Arnold Kling  

Alternative to Charles Murray

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Voluntary Taxes and the Releva... Scandlen on Individual Insuran...

Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard write,


A thirtysomething Wal-Mart cashier cannot reasonably expect that his hard work will be rewarded with consistent raises and promotions, terminating, perhaps, in a solid management job. Thus the new lower class is deprived of opportunities for engaging in long-term (or even medium-term) cultural strategies. Understandably, then, they turn their attention to short-term strategies, competing for immediate rewards and ephemeral boosts in status and self esteem (Bageant, 2008; Pyszynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, and Schimel, 2004). Concurrently, those who can invest in long-term strategies battle each other for dominance of the cultural narrative (because this confers status), and their concerns become further removed from those of the average American.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Their psychology may be insightful, but their economics is naive. They blame the problems of the lower class on the decline of unions. But I would argue that the decline of unions is endogenous to the changing nature of the economy, with more automation in the factory sector and more heterogeneity of skill requirements in the service sector.

Still, I really like the insight in the quoted paragraph. I think it is a more persuasive story than a sui generis decline in moral values in Middle America.


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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution



COMMENTS (17 to date)
dave smith writes:

It seems that these authors are committing a common mistake people make in these arguments: they are comparing today with a world that never existed. But maybe I am wrong. In the unionized past, was everyone rewarded with a management position?

Becky Hargrove writes:

A recent article remembering the Los Angeles riots noted the same circumstance as to cause: the lack of opportunities to engage in long term strategies for moving up. IMO that is also what happens when everyone is expected to 'play' on what is essentially the same economic gameboard, in terms of primary consumption.

Offering 'stairstep' zoning options in housing would especially help people move up as it is possible for them to do so. Plus, putting technology to good use could make the lowest options possible. How can we live sustainably with wide variations in income if we are expected to maintain a consumption basket that is defined at the middle to upper class level?

wintercow20 writes:

I think some of this, too, may be a byproduct of the increased credentialism that we have talked about. Is the pool of entry level workers of the same quality today? Are big firms relying on less costly credentials to signal management quality than trying to hire high quality at the front end, particularly with the changing technologies which may require less skill at that level to begin with?

Or is the premise even true? If I started at Walmart tomorrow, would I have a harder time finding my way to a better position than someone similarly situated many years ago?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

For a couple of "scholars" in the field of Psychology, it seems odd to me that they did not touch on a major differentiation in commonalities within our society that falls entirely within their field:

That is the differentiation in the "sense" of individual obligations of the members of each of the "classes."

That would appear to have a direct bearing on motivations in addition to being the missing "link" which forms the basis of cohesion by which social organizations come to form a social order.

Those obligations, individually and in the aggregate, which are understood, recognized and accepted with the necessary and sufficient commonality by a specific part of society do not have the same composition and the same sufficient commonality or degree of acceptance in another part of the society that would provide cohesion of the differing social organizations as a "common" social order.

In simpler times, some might have said of others:
"They just don't think the way we do."

Tom Dougherty writes:

What is the likelihood of consistent raises and promotions terminating in a solid management position at a "Mom and Pop" store? I would think that one's opportunity for advancement is much greater working at Wal-Mart than it is at the much beloved by the left "Mom and Pop" store.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Walmart is far from perfect, but it is significantly more meritocratic than most institutions in our society. A cashier could work their way up. It does happen. Isn't such a path a great deal for Walmart? They get a young assistant manager at a lower risk and lower price.

That being said, very few cashiers are both willing and able to take this path. There are easier ways for smart, hard working, but uncredentialed people to go. If the perception is that such a path has closed, its due to the supply of workers willing to try it, not due to the willingness of Walmart to allow it.

kebko writes:

Do they think Wal-Mart is recruiting Harvard MBA's to store management positions? If these authors had bothered to step foot in a Wal-Mart and actually talk to a few people, they would have seen that the store managers tend to have low levels of education and frequently have worked up from lower positions. When Wal-Mart was in growth phase, before it became the bogeyman of the left, it was not unusual to see articles about high school graduates who retired as millionaires due to working up through the organization, profit sharing & stock options, etc.

The shocking thing is that workers still aspire to higher status jobs. As a starting cashier, you might get $20k a year and $10k of government support, for $30,000. Or, you could work really hard for a number of years, get a store level management job (which is stressful and difficult), and make $50k a year, pay $10k in taxes, so now, you're working your tail off and pulling in $40,000.

But, the authors are convinced that there was a generous safety net in 1960 that doesn't exist today. If you're going to pull "facts" out of your posterior without doing the slightest amount of checking, why not just go with your gut across the board? Actually walking into a Wal-Mart might have screwed up the whole narrative.

