Teaching George Borjas’ Labor Economics; a real Vietnamese song  

We presented the first 17 of our 33 powerpoint slides on the Borjas book in a session yesterday afternoon with Dean Hoa, Miss La, Mr. Theit and Ms Pem, with Vinh translating. This book has been chosen to be part of the curriculum for the “Top 100” courses, a program at TDTU that is scheduled to be taught to students from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other ASEAN countries starting two years from now. The “Top 100” refers to a list of the top one hundred universities in the world, which TDTU aspires to join. I have also heard it called the “Top 26,” referring to universities in the ASEAN group. These courses will use books used in the top 100 universities in their programs. There will be some twenty or more courses in this program, and part of our assignment is to go through the books chosen for these courses one by one and help the teachers prepare. All the courses will be taught in English.

Borjas teaches at Harvard, in the Kennedy School, and this is the 6th edition of his book.

We decided that the way to provide a structure for teaching this book to Vietnamese and Southeast Asian trade unionists was to frame it three ways: First, to place Borjas’ book in the context of other approaches to labor economics, noting the difference between the approaches of neoclassical (free market, neoliberal) economists and political economists (radical, pro-worker, including Marxists).  Second, to talk about Borjas’ specialized use of ordinary words. These usages have to be defined because they do not mean what ordinary speech takes them to mean. This is invisible to non-native English speakers. Examples are “prefer”(as if people have a choice), “positive and normative,” “utility”, and the “labor-leisure bundle,” etc.. Third, to put Borjas’ actual words up on the screen, so that students can get a taste of his ideas as he expressed them and have at least some of the experience of having read the book.
We were working from a pdf of the book. Students will not have actual paper copies of the book.

Borjas is a straight up neoclassical free-market economist. To him, economics begins and ends with the market, with what price something can bring on the market. Everything can be and should be for sale. He understands workers as trying to sell labor at the highest price, and “firms” to try to buy labor at the lowest possible price. He is clear that this means they are motivated differently. He doesn’t actually use the words class conflict, much less class struggle. This is not because he thinks the class struggle is over. It’s because he doesn’t think in terms of class. To him, workers are not a class, they are individuals. If workers were to organize into unions and act like a class, that would be a market distortion. In his chapter on labor, he argues that the union wage effect (union wages are higher) is about the same as the effect that you get by licensing a profession.

Ironically, Vietnam’s socialism took workers and employers to be on the same side, both motivated by the desire to develop and protect their country. Class conflict had been resolved. Two generations after the reunification, this idea still holds. This is how it’s possible that a firm’s HR professional can simultaneously be the union president – unions and firms harmonize together and solve problems together.

Which means that when capitalist firms come in to hire Vietnamese workers, expecting to pay nearly the lowest wages in the world, the current generations of Vietnamese workers since 1975 do not have a history or a set of relationships – at least not a formal, public one – ready to fight back. Yes, they have a union, the VGCL,but it mainly represents the interests of workers to the government.  Problem-solving at the local level is done through mediation, which they are trying to develop and expand, but it has the goal of harmonizing labor and capital, not fighting back.

Borjas legitimizes this situation with charts, graphs, and equations using Greek letters, and enshrines it in the glow of the Harvard name. To make his book useful, rather than stupefying, to Vietnamese trade unionists who may be in a position to actually move things forward, it has to be accompanied by the tools with which to critique and contextualize it and some clarity about who profits from spreading its agenda.

Discussions during and following our presentation of the Borjas’ material were lively. Our attempts to frame the book were understood as criticism. We did not get past more than 17 of the slides.

Later, I asked Dean Hoa if he had noticed that the textbook comes with a weblink that gives you access to a lot of teacher resources, including a set of powerpoint slides.

We went to Miss La’s class on labor law. She had a beautiful basket of flowers for me, in honor of Women’s Day. Then a young man sang a song. It was the most beautiful piece of Vietnamese music that I’ve ever heard. It was long and emotional and of course a capella. I wouldn’t call it operatic, although it was complex. His voice moved up and down into a falsetto at times. I was amazed. It seemed to have a pattern, but it wasn’t just a repetition of verses. This is nothing like either the traditional music we heard up at Na Trang, in the coffee shop. Nor is it anything like the music that gets blasted at 7 am in the soccer stadium, which ranges from movie soundtrack orchestral stuff to rap. This was completely different, complex, beautiful and gripping to listen to.

Then the boy went back to his desk and laid his head down for the rest of the period.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Teaching George Borjas’ Labor Economics; a real Vietnamese song  

  1. We didn’t reference his immigration studies. For the purpose of teaching Vietnamese trade unionists, that would be too far a reach and the Cuba-Vietnam connection would take too much explaining. I think it’s enough to let Borjas’ own words display where he’s coming from. I think Borjas and Piketty are on opposite sides. Thanks, I’ll take a look at Ruccio.

  2. Does teaching Borjas include reference to his immigration studies and advocacy for reducing immigration to the US? I was also wondering what labor economist might make the best introduction for Picketty type ideas. Personally, I’d look at David Ruccio

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