The Trump Tax Plan Proves A Bonanza For Business

Every time a progressive policy captures the public imagination, like the Green New Deal, opponents are quick to raise the revenue question in an effort to discredit it.  While higher taxes on the wealthy and leading corporations should be an obvious starting point in any response, until recently elites have been remarkably successful in winning tax reductions, spinning the argument that cuts are the best way to stimulate private investment and create jobs.  And they have enjoyed a double gain: not only do the cuts benefit them financially, the loss of public revenue encourages people to think small when it comes to public policy.

However, there are signs that the times might be changing.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to tax annual incomes over $10 million at a marginal tax rate of 70 percent has won significant public support. Strong popular opposition in New York to a plan to heavily subsidize a new Amazon headquarters forced the company to withdraw its proposal. And then there is the negative lesson of the Wisconsin fiasco, where the state showered Foxconn with massive tax and other subsidies in an effort to land a new manufacturing facility, only to have the company walk-back its commitments after significant state expenditures.

But there is still important education as well as political work that remains to be done to win majority support for the kind of tax reform we so desperately need. President Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which was signed into law on Dec. 22, 2017, is one example of what we are up against.

The “American model”

President Trump’s signature tax law included significant benefits for the wealthy as well as most major corporations.  Looking just at the business side, the law:

  • lowered the US corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and eliminated the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax.
  • changed the federal tax system from a global to a territorial one.  Under the previous global tax system, US multinational corporations were supposed to pay the 35 percent US tax rate for income earned in any country in which they had a subsidiary, less a credit for the income taxes they paid to that country. However, the tax payment could be deferred until the earnings were repatriated.  Under the new territorial tax system, each corporate subsidiary only has to pay the tax rate of the country in which it is legally established; foreign profits face no additional US taxes.
  • established a new “global minimum” tax of 10.5 percent that is only applied to total foreign earnings greater than a newly established “normal rate of return” on tangible investments in plant and equipment (set at 10 percent).
  • offered multinational corporations a one-time special lower tax rate of 8 percent on repatriated funds that were held overseas by corporate subsidiaries in tax-haven countries.

Of course, President Trump sold these changes as a means to rebuild the American economy, predicting a massive return of overseas money and increase in domestic investment.  As he explained:

For too long, our tax code has incentivized companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. My administration rejects the offshoring model, and we have embraced a brand new model. It’s called the American model. We want companies to hire and grow in America, to raise wages for the American workers, and to help rebuild American cities and towns.

The same old story

Not surprisingly, the so-called new American model looks a lot like the old one, with corporations–and their managers and stockholders–gaining at the public expense.

Corporate investment has not been limited by a lack of money.  Rather, corporate profits have steadily increased while investment in plant and equipment has remained weak.  Instead of investing, corporations have used their surplus to finance dividend payments, stock repurchases, and mergers and acquisitions. Instead of stimulating new productive investment, the tax cut only gave firms more money to use for the same purposes.

The new territorial tax system, which was supposed to promote domestic investment and production, actually continues to encourage the globalization of production since it lowers the taxes corporations have to pay on profits generated outside the country. The new global minimum tax does much the same.  Although its supporters claimed that it would ensure that corporations pay some US tax on their foreign profits, as structured it encourages foreign investment.  The minimum tax rate remains far below the US domestic rate, and the larger the capital base of the foreign subsidiary, the greater the foreign profits the parent firm can shield from taxation.

As for the one-time tax break on repatriated profits, the fact is that most of the money supposedly held abroad was already in the country, sitting in accounts protected from taxation.  Moreover, since firms remain reluctant to invest, the one-time break only served to give firms the opportunity to channel more money into nonproductive uses at a special lower tax rate.

Tax realities

According to the Treasury Department, corporate income tax receipts fell by 31 percent in fiscal year 2018.  As a Peter G. Peterson blog post explains:

The 31 percent drop in corporate income tax receipts last year is the second largest since at least 1934, which is the first year for which data are available. Only the 55 percent decline from 2008 to 2009 was larger. While that decrease can be explained by the Great Recession, the drop from 2017 to 2018 can be explained by tax policy decisions.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, enacted in December 2017, is responsible for the plunge in corporate income tax receipts in 2018. Those changes include a reduction in the statutory rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and the expanded ability to immediately deduct the full value of equipment purchases. The Congressional Budget Office points out that about half of the 2018 decline occurred since June, which includes estimated tax payments made by corporations in June and September that reflected the new tax provisions.

