Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Housing

Class, Race, and US Wealth Inequality

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

A distorted picture of wealth inequality

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

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

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

Capitalist wealth dynamics

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

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


The racial wealth divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Bipartisan Militarization Of The US Federal Budget

The media likes to frame the limits of political struggle as between the Democratic and Republican parties, as if each side upholds a radically different political vision. However, in a number of key areas, leaders of both parties are happy to unite around an anti-worker agenda.  Support for the military and an aggressive foreign policy is one such area.

On September 18, US senators approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2018.  Donald Trump had proposed increasing the military budget by $54 billion.  The Senate voted 89-9 to increase it by $37 billion more than Trump sought.  In the words of the New York Times:  “In a rare act of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, the Senate passed a $700 billion defense policy bill on Monday that sets forth a muscular vision of America as a global power, with a Pentagon budget that far exceeds what President Trump has asked for.”

The NDAA calls for giving $640 billion to the Pentagon for its basic operations and another $60 billion for war operations in other countries, including Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  The House passed its own version of the bill, which included a smaller increase over Trump’s request as well as new initiatives such as the creation of a Space Corps not supported by the Senate.  Thus, the House and Senate need to reconcile their differences before the bill goes to President Trump for his signature.

It is clear that Democratic Party opposition to Trump does not include opposition to US militarism and imperialism. As Ajamu Baraka points out:

Opposition to Trump has been framed in ways that supports the agenda of the Democratic Party—but not the anti-war agenda. Therefore, anti-Trumpism does not include a position against war and U.S. imperialism.

When the Trump administration proposed what many saw as an obscene request for an additional $54 billion in military spending, we witnessed a momentary negative response from some liberal Democrats. The thinking was that this could be highlighted as yet another one of the supposedly demonic moves by the administration and it was added to the talking points for the Democrats. That was until 117 Democrats voted with Republicans in the House—including a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus—to not only accept the administration’s proposal, but to exceed it by $18 billion. By that point, the Democrats went silent on the issue.

It is important to keep in mind that, as William D. Hartung shows, “there are hundreds of billions of dollars in ‘defense’ spending that aren’t even counted in the Pentagon budget.” Hartung goes agency by agency to show the “hidden” spending.  As he notes:

You might think that the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal — nuclear warheads — would be paid for out of the Pentagon budget.   And you would, of course, be wrong.  The cost of researching, developing, maintaining, and “modernizing” the American arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads falls to an obscure agency located inside the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reactors, pays for the environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, at a total annual cost of more than $20 billion per year.

Hartung’s grand total, which includes, among other things, the costs of Homeland Security, foreign military aid, intelligence services, the Veterans Administration, and the interest on the debt generated by past spending on the military, is $1.09 Trillion.  In short, our political leaders are far from forthcoming about the true size of our military spending.

Militarization comes home

Opponents of this huge military budget are right to stress how it greatly increases the dangers of war and the harm our military interventions do to people in other countries, but the costs of militarism are also felt by those living in the United States.

For example, ever escalating military budgets fund ever new and more deadly weapons of destruction, and much of the outdated equipment is sold to police departments, contributing to the militarization of our police and the growing use of force on domestic opponents of administration policies, the poor, and communities of color.  As Lisa Wade explains:

In 1996, the federal government passed a law giving the military permission to donate excess equipment to local police departments. Starting in 1998, millions of dollars worth of equipment was transferred each year, as shown in the figure below. Then, after 9/11, there was a huge increase in transfers. In 2014, they amounted to the equivalent of 796.8  million dollars.

Those concerned about police violence worried that police officers in possession of military equipment would be more likely to use violence against civilians, and new research suggests that they’re right.

Political scientist Casey Delehanty and his colleagues compared the number of civilians killed by police with the monetary value of transferred military equipment across 455 counties in four states. Controlling for other factors (e.g., race, poverty, drug use), they found that killings rose along with increasing transfers. In the case of the county that received the largest transfer of military equipment, killings more than doubled.

Militarization squeezes nondefense social spending 

Growing military spending also squeezes spending on vital domestic social services, including housing, health, education, and employment protections, as critical programs and agencies are starved for funds in the name of fiscal responsibility.

The federal budget is made up of nondiscretionary and discretionary spending.  Nondiscretionary spending is mandated by existing legislation, for example, interest payments on the national debt.  Discretionary spending is not, and thus its allocation among programs clearly reveals Congressional priorities.  The biggest divide in the discretionary budget is between defense and nondefense discretionary spending.

The nondefense discretionary budget is, as explained by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training, and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low- and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.  A significant share of this funding comes in the form of grants to state and local governments.

As we see below, nondefense discretionary appropriations have fallen dramatically in real terms and could potentially fall to a low of $516 billion if Congress does not waive the sequestration caps established in 2011.

The decline is even more dramatic when measured relative to GDP.  Under the caps and sequestration currently in place, nondefense spending in 2017 equaled 3.2 percent of GDP, just 0.1 percentage point above the lowest percentage on record going back to 1962.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “That percentage will continue to fall if the caps and sequestration remain unchanged, equaling the previous record low of 3.1 percent in 2018 and then continuing to fall (see the figure below).”

Looking ahead

As the next figure shows, the proposed Trump budget would intensify the attack on federal domestic social programs and agencies.

