Posts Tagged ‘1 percent’

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No matter how we measure it, most Americans are falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top.

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That’s not at all surprising. Whether we compare the growing gap between average wages and Gross Domestic Product per capita (as in the chart on the left) or real median household income and real Gross Domestic Product per capita (as in the chart on the right), it’s clear the average American has been losing out. A growing proportion of what workers produce hasn’t been going to them but to the richest households for decades now.

That does not mean, contra Robert Samuelson, that “the incomes of most Americans have stagnated for decades.” That’s a canard. No one makes that argument.

No, the real issue is that American workers have been producing more and more but getting only a tiny share of that increase. As I explained last year,

That’s what mainstream economists can’t or won’t understand: that workers may be worse off even as their wages and incomes rise. That problem flies in the face of every attempt to celebrate the existing order by claiming “just deserts.”

It’s what is known as relative immiseration. And it simply can’t be disputed by the alternative statistics invoked by Samuelson or Stephen J. Rose (pdf).

The exact numbers concerning the distribution of income in the United States depend, of course, on a whole host of assumptions and methodological choices, mostly involving what counts as “income.” The more categories that are included in income—starting with the traditional series (wages and salaries, dividends, interest, and rent) before and after taxes, and then including payments from government programs (such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the earned-income tax credit), and going so far as to add employer contributions for health insurance and 401(k) retirement accounts, the employer share of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, government noncash benefits (e.g., the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, and housing vouchers), housing services (homeowners paying rent to themselves) and government services (e.g., defense, education, legal system, and administration)—the less measured inequality turns out to be.

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In fact, as Rose demonstrates, most of the available studies show growing inequality in the United States, with a high and rising share of income captured by the top 1 percent.** The only real outlier is by Auten and Splinter, who merely demonstrate that it is possible for mainstream economists to make growing inequality virtually disappear with enough “massaging” of the underlying numbers.***

In the end, Samuelson himself is forced to admit,

None of this means we should stop debating inequality. Who gets what, and why, are inevitable subjects for examination in a rich democratic society. By contrast with many advanced societies, income and wealth are indisputably more concentrated in the United States.

And the problem of growing inequality is only going to get worse as we move forward, especially with ongoing automation. As David Autor explains,

employment is growing steadily, and its growth in terms of number of jobs has not been discernibly dented by technological progress. But the sum of wage payments to workers is growing more slowly than economic value-added, so labor’s share of the pie of net earnings is falling. This doesn’t mean that wages are falling. It means that they are not growing in lock step with value-added.

That’s exactly right. Workers’ wages and middle-class incomes may continue to rise in absolute terms but their relative standing with respect to the tiny group at the top—those who are in the position of capturing the surplus—will likely worsen.

Measure by measure, the economic and social landscape is being fractured and American workers are being left behind.

 

*So that I avoid the problem I encountered when I presented my “Merchant of Venice” paper, this post is not about Shakespeare’s play.

**The main studies include Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (pdf), Piketty, Saez and Gabriel Zucman (pdf), Gerald Auten and David Splinter (pdf), and the Congressional Budget Office. As I showed in 2016, even Rose, for all the faults in his own study, found

an enormous increase in inequality between 1979 and 2014: combined, the share of income going to the rich and upper middle-class more than doubled, from 30 to 63.1 percent, while the amount of income going to everyone else—middle-class, lower middle-class, and poor—fell precipitously, to less than 40 percent.

***Auten and Splinter arrive at such a misleading result through two statistical maneuvers: allocating underreported income (primarily business income) according to IRS audit data and retirement income. Thus, they conclude, “Our results suggest an alternative narrative about top income shares: changes in the top one percent income shares over the last half century are likely to have been relatively modest.”

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Mainstream economists continue to discuss the two great crises of capitalism during the past century just like the pillars of society performed in the brothel—a “house of infinite mirrors and theaters”—in Jean Genet’s The Balcony.* The order they represent is indeed threatened by an uprising in the streets, and the only question is: can they reestablish the illusion of control?

