Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Monthly Archives: June 2017

Secular Stagnation

Government policy makers, no matter the party in power, like to project a rosy future. However, claims of economic renewal, absent fundamental changes in the structure and workings of the US economy, should not be taken seriously.  The fundamental changes I would advocate are those that would: dramatically boost worker power; secure a progressive and growing funding base for a needed expansion of public housing and infrastructure and public spending on health care, education, and transportation; and end the production and use of fossil fuels and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.

Fundamental changes are needed because the United States is suffering from an extended period of slow and declining growth, what is known as secular stagnation.

The following figure, taken from a Financial Times blog post, shows the duration and average rate of growth of every economic expansion in the postwar period.  The current expansion, which started in the second quarter of 2009, is the third longest, although soon to become the second.  Among other things, that means that a new recession is likely not far off (especially with the Federal Reserve Board apparently committed to boosting interest rates).

As we can see, the current expansion has recorded the slowest rate of growth of any expansion.  Moreover, as Cardiff Garcia, the author of the blog post, points out: “Also worrying is the observation from the chart that every subsequent expansion since 1970 has grown at a slower pace than its predecessor, regardless of what caused the downturn from which it was recovering.”

Michalis Nikiforos and Gennaro Zezza begin their Levy Economics Institute report on current economic trends as follows:

From a macroeconomic point of view, 2016 was an ordinary year in the post–Great Recession period. As in prior years, the conventional forecasts predicted that this would be the year the economy would finally escape from the “new normal” of secular stagnation. But just as in every previous year, the forecasts were confounded by the actual result: lower-than-expected growth—just 1.6 percent.

The following figures illustrate the overall weakness of the current expansion.  Each figure shows, for every postwar expansion, a major macro indicator and its growth over time since the end of its preceding recession.  The three most recent expansions, including the current one, are color highlighted.

Figure 1A makes clear that growth has been slower in this expansion than in any previous expansion. Figure 1B shows that “real consumption has grown only about 18 percent compared to the trough of 2009—similar to the expansion of GDP—and also stands out as the slowest recovery of consumption growth in the postwar period.”

Perhaps most striking is the actual decrease in real government expenditure shown in figure 1D.  Real government expenditure is some 6 percent lower than it was eight years ago.  In no other expansion did real government expenditure fall.  Without doubt austerity is one of the main reasons for our current slow expansion.

Significantly, as we see in figure 7 below, the stock market has continued to boom in spite of the weak performance of the economy.  This figure shows that the total value of the stock market has risen sharply, regardless of whether compared to the growth in personal income or profits (measured by net operating surplus).   This rise has generally kept those at the top of the income pyramid happy despite the country’s weak overall economic performance.

No doubt, on-going wage stagnation, which has depressed consumption, and privatization, which has grown in concert with austerity, has helped to fuel this new stock market bubble.  One reason top income earners have been so favorable to the broad contours of Trump administration policy is that it is designed to strengthen both trends.

Recession will come.  In an era of secular stagnation that means the downturn will hit an already weak economy and struggling working class.  And the upturn that follows will likely be weaker than the current one.  Market forces will not save us.  Real improvements demand transformative policy changes.

Why Unions Matter

I write an occasional column for Street Roots, a wonderful Portland, Oregon weekly newspaper that is sold on the streets by homeless vendors, who keep 75 percent of the dollar cost of each Friday issue.

As the paper explains:

Street Roots creates income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty by producing a newspaper and other media that are catalysts for individual and social change.

In addition to income and an opportunity for meaningful street conversations, Street Roots also provides venders, who number in the hundreds, a safe place with “access to computers, a mailing address, hygiene items, socks, fresh water, coffee, and public restrooms.”  It also maintains “a vendor health fund to support vendors when they are sick or in an extreme crisis.”

The paper does outstanding reporting on local, national, and even international issues; it has 20,000 readers throughout the region.  Check it out.

Here is my latest piece, published June 9, 2017.

The attack on labor unions – and why they matter

Fewer workers are in unions now than in 1983, the earliest year in the Bureau of Labor Statistics series on union membership. In 1983 there were 17.7 million, 20.1 percent of the workforce. In 2016 the number had fallen to 14.6 million, or 10.7 percent of the workforce. While union membership rates in Oregon have been above the U.S. average, they have also followed the national trend, falling to 13.5 percent in 2016.