If approved, it “would take nondefense discretionary spending next year to its lowest level in at least six decades as a percentage of the economy and, by 2027, to its lowest on that basis since the Hoover Administration — possibly even earlier.”  Of course, some categories of the proposed nondefense discretionary budget are slated for growth–veterans’ affairs and homeland security–which means that the squeeze on other programs would be worse than the aggregate numbers suggest.

No doubt the Democratic Party will mount a fierce struggle to resist the worst of Trump’s proposed cuts, and they are likely to succeed.  But the important point is that the trend of militarizing our federal budget and society more generally will likely continue, a trend encouraged by past Democratic as well as Republican administrations.

If we are to advance our movement for social change, we need to do a better job of building a strong grassroots movement in opposition to militarism.  Among other things, that requires us to do a better job communicating all the ways in which militarism sets us back, in particular the ways in which militarism promotes racism and social division, globalization and economic decay, and the deterioration of our environment and quality of life, as well as death abroad and at home, all in the interest of corporate profits.  In other words, we have to find more effective ways of drawing together our various struggles for peace, jobs, and justice.

The Struggle For A Decent Life

The following graphic from the HowMuch webpage puts into sharp relief the difficulties most workers face trying to live a decent life. Drawing on a number of databases, the graphic illustrates, by city, the amount of money a “typical American working-class family” would have at year’s end assuming “a reasonable standard of living.”

As the site explains:

Each bubble represents a city. The color corresponds to the amount of money a typical working-class family would have left over at the end of the year after paying for their living costs, like housing, food and transportation. The darker the shade of red, the worse off you are. The darker the shade of green, the better off you are. The size of the bubble also fits on a sliding scale—large and dark red means the city is totally unaffordable. Bigger dark green bubbles likewise indicate a city where the working class can get by.

The site defines its typical American working-class family as having four members: two adults (both in their 30s) and two children (ages 4 and 8 years).  The adults, who work full-time, have salaries equal to the median city earnings of their assigned professions, home appliance repairer and manicurist.  The family lives on a Department of Agriculture low-cost food plan and rents a 1500 square foot apartment.

It turns out that in only one of the ten largest American cities would it be possible for a working-class family to enjoy a decent standard of living without taking on debt: San Antonio.  Only 12 of the top 50 largest cities would be affordable.

Here are the five worse cities (from a financial perspective) and the debt that would be required for the family to achieve the target standard of living:

  1. New York, NY (-$91,184)
  2. San Francisco, CA (-$83,272)
  3. Boston, MA (-$61,900)
  4. Washington, DC (-$50,535)
  5. Philadelphia, PA (-$37,850)

As Raul, the author of the page notes: “You read that correctly. The typical working-class family would need an additional $91K+ per year in New York City just to break even on a reasonable standard of living.”

Of course, workers can’t run up such debts.  So, they do what they have to do to survive—they abandon any hope of having a reasonable standard of living.  They move far from their workplace and travel long distances to work, seek additional employment, economize further on meals, place their children in less than ideal day care situations, and crowd into small apartments, all of which take their toll.

And with wages continuing to stagnate, the Trump administration determined to slash spending on social services and roll back workplace protections, and a recession looming, the struggle for a decent life is not going to get easier.

We Need To Once Again Take “The Working Class” Seriously

The great majority of working people in the US have experienced tough times over the last few decades.  And all signs point to the fact that those in power are committed to policies that will mean a further deterioration in majority living and working conditions.

One obvious response to this situation is organizing; working people need strong organizations that are capable of building the broad alliances and advancing the new visions necessary to challenge and transform existing political-economic relationships and institutions. Building such organizations requires, as a first step, both acknowledging the existence of the working class and taking the concerns of its members seriously.

Unfortunately, as Reeve Vanneman shows in a Sociological Images blog post, writers appear to have largely abandoned use of the term “working class.”  One indicator is the trend illustrated in the chart below, which is derived from Google Books’ Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram Viewer is able to display a graph showing how often a particular word or phrase appears in a category of books over selected years.  In this case, the chart below shows how often the two-word phrase “working class” (a bigram) appears as a percentage of all two word phrases used in all books written in American English.


As Vanneman explains:

a Google ngram count of the phrase “working class” in American books shows a spike in the Depression Thirties and an even stronger growth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. But after the mid-1970s, there is a steady decline, implying a lack of discussion just as their problems were growing.

A similar overall trend emerges from “a count of the frequencies of ‘working class’ in the titles or abstracts of articles in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review.”  As we see in the chart below, there was a rapid growth in the use of the phrase from the late 1950s through most of the 1960s, followed by a slow but steady decline until the mid-1980s, and then, after a brief resurgence, a dramatic fall off in its use.


As Vanneman comments: “These articles on the working class were not insignificant; even through the 21st century, the authors include a number of ASA presidents. But overall, working-class issues seem to have lost their salience, as if even American sociology was also telling them that they didn’t matter.”

While there is no simple relationship between working class activism and scholarship on the working class, the synergy is important.  Now is the time to take working class issues seriously.  Given current trends, we desperately need a revival of labor activism and the development of labor-community alliances around issues such as housing, health care, discrimination, and the environment.  And we also need new scholarship that shines a light on as well as engages the challenges of our time from a working class standpoint.

