Posts Tagged ‘workers’

p294

Special mention

GorreB20171016_low  "Trumpcare"  (Mark Streeter/Savannah Morning News)

Sometimes we just have to sit back and laugh. Or, we would, if the consequences were not so serious.

I’ve been reading and watching the presentations (and ensuing discussions) at the Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy conference recently organized by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Quite a spectacle it appears to have been, with an opening paper by famous mainstream macroeconomists Olivier Blanchard and Larry Summers and a closing session—a “fireside chat” without the fire—with the very same doyens of the field.

The basic question of the conference was: does contemporary macroeconomics, in the wake of the Second Great Depression, require a few reforms or does it need a wholesale revolution? Blanchard lined up in the reform camp, with Summers calling for a revolution—with the added spice of Adam Posen referring to himself as Trotsky to Summers’s Lenin.

Most people would think it’s about time. They know that mainstream macroeconomics failed spectacularly in recent years: It wasn’t able to predict the onset of the crash of 2007-08. It didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash occurring. And it certainly hasn’t been a reliable guide to getting out of the crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

So what are the problems according to Blanchard and Summers? In their view, “the events of the last ten years have put into question the presumption that economies are self stabilizing, have raised again the issue of whether temporary shocks can have permanent effects, and have shown the importance of non linearities.”

Only mainstream macroeconomists could possibly have thought that capitalism is self stabilizing. The rest of us—who have read Marx and Keynes as well as the work of Robert Clower, Hyman Minsky, and Axel Leijonhufvud—actually knew something about the roots of capitalist instability: the various ways a monetary commodity-producing economy might (but not necessarily) generate imbalances and instabilities based on the normal workings of the system.

Yes, of course, temporary shocks can have permanent effects. How could they not, when tens of millions of people are thrown out of work and, especially in the wake of the most recent crash, inequality has soared to new heights?

And then there are those “non linearities,” the idea that financial crises are characterized by feedback effects such that shocks, even small ones, “are strongly amplified rather than damped as they propagate.” Bank runs are the quintessential example—whether customers demanding their deposits in the first Great Depression or the run on financial institutions (including insurance companies that issued credit default swaps) that occurred in the midst of the second Great Depression. But that’s not all: when corporations, facing a declining profit rate, choose to sell but not purchase, they make individually rational decisions that can have large-scale social ramifications—for workers, indebted households, and other corporations (on both Main Street and Wall Street).

So mainstream macroeconomists appear to be waking up from their slumber and seeing capitalism as it is—and as it has functioned for 150 years or so.

You’d think, then, with all the rhetoric of reform and revolution, they’d be in favor of questioning the entire edifice of their theories and models. What we get instead is a bit of tinkering, along the lines of the following: (a) monetary policy is limited because of low interest-rates (although it’s still expected to provide generous liquidity in the even of another shock); (b) more active financial regulation, which still may not be able to keep up with the quickly changing and complex structure of the financial sector and actually prevent financial risks; thus (c) fiscal policy should once again be important, both because of the limits on monetary policy and financial regulation and because, with low interest-rates, government debt is less significant.

No, you’re not mistaken, it sounds a lot like a mainstream version of Keynesian macroeconomic policy, which is consistent with the subtitle of the Blanchard and Summers paper: “Back to the Future.”

That’s it? That’s all we’ve learned in the last ten years? Not a word in their paper about the international dimensions of macroeconomics—nothing about international contagion (e.g., the fact that the crisis started in the United States and then engulfed the rest of the world) or cross-border capital flows. And, perhaps even more important, there’s no discussion of inequality and the role it played both in creating the conditions for the crisis or the way it has characterized the nature of the recovery.*

There’s no reform being proposed here, let alone a revolution. It’s just business as usual, which is exactly the way the recovery itself has been treated.

In the end, Blanchard, Summers, and the other participants in the conference are the macroeconomists who developed the current models and policies. Thus, for all they might venture some mild criticisms of the pre-crisis orthodoxy and call for some new ideas, they are so invested in the status quo, no one should expect a truly radical rethinking from them.

