If you’ve ever wondered how work lost its value, here’s the who, what, why, where, and when.
Labor Day — that mocking reminder that this nation once honored workers — is upon us again, posing the nagging question of why the economy ceased to reward work. Was globalization the culprit? Technological change? Anyone seeking a more fundamental answer should pick up the September issue of the Harvard Business Review and check out William Lazonick’s seminal essay on U.S. corporations, “Profits Without Prosperity.”
Like Thomas Piketty, Lazonick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, is that rare economist who actually performs empirical research. What he has uncovered is a shift in corporate conduct that transformed the U.S. economy — for the worse. From the end of World War II through the late 1970s, he writes, major U.S. corporations retained most of their earnings and reinvested them in business expansions, new or improved technologies, worker training and pay increases. Beginning in the early ’80s, however, they have devoted a steadily higher share of their profits to shareholders.