Forgotten Workers And The US Expansion

There is a lot of celebrating going on in mainstream policy circles.  The economy is said to be running at full steam with the unemployment rate now below 4 percent.  As Clive Crook puts it in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The U.S. expansion has put millions of people back to work and economists agree that the economy is now at or close to full employment.”

Forgotten in all this celebration is the fact that wages remain stagnant.  Also forgotten are the millions of workers who are no longer counted as part of the labor force and thus not counted as unemployed.

Forgotten workers

One of the best indicators of the weakness of the current recovery is the labor market status of what is called the core workforce, those ages 25-54.  Their core status stems from the fact that, as Jill Mislinski explains, “This cohort leaves out the employment volatility of the high-school and college years, the lower employment of the retirement years and also the age 55-64 decade when many in the workforce begin transitioning to retirement … for example, two-income households that downsize into one-income households.”

The unemployment rate of those 25-54 reached a peak of 9 percent in 2009 before falling steadily to a low of 3.2 percent as of July 2018.  However, the unemployment rate alone can be a very misleading indicator of labor market conditions.  That is certainly true when it comes to the labor market status of today’s core workforce.

A more revealing measure is the Labor Force Participation Rate, which is defined as the Civilian Labor Force (i.e. the sum of those employed and unemployed) divided by the Civilian Noninstitutional Population (i.e. those of working age who are not in the military or institutionalized). Because there can be significant monthly swings in both the numerator and denominator of this measure, the Labor Force Participation Rate shown in the chart below is calculated using a 12-month moving average.

As we can see, the Labor Force Participation Rate for the 25-54 core cohort has sharply declined, from a mid-2000 high of 84.2 percent, down to a low of 81.9 percent in July 2018. Mislinski calculates that:

Based on the moving average, today’s age 25-54 cohort would require 1.6 million additional people in the labor force to match its interim peak participation rate in 2008 and 2.9 million to match the peak rate around the turn of the century.

A related measure of labor market conditions is the Employment-to-Population Ratio, which is defined as the Civilian Employed divided by the Civilian Noninstitutional Population.  As we can see in the next chart, the Employment-to-Population Ratio of our core cohort has also declined from its mid-2000 peak.

Again, according to Mislinski,

First the good news: This metric began to rebound from its post-recession trough in late 2012. However, the more disturbing news is that the current age 25-54 cohort would require an increase of 1.2 million employed prime-age participants to match its ratio peak in 2007. To match its mid-2000 peak would require a 3.1 million participant increase.

The takeaway

Both the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Employment-to-Population Ratio are useful measures of the employment intensity of the economy.  And in a healthy economy we should expect to see high values for both measures for the 25-54 age cohort. That is especially true for a country like the United States, where the non-market public provision of education, health care, and housing is quite limited, and an adequate retirement depends upon private savings.  In other words, people need paid employment to live and these are prime work years.

The decline, over the business cycle, in both the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Employment-to-Population Ratio for our core cohort strongly suggests that our economy is undergoing a profound structural change, with business increasingly organizing its activities in ways that require fewer workers. More specifically, the lower values in these measures mean that millions of prime age workers are being sidelined, left outside the labor market.

It is hard to know what will become of these workers and by extension their families and communities.  Moreover, this is not a problem only of the moment.  This cohort is still relatively young, and the social costs of being sidelined from employment—and here we are not even considering the quality of that employment—will only grow with age.  We can only hope that workers of all ages will eventually recognize that our growing employment problems are the result, not of individual failings, but an increasingly problematic economic system, and begin pushing for its structural transformation.

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Magical Bootstraps And The Struggles Of Working Americans

A recession is coming, sooner or later.  Once it hits, we can expect articles bemoaning the fact that working people didn’t build-up their savings during this record expansion to help them through the hard times.  If only they had pinched pennies here and there, skipped a new TV or smart phone, they could have generated some capital that could have been invested . . . Ah the missed opportunities.

Of course, the reality is quite different.  One reason is that the current so-called good times have not been very good for working people.  For example, as Jonathan Spicer points out, “the rise in median expenditures has outpaced before-tax income for the lower 40 percent of earners in the five years to mid-2017 while the upper half has increased its financial cushion, deepening income disparities.” In other words, a significant percentage of workers have had to run down their savings or borrow to survive; wealth accumulation has been out of the question.

The bootstrap theory of success

The notion that under capitalism each individual has the ability, without outside help, to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” has a powerful hold on popular consciousness.  And, its message of self-reliance and individual responsibility serves capitalist interests well by deflecting attention away from the systemic causes of current economic problems.

The irony is that the phrase itself originally referred to something that was physically impossible to achieve.  As Caroline Bologna explains:

The concept is simple: To pull yourself up by your bootstraps means to succeed or elevate yourself without any outside help.

But when you examine this expression and its current meaning, it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

To pull yourself up by your bootstraps is actually physically impossible. In fact, the original meaning of the phrase was more along the lines of “to try to do something completely absurd.”

