Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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As it turns out, crows are even smarter than we thought possible.

And CEOs at large U.S. companies have collectively captured more in compensation than we thought possible.

According to Reuters [ht: ja], 300 CEOs who served throughout the 2009-2013 period at S&P 500 companies together realized about $22 billion in compensation—that’s $6 billion more in compensation than initially estimated in annual disclosures—in the form of pay, bonuses and share and option grants, or an average of $73 million each.

To put those numbers in perspective, the AFL-CIO estimates that, in 2013, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 331:1.* That ratio was 46:1 in 1983, 195:1 in 1993, 301: 1 in 2003.

Like any ratio, the result depends on both the denominator and the numerator. The CEO-to-worker pay ratio has grown because, during the 2009-2013 recovery, workers’ wages have remained roughly unchanged while CEO compensation has soared. Thus, the combination of falling unemployment, growing productivity, and higher corporate profits and stock prices we’ve seen in recent years hasn’t helped workers but only the owners and executives of the corporations where they work.

“The numbers can be obscene, particularly when you look at the general challenges we face as an economy and society,” said Matthew Benkendorf, a portfolio manager at Vontobel Asset Management, which oversees about $50 billion.

We’ve long known that crows are pretty clever. Remember Aesop’s famous fable “The Crow and the Pitcher”? The thirsty crow drops pebbles into a pitcher with water near the bottom, thus raising the fluid level high enough to permit the bird to drink.

Do we really need to be any more clever to figure out that—as CEO compensation continues to grow, leaving workers and everyone else further and further behind—existing economic institutions have failed us and need to be replaced?

*The CEO-to-minimum-wage-worker pay ratio in 2013 was, of course, much higher—774:1

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As I have explained to generations of students, Americans like to think that education is the solution to all economic and social problems. Including, of course, growing inequality.

Why? Because focusing on education—encouraging people to get more higher education—involves no particular tradeoffs. More education for some doesn’t mean less education for others (at least in principle). And providing more education doesn’t involve any structural changes in society—just more funding. (Of course, suggesting more education under current conditions—when public financing of higher education continues to decline, and students and their families are forced to take on more and more debt—is itself disingenuous).

As a result, there’s a broad consensus in the middle—among conservatives and liberals alike—that encouraging more young people who have yet to enter the labor market and existing workers who want to get ahead to obtain a college education will solve the problem of inequality.

Uh, no. That’s because, as Paul Krugman points out, focusing on education is an elaborate dodge from the real issues.

the reason this is an evasion is that whatever serious people may want to believe, soaring inequality isn’t about education; it’s about power. . .

The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education. . .

As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.

There are two ways to look at this. One, using the chart above (from the Economic Policy Institute), is to see how workers with different levels of education have fared since 2007. It is clear that those in every education category experienced falling or, at best, stagnant wages since 2007. And while the data do show that college graduates have fared slightly better than high school graduates since 2007, this is not because of spectacular gains in the wages of college graduates, but because their wages fell more slowly than the wages of high school graduates.

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The other way is to look at changes in average incomes within the top 10 percent, most of whom have college and advanced degrees. As we can see, the top 1 percent (blue line) has been pulling away from everyone below them (such that, between 1976 and 2012, the ratio of the average incomes of the top 1 percent to the bottom 90 percent rose from 10.5 to 33.5). But the top .01 percent (bright green line) has been pulling away even faster—from the bottom 90 percent (the ratio of their incomes to the bottom 90 percent increased over the same period from 80 to 661) and from their fellow college graduates in the top 1 percent (that ratio increased from 7 to 21).

In other words, the wages of college graduates haven’t been faring all that well in recent years and, over the longer term, inequality has been growing among college graduates. Thus, the lack of education is not the problem, and more education is not the solution.

The fact is, in recent years and since the mid-1970s, wages of most workers have been stagnant, while productivity has continued to grow. As a result, corporate profits have soared to new record highs and a tiny minority at the top has been able to capture a share of those profits in the form of spectacularly high earnings and capital gains. That’s not because they have more education; it’s because they happen to be at the right place at the right time.

The “very serious people” at the top may try to convince the rest of us that obtaining more education will make us “worthy” of more income, thus leading to less inequality. But that’s just an attempt to deflect attention from the real causes.

And, to be honest, it doesn’t take a college education to understand the real causes of growing inequality in the United States.

Chart of the day

Posted: 21 February 2015 in Uncategorized
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As the Economic Policy Institute explains,

Figure A depicts some of the data presented in Table 1 by showing the cumulative change in real hourly wages for the 10th, 30th, 50th, 70th, and 95th percentiles between 2007 and 2014. After a sharp increase in real wages between 2008 and 2009, due primarily to negative inflation, wages for most groups fell through 2012. While there was an increase between 2012 and 2013, the increase was short-lived, and wages for most groups have fallen again over the last year. Wages for nearly all groups are lower in 2014 than they were at the end of the recession in 2009.

The only exceptions? Real wages for the top 5 percent have risen (by 2.2 percent) since 2007. And real wages for the bottom 10 percent of workers have increased since 2012, mostly because inflation has been low and many states enacted increases in the minimum wage.

Overall, real wages for the bottom 80 percent of workers were lower at the end of 2014 than they were in 2007.

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To get a sense of how far workers are falling behind, productivity in the U.S. economy increased by about 12.6 percent over that same period.