The Trump Victory

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the latest example of the rise in support for right-wing racist and jingoistic political forces in advanced capitalist countries.  Strikingly this rise has come after a sustained period of corporate driven globalization and profitability.

As highlighted in the McKinsey Global Institute report titled Playing to Win: The New Global Competition For Corporate Profits:

The past three decades have been uncertain times but also the best of times for global corporations–and especially so for large Western multinationals. Vast markets have opened up around the world even as corporate tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology have fallen. Our analysis shows that corporate earnings before interest and taxes more than tripled from 1980 to 2013, rising from 7.6 percent of world GDP to almost 10 percent.  Corporate net incomes after taxes and interest payments rose even more sharply over this period, increasing as a share of global GDP by some 70 percent.


As we see below, it has been corporations headquartered in the advanced capitalist countries that have been the biggest beneficiaries of the globalization process, capturing more than two-thirds of 2013 global profits.


More specifically:

On average, publicly listed North American corporations . . . increased their profit margins from 5.6 percent of sales in 1980 to 9 percent in 2013. In fact, the after-tax profits of US firms are at their highest level as a share of national income since 1929. European firms have been on a similar trajectory since the 1980s, though their performance has been dampened since 2008. Companies from China, India, and Southeast Asia have also experienced a remarkable rise in fortunes, though with a greater focus on growing revenue than on profit margins.

And, consistent with globalizing tendencies, it has been the largest corporations that have captured most of the profit generated.  As the McKinsey report explains:

The world’s largest companies (those topping $1 billion in annual sales) have been the biggest beneficiaries of the profit boom. They account for roughly 60 percent of revenue, 65 percent of market capitalization, and 75 percent of profits. And the share of the profit pool captured by the largest firms has continued to grow. Among North American public companies, for instance, firms with $10 billion or more in annual sales (adjusted for inflation) accounted for 55 percent of profits in 1990 and 70 percent in 2013. Moreover, relatively few firms drive the majority of value creation. Among the world’s publicly listed companies, just 10 percent of firms account for 80 percent of corporate profits, and the top quintile earns 90 percent.


Significantly, most large corporations have chosen not to use their profits for productive investments in new plant and equipment.  Rather, they built up their cash balances.  For example, “Since 1980 corporate cash holdings have ballooned to 10 percent of GDP in the United States, 22 percent in Western Europe, 34 percent in South Korea, and 47 percent in Japan.”  Corporations have often used these funds to drive up share prices by stock repurchase, boost dividends, or strengthen their market power through mergers and acquisitions.

In short, it has been a good time for the owners of capital, especially in core countries.  However, the same is not true for most core country workers.  That is because the rise in corporate profits has been largely underpinned by a globalization process that has shifted industrial production to lower wage third world countries, especially China; undermined wages and working conditions by pitting workers from different communities and countries against each other; and pressured core country governments to dramatically lower corporate taxes, reduce business regulations, privatize public assets and services, and slash public spending on social programs.

The decline in labor’s share of national income, illustrated below, is just one indicator of the downward pressure this process has exerted on majority living and working conditions in advanced capitalist countries.labor-share

Tragically, thanks to corporate, state, and media obfuscation of the destructive logic of contemporary capitalist accumulation dynamics, worker anger in the United States has been slow to build and largely unfocused.  Things changed this election season.  For example, Bernie Sanders gained strong support for his challenge to mainstream policies, especially those that promoted globalization, and his call for social transformation.  Unfortunately, his presidential candidacy was eventually sidelined by the Democratic Party establishment that continues, with few exceptions, to embrace the status-quo.

However, another “politics” was also gaining strength, one fueled by a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic right-wing movement that enjoyed the financial backing of the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class.  That movement, speaking directly to white (and especially male) workers, offered a simplistic and in its own way anti-establishment explanation for worker suffering: although corporate excesses were highlighted, the core message was that white majority decline was caused by the growing demands of “others”—immigrants, workers in third world countries, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and Jews—which in aggregate worked to drive down wages, slow growth, and misuse and bankrupt governments at all levels.  Donald Trump was its political representative, and Donald Trump is now the president of the United States.

His administration will no doubt launch new attacks on unions, laws protecting human and civil rights, and social programs, leaving working people worse off.  Political tensions are bound to grow, and because capitalism is itself now facing its own challenges of profitability, the new government will find it has little room for compromise.

According to McKinsey,

After weighing various scenarios affecting future profitability, we project that while global revenue could reach $185 trillion by 2025, the after-tax profit pool could amount to $8.6 trillion. Corporate profits, currently almost 10 percent of world GDP, could shrink to less than 8 percent–undoing in a single decade nearly all the corporate gains achieved relative to world GDP over the past three decades. Real growth in corporate net income could fall from 5 percent to 1 percent per year. Profit growth could decelerate even more sharply if China experiences a more pronounced slowdown that reverberates through capital-intensive sectors.


History has shown that we cannot simply count on “hard times” to build a powerful working class movement committed to serious structural change.  Much depends on the degree of working class organization, solidarity with all struggles against exploitation and oppression, and clarity about the actual workings of contemporary capitalism.  Therefore we need to redouble our efforts to organize, build bridges, and educate. Our starting point must be resistance to the Trump agenda, but it has to be a resistance that builds unity and is not bounded in terms of vision by the limits of a simple anti-Trump alliance.   We face great challenges in the United States.