Etymologist Barry Popik and linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer have cited an American newspaper snippet from Sept. 30, 1834 as the earliest published reference to lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps. A month earlier, a man named Nimrod Murphree announced in the Nashville Banner that he had “discovered perpetual motion.” The Mobile Advertiser picked up this tidbit and published it with a snarky response ridiculing his claim: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barn yard fence, by the straps of his boots.”

“Bootstraps were a typical feature of boots that you could pull on in the act of putting your boots on, but of course bootstraps wouldn’t actually help you pull yourself over anything,” Zimmer told HuffPost. “If you pulled on them, it would be physically impossible to get yourself over a fence. The original imagery was something very ludicrous, as opposed to what we mean by it today of being a self-made man.” . . .

Beyond the Murphree example, versions of the phrase appeared in many published texts to describe something ridiculous. Popik has documented several of these examples on his blog.

Leaving aside questions about why the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” is no longer used as a way to dismiss an impossibility or absurdity, its original meaning captures capitalist realities far better than does is its current meaning.  Quite simply, there are no magical bootstraps that enable working people to “pull themselves up” to economic security and well-being by dint of their own hard work.  The problem is that far too many Americans still believe in their existence and thus blame themselves for their economic situation.

The struggles of working Americans

In a Reuters article, Jonathan Spicer illustrates the fact that “behind the headlines of roaring job growth and consumer spending . . . the boom continues in large part by the poorer half of Americans fleecing their savings and piling up debt.”

The figure below shows the median income for each of five groups of Americans based on their before-tax income.

The next figure shows, for 2017, the difference between expenses and pre-tax income for each of the five groups.  As one can see, expenses (red circle) outstrip income (blue circle) for the bottom two groups or 40 percent of the population.  Those in the third group are barely keeping their heads above water.

The last figure below shows that 2017 was no aberration.  Despite the longest expansion in post-war US history, most Americans are struggling to meet expenses.  As Spicer comments, “lower-earners have been sinking deeper into red over the last five years.”

It is no wonder that the Federal Reserve, in its Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2017, found that forty percent of American adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as an unexpected medical bill, car problem or home repair.

One important reason for these depressing trends is that there has been little growth in wages.   And as Jared Bernstein explains in the New York Times, that outcome is largely due to the exercise of class power:

The United States labor market is closing in on full employment in an economic expansion that just began its 10th year, and yet the real hourly wage for the working class has been essentially flat for two years running. Why is that?

Economists ask this question every month when the government reports labor statistics. We repeatedly get solid job growth and lower unemployment, but not much to show for wages. Part of that has to do with inflation, productivity and remaining slack in the labor market.

But stagnant wages for factory workers and non-managers in the service sector — together they represent 82 percent of the labor force — is mainly the outcome of a long power struggle that workers are losing. Even at a time of low unemployment, their bargaining power is feeble, the weakest I’ve seen in decades. Hostile institutions — the Trump administration, the courts, the corporate sector — are limiting their avenues for demanding higher pay.

It matters how Americans understand their situation and the broader dynamics that shape it.  Challenging the ideology that misleads popular understandings, and that includes fanciful notions of what pulling on bootstraps can accomplish, is an important part of the movement building process needed to achieve any meaningful social change.

Ignore Their Threats, Tax The Rich

In most states in the United States, the rich have enjoyed ever lower rates of taxation while working people have suffered from inadequately funded public services.  Calls for an end to this situation are more often than not met with statements by state officials and the wealthy themselves that higher taxes on the rich will prove counterproductive; the rich will just move to lower-tax states.  In fact, research by the sociologist Christobal Young shows that this is largely an empty threat.  The rich rarely move to escape high taxes.

The threat

Oregon offers one example of this threat.  In 2009, the Oregon Legislature passed two measures (66 and 67) in an effort to boost funding for education, health and public safety.  Measure 66 would raise taxes on high income Oregonians—couples earning over $250,000 a year and individuals earning over $125,000 a year.  Measure 67 would raise taxes on profitable corporations.

Opponents of the measures succeeded in placing them on the ballot, hoping that they could scare voters into rejecting them.  Almost all major business leaders threatened calamity if they passed.  For example, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, not only gave $100,000 to the anti-measures campaign, he also wrote an article published in the Oregonian newspaper in which he said:

Measures 66 and 67 should be labeled Oregon’s Assisted Suicide Law II.

They will allow us to watch a state slowly killing itself.

They are anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational, anti-humanitarian, and most ironically, in the long run, they will deprive the state of tax revenue, not increase it. . . .

Reputable economists forecast 66 and 67 will cost the state thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of jobs, and that thousands of our most successful residents will leave the state.

Knight ended his letter with his own threat to leave the state if the measures passed.  However, voters approved both measures, and Nike and Phil Knight remain in Oregon.

Young provides other examples of threats of “rich flight”:

As California considered similar taxes [to Oregon], policymakers cautioned “nothing is more mobile than a millionaire and his money”. In New Jersey, governor Chris Christie simply stated: “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you tax them, they will leave.”

The reality

Young studied tax return data, which shows where people live, for every million-dollar earner in the United States over the years 1999 to 2011.  His data set included “3.7 million top-earning individuals, who collectively filed more than 45 million tax returns.”