The latest version of the absurdist economic play opens with Brad DeLong, who dons the costume of the liberal mainstream economist and argues that, while the Great Depression of the 1930s was far deeper than the Great Recession (what I have long referred to as the Second Great Depression), the recovery from the crash of 2007-08 was so mishandled that it casts a shadow over the U.S. economy in a way the first Great Depression did not.

now we are haunted by our Great Recession in a sense that our predecessors were not haunted by the Great Depression. Looking forward, it appears that we will be haunted for who knows how long. No unbiased observer projects anything other than slow growth, much slower than the years during and after World War II. Nobody is forecasting that the haunting will cease — that the shadow left from the Great Recession will lift.

Basically, DeLong blames two groups—conservative mainstream economists and policymakers (“including the decision makers at the top in the Obama administration”)—for a recovery that was both too long and too slow. The first claims the monetary and fiscal policies that were adopted were wrongheaded from the start, and fought every attempt to sustain or expand them. The second group claims they prevented a second Great Depression and refuses to acknowledge the failure of the policies they devised and adopted.

The customer who dresses up as a representative of the conservative wing of mainstream economics, Robert Samuelson, expresses his sympathy with DeLong’s analysis but considers it be overstated. Samuelson’s view is that slow growth is not caused by the shadow cast by inadequate economic policies, but is the more or less inevitable result of two exogenous events: reduced growth of the labor force and slower growth in productivity.

The retirement of baby-boom workers would have occurred without the Great Recession. The slowdown in productivity growth — reflecting technology, management and worker skills — is not well understood, but may also be independent of the Great Recession.

This is exactly what is to be expected in the high-end economic brothel. It’s a debate confined to growth rates and the degree to which economic policies or exogenous factors should ultimately shoulder the blame of the crisis of legitimacy of the current economic order. Each, it seems, wants to play the fantasy of the Chief of Police in order to create the illusion of restoring order.**

What DeLong and Samuelson choose not to talk about are the fundamental differences between the response to the 1929 crash and the most recent crisis of capitalism. As is clear from the data in the chart at the top of the post, the balance of power was fundamentally altered as a result of the New Deals (the first and especially the second), which simply didn’t occur in recent years. After 1929, the wage share (the green line) remained relatively constant, even in the face of massive unemployment—and eventually, as a result of a whole series of other policies (from regulating the financial sector through jobs programs to unleashing a wave of labor-union organizing), the shares of national income going to the bottom 90 percent (the blue line) and the top 1 percent (the red line) moved in opposite directions. The current recovery has been quite different: a declining wage share (which, admittedly, continues a decades-long slide), the bottom 90 percent losing out and the top 1 percent resuming its rise.

And the reason? As I see it, what was happening outside the brothel, in the streets, explains the different responses to the two crashes. It was the Left—in the form of political parties (Socialist, Communist, and the left-wing of the Democratic Party), but also labor unions, councils of the unemployed, academics, and so on—that pushed the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress to adopt policies that moved beyond restoring economic growth to fundamentally restructure the U.S. economy (which, of course, continued during and after the war years).*** Nothing similar happened in the United States after 2008. As a result, the policies that were discussed and eventually adopted only meant a recovery for large corporations and wealthy households. Everyone else has been left to battle over the scraps—attempting to get by on low-paying jobs retirement incomes based on volatile stock markets, with underwater mortgages and rising student debt, and facing out-of-control healthcare costs.****

It should come as no surprise, then, that the elites who continue to play out their fantasies in the house of mirrors have lost the trust of ordinary people. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, it’s clear that new masqueraders have been willing to don the costumes and continue the fantasy that the old order can be restored.

Only a fundamental rethink, which rejects all the illusions created within the economic bordello, will chart a path that is radically different from the recoveries that followed both great crises of capitalism of the past hundred years.

