Episode 135: The “Labor Shortage” Ruse: How Capital Invents Staffing Crises to Bust Unions and Depress Wages

Citations Needed | April 28, 2021 | Transcript

Citations Needed
46 min readApr 28, 2021
(Source: Pablo, KAIT 8)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yeah, if you haven’t given please do so and as always have access to our Patreon News Briefs that we put on Patreon. There’s about 70–80 or so that you can listen to back catalogue. Any support there is very much appreciated, and as always, you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast.

Nima: “Trucking Shortage: Drivers Aren’t Always In It For The Long Haul,” NPR tells us. “The U.S. Is Running Out of Nurses,” The Atlantic reports. “There’s A Nationwide STEM Teacher Shortage. Will It Cost Us The Next Einstein?” Forbes laments. “‘The Future Depends on Teachers,’ PSA launched targeting teachers amid shortage,” a local FOX affiliate tells us.

Adam: Every few weeks, we hear about an essential industry suffering from a critical quote-unquote “labor shortage” — nurses, truck drivers, software engineers, teachers, construction. According to corporate trade groups and their media mouthpieces, these industries simply can’t find trained workers to fill their ranks.

Nima: But a closer examination of claims of “worker shortages” reveals that there’s very rarely an actual labor shortage at all — what there is however, time and again, is a “pay shortage”: industries not wanting to provide adequate compensation or safe work conditions for the available labor force that is perfectly willing and ready to work. Instead of a “worker shortage,” there’s a “not hyper liquidity in the labor market” problem for capital — the perfectly capable and trained workers industries do have are not easily replaceable, potentially or already unionized and making demands of capital those industries simply don’t like.

Adam: In an effort to increase the labor pool and thus give capital more leverage over existing workers, industry lobbying groups constantly whine about labor shortages knowing the media will mindlessly repeat these claims without any skepticism or evidence. To increase recruiting of new potential employees, promote legislation that loosens licensing or health and safety standards, and reinforce media-ready memes that American workers are just lazy and greedy, PR reps for capital routinely evoke the spectacle of worker shortages knowing full well their claims will be unquestionably repeated by American media who never bother to ask why they’re reporting on the same supposed labor shortage every year for the past thirty years.

Nima: Later on the episode, we will be joined by Kevin Cashman, Senior Associate at Center for Economic and Policy Research.

[Begin Clip]

Kevin Cashman: It’s a lot easier to demonize people and say, ‘Well, you know, you should be taking this job instead of taking unemployment,’ you know, we should have an unemployment amount that’s adequate for everybody, and then we should have employers that are paying wages that incorporate all the requirements of the job. I don’t know many people who write these stories that would want to go be a line cook in a restaurant if that was the only job they had available to them during a pandemic because it’s just not worth the risk to their health.

[End Clip]

Adam: So, before we begin this episode, we want to issue a caveat, as we sometimes do on the show, because we are making a generalized claim about a general trope.

Nima: Not all labor shortages are bullshit.

Adam: There are instances where there’s mass transfer of a population or a city has certain budget cuts, there’s a war that breaks out like World War I, there are instances where you could argue there is a genuine labor shortage where there’s not enough people who are able or willing to work that does sometimes happen. Also, sometimes unions themselves, namely teachers and nurses unions, have historically sometimes accepted the frame of labor shortages as an effort to highlight and to draw political attention to the fact that they don’t make any money or that the wages are suppressed or that the health and safety standards have been loosened or there’s a demoralization. For example, in 2019, the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, co-produced a poll and a report with EPI, the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, arguing that there was a teacher shortage and the reason why there was a teacher shortage was because they were not paying teachers enough and that they were demoralized at work, and that they had not properly given the support for teachers. So that’s not really what we’re talking about on this episode. What we’re talking about is a media-framed narrative that industries use time and time again, we will beat over your head by the time this episode is over because it happens all the time, where they argue there’s a labor shortage not as a way of advocating for workers but as a way of libeling the workers they do have and pushing for policies or loosening restrictions and health and safety regulations that increase the pool of labor, so they can have more workers to play off each other so they can keep wages low. That’s an easy and cheap refrain you can use as an industry trade group, knowing the media will always report it and there’s really no incentive to not do it at all.

Nima: So where does this trope really come from? How long has it been a consistent feature in our media? Now, some of the very first examples of stories about labor shortages in the media are from the late 1910s, namely around 1918, which is just after the infamous 1917 Immigration Act, also known — truly, this is real — as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, also sometimes known as the Literacy Act. Now, for a little backstory here’s what the Smithsonian has reported, quote:

In the years leading up to the act, millions of immigrants from Europe poured into the U.S., with 1.3 million passing through Ellis Island in 1907 alone. During that period, the immigrants filled gaps in the nascent industrial economy, making up the majority of workers in Pennsylvania coal fields, Chicago stockyards and New York garment factories. But Congress, acting upon decades of xenophobic and economic concerns and the emergent ‘science’ of eugenics, saw the matter differently. It had attempted to pass laws curbing the flow from Europe numerous times; an English literacy test component actually passed in the House on five occasions and the Senate on four, but was twice vetoed by Presidents Cleveland and Taft. The test was a part of the 1917 act, as was the expansion of an ‘undesirable’ list that included epileptics and political radicals.

End quote.

So what we see here is a political backlash, a banning of more immigrants coming in and filling labor roles throughout the country. So from 1918 to 1923 there were almost weekly stories in the media about labor shortages because of this policy that decreased immigrants.

Adam: So we didn’t really see an uptick or a meaningful number of labor shortage stories until the time between 1918 and 1923. Before the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which opened up immigration to people from Europe, white people especially. It specifically banned, as the previous laws had banned people from Asia coming into the United States.

Nima: And put the quotas, they kind of established the quota system.

Adam: Right. So there was a period between 1918 and 1923, there was also a tremendous uptick of union activity at that time, this was around the height of the IWW, the federal government sort of cracking down on them in 1919, but this was a very active time in unionization, as well as of course, World War I had a lot of people being shipped off. So of course, you had this conspiracy of events that made these labor shortage stories convenient for people.

Nima: Right. Very little has changed. For decades, media outlets still have echoed the assertions of industry and the reactionary think tanks that operate in tandem with them. Stories often feature one or more sympathetic workers who are overburdened by the shortage, even acknowledging sometimes that the pay is low, but that winds up not being central to what the story is about because the articles rarely have ever proposed meaningful solutions like improve labor protections, safer workplaces, and a collective voice for labor. Instead, this happens all the time and these articles, hewing to the corporate approach of stuff like quote-unquote “better recruitment,” and of course, “training.”

