Posts Tagged ‘wages’

James Sanborn, Adam Smith’s Spinning Top (1998)

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post is for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics (following on from the previous posts, herehereherehere, and here).

Classical Political Economy

Marxian economists have been quite critical of contemporary mainstream economics. As we saw in Chapter 1, and will continue to explore in the remainder of this book, Marxian economists have challenged the general approach as well as all of the major conclusions of both neoclassical and Keynesian economics.

But what about Marx, who wrote his critique of political economy, let’s remember, before neoclassical and Keynesian economics even existed?

Marx, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, trained his critical eye on the mainstream economic theory of his day. He read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, as well as the writings of other classical political economists, such as Thomas Robert Malthus, Jean-Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill.

Marx’s critique of political economy can rightly be seen as both an extension of and break from the work of those late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteen-century mainstream economists. So, in order to understand why and how Marx proceeded in the way he did, we need to have a basic understanding of classical political economy.

Before we begin, however, we have to recognize that Marx’s interpretation of the classical economists was very different from the way they are referred to within contemporary mainstream economics. Today, within non-Marxian economics, the classicals are reduced to a few summary ideas. They include the following: a labor theory of value (which mainstream economists reject, in favor of utility), the invisible hand (which, as it turns out, Smith mentioned only three times in his writings, once in the Wealth of Nations), and comparative advantage (but not the rest of Ricardo’s theory, especially his theory of conflict over the distribution of income).

We therefore need a good bit more in order to make sense of Marx’s critique of political economy.

Adam Smith

Let’s start with Adam Smith, the so-called father of modern economics. The author of, first, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and, then, the Wealth of Nations, Smith asserted that people have a natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” In other words, according to Smith, the ability and willingness to participate in markets were natural, and not social and historical, aspects of all humanity.

That’s not unlike contemporary mainstream economists’ insistence on presuming the existence of markets, and thus writing down supply and demand functions (or drawing them on a graph), without any further evidence or argumentation. They’re presumed to be natural.

Smith then proceeds by showing that the division of labor (such as with his most famous example, of the pin factory) has two effects: First, it leads to increases in productivity, and therefore an increase in production. Second, the extension of the division of labor within factories propels a division of labor within capitalism as a whole, as firms specialize in the production of some goods, which they can then trade with other producers in markets. In turn, the expansion of markets leads to more division of labor and higher productivity, thus increasing the wealth of nations.

Again, the parallel with contemporary mainstream economics is quite evident, which is recognized in the “classical” portion of the name for neoclassical economic theory. Using Gross Domestic Product as their measure of the wealth of nations, contemporary mainstream economists celebrate capitalism because higher productivity results in more output, which is then traded on markets. This is the basis of contemporary mainstream economists’ definition of development as an increase in GDP per capita, that is, more output per person in the population.

However, unlike contemporary mainstream economists, Smith analyzed the value of commodities in terms of the amount of labor it took to produce them. With increasing productivity, more goods and services could be produced and sold in markets, each containing less labor—and therefore available at lower prices to consumers. The nation’s wealth would therefore grow, especially as the number of workers grew.

Still, Smith worried about whether capitalist growth would persist in an uninterrupted fashion. The division of a nation’s production into “natural” rates of wages, profits, and rent to workers, capitalists, and landlords was not sufficient. What if, Smith asked, a large portion of capitalists’ profits was used to hire more “unproductive” labor, that is, the labor of household servants and others that did not contribute to increasing productivity? Purchasing labor involved in what we now call conspicuous consumption represented, for Smith, a slowing of the accumulation of additional capital. Therefore, it created a problem, an obstacle to future capitalist growth.

David Ricardo

David Ricardo picked up where Smith left off. He extended the celebration of capitalist markets to international trade. His argument was that if nations specialized in the production of commodities for which they had a relative advantage, and traded them for goods from other countries (his most famous example was British cloth and Portuguese wine), both countries would benefit. Their wealth would increase.*

That’s the only reason Ricardo’s work is cited by contemporary mainstream economists. However ironically, they ignore the fact that Ricardo made his argument based on the labor theory of value—just as they never mention Ricardo’s concern that conflicts over the distribution of income might slow capitalist growth.