What he found was that the migration rate of millionaires was relatively low, with only 2.4 percent of millionaires changing their state residence in a given year.  Perhaps not surprisingly, as we see below, poorer people tend to move from one state to another more often than do millionaires.

Young does note that “When millionaires do move, they admittedly tend to favor lower-tax states over higher-tax ones – but only marginally so. Around 15 percent of interstate millionaire migrations bring a net tax advantage. The other 85 percent have no net tax impact for the movers.”

Moreover, almost all the movement by millionaires to lower-tax states is accounted for by moves to just one state, Florida.  Other low-tax states, like Texas, were not net-recipients of millionaires fleeing high-tax states.  In short there is no real evidence that millionaires systematically move from high-tax states to low-tax states.

Young believes that one major reason for the lack of migration by the rich is that “migration is a young person’s game.”  As the figure below shows, people tend to move for education and early in their careers. Thus:

By the time people hit their early forties, PhDs, college grads and high school drop-outs all show the same low rate of migration. Typically, millionaires are society’s highly educated at an advanced career stage. They are typically the late-career working rich: established professionals in management, finance, consulting, medicine, law and similar fields. And they have low migration because they are both socially and economically embedded in place.

The global story

Young finds the global story is much the same.  He examined the 2010 Forbes list of world’s billionaires and found that approximately 85 percent still lived in their country of birth.  Moreover, as he explains:

among those who do live abroad, most moved to their current country of residence long before they became wealthy – either as children with their parents, or as students going abroad to study (and then staying). . . . Only about 5% of world billionaires moved abroad after they became successful.

The take-away

The rich have both increased their share of income and reduced their share of state taxes over the last decades.  This has left most states unable to provide the critical public services working people need.  Young’s study demonstrates that we should not allow fears of “rich flight” to keep us from building “tax the rich movements” across the United States.

The Chinese Economy: Problems and Prospects

The Chinese economy is big. In 2017, it was the world’s biggest based on purchasing power parity.  Its output equaled $23.12 trillion, compared with $19.9 trillion for the EU and $19.3 trillion for the US.

China also regained its position as the world’s largest exporter in 2017, topping the EU which held the position in 2016.  Chinese exports totaled $2.2 trillion compared with EU exports of $1.9 trillion. The United States was third, exporting $1.6 trillion.

The Chinese economy also recorded an impressive 6.9 percent increase in growth last year, easily beating the government’s 2017 target of 6.5 percent and the 6.7 percent rate of growth in 2016.  According to international estimates, China was responsible for approximately 30 percent of global economic growth in 2017.

The Chinese government as well as many international analysts also claim that China has entered a new economic phase, one that is far more domestic-centered and responsive to popular needs, and thus more stable than in the past when the country relied on exports to record even higher rates of growth.

It all sounds good.  However, there are many reasons to question China’s growth record as well as the stability of the country’s economy and turn towards a new domestic-centered growth strategy.  Glowing reports aside, hard times might well lie ahead for workers in China and the broader Asian region.

Chinese Growth

As the chart below shows, China’s rate of growth fell for six straight years, from 2011 to 2016, before registering an increase in 2017. Current predictions are for a further decline, down to 6.5 percent, in 2018.

However, Chinese growth figures still need to be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt.”  As Lucy Hornby, Archie Zhang, and Jane Pong discuss in a Financial Times article, Chinese provinces routinely fudge their growth data, which compromises the reliability of national growth figures.  For example:

Inner Mongolia, one of China’s most coal-dependent areas, and the major northern port city of Tianjin, have admitted to falsifying data that will probably require their 2016 GDP to be revised down. They join neighboring Liaoning, the first province to admit to a contraction during the four-year correction in commodities markets.

Inner Mongolia admitted this month that its data for “added value of industrial enterprises of a certain scale” were inflated 40 per cent in 2016. According to the Chinese statistical yearbook, secondary industry comprises 47 per cent of its GDP. Assuming its 2015 figures are accurate, the revised 2016 figures mean the region’s economy shrank 13 per cent. . . .

Like Inner Mongolia, Liaoning admitted to a contraction in 2016 compared with its official performance in 2015. Liaoning admits it faked data for about five years but has not issued a revised series. . . .

Tianjin, one of the big ports that services northern China, could also see a revision. Its Binhai financial district, which offers tax and foreign exchange incentives to registered businesses, swelled to comprise roughly half of Tianjin’s reported GDP last year.

Binhai included in GDP the commercial activity of companies that were only registered there for tax purposes, according to revelations last week. That could result in a 20 per cent drop in reported GDP for Tianjin in 2017, according to FT calculations. Binhai’s high debt levels and access to domestic and international financing make its phantom results a concern for broader markets.

Another possible data offender is Shanxi, China’s most coal-dependent province. Its official GDP growth held up admirably during the commodities downturn.

Last summer China’s anti-corruption watchdog announced unspecified problems with Jilin’s data, adding another troubled northeastern province to the list of candidates to watch.

