Posts Tagged ‘Second Great Depression’

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Back in 2010, I warned about the widening and deepening of capitalist poverty in the United States.

The fact is (pdf), more poor people now live in the suburbs than in America’s big cities or rural areas. Suburbia is home to almost 16.4 million poor people, compared to 13.4 million in big cities and 7.3 million in rural areas.

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Lake County, IL, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, is a case in point. Median household income in 2015 was $82,106, 45 percent higher than the national average.

At the same time, 9.6 percent of the Lake County population lived below the poverty line—more than 20 thousand of them children under the age of 17—and about 60 thousand people were forced to rely on food stamp benefits.

As Scott Allard explains,

Set beside Lake Michigan north of the city of Chicago, Lake County abounds with large single-family homes built mostly since 1970. Parks, swimming pools and recreational spaces dot the landscape. Commuter trains and toll roads ferry workers into Chicago, and back again. . .

Poverty problems in Lake County can be hidden from plain view. Many low-income families live in homes and neighbourhoods that appear very “middle class” on the surface – single-family homes with garages and cars in the driveway.

Closer inspection, however, reveals signs of poverty in all corners of the county. Many Lake County communities from all racial and ethnic groups are in need, and poverty rates in the older communities along Lake Michigan, such as Zion or Waukegan, more closely resemble those in the central city.

Pockets of concentrated poverty can be found in subdivisions of single-family homes, isolated apartment complexes and mobile home parks across the county. It also appears at the outer edges of Lake County in areas that might have been described as rural or recreational 30 or 40 years ago, before suburban sprawl brought in new residents and job-seekers. Several once-bustling strip malls are home to discount retailers and empty storefronts. It is not uncommon to see families at local grocery stores and supermarkets using food stamps or electronic benefit transfer cards to pay for part of their bill.

Rising suburban poverty is, of course, not confined to Lake County or the Chicago area. It can be found across the country, from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Back in the 1990s, researchers began to chronicle the diversity that exists across American suburbs, paying particular attention to older, declining suburbs—manufacturing-based, older industrial areas struggling with structural shifts and economic decline.

Now, however, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, the poverty landscape has broadened even further, encompassing all kinds of communities around the country. We’ve now moved well beyond the declining and at-risk suburbs chronicled in earlier research and are forced to confront the geographical widening of poverty, which continues to blight the nation’s cities and rural areas and is increasingly hidden in plain view in its suburbs.

Japan World Markets

Most of us are pretty cautious when it comes to spending our money. The amount of money we have is pretty small—and the global economic, financial, and political landscape is pretty shaky right now.

And even if we’re not cautious, if we’re not prudent savers, then no harm done. Spending everything we have may be a personal risk but it doesn’t do any social harm.

It’s different, however, for the global rich. The individual decisions they make do, in fact, have social ramifications. That’s why, back in 2011, I suggested we switch our focus from the “culture of poverty” to the pathologies of the rich.

Consider, for example, the BBC [ht: ja] report on the findings of UBS Wealth Management’s survey of more than 2,800 millionaires in seven countries.

Some 82 percent of those surveyed said this is the most unpredictable period in history. More than a quarter are reviewing their investments and almost half said they intend to but haven’t yet done so.

But more than three quarters (77 pct) believe they can “accurately assess financial risk arising from uncertain events”, while 51 percent expect their finances to improve over the coming year compared with 13 percent who expect them to deteriorate.

More than half (57 pct) are optimistic about achieving their long-term goals, compared with 11 percent who are pessimistic. And an overwhelming 86 percent trust their own instincts when making important decisions.

“Most millionaires seem to be confident they can steer their way through the turbulence without so much as a dent in their finances,” UBS WM said.

Most of us can’t afford that kind of arrogance in the face of risk. But the world’s millionaires can. Just as they did during the lead-up to the crashes of 1929 and of 2008.

They trusted their instincts—and everyone else paid the consequences.

Greg Kahn

I am quite willing to admit that, based on last Friday’s job report, the Second Great Depression is now over.

As regular readers know, I have been using the analogy to the Great Depression of the 1930s to characterize the situation in the United States since late 2007. Then as now, it was not a recession but, instead, a depression.

As I explain to my students in A Tale of Two Depressions, the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn’t have any official criteria for distinguishing an economic depression from a recession. What I offer them as an alternative are two criteria: (a) being down (as against going down) and (b) the normal rules are suspended (as, e.g., in the case of the “zero lower bound” and the election of Donald Trump).

