Oswald Clark, Review:
Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America by Michael Lind (Portfolio, $39, 213 pages)
Conservative writer Michael Lind has followed up his book The New Class War which looked at the trans-Atlantic West through the prism of the growing economic and cultural gap between the university-educated overclass and the working class, with Hell to Pay, a more granular exploration of his thesis. Whereas The New Class War (reviewed in September 2020, “Revolt Against the Managers”) looked at the managerial revolution that occurred at the top end of the class spectrum, Hell to Pay focuses on the economic plight of the working class, and its struggle to make ends meet. Lind characterizes the wage gap as the central economic issue of our time.
Lind says that policies and corporate norms have conspired to suppress wages of workers. He blames the collapse of private-sector unions, trade, immigration, and worker contracts. Companies obviously seek to maximize profits and often do so by finding ways to save on the cost of labor, but Lind places more blame on politicians for the public policies that permit and reinforce the suppression of wages.
Lind argues these policies enjoy largely bipartisan support in Congress and among ruling parties in western Europe. The workers lack bargaining power to demand better wages and employment conditions, and the globe-trotting elite are in no hurry to shake up the status quo.
The author says the benefits to society that these policies provide consumers, namely lower prices, are outweighed by costs borne by workers in lower wages and being stuck in employment ruts with no chance of escaping.
Within some (non-libertarian) parts of the conservative movement, there is growing concern for the wage gap between the ruling elite and the working class (tapped into by Donald Trump in 2016). Lind offers a number of policies such as raising the minimum wage, wage and price controls, and immigration, trade, and welfare reform that would be anathema to large swathes of pro-free market conservatives (to say nothing of the political donor class). However, his argument for government supports for workers in low-wage jobs and “national developmentalism” which envisions a greater role for the government within a largely free-market economy, could win favor with politicians on the Right as seek to become more worker-friendly.
However, the book’s importance is less in the policies it proposes than the problem it diagnoses, and without doubt the suppression of wages for workers and the concomitant difficulties it presents for families looking to flourish, is a problem that policymakers must face.
Oswald Clark is The Interim’s Washington correspondent.