Posts Tagged ‘jobs’

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The capitalist machine is broken—and no one seems to know how to fix it.

The machine I’m referring to is the one whereby the “capitalist” (i.e., the boards of directors of large corporations) converts the “surplus” (i.e., corporate profits) into additional “capital” (i.e., nonresidential fixed investment)—thereby preserving the pact with the devil: the capitalists are the ones who get and decide on the distribution of the surplus, and then they’re supposed to use the surplus for investment, thereby creating economic growth and well-paying jobs.

The presumption of mainstream economists and business journalists (as well as political and economic elites) is that the capitalist machine is the only possible one, and that it will work.

Except it’s not: corporate profits have been growing (the red line in the chart above) but investment has been falling (the blue line in the chart), both in the short run and in the long run. Between 2008 and 2015, corporate profits have soared (as a share of gross domestic income, from 3.9 to 6.3 percent) but investment has decreased (as a share of gross domestic product, from 13.5 to 12.4 percent). Starting from 1980, the differences are even more stark: corporate profits were lower (3.6 percent) and investment was much higher (14.5 percent).

The fact that the machine is not working—and, as a result, growth is slowing down and job-creation is not creating the much-promised rise in workers’ wages—has created a bit of a panic among mainstream economists and business journalists.

Larry Summers, for example, finds himself reaching back to Alvin Hansen and announcing we’re in a period of “secular stagnation”:

Most observers expected the unusually deep recession to be followed by an unusually rapid recovery, with output and employment returning to trend levels relatively quickly. Yet even with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies, the recovery (both in the United States and around the globe) has fallen significantly short of predictions and has been far weaker than its predecessors. Had the American economy performed as the Congressional Budget Office fore­cast in August 2009—after the stimulus had been passed and the recovery had started—U.S. GDP today would be about $1.3 trillion higher than it is.

Clearly, the current recovery has fallen far short of expectations. But then Summers seeks to calm fears—”secular stagnation does not reveal a profound or inherent flaw in capitalism”—and suggests an easy fix: all that has to happen is an increase in government-financed infrastructure spending to raise aggregate demand and induce more private investment spending.

As if rising profitability is not enough of an incentive for capitalists.

Noah Smith, for his part, is also worried the machine isn’t working, especially since, with low interest-rates, credit for investment projects is cheap and abundant—and yet corporate investment remains low by historical standards. Contra Summers, Smith suggests the real problem is “credit rationing,” that is, small companies have been shut out of the necessary funding for their investment projects. So, he would like to see policies that promote access to capital:

That would mean encouraging venture capital, small-business lending and more effort on the part of banks to seek out promising borrowers — basically, an effort to get more businesses inside the gated community of capital abundance.

Except, of course, banks have an abundance of money to lend—and venture capital has certainly not been sitting on the sidelines.

Profitability, in other words, is not the problem. What neither Summers nor Smith is willing to ask is what corporations are actually doing with their growing profits (not to mention cheap credit and equity funding via the stock market) if not investing them.

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We know that corporations are not paying higher taxes to the government. As a share of gross domestic income, they’re lower than they were in 2006, and much lower than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. So, the corporate tax-cuts proposed by the incoming administration are not likely to induce more investment. Corporations will just be able to retain more of the profits they get from their workers.

But corporations are distributing their profits to other uses. Dividends to shareholders have increased dramatically (as a share of gross domestic income, the green line in the chart at the top of the post): from 1.7 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 2015.

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source (pdf)

Corporations are also using their profits to repurchase their own shares (thereby boosting stock indices to record levels), to finance mergers and acquisitions (which increase concentration, but not investment, and often involve cutting jobs), to raise the income and wealth of CEOs (thus further raising incomes of the top 1 percent and increasing conspicuous consumption), and to hold cash (at home and, especially, in overseas tax havens).

And that’s the current dilemma: the machine is working but only for a tiny group at the top. For everyone else, it’s not—not by a long shot.

We can expect, then, a long line of mainstream economists and business journalists who, like Summers and Smith, will suggest one or another tool to tinker with the broken machine. What they won’t do is state plainly the current machine is beyond repair—and that we need a radically different one to get things going again.

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We all know that the recovery since the Great Recession has been highly skewed. But has it hurt whites more than blacks and Hispanics, thereby explaining Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election?

