Posts Tagged ‘corporations’

This was supposed to be the great reset. As the U.S. economy recovered from the Pandemic Depression, millions of jobs were being created, unemployment was falling, and the balance of power between workers and capitalists would shift toward wage-earners and against their employers.

That, at least, was the promise (or, for capitalists, the fear).

But greedflation has delivered exactly the opposite: workers’ real wages are barely rising while corporate profits are soaring. There’s been no reset at all. That’s exactly what was happening before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and that trend has only continued during the recovery. It should come as no surprise then that the already grotesque levels of inequality in the United States continue to worsen.

And who are the beneficiaries? According to a recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies, it’s the Chief Executive Officers of American corporations who have managed to capture a large share of the resulting surplus.

Especially the CEOs of the largest low-wage employers in the United States. While median worker pay increased by 17 percent last year, CEO compensation rose by 31 percent. The result was that the ratio of CEO to average worker pay rose by 11 percent, to 670 to 1!*

American workers are struggling with rising prices, having risked their lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. Now, they’re forced to watch as their corporate employers, who have benefited from federal contracts and used their profits to buyback stocks, reward their CEOs with lucrative contracts and massive bonuses—far exceeding the small amount some workers have been able to claw back.

Who’s at the top? Amazon leads the list. Its new CEO, Andy Jassy, raked in $212.7 million last year, which amounts to 6,474 times the pay of Amazon’s median 2021 worker. Then there’s Estee Lauder’s CEO, Fabrizio Fred, who managed to secure a 258-percent pay increase in 2021—leading to compensation that amounted to 1,965 times that of the average worker. Third on the list was the CEO of Penn National Gaming, Jay Snowden, whose $65.9 million payout was 1,942 times that of the gambler’s typical worker’s wage.

So, how did they manage to capture so much surplus and distribute it to their CEOs? Like the other firms in the study, they all took the low road, paying their employees a pittance (in the low $30,000s for the median worker). And they’ve mostly succeeded in opposing and undermining union-organizing efforts.** But Amazon is the only one of the three to secure large federal contracts (over $10 billion between 1 October 2019 and 1 May 2022), like other low-wage corporations (such as Maximus, at $12.3 billion and TE Connectivity, at $3.3 billion), which means the taxes paid by ordinary Americans and being used to support such an inequitable corporate order.***

The report also highlights the extent of stock buybacks—which serve to inflate the value of a company’s shares and thus the value of executives’ stock-based compensation—among firms where median worker pay did not keep pace with inflation in 2021. Thus, for example, Lowe’s, the home-improvement chain, spent more than $13 billion in purchasing its own stock while median worker compensation fell by 7.6 percent to $22,697. Similarly, both Target and Best Buy increased workers’ pay by less than the rate of inflation but still spent millions of dollars in stock buybacks ($7.2 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively). In each case, a windfall to stock owners—including the CEOs—came at the expense of raises for the employees. For example, if the funds Lowe’s used to buyback its own stock had been divided among the company’s 325,000 employees, each worker would have received a $40,000 bonus.

Clearly, this economic order needs a fundamental reset.

And most Americans agree. According to a recent survey by Just Capital (pdf), more than eight in 10 respondents (83%) agree that the growing gap between CEO compensation and worker pay is a problem in the United States today. Moreover, according to the authors,

The message from the public is clear: responsibility lies with corporate leaders – including chief executives – to address income inequality in America today. Closing the gap requires action at the highest and lowest rungs of the corporate ladder.

The IPS suggests a range of options for doing something about the problem, including giving corporations with narrow pay ratios preferential treatment in government contracting, an excessive CEO pay tax, and a ban on stock buybacks (in addition to a wide variety of CEO pay reforms). If enacted, all such changes would serve to nudge such corporations out of the low road of poor worker pay and high CEO compensation and reduce the now-obscene level of inequality in the U.S. economy.

