Posts Tagged ‘manufacturing’

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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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Alec Monopoly, “Flying Monopoly” (2015)

In the second installment of this series on “class before Trumponomics,” I argued that, in recent decades, while American workers have created enormous wealth, most of the increase in that wealth has been captured by their employers and a tiny group at the top—as workers have been forced to compete with one another for new kinds of jobs, with fewer protections, at lower wages, and with less security than they once expected. And the period of recovery from the Second Great Depression has done nothing to change that fundamental dynamic.

In this post, I want to focus on a more detailed analysis of the other side of the class relationship—capital.

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It should come as no surprise that one of the major changes in U.S. capital over the past few decades is the growing importance of financial activities. Since 1980, FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) has almost doubled, expanding from roughly 12 percent of the gross output of private industries to over 20 percent.

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And the rise in the share of corporate profits from financial activities was even more spectacular—from 10.8 percent in 1984 to a whopping 37.4 percent in 2002—and then falling during the crash, but still at a historically high 26.6 percent in 2015.

By any measure, U.S. capital became increasingly oriented toward finance beginning in the early 1980s—as traditional banks (deposit-gathering commercial banks), non-bank financial entities (especially shadow banking, such as investment banks, hedge funds, insurers and other non-bank financial institutions), and even the financial arm of industrial corporations (such as the General Motors Acceptance Corporation, now Ally Financial) absorbed and then profited by creating new claims on the surplus.

This process of “financialization” was the flip side of the decreasing labor share in the U.S. economy: On one hand, stagnant wages meant both an increasing surplus, which could be recycled via the financial sector, and a growing market for loans, as workers sought to maintain their customary level of consumption via increasing indebtedness. On the other hand, the production of commodities (both goods and services) became less important than capturing a portion of the surplus from around the world, and utilizing it via issuing loans and selling derivatives to receive even more.

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Not only did finance become increasingly internationalized, so did the U.S. economy as a whole. As a result of employers’ decisions to outsource the production of commodities that had previously been manufactured in the United States and to find external markets for the sale of other commodities (especially services), and with the assistance of the lowering of tariffs and the signing of new trade agreements, the U.S. economy was increasingly opened up from the early-1970s onward. One indicator of this globalization is the increase in the weight of international trade (the sum of exports and imports) in relation to U.S. GDP—more than tripling between 1970 (9.33 percent) to 2014 (29.1 percent).

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The third major change in U.S. capital in recent decades is a rise in the degree of corporate concentration and centralization—to such an extent even the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) has taken notice. A wave of mergers and acquisitions has made firms larger and has increased the degree of market concentration within a broad range of industries. In finance, for example, the market share of the five largest banks (measured in terms of their assets as a share of total commercial banking assets) more than doubled between 1996 and 2014—rising from 23.2 percent to 47.9 percent.

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The U.S. airline industry also experienced considerable merger and acquisition activity, especially following deregulation in 1978. The figure above (from a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office [pdf]) provides a timeline of mergers and acquisitions for the four largest surviving domestic airlines—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—based on the number of passengers served. These four airlines accounted for approximately 85 percent of total passenger traffic in the United States in 2013.

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Another piece of evidence that concentration and centralization have increased within the U.S. economy is (following Jason Furmanthe growing gap between corporate profits and interest-rates. The fact that corporate profits (as a share of national income, the top line in the chart above) have risen while interest-rates (the nominal constant-maturity 1-year rate estimated by the Federal Reserve, less inflation defined by the Consumer Price Index, the bottom line in the chart above) indicates that the portion of profits created by oligopoly rents has grown in recent decades.*

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Together, the three main tendencies I have highlighted—financialization, internationalization, and corporate rents—indicate a fundamental change in U.S. capital since the 1980s, which has continued during the current recovery. One of the effects of those changes is a decline in the importance of manufacturing, especially in relation to FIRE, as can be seen in the chart above. Manufacturing (as measured by value added as a percentage of GDP) has declined from 22.9 percent (in 1970) to 12 percent (in 2015), while FIRE moved in the opposite direction—from 14.2 percent to 20.3 percent. Quantitatively, the two sectors have traded places, which qualitatively signifies a change in how U.S. capital manages to capture the surplus. While it still appropriates surplus from its own workers (although now more in the production and export of services than in manufacturing), it now captures the surplus, from workers inside and outside the United States, via financial activities. On top of that, the largest firms are capturing additional portions of the surplus from other, smaller corporations via oligopoly rents.

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What we’ve witnessed then is a fundamental transformation of U.S. capital and thus the U.S. economy, which begins to explain a whole host of recent trends—from the decrease in rates of economic growth (since capital is engaged less in investment than in other activities, such as stock buybacks, hoarding profits in the form of cash, and mergers and acquisitions) to the rise in corporate executive pay in relation to average worker pay (which has ballooned, from 29.9 in 1978 to 275.6 in 2015).

What is clear is that the decisions of U.S. capital as it changed over the course of recent decades created the conditions for the crash of 2007-08 and the unevenness of the subsequent recovery, which culminated in the victory of Donald Trump in November 2016.

 

*Another way to get at these oligopoly rents is to distinguish between the capital share and the profit share. According to Simcha Barkai (pdf), the decline in the labor share over the last 30 years was not offset by an increase in the capital share, which actually declined. But it was accompanied by an increase in the profit share, due to a rise in mark-ups.

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Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump argue on the campaign trail that manufacturing is a source of good-paying jobs and the United States needs to do all it can to strengthen that sector.*

What both candidates ignored is the fact that the manufacturing now pays (and has since 2006 paid) lower wages than the average for the private sector as a whole (as readers can see in the chart above). In September, the average hourly wage for a nonsupervisory worker in manufacturing was $20.59, more than a dollar an hour less than for other workers in the private sector.

