Posts Tagged ‘wages’

This was supposed to be the great reset. As the U.S. economy recovered from the Pandemic Depression, millions of jobs were being created, unemployment was falling, and the balance of power between workers and capitalists would shift toward wage-earners and against their employers.

That, at least, was the promise (or, for capitalists, the fear).

But greedflation has delivered exactly the opposite: workers’ real wages are barely rising while corporate profits are soaring. There’s been no reset at all. That’s exactly what was happening before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and that trend has only continued during the recovery. It should come as no surprise then that the already grotesque levels of inequality in the United States continue to worsen.

And who are the beneficiaries? According to a recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies, it’s the Chief Executive Officers of American corporations who have managed to capture a large share of the resulting surplus.

Especially the CEOs of the largest low-wage employers in the United States. While median worker pay increased by 17 percent last year, CEO compensation rose by 31 percent. The result was that the ratio of CEO to average worker pay rose by 11 percent, to 670 to 1!*

American workers are struggling with rising prices, having risked their lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. Now, they’re forced to watch as their corporate employers, who have benefited from federal contracts and used their profits to buyback stocks, reward their CEOs with lucrative contracts and massive bonuses—far exceeding the small amount some workers have been able to claw back.

Who’s at the top? Amazon leads the list. Its new CEO, Andy Jassy, raked in $212.7 million last year, which amounts to 6,474 times the pay of Amazon’s median 2021 worker. Then there’s Estee Lauder’s CEO, Fabrizio Fred, who managed to secure a 258-percent pay increase in 2021—leading to compensation that amounted to 1,965 times that of the average worker. Third on the list was the CEO of Penn National Gaming, Jay Snowden, whose $65.9 million payout was 1,942 times that of the gambler’s typical worker’s wage.

So, how did they manage to capture so much surplus and distribute it to their CEOs? Like the other firms in the study, they all took the low road, paying their employees a pittance (in the low $30,000s for the median worker). And they’ve mostly succeeded in opposing and undermining union-organizing efforts.** But Amazon is the only one of the three to secure large federal contracts (over $10 billion between 1 October 2019 and 1 May 2022), like other low-wage corporations (such as Maximus, at $12.3 billion and TE Connectivity, at $3.3 billion), which means the taxes paid by ordinary Americans and being used to support such an inequitable corporate order.***

The report also highlights the extent of stock buybacks—which serve to inflate the value of a company’s shares and thus the value of executives’ stock-based compensation—among firms where median worker pay did not keep pace with inflation in 2021. Thus, for example, Lowe’s, the home-improvement chain, spent more than $13 billion in purchasing its own stock while median worker compensation fell by 7.6 percent to $22,697. Similarly, both Target and Best Buy increased workers’ pay by less than the rate of inflation but still spent millions of dollars in stock buybacks ($7.2 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively). In each case, a windfall to stock owners—including the CEOs—came at the expense of raises for the employees. For example, if the funds Lowe’s used to buyback its own stock had been divided among the company’s 325,000 employees, each worker would have received a $40,000 bonus.

Clearly, this economic order needs a fundamental reset.

And most Americans agree. According to a recent survey by Just Capital (pdf), more than eight in 10 respondents (83%) agree that the growing gap between CEO compensation and worker pay is a problem in the United States today. Moreover, according to the authors,

The message from the public is clear: responsibility lies with corporate leaders – including chief executives – to address income inequality in America today. Closing the gap requires action at the highest and lowest rungs of the corporate ladder.

The IPS suggests a range of options for doing something about the problem, including giving corporations with narrow pay ratios preferential treatment in government contracting, an excessive CEO pay tax, and a ban on stock buybacks (in addition to a wide variety of CEO pay reforms). If enacted, all such changes would serve to nudge such corporations out of the low road of poor worker pay and high CEO compensation and reduce the now-obscene level of inequality in the U.S. economy.

