Matt Yglesias’s China Syndrome

by Corey Robin on September 24, 2012

Commenting on the recent labor unrest in China, Matt Yglesias makes a comparison with the past and present of the United States.

Conditions in contemporary China have much more in common, structurally speaking, with conditions during the heyday of western labor activism than does anything about the Chicago teachers strike or the apparent American Airlines sickout. The rapid pace of Chinese industrialization means the average wage in a Chinese factories has managed to lag behind the average productivity of a Chinese factory worker (roughly speaking because it’s dragged down by the absymal wages and productivity of Chinese agriculture) which creates a dynamic ripe for windfall profits but also for labor activism. The repressive nature of the Chinese state is an unpromising ground for union organizing, but by the same token Chinese labor organizations have much less to lose (in terms of union-managed pension funds, union-owned buildings, etc.) if they break the law with “wildcat” strikes and the like.

Why are workers rioting in China? Because, says Matt, of the large gap between labor productivity and labor compensation there, which is similar to how things once were in the US and Western Europe but is unlike anything in the contemporary US.

Oh really? Since 1973, labor productivity in the US has risen 80.4 percent. Yet median wages have increased only 4 percent, and median compensation as a whole—which includes benefits—has only increased 10.7 percent.

This is hardly a state secret; mainstream economists talk about it all the time. Which is why I was so puzzled by Matt’s claim.

So I asked him about the discrepancy. He  responded: “I should explain the difference more clearly. US is a median issue, China is a mean issue.” I’m not clear what point he’s trying to make here, but it seems to work against him: if the mean worker wage in China is being depressed by very low wages in agriculture, that means factory work pays better than agriculture, so workers should be flocking to the factories. An increase in the labor supply is not usually conducive to labor activism.

Back to the US.  So where did all that productivity growth between 1973 and 2011 go? Writes Paul Krugman:

One third of the difference is due to a technical issue involving price indexes. The rest, however, reflects a shift of income from labor to capital and, within that, a shift of labor income to the top and away from the middle.

2/3 of the productivity, in other words, went to the “windfall profits” that Matt speaks of above. Not so unlike China after all.

And what about labor activism? Matt is right, of course, about the repressive Chinese state. But as I’ve long argued, a good deal of worker activism in the United States also gets repressed. One in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union. While it’s true that the American state is not the equivalent of the Chinese state, it’s also true that a great deal of repression in the US has always been outsourced to the private sector—even in “the heyday of western labor activism.”

Over the summer, when Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I were advancing our thesis about workplace tyranny, Matt repeatedly professed bafflement as to why we were even talking about this issue. Well, this is one reason: repression and coercion in the workplace actually prevent the union organizing that helps ensure that that growth in worker productivity translates into higher pay and benefits for workers.

Matt gets it. In China.

This is cross-posted at

This is a cross post of [a piece I’ve done for New Left Project](

Back in 1875, Karl Marx had the sorry task of perusing the programme of the young German SDP. There was quite a lot he didn’t like, much of it due to the – as he saw it – bad influence of his rival Lassalle. One thing annoyed him immensely: the focus of the new German party on what he saw as the symptoms of capitalist class society rather than on the most basic structural features of that society. First among his targets was inequality, which the SDP was making a big thing about. Marx was scathing:

“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power.”

One doesn’t have to buy into all the details of classical Marxism to see that he had a very good point. Since the early years of the 20th century, left-liberals and social democrats have been scrabbling around using the tax and benefits system to try to temper the gross inequalities that capitalism generates. Like Robin Hood, or maybe Robin Hood on prozac, they’ve cast themselves as taking from the rich and giving to the poor, without doing too much to address the question of how some people got to be rich and others “poor” in the first place.

[click to continue…]

And They Played Angola Prison Spirituals as the Recessional

by Belle Waring on September 24, 2012

So, some celebrities got married: Blake Lively, who was in the TV show Gossip Girl, and Ryan Reynolds, who was in the Green Lantern and is one of those dudes who is stipulated to be handsome but his eyes are too close together so he just looks moronic. Like a younger…thingface. Whoever. Lively herself is an off-brand Gwyneth Paltrow so it’s suitable.

