Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Inequality

Globalization and US Labor’s Falling Share Of National Output

As the Trump administration pushes ahead with its effort to renegotiate NAFTA, we must never miss an opportunity to remind people that the globalization of US economic activity has, by design, shifted the balance of class power away from working people.  A commonly cited indicator of class power is labor’s share of output (or income), which, as shown below, dramatically fell after the turn of the 21st century after decades of slow decline.

Michael W. L. Elsby, Bart Hobijn, and Aysegül Sahin, writing in the Fall 2013 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, tested several hypotheses about the cause of labor’s declining share of output.  They concluded, based on their econometric work, that “increases in the import exposure of U.S. businesses” was key, accounting for approximately 85 percent of the decline in the U.S. payroll share over the period 1987 to 2011.  This finding led them to suggest “that a particularly fruitful avenue for future research will be to delve further into the causal channels that underlie this statistical relationship, in particular the possibility that the decline in the U.S. labor share was driven by the offshoring of the labor-intensive component of the U.S. supply chain.”

Labor’s share of income

It is important to be clear about how the labor share is estimated and how well it captures class dynamics.  The starting point is simple: labor’s share of output is calculated by dividing the labor compensation earned during a given period by the economic output produced over the same period.  Things quickly get more complicated, however, because the labor compensation used in the calculation is actually the sum of the labor earnings of two different groups of workers: those who work for others and those who work for themselves.

The compensation of the first group includes the sum of all employee pay and benefits: wages and salaries; commissions; tips; bonuses; severance payments; early retirement buyout payments; exercised stock options; and employer contributions to employee pension and insurance funds, and to government social insurance.  Calculating the employee share of output, known as the payroll share, is relative straightforward thanks to employer fillings.

Things are not so simple when it comes to the second group, since their earnings reflect “both returns to their work effort and returns to the business property they invested in” and there is no simple way to separate their earnings into those two components.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) handles this problem by assuming that the self-employed receive an hourly labor compensation similar to that earned by employees who work in the same sector of the economy.

The figure below, from the Brookings Papers article, shows the division of the labor share into its two component parts, the payroll share and the self-employed share.  As we can see, the payroll share is significantly greater than the self-employed share.  In fact, the share of hours of the self-employed in total work hours “has declined steadily from about 14 percent in 1948 to 8.5 percent in 2012.”  However, as Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin point out, “In spite of the relatively small share of self-employment hours, the treatment of self-employment income plays an important role in the recent behavior of the evolution of the labor share.”

A number of economists have raised concerns about the methodology used by the BLS to divide the compensation of the self-employed into its labor and capital returns components.  One example: the BLS methodology ends up crediting the self-employed with more labor compensation than their total reported earnings for much of the 1980s and early 1990s, a highly unlikely outcome.

Alternative methodologies have been suggested, and the authors of the Brookings Papers article calculate labor’s share using the two most often cited.  The one they call the “asset basis” assumes that the return on self-employed capital is the same as the return on capital in the non-farm business sector, with the remaining earnings credited to labor.  The other, called the “economy-wide basis,” assumes that the division between labor compensation and capital income is the same for the self-employed as it is for the non-farm business sector.  As we see below, the two alternatives generally produce labor share trends that are relatively close together, and significantly lower than that published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the start of the series until the late 1990s, when all three series generally converge.

Because of its methodological shortcoming, Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin prefer either of the two alternative measures, which leads them to the conclusion that use of the BLS series overstates the actual decline in the labor share.  As they explain:

The upshot of these comparisons is that around one third of the decline in the headline measure of labor’s share appears to be a by-product of the methods employed by the BLS to impute the labor income of the self-employed. Alternative measures that have less extreme implications regarding the return to capital among proprietors are more consistent with one another and indicate a more modest decline.

The fact that the difference between the BLS and the alternative measures of labor’s share largely disappeared beginning in the late 1990s suggests that the average hourly earnings of the self-employed have grown much faster than that of the employed.  This, in turn, suggests a significant transformation in the make-up of the self-employed; in particular an increase in the number of individuals engaged in highly lucrative professional work.  In this regard it is important to recall that labor compensation includes not just wage and salary earnings but also things like bonuses and stock options, rewards that became increasingly popular for a select few starting in the late 1990s thanks to the run-up in the stock market.