But giving employees a say in how those corporations are managed and operated would do even more to change the balance of power, within those firms and the entire economy, between workers and capitalists. The workers would then be able to participate in deciding how much surplus there would be and how it would be utilized—not only for their benefit but for the society as a whole.**** Employees would then become or participate in choosing the corporate leaders, including chief executives, who could actually go a long way toward solving the problem of inequality in America today.

That, in my view, is a reset of the U.S. economy worth imagining and enacting.

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*Forty-nine of the 300 firms analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute had ratios above 1000-1. And, in 106 companies in their sample, median worker did not keep pace with the 4.7 percent average U.S. inflation rate in 2021.

**Amazon has spent millions of dollars in fighting union campaigns and, to date, have lost only one battle, in a Staten Island warehouse. (That’s in the United States. Some Amazon warehouses in Europe are unionized, with strikes being most frequent in Germany, Italy, Poland, France and Spain.) None of Estee Lauder’s U.S. workers have union representation, and less than 20 percent of Penn’s employees are unionized.

***Of the 300 companies in the IPS study, 119 — 40 percent — received federal contracts, totaling $37.2 billion. Their average CEO-worker pay ratio was 571-to-1 in 2021.

****Even Thomas Piketty now defends the idea of workplace democracy or co-determination, since workers “sometimes, they are more serious and committed long-run investors than many of the short-term financial investors that we see. And so getting them to be involved in defining the long-run investment strategy of the company can be good.”

Inflation continues to run hot—and now, finally, the debate about inflation is heating up.

On one side of the debate are mainstream economists and lobbyists for big business, the people Lydia DePillis refers to as having a simple mantra: “Supply and demand, Economics 101.” In their view, inflation is caused by supply and demand in the labor market, which is allowing workers’ wages to increase at an unsustainable rate (a story that, as I showed in April, has no validity), and supply and demand in the economy as a whole, with too much money chasing too few goods.

Simple, straightforward, and. . .wrong.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the debate, with heterodox economists and progressive activists arguing that increasingly dominant corporations are taking advantage of the current situation (the pandemic, disruptions in global supply-chains, the war in Ukraine, and so on) to jack up prices and rake in even higher profits than they’ve been able to do in recent times.

Josh Bivens, of the Economic Policy Institute, has offered two arguments that challenge the mainstream story: First, while “It is unlikely that either the extent of corporate greed or even the power of corporations generally has increased during the past two years. . .the already-excessive power of corporations has been channeled into raising prices rather than the more traditional form it has taken in recent decades: suppressing wages.” Second, inflation can’t simply be the result of macroeconomic overheating. That would suggest, at this point in a classic economic recovery, that profits should be shrinking and the labor share of income should be rising. As Biven notes, “The fact that the exact opposite pattern has happened so far in the recovery should cast much doubt on inflation expectations rooted simply in claims of macroeconomic overheating.”*

So, we have dramatically different analyses of the causes of the current inflation, and of course two very different strategies for combatting inflation. The mainstream policy (as I also wrote about in April) is to slow the rate of growth of the economy (for example, by raising interest rates) and increase the level of unemployment, thus slowing the rate of increase of both wages and prices. And the alternative? Bivens supports a temporary excess profits tax. Other possibilities—which, alas, are not yet being raised in the debate—include price controls (especially on commodities that make up workers’ wage bundles), government provisioning of basic wage goods (including, for example, baby formula), and subsidies to workers (which, while they wouldn’t necessarily lower inflation, would at least make it easier for workers to maintain their current standard of living).

What we’re witnessing, then, is an important debate about the causes and consequences of inflation. But, as DePillis understands, the debate is about much more than that: “The real disagreement is over whether higher profits are natural and good.

