I read the following paragraph in Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser and found two ideas that might interest my students. First, why did less-skilled workers in Cleveland and Detroit earn more than more-skilled workers in Boston and Minneapolis. Glaeser suggests that unionization of low-skilled workers is at least a partial explanation. Second, the earnings gap between skilled and unskilled workers has grown causing increased earnings inequality. As you read the paragraph, ask yourself if, from a normative perspective, it is more fair that less skilled worker who organized through unions earned more than workers who increased their skills set.
The connection between urban skills and urban productivity has grown steadily stronger throughout the developed world since the 1970s. In those days, less-skilled places that were filled with highly paid, unionized factory workers often earned more than more-skilled areas. In 1970, per capita incomes were higher in industrial areas like Cleveland and Detroit than in better-educated metropolitan areas like Boston and Minneapolis. Over the past thirty years, however, the less-skilled manufacturing cities have faltered while the more-skilled idea-producing cities have thrived. In 1980, men with four years of college earned about 33 percent more than high school graduates, but by the mid-1990s, that earnings gap had increased to nearly 70 percent. Over the past thirty years, American society has become more unequal, partly because the marketplace increasingly rewards people with more skills.