Two recurring themes in the public policy debates over wages discussed in this book have been the relative weight given to profit considerations versus needs, and the centrality of cultural struggles over how people should live. In evaluating the economic success of the United States, we must pay attention to the issues of needs and of choices. A primary measure of the success of an economy is whether it provides for human well-being. Well-being requires that all members of the community be enabled to achieve a decent living. But in addition, as Amartya Sen has argued, well-being requires that all community members be allowed a voice, and significant choices about how to live their lives - what Sen describes as good choices they can really make (see, for example, Sen 1999). Well-being requires both a living and choices. Wages, in a market economy, are an important means of attaining the resources that facilitate well-being. Through the enactment of labor market policies designed to raise wages, working women and men have attempted to enhance their material livelihoods and widen their ability to choose how to live.
As the account in the previous chapters illustrates, understanding the movements to regulate wages requires a heterodox approach to economic theorizing as opposed to an approach that privileges the market over other institutions involved in wage setting. Markets matter, but so do the relative power of contending interests and cultural understandings of what constitutes a living. Mainstream economists talk about the “magic of the market, ” but, as our discussion has emphasized, markets are human-constructed, culturally embedded institutions whose outcomes are neither infallible nor beyond challenge. The “law” of supply and demand is nothing of the sort. Economic activity is undertaken through the construction of institutions, practices, and regulations that reflect cultural values and relations of power in society at a point in time. As cultural institutions, then, markets are not value-free. Normative judgements are an inherent part of economic analysis, and should be made explicit.
If economic theory is going to be a positive force in the twenty-first century, in our collective struggle for human well-being within the United States and across the globe, it must replace its emphasis on mechanistic modeling