Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

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A couple of weeks ago, I discussed a recent study about class and air rage. In the meantime, things have only gotten worse—on the ground.

Most people attempting to fly these days are forced to endure long security lines, all the while knowing that airlines are raking in enormous profits ($25.6 billion last year, a 241-percent increase from 2014) with low fuel costs, lots of additional fees (for baggage, reservation changes, food and drink, and much else), and shoe-horning economy-class passengers into tighter and tighter spaces.

Gail Collins is absolutely right:

The airlines have maximized profits by making travel as miserable as possible. The Boeing Company found a way to cram 14 more seats into its largest twin-engine jetliner by reducing the size of the lavatories. Bloomberg quoted a Boeing official as reporting that “the market reaction has been good — really positive.” We presume the market in question does not involve the actual passengers. . .

Rather than reducing the number of bags in security lines, the airlines would like the government to deal with the problem by adding more workers to screen them. And the perpetually beleaguered Transportation Security Administration is going to spend $34 million to hire more people and pay more overtime this summer. Which, it assured the public, is not really going to solve much of anything.

(Who, you may ask, pays for the security lines anyway? For the most part you the taxpayer do. Also you the passenger pay a special security fee on your tickets. Which Congress tends to grab away from the T.S.A. for use in all-purpose deficit reduction. I know, I know.)

A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, which took in more than $875 million on baggage fees last year, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that bowing to the extremely modest Markey-Blumenthal request for a summer suspension of the baggage fee wouldn’t “really help alleviate a lot.” It would also, he said, require a “considerable change to the business model.”

Heaven forfend we mess with the business model.

So, this summer, we can expect more rage not only in the air, as economy-class passengers are forced to put up with physical inequality on airplanes, but even before they get on the plane, knowing the extra fees they pay and the long security lines they’re compelled to endure are part of the airlines’ “business model.”

And that model is not about people, but only about profits.

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The clear reemergence of and spreading interest in anti-establishment politics in the United States (together with the electoral success of left-wing and right-wing parties in a growing number of European nations) can be blamed squarely on capitalism.

As I see it, it’s the combination of the failures of capitalism and the unwillingness of the existing economic and political elites to effectively deal with those failures that explains the rejection of mainstream (center-right and center-left) candidates and policies and the turn to alternatives. The failures of capitalism go back some four decades—including stagnant wages, rising indebtedness, and growing inequality—and culminated in the crash of 2007-08—after which wages remained stagnant, people were not able to rid themselves of debt, and inequality continued to grow. What recovery there has been in recent years has mostly been captured by large corporations and wealthy individuals, while economic growth has remained slow. Meanwhile, economic elites have continued business as usual (moving production and jobs at will around the world, more interested in lowering costs, avoiding taxes, and inventing new labor-saving technologies than anything else) and political elites do everything they can to save large financial institutions and a business-friendly environment and imposing the costs—of the bailouts, the continued opening and expansion of markets, the refugees from war-torn zones, and much else—on the working and unemployed populations of their nations.

From this perspective, it’s no surprise that, in the United States, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have attracted so much support—or, that, in Europe, both the Left (e.g., in Greece and Spain) and the Right (e.g., in Poland and Austria) are increasingly able to challenge mainstream parties.

To be clear, this is not to say that politics—political parties and movements, voter attitudes and behaviors, candidates and coalitions—are solely determined by the economy (or some subset of the economy, like class interests). There’s a great deal more that affects the rise and fall of political ideas and campaigns—from political practices and institutions through discourses and identities to media and communication technologies. Still, the failures of capitalism and the unwillingness of economic and political elites to solve or mitigate the effects of those failures to the benefit of the majority of the population have played a significant role in the current disenchantment with mainstream parties and the success of left-wing and right-wing alternatives in the United States and Europe.

