Posts Tagged ‘labor’

fredgraph

Tyler Cowen has made a bit of a splash with his argument that, here in the United States, we’re probably in the midst of an economic “reset.”

What does Cowen mean? Essentially, his argument is that economic growth may continue at relatively low levels for the foreseeable future (in contrast to the higher rates of growth following on other postwar recessions), that low and stagnant wages will likely continue (his examples are lower salaries of adjunct faculty, two-tier wage systems in manufacturing, and lower wages for college graduates), and there’s probably not much government policy can do to avoid this “grimmer future.”

In this, Cowen is basically echoing the concerns expressed by others, in the form of the “new normal” (associated with, among others, PIMCO boss Mohamed El-Erian) and “secular stagnation” (which Larry Summers [pdf], among others, has been arguing).

My view, for what it’s worth, is Cowen is both right and wrong. He’s right in the sense that we have witnessed, and will likely continue to experience, a relatively slow recovery from the crash of 2007-08. That’s why I continue to refer to our current situation as a Second Great Depression. And, as we have seen, what recovery there has been during the past six years has mostly benefited those at the very top. The rest of the population has already been forced to “reset” their expectations in terms of stagnant wages and salaries.

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But Cowen is also wrong, in the sense that he’s only focused on the last few years. His view is that recent rates of economic growth have been relatively low (by postwar standards), and that trend may continue into the future (thereby requiring those at the bottom to revise their expectations downward). What he misses is the fact that a fundamental “reset” of the U.S. economy has been taking place for much longer, since at least the mid-1970s. Since then, we’ve seen the profit share growing and the labor share declining—a long-term trend that has only been exacerbated since the crash of 2008-08.

Or, if you want a different sort of evidence, consider taking a look at George Packer’s magnificent book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Using fascinating profiles of several Americans (and a dos Passos-like sprinkling of alarming headlines, news bites, song lyrics, and slogans), Packer offers an epic retelling of American history from 1978 to 2012—of a shrinking middle-class and an economy that has lost its ability to offer any significant hope for recovery for the majority of the population.

It’s that unwinding—which we’ve been living through for almost four decades now but which Cowen and others miss—that is going to require a fundamental “reset” of our economic system.

matt wuerker

graduation-selfie Tremors

labor-vs-capital

The headline, “Labor vs. Capital,” is not mine; it’s the Wall Street Journal’s. And the argument is,

For decades, labor’s share of American national income has shrunk while the share that goes to profits has expanded.

There are now tantalizing signs that labor may finally be gaining ground on capital.

Workers in the first quarter of the year recorded their biggest annual gain in pay since 2008, evidence that a steady decline in unemployment is finally having an effect on paychecks.

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That’s because, according to latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics [pdf], the wage and salary portion of the employment cost index increased by 0.7 percent during the first quarter of 2015 and 2.6 percent for the 12-month period ending March 2015 (as one can see in the chart above), which was higher than the 1.6-percent increase in March 2014.

fredgraph

But we have to remember that workers’ share of income has been declining for decades, which means that a big chunk of the growth that has occurred during that period has gone to profits, shareholders, and a tiny group at the top of the distribution of income.

It’s going to take much more than a 2.6-percentage annual rise in the wage and salary component of the employment cost index—even if sustained for many years—for workers to really gain ground on capital.

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LFP

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Capitalism, I’ve often argued, is not natural. It requires a lot of work. It required a lot of work to get it going in the first place. And it requires a lot of work to keep it going today.

A lot of that work involves getting people to work for someone else.

The problem of getting people to work is the foundation of the recent discussion (or, better, revival of the discussion, if we trace it back to Alvin Hansen) of “secular stagnation” [pdf]. Central to the current framing of the question—at least among mainstream economists—is the decrease in the number of available workers, created by declines in the rate of population growth and the labor force participation rate. The worry is that, looking forward, there simply won’t be enough workers to sustain the rates of potential economic growth we saw in the years leading up to the most recent crisis of capitalism.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to witness the spectacle of economists such as Regis Barnichon and Andrew Figura [pdf] claiming that the decline in the labor force participation rate in the United States is “a decline in desire to work among individuals outside the labor force, with a particularly strong decline during the second half of the 90s.” For them, it’s not a decline in the number of decent, high-paying jobs, but instead the unwillingness on the part of individuals who are currently not counted as part of the labor force to enter the labor force in order to work for someone else. And the reason?

Looking across different sub-groups, the decline in the number of nonparticipants who want to work is due mainly to prime-age females, and, to a lesser extent, young individuals. Moreover, the decline is mainly a low-income and non-single household phenomenon, and is stronger for families with children than without.

Precisely in order to overcome that supposed aversion to work, Laura Tach and Kathryn Edin praise the earned-income tax credit, because, as the nation’s largest cash anti-poverty program, it goes mostly to parents of children who are willing to work. And working for someone else is, for Tach and Edin, “tantamount to a badge of citizenship.” To which they add:

The dignity-building nature of this cash transfer is reinforced by the way it is administered, through tax preparation offices. Here, low-wage workers are customers served with a smile, not supplicants seeking a handout.

That, of course, is the proverbial carrot for the poor. And then there’s the incentive for employers themselves: the enormous subsidies provided by the government so that employers will hire and keep low-wage workers. As Ken Jacobs explains,

After decades of wage cuts and health benefit rollbacks, more than half of all state and federal spending on public assistance programs goes to working families who need food stamps, Medicaid, or other support to meet basic needs. Let that sink in — American taxpayers are subsidizing people who work — most of them full-time  (in some case more than full-time) because businesses do not pay a living wage.

But if poor people are still unwilling to take one of the low-wage, deadend jobs available, there’s always the stick of Kansas-style welfare reforms.

The measure — called the HOPE Act by supporters — “provides an opportunity for success,” Brownback said in a statement after signing the bill. “It’s about the dignity of work and helping families move from reliance on a government pittance to becoming self-sufficient by developing the skills to find a well-paying job and build a career.”

All of that, both theoretically and in terms of policy, is meant to force people to have the freedom to participate in the labor force. But that still doesn’t mean they’re going to do the requisite amount of work, even after they’ve landed one of those jobs.

According to Ronald Aslop [ht: ja], the problem is particularly acute among young people, who in his view are engaged in a constant struggle to keep their minds focused on the matter at hand and block out email and other digital distractions.

These distractions are shortening attention spans and making it difficult for young people to concentrate and stick with demanding assignments at school and work. In fact, researchers have found that millennials are more likely than Gen Xers or baby boomers to report that their productivity suffers at work because of smartphone distractions and “cyberslacking” on the Internet.

That means employers have to step in “to eliminate some of technology’s temptations” (which apparently involves limiting the use of digital technology and, my favorite, suggesting that distracted employees learn meditation and yoga).

What we’re learning is that it takes a lot of work to keep capitalism going. But notice that all that effort is directed at the masses of people who actually do the work, not at the tiny minority at the top who actually make the decisions about if, when, and how the jobs people are expected to do are actually created.

Apparently, focusing on those decisions—especially as corporate profits soar and economic inequality continues to grow—would require too much work.

Update

Now, according to the New York Times, workers are using stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse, and Concerta to improve work performance: “many young workers insist that using the drugs to increase productivity is on the rise — and that these are drugs used not to get high, but hired.”

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