Adam: So we’re gonna go vertical by vertical talking about various examples of this. The first is trucking. This is an extremely common trope in the trucking industry, probably the most common of all the verticals. We’re gonna skip past several alleged trucking shortages in the ’70s and ’80s, and go straight to 1990, The LA Times February 1990, quote, “Driver Shortage Spurs Company Incentive Plans.” This article primarily cites trucking executives and of course, the right-wing Hudson Institute. It includes worker quotes only to convey the difficulty of the job but not to make the point that the issue is one of lack of pay. The article would say, quote, “The industry figures that it will need 450,000 new drivers this year, 100,000 more than were hired in 1989, according to David Reed, a Hudson Institute researcher who has studied the problem.” And then it would go on to tout ways the company lures drivers with soft seats and cell phones — which were pretty extreme in 1990s Zack Morris-style — and celebrates them for starting recruiting programs such as tuition-free schools to find and train drivers. Of course, what you’ll notice is that there’s never any effort to increase wages and these always go hand in hand with efforts for the government to subsidize the training and to lower standards of eligibility. Austin-American Statesman, October 1994, “Truck Drivers in Short Supply Leaving Industry in the Lurch.” That also primarily cites industry rags and right-wing think tanks. May 2005, the Associated Press, “Truck Driver Shortage Seen.” An NBC affiliate in Michigan, quote, “Truck Driver Shortage Predicted,” in 2011, and again, there’s a truck driver shortage predicted in 2012. There was a truck driver shortage also in the same Michigan newspaper in 2013.

Nima: Similarly, as mentioned in the intro to this episode, NPR ran an article in December of 2015 with the headline, “Trucking Shortage: Drivers Aren’t Always In It For The Long Haul.” And it cites American Trucking Association, which is a lobbyist group for the trucking industry, when citing data on this alleged trucker shortage. It also includes quotes from truckers themselves, as is often the case, saying that there’s no actual labor shortage, but instead, there is — what else? — a pay shortage. But that isn’t really captured in the headline or the lead, you actually have to keep reading to find that nugget that may reveal whose interests are actually being served by these media reports and the experts that they quote.

The American Trucking Associations’ Interstate One truck parked outside the Trump White House. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Adam: Again in January of 2018, NPR, quote, “Trucking Industry Struggles With Growing Driver Shortage.” Washington Post May 2018, “America has a massive truck driver shortage. Here’s why few want an $80,000 job.” Again, they cite the lobbying group American Trucking Association, which submits these numbers of doom and gloom, that they’re quote, “likely to get worse in the coming years.” Washington Post the same week, quote, “The U.S. doesn’t have enough truckers, and it’s starting to cause prices of about everything to rise.” Which is a total bullshit industry point. The often referenced American Trucking Association, the industry lobbying group, their reports are deeply flawed as some have pointed out writing for Barron’s in 2019 Matthew C. Klein asked the ATA for comment on the alleged trucker shortage and they referenced a 2017 ATA report analyzing the supposed trucker shortage. Klein called the report, quote, “vague about its methodology, simply asserting that a shortage exists and will get worse over time as demand rises and existing truck drivers retire.” The trucking companies themselves routinely cite the ATA shortages, despite the fact that they don’t really have any methodology, it’s just a fucking number they’ve asserted.

Nima: It actually got so egregious that in 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics even felt compelled to release its own report debunking the ATA’s claims about constant looming shortages. The BLS found that, quote, “Driver employment is stable or slightly increasing over time, and it is associated with earnings that are increasing in nominal terms and strong relative to those in other occupations with similar educational requirements.” End quote. But for the trucking industry, this is exactly the problem. Wages, by the Department of Labor’s own measure, are — what did I just say? — “strong,” and trucking companies want them — as we can keep saying — to be weaker. In fact, wages have been falling in the trucking industry for decades. According to a Business Insider report from 2018, truck drivers salaries have decreased by as much as 50 percent since the 1970s and 21 percent on average in the past 40 years.

Adam: And of course, with this broader PR campaign about a labor shortage there’s of course industry proposed quote-unquote “solutions” to the quote-unquote “labor shortage.” The solutions they always propose increase the labor pool, somewhat curiously, rarely do they ever, ever, ever actually evolve paying people more or offering benefits or expanding unionization or improved job security.

Nima: Of course not.

Adam: So the proposals they offer are to expand the labor and recruiting pools and to lower the ages.

Nima: Which then just gives the companies more people to choose from and therefore pay less.

Adam: Right, which is why they need to constantly make up labor shortages. So NPR from February 2019, quote, “Trucking Industry Looks To Women To Help Alleviate Driver Shortage.” The article would say, quote, “the trucking industry’s short about 60,000 drivers, a number that could double in 10 years as baby boomers retire.” It doesn’t cite any source for this other than the American Trucking Association lobbying group and it references the ATA’s report, which projects major shortages up to 160,000 by 2028. So more and more, especially after George Floyd they started doing this whole diversity, ‘We’re going to diversify the workforce.’ They said they want to recruit more women and people of color to be truckers. In March of this year in fact, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin and Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, both of Wisconsin, introduced a bill called the Promoting Women in Trucking Workforce Act, which would subsidize recruiting and training of women truck drivers. And the one thing they’ve also tried to push is they tried to push lowering the eligibility age to alleviate this alleged labor shortage.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: The Washington Post reported in June of 2018, quote, “Amid trucker shortage, Trump team pilots program to drop driving age requirement to 18.” Notice the premise is just asserted that there’s a trucker shortage and the Washington Post cites — you guessed it! — only the ATA’s numbers themselves.

Nima: Yeah, now truckers themselves definitely do not want the age lowered. They obviously recognize this as not only broadening the pool but also creating far less safe work conditions for truck drivers in general and people on the road. Lowering the long haul trucker age to 18 is probably not the best thing to do from a health and wellness perspective.

