A former student just sent me the link to the Vantage Point Radio recording of the debate on Capitalism vs. Catholicism I participated in (with my colleagues Georges Enderle and Dan Groody, C.S.C.) back in February 2015.
Last week, to judge by the commentary on the latest Census Bureau report, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015 (pdf), you’d think the fountain of broadly shared economic prosperity had just been discovered.
Binyamin Appelbaum is a good example:
Americans last year reaped the largest economic gains in nearly a generation as poverty fell, health insurance coverage spread and incomes rose sharply for households on every rung of the economic ladder, ending years of stagnation.
The median household’s income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent from the previous year — the largest single-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967, the Census Bureau said on Tuesday. The share of Americans living in poverty also posted the sharpest decline in decades.
The gains were an important milestone for the economic expansion that began in 2009. For the first time in recent years, the benefits of renewed prosperity are spreading broadly.
And while the 5.2-percent increase is nothing to sneeze at (certainly not for the average American whose income, even now, remains below that of 2007 and even 1999), we need to keep things in perspective.
First, as is clear from the chart above, the gap between the average incomes of the top 1 percent and median income continues to grow. The ratio between the two has dramatically increased over time—from 8 in 1984 to 15.7 in 1999 and 19 in 2007—and remained very high (at 18.6) in 2015.
That’s not a story of broadly shared prosperity.
Second, while the 2015 increase in median household income was dramatic, it followed a year when median income actually fell (by 1.5 percent), after a previous increase (of 3.5 percent in 2013) and years of negative growth (from 2008 to 2012).
I hate to spoil the party. But, me, I’d keep the champagne on ice until we actually see sustained, broadly shared prosperity in the United States. And, to judge by recent years and indeed decades, that may be a very long wait.
Good question, Bruce. I actually started by comparing the change in median income and real earnings—finding that there was a correlation during some periods but not in others.
What I found particularly interesting is that in 2008 and 2009 the change in real earnings was positive while median income fell. And then, in 2013, real earnings fell while median income rose. The interpretation? I think a lot has to do with unemployment—or, if you prefer, the Reserve Army. Real earnings rose in 2008 and 2009 for those workers who were employed (because of low inflation/deflation) but, of course, many workers were thrown out of work. The result? Median household income fell. Exactly the opposite in 2013: real earnings barely changed but the increase in employment raised median household income. Make sense?
According to the norms of both neoclassical economic theory and capitalism itself, workers’ wages should increase at roughly the same rate as their productivity.* Clearly, in recent years they have not.
The chart above, which was produced by B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shows that labor compensation has grown slowly during the recovery of the U.S. economy from the 2007-09 recession. In fact, real labor compensation per hour in the nonfarm business sector was 0.5 percent lower 20 quarters after the start of the recovery, while labor productivity had increased by 6 percent.
Clearly, the gap between worker compensation and productivity has grown during the current recovery.
But the authors go even further, showing that the gap in the United States between compensation to workers and their productivity has been growing for decades.
labor productivity has been growing at a higher rate than labor compensation for more than 40 years. As Figure 3 shows, labor productivity in 2016:Q1 is 3.8 times as high as that in 1950:Q1; labor compensation, on the other hand, is only 2.7 times as high. In other words, the gap between labor productivity and compensation has been widening for the past four decades. The slower growth in labor compensation relative to labor productivity during the recovery from the two most recent recessions is part of this long-term trend. (reference omitted)
The data in Figure 3 show that the productivity-compensation gap—defined as labor productivity divided by labor compensation—has been increasing on average by approximately 0.9 percent per year since 1970:Q1. Based on this long-term trend, the gap would have been 51 percent higher in 2016:Q1 compared with 1970:Q1; in the data, the gap is actually 47 percent higher.
The fact is, labor compensation has failed to keep up with labor productivity after the Great Recession. But, as it turns out, there’s nothing unique about this period. The gap has been growing for more than four decades in the United States.**
Clearly, the recent and long-term trends of productivity and labor compensation challenge the norms of neoclassical economics and of capitalism itself. But we are also seeing the growth of another gap—between the promises of both neoclassical theory and capitalism and the reality workers have faced for decades now.
*Neoclassical economics—in particular, the marginal productivity theory of distribution—is based on the idea that the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and so on) receive in the form of income what they contribute to production. So, for example, as labor productivity increases, real wages should also rise. Similarly, capitalism is based on the idea of “just deserts.” That idea—that everyone gets what they deserve—is essential to the very idea of fairness or justice in the way the economy is currently organized.
**The authors’ analysis is based on the gap between labor compensation and productivity. If we look at real wages (as in the chart below) instead of compensation (which includes benefits, and therefore the portion of the surplus employers distribute to pension plans, healthcare insurers, and others), the gap is even larger.
According to my calculations from Fed data, since 1979, productivity has grown by 60 percent while real wages have increased by less than 5 percent.
