Posts Tagged ‘stocks’

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“Formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates.

— Slavoj Žižek, On Belief

The novel coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how shallow and restricted the notion of formal freedom is in the United States.

After years of pretending that private healthcare and health insurance expanded the freedom of individual choice, even with the changes introduced by Obamacare, the existing health system has failed to protect most Americans from the ravages of the disease. Right now, with over 2 million confirmed cases and over 100 thousand deaths, the United States has over one quarter of the world’s cases and fatalities. And the numbers continue to rise in many states, with the forced reopening of businesses.

Yes, in recent years, Americans have been able to choose to work at a job and use their employer-provided health benefits or to purchase health insurance on state exchanges, thereby dramatically lowering the number of uninsured people. But they haven’t been able to choose what kind of health system they want, how they want their healthcare to be provided. As a result, the existing—understaffed and underfunded—public health system, in the midst of an obscenely unequal economy and society, has been unable to effectively confront the spread of COVID-19.

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It’s that same formal freedom that allows investors to purchase stocks, including equity shares in Hertz, which just happens to have entered bankruptcy protection in late May. Between the 3 and 8 June, Hertz’s stock exploded in price. During that week, it increased to $5.53 per share, from 82 cents, a preposterous rise of nearly seven times—apparently just one example of a more general “flight to crap” in U.S. stock markets. And just to highlight the absurdity of what freedom means in the United States, the nation’s second-largest car-rental agency filed with the Securities and Exchange commission to sell up to $500 million worth of new shares—shares that would likely be rendered worthless after creditors are paid off—in a move that was approved by the federal judge in Delaware overseeing the Hertz bankruptcy case. (And then, just yesterday, Hertz reversed course and decided to pull the plug on the deal.)

And it’s the freedom aircraft manufacturer Boeing relied on in late April to raise $25 billion by selling bonds to investors, to avoid taking aid from the federal government, and then a month later to fire 6,770 workers (part of its plan to reduce a total of 16 thousand jobs).

Meanwhile, employers and the White House (including Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia) are clamoring for businesses to be allowed the freedom to reopen. But they’re worried unemployed workers, who have received supplemental benefits as a result of the CARES act, will not want to return to work under with the risk of becoming infected with the virus. So, they’ve announced both that the extra $600 “disincentive” for people to return to work will be allowed to expire at the end of July and that any workers who refuse to be called back to work will lose their unemployment payments.

Clearly, employers’ freedom to reopen their businesses is coming at the expense of workers’ freedom to stay home during the pandemic. And that’s the limit of formal freedom under capitalism—the kind of fundamental clash during which it is possible to begin to exercise an actual freedom of reimagining and reinventing the rules of economic and social organization.

Thus far, however, we haven’t seen much in the way of actual freedom in the economic sphere. Massive unemployment, and therefore the unremitting pressure on all workers, both those with jobs and those without, will do that. But we might just be witnessing such a site in the other fundamental clash currently taking place, the one that arose in response to the recent murders of George FloydAhmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

The first demand of the Black Lives Matter movement is, of course, freedom from police violence. It’s a freedom enumerated in the Constitution (in the Fourteenth Amendment) but undermined and subverted by the systemic racism that historically and still today has haunted the administration of justice in the United States—by both the police and the courts.

The pandemic has also highlighted—and further exacerbated—the obscene racial inequalities that characterize the American economy and society. For example, black Americans are dying from Covid-19 at three times the rate of white people. And while unemployment has skyrocketed for black and white workers in the COVID-19 labor market, the unemployment rate is much higher for black workers, which has in turn worsened the already-high income and benefits gaps between white and black workers.

As it turns out, the Black Lives Matter movement was already, back in 2016, thinking beyond police violence. As Robin G. D. Kelley explained, the organization is invested in a structural overhaul of the American system that oppresses most people. Its demands therefore include

ending all forms of violence and injustice endured by black people; redirecting resources from prisons and the military to education, health, and safety; creating a just, democratically controlled economy; and securing black political power within a genuinely inclusive democracy.

That’s more than a laundry list of demands or a simple political platform (like those of the Democratic and Republican parties). It’s a vision of economic and social transformation that will produce deep structural changes—for black communities and for all Americans. In other words, it aspires to an enactment of actual freedom that questions the existing coordinates of power relations in the United States (and around the world).

The Black Lives Matter movement infuses the current protests—indeed, the multiracial national uprising we’re witnessing across the country—with the potential of becoming the most recent in the tradition of real progressive social movements which, as Kelley explained in his 2002 book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,

do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to imagine a new society.

It’s only a possibility, at this stage—the potential of moving beyond a formal freedom from fear to an actual freedom of redrawing the existing boundaries of the economy and society, by generating radically new questions, theories, and knowledges. It’s a freedom that can only be produced by a combination of ruthless critical thinking and collective political activity.

It’s a freedom that allows us—indeed, compels us—to imagine a new society.

