Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Economic Theory

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.

Advertisements

US Workers And Their Decades Of Lost Earnings

It happened gradually, but thanks to the US media, economic news has largely been reduced to stock market reporting.  Want to know how the economy is doing?  Check the S&P 500 Index.  Want to know whether the latest Trump proposal is good or bad?  Check the S&P 500 Index.

And perhaps even more amazingly, the media has also transformed the stock market into a new superhero.  In good times it roars or soars.  In bad time it weathers the storm, regroups, and battles back to defend our collective well-being.

Somehow real economic processes and even more importantly the actual economic well-being of people has largely been shoved to the background.  Largely lost from view is the fact that most workers have suffered lost decades of earnings.

The Stock Market

As we see below the stock market, represented by the S&P 500, has enjoyed quite a run over the last few decades.

Left out of the celebration is the fact that few Americans own stock; in fact more than half of all US households own no stock at all, even indirectly through pension plans or mutual funds.

According to NYU economist Edward N. Wolff, as shown below, the wealthiest 10 percent of US households owned 84 percent of all stocks, by value, in 2016.  That is up from 77 percent in 2001.  By contrast, the bottom 60 percent of households owned just 1.8 percent of total stock value.

As the Washington Post explains:

For the top 20 percent of households, the day-to-day movements of the Dow Jones reflect real changes in their net worth and financial health. Big shifts in the market might mean the difference between retiring today and retiring five years from now, or between buying that bungalow right on the beach and buying the one a few blocks away.

But for many of the remaining 80 percent of American families, who collectively own less than 7 percent of the stock market even when you factor in their retirement accounts, the Dow and the S&P 500 are little more than numeric abstractions.

Lost Decades

The stock market’s rise and our growing identification with it tends to hide what is really happening to people.  Here, at a ground level, the sad reality is that most workers have experienced lost decades of earnings.

The chart below, taken from an analysis by Jill Mislinski for Advisor Perspectives, shows the real average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees in the private sector, a category that includes close to 85 percent of all private sector employees.  As we can see, real average hourly earnings in January 2018 are about what they were in 1978, four decades earlier, and considerably below their 1973 peak, and that is after a sustained rise.  A lot of income was lost over that period.

The loss of income is even greater when we take into account the gradual, long term decline in average weekly hours, illustrated next.

Putting the two series together gives us the trend in average real weekly earnings.  As we can see, despite decades of growth in the economy and stock market, real average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees have a long way to go to compensate for decades of decline and stagnation.

Jill Mislinksi offers the following perspective on this trend in average weekly earnings:

If we multiply the hypothetical weekly earnings by 50, we get an annual figure of $37,531. That’s a 13.5% decline from the similarly calculated real peak in October 1972. In the charts above, we’ve highlighted the presidencies during this time frame. Our purpose is not necessarily to suggest political responsibility, but rather to offer some food for thought. We will point out that the so-called supply-side economics popularized during the Reagan administration (aka “trickle-down” economics), wasn’t very friendly to production and nonsupervisory employees.

 

One small way we can help speed needed change is to challenge the media embrace of the stock market as our representative economic indicator and demand that economic reporting focus on meaningful realities for the great majority.

Signs Of Economic Trouble Ahead

The current expansion has gone on for 102 months.  Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and from February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  Unfortunately, growth during this expansion has been slow and the gains have largely gone to a very few.  And there are signs of economic trouble ahead.

The figure below shows that the rate of growth of GDP per capita during this expansion has been significantly below those of past expansions.

Weak business investment, as illustrated below, is one reason for the disappointing economic performance. 

Corporations have certainly made money during this expansion.  It is just that they have been more interested in using it to pay dividends and buyback their stock to push up share prices rather than spend it on new plant and equipment.  As Nomi Prins explains, and as illustrated in the next figure, “companies have been on a spree of buying their own stock, establishing a return to 2007-level stock buybacks.”

Not surprisingly, then, growth, as the next chart shows, has recently been driven by private consumption.

However, as we see below, for the last two years that consumption has not been supported by earnings.

Moreover, despite the length of the current expansion, median nominal wage growth not only remains low, it has begun to turn down. Thus, we are unlikely to see any significant boost in median earnings.

There is another reason to doubt that consumption can continue to grow at its current rate.  As the Wall Street Journal Daily Shot Brief notes:

While economists expect consumption to remain strong this year (helped in part by the new tax bill), it’s hard to see the US consumer staying this enthusiastic for too long. That’s because the savings rate as a percentage of disposable income is at a decade low.

At some point over the next year or two, perhaps triggered by interest rate hikes or a fall in investment due to a decline in the rate of profit, the expansion will end.  Majority living and working conditions, already under pressure, will then further deteriorate.  We face big challenges ahead.

Class, Race, and US Wealth Inequality

People tend to have a distorted picture of US capitalism’s operation, believing that the great majority of Americans are doing well, benefiting from the system’s long-term growth and profit generation.  Unfortunately, this is not true.  Median wealth has been declining, leaving growing numbers of working people increasingly vulnerable to the ups and downs of economic activity and poorly positioned to enjoy a secure retirement.  Moreover, this general trend masks a profound racial wealth divide, with people of color disproportionally suffering from a loss of wealth and insecurity.