Capitalist Globalization: Running Out Of Steam?

The 2016 edition of the Trade and Development Report (TDR 2016), an annual publication of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, is an important study of the changing nature of capitalist globalization and its failure to promote third world development.

The post-1980 period was marked by an explosion of transnational corporate activity, with investment increasingly taking place in the third world, especially Asia.  The resulting investment created a system of cross border production networks in which workers in third world countries produced and assembled parts and components of increasingly advanced manufactures under transnational capital direction for sale in developed country markets.

Mainstream economists supported this process, arguing that it would promote rapid industrialization and upgrading of third world economies and the eventual convergence of third world and advanced capitalist living standards.  However, the TDR 2016 makes the case that the globalization process appears to have run its course and that mainstream predictions were not realized.

Capitalist globalization under pressure

The TDR 2016 shows that the post-2008 slowdown in developed capitalist country growth has led to a significant downturn in third world exports and economic activity.  The following charts show that while international trade has long grown faster than global output, the ratio grew dramatically bigger over the first decade of the 2000s.  This was in large part the result of the expansion of cross border production networks.  This explosion of trade also brought ever expanding trade imbalances.


But, as the above charts also show, globalization dynamics appear to have lost momentum.  According to the TDR 2016:

International trade slowed down further in 2015. This poor performance was primarily due to the lackluster development of merchandise trade, which increased by only around 1.5 per cent in real terms. After the roller-coaster episode of 2009–2011, in the aftermath of the global financial and economic crisis, the growth of international merchandise trade was more or less in line with global output growth for about three years. In 2015, merchandise trade grew at a rate below that of global output, a situation that may worsen in 2016, as the first quarter of the year showed a further deceleration vis-à-vis 2015.

This loss of momentum has hit the third world, which has become ever more export-dependent, especially hard. As the following table shows, the growth rate of third world exports has dramatically slowed, and is now below that of the developed capitalist countries.  East Asian export growth actually turned negative in 2015.


This slowdown in trade has been accompanied by growing capital outflows from the third world, again especially Asia, as shown in the following chart.


The combination of developed country stagnation and dramatically slowing international trade has begun to stress the logistical infrastructure that has underpinned capitalist globalization dynamics.  This is well illustrated by Sergio Bologna’s description of the consequences of Hanjin’s bankruptcy:

The world’s seventh largest shipping company, the Korean company Hanjin, went bankrupt. Overburdened by $4.5-billion in debt, it has not been able to convince the banks to continue their support.

As a matter of fact, it did not convince the government of South Korea, because the main financier of Hanjin is the Korean Development Bank, a public institution, which is also struggling with the critical situation of the other major shipping company, Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM), and the two Korean shipyards, STX Offshore & Shipbuilding and Daewoo. It may sound like a mundane administrative issue, but imagine what it means to have a fleet of about 90 ships, loaded with freight containers valued at $14-billion, roaming the seas because if they touch a port their loads are likely to be seized at the request of creditors.

In fact, the Daily Edition of the Lloyd’s List dated September 13th . . . reported that 13 vessels had been detained. Other ships are being held in different ports, waiting for judiciary sentences. Others are at anchor and maybe had to refuel. Not to mention the 1,200-1,300 crew members who are not able to find suppliers willing to sell them a can of tuna or a bottle of water. In a Canadian port, the crew had to be assisted by the mission Stella Maris.

The intertwining of the ramifications of this problem is impressive. Hanjin must face legal proceedings at courts in 43 countries. For starters: Most of the ships are not owned by Hanjin, and those it owns, to a large extent, are not worth much. Sixty per cent of the fleet is leased, and Hanjin has not been paying the leases for a long time. This threatens to bankrupt old-name companies like Hamburg’s Peter Dohle, the Greek Danaos, and the Canadian Seaspan; there are about 15 companies who leased their ships to Hanjin, but in terms of loading capacity, the first four add up to more than 50 per cent.

Then there are the ports and other infrastructure service providers. The ports are owed fees for services (towing, mooring); the terminals, for load/unload operations to Hanjin ships on credit; the Suez Canal has not been paid the passage tolls and today won’t let the Hanjin ships through; in addition, the onboard suppliers, recruiting agencies of the crews, the ship management firms. The list does not end here, it has just begun. Because the bulk of creditors are thousands of companies, freight forwarders and logistics operators who have entrusted their merchandise to Hanjin, around 400,000 containers (the total capacity of the Hanjin fleet is estimated at 600,000 TEUs), goods that are stuck on board.

Why did this happen? Why did it have to happen? . . .

Because for years, the shipping companies have been transporting goods at a loss. They have put too many ships into service and they continued to order increasingly larger ships at shipyards. The ships competed fiercely for the orders and built the ships at bargain prices, although they are technological jewels. With the increase in freight capacity, freight rates plummeted, volumes grew but the income per unit of freight transported decreased. Then, China slowed exports, creating the perfect storm. . . .

And now? How many of the 10 to 15 most important companies still active on the market are zombie carriers?

The false promise of capitalist globalization

Critically, the globalization process has been aided by labor repression.  The transnational corporate drive for market share encouraged state policies designed to hold down labor costs.  And the resulting decline in wage demand reinforced the pursuit of exports as the “natural” engine of growth.  As TDR 2016 explains:

those countries that did exhibit increases in their global share of manufacturing exports did not show similar increases in wage shares of national income relative to the global average. . . . This suggests that increased access to global markets has typically been associated with a relative deterioration of national wage income compared with the world level.

