Posts Tagged ‘workers’

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Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he owned Hillary Clinton during the first part of Monday’s debate. And his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters.

That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer at this stage than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.*

I weighed in back in July, trying to move the debate beyond the free trade-protectionism terms in which it has been framed. Now, we have Peter Goodman, who understands that “Trade is under attack in much of the world, because economists failed to anticipate the accompanying joblessness, and governments failed to help.”**

Goodman makes a number of good observations—about the role “libraries full of economics textbooks” played in promoting free trade and the fact that, even if manufacturing plants returned to the United States, “robots would probably capture most of the jobs.”

But what really interests me about Goodman’s article are the comments from readers. Here is a small sample:

From Mitch Gitman (in Seattle)—

Economists failed to anticipate the job losses stemming from unleashing a Hobbesian race to the bottom on the global economy?! I think they all knew full well, but they weren’t so concerned because it wasn’t their jobs being lost. Just like these economists don’t belong to the generations that are going to be bearing the brunt of the environmental impacts of this sudden race to burn all the fossil-fuel resources that our only planet has taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate.

Economists are supposed to be the professionals who are smart enough to see the big picture, but economists have to pay the bills too. And there was never going to be a demand for an economist with the simple common sense to see the really big picture, that being able to buy marginally cheaper goods at Walmart is the classic case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Bill Maher had a great line from his commentary at the end of last Friday’s episode of his HBO show “Real Time.” To people who ask, “Why doesn’t our economy work for people like me?” His response: “Because it’s not designed to.”

From Kate Flannery (in New York)—

At it’s barren heart, it’s not about trade, it’s about profit at any cost to the public good or just simply human life.

We wouldn’t need lower cost consumer goods, if people had decent income to purchase what they need or want in a sustainable way. Products that are cheap, but fall apart after a year is not the way life should be, nor is it environmentally just.

Every economic lie and political spin about the glories of globalization is just that – a lie to enable corporations and the rich to have even more. American agricultural giants wanted more markets for their horrible products, sending corn into Mexico, a country that didn’t need it. This drove Mexican farmers out of business and destabilized workers who fled north to find work, or crowded into cities to become slave workers for corporations at minimal wages. And that’s just one small example of its immoral and devastating effects.

Globalization and its attendant trade are a main contributor to environmental degradation around the globe as well.

The whole idea of glorious trade and globalization and all the rest, is just a monumental lie serving to enrich the few at the expense of the many. It’s been sold to the public at extraordinary cost. But people are waking up and realizing that those we elect to protect and serve the interests of society have only their self interests and those at the top of the food chain – corporations and finance – are just hollow men and women.

It’s about profit. Nothing else.

And LindaP (in Boston)—

It breaks my heart that the city where I grew up –Fall River, MA, the Spindle City– is a Trump stronghold. It is against the self-interest of those supporters, but as one who lived through the shut down of a city and the hopelessness that ensues, I (kinda) get it.

On hot summer vacation days in the ’60s, we kids would walk through the city. Factory windows would be open. The clack and whir of sewing machines and other manufacturing equipment was as familiar as crickets in the evening. Both my parents — my entire family, actually — worked in those mills.

No one was rich, living in three-deckers and saving up for the American Dream of owning a home, which many went on to do. In those neighborhoods of three-deckers there was cleanliness, pride of place, community, and a real knowledge (not false hope) that you could progress and make a better life for your family. No one was looking to live in a gilded tower — just a nice home, good schools, a living wage, and a better life for ones children.

Then the mills went dark, one by one. Everyone I knew who made their lives in those jobs had to move on. There were still other union jobs to get in the late 60s, so we survived. By the time my parents retired, I saw opportunity dry up for those behind them.

The loss of manufacturing allowed poverty, addiction, and a true hopelessness to take hold. Maybe you have to live it to know how devastatingly true that is.

There’s more wisdom in those comments, about the causes and consequences of free trade, than one will find in Trump’s speeches and the libraries full of mainstream economics textbooks—or, for that matter, in the revised policy positions on Hillary Clinton’s web site.

