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Why We Can’t Strip Race Out of the Gender Wage Gap Conversation

Minimum wage

Darlene Handy of Baltimore holds up a banner during a rally supporting an increase in the state's minimum wage. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

April 8 was Equal Pay Day, the day by which women will have theoretically worked enough to catch up to what men made the year before. In honor of that, the Senate voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at giving women a little more power to fight wage discrimination, which Republicans unanimously blocked. While some Republicans claim they care about the wage gap and just object to what they see as burdensome regulation, other conservatives have been calling the idea of the gender wage gap itself into question.

It is a fair question to ask what causes the gap. While it’s true that women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes when they work full-time, year-round, it’s also true that this figure can obscure various factors that aren’t purely discriminatory. Work experience plays a role. Industry and occupation play a role. Education can play a role.

In trying to figure out how much of the wage gap is discrimination and how much can be explained by other factors, nearly every statistician conducts regression studies that take measurable factors into consideration by holding them constant and seeing what’s left over. From government agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office to women’s advocacy groups like AAUW to economists like Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, a similar group of factors are held constant to find the “unexplained” gap, or the murk where bias would rear its head if it does exist. One of those constant factors is race.

At first blush, this makes sense. All of these researchers are striving to compare the most apple-like of apples to apples—a woman and a man who look as identical as possible and therefore should be paid the same. Therefore, they compare a woman to a man with the same job tenure, seniority, occupation, marital status and race, or in other words, measurable differences. Discrimination will crop up when everything they can measure is stripped out but a gap remains.

But that means that race gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. It’s ends up in the “explained” category. In the study by Blau and Kahn, for example, they list their six controlled factors and note that 2.4 percent of the gap is explained by race. On the other hand, 41.1 percent of the gap remains unexplained, the part that is “potentially due to discrimination,” according to their paper, but not a part that includes racial disparities.

We know that race dramatically shapes wages—that’s part of why it gets lumped into the explained category. Using Census information, the National Women’s Law Center found that African-American men make 73 percent of what white men make, on average, and African-American women make 64 percent. The numbers are even lower for Hispanics: men make 61 percent of white men’s earnings and women make just 54 percent. Men of color even make less than white women.

So, yes, taking this measurable difference into account will surely help explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? There may be some mitigating factors shaping the racial wage gap as well, but there’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. Race may be factored into calculating the wage gap, but it’s pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination. It’s treated as a given.

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Even some of the factors that sound objective and explainable could conceal discrimination. In economists Blau and Kahn’s study, the most recent to focus on measuring discrimination, occupation or the jobs women end up in, accounts for more than a quarter of the wage gap. One could see this as a choice, and some women may gravitate more toward teaching elementary school instead of college students. But there are plenty of barriers that keep women from top-earning occupations. And even when women do similar work compared to men, they often make less. Maids are paid less than $10 an hour at the median, but janitors are paid more than $12 on average. Low-skill women’s jobs pay nearly $150 less a week than men’s, on average, while high-skill women’s jobs pay $471 less. It may be hard to determine how much this determines the wage gap, but clearly it’s biased that society values work less when women perform it.

For their part, Blau and Kahn realize that some factors they hold constant may mask discrimination. They write that “if some of the factors controlled for in such regressions—like occupation and tenure with the employer—themselves reflect the impact of discrimination, then discrimination will be underestimated” in their study. Race isn’t terribly murky, though. There’s no objective explanation for why black women make less than white women. And when we divorce that fact from the larger conversation about the wage gap, we fail to challenge the fact that women of color are experiencing multiple forms of bias.

 

Read Next: The GOP offers the same tired excuses for opposing equal pay.

