Posts Tagged ‘wages’

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Sometimes you just have to sit back and admire capitalism’s ingenuity.

It’s able to make profits twice over. First, capitalists know that, when they keep workers’ wages down—even when there’s “full employment”—they can make spectacular profits. And, second, they can make additional profits by loaning money to those same workers, who are desperate to purchase goods and services and send their children to college, thereby financing the demand for the goods and services industrial capitalists need to sell to realize their profits.

Thus, as we can see in the chart at the top of the post, the amount of consumer credit is once again soaring to record highs. In relation to personal income, consumer credit fell after the Great Recession (to just under 20 percent in December 2012)—as households “deleveraged”—and then it began to rise once again, reaching 23.3 percent four years later.

Is there any wonder bank stocks are expected to show profit growth of 6 percent when the sector kicks off second-quarter earnings season later this week?

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Total consumer credit outstanding (which excludes loans secured by real estate, such as mortgages) can be divided into two categories: revolving and nonrevolving credit. Revolving credit (the blue parts of the bars in the chart above) consists of credit card credit and balances outstanding on unsecured revolving lines of credit, while nonrevolving credit (the red portion) comprises secured and unsecured credit for automobiles, durable goods, and higher education.

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Clearly, as workers’ wages have stagnated, both loans on cars and trucks (the dashed line in the chart) and student loans (the dotted line) have been rising dramatically, which have in turn fueled new vehicle sales and increases in tuition at colleges and universities.

As I say, capitalism is an ingenious system—until, of course, the house of cards comes tumbling down.

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The so-called economics experts surveyed by the UK Centre for Macroeconomics—whose aim is to inform “the public about the views held by prominent economists based in Europe on important macroeconomic and public policy questions”—are in substantial agreement that “lower real wage growth was beneficial for employment levels during the Great Recession.” A clear majority (65 percent) either strongly agree or agree, which increases (to 70 percent) when the answers are weighted with self-reported confidence levels.

I would bet, based on their responses to other questions, the analogous group of “experts” in the United States—such as the mainstream economists who comprise the IGM Panel—hold the same view.

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Here’s the problem: the correlation between wages and employment in the United States (measured in terms of percent change from one year ago in the chart above) does not tell us anything about causality. Mainstream economics experts presume (based on the assumptions embedded in their macroeconomic models) that causality runs from wages to employment. So, in their view, low wage growth is beneficial for employment levels.

What they don’t consider is the opposite relationship: that moderate employment growth (especially during and after a recession) leads to low wage growth.

The key is the Industrial Reserve Army, which is missing from the models used by the so-called experts. As I wrote back in 2015,

While mainstream economists congratulate themselves on a successful economic recovery, which has lowered the headline unemployment rate and requires now a return to “normal” monetary policy, they accept a situation in which a large Reserve Army of Unemployed, Underemployed, and Low-Wage Workers has both been created by and, in turn, fueled a recovery characterized by stagnant wages for most and growing profits and high incomes for a tiny minority at the very top.

In other words, all mainstream economists are doing is congratulating themselves for a job well done—in supporting an economic system that exists not to serve the needs of workers, but in which workers exist only to serve the needs of their employers.

As it turns out, that self-congratulatory stance is adopted by so-called economics experts on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Neil Irwin would like us to believe there’s a mystery surrounding the U.S. economy. But it’s not what one might expect:

The real mystery. . .isn’t why wages are rising so slowly, but why they’re rising so fast.

Really?!

In Irwin’s model, workers’ wages should rise at the same rate as productivity combined with inflation. And he’s worried that wages are rising faster than that right now.

Except they’re not. And they haven’t been for decades.

As is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the change workers’ wages (hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers) has often surprised the rate of growth of per capita output (GDP per capita) for long periods of time. But when we add in inflation (according to the Consumer Price Index), only rarely in recent decades have wages surpassed the sum of output and price changes (during some months of some recessions). In general, workers’ wages have fallen short—in many cases, by 4 and 5 percentage points.

And that’s been going on for decades, which is why the labor share of national income has been falling. Workers produce more, prices go up, and wages rise by much less.

Even recently, after a short period when wages were rising faster than productivity plus inflation (from the second quarter of 2015 to the third quarter of 2016), that trend has continued. In the first quarter of 2017, when wages rose at an annual rate of 2.4 percent, the rate of growth of output per capita and inflation was higher, at 3.9 percent.

For Irwin, as for most mainstream economists, the real mystery is why productivity has been growing so slowly—because they cling to the idea that everyone, including workers, will benefit if only they could find some way to boost productivity.

But that ship sailed long ago. Workers’ wages haven’t matched the growth of the value workers produce for decades. And there’s no reason to expect that trend to change in the foreseeable future—not when employers can get away with paying workers as little as possible.

As I see it, the real mystery is why Irwin and mainstream economists continue to hold to the myth that workers will benefit from rising productivity.

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes (or, if you prefer, Kurt Wallander) to figure out that, if they continue to focus on productivity and its supposed benefits, they can try to keep things just as they are right now.

But the rest of us know the existing economic institutions have failed—and failed miserably for decades now—and that radically new ways of organizing the economy have to be imagined and enacted.

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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!