Adam: Another vertical we see this very, very frequently is in construction. Much of the contemporary construction worker shortage narrative can be traced back to — you’ll be surprised to learn — the Associated General Contractors of America, AGC, an industry lobbying group for developers and real estate interests. The AGC is routinely quoted and sources the primary source of supposed shortage, primarily in one 2015 Atlantic article entitled, “Where Have All the Construction Workers Gone?” The Miami Herald September 2016, the headline read, quote, “Needed now and in the next decade: electricians, roofers, plumbers.” Which would go on to cite an alleged craft worker shortage and skilled hourly worker shortage and construction worker shortage, and the only source they use is the construction lobbying group themselves, “Why Finding Workers Is Getting Harder for U.S. Homebuilders.” Which includes quotes from — you guessed it — AGC executive Brian Turmail. In fact, everyone quoted in the Bloomberg article is an industry executive. The article also reports that the AGC was planning a national recruiting campaign called quote-unquote “Construction Is Essential,” end quote, which is obviously exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic rhetoric about essential workers. So it’s saying, you know, construction is essential, driving up the need for more, as it said, roofers and plumbers and electricians claiming that there is somehow a shortage. Now the AGC is — again, shocking I know for an industry lobbying group — ardently anti-union. Now, of course, the media reports that consistently quote the AGC never account for the de unionization of the construction profession or of the related exploitation of immigrant workers in the field in general.

Adam: And in all these articles, of course, we’re left without any discussion about whether or not wages have gone down just like trucking wages have been suppressed and decreased, again, as much as 50 percent of the trucking industry, as well as in the construction industry wages have gone down a lot since 1973. So the average US construction worker made approximately $32 an hour in 1973 when adjusted for inflation, they now make $26 an hour and union participation for construction has gone from roughly 40 percent to just under 14 percent in that same timeframe. So the wages go down and then they cry about worker shortages, and yet mysteriously no one ever connects the dots between the two, which is to say, it’s not even so much that wages are down and therefore people don’t want to do the work, it’s that they cry labor shortage as a means of increasing the pool and playing workers off each other and letting people know that they’re expendable, and then that, therefore permits them to offer less wages. Because again, the goal here is three things: It’s to lower health and safety standards, it’s to increase the labor pool, and it is to convince the government to subsidize and pay for training for these private corporations. They don’t want to pay for it themselves and constantly whining about labor shortages is a great way to do that. Because theoretically, there’s a magical number, because if I’m a construction worker and I don’t want to go over $15 an hour or $16 an hour, whatever my sweet spot is, if I have three people applying for my job, that number goes up to $20. If I have ten people applying for that job — you know, there’s some graph somewhere in some whiteboard session in the corporate headquarters — if I have ten people applying for that same job, that number goes to $15. If I have a hundred people applying for that job, it goes to minimum wage, right? So the goal is to increase the number of people who I can play off each other and the last thing I want is a goddamn union.

Nima: We see this in nursing as well. So let’s go back to 1990 again. That year, Richard C. McKibbin of the American Nursing Association, another trade group released a book entitled, The Nursing Shortage and the 1990s: Realities and Remedies. Just two years later, Mitchell Johnson of the American College of Healthcare Executives — that’s a real thing — gave the book a glowing review in the journal Hospital & Healthcare Services Administration, recommending specifically that policymakers and recruiters read it. It’s a page long love letter to this book that McKibbin wrote that ends this way, quote:

Audiences that could benefit from reading The Nursing Shortage and the 1990s include congressional leaders and policymakers, health care administrators with responsibility for nursing, nursing leaders, and those responsible for recruiting and retaining nurses. This book will be a welcome addition to the libraries of those who are in a position to influence policy on or are affected by the nursing shortage.

End quote.

What Johnson says earlier in this piece is that the quote:

demand for health care and nurses is the driving force behind the current shortage. Until the demand for nurses lessens, the shortage will not likely abate. McKibben graphically demonstrates that to date national and local attention has focused almost exclusively on the supply side of this equation.

End quote.

So no surprise that Mitchell Johnson is a vice president of marketing and planning at the Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Illinois.

Adam: Similarly, Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical company, has been promoting nursing recruitment and lamenting the shortage since 2002, with its Campaign for Nursing’s Future. As part of this campaign, J&J also developed Your Future in Nursing, a nursing training program. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the AACN, which not coincidentally promotes the Johnson & Johnson effort, has been instrumental in perpetuating the narrative of a nursing shortage for decades.

In a document the AACN produced on this alleged shortage, it states outright that it works with media to, quote, “bring attention to this healthcare concern.” The Atlantic in February of 2016, ran an article quote, “The U.S. Is Running Out of Nurses,” in which they cite the American Association for Colleges of Nurses report as their primary source claiming this alleged nurse shortage. The New York Times in January of 2020, quote, “The Nursing Shortage Is Threatening Our Care.” The report says that the “shortage is expected to intensify” citing the American Association for Colleges of Nurses. Fox News in March of 2021, quote, “U.S. facing nursing shortage as COVID-19 fight rolls along.” A lot of these you’ll see have a sort of new COVID spin right? Again, the problem isn’t a labor shortage per se. There’s a dearth of quality jobs. As Michelle Chen wrote in The Nation in 2019, quote:

The American Nurses Association estimates that, from 2018 through 2022, registered nursing will have more job openings nationwide than any other profession. But there is a steady influx of nurses entering the field. When there are staffing problems, advocates [namely, in the article, unions] say the real problem is that employers just aren’t willing to fund a fully staffed workforce…

Amid massive funding gaps and punishing workloads, turnover rates among nurses are as high as 37 percent in some areas. Yet it’s not necessarily low pay that drives nurses away: Salaries in large cities start at around $70,000 annually. Job quality is a deeper problem: About 16 percent of nurses report feeling burnt-out at work. Forty-one percent say they feel a lack of engagement at their workplace, suggesting that many nurses feel alienated, demoralized, and unsupported on the job. Nurses also experience inordinate rates of trauma and violence at work.

And wages in the nursing field have actually stagnated and in many cases decreased in nursing according to Medscape’s 2018 RN/LPN Compensation Survey of registered nurses. In 2017, for the first time, average annual nurse wages and hourly rates of pay failed to increase significantly. After adjusting for inflation, income may even be falling, according to the report’s authors. So again, you have an industry where they treat them like shit, they lower health and safety standards, they massively understaff, and I think understaffing is a key component here because all these people want to you’re not just working more and making less, but you’re doing more work when you’re there, because they’re fucking cheapskates, right?

Nima: Right, and the work is incredibly difficult.

Adam: And they have these huge turnovers and then they turn around and go, ‘Oh, there’s a nursing shortage.’

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: ‘And it’s not because we’re cheap assholes who don’t pay people, it’s because we don’t have the right training or we need to go recruit more, and we need the state to subsidize this process.’

Nima: And so as Chen points out, it’s not only the pay, right? It’s also the quality of work, and the lack of support by employers for people doing incredibly difficult jobs, not to mention jobs that aren’t so difficult, but still have no support, all that comes together to — in some industries, in some cases, in some jobs — create massive turnover, sometimes a dearth of actually enough people doing the job. But what we hear routinely in articles is that people are leaving, there won’t be enough, there’s going to be a huge gap, we need more training, we need more funding for training, rather than paying people well and creating safe, healthy work environments for them.