A distorted picture of wealth inequality

In a 2011 article, based on 2005 national survey data, Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely demonstrate how little Americans know about the extent of wealth inequality.  The figure below (labeled Fig. 2) shows the actual distribution of wealth in that year compared to what survey respondents thought it was, as well as their ideal wealth distribution.  As the authors explain:

respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%. More interesting, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution, reporting a desire for the top quintile to own just 32% of the wealth. These desires for more equal distributions of wealth took the form of moving money from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles, while leaving the second quintile unchanged, evincing a greater concern for the less fortunate than the more fortunate.

The next figure reveals that respondents tended to have remarkably similar perceptions of wealth distribution regardless of their income, political affiliation, or gender.  Moreover, all the groups embraced remarkably similar ideal distributions that were far more egalitarian than their estimated ones.

Capitalist wealth dynamics

Wealth inequality has only grown worse since 2005.  As I previously posted, in 2016, the top 10 percent of the population owned 77.1 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 10 percent owned -0.5 percent (they are net debtors).  Even these numbers understate the degree of wealth concentration: the top 1 percent actually owned 38.5 percent of the wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent combined. This was a sharp rise from the 29.9 percent share they held in 1989.

Perhaps more importantly, median household wealth is not only quite small–not nearly enough to provide financial stability and security–but is actually growing smaller over time.  In fact, median household wealth in 2016 was 8 percent below what it had been in 1998.

 

The racial wealth divide

Of course, not all families receive equal treatment or are given similar opportunities for advancement.  While US capitalism works to transfer wealth upwards to the very rich, it has disproportionately exploited families of color.  This is made clear by the results of a 2017 study titled The Road to Zero Wealth by Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, Chuck Collins, Josh Hoxie, and Emanuel Nieves.

As we saw above, median household wealth has been on the decline since 2007, despite the growth in overall economic activity and corporate profits.  The figure below shows median wealth trends for White, Black, and Latino households.

As of 2013, median White household wealth was less than it had been in 1989. However, the wealth decline has been far worse for Black and Latino families.  More specifically, as the authors write:

Since 1983, the respective wealth of Black and Latino families has plunged from $6,800 and $4,000 in 1983 to $1,700 and $2,000 in 2013. These figures exclude durable goods like automobiles and electronics, as these items depreciate quickly in value and do not hold the same liquidity, stability or appreciation of other financial assets like a savings account, a treasury bond or a home.

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, with higher levels of education translating into more income, and then wealth.  But as we see in the figure below, the combination of class policies on top of a history of discrimination and exclusion has left families of color at a significant disadvantage. For example, the median wealth of a family of color with a head of household with 4 year degree is far less than the median wealth of a White family with a head of household with only a high school diploma/GED.

The authors have created their own measure of “middle class wealth,” which they define:

using median White household wealth since it encompasses the full potential of the nation’s wealth-building policies, which have historically excluded households of color. More specifically, we use median White wealth in 1983 ($102,200 in 2013 dollars) as the basis for developing an index that would encompass “middle-class wealth” because it establishes a baseline prior to when increases in wealth were concentrated in a small number of households. Using this approach and applying Pew Research Center’s broad definition of the middle class, this study defines “middle class wealth” as ranging from $68,000 to $204,000.

As we can see in the figure above, only Black and Latino households with an advanced degree make it into that range. Moreover, trends suggest that, without major changes in policy, we can expect further declines in median wealth for households of color.  In fact,

By 2020, if current trends continue as they have been, Black and Latino households at the median are on track to see their wealth decline by 17% and 12% from where they respectively stood in 2013. By then, median White households would see their wealth rise by an additional three percent over today’s levels. In other words, at a time when it’s projected that children of color will make up most of the children in the country, median White households are on track to own 86 and 68 times more wealth, respectively, than Black and Latino households. . . .

Looking beyond 2043, the situation for households of color looks even worse. . . .If unattended, trends at the median suggest Black household wealth will hit zero by 2053. In that same period, median White household wealth is expected to climb to $137,000. The situation isn’t much brighter for Latino households, whose median wealth is expected to reach zero by 2073, just two decades after Black wealth is projected to hit zero. . . . Wealth is an intergenerational asset—its benefits passed down from one generation to the next— and the consequences of these losses will reverberate deeply in the lives of the children and grandchildren of today’s people of color.

Of course, knowledge of the fact that capitalism’s growth largely benefits capitalists, and that people of color pay some of the greatest costs to sustain its forward motion, does not automatically lead to class solidarity and popular opposition to existing accumulation dynamics.  Still, such knowledge does, at a minimum, help people understand that the forces pressing down on them are not the result of individual failure or lack of effort, but rather have systemic roots.  And that is an important step in the right direction.

Taxes, Inequality, And Class Power

No doubt about it, the recently passed tax bill is terrible for working people.  But as Lance Taylor states in a blog post titled “Why Stopping Tax ‘Reform’ Won’t Stop Inequality”: “Inequality isn’t driven by taxes—its driven by the power of capital in relation to workers.”  Said differently we need to concentrate our efforts on shifting the balance of class power.  And that means, among other things, putting more of our energy into workplace organizing and revitalizing the trade union movement.

The rich really are different

Taylor uses the Palma ratio to highlight the growth of income inequality.  The measure, proposed by the Cambridge University economist Jose Gabriel Palma, is defined as the ratio of the average income of a wealthy group relative to the average income of a poorer group.  Taylor calculates Palma ratios “for the top one percent vs. households between the 61st and 99th percentiles of the size distribution (the ‘middle class’) and the sixty percent at the bottom.”