The following chart illustrates the global ramifications of the globalization process for worker earnings.wage-share

As for convergence, the TDR 2016 compared the performance of third world economies relative to that of the United States using several different criteria.  The chart below looks at the ratio of per capita GDP of select countries and country groups relative to that of the United States.  We see that Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa have actually lost ground since the 1980s.  This is especially striking since the US growth rate also slowed over the same period.  Only in Asia do we see some catch-up, and outside the so-called first-tier NIEs and China the gains have been small.


In fact, as the TDR 2016 explains: “The chances of moving from lower to middle and from middle- to higher income groups during the recent period of globalization show no signs of improving and have, if anything, weakened.”

This conclusion is buttressed by the following table which shows “estimate chances of catching up over the periods 1950–1980 and 1981–2010.”  The United States is the target economy in both periods with countries “divided into three relative income groups: low (between 0 and 15 per cent of the hegemon’s income), middle (between 15 and 50 per cent) and high (above 50). The table reports transition probabilities for the two sub-periods and the three income levels.”


The TDR 2016 drew two main conclusions from these calculations:

First, convergence from the low- and the middle-income groups has become less likely over the last 30 years (1981–2010) relative to the previous period (1950–1980). As reported in the table, the probability of moving from middle- to the high-income status decreased from 18 per cent recorded between 1950 and 1980 to 8 per cent for the following 30 years. Analogously, the probability of catching up from the low- to the middle-income group was reduced approximately by the same factor, from 15 per cent to 7 per cent.

Second, and perhaps more strikingly, the probability of falling behind has significantly increased during the last 30 years. Between 1950 and 1980 the chances of falling into a relatively lower income group amounted to 12 per cent for middle-income economies and only 6 per cent for high-income countries.  These numbers climbed to 21 per cent and 19 per cent respectively in the subsequent period.

Uncertain times lie ahead

In short, globalization dynamics have restructured national economies in ways that have enriched an ever smaller group of transnational corporations.  At the same time, they have set back national development efforts with few exceptions and generated serious contradictions that are largely responsible for the stagnation and downward pressures on working and living conditions experienced by the majority of workers in both advanced capitalist countries and the third world.

While globalization dynamics have lost momentum the economic restructuring it achieved remains in place.  And to this point, dominant political forces appear to believe that they can manage whatever economic challenges may appear and thus remain committed to existing international institutions and patterns of economic activity.  Whether they are correct in their belief remains to be seen.  As does the response of working people, especially in core countries, to their ever more precarious conditions of employment and living.

Support For Taxing The Rich Growing

For years now the wealthy and their media have hammered on the need for lower taxes on their income, arguing that this would encourage investment, job creation, and growth.  The tax burden on the wealthy has indeed been lowered in one way or the other, but only the wealthy have benefited.  In particular, our public sector and the activities it supports—public infrastructure, education, health care and human services, etc.—have suffered.

Apparently, people are starting to draw the right lesson from this experience.  As the Washington Post reports:

The results from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution [survey] show that 54 percent of Republicans support increasing taxes on those with incomes over $250,000 a year, an increase of 18 percentage points since the last presidential election in 2012. Among Americans as a whole, 69 percent support an increase.

While the change in opinion was greatest for Republicans, as the figure below shows the survey also found increased support for greater taxes on the rich among both Democrats and Independents.  The fact that this support began spiking early in the year suggests that the change is tied to the election process, although it is unclear whether the campaigns are driving the growing support for higher taxes on the wealthy or people are just taking advantage of the process to express their desire for change.

tax increase

Regardless of cause, this is a hopeful development for progressive movement building.

US Households Experience Growing Insecurity

People are angry about economic trends and are searching, as voting trends reveal, for ways to communicate their strong desire for change. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts issue brief on Household Expenditure and Income provides powerful insight into those trends.

The issue brief focuses on households in which survey respondents or their spouses are between the ages of 20 and 60.  The households are then divided into thirds based on income.  The key takeaway is the growing economic insecurity of US households.

Figure 1 shows that it took until 2014 for inflation-adjusted median and mean household expenditures to return to their pre-recession levels.


However, as Figure 2 shows, the median rise in household expenditure was not matched by a corresponding increase in median pre-tax household income.


As the authors of the issue brief explain:

By 2014, median income had fallen by 13 percent from 2004 levels, while expenditures had increased by nearly 14 percent. This change in the expenditure-to-income ratio in the years following the financial crisis is a clear indication of why and how households feel financially strained.

Figure 4 highlights the recent upswing in costs of housing, food and transportation.


The housing squeeze has become especially severe for low income renters.  As Figure 6 shows, in 2014, low income renter households spent almost half of their pre-tax income on housing.


More generally, as Figure 10 reveals, households in all three income groups are experiencing budget tightening; they have significantly less money left over after meeting their regular annual expenditures than they did in 2004.

Fig_10_ExpenIn the words of the study:

The amount of slack that families had in their budgets declined for all income groups between 2004 and 2014. . . . In 2004, the typical household in the lower third had a little less than $1,500 left over after accounting for annual outlays. Just 10 years later, this amount had fallen to negative $2,300, a $3,800 decline. These households may have had to use savings, get help from family and friends, or use credit to meet regular annual household expenditures. The typical household in the middle third saw its slack drop from $17,000 in 2004 to $6,000 in 2014. Of note, because income is measured before taxes, some families will have had even less slack in their budgets than this figure implies.