But giving employees a say in how those corporations are managed and operated would do even more to change the balance of power, within those firms and the entire economy, between workers and capitalists. The workers would then be able to participate in deciding how much surplus there would be and how it would be utilized—not only for their benefit but for the society as a whole.**** Employees would then become or participate in choosing the corporate leaders, including chief executives, who could actually go a long way toward solving the problem of inequality in America today.

That, in my view, is a reset of the U.S. economy worth imagining and enacting.

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*Forty-nine of the 300 firms analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute had ratios above 1000-1. And, in 106 companies in their sample, median worker did not keep pace with the 4.7 percent average U.S. inflation rate in 2021.

**Amazon has spent millions of dollars in fighting union campaigns and, to date, have lost only one battle, in a Staten Island warehouse. (That’s in the United States. Some Amazon warehouses in Europe are unionized, with strikes being most frequent in Germany, Italy, Poland, France and Spain.) None of Estee Lauder’s U.S. workers have union representation, and less than 20 percent of Penn’s employees are unionized.

***Of the 300 companies in the IPS study, 119 — 40 percent — received federal contracts, totaling $37.2 billion. Their average CEO-worker pay ratio was 571-to-1 in 2021.

****Even Thomas Piketty now defends the idea of workplace democracy or co-determination, since workers “sometimes, they are more serious and committed long-run investors than many of the short-term financial investors that we see. And so getting them to be involved in defining the long-run investment strategy of the company can be good.”

Inflation continues to run hot—and now, finally, the debate about inflation is heating up.

On one side of the debate are mainstream economists and lobbyists for big business, the people Lydia DePillis refers to as having a simple mantra: “Supply and demand, Economics 101.” In their view, inflation is caused by supply and demand in the labor market, which is allowing workers’ wages to increase at an unsustainable rate (a story that, as I showed in April, has no validity), and supply and demand in the economy as a whole, with too much money chasing too few goods.

Simple, straightforward, and. . .wrong.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the debate, with heterodox economists and progressive activists arguing that increasingly dominant corporations are taking advantage of the current situation (the pandemic, disruptions in global supply-chains, the war in Ukraine, and so on) to jack up prices and rake in even higher profits than they’ve been able to do in recent times.

Josh Bivens, of the Economic Policy Institute, has offered two arguments that challenge the mainstream story: First, while “It is unlikely that either the extent of corporate greed or even the power of corporations generally has increased during the past two years. . .the already-excessive power of corporations has been channeled into raising prices rather than the more traditional form it has taken in recent decades: suppressing wages.” Second, inflation can’t simply be the result of macroeconomic overheating. That would suggest, at this point in a classic economic recovery, that profits should be shrinking and the labor share of income should be rising. As Biven notes, “The fact that the exact opposite pattern has happened so far in the recovery should cast much doubt on inflation expectations rooted simply in claims of macroeconomic overheating.”*

So, we have dramatically different analyses of the causes of the current inflation, and of course two very different strategies for combatting inflation. The mainstream policy (as I also wrote about in April) is to slow the rate of growth of the economy (for example, by raising interest rates) and increase the level of unemployment, thus slowing the rate of increase of both wages and prices. And the alternative? Bivens supports a temporary excess profits tax. Other possibilities—which, alas, are not yet being raised in the debate—include price controls (especially on commodities that make up workers’ wage bundles), government provisioning of basic wage goods (including, for example, baby formula), and subsidies to workers (which, while they wouldn’t necessarily lower inflation, would at least make it easier for workers to maintain their current standard of living).

What we’re witnessing, then, is an important debate about the causes and consequences of inflation. But, as DePillis understands, the debate is about much more than that: “The real disagreement is over whether higher profits are natural and good.