Wang Xiangwei, former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, sums up the situation as follows:

This [falsification of data] has given rise to a popular saying that “data makes an official and an official makes data”.  The malpractice is so rampant and blatant that over the years, a long-running joke is that simply adding up the figures from all the provinces and municipalities reveals a sum that overshoots the national GDP – by 6.1 trillion yuan (more than 10 per cent!) in 2013, 4.78 trillion yuan in 2014, and 3.6 trillion yuan in 2016.

This data manipulation certainly suggests that China has regularly failed to meet government growth targets.  Perhaps more importantly, even the overstated published nation growth statistics show that China’s rate of growth has steadily fallen.

Debt problems threaten economic stability

There are also reasons to doubt that China can sustain its targeted growth rate of 6.5 percent. A major reason, as the next chart shows, is that China’s growth has been underpinned by ever increasing debt.  Said differently, it appears that ever more debt is required to sustain ever lower rates of growth.

As Matthew C Klein, writing in the Financial Times Alphaville Blog, explains:

The rapidity and size of China’s debt boom in the past decade has been almost entirely without precedent. The few precedents that do exist — Japan in the 1980s, the US in the 1920s— are not encouraging.

Most coverage has rightly focused on China’s corporate sector, particularly the debts that state-owned enterprises owe to the big four state-owned banks. After all, these liabilities constitute the biggest bulk of the total debt outstanding, and also explain most of the total growth in Chinese debt since the mid-2000s.

The explosive nature of China’s corporate sector debt growth is well illustrated by comparisons to the relatively stable corporate debt ratios in other major countries, as shown in the following chart.

China’s growing debt means it likely that sometime in the not too distant future the Chinese state will be forced to tighten its monetary policy, making it harder for Chinese companies to borrow to finance their existing levels of employment and investment, thus triggering a potentially sharp slowdown in growth.  At the same time, since much of China’s corporate debt is owed to government-controlled banks, it is also likely that the Chinese state will be able to limit the economic fallout from expected corporate defaults and avoid a major financial crisis.

But, while corporate debt has drawn the most attention, household debt is also on the rise, and not so easily managed if serious repayment problems develop. According to Klein,

Since the start of 2007, Chinese disposable household income has grown about 12 per cent each year on average, while Chinese household debt has grown about 23 per cent each year on average. The cumulative effect [as illustrated below] is that (nominal) income has slightly more than tripled but debts have grown by nearly a factor of nine. . . .

All this is finally starting to affect the aggregate debt numbers. Household debt in China is still small relative to the total — about 18 per cent as of mid-2017 — but household borrowers are now responsible for about one third of the growth in total nonfinancial debt.

By mid-2017, Chinese households held debt equal to approximately 106 percent of their disposable income, roughly equal to the current American ratio.  What makes Chinese household debt so dangerous is that, as Klein notes, “households cannot service their debts out of GDP. Instead they have to rely on their meagre incomes.”  And as we see below, the share of Chinese national output going to households is not only low but has generally been trending downward.  By comparison, disposable income in the US normally runs around 72-76 percent of GDP.

In addition, it has been “finance companies and private loan sharks” that have done most of the consumer lending, not state banks.  This will make it harder for the state to keep repayment problems from having a significant negative effect on domestic economic activity.

Thus, while Chinese officials argue that China’s new lower rate of growth represents a switch to a new more stable level of economic activity, the country’s debt explosion suggests otherwise.  As Michael Pettis argues in his August 14, 2017 Monthly Report on China:

To argue that the authorities have been successful in stabilizing GDP growth rates and now must address credit growth misses the point entirely. If GDP growth “stabilizes” while credit growth accelerates, GDP growth cannot be said to have stabilized, at least not in any meaningful way. Chinese economic growth can only be said to have stabilized if GDP growth rates remain constant without any increase in the debt burden – i.e. credit grows in line with or slower than nominal GDP – and in my opinion, as I said above, this cannot happen except at growth rates well below half the current reported GDP growth rate, or less than 3 percent.

What new growth model?

For several years Chinese leaders have acknowledged the need for a new growth model that would produce slower but more sustainable rates of growth.  As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang explained in a recent speech to the National People’s Congress:

China’s economy is now in a pivotal period in the transformation of its growth model, its structural improvement and its shift to new growth drivers.  China’s economy is transitioning from a phase of rapid growth to a stage of high-quality development.

In other words, China is said to have abandoned its past export-driven high-speed growth strategy in favor of a slower, more domestic, human-centered growth strategy.  China’s current slower growth is in line with this transformation and thus should not be taken as a sign of economic weakness.

However, there are few signs of this transformation, other than a lower rate of growth.  For example, one hallmark of the new growth model is supposed to be the shift from external to domestic, private consumption-based drivers of growth.  The slowdown in the global economy in the post 2008 period certainly makes such a shift necessary. But the data, as shown below, reveals that there has been no significant gain in private consumption’s share of GDP.  In fact, it actually declined in 2017.

China’s private consumption accounted for 39.1 percent of GDP in Dec 2017, compared with a ratio of 39.4 percent the previous year.  The ratio recorded an all-time high of 71.3 percent in Dec 1962 and a record low of 35.6 percent in Dec 2010. And as we saw above, there has been no significant increase in disposable income’s share of GDP. Moreover, the existing consumption, in line with income trends, remains heavily skewed towards the wealthy.