But it is interesting that there appears to be a determined effort to absolve capitalism of any responsibility for these new political events. Both Greg Ip (writing for the Wall Street Journal) and Peter Eavis (for the New York Times) have attempted to argue that “it’s not the economy” that explains politics, but something else. And, if it’s something else, it can’t be the failures of capitalism that are to blame.

For both writers, “the economy” is economic growth, specifically growth in GDP. In Ip’s case, the difference between the 1960s (when social disarray and political dissension were accompanied by solid growth and “shared prosperity”) and now (when similar levels of voter discontent are occurring with slow growth and high levels of inequality) means we can’t make sense of electoral grievances in terms of economic discontent. For Eavis, most voters are currently “doing sort of O.K.” (with thousands of new jobs and a low unemployment rate). Therefore, he argues, this election can’t really be about the economy.

Desperate as they are to make such an argument, both Ip and Eavis miss two key issues. First, the economy is not just GDP growth. It’s also, at least for the majority of the population, about a great deal more: the tradeoff between wages and profits and the level of inequality, the ability of the government to capture portions of the surplus and to use it for social programs, the degree of security concerning jobs and the quality of the communities in which people live and work, and a great deal more. And second, capitalism doesn’t always exert its effects in the same way: in the 1960s, when both wages and profits were rising and the possibility of using part of the surplus to improve society (both for those who had prospered and those who had been excluded from that first. “Golden Age” decade of postwar growth), capitalist success created rising expectations (including the rethinking of aspects of capitalism that had previously been deemed successes); while now, in the midst of capitalism’s multiple, spectacular failures, the opposite is true (as people demand redress for their low-paying jobs, crumbling infrastructure, obscene levels of inequality, and the corruption of democratic politics by large corporations and wealthy individuals).

So, no, capitalism can’t be let off the hook. It creates and perpetuates the problems it claims to address. And even though economic and political elites want to believe otherwise, holding firm to the notion that people should be satisfied with current economic arrangements, recent developments in the United States and Europe suggest they’re not.

Not by a long shot.

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The folks at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis find a correlation between inequality and stock prices. And, to their credit, they get half of the story: rising stock prices (and therefore increasing returns on equity wealth) have contributed to increasing inequality in the United States.

Comparing stock prices with the Gini coefficient provides further evidence of financial movement with income inequality. The steady increase in U.S. income inequality from the 1970s through the early 2000s was accompanied by strong gains in the stock market. The S&P 500 composite index grew from 92 in 1977 to over 1476 in 2007—about a 140 percent increase. These gains were huge. By comparison, the gains in the prior 30 years (1947-77) were only 50 percent. The correlation between the Gini coefficient and stock prices from 1947 to 2013 is strongly positive. As stock prices rise, the gains are disproportionately distributed to the wealthy. Lower- and middle-income families who are also wealth-poor are less likely to expose their savings to the higher risks of equity markets.

What they don’t get is the other side of the story: rising inequality has caused higher stock prices. A combination of higher profits for large, publicly traded corporations (which has served to boost the underlying returns on equity and allowed corporations to engage in stock buybacks) and a larger share of income going to the top 1 percent (as their share of the surplus has risen, which allowed them to purchase even more shares) fueled the increase in stock prices.

Once we put both sides of the story together, the conclusion is clear: rising inequality in the United States has been both a condition and consequence of rising stock prices from the late-1970s onward.

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Back in 2014, in a post on inflation, I revealed my suspicion that

the real rate of inflation for consumer goods is higher than the official rate of 2.2 percent (over the past 12 months), thereby understating the extent to which working people are facing rising prices for the commodities they need to purchase in order to maintain themselves and their families.

Well, as it turns out, I was right. According to some recent research by Xavier Jaravel, the rate of inflation faced by high-income households is lower than for low-income households.

Why’s that? Because, with rising inequality, firms in the retail sector introduced more products catering to high-income consumers, and competitive pressure in that segment of the market drove down the prices of those products.