In the end, that’s what all key debates in economics are about. Profits are the most contentious issue in economics precisely because the analysis of profits reflects both a theory and ethics about two things: whether capitalists deserve the profits they capture and what they can and should do with those profits. For example, profits can be theorized as a return to capital (and therefore natural and fair, as in mainstream economics) or they are the result of price-gouging (and therefore social and unfair, as in Bivens’s theory of corporate power).**

Similarly, capitalists can be seen as investing their profits (and therefore making their firms and the economy as a whole more productive, with everyone benefitting) or they can distribute a significant portion of their profits toward other uses (such as pursuing mergers and acquisitions, engaging in stock buybacks, and offering higher dividends, which do nothing to increase productivity but instead lead to more corporate concentration and make the distribution of income and wealth even more unequal).

Mainstream economists and capitalists have long sought to convince us that profits are both natural and good. In other words, when it comes to corporate profits and escalating charges of “greedflation,” they prefer to see, hear, and say no evil. The rest of us know what’s actually going on—that corporations are taking advantage of current conditions to raise prices, both to increase their profits and to lower workers’ real wages. We also know that traditional attempts to contain inflation through monetary policy will hurt workers but not their employers or the tiny group that sits at the top of the economic pyramid.

It’s clear then: the debate about inflation is actually a debate about profits. And the debate about profits is, in the end, a debate about capitalism. The sooner we recognize that, the better off we’ll all be.

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*Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the wage share is not in fact growing: “The labor share of national output is roughly where it was before the pandemic.” Moreover, the current situation represents just a continuation of the trend of recent decades: “Over the last two decades. . .the share of U.S. income that goes to labor has fallen, despite periods of low unemployment.”

**Corporate profits can also be theorized as the result of exploitation (and thus a different kind of social determination and unfairness, as in Marxian theory).

Everyone knows that inflation in the United States is increasing. Anyone who has read the news, or for that matter has gone shopping lately. Prices are rising at the fastest rate in decades. The Consumer Price Index rose 8.6 percent in March, which is the highest rate of increase since December 1981 (when it was 8.9 percent).

Clearly, inflation is hurting lots of people—especially the elderly living on fixed incomes and workers whose wages aren’t keeping up the price increases. No mystery there.

The only real mystery is, what’s causing the current inflation? That’s where things gets interesting.

To listen to or read mainstream economists the answer to the whodunnit is workers’ wages. They’re going up too fast, because the level of unemployment is too low and their employers are forced to pay them higher wages. As a result, corporations are compelled to raise their prices. Therefore, something has to be done (like increasing interest rates) to slow down the economy and force more workers into the Reserve Army of the Underemployed and Unemployed.*

That’s exactly how Paul Krugman sees things:

The U.S. economy still looks overheated. Rising wages are a good thing, but right now they’re rising at an unsustainable pace. . .

This excess wage growth probably won’t recede until the demand for workers falls back into line with the available supply, which probably — I hate to say this — means that we need to see unemployment tick up at least a bit.

The amazing thing about Krugman’s story, and that of most mainstream economists, is there’s not a single word about profits. Corporate profits are entirely missing from their story. Inflation is only caused by workers’ wages, not the surplus raked in by U.S. corporations. Which is pretty amazing, given the numbers.

A quick look at the chart at the top of the post shows what’s been going on in the U.S. economy. Workers’s wages (the red line in the chart, the hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers) rose during 2021 at an annual average rate of less than 5 percent (ranging from 2.8 percent in the second quarter to 6.4 percent in the final quarter).

And profits? Well, they’ve been growing at astounding rates, magnitudes more than wages. Corporate profits (the light green line) rose during 2021 at an average rate of 40 percent, and the profits of nonfinancial corporations (the dark green line) expanded by even more: 69 percent!

Hmmm. . .

The fact that profits are entirely missing from the mainstream story about inflation reveals a fundamental problem within mainstream economic theories. On one hand, in their macroeconomics, wages and not profits are always the culprit. That’s because they only have a labor market, and not a capital market (much less a profit rate or, for that matter, a rate of surplus-value), when they analyze fluctuations in prices and output. It’s as if corporate profits are only a residual—what is left over in the difference between wages and wage-driven prices. On the other hand, in their microeconomics, profits represent the return to capital, and thus a key component of commodity prices as well as the driver of economic growth.