A constant refrain among mainstream economists and pundits since the crash of 2007-08 has been that, while the state of mainstream macroeconomics is poor, all is well within microeconomics.
The problems within macroeconomics are, of course, well known: Mainstream macroeconomists didn’t predict the crash. They didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash within their theory or models. And they certainly didn’t know what to do once the crash occurred.
What about microeconomics, the area of mainstream economics that was supposedly untouched by all the failures in the other half of the official discipline? Well, as it turns out, there are major problems there, too—especially given the obscene levels of inequality that both preceded and have resumed since the crash erupted, not to mention the slow economic growth that rising inequality was supposed to solve.
In particular, as I have written many times over the years, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats—along with its theoretical justification, marginal productivity theory—needs to be questioned and ultimately abandoned.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just read the latest essay by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.
Stiglitz first explains that neoclassical economists developed marginal productivity theory as a direct response to Marxist claims that the returns to capital are based on the exploitation of workers.
While exploitation suggests that those at the top get what they get by taking away from those at the bottom, marginal productivity theory suggests that those at the top only get what they add. The advocates of this view have gone further: they have suggested that in a competitive market, exploitation (e.g. as a result of monopoly power or discrimination) simply couldn’t persist, and that additions to capital would cause wages to increase, so workers would be better off thanks to the savings and innovation of those at the top.
More specifically, marginal productivity theory maintains that, due to competition, everyone participating in the production process earns remuneration equal to her or his marginal productivity. This theory associates higher incomes with a greater contribution to society. This can justify, for instance, preferential tax treatment for the rich: by taxing high incomes we would deprive them of the ‘just deserts’ for their contribution to society, and, even more importantly, we would discourage them from expressing their talent. Moreover, the more they contribute— the harder they work and the more they save— the better it is for workers, whose wages will rise as a result.
Then he argues that three striking aspects of the evolution of the United States and most other rich countries in the past thirty-five years—the increase in the wealth-to-income ratio, the stagnation of median wages, and the failure of the return to capital to decline—call into question the neoclassical story about the distribution of income.
Standard neoclassical theories, in which ‘wealth’ is equated with ‘capital’, would suggest that the increase in capital should be associated with a decline in the return to capital and an increase in wages. The failure of unskilled workers’ wages to increase has been attributed by some (especially in the 1990s) to skill-biased technological change, which increased the premium put by the market on skills. Hence, those with skills would see their wages rise, and those without skills would see them fall. But recent years have seen a decline in the wages paid even to skilled workers. Moreover, as my recent research shows, average wages should have increased, even if some wages fell. Something else must be going on.
As Stiglitz sees it, that “something else” is a combination of rent-seeking (especially land rents, intellectual property rents, and monopoly power) and increased exploitation (especially the weakening of workers’ bargaining power, based on weak unions and asymmetric globalization).*
The result is that the rising tide has only lifted a few boats at the top and left everyone else behind.
But Stiglitz is not done. He also explains that not only is growing inequality not necessary for growth; it actually has negative effects: it leads to weak aggregate demand (and, in an attempt to solve that problem, asset bubbles), less equality of opportunity (thus lowering growth in the future), and lower levels of public investment (since the rich believe they don’t need things like public transportation, infrastructure, technology, and education).
It should be noted that the existence of these adverse effects of inequality on growth is itself evidence against an explanation of today’s high level of inequality based on marginal productivity theory. For the basic premise of marginal productivity is that those at the top are simply receiving just deserts for their efforts, and that the rest of society benefits from their activities. If that were so, we should expect to see higher growth associated with higher incomes at the top. In fact, we see just the opposite.
Neoclassical marginal productivity theory was never a plausible explanation of the distribution of income in capitalist societies. And, as Stiglitz explains, it is even more questionable in light of the spectacular growth of inequality in recent decades.
The only conclusion is that we live in strange times—when the illusion of a rising tide that lifts all boats (and, with it, trickledown economics, “just deserts,” and the like) has been shattered, and yet mainstream economists continue to teach (and use as the basis of economic policy) its theoretical underpinnings, marginal productivity theory.
There’s nothing left but to declare that both mainstream macroeconomics and microeconomics—as basic theory and a guide for economic policy—have failed. There’s simply nothing there to be fixed. Both mainstream macroeconomics and microeconomics need to be set aside in favor of very different analyses and explanations of capitalist instability and inequality.
I’ve been writing for some years now about the emergence of new technologies, especially automation and robotics, and their potential contribution to raising already-high levels of inequality even further.
The problem is not, as I have tried to make clear, technology per se but the way it is designed and utilized within existing economic institutions. In other words, the central question is: who will own the robots?
If capital owns the robots, even if their development and use increases labor productivity, the returns mostly go to capital and the workers (those who are left, in addition to those who have been displaced) are the ones who lose out.
But you don’t have to believe me. That’s the conclusion of a recent piece published in Finance & Development, the research journal of the International Monetary Fund.