7 Facts About Our Broken Tax System

IRS

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

1. We don’t have a progressive tax system. A truly progressive tax system would ask those who are the most well-off in America to contribute the largest share of their income in taxes. Our federal taxes are progressive, but when you account for state, local and sales taxes, top-line taxation rate isn’t really progressive at all. The share of total taxes paid is roughly in line with shares of total income across all earning levels. (Chart via Citizens for Tax Justice)

2. We’re one of the least-taxed countries in the world. Though the animating impulse of much of conservative politics is that we’re over-taxed, total government receipts are less in the United States than they are in any other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as a percent of GDP. (Chart via Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

3. Not many companies pay the corporate tax rate—and some don’t pay any corporate taxes at all. Politicians and corporate lobbyists are fond of saying the US corporate tax rate of 35 percent is the highest in the world, which is technically true—but thanks to expansive tax loopholes, many corporations don’t pay nearly that much. Citizens for Tax Justice looked at consistently profitable Fortune 500 companies and found they paid 19.4 percent of their profits in taxes over the past five years. (Note that a single taxpayer earning $37,000 annually pays a 25 percent rate.) Many big companies don’t pay any taxes at all. (Chart via Citizens for Tax Justice)

4. Some of your tax dollars are given to hugely profitable companies. You’ll note in the chart above that these companies have a negative tax rate—meaning they actually get money from the government. This can come in the form of federal tax breaks and other preferential treatment of certain financial instruments. Then consider the subsidies given directly to industry, along with the safety net programs some of these companies force employees to rely on, and the number gets quite big.

Take Walmart, the largest private employer in the country. They take in $16 billion in profits annually. Yet, all told, Walmart cost taxpayers $7.8 billion last year, according to Americans for Tax Fairness:

5. Meanwhile, some people are actually taxed into poverty. Many high-profile conservatives like to complain about their supposedly oppressive tax rates. (Sean Hannity threatened to leave New York state because of the property taxes on his $3.6 million Long Island home.) But there’s one group—low-wage childless adults—who can literally be taxed into poverty.

Americans don’t start owing federal income taxes until they’re at the poverty line. Moreover, the government gives Earned Income Tax Credit to the working poor to offset their payroll tax burden, which eats up a large share of their earnings. That works fine for low-wage Americans with children—but the EITC is oddly structured in a way where childless adults receive only a paltry credit.

A childless adult earning poverty-line wages ($12,119 in 2013) would have a combined payroll and income tax liability of $1,139, but receive only a $169 EITC. This person would be below the poverty line once he or she pays taxes. That doesn’t line up with the credits received by families with children, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.

President Obama has proposed a dramatic boost in the EITC for childless Americans.

6. Washington doesn’t like to address the deficit by raising taxes. There has been quite a bit of deficit reduction talk—and action—since 2008. Despite the fact that, as noted, government receipts in the United States are extremely low, a vast majority of the savings that DC has found has come from cutting things, not raising more revenue. (Chart via the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

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7. Much more revenue is out there. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has unveiled a budget plan that closes corporate tax loopholes and recoups lost taxes due to stashed overseas profits, and also contemplates a tax on Wall Street transactions. On tax day, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee unveiled 33,000 signatures in support of that budget. “It’s about fairness. It’s about people paying their fair share,” said Representative Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the CPC, on a press call.

In order to raise more tax revenue, corporations paying negative tax rates are a logical place to start, as are the very wealthy. They are the only ones seeing their income increase, rather than decrease. (Chart via Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Read Next: What the French e-mail meme says about America’s work culture

Al Jazeera America to the Rescue?

Ehab Al Shihabi

Ehab Al Shihabi, second from right, interim CEO for Al-Jazeera America, gestures as he chats with newsroom staff, August 20, 2013 in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

My nation column, “Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East,” is here. I went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at the Barclay’s Center, but I’m in Spain on vacation with my family, and it’s Passover so you can read about that here. I have nothing to add that would not be mean. Sorry.

Oh, and regarding the Pulitzers, I strongly agree with the choice of The Goldfinch. It’s my favorite novel since Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Give it a try if you have not already.

Chag Sameach.

Now here’s Reed:

Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?
by Reed Richardson

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out my latest cover story for The Nation. It’s an in-depth look at Al Jazeera America and whether or not the network can redeem what is an increasingly tragic landscape of cable news. (I also wrote a more granular, minute-by-minute comparison of the network's coverage to that of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News on Election Night back in November, if you're interested.)

