Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 3, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

August 2, 2018 Adam Tooze and Leo Panitch, separately, on globalization, Trump, the American empire, declinism, etc.


Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 20, 2018

The Russia obsession

Some ambitious and generous person at The Raucous Rooster transcribed my radio commentary from yesterday. Thank you!

Good God, the Russia obsession!

It seems that Democrats are now incapable of talking about anything but Russian interference in our sacred elections.

The Trump administration is eviscerating environmental regulations, appointing horrific judges, prosecuting a grotesque war on refugees and immigrants, and we’re hearing about little other than Putin’s alleged hold over Trump, often expressed in grossly homophobic terms.

In doing so, they’re accepting uncritically the version of events proffered by cops, prosecutors and the CIA, organizations made up of professional liars who’ve been enemies of democracy and free expression at home and abroad for decades.

We’re seeing Dem pundits even accusing Bernie Sanders and other insurgents within their party of being Russian agents, witting or unwitting. Their indictments of Trump for treason make them sound like demented right-wingers at the height of the Cold War.

This obsession does relieve mainstream Democrats of concocting an attractive agenda that might win an election or two, but to do that they’d have to tack left, and Goldman Sachs wouldn’t like that.

This Russia obsession’s a win win for the establishment though – subdue Trump and the domestic left insurgency all at once.

I understand why those within a half a standard deviation of the center would embrace it, but why anyone further left would play along with it is beyond me.

Please stop.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 20, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

July 19, 2018 Rebecca Gordon explains why Nicaraguans are protesting the Ortega government (article here) • Alex Gourevitch on how the workplace is authoritarian, and why strikes are essential (article here)

Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 13, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

July 12, 2018 Jason Wilson on the Hammond pardons and the right-wing riot in Portland • Christy Thornton analyzes AMLO’s victory in Mexico’s election

Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 5, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just posted to my radio archive (click on date for link):

July 5, 2018 Chris Maisano, author of this article, on the effect of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision on public employee unions • Forrest Hylton, co-author of this article, on Colombian politics after the June presidential election

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 28, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

June 28, 2018 Leo Panitch on Doug Ford, Ontario’s Trump • Cordelia Fine, author of Testosterone Rex, dispenses with all the nonsense about biological differences between the sexes (back after two-week hiatus because of a major writing deadline)

[News that Norman Pearlstine, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal who once denounced me as sick, twisted scumhas just been appointed editor of the Los Angeles Times reminded me of this pair of articles I wrote for Left Business Observer in 1990. They were part of a series of profiles of major media enterprises that was co-published by LBO and FAIR’s Extra! Comments inserted by the 2018 me are in brackets, like these. A note on dollar amounts in these pieces: prices today are about double what they were in 1989–1990. And a note on the WSJ: although the paper was showing signs of decline almost 30 years ago, it was still an excellent publication. The front page was a daily masterpiece. It took Rupert Murdoch, who bought Dow Jones from the Bancroft family in 2007, to bring the WSJ to mediocrity. Some time after these articles appeared, I was told that Pearlstine was mighty touchy about accusations of social climbing because the family was very Midwestern and straight-arrow and thought he was bringing ill-repute on the paper.]

Dow Jones & Co.: going for the glitz?

Left Business Observer No. 37, April 1990

In a recent speech accepting the editor-of-the-year award from the National Press Foundation, Wall Street Journal managing editor Norman Pearlstine worried about the state of journalism—which, unlike publishing, isn’t a business, he said. Pearlstine poked fun at “service journalism” and the desire to be reader-­friendly. He worried that illiteracy is eroding the newspaper audience, that databases reduce journalism to info bits, that entertainment values are replacing news values, and that “custom publishing” means that advertisers will drive journalistic content. Pearlstine praised the Journal’s parent, Dow Jones, for supporting his paper, while wondering if other publishers will be so supportive.

All pretty unexceptionable stuff, but Pearlstine—who refers to papers as “products”—a label whose accuracy doesn’t soften the blow of hearing it from a journalist—should regard his own glass walls before throwing stones. Databases and other electronic outlets—increasingly customized- are now the major part of Dow Jones’ business. The thinness of the journalism in the paper’s specialized pages and sections—like the Law and Media pages and the “Money and Investing” section, creations of the Pearlstine era—suggests that accommodating advertisers may be their real reason for being. And the Journal’s financial coverage is diluted by too many how-to pieces on investing that end up cheerleading rather than casting an acid eye on Wall Street

Which isn’t to say that the paper has descended quite to the level of USA Todayor the New York Times: it’s better written and more willing to offend the powerful. A fine recent example is John Fialka’s story from September 15, 1989, “Mr. Kissinger Has Opinions on China—And Business Ties,” which pointed out the fortunate harmony of interests between the “commentator–entrepreneur’s” consulting contract with Beijing and his widely broadcast defenses of the Tiananmen Square bloodbath.