 

*Clearly, the Brexit vote has also had an impact.

**To be clear, mainstream economists are the ones who failed to anticipate the negative effects, and both Democratic and Republican governments failed to help workers.

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Wage growth has been so slow in recent years even the International Monetary Fund has taken notice. They’ve even discovered the reason: the Reserve Army of the Unemployed and Underemployed.

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Let me explain. Stephan Danninger, writing on IMF Direct, has noted that, while the U.S. labor market seems to have healed (with an official unemployment rate now below 5 percent), wage growth is “still disappointingly low.” (For example, in my chart of average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers, while wage growth had risen to 2.5 percent in August of this year, it was still almost 1.5 percentage points lower than in October 2008.)

And Danninger’s analysis?

Low wages are a vestige of the crisis. Almost eight years after the height of the crisis, laid-off workers continue to re-enter the labor force, which affects average wage growth. This so-called decomposition effect occurs when new employees are hired for less than the average wage rate. When a worker finds a new job after a long unemployment spell, his or her wages tend to be well below that of peers who remained employed. As a result, these new hires bring down the average hourly wage rate—that is, the rate across all workers.

Moreover,

wage growth for a broad segment of workers is also lower than a decade ago. For instance, wages of so-called job stayers—the vast majority of U.S. workers who remain at the same job—have risen 3.5 percent this year, a full percentage point lower than before the Great Recession. Similarly, earnings in the middle of the wage distribution—the 50th percentile—are also seeing less gains than in the past: they have risen by 3.2 this year compared to 4.1 percent during 2000–07.  The same is true for workers in services and other sectors.

In other words, the existence of the Reserve Army and the movement of workers out of the Reserve Army has had the effect of dampening the wage increases of both rehired workers and of workers who remained on the job. All workers have therefore been disciplined and punished by the Reserve Army of Unemployed and Underemployed workers that was created by the crash of 2007-08.

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But, as it turns out, Danninger doesn’t have a long enough view. While wage increases in recent years have been less than workers saw before the crash (e.g., 2005-2007), workers’ wages have been growing at a relatively slow rate for decades now, beginning in 1986. Whereas wages grew at a rate of between 7 and 9 percent a year from 1969 to 1981, those increases have fallen dramatically since then, hovering between 1.5 and 4 percent a year.

The conclusion? American workers have been disciplined and punished not just since the crash, but for at least three decades. That’s why their employers’ profits have skyrocketed and why the working-class itself has fallen further and further behind the tiny group at the top of the U.S. economy.

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We can thank Donald Trump for one thing: he’s put the white working-class on the political map.*

In recent months, we’ve seen a veritable flood of articles, polls, and surveys about the characteristics, conditions, and concerns of white working-class voters—all with the premise that the white working-class is fundamentally different from the rest of non-working-class, non-white Americans.

But why are the members of the white working-class attracting so much attention? My sense is, they both represent a threat—because many plan to vote for Trump and, more generally, reject much elite opinion (including, but not limited, to Trump)—and, at the same time, are assumed to be a dying breed—as the U.S. working-class becomes more female, more racially and ethnically diverse, and increasingly employed in non-manufacturing jobs. So, the argument goes, the white working-class, supposedly radically different from the rest of Americans, is motivated by fear and resentment occasioned by a loss of identity and standing.**

Hence the curiosity—best exemplified by a new CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation [ht: ja] poll, about what white working-class Americans think. The results of the poll are interesting, if only because on many issues (aside from support for or opposition to Trump and immigration) the white working-class holds views that are not all that different from other whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

The fundamental problem with CNN/Kaiser poll (as with so many others) is its basic definition of the working-class: “those who have attained less than a four-year college degree, excluding those between the ages of 18-24 who are currently enrolled in school.” As I have argued before (e.g., here and here), that’s not the working-class. It’s just people who never went to or didn’t finish college. What they’re using is a definition of the working-class that doesn’t include all those other people, many of whom have college degrees, who are forced to have the freedom to work for someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. Together, most Americans with and without college degrees work for the boards of directors of large corporations—and they don’t manage the production process or supervise other employees.

