Forgotten Workers And The US Expansion

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

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

Forgotten workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, according to Mislinski,

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

The takeaway

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

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

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

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Magical Bootstraps And The Struggles Of Working Americans

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

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

The bootstrap theory of success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The struggles of working Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Militarism Marches On

Republicans and Democrats like to claim that they are on opposite sides of important issues.  Of course, depending on which way the wind blows, they sometimes change sides, like over support for free trade and federal deficits.  Tragically, however, there is no division when it comes to militarism.

For example, the federal budget for fiscal year 2018 (which ends on September 30, 2018), included more money for the military than even President Trump requested.  Trump had asked for a military budget of $603 billion, a sizeable $25 billion increase over fiscal year 2017 levels; Congress approved $629 billion.  Trump had also asked for $65 billion to finance current war fighting, a bump of $5 billion; Congress approved $71 billion.  The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, which set the target budget for the Department of Defense at this high level, was approved by the Senate in a September 2017 vote of 89-9.

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 . . . 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.”

That Act also called for a further increase in military spending of $16 billion for fiscal year 2019 (which begins October 1, 2018).  And, in June 2018, the Senate voted 85 to 10 to authorize that increase, boosting the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2019 total to $716 billion.

This bipartisan embrace of militarism comes at enormous cost for working people.  This cost includes cuts in funding for public housing, health care and education; the rebuilding of our infrastructure; basic research and development; and efforts to mitigate climate change.  It also includes the militarization of our police, since the military happily transfers its excess or outdated equipment to willing local police departments.

And it also includes a belligerent foreign policy.  A case in point: Congress has made clear its opposition to the Trump administration decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and halt war games directed against North Korea, apparently preferring the possibility of a new Korean War.  Congress is also trying to pass a law that will restrict the ability of the President to reduce the number of US troops stationed in South Korea.

In brief, the US military industrial complex, including the bipartisan consensus which helps to promote militarism’s popular legitimacy, is one of the most important and powerful foes we must overcome if we are to seriously tackle our ever-growing social, economic, and ecological problems.

The military is everywhere

The US has approximately 800 formal military bases in 80 countries, with 135,000 soldiers stationed around the globe.  Putting this in perspective, Alice Slater reports that:

only 11 other countries have bases in foreign countries, some 70 altogether. Russia has an estimated 26 to 40 in nine countries, mostly former Soviet Republics, as well as in Syria and Vietnam; the UK, France, and Turkey have four to 10 bases each; and an estimated one to three foreign bases are occupied by India, China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.

US special forces are deployed in even more countries.  According to Nick Turse, as of 2015, these forces were operating in 135 countries, an 80 percent increase over the previous five years.  “That’s roughly 70 percent of the countries on the planet. Every day, in fact, America’s most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations practicing night raids or sometimes conducting them for real, engaging in sniper training or sometimes actually gunning down enemies from afar.”

This widespread geographic deployment represents not only an aggressive projection of US elite interests, it also provides a convenient rationale for those that want to keep the money flowing.  The military, and those that support its funding, always complain that the military needs more funds to carry out its mission.  Of course, the additional funds enable the military to expand the reach of its operations, thereby justifying another demand for yet more money.

The US military is well funded 

It is no simple matter to estimate of how much we spend on military related activities.  The base military budget is the starting point.  It represents the amount of the discretionary federal budget that is allocated to the Department of Defense.  Then there is the overseas contingency operations fund, which is a separate pool of money sitting outside any budgetary restrictions, that the military receives yearly from the Congress to cover the costs of its ongoing warfare.

It is the combination of the two that most analysts cite when talking about the size of the military budget. Using this combined measure, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finds that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven largest military spenders combined, which are China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the UK, and Japan.

As the following chart shows, US military spending (base budget plus overseas contingency operations fund), adjusted for inflation, has been on the rise for some time, and is now higher than at any time other than during the height of the Iraq war.  Jeff Stein, writing in the Washington Post, reports that the military’s base budget will likely be “the biggest in recent American history since at least the 1970s, adjusting for inflation.”