Adam: Yeah, well, that’s simply not an option.

Nima: Right, of course, because the solutions are always something different than what actually needs to happen and they’re just as predictable as you would imagine. So in an article that we mentioned already from The Atlantic with the headline, quote, “The U.S. Is Running Out of Nurses,” it says this — what is the solution? — quote:

Around a million registered nurses (RNs) are currently older than 50, meaning one-third of the current nursing workforce will reach retirement age in the next 10 to 15 years. Nearly 700,000 nurses are projected to retire or leave the labor force by 2024.

End quote.

What this does, and what we see constantly is saying not enough people are replacing the people who are retiring and always blaming older people for retiring and then young people for not adequately filling the gap. We also see that private-sector investment is routinely proposed to fix this problem. The AACN, mentioned earlier, proposes and also explicitly endorses corporate recruiting programs, for example, the kind of Johnson & Johnson runs, the quote-unquote “strategic partnerships” and quote-unquote “private support” for nursing schools as the solution. Now, of course, notice it doesn’t recommend expanded collective bargaining power or single-payer healthcare, both of which would certainly increase nurse morale, make the job better, healthier, safer, because of the mandated worker protections like say a nurse to patient staffing ratio that is more in favor of being supportive to nurses to do their job. So the solutions are out there, they’re just not attached to the articles or the lobbying groups that are pushing the constant shortage narrative.

Adam: And another vertical we see this very frequently is in teachers and teaching. There is a non stop stream of articles about alleged shortage of teachers, can’t find teachers, can’t find qualified teachers, teachers in the inner city. There was a “Future Depends on Teachers” PSA recruitment video that debuted in April 2021 in partnership with the Department of Education and an organization called TEACH.org, which is funded by Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education. The whole premise is that Microsoft, which is of course very much aligned with Bill Gates and very anti-union, wants to help recruit teachers and this led to several fawning press stories. KOMU, quote, “Missouri joins National PSA campaign to address teacher shortage.” FOX Oklahoma, quote, “‘The Future Depends on Teachers,’ PSA launched targeting teachers amid shortage.” Now, the thing with teacher shortages is that what they usually mean is they don’t think that there’s enough non unionized teachers or that the union teachers that do exist are too malcontented.

Nima: The history of teacher’s unions is actually really critical here, as is the timing. So the 1960s and ’70s saw the rise of powerful teachers’ unions alongside exclusive bargaining rights, which really led also to a big increase in funding for public schools. Between 1965 and 1990 average spending per pupil nationwide went up from about $2,400 to $5,500 per pupil, per student in inflation adjusted dollars. The average student to teacher ratio also dropped from 24.1 to 17.3 nationwide. The percentage of teachers with master’s degrees increased from just over 23 percent to 52.6 percent. The median years of experience for teachers went from eight to 15. Between 1979 and 1989 average teacher salaries in the United States rose 20 percent. Now salaries for new public school teachers during that period rose 13 percent compared to a just 3.5 percent increase for all other college graduates accepting entry level positions at that time. So you see, the rise of teacher’s unions was incredibly good for not only students, but also the teachers themselves. But in 1989 guess what rolls around: Teach for America.

Adam: So Teach for America, the narrative goes, was that it was founded by Wendy Kopp. When she was a senior at Princeton University she wrote her thesis paper arguing for what was basically a Peace Corps for teachers, that you would take goody-two-shoes, typically Ivy League or wealthy white teachers and send them to where teacher shortages were in the inner city of America. And it’s a sort of very clean and kind of neat narrative. Of course, if you’re sending in non-unionized labor into unionized labor verticals, it looks very much like a scab. This is a plot point, if anyone’s ever watched Treme, when they say TFA is a scab organization, it was about creating a wedge between the unions and non unionized labor which is predicated on the idea that there was a teacher shortage. Throughout the ’80s you see some articles about teacher shortages. Sometimes the union will say there’s a shortage because we’re not getting paid enough, but more often than not, it’s corporate interest Republicans claiming that there’s a teacher shortage and this is because of the stranglehold the union has on the labor and enter Teach for America, which is sort of a vanguard organization. It’s now predominantly funded by the Walton foundation, they took it over in the late ’90s, but from its onset Teach for America was funded by, its first funders were cigarette maker Philip Morris. This is from an article in New York Times, this is from January 12, 1992, in The New York Times, quote, “Teacher Program Is Given a Boost. After Living With Patchwork Budget, New Possibilities Are Opened by Grant.” The article would go on to say, quote, “On Thursday Teach for America received its largest single donation yet, a $3 million grant from Philip Morris Companies.” So Stephanie French, the Vice President of Corporate Contributions and Cultural Affairs of Philip Morris, I’d love to be the cultural affairs of Philip Morris —

Nima: What a title.

Adam: — told The New York Times that she was quite “impressed with the organization’s mission of leadership” in 1990. In 1989, the initial seed money first, $100,000 and the next $3 million came from Philip Morris. One LA Times article in 1990 would note that in 1988, that Kopp began, quote, “banging on the doors of corporate America, eventually garnering donations from Mobil, Xerox, Chrysler, Philip Morris and others,” and she got $500,000 from conservative Texas businessman Ross Perot. Now this is sort of curious, why are these corporations, why does their heart suddenly bleed for inner city schooling? Of course, the reason is because these fucking people hate unions and one of the biggest barriers to the privatization of education is, to this day and always has been, unionization. And if you read Wendy Kopp’s undergrad thesis at Princeton, which again is the supposed basis of this kind of corporate funded vanguard against unions predicated on the idea of teacher shortage. The preface reads, quote:

The idea that I present and develop in this thesis came out of a conference which brought business and student leaders from across the United States in San Francisco in the fall of 1988. Our mission was to develop a plan to improve America’s public education system. The participants in my action plan group identified a lack of qualified teachers is one of the three major problems in our schools. We advanced many often proposed ideas, increased salaries, more status, career ladders, as a way of attracting talented individuals to the profession. Then our discussion took a new direction, we began thinking about the phenomenal amount of interest that the conference participants showed in teaching. These students were certainly the best and brightest. They were nominated by Deans of their universities, the top students on campus and were then selected from a large pool of applicants on the basis of extracurricular activities and essays. After hearing business and government leaders speak on the state of our schools and the dire need for academically able teachers, many of the students had indicated a desire to spend a few years teaching. We soon agreed that if given the opportunity top students would join a teacher corps, an agency much like the Peace Corps, that attracts a large amount of publicity and recruits a selective group to teach for two years.