The first figure looks at Palma ratios for pre-tax income.  The second figure uses disposable or after-tax income.

In both figures we see growing ratios, which means that the top 1 percent is increasing its income faster than the other two groups, although the gains are not quite as large in the case of after-tax income, suggesting that taxes and transfers do make a small but real difference.

Be that as it may, the ratio of the top group’s after-tax income relative to Taylor’s middle group grew 3.85 percent per year over the period 1986 to 2014, while the ratio with the bottom group grew 3.54 percent a year.  As Taylor comments, “Such rising inequality is unprecedented. These rates are a full percentage point higher than output growth, and are not sustainable in the long run.”

What is also noteworthy is that the Palma growth rates for both the middle and bottom groups are quite close.  This is important because it shows that inequality is largely driven by the top earners pulling income from the rest of the population, rather than a widening income gap between Taylor’s middle and bottom groups.

An IMF study of the relationship between income inequality and labor market institutions in twenty developed capitalist countries over the period 1980 to 2011 came to a similar conclusion, although it focused on the top 10 percent rather than the top 1 percent. As Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitro, the authors of the study, explain (and illustrate in the figure below):

As with measures of income inequality, changes in the distribution of earnings indicate that inequality has risen owing largely to a concentration of earnings at the top of the distribution. Gross earnings differentials between the 9th and 5th deciles of the distribution have increased over four times as much as the differential between the 5th and 1st deciles. Moreover, data from the Luxembourg Income Survey on net income shares indicate that income shares of the top 10 percent earners have increased at the expense of all other income groups. While there is some country heterogeneity, the increase in top income shares since the 1980s appears to be a pervasive phenomenon.  

Class power counts

As we can see in the first figure above, rich households, with a mean income of greater than $2 million a year, have “40 times the income of the bottom 60 percent and 13.5 times payments going to the middle class.” In the figure below, Taylor illustrates the source of that income.  One way or another, he finds that it comes from capital ownership and profits.

As we can see, labor compensation has grown rapidly over the last few years, and now exceeds $500,000 per year.  Still, it represents only roughly nine percent of the total, significantly less than either of the other two main income categories, proprietor’s income and interest and dividends.  Proprietor’s income, interest and dividends, and capital gains all flow from ownership.  So, in fact, does an important share of labor compensation which includes bonuses and stock options.

As Taylor explains:

Given that the bulk of income of the top one percent comes from profits through one channel or another, the obvious inference is that the rising Palma ratios in Figure 1 were fueled by an ongoing shift away from wages in the “functional” income distribution between labor and capital.

The question is why wages of ordinary households lagged.

After examining patterns and trends in business profits, Taylor concludes that the primary answer lies in the ability of firms to hold down wages.  Among the reasons for their success:

Changes in institutional norms (laws, unionization and other of the game) surely played a role. Robert Solow (2015) from MIT, the doyen of mainstream macroeconomics, observes that labor suffered for reasons including “the decay of unions and collective bargaining, the explicit hardening of business attitudes, the popularity of right-to-work laws, and the fact that the wage lag seems to have begun at about the same time as the Reagan presidency all point in the same direction: the share of wages in national value added may have fallen because the social bargaining power of labor has diminished.”

Divide-and-rule in a “fissuring” labor market, as described by David Weil (2014) is one aspect of this process. Globalization, which came to the forefront in the 2016 Presidential election, also played a role.

The IMF study again provides support for this conclusion. A simple correlation test of the relationship between labor market institutions and inequality produced “a strong negative relation between the top 10 percent income share and union density.”  Econometric tests that attempted to control for technology, globalization, financialization, tax rates and a host of other variables confirmed the relationship.  As the authors explain:

Our benchmark estimates of gross income inequality indicate that the weakening of unions is related to increases in the top 10 percent income share. A 10 percentage point decline in union density is associated with a 5 percent increase in the top 10 percent income share. The relation between union density and the Gini of gross income is also negative and significant.

On average, the decline in union density explains about 40 percent of the 5 percentage point increase in the top 10 percent income share . . . . By contrast, the decline in unionization contributes more modestly to the rise of the gross income Gini, reflecting the somewhat weaker relation between these variables. However, about half of the increase in the Gini of net income is explained by the decline in union density, evidencing the additional and statistically significant relation between this institution and redistribution. The decline in union density was a widespread phenomenon which, as our estimation results suggest, could be an important contributing factor to the rise in top income shares.

The takeaway

Taylor doesn’t minimize the significance of the ongoing tax changes.  But as he states:

it took 30 or 40 years for the present distributional mess to emerge. It may well take a similar span of time to clean it up.  Progressive tax changes of $100 billion here or $50 billion there are not going to impact overall inequality. The same is true of once-off interventions such as raising the minimum wage by a few dollars per hour.

Long-term improvement requires changes to the present situation that can cumulate over time.

And that requires rebuilding labor’s strength so as to secure meaningful wage increases and a transformation in economic institutions and dynamics.  As the IMF study makes clear, fighting for strong unions must be an important part of the process.

The 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances paints a grim picture of working class finances

The Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) is a triennial survey of U.S. families that is sponsored by the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) and carried out by the NORC at the University of Chicago.  It includes information on families’ balance sheets, pensions, income, and demographics. As the Fed notes, “No other study for the country collects comparable information.”

