Those left behind and the attacks on US Congress

Been reading an excellent book by Martin Sandbu (FT) entitled ‘The Economics of Belonging’. In it he addresses the problem that when an economy moves to more efficient ways of production new methods are established and old ones decline. For some who have been part of the old methods of doing things, the economic system has passed them by. He explains four ways how this has happened.

The plight of the uneducated. Economic value is now derived from cognitive skills and knowledge. The competitive nature of the global economy demands increased productivity which has streamlined production using technology and is cognitively demanding for the labour force. This results in the diminishing use of blue collar (manual) workers which tend to use little knowledge or initiative. As a result manual labour is not demanded like before and if there is any demand the wage is does not equate to what they received 10-20 years ago. As Sandbu states: If the world today offers much less than it once did to routine workers with only basic schooling or training, it is because they are less useful to the modern economy.

The triumph of cities. In most western economies poorer areas grew faster than richer ones therefore they were catching-up with the big cities. However at the start of the Thatcher and Reagan era the richer urban areas have pulled away from their rural counterparts. Deindustrialisation, especially in the UK, with the move from manufacturing to the service sector favouring urban areas where there is a concentration of people today’s most valuable skills and talent. If urban and rural areas go about different economic direction for long enough, inequality will increase as well as cultural separation which is turn leads to political separation. Sandbu points out that the strongest support of antiestablishment movements is found in the regions that have lost out in the competition to attract capital and skill.

The cost of staying put. If you stay in an area that is ‘the wrong side of the train tracks’ moving away from home will increase your chances of success. In the last 40 years those that have moved have reaped the benefits of higher incomes. One thinks about the UK and the North South divide with the migration flows south in search of opportunity. Regional inequality favours those who actually move, but also those capable of moving. Mobility reflects risk taking and a tolerance for what is new, different and uncomfortable whilst staying put comes with greater economic disadvantage than it did 40 years ago. From the 2016 US election: White Americans who still lived in the community where they were raised supported Donald Trump by 57% against only 31% for Hillary Clinton. Even those who lived two hours’ drive away preferred Trump. Among those who had moved further away, however, more supported Clinton.

Feminism is good for your wallet. The old blue collar work whether it be on production lines, oil rigs, truck driving, farming etc. were traditionally done by men. There was a macho image portrayed in these jobs but the new jobs were focused on the skills that create value in the new service and knowledge economy. It is estimated in the US that one in four jobs in the next decade are expected come in health care, social assistance, and education which tend to come with low status and lower pay. This means that more men (particularly unskilled) must be prepared to work in the service sector in jobs that are traditionally done by women. Soft skills are now increasingly rewarded and traditional manual work (mainly done by men) no longer attract much pay in the job market. Job roles must adapt in parallel with changing cultural expectations of gender roles in the home. Trump’s make America great again was a call to bring back the blue collar jobs but this was never going to happen with globalisation.

Sandbu points out that the one group which has been particularly effected by these four changes is low-skilled white men in small rural communities and subscribe to traditional cultural attitudes. Often blamed on globalisation, these consequences are the result of how we now produce output which has been driven by labour saving technology. Sandbu states that:

But we should recognise that much else of value was lost with jobs, and the dissatisfaction from these structural changes goes far beyond the financial.

It is only to be expected that these groups have become more visible within the populist insurgency and fresh in our memory is the attack on the US Congress on 6th January.

Source: The Economics of Belonging – Martin Sandbu 2020

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