In the end, that’s what all key debates in economics are about. Profits are the most contentious issue in economics precisely because the analysis of profits reflects both a theory and ethics about two things: whether capitalists deserve the profits they capture and what they can and should do with those profits. For example, profits can be theorized as a return to capital (and therefore natural and fair, as in mainstream economics) or they are the result of price-gouging (and therefore social and unfair, as in Bivens’s theory of corporate power).**

Similarly, capitalists can be seen as investing their profits (and therefore making their firms and the economy as a whole more productive, with everyone benefitting) or they can distribute a significant portion of their profits toward other uses (such as pursuing mergers and acquisitions, engaging in stock buybacks, and offering higher dividends, which do nothing to increase productivity but instead lead to more corporate concentration and make the distribution of income and wealth even more unequal).

Mainstream economists and capitalists have long sought to convince us that profits are both natural and good. In other words, when it comes to corporate profits and escalating charges of “greedflation,” they prefer to see, hear, and say no evil. The rest of us know what’s actually going on—that corporations are taking advantage of current conditions to raise prices, both to increase their profits and to lower workers’ real wages. We also know that traditional attempts to contain inflation through monetary policy will hurt workers but not their employers or the tiny group that sits at the top of the economic pyramid.

It’s clear then: the debate about inflation is actually a debate about profits. And the debate about profits is, in the end, a debate about capitalism. The sooner we recognize that, the better off we’ll all be.

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*Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the wage share is not in fact growing: “The labor share of national output is roughly where it was before the pandemic.” Moreover, the current situation represents just a continuation of the trend of recent decades: “Over the last two decades. . .the share of U.S. income that goes to labor has fallen, despite periods of low unemployment.”

**Corporate profits can also be theorized as the result of exploitation (and thus a different kind of social determination and unfairness, as in Marxian theory).

Everyone knows that inflation in the United States is increasing. Anyone who has read the news, or for that matter has gone shopping lately. Prices are rising at the fastest rate in decades. The Consumer Price Index rose 8.6 percent in March, which is the highest rate of increase since December 1981 (when it was 8.9 percent).

Clearly, inflation is hurting lots of people—especially the elderly living on fixed incomes and workers whose wages aren’t keeping up the price increases. No mystery there.

The only real mystery is, what’s causing the current inflation? That’s where things gets interesting.

To listen to or read mainstream economists the answer to the whodunnit is workers’ wages. They’re going up too fast, because the level of unemployment is too low and their employers are forced to pay them higher wages. As a result, corporations are compelled to raise their prices. Therefore, something has to be done (like increasing interest rates) to slow down the economy and force more workers into the Reserve Army of the Underemployed and Unemployed.*

That’s exactly how Paul Krugman sees things:

The U.S. economy still looks overheated. Rising wages are a good thing, but right now they’re rising at an unsustainable pace. . .

This excess wage growth probably won’t recede until the demand for workers falls back into line with the available supply, which probably — I hate to say this — means that we need to see unemployment tick up at least a bit.

The amazing thing about Krugman’s story, and that of most mainstream economists, is there’s not a single word about profits. Corporate profits are entirely missing from their story. Inflation is only caused by workers’ wages, not the surplus raked in by U.S. corporations. Which is pretty amazing, given the numbers.

A quick look at the chart at the top of the post shows what’s been going on in the U.S. economy. Workers’s wages (the red line in the chart, the hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers) rose during 2021 at an annual average rate of less than 5 percent (ranging from 2.8 percent in the second quarter to 6.4 percent in the final quarter).

And profits? Well, they’ve been growing at astounding rates, magnitudes more than wages. Corporate profits (the light green line) rose during 2021 at an average rate of 40 percent, and the profits of nonfinancial corporations (the dark green line) expanded by even more: 69 percent!

Hmmm. . .

The fact that profits are entirely missing from the mainstream story about inflation reveals a fundamental problem within mainstream economic theories. On one hand, in their macroeconomics, wages and not profits are always the culprit. That’s because they only have a labor market, and not a capital market (much less a profit rate or, for that matter, a rate of surplus-value), when they analyze fluctuations in prices and output. It’s as if corporate profits are only a residual—what is left over in the difference between wages and wage-driven prices. On the other hand, in their microeconomics, profits represent the return to capital, and thus a key component of commodity prices as well as the driver of economic growth.