In particular, Ricardo was worried that, as capitalism developed, the profits received by capitalists would be squeezed from two directions: an increase in workers’ wages and a rise in rent payments to landlords. Lower profits would mean less capital accumulation and slower growth—and, in the limit, capitalism would grind to a halt.

We can see how this might happen in the chart above. At a certain point (a level of population P, which is the pool of workers), total output (the red line) would be divided into workers’ wages, capitalists’ profits, and landlords’ rent).

It is easy to see that, at any point in time, if the wage rate paid to workers increased (which would mean an increase in the slope of the blue line), that would cut into profits (the vertical distance between the blue and green lines would decrease). That’s the major reason Ricardo supported free trade (and thus a repeal of the so-called Corn Laws): so that cheaper wheat could be imported from abroad, thus lessening the upward pressure on workers’ wage demands.

Even if the rate paid to workers remained the same over time (and thus the total amount of wages rose at a constant rate, with an increase in population), capitalists’ profits would be squeezed from the other direction, by an increase in the rents paid to the class of landlords (the vertical distance between the green and red lines). Basically, as agriculture production was moved to less and less fertile land, the rents on more productive land would rise, siphoning off a larger and larger portion of profits.

At a certain point (e.g., at a level of population P*), the entire output would be divided between workers’ wages and landlords’ rent, and nothing would be left in the form of capitalists’ profits. As a result, capitalists would be forced to stop investing and capitalist growth would cease.

Other Classicals

The Reverend Thomas Malthus was, if anything, more pessimistic than Ricardo. But he foresaw capitalism’s problems coming from the other direction, from the working masses. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, he argued that population would likely grow faster than the expansion in food production, especially in times of plenty. With such an increase in the supply of workers and a rise in the price of available food, workers’ real wages would inevitably fall and poverty would rise. The only solution was for capitalists and landlords to hire all the additional labor, and for workers’ wages to be restored to their “natural” level.

If Malthus focused on the up-and-down cycles of population and wages, and both Smith and Ricardo the potential limits to capitalist growth, the French classical economist Jean-Baptiste Say emphasized the inherent stability of capitalism. Why? Say’s argument was that the production of commodities causes income to be paid to suppliers of the capital, labor, and land used in producing these goods and services. And because the sale price of those commodities was the sum of the payments of wages, rents, and profit, income generated during production of commodities would be used to purchase all the commodities produced. Moreover, entrepreneurs were rewarded for correctly assessing the needs reflected in markets and the means to satisfy those needs. The result is what was later coined as Say’s Law: “supply creates its own demand.”

Finally, it was John Stuart Mill who added utilitarianism to classical political economy. Extending the work of Jeremy Bentham, especially the “greatest-happiness principle” (which holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings), Mill argued that the greatest happiness and the least pain could be achieved on the basis of free markets, competition, and private property—with the proviso that everyone should be afforded an equal opportunity, however unequal the actual results might turn out to be. In particular, Mill defended the profits of capitalists as a just recompense for their savings, risk, and economic supervision.*

Marx’s Critique of Mainstream Economics

That, in a nutshell, is the mainstream economic theory Marx confronted while sitting in the British Museum in the middle of the nineteenth century. Marx both lauded the classical political economists for their efforts—especially Ricardo, who in his view “gave to classical political economy its final shape” (Critique of Political Economy)—and engaged in a “ruthless criticism” of their theory.

In this sense, Marx took the classical political economists quite seriously. Even as he broke from their work in a decisive manner, many of the themes of Marx’s critique of political economy stem directly from the issues the classicals attempted to tackle. That’s why the overview provided in previous sections of this chapter is so crucial to understanding Marxian economics.

