Don’t Blame Robots for Low Wages

So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.

I’m not saying that coping with change was ever easy. The decline of coal employment had devastating effects on many families, and much of what used to be coal country has never recovered. The loss of manual jobs in port cities surely contributed to the urban social crisisof the ’70s and ’80s.

But while there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.

What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.

Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent. That divergence was politics, pure and simple.

The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. Canada is as unionized now as the U.S. was in 1973; in the Nordic nations unions cover two-thirds of the work force. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.