Posts Tagged ‘profits’

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It’s clear that, for decades now, American workers have been falling further and further behind. And there’s simply no justification for this sorry state of affairs—nothing that can rationalize or excuse the growing gap between the majority of people who work for a living and the tiny group at the top.

But that doesn’t stop mainstream economists from trying.

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Look, they say, American workers are clearly better off than they were before. Both real weekly earnings (the blue line in the chart) and the median household income (the red line) are higher than they were thirty years ago.

There’s no denying that, on average, the absolute level of worker pay and household income has gone up. That’s proof, mainstream economists argue, that workers are enjoying the fruits of their labor.

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The problem, though, is that the increase in workers’ wages (the blue line, the same as in the previous chart) pales in comparison to the rise in labor productivity (the green line in the chart above): since 1987, real wages have gone up only 8 percent, while productivity has grown by 75 percent.

In other words, American workers are producing more and more but getting only a tiny share of that increase.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that the wage share of national income (the purple line in the chart above) has fallen precipitously—by 8 percent since 1987 and by 16.5 percent since 1970.

American workers are in fact experiencing a relative immiseration compared to their employers, who are able to capture the additional amount their workers are producing in the form of increased profits. Moreover, American employers have every interest—and more and more means at their disposal—to continue to widen the gap between themselves and their workers.

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Not surprisingly, the relative immiseration of American workers shows up in growing inequality—with the share of income captured by the top 1 percent (the orange line in the chart) increasing and the share going to the bottom 90 percent (the brown line in the chart) falling. Each is a consequence of the other.

American workers are getting relatively less of what they produce, which means more is available to distribute to those at the top of the distribution of income.

That’s what mainstream economists can’t or won’t understand: that workers may be worse off even as their wages and incomes rise. That problem flies in the face of every attempt to celebrate the existing order by claiming “just deserts.”

There’s nothing just about the relative immiseration and growing inequality faced by American workers. And nothing that can’t be changed by imagining and creating a radically different set of economic institutions.

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They keep promising, ever since the recovery from the Great Recession started more than eight years ago, that workers’ wages will finally begin to increase. But they’re not.

Sure, profits continue to rise. And so is the stock market. But not wages. And mainstream economists can’t come up with an adequate explanation of why that’s the case.

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We’ve all heard or read the story. According to mainstream economists, as the unemployment rate falls (the blue line in the chart above), a labor shortage will be created and workers’ wages (the red line) will begin to rise.

That’s the promise, at least. But the official unemployment rate is now down to 4.4 percent (from a high of 9.9 percent in 2009) and yet wages (for production and nonsupervisory workers) are only increasing at a rate of 2.3 percent a year—much less than the 4 percent workers saw back in 2007 when the unemployment rate was pretty much the same.

What’s going on?

One of the things going on is the Reserve Army. The existence of a large pool of unemployed and underemployed workers competing with other workers for the available jobs is keeping wage growth at a very low rate.

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Consider, for example, the growth of full-time (the green line in the chart above) and part-time work (the purple line) in the United States. Since 1968, the two kinds of employment increased more or less simultaneously—until the most recent crash. Notice in the chart that, as full-time employment fell (from 121.9 million in 2007 to 111 million in 2010), part-time employment soared (from 24.7 million to 27.4 million). But then, even as full-time work began to increase again (reaching 125.8 million in August 2017), part-time employment remained high (27.6 million in that same month).

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And it’s that pool of part-time American workers (in addition to the pool of surplus workers in other countries, increased automation, and low wages in the retail and food-service sectors) that is keeping most workers’ wages from growing.

Mainstream economists keep promising the American working-class an increase in wages. But neither they nor the economic system they celebrate is able to deliver on those promises.

The fact is, the longer those promises are proffered but remain unmet, the more frustrated workers will become. And the more likely it is they will demand a solution—a radically different economic system that doesn’t rely on a Reserve Army and can actually deliver on its promises to workers.

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Special mention

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Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations makes for uncomfortable reading these days. That’s because, as my students this semester have learned, the father of modern mainstream economics—who has become so closely (and mistakenly) identified with the invisible hand—held a narrow theory of money and advocated extensive regulation of the banking sector.

This is contrast to the obscene growth of banking in recent decades, which Rana Foroohar observes “isn’t serving us, we’re serving it.”

According to Smith, the “judicious operations of banking” did nothing more than convert dead stock into active and productive stock—”into stock which produces something to the country.”