But at the same time the paper ran the Kissinger story, it was killing a story by Mary Walsh that explored the mujahideen-promoting con-men whom CBS rented to staff its Kabul bureau, and their links to a fishy charity called the Mercy Fund. (Walsh, who left the paper, tells the story in the January/February Columbia Journalism Reviewand in the May Progressive.) The paper further discredited itself by maligning Walsh’s reportorial skills and spreading lurid rumors about her. No one knows why—but fear of offending both the mujahideen’s Washington patrons and senior CBS executives are high on the list of informed guesses.

Is the Journal, a relative holdout next to most of its media colleagues, becoming yet another court painter to the power elite?

Journal eclipsed

Until recently, it was easy to treat Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal as virtual synonyms. But from the beginning, the Journal was part of a multimedia empire. When Charles Dow and Edward Jones started the Journal in 1889, their firm had already been offering a messenger-delivered news service to Wall Street for seven years. Almost as soon as science complied by inventing the ticker, Dow Jones was delivering electromechanized news to financiers.

Now the electronic delivery systems—databases, tickers, and the new phone services—earn more than the newspaper. And the Journal, formerly a near-monopoly in business news and the country’s only national newspaper, is now facing competition from papers that didn’t exist a decade ago—USA Today, the national edition of the New York Times, Investor’s Daily, and the U.S. edition of the Financial Times. Only the latter is an equal journalistic competitor (well, maybe the Times is, too, if you measure by bulk), but the others are commercial competition nonetheless.

With competition comes the erosion of monopoly profits; the Journal, once one of the most profitable publications in the world, is now only doing middling well on the bottom line. The retrenchment in financial services means fewer advertisers and fewer readers. Much the same can be said of the Journal’s sister publication—for some reason, the relation is described as sororal rather than fraternal, even though almost 90% of the Journal‘s subscribers are men—Barron’s, that indispensable weekly chronicle of the financial markets.

Overall corporate profits from regular operations fell by 4.6% in 1989, with a 0.8% increase in information services offsetting declines of 11.4% at business publications and 8.0% in community newspapers. Publications, which as recently as 1987 furnished two-thirds of Dow Jones’ sales and over half of its profits, now provide less than half and less than a quarter of the corporate totals, respectively. The recent financial history of information services is virtually a mirror image of print’s. The community papers—the Ottaway chain, acquired in 1968—account for a small and declining portion of Dow Jones’ money stream.


The company is enthusiastically probing all the forms of our post-Gutenberg culture. Dow Jones News/Retrieval offers 55 business and general databases, among them the texts of almost 200 publications, including the full texts of the Journal and Barron’s. Last year, Dow Jones topped off its interest in Telerate, a provider of live prices and other information on financial markets around the world, and bought the entire firm.

Though Dow Jones boasts about Telerate’s market position, its products aren’t universally admired on Wall Street; a bond trader told LBO that if it weren’t for Telerate’s monopoly on U.S. government bond prices—one that isn’t likely to last—she’d have little use for Telerate’s screens. Dow Jones has been spending heavily to bring Telerate up to snuff against competitors like Reuters and Knight-Ridder, and it will have to continue to do so. Bitter print staffers are saying they are being asked to make up for management’s having overpaid for Telerate’s creaky technology.

“Synergy” is the magic concept in the media business these days, and Dow Jones promises to be no slouch at assuring the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. JournalPhone, which provides news for 75¢ a minute, is produced by the broadcast division of information services and marketed through the Journal. If it’s 10 PM EDT and you have to know where your Japanese stocks are, a call to 1-900-JOURNAL will answer the question. And at least for now, unlike some other 800- and 900-information-mongers, Dow Jones isn’t recording callers’ phone numbers for future marketing use—yet. Coming in 1990: JournalFax, another product of intracompany cooperation.

Information Services is now unveiling DowVision, a customized newswire imminently available in 12 cities. DowVision will offer Fortune 500 subscribers news relevant to their line of business along with custom software designed to merge this data with subscribers’ own software and internal communications systems. Alex Taylor III, writing in Fortune, described DowVision as being like “the franchise to sell McDonald’s hamburgers at Disney World.” Taylor was probably referring to the profitability of the arrangement, but a less boosterish reader has to worry about the nutritive qualities of the meals, be they Big Macs or DowVisions.


As Wayne Parsons argues in his useful new book, The Power of the Financial Press (Rutgers, $24.95), the professionalization of economics has left the business press with the task of developing a political agenda for the nonspecialist elites in the U.S. and in Britain. For example, the religious doctrine known as supply-side economics—along with several other obsessions of the Reagan agenda like pumping up the military and beating up small countries—was essentially developed on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, under the direction of editor Robert Bartley. [A note on titles: at the old Journal, the “editor” ran the opinion pages, and the “managing editor,” the news pages.] Now that the indiscretions of the go-for-it era so vigorously promoted by Bartley & Co. are becoming visible to all but the self-blinded, the page is getting ever-more bizarre.

