Posts Tagged ‘productivity’


William D. Cohan’s broadside [ht: ja] against Bernie Sanders hinges on a simple, but fundamentally wrong, argument: we all benefit from the risks taken by Wall Street.

Simply put, Wall Street’s purpose is to re-allocate capital from people who have it (savers) to those who want it (borrowers) and then use it to grow businesses that employ billions of people around the globe and help give them a modicum of wealth that they did not have before. One man’s speculation, in other words, is another man’s risk-taking. Without people willing to take those risks, and having the chance to reap their reward, there wouldn’t be an Apple, a Google, a Facebook, or countless other large corporations. The billions of people around the world who are employed by thriving companies would lose their jobs.

Clearly, Cohan doesn’t understand Wall Street (or, for that matter, the rest of the financial sector). It doesn’t collect capital from one group of savers and allocate it to another group of borrowers, which then creates jobs. Rather, it recycles the surplus created by people who work in order to allow those who appropriate the surplus to collect even more. In other words, Wall Street manages the surplus on behalf of a small group of wealthy individuals and large corporations. And it grows its own profits not as a reward for taking risks but by taking a cut of each and every financial transaction.

As we know, Wall Street does in fact take risks, as it did in the lead-up to the crash of 2007-08. But the risks were borne not by Wall Street, but by the rest of us—in the form of massive layoffs and foreclosures.

What about the other part of the argument, that Wall Street helps businesses grow?


As it turns out, Matthew C. Klein addressed this issue just about a year ago. His argument, in short, is that productivity growth in rich countries started slowing down around the same time that the financial sector’s share of economic activity started rising rapidly.

First, the high salaries commanded in the financial sector — much of which can be attributed to too-big-to-fail subsidies and other forms of rent extraction — make it harder for genuinely innovative firms to hire researchers and invest in new technologies.

Second, the growth of the financial sector has been concentrated in mortgage lending, which means that more lending usually just leads to more building. That’s a problem for aggregate productivity, since the construction industry is one of the few that has consistently gotten less productive over time.


In other words, as illustrated in the chart above, the growth rate in productivity was systematically faster when the finance sector was relatively smaller (from 1948 to 1975), and then when the finance sector got bigger, productivity growth got smaller (from 1976 to 2014).

The ultimate irony is that Cohan actually makes Sanders’s case for breaking up Too Big to Fail banks and reigning in Wall Street:

Sanders is right that Wall Street still needs reform. The Dodd-Frank regulations fail to measure up; Wall Street lobbyists and $1000-an-hour attorneys work away each day to gut the meager reforms signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2010. It is also unconscionable that Wall Street’s compensation system continues to reward bankers, traders, and executives to take big risks with other people’s money in hopes of getting big year-end bonuses. Thanks to this system, which has been prevalent since the 1970s, when Wall Street transformed itself from a bunch of undercapitalized private partnerships (where those partners had serious capital at risk every day) to a group of behemoth public companies (where the risk is borne by creditors and shareholders while the rewards go to the employees), Wall Street has become ground zero for one financial crisis after another.

Neither Sanders nor I could have said it better.

A commonly heard argument these days, especially in and around the Federal Reserve, is that workers’ wages are not going up because productivity growth is very slow.

Here’s the version of the argument by Jeffrey M. Lacker (pdf), President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond:

Some argue there must be excessive slack in labor markets if wage rates are not accelerating. But real wages are tied to productivity growth, and productivity growth has been slow for several years now. Wage growth in real terms has at least kept pace with productivity increases over that time period, which is perfectly consistent with an economy from which labor market slack has largely dissipated.

But, as I showed the other day, there’s been a growing gap between productivity and wages since the mid-1970s. Thus, for example, between 1973 and 2014, gross productivity increased by 1.52 percent a year. During that same period, the median hourly wage grew by only .09 percent a year and median hourly compensation (including both wages and benefits) increased by only .20 percent a year.