And in fact, this transformation is confirmed by the authors, who disaggregated the structure of the labor share for employees and total earnings for the self-employed.  The results are illustrated in the following figure, which shows that “the share of income accounted for by both payroll wages and salaries and by proprietors’ income [the sum of their labor and nonlabor earnings] has been buoyed up since the 1980s by substantial rises in the shares accounted for by the very top fractiles of households in the United States.”

As the authors point out:

This rise in inequality is even more striking for proprietors’ income than it is for payroll income. In 1948 the bottom 90 percent of employees earned 75 percent of payroll compensation. By 2010 this had declined to 54 percent. For entrepreneurial income, however, this fraction declined from 42 percent in 1948 to 14 percent in 2010. Even more starkly, over the same period the share of proprietors’ income accounted for by the bottom 99 percent fell from 74 percent to 45 percent. This suggests that the sharp rise in the average hourly compensation of proprietors relative to the payroll-employed since the late 1980s is related to substantial increases in income inequality among proprietors that dominate even the considerable rise in inequality witnessed among the payroll-employed. Moreover, this has been driven by extreme rises in proprietors’ income at the very top of the income distribution—the top 1 percent in particular.

In short, there are a lot of moving parts to the calculation of and evaluation of trends in the labor share of income.  The BLS measure may have overstated the decline, but the explosion of inequality means that the measure’s two components mask an even greater fall in the share of income going to the great majority of working people.

Globalization and the decline in the payroll share of output

Although the labor share is the “headline” statistic, the authors decided to narrow their focus to the payroll share.  As we saw above, it is no simple matter to determine the labor compensation of the self-employed.  In contrast, the payroll share is relatively easy to measure and, as a bonus, can be disaggregated by industry.  Moreover, it is the largest component of the labor share, which means that its movement is most responsible for changes in the overall labor share.

Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin begin with a standard neoclassical aggregate production model and the most common neoclassical explanations for the decline, which rest on investment and technological change: the growth in the capital/labor ratio and skill-biased technical change.  The basic neoclassical argument is that growing investment shifts income away from labor in the first case and unskilled workers in the second.  However, in both cases the authors found that the movement in relevant variables was not consistent with the actual movement in the payroll share.

Recognizing the limitations inherent in a simple aggregate production function model of the economy, the authors decided to take advantage of their industry data to see whether a more micro/industry perspective yielded better results. More specifically, they econometrically tested whether investment specific technological change, declines in unionization, or increases in import competition can explain the decline in the payroll share.  They found that “Our data yield one robust correlation: that declines in payroll shares are more severe in industries that face larger increases in competitive pressures from imports.”

In the case of investment specific technical change, the authors looked to see whether those industries which enjoyed the lowest price increases for investment goods had the largest declines in payroll share, with the assumption being that these industries would be the most likely to replace workers with capital.  In fact, it turned out that there was a weak negative relationship between the change in equipment prices and the change in payroll shares across industries, the opposite of what was expected “if capital deepening due to the decline in price of equipment were the driving force of the decline in the payroll share.”  This result reinforced the conclusion from their aggregate analysis that investment activity does not explain the decline in the payroll share of output.

The test of unionization was more straight forward.  The authors looked to see if there was a positive relationship between changes in union density in an industry and changes in payroll shares.  While they did find “a positive correlation between the change in unionization and the change in payroll shares across industries,” the relationship was weak. “The weighted least squares regression indicates that cross-industry variation in changes in unionization rates explains less than 5 percent of the variation in changes in payroll shares across industries.”

Last was the test of globalization, or more specifically a test of whether the import-caused hollowing out of US industry was a primary cause of the decline in the payroll share.  Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin assumed two possible channels for a rise in imports to cause a fall in the payroll share.  The first involved trade-generated capital deepening.  In this case, the outsourcing of production by US firms would lead to a reduction in labor, a rise in the capital-labor ratio, and a decline in the payroll share of income.  However, as the authors noted, they had already tested capital deepening as a potential cause of the decline and found no support for the hypothesis.

The second trade channel relied on wage differentials rather than shifts in capital intensity.  Industries with high labor shares likely have high labor costs, making them vulnerable to import competition.  The greater the competition the more likely firms in these industries were to take actions to lower those costs, including offshoring segments of their production process, thereby producing a decline in their payroll share.

