Matt Yglesias Too Busy Tweeting to Care About American Workers

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias is a writer for Slate. He mostly writes about the financial industry. (Although last night he was on a plane and so sending out a long string of the most banal tweets I’ve ever seen.) And he’s good; I read him every day. But he definitely has his blind spots and often falls ill with Serious Centrist Syndrome. This week, he got Corey Robin angry, and Robin is a mellow guy.

Yglesias wrote that there is a lot of labor organizing in China right now and that it is very much like the “heyday of western labor activism”—that is, not today. He claimed that the reason for this was that productivity in China has been going up but wages have not.

Wait! Did you catch that? Corey Robin did. When I saw the quote, I got a chill. I knew this was going to be good, because even I am capable of decimating Yglesias over his blindness about what’s been happening in America lo these several decades.

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 Corey Robin contacts Matt Yglesias. And Matt comes back with the lamest answer I’ve ever heard. Really, this may qualify him to quit Slate and take a high paying job at the Heritage Foundation. (You know: the people who invented Obamacare and then suddenly hadn’t heard of it as soon as a Democrat proposed it!) Yglesias responded, “I should explain the difference more clearly. US is a median issue, China is a mean issue.” Robin responds the way any reasonable person would, “I’m not clear what point he’s trying to make here.” And then he goes on to explain that economic principals show that this situation would make labor organizing in China less likely.

Then Robin finishes off with what has got to be a devastating attack:

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.

That’s got to hurt. Or it would if Matt Yglesias weren’t so busy tweeting.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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