To expect otherwise is just laughable.

 

*Yes, there was one paper in the conference on inequality, by Jason Furman, but it was about growth, not macroeconomic policy. The theme of inequality was not taken up in the rest of the conference—and it was even ridiculed (e.g., in terms of the research currently being conducted in the IMF) by Summers in the final session.

 

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Kevin Hassett and the other members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers are just like the long-haired preachers Joe Hill sang about more than a century ago. They come out every night to tell us what’s wrong and what’s right. But when asked about something to eat, they answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
That’s a lie

With one notable exception: according to the Council (pdf), that “glorious land above the sky” lies just on the other side of the Trump administration’s proposed tax reform. And workers, whose real wages have stagnated for decades now, won’t have to die to receive their pie in the sky.

Reducing the statutory federal corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would. . .increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually. The increases recur each year, and the estimated total value of corporate tax reform for the average U.S. household is therefore substantially higher than $4,000. Moreover, the broad range of results in the literature suggest that over a decade, this effect could be much larger.

There’s no other way to put it. That’s a lie.

Pie

As is clear from this chart, both corporate profits (the red line) and investment (the blue line) have soared in recent decades. There’s simply been no shortage of investment or investment funds, either from retained earnings or in terms of money borrowed from financial institutions. At the same time, the wage share of national income (the green line in the chart) has fallen precipitously.

So, even if cutting corporate tax rates (and thus permitting higher retained earnings) did lead to more investment, there’s no guarantee workers’ wages would increase as a result. They haven’t for decades now. Why should that change in the future?

Moreover, there’s no guarantee higher retained earnings would lead to more investment. Just as likely (perhaps even more so), corporations would be able to use their profits for other purposes—including higher CEO salaries, increased dividends to stockholders, and more mergers and acquisitions—which have nothing to do with raising workers’ wages.

The only result would be more corporate power and more obscene levels of inequality in the United States.

And that’s no lie.

1440_shop-therefore-i-am

Lots of folks have been asking me about the significance of the so-called Nobel Prize in economics that was awarded yesterday to Richard Thaler.

They’re interested because they’ve read or heard about the large catalog of exceptions to the usual neoclassical rule of rational decision-making that has been compiled by Thaler and other behavioral economists.

One of my favorites is the “ultimatum game,” in which a player proposes an allocation of an endowment (say $5) and the second player can accept or reject the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, both players get paid according to the proposal; if the proposal is rejected, both players get nothing. What Thaler and his coauthors found is that most of the second players would reject proposals that would give them less than 25 percent of the endowment—even though, rationally, they’d be better off with even one penny in the initial offer. In other words, many individuals are willing to pay a cost (i.e., get nothing) in order to punish individuals who make an “unfair” proposal to them. Such a notion of fairness is anathema to the kind of self-interested, rational decision-making that is central to neoclassical economic theory.

Other exceptions include the “endowment effect” (for the tendency of individuals to value items more just because they own them), the theory of “mental accounting” (according to which individuals can overcome cognitive limitations by simplifying the economic environment in systematic ways, such as using separate funds for different household expenditures), the planner-doer model (in which individuals are both myopic doers for short-term decisions and farsighted planners for decisions that have long-run implications), and so on—all of which have implications for a wide variety of economic behavior and institutions, from consumption to financial markets.

So, what is the significance of Thaler’s approach economics?

As I see it, there are three stories that can be told about behavioral economics. The first one is the official story, as told by the Nobel committee, which starts from the proposition that “economics involves understanding human behaviour in economic decision-making situations and in markets.” But, since “people are complicated beings,” and even though the neoclassical model “provided solutions to important and complicated economic problems,” Thaler’s work (alone and with his coauthors) has contributed to expanding and refining economic analysis by considering psychological traits that systematically influence economic decisions—thus creating a “a flourishing area of research” and providing “economists with a richer set of analytical and experimental tools for understanding and predicting human behavior.”