So when she wrote this thesis at Princeton, she was the editor-in-chief of Business Today, which is a nationally distributed magazine that was aligned with business interests and the conference she was at was a business conference for that magazine. So again, it’s difficult to tell sort of where the sort of lightbulb moment came, but even by her own telling, it’s basically she was shooting the shit with a bunch of fucking corporate guys who said ‘Yeah, teachers are lazy’ and it’s funny she hand-waves away higher salaries in the first paragraph of a thesis.

Nima: Those were some of the ideas floated, but then they pivoted.

Adam: To union busting. Wouldn’t a great way to have more quote-unquote “qualified teachers” be busting up the unions and increasing the labor pool?

Nima: Yeah, totally. All we need are some young yuppies to take a five week course, commit for a mere two years, and then leave because they just built their resume in order to get the internships or jobs that they actually want by leveraging this experience that now they’ve had.

Adam: Yeah, so here we have this idea that there’s a teacher shortage. Now, again, in some sort of localized sense, this can be a thing, certain inner cities would have hard times filling jobs at a certain salary point, right? At a certain price point, they can’t fill the job. Now, obviously, if they offered people $20 million they wouldn’t have a problem doing it. So we’re just sort of negotiating what that price is. Really what they saw was an opportunity to take the lack of funding, which is really what the issue is here, lack of funding, lack of support for inner city schools, this has always been the privatization scheme, you sort of starve the beast, and you turn around and say, ‘Look how they’re failing,’ right? You don’t give them adequate support, adequate funding, adequate attention, adequate social services, and you say, ‘Oh, we need to send in a bunch of fucking kids from the Ivy League to go save the day.’ And increasingly, as it evolved in the ’90s, it became basically the Walton Foundation when they pivoted to school privatization, they funded the majority of Teach for America and documents obtained by ProPublica in 2019, show that the Walton Foundation quote, a “staunch supporter of school choice and Teach for America’s largest private funder, was paying $4,000 for every teacher placed in a traditional public school — and $6,000 for every one placed in a charter school.” Basically, TFA more overtly of late has become a way of promoting privatization in the charter school movement in education. Now, the reason why this is important is because none of this is possible if you don’t constantly cry about labor shortages. But again, there’s not a labor shortage. There’s a shortage of people who want to work at a certain salary point in certain conditions so instead of addressing the salary point and addressing the conditions, they come up with ways of bringing in scabs and increasing the labor pool without addressing the core issues of why they’re having staffing problems.

Nima: Now, there are a lot of people who have formerly worked for Teach for America who have realized the grift. In 2013, Catherine Michna, a professor of education at Tulane and who is also a Teach for America alum, announced on her blog that she refuses to write recommendation letters for students eager to join Teach For America. Noting this on her blog which was later published by Slate, quote:

TFA members do not work in service of public education. They work in service of a corporate reform agenda that rids communities of veteran teachers, privatizes public schools, and forces a corporatized, data-driven culture upon unique low-income communities with unique dynamics and unique challenges.

End quote.

Adam: Peter Greene, a public school teacher himself, wrote in Forbes in 2019, quote, “We Need To Stop Talking About The Teacher Shortage.” In which he said, quote:

You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.

Which I think actually sums up our episode better than we can and that really is the point. The point is not that there’s labor shortages, the point, for the millionth time, is that they don’t want to create the conditions, the pay conditions, the health and safety conditions, the morale support, the benefits, the unionization, so then they immediately say, ‘Oh, nobody wants to work. Everyone’s fucking lazy.’ And it plays into this kind of pathology we have in this country that Americans are lazy, that greedy teachers sit around and take off summers and it really kind of plays into that mentality that there’s ‘Oh, there’s a teacher shortage. Nobody wants to work.’ And it’s like, no, fucko, you don’t want to pay them, you don’t want to support them, you don’t want to expand the union. There are several other verticals where labor shortage claims are extremely popular. We’re going to discuss them further with our guest. Those include STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — there’s a mini moral panic around a lack of STEM labor pretty much every six months. Increasingly, we see it in restaurants and retail, especially with the whole COVID hook people use now to dust off their previous complaints about labor shortages. Fast Food always complains they can’t find people. So we’re gonna go into that with our guest, which I’m excited about.

Nima: We’ll now be joined by Kevin Cashman, Senior Associate at Center for Economic and Policy Research. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Kevin Cashman. Kevin, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kevin Cashman: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So let’s talk labor shortage here. The ubiquity of the labor shortage articles spans many sectors, as we discussed at the top of the show, nursing, construction, STEM, teachers, farm workers, you name it, there’s been some sort of mini moral panic about a labor shortage over the past 30, 40 years. But there’s very little kind of widespread coherent skepticism of these claims, there are sort of industry by industry counter narratives. I know unions oftentimes will push back against this. Obviously, the work you’ve done at CEPR has been great, which is why we’re excited to have you on. You sort of skeptically look at some of these claims in a couple articles you’ve written so I want to kind of talk about, high level here before we sort of get into the nitty gritty, in your writing what are some of the broader themes of these claims and where have these claims fallen short and what do you think maybe, perhaps — don’t be too cynical here — what are the ulterior motives behind these claims?

Kevin Cashman

Kevin Cashman: Sure. So, for me, the ones that I’ve seen and looked at over the past few years, they tend to be very personal, there’ll be a story about some employer at a specific company, whether it be a roofing company, or a construction company or something like that and they’ll be talking to the reporter and say, ‘I can’t find any workers, it’s awful, I can’t hire anybody, I’m almost going to go out of business because of it,’ and they’ll often be no mention of wages at all, or raising wages that is, and if there’s a shortage of oil, if there’s a shortage of wheat, if there’s a shortage of anything, you know, you and me buy, we expect the price to go up and we sort of understand that. But when it comes to workers, that’s not part of the discussion, even in an article that will be specifically about this shortage. So that’s, I guess, the first thing that strikes me when I see these claims, and it’s not all of them, but it is a high number, in my experience. So that’s something that definitely tells you there’s something else going on here. You talked about the ulterior motive, the ulterior motive, you know, it’s pretty obvious and clear to me is that employers don’t want to pay workers as much as they need to in order to keep them employed. Now, I don’t know if that’s a cynical calculation on every employer’s part or every manager’s part, they might not have the authority to raise wages in some cases, but it’s definitely an attitude that is prevailing across many industries and different kinds of employers. So that’s the main reason why I think that these claims are so ubiquitous and so important for employers to talk about and get media to report on.