Notably, right after my story came out, AJAM announced its first layoffs, of a few dozen staffers. While no doubt embarrassing for a network still trying to reach escape velocity, these growing pains aren’t necessarily a bad thing in the long-term. In reporting the story, it was mind-boggling the amount of resources—both full-time staff and freelancers—the network had brought on board for the launch. Ridding itself of some of that temporary, start-up baggage was probably inevitable and wise. So too was the network’s decision to dump its inexplicable devotion to what amounted to token sports coverage, something I noticed (and called out) in my blog post last fall.

Not so encouraging, however, was AJAM’s choice to scale back of its social media-focused half-hour talk show, The Stream, from six times a week to once. Having spent an afternoon watching that show behind the scenes, it seemed to offer a glimpse into a more engaged, democratized future of news discussion, thanks to its hearty use of the show’s hashtag and a second-screen app that deeply integrated viewer Tweets and user-made thirty-second videos into each TV broadcast. Then again, such a web-focused show was perhaps ahead of its time. Though an Al Jazeera English version of The Stream—with different content—is broadcast around the world via the web, AJAM’s edition was blocked by the network to abide by the current licensing rules of US cable providers. Or as the show’s own producers lamented to me, the irony of their situation was not at all lost on them: here in America, The Stream actually doesn’t stream.

Paradoxes like these were the most surprising and tragic elements of the story to me. And while I’m both hopeful for and skeptical of AJAM’s long-term prospects for success, the biggest takeaway in reporting this piece was how inherently problematic and counterproductive the cable TV market can be as a conduit for cable TV news. For example, after the network stubbornly refused to pay for cable carriage for months, AJAM CEO Ehab Al Shihabi acknowledged to me that the network’s recent distribution deal with Time Warner did involve “an incentive plan” (which he nonetheless insisted should not be considered “pay”). But it’s telling that AJAM was willing to bend this far to get onto a cable provider that, while the second-largest in the country, had still lost subscribers for eighteen consecutive quarters as of the start 2014. The proposed Time Warner merger with No. 1-ranked Comcast would no doubt only exacerbate this kind of inverted power dynamic and, as Senator Franken ably put it, be a “disaster” for American consumers.

Given enough time, Al Jazeera America just may be good enough to save cable news, but by the time it does, cable TV itself may not be worth saving anymore.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Reed: After the latest mass shooting on Sunday, this one at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas by an anti-Semitic, white supremacist, I felt compelled to re-post on Twitter an Altercation column on gun control I wrote not long after the Newtown massacre. It looked at what real gun reform would look like and cost here in the US if we, as a nation, finally decided to confront this self-inflicted health crisis. It prompted this response that I thought worth sharing.

The Mail:

Michael Arter
Melbourne, Australia

Hi Reed,

Good article contrasting the different responses towards gun reform between Australia and the US.

Here in Australia there were actually many other massacres prior to Port Arthur. Two occurred here in Melbourne, while another occurred in Sydney. All of these occurred within a ten-year period.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoddle_Street_massacre

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Street_massacre

In most every occurrence, Port Arthur included, they were committed by young males with mental health issues with the ability to gain easy access to firearms.

I'm sure the desire to commit these atrocities is there with some young troubled males, however, they are no longer able to gain access to these weapons and therefore the threat has been largely removed. That's not to say it won't occur again, but thankfully it has been almost twenty years since Port Arthur.

It seems that virtually every unfortunate massacre that occurred in the US has been committed by a young troubled male as well so to me that has to be the priority to make it much harder to gain access.

It intrigues me this argument that the criminal element will always have access to these weapons, yes they will, but it is not criminals going around causing massacres, it is troubled young males.

I do hope one day the power of the NRA is reduced and sensible gun reform is passed.

As a father of a young daughter I'm glad to be in a country where she can happily go to school and we don't have to be even remotely worried about anything untoward happening. I sincerely hope that can be the reality over there one day as well.

Yours Sincerely,

Michael Arter

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Read Next: Peter C. Baker on how turning Kitty Genovese's murder into a parable erased its particulars.

Climate Change Is Here—It’s Too Late for Pessimism

Runge reservoir in Chile

The Runge reservoir in Chile has suffered severe droughts in recent years. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

More disturbing than any horror movie, Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series about climate change that premiered last night, is essential viewing. The series documents the far-reaching consequences of climate change, and nothing, we’re shown—no person, no industry, no institution; no job, no religion, no nation—is exempt from the effects of climate change.

