Millennials: Hit Hard And Fighting Back

A lot has been written and said critical of millennials. The business press has been tough on their spending habits.  As a recent Federal Reserve Board study of millennial economic well-being explained:

In the fields of business and economics, the unique tastes and preferences of millennials have been cited as reasons why new-car sales were lackluster during the early years of the recovery from the 2007–09 recession, why many brick-and-mortar retail chains have run into financial trouble (through lower brand loyalty and goods spending), why the recoveries in home sales and construction have remained slow, and why the indebtedness of the working-age population has increased.

Politicians, even some Democratic Party leaders, have tended to write them off as complainers. For example, while on a book tour, former Vice President Joe Biden told a Los Angeles Times interviewer that “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. I have no empathy for it. Give me a break.” Biden went on to say that things were much tougher for young people in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, quite the opposite is true.  For better or worse, the authors of the Federal Reserve Board study found that there is “little evidence that millennial households have tastes and preference for consumption that are lower than those of earlier generations, once the effects of age, income, and a wide range of demographic characteristics are taken into account.”  More importantly, millennials are far poorer than past generations were at a similar age, and are becoming a significant force in revitalizing the labor movement.

Economic hard times for millennials

The Federal Reserve Board study leaves no doubt that millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were equally young. They have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.  All despite being better educated.

The study compares the financial standing of three different cohorts: millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997), Generation Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980), and baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).  Table 1, below, shows inflation adjusted income in three different time periods for all households with a full-time worker and for all households headed by a worker younger than 33 years.

The median figures, which best represent the earnings of the typical member of the group, are shown in brackets.  Comparing the median annual earnings of young male heads of households and of young female heads of household across the three time periods shows the millennial earnings disadvantage.  For example, while the median boomer male head of household earned $53,400, the median millennial male head of household earned only $40,600.  Millennial female heads of household suffered a similar decline, although not nearly as steep.

Table 4 compares the asset and wealth holdings of the three generations, and again highlights the deteriorating economic position of millennials.  As we can see, the median total assets held by millennials in 2016 is significantly lower than that held by baby boomers and only half as large as that held by Generation Xers.  Moreover, millennials suffered a decrease in asset holdings across most asset categories.

Finally, we also see that millennials have substantially lower real net worth than earlier cohorts. In 2016, the average real net worth of millennial households was $91,700, some 20 percent less than baby boomer households and almost 40 percent less than Generation X households.

Fighting back

Millennials have good reason to be concerned about their economic situation.  What is encouraging is that there are signs that growing numbers see structural failings in the operation of capitalism as the cause of their problems and collective action as the best response.  A recent Gallup poll offers one sign.  It found a sharp fall in support for capitalism among those 18 to 29 years, from 68 percent positive in 2010 down to 45 percent positive in 2018.  Support for socialism remained unchanged at 51 percent.

A recent Pew Research poll offers another, as shown below. Young people registered the strongest support for unions and the weakest support for corporations.

Of course, what millennials do rather than say is what counts. And millennials are now boosting the ranks of unions.  Union membership grew in 2017 for the first time in years, by 262,000.  And three in four of those new members was under 35.  Figures for 2018 are not yet available, but given the strong and successful organizing work among education, health care, hotel, and restaurant workers, the positive trend is likely to continue.

Millennials are now the largest generation in the United States, having surpassed the baby boomers in 2015.  Hopefully, self-interest will encourage them to play a leading role in building the movement necessary to transform the US political-economy, improving working and living conditions for everyone.

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Politics in America: Politicians at State and Federal Levels Consistently Overestimate Popular Support for Conservative Positions

US elected leaders, and those that work for them, think their constituents are far more conservative than they are. The good news is that this means there is far more support for a progressive political agenda than one might think.  The bad news is that without sustained popular activism it is doubtful that elected leaders will change their policies accordingly.

The misinformed views of those running for state office

In August 2012, David E. Broockman and Christopher Skovron, surveyed candidates running for state legislative offices across the US.  They asked them their own positions and to estimate their constituents’ positions on same-sex marriage and universal health care.  Then, they compared candidate estimates with their constituents’ responses to questions on those issues that were included in a large national survey.

They found that “politicians consistently and substantially overestimated support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues.”  More specifically:

The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average. In fact, on each of the issues we examine, over 90% of politicians with conservative views appear to overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies. . . . Comparable figures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal officeholders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.