Nima: Yeah, I want to dig into one of the more common frameworks for the labor shortage story that we see. It’s one of the most popular, most evergreen ones of the past say decade and a half and its STEM, and we’ve discussed this on the show before, but in the mid 2000s, we basically had a national meltdown, moral panic, freakout, that there, were not going to be enough software engineers to possibly fill the jobs we need in our digital society. Now, when you put it like that on its face, it seems kind of sensible, maybe even benign, after all, sure who wouldn’t want more well trained young people to run tomorrow’s economy, they will be more successful, will be more successful, bla bla bla, bla bla. But what maybe are some of the other reasons that this continues to be pushed and by whom? I don’t want to put my finger on the scale here, but we hear STEM being pushed by Raytheon in Girl Scout commercials. What does this say about the way that industry and especially certain industries, lean on state funding to subsidize training its future workforce?

Kevin Cashman: Yeah, that’s a great example of employers overtly saying that the state, whether its state governments, federal government, local governments even need to subsidize the education or training of workers that they think are too expensive, because the average software developer is paid a lot, and they definitely want to lower those costs. But it’s also that they want the employees themselves to take on the burden of that training. We’ve seen an explosion of coding boot camps that are very expensive, some of them are structured in a way where they’ll take a percentage of your salary once you get employed for, you know, ten years, or I think there’s even some that are much longer than that. It’s a way to get workers cheaper now, it’s also a way to put pressure on wages for workers that they’re currently employing, and lower their wages or give them, you know, fewer raises, less lenient or fewer benefits, those types of things and fewer perks, you know that Silicon Valley has this culture of expecting a lot of perks and those are expensive. If labor got cheaper than they wouldn’t extend those so widely.

Adam: We talked about this earlier, right? I mean, look, if especially in software engineering, you have and of course, Apple and Google and other firms were caught in a literal wage-fixing scheme, they were actually fined by the Department of Justice for doing it, they got caught in a conspiracy to depress wages, software engineers walk around making, you know, $180k, and this drives the employers mad because they’re not easily replaceable by cheap liquid labor, which is why they also obsess over, you know, one of the things we run into in this episode a lot is that they’re also behind kind of very limited, very cynical that I think, especially in the 1920s, very racialized expansion of immigration, which we’ll set aside for now, but it’s the worst possible motive you could have, and basically what they want to do is they want to expand the pool by any means necessary, whether they use liberal inclusion language or whether or not they use, they want to have more workers because if I have twenty people applying for a job versus three, the demands, of course, will be far less. Of course, in a way, it’s sort of like certain basketball players who complain after every foul, you sort of lose nothing by trying, they have really no disincentive to not piss and moan about labor shortages every six months, because they don’t really lose anything by it. The trucking industry, we documented earlier in this episode, has been claiming driver shortages, I mean, quite literally, almost every year for 35 years and The Wall Street Journal just ran another piece about how there’s truck driver shortages. It seems like so much of this is they have nothing to lose as long as the media keeps going with it without asking any follow ups, specifically, as you mentioned, obviously, wages, and one of the things that the trucking industry is doing is they’re really lobbying to try to lower the age of truck drivers from 21 to 18 for the same reasons we laid out before, which is expanding the labor pool. How much of this is not just about suppressing wages and having the government subsidized training, or as you mentioned employees themselves paying for their own training and going into debt for that, which is also quite clever, how much of this is about workplace health and safety standards and trying to get those lowered and licensing and other barriers to employment lowered so again, we can have a big fat pool of labor to play off each other?

Kevin Cashman: Yeah, I think that’s a big part, the way I sort of understand it is if we go back to the 1970s, there’s sort of this break between wages and productivity so workers are getting more productive, but their wages aren’t going up and firms in the US are experiencing a declining rate of growth of profits. So they’re looking for all these different ways, and you pointed out a lot of them, to lower costs, whether it’s in the software industry, H-1B visas, construction and farming, low-cost labor from Mexico and Central America, and safety standards. So maybe you don’t need as much sleep before you start driving your truck again. I know unions have pushed back against, I think there was a requirement that you had two people running every train, and they want to change that to one. So these are all different sort of ways that they attack the problem and the narratives that they come up with often don’t make sense and I think that they just say any narrative that they can get out there to try to chip away at this problem, which is that you can’t lower the wages of service jobs as easy as you can manufacturing jobs. For manufacturing jobs, you can ship them overseas, and a lot of manufacturing companies did that and they’ll get a bigger piece of the pie once they produce stuff over there. But you can’t move a truck driver to China, and then have them still deliver stuff in the US. There are all these different ways where they’re doing that, and the narratives that come out of it, you know, quite frankly, make no sense. You’ll have people talking about, ‘Okay, well, every truck driver is going to be unemployed in five years once we have autonomous trucks,’ and then like you said, there’s a, you know, full feature-length story about truck driving shortages. Well, I don’t think it’s true that trucking is going to become autonomous that quickly or even in the next decade, or whatever, but you know, why would you become a truck driver, if you think that’s the case?

Adam: All those automation stories too I think, now that you bring it up, I think it’s worth noting, I do think a lot of the automation stories are a little bit psyop-y, too, right? You see this with fast food and kiosks which they’re using but they’re not really replacing that many jobs and there’s this menacing air, ‘Don’t get cute, don’t ask for $15 minimum wage, don’t try to unionize because there’s this machine we have that may or may not actually work.’

Kiosks at McDonald’s. (Kevin Hagen / Wall Street Journal)

Nima: Like the little that you’re able to get to have a job.

Adam: Yeah, doesn’t that seem like one of those crying on every foul kind of things? You have no reason not to hype up these autonomous alternatives.

Kevin Cashman: Yeah, definitely. I reviewed a book, I think last year, and the book sort of just went over these narratives and accepted them at face value and the purpose of the book is to help employers, you know, even if the author doesn’t want to say or not, help employers lower labor costs, I think it was called The Future of Work. I have an article in the Review of Keynesian Economics that reviews it. But these are strategies, you know, the argument that there are going to be no truck drivers in five, ten years is something that definitely comes up in union negotiations and it’s no coincidence that when all these strategies started to try to chip away at wages, that unions also are in decline. There was a big inflation problem because of the price of oil in the ’80s and a lot of union contracts were tied to inflation so you had these crises where workers were getting paid too much and it definitely set the tone for everything after it where employers are going to be much less generous and try to use all their power to make wages rise more slowly or even cut them.