Sadly, there is no reason to believe that majority economic prospects will take a turn for the better.

Searching for the Global Middle Class

The latest hype, designed no doubt to take attention away from declining living and working conditions in core economies, is that a new global middle class is emerging.  The implication is that capitalist globalization continues to work its “magic,” although now it is happening in the so-called third world.  Reality doesn’t match the hype.  Search all you want—it is hard to find real evidence of the emerging new global middle class.

Steve Knauss highlights the talk:

Over half the world will be middle class by 2030, predicts the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in its report on “the Rise of the South.” The Economist, not known to be shy, claims we’re already there, thanks to “today’s new bourgeoisie of some 2.5 billion people” across the global South that have become middle class since 1990. The OECD, perhaps the boldest of all, postulates that India – currently one of the poorest countries on earth – could find more than 90 percent of its population joining this “global middle class” within 30 years, from around 5 or 10 percent today.

It all sounds pretty impressive until you learn how membership in the new global middle class is determined.  It includes those whose real income (in purchasing power parity dollars) is at least $10 per day.  That means at least $3650 in annual earnings gets you membership in the new global middle class.

To appreciate how low that figure is one has to know what purchasing power parity means and how it is used to calculate income.  There are two main ways to make comparisons in earnings across countries, something needed for global claims.  One is to convert national earnings into dollars using the exchange rate.  However, this is not considered very reliable.  Exchange rates move all the time, making comparisons unreliable.  Even more problematic, many of the goods and services people consume are not internationally traded so changes in exchange rates do not affect their well-being.

The other method, the one most commonly used, relies on purchasing power parity calculations.  In brief, the World Bank constructs a basket of consumer goods and services and determines its dollar cost in the United States in a particular year; the most recent year was 2011.  Then, it determines the national cost of a similar basket in other countries.  Finally, it calculates a purchasing power parity exchange rate for the dollar and the currencies of these other countries using these relative costs.

An example: suppose that the constructed basket of goods costs $200 in the US.  And suppose that the “equivalent” basket of goods costs 800 Rupees in India.  We can then can construct a purchasing power exchange rate between the two currencies.  In my example, 1 Rupee equals $0.25.  Or said differently an Indian with 4 Rupees is said to be able to command the same value of goods and services as someone in the US who has $1.  Thus, an Indian earning 8000 Rupees would be said to earn the equivalent of $2000.

Of course this method has its own difficulties.  For example, imagine how hard it is to develop national indices that are equivalent.  How do we calculate the average price of a good or service in a country?  And are the goods and services in one country, say the US, really equivalent to the goods and services in another country, say India?

Regardless, putting doubts about the methodology aside, we can now return to our standard for reaching the global middle class.  Our international agencies seek to count individuals who earn the annual equivalent of $3650 in the US as middle class.  That certainly seems like a stretch!

The following chart highlights the distribution of global income in purchasing power dollars using development agency categories.


As Knauss explains:

Even taking the data at face value, 71 percent of humanity is poorer in real terms than the $10 PPP threshold. . . . This is compared to 79 percent in 2001, owing to a modest increase in families crossing the $10 PPP line but remaining concentrated very close to it . . . . There was consequently an expansion of those living on between $10 and $20 per day from 7 percent of humanity in 2001 to 13 percent today.

That’s it. That’s the whole basis for the “global middle class” hype. If one were to select even a slightly more reasonable standard – for example, $20 PPP, or the real living standard equivalent of a family of four in the United States with a total income above $29,200 – there is no global middle class to speak of whatsoever. Only 16 percent of humanity – 13 percent in 2001 – enjoys this standard of living, composed of the majority of the population across the West, where real substantial middle classes exist, and the elites in the South, very rarely more than 15 or 20 percent of the population, and much more often substantially less.

Still, a look at the chart does show a significant fall in the share of world population that made less than $3 a day.  This however appears largely due to “the historic wave of ‘depeasantization’ throughout the neoliberal era.”  In other words, as people are forced off the land and into urban areas they become part of the cash economy.  Whether their higher money wage compensates for their loss of access to land is another issue, one that should make us pause before declaring them better off.

More generally, the gains over the 2001 to 2011 period were driven by international processes that are now moving in reverse.  The global economy is clearly slowing.  Already declines in exports of manufactures and commodity prices are undoing past gains in poverty reduction in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Capitalist globalization does indeed appear to be working magic.  But, as Oxfam’s recent report shows, only for the benefit of those at the top of the income scale.

  • In 2015, just 62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the bottom half of humanity. This figure is down from 388 individuals as recently as 2010.
  • The wealth of the richest 62 people has risen by 44% in the five years since 2010 – that’s an increase of more than half a trillion dollars ($542bn), to $1.76 trillion. Meanwhile, the wealth of the bottom half fell by just over a trillion dollars in the same period – a drop of 41%.
  • Since the turn of the century, the poorest half of the world’s population has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while half of that increase has gone to the top 1%.
  • The average annual income of the poorest 10% of people in the world has risen by less than $3 each year in almost a quarter of a century. Their daily income has risen by less than a single cent every year.