This decline in unionization is largely the result of a sustained corporate directed and, in many ways, government-aided attack on unions. Its success is one important reason why corporate profits have soared and most people have experienced deteriorating working and living conditions over the past decades.

Improving our quality of life will require rebuilding union strength. And, although rarely mentioned by the media, things are starting to happen in Portland. Over the last few years new unions were formed and/or new contracts signed by workers at our airport, zoo, K-12 public schools, colleges and universities, parks and recreation centers, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and office buildings.

The attack on unions 

Not long after President Reagan declared the 1981 air traffic controllers strike illegal and fired 11,000 air traffic controllers, corporations began illegally opposing union organizing efforts by aggressively firing union organizers.

According to studies based on NLRB records, the probability of a union activist being illegally fired during a union organizing campaign rose from about 10 percent in the 1970s to 27 percent over the first half of the 1980s. Since then it has remained around 20 percent. Illegal firings occurred in approximately 12 percent of all union election campaigns in the 1970s and in roughly one out of every three union election campaigns over the first half of the 1980s. They now occur in approximately 25 percent of all union election campaigns.

It is a violation of U.S. labor law for an employer to “interfere with, restrain or coerce” employees who seek to exercise their right to unionize. However, the law is so weak that many employers willingly disregard it and accept the consequences in order to stymie union organizing efforts.

Many companies also try to undermine union organizing campaigns by illegally threatening to shut down or move operations if workers vote to unionize. One mid-1990s study found that more than 50 percent of all private employers made such a threat. The acceleration of globalization in the following decades, thanks to government support, has made growing numbers of workers fearful of pursuing unionization, even without an explicit threat by management.

Although not the most important factor, unions also have some responsibility for their decline. Union leaders have often been reluctant to aggressively organize new sectors; encourage new leadership from people of color, women, and other marginalized groups; promote rank and file democracy in decision-making and organizing; and vigorously defend the rights of their members to live in healthy communities as well as work in safe workplaces.

Taking all this into account, it is no wonder that the share of workers in unions has declined.

The union difference 

The decline in union strength matters. Here are a few examples of what unions still deliver:

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the union wage premium – the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargaining contract, adjusted for workers’ education, age and other characteristics – is 13.6 percent overall.”

Unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.

Working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men, compared to non-union working women who receive only 78 cents on the dollar for every dollar paid to non-union working men. This union wage premium is significant for unionized working women regardless of race and ethnicity.

Looking just at Oregon, the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that “union representation boosts the wages of Oregon’s lowest paid workers by about 21 percent, while middle-wage workers enjoy an increase of about 17 percent. Even the highest paid workers benefit from unionizing, with a 6 percent increase to their wages.”

Studies also show that strong unions force non-union employers to lift up the wages and improve the working conditions of their own employees for fear of losing them or encouraging unionization.

More generally, unions provide workers with voice and the means to use their collective strength to gain job security and say over key aspects of their conditions of employment, including scheduling and safety. These gains are significant in our “employment at will” economy where, without a union, employers can fire a worker whenever they want and for whatever reason, subject to the weak protections afforded by our labor laws.

Why unions still matter 

Two widely respected labor economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the growth in the number of workers with so-called “alternative work arrangements,” which they “defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.” They found that the percentage of U.S. workers with such alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015. But their most startling finding was that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”

Large corporations are driving this explosion in irregular and precarious work by applying the same strategy here in the U.S. that they have long used in the third world. They are increasingly outsourcing to smaller non-unionized firms the jobs that were once done by their own in-house workers. This allows these large corporations to escape paying many of those who “work for them” the wages and benefits offered to their remaining employees. Instead, their salaries are paid by smaller firms, whether they be independent businesses, temporary work agencies, or franchise owners, or in more extreme cases so-called independent contractors. And because these second-tier smaller businesses operate in highly competitive markets, with substantially lower profit margins than the corporations they service, these outsourced workers now receive far lower salaries with few if any benefits and protections.

As the Wall Street Journal describes, “Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. 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.”