Fortunately, the news pages have been largely immune to this nonsense. Jonathan Kwitny, who wrote for the paper from 1971 to 1988, looked deeply into the Iran–contra affair and certainly didn’t find democracy at work. For years, Kwitny reported on the extracurricular activities of Ollie’s army, as well as the more routine crimes of our business class. But Kwitny’s articles about Reagan–Bush foreign policy and the antics of the white collar netherworld don’t appear in the Journal anymore. He left the paper to produce a TV show , which was subsequently canceled by its sponsor, New York City’s municipal station.

But, Kwitny told LBO, another reason he left was that it had been getting tougher to do the kinds of stories he wanted. (Before talking, Kwitny insisted that it be prominently mentioned that he thinks the Journal is the best paper in the country and that its problems aren’t all Norm Pearlstine’s fault. Done.) Content had nothing to do with it—just turf: D.C. bureau chief Al Hunt and former foreign editor Karen Elliott House (see Kann entry in neighboring board list [at end of this post]) thought he was poaching on their real estate. The paper was also getting too bureaucratic, said Kwitny, too top-down; editors told reporters what to write about, instead of allowing story ideas to percolate upwards.

Turf battles are fought in any organization, but Kwitny’s experience is evidence for the ascendancy of a clique of the anointed—led by Kann, House, Hunt, and Pearlstine—at a formerly collegial organization. Outside the charmed circle, the majority of the paper’s nearly 600 journalists complain about travel restrictions, the less-than-inflation wage offer (about which the toothless company union will do nothing), favoritism, mysterious kicking upstairs, the promotion of stars and specialists over less glittery generalists, speedup, cutbacks, Phillips’ $1 million bonus (see board box), and managing editor Norman Pearlstine’s social climbing. The staff is quite paranoid, and known malcontents are zipper-mouthed with outsiders; one said, “I’m glad you’re doing this, but nobody’s going to help you.” Even ex-employees beg you for anonymity.


In a love letter to the Journal in the April Esquire, Joseph Nocera wonders why the paper is so good if the staff is so miserable, and concludes it’s because they’re miserable: producers must suffer so that consumers might be satisfied. What a repellent doctrine. And wrong, if it drives away the likes of Kwitny and Walsh.

Pearlstine’s au courant management philosophy is captured in the Journal‘s ad slogan, “Faster. Tougher. Smarter.” There’s less room in Norm’s hectic world for the leisurely, complex “leaders” (the stories that begin on the left and right columns of the front page) the paper excels at. Instead, as Kwitny says, there’s more breaking news of the sort that would have been on page 2 or 3 in the old Journal, out of an attempt to compete with USA Today and the Times. In the drive to be more popular, more of a general newspaper, the Journal has let its business reporting slip. Two recent examples: Newsday covers [the rapacious former airline exec] Frank Lorenzo, a figure who cries out for tough scrutiny, better than the Journal. And when leveraged buyout artist Jerome Kohlberg sued his former partner Henry Kravis, a story that could speak volumes about how the guys who creatively recapitalized Corporate America treated each other, the Journal was nowhere to be seen.

Somewhere the Journal is seen regularly, at least in the person of Norm Pearlstine, is at all the right parties in New York. While Pearlstine has long had social ambitions, his marriage to Nancy Friday a couple of years back seems to have sent him into high gear. To celebrate the union, the couple rented the Rainbow Room and invited the cream of New York society—Donald Trump, corporate raider Ron Perelman, Henry Kissinger, and, it is said, Journal advertisers who were utter strangers to the celebrants. And of course Pearlstine, a former Forbes editor, joined the swells at Malcolm’s final birthday party last September.

Perelman, chair of Revlon and husband of gossip-monger Claudia Cohen, has hired PR heavy Linda Robinson, wife of American Express chair (and Bush–Baker friend) James Robinson III, to burnish his image. Perelman no longer wants to be known as a “raider.” He now wants to be known as a “builder,” as a March 27 Journal leader by Randall Smith and David Wessel—a story whose depth of irony is difficult to measure—informed us. So persuasive is the Robinson–Perelman case that even investment banker Felix Rohatyn, who, once likened Mr. Perelman to “the Huns and the Visigoths,” now says that his new client “Ronald is handling himself quite well.” But Smith & Wessel saved this gem for their 18th paragraph: “The managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Norman Pearlstine, is…a friend of Mr. Perelman, and Mr. Pearlstine’s wife, author Nancy Friday, is a consultant to Revlon on the psychology of beauty.” Smith & Wessel close their article with the news that for all his reputation for brashness, Perelman is really quite shy.

How nice. Like many Journal leaders, the Perelman story told a lot about how money and flackery shape our public life. But it also makes you wonder about the Journal itself. Under Pearlstine, the paper’s business coverage has grown notably fluffier, and it’s lost some of its best reporters. The new Journal may be faster, but tougher and smarter? Is there a publication in the country that isn’t tending towards Vanity Fair?