Sadly, as we see below, the wealth data from the 2016 survey paints a grim picture of working class finances, reinforcing what many people already know, that US capitalism works to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

The following figure and table from the 2016 survey shows trends in the median net worth for all families, measured in 2016 dollars.  Strikingly, the median in 2016 was 8 percent below what it had been in 1998.

Of course, while the median value is useful for capturing broad trends, the next figure and table, also from the 2016 survey, makes clear that capitalism’s motion does not treat all families equally.  More specifically, the bottom fifth of families saw their net worth fall by 24 percent over the period 1998 to 2016, while the next lowest income tier experienced an even greater decline, 34 percent.  Those in the next two higher income tiers basically treaded water.  In sharp contrast, the top ten percent enjoyed a net worth increase of 146 percent over the same period.

Matt Bruenig, drawing on data from the survey, provides an even clearer picture of wealth inequality in the following figure.  As he explains:

[it] shows what percent of wealth is owned by each wealth decile.  The way this reads is as follows: the bottom 10 percent owns -0.5 percent of the wealth in the country (they are net debtors) while the top 10 percent owns 77.1 percent of the wealth in the country.

In fact, wealth is even more concentrated than it appears in this figure.  In 2016 the top 1 percent owned 38.5 percent of the wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent combined. This was a sharp rise from the 29.9 percent share they held in 1989.

So, the next time you hear media analysts celebrate US capitalism as a great wealth creating machine, remember that they are celebrating a social system that largely works for the benefit of a very few.

Just Say No To NAFTA

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is unpopular with many working people in the United States, who correctly blame it for encouraging capital flight, job losses, deindustrialization, and wage suppression.   President Trump has triggered the renegotiation of the agreement, which will likely conclude early next year.  Unfortunately, progressives are in danger of missing an important opportunity to build a working class movement for meaningful economic change.  By refusing to openly call for termination of the agreement, they are allowing President Trump to present himself as the defender of the US workers, a status that will likely help him secure the renewal of the treaty and a continuation of destructive globalization dynamics.

The NAFTA debate

According to a recent poll commissioned by Public Citizen:

At a time of great peril for our democracy and deepening public opposition to Donald Trump on many fronts, he wins high marks from voters on handling trade and advocating for American workers: 46 percent approve of his handling of trade agreements with other countries, 51 percent, his ‘putting American workers ahead of the interests of big corporations’ and 60 percent, how he is doing “keeping jobs in the United States.”

This perception of Trump’s advocacy for workers is encouraged by media stories of the strong opposition by leading multinational corporations to several of President Trump’s demands for changes to the existing NAFTA agreement.

The most written about and controversial proposals include:

  • Major modifications to NAFTA’s investor-state dispute settlement system, which allows foreign investors to sue host governments in secret tribunals that trump national laws if these investors believe that government actions threaten their expected profits. The Trump administration proposes to change this system by (1) establishing an “opt-in” provision that would make participation voluntary and (2) ending the ability of private investors to use claims of denial of “minimum standard of treatment” or an “indirect expropriation” as grounds for filing a claim.
  • A tightening of the rules on the origins of car parts. NAFTA rules govern the share of a product that must be sourced within NAFTA member countries to receive the agreement’s low tariff benefits. The Trump administration wants to raise the auto rules of origin to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent and include steel as one of the products to be included in the calculations.  It has also proposed adding a new US-only content requirement of 50 percent.
  • The introduction of a NAFTA sunset clause that would allow any of the participating countries to terminate the deal after five years, a clause that could well mean a renegotiation of the agreement every five years.

Canadian and Mexican government trade representatives have publicly rejected these proposals.  The US corporate community has called them “poison pills” that could doom the renegotiating process, possibly leading to a termination of the agreement.  The president of the US Chamber of Commerce has said that:

All of these proposals are unnecessary and unacceptable. They have been met with strong opposition from the business and agricultural community, congressional trade leaders, the Canadian and Mexican governments, and even other U.S. agencies. . . . The existential threat to the North American Free Trade Agreement is a threat to our partnership, our shared economic vibrancy, and clearly the security and safety of all three nations.

Corporate lobbyists are hard at work, trying to convince members of Congress to use their influence to get Trump to withdraw these proposals, but so far with little success.  In fact, the Trump administration has pushed back:

In remarks to the news media in mid-October, Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, said that businesses should be ready to forego some of the advantages they receive under NAFTA as the United States seeks to negotiate a better deal for workers. In order to win the support of people in both parties, businesses would have to “give up a little bit of candy,” he said.

It is this kind of public back and forth between corporate leaders and the Trump administration that has encouraged many working people to see President Trump as sticking up for their interests.  In broad brush, workers do not trust a dispute resolution settlement system that allows corporations to pursue profits through secret tribunals that stand above national courts.  They also welcome measures that appear likely to force multinational corporations to reverse their past outsourcing of jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, and promote “Buy American” campaigns.  And, they have no problem with periodic reviews of the overall agreement to allow for ongoing corrections that might be needed to improve domestic economic conditions.

The rest of the story

Of course, NAFTA negotiations are not limited to these few contentious issues.  In fact, trade negotiators have made great progress in reaching agreement in many other areas.  However, because of the lack of disagreement between corporations and the Trump administration on the relevant issues, the media has said little about them, leaving the public largely ignorant about the overall pace and scope of the renegotiation process.