Living Dangerously is the latest environmental klaxon, bringing together star power (The premiere episode opens with Harrison Ford flying a reconfigured-for-science fighter plane to gather pollution data), money (James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Weintraub are executive producers), and smarts (The Guardian calls the series’s experts “the best science team you could imagine”). Like Showtime’s last serial documentary, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, in which historical revelations practically guaranteed that viewers would emerge boiling mad about how the twentieth century unfolded, Living Dangerously will make you boiling mad about the climate calamity that awaits us in the twenty-first.

But that’s sort of the point. This is must-see TV, and in just the first ten minutes, you’ll hear enough pessimistic quotables to fill this entire post. It’s hard to ignore that pessimism. “The world is going to be suffering in a lot of ways from this physical reality for a long time to come,” NASA scientist Laura Iraci tells Ford. Note that there’s no conditional in her warning. Our environmental crisis has progressed beyond “might” and “probably” to “is” and “will.” Dahr Jamail outlined this awful inevitability here in December. Ford, while looking at frightening data and satellite imagery at a NASA lab in Northern California, asks, “This is actual data, not a projection?” The devastating answer, courtesy of Dr. Rama Nemani, is a simple “Yes.”

As Don Cheadle, another participant, points out in the episode, climate change is engendering yet another “Two Americas” situation—namely, those (primarily coastal) who are genuinely concerned about the crisis, and those who aren’t, despite the very real effects climate change is having on their communities (representatives of whom Cheadle finds in Texas). Living Dangerously is a necessary tool to address this disconnect, to make plain the connections between deforestation in Indonesia and job losses in American agriculture, between record heat and mothballed factories. The days of resignation, of chalking things up to acts of god, to “how it’s always been,” are over, the series explains; we, as citizens of the planet, need to act.

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Yet despite the doomsday scenarios described, the series is itself an article of hope. It’s easy to look at the numbers, read the analyses and draw the conclusion that, in fact, all is lost, that there’s no point in even making an effort. (“Imagine, Harrison, that Fargo, North Dakota, is like Phoenix,” says Google Earth’s Rebecca Moore while looking at a map of projected high temperatures in the United States in 2100.) But there’s Ford, headed to Indonesia to investigate the palm oil industry; there’s Cheadle, investigating parched ranches in New Mexico and a company town in Texas that’s lost its company. Thomas Friedman appears to connect the dots between the worst drought in modern Syrian history and the nation’s descent into civil war.

As the series progresses, a team of actors, activists and journalists will lead viewers through a series of reports and dispatches from around the world. In two episodes, for example, Nation contributing editor and former Washington editor Chris Hayes files reports about Superstorm Sandy and rising ocean levels. On his show on MSNBC, Hayes noted the necessary immediacy of the series: climate change, he says, “is not some future thing. This is it 2014. It is here now. You can go to these places and see it.”

We need this kind of visible activism. Denial, resignation and despair are not options. By bringing together actors, scientists, journalists and philanthropists, Living Dangerously provides a necessary spark, not just to get a conversation going, but also to put a fire underneath those who have it in their power to make changes commensurate to the scale of the crisis.

Read Next: Brentin Mock: “Who’s Really to Blame for the Ravages of Climate Change?

A. Philip Randolph Was Right: ‘We Will Need To Continue Demonstrations’

A. Philip Randolph

A. Philip Randolph, national president of the Negro American Labor Council and director of the March on Washington (AP Photo)

On the morning after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, its initiator and director declared no victory.

Indeed, A. Philip Randolph announced, “We will need to continue demonstrations.”

Randolph, who was born 125 years ago today, took the long view.

“Legislation is enacted under pressure,” argued the labor leader and civil rights pioneer who had first called for a March on Washington in 1941, when he was advocating for the integration of defense industries. “You can’t move senators and congressmen just because a measure is right. There must be pressure.”

Randolph, who from his initial days in the 1920s as the essential organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters made the union both a labor and civil rights organization, played the pivotal role in making the 1963 march a reality. He insisted on its extended message: that of a campaign for “jobs and freedom” that recognized the vital significance of linking economic and social justice.