Still, the question remains, how does Marx’s critique of the mainstream economics of his day transfer over to contemporary mainstream economists? As we will see, although neoclassical and Keynesian economists reject the labor theory of value and other crucial elements of classical political economy, both the basic assumptions and conclusions of their approach are so similar to those of the classicals as to make it a relatively short step from Marx’s critique of the mainstream economic theory of his day to that of our own.

However, before we look at that theoretical encounter, in the next chapter, we will see how Marx’s critical engagement with classical political economy emerged over the course of his writings before, in the mid-1860s, he sits down to write the three volumes of his most famous book, Capital.


*Mill did defend various redistributive tax measures, in order to limit intergenerational inequalities that would otherwise constrain equality of opportunity. Moreover, he argued in a later edition of his Principles of Political Economy in favor of economic democracy: “the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves” (Principles of Political Economy, with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, IV.7.21).


To read the mainstream press, you’d think that the U.S. economy—especially the economy from the standpoint of workers—is on the mend.

The New York Times is a good example:

The American economy gained 1.8 million jobs last month, even as the coronavirus surged in many parts of the country and newly reintroduced restrictions caused some businesses to close for a second time.

And, it’s true, both the official (U-3) unemployment rate (the orange line in the chart) and the more inclusive (U-6) rate (the green line) have fallen since April. But, at 10.2 and 16.5 percent, respectively, they’re still at or just below what they were during the worst period of the Second Great Depression.

Moreover the percentage of American workers who have been unemployed for 15 weeks or more is on the rise—and can be expected to continue to grow in the months ahead.

The massive Reserve Army of unemployed, long-term unemployed, discouraged, and underemployed workers is serving to discipline and punish workers, both those who have managed to keep their jobs and those who have lost them.

We know this because workers’ pay is going down. At the same time, workers are forced to have the freedom to commute to and labor at their jobs under perilous pandemic conditions, they’re being paid less. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both the average hourly and weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers fell between June and July of this year.*

Meanwhile, now that emergency federal benefits have expired, the unemployed—both continuing cases and newly laid-off workers—will not be receiving the $600-a-week supplement that helped them pay their bills through the spring and early summer.

Instead of raising workers’ wages, to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and to attract them back to work, employers and their political representatives prefer to slash unemployment benefits in order to compel workers to compete for the few jobs that are currently available.

Whichever way you look at it, American workers are the ones who are being forced to shoulder the lion’s share of the costs created by the COVID economic crisis.


*These numbers relate to production employees in mining and logging and manufacturing, construction employees, and nonsupervisory employees in the service-providing industries. These groups account for approximately four-fifths of the total employment on private nonfarm payrolls.


It’s clear, at least to many of us, that if the United States had a larger, stronger union movement things would be much better right now. There would be fewer cases and deaths from the novel coronavirus pandemic, since workers would be better paid and have more workplace protections. There would be fewer layoffs, since workers would have been able to bargain for a different way of handling the commercial shutdown. And there would be more equality between black and white workers, especially at the lower end of the wage scale.

But, in fact, the American union movement has been declining for decades now, especially in the private sector. Just since 1983, the overall unionization rate has fallen by almost half, from 20.1 percent to 10.3 percent. That’s mostly because the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has decreased dramatically, from 16.8 percent to 6.2 percent. And even public-sector unions have been weakened, declining from a high of 38.7 percent in 1994 to 33.6 percent last year.

The situation is so dire that even Harvard economist Larry Summers (along with his coauthor Anna Stansbury) has had to recognize that the “broad-based decline in worker power” is primarily responsible for “inequality, low pay and poor work conditions” in the United States.*

Summers is, of course, the extreme mainstream economist who has ignited controversy on many occasions over the years. The latest is when he was identified as one as one of Joe Biden’s economic advisers back in April. Is this an example, then, of a shift in the economic common sense I suggested might be occurring in the midst of the pandemic? Or is it just a case of belatedly identifying the positive role played by labor unions now that they’re weak and ineffective and it’s safe for to do so?