By those criteria, the United States experienced a second Great Depression starting in December 2007 and continuing through April 2017. That’s almost a decade of being down and suspending the normal rules!

Now, with the official unemployment rate having fallen to 4.4 percent, equal to the low it had reached in May 2007, we can safely say the Second Great Depression has come to an end.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, or that we can forget about the effects of the most recent depression on American workers.*


For example, while Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States is higher now than it was at the end of 2007 ($51,860 versus $49,586, in chained 2009 dollars, or 4.6 percent), it is still much lower than it would have been had the previous trend continued (which can be seen in the chart above, where I extend the 2000-2007 trend line forward to 2017). All that lost output—not to mention the accompanying jobs, homes, communities, and so on—represents one of the lingering effects of the Second Great Depression.

HS  college

And we can’t forget that young workers face elevated rates of underemployment—11.9 percent for young college graduates and much higher, 30.9 percent, for young high-school graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute observes,

This suggests that young graduates face less desirable employment options than they used to in response to the recent labor market weakness for young workers.

income  wealth

Finally, the previous trend of growing inequality—in terms of both income and wealth—has continued during the Second Great Depression. And there are no indications from the economy or economic policy that suggest that trend will be reversed anytime soon.

So, here we are at the end of the Second Great Depression—no longer down and with the normal rules back in place—and yet the effects from the longest and most severe downturn since the 1930s will be felt for generations to come.


*As if often the case, readers’ comments on newspaper articles tell a different story from the articles themselves. Here are two, on the New York Times article about the latest employment data:

John Schmidt—

Any discussion about “full employment”, when there are so many people who’ve essentially given up looking for work or who’re working in low-skill or unskilled labor positions, seems like the fiscal equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Based on data from the Fed and the World Bank, GDP per capita has doubled since 1993, while median household income has risen ~10%. Most of the newly-generated wealth and gains from productivity increases are being funneled upward, such that the average worker very rarely sees any sort of pay increase. Are we expected to believe that this will change now that we’ve [arguably] passed some arbitrary threshold? Why should we pat ourselves on the back for reaching “full employment”? Shouldn’t we be seeking *fulfilling* employment for everyone, instead, at least inasmuch as that’s possible? Shouldn’t we care that the relentless drive for profit at the expense of everything else is creating a toxic environment where the only way to ensure a raise is to hop from job to job, eroding any sense of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees?

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know enough to see there’s a problem. Inequality of this sort is not sustainable, and it’s not going to magically disappear without some serious policy changes.

David Dennis—

There is a critical parameter missing from full employment data. very critical. Here in Pontiac, Michigan before the collapse of American manufacturing, full employment meant 10, 000 jobs working at GM factories and Pontiac Motors making above the mean wages with excellent health insurance as well as retirement pensions. You can not compare full employment at McDonalds and Walmart with the jobs that preceded them. The full employment measure doesn’t mean much if it isn’t correlated with a index that compares that employment with a standard of living as it relates to a set basket of goods, services, and benefits.


This semester, we’re teaching A Tale of Two Depressions, a course designed as a comparison of the first and second Great Depressions in the United States. And one of the themes of the course is that, in considering the conditions and consequences of the two depressions, we’re talking about a tale of two countries.

As it turns out, the tale of two countries may be even more true in the case of the most recent crises of capitalism. That’s because the two countries were growing apart in the decades leading up to the crash—and the gap has continued growing afterward.

It seems we learned even less than we thought about the first Great Depression. Or maybe those at the top learned even more.

As Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman remind us,

Because the pre-tax incomes of the bottom 50% stagnated while average national income per adult grew, the share of national income earned by the bottom 50% collapsed from 20% in 1980 to 12.5% in 2014. Over the same period, the share of incomes going to the top 1% surged from 10.7% in 1980 to 20.2% in 2014.

What is clear from the data illustrated in the chart at the top of the post, these two income groups basically switched their income shares, with about 8 points of national income transferred from the bottom 50 percent to the top 1 percent.


The consequence is that the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation, which barely registers on the chart above. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 205 percent for the top 1%, 321 percent for the top 0.01%, and 636 percent for the top 0.001%.

Clearly, “an economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation”—and, I would add, distributes the growth that has occurred to a tiny group at the top—”is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of establishment politics.”

Lest we think the current fascination with and support for benevolent dictatorship are a new phenomenon (or, for that matter, that the Second Great Depression never occurred or its effects safely confined and superseded by the current economic recovery), Thomas Doherty [ht: ja] reminds us of the “dictator craze” of the early 1930s.

