Posts Tagged ‘capital’

wage share

It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the numbers that the wage share of national income is historically low. And it’s been falling for decades now, since 1970.

Before that, during the short Golden Age of U.S. capitalism, the presumption was that the share of national income going to labor was and would remain relatively stable, hovering around 50 percent. But then it started to fall, and now (as of 2015) stands at 43 percent.

That’s a precipitous drop for a supposedly stable share of the total amount produced by workers, especially as productivity rose dramatically during that same period.

The question is, what has caused that decline in the labor share?

The latest story proffered by mainstream economists (such as David Autor and his coauthors) has to do with “superstar” firms:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most. . .

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.

It is true, industry concentration has increased dramatically in recent decades (as I explain here). And the wage share has declined (as illustrated in the chart above).

Here’s the problem: exactly the opposite argument is the one that prevailed in the United States for the earlier period. Economists at the time argued that American workers earned a relatively high share of national income because they worked in concentrated industries, such as cars and steel. Thus, their collectively bargained wages included a portion of the “monopoly rents” captured by the firms within those industries.

Now that the wage share has clearly fallen, and shows no signs of returning to its previous levels, economists have changed their story. In their view, market concentration leads to a lower, not higher, wage share.

Why has there been such an about-face in economists’ story about the causes of the declining wage share?

What all the existing stories share is that they avoid identifying anything that has been done to workers as a class. Whether the story is about technological change, globalization, or now superstar firms, the idea is that there are larger forces that unwittingly have created winners and losers—and the losers, if they want, need to acquire the education and skills to join the winners. But don’t touch the basic elements of the economic system that has created such disparate and divergent outcomes.

As it turns out, the presumed rule of a stable wage share turns out to have been an illusion, an exceptional period of relatively short duration during which workers’ wages did in fact rise along with productivity. That wasn’t the case before, and it hasn’t been true since.

The actual rule, as it turns out, is that the wage share falls, as the rate of exploitation increases. That’s how capitalism works, at least much of the time—through periods of faster and slower technological change, higher or lower levels of globalization, more or less concentrated industries.

Sure, under a particular set of postwar conditions in the United States, for two and a half decades or so, the wage share remained relatively stable (and not without pitched battles between capital and labor, as Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard have shown). But that ended decades ago, and since then workers have been forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work under conditions that, even as productivity continued to grow, the wage share itself declined.

Mainstream economists have finally recognized the fact that workers’ share of national income has been failing. But they continue to formulate stories that deflect attention from the real problem, the relative immiseration of workers that has them falling further and further behind.


It comes as no surprise, at least to most of us, that corporations are getting larger and increasing their share in many different industries. We see it everyday—when we buy plane tickets or try to take out a loan or just make a purchase at a retail store.

We know it. And now, it seems, economists and the business press have finally taken notice.

According to recent research by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely,

More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago.

That’s right. As Figures 1-A and 1-B above show, the level of concentration (measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index) has been steadily increasing over the course of the past twenty years, together with a decrease in the number of public firms.


And the average size of firms, as shown in Figure 1-C, has also been growing.

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.


Noah Smith is right about one thing: mainstream economists tend to use the word “capital” pretty loosely.

It just means “anything you can spend resources to build, which lasts a long time, and which also can be used to produce value.” That’s really broad. For example, it could include society itself. It also typically includes “human capital,” which refers to people’s skills, talents, and knowledge.

But then Smith proceeds, like the neoclassical equivalent of Humpty Dumpty, to make his definition of human capital the master—because, in his view, “it helps to convey some important truths about the world.”

Human capital, as I’ve explained in some detail before, is a profoundly misleading concept.

I don’t want to repeat those arguments here. But I do want to make two additional points.

First, if Smith wants to invoke human capital to say “education and skills are a form of wealth,” then why not include other ways people are able to earn more or less than their counterparts? Why not, for example, go beyond his reference to credentials (he has a Stanford degree) and intellectual abilities (apparently, he can do math well and write well) and refer to some of the other important ways people are sorted out within existing economic relations. I’m thinking of such things as gender, race and ethnicity, immigration status, and so on. They’re all ways workers are able to receive more or less income that have nothing to do with the effort they put into their jobs. Does Smith want to argue that masculinity, whiteness, and native birth are forms of human capital?

No, I didn’t think so.

Second, there’s the issue of capital itself. When capital is treated as a thing (which is what one finds in Smith’s account, as in most versions of mainstream economics), then it’s possible to forget about or overlook the historical and social conditions necessary for those things to operate as capital. Buildings, machinery, and raw materials, robots and computer software, even skills, talents, and knowledge—they only operate as capital within particular economic relations. Only when workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, only then does capital become a means to extract surplus labor from those workers. Once appropriated, that surplus labor then assumes a variety of different, seemingly independent forms—from capitalist profits to land rents, including payments to merchants and finance, the super-profits of oligopolies, taxes to the state, and, yes, the salaries of CEOs and supervisors.

