Posts Tagged ‘wages’


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.


Apologists for mainstream economics (such as Noah Smith) like to claim that things are OK because good empirical research is crowding out bad theory.

I have no doubt about the fact that the theory of mainstream economics has been bad. But is the empirical research any better?

Not, as I see it, in the academy, in the departments that are dominated by mainstream economics. But there is interesting empirical work going on elsewhere, including of all places in the International Monetary Fund (as I have noted before, e.g., here and here).

The latest, from Mai Dao, Mitali Das, Zsoka Koczan, and Weicheng Lian, documents two important facts: the decline in labor’s share of income—in both developed and developing economies—and the relationship between the fall in the labor share and the rise in inequality.

I demonstrate both facts for the United States in the chart above: the labor share (the red line, measured on the left) has been falling since 1970, while the share of income captured by those in the top 1 percent (the blue line, measured on the right) has been rising.

labor shares

Dao et al. make the same argument, both across countries and within countries over time: declining labor shares are associated with rising inequality.

And they’re clearly concerned about these facts, because inequality can fuel social tension and harm economic growth. It can also lead to a backlash against economic integration and outward-looking policies, which the IMF has a clear stake in defending:

the benefits of trade and financial integration to emerging market and developing economies—where they have fostered convergence, raised incomes, expanded access to goods and services, and lifted millions from poverty—are well documented.

But, of course, there are no facts without theories. What is missing from the IMF facts is a theory of how a falling labor share fuels inequality—and, in turn, has created such a reaction against capitalist globalization.

Let me see if I can help them. When the labor share of national income falls—the result of the forces Dao et al. document, such as outsourcing and new labor-saving technologies—the surplus appropriated from those workers rises. Then, when a share of that growing surplus is distributed to those at the top—for example, to those in the top 1 percent, via high salaries and returns on capital ownership—income inequality rises. Moreover, the ability of those at the top to capture the surplus means they are able to shape economic and political decisions that serve to keep workers’ share of national income on its downward slide.

The problem is mainstream economists are not particularly interested in those facts. Or, for that matter, the theory that can make sense of those facts.


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Clay Bennett editorial cartoon  Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon - tt_c_c170820.tif


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.


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


There’s nothing that gets mainstream economists going like a proposal to raise workers’ wages.

Except the idea of raising workers’ wages in other countries.

Then you’re screwing with both wages and international trade. And mainstream thinkers just won’t allow that.

That’s why Eduardo Porter considers the AFL-CIO’s proposal that the North American Free Trade Agreement guarantee that “all workers — regardless of sector — have the right to receive wages sufficient for them to afford, in the region of the signatory country where the worker resides, a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family” a “fairly loopy idea.”

As I see it, the only thing loopy about the proposal is the idea that the Trump administration would actually take it seriously.

Then there’s MIT’s David Autor:

Stipulating that countries must pay above-market wages when producing export goods for the U.S. feels like outrageous economic imperialism.

And finally Harvard’s Dani Rodrik, according to whom the idea of a living wage

is very difficult to define and can be harmful to employment if enforced too strictly.

So, there you have it: according to mainstream economists, attempting to raise workers’ wages, especially wages in Mexico and elsewhere, is “loopy,” an example of “economic imperialism,” and “harmful to employment” if actually enforced.

Now, to be clear, as I showed earlier this year, workers on both sides of the border have lost out, and their losses are mostly not due to NAFTA. The wage share of national income was declining in both the United States and Mexico before the free-trade agreement was implemented—and it’s continued its slide since then.

Why then are mainstream economists so opposed to raising Mexican workers’ wages—which, after all, is merely an example of leveling-up as against a race-to-the-bottom?

It’s because mainstream economists actually believe workers are paid according to their productivity. They get what they’re worth. In other words, “just deserts.”

But that’s the problem: there’s nothing necessarily just about the prices set in markets, whether for labor power or any another commodity. Raising workers’ wages above current rates—on both sides of the border—represents a different kind of economic justice. It may not be neoclassical justice, which is the only thing Porter, Autor, Rodrik, and other mainstream economists recognize.

It’s a justice based on the idea that workers lose out when they’re paid a wage but create more value than what they receive in the form of wages. They produce a surplus, which their employers appropriate. Both their Mexican employers and their U.S. employers.

Raising workers’ wages would mean there would be somewhat less surplus available to their employers in the form of profits. And that’s a kind of economic justice mainstream economists simply won’t accept.


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