Employers may complain about a “talent shortage,” about not being able to find enough skilled workers to fill jobs, but they’re not willing to pay higher wages to attract those workers. The problem is, most factory jobs have been redefined as lower-level work.

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According to a recent report from the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education (pdf), a large number (34 percent) of the families of frontline manufacturing production workers are enrolled in one or more public safety net programs.

The high utilization of public safety net programs by frontline manufacturing production workers is primarily a result of low wages, rather than inadequate work hours. e families of 32 percent of all manufacturing production workers and 46 percent of those employed through staffing agencies who worked at least 35 hours a week and 45 weeks during the year were enrolled in one or more public safety net program.

Thus, between 2009 and 2013, the federal government and the states spent more than $10.2 billion per year on public safety-net programs for workers (and their families) who hold frontline manufacturing production jobs. (This includes workers directly hired by manufacturers and those hired through staffing agencies.)

As I have explained before, I hold no particular nostalgia for industry in the hinterlands of the U.S. economy.

Nor do American workers. They may be angry about their current plight but neither the current presidential candidates nor employers are willing to do what is necessary to create decent, well-paying jobs for the millions of people who have been laid off or who are currently forced to sell their ability to work to obtain precarious jobs at substandard wages.

Calls to restore the manufacturing sector to its former glory may do something for employers but they offer little in the way of real solutions to American workers.

 

*And Trump (but not Clinton) is criticized for ignoring the fact that the “nation’s manufacturing sector is actually booming.”

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All three remaining presidential candidates—Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders—have decried the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States and have promised, in one way or another, to bring those jobs back.

However, as readers know, I hold no nostalgia for industry or for the supposedly good manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of the American Dream in the postwar period.

to the extent that manufacturing jobs were “good jobs” (and, in my view, we do need to dispute that idea that they really were “good jobs”), it wasn’t because workers produced real, tangible goods; it’s because the workers were unionized and were able (with the aid of higher real minimum wages, better-financed government supervision of worker safety, and so on) to bargain over their pay and working conditions. They aren’t able to do that now in most of the private-sector service-producing industries. In other words, it’s not what workers produce but under what conditions they produce.

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I continue to believe we need to puncture the myth that all those manufacturing jobs were good jobs. We also need to look at what’s happened with those jobs in recent decades. As you can see from the chart above, while U.S. manufacturing wages (for production and nonsupervisory workers) were higher than the hourly wages for all private-sector workers until a decade ago, they’re now less (by more than a dollar an hour). That’s why, as the National Employment Law Project (pdf) has shown, manufacturing production wages now rank in the bottom half of all jobs in the United States.*

So, Ben Casselman is right:

For all of the glow that surrounds manufacturing jobs in political rhetoric, there is nothing inherently special about them. Some pay well; others don’t. They are not immune from the forces that have led to slow wage growth in other sectors of the economy. When politicians pledge to protect manufacturing jobs, they really mean a certain kind of job: well-paid, long-lasting, with opportunities for advancement.

The problem is, we’re not seeing those kinds of decently paid, secure jobs anywhere across the landscape of the U.S. economy—in manufacturing, services, or anywhere else.

The precipitous decline in unions is one part of the explanation. At a more general level, however, at least as significant (even when unions were stronger) is the fact that workers have little say in the main institutions governing the economy—in the enterprises where they work, the communities in which they live, and the governments they vote for and to which they pay taxes.

Until that changes—until workers are able to participate in making key decisions about their lives and livelihoods—the promise of creating more jobs in one sector or another is merely a pipe dream that is being manufactured to keep things just as they are.

 

*However, while many analysts overlook this, it is still the case that weekly earnings for manufacturing workers (the red line in the chart below) remain higher than those for other workers in the private sector (the blue line):

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Yes, American workers are angry. But not just for one reason—for many reasons.

It took a long time for U.S. political and economic elites (and their friends in economics) to understand that the American working-class has been squeezed far beyond what it can take. Even now, it’s not clear they understand, although the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have given clear indications that the establishment is out of touch.

Even then, the anxieties and frustrations of U.S. workers can’t be put down to one thing.

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Sure, as Mark Muro and Siddharth Kulkarni explain, the American working-class is angry about the loss of manufacturing jobs.

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But let’s also remember that the share of manufacturing jobs in the United States has been on a steady decline since its peak of 39 percent in 1943.

Still, the drop in the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs accelerated in the new millennium, coinciding with a rise in the offshoring of jobs to and the rise of imports from Mexico, China, and other countries in the process of capitalist development. That’s certainly one key factor.*

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But American workers are angry for other reasons—such as the fact that, as Jared Bernstein explains, their wages, which had doubled from the 1940s to the 1970s, have flat-lined since.

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Even more: only wages at the top—above the 90th and 95th percentiles (which, as I have explained before, aren’t really like other wages but, instead, represent cuts of the surplus)—have seen any appreciable increase since the start of the Second Great Depression.

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Meanwhile, even with slow growth, corporate profits (both financial and nonfinancial) continue to rise to record levels.

Thus, workers are falling further and further behind, while the tiny group at the top continues to pull away from everyone else.

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What this means is that every indicator we have—such as average incomes and the share of income captured by the top 1 percent—shows grotesque and growing levels of inequality within the United States.

So, yes, American workers are angry—at the loss of jobs, their stagnant wages, their employers’ record profits, and the obscene and still-increasing levels of inequality they witness every day.

 

*Daron Acemoglu et al. (pdf) estimate that, considering both the direct and indirect effects, import growth from China between 1999 and 2011 led to an employment reduction of 2.4 million workers—and thus about 40 percent of the decline in manufacturing employment during that period.