What has remained high, as we see in the next chart, is investment, a pillar of the old growth model.

China’s Investment accounted for 44.4 percent of GDP in Dec 2017, compared with a ratio of 44.1 percent in the previous year. The ratio reached an all-time high of 48.0 percent in Dec 2011 and a record low of 15.1 percent in Dec 1962.

This investment continues to emphasize infrastructure, real estate development and enhancing manufacturing capacity.  One example:

A symbol of the investment addiction can be found in “China’s Manhattan.”

Tianjin’s Conch Bay, a 110-hectare district with a cluster of 40 high-rise buildings, was supposed to be the country’s new financial capital as outlays surged over the past several years. But in late November there were few signs of life. A number of buildings were still under construction; the streets were empty; and even completed buildings had no occupants.

From 2000 to 2010, investment in Tianjin — the hometown of former Premier Wen Jiabao — swelled by a factor of 10.3.

In fact, despite official pronouncements, China’s accelerated growth in 2017 owes much to external sources of demand.  As Reuters describes:

China’s economy grew faster than expected in the fourth quarter of 2017, as an export recovery helped the country post its first annual acceleration in growth in seven years, defying concerns that intensifying curbs on industry and credit would hurt expansion. . . .

A synchronized uptick in the global economy over the past year, driven in part by a surge in demand for semiconductors and other technology products, has been a boon to China and much of trade-dependent Asia, with Chinese exports in 2017 growing at their quickest pace in four years.

With fixed asset-investment growth at the weakest pace since 1999, exports helped pick up the slack.

“Real growth of overall exports…more than fully (explained) the pick-up in GDP growth last year,” Oxford Economics head of Asia economics Louis Kuijs wrote in a note.

And as we can see from the chart below, China’s export gains continue to depend heavily on the US market—a market that is becoming increasingly problematic in the wake of US tariff threats.

China’s real new growth strategy: The One Belt, One Road initiative

There are many pressures keeping Chinese leaders from seriously pursuing a real domestic-centered, consumption-based growth model.  One of the most important is that the interests of powerful political forces would be damaged if the government took meaningful steps to significantly increase the wages and improve the working conditions of Chinese workers.  And since many in the government and party directly benefit from existing relations of production they have little reason to pursue a strategy that would threaten the profitability of China-based production activity.

At the same time, it was clear to Chinese leaders that a new strategy was necessary to keep Chinese growth from further decline, an outcome which they feared could spur regime-threatening labor militancy.  Their answer, first discussed in 2013, appears to be the One Belt, One Road initiative.  The beauty of this initiative is that it allows the existing political economy to continue functioning with little change while opening up new outlets for basic industrial products produced by leading state firms, creating new export markets for private producers, and expanding the huge infrastructure that underpins the Chinese construction industry.

Asia Monitor Research Center, in the introduction to its Asian Labor Update issue on the One Belt, One Road initiative, describes what is at stake as follows:

Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road has been described as the next round of “opening up” by the Chinese government, following the development of Special Economic Zones and China’s accession to the WTO. Indeed, the OBOR strategy can be seen as a very significant and ambitious next step in the expansion of the role that China plays globally and its implementation will impact on the lives of millions of people domestically and globally.

Chinese government strategies towards both the BRICS and even more so towards OBOR, which has been dubbed “globalization 2.0”, potentially have important implications for the direction of globalization in the future. Given the way that China’s development strategies have led to significant environmental destruction and labor rights violations domestically, and the way that its investment overseas has been frequently criticized or led to opposition due to their adverse social and environmental consequences, suggest that there are legitimate causes for concern about the impacts on people and the environment of this direction.

In fact, the special issue includes several contributions which highlight the negative consequences of this initiative.  The initiative is first and foremost designed to enable Chinese companies to build roads, railway lines, ports and power grids for the benefit of China’s economy.  These projects come with massive environmental degradation, displacement of local communities, and local labor exploitation.  It also aims to advance Chinese efforts to control agricultural land and raw materials in targeted countries and promote the creation of Yuan currency area.

It remains to be seen how successful the One Belt, One Road initiative will be in achieving its aims.  What does seem clear is the talk of a new more stable, humane, high-quality Chinese economy is largely just that, talk.  Chinese leaders appear heavily invested in trying to breathe new life into the country’s existing growth model, a model that comes with enormous human and environmental costs.

Living On The Edge: Americans In A Time Of “Prosperity”

These are supposed to be the good times—with our current economic expansion poised to set a record as the longest in US history. Yet, according to the Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2017, forty percent of American adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as an unexpected medical bill, car problem or home repair.

The problem with our economy isn’t that it sometimes hits a rough patch.  It’s that people struggle even when it is setting records.

The expansion is running out of steam

Our current economic expansion has already gone 107 months.  Only one expansion has lasted longer: the expansion from March 1991 to March 2001 which lasted 120 months.