Perhaps the main reason that agreement is being reached quickly on many new issues is because many of the Trump administration’s trade proposals closely mirror those previously agreed to by all three NAFTA country governments during the Transpacific Partnership negotiations.  These include “measures to regulate treatment of workers, the environment and state-owned enterprises” as well as “new rules to govern the trade of services, like telecommunications and financial advice, as well as digital goods like music and e-books.”  In short, taken overall, it is clear that the Trump administration remains committed to “modernizing” NAFTA in ways designed to expand the power and profitability of transnational corporations.

A case in point is the proposed change to the existing NAFTA side-agreement on labor rights.  NAFTA currently includes a rather useless side agreement on labor rights.  It only requires the three governments to enforce their own existing labor laws and standards and limits the violations that are subject to sanctions.  For example, sanctions can only be applied—and only after a long period of consultations, investigations, and hearings–to violations of laws pertaining to minimum wages, child labor, and occupational safety and health.  Violations of the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike are not subject to sanctions.

The labor standards agreement that the US proposes to include in NAFTA is one that it has used in more recent trade agreements and was to be part of the Transpacific Partnership.  It says that “No Party shall fail to effectively enforce its labor laws through a sustained or recurring course of action or inaction in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties, after the date of entry into force of this Agreement for that Party.”

This labor agreement is included in the US-Dominican-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) and we now have an example of how it works, thanks to a case filed in 2011 by the US against Guatemala.  The panel chosen to hear the case concluded, in June 2017, that the US “did not prove that Guatemala failed to conform to its obligations.”  The reason: the three person panel made its own monetary calculations about whether Guatemalan labor violations were serious enough to affect trade or investment flows between the two countries and decided they were not.

As Sandra Polaski, former Deputy Director-General for Policy of the International Labor Organization, writes:

The panel reached its decision that Guatemala had not breached its obligations under the DR-CAFTA because the violations had not occurred “in a manner affecting trade” between the parties. . . . The panel chose to establish a demanding standard in its interpretation of that phrase, requiring that a complaining country would have to prove that there were cost savings from specific labor rights violations and that the savings were of sufficient scale to confer a material competitive advantage in trade between the parties.  This threshold is unprecedented in any analogous applications: WTO panels have interpreted similar language much more narrowly, as affecting conditions of competition, without requiring demonstration of costs and their effects. Demonstrating changes in costs at this level would require access to sensitive internal company accounts (at a minimum), and the perpetrators of labor violations would likely have hidden them in any case. This standard could not be met without subpoena power, which does not exist under the trade agreements. . . .

The decision is disturbing for multiple reasons: because of the injustice toward the affected Guatemalan workers; because it invalidated the parties’ explicit commitment to broad enforcement of labor rights contained both in the obligatory commitments and the overall stated purposes of the agreement; and because as the first and as of now only arbitration arising from a labor clause (or environmental clause) it set a precedent for future cases.

In short, labor exploitation is likely to continue unchecked under a possible new NAFTA, which can be expected to remain as corporate friendly as the original agreement.

The need for a new progressive strategy of opposition

President Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from NAFTA if the other two countries do not agree to his demands for key NAFTA changes, in particular to the investor-state dispute settlement system and rules on the origins of car parts, the inclusion of a sunset clause, and an end to government procurement restrictions.  While we cannot predict the future, the odds are great that compromises will be reached on these issues, allowing President Trump to present a renegotiated NAFTA as a win for working people.

As Jeff Faux, founder of the Economic Policy Institute, comments:

The erratic and belligerent Trump might, of course, drive US-Mexican relations over a cliff. But he prides himself as a deal-maker, not a deal-breaker. So the most likely outcome is a modestly revised NAFTA that: 1) Trump can boast fulfills his pledge 2) Peña Nieto can use to claim that he stood up to the bullying gringo 3) doesn’t threaten the low-wage strategy for both countries that NAFTA represents.

Revisions might include weakening NAFTA’s dispute settlement courts, raising the minimum required North American content for duty-free goods, and reducing the obstacles to cross-border trade for small businesses on both sides of the border.

Changes like this could marginally improve the agreement, and would be acceptable to the Canadians, who have been told by Trump that he is not going after them. But from the point of view of workers in the American industrial states who voted for Trump, the new NAFTA is likely to be little different from of the old one. The low-wage strategy underlying NAFTA that keeps their jobs drifting south and US and Mexican workers’ pay below their productivity will continue.

But you can bet that Trump will assure them that it is the greatest trade deal the world has ever seen.

Sadly, the progressive movement has pursued the wrong strategy to build the kind of movement we need to oppose the likely NAFTA renewal or take advantage of a possible US withdrawal.  In fact, it has largely allowed President Trump to shape the public discussion around the renegotiations.

To this point, progressive trade groups, labor unions, and Democratic Party politicians have refrained from calling Trump’s bluff and demanding termination of the agreement, despite the fact that this and other so-called free trade agreements are not really reformable in a meaningful pro-worker sense. Instead, they have concentrated on demonstrating the ways that NAFTA has harmed workers, highlighting areas that they think are in most need of revision and offering suggestions for their improvement, and mobilizing their constituencies to press the US trade representative to adopt their desired changes.  Progressive trade groups have generally turned their spotlight on the investor-state dispute resolution system and outsourcing, as have Democratic Party politicians.  Trade unions, for their part, have emphasized outsourcing and labor rights.