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The idea that GDP numbers don’t tell us a great deal about what is really going on in the world is becoming increasingly widespread.

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David Leonhardt, in reflecting the emerging view, has argued that GDP doesn’t “track the well-being of most Americans.”

Now, we’d expect that someone like socialist Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders would question the extent to which the low unemployment numbers, associated with economic growth, hardly tells the whole story about the condition of the American working-class.

Unemployment is low but wages are terribly low in this country. And many people are struggling to get the health care they need to take care of their basic needs.

But even centrist candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are making the case that the headline numbers, such as Gross Domestic Product and stock indices, hide the fact “that a very different reality exists for many Americans who have not seen much improvement in their own bottom lines.”

And one of the last people you’d expect to question the shared gains from economic growth, Robert Samuelson, thinks that “something momentous is clearly occurring.”

economic inequality continues to rise at a steady pace; the further you go up the income scale, the larger the income gains, both relatively and absolutely. . .

The great danger here is social and political. It is the creation, or the expansion, of a multi-tiered society where the largest income gains are enjoyed by relatively small groups of people near the top of the economic distribution.

So, let’s step back a bit and see what these numbers reveal—and what they mostly hide.

GDP-S&P

First, as is clear from the chart immediately above, the growth in the value of U.S. stock markets (as measured by the S&P 500 Index, the red line) doesn’t tell us much about actual economic growth (as indicated by the value of Gross Domestic Product, the blue line). For example, between 2010 and 2019, the stock market increased by 163 percent, while GDP grew by only 46 percent.

Second, neither number alone indicates what is happening to the vast majority of Americans. For example, as I argued back in 2017, ownership of stocks in the United States is grotesquely unequal: while about half of U.S. households hold stocks in publicly traded companies (directly or indirectly), the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households own only 18.6 percent of all corporate stock. The rest (81.4 percent) is in the hands of the top 10 percent.

Well, then, what about GDP?

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It’s obvious from this chart that the increases in all the indicators of average income in the United States—real median personal income (the red line), real mean personal income (green), and real median household income (purple)—are much lower than the increase in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP. Those discrepancies reveal the fact that the average person or household is benefiting much less than they otherwise would from economic growth. And, of course, the gap increases over time, as in every year people fall further and further behind.

So, all that the GDP numbers indicate is that the monetary value of final goods and services produced and sold in the United States—the “immense accumulation of commodities” that represents the wealth of a capitalist society—is growing. But it doesn’t tell us anything about who gets what, that is, how the incomes generated during the course of producing those commodities are distributed. In other words, GDP numbers are a poor indicator of people’s well-being.

So, what would tell us something about how Americans are faring in the midst of the so-called recovery from the Second Great Depression?

Leonhardt’s view is that “distributional accounts”—that is, estimates of income shares for every decile of the income distribution, as well as for the top 1 percent—will change the national discussion whenever GDP numbers are released.

I don’t know if they’ll change the terms of debate but they will certainly challenge the presumption that GDP (and other headline numbers, such as stock market indices) accurately the economic and social health of the nation.

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Thus, for example, as Emmanuel Saez (pdf) has shown, by 2017, real incomes of the bottom 99 percent had still not recovered from the losses experienced during the initial years of the Second Great Depression (from 2007 to 2009), while families in the top 1 percent families captured almost half (49 percent) of total real income growth per family from 2009 to 2017. And, as a result of growing inequality, the 50.6 percent top 10 percent income share in 2017 (with capital gains) is virtually as high as the absolute peak of 50.6 percent reached in 2012.

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Moreover, according to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), income before transfers and taxes is projected to be more unequally distributed in 2021 than it was in 2016. And while means-tested transfers and federal taxes serve to reduce income inequality, the reduction in inequality stemming from transfers and taxes is actually projected to be smaller in 2021 than it was in 2016.

All of these distributional effects of the current mode of production in the United States are hidden from view by the usual headline economic numbers.

But there’s one more step that can and should be taken. The distributional accounts that have been used to change the discussion focus on the size distribution of income, that is, the distribution of income to groups of individuals (and individual households) that make up the population. What is missing, then, is the factor or class distribution of income.

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In the chart above, I have illustrated the changing ratio of corporate profits to workers’ wages in the United States from 1968 to 2018.* Two things are remarkable about the trajectory of this ratio. First, beginning in 2001, the ratio more than doubled, from a low of 0.31 to a high of 0.70 (in 2006). And, second, even though the ratio has fallen in recent years, it still remains as of 2018 much higher (at 0.52) than during the pre-2001 period.**

However inequality is measured—in terms of the size or class distribution of income—it is obvious that most Americans are not sharing in the growth of national income (or, for that matter, the stock-market gains) in recent years.

The focus on GDP (and stock indices, unemployment rates, and the like) serves merely to hide from view what the American workers clearly understand: they’re being left behind.