Randolph believed in making concrete economic demands, and in following them up with pressure for specific and meaningful action by presidents and senators, governors and mayors. As a Socialist Party stalwart, who backed the presidential candidacies of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas over those of the major party contenders, Randolph had no allegiance to Democrats or Republicans. He put his faith in organizing, demonstrating and marching. He was a partisan on behalf of economic justice and democracy.

Late in the day of August 28, 1963, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had finished his “I Have a Dream” speech, Randolph and King joined civil rights and labor leaders for a visit with John F. Kennedy at the White House. The invitation was important, as it represented a presidential embrace of a march that Kennedy and his cautious aides had initially dismissed and discouraged. But Randolph did not imagine that the official welcome meant that the whole of the march’s agenda had been embraced. He and his allies kept the pressure up for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, signed those measures.

But Randolph kept making demands.

Along with other key figures from the March on Washington, labor allies and top economists, he returned to the White House in the fall of 1965 and began outlining a “Freedom Budget For All Americans” that had as its goals

the abolition of poverty

guaranteed full employment

fair prices for farmers

fair wages for workers

housing and healthcare for all

the establishment of progressive tax and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families.

The Freedom Budget was a visionary document—so visionary that, even now, its language and its ambitions read like excerpts from a speech by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a call to organize fast-food workers or the agenda of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the “Fight for 15” drive to establish living-wage protections.

It proved, however, to be too ambitious for the 1960s.

Lyndon Johnson gave Randolph a Medal of Freedom but not a full embrace of the Freedom Budget. While the War on Poverty was surely influenced by Randolph’s advocacy—along with the writing of the labor leader’s friend and ally Michael Harrington—it never saw the commitments that the aging labor leader or the young writer sought.

Nothing saddened Randolph more, as he believed that the Freedom Budget was essential to making real the full “jobs and freedom” promise of the March on Washington, a promise expressed by Dr. King in his stirring plea “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

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Interviewed in the mid-1970s, as he was nearing his ninetieth year, Randolph explained, “My philosophy was the result of our concept of effective liberation of the Negro through the liberation of the working people. We never separated the liberation of the white working man from the liberation of the black working man.”

“The unity of these forces,” argued Randolph, “would bring about the power to really achieve social change.

The March on Washington was an epic event in American history. It occurred on a single day, but it was part of an arc of history that began long before August 28, 1963, and that extends to the present. A. Philip Randolph, who lived until 1979, was able to reflect on a good measure of that history. But he was not inclined toward self-congratulation. Rather, in his last interviews and speeches, he recalled the Freedom Budget and he spoke of the work yet to be done.

Among all the reasons for recalling Randolph’s remarkable contributions, it is perhaps most important to remember that Randolph was not satisfied. The March on Washington bent the arc of history toward progress, but Randolph never stopped applying pressure—to Democratic and Republican presidents, to members of Congress of both major parties and every ideology. He was an independent radical who always believed, as he said on that morning in 1963, “We will need to continue demonstrations.”

 

Read Next: Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists

We Are Witnessing Civil War in Ukraine

Donetsk, Ukraine

Pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in central Donetsk, March 8, 2014 (Reuters/Konstantin Chemichkin)

Friction between Russia and the West remains high as Ukrainians prepare for a presidential election scheduled for May 25. Russia has mobilized as many as 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border and NATO is making moves along Ukraine’s western border. Pro-Russian demonstrators have seized government buildings in several towns in Eastern Ukraine—Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk—and de facto government in Kiev is calling for United Nations peacekeepers to intervene. The Nation’s editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel joined Sonali Kolhatkar on Uprising Radio to discuss this unfolding crisis.

“We are witnessing civil war,” vanden Heuvel says, one that was “triggered by the European Union’s reckless ultimatum—despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer of a tripartite agreement—which compelled an elected president of a deeply divided country to choose economically between the West and Russia.” She says that a cooling of tensions is still very much within the realm of possibilities, but cautions that peace has its preconditions. First, diplomacy between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU needs to proceed in good faith. Additionally, all Ukrainians must be fairly represented in the upcoming presidential elections—and Kiev must take seriously the idea of granting more autonomy to regional administrations.