As Vivek Chibber explains,

Workers show up for work every day knowing that they have little job security; they are paid what employers feel is consistent with their main priority, which is making profits, not the well-being of employees; they work at a pace and duration that is set by their bosses; and they submit to these conditions, not because they want to, but because for most of them, the alternative to accepting these conditions is not having a job at all.

The working-class, as I am defining it then, turns out to comprise the vast majority (70-80 percent) of the U.S. population. And most of them, of course, are white.

So, what does the CNN/Kaiser pool reveal about the views of, to be clear, one portion of the white working-class? As I wrote above, on many issues, they’re not all that different from other whites or blacks and Hispanics without college degrees. In terms of their own lives, most of the so-called white working-class, as the other poll respondents, are not angry, worried, pessimistic, or unhappy. But they are dissatisfied with the country’s economic situation and with the influence on the political process of people like them. In recent years, they report it’s become harder for them to get ahead financially and to find good jobs. Finally, they blame the federal government much more than their employers or Wall Street for the economic problems facing the working-class and they believe the federal government helps wealthy people too much and members of the working-class too little.

That’s exactly the set of answers one would expect from the American working-class—white, black, and Hispanic, with and without college degrees—right now. They’re getting screwed and, while they may not be dissatisfied in their own lives, they certainly think both the economic and political systems are stacked against them. Perhaps the only surprising item in the survey is the extent to which they blame the government, and not their employers or Wall Street, for the economic problems facing the working-class.

The only major differences within the working-class have to do with Trump and the role of immigrants. While 56 percent of whites without a college degree would consider voting for Trump, most other respondents would definitely not vote for him. A similar difference emerges with respect to immigrants: a much smaller percentage of the so-called white working-class believe immigrants “strengthen our country” and a much higher percentage thinks “immigrants today are a burden on our country” than the other groups.***

In the end, those two differences—on Trump and immigration—are what make the so-called white working-class interesting to the media. It’s not their conditions or their grievances, much of which they share with other members of the working-class. It’s only the fact that they threaten to vote for the renegade presidential candidate and they’re wary about the role played by other, immigrant members of the working-class. And, of course, many of them are thrown into the “basket of deplorables” by the opposing campaign.

Both presidential candidates, then, are sowing and exploiting those differences to their own advantage, which is what U.S. politicians have always attempted to do when it comes to real or imagined divisions within the working-class. That’s how they campaign and that’s how they hope to get elected.

Trump and Hillary Clinton (and their echoes in the mainstream media) have created the “white working-class” and they hope to ride it—as a source of support or a specter—to victory in November. And then, whoever wins, they’ll abandon it—along with the rest of the working-class.

 

 

*Actually, Bernie Sanders also played an important role in focusing attention on the white working-class, especially with his stunning primary victories in Michigan and West Virginia. Since his loss to Hillary Clinton, however, the white working-class (along with the rest of the American working-class) has virtually disappeared from Democratic discourse.

**As Connor Kilpatrick has explained, the Democratic Party “has established a clear line on the white wage-earning class: they’re all either dying (demographically or literally), irrelevant in an increasingly nonwhite country, or so hopelessly racist they can go off themselves with a Miller High Life-prescription-painkiller cocktail for all they care.”

***There is one additional difference that requires mention: while a majority of whites—with (62 percent) and without (69 percent) college degrees—believe trade agreements cost the United States jobs, a much smaller percentage of blacks and Hispanics without college degrees (both 37 percent) think that’s the case.

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Two findings stand out in a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (pdf) on black-white wage gaps in the United States:

First, since 1979, the gap between all workers’ wages—black and white, women and men—and productivity has increased dramatically. Thus, while productivity increased by over 60 percent, wages for white workers rose by only 22.2 percent and black wages by even less, 13.1 percent.