As big as it is, the above measure of military spending grossly understates the total.  As JP Sottile explains:

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) tabulated all “defense-related spending” for both 2017 and 2018, and it hit nearly $1.1 trillion for each of the two years. The “defense-related” part is important because the annual National Defense Authorization Act, a.k.a. the defense budget, doesn’t fully account for all the various forms of national security spending that gets peppered around a half-dozen agencies.

William Hartung, an expert on military spending, went agency by agency to expose all the various military-related expenses that are hidden in different parts of the budget.  As he points out:

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, roughly the same as the POGO total cited above.  In short, our political leaders are far from forthcoming about the true size of our military spending.

Adding insult to injury, the military cannot account for how it spends a significant share of the funds it is given.  A Reuters’ article by Scott Paltrow tells the story:

The United States Army’s finances are so jumbled it had to make trillions of dollars of improper accounting adjustments to create an illusion that its books are balanced.

The Defense Department’s Inspector General, in a June [2016] report, said the Army made $2.8 trillion in wrongful adjustments to accounting entries in one quarter alone in 2015, and $6.5 trillion for the year. Yet the Army lacked receipts and invoices to support those numbers or simply made them up.

As a result, the Army’s financial statements for 2015 were “materially misstated,” the report concluded. The “forced” adjustments rendered the statements useless because “DoD and Army managers could not rely on the data in their accounting systems when making management and resource decisions.” . . .

The report affirms a 2013 Reuters series revealing how the Defense Department falsified accounting on a large scale as it scrambled to close its books. As a result, there has been no way to know how the Defense Department – far and away the biggest chunk of Congress’ annual budget – spends the public’s money.

The new report focused on the Army’s General Fund, the bigger of its two main accounts, with assets of $282.6 billion in 2015. The Army lost or didn’t keep required data, and much of the data it had was inaccurate, the IG said.

“Where is the money going? Nobody knows,” said Franklin Spinney, a retired military analyst for the Pentagon and critic of Defense Department planning. . . .

For years, the Inspector General – the Defense Department’s official auditor – has inserted a disclaimer on all military annual reports. The accounting is so unreliable that “the basic financial statements may have undetected misstatements that are both material and pervasive.”

Military spending is big for business

Almost half of the US military budget goes to private military contractors.  These military contracts are the lifeblood for many of the largest corporations in America.  Lockheed Martin and Boeing rank one and two on the list of companies that get the most money from the government.  In 2017 Lockheed Martin reported $51 billion in sales, with $35.2 billion coming from the government.  Boeing got $26.5 billion. The next three in line are Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman.  These top five firms captured some $100 billion in Pentagon contracts in 2016.

And, as Hartung describes,

The Pentagon buys more than just weapons. Health care companies like Humana ($3.6 billion), United Health Group ($2.9 billion), and Health Net ($2.6 billion) cash in as well, and they’re joined by, among others, pharmaceutical companies like McKesson ($2.7 billion) and universities deeply involved in military-industrial complex research like MIT ($1 billion) and Johns Hopkins ($902 million).

Not surprisingly, given how lucrative these contracts are, private contractors work hard to ensure the generosity of Congress. In 2017, for example, 208 defense companies spent almost $100 million to deploy 728 reported lobbyists.  Lobbying is made far easier by the fact that more than 80 percent of top Pentagon officials have worked for the defense industry at some point in their careers, and many will go back to work in the defense industry.

Then there are arms sales to foreign governments. Lawrence Wittner cites a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute that found that sales of weapons and military services by the world’s largest 100 corporate military suppliers totaled $375 billion in 2016. “U.S. corporations increased their share of that total to almost 58 percent, supplying weapons to at least 100 nations around the world.”

Eager to promote the arms industry, government officials work hard on their behalf.  As Hartung explains: From the president on his trips abroad to visit allied world leaders to the secretaries of state and defense to the staffs of U.S. embassies, American officials regularly act as salespeople for the arms firms.”

More for the military and less for everything else

The federal budget is divided into three categories: mandatory spending (primarily social security and medicare), discretionary spending, and interest on the debt. Two trends in discretionary spending, the component of the budget set each year at the discretion of Congress, offer a window on how militarism is squeezing out funding for programs that serve majority needs.

The first noteworthy trend is the growing Congressional support for defense (base military budget) over non-defense programs. In 2001, the majority of discretionary funds went to non-defense programs,  However, that soon changed, as we see in the chart below, thanks to the “war on terror.”  In the decade following September 11, 2001, military spending increased by 50 percent, while spending on every other government program increased by only 13.5 percent.