At most large firms, 20 percent to 50 percent of the total workforce is now outsourced. This includes big and profitable U.S. companies like Google, Bank of America, Verizon, Procter & Gamble and FedEx.

In sum, companies aren’t going to willingly offer us jobs that pay a living wage, provide opportunities for skill development, and afford the security necessary to plan for the future. We are going to have to fight for them. And the strength of unions will be critical in that effort. So, the next time you hear about a unionization campaign or union organized workplace action— support it. You will be helping yourself.

The Problem Of Hunger In The US

Food insecurity is a major problem in the US.   The food stamp program–renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008–helps, but that program is now threatened by the Trump administration.  An organization of the food insecure, echoing the Councils of the Unemployed of the 1930s, may well be needed if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing hunger.

The extent of food insecurity  

The federal government measures food insecurity using a yearly set of questions that are part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS).  The questions asked, as a Hamilton Project study on food insecurity and SNAP explains, are about:

households’ resources available for food and whether adults or children in the household adjusted their food intake—cutting meal size, skipping meals, or going for a day without food—because of lack of money for food. A household is considered to be “food insecure” if, due to a lack of resources, it had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of its members. The more-severe categorization of “very low food security” status describes those food-insecure households in which members’ food intake was reduced and their normal eating patterns disrupted at some point during the year because of a lack of resources for food. Food insecurity and very low food security are measured at the household level, though questions about adults and children are asked separately.

Officially, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure in 2015.  Five percent were very low food secure.

The extent of food insecurity is significantly greater in households with children under 18.  As we see below, 16.6 percent of all households with children suffered from food insecurity in 2015.  In more than half of those households, the adults were able to shelter their children.  However, both children and adults were food insecure in 7.8 percent of all households with children.

Food insecurity trends

Food insecurity is a problem in the United States even during periods of economic expansion.  As the following chart shows, more than one in ten households suffered from food insecurity during the growth years of 2001 to 2007.  The percentage of households experiencing food insecurity spiked with the start of the Great Recession and was slow to decline.  Although it is now falling, it is unclear whether it will return to pre-recession levels.

And, not surprisingly, non-white households are far more likely to experience food insecurity than white households.

It is also important to recognize that annual rates of food insecurity tend to minimize the true extent of the problem.  That is because households tend to move into and then out of food insecurity over time.  In other words, it is often a temporary problem.  Thus, many more families will experience food insecurity over a period of time than suggested by the annual numbers.  Of course, even one year of food insecurity can have serious health consequences.

As the Hamilton Institute study notes:

Annual rates of food insecurity mask the extent of the food insecurity problem. Using the Current Population Survey, we can follow large numbers of households across two consecutive years, allowing us to compare food security status over time. In consecutive years during the post-recession period 2008–14, over 24 percent of households with children experienced food insecurity in one or both years: 9 percent of household experienced food insecurity in consecutive years, and an additional 15 percent of households experienced food insecurity in only one of the two years.

SNAP 

SNAP is one of the most important federal responses to food insecurity. To qualify for food stamps, a household needs to earn at or below 130% of the poverty line—or about $26,000 or less a year for a family of three. As of May 2017, 42.3 million people were receiving food stamps. Without the SNAP program, many more people would be experiencing food insecurity.

The following figures show the rise in the number and percentage of people receiving food stamps, and the average monthly food stamp benefit.  The growth in the number of food stamp recipients over the 2001 to 2007 period of economic growth reflects the explosion in inequality and weak job growth.  And the need for food assistance exploded with the Great Recession and has remained high because of the weak economic recovery that has followed.

The challenge ahead

Determined to slash all non-military discretionary programs, President Trump’s proposed budget calls for cutting almost $200 billion over the next decade from the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program.  That is a cut of approximately 25 percent.

With weak job growth and stagnant wages likely in the years ahead, any cut to the SNAP budget will mean a new spike in hunger, especially for children.  One has to wonder when people will reach their limit and begin to organize and fight back.

Those struggling with food insecurity might well take inspiration from the work of the unemployed councils of the 1930s.  These councils provided a basis for the unemployed to resist rent increases and evictions, as well as fight for public assistance, unemployment insurance, and a public works program.  The councils also strongly supported union organizing efforts, ensuring that the unemployed respected union picket lines.  In return, many unions supported the work of the councils.