Ben Foldy, writing for Bloomberg news, highlights the spoils that went to the banking sector:

Major U.S. banks shaved about $21 billion from their tax bills last year — almost double the IRS’s annual budget — as the industry benefited more than many others from the Republican tax overhaul. . . .

On average, the banks saw their effective tax rates fall below 19 percent from the roughly 28 percent they paid in 2016. And while the breaks set off a gusher of payouts to shareholders, firms cut thousands of jobs and saw their lending growth slow. . . .

Tax savings contributed to a banner year for banks, with the six largest surpassing $120 billion in combined profits for the first time. Dividends and stock buybacks at the 23 [largest] lenders surged by an additional $28 billion from 2017 — even more than their tax savings.

The stability and profitability of global corporate networks

US firms also continue to take advantage of overseas tax havens.  As Brad Setser, writing in the New York Times, points out:

despite Mr. Trump’s proud rhetoric regarding tax reform . . . there is no wide pattern of companies bringing back jobs or profits from abroad. The global distribution of corporations’ offshore profits — our best measure of their tax avoidance gymnastics — hasn’t budged from the prevailing trend.

Well over half the profits that American companies report earning abroad are still booked in only a few low-tax nations — places that, of course, are not actually home to the customers, workers and taxpayers facilitating most of their business. A multinational corporation can route its global sales through Ireland, pay royalties to its Dutch subsidiary and then funnel income to its Bermudian subsidiary — taking advantage of Bermuda’s corporate tax rate of zero.

The chart below makes this quite clear, showing that US profits are disproportionately booked in countries where there is little or no actual productive activity.

In fact, as Setser notes, “the new [tax] law encourages firms to move ‘tangible assets’ — like factories — offshore.”

The chart below, from a Fortune magazine post, provides an overview of the large cash holdings of some of America’s largest corporations and the share held “outside” the country.

Economists estimated that US firms held approximately $2.6 trillion outside the country and the Trump administration predicted that a large share would be brought back, funding new productive investments, thanks to the one-time lower tax rate included in the 2017 tax reform act.  Government officials and the media talked about this money in a way that gave the impression that it was actually sitting outside the country. But it wasn’t.

Adam Looney, in a Brookings blog post, clarifies that:

”repatriation” is not a geographic concept, but refers to a set of rules defining when corporations have to pay taxes on their earnings. For instance, paying dividends to shareholders triggers a tax bill, but simply bringing the cash to the U.S. does not. Indeed, nearly all of the $2.6 trillion is already invested in the U.S. . . .

U.S. multinational corporations can defer paying tax on profits they earn abroad indefinitely by agreeing not to use the earnings for certain purposes, like paying dividends to shareholders, financing domestic acquisitions, guaranteeing loans, or making investments in physical capital in the U.S. In short, the rules prohibit a company from using pre-tax money in transactions that benefit shareholders. No one believes this is rational or efficient, and it is certainly onerous for shareholders, who would rather have that cash in their pockets than held by the corporation. But those rules don’t place requirements on the geographic location of the cash. Multinational firms are allowed to bring those dollars back to the U.S. and to invest them in our financial system.

Indeed, that’s exactly what they do. Don’t take my word for it, the financial statements of the companies with large stocks of overseas earnings, like Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Google, Oracle, or Merck describe exactly where their cash is invested. Those statements show most of it is in U.S. treasuries, U.S. agency securities, U.S. mortgage backed securities, or U.S. dollar-denominated corporate notes and bonds.

Of course, these firms could easily have used their tax deferred dollar assets as collateral to borrow to finance any investment projects they found attractive.  Their lack of interest in doing so provides additional evidence that low corporate rates of investment are not due to funding constraints.  Rather, corporations have only a limited interest in undertaking productive investments in the US.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the one-time tax break resulted in a one-time, modest, “repatriation” and that the money was largely used for financial rather than productive purposes. The New York Times reports that:

 JPMorgan Chase analysts estimate that in the first half of 2018, about $270 billion in corporate profits previously held overseas were repatriated to the United States and spent as a result of changes to the tax code. Some 46 percent of that, JPMorgan Chase analysts said, was spent on $124 billion in stock buybacks.