World Poverty Rates Remain High

The World Bank has a new international poverty line and is celebrating the rapid decrease in the percentage of people living in poverty.  According to the World Bank, the world poverty rate will fall below 10% this year; we are on our way to ending world poverty. Unfortunately, this is a story based on misleading measurements, one that largely serves to buttress the status quo and blunt demands for real change in global economic processes.

The World Bank’s new international poverty line, announced in October 2015, is set at $1.90 per day in 2011 purchasing power parity dollars.  Before discussing the origins of that line, it is worth taking a moment to consider how low that level truly is.  As Jason Hickley explains:

How much is $1.90 per day, adjusted for purchasing power? Technically, it represents the international equivalent of what $1.90 could buy in the United States in 2011. But we know that this amount of money is inadequate to achieve even the most basic nutrition. The US Department of Agriculture calculates that in 2011 the very minimum necessary to buy sufficient food was $5.04 per day. And that’s not taking account of other requirements for survival, such as shelter and clothing.

If you multiply $1.90 times 365 you get the princely annual sum of $693.50.  Imagine living on that in the United States in 2011, and then imagine that according to the World Bank if you make more than that (or its equivalent in other countries) you are no longer to be classified as poor.

Calculating the global poverty line

Countries have their own poverty line calculated in their own respective currencies.  Having a global poverty line means (1) converting national poverty lines to a common standard and (2) finding a way to devise a single number that would have relevance for every country.

While it might be tempting to overcome the first challenge by converting every country’s national poverty line into a dollar value using the existing exchange rate between the country’s currency and the dollar, this would produce widely and rapidly fluctuating poverty lines.  Moreover many goods and services are not traded internationally and so their prices are not actually changed by exchange rate movements.

Therefore, the World Bank employs a different approach.  In broad brush, it constructs a so-called basket of consumer goods and services and determines its cost in the United States in a particular year.  Next, it attempts to determine the national costs of a similar basket in most third world countries.  Finally, it calculates a purchasing power parity exchange rate for the dollar and the currencies of these countries using these relative costs.  In theory, at least, one can then talk about a standardized purchasing power expressed in dollars.

The Bank sought to overcome the second challenge by first using purchasing power parity exchange rates to convert national poverty lines denominated in local currencies into dollars.  Bank researchers then selected, somewhat arbitrarily, the newly converted poverty lines of 15 of the lowest income countries, and determined a consensus poverty line.  It is this consensus poverty line that serves as the Bank’s international poverty line.  Finally, the Bank attempts to estimate the number of people in each country with earnings below that line.

Because the measurement process is expensive and time consuming, the Bank only makes periodic updates to its poverty line.  The 1993 purchasing power parity international poverty line was set at $1.08 a day.  The 2005 purchasing power parity international poverty line was set at $1.25 a day.  And the newly released 2011 purchasing power parity international poverty line was determined to be $1.90 a day.

The figure below, taken from a study by Rahul Lahoti and Sanjay Reddy, highlights the percentage of the world population living below the poverty line for a number of different poverty lines.  As one can see, the percentage of those living in poverty according to the Bank’s latest poverty line is rapidly falling.  In fact, the gains are even greater using the new poverty line than the previous one.

percent poverty

Problems with the Bank’s work

There are many problems with the Bank’s methodology, most importantly its framework is rather arbitrary.  Why should the Bank choose the poorest countries to set a poverty line?  As Hickley points out:

The World Bank picked the $1.90 line because it’s the average of the national poverty lines of the very poorest countries in the world, like Chad and Burundi. But it tells us very little about what poverty is like in most other countries. The bank itself admits that poverty in Latin America, for example, should be measured at about $6 a day. And yet for some reason it persists with the $1.90 line.

Perhaps even more telling there is little reason to have confidence that national poverty lines accurately capture poverty status or that the basket of goods and services used to construct the purchasing power parity exchange rates truly measure basic needs.

And then there are all the difficulties of the computations.  Many of the poorest countries do not have poverty that clearly differentiate between rural and urban poverty or national consumer price indicies, all of which require the Bank to make a number of estimates and/or use adhoc measures to make its calculations.

Moreover, it is tricky to use international poverty lines calculated in one year to measure poverty rates in past or future years.  The international poverty lines are based on prices in a base year which are shaped by the structure of the world economy in that year, while prices in different countries shift yearly in response to changing local and international conditions.  For a more complete discussion of these and other points see the above cited study by Lahoti and Reddy.

Alternative measures and poverty trends

While Lahoti and Reddy call for the construction of an alternative measure of poverty, one that relies not on income but a concrete measure of the goods and services required to live a non-poverty life, they do offer, using U.S. Department of Agricultural data, an alternative estimate of international poverty to illustrate the problematic nature of the World Bank’s work.