I’m not in a position to answer those questions. What I do know is that the theoretical framework that informs Summers’s work has mostly prevented him and the vast majority of other mainstream economists from seeing and analyzing issues of power, struggle, and class exploitation that haunt like dangerous specters this particular piece of research.

Let’s start with the story told by Summers and Stansbury. Their basic argument is that a “broad-based decline in worker power”—and not globalization, technological change, or rising monopoly power—is the best explanation for the increase in corporate profitability and the decline in the labor share of national income over the past forty years.

Worker power—arising from unionization or the threat of union organizing, firms being run partly in the interests of workers as stakeholders, and/or from efficiency wage effects—enables workers to increase their pay above the level that would prevail in the absence of such bargaining power.

So far, so good. American workers and labor unions have been under assault for decades now, and their ability to bargain over wages and working conditions has in fact been eroded. The result has been a dramatic redistribution of income from labor to capital.

labor share

Clearly, as readers can see in the chart above, using official statistics, the labor share of national income fell precipitously, by almost 10 percent, from 1983 to 2020.**

profit rate

Not surprisingly, again using official statistics, the profit rate has risen over time. The trendline (the black line in the chart above), across the ups and downs of business cycles, has a clear upward trajectory.***

Over the course of the last four decades is that, as workers and labor unions have been decimated, corporations have been able to pump out more surplus from their workers, thereby lowering the wage share and increasing the profit rate.

But that’s not how things look in the Summers-Stansbury world. In their view, worker power only gives workers an ability to receive a share of the rents generated by companies operating in imperfectly competitive product markets. So, theirs is still a story that relies on exceptions to perfect competition, the baseline model in the world of mainstream economic theory.

And that’s why, while their analysis seems at first glance to be pro-worker and pro-union, and therefore amenable to the concerns of dogmatic centrists, Summers and Stansbury hedge their bets by references to “countervailing power,” the risk of increasing unemployment, and “interferences with pure markets” that “may not enhance efficiency” if measures are taken to enhance worker power.

Still, within the severe constraints imposed by mainstream economic theory, moments of insight do in fact emerge. Summers and Stansbury do admit that the wage-profit conflict that is at the center of their story does explain the grotesque levels of inequality that have come to characterize U.S. capitalism in recent decades—since “some of the lost labor rents for the majority of workers may have been redistributed to high-earning executives (as well as capital owners).” Therefore, in their view, “the decline in labor rents could account for a large fraction of the increase in the income share of the top 1% over recent decades.”

The real test of their approach would be what happens to workers’ wages and capitalists’ profits in the absence of imperfect competition. According to Summers and Stansbury, workers would receive the full value of their marginal productivity, and there would be no need for labor unions. In other words, no power, no struggle, and no class exploitation.

That’s certainly not what the world of capitalism looks like outside the confines of mainstream economic extremism. It’s always been an economic and social landscape of unequal power, intense struggle, and ongoing class exploitation.

The only difference in recent decades is that capital has become much stronger and labor weaker, at least in part because of the theories and policies produced and disseminated by mainstream economists like Summers and Stansbury. Now, as they stand at the gates of hell, it may just be too late for their extreme views and the economic and social system they have so long celebrated.

*The link in the text is to the column by Summers and Stansbury published in the Washington Post. That essay is based on their research paper, published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

**We need to remember that the labor share as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes incomes (such as the salaries of corporate executives) that should be excluded, since they represent distributions of corporate profits.

***I’ve calculated the profit as the sum of the net operating surpluses of the nonfinancial and domestic financial sectors divided by the net value added of the nonfinancial sector. The idea is that the profits of both sectors originate in the nonfinancial sector, a portion of which is distributed to and realized by financial enterprises. The trendline is a second-degree polynomial.