Nima: Yeah, ‘Sorry we were able to let you pay for your lives for a tiny bit there. We’re going to immediately stop that.’ Kevin, let’s talk about this past year and what you have seen in terms of how the COVID-19 pandemic kind of supercharged this industry/employer/manager, whining, crying wolf thing about labor shortages, how things were different this past year, a year that was different in so many ways, what did you see in terms of how these stories were framed, in terms of what was being said, this past year during the pandemic?

Kevin Cashman: Sure, yeah. So there was some evidence that there might have been some upward pressure on wages for restaurant workers right before the pandemic, which you know, is necessary because their wages were so low, you know, minimum wages were going up in several jurisdictions. But of course, once the pandemic hit all these restaurants, just, you know, summarily laid off all their restaurant workers, and everybody just accepts that that happened. They get unemployment, of course, or they should, but it’s the complete opposite story from what we saw before and there’s much less concern about what’s going to happen to the all these people that now don’t have jobs, and certainly, the disastrous way that the US handled the pandemic, just, you know, sort of prolonged suffering for all these people. But also, you know, we still have very high unemployment now, over a year after the pandemic started, and it’s very hard to say that there’s any sort of sector wide shortage of workers. I think I’ve seen a few, you just mentioned trucking shortages, but, you know, they’re starting to pop up again, and it’s a kind of a replay of the Great Recession, where still during the recession, reporters start churning out these labor market shortage stories. To me, it’s not reflective of reality, if you are paying attention.

Adam: Well, yeah, because again, they go to these employers or industry trade groups, and they say, ‘I cannot afford,’ I mean, so Kroger just shut down two stores in California because they passed a law requiring $4 extra an hour hazard pay. They said, ‘We can’t afford it.’ They always say ‘We can’t afford it,’ they have some, there’s some chart, the gas and graph they have and the line goes over this, they shut everything down and they piss and moan and they have a capital strike. They love doing capital strikes, because fuck it they don’t care. Walmart does this a lot. Walmart will not enter a market, a big city because they make demands of big box stores to pay as low as $12 an hour back four or five years ago and they’ll give up millions in revenue just to say fuck it so they can have one of their petulant capital strikes, because they think in the long term that’s in their best interest. There’s a viral tweet now where there’s a fast food restaurant, I think it’s Burger King, who says ‘We had to shut down because,’ no it was a Wendy’s, ‘We had to shut down because nobody wants to work,’ and then if someone found their job offering on Glassdoor and it was like $11 an hour, it’s like well no shit. And this, of course, is the theme we’re now beating down people’s throat in this episode is that it’s a wage problem, and that they don’t want to fucking pay it and that is not, of course, a labor shortage. That is a shortage of what you’re willing to pay. Because the way things are framed is always incumbent upon the worker to be flexible, never the employer, and of course, we don’t know the bottom line at these places, these books are private, you know, if they want to come and say, actually, if we raise this by $1 Joe Ma Pa Subway goes out of business, I’ll listen to that, it’s probably bullshit, but I’ll listen to it. There’s just this assumption that it’s always incumbent upon the worker to take lower wages versus the employer to pay more and I want to talk about, we spend a great deal talking about Mike Rowe, who is I think, one of the biggest conduits of this, of this myth, specifically, the skills gap, which he liked to push, which was an effort by some of his billionaire backers, Koch brother types, with his foundation to kind of push this narrative that he would go with in 2009, 2010, he’d say, ‘We’re in the middle of a recession, and I go by and I see the sign says now hiring, they can’t fill these roles.’ He loves to tell this anecdote. It’s total horseshit but he says it anyway. And the assumption, there’s two things, number one, it sort of asserts the fact that, this was his primary goal, which is to get the Obama administration, and at that point, that Mitt Romney, future Mitt Romney administrators which is why he campaigned for him, to basically subsidize vocational training so the fucking Koch Industries didn’t have to pay for it and also, the more, of course, trained people they have, as we talked about now a million times, the more trained people they have, the more workers they have, the lower wages they have to pay. So it’s kind of a no-brainer on their part. But one thing it does play into is this kind of moral narrative that I want to talk about, which is one of the reasons I think the media kind of soaks it up, which is that Americans are lazy, that we’re spoiled, fat, ungrateful, lazy, all of which is true for me personally, but everyone else, I don’t think —

Mike Rowe

Nima: And especially millennials, especially millennials, who are ruining work!

Adam: There’s this subtext and oftentimes even text about this sort of American lazy worker and that, of course, plays into this idea that there are a bunch of ingrates who won’t do the work necessary. I want you to talk a bit about this kind of moral subtext and how much you think this drives this coverage of these labor shortages.

Kevin Cashman: Yeah, I think these narratives are driven by elites and the example you gave of COVID is a good example of the wage conditions changing, you know, you’re going to have to pay somebody who works in a restaurant or who is a line cook or, you know, whatever more money to work, because it’s now a dangerous job and they just don’t want to accept that they have to pay this premium on top of the wages they’re accustomed to to get people to work. So it’s a lot easier to demonize people and say, ‘Well, you know, you should be taking this job instead of taking unemployment,’ you know, we should have an unemployment amount that’s adequate for everybody and then we should have employers that are paying wages that incorporate all the requirements of the job. I don’t know many people who write these stories that would want to go be a line cook in a restaurant if that was the only job they had available to them during a pandemic, because it’s just not worth the risk to their health. So I mean, essentially, they’re saying that people who aren’t in high paying jobs or have the same socio economic status to them should accept greater risks, and then just deal with it, because they need people to serve them their burrito at Chipotle or whatever. And to me, that’s a very offensive argument, because there should be a basic level of safety at every job, but it doesn’t stop them from making the argument. One thing we do have a shortage of is doctors, and that was even clear pre pandemic. Doctors are paid an absurd amount and they have an association that basically keeps the supply low and, you know, I never hear people who are telling somebody to go to work at a restaurant for $5 an hour plus tips also say that we need to increase the supply of doctors because they provide vital services and we need to pay them less. But it’s the same issue, except there actually is a shortage of doctors. So there’s sort of this class solidarity, we should be paying these people who are educated and doing good work an obscene amount of money because they do provide services for us but these other people who, you know, I also need their services they’re either lazy, or they have some other moral failing for not taking this job.

Nima: So let’s be a little prescriptive here, it’s Citations Needed after all, are there more honest, clearer, more authentic ways of framing these stories, so not lazy write ups of industry claims centering labor shortages and what companies can or can’t afford. In your opinion, Kevin, what do you think is a more responsible way that journalists can cover these stories, the frameworks that reporters and editors can use to really center workers or even, I mean, dare I say the quote-unquote “consumer” in the stories rather than the lobbyists, the bosses, the boards of industry?

