802 Bookshelf: Created Unequal-The Crisis in American Pay

by James K. Galbraith, The Free Press, 1998, 291 pp., hardcover, $26.00

Volume XCIX, No. 9October, 1999

“What’s 100 economists at the bottom of the sea? A good start!” Though this twist on the old lawyers’ joke doesn’t appear in economics professor (University of Texas at Austin) James K. Galbraith’s new book, “Created Unequal,” he levels plenty of criticism at his fellow economists. But more on this later.

The book is about the wage gap between good jobs and bad jobs in present-day America. This pay disparity was once quite small but is now wider than at any time since the Great Depression, says Dr. Galbraith. His opening chapter warns that it threatens to undermine our “sense of ourselves as a nation of equals . . . [and] presents a stark challenge to American national life.”

And guess what: it’s no accident! “Created Unequal” makes the case that America’s growing inequality is the result of misguided government policies. Galbraith points out how the usual excuses – global competition, technological change or other allegedly unstoppable, external forces – have nothing to do with it. He also exposes the fallacies that underlie “supply-side” theory (promoting high interest rates and low taxes), “nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment” (justifying interest rate hikes whenever unemployment moderates), capital and labor markets (abstractions with no applications in the real world), and free competition (it doesn’t exist, never existed, and nobody really wants it, anyway).

Much of the book discusses how political decisions created America’s growing inequality. In the name of fighting inflation, a regime of high interest rates ended an era of steady economic growth and relative pay equity. “The economy is a managed beast,” says Galbraith. “It was managed in such a way that this was the result. It could have been done differently.” He contends that increased pay inequality “was, in a sense, done deliberately. That is the real evil of the time.”

Galbraith advocates major policy changes to lessen inequality. Full employment should again become a major objective of U.S. policy, he says. Interest rates should be kept low and stable, with greater political oversight and control of the Federal Reserve Board. And he argues that monetary policy (interest rate adjustment) should not be the nation’s sole inflation-fighting instrument, pointing to successful, less destructive stabilization methods that are used in other countries. To cut the wage gap more directly, he advises a substantial increase in the minimum wage – but he’s not unrealistic enough to believe that a maximum wage or some other cap on top earners’ pay has any chance of being adopted in today’s climate.

Throughout the book, his contempt for mainstream economists is expressed in such phrases as “Economic policy discussion in the United States . . . has a tone of backwardness and provincialism.” He suggests that many of his colleagues reason “from the troublesome effect to a cause that would rationalize and justify it.” This, he says, “has distorted our understanding, twisted our perspective, and crabbed our politics.”

Since about 1970, Galbraith notes, economists who oppose the new theories that justified high interest rates and unemployment have been frozen out of the best jobs in government and academia. But the author refrains from comparing professional integrity in his field with that of the world’s oldest profession. In his typically restrained style, he chides, “The discipline and profession of economics has a long tradition of acquiescence in the existing social order, punctuated only rarely by rebellion. We need a rebellion now.”

“Created Unequal” breaks new ground by reclassifying U.S. industries into knowledge, consumer goods manufacturing, and service sectors. It shows how and why wage growth has been faster in the knowledge (technology) sector than in manufacturing and, especially, service businesses. Like most economists’ books, it contains a goodly share of charts, tables and numerical analyses (which, the author gently suggests, could be skimmed by readers “who have no appetite for technical issues”). Mercifully, the most technical information has been consigned to four appendices in the back of the book.

This book should be required reading for policy wonks. Ordinary citizens, too, can learn plenty about what makes our economy tick from reading this information-packed and provocative book. “Created Unequal” is available in bookstores and from Local 802’s library.

– John Glasel


TITO PUENTE AND THE MAKING OF LATIN MUSIC, by Steven Loza, University of Illinois Press, 1999, Cloth $59.95, Paper $26.95, 260 pages

Tito Puente has been a central figure in Latin music for many years as a timbalist, arranger and bandleader. This book is advertised as “the first in-depth historical, musical, and cultural look at the career and the influence of this giant of Latin music.” But even though there is a considerable amount of interesting material here, I found the book disappointing.

A 25-page historical sketch at the beginning gives a brief history of Latin music, and outlines Puente’s career. The next several chapters are devoted to word-for-word transcriptions of interviews that Loza conducted with Puente, journalist Max Salazar, publicist and friend of Puente’s Joe Conzo, and musicians Ray Santos, Chico Sesma, Jerry Gonzales, Poncho Sanchez and Hilton Ruiz.

Unfortunately, the interviews don’t make very interesting reading. They probably would be a little better on tape, where one could hear vocal inflections. Transcribed, they come across as monotonous, often non-specific, and frequently redundant. In his questions, Loza tries to steer his interviewees toward pertinent remarks about Puente and his music, but the responses often fail to illuminate the subject. Among these rambling converstations are many interesting tidbits of information and opinion, but it takes a lot of winnowing to find them. The author would have done better to have written his own narrative using these interviews as research notes, with quotes when something was well said.

The second half of the book is devoted to reproductions of some of Puente’s music, with commentary by the author. In some cases the Spanish lyrics are given, accompanied by English translations. Students of this musical form should find this section informative. And there are 28 pages of photographs that follow Puente’s career from the age of 12 to the present.

A copy of this book is available in the 802 library.

– Bill Crow