Before he was killed, George Floyd worked as a truck, a bouncer, and a security guard. Ahmaud Arbery worked at his father’s car wash and landscaping business, and previously held a job at McDonald’s. Breonna Taylor was a certified Emergency Medical Technician who had two jobs at hospitals in Louisville, Kentucky. Eric Garner worked as a mechanic and then in New York City’s horticulture department for several years before health problems, including asthma, sleep apnea, and complications from diabetes, forced him to quit. Trayvon Martin was the son of a program coordinator for the Miami Dade Housing Authority and a truck driver; he washed cars, babysat, and cut grass to earn his own money.

All of them, and most of the other African Americans who have been killed in recent years (by the police or other Americans), were members of the black working-class in the United States.

The history of the black working-class begins, of course, with slavery and then continues—with almost-incessant violence, from slave patrols through lynchings to beatings and deaths at the hands of law enforcement and incarceration by the criminal justice system— through southern sharecropping, the Great Migration out of the rural South to the urban factories of the Northeast, Midwest, and West, and the panoply of jobs that currently exist in the public and private sectors of the United States.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the most recent period—thus, from the end of the Great Migration, which roughly coincided with the assassinations of the two great Civil Rights leaders of the period, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Even at the end of the Great Migration, more than half of the black working-class population remained in the South. But the region itself was changing, in large part because of the infrastructure associated with the spread of military bases and the subsequent industrialization of cities and towns in the non-cotton south—without however eliminating the anti-union, low-wage legacy of southern economies.

Meanwhile, in the North (both the Northeast and the Midwest), a large portion of black migrants managed to secure factory jobs. But the same migration channeled other black workers into the high-unemployment ghettos of northern cities, which if anything were worsening with the passage of time.

While in the first half of the twentieth century, labor unions had been anything but a positive force for black workers, by 1973 unionization rates among black men were over 40 percent, while rates among white men were between 30 and 40 percent.* And by the late 1970s, almost one quarter of black women—nearly double the share of white women—belonged to a union.


But, in 1972 (the first year for which data are available), the black unemployment rate was more than twice (2.15 times) that of white workers—which has persisted as an average, through the ups and downs of both unemployment rates, for the entire period down to the present.


What about workers’ wages? In 1973, average (median) real wages of black workers were only 78 percent of white wages—and, while the percentage has varied over the decades (reaching a high of 84 percent in 1979, no doubt due to the influence of labor unions), by 2019 the percentage had fallen even lower, to 76 percent.


The wages of the black working-class (just like those of the white working-class) exhibited a clear hierarchy based on gender in the early 1970s. Black women earned on average 69 percent of what black men did (while white women’s wages were even less, about 62 percent of their male counterparts). But then some of the gaps began to decrease: between black women and men (as well as between white women and men). In fact, by 2019, black working-class women’s wages were 94 percent of those of black men (although, by then, white women’s wages were higher than both black men and women). But the wage gap between black and white men had actually grown—from 24.5 percent (in 1973) to 31.7 percent (in 2019).


The gender composition of the black working-class both reflected and contributed to the changes in wage gaps over the past five decades. In 1972, the labor force participation rate of black men was much higher than that of black women: 78.5 percent compared to 51.1 percent. But the gap between the two rates has declined dramatically over time, both because the rate for men has fallen (largely due to the increased incarceration rate of black men) and the increase in the rate for women (as they became increasingly engaged in employment outside the household). So, even though both rates have fallen in recent decades (mirroring the nationwide decline in the labor force participation rate, the gray line in the chart), the changes between 1972 and 2019 for both groups are striking: the rate for black men had declined to 68.1 percent while that of black women had increased to 62.5 percent.

The result is that black women, who in 1972 made up 44.9 percent of the black civilian labor force, now comprise 52.5 percent. The share of black men has thus declined—from 55.12 percent to 47.5 percent.

income shares

While the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling Jim (and Jane) Crow laws were appropriately celebrated, the movement never succeeded in eliminating systemic or structural racism—from employment and housing discrimination through health disparities to the racial biases of the prison-industrial complex. Moreover, the initial progress in narrowing the wage gaps within the working-class coincided with a new assault on American workers and the dramatic growth in inequality in the U.S. economy as a whole. Racial capitalism in the United States therefore changed beginning in the late-1970s, leaving the American working-class—and, even more so, black (and Hispanic) workers—further and further behind the tiny group at the top.