The figure below illustrates their results.  Each scatter point represents a different district and shows the candidate estimate of district support for the issue in question and the actual surveyed district support for that issue.  Districts where the candidate accurately estimated the district position would be positioned along the linear grey line.  As we can see, both the blue line representing liberal politicans and the red line representing conservative ones lie beneath the grey line, showing that district residents are far more favorable to both these issues than either liberal or conservative politicians think.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when Broockman and Skovron resurveyed the politicians in November, they found that “politicians’ perceptions of public opinion after the campaign and the election itself look identical to their perceptions prior to these events, with little evidence that their misperceptions had been corrected.”

They did another survey in 2014 of the views and perceptions of state legislative candidates and office holders, this time asking about more issues, including ones dealing with gay and lesbian marriage, gun control, the right to abortion, and the legalization of illegal immigrants.  Once again they found that:

politicians from both parties believed that support for conservative positions on these issues in their constituencies was much higher than it actually was. These misperceptions are large, pervasive, and robust: Politicians’ right-skewed misperceptions exceed 20 percentage points on issues such as gun control—where these misperceptions are the largest—and persist in states at every level of legislative professionalism, among both candidates and sitting officeholders, among politicians in very competitive districts, and when we compare politicians’ perceptions to voters’ opinions only. That Democratic politicians also overestimate constituency conservatism suggests these misperceptions cannot be attributed to motivated reasoning or social desirability bias alone.

It’s no better at the federal level

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Matto Mildenberger and Leah C. Stokes did a similar study on the federal level. In 2016 they surveyed the top legislative staffers of every House and Senate member, asking them to estimate their constituents’ support for repealing Obamacare, regulating carbon dioxide, making a $305 billion investment in infrastructure, mandating universal background checks for firearm purchases, and raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour.  Then, they compared their estimates to district or state-level survey results.

They summarized their findings in a New York Times op-ed as follows:

if we took a group of people who reflected the makeup of America and asked them whether they supported background checks for gun sales, nine out of 10 would say yes. But congressional aides guessed as few as one in 10 citizens in their district or state favored the policy. Shockingly, 92 percent of the staff members we surveyed underestimated support in their district or state for background checks, including all Republican aides and over 85 percent of Democratic aides.

The same is true for the four other issues we looked at . . . . On climate change, the average aide thought only a minority of his or her district wanted action, when in truth a majority supported regulating carbon.

Across the five issues, Democratic staff members tended to be more accurate than Republicans. Democrats guessed about 13 points closer to the truth on average than Republicans.

Below is a visual summary of their results.

The authors also found corporate lobbying to be an important cause of this misrepresentation of public opinion. As Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger, and Stokes explain:

Aides who reported meeting with groups representing big business — like the United States Chamber of Commerce or the American Petroleum Institute — were more likely to get their constituents’ opinions wrong compared with staffers who reported meeting with mass membership groups that represented ordinary Americans, like the Sierra Club or labor unions. The same pattern holds for campaign contributions: The more that offices get support from fossil fuel companies over environmental groups, the more they underestimate state- or district-level support for climate action.

And it appears that corporate influence may have more to do with campaign contributions than the quality of corporate arguments.  As Eric Levitz, discussing the work in the Intelligencer, points out, “The study . . . found that ‘45 percent of senior legislative staffers report having changed their opinion about legislation after a group gave their Member a campaign contribution’ — and that 62 percent of staffers believe that ‘correspondence from businesses’ are ‘more representative of their constituents’ preferences than correspondence from ordinary constituents.’”

None of this means that we should abandon electoral work.  But it does make clear that simply working to elect “good” people, and hoping for the best, will only continue the country’s rightwing drift.  There are real forces at work encouraging elected leaders to create their own realities favorable to rightwing positions, including the willingness of conservatives to aggressively and regularly communicate their views to their representatives and, no doubt more importantly, corporate lobbying backed by financial contributions and a careful monitoring of votes.

We can overcome these forces, but only if we build strong popular movements that are able to organize and mobilize people to fight for the things we want, thereby shifting the terms of political debate and the consciousness of politicians in the process.  And, back to the good news: the studies above show that popular sentiment is far more receptive to progressive change than we might think from recent election outcomes and government policy.

The US Economy: Monopolized Product Markets And Precarious Work

Most economists and politicians sing the praises of competition.  It is supposed to keep firms on their toes for the benefit of consumers and workers.  Well, competition is certainly alive and well in the US, but the results are far from positive for working people.

