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Despite Job Growth, Voters Focus On Stagnant Wages

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If elections are supposed to be about the economy, why did so many Americans just cast votes against the party in power that claims credit for reducing unemployment and driving up the stock market? In a recent column for Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle suggests that the biggest concern of voters may not be getting a job, but having to stay in a dead-end, low-wage job in a stagnating economy, and watch their dreams of opportunity disappear. Megan McArdle joins us now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

MEGAN MCARDLE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So what do you see in election results that maybe more conventional analysis might have missed?

MCARDLE: Well, one of the biggest mysteries about this election has been the fact that voters voted in Republicans in states where they also voted in voter initiatives to raise the minimum wage. And that seems little strange because Republicans are the party that opposes raising the minimum wage. Democrats are the party that support raising it. So why would that happen? And I think if what you look at is, you know, we're seeing unemployment fall. What we're not seeing is wage growth and I think that that is a big concern of voters. But I think that the larger concern - why aren't they acting on that across-the-board, looking to Democrats to do more on living wages and that sort of thing - is that people aren't as concerned about wages as they are about employment security and opportunity. And things like the minimum wage - well, they do speak to a certain level of anxiety of people who are, say, working at McDonald's because the manufacturing jobs they might have taken 30 years ago aren't around. It still doesn't speak to the broader problem of there's really no future in doing this. It's shift work. I get switched around a lot. It's not secure. And it doesn't have anywhere for me to grow into.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you what amounts to a "Moneyball" question - will explain, you know, the revolution in baseball where people realized they might be measuring a player's performance with the wrong stats. So do reporters and pundits use some of the wrong stats to measure successful economic policies these days?

MCARDLE: Well, I think you've got a big problem, which is that there's a difference between what you can measure and what you want to know (laughter). And sometimes they're the same thing, right? I want to know what my salary is. There's a nice, hard number attached to it and so forth. On the other hand, there's not really a hard number for how satisfied am I in my job? How much advancement does it offer? Those things are really intangible and they're also really important. And I think that the big data revolution is wonderful, but we should always remember that there is a lot of information between the data that we don't yet know how to put a number on and that that information's important too. And I think that that happens with the economy as we tend to fixate on a few headline numbers because we have them, not because they're necessarily the only important thing.

SIMON: So telling someone don't you realize unemployment's under 6 percent now, what an achievement, isn't necessarily comfort to someone who either needs a job or is stuck in one.

MCARDLE: There is a real issue where people feel like there used to be this ladder kind of up the economic opportunity scale and that a lot of the rungs seem to have fallen out of that ladder. And telling people that they're lucky to have a job isn't really a satisfying answer for them.

SIMON: Do you see the election results and say people clearly want this or that or just that voters don't want whoever's in there now?

MCARDLE: I think we've entered a period of throw the bums out politics. And I think that there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the economy has been struggling for a while, and I think that, especially for the middle, that to some extent the rise in housing prices masked that, but it has been going on for a while and has been going on under both Democrats and Republicans.

The second thing is that when the bums get thrown out, they tend to over interpret that as a mandate to do the things that their, you know, the ideological base of their party has always dreamed of doing. And the problem with that is that the voters you've added to your coalition, the ones who pushed you across the finish line in the election, that's not what they want. What they want is for someone to come along and settle these very basic pocketbook issues that they are worried about.

And frankly, the worse economy is, the less they worry about ideology and the more they worry about those, just, basic pocketbook issues. I don't care how you do it. Fix my problem. And so those two things together, I think, have combined to a situation where we just keep flipping the White House, flipping Congress, not that much gets done because both parties are convinced that they have this kind of natural mandate from their base and neither party is answering what voters really want to hear, which is how are things going to get better for me right now?

SIMON: Megan McArdle, who is a columnist of Bloomberg View. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCARDLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.