A terrifying report about working at the bottom of today's economy

It's a fair criticism of what's written about life as a wage slave -- from journalists and economists alike -- that it's delivered by people who don't have firsthand experience of what that life is like. As a result, a great deal of reporting about worker "behavior" and "choice" has the bloodless quality of laboratory theory, devoid of any hint of the real world.

Joseph Williams has done a service to the field by reporting directly from the front -- and not by his own "choice." His report, which appears in the Atlantic as "My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor," is as scary as a monster movie.

Williams was thrown upon the mercy of the hourly wage sector by losing his job as a reporter for Politico, for reasons he describes in the piece in considerable detail. Rendered unemployable in his chosen field and still unemployed after six months in a bad economy, he finally took a sales job at an unidentified sporting goods retail chain for $10 an hour. He was happy to get it, but:

"Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches."

That's just the start. 

"Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay."    

There's more, and it's must reading for people who think workers are free agents whose life choices are their own, determined entirely by their own will -- They don't like it? Let them move to another job! Who needs unions! Let them sell their labor on the open market! 

Etc., etc.

This picture of members of the working class as rational actors responding to economic stimuli the way numbers in an economics paper respond to mathematical principles permeates our policy discussions. Recently the conservative author Amity Shlaes wrote that "people would want to work more" if only our income tax rates were flattened. She based this on a 2004 paper by Nobel economist Edward Prescott, who posited that the main reason that European workers put in less time on the job than Americans was that European taxes were higher. 

Let's leave aside that in practice "flattening the tax rates" almost always means lowering marginal rates for the wealthy at the expense of the working and middle classes. Prescott's paper is far from the last word on the subject, and indeed has been pretty vigorously debated, pro and con. In 2005, for example, Alberto F. Alesina, Edward L. Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote concluded that higher unionization, stricter labor laws, and more cultural preference for leisure in Europe had more to do with the phenomenon than marginal tax rates. Mileages vary.

The point is that, as Erik Loomis observes, economic theories often are "totally disconnected from how people actually act. When the choice is 'work or starve' that’s not a choice."

And when workers don't have a choice, they end up being saddled by employers with the sort of working conditions that Joseph Williams experienced. In the real world. Not in theory. 

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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