Monopolized product markets

The Open Markets Institute recently issued a report that looks at recent changes in industry concentration in 32 different product markets.  It framed its work as follows:

while it may appear as though there are endless brands to choose from online and on the shelf, most are owned by a few large parent companies, the array of labels a mere façade creating the illusion of abundant options.

Locating data on how few companies control individual markets, though, has long been difficult, and not by accident. Although Americans used anti-monopoly policies throughout much of the 20th century to preserve competition, a shift in ideology in the late 1970s allowed increased monopolization across the economy. To shield this pro-corporate turn from the public, the Federal Trade Commission halted the collection and publication of industry concentration data in 1981.

To remedy this gap in public knowledge, Open Markets purchased extensive, up-to-date industry intelligence from IBISWorld, a team of analysts who collect economic and market data, with the intention of releasing the information regarding industry concentration to the public.

David Leonhardt, in his New York Times commentary on the report, includes the following summary chart:

And as Leonhardt notes, “If anything, the chart here understates consolidation, because it doesn’t yet cover energy, telecommunications and some other areas.”

These trends paint a picture of an economy in which a growing number of industries are dominated by a few powerful corporations, one that belies the conventional view that since our economy is subject to ever stronger competitive pressures, fears of monopoly domination are unjustified. This is not a new insight. For example, John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna made the same point in a 2011 Monthly Review article:

A striking paradox animates political economy in our times. On the one hand, mainstream economics and much of left economics discuss our era as one of intense and increased competition among businesses, now on a global scale. It is a matter so self-evident as no longer to require empirical verification or scholarly examination. On the other hand, wherever one looks, it seems that nearly every industry is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

The following chart, taken from the article, illustrates their point about growing industry concentration.

Foster, McChesney, and Jonna explain this “striking paradox” by showing how the competition that captures our attention is increasingly driven by, and largely takes place between, powerful, globally-organized corporations.  And, they also discuss the ways in which mainstream economic theory has worked to minimize public awareness of the resulting monopolization of economic processes and its negative consequences for the stability and vibrancy of the economy.

Precarious work

One negative consequence of these competitive battles is worth highlighting here: the transformation of labor relations which is making work, by design, more precarious.  As Lauren Weber, in a Wall Street Journal article titled “The End of Employees,” explains:

Never before have big employers tried so hard to hand over chunks of their business to contractors. From Google to Wal-Mart, the strategy prunes costs for firms and job security for millions of workers. . . .

The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry. . . .

The shift is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted. . . .

Companies, which disclose few details about their outside workers, are rapidly increasing the numbers and types of jobs seen as ripe for contracting. At large firms, 20% to 50% of the total workforce often is outsourced, according to staffing executives. Bank of America Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and FedEx Corp. have thousands of contractors each.

Is it any wonder that income inequality has exploded in the US and even a record-breaking economic expansion in terms of longevity brings few benefits to working people?  Clearly, we need some new words, if not an entirely new song, if we are going to keep singing about competition.

We Need To Strengthen The Public In The US Public Sector

Many people have given up on the idea of government as an instrument of progressive social change, especially the federal government.  They think that the federal government is dominating and distorting economic activity and, more often than not, believe that the cause is a bloated, highly paid, and selfish federal workforce.

In fact, federal programs are increasingly being delivered by private contractors.  As a result, private employees doing work for the federal government now outnumber the federal workforce.  Moreover, in most cases, they are paid far more than the public employees they replace.  And, as more federal work is carried out under the direction of profit-seeking firms, there is good reason to believe that programs are reshaped to ensure that it is the private rather than public interest that is best served.

The declining share of federal workers

As a Public Goods Post explains:

the federal government workforce has not increased in absolute numbers in half a century. Not only is it the same size now as it was in the 1960s, since the 1980s it has shrunk. There are actually fewer government employees now than there were under Reagan even though the population has grown by over 30%.

As a consequence, as we see below, the size of the federal workforce as a share of the total civilian non-farm workforce has steadily fallen.  It is now less than 2 percent of the total.

The growth in private contractors

While the size of federal workforce has remained relatively unchanged for decades, the same is not true for real federal government spending on consumption and investment, as seen in the figure below.

So, how has the federal government been able to boost its activity with a relatively unchanged workforce?  The answer is an explosion in the use of private contractors.

According to the Public Goods Post,

the federal contractor workforce dwarfs the federal employee workforce nearly four-fold.

This massive third-party workforce has been mostly hidden from public view, kept intentionally out of sight by corporations and their lobbyists who have the most to gain, as well as by elected officials who want to claim that they are not growing government. Moreover, federal corporate contractors operate behind a shield of secrecy, enabled by their de facto exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and ensuring that they can operate without public scrutiny.