For more on the US’s role in the crisis, read vanden Heuvel’s post, “Thanks to Republicans, the World Just Got a Little More Dangerous.”

—David Kortava

Today on the Action McNews Network: The Disappearance of Democracy in the US

Tom Tomorrow

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What the French E-mail Meme Reveals About America’s Runaway Culture of Work

French workers take part in a demonstration over labor reforms in Toulouse

French workers take part in a demonstration over labor reforms in Toulouse (Reuters/Jean-Philippe Arles)

Last week, a dazzling meme captured the viral hive-mind of an overstressed generation: French workers had adopted a new labor policy to ban work-related e-mail after 6 pm.

The rule would supposedly force managers of workers in tech and consulting jobs to stop sending e-mails and other business communications outside of designated work schedules. It was described as a mandate for workers to “resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones—or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita.” Awkwardly Italian slang-reference notwithstanding, the Brits aired classic bon mots about France’s notorious leisure culture had led them to “[ban] bosses from bothering them once the working day is done.”

In a half-jeering, half-envious tone, commentators trumpeted France’s hardline defense of living well and “life after 6 p.m.” You could almost hear the champagne glasses clinking at the strike of six as Vuitton-clad employees powered down their mobiles in lockstep and promptly flipped off the supervisor.

In reality, France’s off-clock life remains essentially unchanged. The image of legions of French office grunts downing smartphones en masse was, alas, slightly hyperbolic. As Buzzfeed and others pointed out, this was not a law, but something known as a “labor agreement.” On behalf of a group of organized professional employees, the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) and CGC (Confédération générale des cadres) unions engaged employer’s associations via collective bargaining and agreed to an “obligation to disconnect from remote communications tools” outside of normal working hours, which professionals measure by days worked annually (no set hours, much less a post-6 pm ban). The measure, aimed at preserving workers’ health and wellness, now awaits approval by the Labor Ministry.

The agreement covers mid-managerial professionals whose schedules tend to be more erratic—or what corporate America terms “flexible.” The 250,000 affected employees represent some of the most stressed-out “knowledge economy” workers, and the labor arrangement simply aims to limit stress by placing some restrictions to how much work intrudes on the personal lives of workers. Besides, France’s famous thirty-five-hour workweek does not apply to these workers, and they are generally allowed up to seventy-eight work-hours in a given week—hardly a life of leisure. And the policy is not unprecedented. The German Labor Ministry and Volkswagen’s administration have recently enacted similar curbs on after-work contact between staff and higher-ups.

There are, as one French worker told the BBC, “moments when you just need to chillax.… Good for business, good for people, as well.”

More curious than the e-mail proposition was the grossly inaccurate media portrayal—echoing a time-honored tradition of deriding the French as effete snobs on the one hand, and retrograde European welfare spongers on the other. The trope of the atrophying welfare regime has long played opposite the can-do vigor of American-style capitalism.

Outside commentators tend to fixate on France’s robust labor protections, such as its religiously observed Sunday work holiday—as if they were bizarre medieval lost rites (conservatives deploy terms like “anti-growth” and “dangerously uncompetitive”). Last year saw a rash of “lazy French” headlines, stemming from the embittered commentary of Morry Taylor, CEO of the tire company Titan, who railed in a published letter: “They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three.… They told me that’s the French way…!”

And yet, the pathos of la belle vie has not stopped the OECD from ranking France among the most “productive” countries in terms of GDP per hour worked. And according to 2011 data, the French actually work about forty hours per week, despite the thirty-five-hour limit—somewhat below Germany but about comparable to the EU average.

From a historical standpoint, America is the outlier. As The New Yorker reports, during the last century, working hours declined on both sides of the Atlantic. But as neoliberalism crystallized in the 1980s, “Europe consolidated its generous welfare state, and the US, under Ronald Reagan, began dismantling its own in the name of making its economy more competitive.” And American work schedules have accelerated toward an ever-more feverish pace (even as actual earnings sag).

Americans might rethink France’s reputed “laziness” as efficiency tempered by joie de vivre. Compared to US quality of life, French people spend hundreds more hours annually on leisure and personal care, enjoy over twice as many vacation days and yet end up with a third more disposable household income. And, The New Yorker observes, they maintain “a stronger social support network and a much better work-life balance than Americans (not to mention better bread, cheese, and wine).”