 

*This is the ratio of, in the numerator, corporate profits before tax (without IVA and CCAdj) and, in the denominator, the total wages paid to production and nonsupervisory workers (assuming a work year of 50 weeks). It is clearly similar to but different from the Marxian rate of exploitation, surplus-value divided by the value of labor power—since, among things, it does not include distributions of the surplus to members of the top 10 percent in the numerator.

**A third observation is also relevant: the ratio of profits to wages has fallen prior to every recession since 1968. The recent decline in the ratio (since 2013) therefore portends another recession in the near future. However, I’m no more keen on making predictions than on coming up with New Year’s resolutions. It was John Kenneth Galbraith who wisely wrote, “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.”

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Across American universities, corporations, and financial institutions, researchers are honing computer models designed to predict the winner in the November 2020 presidential election in which Donald Trump will face a Democratic candidate still to be determined.

One such set of models, developed by Moody’s Analytics, which focuses on the electoral college (and not the national popular vote), predicts a convincing victory for Trump. Moody’s based its projections on how consumers feel about their own financial situation (the so-called pocketbook model), the gains the stock market has achieved during Trump’s time in office (the stock-market model), and the prospects for unemployment (the unemployment model).*

As I see it, there are two fundamental problems with models like those used by Moody’s Analytics. First, they are based on the presumption that economic outcomes determine individual voting behavior (what is otherwise known as economic determinism). Such models exclude many other possible motivations or concerns for voters, including class notions of fairness and justice.** Second, the outcomes are predicated on a rosy picture of the U.S. economy, as measured by personal finances, the stock market, and the unemployment rate.

Things look quite different if we focus on an alternative narrative of the U.S. economy, which in turn can lead voters to think and act based on a sense of unfairness or injustice (alongside and combined with all their other reactions to the different political campaigns and candidates).

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Consider, for example, what’s happened to stocks and wages—both under Trump and in a longer time horizon. Since the beginning of 2017, workers’ wages (as measured by the average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees, the blue line in the chart above) have risen by only 8.4 percent while the stock market (illustrated by the S&P 500 index, the orange line) has increased in value by more than 30 percent.*** Clearly, in recent years American workers have been falling further and further behind the small group of wealthy individuals and large corporations at the top of the U.S. economic pyramid. Going back to 2010, the difference is even greater: hourly wages are up a total of 23 percent while stocks have soared by 140 percent. These differences represent an indictment of the fundamentally uneven recovery from the Second Great Depression under both Barack Obama and Trump.

Output-wages

A similar picture emerges if we factor out inflation and compare workers’ real wages and the real output they produce. Since Trump took office, there’s been a growing gap between real Gross Domestic Output (the green line in the chart above, which has increased by 6.5 percent) and weekly wages (the purple line, which are up only 2.5 percent). Again, the gap is even more dramatic if we go back to early 2010: wage increases amount to less than one fifth the growth in output. It is evident that, in both cases, the U.S. economy has been growing at the expense of the nation’s workers—to the benefit of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

According to this class narrative of the U.S. economy, American workers have been losing out relative to their corporate employers and a small group of individuals who are sharing in the spoils of a decidedly unfair and unjust set of economic policies and institutions. That’s been the case while Trump has been in office as well as for many years before that. The Fed can continue cutting interest rates (as it did last week, for the third time this year) but it won’t change the grotesquely uneven class dynamic of the U.S. economy.

That’s why Carolyn Valli, executive director of the Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, found it necessary to declare at a recent Fed Cleveland event that “It doesn’t feel like a boom yet.” Not under Trump nor with his predecessor.

The Moody’s Analytics models may predict a victory for Trump over a generic Democratic candidate but the class narrative I’ve outlined here leads to a very different scenario—a rejection of business as usual both within the Democratic Party, with the choice of a more left-wing economic populist presidential candidate, and in the general election, when the actual class content of Trump’s administration can be unmasked and ultimately defeated.

 

*The three models show Trump getting at least 289 electoral votes, assuming average voter turnout. His chances, of course, decrease with increased turnout on the Democratic side.

If turnout next year were historically high, Moody’s said, the Democratic candidate could win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – states that narrowly voted for Trump in 2016 and which are currently experiencing a manufacturing slowdown. In that scenario, the Democratic candidate would win with 279 electoral votes to Trump’s 259, Moody’s said.

**This approach to forecasting reminds me of John Howard Hermann (played by Max Baker) in the Coen brothers’ 2016 comedy Hail, Caesar!: 

See, if you understand economics, you can actually write down what will happen in the future, with as much confidence as you write down the history of the past. Because it’s science. It’s not make believe.

***As Neil Irwin recently explained, more people may be working “but employers are not having to increase compensation much to recruit and retain people.” This trend challenges mainstream economic models and policy, according to which the relatively low unemployment rate should mean that workers are scarce and employers should need to start paying them more. And that’s not what’s happening. In fact, the opposite is occurring: employment is growing but the rate of increase of workers’ wages is actually declining.

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