A second story is provided by Yahya Madra (in Contending Economic Theories, with Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick): behavioral economics forms part of what he calls “late neoclassical theory” that both poses critical questions about neoclassical homo economicus and threatens to overrun the limits of neoclassical theory by offering “a completely new vision of how to specify the economic behavior of individuals.” Thus,

Based on its psychological explorations, behavioral economics confronts a choice: will it remain a research field that merely catalogs various shortcomings of the traditional neoclassical model and account of human behavior or will it break from neoclassical theory to formulate a new theory of human behavior?

A third story stems from a recognition that behavioral economics challenges some aspects of neoclassical economics—by pointing out many of the ways individuals are guided by forms of decisionmaking that violate the rule of self-interested rationality presumed by traditional neoclassical economists—and yet remains within the strictures of neoclassical economics—by focusing on individual behavior and using rational decision-making as the goal.

Thus, Thaler’s work and the work of most behavioral economists focuses on the limits to individual rationality and not on the perverse incentives and structures that plague contemporary capitalism. There’s no mention of the ways wealthy individuals and large corporations, precisely because of their high incomes and profits, are able to make individually rational decisions that—as in the crash of 2007-08—have negative social ramifications for everyone else. Nor is there a discussion of the different kinds of rationalities that are implicit in different ways of organizing the economy. As I wrote back in 2011, “is there a difference between how capitalists (who appropriate the surplus for doing nothing) and workers (who actually produce the surplus) might decide to distribute the surplus to others?”

Moreover, while behavioral economics have compiled a long list of exceptions to neoclassical rationality, they still use the neoclassical ideal as the horizon of their work. This can be seen in what is probably the best known of Thaler’s writings (with coauthor Cass Sunstein), the idea of “libertarian paternalism.” According to this view, “beneficial changes in behavior can be achieved by minimally invasive policies that nudge people to make the right decisions for themselves.” Thus, for example, Thaler proposed changing the default option in defined-contribution pension plans from having to actively sign up for the plan (which leads to suboptimal outcomes) to automatically joining the plan at some default savings rate and in some default investment strategy (which approximates rational decision-making).

The problem is, there’s no discussion of the idea that workers would benefit from an alternative to defined-contribution plans—whether defined-benefit plans or the expansion of Social Security. It’s all about taking the institutional structure as given and “nudging” individuals, via the appropriate design of mechanisms, to make the kinds of rational decisions that are presumed within neoclassical economics.

Paraphrasing that nineteenth-century critic of political economy, we can say that economic decision-making appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. We might credit Thaler and other behavioral economists, then, for having taken a first step in challenging the traditional neoclassical account of rational decision-making. But they stop far short of examining the perverse incentives that are built into the current economic system or the alternative rationalities that could serve as the basis for a different way of organizing economic and social life. And, in terms of economic theory, they appear not to be able to imagine another way of thinking about the economy, as a process without an individual subject.

However, taking any of those steps would never be recognized with a Nobel Prize in economics.

work harder

According to the Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness represents a growing health epidemic in the United States.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

As it turns out, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also inhibits people’s ability to think creatively and work productively.

Murthy also notes that people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their families. So, he suggests that “the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections” and that employers should follow a series of steps (from evaluating the current state of connections in their workplaces to creating opportunities to learn about their colleagues’ personal lives) in order to create “an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”

The one thing Murthy doesn’t suggest is giving employees more of a say in their workplaces. He takes it as a given that there is a small group of employers, who hire workers and decide how work will be done, and a much larger group of employees, who follow the diktats of their employers (although he does acknowledge that perhaps half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles).

Therefore, Murthy doesn’t even consider the possibility that workers might want to play a decisionmaking role in the places where they spend the majority of their waking hours—and that making decisions as a community or collectivity, instead of just working for someone else, might play a significant role in reducing loneliness on the job and in the wider society.

We already knew a great deal about the perilous condition of the American working-class and the terrible condition of the American workplace. Now we know that American workers are facing an epidemic of social estrangement and individual loneliness.

It’s about time, then, that we rethink the way corporations are structured and allow workers to play in role in deciding—equally and democratically—how workplaces are organized and how corporations manage their operations.

