Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

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Millions of workers have been displaced by robots. Or, if they have managed to keep their jobs, they’re being deskilled and transformed into appendages of automated machines. We also know that millions more workers and their jobs are threatened by much-anticipated future waves of robotics and other forms of automation.

But mainstream economists don’t want us to touch those robots. Just ask Larry Summers.

Summers is particularly incensed by Bill Gates’s suggestion that we begin taxing robots. So, he trots out all the usual arguments, hoping that at least one of them will stick. It’s hard to distinguish between robots and other forms of automation. Robots and other forms of automation produce better goods and services. And, of course, automation enhances productivity and leads to more wealth. So, we shouldn’t do anything to shrink the size of the economic pie.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. Indeed, it is common to point out that opening a country up to international trade is just like giving it access to a technology for transforming one good into another. The argument, then, is that since one surely would not regard such a technical change as bad, neither is trade, and so protectionism is bad. Mr Gates’ robot tax risks essentially being protectionism against progress.

Progress, indeed.

What mainstream economists like Summers fail to understand is that not touching the robots—or, for that matter, international trade—means keeping things just as they are. It means keeping the decisions about jobs, just like the patterns of international trade, in the hands of a small group of employers. They’re the ones who, under current circumstances, appropriate the surplus and decide where and how jobs will be created—and, of course, where they will be destroyed. Which, as I explained last year, is exactly how international trade takes place.

And because employers, now and as Summers would like to see the world, are the ones who are allowed to retain a monopoly over jobs and trade, they also decide how the economic pie is distributed and redistributed. Tinkering around the edges—with the usual liberal shibboleths about the need for “education and retraining”—doesn’t fundamentally alter the fact that workers remain subject to decisions about technology and trade in which they have no say. Workers are thus forced to have the freedom to adjust, with more or less government assistance, to decisions taken by their employers.

And to sit back and admire, but not touch, the growth in productivity.*

 

*And that’s pretty much what Brad DeLong also recommends in making, for the umpteenth time, the argument that today, the world’s population is, on average, many times richer than it was during the long preceding age—because both average wealth and consumer choice have increased. Delong, like Summers, doesn’t want us to touch the “innovations that have fundamentally transformed human civilization.”

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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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Eduardo Porter is right: the “long, painful slog out of the Great Recession” hasn’t been accompanied by any kind of shared prosperity.

As the chart above reveals, the share of income going to the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households has actually fallen since 2007 (from 50.3 percent to 49.5 percent)—and, in recent years, remains far below what it was (67.4 percent) in 1970.

In other words, the so-called recovery looks a lot like the unequalizing dynamic of the U.S. economy in the years and decades leading up to the Great Recession. Those who work for a living have been getting less and less, while those at the top have managed to capture and keep the growing surplus.

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We’re not just talking about the white working-class. Wages “for all groups of workers (not just those without a bachelor’s degree), regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender”, have (since 1979) have lagged the growth in economy-wide productivity.

And that’s just in terms of income. As Porter explains,

by many other metrics, Americans’ well-being remains pretty low. Whether it is life expectancy or infant mortality, incarceration or educational attainment, countless statistics offer a fairly dark picture of the American experience. It is a picture of prosperity that consistently leaves large numbers of Americans behind.

The United States suffers the highest obesity rate among the 35 industrialized countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In terms of life expectancy at birth, it ranks 10th from the bottom. America’s infant mortality rate has dropped by half since 1980. Still, today Turkey and Mexico are the only countries in the O.E.C.D. to report a higher share of dead babies. Infant mortality fell faster in almost every other industrialized country.

Mainstream economists, politicians, and pundits may prefer to focus on the first part of Charles Dickens’s famous opening sentence. But that’s only true for the tiny group at the top. For everyone else, it really is—and has been for decades—”the worst of times.”

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 28 October 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

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We’ve just learned that the corporate payouts—dividends and stock buybacks—of large U.S. firms are expected to hit another record this year. At the same time, John Fernald writes for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco that the “new normal” for U.S. GDP growth has dropped to between 1½ and 1¾ percent, noticeably slower than the typical postwar pace.

What’s the connection?

Fernald, as is typical of many others who have concluded the United States has entered a period of slow growth, blames the “new normal” on exogenous events like population dynamics and education.

The slowdown stems mainly from demographics and educational attainment. As baby boomers retire, employment growth shrinks. And educational attainment of the workforce has plateaued, reducing its contribution to productivity growth through labor quality. The GDP growth forecast assumes that, apart from these effects, the modest productivity growth is relatively “normal”—in line with its pace for most of the period since 1973.

What Fernald and the others never mention is that American companies’ embrace of dividends and buybacks comes at the expense of business investment, which is an important contributor to worker productivity and long-term economic growth.

In other words, what they overlook is the possibility that the current slowdown—which, “for workers, means slow growth in average wages and living standards”—may be less a product of exogenous events and more the way the U.S. economy is currently organized.

When workers produce but do not appropriate the surplus, they are victims of a social theft. And then, when a larger and larger portion of of the surplus is distributed to shareholders (both outside investors and corporate executives)—that is, the tiny group at the top who share in the booty—workers are, once again, made to pay the cost.

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Two findings stand out in a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (pdf) on black-white wage gaps in the United States:

First, since 1979, the gap between all workers’ wages—black and white, women and men—and productivity has increased dramatically. Thus, while productivity increased by over 60 percent, wages for white workers rose by only 22.2 percent and black wages by even less, 13.1 percent.

Second, wages for African American have grown more slowly (or, in the case of men, fallen by a greater amount) than those of their white counterparts. As a result, pay disparities by race and ethnicity have expanded since 1979. For example, white women’s wages increased by 30.2 percent and black women’s wages by only 12.8 percent. And while men’s wages actually declined, they fell by 3.1 percent for white men and even more, by 7.2 percent, for black men. Thus, the overall black-white wage gap increased from 18.1 percent in 1979 to 26.7 percent in 2015.

It is pretty clear from the report that overall wage stagnation (especially for the majority of workers, i.e., those below the 90th percentile), in conjunction with lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, led to higher wage disparities by race and ethnicity.

But, and this goes beyond the report, we also need to consider the other side of that relationship—that increased racial and ethnic disparities reinforce the growing gap between productivity and the wages of all workers. Black workers are paid less than their white counterparts (of both genders), and all workers’ wages are as a result less than they otherwise would be.

In the end, then, wealthy individuals and large corporations, who capture the resulting surplus, are the only ones who benefit from racial and ethnic wage disparities.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.