 

*I saw my first production of “O Balcão” at Sao Paulo’s Teatro Oficina in 1970, as a young exchange student during one of the most repressive years of the Brazilian dictatorship. Staging Genet’s play at that moment represented both a searing critique of the military regime and an extraordinary act of resistance to government censorship.

**Much the same can be said of a parallel debate, between Joseph Stiglitz and Lawrence Summers.

***Even then, we need to recognize how limited the recovery from the first Great Depression was. Amidst all the changes and new regulations, leaving control of the surplus in private hands left large corporations with the interest and means to circumvent and ultimately eliminate the New Deal regulations, thus creating the conditions for the Second Great Depression.

****As Evan Horowitz has shown, roughly 14 percent of workers have seen no raise over the past year (counting only those who have stayed in the same job). That means, with inflation, their real wages have fallen. Moreover, “when a large share of workers get passed over for raises, wage growth for all workers tends to remain slow in the year ahead.”

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No, the stock market is not predictable. And no one knows the exact causes of last week’s carnage on Wall Street—with the Dow down 4.2 percent, the S&P 4.1 percent and the Nasdaq 3.7 percent, representing their worst weekly performances since March.

But the precipitous fall in all major indices, which many analysts blamed at least in part on the earnings blackout period, did serve to highlight one of the factors that has been driving the bull market: corporations purchasing their own stock.

As Matt Phillips explained,

When companies have more cash than they believe they can use productively, they typically return it to shareholders either with cash payments—known as dividends—or by repurchasing shares in the market. Buybacks raise demand, putting upward pressure on share prices.

Such repurchases have boomed this year as the strong economy—and steep cuts in corporate tax rates—have left American companies flush with profits. Companies including Apple, Cisco Systems and Amgen have returned billions in cash to shareholders by buying back shares. Apple is responsible for the largest sum, spending nearly $64 billion on buybacks in the 12 months ending in June 2018, the last period for which full data is available, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Generally, around earnings reporting season, corporations avoid repurchasing their own stocks, to avoid the appearance of insider trading. And, without those corporate buybacks, it seems the stock market has fallen off a cliff various times already this year.

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But the overall trend is for U.S. corporations to spend (or to leverage, via debt) a large portion of their profits on buying their own stocks—with plans to spend $770 billion on share buybacks in 2018, and even more next year.*

And when they cut back on those purchases, as they seem to have done last week, a large part of the demand for stocks collapses.

The fact is, corporations have three major ways of goosing their golden goose, which they and a small group of wealthy households in the United States benefit from.

First, employers endeavor to keep workers’ wages low, even as productivity increases, thereby boosting their pretax profits (of which they then distribute a portion in the form of salaries to their CEOs and dividends to stockowners).

Second, corporations lobby for tax breaks on their profits, an effort that once Donald Trump was elected delivered a slashing of the tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Third, businesses use a portion of those higher post-tax profits to purchase their own stocks, which tends to boost the price of shares, producing additional wealth for shareholders who hang onto their stock. It also improves per-share performance on key metrics like earnings, which in turn attracts more stock purchases from other institutional and noninstitutional investors with their own growing share of the surplus.**

The result, of course, is an increase in the already-obscene degree of income and wealth inequality in the United States.

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According to my calculations (illustrated in the chart above), the top 1 percent in the United States owns (as of 2014, the last year for which data are available) 62 percent of equities, which has been climbing since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the share of the entire bottom 90 percent has been falling, and is now only 11 percent.

So, it’s really only the small group at the top that is in a position to receive a cut of corporate profits in the form of dividends and to increase their wealth as corporate buybacks boost the prices of the stocks they keep in their portfolios.

Everyone else is forced to have the freedom to try to get by on their stagnant wages—and to watch with both fascination and horror the ongoing spectacle in the Trump White House.

 

*For most of the twentieth century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the Securities and Exchange Commission, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the American corporate tool shed.

*According to the S&P Dow Jones Indices, the top 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios in the S&P 500 have regularly outperformed the overall S&P 500 index (as seen in the chart below).