By 2020, the increasing precarity of the black working-class made its members more exposed to physical attacks and police murders, the ravages of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the negative effects of the economic crisis.



Last year, 24 percent of all police killings were of black Americans when just 13 percent of the U.S. population is black—an 11-point discrepancy. Mapping Police Violence also showed that 99 percent of all officers involved in all police killings were never charged.


The latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans (compiled by the the APM Research Lab) is 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites, and they’re dying above their population share in 30 states and, most dramatically, in Washington, D.C.

job loss

Even as the rate of layoffs has largely slowed over the past two months, black job losses rose in May and June relative to those of white workers. In fact, according to the New York Times,

For long stretches of the pandemic, black and white employment losses largely mirrored each other. But in the last month, layoffs among African-Americans have grown while white employment has risen slightly. Now, among all the black workers who were employed before the pandemic, one in six are no longer working.

And all indications are that the economic recovery, if and when there is one, will be both long and painful, especially for the African American working-class.

It has become increasingly clear, especially in recent weeks as a national uprising has responded to the deaths of Floyd and many other members of the black working-class at the hands of the police, that these incidents did not happen in isolation. It is therefore time for the American working-class—black, brown, and white—to overcome its divisions and confront the problem of racism head-on. That’s certainly how the Executive Board of the Communication Workers of America sees things:

The only pathway to a just society for all is deep, structural change. Justice for Black people is inextricably linked to justice for all working people – including White people. The bosses, the rich, and the corporate executives have known this fact and have used race as one of the most effective and destructive ways to divide workers. Unions have a duty to fight for power, dignity and the right to live for every working-class person in every place. Our fight and the issues we care about do not stop when workers punch out for the day and leave the garage, call center, office, or plant. . .

Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. No amount of statements and press releases will bring back the lives lost and remedy the suffering our communities have to bear. We must move to action.


*According to Natalie Spievack,

In 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act gave workers the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, less than 1 percent of all union workers were black. Union formation excluded agricultural and domestic workers, occupations predominantly held by black workers, and largely left black workers unable to organize.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, unions began to integrate. The manufacturing boom brought large numbers of black workers north to factories, the civil rights movement focused increasingly on economic issues, and the more liberal Congress of Industrial Organizations organized black workers.


Where did all the capitalist surplus in the United States go last year?

Well, as in recent years, a large portion was paid to the Chief Executive Officers of the nation’s largest corporations, the ones that make up the S&P 500.

According to the Wall Street Journal, median pay of the CEOs of those corporations reached an astronomical $13.1 million, setting a new record for the fifth year in a row. Most S&P 500 CEOs got raises of 8 percent or better during the year—compared to the increase in median household income of only 3.34 percent.

The top 10 list goes from Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts’s $36.4 million (where median employee pay was $78.9 thousand) to Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai’s $280.6 million (where employee pay was $258.7 thousand).

For purposes of comparison, the American workers who produced that surplus took home, on average, only $40,437.20 in 2019.

The CEO-to-worker pay ratio last year was therefore an astounding 324 to 1.


If we needed any more confirmation of who’s been laid off during the current crisis, all we need to do is examine the change in average hourly wages.

In the past month (so, April 2020), the year-over-year increase in hourly wages jumped to 7.9 percent. That’s more than three times the average increase since 2008 (2.5 percent) and more than two and half times the increase since Donald Trump took office (3 percent).

That doesn’t mean American workers are now earning more. Oh, sure, perhaps a few, who have been granted temporary increases to commute and work in precarious conditions—the ones who were receiving so-called “heroic pay,” which in many cases (such as Kroger supermarkets) is now being cancelled. No, the April increase mostly tells us, first, that tens of millions of works have been laid off and, second, that the vast majority of the workers who were fired in April were at the lower end of the wage scale.

