Economic inequality and mobility are not the same thing

It’s the story of the day. Well, it’s the story of the past, well, ever. It seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle gets squeezed. And, truly that’s at least been the case since 1980.


Some see the cure for this malady to be “economic mobility,” which basically means, making it easier for people who were born poor to stop being so poor and start being middle class (or rich even!). Hard work and smarts! The American dream! It’s the obsession of Americans, this idea that there’s a path for people born in the lower rungs of society to the top, and only people who don’t want to (because it’s “hard”) stay poor.

Economic mobility probably was never that high in the U.S. It has probably never been high anywhere. Hell, it’s probably not even possible. The game is rigged: Institutions that are created to be pathways to better economic fortunes seem to always enshrine the economic order. “Let’s use test scores to send poor kids to top colleges” gets turned into a massive industry that makes rich kids get better test scores. As worker productivity opens better jobs up the salary level, other hurdles block all but well connected job applicants from attaining them. Corporations wield massive influence over the same governments that claim to want to raise mobility. So, in the name of “creating jobs,” taxes get cut, teachers get fired, unions get busted and minimum wages stop rising.

Economic mobility is a canard that distracts us from something we can fix: inequality. And the solution is actually not difficult: make poor people less poor. You can do this by giving them money, you can do this by mandating that their employees pay them more money, you can do it by making it harder for bosses to exploit workers, and you can do this by empowering workers and governments so they have a fighting chance against the top. 

But don’t expect the free market fairy to wipe it away with magic mobility dust.


How long until we're employed again?

The economy seems to be leveling out, but how long will it take to get employment back to where it was before the Great Recession? Brookings has this frightening chart with some explanation:

In recent months, on this blog, we described the job gap — the number of jobs it would take to return to employment levels from before the Great Recession, while also accounting for the 125,000 people who enter the labor force in a typical month. After today’s employment numbers, the job gap stands at almost 11.3 million jobs.

How long will it take to erase this gap? If future job growth continues at a rate of roughly 208,000 jobs per month, the average monthly job creation for the best year for job creation in the 2000s, it would take 136 months (more than 11 years). In a more optimistic scenario, with 321,000 jobs created per month, the average monthly job creation for the best year in the 1990s, it would take over 57 months (almost 5 years).

Considering that the Administration and Congress seem to be adverse to spending more money for job creation, and the companies seem to still be scared of making investments and taking on more employees, it really does look like we’re only at the beginning of a very, very long employment recovery. A whole decade? Perhaps. As long as Republicans and some Democrats put more emphasis on austerity than recovery (cynically and hypocritically, for most), this is going to be a long, long ride back.

Sharron Angle attacks Harry Reid for…saving jobs?

Sharron Angle may want to stop talking.

In case you’re not sure who she is: Angle’s a tea party favorite running for Senate against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. She beat out prohibitive favorite Sue Lowden in the Republican primary, mostly due to Lowden saying some ridiculous things. However, she also tends to say ridiculous things and get in trouble for them. As a result, she doesn’t get out much.

Earlier this week, she got riled up because the Reid campaign dug up her old website and, well, put it back online. I’m not an intellectual property expert—or even any kind if lawyer—but maybe somebody should have told her the first rule of the Internet: Anything you put on the Internet is going to be there forever.

Back in 2009, MGM Resorts was building CityCenter, a massive complex on the Las Vegas strip. The project experienced a number of financial woes and the entire was likely to fall through. Harry Reid, however, stepped in and kept the project alive, and in the process, saved 12,000 jobs.

Angle appeared on conservative host Alan Stock’s talk radio show, and she was asked if she would have done the same as Reid had done. Angle replied that she wouldn’t have. Why?

“It’s kind of like shifting the chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “You only shift jobs from one place to another, when we know that when we put those jobs at City Center, it was jobs that were taken away or business that was taken away from other areas. So, really it actually injured the economy of other businesses.”

In her mind, by saving the jobs, he was (somehow) taking jobs away from somewhere else (THEY TOOK OUR JERBS!). And, in doing so, (somehow) hurt the economy.

I’m not particularly sure why she said this. Maybe there is some part of her personal political philosophy that isn’t comfortable with a government figure saving a business or project, and she has to rationalize it somehow. Basically, all I can think of is that this is some kind of poor-man’s Karl Rove: Make your enemy’s strength his weakness. Really, go ahead and say how your rival saved 12,000 jobs. Say it with a frown, and maybe everybody else will frown too?

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, at least as of last week, has Nevada as a toss-up with Angle barely ahead. But that’s mostly because Harry Reid is extraordinarily unpopular. I just can’t imagine her (slight) lead will hold for much longer as long as she keeps talking.