A CNBC Market Insider report by Patti Domm quotes Goldman Sachs economists as saying: “The likelihood that the expansion will break the prior record is consistent with our long-standing view that the combination of a deep recession and an initially slow recovery has set us up for an unusually long cycle.”

The Goldman Sachs model, according to Domm:

shows an increased 31 percent chance for a U.S. recession in the next nine quarters. That number is rising. But it’s a good news, bad news story, and the good news is there is now a two-thirds chance that the recovery will be the longest on record. . . . The Goldman economists also say the medium-term risk of a recession is rising, “mainly because the economy is at full employment and still growing above trend.”

The chart below highlights the growing recession risk based on a Goldman Sachs model that looks at “lagged GDP growth, the slope of the yield curve, equity price changes, house price changes, the output gap, the private debt/GDP ratio, and economic policy uncertainty.”

Sooner or later, the so-called good times are coming to an end.  Tragically, a large percent of Americans are still struggling at a time when our “economy is at full employment and still growing above trend.” That raises the question: what’s going to happen to them and millions of others when the economy actually turns down?

Living on the edge

The Federal Reserve’s report was based on interviews with a sample of over 12,000 people that was “designed to be representative of adults ages 18 and older living in the United States.”  One part of the survey dealt with unexpected expenses.  Here is what the report found:

Approximately four in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money. The following figure shows that the share of Americans facing financial insecurity has been falling, but it is still alarming that the percentage remains so high this late in a record setting expansion.

Strikingly, the Federal Reserve survey also found, as shown in the table below, that “(e)ven without an unexpected expense, 22 percent of adults expected to forgo payment on some of their bills in the month of the survey. Most frequently, this involves not paying, or making a partial payment on, a credit card bill.”

And, as illustrated in the figure below, twenty-seven percent of adult Americans skipped necessary medical care in 2017 because they were unable to afford its cost.  The table that follows shows that “dental care was the most frequently skipped treatment, followed by visiting a doctor and taking prescription medicines.”

Clearly, we need more and better jobs and a stronger social safety net.  Achieving those will require movement building.  Needed first steps include helping those struggling see that their situation is not unique, a consequence of some individual failing, but rather is the result of the workings of a highly exploitative system that suffers from ever stronger stagnation tendencies.  And this requires creating opportunities for people to share experiences and develop their will and capacity to fight for change.  In this regard, there may be much to learn from the operation of the Councils of the Unemployed during the 1930s.

It also requires creating opportunities for struggle.  Toward that end we need to help activists build connections between ongoing labor and community struggles, such as the ones that education and health care workers are making as they fight for improved conditions of employment and progressive tax measures to fund a needed expansion of public services.  This is the time, before the next downturn, to lay the groundwork for a powerful movement for social transformation.

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This post was updated May 31, 2018.  The original post misstated the length of the current expansion.

Corporate Taxes And False Promises: US Workers And The 2017 Tax Cuts And Jobs Act

In December 2017 the Congress approved and the President signed into law the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  The Act reduced business and individual taxes, with corporations and the wealthy the greatest beneficiaries.  But, as usual, government and business leaders promoted this policy by also promising substantial gains for working people.  Any surprise that they lied?

Corporate Tax Giveaways And Wage Promises

Corporations, and their stockowners, were the biggest winners of this tax scam.  The Act lowered the US corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and eliminated the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax.

It also gave a special bonus to multinational corporations, changing the federal tax system from a global to a territorial one.  Under the previous global tax system, US multinational corporations were supposed to pay the 35 percent US tax rate for income earned in any country in which they had a subsidiary, less a credit for the income taxes they paid to that country.  Now, under the new territorial tax system, each corporate subsidiary is only required to pay the tax rate of the country in which it is legally established.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, this change:

risks creating a large, permanent incentive for U.S. multinationals to shift overseas not just profits on paper but actual investment as well.  This could lead to a reduction in capital investment in the United States and thereby wind up reducing U.S. workers’ wages, as Congressional Research Service economist Jane Gravelle has explained. The law includes several provisions to try to limit the damage this incentive could cause, but they don’t alter the basic incentive to shift profits and investment offshore.

The Act also offers multinational corporations a one-time special lower tax rate of 8 percent on repatriated profits that are currently held by overseas subsidiaries in tax-haven countries; estimates are that there are some $3 trillion dollars parked offshore.

And, what are working people supposed to get for this massive tax giveaway to corporations?  According to President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Act would generate a substantial increase in investment and productivity, thereby boosting employment and wages.  Both political leaders cited, in support of their claims, the work of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers which argued that:

Reducing the statutory federal corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent would, the analysis below suggests, increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually. The increases recur each year, and the estimated total value of corporate tax reform for the average U.S. household is therefore substantially higher than $4,000. Moreover, the broad range of results in the literature suggest that over a decade, this effect could be much larger. These conclusions are driven by empirical patterns that are highly visible in the data, in addition to an extensive peer-reviewed research.

In fact, the Council’s report went on to say: “When we use the more optimistic estimates from the literature, wage boosts are over $9,000 for the average U.S. household.”

