could actually affect me.” It took longer than it should have (our blue-collar industry greatly depended on a housing sector with spare income for maintenance), but after a year of several “right-sizing” episodes the acquisition of my employer by a more financially secure competitor was finalized. The initial discussion took place over lunch in Europe between the majority shareholder of my company and the private owner of the business that bought us.
Perhaps because I was young and cost less to employ than other, more experienced, workers I wasn’t laid off during the transition. And even though the company shed some 60 percent of the business my former employer retained, after the layoffs there was plenty of work for me to do. I thought I was lucky, at first, but it became clear pretty quickly that an informal culling was still happening, and my position was considered “bottom of the ladder” under the new management. Additional responsibilities were piled on, like monthly sales quotas (I wasn’t a salesman) and the constant threat of termination if a customer was unsatisfied for any reason. I was written up for rolling up my sleeves in the office at the end of the work day. We were on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with, yes, the threat of being fired if we didn’t answer. I frequently found myself leaving for work two hours before the sun rose and coming home two hours after it set. I had a newborn baby.
Inexplicably, in spite of the longer hours, my paychecks were showing up rather small — sometimes smaller than at my old company, and even with the same wage. It didn’t take long to discover I was being clocked out in-between customer appointments. We kept our own time-sheets that were signed-off as final. When I confronted management I was told my work was being more narrowly defined, that in spite of my inability to do anything else without risking my job time not spent in a customers home was no longer considered ‘paid.’ When I objected, wondering aloud if it was even legal, the reply was “that’s just the way things are.” If I didn’t like it, well, after 18 consecutive months of massive employment losses in the national headlines; “good luck finding another job in this economy.”
Failing to see any sort of ideology behind explanations of the economy is prevalent, and it speaks to the success of economics as a profession that we should see its lessons as simple attempts to categorize benign truisms. It reinforces the idea that markets should be considered pre-political, pre-human even, rather than more accurately embedded in non-market social relations and which often operate on non-market principles.
The former ends up submerging the power inherent in establishing and maintaining the status quo, even though power explicitly shapes private economic interactions and outcomes. This helps explain things like outlandish CEO pay, the gender wage gap, discrimination against the long-term unemployed and people with non-white sounding names. It’s also why we think of things like rampant wage theft as an unfortunate deviance from the law rather than an intentional outcome of unequal power in the marketplace.
Take Ashley Cathey’s story, reported by Catherine Rampell:
She asked a friend who is a manager to print out her time sheet and noticed that someone had clocked her out for breaks she never took. Other co-workers spotted hours shaved from their time sheets, too. When employees brought this to the attention of a more senior boss, they were told the wrongly subtracted hours would appear in their next paychecks. Meanwhile, the helpful manager who had printed out the time sheets was reprimanded for sharing official time records with workers and told that he’d be fired if he did it again, Cathey said. Now Cathey keeps a personal record of the hours she clocks in and out.
Her experience is outrageous, utterly ordinary (a recent poll found that nearly 90 percent of fast food workers nationwide say they’ve experienced such wage theft), and personal. I used to work 35 hours a week for beneath-the-poverty-line pay under a different employer that wouldn’t count decimals other than .5 on my time-card because he “sucked at math,” but I was always required to stay until the work was done. That was above and beyond the numerous times my check showed up several hours short. To a person, among my experienced low-wage coworkers, this surprised no one. It’s just the way things are.
At the heart of the most recent class action lawsuit is software required by the McDonalds corporation for it’s franchises that give managers and owners the ability to alter employee hours after the fact. The pressure to steal money from their low-wage employees are immense because McDonald’s requires extremely low labor costs, and there are only so many lawful ways to do so. Even after that line is crossed, as Rampell goes on to write, punishment rarely ensues.
When the rights of workers are placed against the normative needs of business, power decides which needs are met. Sarah Kendzior, in an excellent piece about fast food workers organizing for change, explains how this relationship is legitimized:
In fast food parlance, “labor” is not “people”. Labor is the bottom line, the first thing to be cut to save money for corporate. When I ask the workers where the money goes, they say it goes “to the top”, but no one is sure where the top is. They just know it is a place they never see.
Fast food is disparaged for being cheap and disposable. Its workers are hired because they are seen as the same.
Where did Cathey’s stolen wages go? To the top, where the average fast-food CEO receives 1200 times the wage of an average worker — making it the most unequal industry in the United States. This is the ideology that justifies unequal power and its consequences in the workplace. Labor isn’t people working for wages in order to survive; it’s a business expense to limit and manipulate with the power of your structural position.
Sargent wasn’t wrong to describe economics as organized common sense, as it is largely knowledge about how the world works. It just ignores that it’s a social world authored by some, for some, and most likely not by you. To the lived experience of working class people this is a fundamental lesson of economics — and of life: you are the sum of your costs, not your contributions, and this is natural. Knowing that your stolen wages go somewhere up top, knowing that it’s a place you’ll never see, and that’s just the way things are? That’s power. For the people who wield it, and the folks who are routinely dispossessed by it, it’s also just workaday common sense.