In the 2018 federal budget, 54 percent of discretionary funds are allocated to the military (narrowly defined), $700 billion to the military and $591 billion to non-military programs. The chart below shows President Trump’s discretionary budgetary request for fiscal year 2019. As we can see, the share of funds for the military would rise to 61 percent of the total.

According to the National Priorities Project, “President Trump’s proposals for future spending, if accepted by Congress, would ensure that, by 2023, the proportion of military spending [in the discretionary budget] would soar to 65 percent.”  Of course, militarism’s actual share is much greater, since the military is being defined quite narrowly.  For example, Veterans’ Benefits is included in the non-defense category.

The second revealing trend is the decline in non-defense discretionary spending relative to GDP.  Thus, not only is the military base budget growing more rapidly than the budget for nondefense programs, spending on discretionary non-defense programs is not even keeping up with the growth in the economy.  This trend translates into a declining public capacity to support research and development and infrastructure modernization, as well as meet growing needs for housing, education, health and safety, disaster response . . . the list is long.

The 2018 bipartisan budget deal increased discretionary spending for both defense and non-defense programs, but the deal did little to reverse this long run decline in non-defense discretionary spending relative to the size of the economy.  A Progressive Policy Institute blog post by Ben Ritz explains:

The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) capped both categories of discretionary spending as part of a broader effort to reduce future deficits. When Congress failed to reach a bipartisan agreement on taxes and other categories of federal spending, the BCA automatically triggered an even deeper, across-the-board cut to discretionary spending known as sequestration. While the sequester has been lifted several times since it first took effect, discretionary spending consistently remained far below the original BCA caps.

That trend ended with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA). This budget deal not only lifted discretionary spending above sequester levels – it also went above and beyond the original BCA caps for two years. Nevertheless, projected domestic discretionary spending for Fiscal Year 2019 is significantly below the historical average as a percentage of gross domestic product. Moreover, even if policymakers extended these policy changes beyond the two years covered by the BBA, we project that domestic discretionary spending could fall to just 3 percent of GDP within the next decade – the lowest level in modern history [see dashed black line in chart below].

The story is similar for defense spending. Thanks to the pressure put on by the sequester, defense discretionary spending fell to just under 3.1 percent of GDP in FY2017. Under the BBA, defense spending would increase to 3.4 percent of GDP in FY2019 before falling again [see dashed black line in following chart]. Unlike domestic discretionary spending, however, defense would remain above the all-time low it reached before the 2001 terrorist attacks throughout the next decade.

In sum, Congress appears determined to squeeze non-defense programs, increasingly privileging defense over non-defense spending in the discretionary budget and allowing non-defense spending as a share of GDP to fall to record lows.  The ratio of discretionary defense spending relative to GDP appears to be stabilizing, although at levels below its long-term average.  However, discretionary defense spending refers only to the base budget of the Department of Defense and as such is a seriously understated measure of the costs of US militarism.  Including the growing costs of Homeland Security, foreign military aid, intelligence services, the Veterans Administration, the interest on the debt generated by past spending on the military, and the overseas contingency operations fund, would result in a far different picture, one that would leave no doubt about the government’s bipartisan commitment to militarism.

The challenge ahead

Fighting militarism is not easy.  Powerful political and business forces have made great strides in converting the United States into a society that celebrates violence, guns, and the military. The chart below highlights one measure of this success.  Sadly, 39 percent of Americans polled support increasing our national defense while 46 percent think it is just about right. Only 13 percent think it is stronger than it needs to be.

Polls, of course, just reveal individual responses at a moment in time to questions that, in isolation, often provide respondents with no meaningful context or alternatives and thus reveal little about people’s true thoughts.  At the same time, results like this show just how important it is for us to work to create space for community conversations that are informed by accurate information on the extent and aims of US militarism and its enormous political, social, economic, and ecological costs for the great majority of working people.

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

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

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

The expansion is running out of steam

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

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

The Goldman Sachs model, according to Domm:

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

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

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

Living on the edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

State Conservatives Block City Progressives

Recently, organizers in a number of cities helped to build strong local coalitions which successfully won passage, either though ballot or elected official vote, of measures that improved majority living and working conditions.  Examples include higher minimum wages as well as fair scheduling, paid leave, and improved prevailing wage laws.