So, no, real wages in the United States are not tied to productivity growth—and haven’t been for more than four decades.


That’s why the wage share of national income has been falling and, since the late-1980s, the profit share has been rising.

Or, as Fed-watcher Tim Duy explains,

Real median weekly earnings have grown 8.6% since 1985. Nonfarm output per hour is up 79% over that time. Yet the instant that there is even a glimmer of hope that labor might get an upper hand, the Federal Reserve looks to hold the line on wage growth. It still appears that the Fed’s top priority is making sure the cards remain stacked against wage and salary earners.


All eyes these days seem to be on the instability of the U.S. and world economies. That’s in part because of the extreme gyrations in the U.S. stock market (as measured, in the chart above, by the Dow Jones Industrial Average).


It’s also because of the instability in the Chinese economy, especially the external sector (as depicted in the chart above, by China’s Balance of Payments).

But, in all honesty, there’s nothing new here. Capitalism is always unstable, and has been from the very beginning. The current instability—within and across countries—is merely one more example of capitalism’s inherent instability.

What I find particularly interesting is the combination of instability and, at the same time, stability.

But to see that instability we have to look elsewhere—beyond the fluctuations in stock markets and balance of payments to the underlying pattern of productivity and wages. And there, at least for the United States, there’s been a remarkable stability over the course of the past four decades, which continues to the present.


As a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (pdf) demonstrates, the growth in the gap between productivity and workers’ wages has remained remarkably stable since the mid-1970s. Productivity continues to increase while workers’ wages have been stagnant. Thus, for example, while productivity grew a bit above 72 percent between 1973 and 2014, the average (median) workers’ hourly compensation increased by about 9 percent.*


And that gap has continued to grow during the current so-called recovery, as real wages (from 2009 to 2014) for all groups of workers, especially those at the bottom, have actually declined.

That, on this Labor Day weekend, is the fundamental stability underlying the apparent instability of contemporary capitalism.

*Here’s even more detail: between 1973 and 2014, gross productivity increased by 1.52 percent a year. During that same period, the median hourly wage grew by only .09 percent a year and median hourly compensation (both wages and benefits) increased by only .20 percent a year.



In the end, it all comes down to the theory of value.

That’s what’s at stake in the ongoing debate about the growing gap between productivity and wages in the U.S. economy. Robert Lawrence tries to define it away (by redefining both output and compensation so that the growth rates coincide). Robert Solow, on the other hand, takes the gap seriously and then looks to rent as the key explanatory factor.

The custom is to think of value added in a corporation (or in the economy as a whole) as just the sum of the return to labor and the return to capital. But that is not quite right. There is a third component which I will call “monopoly rent” or, better still, just “rent.” It is not a return earned by capital or labor, but rather a return to the special position of the firm. It may come from traditional monopoly power, being the only producer of something, but there are other ways in which firms are at least partly protected from competition. Anything that hampers competition, sometimes even regulation itself, is a source of rent. We carelessly think of it as “belonging” to the capital side of the ledger, but that is arbitrary. The division of rent among the stakeholders of a firm is something to be bargained over, formally or informally.

This is a tricky matter because there is no direct measurement of rent in this sense. You will not find a line called “monopoly rent” in any firm’s income statement or in the national accounts. It has to be estimated indirectly, if at all. There have been attempts to do this, by one ingenious method or another. The results are not quite “all over the place” but they differ. It is enough if the rent component lies between, say, 10 and 30 percent of GDP, where most of the estimates fall. This is what has to be divided between the claimants—labor and capital and perhaps others. It is essential to understand that what we measure as wages and profits both contain an element of rent.

Until recently, when discussing the distribution of income, mainstream economists’ focus was on profit and wages. Now, however, I’m noticing more and more references to rent.

