Why economic language has a lot to answer for

From the Economist’s cover piece on “The next China” a couple of weeks ago:

The strikes, stoppages and suicides that have afflicted foreign factories on China’s coast in recent months have shaken the popular image of the country’s workers as docile, diligent and dirt cheap. … As pay goes up the country’s domestic market will become more lucrative. Foreign firms that came for the workers will stay for the shoppers. China will become more of a workshop for itself and less of one for the world.

There’s been much in the news this year about how Chinese labor costs are rising, but for me this was a good reminder that “labor costs” – even those located in some far-off land – are also people with aspirations and needs.

I happened to read it around the same time as Bob Herbert’s NYT op-ed on how “the carnage that occurred in the workplace [during the recession] was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking.” How’s this for striking:

At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion. That kind of disconnect, said [economics professor Andrew] Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II… In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Obviously, this is what happens when you think about workers simply as “variable expenses.” I am trying to be a nuanced thinker, but sometimes you just have to get mad.

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