Posts Tagged ‘chart’

What about that pie?

Posted: 6 February 2017 in Uncategorized
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The U.S. economic pie couldn’t be carved up much more unequally. The top 10 percent manages to capture about 47 percent of total pre-tax income, while the bottom 90 gets the rest. The top 1 percent alone walks away with 20 percent of national income.

And, of course, the distribution of wealth is even more unequal: the bottom 90 percent owns only 28 percent of total household wealth, while those in the top 1 percent own more than 37 percent.

As Justin Fox explains, the mainstream view—among both liberals and conservatives—is that, in the face of growing inequality, the main goal of economic policy is to increase the size of the pie.

We’ve just been through a long era during which discussion of economic policy was largely about growing the pie from which all of us partake. Yes, Democrats have been a bit more interested than Republicans in redistributing the pie through taxes and government spending. But economic advice givers in both parties had since the 1970s been focused mainly on what they think will stimulate growth.

That was certainly the thrust of the economic plan proposed by Hillary Clinton—grow the pie and hope that everyone would be satisfied with their obscenely unequal pieces.

The new Trump administration, for all of its chaos and lunacy (which is keeping many of us up at night, and making it difficult to focus on anything else during the day), appears to be inspired by a radically different approach.

Here’s Michael Anton (under a pseudonym), a former George W. Bush speechwriter who is now a national-security aide in the Donald Trump White House, writing last year in support of Trump’s stances to tighten immigration and renegotiate international trade agreements:

Who cares if productivity numbers tick down, or if our already somnambulant GDP sinks a bit further into its pillow? Nearly all the gains of the last 20 years have accrued to the junta anyway. It would, at this point, be better for the nation to divide up more equitably a slightly smaller pie than to add one extra slice—only to ensure that it and eight of the other nine go first to the government and its rentiers, and the rest to the same four industries and 200 families.

And then there’s Steve Bannon, Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist in the Trump administration, “a Cardinal Richelieu in cargo pants,” who identifies himself as an economic nationalist:

The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. . .That’s what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.

Now, I understand, many in the current White House team (from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Treasury Secretary designate Steve Mnuchin) are members of the very same junta and the kinds of globalists excoriated by Anton and Bannon. The battles among them have barely begun.

My point is only that Trump won the presidential election—and will proceed to formulate economic policy—at least in part on the basis of a critique of the status quo. Simply growing the economic pie was an insufficient response to the discontent generated by the grotesque inequalities that have emerged in the United States during the past three decades and that reemerged during the recovery from the crash of 2007-08.

It’s true, there’s nothing in Trump’s economic plan that will actually reverse those inequalities. The likelihood, in fact, is that the United States will end up with a smaller pie and an even more unequal distribution of the pieces.

But there is a rational kernel to the critique of the mainstream idea that all needs to be done is to raise productivity and increase economic growth and the problems associated with inequality will somehow disappear.

We also need to recognize that, with Trump, that rational kernel is standing on its head. It is up to us to turn it right side up again.


Readers know the old adage: in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

And, we should add, employers complaining they can’t find enough good workers.

The fact is, if workers were really scarce, their wages would be rising dramatically. That’s how things works in a capitalist labor market: employers who want to hire workers offer higher wages.

But, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 4 cents to $21.84—and weekly earnings by $1.34. That’s an annual rate of just 2.1 percent, the same as the rate of inflation.

Workers’ wages continue to increase at a very slow rate because the situation is exactly the opposite of what employers claim: workers are not scarce, they’re abundant.


While the official unemployment rate (the red line in the chart above) was 4.8 percent in January, the expanded (or U6) rate—which includes marginally attached workers and those who are employed part-time but prefer full-time jobs (the green line in the chart)—was a much higher 9.4 percent.


Meanwhile, the civilian employment-population rate (the ratio of total civilian employment to the civilian noninstitutional population or, more simply, the portion of the adult population 16 years and older that is employed) was still below 60 percent—and thus far less than its pre-crash peak (in December 2006) of 63.4 percent.