Joe Cushing writes:

This post is an expression if ignorance. Promoting hard working 30 something cashiers is exactly how Walmart finds some of its management talent. Most never ask for the promotion though and most will say no if you encourage them to ask. The assistant store manager position at Walmart is exhausting and most cashiers know this. An assistant store manager works a scheduled that constantly changes from 12 hour shifts ending at 11 p.m. (including 1 hour lunch) to 10 hour shifts from 7a.m. to 5 p.m. On the day after the 11 p.m. shift the assistant may or may not be allowed to come in at 8 a.m. instead of 7a.m. I remember one grueling rotation where I had to work 9 days in a row with this sequence at the end 11-11, 11-11, 8-5, 7-5, 11-11 11-11. You can't get a circadian rhythm going and you don't sleep. Then you run the risk of being tossed onto the overnight shit without a choice. That shift is 5 random days a week from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. That's not the official schedule but that's what you work. If you complain, you are told that you are scheduled to go home at 7 a.m. and if you can't get everything done by that time, it's your fault. Every now and then the midnight shift runs till like 1 p.m. because the store manager isn't happy with the night progress. There is no shift premium and no pay for extra hours worked.

The department manager position is an hourly non-supervisory position that runs from 7-4 Monday Through Friday. People get into this position and don't want to give it up for the life an assistant store manager.

Arnold Kling writes:

Let's stipulate that Wal-mart is not a good example of blocking promotions for low level employees. Nonetheless, I believe it is true that 50 years ago there were more companies with paths up for low-level employees than there are today. Manufacturing management jobs require more finance than they did 50 years ago. The importance of health care and education has risen, and you don't get to management in those fields without a lot of education credentials.

ajb writes:

If someone were to run the numbers, one would find that many of those junior management positions paid less than many low level jobs today when adjusted for inflation.

But people's standards for "minimal" living have changed and standards for "good" jobs have changed. Moreover, the preference for low education is frowned upon unless one does very, very well.

What HAS become relatively more difficult is for someone to earn a modest amount, yet live in a relatively homogeneous (ethnically and culturally) area with low crime and passable schools while owning a home near a major coastal city. They also won't get the status from lower level management jobs today that those positions had 50 years ago.

Moreover people are geographically and socially mobile. For those who prefer social stability over goods, this is a hard tradeoff. But it's not about having fewer opportunities for decent incomes.

MikeDC writes:

Why are cashiers at Walmart in 2012 any different than say, factory assembly line workers in 1962?

I could be wrong, but my understanding is that the whole point of an assembly line is that there were lots of people doing relatively easy jobs. All of them couldn't conceivably have expected steady promotions and movement into management, and yet somehow they survived.

Not only that, but somehow this sort of work has become a mythological "good old days".

Someone want to explain that to me?

MG writes:

Let's assume that Winegard^2 had come up with an example of "cut your losses lower class employment" that this skeptical crowd could not so easily tear to pieces, I would still argue that their "rational no-expectations model" ignores inter-generational effects, namely the total value of inter-generational investments. This used to be summarized as: you work, you stay married, and do all the right things not so that you can move up the ladder, but so that your children can. If Winegrad^2 have ignored this factor in their model,the model is incomplete. If they have not, but believe that this factor would barely shift incentives for the subject agents...then they would have proven Murray's point.

ivvenalis writes:

How much expectation of advancement would a unionized factory or mine worker in 1960 have? They probably wouldn't have much expectation of a management position, but there might be union-secured seniority-based raises and benefits (I don't know details). Of course, perhaps his entire social worth was not bound up in his job (necessary, but not sufficient?) as the authors seem to suggest has been true for that time period.

VangelV writes:

Sorry but I do not buy into the arguments provided. For one, we have a totally different world today in which government acts as a parasite on the productive working class and is in bed with the financial sector that robs workers and savers of purchasing power. The problem is lack of opportunity but not because of competition but because of high taxes, inflation, and protectionism. Make the government smaller and take away its power to transfer wealth from consumers, workers and savers to its special interest friends and there would be no long term problem.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

What has all that natter about employment practices got to do with the original Murray thesis or the "psychology" critique of it???

Larry writes:

(This discussion is remarkably unencumbered by data.)

The decline of unions has been accompanied by an overall decline in job stability (even CEO stays are shorter.)

It has also been accompanied by the approximate end of gender roles. The path for men particularly was relatively clear. In the age of single parenthood, they no longer have the constellation of responsibilities and support systems that showed them what they had to do. Why not remain fan boys forever?

Floccina writes:

I agree with those above who point out that a hard working cashier can move up at wal-mart.
I also agree with those above that point out that people have more stuff today.

But I want to add that since people have fewer children today fewer workers get pushed up into management due to age only.

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