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I have long argued (e.g., herehere, and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the boards of directors of corporations in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and wage increases for workers.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of plutocratic coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of using the surplus to create jobs that would raise workers’ pay appears to be falling prey to directing the surplus to other uses: share buybacks and increasing CEO salaries.

According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, stock repurchases will reach $1 trillion this year, up 46 percent from 2017 on the back of tax reform and strong corporate profits. Corporations buying back their own stocks leads to higher stock prices, which is an additional benefit to those who own the stocks—on top of the dividends they regularly receive.

As I explained earlier this year, the top 1 percent owned in 2014 almost two thirds of the financial or business wealth, while the bottom 90 percent had only six percent. That represents an enormous change from the already-unequal situation in 1978, when the shares were much closer: 28.6 percent for the top 1 percent and 23.2 percent for the bottom 90 percent). So, rising stock prices are both a condition and consequence of the obscene levels of inequality that obtain in the United States today.

And who loses? Workers, of course. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project calculated that McDonald’s could have paid each of its 1.9 million workers $4 thousand more a year if it had used the $21 billion it spent between 2015 and 2017 on stock buybacks to reward its workers instead. Starbucks could have given each of its workers a $7-thousand raise. With the money currently spent on buybacks, Lowe’s, CVS, and Home Depot could give each of their workers pay increases of at least $18 thousand a year.

But they’re not. Instead, corporations are using their enormous profits to repurchase their own stocks and, in addition, rewarding their executives with enormous pay increases.

According to Bloomberg, the median CEO-to-worker-pay ratio last year was 127 to 1 (at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.). For U.S. corporations, the ratio ran from 0 (for Twitter, because CEO and cofounder Jack Dorsey received $0 in 2017) to 4,987-to-1 (at Mattel, where CEO compensation was $31,275,289).*

As it turns out, some of the most extreme examples of the gap between executive and median worker pay occurs at companies directly supported by federal contracts and subsidies. The latest Executive Excess report, published annually by the Institute for Policy Studies, found that at many federally funded companies the gap is far in excess of what ordinary American taxpayers find acceptable. For example, more than two-thirds of the top 50 government contractors and top 50 recipients of federal subsidies, receiving a total of $167 billion, currently pay their chief executive officer more than 100 times their median worker pay. At the top of the scale are leading military contractors, with the top bosses at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman each earning an average of $21 million, or between 166 and 218 times average worker pay.**

So, do Americans have any sympathy for the devil? The typical American believes CEO pay should run no more than six times average worker pay, according to the “2016 Public Perception Survey on CEO Compensation” at Stanford Business School (which mirrors a similar study by Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton). Clearly, given the obscene ratios of CEO to average worker pay, Americans are no longer puzzled by corporations’ game. My guess is we’d see the same results if someone conducted a survey about stock repurchases. U.S. publicly traded companies across all industries spent almost 60 percent of their profits on buybacks between 2015 and 2017, while workers’ wages stagnated.

Sure, the tiny group at the top may present themselves as people of wealth and taste. But they’ve also shown they can lay waste to the economy they alone control, and they are clearly in need of some restraint. So, now, almost a decade into the current lopsided recovery—as they watch with glee their growing profits and an increasing gap between those who receive the surplus and everyone else—they deserve no sympathy whatsoever.

They’ve broken the pact and now their game is up.

 

*But Dorsey still owns a bundle of equity in Twitter, whose stock has increased in value 20 percent since the beginning of 2018. As of April 2 Dorsey owned 18 million shares of Twitter, currently worth $627 million as of Tuesday’s closing price. Dorsey also is the CEO of payments company Square, in which he owns 65.5 million shares, which currently would be worth $6 billion.

**The Geo Group, one of the primary contractors for the notorious immigrant family detention centers, took in $663 million in Justice Department and Homeland Security contracts in 2017. Geo CEO George Zoley pocketed $9.6 million that year, 271 times more than his company’s median worker pay of $35,630.

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