Was Pearlstine ‘s sermon that opened this article really an inadvertent confession of a bad conscience?

Conversations with a Journal editor

Left Business Observer No. 38, May 1990

Two days before last month’s issue went to press with its profile of Dow Jones & Co., I faxed some sharply worded questions to Wall Street journal managing editor Norman Pearlstine. I expected no reply; none of the other media companies profiled in previous issues wanted to give LBO the time of day, much less an interview. Much to my surprise, Dow Jones’ PR man, Roger May, called me and said Pearlstine wanted to talk. I didn’t have the nerve to tell May that the issue had gone to press; I feared losing the opportunity for an audience with this prince of journalism.

Had the interview been the end of it, this follow-up would have been rich with praise of Dow Jones’ openness and of Pearlstine’s generosity with his time. Unfortunately, Pearlstine subsequently denounced your correspondent as “full of shit,” a phrase which chased all thoughts of gratitude from my mind.

First, the interview. My questions fell into three basic categories, familiar to readers of last month’s article: accusations that the Journal’s news coverage, especially of financial issues, had been getting soft; the killing of Mary Williams Walsh’s story on the crew CBS rented to cover the war in Afghanistan (told in the January/ February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review and the May issue of The Progressive); and the journalistic import of Pearlstine’s social ambitions. Highlights of the interview follow:


Not surprisingly, Pearlstine dissented vehemently from this accusation. When I suggested that Newsday had done a better job of covering Frank Lorenzo and his airline empire, he exploded: “Newsday?!’ It was as if I’d said his paper had been scooped by My Weekly Reader. When I said that much of the Journal’s coverage of the financial markets read too much like cheerleading, he denied all, and asked who does a better job. “Barron’s,” I replied. He pointed out that their audience was very different—more sophisticated, more professional. (Is critical coverage reserved for professionals?) When confronted with Jonathan Kwitny’s observation that the Journal’s front page had become too newsy and less attuned to the long view, he said that Kwitny’s criticisms were those of a mere “reader,” as if his 17 years of writing for the Journal were irrelevant. Asked what was the paper’s weak point, Pearlstine said its coverage of international issues—a curious response, given staff cuts at the foreign desk. Several times, Pearlstine referred to newspapers as “products.”


Walsh, a veteran foreign reporter highly regarded inside and outside the Journal, wrote a long story investigating the gang of mujahideen-promoters CBS contracted with to cover the war in Afghanistan. The story never ran. Pearlstine says that her piece—despite all her “lovely writing” (a patronizing phrase)—“didn’t meet the standards” of journalism, and that several editors agreed with him, with the exception of page one editor James Stewart. Pearlstine said he was willing to defer to Stewart’s judgement if the piece—four times regulation length—could be cut down to 1500 words, a task delegated to Don Moffit. Pearlstine says Walsh rejected Moffit’s surgery, and killed the piece.

According to Pearlstine, the essence of Walsh’s argument was that Kurt Lohbeck, a freelancer whom CBS hired to cover the war—the biggest U.S. covert operation since Vietnam—had influenced Rather to more hawkish views, and that Rather was dying to ingratiate himself with Jesse Helms. Though Pearlstine believes Lohbeck is a “manipulative” guy, he thinks this argument doesn’t stand, for two reasons: Rather had adopted Afghanistan as a special interest long before Lohbeck got involved, and that Lohbeck certainly didn’t influence U.S. policy, which was to stop “Soviet expansionism.” Is Lohbeck, colorful as he is, worth seven columns in the Journal? Pearlstine also wondered why Walsh brought her husband to her interview with Lohbeck , a man for whom she harbored a “personal animus,” as Norm put it.

While the Journal was dithering, the New York Post ran a story touching on some of the material Walsh had been investigating, including accusations that CBS was sold some staged footage. Bill Carter, a reporter for the New York Times, called Pearlstine to comment on a CBS executive’s claim that the Post ran “a trashy story” that the Journal had rejected. Carter quotes Pearlstine in a September 29, 1989, story—anonymously, though his identity was later revealed—as follows : “Whether a story has a sufficient level of proof…is something for an individual editor to decide. And you can infer what you have to from that.” Pearlstine, apparently not trusting my powers of inference, said that you shouldn’t confuse the editorial standards of the two newspapers. (He also said that Carter claimed he was going to report that Walsh leaked the story to the Post, something Norm wished to refute, though the topic didn’t come up in Carter’s piece.) Walsh took this as a knife in the back, and resigned.

Walsh disputes Norm’s version. She says that although she didn’t like Moffit’s edit, she hadn’t decided to kill the story; she hoped they could work something out. To her, Moffit had turned a serious investigation of the relation between the media and foreign policy into a “folkloric” personality profile. She says that Journal editors never challenged her on her reporting; they had stripped her story of its meaning and then maligned her work to a Times reporter. As for her personal animus, Walsh says, “I don’t like con-men.” As for bringing her husband to the interview, she says Lohbeck was known around Afghanistan for toying with a loaded gun, and she was afraid of him.

