Labor Economics: Theory, Institutions, and Public Policy

By Ray Marshall; Vernon M. Briggs Jr. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The Study of Labor Economics

It was more than coincidental that the first systematic formulation of the discipline of economics occurred during the Industrial Revolution. In 1776 Adam Smith published his monumental treatise entitled Wealth of Nations. It was this book that, among its many insights, first postulated the idea that the wealth of a nation stemmed from its ability to organize its productive capabilities rather than the amount of treasure that a sovereign might store in the national treasury. More specifically, Smith insisted that the wealth of nations is fundamentally based on the contribution of those who do the work, or the "greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor," which is as true today as it was over two centuries ago. It was also in 1776 that Smith's fellow Scotsman, James Watt, perfected the steam engine that was to become the principal power source for the technology of that new era. And, of course, it was in that same year that the United States broke its political and institutional ties with England and declared its independence. At the time, these events seemed unrelated, but as history has shown, the United States has, for better or worse, become the quintessence of the industrial society. Industrialization -- one of the universal imperatives of our times -- brought with it a host of problems for workers, managers, and the society as a whole. Moreover, the transition to a postindustrial or, as we prefer to call it, an international information world, has required a reconsideration of many of the policies put in place in the hundred years following the Industrial Revolution. Many of these issues are the subjects and objects of the study of labor economics.

Labor economics endeavors to describe, analyze, and theorize about the organization, institutions, and behavior of the labor market in industrializing, industrialized, or internationalized information economies. Labor issues are not escaped by altering the political-ideological basis of an economy; many problems are common to all countries and all economic systems. In fact, ideological conflicts over capitalism, socialism, and communism are fought largely over the ways to address labor issues. No matter how approached, the solutions provided by the society are important determinants of its level of well-being, economic growth, and economic stability. Moreover, in modern internationalized information economies, national and personal welfare depend critically on the quality of human resources.

Labor issues are important not only for workers and employers. They also affect the members of society in their roles as consumers, voters, and taxpayers. Wage earners seek higher incomes, shorter hours, better working conditions, and employment se-

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