The authors pursued this possibility by computing the import exposure of each industry.  They did so by asking the following question:

If the United States were to produce domestically all the goods that it imports, how much additional value added would each industry have to produce? For example, if all U.S. imports of clothes were produced domestically, how much would value added increase in sectors like retail, textile manufacturing, and so on.

To be able to calculate this measure of import exposure we use the annual input-output matrices that are available for the years 1993 to 2010 from the BLS. Import exposure is expressed as the percentage increase in value added needed to satisfy U.S. final demand if the United States would produce all its imports domestically.

The figure below shows the relationship between changes in import exposure and changes in the payroll share for each industry.  As we can see, import exposure increased for almost all industries—reflecting the growing hollowing out of the US economy–and the larger the exposure the greater the decline in payroll share.  A simple regression showed that the import exposure variable was significant in explaining changes in the payroll share, with cross-industry variation in changes in import exposure explaining 22 percent of the variation in changes in payroll share.

The authors then ran a regression which included all three possible explanations for the decline in the payroll share.  The globalization variable remained highly significant and was the only variable to do so.  With the import exposure valuable included in the regression, the unionization variable became insignificant.  “This suggests that those sectors where deunionization was most prevalent are also sectors that saw the biggest increase in import exposure.”

Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin conclude:

our results indicate a cross industry link between the increases in import exposure and the decline in the labor share.  While this result cannot be interpreted as causal, it is worth noting that the statistical relationship between import exposure and payroll shares across industries is large enough to account for a substantial fraction of the aggregate trend decline in the labor share. In particular, aggregating the results of the weighted-least-squares regression across industries suggests that increases in the import exposure of U.S. businesses can account for 3.3 percentage points of the 3.9 percentage point decline in the U.S. payroll share over the past quarter century.

 

We know that trade agreements are about a lot more than lowering tariffs to promote trade.  Foremost, they are about strengthening corporate power and profitability.  And despite mainstream economic theorizing to the contrary, there is strong evidence that these corporate gains come, as designed, at the expense of majority well-being.

Studies of the effect on US workers from imports from China (see Autor, Dorn, and Hanson)  and Mexico (see Hakobyan and McLaren), most of which are produced within US transnational corporate-controlled production networks, show that US workers pay a steep price in terms of job loss and lost earnings from corporate driven globalization.  And, as we have seen, Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin’s work strongly suggests that this process is also the main factor behind the decline in the payroll share of output.  This is class power at work–unfortunately theirs, not ours.

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Signs Of Economic Trouble Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Many Whites Are In Denial About The Extent Of Race-Based Economic Inequality

A recently published paper by three Yale scholars reveals “that Americans, on average, systematically overestimate the extent to which society has progressed toward racial economic equality, driven largely by overestimates of current racial equality.”

The authors based their conclusion on the results of three different studies.  Participants in all three studies were asked to estimate differences between average Black and White Americans in five areas at a point in time in the past and the present.  The areas and time points were:

(i) employer provided health care benefits in 1979/2010; (ii) hourly wages of college graduates in 1973/2015; (iii) hourly wages of high school graduates in 1973/2015; (iv) annual income in 1947/2013; and (v), accumulated wealth in 1983/2010. Participants considered an average White individual or family earning $100 US and were asked to estimate how much an average Black individual or family would earn using a scale that ranged from $0–$200 US. For the health care item, the question was framed in terms of families with health coverage, and participants indicated how many Black families would be covered if 100 similarly employed White families had coverage. Participants were reminded that an answer of 100 meant equality between Whites and Blacks.

Two of the three studies included a sample of White and Black participants drawn from the top (over $100,000 yearly income) and bottom (below $40,001) of the income distribution.  The third study included just White participants, also drawn from the two ends of the income distribution.

The following figure, taken from a New York Times review of the study’s results, shows the views of participants about current racial differences for four of the five survey areas.

As noted above, participants were asked how much they thought an average Black family or individual held in wealth or earned in income or received in wages, if the average White family or individual had $100 in wealth or received $100 in income or in wages.  Their estimates are shown in grey while the reality is shown in red.  As we can see, the general perception is that discrimination exists, but is relatively small.  As we can also see, the reality, especially with regards to wealth and income, is far worse.