Readers can check out Walsh’s stories in the CJRand The Progressiveand judge for themselves.

Social climbing

Pearlstine acknowledges that criticism of his closeness to New York’s nouvelle society is a “legitimate issue,” one that turns on that age-old journalistic question of whether it’s better to know your sources or not. While acknowledging his departure from the paper’s history, he clearly thinks it better to know your sources. He volunteered that D.C. bureau chief Al Hunt is also closer to the Washington power elite than any of his predecessors. He further volunteered that he was the first Journal managing editor to serve on the Dow Jones management committee, a departure from that totem of journalistic ethics, the separation of editing and management. Pearlstine defies anyone to specify how his social life has affected the paper’s news coverage, though the criticisms recounted in the last two sections of this profile do conjure up an odor not unlike gunpowder.

Pearlstine was sorry to hear that even ex-employees seemed “paranoid” about criticizing him, and disputed assertions of morale problems among the staff, though he did acknowledge that he was not the best communicator. On the basis of our 90-minute chat, it seemed that he didn’t stay around for second helpings when they were handing out the human warmth, either.

On May 3, Norm called me to express some displeasure at the fact that the issue had gone to press before the interview was conducted, a detail I hadn’t apprised him of. It was rude, I admitted, but I was afraid it might derail the interview; I donned an appropriate amount of sackcloth and ashes and hoped that would placate him. It didn’t. He launched into a remarkable tirade, highlights of which follow: “about the most immoral and obscene piece of journalism I’ve ever seen…aren’t you ashamed?… you’re full of shit…you’re scum… I don ‘t understand how you live with yourself…you’re sick, twisted…It’s tragic that you exist.” Wow. He claims it was just the timing of the interview that set him off, not the content of the profile.

There were several more pleasing phone calls that week: five present and former Dow Jones employees confirmed the accuracy of the profile, several with considerable enthusiasm. All prefer to remain anonymous.

[sidebar to original story]

Dow Jones’ board of directors

In an arrangement similar to those prevailing at the New York Times Co. and the Washington Post Co., two-thirds of the voting shares of Dow Jones & Co. are controlled by descendants of Clarence Barron, who bought Dow Jones from its founders at the turn of the century. The family exercises its control by electing two-thirds of the board of directors.

Amounts shown for “compensation, ” as the euphemism goes, include cash salary, bonuses, and contributions to profit sharing and retirement plans paid in 1989. The 24 most senior executives of the company were compensated a total of $1,918,421, an average of $496,600. Outside directors—those who aren’t employees of Dow Jones—receive $23,000 for their service plus $800 per meeting attended (last year, there were eight), an amount roughly equal to the national average earnings for full-time workers, and roughly twice average per capita income.

family (first cousins control 66% of voting shares)

William C. Cox Jr. Executive director, client relations. Only family member on board’s powerful Executive Cmte.

Bettine Bancroft Klink

Martha S. Robea


Neil S. Hirsch. President and founder of the Telerate subsidiary.

Peter R. Kann. President and chief operating officer. Compensation: $956,535. He is a director of Group Expansion (Paris) and chair of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Kann is married to Karen Elliott House, VP/International Group, who is a former Journal writer and editor of hawkish persuasion. She earned $64,737 in 1989, and serves on the boards of the Center for Foreign Relations, Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Staffers at the FEERare reportedly quite unhappy about working for House, complaining about constraints on reporting, though one source says these are old and essentially groundless sentiments that predate House’s reign.

James H. Ottaway Jr. Senior VP. Compensation: $746,091. Other boards/memberships: Associated Press.

Warren H. Phillips. Chair and CEO. Worked his way up the DJ hierarchy as correspondent and editor. Received a special $1 million cash bonus, in three annual installments, commencing July 1989. Compensation : $625,459.

Other boards/memberships: Columbia Univ., Kennedy School of Government (Harvard,) Queens Coll.


William M. Agee. Chair, president, and CEO, Morrison Knudsen Corp. (engineering and construction) and chair and CEO, Semper Enterprises (consulting). Former head of Bendix. Major actor in one of the most egregious takeover battles ever, the 1983 Bendix–Martin Marietta–Allied love-hate triangle.

Rand V. Araskog. Chair and CEO, ITT Corp. Other boards/memberships: Dayton Hudson, Hartford Ins., New York Stock Exch., Shell Oil.

Irvine O. Hockaday Jr. President and CEO, Hallmark Cards. Other boards/ memberships: Continental Corp., Ford Motor.

Vernon E. Jordan Jr. Partner, Akin, Gump. Strauss, Hauer & Feld , Democratic power-broker Bob Strauss’s law firm. Ex-CEO, National Urban. League. Other boards/memberships: American Express, Bankers Trust, Corning, J.C. Penney, RJR Nabisco. Revlon, Sara Lee. Union Carbide, Xerox.