The flow of repatriated corporate cash is just one tributary in what has become a flood of payouts to shareholders, both as buybacks and dividends. Such payouts are expected to hit almost $1.3 trillion this year, up 28 percent from 2017, according to estimates from Goldman Sachs analysts.

In sum, thanks to the Trump tax plan, trillions of dollars that could have been used to transform our transportation and energy infrastructure, industrial structure, and system of social services are instead being transferred to big businesses, who use them for speculative activities and to further enrich their already wealthy managers and stock holders.

Given current realities, we can expect growing popular interest in and support for new public initiatives like the Green New Deal and a new progressive system of taxation to help finance it.  Hopefully, exposing the workings of our current tax system and the lies our government and business leaders tell about whose interests it serves, will help speed this development.

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Foxconn: Playing Fast and Loose in Wisconsin

When state and local governments bid for corporate investment, working people lose.  It is as simple as that.  And Foxconn’s on-again, off-again, and on-again shrinking investment in Wisconsin is a case in point.

In July 2017 Foxconn announced, at the White House, its agreement to spend $10 billion to build a factory in Wisconsin to produce flat-panel display screens for televisions and other consumer electronics, creating 13,000 manufacturing jobs within six years.  In return, the state of Wisconsin offered the company $3 billion in subsidies.  The agreement was celebrated by then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and, of course, lauded by President Trump.

However, in January 2019, the special assistant to the president of Foxconn announced that “In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment.” The reason, according to the special assistant, was that Foxconn decided that it couldn’t compete in the US TV market using US labor to build LCD panels.

As for jobs, the company has already fallen short on its employment promises.  It pledged to create 260 jobs in 2018 but added only 178.  It also promised to employ 5,200 workers by the end of 2020, but now estimates that the total will likely be closer to 1,000. And most of the future hires will be engaged in research and development, not manufacturing.

And the cost to Wisconsin’s communities?  The size of the subsidy quickly grew by over a billion dollars from its initial figure.  As the Verge reports:

By December 2017, the public cost had grown to include $764 million in new tax incentives from local governments in Racine County, which is just 40 minutes south of Milwaukee where the plant was to be located. Other additions included $164 million for road and highway connections built to service the plant, plus $140 million for a new electric transmission line to Foxconn that would be paid for by all 5 million ratepayers of the public utility We Energies. With other small costs added, the total Foxconn subsidy hit $4.1 billion — a stunning $1,774 per household in Wisconsin.

The original plan specified that the subsidy would be given out in increments as investments were made and jobs created.  It remains to be seen how the state will respond to Foxconn’s retrenchment.  But the additional $1.1 billion highlighted above will cost the public regardless of what Foxconn does, since local governments have already begun building the infrastructure that Foxconn wanted.  Those are real outlays that will come at the expense of other, far more critical social programs. And then there are the families who lost their homes when eminent domain was used to seize their properties to prepare the land for Foxconn’s proposed factory.

Not surprisingly, Foxconn’s announcement that it was walking back its commitment has generated a lot of anger in Wisconsin.  And bad press for President Trump.  And so, after a January 2019 phone exchange between President Trump and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, the company announced that it will indeed build a factory in Wisconsin, just a smaller one than originally promised.

I think we all know how this will work out.

The Deal 

Foxconn’s proposed investment was seen as a significant win for both Governor Walker and President Trump. The Guardian quoted a senior administration official “who said the announcement was ‘meaningful,’ because ‘it [represents] a milestone in bringing back advanced manufacturing, specifically in the electronics sector, to the United States.’”  President Trump followed with “If I didn’t get elected, [Foxconn] definitely would not be spending $10bn.”

But Foxconn was always an unreliable investor. As the Cap Times pointed out, Foxconn had a track record of broken promises:

  • Foxconn promised a $30 million factory employing 500 workers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2013. The plant was never built, not a single job was created.
  • That same year, the company signed a letter of intent to invest up to $1 billion in Indonesia. Nothing came of it.
  • Foxconn announced it would invest $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs over five years in India as part of an ambitious expansion in 2014. The investment amounted to a small fraction of that, according to The Washington Post’s Todd Frankel.
  • Foxconn committed to a $5 billion investment in Vietnam in 2007, and $10 billion in Brazil in 2011. The company made its first major foray in Vietnam only last year. In Brazil, Foxconn has an iPhone factory, but its investment has fallen far short of promises.
  • Foxconn recently laid off 60,000 workers, more than 50 percent of its workforce at its IPhone 6 factory in Kushan, China, replacing them with robots that Foxconn produces.

