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Matt Yglesias

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