And why does it matter? Well, for one, any overall measure of inflation (like the Consumer Price Index) tends to understate the rate of inflation facing low-income consumers. That’s the point I made back in 2014.

The other implication is that, because households with different amounts of income face different prices for the goods they consume, economic inequality is actually worse than we thought.

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So, here we have another vicious cycle: nominal economic inequality leads to different rates of product innovation (thus leading to different levels of consumer prices), which in turn worsens the degree of real inequality.

That vicious cycle of escalating inequality is, unfortunately, part of the normal workings of our current economic institutions.

 

Joseph Stiglitz usefully explains that there’s more than one theory of the distribution of income. One theory, he writes, focuses on competitive markets (according to which “factors of production” receive their marginal contributions to production, the “just deserts” of capitalism); the other, on power (“including the ability to exercise monopoly control or, in labor markets, to assert authority over workers”).

In the West in the post-World War II era, the liberal school of thought has dominated. Yet, as inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works. So, today, the second school of thought is ascendant.

I think Stiglitz is right: with the obscene levels of inequality we’ve seen emerge over the course of the past four decades, the notion of “just deserts” is being called into question, thereby creating space for other theories of the distribution of income to be recognized.

The only major problem with Stiglitz’s account is he leaves out a third possibility, an approach that combines a focus on markets with power, that is, a class analysis of the distribution of income (which the late Stephen Resnick begins to explain in the lecture above).

According to this class or Marxian theory of the distribution of income, markets are absolutely central to capitalism—on both the input side (e.g., when workers sell their labor power to capitalists) and the output side (when capitalists sell the finished goods to realize their value and capture profits). But so is power: workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor to capitalists because it has no use-value for them; and capitalists, who have access to the money to purchase the labor power, do so because they can productively consume it in order to appropriate the surplus-value the workers create.

That’s the first stage of the analysis, when markets and power combine to generate the surplus-value capitalists are able to realize in the form of profits. And that’s under the assumption that markets are competitive, that is, there is no monopoly power. It is literally a different reading of commodity values and profits, and therefore a critique of the idea that capitalist factors of production “get what they deserve.” They don’t, because of the existence of class exploitation.

But what if markets aren’t competitive? What if, for example, there is some kind of monopoly power? Well, it depends on what industry or sector we’re referring to. Let’s take one of the industries mentioned by Stiglitz: health insurance. In the case where employers are purchasing health insurance for their employees (the dominant model in the United States, at least for those with health insurance), those employers are forced to transfer some of the surplus-value they appropriate from their own employees to the insurance oligopolies. As a result, the rate of profit for the insurance companies rises (as their monopoly power increases) and the rate of profit for other employers falls (unless, of course, they can cut some other distribution of their surplus-value).*

The analysis could go on.** My only point is to point out there’s a third possibility in the debate over the distribution of income—a theory that combines markets and power and is focused on the role of class in making sense of the grotesque levels of inequality we’re seeing in the United States today.

And, of course, that third approach has policy implications very different from the others—not to force workers to increase their productivity in order to receive higher wages through the labor market or to hope that decreasing market concentration will make the distribution of income more equal, but instead to attack the problem at its source. That would mean changing both markets and power with the goal of eliminating class exploitation.

 

*This is one of the reasons capitalist employers might support “affordable” healthcare, to raise their rates of profit.

**The analysis of wage or consumer goods would be a bit different. But I don’t have the space to develop that here.

Chart of the day

Posted: 20 May 2016 in Uncategorized
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CEO-worker

The United States’ top 500 chief executive officers managed to capture 335 times the average worker’s wage last year, taking home $12.4 million on average, according to a new report by the AFL-CIO. That average CEO pay was a whopping 819 times the wage of a worker earning the federal minimum wage.

Here’s the list of the top 25 CEOs by pay—from Joe Kiani of Massimo Corp (at more than $199 million) to Jeff Immelt of GE (at just under $33 million):

CEOs

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Special mention

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