As they explain:

The Thrifty Food Plan produced by the US Dept. of Agriculture Center of Nutrition Policy and Promotion established, with great care, the minimum cost of achieving “Recommended Dietary Allowances” in the United States. It does so for a model family of a specified size and composition by collecting “scanner” price data from markets around the US and calculating the mathematical least cost of achieving the allowances at these prices (using linear programming techniques) and by subsequently modestly adjusting the amount to make some allowance for prevailing tastes. It then verifies that the amount suffices for cooking model recipes in a test kitchen. The allowance is based entirely on the supposition of home cooking and makes no reference to the costs of the kitchen or the cooking pots. By definition, the Thrifty Food Plan allowance does not suffice for any non-food requirement (e.g. for shelter, clothing, transportation etc.). It can therefore be taken as a lower bound on real requirements in the US. However, to take note of the possible criticism that the Thrifty Food Plan allowances are overly generous, we consider expenditure levels corresponding both to those allowances (based on per person per day costs in a family of four with two children of intermediate ages) and to half their value. In 2011, these amounts were respectively $5.04 and $2.52. These can be thought of as food poverty lines to which non-food requirements must be added, but have not been. Further, we apply both general consumption PPPs (as does the Bank) and food PPPs more appropriate to food requirements in particular. Combining these possibilities leads to four alternative poverty lines and resulting poverty estimates.

Looking at poverty trends using the $5.04 2011 Food PPP and 2011 PPP we see in the figure above that declines in poverty are quite recent, dating to 2000.  These gains no doubt reflect the high country growth rates powered by soaring commodity prices.  Those prices are now in sharp decline as are growth rates.  Regardless, the percentage of the world population below the poverty line remains extremely high, well over 50%.

The figure below shows numbers of poor rather than percentages.  These two alternative measures show increases, not decreases, in the number of poor people relative to 1980 and 1990.

number poor

Hickley offers two other poverty estimates, both of which also show levels of world poverty far higher than that claimed by the World Bank:

One option is to count poverty country-by-country using each nation’s own poverty line, with $1.90 as an absolute floor. If we did that, we would see that about 1.7 billion people remain in poverty today, which is more than 70% higher than the World Bank would have us believe.

If we want to stick with a single international line, we might use the “ethical poverty line” devised by Peter Edward of Newcastle University. He calculates that in order to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years, people need roughly 2.7 to 3.9 times the existing poverty line. In the past, that was $5 a day. Using the bank’s new calculations, it’s about $7.40 a day. As it happens, this number is close to the average of national poverty lines in the global south.

Challenges ahead

The UN and the World Bank are strongly committed to the World Bank’s results because it allows both organizations to declare the success of their efforts.  The UN, for example, recently declared its Millennium Development Goals successfully met, thanks in large part to World Bank poverty estimates.  Now, it has launched its Sustainable Development Goals, which includes the eradication of world poverty.

The bankruptcy, perhaps better said danger, in this concerted effort to legitimate business as usual is clearly expressed in the following public letter to the UN by Noam Chomsky and other leading scholar/activists:

As the UN and the world’s governments ratify the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) today (September 25), we must be clear that they do not represent the best interests of the world’s majority — those that are currently exploited and oppressed within the current economic and political order.

The SDGs claim they can eradicate poverty in all its forms by 2030. But they rely primarily on global economic growth to achieve this tremendous task. If such growth resembles that seen in recent decades, it will take 100 years for poverty to disappear, not the15 years the SDGs promise. And even if this were possible in a shorter timescale, we would need to increase the size of the global economy by a factor of 12, which, in addition to making our planet uninhabitable, will obliterate any gains against poverty.

Rather than paper over such obvious madness with false hopes, we must address two critical issues head on: income inequality and endless material growth.

If poverty is to be truly overcome by 2030, then much of the improvement in the position of the impoverished must come through reduction in the enormous inequality that has accumulated in the last 200 plus years. The richest 1 percent of humanity will very soon own over half of the world’s private wealth. It would take only modest reductions in inequality to deliver large increases in the socio-economic position of the poorer half of humanity.

The SDGs do talk about reducing inequality. However, their prescription is technocratic, obscure and wholly incommensurate to the task at hand. For example, Target 10.1 states that by 2030 they will “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.” It is hard to imagine a less robust or ambitious goal. This commitment allows inequality to grow without limit until 2029, so long as it then begins to be reduced. The SDGs thus fail to endorse the only means that can achieve their stated goal of ending poverty: substantial inequality reduction, starting now. In effect, they perpetuate severe poverty and leave this fundamental problem to future generations.

The other essential task is for the world’s nations to adopt a saner measure of human progress; one that gears us not towards endless GDP growth based on extraction and consumption, but towards the wellbeing of humanity and our planet as a whole. There are plenty of options to choose from, all of which have been ignored in the SDGs. Instead, Target 17.19 says only that they will, “by 2030, build on existing initiatives to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP”. Another urgent challenge passed down to the next generation.

It is possible to overcome poverty in a way that respects the Earth and helps tackle climate change. The planet is abundant in wealth and its people infinitely resourceful. In order to do so, however, we must be prepared to challenge the logic of endless growth, greed and destruction enshrined in neoliberal capitalism.

It is time to envision a new operating system, based on social justice and symbiosis with the natural world. As currently formulated, the SDGs merely distract us from addressing the challenges we face.

Signed by:

Noam Chomsky, MIT
Thomas Pogge, Yale University
Naomi Klein, Author and activist
Eve Ensler, Playwright and activist
Chris Hedges, Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author
Helena Norberg-Hodge, International Society for Ecology and Culture
Anuradha Mittal, Oakland Institute
Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network
Maude Barlow, Author and human rights activist
David Graeber, London School of Economics
Medha Patkar, National Alliance of People’s Movments, India
Alnoor Ladha, The Rules