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Finally, competition in labor markets was subject to important restraints during the early postwar decades. The triumph of collective bargaining meant the active suppression of wage competition in a variety of industries. In the interest of boosting wages, unions sometimes worked to restrict competition in their industries’ product markets as well. Garment unions connived with trade associations to set prices and allocate production among clothing makers. Coal miner unions attempted to regulate production by dictating how many days a week mines could be open.
MIT economists Levy and Temin don’t mention it, but highly restrictive immigration policies were another significant brake on labor market competition. With the establishment of countryspecific immigration quotas under the Immigration Act of 1924, foreign-born residents of the United States plummeted from 13 percent of the total population in 1920 to 5 percent by 1970. As a result, competition at the less-skilled end of the U.S. labor market was substantially reduced.
Solidarity and Chauvinism
The anti-competitive effects of the Treaty of Detroit were reinforced by the prevailing social norms of the early postwar decades. Here Krugman and company focus on executive pay. Krugman quotes wistfully from John Kenneth Galbraith’s characterization of the corporate elite in his 1967 book The New Industrial State: “Management does not go out ruthlessly to reward itself—a sound management is expected to exercise restraint.” According to Krugman, “For a generation after World War II, fear of outrage kept executive salaries in check. Now the outrage is gone. That is, the explosion in executive pay represents a social change…like the sexual revolution of the 1960’s—a relaxation of old strictures, a new permissiveness, but in this case the permissiveness is financial rather than sexual.”
Krugman is on to something. But changing attitudes about lavish compensation packages are just one small part of a much bigger cultural transformation. During the early postwar decades, the combination of in-group solidarity and out-group hostility was much more pronounced than what we’re comfortable with today.
Consider, first of all, the dramatic shift in attitudes about race. Open and unapologetic discrimination by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants against other ethnic groups was widespread and socially acceptable in the America of Paul Krugman’s boyhood. How does racial progress affect income inequality? Not the way we might expect. The most relevant impact might have been that more enlightened attitudes about race encouraged a reversal in the nation’s restrictive immigration policies. The effect was to increase the number of less-skilled workers and thereby intensify competition among them for employment.
Under the system that existed between 1924 and 1965, immigration quotas were set for each country based on the percentage of people with that national origin already living in the U.S. (with immigration from East and South Asia banned outright until 1952). The explicit purpose of the national-origin quotas was to freeze the ethnic composition of the United States—that is, to preserve white Protestant supremacy and protect the country from “undesirable” races. “Unquestionably, there are fine human beings in all parts of the world,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) said in defense of the quota system in 1965, “but people do differ widely in their social habits, their levels of ambition, their mechanical aptitudes, their inherited ability and intelligence, their moral traditions, and their capacity for maintaining stable governments.”
But the times had passed the former Klansman by. With the triumph of the civil rights movement, official discrimination based on national origin was no longer sustainable. Just two months after signing the Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, ending the “un-American” system of national-origin quotas and its “twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.” The act inaugurated a new era of mass immigration: Foreign-born residents of the United States have surged from 5 percent of the population in 1970 to 12.5 percent as of 2006.
This wave of immigration exerted a mild downward pressure on the wages of native-born low-skilled workers, with most estimates showing a small effect. Immigration’s more dramatic impact on measurements of inequality has come by increasing the number of less-skilled workers, thereby increasing apparent inequality by depressing average wages at the low end of the income distribution. According to the American University economist Robert Lerman, excluding recent immigrants from the analysis would eliminate roughly 30 percent of the increase in adult male annual earnings inequality between 1979 and 1996.
Although the large influx of unskilled immigrants has made American inequality statistics look worse, it has actually reduced inequality for the people involved. After all, immigrants experience large wage gains as a result of relocating to the United States, thereby reducing the cumulative wage gap between them and top earners in this country. When Lerman recalculated trends in inequality to include, at the beginning of the period, recent immigrants and their native-country wages, he found equality had increased rather than decreased. Immigration has increased inequality at home but decreased it on a global scale.
Just as racism helped to keep foreign-born workers out of the U.S. labor market, another form of in-group solidarity, sexism, kept women out of the paid work force. As of 1950, the labor force participation rate for women 16 and older stood at only 34 percent. By 1970 it had climbed to 43 percent, and as of 2005 it had jumped to 59 percent. Meanwhile, the range of jobs open to women expanded enormously.
Paradoxically, these gains for gender equality widened rather than narrowed income inequality overall. Because of the prevalence of “assortative mating”—the tendency of people to choose spouses with similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds—the rise in dual-income couples has exacerbated household income inequality: Now richer men are married to richer wives. Between 1979 and 1996, the proportion of working-age men with working wives rose by approximately 25 percent among those in the top fifth of the male earnings distribution, and their wives’ total earnings rose by over 100 percent. According to a 1999 estimate by Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution, this unanticipated consequence of feminism explains about 13 percent of the total rise in income inequality since 1979.
Racism and sexism are ancient forms of group identity. Another form, more in line with what Krugman has in mind, was a distinctive expression of U.S. economic and social development in the middle decades of the 20th century. The journalist William Whyte described this “social ethic” in his 1956 book The Organization Man, outlining a sensibility that defined itself in studied contrast to old-style “rugged individualism.” When contemporary critics scorned the era for its conformism, they weren’t just talking about the ranch houses and gray flannel suits. The era’s mores placed an extraordinary emphasis on fitting into the group.
“In the Social Ethic I am describing,” wrote Whyte, “man’s obligation is…not so much to the community in a broad sense but to the actual, physical one about him, and the idea that in isolation from it—or active rebellion against it—he might eventually discharge the greater service is little considered.” One corporate trainee told Whyte that he “would sacrifice brilliance for human understanding every time.” A personnel director declared that “any progressive employer would look askance at the individualist and would be reluctant to instill such thinking in the minds of trainees.” Whyte summed up the prevailing attitude: “All the great ideas, [trainees] explain, have already been discovered and not only in physics and chemistry but in practical fields like engineering. The basic creative work is done, so the man you need—for every kind of job—is a practical, team-player fellow who will do a good shirt-sleeves job.”
It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that this social ethic helped to limit competition among business enterprises for top talent. When secure membership in a stable organization is more important than maximizing your individual potential, the most talented employees are less vulnerable to the temptation of a better offer elsewhere. Even if they are tempted, a strong sense of organizational loyalty makes them more likely to resist and stay put.