The gold and silver money which circulates in any country may very properly be compared to a highway, which, while it circulates and carries to market all the grass and corn of the country, produces itself not a single pile of either. The judicious operations of banking, by providing, if I may be allowed so violent a metaphor, a sort of waggon-way through the air, enable the country to convert, as it were, a great part of its highways into good pastures and corn-fields, and thereby to increase very considerably the annual produce of its land and labour.

Moreover, Smith also argued, banks were susceptible to speculative crises. Thus, even in his system of “natural liberty,” the banking sector needed to be regulated, in order to lessen the likelihood of such crises and to minimize the suffering of the poor when they did happen.

To restrain private people, it may be said, from receiving in payment the promissory notes of a banker, for any sum whether great or small, when they themselves are willing to receive them, or to restrain a banker from issuing such notes, when all his neighbours are willing to accept of them, is a manifest violation of that natural liberty which it is the proper business of law not to infringe, but to support. Such regulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respects a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments, of the most free as well as of the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.

Those warnings and regulations, of course, disappeared from contemporary mainstream economics—even as the financial sector continued to increase in size and significance within the U.S. economy.

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Today, financial profits (the blue line in the chart above) represent more than a quarter of total corporate profits in the United States, although the financial sector provides only 4.3 percent of American jobs (the red line in the chart).

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Moreover, as the profits of the financial sector (the purple line in the chart above) have grown—reaching still another record high of more than $500 billion in 2016—the distribution of wealth has become more and more unequal—such that, in 2016, the share of total wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the green line in the chart) was more than 37 percent.

And it’s not just the financial sector. As Forohoor explains, corporations outside the banking sector are copying the spectacularly successful model:

Nonfinancial firms as a whole now get five times the revenue from purely financial activities as they did in the 1980s. Stock buybacks artificially drive up the price of corporate shares, enriching the C-suite. Airlines can make more hedging oil prices than selling coach seats. Drug companies spend as much time tax optimizing as they do worrying about which new compound to research. The largest Silicon Valley firms now use a good chunk of their spare cash to underwrite bond offerings the same way Goldman Sachs might.

The fact is, financial wheeling and dealing has—after a brief interlude—returned as the tail that wags the economic dog in the United States. It manages to capture an outsized share of profits, even as it creates increased instability and obscene levels of inequality.

It should be clear to all that finance has been fundamentally transformed since Smith’s day, from a highway that was supposed to serve us into a master that we serve.

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Special mention

Brought-to-You-Buy

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Back in June, Kim Hemphill, in her letter to the editor of the Washington Post, challenged pharmaceutical industry claims that it must charge high prices on lifesaving drugs to recover research and development costs.

The case detailed in the June 11 Business article “Max’s best hope costs $750,000” was yet another example of how the pharmaceutical industry continues to put profits above morals and humanity. . .

Research and development costs are a part of the business pharmaceutical companies are in and should have little, if any, bearing on the ultimate price of a drug. What they charge for these specialty drugs is profit-motivated price gouging, plain and simple.

The fact is, as is clear from the chart above, pharmaceutical prices (at the wholesale level) have risen since 1981 at a much faster rate than for all commodities—more than 7 times compared to just two.

Most people, like Ms. Hemphill, think this is a case of “profit-motivated price gouging” on the part of drug companies. But it’s a difficult charge to prove.

Until now.

A new study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal directly challenges the industry’s argument that the reason for high drug prices is the sizable research and development outlay necessary to bring a drug to the U.S. market.

What the authors of the study show is that, in the case of 10 cancer drugs, the median revenue after approval of the drugs was $1658.4 million while the median cost of developing a single cancer drug was only $648.0 million.

Moreover, given that total spending (including a 7 percent cost of capital) to develop these drugs was $9 billion and total revenue to date was $67 billion, the postapproval revenue was more than 7-fold higher than the R&D spending.

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Thus, as is clear in the figure from the study, development costs are more than recouped in a short period—and some companies boast more than a 10-fold higher revenue than research and development spending.

So, Ms. Hemphill was right: the pharmaceutical industry continues to put profits above morals and humanity.

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The new jobs report is out and, once again, little has changed—including wage growth (the blue line in the chart above), which for production and nonsupervisory workers was only 2.3 percent.

That may not be good for workers but their employers and stock-market investors couldn’t be happier. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (the red line in the chart above) continues to soar, on the expectation of higher future profits.

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Just in the first couple of hours of trading today, the average is up more than 58 points.