Fattening the corporate sector at public expense

This outsourcing of federal activities to private firms is likely an important reason for people’s dissatisfaction with government: they are far more expensive and their goal is profit not service.

A Project on Government Oversight study examined compensation paid to federal and private sector employees, as well as annual billing rates for contractor employees across 35 occupational classifications covering over 550 service activities.

It found, among other things, that:

Federal government employees were less expensive than contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications reviewed.

Private sector compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all 35 occupational classifications we reviewed.

The federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.

Here are some examples of the compensation bias favoring private contractors:

As bad as it is, this compensation bias is far from the whole story.  The fact is that public regulators incur significant costs trying to develop contracts that are supposed to ensure acceptable private contractor outcomes as well as actually monitoring performance.  And shortfalls in performance, an all too frequent outcome, require either additional federal expenditures beyond those initially stipulated in the contract or a lowering of public standards.

Moreover, a recent review of “the extensive global empirical evidence on the relative efficiency of the private versus public sectors” found no evidence:

that there is any systematic difference in efficiency between public and private sector companies, either in services which are subject to outsourcing, such as waste management, or in sectors privatized by sale, such as telecoms. . . .

This picture is further confirmed by examination of nine sectors which are most often subject to privatization, outsourcing and PPPs – buses, electricity, healthcare, ports, prisons, rail, telecoms, waste management and water – and the same results hold true in each sector: the evidence does not show any superior efficiency by private companies.

The challenge ahead

A report summarizing the discussions and outcomes of an October 2017 conference titled “Restoring Public Control of Public Goods” began as follows:

Over the past thirty-five years, government in the United States has been vilified and vitiated through a movement designed to de-legitimize government in the eyes of the public, to reduce government’s capacity to operate, and to replace that capacity with private contractors and other forms of privatization. . . .

We now are left with:

  • An increasingly hollowed-out, de-moralized, de-professionalized, and devalued government;
  • A hidden and growing “shadow government” of corporate contractors;
  • An array of expensive false economies–since, in fact, contracting out regularly costs taxpayers more than direct government provision of services;
  • Public goods that are so invisible as to be under-valued, and are therefore underfunded or struck from the budget;
  • Counter-productive systems of performance measurement that create further harmful (if sometimes unintended) consequences;
  • A citizenry that under-appreciates, or are unaware, of the public goods they receive.

The private sector has been quietly and efficiently winning its war to control and profit from public sector activities.  One can only hope that the recent interest in socialism will encourage a renewed popular commitment to work with public sector workers to resist this war on the public and build a new, more accountable, not to mentioned well-financed, public sector.

The Law Versus Worker Rights

Organizing a union is no easy task in the United States.  Although organizing a union is supposed to be a protected right, businesses regularly fire union supporters knowing that they face minimal punishment even if found guilty for their actions.  In fact, the rights of all workers, regardless of their interest in unionization, are being whittled down. Simply put, US law doesn’t work for workers.

Moshe Z. Marvit, writing in the newspaper In These Times, provides a recent example of the ongoing legal attack on union rights, in this case those of unionized janitors.  As he explains, the National Labor Relations Board, using a provision of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act designed to weaken labor solidarity:

ruled [in October 2018] that janitors in San Francisco violated the law when they picketed in front of their workplace to win higher wages, better working conditions and freedom from sexual harassment in their workplace.

The provision in question is one that prohibits workers from engaging in actions against a so-called “secondary” employer.  The provision makes it illegal for workers to organize boycotts or pickets directed against an employer with which the union does not have a dispute in order to get that firm to pressure the union’s employer to settle its dispute with the union.

The NLRB’s ruling dramatically stretches the meaning of this provision, in that the San Francisco janitors were actually engaged in workplace actions against an employer that had significant influence over their terms of employment.  However, Board members were able to justify their ruling thanks to the complexities generated by the increasingly common corporate strategy of subcontracting.

In this case, the janitors were employed by Ortiz Janitorial Services, which was in turn subcontracted by Preferred Building Services, to work in the building of yet a third company. An administrative law judge had previously ruled that Preferred Building Services had meaninful control over the employment terms of the janitors hired by Ortiz Janitorial Services.

More specifically, the judge found “that Preferred Building Services was involved in the hiring, firing, disciplining, supervision, direction of work, and other terms and conditions of the janitors’ employment with Ortiz Janitorial Services.” That made Ortiz and Preferred joint employers of the janitors, and the worker’s actions legal.  Undeterred, the NLRB simply rejected the administrative law judge’s ruling, declaring instead that the janitors worked only for Ortiz which made the worker’s actions, which were also aimed at Preferred, illegal.