Significantly, these are all areas, with the exception of labor rights, where the Trump administration has put forward proposals for change which if realized would go some way to meeting progressive demands.  The result is that the progressive movement appears to be tailing or reinforcing Trump’s claims to represent popular interests.  And, by focusing on targeted issues, the movement does little to educate the population about the ways in which the ongoing negotiations are creating new avenues for corporations to enhance their mobility and profits, especially in services, finance, and e-commerce.

Apparently, leading progressive groups plan to wait until they see the final agreement and then, if they find it unacceptable with regards to their specific areas of concern, call for termination of the agreement.  But this wait and see strategy is destined to fail, not only to build a movement capable of opposing a revised NAFTA agreement, but even more importantly to advance the creation of a working class movement with the political awareness and vision required to push for a progressive transformation of US economic dynamics.

For example, this strategy of creating guidelines for selective changes in the agreement tends to encourage people to see the government as an honest broker that, when offered good ideas, is likely to do the right thing.  It also implies that the agreement itself is not a corporate creation and that a few key changes can make it an acceptable vehicle for advancing “national” interests.  Finally, because agreements like NAFTA are complex and hard to interpret it will be no simple matter for the movement to help its various constituencies truly understand whether a renegotiated NAFTA is better, worse, or essentially unchanged from the original, an outcome that is likely to demobilize rather than energize the population to take action.  Of course, if Trump actually decides to terminate the agreement, the movement will be put in the position of either having to praise Trump or else criticize him for not doing more to save NAFTA, neither outcome being desirable.

There is, in my opinion, a better strategy: engage in popular education to show the ways that trade agreements are a direct extension of decades of domestic policies designed to break unions and roll back wages and working conditions, privatize key social services, reduce regulations and restrictions on corporate activity, slash corporate taxes, and boost multinational corporate power and profitability.  Then, organize the most widespread movement possible, in concert with workers in Mexico and Canada, to demand an end to NAFTA.  Finally, build on that effort, uniting those fighting for a change in domestic policies with those resisting globalization behind a campaign directed at transforming existing relations of power and creating a new, sustainable, egalitarian, and solidaristic economy.

It is not too late to take up the slogan: just say no to NAFTA!

Budget Wars: The Rich Want More

The rich and powerful keep pushing for more.  And the odds are increasingly good that they will get what they want through the federal budget process now underway. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

Congressional Republicans this fall are poised to launch step one of a likely two-step tax and budget agenda: enacting costly tax cuts now that are heavily skewed toward wealthy households and profitable corporations, then paying for them later through program cuts mostly affecting low- and middle-income families.

The potential gains for those at the top from this first step are enormous.  For example, the Republican plan currently calls for ending the estate tax, slashing the top tax rate on pass-through income from partnerships and limited liability companies from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, lowering the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent down to 20 percent, and repealing the corporate alternative minimum tax.  Republicans are also considering a tax holiday on repatriated multinational corporate profits.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that the Senate tax plan would lower personal income taxes by an average of $722,510 for the top 0.1 percent of income earners compared with just $60 for those in the lowest quintile; as much as two-thirds of personal income tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent.  Corporate America, for its part, would be reward with a $2.6 trillion cut in business taxes over the next decade.

Naturally, President Trump and his family are well positioned to gain from these changes.  Democracy Now reports that the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimates that “President Trump’s family and Trump’s Cabinet members would, combined, reap a $3.5 billion windfall from the proposed repeal of the estate tax alone.” And capping the pass-through income tax rate “would give Trump’s son-in-law, his senior adviser, Jared Kushner, an annual tax cut of up to $17 million.” The Center for American Progress estimates that Trump, based on his 2016 financial disclosures, would enjoy a $23 million tax cut.

As for the second step in two-step agenda, it would work as follows: the Senate’s budget resolution provides a very general outline of federal spending and revenues over the next decade.  It calls for an allowed increase in the budget deficit of $1.5 trillion as well as the achievement of a balanced budget within a decade.  House leaders are hopeful that the House will approve the Senate budget resolution with few if any changes, thereby speeding the path for the House and Senate to quickly agree on the specific tax changes that will drive the budget deficit and then deliver the completed budget to President Trump for his signature before the end of the year.

However, all independent analysts agree that the Republican tax plan will push the deficit far beyond its stated limit of $1.5 trillion.  The table below, based on estimates by the Tax Policy Center, is representative.

It shows that business tax cuts are likely to lead to $2.6 trillion in lost revenue, producing an overall estimate of a $2.4 trillion deficit increase.  What we can expect then, is the return of the “deficit hawks.”  If Republicans succeed in passing their desired tax cuts, and they produce the expected ever growing budget deficits, we can count on these legislators to step forward to sound the alarm and call for massive cuts in social spending, targeting key social programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid, thereby completing the second step.

Not surprisingly, the Republican leadership denies the danger of growing deficits.  It presents its tax plan as a pro-growth plan, one that will generate so much growth that the increased revenue will more than compensate for the tax cuts.  It’s the same old, same old: once we get government off our backs and unleash our private sector, investment will soar, job creation will speed ahead, and incomes will rise for everyone.  The history of the failure of past efforts along these lines is never mentioned.

