The US Economy: Monopolized Product Markets And Precarious Work

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

Monopolized product markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precarious work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Need To Strengthen The Public In The US Public Sector

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

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

The declining share of federal workers

As a Public Goods Post explains:

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

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

The growth in private contractors

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

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

According to the Public Goods Post,

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

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

Fattening the corporate sector at public expense

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

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

It found, among other things, that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The challenge ahead

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

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

We now are left with:

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

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

The Law Versus Worker Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Marvit summarizes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate Concentration, Intellectual Property Rights, and US Public Policy

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

The growing concentration of market power

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

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

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

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

As the authors report:

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

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

An IMF blog post commenting on this study notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is yet another example from Mazzucato:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a different public policy

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.