As Marvit summarizes:

The NLRB’s recent case restricting the picketing rights of subcontractors, temps and other workers who do not have a single direct employment relationship is a further sign that the labor board will continue limiting its joint employer doctrine. This will make it more difficult or even impossible for many workers to have any meaningful voice in the workplace. But the case also highlights some of the core problems of labor law as it currently exists. By being included under the NLRA, workers lose basic rights that all other Americans enjoy.

Given how important the use of subcontracted labor has become, it should surprise no one that Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board are actively working to tighten the standard under which workers can claim to face, and organize against, a joint employer.

But the attack on worker rights is not limited to efforts to weaken union power.  The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote in May, ruled in Epic Systems Corp v. Lewis, that employers can include a clause in their employment contract requiring nonunion workers to arbitrate their disputes individually, a ruling that eliminates the ability of workers to sue a company for workplace violations or use collective actions such as class action suits. The ruling resolved three separate cases–Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, and National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA–that were argued together in front of the Court on the same day because they all raised the same basic issue.

Marvit explains what led to Lewis’s decision to sue Epic Systems:

On April 2, 2014, Jacob Lewis, who was a technical writer for Epic Systems, received an email from his employer with a document titled “Mutual Arbitration Agreement Regarding Wages and Hours.” The document stated that the employee and the employer waive their rights to go to court and instead agreed to take all wage and hour claims to arbitration. Furthermore, unlike in court, the employee agreed that any arbitration would be one-on-one. This “agreement” did not provide any opportunity to negotiate, and it had no place to sign or refuse to sign. Instead, it stated, “I understand that if I continue to work at Epic, I will be deemed to have accepted this Agreement.” The workers had two choices: immediately quit or accept the agreement. . . .

When Lewis tried to take Epic Systems to court for misclassifying him and his fellow workers as independent contractors and depriving them of overtime pay, he realized that by opening the email and continuing to work, he waved his right to bring a collective action or go to court.

As the Court saw it, the case pitted the Federal Arbitration Act against the National Labor Relations Act.  The former established a legal foundation for using one-on-one arbitration to settle disputes while the latter gives workers the right to work together for “mutual aid and protection.” The Court’s ruling priviledged arbitration.

Jane McAlevey, writing before the Supreme Court combined the cases and decided Epic Systems Corp v. Lewis, highlights the likely anti-worker consequences of the Court’s decision:

As for loud liberal voices — union and nonunion — that declare unions as a thing of the past, the forthcoming SCOTUS ruling on NLRB v Murphy Oil will prove most of the nonunion “innovations” moot. Murphy Oil is a complicated legal case that boils down to removing what are called the Section 7 protections under the National Labor Relations Act, and preventing class action lawsuits.

Murphy Oil blows a hole through the legal safeguards that non-union workers have enjoyed for decades, eviscerating much of the tactical repertoire of so-called Alt Labor, such as class-action wage-theft cases, and workers participating in protests called by nonunion community groups in front of their workplaces. The timing is horrific and uncanny: As women are finally finding their voices about sexual harassment at work, mostly in nonunion workplaces (as the majority are), Murphy Oil will prevent class action sexual harassment lawsuits.

The Epic Systems decision is a big deal, since there is a growing and already sizeable use of mandatory arbitration by employers.  A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that:

  • More than half—53.9 percent—of nonunion private-sector employers have mandatory arbitration procedures. Among companies with 1,000 or more employees, 65.1 percent have mandatory arbitration procedures.
  • Among private-sector nonunion employees, 56.2 percent are subject to mandatory employment arbitration procedures. Extrapolating to the overall workforce, this means that 60.1 million American workers no longer have access to the courts to protect their legal employment rights and instead must go to arbitration.
  • Of the employers who require mandatory arbitration, 30.1 percent also include class action waivers in their procedures—meaning that in addition to losing their right to file a lawsuit on their own behalf, employees also lose the right to address widespread rights violations through collective legal action.
  • Large employers are more likely than small employers to include class action waivers, so the share of employeesaffected is significantly higher than the share of employers engaging in this practice: of employees subject to mandatory arbitration, 41.1 percent have also waived their right to be part of a class action claim. Overall, this means that 23.1 percent of private-sector nonunion employees, or 24.7 million American workers, no longer have the right to bring a class action claim if their employment rights have been violated.
  • Mandatory arbitration is more common in low-wage workplaces. It is also more common in industries that are disproportionately composed of women workers and in industries that are disproportionately composed of African American workers.

