Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

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Yesterday, I discussed new findings concerning the fact that, while the United States is getting richer every year, American workers are not.

That same problem is showing up in American cities, which since 1970 have experienced a “hollowing-out” of the middle-class.

The graphic above shows the change in income distribution in 20 major U.S. cities between 1970 and 2015. In 1970, each of these cities exhibits a near-symmetrical, bell-shaped income distribution—a high concentration of households in the middle, with narrow tails of low and high-income households on either end. By 2015, the distributions have grown more polarized: fewer middle-income households, and more households in the low-income and/or high-income extremes.

1970 2015

Chicago is a good example of what has taken place in urban areas across the country. It boasted a thriving manufacturing sector in 1970. As illustrated in the map on the left above, incomes were lowest in the city center, growing higher radially outward toward the city’s borders. And while Chicago was largely successful in transitioning away from manufacturing to a service-based economy by 2015, that transition created a heavy concentration of wealth in the business/financial district and marked decline in most of the surrounding areas (as indicated in the map on the right).

To listen to the champions of American capitalism, cities represent the solution to growing inequality and the decline of the middle-class associated with the “old” manufacturing economy. But, as it turns out, urban centers are characterized by the same kind of grotesque inequalities and hollowing-out of the middle-class as the rest of the country.

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Special mention

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That’s the way Fatih Guvenen, an economist at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of a new paper on the decline of the American middle class, characterizes the results of their study.

What the authors found is, first, comparing the cohort that entered the labor market in 1967 to the cohort that entered in 1983, median lifetime income of men declined by 10–19 percent. Thus, for example, in terms of real earnings (deflated by the personal consumption expenditure), the annualized value of median lifetime wage/salary income for male workers declined by $4,400 per year from the 1957 cohort to the 1983 cohort, or $136,400 over the 31-year working period.

For women, median lifetime income increased by 22–33 percent from the 1967 to the 1983 cohort, but these gains were relative to very low lifetime income for the earliest cohort.

Second, they found that inequality in lifetime incomes has increased significantly within each gender group, which is largely attributed to an increase in inequality at young ages. Thus, for example, the median income at age 25 has declined steadily from the 1967 cohort to the 1983 cohort. Moreover, median incomes over the first 10 years in the labor market for more recent cohorts (those that turned 25 in the 2000s) indicate that the trend of declining median lifetime incomes seems likely to continue.

What the results show is that more unequal incomes are not primarily a result of a widening gap between younger and older workers. Even among older workers, typical incomes have been falling while the richest have been enjoying more and more of the economy’s gains. Poorer workers—who tend to be younger—will likely earn more as they get older but they are not going to earn enough to make up the difference.

Yes, indeed, this is a pretty bleak picture.

CEOs

According to the AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch project, in 2016, CEOs of S&P 500 Index companies received, on average, $13.1 million in total compensation. In contrast, production and nonsupervisory workers earned only $37,632, on average, in 2016—a CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 347 to 1.

Above is a list of the top twenty CEOs, ranging from Kenneth Lowe of Scripps Networks Interactive at over $28 million to Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, who managed to capture over $100 million in executive compensation.

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Apparently, “late capitalism” is the term that is being widely used to capture and make sense of the irrational and increasingly grotesque features of contemporary economy and society. There’s even a recent novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford.

A reader [ht: ra] wrote in wanting to know what I thought about the label, which is admirably surveyed and discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Anne Lowrey.

I’ll admit, I’m suspicious of “late capitalism” (like other such catchall phrases), for two main reasons. First, it presumes and invokes a stage theory of development, which relies on identifying certain “laws of motion” of capitalist history. That’s certainly the way Ernest Mandel understood and developed the term—as the latest in a series of necessary stages of capitalist development. For me, the history of capitalism is too contingent and unpredictable to obey such law-like regularity. Second, “late capitalism” is meant to characterize all of a certain stage of economy and society, thereby invoking a notion of totality. Like other such phrases—I’m thinking, in particular, of “globalization,” “empire,” and “neoliberalism”—the idea is that the entire world, or at least what are considered to be its essential elements, can be captured by the term. As I see it, capitalism exists only in some parts of the world, some but certainly not all economic and social spaces, and, even when and where it does exist, it assumes distinct forms and operates in different modalities. Using a term like “late capitalism” tends to iron out all those differences.

So, I’m wary of the notion of “late capitalism,” which for both reasons may lead us astray in terms of making sense of and responding to what is going on in the world today.