Such “capital fetishism” means that profits as the return to a thing, capital, play an important role in the mainstream theory of value but then disappear entirely in the macroeconomic story about inflation.

It’s therefore a problem in the basic theories of mainstream economics. And it’s a problem when it comes to their economic policies: anything and everything must be done to keep workers’ wages in check, and (without ever mentioning them) to safeguard corporate profits.

The fact is, once we solve the mystery of the missing profits we can actually tackle the problem of inflation. But neither mainstream economists nor the leaders of corporate America are going to like what we come up with.

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*The Federal Reserve is suggesting that it can raise interest rates to get prices down “without causing a recession.” In fact, according to research from the investment bank Piper Sandler, the Fed raised rates to combat inflation nine different times during the past 60 years, and on eight of those occasions a recession occurred not long after.

The phrase, which was used in the early nineteenth century to describe the the spoils system of appointing government workers, accurately describes the American economy today.* And it’s pretty clear who the victor is, and it’s not the working-class.

Instead, a small group at the top have come out as the victor—and that’s been true for decades now.

How do we know?

Well, all we have to do is look at the growing gap between the amount produced by American workers and what they received in their wages. Gross Domestic Product (the green line in the chart above) grew by a factor of almost 16 from 1973 onward while workers’ wages increased by a bit more than 5 before the COVID Depression.

So, American workers only received back in the form of wages a small percentage of the increased amount they produced. The rest went to their employers.

The result has been an enormous rise in U.S. corporate profits (before tax, without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments)—particularly evident in the trendline fitted to the data in the chart above.

The employers, in turn, transferred a portion of those profits to the Chief Executive Officers of their corporations.

According to the latest report from the Economic Policy Institute, in 2019, a CEO at one of the top 350 firms in the United States was paid $21.3 million on average (using a “realized” measure of CEO pay that counts stock awards when vested and stock options when cashed in rather than when granted). The ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was therefore 320-to-1 (222.8-to-1 using a different, “granted” measure of CEO pay). That is up from 293-to-1 in 2018 and a gigantic increase from 61.4-to-1 in 1989 and, even more, 21.1-to-1 in 1965.

Exorbitant CEO pay is a major contributor to rising inequality that we could safely do away with. CEOs are getting more because of their power to set pay—and because so much of their pay (about three-fourths) is stock-related, not because they are increasing productivity or possess specific, high-demand skills. This escalation of CEO compensation, and of executive compensation more generally, has fueled the growth of top 1.0% and top 0.1% incomes, leaving less of the fruits of economic growth for ordinary workers and widening the gap between very high earners and the bottom 90%. The economy would suffer no harm if CEOs were paid less (or were taxed more).

An even large—and growing—distribution of the surplus that is the basis of corporate profits has taken the form of dividends, paid to owners of corporate equities. In 1965, dividends were about 26 (25.8) percent of corporate profits; by the beginning of this year they were almost 70 (69.2) percent.

And according to my calculations, the top 1 percent in the United States owns (as of 2014, the last year for which data are available) 62 percent of corporate 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 “share in the booty” by receiving a cut of corporate profits in the form of CEO pay and stock dividends. They’ve occupied the position of victor for decades now, and to them belong the economic spoils.**

Everyone else is forced to have the freedom to try to get by on their slowly rising wages—and to watch with both fascination and horror the ongoing spectacles in corporate boardrooms and the stock market.

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*”To the victor belong the spoils” is attributed to Senator William Learned Marcy of New York who, in 1832, defended Andrew Jackson, whose campaign against President John Quincy Adams was seen partly as a vendetta against Adams, and whose conduct and remarks when taking office seemed to justify the association of Jackson with the spoils system.

**Just yesterday, in the midst of the pandemic and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. stock market reached a new high (according to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index).

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