Posts Tagged ‘automation’


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Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon - tt_c_c160330.tif

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.


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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The Siren Song of the Moderate  Kavanaugh


Does anyone really need any additional evidence of the lopsided nature of the current recovery?

Employers certainly don’t. They’re managing to hire additional workers, thus lowering the unemployment rate. But they don’t have to pay the workers they hire much more than they were getting before, with wages barely staying ahead of the rate of inflation. As a result, corporate profits continue to grow.

Clearly, what we’re seeing remains a one-sided recovery: employers are getting ahead—and their workers are still being left behind.

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 164,000 in April, thus reducing the headline unemployment rate to 3.9 percent and the expanded or U6 unemployment rate (which includes, in addition, marginally attached workers and those who are working part-time for economic reasons) to 7.4 percent.* Meanwhile, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by only 5 cents in April—an annual rate of just 2.7 percent (just a bit more than the current inflation rate of 2.5 percent).

Sure, employers complain that they can’t hire the workers they need—persistent gripes that are dutifully reported in the business press. They may even be paying one-time bonuses. But they’re certainly not increasing wages in order to attract the kinds of workers they say they want.

That’s because they don’t have to. Most of the new jobs are being created in sectors—like professional and technical services (an additional 25.8 thousand jobs in April), temporary help services (10.3 thousand), health care (24.4 thousand), machinery (8.4 thousand), and accommodation and food services (18.9 thousand)—where there are plenty of still-underemployed workers to go around. In addition, most of those workers are not represented by unions, and therefore aren’t in a position to negotiate for higher wages.** The decline in government jobs means there’s little competition for the nation’s workers. And employers continue to have the option of automation and offshoring, which also keeps workers’ wages in check.

So, employers in the United States are able to advertise jobs that pay $10, $12, or $20 an hour, which desperate workers are forced to have the freedom to take—because, within the existing set of economic institutions, the alternatives are even worse.

American employers, with their higher profits and new tax cuts, could be paying higher wages. But they’re choosing not to.***

For them, it’s certainly been a beautiful recovery.


*After revisions, job gains in the United States have averaged 208,000 over the last 3 months.

**However, one group of workers without union representation—teachers—have decided to initiate strikes and other work stoppages to respond to cuts in their wages and education budgets. As North Caroline kindergarten teacher Kristin Beller explained, “We are done being the frog that is being boiled.”

***Except, of course, the portion of the surplus they have been distributing to their CEOs.


U.S. capitalism has a real problem: there don’t seem to be enough workers to keep the economy growing.

And it has another problem: capitalists themselves are to blame for the missing workers.

As is clear from the chart above, the employment-population ratio (the blue line) has collapsed from a high of 64.4 in 2000 to 59 in 2014 (and had risen to only 60.1 by the end of 2017).* During the same period, the average real incomes of the bottom 90 percent of Americans have stagnated—barely increasing from $37,541 to $37,886.

That should be indicator that the problem is on the demand side, that employers’ demand for workers’ labor power has decreased, and not the supply side, that workers are choosing to drop out of the labor force.

But, as I explained back in 2015, that hasn’t stopped mainstream economists from blaming workers themselves—especially women and young people, for being unwilling to work and turning instead to public assistance programs and raising children and being distracted by social media and digital technologies, as well as Baby-Boomers, who are choosing to retire instead of continuing to work.

So, which is it?

Katharine G. Abraham and Melissa S. Kearney have just completed a study in which they review the available evidence and their conclusion could not be clearer:

labor demand factors, in particular trade and the penetration of robots into the labor market, are the most important drivers of observed within-group declines in employment.


Over the course of the past two decades, U.S. capitalists have decided both to increase trade with China (through outsourcing jobs and importing commodities) and to replace workers with robots and other forms of automation (it is estimated that each robot installed displaces something on the order of 5-6 workers).

That’s the main reason the employment-population ratio has declined so precipitously and that workers’ wages have stagnated in recent years.

Clearly, U.S. capitalists have been remarkably successful at increasing their profits. But they have just as spectacularly failed the vast majority of people who continue to be forced to have the freedom to work for them.


*The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the employment-population ratio as the ratio of total civilian employment to the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population. Simply put, it is the portion of the population that is employed. Thus, for example, in 2000, the total number of civilian employees in the United States was 136.9 million and the figure for the civilian noninstitutional population was 212.6 million. By 2014, the civilian noninstitutional population had grown to 247.9 million but the total number of workers had risen to only 146.3 million. The employment-population ratio differs from both the unemployment rate (the number of unemployed divided by the civilian labor force) and the labor force participation rate (the share of the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population either working or looking for work).