While unapologetically suckling from the state’s teat, French workers also benefit from fiscal stimulus at a high rate, with some 240,000 jobs directly generated by government in 2011. Of course, some Americans may recoil at such Keynesian interventionism. But from a labor standpoint, this demonstrates the maintenance of the state’s essential role in safeguarding workers from the volatility of the Eurozone crisis—a crisis that, while certainly disrupting France’s economy, is also a product of the very same breakneck “growth” that free-marketeers tout as the solution.

The fundamental difference between French and American work cultures lies in collective consciousness. French workers saw about 700 work stoppages, including strikes and lockouts, in 2004 (the last year for which official data is available), compared to less than 140 for the Brits and a piddling seventeen for Americans.

French labor’s militancy, not sloth, is likely the true source of Titan’s scorn. Taylor’s missive grumbled about “the crazy union” for rejecting the firm’s attempt to cut hours and ultimately refusing to negotiate on job cuts, leading to a breakdown of contract talks in 2011. So the French workforce was hardly lazy about defending what mattered.

Yet French labor is fighting a war of attrition, and the new e-mail rules reveal that the professional class is on the defensive. As in the United States, hypercompetitive, 24-7 startup culture is driving France’s white-collar workers toward that all-too-familiar obsessive, lethal workaholism.

Gerald Friedman, a specialist in French labor history at University of Massachussetts-Amherst, says via e-mail that organizing around the issue of off-hours work time is “a new area for wage labor,” arising in response to the “gig” economy. Today’s professionals jockey for work, and “if they don’t take every available job, they risk having no work at all.” Setting reasonable limits on off-clock time, he adds, “is an area that needs to be addressed through collective action.”

The agreement to control out-of-office communications represents the concerns of France’s “cadre” class, a distinct sector of French organized labor comprised of technicians and managers. (It is yet to be seen whether similar regulations will be expanded to include lower-level office workers.)

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For France’s ordinary proles, the labor conflicts of the past few years have not ended with mutual agreement. Last year, controversy erupted over a proposal to loosen the six-day workweek rule. Street protests roiled over plans to weaken labor protections that shield workers from being sacked—a move designed to enhance “flexibility” in the labor market.

That French workers still cling to what’s left of decades of labor struggles may invite ridicule from American counterparts, but the laughter masks a latent unease, perhaps yearning. Alongside the newsfeeds spitting headlines about France’s zany e-mail ban, how many articles fret over waning work-life balance, or recommend techniques for “self-care,” meditation or even the modern rite of “unplugging.” These faddish self-help tactics suggest workers’ internalization of bone-crushing stress, viewing it as an individual flaw to “cope with,” rather than a larger social problem. Now some French workers have developed a modest proposal to manage stress. Is that the nanny state or human reason at work?

Labor historian Richard Greenwald suspects the gawking public response to the French e-mail pact exposes Americans’ imbalanced concept of a healthy work life: “Many Western democracies have attitudes towards work and workers that consider health and well-being. They protect workers, have traditions of collective bargaining and a healthier sense of balance between work and home. We on the other hand see all of this as old, out-dated notions.… We work longer hours, take less vacation and report more stress than Western Europeans. So… Maybe they aren’t so ‘crazy’.”

Bottom line: workers on both sides of the pond recognize the finer things in life, but only one society is still bold enough to demand a little civilité as policy, not just a perk.

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg explains “The Rise of the Progressive City.”

‘Bogus and Unconscionably High Fees’: How Tax Preparers Are Preying on Low-Income People

The estimated $300 billion in anticipated tax refunds this year is irresistible to predatory preparers targeting the poor. Stephen Black, director of the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama, appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss this “wild west” of an industry that leeches money from impoverished communities. Families expecting the earned income tax credit, in need of help with tax preparation but without access to the certified CPAs that do taxes for the wealthy, turn instead to shady pop-up operations that sprout during tax season. “The average single mother working at Walmart making $19,000 a year, raising two kids, goes into one of these places,” says Black, “and will come out $300” poorer.
—Corinne Grinapol