Last year, leftist journalist Tim Noah published an entire book, entitled The Great Divergence, dedicated largely to the proposition that the long-term decline in the share of American employees who are subject to a union contract is the source of an array of our nation’s economic ills. A dubious thesis, to say the least.
Even some pundits who share Noah’s general fondness for government intervention in the economy have raised serious questions about his reasoning. For example, Matthew Yglesias, the business and economics correspondent for Slate magazine, pointed out to Noah that the share of private-sector workers who are unionized was already falling during the 1960’s, a period Noah regards as part of America’s economic heyday.
Yglesias could have gone even further. The share of America’s private-sector employees who are unionized has been falling at least since 1953, according to an analysis by labor economists Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin, From 1953 to 1973, America’s economic salad days from the perspective of Noah, private-sector union membership across the nation fell by roughly a quarter, from 35.7% to 26.6%.
If Big Labor’s loss of control over the workforce were a disaster, it seems that nine-percentage-point drop would have had a much more detrimental impact than the drop of less than six percentage points that occurred from 1992 to 2012. Noah thus can’t explain why he thinks the 1953-1973 era was peachy, but the last 20 years have been a disaster.
This failure doesn’t seem to bother him. But Noah does seem perplexed by U.S. Census Bureau data that have shown, for decades, a massive net out-migration from states where compulsory union dues and fees are permitted and union density is relatively high and into Right to Work states where, on average, union density is substantially lower.
In a commentary last month for The Washington Monthly, Noah pointed out that nominal incomes are higher in forced-unionism states like Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland than they are in Right to Work states like Texas, Arizona, and the Carolinas, whose populations are rapidly growing in large part because they are net gainers from domestic migration.
“Why are Americans by and large moving away from economic opportunity rather than toward it?” Noah asked plaintively.
As a Harvard graduate, Noah should have been able to figure out for himself that, for the vast majority of American employees, a place with “better economic opportunities” is one where you can obtain a job that pays more than your current one, once regional differences in the cost of living are taken into account. Many forced-unionism states, including Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, have a cost of living that is far above the national average and even higher relative to the 24 Right to Work states as a group. The average private-sector compensation in Right to Work states is higher than the average in forced-unionism states, once cost-of-living differences are factored in.
Political writer and editor Michael Barone tries to explain all to Noah and his readers in the column linked below. Breaking through the fog in a forced-unionism apologist’s mind is probably a quixotic venture, but Barone’s attempt is admirable:
Contrary to Noah’s inference, people don’t move away from opportunity. They move partly in response to economic incentives, but also to pursue dreams and escape nightmares.
Opportunity does exist in the Northeastern states and in California — for people with very high skill levels and for low-skill immigrants, without whom [several large] metro areas [in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast] would have lost, rather than gained, population over the last three decades.
But there’s not much opportunity there for people with midlevel skills who want to raise families. Housing costs are exceedingly high, partly, as Noah notes, because of restrictive land use and zoning regulations.