Modeling the effects of a tax cut is far from simple.  And, given the political nature of tax policy, it should come as no surprise that the estimate of gains for workers by President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers was based on questionable assumptions and a real outlier.  This is highlighted by a Washington Center for Equitable Growth issue brief:

This issue brief examines estimates of the change in wages resulting from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act after 10 years implied by the macroeconomic analyses of the Tax Policy Center, the Congressional Budget Office, the Penn Wharton Budget Model, the Tax Foundation, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers. The Tax Policy Center estimated that the law would increase wages by less than 0.1 percent after 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office estimated an increase of about 0.3 percent in the same year. The Penn Wharton Budget Model produced two estimates of the impact on wages, about 0.25 percent and 0.8 percent. The Tax Foundation estimated an increase of about 2 percent, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated increases between 5 percent and 11 percent.  All of these estimates compare wages in 2027 to what they would have been in that year had the legislation not been enacted. . . .

These estimates imply widely varying labor incidence of the corporate tax cuts in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, ranging from near zero for the Tax Policy Center to multiples of the conventional revenue estimate for the Council of Economic Advisers. As a reference point, wage rates would need to increase by about 1 percent above what they would have been in the absence of the law to shift the benefits of the corporate tax cuts from shareholders to workers—and even more if revenue-raising provisions of the new law scheduled to take effect in the future are delayed or repealed.

Corporate Taxes Go Down and Wages Remain Low

Chris Macke, writing in the Hill, highlights just how little workers have benefited to this point from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act:

The latest Employment Situation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows weekly employee earnings have grown $75 since tax reform passed, well short of the $4,000 to $9,000 annual increases projected by President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

During the three months following passage of the tax bill, the average American saw a $6.21 increase in average weekly earnings. Assuming 12 weeks of work during the three months following passage of the corporate tax cuts, this equates to a $75 increase.

Assuming a full 52 weeks of work, the $6.21 increase in weekly earnings would result in a $323 annual increase, nowhere near the minimum $4,000 promised and $9,000 potential annual increases projected by President Trump and Speaker Ryan if significant cuts were made to corporate tax rates.

Unless something drastically changes, it seems that Americans are going to have to settle for much less than the $4,000 to $9,000 projected wage increases. An extra $322 a year isn’t going to do much to pay down the $1 trillion in additional debt they are projected to take on as a result of the tax cuts.

Mark Whitehouse, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, provides additional evidence that the business tax cuts are doing little for the average worker.  As he put it: “Companies getting bigger breaks aren’t giving bigger raises.”

The following chart from his article shows that industries “getting bigger tax breaks aren’t giving bigger raises.”  Actually, quite the opposite appears to be true.  To this point, we actually see a negative correlation between the size of the tax cuts and wage increases.

The next chart provides a more useful look at the relationship between expected tax breaks and wage increases, showing how much companies in the different industries have boosted wages relative to the previous year.  Not only does the negative correlation remain, wage growth has actually fallen in the industries expected to enjoy the largest tax cuts.

 

What we see is corporate power at work.  And, in the face of growing stagnation tendencies, those who wield this power appear willing to pursue ever more extreme policies in defense of their interests, apparently confident that they will be able to manage any instabilities or crises that might arise.  It is up to us to stop them, by building a movement able to help working people see through corporate and government misrepresentations and take-up their side of the ongoing class war.

US Trade Deficits, Trump Trade Policies, and Capitalist Globalization

Understandably concerned about the consequences of the large and sustained US trade deficit, many workers have grown tired of waiting for so-called market forces to produce balance.  Thus, they cheer Trump administration promises to correct the imbalance through tariffs or reworked trade agreements that will supposedly end unfair foreign trade practices.

Unfortunately, this view of trade encourages workers in the United States to see themselves standing with their employers and against workers in other countries who are said to be benefiting from the trade successes of their employers.  As a consequence, it also encourages US workers to support trade policies that will do little to improve their well-being.

To understand the driving force behind and develop a helpful response to US trade imbalances one must start by recognizing the interrelated nature of US domestic and international patterns of economic activity.  Large US multinational corporations, seeking to boost profits, have slowly but steadily globalized their economic activity through either the direct establishment of overseas affiliates or their use of foreign-owned subcontractors that operate under terms set by the lead multinational.  This process of globalization has meant reduced investment in plant and equipment and slower job creation in the United States, and the creation of competitiveness pressures that work to the disadvantage of workers in both the US and other countries.  It has also led to the creation of a structural trade deficit that is financed by massive flows of money back into the US as well as consumer debt, both of which swell the profits of the financial industry.  In other words, the real problem confronting workers here is capitalist globalization.

The globalization of the US economy

The World Bank divides international trade into either intra-firm trade or arm’s length trade.  Intra-firm trade refers to international trade carried out between affiliates of the same multinational corporation.  Arm’s length trade refers to international trade carried out between “independent” firms.  Independent is in quotes here because international trade between a multinational corporation and a firm operating in another country under contract would still be classified as arm’s length, even though the production and resulting trade activity is determined by the needs of the dominant multinational corporation.

