Posts Tagged ‘wages’

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Apparently, “late capitalism” is the term that is being widely used to capture and make sense of the irrational and increasingly grotesque features of contemporary economy and society. There’s even a recent novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford.

A reader [ht: ra] wrote in wanting to know what I thought about the label, which is admirably surveyed and discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Anne Lowrey.

I’ll admit, I’m suspicious of “late capitalism” (like other such catchall phrases), for two main reasons. First, it presumes and invokes a stage theory of development, which relies on identifying certain “laws of motion” of capitalist history. That’s certainly the way Ernest Mandel understood and developed the term—as the latest in a series of necessary stages of capitalist development. For me, the history of capitalism is too contingent and unpredictable to obey such law-like regularity. Second, “late capitalism” is meant to characterize all of a certain stage of economy and society, thereby invoking a notion of totality. Like other such phrases—I’m thinking, in particular, of “globalization,” “empire,” and “neoliberalism”—the idea is that the entire world, or at least what are considered to be its essential elements, can be captured by the term. As I see it, capitalism exists only in some parts of the world, some but certainly not all economic and social spaces, and, even when and where it does exist, it assumes distinct forms and operates in different modalities. Using a term like “late capitalism” tends to iron out all those differences.

So, I’m wary of the notion of “late capitalism,” which for both reasons may lead us astray in terms of making sense of and responding to what is going on in the world today.

At the same time, I remain sympathetic to the idea that “late capitalism” effectively captures at least some dimensions of contemporary economic and social reality. Here in the United States, there’s clearly something late—both exhausted and exhausting—about contemporary capitalism. In the wake of the worst crises since the first Great Depression, growth rates remains low, leaving millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed. Wages continue to stagnate, even as corporate profits and the stock market soar. And the unequal distribution of income and wealth, having become increasingly obscene in recent decades, has ushered in a new Gilded Age.

As Lowrey explains,

“Late capitalism” became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism. Nordstrom selling jeans with fake mud on them for $425. Prisoners’ phone calls costing $14 a minute. Starbucks forcing baristas to write “Come Together” on cups due to the fiscal-cliff showdown.

And, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

What is less clear is if “late capitalism” carries with it a hint of revolution, whether it contains something akin to the idea that the contradictions of capitalism create the possibility of a radical alternative. Even if contemporary capitalism is exhausted and we, witnessing and being subjected to its absurdities and indignities, are being exhausted by it—that doesn’t mean “late capitalism” will generate the political forces required for its being replaced by a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

But perhaps that’s asking too much of the concept. If it merely serves to galvanize new ways of thinking, to recommit us to the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” then we’ll be moving in the right direction.

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Think about it: food makes up a large (5.5 percent) share of the U.S. economy. But millions of American workers struggle to put food on the table.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (pdf), the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides over 40 million low-income people with the means to purchase food in a typical month.*

Moreover, the share of SNAP households with earnings has been growing since the 1990s. As is clear from the chart above, the share of all households with earnings in an average month while participating in SNAP rose from 19 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2015. Among households with children and a non-elderly, non-disabled adult, about 60 percent have earnings while participating in SNAP.

And it’s pretty clear why American workers are forced to turn to SNAP:

  • They work in occupations that pay low wages.
  • Their jobs often have scheduling practices that contribute to workers’ low and volatile incomes.
  • Most low-wage jobs lack benefits such as paid sick leave and health insurance.

The result is that roughly 14.9 million workers, or about 10 percent of all workers in the United States, were in households where someone participated in SNAP in the last year.

The problem is that, for millions of working Americans, work does not itself guarantee steady or sufficient income to provide for themselves and their families. Thus, they are forced to turn to SNAP to obtain supplementary income to buy food.

SNAP, of course, is not the solution. It’s a social bandaid applied to a private problem of an economy that thrives on employing workers at low wages, on irregular schedules, with few benefits.

Creating a social economy—in which people who do the work have a real say in how the economy is organized—is the only way American workers will finally be able to put food on the table.