What’s going on? My sense is, mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, were content with the idea of “just deserts”—the idea that different “factors of production” were paid what they were “worth” according to marginal productivity theory. And, for the most part, that meant labor and capital, and thus wages and profits. The presumption was that labor was able to capture its “just” share of productivity growth, and labor and capital shares were assumed to be pretty stable (as long as both shares grew at the same rate). Moreover, the idea of rent, which had figured prominently in the theories of the classical economists (like Smith and Ricardo), had mostly dropped out of the equation, given the declining significance of agriculture in the United States and their lack of interest in other forms of land rent (such as the private ownership of land, including the resources under the surface, and buildings).

Well, all that broke down in the wake of the crash of 2007-08. Of course, marginal productivity theory was always on shaky ground. And the gap between wages and productivity had been growing since the mid-1970s. But it was only with the popular reaction to the problem of the “1 percent” and, then, during the unequal recovery, when the tendency for the gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else to increase was quickly restored (after a brief hiatus in 2009), that some mainstream economists took notice of the cracks in their theoretical edifice. It became increasingly difficult for them (or at least some of them) to continue to invoke the “just deserts” of marginal productivity theory.

The problem, of course, is mainstream economists still needed a theory of income distribution grounded in a theory of value, and rejecting marginal productivity theory would mean adopting another approach. And the main contender is Marx’s theory, the theory of class exploitation. According to the Marxian theory of value, workers create a surplus that is appropriated not by them but by a small group of capitalists even when productivity and wages were growing at the same rate (such as during the 1948-1973 period). And workers were even more exploited when productivity continued to grow but wages were stagnant (from 1973 onward).

That’s one theory of the growing gap between productivity and wages. But if mainstream economists were not going to follow that path, they needed an alternative. That’s where rent enters the story. It’s something “extra,” something can’t be attributed to either capital or labor, a flow of value that is associated more with an “owning” than a “doing” (because the mainstream assumption is that both capital and labor “do” something, for which they receive their appropriate or just compensation).

According to Solow, capital and labor battle over receiving portions of that rent.

The suggestion I want to make is that one important reason for the failure of real wages to keep up with productivity is that the division of rent in industry has been shifting against the labor side for several decades. This is a hard hypothesis to test in the absence of direct measurement. But the decay of unions and collective bargaining, the explicit hardening of business attitudes, the popularity of right-to-work laws, and the fact that the wage lag seems to have begun at about the same time as the Reagan presidency all point in the same direction: the share of wages in national value added may have fallen because the social bargaining power of labor has diminished.

The problem, as I see it, is that Solow, like all other mainstream economists, is assuming that profits, wages, and rents are independent sources of income. The only difference between his view and that of the classicals is that Solow sees rents going not to an independent class of landlords, but as being “shared” by capital and labor—with labor sometimes getting a larger share and other times a smaller share, depending on the amount of power it is able to wield.

We’re back, then, to something akin to the Trinity Formula. And, as the Old Moor once wrote,

the alleged sources of the annually available wealth belong to widely dissimilar spheres and are not at all analogous with one another. They have about the same relation to each other as lawyer’s fees, red beets and music.


There are lots of different ways of dealing with inequality—specifically, the growing gap between productivity and wages.

One way is to define it away. That’s what the Peterson Institute’s Robert Z. Lawrence attempts to do—first by including the wages of all workers, then by adding in nonwage compensation and using a different measure of prices, and finally by focusing on net output.


Voilà, the gap all but disappears (at least until 2000)!

Or you can argue, as chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam’s Peter Georgescu does, that the gap is real and something needs to be done about it.

If inequality is not addressed, the income gap will most likely be resolved in one of two ways: by major social unrest or through oppressive taxes, such as the 80 percent tax rate on income over $500,000 suggested by Thomas Piketty, the French economist and author of the best-selling book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

We are creating a caste system from which it’s almost impossible to escape, except for the few with exceptional brains, athletic skills or luck. That’s why I’m scared. We risk losing the capitalist engine that brought us great economic success and our way of life.

Clearly, both Lawrence and Georgescu are afraid of the growing gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else. They are worried that it undermines capitalism’s legitimacy, especially the idea of “just deserts.”