That’s the story being told by Eduardo Porter (here and here), relying on data from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (pdf). Their basic argument is that, of the millions of net new jobs created since the pre-recession highwater mark of November 2007, most of them went to black and Hispanic (and Asian) workers, not to white workers (who make up the majority of the workforce).

The numbers are correct—but their analysis is seriously incomplete.

According to the numbers that serve as the basis of ECRI analysis (and which are represented in the chart above), about 5.5 million more workers are employed now compared to nine years ago (the purple line)—including 4.9 million more Hispanic (green line) and 2.3 million more African American (blue line) workers but 722 thousand fewer white (red line) workers.*

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It comes as no surprise that those different job trajectories are reflected in the different trajectories of the employment-population ratio. Whereas the overall ratio and the ratio for whites have barely changed (at 59 and 60 percent, respectively) since the recession ended, the other ratios have in fact changed—rising for both Hispanics (from 59.3 to 62.2) and blacks (from 52.9 to 56.6).

So, there are differences in job growth, a large part of which can be accounted for by different regional growth patterns (large cities vs. small towns and rural areas), sectoral shifts (services vs. industrial production), and demographic profiles (both the proportion of the working-age population and retirement rates).

However, in every other way, the different groups within the American working-class have moved in tandem.

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For example, the labor-force-participation rate has declined over the past nine years—in general and for each subgroup, white, black, and Hispanic—and remains now just above record lows.

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Unemployment rates have also moved in the same direction—first rising dramatically after the crash and then falling during the recovery (but still remaining above what they were before the crash).

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Meanwhile, workers’ wages have barely budged—overall and for whites, blacks, and Hispanics—between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2016.

The folks at the Center for Economic and Policy Research get it:

Porter is right in seeing support for Trump as being to a substantial extent a response to bad economic prospects. But the economic prospects of working class whites in the last decade were not notably worse than the prospects of working class blacks.

And, I would add, all the other groups that make up the American working-class.

The fact is, all members of the working-class—white, black, and Hispanic—have been victimized during the Second Great Depression. As I have shown elsewhere (e.g., here and here), as a class, they’ve fallen further and further behind the tiny group of employers and wealthy individuals at the top. That’s the real skewed nature of the economic recovery.

As I see it, the difference in their political allegiances and voting patterns cannot then be explained by white workers losing out to black and Hispanic workers. It’s due, instead, to the fact that one group that has been left behind (working-class whites) threw in their lot with one candidate (right-wing,  white-nationalist Trump)—while other members of the working-class (blacks and Hispanics), who have been equally left behind, simply could not.

And, soon, all of them will discover Trump’s promises were no more than dog-whistle politics and his economic program will leave them even further behind.

 

*The numbers don’t sum correctly (even without including Asian workers) because white Hispanics may be double-counted as both white and Hispanic, and black Hispanics may be double-counted as both black and Hispanic.

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During the recent presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to revitalize American manufacturing—and bring back “good” manufacturing jobs. So did Hillary Clinton.

What neither candidate was willing to acknowledge is that, while manufacturing output was already on the rebound after the Great Recession, the jobs weren’t going to come back.

As is clear from the chart above, manufacturing output has grown (by about 21 percent) since the end of the recession and is now nearing pre-recession levels (although still down from its pre-crash level by about 5 percent). But employment in the manufacturing sector is only up a small amount (8 percent) since its post-crash low and is still lower, by about 1.5 million jobs (or 11 percent), than in December 2007.

So, even if manufacturing production continues to grow, manufacturing jobs won’t (at least at the same rate). That’s because productivity in manufacturing continues to increase—as employers decide to change work rules, reorganize the factories, and introduce robotics and other forms of automation. Manufacturing workers, in other words, are being forced to produce more with less.

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That trend—of employment not matching the growth in output—just represents a longer term tendency in American manufacturing. If we start back in 1990 (as in the chart above, indexed to January 1990), output has increased 75 percent while employment has actually fallen by more than 30 percent.

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And, of course, employers have made that situation work for themselves, especially in recent years. Since the crash, corporate profits in manufacturing have rebounded spectacularly.

As long as workers have no say in how production is organized—including the technologies that are used and the surplus that is created—we can expect both manufacturing production and profits to increase while leaving workers and their jobs behind.

No matter who the president is.

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