Second, wages for African American have grown more slowly (or, in the case of men, fallen by a greater amount) than those of their white counterparts. As a result, pay disparities by race and ethnicity have expanded since 1979. For example, white women’s wages increased by 30.2 percent and black women’s wages by only 12.8 percent. And while men’s wages actually declined, they fell by 3.1 percent for white men and even more, by 7.2 percent, for black men. Thus, the overall black-white wage gap increased from 18.1 percent in 1979 to 26.7 percent in 2015.

It is pretty clear from the report that overall wage stagnation (especially for the majority of workers, i.e., those below the 90th percentile), in conjunction with lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, led to higher wage disparities by race and ethnicity.

But, and this goes beyond the report, we also need to consider the other side of that relationship—that increased racial and ethnic disparities reinforce the growing gap between productivity and the wages of all workers. Black workers are paid less than their white counterparts (of both genders), and all workers’ wages are as a result less than they otherwise would be.

In the end, then, wealthy individuals and large corporations, who capture the resulting surplus, are the only ones who benefit from racial and ethnic wage disparities.

 

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According to the norms of both neoclassical economic theory and capitalism itself, workers’ wages should increase at roughly the same rate as their productivity.* Clearly, in recent years they have not.

The chart above, which was produced by B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shows that labor compensation has grown slowly during the recovery of the U.S. economy from the 2007-09 recession. In fact, real labor compensation per hour in the nonfarm business sector was 0.5 percent lower 20 quarters after the start of the recovery, while labor productivity had increased by 6 percent.

Clearly, the gap between worker compensation and productivity has grown during the current recovery.

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But the authors go even further, showing that the gap in the United States between compensation to workers and their productivity has been growing for decades.

labor productivity has been growing at a higher rate than labor compensation for more than 40 years. As Figure 3 shows, labor productivity in 2016:Q1 is 3.8 times as high as that in 1950:Q1; labor compensation, on the other hand, is only 2.7 times as high. In other words, the gap between labor productivity and compensation has been widening for the past four decades. The slower growth in labor compensation relative to labor productivity during the recovery from the two most recent recessions is part of this long-term trend. (reference omitted)

The data in Figure 3 show that the productivity-compensation gap—defined as labor productivity divided by labor compensation—has been increasing on average by approximately 0.9 percent per year since 1970:Q1. Based on this long-term trend, the gap would have been 51 percent higher in 2016:Q1 compared with 1970:Q1; in the data, the gap is actually 47 percent higher.

The fact is, labor compensation has failed to keep up with labor productivity after the Great Recession. But, as it turns out, there’s nothing unique about this period. The gap has been growing for more than four decades in the United States.**

Clearly, the recent and long-term trends of productivity and labor compensation challenge the norms of neoclassical economics and of capitalism itself. But we are also seeing the growth of another gap—between the promises of both neoclassical theory and capitalism and the reality workers have faced for decades now.

 

*Neoclassical economics—in particular, the marginal productivity theory of distribution—is based on the idea that the factors of production (land, labor, capital, and so on) receive in the form of income what they contribute to production. So, for example, as labor productivity increases, real wages should also rise. Similarly, capitalism is based on the idea of “just deserts.” That idea—that everyone gets what they deserve—is essential to the very idea of fairness or justice in the way the economy is currently organized.

**The authors’ analysis is based on the gap between labor compensation and productivity. If we look at real wages (as in the chart below) instead of compensation (which includes benefits, and therefore the portion of the surplus employers distribute to pension plans, healthcare insurers, and others), the gap is even larger.

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According to my calculations from Fed data, since 1979, productivity has grown by 60 percent while real wages have increased by less than 5 percent.

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A constant refrain among mainstream economists and pundits since the crash of 2007-08 has been that, while the state of mainstream macroeconomics is poor, all is well within microeconomics.

The problems within macroeconomics are, of course, well known: Mainstream macroeconomists didn’t predict the crash. They didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash within their theory or models. And they certainly didn’t know what to do once the crash occurred.

What about microeconomics, the area of mainstream economics that was supposedly untouched by all the failures in the other half of the official discipline? Well, as it turns out, there are major problems there, too—especially given the obscene levels of inequality that both preceded and have resumed since the crash erupted, not to mention the slow economic growth that rising inequality was supposed to solve.