Kevin Cashman: Sure, yeah, I would say that labor shortages do happen but they usually happen in either small towns where you literally can’t find anybody or they happen in crises like this one or in certain areas or for example —

Adam: During World War II.

Kevin Cashman: Right. But, you know, people need to sort of parse those out from ones they’re talking about, huge industries, they need to look at the data, if wages aren’t rising, then there’s probably not a labor shortage and I think they need to understand the history, especially since this break in the 1970s, where we’ve seen productivity go up. So companies are getting more out of every worker, but wages have been stagnant, where unions have been decimated and they sort of need to put that into context because even if we are paying a lot for somebody to be a barista or other very valuable jobs that all of us rely on, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Workers desperately need wages to go up because over the last fifty years or so they’ve been relatively stagnant. So I think when you put that into context, you get a much more sympathetic story about employment in the US and workers in the US and I think that that’s the necessary other side of the story that every sort of neutral reporter has to report on. If you don’t have that viewpoint in your story, I don’t think you’re even trying to be objective about it.

Nima: You mean millennials aren’t just destroying trucking and mattresses and toilet paper and everything else that we hold dear?

Kevin Cashman: (Chuckles.) No, I don’t think so. But yeah, that’s another, I mean, there are tons of these narratives that make no sense. There’s the deficit is a huge problem. That doesn’t make any sense. There’s we’re running out of workers and we don’t have as many workers per retiree which sort of plays into this labor shortage narrative is another one that is constantly talked about and makes no sense. Then there’s the automation one, which is diametrically opposed to that where we’re going to have some kind of future without human labor and any of these can be positive stories, you know, if we need fewer workers to do the same amount of work because they’re more productive, that’s a positive story, but it’s sort of the way they’re employing them is together they make no sense and then also, if we have robots, it necessarily means that workers are screwed and that’s not true. If you have fewer workers per retiree, then necessarily retirees are screwed and that’s not true. So they just, it’s all manipulation of these narratives that I think sometimes make sense to people when they’re reading about it, it’s like, oh, we don’t have as many workers per retiree in 2021, than we did in 1970 that seems bad, but you know, it’s not bad, because productivity is much higher.

Adam: Well, yeah, because what’s strange is that the union activists especially, and I know others have as well, but union activists have been debunking this, we talked about this at the top of the show, since the 1920s. I mean, you have union activists saying it’s not a labor shortage, it’s a payment shortage in 1921, 1922 and then fast forward a hundred years and people on Twitter are making the exact same point. I don’t know, it’s just funny that we have the same conversation because we’ve compartmentalized and siloed off reporting into this kind of ‘Industry says X’ thing, where if you connect any dots you’re some left-wing radicals. So, before you go, I want to ask you what you’re up to, what CEPR is up to, what other sinister COVID, I assume COVID themed capital things are the mustache twirling villains up to, and what is super working on to push back against those?

Kevin Cashman: Just more globally documenting some of the stuff that’s going on in the world because of the crisis, you know, not producing vaccines for poor countries, also not generating stimulus for other countries, all the rich countries have been able to pass these massive relief bills, but for poor countries that are less economically strong, they’re not able to and so far there hasn’t been any. So those are big problems that threaten us all because we all want the pandemic to end and we want most importantly for people to stop suffering.

Nima: Oh, is that all?

Kevin Cashman: Well, suffering from the pandemic, but also in general.

Adam: Yeah. Get on that.

Kevin Cashman: Yeah.

Adam: Come on, Cashman, fix the problem already.

Nima: Yeah. Somehow I don’t think poor people tightening their belts or oppressed countries having to rely on austerity is really going to get us out of this.

Kevin Cashman: Two to three years from now it’s exactly what you said, it’s going to be well, you know, Argentina needs to tighten its belt, Angola needs to tighten its belt. It’s going to be pervasive, but hopefully we can stop that before it happens.

Nima: Well, that is a very optimistic way to end this. I absolutely hope you are right. We’ve been speaking with Kevin Cashman, Senior Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research or CEPR. You do such fantastic work over there and we cannot thank you enough for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kevin Cashman: Thanks for having me.


Adam: You know, it’s fundamentally an empirical question to some extent, there are ways you can measure demand, measure out of work people, certain professions, liquidity of labor, almost all the articles we cite, just mindlessly cite industry trade groups, without thinking they don’t have a conflict of interest. But of course, they have a huge conflict of interest, they have a massive conflict of interest, which is why they float the story every six months.

Nima: Once you drive that moral panic about the lack of these quote-unquote, “vital,” “crucial,” “necessary,” dare I say “essential” jobs, you then have the idea that more funding needs to go into recruitment into training, expand the worker pool, and therefore depress wages, and make less safe, less healthy work conditions the norm, because God forbid there is a trucker, nursing, plumber, teacher shortage, we need to do more to make sure to fill those gaps without addressing the fundamental problems of low pay and unsafe work conditions.

Adam: I mean, as a reporter, you should at least ask do they have ulterior motives? What are their sources? Citations needed. What does the union say? What do the reps say? What do employees really say when they’re not just on the job being monitored by their boss? Try to dig a little deeper because I’m telling you there are thousands of these stories, we went on and on and on, they are non stop, and the vast, vast majority of them are entirely sourced to the industry trade groups. There needs to be some more skepticism about why that is.

Nima: Boeing is obviously going to say that there’s a STEM shortage, they have an interest to do so.

(Source: Xconomy)

Adam: Especially with this COVID hook where the implication is that oh, well, unemployment is too high, the stimulus is too much, too generous, right? And therefore we need to get rid of it. I mean, this idea that they can’t find people to work, it’s just a capital strike. It’s bullshit. It’s total bullshit. They have the money, they can pay what they want to, they’re trying to make a political point so the stories go viral, so they can justify why they’re not paying their employees more because they will light themselves on fucking fire before they pay an extra dollar. I mean, this is again, I don’t think people quite realize how much capital will pout and moan and lose money in the short term or if they think in the long term, they can cement these narratives about a sort of lazy ungrateful workforce, because that’s the thing there’s a subtext of sort of this Protestant ethos in all these stories that somehow we’ve fallen from the Garden of Eden, we’ve become lazy, we become complacent, we’re sort of a weak empire and decline.

Nima: We’re getting paid to stay home as opposed to putting our backs into it.

Adam: Yeah, and it’s just not true. It’s that these fuckers are just cheap and they don’t want to pay people and they don’t want to pay for training, they don’t want to have quality health and safety standards.

Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. We cannot thank you enough for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated. It is the only way we get funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks, everyone, for listening again, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.