The unemployed in the 1930s eventually recognized that their situation was largely the result of the dysfunctional workings of the economic system of the time and they organized to defend their rights and change that system.  Households experiencing hunger today need to develop that same understanding about the root cause of their situation and respond accordingly.

We Should Demand Withdrawal From, Not Reform Of, Existing Trade Agreements

Many unions and progressive organizations hope to press President Trump to rework NAFTA and other trade agreements, such as the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement,  in ways that will strengthen worker rights in the US.  However, this effort is too limited and unlikely to succeed.  These agreements were designed to strengthen corporate rights and there is no way that they can be rehabilitated.  Our demand should be that the US government withdraw from all existing free trade and investment agreements.  Significantly, that is exactly what a number of countries have begun to do.

For example, as SouthNews reports:

Ecuador has unilaterally withdrawn from its remaining 16 bilateral investment treaties (BITs). With this decision, Ecuador has concluded the termination of 26 BITs signed by the country since 1968.

The 16 BITS which Ecuador is withdrawing from had been signed with the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, the United States, China, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile.

The Ecuadorian move is part of similar measures taken in recent years by a growing number of developing countries to withdraw from their bilateral investment treaties. These include South Africa, Bolivia, Indonesia and India.

Ecuador’s decision to withdrawal from its remaining BITs was driven in large part by the work of a 12 person government-civil society audit commission.  The Commission’s charge was to “verify the legality, legitimacy and lawfulness of investment treaties and other investment agreements signed by Ecuador, as well as to audit the validity and appropriateness of the awards, procedures, actions and decisions issued by Investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS) bodies and arbitral tribunals.”

The Commission’s 668 page report found that:

  1. The country’s BITs have not delivered the promised foreign direct investment
  2. The terms of the country’s BITs contradicted and undermined the country’s development objectives laid out in the country’s constitution and National Plan for Well-Being (Buen Vivir)
  3. The costs of the country’s BITs have far outweighed the benefits.

The Commission therefore recommended that the Ecuadorian government terminate all existing BITs and proposed that it negotiate entirely new investment instruments.  These new instruments, as reported by SouthNews:

should restrict the definition of investments, and strengthen the right of the State to regulate for the common good and sustainable development, including by recognizing the right of the State to impose obligations to foreign investors, apply performance requirements, secure the fiscal competence of the State, secure technology transfer, and force investors to respect international standards and human rights and the environment, among others.

The Commission also recommended the State not to include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in new BITs, and to strengthen the domestic jurisdiction in order to provide judicial guarantees for investors in national courts. These efforts should include the development of a comprehensive national policy on and specific rules for foreign investment, and the creation of one central agency to be in charge of the institutional governance of foreign investment.

Moreover, as the president of the Commission stated, “Fortunately Ecuador is not alone in denouncing these unjust investment agreements. It is joining a wave of countries around the world calling for a new international legal framework for investment which prioritizes public interest over corporate profits.”

In particular, South Africa, Indonesia, Bolivia and India are all taking steps to terminate their own investment agreements.  As SouthNews described:

Many countries in almost all regions have started to review their investment treaty regimes. . . . For example, South Africa initiated the termination of its existing BITs (when they expire) in recent years, with the objective of safeguarding its right to regulate investments and the right to establish development policies while at the same time protecting investor rights.   Bolivia has also withdrawn from its BITs.  India recently announced it would withdraw from 57 investment treaties with the objective of re-negotiating them based on its new model BIT.

The point is that the governments of these countries did not seek modification of their existing agreements, hoping to make them somewhat more supportive of national development objectives. Rather, they correctly understood that each agreement was composed of a complex interconnected set of standards, objectives, and regulations designed to promote corporate profit-making and as such were not reformable in a meaningful way.

Clearly, the US government is not interested in terminating its existing agreements.  To the extent that the Trump administration speaks about reform it is largely to blunt a growing popular movement against corporate designed globalization while it works to expand their reach to cover the digital economy, services, and financial services.  And that is precisely why we should not get into the reform game.  That is why we should sharpen the debate and make our own position clear: we support those governments that have decided to withdraw from their respective trade agreements and investment treaties and we want the US government to do the same.