Of course, it is possible that political differences between the House and Senate will throw a monkey wrench in the budget process, forcing Republicans to accept something much more modest.  But there are powerful political forces pushing for these tax changes and, at least at present, it appears likely that they will be approved.

One of the most important takeaways from what is happening is that those with wealth and power remain committed to get all they can regardless of the social consequences for the great majority.  In other words, they won’t stop on their own.  If we want meaningful improvements in working and living conditions we will have to do more to help build a popular movement, with strong organizational roots, capable of articulating and fighting for its own vision of the future.

Recession On The Horizon

According to Bloomberg News, analysts at a number of major financial institutions see “mounting evidence” that a recession is not too far away.

In a way, their assessment is not surprising.  The current expansion, which started in June 2009, is now 99 months long, making it the third longest expansion in US history. Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  It is likely that this expansion will pass the 1960s expansion in length but fall short of the record.

Warning signs

The financial analysts cited by Bloomberg News did not base their warnings simply on longevity.  Rather it was the behavior of corporate profits, more specifically their downward trend, that concerned them.  Historically, expansions have come to an end because declining profits cause corporations to slash investment spending, which leads to a decline in employment and eventually consumption, and finally recession.

As the Bloomberg article explains, “The gross value-added of non-financial companies after inflation — a measure of the value of goods after adjusting for the costs of production — is now negative on a year-on-year basis.”  As an analyst for Oxford Economics Ltd. concludes, “The cycle of real corporate profits has turned enough to be a potential source of concern in the next four quarters.”

Real gross corporate value added is a proxy for profits.  Its recent decline, as shown in the figure above, means that corporate profitability is falling over time.  As long as it remained positive (the red line was above zero), corporate profits were continuing to grow, just not as fast as they did in the previous year. However, it has now become negative, which means that total profits are actually falling.  And, as we can see, whenever this happened in the past, a recession soon followed.

The primary reason recessions follow a decline in profits is that investment decisions are very sensitive to changes in profit. A decline in profit tends to produce a much larger decline in investment, leading to recession.  The investment connection to recession is is well illustrated in the following figure, taken from a blog post by the economist Michael Roberts. It shows the change in personal consumption and investment one year before the start of a recession.  As we can see, it is the decline in investment that leads the downturn, and the decline takes place more often than not while consumption is still growing.

The Bloomberg article highlights other studies that come to the same conclusion about the direction of profits and the growing likelihood of recession.  For example, as illustrated below, “The U.S. is in the mature stage of the cycle — 80 percent of completion since the last trough — based on margin patterns going back to the 1950s, according to Societe Generale SA.”

As we can see, the decline in profit margins in the current expansion mirrors the decline during other expansions as they neared their end.  It certainly appears that time is running out for this expansion.

Further evidence comes from the recent reduction in corporate buybacks. As the economist William Lazonick explains:

Buybacks have come to define the “investment” strategies of many of America’s biggest businesses. Figure 1 [below] shows net equity issues of U.S. corporations from 1946 to 2014. Net equity issues are new corporate stock issues minus outstanding stock retired through stock repurchases and M&A activity. Since the mid-1980s, in aggregate, corporations have funded the stock market rather than vice versa (as is conventionally assumed).  Over the decade 2005-2014 net equity issues of nonfinancial corporations averaged minus $399 billion per year.

In other words, corporations have been major players in the stock market, buying and retiring stock in order to drive up stock prices.  The process has, by design, enriched the top end of the income distribution.  It also helped to boost consumption spending, and by extension the expansion.  However, this corporate promotion of stock prices appears to have come to an end.  As a Fortune Magazine article reports:

The great stock buyback boom may be on the wane, undermined by falling company earnings.

U.S. company stock buybacks are down 21% in the first seven months of 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to TrimTabs Investment Research, a fall driven in part by five consecutive quarters of year-over-year earnings declines among S&P 500 stocks.

Buybacks, which cancel shares and thus increase per-share earnings, have played a crucial role in supporting the stock market since the financial crisis, flattering earnings even for companies with static or falling revenues.

They, along with dividends, return cash to shareholders, a process often facilitated by borrowed money.

A decline in market values can thus be expected, adding further downward pressure on economic activity.

Social consequences

The business cycle is an inherent feature of capitalist economies and the US economy has experienced many ups and downs. But expansions and recessions do not balance out, leaving the economy on a stable long-term economic trajectory. Unfortunately, while recent cycles have greatly enriched those at the top, working people have generally experienced deteriorating living and working conditions.  The trend in job creation is one example.

The employment to population ratio is a commonly used measure of employment.  It is calculated by dividing the number of people employed by the total working-age population.  The figure below, from a report by the Chicago Political Economy Group, shows the relative employment or job creation strength of each post-World War II expansion.

As we can see, the November 2001 expansion ended without restoring the pre-recession employment to population ratio. The ratio was 2.48 percent below where it had been prior to the recession’s start.  That means the expansion was not strong enough or structured properly to ensure adequate job creation.  And, despite its length, the current expansion’s employment to population ratio remains nearly 5 percent below that lower starting point.  Moreover, this employment measure doesn’t take into account that a growing share of the jobs created during this expansion are low-paying and precarious.