The Court’s decision means that workers without unions will have little power. The NLRB’s decision weakens the laws that are supposed to protect union rights. The only effective response to this trend is, as the recent wave of teacher strikes demonstrated, militant, rank and file-led union organizing, with strong community involvement and support.  Hopefully, exposing the class-biased nature of US laws may help encourage this kind of activism.

Corporate Concentration, Intellectual Property Rights, and US Public Policy

Dominant corporations have dramatically increased their market power in the US over the last decades, allowing them to boost their profits and, by extension, political power. And, although rarely acknowledged by the media, this trend owes much to the way public policy has promoted corporate intellectual property rights at the public expense.

The growing concentration of market power

Gwynn Guilford, drawing on a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, highlights the growing concentration of market power with the aid of the following charts.

Number-of-firms-accounting-for-50-percent-of-combinedThe first chart shows that while 109 public corporations captured half of the total profits earned by all public corporations in 1975, that number fell to just 30 by 2015.  And as the second chart reveals, this growth in market concentration is reflected in other key market indicators as well, such as control over assets, cash flow, and cash holdings.

A recent International Monetary Fund working paper provides additional evidence of the growth in corporate market power, highlighting the ability of leading corporations to markup their prices and increase their profit share.  Defining market power as “the ability of a firm to maintain prices above marginal cost—the level that would prevail under perfect competition,” the authors of the IMF paper “estimate markups between prices and marginal costs for publicly traded firms in 33 advanced economies and 41 emerging market and developing economies from 1980-2016.” According to the authors, “this is the first study . . . to report firm-level markups for such a broad range of economies over such an extended period.”

The figure below shows a dramatic increase in markups by US publicly listed firms, which means that US firms have enjoyed growing power to push up their prices relative to their costs of production.

As the authors report:

markups of U.S. firms have increased by a sales-weighted average of 42 percent during 1980-2016.  Markups increased across all major industries, and not only technology ones, with the sales-weighted average increase ranging between 7 and 137 percent for the 10 broad FTSE/Dow Jones Industrial Classification Benchmark industries available within Thomson Reuters Worldscope.

Some industry subsectors, especially those in Health Care, like Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals, have seen extreme increases (as shown in the following figure).  “The sub-sector featuring the largest increase in markups over this period (by 419 percent) is ‘Biotechnology,’ part of the ‘Health Care’ industry.”

An IMF blog post commenting on this study notes:

The growing economic wealth and power of big companies—from airlines to pharmaceuticals to high-tech companies—has raised concerns about too much concentration and market power in the hands of too few. In particular, in advanced economies, rising corporate market power has been blamed for low investment despite rising corporate profits, declining business dynamism, weak productivity, and a falling share of income paid to workers.

The role of public policy in promoting market concentration, profits, and power

Public policy, in particular, government efforts to promote and protect corporate intellectual property rights (e.g. patents and copyrights), is one reason for the trend in market concentration.  As Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, explains:

Patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property are public policy. They are not facts given to us by the world or the structure of technology somehow. While this point should be self-evident, it is rarely noted in discussions of inequality or ways to address it.

[And] there is an enormous amount of money at stake with intellectual property rules. Many items that sell at high prices as a result of patent or copyright protection would be free or nearly free in the absence of these government granted monopolies. Perhaps the most notable example is prescription drugs where we will spend over $420 billion in 2018 in the United States for drugs that would almost certainly cost less than $105 billion in a free market. The difference is $315 billion annually or 1.6 percent of GDP. If we add in software, medical equipment, pesticides, fertilizer, and other areas where these protections account for a large percentage of the cost, the gap between protected prices and free market prices likely approaches $1 trillion annually, a sum that is more than 60 percent of after-tax corporate profits.

The US patent system has helped boost the monopoly power of many of the country’s most profitable firms in numerous ways.  For example, the government has increased the duration of both patents and copyrights.  Even more importantly, the government has steadily expanded the scope of what can be patented to “include biological organisms, software, and business methods.” This expansion has enabled corporations to lockup an ever-growing number of products and processes, and force other companies to pay them for their use.

US laws also generally privilege patent and copyright holders when it comes to challenges.  For example, a company that feels its copyright is being infringed can sue not only to reclaim lost royalty payments but also for damages, which can greatly increase the financial stakes.  In addition, the government often prosecutes copyright cases criminally, turning a possibly small financial violation into a potentially major criminal offense.