 

*United States Department of Agriculture outlays increased by 48 percent from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2015, with the largest increase coming from food and nutrition assistance programs:

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Federal government jobs are a pretty good deal, especially for workers without a professional degree or doctorate.

According to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), wages for federal workers with a high-school diploma or less are 34-percent higher than comparable workers in the private sector. And, when you include benefits (especially defined-benefit retirement plans), their total compensation is 53-percent higher. For federal workers with a bachelor’s degree, the numbers are 5 percent (for wages) and 21 percent (for total compensation). Only federal workers with a professional degree or doctorate are paid less than their private-sector counterparts (by 24 percent), resulting in a total compensation that is also less (by 18 percent).

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The problem is, it’s not easy to get those jobs. In contrast to what many people think (my students included), federal employment (excluding the U.S. Postal Service) makes up only 1.4 percent of civilian employment in the United States—just a bit higher than before the Second Great Depression (when it stood at 1.3 percent) but far below what it was in the late 1960s (when it was 2.8 percent).

So, to all those who complain about the growth of the “government bureaucracy,” they should be reminded of the small percentage of total employment represented by federal workers—and the fact that most federal employees (60 percent) work in just three departments in the executive branch: Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.

And for those who argue that federal employees are compensated better than their private-sector counterparts, there’s an easy solution: raise the pay of private-sector workers and improve their benefits!

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The latest jobs report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has the official unemployment rate declining by two percentage points, to 4.5 percent, in March.

And yet, as is clear from the chart above, workers’ wages (average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers) are barely keeping ahead of inflation (measured by the Consumer Price Index, less food and energy).

Workers are still waiting for their share of the current recovery.

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Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin may not be worried. Nor, it seems, are other members of the economic and political elite. But the rest of us are—or we should be.

As regular readers of this blog know (cf. all these posts), the robots are here and they’re rapidly replacing workers, thus leading to less employment, downward pressure on wages, and even more inequality.

The latest evidence comes from the work of Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, who argue, using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, that in the United States robots have reduced both employment and wages during recent decades (from 1993 to 2007). That conclusion holds even accounting for the fact that some areas of the economy may grow (thus increasing employment for some workers) when the use of robots raises productivity and reduces costs in other industries.

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Even though U.S. employers have been introducing industrial robots at a pace that is less than in Europe, their use in American workplaces has in fact grown (between 1993 and 2007, the stock of robots in the United States increased fourfold, amounting to one new industrial robot for every thousand workers). And, once the direct and indirect effects are estimated, robots are responsible for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs. And that number will rise, because industrial robots are expected to quadruple by 2025.

Actually, the effects have likely been even more dramatic, because Acemoglu and Restrepo take into account only three forces shaping the labor market: the displacement effect (because robots displace workers and reduce the demand for labor), the price-productivity effect (as automation lowers the costs of production in an industry, that industry expands), and the scale-productivity effect (the reduction of costs results in an expansion of total output).

What they’re missing is the effect on the value of labor power. As I explained last year, when productivity increases lower the prices of commodities workers consume, the value capitalists need to pay to get access to workers’ ability to work also goes down. As a result, even if workers’ real wages go up, the rate of exploitation can rise. Workers spend less of the day working for themselves and more for their employers. Capitalists, in other words, are able to extract more relative surplus-value.

And more surplus-value means more income for all those who share in the booty: CEOs, members of the 1 percent, and so on.

That’s why the increasing use of industrial robots, which under other circumstances we might actually celebrate, within existing economic institutions represents a disaster—not for their employers (who, like Mnuchin, are not particularly worried), but for all the workers who have been or are likely to be displaced and even those who manage to hang onto their jobs.

Workers are the ones who are going to continue to suffer from the “large and robust negative effects of robots”—unless and until they have a say in how robots and the resulting surplus are utilized.

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Clearly, 2016 was a good year for CEOs. They’re on track to set a post-recession record for capturing their portion of the surplus.

According to a new Wall Street Journal analysis, median pay for the chief executives of 104 of the biggest American companies rose 6.8 percent for fiscal 2016—to $11.5 million. At the very top was Thomas Rutledge, CEO of Charter Communications, who took home $98.5 million last year. (Here’s a link to the compensation of the other CEOs in the study.)