There are in fact plenty of potential workers out there—in the labor force and in the larger working-age population. But employers would rather complain than pay higher wages to hire them.


source (pdf)

The share of American workers in unions fell to 10.7 percent in 2016 (down from 11.1 percent in 2015), the lowest level on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf).

What we’re seeing is a return to the downward trend for organized labor after membership figures had stabilized in recent years—and this is before the new Republican administration even took office.


source (pdf)

Union membership in the private sector fell by 119 thousand and the membership rate fell 0.3 percentage point to 6.4 percent. There was a slightly larger decrease in union membership in the public sector (down 121 thousand), corresponding to a 0.8 percentage-point drop in the public sector membership rate to 34.4 percent.

Although public sector workers are more likely than their private sector counterparts to be union members, there are still more private-sector union members (7.4 million) than public-sector union members (7.1 million). That’s because public-sector workers account for only about 15 percent of the workforce.



source (pdf)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish union data by education level. However, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (pdf), union membership rates rise as education level increases

therefore workers with an advanced degree are the most likely to be union members. In 2016, their membership rate decreased 0.9 percentage point to 16.0 percent. The membership rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree fell 0.5 percentage point to 10.4 percent. Workers with some college but no degree and those with a high school degree all saw their membership rates decrease 0.3 percentage point to 10.6 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively. Workers with less than a high school degree had a union membership rate of 5.4 percent in 2016, the same as in 2015.



As readers know, I am no fan of the current U.S. healthcare system.

The U.S. healthcare system, as it is currently configured, only really works for those who make a profit—selling health insurance, pharmaceuticals, and in-patient and acute-care services in hospitals—and those who have the wherewithal to finance their own healthcare.

But Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, will move us even further from the goal of providing universal, affordable, high-quality healthcare for the American people.

According to a new study by the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), both the number of people who do not have health insurance and the premiums paid by people who do purchase individual health insurance will likely rise in dramatic fashion:

The number of people who are uninsured would increase by 18 million in the first new plan year following enactment of the bill. Later, after the elimination of the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility and of subsidies for insurance purchased through the ACA marketplaces, that number would increase to 27 million, and then to 32 million in 2026.

Premiums in the nongroup market (for individual policies purchased through the marketplaces or directly from insurers) would increase by 20 percent to 25 percent—relative to projections under current law—in the first new plan year following enactment. The increase would reach about 50 percent in the year following the elimination of the Medicaid expansion and the marketplace subsidies, and premiums would about double by 2026.

Oh, and not to be overlooked, repealing the Affordable Care Act would provide an immediate windfall tax cut to the highest-income Americans while raising taxes significantly on about 7 million low- and moderate-income families.


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?

Chart of the day

Posted: 4 January 2017 in Uncategorized
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The 401(k) revolution was good for employers but clearly not for workers.

By eliminating almost all defined-benefit plans, employers managed to shift most of the risk and costs of retirement plans to their workers.

What did workers get? Not a lot. Less than 60 percent of workers within ten years of retirement have any kind of retirement plan and their median retirement savings are only $104 thousand. Still, that’s more than the average household of the same age, which has managed to accumulate only $14.5 thousand in retirement savings.

It should come as no surprise, then, that both the early backers of 401(k) plans (like Herbert Whitehouse and Ted Benna) and pension experts who claimed workers would have enough to retire if they set aside just 3 percent of their paychecks in 401(k) plans (like Teresa Ghilarducci) are left to rue the day.

Charts of the year

Posted: 4 January 2017 in Uncategorized
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As regular readers of this blog know, I try to make available and critically interpret charts of data—both to challenge others’ arguments and to provide a foundation for my own.

Last year, I spent much more time using publicly available data to make my own charts, which readers are free to use for their own purposes.

Here are some of those charts (just click on each chart to go to the post in which it originally appeared).