Those low-wage workers—in retail, hospitality, healthcare, and other sectors—are no longer employed. So, their wages don’t count as part of the average. Therefore, the average hourly wage (of all private-sector workers), in comparison to last year at the same time, rose dramatically.

What it means, then, is: those who can least afford it, have been let go and are now struggling to survive on unemployment insurance and charity from food banks. They are the new members of the reserve army of unemployed workers, which in the months and years ahead will serve to hold down wage increases for and generally weaken the position of all workers.

That, alas, is how capitalist labor markets are working (for employers) and not working (for employees) during this pandemic crisis.


I’ve often read that people who wash their hands in innocence do so in blood-stained basins. And their hands bear the traces.

— Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage

The first time care for elderly and chronically ill Americans was radically transformed was during the first Great Depression, as almshouses were overwhelmed and public support grew to replace old-style charitable “indoor relief” with new-style government-funded “outdoor relief,” based on cash payments to people to support themselves in the community. According to Sidney D. Watson (pdf), “The Social Security Act of 1935 embodied this new approach to American social welfare, creating cash benefit programs to provide the elderly and needy with the money to support themselves at home rather than in institutions.”*

Later, the Social Security Amendments of 1950, 1956, 1960, and 1965 (which created Medicaid), a combination of federal and state payments fueled the growth of nursing homes by expanding eligibility and authorizing states to make vendor payments directly to for-profit care institutions. The existing nursing home industry fought to get Medicaid funding and, through its lobbying efforts, to keep and expand based on Medicaid funding.** It then used those funds to warehouse the elderly and infirm, in the care of workers who earn low wages, most of whom are women of color, a large portion of whom are immigrant workers.  

Now, those same nursing homes, like the almshouses of the 1930s, have been overwhelmed by a “tidal wave of human need”—but for a very different reason: they have become one of the key sites of the novel coronavirus pandemic.


According to a recent investigation by the New York Times, about one-third of all U.S. coronavirus deaths are nursing-home residents or workers. At least 25,600 residents and workers have died from the coronavirus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults in the United States, which has infected more than 143,000 people at some 7,500 facilities. Moreover, in about a dozen states, the number of residents and workers who have died accounts for more than half of all deaths from the virus.***

For example, in Massachusetts, more than half the state’s deaths, 2,922, come from long-term care facilities that have become major sources of infection. As of this past Saturday, 336 long-term care centers in the state had reported at least one COVID-19 case and some 15,965 residents and health care workers have been sickened.

Unfortunately, the existing data can’t for the most part distinguish between patients and workers. What we do know is that most nursing-home patients (60 percent) are supported by Medicaid, and therefore are (or are made) poor or near-poor. Across the country, they are being infected by and dying from COVID-19 at rates that are much higher than for the general population.


As for the more than 3 million nursing-home workers in the United States, they earn a median wage of $12.15 an hour, for a median annual wage of only $25,280.**** The chart above demonstrates that, while the typical nursing-home worker earns more than retail cashiers, their wages and annual pay put them substantially below the national average as well as many other occupations, from bus drivers to chief executives.

We also know that, thanks to a recent study (pdf) by PHI (formerly the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute), a great deal about the demographic makeup of the nursing-home workforce (which, for their purposes, include, in addition to home health and personal care aides, nursing assistants). It is predominantly (86 percent) female, a majority (59 percent) people of color (including 30 percent who are Black and 18 percent Latinx), and about one in four (26 percent) born outside the United States. Because of their low wages, about 1 in 7 nursing-home workers live in poverty, almost half (44 percent) are low-income (defined as below twice the poverty line), and 2 in 5  (42 percent) require some form of public assistance.

Taken together, these data reveal a workforce that is collectively marginalized in the labor market.

Unfortunately, it should come as no surprise, given the obscene levels of inequality in the United States and the nature of long-term care for the elderly and infirm, that both residents and workers in nursing homes occupy a marginalized position in American society. As a result, both groups are living and working—and, increasingly, dying—in one of the veritable hellholes of the current pandemic.