The authors, Andrew Berg, Edward F. Buffie, and Luis-Felipe Zanna, designed an economic model in which they assume robots are a particular sort of physical capital, one that is a close substitute for human workers.* They also consider three versions of the model: one in which robots are almost perfect substitutes for human labor; another in which robots and human labor are close but not perfect substitutes (i.e., “people bring a spark of creativity or a critical human touch” that cannot, at least for the foreseeable future, be replaced by robots); and a third in which they distinguish between “skilled” and “unskilled” workers.
In all three cases, output per person rises—but so does inequality. As the authors explain for the first version:
If we assume that robots are almost perfect substitutes for human labor, the good news is that output per person rises. The bad news is that inequality worsens, for several reasons. First, robots increase the supply of total effective (workers plus robots) labor, which drives down wages in a market-driven economy. Second, because it is now profitable to invest in robots, there is a shift away from investment in traditional capital, such as buildings and conventional machinery. This further lowers the demand for those who work with that traditional capital.
But this is just the beginning. Both the good and bad news intensify over time. As the stock of robots increases, so does the return on traditional capital (warehouses are more useful with robot shelf stockers). Eventually, therefore, traditional investment picks up too. This in turn keeps robots productive, even as the stock of robots continues to grow. Over time, the two types of capital grow together until they increasingly dominate the entire economy. All this traditional and robot capital, with diminishing help from labor, produces more and more output. And robots are not expected to consume, just produce (though the science fiction literature is ambiguous about this!). So there is more and more output to be shared among actual people.
However, wages fall, not just in relative terms but absolutely, even as output grows.
This may sound odd, or even paradoxical. Some economists talk about the fallacy of technology fearmongers’ failure to realize that markets will clear: demand will rise to meet the higher supply of goods produced by the better technology, and workers will find new jobs. There is no such fallacy here: in our simple model economy, we assume away unemployment and other complications: wages adjust to clear the labor market.
So how can we explain the fall in wages coinciding with the growing output? To put it another way, who buys all the higher output? The owners of capital do. In the short run, higher investment more than counterbalances any temporary decline in consumption. In the long run, the share of capital owners in the growing pie—and their consumption spending—is itself growing. With falling wages and rising capital stocks, (human) labor become a smaller and smaller part of the economy. (In the limiting case of perfect substitutability, the wage share goes to zero.) Thomas Piketty has reminded us that the capital share is a basic determinant of income distribution. Capital is already much more unevenly distributed than income in all countries. The introduction of robots would drive up the capital share indefinitely, so the income distribution would tend to grow ever more uneven.
The only difference in the second case (in which robots and human labor are close but not perfect substitutes) is that wages eventually rise (after, say, 20 years, when the productivity effect outweighs the substitution effect)—but by then it’s too late (as capital continues to have a higher share of income, although not as much as in the first case). And, in the third case, the growing gap between labor and capital (as in the other models) is exacerbated by growing inequality between skilled and unskilled workers.
In all three versions of the model, then, most of the income goes to owners of capital (and, in the third version, to skilled workers who cannot easily be replaced by robots). The rest get low wages and a shrinking share of the economic pie.
And the authors’ conclusion?
We have implicitly assumed so far that income from capital remains highly unequally distributed. But the increase in overall output per person implies that everyone could be better off if income from capital is redistributed. The advantages of a basic income financed by capital taxation become obvious. Of course, globalization and technological innovation have made it, if anything, easier for capital to flee taxation in recent decades. Our analysis thus adds urgency to the question “Who will own the robots?”
The assumption about the unequal distribution of capital income is, in fact, the appropriate one for the existing set of economic institutions. As the authors understand, the only way to change their dystopian prognosis is to fundamentally change the distribution of capital income.
And, if we’re going to be honest, the only way to do that is to eliminate the private ownership of the robots and the rest of capital.
*The model is also based on the presumption that all markets, including the labor market, clear, that is, they assume away unemployment and other such “complications,” which turns out to give those who deny the negative effects of robots and automation their strongest possible case.
In a recent New York Times article, Quoctring Bui reveals some fascinating details about the geography of inequality in the United States—including the fact that
between 1990 and 2014, the states that we tend to think of as economic engines for the country — like New York, California and New Jersey — are the ones where inequality has grown the most.
But the author makes the mistake of repeating the common presumption that, prior to the new millennium (specifically, between 1990 and 2000), income growth was widely shared between rich and poor.
When you change the yardsticks to include changes only from the 1990s, the “rising tide lifts all boats” maxim that economists like to talk about seems to hold true. Incomes grew almost across the board, poor to rich; they sag only for the upper middle class.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether in terms of income shares (in the chart at the top of the post) or average incomes (as in the chart immediately above), the rising tide left the rich richer and everyone else—the bottom 90 percent—falling further and further behind.
There simply has been no shared prosperity in the United States—not in the last decade of the last millennium nor in the first decade and a half of this one.