NPR’s Planet Money: The Economy Obfuscated (Politics of Equality Labor Day Edition)

While the rest of the world celebrates International Workers’ Day on May 1st, the United States has its own special Labor Day holiday, created in the late 1800s to distance American workers from the growing socialist movement. In honor, then, of today’s fake labor holiday, Politics of Equality focuses on fake labor news from NPR’s Planet Money.

A recent episode of this cute, clever, and horribly blinkered show “explained” that Americans take less vacation time than workers in other developed countries because they love their jobs and are very competitive. Do the laws in different countries mandate different amounts of vacation time? Do organized and unorganized workers have different amounts of bargaining power? Planet Money isn’t concerned to ask. This is the sort of astoundingly simplistic micro-economics that explains unemployment by asserting that some people prefer leisure to labor.

Individual choices matter. But determining how they matter requires an understanding of the circumstances in which choices are made. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has considerable power to choose the length of her maternity leave. A woman working for minimum wage in fast food or retail has no such power – and no such choice. How free do American workers feel to take even the vacation time they may be offered when most are “at-will” employees who can be fired without cause?

Another recent Planet Money report suggested that “hard work is irrelevant…what should matter is what we create.” Of course, American workers have been creating quite a bit for decades and receiving very little in return. An update from the Economic Policy Institute shows that the productivity-wage gap (an issue I’ve discussed here) continues to expand. Workers are creating more and more, but their wages have flatlined.

Economic analysis matters. The way we understand problems determines the way we go about finding solutions. Surely NPR can do better than Planet Money’s badly flawed methods of “explaining the economy.”

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