checking in on Matt Yglesias’s yoga instructors

Erik Loomis has an excellent response to Vox and friend’s neoliberals-circle-the-wagons routine. As he and Jeff Spross point out, the “if you care about the American poor, you hate the Chinese poor” claims are bogus, eliminating other alternatives that would improve living conditions for both Chinese and American workers alike, playing both against our capitalist overlords instead of against each other. I highly recommend both pieces.

Rather than taking Annie Lowrey’s lead in ridiculing poor people in Mississippi from her Macbook in Manhattan, let’s consider a common Marxist take on globalization instead. Globalization, in this view, is a kind of fake internationalism, a phony one devised to eliminate some walls between countries (the ones that impede the flow of profit-generating capital) while maintaining others (the kind that create different levels of worker protection and wages, allowing capitalists to use one group’s powerlessness to reduce the power of the other, and prevent international worker solidarity). As Loomis says, playing different groups of workers against each other this way is bogus; there is no a priori reason why the gains of the poorer nations couldn’t be achieved without the ludicrous wealth and income inequality that’s occurred in the richer. If you truly eliminated the borders that divide workers, they could work together for universal rights to workplace regulation and worker power, eliminating the threat of shipping jobs to more favorable regimes. That, of course, would be bad for the profiteers at the top. Well, when you have the base, you have the superstructure, and the DC neoliberal politburo is playing the role of capitalist enablers — excuse me, explainers — to a T.

Should we take Vox’s advice about how the American worker can get ahead? Let’s check the recent record of the publication’s chief chin scratcher, Matt Yglesias.

Now, as those of us who followed his career for a long time know, it was during his ThinkProgress tenure that he came out as a particularly unimaginative neoliberal, essentially abandoning any pretense to the traditional American liberalism that had built his readership in the first place. A few years back, in those ThinkProgress days, he really got ginned up about the idea that high-quality service jobs were the wave of the future. In particular, he developed the weirdest fixation on yoga instructor as the hot job of the days ahead. His regular commenters (we mostly threw in the towel when he took the Mickey Kaus Endowed Chair at Slate) used to joke about how often he mentioned it. In fact, he even called his vision for the future The Yoga Instructor Economy. Behold:

“The people of the future will be richer than the people of today, and therefore will more closely resemble annoying yuppies. Nicer restaurants are more labor-intensive than cheap ones, and the further up the scale you go the more specialized skills (think sommelier) come into play. Annoying yuppies take yoga classes, or even hire personal trainers. Artisanal cheese is more labor-intensive to produce than industrial cheese. More people will hire interior designers and people will get their kitchens redone more often. There will be more personal shoppers and more policemen. People will get fancier haircuts.”

Upon such wisdom are media empires built, apparently.

Four and a half years later, how are Yglesias’s yoga instructors doing? Not well! As Michelle Goldberg at New York Magazine says, while the yoga industry is doing fine, the actual instructors — the workers — are facing brutal economic conditions. The market has been flooded with instructors, thanks in part to the advice many of our sage economic thinkers ladled out, relentlessly driving wages down. In a particularly cruel twist, Goldberg notes that studios often make the most money by training new instructors, who then go on to further flood the yoga labor market. She quotes several veteran yoga teachers as saying that it’s become far harder to make it in the industry in recent years. Goldberg’s reporting matches well with this excellent piece by Ned Resnikoff from last year, which demonstrates similarly bleak labor prospects for yoga instructors and a similar downward trend.

Being wrong on the internet happens, but 2011-era Yglesias’s love for yoga instruction as the job of the future is an uncommonly direct and unambiguous example of being totally wrong. Obviously, the service economy is larger than that one profession. But in so many ways, yoga instruction epitomizes all of the rotten things about the 21st century workplace, such as “the low pay, the gig-based nature of the job, and the unpaid overtime” that Resnikoff notes. In particular, these workers lack worker organization and thus worker power, unable to come together to bargain collectively for better lives (and note that Yglesias was specifically offering service jobs as an alternative to Paul Krugman’s call for more unionization). And boy, it sucks to be a service worker. Waiters average less than $11 an hour in this country. Is the fancier haircut game a rocket to economic success? No. Artisanal cheese? Hard to say, but as this Beer Hole post on the exploitation in craft brewing points out, artisanal food production and similar “identity economy” jobs are often brutally bad deals for workers. Altogether, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the median income for Personal Care and Service Occupations in 2014 was about $25,000. So… yeah.

Perhaps poor people in Mississippi should take their economic advice from elsewhere. And tell Dylan Matthews and Annie Lowrey and Charles Kenny that if they find it so easy to be poor in America — think of the people of Zimbabwe! — they should give up their cushy gigs in the media and try yoga instruction for awhile.