The “hankering for supermen” was represented by a series of films on the worlds of business and politics, including The Power and the Glory, Employees’ EntranceGabriel Over the White House, and, finally, Mussolini Speaks.

Men Waiting Outside Al Capone Soup Kitchen JNS.FoodGiveaway2

One of the courses I’m offering this semester is A Tale of Two Depressions, cotaught with one of my colleagues, Ben Giamo, from American Studies. It’s a comparison of the conditions and consequences of the two major crises of capitalism during the past hundred years, the 1930s and the period after the crash of 2007-08.*

It just so happens the Guardian is also right now revisiting the 1930s. Readers will find lots of interesting material, from some evocative street photography from the period (including bread lines, hunger marches, and various protests) to classics of political theater (from Bertolt Brecht and Federico García Lorca to John Dos Passos and Clifford Odets).

I’ve been writing about the Second Great Depression, in mostly economic terms, since 2010. For the Guardian, the idea is that the situation then, in the 1930s, offers lessons for us today—partly for economic reasons but, increasingly, given the victory of Donald Trump and the growth of other right-wing populist-nationalist movements in Europe, in political terms.

Larry Elliott focuses on the economics. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake many commit, by starting with the stock-market crash of 1929—which, as it turns out, was the trigger, but not the cause, of the First Great Depression. He does a much better job examining the different responses to the two precipitating crashes (yes, there were lessons were learned, especially in the United States, with the quick bailout of Wall Street), including identifying those who were left out of the post-2009 recovery.

Wage increases have been hard to come by, and the strong desire of governments to reduce budget deficits has resulted in unpopular austerity measures. Not all the lessons of the 1930s have been well learned , and the over-hasty tightening of fiscal policy has slowed growth and caused political alienation among those who feel they are being punished for a crisis they did not create, while the real villains get away scot-free . A familiar refrain in both the referendum on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election was: there might be a recovery going on, but it’s not happening around here. . .

The winners from the liberal economic system that emerged at the end of the cold war have, like their forebears in the 20s, failed to look out for the losers. A rising tide has not lifted all boats, and those who do not consider themselves the beneficiaries of globalisation have grown weary of hearing how marvellous it is.

The 30s are proof that nothing in economics is inevitable. There was eventually a backlash against the economic orthodoxies and Skidelsky can see why there is another backlash happening today. “Globalisation enables capital to escape national and union control. I am much more sympathetic since the start of the crisis to the Marxist way of analysing things.

And then, of course, there’s the political backlash, the topic of the most recent piece in the series. Jonathan Freedland begins by noting the differences between the two periods: the fact that ultra-nationalist and fascist movements managed to seize power in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s, which has not (yet) happened in the more recent period. Trump, for example, has criticized the media but has not (yet) closed any sites down. Nor has he suggested Muslims wear identifying symbols.

These are crumbs of comfort; they are not intended to minimise the real danger Trump represents to the fundamental norms that underpin liberal democracy. Rather, the point is that we have not reached the 1930s yet. Those sounding the alarm are suggesting only that we may be travelling in that direction – which is bad enough.

There are other warning signs, which suggest closer parallels between the 1930s and today: the shattering of the faith in globalization’s ability to spread the wealth, the growing hostility to those deemed outsiders, and a growing impatience with the rule of law and with democracy. Then, as now, capitalism faces a profound crisis of legitimacy.

In the end, Freedland takes comfort in our having a memory of the 1930s: “We can learn the period’s lessons and avoid its mistakes.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that economic and political elites in the 1930s also had vivid memories—of the great crashes of 1873 and 1893 and, of course, the horrors of the “war to end all wars.” But those events were forgotten amidst more short-run memories, including their joining to put down workers’ actions, including the widespread attacks after the 1926 general strike led by the Trades Union Congress in England and the anti-union “American Plan” during the 1920s on the other side of the Atlantic.

The more or less inevitable result in both countries was growing inequality, as large corporations and a tiny group of wealthy individuals at the top managed to capture a larger and larger share of national income—thus creating a financial bubble that eventually crashed, in 1929 just as in 2007-08.


The memory of the 1929 crash certainly didn’t prevent the most recent one, nor did it create a recovery that has benefited the majority of the population. In fact, it seems the only lesson learned was how it might be possible, in recent years, for those at the top to recovery more quickly than they managed to do after the First Great Depression what they had lost.