Now, conservative forces, organized by groups such as ALEC, are using their influence in state legislatures to pass preemption laws to block this progressive city strategy and, in some cases, roll back past gains. This development is well described by Marni von Wilpert in a recent Economic Policy Institute report titled “City governments are raising standards for working people—and state legislators are lowering them back down.”

Preemption and the rise of the right

Preemption allows a higher level of government to restrict the power of a lower level of government in areas where it believes that lower level government action conflicts, or might conflict, with its own actions. In terms of state politics, state governments can use preemption to restrict the rights of city governments.

A case in point, as described by von Wilpert:

In 2015, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance raising the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 effective July 2016 and to $10.10 effective July 2017. At the beginning of the 2016 session, the Alabama state legislature fast-tracked a minimum wage preemption law, which Governor Robert Bentley signed 16 days after the bill was first introduced, nullifying Birmingham’s ordinance and knocking the minimum wage back down to $7.25

At one time, preemption was used by more liberal state governments to keep more conservative city governments from undercutting social standards.  However, as von Wilpert explains, “Now that the Republican Party controls 33 governorships and has majority representation in both chambers of most state legislatures, conservative state legislators have increasingly used preemption laws to strike down local government efforts to increase the quality of life for working people in their municipalities.”

Preemption and minimum wage laws

The federal minimum wage has not been increased since 2009. In 2017, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 was worth 12 percent less, in real terms, than when it was last raised, and is 27 percent below its peak value in 1968.  Working people have therefore pushed hard to get their states and/or localities to take action, and with growing success at the local level.  “Before 2012, only five localities had enacted their own local minimum wage laws, but as of 2017, forty counties and cities have done so.”

But now, as the following figure from the EPI report makes clear, conservative state lawmakers are fighting back, using preemption to restrict local action.  Twenty-five states now have preemption laws denying local governments the right to set their own minimum wages; more than half of these laws were passed beginning in 2013.

Preemption and paid leave

State level right-wing forces have also taken aim at paid leave laws, which generally include the right to paid sick and family medical leave.  There is no federal law guaranteeing workers the right to paid leave, and, as with minimum wage gains, workers have been most successful in winning paid leave at the local level.  However, as we see in the following figure, state legislatures, since 2013, have been busy denying local governments the right to implement their own higher standards.  Twenty states now have preemption laws covering paid leave.

Preemption and fair scheduling

There are currently no federal laws that ensure workers basic fairness and predictability in scheduling.  As von Wilpert describes,

While waiting for the federal government to act, four cities and two states have passed various forms of fair work schedules legislation. But in the last few years, as local governments have begun to innovate in the arena of fair scheduling, state governments have stripped local governments’ abilities to do so—[as we see in the following figure] at least nine states have passed work scheduling preemption laws since 2015.

Preemption and prevailing wage/project labor agreements

Prevailing wage and project labor agreements require private contractors to treat workers fairly, including paying all their workers the prevailing wage, when doing work under government contract.  Such agreements keep private contractors from competing for public work at the expense of their workers.

And, as in the other areas of labor rights discussed above, we see a similar explosion in action by states to restrict the right of their localities to set higher standards for public contracting. At least 12 states now have preemption laws, all but one of which was passed beginning in 2013.

What’s next?

The current right-wing strategy highlighted above greatly reduces what working people can win at the city level in many states.  Of course, there are still many states where local initiatives can bring real improvement and these should obviously continue.  At the same time, it seems clear that the political environment is changing and not for the better in terms of what local efforts can produce.

While far from easy, this means that organizers have little choice but to deepen and extend their work. Among other things, this means pursuing efforts to link local/city coalitions in order to strengthen state level influence.  It also means that more emphasis needs to be put into building organizations as well as alliances of working people around a vision of good jobs for all, a strong and accountable public sector serving human needs, and healthy cities and communities that is to be won through organizing and direct action as well as electoral work.  Above all,  this will require seeking and sharing creative ways to strengthen working class solidarity, which is key if we are to overcome the existing divisions that allow right-wing forces to set the terms of our political choices.