By way of comparison (using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), average wages for production and nonsupervisory workers rose 2.5 percent, to $21.86. And their annual pay rose by the same percentage, to $36,725.

If you’re keeping track, that means the ratio of average CEO to average worker pay in 2016 was 299.5!

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Both Peter Temin and I are concerned about the vanishing middle-class and the desperate plight of most American workers. We even use similar statistics, such as the growing gap between productivity and workers’ wages and the share of income captured by the top 1 percent.

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And, as it turns out, both of us have invoked Arthur Lewis’s “dual economy” model to make sense of that growing gap. However, we present very different interpretations of the Lewis model and how it might help to shed light on what is wrong in the U.S. economy—with, of course, radically different policy implications.

It is ironic that both Temin and I have turned to the Lewis model, which was originally intended to make sense of “dual economies” in the Third World, in which peasant workers trapped by “disguised unemployment” and receiving a “subsistence” wage (equal to the average product of labor) in the “backward,” noncapitalist rural/agricultural sector could be induced via a higher “industrial” wage rate (equal to the marginal product of labor) to move to the “modern,” capitalist urban/manufacturing sector, which would absorb them as long as capital accumulation increased the demand for labor.

That’s clearly not what we’re talking about today, certainly not in the United States and other advanced economies where agriculture employs a tiny fraction of the work force—and where much of agriculture, like the manufacturing and service sectors, is organized along capitalist lines. But Lewis, like Adam Smith before him, did worry about the parasitical role of the landlord class and the way it might serve, via increasing rents, to drag down the rest of the economy—much as today we refer to finance and the above-normal profits captured by oligopolies.

So, our returning to Lewis may not be so far-fetched. But there the similarity ends.

Temin (in a 2015 paper, before his current book was published) divided the economy into two sectors: a high-wage finance, technology, and electronics sector, which includes about thirty percent of the population, and a low-wage sector, which contains the other seventy percent. In his view, the only link between the two sectors is education, which “provides a possible path that the children of low-wage workers can take to move into the FTE sector.”

The reinterpretation of the Lewis model I presented back in 2014 is quite different:

What I have in mind is redefining the subsistence wage as the federally mandated minimum wage, which regulates compensation to workers in the so-called service sector (especially retail and food services). That low wage-rate serves a couple of different functions: it’s a condition of high profitability in the service sector while keeping service-sector prices low, thereby cheapening both the value of labor power (for all workers who rely on the consumption of those goods and services) and making it possible for those at the top of the distribution of income to engage in conspicuous consumption (in the restaurants where they dine as well as in their homes). In turn, the higher average wage-rate of nonsupervisory workers is regulated in part by the minimum wage and in part by the Reserve Army of unemployed and underemployed workers. The threat to currently employed workers is that they might find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or working at a minimum-wage job.

In addition, the profits captured from both groups of workers are distributed to a wide variety of other activities, not just capital accumulation as presumed by Lewis. These include high CEO salaries, stock buybacks, idle cash, and financial-sector profits (with a declining share going to taxes). And, if the remaining portion that does flow into capital accumulation takes the form of labor-saving investments, we can have an economic recovery based on private investment and production with high unemployment, stagnant wages, and rising corporate profits.

For Temin, the goal of economic policy is to reduce the barriers (conditioned and created by an increasingly segregated educational system) so that low-wage workers can adopt to the forces of technological change and globalization, which can eventually “reunify the American economy.”

My view is radically different: the “normal” operation of the contemporary version of the dual economy is precisely what is keeping workers’ wages low and profits high across the U.S. economy. The problem does not stem from the high educational barrier between the two sectors, as Temin would have it, but from the control exercised by the small group that appropriates and distributes the surplus within both sectors.

And the only way to solve that problem is by eliminating the barriers that prevent workers as a class—both black and white, in finance, technology, and electronics as well as retail and food services, regardless of educational level—from participating in the appropriation and distribution of the surplus they create.