 

In sum, there are strong reasons to expect a recession within the next year or so.  And it will likely hit an increasingly vulnerable working class hard.  Given trends, where the good times seem to pass most people by and the bad times punish those who gained the least the most, the need for a radical transformation of our economy seems clear.

US Health Care: Profits Over People

The US health care system produces healthy profits while leaving growing numbers of people without access to affordable, quality health care.

The US is one of the only advanced capitalist countries without a system of universal health coverage.  Tens of millions are uninsured, and many millions more pay for insurance that is either too limited in its coverage or too expensive to use.  What we need, and could implement if political realities change, is a “Medicare for all,” single-payer system of national health insurance.

As the organization Physicians for a National Health Program explains:

Single-payer national health insurance, also known as “Medicare for all,” is a system in which a single public or quasi-public agency organizes health care financing, but the delivery of care remains largely in private hands. Under a single-payer system, all residents of the U.S. would be covered for all medically necessary services, including doctor, hospital, preventive, long-term care, mental health, reproductive health care, dental, vision, prescription drug and medical supply costs.

The program would be funded by the savings obtained from replacing today’s inefficient, profit-oriented, multiple insurance payers with a single streamlined, nonprofit, public payer, and by modest new taxes based on ability to pay. Premiums would disappear; 95 percent of all households would save money. Patients would no longer face financial barriers to care such as co-pays and deductibles, and would regain free choice of doctor and hospital. Doctors would regain autonomy over patient care.

Bad health care outcomes

Our health care system fails to deliver affordable, accessible, quality health care. Even a writer for Forbes magazine, a publication that proclaims itself to be a “capitalist tool,” acknowledges this:

It’s fairly well accepted that the U.S. is the most expensive healthcare system in the world, but many continue to falsely assume that we pay more for healthcare because we get better health (or better health outcomes). The evidence, however, clearly doesn’t support that view.

For example, take a look at the exhibit below, which comes from a 2014 Commonwealth Fund study on health care in the eleven listed nations.

As you can see, the US ranked last in the overall ranking, thanks to its relative poor performance in the category of access and last place standing in the categories of efficiency, equity, and healthy lives.

The Forbes article summarizes the reasons given by the Commonwealth Fund for the poor US performance:

Access: Not surprisingly — given the absence of universal coverage — people in the U.S. go without needed health care because of cost more often than people do in the other countries.

Efficiency: On indicators of efficiency, the U.S. ranks last among the 11 countries, with the U.K. and Sweden ranking first and second, respectively. The U.S. has poor performance on measures of national health expenditures and administrative costs as well as on measures of administrative hassles, avoidable emergency room use, and duplicative medical testing.

Equity: The U.S. ranks a clear last on measures of equity. Americans with below-average incomes were much more likely than their counterparts in other countries to report not visiting a physician when sick; not getting a recommended test, treatment, or follow-up care; or not filling a prescription or skipping doses when needed because of costs. On each of these indicators, one-third or more lower-income adults in the U.S. said they went without needed care because of costs in the past year.

Healthy lives: The U.S. ranks last overall with poor scores on all three indicators of healthy lives — mortality amenable to medical care, infant mortality, and healthy life expectancy at age 60. Overall, France, Sweden, and Switzerland rank highest on healthy lives.

What accounts for this outlier status in health care?  According to the report:

The most notable way the U.S. differs from other industrialized countries is the absence of universal health insurance coverage. Other nations ensure the accessibility of care through universal health systems and through better ties between patients and the physician practices that serve as their medical homes.

A Guardian article on the US health care system provides further confirmation of US outlier status:

Broadly speaking, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines universal health coverage as a system where everyone has access to quality health services and is protected against financial risk incurred while accessing care. . . . Among the 35 OECD member countries, 32 have now introduced universal healthcare legislation that resembles the WHO criteria.

And yet we pay the most

The graphic below, from the Guardian article, provides a stark picture of just how much we pay to get our poor health care outcomes.

Significantly, it was in the early 1980s that our per capita health care spending began to soar compared with all other developed capitalist countries, a period marked by the government’s growing embrace of pro-market, neoliberal policies designed to promote corporate profitability. And as the graphic also makes clear, we have seen limited gains in life expectancy despite dramatically outspending the other listed developed countries.

So what gives?

So, you might ask, where is all the money we spend on health care going if not to improve our health care outcomes?  Well, the answer is simple: higher profits for the health care industry.

The headline of a New York Times article says it all: “Gripes About Obamacare Aside, Health Insurers Are in a Profit Spiral.”  As a result:

Since March 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, the [stock prices of] managed care companies within the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index — UnitedHealth, Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana and Centene — have risen far more than the overall stock index. This is no small matter: The stock market soared during that period.

The numbers are astonishing. The Standard & Poor’s stock index returned 135.6 percent in those seven years through Thursday, a performance that we may not see again in our lifetimes. But the managed care stocks, as a whole, have gained nearly 300 percent including dividends, according to calculations by Bespoke Investment Group.

These and other leading health care corporations oppose a Medicare for all system because its adoption would put an end to their massive profits.  And these companies have many allies in the rest of the corporate community because any policy that strengthens the principle of putting people before profits is a threat to them all.

Hopefully, however, the importance of health care and the obviously poor performance of our health care system as a health care system (as opposed to a profit center) will motivate people to keep pressing for real change.  And, who knows, a health care victory might also encourage a broader public discussion about how best to organize the rest of our economy.