Posts Tagged ‘workers’

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In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”*

The world is once again living an interregnum. It is poised between the failed economic model of recovery from the crash of 2007-08 and the birth of a new model, one that would actually work for the majority of Americans.**

Morbid symptoms abound, including slow economic growth, persistent poverty, and obscene levels of inequality. Perhaps even more significant, especially at this point in the so-called recovery, when according to mainstream economists and policymakers full employment has been achieved, workers’ wages are actually declining.

According to the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf), both real average hourly and weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees decreased 0.4 percent from December to January. And, over the course of the past year (January 2016 to January 2017), real average hourly earnings for all employees failed to increase (remaining at $10.65 (in constant 1982-1984 dollars) and real weekly earnings actually decreased by 0.4 percent (from $368.66 to $366.32).

That’s what happened under the last administration, based on an economic model that is dying. And there’s nothing in the new administration’s proposed economic policies that promise any better. In fact, the likelihood is that things will stay the same or get even worse for most American workers in the next four years.

Only large corporations and wealthy individuals will likely gain from promised changes in business regulations and tax policies.

That’s a scenario that pretty much guarantees the appearance of even more morbid symptoms in this interregnum.

 

*The passage is from Notebook 3 (pp. 32-33), written in 1930, which appears in the second volume of the English edition of the full Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg.

**Nicholas Eberstedt [ht: bg], of the American Enterprise Institute, argues the current model failed around the turn of the century, with warning signs even earlier: “For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.” David Brooks, as it turns out, concurs.

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Before the new Republican administration has a chance to implement its campaign promises and dismantle the social safety net, it’s useful to remember who in fact is assisted by the existing programs.

According to a new study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, people of all races and ethnic groups who lack a bachelor’s degree receive significant help from the safety net. But white working-class adults stand out.

Among working-age adults without a college degree, 6.2 million whites are lifted above the poverty line by the safety net — more than any other racial or ethnic group. In addition, the percentage of people who would otherwise be poor that safety net programs lift out of poverty is greater for white working-age adults without a college degree than for other adults without a college degree.

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But we also need to remember how brutal U.S. capitalism is, before government programs are taken into account.

In particular, as can been seen in the table above, the poverty rate before taking income from government programs into account is more than three times higher among working-age adults without a college degree (30.4 percent) than among other adults (8.7 percent). And while poverty rates are lower for white adults without a college degree (24.3 percent) than for other adults without a degree (43.1 percent for Blacks and 36.2 percent for Hispanics), 1 in 4 white adults who lack a degree is poor before accounting for government benefits and tax credits.

The fact is, government anti-poverty programs are so important—for white, Black, and Hispanic Americans—precisely because capitalism in the United States generates so much poverty among its workers, especially those without a college degree.

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The latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit (pdf) from the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data showed a substantial increase in aggregate household debt balances in the fourth quarter of 2016 and for the year as a whole. As of 31 December 2016, total household debt stood at $12.58 trillion, an increase of $226 billion (or 1.8 percent) from the third quarter of 2016. Total household debt is now just 0.8 percent ($99 billion) below its third quarter 2008 peak of $12.68 trillion, and 12.8 percent above the second quarter 2013 trough.

That means the debt loads of Americans will likely surpass the previous peak later this year.

Part of the problem is that U.S. workers, whose real wages continue to stagnate, are forced to have the freedom to take on more debt in order to maintain their customary standard of living, for themselves and their families.

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The other part of the problem is that, while loan delinquency rates are generally declining, the rate for student loans (11.2 percent)—the one form of consumer debt that can’t be erased—is higher than for any other form of consumer debt. Outstanding student loan balances increased by $31 billion, and stood at $1.31 trillion as of 31 December 2016.

And, as Derek Thompson explains, the student-debt crisis is most acute not for the much-cited $100,000-debt stories, but for students whose debt burdens are much smaller, many of whom took on a few thousand dollars in debt and didn’t even get a degree.

This is particularly tragic, because these debt-without-degree adults chased the American dream into a dead end.

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Special mention

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While Wall Street celebrates yet another stock market record—surpassing 20,000 on the Dow Jones industrial average—most Americans have little reason to cheer. That’s because they own very little stock and therefore aren’t sharing in the gains.

The only possible response is, “That’s your damn stock market, not ours,” analogous to the response about Brexit and the expected decline in GDP by a woman in Newcastle.

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It’s true, even after recent declines, about half (48.8 percent) of U.S. households hold stocks in publicly traded companies directly or indirectly (according to the most recent Survey of Current Finances [pdf]).

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But, according to Ed Wolff (pdf), the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households own only 18.6 percent of all corporate stock. The rest (81.4 percent) is in the hands of the top 10 percent.

So, while the stock market has experienced quite a turnaround from mid-February of last year (when a barrage of selling sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its lowest close since April 2014), especially since Donald Trump’s November victory (including more than 100 points just yesterday), most Americans continue to be left out in the cold.

Clearly, a much better alternative for American workers would be to follow Shannon Rieger’s advice and look toward a radically different model: enterprises that are owned and managed by their employees. That would give them a much better chance of sharing in the wealth they create.

They would also then be able to finally say to mainstream economists and politicians, “That’s our GDP and stock market, not yours.”