The economic coverage was fairly typical on a recent broadcast of the radio program Day to Day, airing nationwide from NPR News.
“There’s actually some good news out today about the American economy,” host Madeleine Brand announced. Then she introduced a reporter from the widely heard Marketplace show, Jill Barshay, who proceeded to offer the type of explanation that’s all too common in media accounts of economic trends.
“Well, just to be clear, we’re talking about worker productivity, which is how much stuff we make every hour,” Barshay replied. “And the Labor Department reported this morning that the hourly output per worker increased 4.9 percent in the third quarter. That’s the biggest jump in labor productivity we’ve seen since 2003. Another part of the report also says that labor costs fell a bit, so we’ve got employees being more productive and costing companies less. And this is important because it shows that the economy might be able to grow without generating inflation.”
Let’s unpack that narrative. From the outset, wages are described only as “labor costs” -- which fell, “so we’ve got employees being more productive and costing companies less.”
With that kind of setup near the top of a story, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to depicting higher income for workers as a threat to the country’s economic well-being.
“Productivity is the economy’s best defense against inflation and recession,” the reporter went on, “and that’s because wages are the most important cost to companies, and most of our wages do go up every year, even if it’s just a little cost of living adjustment.”
And Barshay added: “So if we’re producing the same amount of stuff every year, then companies have a choice. They either can pass on these wage costs in the form of higher prices on the products we buy, or they take a hit to their profits. So if we’re producing more stuff, if we’re being more productive like we have in this past quarter, then we don’t have to worry so much about higher consumer prices or falling corporate profits.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t worry much about “falling profits.” Few working people do. What we worry about is job insecurity, lousy working conditions, unpaid hours, evaporating pensions, and healthcare coverage that’s either woefully inadequate or nonexistent.
But during that Nov. 7 news segment on Day to Day, a key theme was the menace of “falling corporate profits.”
The idea that all of us should yearn for high corporate profits is convenient for corporate underwriters and advertisers. But key questions go unasked. Such as: Don’t outsized corporate profits actually represent ripoffs of workers and consumers alike -- in effect, underpricing our time and overpricing our purchases?
Such questions, however, are not often asked in mass media. Instead, we keep hearing and seeing coverage about the need to contain the “costs” of paying employees -- a frame of reference that portrays an upsurge in worker compensation as a threat to economic well-being rather than an enhancement of it.
As usual, the validity of the reportage hinges on where you sit. If you’re a business owner or major investor, then you may not want to see bigger checks going into pay envelopes. But relatively few of us are company owners or big investors. Most of us depend on income from our own labor.
An insidious aspect of such frequent stories, equating the health of “the economy” with the ability of corporations to hold down payroll “expenses,” is that they discount the importance of the most common human experiences. Routinely, in medialand, people who work for a living are consigned to the peripheral vision of news accounts, while economically powerful individuals and institutions keep occupying the center stage.