Labor and Capitalism: an Introduction to Labor Economics
Labor economics—the study of labor and labor markets as elements of economic production—cuts to the heart of many of our most pressing political questions. Why have wages stagnated while productivity has risen? What causes unemployment, and how do we remedy it? Why are men paid more than women? How do labor markets both reflect and sustain racial and gender inequalities? Why is work becoming more precarious? For neoclassical labor economists, labor markets are efficient, and will tend, barring governmental intervention, to a “natural” equilibrium of wages and employment. For Keynesians, severe unemployment can be remedied only by so-called countercyclical government spending. For Marxists, capitalist economies are intrinsically crisis-prone, as employers, under market compulsion, drive down wages and eventually erode consumer demand. From each perspective we arrive at widely divergent answers to fundamental economic and social questions: about wages, labor rights, exploitation, government spending, inequality, race and gender discrimination, and standards of living. How can we understand the economics of labor in a modern capitalist economy?
In this course, we will study the economics of labor from classical/neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxist perspectives. We will examine how labor markets relate to macroeconomic theory (fiscal and monetary policy), debates over the causes and alleviation of unemployment, and the role of race and gender discrimination in shaping labor markets and wage levels. We will ask: how do neoclassical economists understand the labor market, and what informs their opposition to the minimum wage and unionization? What is Keynes’s critique of neoclassical theory of employment, and how does he understand the causes of unemployment? Per Michal Kalecki’s famous essay “Political Aspects of Full Employment,” what is full employment, and is it possible or desirable? How do Marxist economists understand surplus value, labor exploitation, and working time, and what do they have to do with the Marxian conception of endemic capitalist crisis? Finally, what can a Marxist-feminist perspective teach us about the labor of social reproduction and the possibility of “wages for housework”? Course readings will be drawn from works by John Maynard Keynes, Michal Kalecki, Karl Marx, Tithi Bhattacharya, Susan Ferguson, and Heleieth Saffioti, among others.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
May 06 — May 27, 2021