Baker offers another example of the one-sided nature of the US intellectual property rights regime:

the Digital Millennial Copyright Act of 1998 holds third parties potentially liable for infringement. In order to protect themselves from liability, a web intermediary has the responsibility for promptly taking down allegedly infringing material after being notified. This effectively requires an intermediary to take the side of the person alleging infringement against their customer or friend. By contrast, the law in Canada simply requires that the intermediary notify the person posting the alleged infringing material, after which point they have ended their potential liability.

Perhaps even more revealing of the pro-corporate nature of government policy is the fact that government spending has often financed the innovations that private firms then patent and benefit from.  Considering prescription drugs again, the US National Institutes of Health spends approximately $37 billion a year on biomedical research.  Other government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control, spend smaller but still significant amounts.  But, following the passage of the Boyh-Dale act in December 1980, the government, as Baker explains, has allowed “researchers on government contracts to gain ownership rights to their research. This meant they could get patents or other types of protection on work for which the government incurred much or all of the cost. While Bayh–Dole applied to all types of research supported by the government it had the largest impact on the market for prescription drugs.”

Paris Marx offers another example of this public subsidization of private profit-making, noting the ways public research provided key discoveries that made possible the success of the iphone:

Steve Jobs may have been a genius—he certainly had an eye for design—but his most successful product would not exist if it weren’t for the billions of dollars that the US government spends every year on research and development. The best accounting of this has been done by Mariana Mazzucato, author of “The Entrepreneurial State,” who skillfully explains that touch-screen displays, GPS, the Internet and even Siri were the product of public research funding—features the iPhone wouldn’t be very compelling without.

And that’s not to say that Apple should get no credit for the revolutionary product it created. The company assembled those technologies in a compelling package and has developed many of its own innovations to enhance it along the way. But that doesn’t change the fact that the fundamentals wouldn’t exist without the government.

And here is yet another example from Mazzucato:

we continue to romanticize private actors in innovative industries, ignoring their dependence on the products of public investment. Elon Musk, for example, has not only received over $5 billion in subsidies from the US government; his companies, SpaceX and Tesla, have been built on the work of NASA and the Department of Energy, respectively.

Recognizing the value of strong private industry-protecting intellectual property rights, leading corporations have been pushing their respective governments to demand tougher rights as part of new trade agreements, making this a global problem.  Here is what the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has to say:

Paradoxically, even as tangible barriers to trade imposed by governments, such as tariffs and quotas, have been declining over the last 30 years or so, intangible barriers to competition rooted in “free trade” treaties and erected by large firms themselves have surged, as they exploit the increased legal protection of intellectual property and the broadening scope for intangible intra-firm trade. According to some estimates, intangible assets may represent up to two thirds of the value of large firms. . . .

Returns to knowledge-intensive intangible assets proxied by charges for the use of foreign IPR rose almost unabated throughout the [global financial crisis] and its after­math, even as returns to tangible assets declined. At the global level, charges (i.e. payments) for the use of foreign IPR rose from less than $50 billion in 1995 to $367 billion in 2015. . . .

The rise of intangible barriers that further distort competition, increase corporate leverage and foster monopolistic rents has been partly supported by changes to domestic laws in many countries. But international treaties may have been even more significant, such as double non-taxation agreements and new generation trade agreements that include provisions strengthening the protection of IPR, foreign investment, etc.

The US government has been one of the most aggressive governments pushing this international expansion of restrictive intellectual property rights. The recently negotiated US-Mexico-Canada agreement is, as Peter Dolack describes, a prime example:

It appears that corporate wish lists for intellectual property, financial services and other areas were largely granted. New IP rules, if this agreement is passed into law, include stepped-up enforcement against “camcording of movies” and “cable signal theft,” as well as “Broad protection against trade secret theft.”

The IP rules would extend copyrights to 75 years, long a U.S. demand (and one opposed by the Canadian government); increase pressure on Internet service providers to take works alleged to infringe copyrights (in actuality a tool for censorship); and provide for “strong protection for pharmaceutical and agricultural innovators,” which can be presumed to be code for enabling further medicine price-gouging and crimping accessibility to generic and cheaper alternatives. The last of these was a prominent U.S. goal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, inter alia, sought to eliminate the New Zealand government’s program to provide medicines in bulk at discounted prices at the behest of U.S. pharmaceutical companies. Related to this is a measure to include 10 years’ protection for biologic drugs and an expansion of products eligible for “protection.”

