In the United States, the creation of wealth is often presented as a process that benefits everyone within the society. A common shibboleth, made famous during the Kennedy administration, is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In June 2000, the Conference Board, an organization devoted to the promotion of global business and one of the leading private centers for the analysis of economic statistics, released a report actually entitled Does a Rising Tide Lift All Boats? The report concludes: “Unfortunately, the answer to date is ‘no.’”
In examining the poverty rate among fulltime, year-round workers (workers who work at least thirty-five hours a week and at least fifty weeks a year), the Conference Board discovered that the share of such workers and their families that fell below the poverty line (currently set at 13,290 dollars a year for a family of three) has not decreased with the growth of wealth, but has remained fairly flat, even increasing slightly, since 1973. Further, despite the fact that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by more than 25 percent between 1986 and 1998, the poverty rate among fulltime, year-round workers—far from decreasing—actually increased over the same period by 7.4 percent. From 1997 to 1998—years of record profits for capital—the poverty rate among these workers jumped by almost half a percentage point. The last time that a one-year increase of this size was experienced was in 1981, a year of economic recession. Millions of children whose parents work fulltime nearly every week of the year are now living below the poverty line, and their numbers are growing both absolutely and relatively. According to the Conference Board, “This is not the outcome one would expect from the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.”
But it is. There is nothing particularly surprising—except to those who believe the ideology of the system itself—about the fact that capitalism produces poverty along with wealth, hunger for many along with opulence for very few. The fact that the poverty rate of fulltime, year-round workers has shown no improvement since the early 1970s is no cause for wonder. After all, real wages for most workers have also shown no improvement over the same period, while the gap in both income and wealth between the top and the bottom of society has been rapidly increasing. Meanwhile, welfare supports for the poorer segments of society have been removed. If this is a period of prosperity, it is certainly not one of shared prosperity. Furthermore, despite the unusually long economic expansion, the economy remains in many ways sluggish at present when compared to other booms since the Second World War. As the Conference Board itself acknowledges, one can compare the 1990s “tortoise” to the 1960s “hare.” The degree of prosperity and economic dynamism associated with the celebrated “New Economy” is thus widely exaggerated in prevailing accounts.
The Conference Board naturally avoids connecting its empirical results to failures of the system. Instead, it seeks an answer to the seeming enigma these empirical results raise by focusing on the increase in the share of low-skill employment in the economy which, it notes, has risen dramatically over the last two decades. This is not seen as connected to what Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital called “the degradation of work in the twentieth century,” but rather as a minor aberration of the New Economy and a failing of the working poor. Marginal workers not fit for work in the Internet age, the Conference Board report argues, are now finding employment and their lack of skill is resulting in below-poverty level wages. The final conclusion of the report strikes an optimistic note. It anticipates that as these workers pick up the necessary skills for the New Economy—something that will presumably occur naturally as society adjusts to the new technological age—this tendency toward an increase in the share of poverty wages will automatically recede.
Does this reasoning seem sound to us? Not at all. The increase of low-paying jobs is not due to the low productivity of workers. Rather, an important part of the current economic growth is in enterprises (in areas such as retail trade) that grow and profit on the backs of workers by means of low-paying jobs (which, of course, are not always fulltime, year-round jobs). The complaint about lack of skills among low-paid workers is thus sheer baloney. The innate ability to do skilled work exists among such workers if the skilled jobs and the training were there. What the Conference Board fails to recognize is that the accumulation process under capitalism is rooted in exploitation, and that all the phenomena that it discusses derive from this simple fact. If they are truly serious in their search for an answer as to why a rising economic tide does not lift all boats, the Conference Board economists ought to set aside their orthodox economic texts and begin studying Marx’s Capital.
In May, John Foster traveled to Austria, where he was the guest of the Department of Social Ecology of the IFF (Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Austrian Universities)–Vienna, Seidengasse 13, A-1070 Vienna http://www.univie.ac.at/iffsocec. John had been asked to present a number of lectures based on his new book, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). The Department of Social Ecology of the IFF-Vienna is a renowned research organization, which has gained a reputation as one of the leading centers of physical flow analysis (the analysis of the flow of material throughput of resources and energy) in modern economies and the use of these in ecological analysis. Its statistical studies of physical flows in different nation-states are used in the ecological planning of some European states and are being extended in collaboration with the World Resources Institute to more global levels of analysis.
Why would such an important, well-established ecological research institute be so interested in Marx’s Ecology? The answer lies in the fact that the Department of Ecology, IFF-Vienna, is headed by Marina Fischer-Kowalski, daughter of the great Austrian Marxist Ernst Fischer (author of MR Press title How to Read Karl Marx), and herself one of the world’s most renowned environmental sociologists. Fischer-Kowalski’s theoretical work on physical flows and their significance for ecological analysis is rooted in the concept of socio-ecological metabolism. As she and her talented team of interdisciplinary researchers point out in their writings, the pioneer of this type of outlook, now so important in addressing environmental problems, was Karl Marx. Indeed, more and more researchers on the environment are coming to the realization that a holistic, materialist approach that covers both human history and the environment is necessary if ecological issues are realistically to be addressed, and that Marx in the nineteenth century posed many of the essential questions in this respect. Does all of this surprise us? Maybe a bit. But not as much as it must surprise those who were all too quick to write off Marxism in the ecological realm.
In the April 2000 MR, Paul Sweezy’s article “Cars and Cities” was incorrectly referred to as having been published originally in the April 1972 MR. It actually appeared in the April 1973 MR. We would like to thank our friend Sham M. Joshi in India for noticing this.
The life of Oliver Schule Loud, who died on November 6, 1999, was celebrated at Antioch University Seattle on June 11, 2000. Loud was a distinguished teacher of science as part of a general education. This is part of the message we sent for the memorial gathering:
Ollie Loud was a much-valued friend. He was especially important to the founders and editors of MR from its very inception. An outstanding clarifier of science and its relation to society, he encouraged and helped us in our attempt to do likewise on complex issues of economics and politics.
We are pleased to announce that Sol Dollinger will be reading from and signing copies of his new MR Press book, Not Automatic, at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, CA, on Monday, September 18 at 7:30pm. For more information, call Black Oak at (510) 486-0698. To order the book, which Studs Terkel called “deeply moving and inspiring,” call MR Press at (800) 670-9499.
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