For a century now, the United States has not had to rely on charity and poorhouses to care for the elderly and infirm. But if we didn’t know before, then surely the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic have demonstrated how much their replacement—the nursing-home industry—like many other capitalist institutions, has failed to protect both those who have been placed in its care and those who have worked so diligently, under impossible conditions, to provide that care. Today, the nursing-home industry requires a transformation that is as at least radical as the one that was started during the first Great Depression.

In the meantime, the industry needs to be pushed by individual states and the federal government, by any means necessary, to rescue its residents and workers from their pandemic-induced nightmare.


*Watson argues that

The Social Security Act was an epochal event in American social welfare. It reflected a belief that public assistance recipients should, and could, be trusted to spend their benefits as they saw fit and that use of “in-kind” benefits was unnecessary, demeaning, and stigmatizing. The disabled would continue to be cared for through “indoor relief” in a variety of institutions including mental asylums, tuberculosis sanitariums, public hospitals, and schools for the deaf.

**As Watson explains,

By making nursing home care free for all senior citizens without assets, nearly half of the elderly in 1975, Medicaid provided a powerful incentive to families to institutionalize parents, who might previously have moved in with grown children or sought the part-time care of a home health aide. By offering states a federally funded alternative to state psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes also became the place to institutionalize those with developmental disabilities and long-term mental illness.

***The BBC recently reported that one-third of all coronavirus deaths in England and Wales are now happening in “care homes”—an ominous feature of the Anglo-American response to the pandemic.

****Bureau of Labor Statistics earnings data are for 3,161,500 Home Health and Personal Care Aides (2018 SOC occupations 31-1121 Home Health Aides and 31-1122 Personal Care Aides and the 2010 SOC occupations 31-1011 Home Health Aides and 39-9021 Personal Care Aides) for May 2019.



When social solidarity is essential, it’s common to hear pious sermons against class warfare. Unfortunately, there is a class war. And its victims, so many of them front-line workers, didn’t start it.

E. J. Dionne Jr.

New research confirms what we’ve all been seeing for the past couple of months: the lowest paid, most precarious workers are the ones who are being forced to face the choice between their jobs and their lives.

And, looking forward, as those in charge push to reopen the economy, the most vulnerable workers are the ones who will most find themselves caught up in the ultimate dilemma of capitalist employment during the COVID-19 pandemic: stay at home without the ability to earn a paycheck or go back to work and increase the chance of getting the dreaded disease.

A new working paper by Simon Mongey, Laura Pilossoph, and Alex Weinberg explains why. Workers in low-work-from-home jobs (the chart above on the left) or high-physical-proximity jobs (the chart on the right) are more economically vulnerable: they are less educated, earn lower incomes, have fewer liquid assets relative to income, and are more likely renters.

Moreover, they found, those same workers (who, for example, lived in areas with less pre-virus employment in work-from-home jobs) saw smaller increases in the rates at which individuals were able to stay at home. At the same time, workers who were employed in occupations with low work-from-home scores experienced larger employment losses.

In recent months, then, workers at the bottom of the economic pyramid were more likely to be either laid off and forced onto the ever-lengthening unemployment lines or required to continue to labor under perilous conditions because their jobs didn’t allow them to work from home.

Now, as their employers attempt to reopen their businesses, many vulnerable workers will lose their unemployment compensation. Therefore, they will be forced to have the freedom to work not from home, but on-site, in close proximity to other workers and customers. That also means they’ll be closer to and caught within the cruel circuits of coronavirus contagion—thus imperiling themselves, their families, and their communities.

The authors of the report succinctly and accurately characterize the cruel dilemma created by American capitalism in the age of the pandemic in the following manner:

Already more economically vulnerable workers are disproportionately exposed to unemployment now, and infection in the future.



Special mention



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.


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.


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?

fredgraph (1)

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.


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.


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.


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.”