Archive for August, 2014

Chart of the day

Posted: 31 August 2014 in Uncategorized
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According to Gallup’s latest annual Work and Education Survey [ht: db],

Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours.

That’s because salaried employees work longer hours than hourly workers (49 vs. 44 hours per week, respectively) and because many workers are being forced to take on more than one job (12 percent of full-time workers have two jobs, and 1 percent have three or more). However, even restricting the analysis to full-time workers who have only one job, the average number of hours worked is 46—still well over 40.

The excessive number of hours worked is a real boon to U.S. employers—not so much for American workers. Consider this: more than 9 million people are officially unemployed in the United States and half of American workers who have managed to find and keep their jobs are being forced to stay on the job more than the standard number of hours per week.

Happy Labor Day!


Inflation appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing…

One one level, inflation is extremely obvious: it’s an increase in the prices of the commodities people buy. Bread, gasoline, housing, and so on. When their prices go up, we are witnessing (and, for many, suffering) inflation. (The opposite, when prices fall, is deflation.)

Why is inflation important? Well, for most of us, our money (or nominal) incomes are eaten away by increases in prices. Therefore, over time, our real incomes are less than our nominal incomes, thus permitting us to purchase less.

Here’s an illustration of the difference:


According to calculations by Doug Short, while nominal income of the average household in mid-2014 was about 32 percent higher than it was in 2000, real household income had actually declined by about 6 percent. In other words, just because median household income had grown in nominal terms doesn’t mean that their standard of living—in terms of commodities they could purchase—had actually gone up. In fact, it went down (and had been going down for most of the 2000s, even before the Second Great Depression began).

But then there’s a second issue. Friends and acquaintances often complain to me that, while “the government” is reporting relatively low inflation (of less than 2 percent in recent years), the prices of the commodities they’re purchasing seem to be going up more than that. (It’s a complaint that is aggravated by a whole host of liberal economists arguing that economic policy should encourage a level of inflation higher than the official rate.)

Part of the problem is that there are different measures of inflation. The headline number is the Consumer Price Index, calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Technically, the measure most reported in the press is CPI-U, the Consumer Price Index for urban consumers.) Why is the CPI (or CPI-U) so important? Because it’s often used to “deflate” (i.e., correct for price changes) a wide variety of government programs, such as Social Security. And it’s often used by employers to justify small wage and salary increases—as in “Inflation is low, so your expectation of a larger increase in what I pay you is simply not justified.”

The major problem with the BLS measure of inflation is that it’s not based on a fixed basket of goods. Instead, the presumption is that people substitute some commodities for others they had been purchasing.(As the BLS explains, “The ability to substitute means that the increase in the cost to consumers of maintaining their level of well-being tends to be somewhat less than the increase in the cost of the mix of goods and services they previously purchased.) So, the CPI is not really measuring what is costs us to purchase the commodities we’re used to consuming.

As Perianne Boring explains for Forbes,

the CPI is not a measurement of rising prices, rather it tracks consumer spending patterns that change as prices change. The CPI doesn’t even touch the falling value of money. If it did the CPI would look much different.

The issue gets even more complicated because there are lots of different measures of inflation out there. In addition to the BLS measure (which is used for government programs like Social Security as well as the Federal income tax structure), there’s the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) index collected by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which is closely followed by the Federal Open Market Committee; the core PCE price index, which excludes the more volatile and seasonal food and energy prices; the Producer Price Index (PCI), which measures the average changes in prices receive by domestic producers for their output; the GDP deflator, the measure of prices calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that used to calculate the “real” amount of goods and services produced in the U.S. economy; and many others.*

My own view, for what it’s worth, is the real rate of inflation for consumer goods is higher than the official rate of 2.2 percent (over the past 12 months), thereby understating the extent to which working people are facing rising prices for the commodities they need to purchase in order to maintain themselves and their families. In addition, most people are receiving wages and salaries that simply are not rising much more, from one year to the next, than the official inflation rate.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that people are feeling squeezed and find the kinds of economic policies advocated by mainstream economists quite strange—both the call for austerity by conservative economists (based on the idea that galloping inflation is right around the corner) and the call for more inflation (based on the idea that real interest rates should be negative, in order to boost economic activity). Neither policy—abounding as they are in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties—would help working people who, right now, are facing both rising prices and stagnant incomes.


*And then, of course, there’s the measure of inflation produced by John Williams for Shadow Government Statistics. The ShadowStats measure is much higher than the official rate: anywhere from 6 to 10 percent, compared to the official (CPI) rate of 2 percent. Doug Short notes a problem with the ShadowStats price index: a 1967 median household income of, let’s say, $7,143 in 2012 dollars would have had the purchasing power of $185,588.


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The Wall Street Journal reported today that U.S. corporations “posted record profits during the second quarter.”

After-tax corporate profits, without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments, rose 6% from the first quarter to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.840 trillion—after two consecutive quarters of declining profits. Profits last quarter were up 4.5% from a year earlier. Thursday’s report included the first profit estimates, which aren’t adjusted for inflation, for the second quarter. . .

As a share of nominal GDP, corporate profits rose last quarter but fell short of an all-time high.

Profits hit a record 10.7% of GDP in the third quarter of 2013, slipping to 10.5% in the fourth quarter and 10.2% in the first quarter. They totaled 10.6% of GDP in the second quarter.

At the same time, consumer spending declined in July. Why?

On the surface, the weak spending figures appear at odds with accelerating job creation. The last six months saw the strongest stretch of payroll gains since 2006. Underpinning those gains, however, was hiring in low-wage fields such as restaurants, retailers and temporary jobs. At the same time, a historically high number of Americans aren’t participating in the labor force or are working part time but would prefer a full-time job. . .

“Higher wages have been slow to appear and gains in the stock market are not enjoyed by all,” said Chris Christopher, an Global Insight economist. “More widespread income gains are needed to get all consumers back on solid footing.”

In other words, it’s still a tale of two recoveries: the best of times for corporate profits, the worst of times for the vast majority of the population.


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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.


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The original cartoon, by Adam Bessie and Dan Carino, includes links to further reading embedded within the images.