As the World Bank explains in its study of intra-firm trade:

In practice, multinationals employ intra-firm and arm’s length transactions to varying degrees. In 2015, intra-firm transactions are estimated to have accounted for about one-third of global exports. Vertically integrated multinational companies, such as Samsung Electronics, Nokia, and Intel, trade primarily intrafirm. Samsung, the world’s biggest communications equipment multinational, has 158 subsidiaries across the world, including 43 subsidiaries in Europe, 32 in China and 30 in North and South America. Other multinationals, such as Apple, Motorola, and Nike, rely mainly on outsourcing, and hence on arm’s length trade with non-affiliated suppliers.

The four figures below, taken from the World Bank study, illustrate the extent to which multinational corporations shape US trade patterns with both other advanced economies (AEs) and emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs).  The numbers shown in figures A and B are averages for the period 2002 to 2014.

Figure A shows that approximately one-third of all US exports of goods are intra-firm, meaning that they were sold by one unit of a multinational corporation operating in the US to another unit of the same multinational corporation operating outside the US.  Figure B shows that approximately one-half of all US imports of goods are intra-firm.  In both cases the share of intra-firm trade was higher with AEs than with EMDEs.  Figure E shows that the share of intra-firm exports to AEs remained remarkably constant despite the overall slump in trade that followed the 2008 Great Recession.  Figure F reveals that the share of imports that are intra-firm actually grew over the period, especially from EMDEs.


As noted above, many multinational corporations choose to subcontract production, producing arm’s length trade, rather than establish and buy goods from their own foreign affiliates.  In this case, arm’s length trade is not really independent trade.  We can gain some insight into how important this development is by examining the main sources of arm’s length US imports.  As we can see in figure B below, more than half of all US arm’s length imports come from China.

Most of these Chinese imports are actually exported by non-affiliated suppliers that operate within corporate controlled cross border production or buyer networks. For example, China is the primary US supplier of many high technology consumer goods, most notably cell phones and laptops.  Almost all are manufactured by foreign companies operating in China under according to terms set by the relevant lead multinational corporation.  The same is true for many low technology, labor intensive products such clothing, toys, and furniture, which are usually produced under contract by foreign suppliers for large retailers like Walmart.

Thus, the relatively low share of intra-firm imports from EMDEs compared with AEs owes much to the preference of many important US based multinational corporations–like Apple, Dell, and Nike–to have non-affiliated supplier firms hire workers and produce for them in China.  The same is true, although not on such a large scale, for a significant share of arm’s length US imports from Mexico.

In sum, it is likely that the globalization strategies of multinational corporations, not the decisions of truly independent foreign producers, are responsible for some 2/3 of all US imports.

Trends in trade

Global trade growth has dramatically slowed since the end of the Great Recession.  Global trade grew by an average of 7.6 percent a year over the years 2002 to 2008.  It has grown by an average of only 4.3 percent a year over the years 2010-14.  Significantly, the greatest decline has come in arm’s length trade.  This should not be surprising, since intra-firm trade is essential to the operation of the world’s leading multinational corporations.  US trade exhibits a similar trend.

In the words of the World Bank:

The U.S. trade data highlight that arm’s length trade accounted disproportionately for the overall post-crisis trade slowdown. This reflected a higher pre-crisis average and a weaker post-crisis rebound in arm’s length trade growth compared with intrafirm trade. . . . By 2014, intra-firm trade growth had returned close to its pre-crisis average (4.3 percent of exports and 5.0 percent for imports). In contrast, arm’s length trade growth remained significantly below its high pre-crisis average: its growth slowed to a post-crisis annual average of 4.7 percent compared to 11.3 percent during 2002-08.

Figures A and B below highlight these trends in US trade.

As trade becomes ever more dominated by intra firm exchanges, it will become ever more difficult for governments to manage their international trade accounts using traditional trade tools, and that includes the US government.  For example, according to the World Bank:

Trade conducted through global value chains generally shows less sensitivity to real exchange rates. That’s because competitiveness gains from real depreciations are partly offset by rising input costs. To the extent that intra-firm trade is more strongly associated with global value chains than arm’s length trade, intra-firm U.S. exports may have benefited less from the pre-crisis U.S. dollar depreciation and been dampened to a lesser degree by the post-crisis appreciation than arm’s-length exports. In addition, firms integrated vertically may have a wider range of tools available to them to hedge against exchange rate movements.

The take-away

The US trade deficit is the result of a conscious globalization strategy by large multinational corporations.  And this strategy has greatly paid off for them.  They have been able to use their mobility to secure lower wages (by putting workers from different countries into competition for employment) and reduced regulations and lower taxes (by putting governments into competition for investment).  The result is a structural deficit in US trade that is no accident and not likely to be significantly reduced by policies that do not directly challenge multinational corporate production and investment decisions.

It is hard to imagine that the Trump administration, no matter its public pronouncements, will pursue its tariff policy or NAFTA renegotiation efforts in ways that will threaten corporate power and profits.  Whether its misdirection efforts on trade can continue to encourage workers in the United States to see other workers rather than corporate globalization as the main cause of its problems remains to be seen.