But they have two very different ways of responding: one by defining the problem away, the other by trying to convince capitalists to pay workers more and thus to narrow the gap.

And if neither strategy works? Well, as the Campaign for $15 has shown, workers will just to have to take things into their own hands. That’s something neither Lawrence nor Georgescu wants.


It’s a story that could have appeared in the pages of George Packer’s magnificent book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Or from the pen of Molly Ivins—which is good, since Esther Kaplan was recently awarded the 2015 MOLLY National Journalism Prize for her article, “Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth Behind the Gospel of Productivity” [ht: bn].

The fact is, while Kaplan’s writing is superb, the story she tells about a plant that made commercial lighting fixtures in Sparta, Tennessee is an all-too-familiar one in contemporary America. Philips,”a multibillion-dollar multinational firm that sells everything from healthcare equipment to home appliances across the globe,” bought the plant in 2008 and then, in 2010, announced the plant was closing, since Philips had decided to outsource most of its production to another of its plants, in Monterrey, Mexico. Unfortunately, the economic and social landscape of the United States is increasingly littered with the broken bodies and spirits of countless workers, their families, and the communities in which they live as a result of such corporate decisions.

What makes Kaplan’s essay so interesting is that it operates at two different but related levels. She tells the story of the widespread devastation caused by Philips’s precipitous decision to close the Sparta plant, especially the difficulties both individual workers and the surrounding community have had attempting to replace the lost jobs. One of the best parts is her analysis of local attempts to purchase the plant and sell the lighting fixtures to Philips.

much in the Sparta story defies the familiar political scripts: Norris, the union-avoidance expert, along with Bailey and Sullivan, of the Chamber of Commerce, joining hands with the IBEW to help save a union plant; small businessmen in Tea Party country championing community ownership. It became clear from my conversations that Philips’s actions had deeply offended people’s sense of decency, from the laid-off workers to what Donna McCurry calls “the big wheels in town,” and that this sense of corporate indecency is what had brought such politically disparate people together.

(Both Packer and Ivins would have been proud to identify such political ironies.)

But Kaplan also thinks and writes at another level, grappling with the problem of productivity at the level of the plant and of the economy as a whole. In the case of the Sparta plant, workers had increased productivity (just as they continue to do, year in and year out, in the U.S. economy) and yet Philips decided to close the plant and relocate most of its production to a plant in Mexico (which had lower productivity but where workers received much lower wages and were not represented by a union).

One might be forgiven for asking what, exactly, all this productivity is for. “We busted our butts to get where we were at,” Ricky Lack [a maintenance worker at the plant] said the first time we spoke. “We got to number one. And it didn’t matter.”

That turns out to be the key question—in individual plants (where, after workers heed the call to increase productivity, they continue to face the threat of plant closures) and in the economy as a whole (in which since the mid-1970s productivity continues to increase but workers’ pay falls increasingly far behind).

Even today, mainstream economists and politicians continue to preach the gospel of productivity. Kaplan’s story is the bitter truth behind that gospel.

Chart of the day

Posted: 17 April 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

BN-HY153_realwa_G_20150417085212 BN-HY156_bytheh_G_20150417085434

The Wall Street Journal notes that workers wages in the United States are lower today than they were back in 1972.

In particular, both average real weekly earnings and real hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers peaked in October 1972 (“when Richard Nixon won re-election, Eugene Cernan became the last man to walk on the moon and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 1,000 for the first time”) and they still haven’t reached that level more than four decades later.


To put this decline in workers’ wages in perspective, during the same period, worker productivity rose by about 70 percent.

Even more concretely, the weekly paycheck in October 1972 was the equivalent of about $811 in today’s dollars. If their wages had increased at the same rate as their productivity, today workers would be making $1378 a week. Instead, last month, average weekly earnings were just under $703.

So, workers are producing much more today than they did in the early 1970s but are still being paid less than they were then.