Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

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In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”*

The world is once again living an interregnum. It is poised between the failed economic model of recovery from the crash of 2007-08 and the birth of a new model, one that would actually work for the majority of Americans.**

Morbid symptoms abound, including slow economic growth, persistent poverty, and obscene levels of inequality. Perhaps even more significant, especially at this point in the so-called recovery, when according to mainstream economists and policymakers full employment has been achieved, workers’ wages are actually declining.

According to the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf), both real average hourly and weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees decreased 0.4 percent from December to January. And, over the course of the past year (January 2016 to January 2017), real average hourly earnings for all employees failed to increase (remaining at $10.65 (in constant 1982-1984 dollars) and real weekly earnings actually decreased by 0.4 percent (from $368.66 to $366.32).

That’s what happened under the last administration, based on an economic model that is dying. And there’s nothing in the new administration’s proposed economic policies that promise any better. In fact, the likelihood is that things will stay the same or get even worse for most American workers in the next four years.

Only large corporations and wealthy individuals will likely gain from promised changes in business regulations and tax policies.

That’s a scenario that pretty much guarantees the appearance of even more morbid symptoms in this interregnum.

 

*The passage is from Notebook 3 (pp. 32-33), written in 1930, which appears in the second volume of the English edition of the full Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg.

**Nicholas Eberstedt [ht: bg], of the American Enterprise Institute, argues the current model failed around the turn of the century, with warning signs even earlier: “For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.” David Brooks, as it turns out, concurs.

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While Wall Street celebrates yet another stock market record—surpassing 20,000 on the Dow Jones industrial average—most Americans have little reason to cheer. That’s because they own very little stock and therefore aren’t sharing in the gains.

The only possible response is, “That’s your damn stock market, not ours,” analogous to the response about Brexit and the expected decline in GDP by a woman in Newcastle.

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It’s true, even after recent declines, about half (48.8 percent) of U.S. households hold stocks in publicly traded companies directly or indirectly (according to the most recent Survey of Current Finances [pdf]).

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But, according to Ed Wolff (pdf), the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households own only 18.6 percent of all corporate stock. The rest (81.4 percent) is in the hands of the top 10 percent.

So, while the stock market has experienced quite a turnaround from mid-February of last year (when a barrage of selling sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its lowest close since April 2014), especially since Donald Trump’s November victory (including more than 100 points just yesterday), most Americans continue to be left out in the cold.

Clearly, a much better alternative for American workers would be to follow Shannon Rieger’s advice and look toward a radically different model: enterprises that are owned and managed by their employees. That would give them a much better chance of sharing in the wealth they create.

They would also then be able to finally say to mainstream economists and politicians, “That’s our GDP and stock market, not yours.”

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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.

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Now that President Trump has begun carrying out his campaign pledges to undo America’s trade ties, formally withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announcing he will start to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, it’s time to analyze what this means.

As it turns out, I’d already started to do this before the election, with a series of posts (e.g., here, here, here, and here) on Trump and the mounting criticism of the trade agreements the United States had signed (such as NAFTA) or was in the process of negotiating (the TPP).

It’s clear Trump’s decisions—which he claims are a “Great thing for the American worker”—challenge the view of economic and political elites, as well as those of mainstream economists (such as Brad DeLong), in the United States and around the world that everyone benefits from free trade.*

But, we now know, there has also been a growing counter-narrative, that not everyone has gained from growing international trade and trade agreements, which have generated  unequal benefits and costs. What’s interesting about this alternative story, at least when it comes to NAFTA, is that critics on each side argue the other side is the one that has benefited: U.S. critics that Mexico has gained, and just the opposite in Mexico, that the United States has captured the lion’s share of the benefits from NAFTA.

Here’s the problem: workers on both sides of the border have lost out, and their losses are mostly not due to NAFTA.

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We know, for example, that the wage share of national income in the United States has in fact declined after NAFTA was implemented (in January 1994)—from 45.1 percent of gross domestic income to 42.9 percent. But we also have to recognize workers have been losing out since at least 1970, when the wage share stood at 51.5 percent.