At the same time, I remain sympathetic to the idea that “late capitalism” effectively captures at least some dimensions of contemporary economic and social reality. Here in the United States, there’s clearly something late—both exhausted and exhausting—about contemporary capitalism. In the wake of the worst crises since the first Great Depression, growth rates remains low, leaving millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed. Wages continue to stagnate, even as corporate profits and the stock market soar. And the unequal distribution of income and wealth, having become increasingly obscene in recent decades, has ushered in a new Gilded Age.

As Lowrey explains,

“Late capitalism” became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism. Nordstrom selling jeans with fake mud on them for $425. Prisoners’ phone calls costing $14 a minute. Starbucks forcing baristas to write “Come Together” on cups due to the fiscal-cliff showdown.

And, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

What is less clear is if “late capitalism” carries with it a hint of revolution, whether it contains something akin to the idea that the contradictions of capitalism create the possibility of a radical alternative. Even if contemporary capitalism is exhausted and we, witnessing and being subjected to its absurdities and indignities, are being exhausted by it—that doesn’t mean “late capitalism” will generate the political forces required for its being replaced by a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

But perhaps that’s asking too much of the concept. If it merely serves to galvanize new ways of thinking, to recommit us to the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” then we’ll be moving in the right direction.

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Greg Kahn

I am quite willing to admit that, based on last Friday’s job report, the Second Great Depression is now over.

As regular readers know, I have been using the analogy to the Great Depression of the 1930s to characterize the situation in the United States since late 2007. Then as now, it was not a recession but, instead, a depression.

As I explain to my students in A Tale of Two Depressions, the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn’t have any official criteria for distinguishing an economic depression from a recession. What I offer them as an alternative are two criteria: (a) being down (as against going down) and (b) the normal rules are suspended (as, e.g., in the case of the “zero lower bound” and the election of Donald Trump).

By those criteria, the United States experienced a second Great Depression starting in December 2007 and continuing through April 2017. That’s almost a decade of being down and suspending the normal rules!

Now, with the official unemployment rate having fallen to 4.4 percent, equal to the low it had reached in May 2007, we can safely say the Second Great Depression has come to an end.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, or that we can forget about the effects of the most recent depression on American workers.*

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For example, while Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States is higher now than it was at the end of 2007 ($51,860 versus $49,586, in chained 2009 dollars, or 4.6 percent), it is still much lower than it would have been had the previous trend continued (which can be seen in the chart above, where I extend the 2000-2007 trend line forward to 2017). All that lost output—not to mention the accompanying jobs, homes, communities, and so on—represents one of the lingering effects of the Second Great Depression.

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And we can’t forget that young workers face elevated rates of underemployment—11.9 percent for young college graduates and much higher, 30.9 percent, for young high-school graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute observes,

This suggests that young graduates face less desirable employment options than they used to in response to the recent labor market weakness for young workers.

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Finally, the previous trend of growing inequality—in terms of both income and wealth—has continued during the Second Great Depression. And there are no indications from the economy or economic policy that suggest that trend will be reversed anytime soon.

So, here we are at the end of the Second Great Depression—no longer down and with the normal rules back in place—and yet the effects from the longest and most severe downturn since the 1930s will be felt for generations to come.

 

*As if often the case, readers’ comments on newspaper articles tell a different story from the articles themselves. Here are two, on the New York Times article about the latest employment data:

John Schmidt—

Any discussion about “full employment”, when there are so many people who’ve essentially given up looking for work or who’re working in low-skill or unskilled labor positions, seems like the fiscal equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Based on data from the Fed and the World Bank, GDP per capita has doubled since 1993, while median household income has risen ~10%. Most of the newly-generated wealth and gains from productivity increases are being funneled upward, such that the average worker very rarely sees any sort of pay increase. Are we expected to believe that this will change now that we’ve [arguably] passed some arbitrary threshold? Why should we pat ourselves on the back for reaching “full employment”? Shouldn’t we be seeking *fulfilling* employment for everyone, instead, at least inasmuch as that’s possible? Shouldn’t we care that the relentless drive for profit at the expense of everything else is creating a toxic environment where the only way to ensure a raise is to hop from job to job, eroding any sense of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees?

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know enough to see there’s a problem. Inequality of this sort is not sustainable, and it’s not going to magically disappear without some serious policy changes.

David Dennis—

There is a critical parameter missing from full employment data. very critical. Here in Pontiac, Michigan before the collapse of American manufacturing, full employment meant 10, 000 jobs working at GM factories and Pontiac Motors making above the mean wages with excellent health insurance as well as retirement pensions. You can not compare full employment at McDonalds and Walmart with the jobs that preceded them. The full employment measure doesn’t mean much if it isn’t correlated with a index that compares that employment with a standard of living as it relates to a set basket of goods, services, and benefits.