Posts Tagged ‘United States’


David Brooks should have left well enough alone.

Middle-class wage stagnation is the biggest economic fact driving American politics. Over the past many years, so the common argument goes, capitalism has developed structural flaws. Economic gains are not being shared fairly with the middle class. Wages have become decoupled from productivity. Even when the economy grows, everything goes to the rich.

But then Brooks spends the rest of his column trying to convince us that there aren’t any really structural flaws, that “the market is working more or less as it’s supposed to.”

Well, maybe it’s working “more or less as it’s supposed to” for those at the top. But it’s certainly not working for everyone else, for those who actually have to work for a living.

The relevant debate is all about wages and productivity.

For Brooks (and the mainstream economists whose work he relies on), wages aren’t growing not because something is wrong, but because productivity isn’t growing. Or in his inimitable, sloganeering fashion:

It’s not that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats; it’s that the tide is not rising fast enough.

Except, of course, productivity has grown—and wages haven’t kept up. Not by a long shot!

As is clear from the chart above, productivity has increased enormously since 1987—whether measured in terms of real GDP per capita (the orange line) or, even more, real nonfarm business output per hour worked (the green line).

So, yes, Americans have become more productive over the course of the past three decades. But wages have lagged far behind.

In fact, as is also clear in the chart, real wages (measured in terms of real weekly earnings, the blue line) have been virtually stagnant. They’ve risen only 5.5 percent over that period, much less than GDP per capita (54.4 percent) and labor productivity in nonfarm businesses (76.1 percent).

In the end, maybe Brooks is right. Maybe the growing gap between wages and productivity is not a structural flaw. Maybe it’s the way the market is supposed to work.

If so, then it’s time the break the system that both generates and relies on the large and growing gap between wages and productivity—the one Brooks and mainstream economists work so hard to convince us isn’t broken at all.

Our job, then, is to get to work imagining and creating a radically different economic and social system.


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Bruce Plante Cartoon: Equifax  Clay Bennett editorial cartoon


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Everyone’s seen the screaming headlines: the middle-class is back!

The statistic backing up those headlines is median household income (as reported by the Census Bureau), which in 2016 was $59,039.


After years of decline, following the crash of 2000-01 and then again in 2007-08, real median household income (in 2016 dollars) has finally surpassed its previous high—of $58,665 in 1999.

But that’s not the whole story.

First, consider the fact that it took real incomes more than a decade and a half to recover from the collapse. The “good news” is not much consolation for people who endured almost two decades of zero growth in what they took home: their incomes, pensions, and wealth are permanently damaged and likely won’t be repaired within their lifetimes.

Second, the Census Bureau data show that the bulk of the gains in real income in 2016 was explained by one factor: higher employment. In other words, hours worked rose but wages did not. The members of American median households are working harder at more jobs to finally get an increase in incomes.


Finally, consider what is measured in those headline numbers. The median, as folks might remember from a statistics course (or just a teacher’s explanation of how they grade), is the “middle” value: half above, and half below. But we can also calculate the mean (or “average” value) and compare the two. As is clear from the chart, while both the median and mean values (the green and red lines in the chart, measured on the left, respectively) have reached all-time highs, the gap between them—the “skew” in the distribution—has also grown over time. In fact, the ratio of the mean and median incomes (the blue line, measured on the right) has increased—from 1.23 in 1980 to 1.41 in 2016.

This is a clear indication that, while median household incomes in the United States have finally recovered from the crises of recent years, the middle-class itself is falling further and further behind those at the top.

Wouldn’t it be useful if those income statistics were reported in the headlines!


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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.


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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