They had the wedding, which was all perfect and arranged by actual Martha Stewart with color-coördinated jordan almonds (OK I made that detail up, but almost certainly yes), at Boone Hall Plantation, outside of Charleston in South Carolina. Boone Hall almost alone of the pre-Civil War plantations has its slave quarters intact. I think this is actually awesome about Boone Hall. At all the other plantations, you go, and some nice white volunteer shows you around, and you have to just use your imagination. The main house is now surrounded by vast lawns, and live oaks and azaleas, wisteria and breath of spring, tea olive, daphne odora, gardenias, and mounds of Lady Banksia roses. Mmmm, up in Charleston that Lady Banksia will get up to one-and-a-half stories high. I’m not sure why it doesn’t grow so well in Savannah. Pretty little yellow roses on a climbing vine, heaping up on itself, all up around old fenceposts. But no hovels! No wood fires, no chickens, no foundries! No crying babies, no foremen, no one making grits, no one getting beat the hell up, no black people!
[click to continue…]

As mentioned in a recent post, I got to go to Texas for a conference on Conservatism sponsored by Sanford Levinson. Unfortunately, that was the day some joker decided to call in a fake bomb threat. So we ended up evacuated and reconvened in Sandy’s living room. Which was congenial, actually. But no PowerPoint, so I didn’t get to use the cartoons I whipped up that were supposed to allow me to make some basic points in admirably compressed fashion. So let me lay that bit out. [click to continue…]

Comics As Audiobooks

by John Holbo on September 24, 2012

Couple weeks back BoingBoing had a guestpost by Maja D’aoust, praising the undersung artistry of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest. I think this is right. Elfquest doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Proto-American manga, early independent comics self-publishing. Why doesn’t everyone who prides themselves about knowing comics feel obliged to have read a bit of Elfquest? I’m sure this is due in large part to geek culture bias in favor of fanboyish – as opposed to fangirlish – productions. (Dumb guy stuff can be the greatest stories ever told. Everyone knows that. But dumb girly stuff generally can’t catch a break. Chick lit just isn’t cool.) So I’m glad to see new Pini stuff presented on BoingBoing. More power to them!

Anyway, I bring a unique perspective to this issue because my daughters forced me to read them most of the online archive of Elfquest in nightly audiobook installments. (I think I managed to convince them to let me give up after “Two-Spear”.) I have seriously read a lot of Elfquest out loud, dude. And the main thing I learned is: it’s written quite well, as comics go. My daughters have also made me read them other comics. X-Men, Fantastic Four, Teen Titans. Most of that stuff doesn’t read out at all well, and very little reads out as well as Elfquest. Also, Elfquest is the sort of thing that you might think would be – erm – a bit inappropriate for really young children, what with high elves mating with wolves and all that. But if you’ve already read the kids Greek mythology – and a bunch of other mythologies I could mention – you know there’s no problem here, so long as you are judiciously indefinite about the mechanics of it, as the Pinis are. (There’s nothing explicit in these comics.) Little girls are uninterested in sex but are interested in babies, and animals, so stories in which strange creatures have hybrid family trees are interesting to them. It doesn’t end up being any more squicky than reading them D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. (Not that I’m recommending you read your kid Elfquest, High Ones preserve us! That was a chore.)

It’s not the case that comics work as audiobooks to the extent that they are good comics, of course. Zoe is down with flu at the moment and I tried reading her some Tintin but it doesn’t work. Hergé is so good at storytelling in pictures that it’s hard to get the pacing right. Also, it sounds strange to read Snowy’s lines out loud. (Snowy ‘talks’ more than almost any other character, what with all those little asides.)

Atomic Robo reads out really well, on the other hand. As audiobook comics go, Robo is tops. Zoe gives it two thumbs up.

All Stan Lee stuff is just terrible. As Harrison Ford said to George Lucas: you can write this stuff, but you can’t say it.