Even more importantly, the deal was a stinker for working people in Wisconsin.  Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, after examining the initial agreement, concluded that that the state wouldn’t break even on its investment until 2043 — and that was an absolute best-case scenario.

Playing fast and loose

The agreement was announced in July 2017.  Less than one year later, in June 2018, Foxconn announced a change to its plan.  Instead of a Generation 10.5 plant producing 10-foot by 11-foot panels for 75-inch TV screens, Foxconn said it would build a Generation 6 plant that only produced 5-foot by 6-foot panels.  The smaller plant would require only about one-third the initially promised investment.

Then, in late August, Foxconn announced yet another change, when its spokesperson, Louis Woo, told the Journal Times that even the Gen 6 panels might not be manufactured in Racine for long.  “We are not really interested in television,” Woo told the newspaper.

And then in January 2019, Foxconn announced it might not ever build a factory in Wisconsin or have need for manufacturing workers.  As Reuters explained, the company:

is reconsidering plans to make advanced liquid crystal display panels at a $10 billion Wisconsin campus, and said it intends to hire mostly engineers and researchers rather than the manufacturing workforce the project originally promised.

Rather than a focus on LCD manufacturing, Foxconn wants to create a “technology hub” in Wisconsin that would largely consist of research facilities along with packaging and assembly operations, Woo said. It would also produce specialized tech products for industrial, healthcare, and professional applications, he added.

“In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment,” Woo said.”

Finally, as noted above, after a phone conversation between President Trump and Chairman Gou, some kind of factory is back in Foxconn’s plans.  But for how long?

Foxconn failed to earn its 2018 tax credits because it fell short of its employment target.  As Reuters reports: “The company may be prepared to walk away from future incentives if it is unable to meet Wisconsin’s job creation and capital investment requirements, according to the source familiar with the matter.”

Lessons

Governor Walker went all in to get Foxconn, giving the company far more than he needed to do. As the Verge explains:

In retrospect, it’s clear that Walker had a strong hand to play in negotiations with Foxconn. The company had to locate in a Great Lakes state because of the huge amount of water needed to clean the glass used in manufacturing LCD screens. And no other Great Lakes state came close to offering the $4.1 billion Foxconn is getting. Michigan came the closest, offering $2.3 billion, but it was partly a tax subsidy rather than cash.

The Walker administration also gave Foxconn an exemption for the state’s environmental rules, “allowing it to discharge materials into wetlands and reroute streams during construction and operation.” And it “also agreed to allow Foxconn to draw massive amounts of water from Lake Michigan” in violation of “the provisions of the Great Lake Compact signed by the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces to protect the lakes.”

And of course, the production of LCD screens requires the use of a number of hazardous materials, such as benzene, chromium, cadmium, mercury, zinc, and copper. Foxconn’s track record in handling such materials is far from good, even if it promised to build a Zero Liquid Discharge system, “which will go beyond any local, state and federal requirements relating to industrial water discharge.”

When the Legislative Fiscal Bureau did its evaluation of the deal, it concluded, as noted above, that it would take until 2043 for taxpayers to recoup the subsidy. But that was based on a $3 billion subsidy. At $4.1 billion, the current amount, the date gets pushed back to 2050.  And again, that assumes that all goes according to the initial plan.

In short, there is no good outcome here for the people of Wisconsin. Given the enormous social and environmental costs associated with this project, Wisconsin is probably better off if it can cancel the deal the previous governor made with Foxconn. Most importantly, one hopes that the Foxconn fiasco will solidify popular understandings that it never pays to compete for corporate investment with tax cuts and public subsidies.

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

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

The misinformed views of those running for state office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s no better at the federal level

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a visual summary of their results.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

US Public School Teachers: Declining Pay, Growing Militancy

Strikes continue to be an effective way for teachers to improve their living and working (and by extension student learning) conditions.  And, polls show that a strong majority of parents continue to support them.