That one change in the economy would have enormous implications, by improving the condition of the working-class, their workplaces, and the degree of loneliness.

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It’s clear that, for decades now, American workers have been falling further and further behind. And there’s simply no justification for this sorry state of affairs—nothing that can rationalize or excuse the growing gap between the majority of people who work for a living and the tiny group at the top.

But that doesn’t stop mainstream economists from trying.

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Look, they say, American workers are clearly better off than they were before. Both real weekly earnings (the blue line in the chart) and the median household income (the red line) are higher than they were thirty years ago.

There’s no denying that, on average, the absolute level of worker pay and household income has gone up. That’s proof, mainstream economists argue, that workers are enjoying the fruits of their labor.

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The problem, though, is that the increase in workers’ wages (the blue line, the same as in the previous chart) pales in comparison to the rise in labor productivity (the green line in the chart above): since 1987, real wages have gone up only 8 percent, while productivity has grown by 75 percent.

In other words, American workers are producing more and more but getting only a tiny share of that increase.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that the wage share of national income (the purple line in the chart above) has fallen precipitously—by 8 percent since 1987 and by 16.5 percent since 1970.

American workers are in fact experiencing a relative immiseration compared to their employers, who are able to capture the additional amount their workers are producing in the form of increased profits. Moreover, American employers have every interest—and more and more means at their disposal—to continue to widen the gap between themselves and their workers.

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Not surprisingly, the relative immiseration of American workers shows up in growing inequality—with the share of income captured by the top 1 percent (the orange line in the chart) increasing and the share going to the bottom 90 percent (the brown line in the chart) falling. Each is a consequence of the other.

American workers are getting relatively less of what they produce, which means more is available to distribute to those at the top of the distribution of income.

That’s what mainstream economists can’t or won’t understand: that workers may be worse off even as their wages and incomes rise. That problem flies in the face of every attempt to celebrate the existing order by claiming “just deserts.”

There’s nothing just about the relative immiseration and growing inequality faced by American workers. And nothing that can’t be changed by imagining and creating a radically different set of economic institutions.

208_cartoon_wages_to_nowher_large

They keep promising, ever since the recovery from the Great Recession started more than eight years ago, that workers’ wages will finally begin to increase. But they’re not.

Sure, profits continue to rise. And so is the stock market. But not wages. And mainstream economists can’t come up with an adequate explanation of why that’s the case.

U3-wages

We’ve all heard or read the story. According to mainstream economists, as the unemployment rate falls (the blue line in the chart above), a labor shortage will be created and workers’ wages (the red line) will begin to rise.

That’s the promise, at least. But the official unemployment rate is now down to 4.4 percent (from a high of 9.9 percent in 2009) and yet wages (for production and nonsupervisory workers) are only increasing at a rate of 2.3 percent a year—much less than the 4 percent workers saw back in 2007 when the unemployment rate was pretty much the same.

What’s going on?

One of the things going on is the Reserve Army. The existence of a large pool of unemployed and underemployed workers competing with other workers for the available jobs is keeping wage growth at a very low rate.

full-part-time

Consider, for example, the growth of full-time (the green line in the chart above) and part-time work (the purple line) in the United States. Since 1968, the two kinds of employment increased more or less simultaneously—until the most recent crash. Notice in the chart that, as full-time employment fell (from 121.9 million in 2007 to 111 million in 2010), part-time employment soared (from 24.7 million to 27.4 million). But then, even as full-time work began to increase again (reaching 125.8 million in August 2017), part-time employment remained high (27.6 million in that same month).

part-time

And it’s that pool of part-time American workers (in addition to the pool of surplus workers in other countries, increased automation, and low wages in the retail and food-service sectors) that is keeping most workers’ wages from growing.

Mainstream economists keep promising the American working-class an increase in wages. But neither they nor the economic system they celebrate is able to deliver on those promises.

The fact is, the longer those promises are proffered but remain unmet, the more frustrated workers will become. And the more likely it is they will demand a solution—a radically different economic system that doesn’t rely on a Reserve Army and can actually deliver on its promises to workers.