Posts Tagged ‘productivity’


There are two periods to focus on in this recently updated chart of the real median income of working-age American families:

  1. From 1979 to 2007, the real median income of working-age families in the United States rose 17.4 percent, even though the hourly wage increased by only 13.9 percent—which means that Americans were forced to work longer hours and send more members of the household out to work in order to enjoy higher annual incomes. During the same period, labor productivity increased dramatically, by 58.9—which means that most of the income gains went to a tiny minority at the top and not to working-class families.
  2. During the past six years, the real median income of working-age families in the United States has actually declined by 8 percent—thus erasing all of the gains workers had made from 1996 onward.

The result? American workers and their families have suffered a prolonged period of immiseration—relatively, over the course of the past three-plus decades, and now absolutely, to add injury to insult, during the Second Great Depression.


It seems, on first glance, that American Exceptionalism is alive and well.


Judging from a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans still believe that individual initiative and hard work—and not forces outside their control—determine success in life. It’s a view that was born out of a long period (beginning in the nineteenth century and lasting until the mid-1970s) during which people’s standards of living increased within and across generations as, decade after decade, wages roughly kept pace with productivity increases.

Of course, things have changed dramatically over the course of the past four decades, as the gap between wages and productivity has continued to grow.

inequality-challenge free markets

But, by and large, the majority of Americans still don’t think inequality is a big problem and continue to express their support for a “free-market system.”

policies future

Yet, Americans do believe that high taxes would do more than low taxes to reduce the gap between rich and poor. And, perhaps most worrisome from the perspective of American Exceptionalism, many more people (65 compared 30 percent) expect that the next generation will be financially worse off than the current generation.

Not only are they correct. As it turns out, there’s nothing particularly exceptional in that view, since the majority of people in the advanced economies share the same dire prospect about the future.

And they should—unless and until fundamental changes are made in the way the economies of their countries are fundamentally transformed and reorganized.


According to a new report jointly issued by the OECD, World Bank, and the International Labor Organization, “G20 labour markets: outlook, key challenges and policy responses” [pdf], the gap between the growth of productivity and the growth of real wages started long before the most recent crisis and, apart from a short reversal during the depth of the crisis (when productivity fell), has continued to widen since 2010.

labor share

One of the consequences of that growing gap is a “substantial and widespread” decline in the labor share of national income.

Together, the wage-productivity gap and the declining labor share are a cause of the current crisis and a consequence of the kind of recovery that has been enacted in the years since the crash of 2007-08.

hourly wages-1979-2013

According to the Economic Policy Institute [pdf],

For all but the highest earners, hourly wages have either stagnated or declined since 1979 (with the exception of a period of strong across-the-board wage growth in the late 1990s). Median hourly wages rose just 6.1 percent (or 0.2 percent annually) between 1979 and 2013, compared with a decline of 5.3 percent (or -0.2 percent annually) for the 10th percentile worker (i.e., the worker who earns more than only 10 percent of workers). Over the same period, the 95th percentile worker saw growth of 40.6 percent, for an annual gain of 1.0 percent.

During that same period, productivity in the U.S. economy grew 64.9 percent.

annual wages-1979-2012

Only the “wages” of the top 1 percent (when measured in terms of real annual wages) surpassed the growth of productivity. The cumulative change in the wages of all other groups was less.

In other words, most of the growing amount of value produced by American workers wasn’t paid back to them in the form of wages but, instead, was either retained by their employers or distributed to a tiny group of CEOs and managers at the top.


The OECD [pdf] has just come in with its latest long-term economic projection. And the results ain’t pretty: they forecast slower growth for the global economy and even slower growth for the developed countries (both under relatively rosy predictions about productivity growth and rising immigration requirements), and even those lower growth rates will be challenged and potentially undermined by the effects of climate change.

Perhaps even more important, they expect the existing trend of growing inequality (as seen in the chart above) to continue through 2060 (as see in the charts below).


The bottom-line message: the best capitalism has to offer is probably over. It’s certainly over for the richest countries, and during the next 50 years it will probably end for the other countries that make up the world economy. Even if the existing institutions hang on (under the suggested policy regime of more globalization, more privatization, more austerity, and more migration), the result will be rising inequality within countries.

How long, then, before we decide an alternative set of economic institutions is necessary?


The top-of-the-page articles today (e.g., in the New York Times) are all about strong job growth, lower unemployment, and higher wages.

All true. But, as Neil Irwin cautions, we should hold the fireworks. His view is not there is a “soft underbelly,” but that “this halting, sluggish recovery has taught us anything, it is to not let our assessments of the economy be driven by hope, but rather by sustained and credible improvement in a wide range of economic data.”

My view is that—notwithstanding recent job growth, falling unemployment, and higher wages—there is still an enormous gap (as reflected in the chart above) between the wealth workers are producing and what they’re receiving in compensation.

That’s why the stock market continues to soar (this morning, the Dow broke 17,000 for the first time ever), benefiting a tiny minority at the top, while the 99 percent continue to fall further and further beyond.



The gap between the growth of productivity (now at 11.4 percent above January 2007) and that of wages (only 1.5 percent higher) continues to widen (according to Reuters).

Is it any wonder, then, that income inequality continues to rise?