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Much the same has been happening in Mexico, where (according to the research of Norma Samaniego Breach [pdf]), the wage share (the dark green line in the chart above) has been falling since 1978—and continued to fall after NAFTA was put into place. And, as Alice Krozera, Juan Carlos Moreno Brid, and Juan Cristóbal Rubio Badan have shown, economic and political elites in Mexico, much like their U.S. counterparts, have mostly ignored the problem of inequality and resisted efforts to raise the minimum wage and workers’ share of national income.

The fact is, while NAFTA did propel a large increase in trade between Mexico and the United States, it “did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters” (according to a 2015 study commissioned by the Congressional Research Service [pdf]).

The bottom line is, eliminating or renegotiating NAFTA—including in the manner Trump is proposing—is not going to help the working-classes in either Mexico or the United States. It is merely a diversion from the real changes that need to be made, to which the political and economic elites as well as mainstream economists in both countries stand opposed.

 

*The only real debate within mainstream economics is between neoclassical economists who argue free trade generates the most efficient outcomes, within and between countries (regardless of whether countries run trade surpluses or deficits), and their critics (such as Jared Bernstein) who argue that trade deficits lead to a loss of jobs (e.g., in U.S. manufacturing), and thus require interventions of the sort Trump is proposing to change the pattern of international trade.

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The American Dream has all but collapsed under the weight of growing inequality. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the American working-class to sustain a decent standard of living, and their children are increasingly unlikely to be better off than they are.

But those who hang on to the American Dream—or at least the selling of that dream to others—believe that sending young people to the nation’s colleges and universities is the solution.

The problem, of course, is that even as enrollment in higher education has grown so has income inequality—and, with it, access to college remains profoundly unequal. The United States is therefore moving further and further away from being able to fulfill the American Dream.

According to a new study by Raj Chetty and the rest of the Equality of Opportunity Project team, while the number of children from low-income families attending college rose rapidly over the 2000s—both in absolute numbers and as a share of total college enrollment—the share of students from bottom-quintile families at four-year colleges and selective schools did not change significantly over the 2000s. Even at the Ivy-Plus colleges, which enacted substantial tuition reductions and other outreach policies during this period, the fraction of students from lower quintiles of the parent income distribution did not increase significantly.* They enroll more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution (14.5 percent) than the bottom half of the income distribution (13.5 percent). And only 3.8 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution.**

Even at the institutions of higher education with the highest mobility rates (with a high fraction of its students who come from the bottom quintile of the income distribution and end up in the top quintile)—for instance, SUNY-Stony Brook and Glendale Community College—the fraction of students from low-income families fell sharply over the 2000s. As a result, the average student from a low-income family now attends a college with lower success rates than in 2000. In short, the colleges that may have offered many low-income students pathways to success are becoming less accessible to them.

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As it turns out, the degree of income segregation across colleges is comparable to income segregation across census tracts in the average American city.

Contrary to the common perception that children interact with a more socioeconomically diverse group of peers when they reach college, colleges in America are just as segregated as the neighborhoods in which children grow up.

Now, it is true: the United States still has a large number of great working-class colleges. For example,

At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

In fact,

the City University of New York system propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.

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The problem is, the share of low-income students at at many public colleges has fallen over the last 15 years as state funding has plummeted. Working-class students, who remain shut out of the nation’s elite colleges and universities, are finding it increasingly hard to attend and complete their degrees at public institutions.

What we’re left with then is a system of higher education that, outside the elite schools, is not flush with cash and, as a result, is leaving “our young and beautiful students” with less and less access to a high-quality college or university education.

That’s why, continuing to promise the American Dream to the children of the working-class is the real American carnage.

 

*Ivy-Plus colleges include the eight Ivy League colleges (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale), the University of Chicago, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Duke.

**At the University of Notre Dame, where I teach, 15.4 percent of students (for the 1991 cohort, approximately the class of 2013) had parents in the top 1 percent, while only 10 percent came from families in the bottom three quintiles.