Rene C. McPherson. Retired dean of Stanford Business School. Previously chair and CEO, Dana Corp. (manufacturer of vehicular and industrial components). Other boards/memberships: BancOne, Mercantile Stores, Miliken & Co., Westinghouse.

Donald E. Petersen. Retired chair, Ford Motor. Other boards/ memberships: Hewlett-Packard; numerous public-spirited organizations, mainly in Michigan.

James Q. Riordan. President and CEO, Bekaert Corp. (steel wire manufacturer). Former VP and CFO, Mobil Corp. Other boards/memberships: Amer. Counc. for Capital Formation, Tax Foundation, Tri-Continental.

Richard D. Wood. Chair and CEO. Eli Lilly & Co. Other boards/ memberships: Amoco, Chemical Bank. Other boards/memberships: Amoco, Chemical Bank; Amer. Enterprise Inst.. Business Roundtable, Cmte. For Econ. Devel., Conference Board, Council on Foreign Relations, DePauw Univ., US–USSR Trade Council.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 14, 2018

Contingency: a last word

Having refuted (here, here, and here) a lot of folk wisdom about increased volatility in the job market, I’d to file a postscript on the meaning of it all. The folk wisdom exaggerates the prevalence of contingent and temporary work, but that doesn’t mean the working class is living in ease and comfort. It’s not.

For evidence we can turn to a very orthodox source—the Federal Reserve’s survey of economic well-being (and data appendix). A third of respondents, 33%, report themselves “living comfortably”; 40% are “doing okay,” 19% are “just getting by,” and 7% are “finding it difficult to get by.” Given people’s predilections toward giving upbeat answers, these are not impressive figures. Just 42% “always” or “often” have money left over at the end of the month. Almost half—47%—owe money on their credit cards; 29% report their credit card debt growing, and only 20% have paid any of it off. Over half, 51%, always or frequently make only the minimum payment. Almost a quarter, 22%, wouldn’t be able to pay their bills in the month the survey was taken. (There are large demographic disparities in that count: 25% of whites with a high school degree or less fall into that category—not all that much more than the 21% of blacks with bachelor’s degrees or more. See graphic below.) Half have less than $100,000 saved for retirement; 20%, less than $10,000. Almost one in ten, 9%, received food stamps in the previous year. Well over half, 57%, could not cover their regular living expenses should they lose their job with saving or even borrowing. Half couldn’t cover an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing or selling something. One in ten had to forego a doctor visit or skip on prescription drugs because they lacked the money; one in five skipped visits to the dentist. All together, about a quarter skipped some form of medical care because they couldn’t pay. Over a third, 37%, have some form of lingering medical debt that wasn’t covered by insurance.

Screenshot 2018-06-14 13.09.42

The Fed assembled responses into measures of financial well-being. They found that 42% of Americans have a “high likelihood of material hardship”: 38% of whites, 46% of blacks, and 52% of Hispanics/Latinos.

While most of these measures have improved over the last few years as the Great Recession recedes into the past, they’re still awfully high. And because most people have so little in the way of savings, and because our welfare state is so brutally minimal, even a modest shock like an illness or a temporary spate of unemployment can throw people who thought they were solidly middle-income into penury and despair. (A striking example: in the 1970s, about two-thirds of the unemployed were collecting unemployment insurance benefits, a minimal standard of decency; that’s now down to about a third.) And this doesn’t even address the level of stress—visible in soaring antidepressant and opioid use and sagging life expectancy—that the increased competitiveness of the neoliberal era routinely produces, even among the employed.

So while the gig economy is mostly a fantasy produced by publicists (and leftists who take the publicity too seriously), there’s plenty of entirely preventable economic misery around.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 13, 2018

Contingency: a follow-up

My post on contingent and “alternative” work (and the demographic follow-up) annoyed some people who think the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the source of the data, is missing the point through bad definitions and bad techniques. (As am I, for using it.) According to these critics, asking people whether they expect their jobs to last the year is using the wrong definition of contingency—though it’s not clear what the right one is, since most employed people in the U.S. can be fired for no reason at all at any time. Or the BLS was wrong to focus only on the primary job; plenty of people do gig work on the side to supplement their incomes, so the Bureau is—perhaps intentionally!—lowballing the numbers. Yes, though we don’t know how many such people there are (though we’ll know more when the BLS releases its data on “individuals who found short tasks or jobs through a mobile app or website and were paid through the same app or website” on September 30). But the side hustle is a different story from the canonical gig economy line, which is that we’re all day laborers now. Or, best criticism of all, the numbers are just wrong because they don’t comport with my correspondents’ experience. But you don’t know how representative your experience is, do you?