But those payments are not “returns” to independent forms of capital, human or otherwise. They’re all distributions of the surplus-value that both presume and produce the conditions under which laborers work not for themselves, but for their capitalist employers.

They, and not the various meanings neoclassical economists attribute to capital, are the real masters.


Mainstream economists and economic commentators continue to invoke the so-called “dignity of work” to criticize the idea of a universal basic income.

It’s an argument I’ve dealt with before (e.g., here and here). As I see it, there’s nothing necessarily dignified about most people being forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a tiny group of employers. The idea may be intrinsic to capitalism—but that doesn’t mean it contributes to the dignity of people who work for a living, especially when they have no control over how they work or what they produce when they work.

Matt Bruenig, to his credit, suggests an alternative argument against the critics of a universal basic income:

these writers dislike the fact that a UBI would deliver individuals income in a way that is divorced from working. Such an income arrangement would, it is argued, lead to meaninglessness, social dysfunction, and resentment.

One obvious problem with this analysis is that passive income — income divorced from work — already exists.

Bruenig is making a distinction between income related to work and income that comes from other sources—passive or not-work—which represents a fundamental divide within contemporary society.

As is clear from the data in the chart above, very little of the income (15 percent in 2014) of the bottom 90 percent of Americans stems from not-work (and, even then, most of their apparently not-work income is actually related to previous work, in the form of pension incomes). However, for the tiny group at the top, most of their income (59 percent for the top 1 percent, 75 percent for the top 0.01 percent) is related to not-working (and, of course, most of their work-related income is based on sole proprietorships and elevated executive salaries). In other words, most of their income represents a claim on the extra work performed by others.

So, when critics of a universal basic income rely on the “dignity of work” argument, what they’re really doing is reinforcing the idea that most people can and should derive dignity from working for a small group of employers. At the same time, critics are presuming there’s no loss of dignity for the tiny group at the top, those who have managed to capture most of their income from sources related not to their own work, but the work of everyone else.*

Where’s the dignity in that?

*Now, it’s true, as Noah Smith observes, “many rich people believe that investing constitutes work.” But spending a few minutes a day reading the business press and examining alternative investments does not constitute work—at least as most people understand what it means to work. Or are those rich people referring to the fact that they hire a whole host of other people, from financial advisors to accountants, to do the actual work of managing their not-work investments?


There are two sides to the recent China Shock literature created by David Autor and David Dorn and surveyed by Noah Smith.

On one hand, Autor and Dorn (with a variety of coauthors) have challenged the free-trade nostrums of mainstream economists and economic elites—that everyone benefits from free international trade. Using China as an example, they show that increased trade hurt American workers, increased political polarization, and decreased U.S. corporate innovation.

The case for free international trade now lies in tatters, which of course played an important role in the Brexit vote as well as in the U.S. presidential campaign.

On the other hand, invoking the China Shock has tended to reinforce economic nationalism—treating China as an unitary entity, a country has shaken up world trade patterns, and disregarding the conditions and consequences of increased trade with other countries, including the United States.



Why has there been an increasing U.S. trade deficit with China in recent decades? As James Chan explained, in response to an August 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal,

Our so-called China problem isn’t really with the Chinese but rather our own multinational companies.

As I see it, U.S. corporations have made a variety of decisions—to subcontract the production of parts and components with enterprises in China (which are then used in products that are later imported into the United States), to purchase goods produced in China to sell in the United States (which then show up in U.S. stores), to outsource their own production of goods (to sell in China and to export to the United States), and so on. The consequences of those corporate decisions (and not just with respect to China) include disrupting jobs and communities in the United States (through outsourcing and import competition) and decreasing innovation (since existing technologies can be used both to produce goods in China and sell in the expanding Chinese consumer market), thereby increasing political polarization in the United States.

The flip side of the story is the accumulation of capital in China. Until the development of the conditions for the development of capitalism existed in China, none of those corporate decisions were possible—not by U.S. corporations nor by multinational enterprises from other countries, all of whom were eager to take advantage of the growth of capitalism in China. Which of course they then contributed to, thus spurring the widening and deepening of capital accumulation within China.



It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s been an upsurge of strike activity by workers in the fast-growing centers of manufacturing and construction within China—especially in the provinces of Guandong, Shandong, Henan, Sichuan, and Hebei.

According to Hudson Lockett, China this year

saw a total of 1,456 strikes and protests as of end-June, up 19 per cent from the first half of 2015

The problem with the China Shock literature, which has served to challenge the celebration of free-trade by mainstream economists and economic elites in the West, is that it hides from view both the decisions by U.S. corporations that have increased the U.S. trade deficit with China (with the attendant negative consequences “at home”) and the activity by Chinese workers to contest the conditions under which they have been forced to have the freedom to labor (which we can expect to continue for years to come).

It’s our responsibility to keep those decisions and events in view. Otherwise, we risk the economic and political equivalent of the China Syndrome.


Where does all the surplus in the U.S. economy go?

Well, a large chunk of it is captured by the top 1 percent, whose share of national income almost doubled between 1970 and 2014—from 11 percent to 20.2 percent.

