In his latest book, Hell to Pay, the prolific public intellectual Michael Lind offers a compelling analysis of an urgent problem: too many American workers earn too little and lack the bargaining power to demand more. Workers, Lind argues, have been living through a decades-long suppression of wages that is exacerbating “a number of seemingly unrelated social pathologies, from delayed or failed marriage and non-marriage to the decline of civic associations and the rise of identity politics and political polarization.” If we hope to ameliorate any of these problems, we must find a way to increase worker bargaining power.
That this argument comes from someone who cut his teeth in the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, who did more to weaken worker bargaining power than any other president, will not surprise those familiar with the arc of Lind’s career. A native Texan who did graduate work in international relations at Yale University before earning a law degree at the University of Texas, Lind took his first jobs at the Heritage Foundation and George H. W. Bush’s State Department. During the Clinton era, he embarked on a journalistic career at Irving Kristol’s National Interest, Andrew Sullivan’s New Republic, and Tina Brown’s New Yorker. He famously broke with most of his former associates in Up from Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America (1996), skewering Republicans for waging cynical culture wars only to gain enough power to advance policies benefiting the wealthy few. In 1999, Lind added policy entrepreneurship to his résumé, cofounding the New America Foundation (now New America), where he advocated policies intended to make the U.S. economy more competitive. In recent years, he has taught at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Policy at the University of Texas–Austin.
Along the way, Lind published ten books on politics, policy, and history, the last of which, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (2020), laid the foundation for Hell to Pay. In The New Class War, Lind argued that Western democracies faced an existential threat due to the shortsighted, self-serving mismanagement of their out-of-touch elites. Unless they forged a new class compromise that addressed the needs of workers, Lind warned, democracies would collapse and be replaced by caste-based societies ruled by either a technocratic “overclass” or the kind of populist authoritarians foreshadowed by Trumpism. In Hell to Pay, Lind continues this line of argument, insisting that increased worker bargaining power is a prerequisite for any democracy-sustaining class compromise.
Hell to Pay is suffused with a moral passion that makes it more than a policy brief. “No one who works full time should be poor,” writes Lind. And as long as there are some goods and services such as health care “that should be available to all citizens regardless of ability to pay,” then “the government should pay for them directly or indirectly.” His palpable anger at policies that keep workers poor and deny them access to goods that every human deserves imparts propulsive power to his prose.
As befits someone with an apostate past, Lind is at his best when debunking the dogmas that dominate elite thinking. He makes quick work of human-capital theory’s assertion that workers’ wages simply reflect their skills or lack thereof. The powerful have “taken that theory to heart,” he suggests, primarily because it “shifts responsibility for low wages from employers or government policies” to workers themselves. With equal verve, he demolishes employer claims of labor shortages (when they say they “can’t find enough American workers what they really mean is they cannot find enough Americans willing to work at the wages they prefer to pay,” he writes) and scolds higher education for abetting a debt-driven “credential arms race” in which the “master’s degree is the new BA.”
Unlike most economists, Lind takes seriously the disparity of power embedded in the relation between employer and employee. As Adam Smith famously observed, “In the long-run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.” Lind’s appreciation of the ways in which employers exploit that imbalance of necessity is a distinguishing feature of his analysis.