Here are some stats to address these counterclaims.

job tenure

The gig economy story is closely related to idea that the permanent job is a thing of the past—we all bounce from job to job now. That perception is not confirmed by the BLS’s job tenure numbers, which report the median number of years people have been in their current position. Here’s what it those look like like broken down by sex.

Job tenure

Median tenure has bounced around some but the lines are surprisingly trendless, given the chatter about increased volatility. Tenure overall barely changed between 1998 and 2016; it fell by about a year through 1980s and 1990s and rose since; it was about one month longer in 2016 than it was in 1983. That average does obscure some gender differences. Tenure for men fell by a year between 1983 and 1998, rose by half a year through 2014, and then fell a bit between then and 2016, to a level about eight months shorter than 1983. Tenure for women, however, has been rising fairly steadily; it rose about ten months between 1983 and 2016.

There’s not all that much change in tenure by age or industry either. For younger workers, those between 25 and 34, tenure fell by three to four months between 1983 and 2016, with not much variation in the intervening years. By industry, tenure rose by two years between 1983 and 2016 in construction, fell by a month or two in manufacturing, and has risen across most intervals in retail trade and finance. Tenure in government was up by nearly two years between 1983 and 2016. Of course 1983 was not 1963, the Golden Age before everything reportedly went haywire in the 1970s. But 1983 was very early in the neoliberal era, so we should expect to see more of a change than we have.


Another counter to the job-churning story: turnover now is lower now than it was in the early 1990s. The monthly employment numbers—like “employers added 223,000 jobs in May”—are net figures, and are the difference between many gross job gains and losses. At current rates, that 223,000 figure probably results from something like 2.5 million gross gains, from new and existing employers, and 2.3 million losses, from shrinking firms or ones that go under. (We won’t know the actual numbers for many months yet—these are just guesses from recent trends.) Add the gross gains and losses together and you get figures on gross turnover—almost 5 million jobs come and go in a typical month lately.

Here’s what those gross numbers look like (translated into percentages of employment to make them comparable over time). All are down considerably from the 1990s. The trendline in the turnover graph heads steadily down; the r2 figure of 0.92 means that the trend alone explains 92% of the movement in the series. That’s not to say time is causing the downtrend; it is to say it’s very well-established.

BED gains, losses, turnover

part-time work

Another claim: we’re all juggling multiple part-time jobs, or working short hours because full-time employment isn’t available. There has been little change in the share of part-time employment in the total since the early 1980s. It was around 17% of the total in 1980, and is around 17% today. Part-time employment comes in two measures: noneconomic or voluntary (people who prefer part-time work), and economic or involuntary (people who want full-time work but can’t find it). Noneconomic is essentially trendless since 1975. Economic is highly cyclical, rising in recessions, and falling in expansions. It’s now at or below the lows of the late 1970s and late 1980s. It’s slightly above where it was in 2000, a serious boom year. (There were definitional and technical changes in the survey on which these numbers are based in 1994; they took the economic share down by 1.1. Instead of inferring whether part-time workers wanted full-time, as had been the case earlier, surveyors began explicitly asking if respondents want full-time work, a not-unfair question but one that yields smaller numbers. There have been no significant changes in the survey since then.)

part time

multiple jobs

Ok, maybe gig work isn’t the norm, but lots of people are doing it on the side, right? Maybe, but you’d have to find some fresh numbers to support that case. Here’s the share of multiple jobholders. It declined from 1998 through 2011 and has been flat since. Lately less than 5% of the employed have been working more than one job. We’ve only got 24 years of this data, so it’s hard to make generalizations about it, but it looks like multiple jobholding rises early in an expansion and falls later as the labor market tightens.

Multiple jobholders

temp work

There has been no uptrend in temp employment in almost 20 years. There was a sustained rise from when the stats on temporary help firms (then called “help supply” in BLS argot) begin 1982 through 1998, but the trend has been flat since. Temp employment fell sharply in the Great Recession, and somewhat less in the early-2000s downturn, and rose after both to the 2% neighborhood. Temp firms accounted for 2% of employment in May 2018, exactly what they did in October 1999.

Temp employment


If a growing horde of us were 1099ers (disclosure alert: I’m one), then you might think the count of the self-employed would reflect it. But they’re not showing up in the BLS’s monthly employment numbers (which they compile by asking 60,000 people lots of questions every month). Self-employment has been declining as a share of the total for almost 70 years, with the exception of a mild rise in the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, this is also about people’s main job; there may be more freelancing to pick up extra cash. But these numbers offer no support for claims that the traditional job is disappearing.


As I said at the end of the first contingency post, none of this is to say that the world of work is pleasant or secure. Much of the population works hard and still can’t make ends meet. Except at the top, wages have been stagnant for decades and benefits are disappearing. But the stories of a new precarity are grossly overdone. You have to wonder that they gain salience because they’re written by academics and journalists, two fields where contingent employment seems more prominent than in other fields. But precarity has been the condition of the working class since the beginning of capitalism. That’s a major reason why it’s a bad system and should be replaced.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 7, 2018

Contingency: almost every demographic is down

Someone on Twitter, reacting to my last post on contingent employment, wrote this:

“Contingent workers were more than twice as likely as noncontingent workers to be under age 25.” Profitable corporations are putting lots of young people in incredibly exploitative jobs and making it normal. For the young work is a new hell, and it’s not temporary.