We need a different public policy

In short, it appears that the existing IPR regime has largely helped to promote monopoly power, higher prices, and greater inequality, and at the public expense.  We need a new policy, and, setting aside the daunting political obstacles to change, it is easy to see possibilities for a different and more publicly spirited policy.

For example, we could reduce both the scope of what is patentable as well as the length of patents, thereby weakening monopoly power and promoting lower prices.  And likely at little “economic” cost. Patents and copyrights are supposed to encourage innovation and productivity gains.  Yet, as Baker notes:

A cross-country analysis assessing the impact of stronger protections on productivity growth found no evidence of a positive relationship. In fact, most of the regressions found a negative relationship between patent strength and productivity growth. Similarly, an analysis that looked at multi-factor productivity growth across industries found no relationship between the number of patents issued and the rate of productivity growth.

And we could also end the government’s direct subsidization of privately patented products.  For example, the government could boost its funding of health research though long-term contracts with drug and other health related businesses, with the requirement “that all research findings and patents are placed in the public domain. An advantage of [this] approach is that all research findings would be available for both clinicians and other researchers.”  The public gains from a change in policy, especially in the health field, would likely be enormous.

In sum, we need to go beyond bemoaning current trends, which impoverish us in a variety of ways.  Rather, we need to press for an end to the existing public policies that encourage them and for the development of a new intellectual property rights regime that actually serves the public interest.

The US Medical System: Healthy Profits At People’s Expense

Health care is a big and profitable business.  As a Wall Street Journal article points out:

[The US] will soon spend close to 20% of its GDP on health–significantly more than the percentage spent by major Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. . . .

Health care has become a larger part of the economy, creating powerful constituencies resistant to changing the way the system operates.

The health-care industry overtook the retail sector as the nation’s largest employer in December, giving local economies and their workers a stake in the industry’s growth. Health jobs surpassed manufacturing jobs in 2008.

The revenues of health-care companies represented nearly 16% of the total revenues of firms in the S&P 500 last year, up from about 4% in 1984.

Health-care companies have more than doubled overall lobbying spending since 1998, and have become a bigger percentage of total lobbying by industries.

Unfortunately, as the Wall Street Journal article also goes on to say, “Despite the higher spending, the U.S. fares worse than the OECD on most major measures of health.”

The following chart provides one illustration of the distorted nature of our health care system.  As we can see, the US spends a far higher share of its GDP on health care than the OECD average, yet has a significantly lower life expectancy.

The article highlights drug prices as one of the key drivers of US health care costs, noting that that they “have risen the most of the three largest components of health spending since 2000, followed by hospital care and physician services.”

The power of the drug industry is immense, and their lobbyists actively work to ensure that the industry’s profits will remain healthy regardless of the social consequences.  The text of the recently negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) makes this clear.

As a Washington Post story explains:

A handful of major industries scored big wins in President Trump’s North American trade agreement — at times at the expense of ordinary consumers in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The winners include oil companies, technology firms and retailers, but chief among them are pharmaceutical companies, which gained guarantees against competition from cheaper generic drugs. . . .

The pharmaceutical industry won stronger protection for sales of so-called biologic drugs, which are typically derived from living organisms and are administered by injection or infusion. The medicines are among the most costly and innovative on the market and are a major driver of drug spending.

USMCA guards new biologic drugs from cheaper generic competition for “at least ten years,” compared with current protection of eight years in Canada and five years in Mexico.

“By increasing the term to 10 years, there will be less competition and higher prices,” said Valeria Moy, an economics professor and the director of Mexico Como Vamos, a think tank in Mexico City. “Having more protection in that area means higher prices for consumers.”

The agreement provides extra protection to drug companies in the much larger U.S. market, as well. Current U.S. law protects biologic drugs from generic competition for 12 years, but some Democrats, including in the Obama administration, have pushed to lower that to seven years as a way to speed cheaper generics to the market and lower drug spending.

Critics of the trade agreement argued that by setting a minimum of 10 years of protection, the trilateral pact shields the pharmaceutical industry from future legislative attempts in the United States to shorten biologic drug monopolies.

It “decreases U.S. sovereignty,” said Jeff Francer, general counsel for the Association for Accessible Medicines, a lobbying group for generic drugmakers. “It would be much harder for Congress to try to roll back 12 years to seven years if we’re enshrining 10 years in a free-trade agreement.”

In short, our health care system operates very efficiently for the health care industry, and the industry appears well organized to keep it that way.