Popular support for teacher strikes remains strong

The education pollster PDK recently asked adults what they thought about teacher salaries and whether they would support teachers if they struck to improve their conditions.   According to PDK,

73% of Americans surveyed in the 2018 PDK poll say they would support public school teachers in their community if they went on strike for higher pay. Even among public school parents — those who would be most directly affected by a strike — 78% say they’d support a teacher walkout.

This strong public support was certainly visible during the spring public teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.  And it continues this fall.  For example, teacher strikes delayed the start of the new school year for thousands of students in Washington state.  As Don McIntosh reports in the Northwest Labor Press:

As many as 5,000 teachers went out on strike the week before Labor Day at seven Southwest Washington school districts — districts where school superintendents tried to hold on to funds the Legislature had granted for long-overdue teacher raises. In each case, strikes were authorized by overwhelming majorities — from 93 percent to as high as 98.4 percent. The strikes resulted in the complete closure of whole school districts, postponing the school year’s start for over 60,000 students.

Highlighting public support for Evergreen High School teachers, McIntosh writes:

All day long, passing motorists honked their support, and parents, students and members of the community dropped by bringing water and snacks. Some parents handed out strips of paper with a message: “We love you and support you! Thank you for taking the time to show us what it means to stand up for yourself even when it is difficult.”

“Kids and parents and dogs, everybody’s walking the line with us,” [Evergreen Education Association president] Beville said. “Among all the things that we expected when we went on strike, the most unexpected was the overwhelming support we’re getting from the community. Even on Facebook, when people post negative messages, parents are jumping on them like piranhas.”

Washington teachers ended their strikes with sizeable wage increases in five districts, but remain out in two others.  School officials in Tumwater in Thurston County and Longview in Cowlitz County filed injunctions in an attempt to force teachers back to work.  County judges in both districts declared the strikes illegal, but significantly refused to impose any penalties; the strikes continue.

Teacher pay is too low

While right-wing politicians like to portray public school teachers as a “labor aristocracy,” profiting at the expense of ordinary workers, the fact is that teachers have suffered real wage declines.  A case in point: average teacher pay in Washington state fell 8 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars over the last 16 years according to figures from the U.S. Education Department.

More generally, as a Guardian article explains:

American teachers are getting paid less – even though they are better qualified than ever, new research has found.

Teacher salaries are down by nearly 5% compared with before the Great Recession – and it’s not because teachers are younger or less educated, according to the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

In fact, the opposite is true.

And, as the following figure shows, not only has teacher pay fallen over the last seven years, the gap in earnings relative to other college educated workers has significantly grown.

In fact, an Economic Policy Institute study determined, as shown below, that there is no state in which public school teachers are paid more than college graduates.

The teacher wage penalty has dramatically grown, even when wages are adjusted for “education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings.”  More specifically the Economic Policy Institute study found that the regression-adjusted wage gap for all public sector teachers grew from 1.8 percent in 1994, to 4.3 percent in 1996, and reached a record 18.7 percent in 2017.

Challenges ahead

Teacher strikes have been fueled by a number of factors in addition to the wage declines highlighted above, including new testing mandates which crowd out instruction and planning time, and cuts in education budgets which have left teachers with outdated materials and overcrowded classrooms.  The recent Janus decision and the efforts of the rightwing State Policy Network to weaken public sector unions makes clear that the teacher movement cannot stand still if it hopes to maintain if not actually build on its recent gains.  Public school teachers will have to strengthen their unions and deepen their community ties, and in concert with other public sector workers, build a campaign that makes clear the importance of a well-funded and accountable public sector and the need for new progressive tax measures to raise the required funds.

Obviously, this is no simple task.  It is not just a rightwing fringe that opposes public sector unions and raising taxes to ensure a healthy public sector that meets community needs.  For example, as the Intercept reports:

State Policy Network member think tanks generally do not disclose their donors. Several are generously funded by foundations controlled by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the State Policy Network affiliate in Texas, inadvertently revealed its donor list several years ago. The donor list included foundation grants from the Koch Industries, AT&T, Verizon, Altia, Geo Group, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, and the Claude Lambe Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit controlled by the Kochs, among others.

In short, we are engaged in a real class struggle and that understanding has to be built into our organizing from the very beginning.

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.