Workers under the age of 25 are less likely to be contingent than they were 22 years ago. Here’s the detail by demographic group.

Contingent workers by demo

The share for workers in the 20–25 age group declined more than the average—especially women. The only groups to see an increase in share were teenage males and, barely, women aged 55–64.

This is not to say that young workers—or any workers except the professional/managerial elite—have a great thing going. But our critique should be about wages, benefits, working conditions, and our savage lack of a basic welfare state, not about “precarity.”

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 7, 2018

No it’s not a gig economy

Despite the voluble testimony of pundits and bar companions, the world of work is not one of Uber drivers and temp workers. In fact, the share of U.S. employment accounted for by contingent and “alternative” arrangements is lower now than it was in 2005 and 1995.

That testimony is derived from several original sources. For example, a much ballyhooed 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union—which is not a materially disinterested party—reported that a third of workers are freelancers. The claim of a 2016 paper by Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements” was widely quoted and quickly became folk wisdom. That paper was based on an online survey conducted by the RAND Corporation The survey was small—fewer than 4,000 respondents—and its sample wasn’t very representative of the overall population, a flaw the authors corrected through vigorous statistical handiwork.

Data released this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics should put an end to this chatter. According to a special edition of their Current Population Survey, a monthly poll of 60,000 households conducted jointly with the Census Bureau, just 3.8% of workers were classed as contingent in May 2017, meaning they don’t expect their job to last a year. That’s down from 4.1% in 2005 and 4.9% in 1995. (Reports from the years before 2017 are here.) Tighter definitions show smaller shares, but also down from earlier years. In 2017, 96.2% of workers were noncontingent, compared with 95.1% 22 years earlier.

The share of workers in “alternative” arrangements was 10.1%. Of those, 6.9% were independent contractors, 1.7% were on-call, and 1.5% were employed by either temp or contract firms. That means that 89.9% of the workforce has a “traditional” job, down 0.2 point from 1995.

There’s less of a racial pattern to contingency than one might guess: 3.7% of white workers don’t expect their jobs to last, compared to 4.0% of black workers; 4.9% of Asian, and 5.1% of “Hispanic/Latino.” All these shares are down from 1995. Nor is there a vast gender disparity: 3.9% of women, vs. 3.8% of men are contingent.

And not all independent contractors are freelancers hanging on by a thread: 39% are in managerial or professional occupations, slightly less than their share of the overall workforce. These would include self-employed doctors or consultants. Reflecting that, independent contractors are more likely to be white and male than nonwhite non-men. Other forms of alternative arrangements show surprisingly little variation by race and gender; nonwhites are more likely to be temp workers, but there’s no gender gap at all. Almost all demographic groups show little change from 1995, and most of those changes are downward.

Of course, not all contingent workers are consultants or contract programmers. Full-time contingent workers earn 77% as much as noncontingent workers; contingent part-timers earn 89% as much as noncontingent part-timers.. Almost three-quarters—73%—have some kind of employer-provided health insurance, compared to 84% of noncontingents. All in all, 55% of contingent workers would like a traditional job.

“Alternative” workers are better off. Full-time independent contractors make 96% as much as noncontingent full-timers; contract workers (heavily used in tech) make 22% more. Temp workers—0.9% of the workforce—are much worse off, however, making 41% less than the traditionally employed. About three-quarters of independent contractors have employer-provided health insurance, but only two-thirds of temp workers do.

None of this is to argue that the world of work is a delight. But we should be clear about what the problems are. Precarity isn’t the major problem in the American labor market. It’s that wages are stagnant or worse, benefits are eroding, and much labor is dull, alienating, pointless, and sometimes dangerous. Many people with normal, full-time jobs have a hard time making ends meet, and most households have little or no savings to fall back on in a crisis. Emphasizing precarity only makes workers feel even more powerless than they are.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 7, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

June 7, 2018 Adam Gaffney (see link for articles) on how to get prescription drug prices down • Barry Eichengreen, author of The Populist Temptation, on the nationalist/xenophobic turn (Trump, Brexit, etc.), and on the future of the U.S. dollar

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 31, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 31, 2018 Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson on why black Americans should resist gun control • Sabri Oncu on Turkey—the currency panic, the political and economic troubles

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 24, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 24, 2018 Richard Walker, author of Pictures of a Gone City, on what the tech boom has done to the Bay Area

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 17, 2018

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 17, 2018 Carol Graham (papers here, here, and here) on failing health and declining prospects among poor white people • Kristen Ghodsee, co-author of this article, on the vile uses of anti-communism

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