It’s that rush to return to business as usual, characterized by obscene levels of inequality, and not the lack of memory of the 1930s, that has created the conditions for the growth and strengthening of populist, right-wing movements in the United States and Europe.


*As is my custom, the syllabus is publicly available on the course web site. Readers might find the large collection of additional materials—music, charts, videos, and so on—of interest. They can be found by following the News link.


I understand readers’ attention is mostly focused on today’s election. However, it is not too soon to look beyond the results themselves, to consider the economic policies of the new administration. If Hillary Clinton is elected (as seems likely), reducing “labor market monopsony” appears to be one of the directions economic policy will be going.


For decades now, the labor share of U.S. national income (the blue line measured on the left-hand vertical axis in the chart above) has steadily declined, while the shares of income and wealth captured by the top 1 percent (the red and green lines on the right-hand axis) has increased. And in recent years, even as employment has mostly recovered from the Second Great Depression, the wages paid to the majority of workers have continued to stagnate (even while incomes of workers at the very top, especially CEOs and other corporate executives, have risen).

Might it be the case that employers are conspiring to keep workers’ wages down?

The idea that employers often try and ultimately succeed in keeping workers’ wages lower than they otherwise would be has been recognized seen at least the end of the eighteenth century—an observation made by none other than Adam Smith:

What are the common wages of labour, depends every where upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. . .

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is every where a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things which nobody ever hears of. Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

However, it wasn’t until 1932 that we got the modern term for exercising market power on the purchasing or demand side of a market: monopsony. It should come as no surprise that it was invented by Joan Robinson (with help from classicist B. L. Hallward) and first utilized in her Economics of Imperfect Competition.

It is necessary to find a name for the individual buyer which will correspond to the name monopolist for the individual seller. In the following pages an individual buyer is referred to as a monopsonist.

Still, within mainstream economics, the idea that employers would operate as monopsonists—and therefore exercise power in setting workers’ wages—was mostly considered irrelevant, either overlooked or considered to be a minor exception (as, e.g., in the stereotypical “company town”) to the rule of perfectly competitive markets.

Now, however, that seems to have changed. The combination of slow wage growth, obscene and still-increasing inequality, and growing concentration among corporations in the production and selling of commodities (the classical case of monopoly) has put monopsony back on the agenda—at least for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf).


Monopsony in the labor market serves an important explanatory role for Jason Furman and the other members of the Council because it creates a situation in which both wages (W2) and employment (Q2) are lower than they would be in perfect competition (W1 and Q1, respectively). In consequence, as a result of the shifting of the balance of bargaining toward employers, the wage share declines and both employers’ profits and the incomes of high-level corporate employees increase.*

What this means, in terms of policy, is a series of reforms designed to move markets closer to mainstream economists’ ideal of perfect competition: anti-trust enforcement as well reforms to labor markets (such as modernizing non-compete clauses, pay transparency, and affordable health care) that enhance the ability of workers to move between employers and move closer to “normal” wages.

The problem, of course, is that the theory of labor market monopsony, which pertains to individual employers, also serves to obscure the power wielded by employers as a class. When, as the result of a complex historical process, the labor market itself is created, a large group of people is forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, who own or have access to the financial resources to hire those workers. Under such conditions (as they are first created and then reproduced over time), even if individual employers exercise no market power at all (and take the wage as given by the market), workers’ wages are still only equal to the value of their labor power, which is less than the value workers create. Workers are, in other words, exploited—even in the absence of individual monopsony.

What monopsony does, initially, is lower the wage to a level below the value of labor power (thus making it difficult for workers to continue to sell their ability to work under customary conditions). Then, if such a condition persists, the value of labor power itself falls (as the value of the basket of goods that make up the workers’ customary standard of living declines), thus increasing the level of exploitation. That, of course, is exactly what has happened in the United States since the mid-1970s.

Enforcing anti-trust laws and reforming the labor market might lower the amount of individual employers’ power in the labor market, thus raising the price (and, perhaps eventually, the value) of labor power. But it would not eliminate the monopsony of the group of employers as a whole in relation to the working-class.

The only way to abolish that class monopsony and build a more equitable economy is to eliminate the central role and regulating principle of the labor market—by creating the conditions whereby workers are not excluded from participating in the appropriation of their surplus labor.


*It is also the case that, if there is significant monopsony in the labor market, an increase in the minimum wage (at least up to W1) will actually lead to an increase in employment (toward Q1).