Equally interesting is the composition of that growing share of national income, which we can decompose thanks to new data from Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman.


One way of making sense of the way the top 1 percent manages to capture a portion of the surplus is by distinguishing between a labor component (in shades of red in the chart above) and a capital component (in shades of green). Together, when calculated in terms of shares of national income, they represent the total share of national income that goes to the top 1 percent. (Thus, the top lines in the two charts are equal.)

The labor component comprises two categories: employee compensation (e.g., payments to CEOs and executives in finance) and the labor part of noncorporate business profits (e.g, partnerships and sole proprietorships). Capital income can be similarly decomposed into various categories: interest paid to pension and insurance funds, net interest, corporate profits, noncorporate profits, and housing rents (net of mortgages).

As can be seen in the chart above, by 2014 the top 1 percent derived over half of their incomes from capital-related sources. In earlier decades, from the late-1970s to the late-1990s, a much larger share of their income came from labor sources. They were the so-called “working rich.” This process culminated in 2000 when the capital share in top 1 percent incomes reached a low point of 49.4 percent. Since then, however, it has bounced back—to 58.6 percent in 2014. Thus, the “working rich” of the late-twentieth century may increasingly be living off their capital income, or are in the process of being replaced by their offspring who are living off their inheritances.

What this means, in general terms, is the growth of inequality over decades is due to the ability of the 1 percent to capture a large portion of the growing surplus. But there has also been a change in the nature of that inequality in recent years—which is not due to escalating wages at the top, but to a boom in income from the ownership of stocks and bonds. The high incomes of the “working rich,” it seems, have increasingly been used to purchase financial assets.

It looks then as if the working rich are either turning into or being replaced by rentiers—thus mirroring, after a short interruption, the structure of inequality last seen during the first Gilded Age.

My students are worried—many of them obsessed by the possibility—they’re not going to be better off than their parents.

As it turns out, they’re right.

According to new research by Raj Chetty et al. (pdf), the rates of “absolute income mobility” (the fraction of children who earn more than their parents) have fallen from approximately 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. And the likelihood is, that rate is going to fall even more for the next generations. That’s because rising inequality—not slower economic growth—is the major factor contributing to declining income mobility.

In his 1931 book, The Epic of America, writer and historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Such a dream has been central to the legitimacy of capitalism—with each generation supposed to be better off than the previous one. Growing inequality, especially from the mid-1970s onward, took a big chip out of that dream, since it challenged the idea of “just deserts.” But at least there was mobility—that children could still have a life that was “better and richer and fuller” than that of their parents.

Now, it seems that part of the American Dream is quickly disappearing, precisely because of growing inequality.



For each succeeding generation—those born in 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, and 1980—the chance of making more money than their parents has fallen—from 92 percent (for those born in 1940) to 50 percent (for 1980). That’s an enormous decrease, which is the key statistical conclusion of the study.

But the authors also consider two counterfactual scenarios: “higher GDP growth” (which asks, what would have happened to absolute mobility for the 1980 cohort if the economy had grown as quickly during their lifetimes as it did in the mid-twentieth century, but with GDP distributed across households as it is today?) and “more broadly shared growth” (which asks, what if total GDP grew at the rate observed in recent decades, but GDP was allocated across households as it was for the 1940 birth cohort?). What they find is that less equality is more significant than higher growth:

Under the higher growth counterfactual, the mean rate of absolute mobility is 62%. This rate is 12 percentage points higher than the empirically observed value of 50% in 1980, but closes only 29% of the decline relative to the 92% rate of absolute mobility in the 1940 cohort. The increase in absolute mobility is especially modest given the magnitude of the change in the aggregate economy: a growth rate of 2.5% per working-age family from 1980 to 2010 would have led to GDP of $20 trillion in 2010, $5 trillion (35%) higher than the actual level.

The more broadly shared growth scenario increases the average rate of absolute mobility to 80%, closing 71% of the gap in absolute mobility between the 1940 and 1980 cohorts. The broadly shared growth counterfactual has larger effects on absolute mobility at the bottom of the income distribution, whereas the higher growth counterfactual has larger effects at higher income levels. Since income shares of GDP are larger for high-income individuals, higher growth rates benefit those with higher incomes the most, while a more equal distribution benefits those at the bottom the most.

As we know, neither presidential candidate made inequality a focus of their campaign. President-elect Donald Trump, however, did point out the economy is rigged—and he appealed directly to the anxieties of workers who feel the economy is not delivering for them in the same way it did for their parents. As it turns out, Chetty et al. highlight several sources of those anxieties in the Trump coalition.

They find barely two in five men born in the mid-80s grew up to earn as much, at age 30, as their fathers did at the same age. They show average rates of mobility falling particularly fast in Rust Belt states, especially Michigan and Indiana. And they find a much steeper drop in absolute mobility for the middle-class than for the poor.

Maybe Trump’s victory signals, like George Carlin’s warning a decade earlier, it’s time we stop dreaming and wake up to the end of the American Dream.