In particular, as I have written many times over the years, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats—along with its theoretical justification, marginal productivity theory—needs to be questioned and ultimately abandoned.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just read the latest essay by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz first explains that neoclassical economists developed marginal productivity theory as a direct response to Marxist claims that the returns to capital are based on the exploitation of workers.

While exploitation suggests that those at the top get what they get by taking away from those at the bottom, marginal productivity theory suggests that those at the top only get what they add. The advocates of this view have gone further: they have suggested that in a competitive market, exploitation (e.g. as a result of monopoly power or discrimination) simply couldn’t persist, and that additions to capital would cause wages to increase, so workers would be better off thanks to the savings and innovation of those at the top.

More specifically, marginal productivity theory maintains that, due to competition, everyone participating in the production process earns remuneration equal to her or his marginal productivity. This theory associates higher incomes with a greater contribution to society. This can justify, for instance, preferential tax treatment for the rich: by taxing high incomes we would deprive them of the ‘just deserts’ for their contribution to society, and, even more importantly, we would discourage them from expressing their talent. Moreover, the more they contribute— the harder they work and the more they save— the better it is for workers, whose wages will rise as a result.

Then he argues that three striking aspects of the evolution of the United States and most other rich countries in the past thirty-five years—the increase in the wealth-to-income ratio, the stagnation of median wages, and the failure of the return to capital to decline—call into question the neoclassical story about the distribution of income.

Standard neoclassical theories, in which ‘wealth’ is equated with ‘capital’, would suggest that the increase in capital should be associated with a decline in the return to capital and an increase in wages. The failure of unskilled workers’ wages to increase has been attributed by some (especially in the 1990s) to skill-biased technological change, which increased the premium put by the market on skills. Hence, those with skills would see their wages rise, and those without skills would see them fall. But recent years have seen a decline in the wages paid even to skilled workers. Moreover, as my recent research shows, average wages should have increased, even if some wages fell. Something else must be going on.

As Stiglitz sees it, that “something else” is a combination of rent-seeking (especially land rents, intellectual property rents, and monopoly power) and increased exploitation (especially the weakening of workers’ bargaining power, based on weak unions and asymmetric globalization).*

The result is that the rising tide has only lifted a few boats at the top and left everyone else behind.

But Stiglitz is not done. He also explains that not only is growing inequality not necessary for growth; it actually has negative effects: it leads to weak aggregate demand (and, in an attempt to solve that problem, asset bubbles), less equality of opportunity (thus lowering growth in the future), and lower levels of public investment (since the rich believe they don’t need things like public transportation, infrastructure, technology, and education).

It should be noted that the existence of these adverse effects of inequality on growth is itself evidence against an explanation of today’s high level of inequality based on marginal productivity theory. For the basic premise of marginal productivity is that those at the top are simply receiving just deserts for their efforts, and that the rest of society benefits from their activities. If that were so, we should expect to see higher growth associated with higher incomes at the top. In fact, we see just the opposite.

Neoclassical marginal productivity theory was never a plausible explanation of the distribution of income in capitalist societies. And, as Stiglitz explains, it is even more questionable in light of the spectacular growth of inequality in recent decades.

The only conclusion is that we live in strange times—when the illusion of a rising tide that lifts all boats (and, with it, trickledown economics, “just deserts,” and the like) has been shattered, and yet mainstream economists continue to teach (and use as the basis of economic policy) its theoretical underpinnings, marginal productivity theory.

There’s nothing left but to declare that both mainstream macroeconomics and microeconomics—as basic theory and a guide for economic policy—have failed. There’s simply nothing there to be fixed. Both mainstream macroeconomics and microeconomics need to be set aside in favor of very different analyses and explanations of capitalist instability and inequality.

 

*Elsewhere (e.g., herehere, and here), I have raised questions about the rent-seeking argument and showed how it is different from the alternative, surplus-seeking explanation of inequality.