Such “capital fetishism” means that profits as the return to a thing, capital, play an important role in the mainstream theory of value but then disappear entirely in the macroeconomic story about inflation.

It’s therefore a problem in the basic theories of mainstream economics. And it’s a problem when it comes to their economic policies: anything and everything must be done to keep workers’ wages in check, and (without ever mentioning them) to safeguard corporate profits.

The fact is, once we solve the mystery of the missing profits we can actually tackle the problem of inflation. But neither mainstream economists nor the leaders of corporate America are going to like what we come up with.

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*The Federal Reserve is suggesting that it can raise interest rates to get prices down “without causing a recession.” In fact, according to research from the investment bank Piper Sandler, the Fed raised rates to combat inflation nine different times during the past 60 years, and on eight of those occasions a recession occurred not long after.

A funny thing happened on the way to the recovery from the Pandemic Depression: class conflict is back at the core of economics.

At least, that’s what Martin Sandau (ht: bn) thinks. I beg to differ. But more on that anon. First, let us give Sandau his due. His argument is that the current labor shortages have shifted the balance of power toward workers (an issue I discussed a couple of weeks ago). As a result, economic analysis is starting to change:

What this looks like is the return of something that was exiled from centrist policy debate and mainstream economic analysis for decades: class conflict and its economic consequences. To be precise, we may be witnessing the manifestation of two outmoded ideas: that the relative power of economic classes alters macroeconomic outcomes; and that macroeconomic policy tilts that relative power.

For Sandau, that means a return to the work of Michal Kalecki, especially his theory of the “political aspects of full employment.” Kalecki was a contemporary of John Maynard Keynes but, in contrast to Keynes, Kalecki was well versed in Marxian theory and spent considerable time investigating the relationship between macroeconomics and class conflict. As I explained back in 2010, Kalecki developed a cogent analysis of business opposition to measures designed to achieve full employment:

The reasons for the opposition of the ‘industrial leaders’ to full employment achieved by government spending may be subdivided into three categories: (i) dislike of government interference in the problem of employment as such; (ii) dislike of the direction of government spending (public investment and subsidizing consumption); (iii) dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment. . .

Under a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire; and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.

As readers can clearly see, not much has changed since Kalecki published that analysis back in 1943. Employers and their financial backers are still adamantly opposed to government measures designed to move capitalist economies toward full employment.

Sandau is correct in arguing that “conventional economic thinking has little room” for the possibilities outlined by Kalecki. Mainstream economists assume that, when the labor market is in equilibrium (at A), workers are paid a wage (W) equal to their contribution to production. If workers manage to receive wages higher than the equilibrium rate, the result will be unemployment—that is, the improvement in the situation of some workers will come at the expense of other workers. So, there can’t be class conflict within conventional economic thinking.

And there isn’t any class conflict in Sandau’s analysis. That’s because, if workers’ wages rise, capital can respond by raising productivity. Therefore, in his view, “productivity incentives from greater worker power can boost profits as well.”

Problem solved! Except. . .

What Sandau fails to see is that, as productivity increases, the prices of wage goods fall, and capital therefore needs to advance less money to purchase workers’ ability to labor. Capitalist profits rise precisely because the value of labor power falls. Within the confines of capitalism, that’s precisely the option capitalists have, to extract more surplus-value from the workers they employ.

That’s the class conflict that remains missing in Sandau’s analysis as in the rest of conventional economics.

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 agricultural 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 incomes 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, the incomes generated during the production of commodities would be used to purchase all the commodities brought to market. 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.

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*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).

covid-unemployment

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.

unions

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.

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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.

region

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.

unemployment

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.

wages

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.

wages-race-gender

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).

LFPR

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.

20200601_Mapping_Police_Violence_edit

source

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.

deaths

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.

CEOs

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.

wages

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.