Because the authors asked participants to do this thought experiment for a period in the past as well as in the present, they were also able to draw some conclusions about people’s sense of progress in fighting discrimination.  Their results:

confirmed our hypothesis that Americans, on average, misperceive the extent to which society has made progress toward racial economic equality . . . Indeed, participants overestimated racial economic progress by more than 20 points across all studies and all domains of progress.

They also found, again in line with another of their hypotheses, that high-income White participants were more likely to overestimate racial equality than were low-income White participants or Black participants of either income group.  More specifically, high-income White participants overestimated past as well as current racial equality relative to the other three groups.  In fact, “high-income White participants were actually the only subgroup to overestimate the extent of racial equality in the past.”

The New York Times article concludes:

Why would people get these questions so wrong — and consistently in the direction of too much optimism? (This study was also conducted after the 2016 election.) Blacks overestimated equality, too, but the biggest effects were among wealthy whites.

The researchers suspect that the answer in part has to do with how little exposure Americans have to people who are unlike them. Given how economically and racially segregated the country remains, many Americans, and especially wealthy whites, have little direct knowledge of what life looks like for families in other demographic groups.

We’re inclined, as well, to believe that society is fairer than it really is. The reality that it’s not — that even college-educated black workers earn about 20 percent less than college-educated white ones, for example — is uncomfortable for both blacks who’ve been harmed by that unfairness and whites who’ve benefited from it. . . .

The researchers found in some additional surveys that whites answer these questions more accurately when they’re first asked to consider an America where discrimination persists. If we want people to have a better understanding of racial inequality, this implies that the solution isn’t simply to parrot these statistics more widely. It’s to get Americans thinking more about the forces that underlie them, like continued discrimination in hiring, or disparities in mortgage lending.

Sadly, as this paper makes clear, too many people continue to believe the myth of American social progress.  It is a myth that needs to be challenged if we hope to build a powerful working class-based movement for social change.  This means we must continue to work to paint an accurate picture of the reality of racial discrimination and its terrible social consequences for Blacks and other people of color.  But, as noted above, we will greatly increase the effectiveness of this effort if we also help White workers understand the underlying class-driven economic dynamics that encourage racial divisions and, even more importantly, in whose interests they work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Say No To NAFTA

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

The NAFTA debate

According to a recent poll commissioned by Public Citizen:

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

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

The most written about and controversial proposals include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need for a new progressive strategy of opposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax Cuts: Its All About Capitalism

Powerful corporations and the rich in the United States continue their winning ways.  By narrow margins, both the House of Representatives and Senate have agreed on a budget proposal that calls for an increase in the federal deficit of $1.5 trillion dollars in order to fund a major reform of the US tax system that will make the rich and powerful even more so.

Proposed tax changes

Republicans in each house of Congress still need to work out the specifics of their desired tax reform and then negotiate any differences before they can send the budget to President Trump for his signature.  But, there seems to be general consensus on the following business tax changes:

  • slash the top tax rate on pass-through business income from partnerships and limited liability companies or sole proprietorships from 39.6 percent to 25 percent; most law firms, hedge fund and real-estate companies are pass-through companies in which profits are counted and taxed as the owner’s personal income
  • reduce the corporate income tax from 35 percent down to 20 percent
  • repealing the corporate alternative minimum tax
  • replace the current global profit tax on business with a territorial tax, which means corporations will no longer be required to pay taxes on their foreign earnings.
  • institute a one-time lower tax rate on repatriated corporate profits currently held outside the country.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that these and other less significant changes would give corporate America a $2.6 trillion tax cut over the next decade.

There will also be changes to the personal tax code, although in dollar terms not nearly as large as the likely business tax changes highlighted above.  There seems to be agreement in both the House and Senate on ending the inheritance tax and alternative minimum income tax and reducing the number of individual income tax brackets from seven to three, with tax rates of 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent, although some members of congress would like to add a fourth higher bracket for very high-income earners.

The only serious disagreements involve whether to raise funds to offset the huge deficits that will be generated by the business tax cuts by ending federal deductions for state and local government taxes and restricting the yearly contributions taxpayers can make to their tax deferred 401(k) retirement accounts, both changes that would hit middle income earners hard.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that the likely personal income tax changes would be roughly revenue neutral, although as much as two-thirds of the likely personal income tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent of income earners.

No doubt as both houses of congress set to work, public attention will be directed away from both corporate tax cutting, which is the main aim of the tax reform and the primary driver of a growing federal debt, and the various tax give-aways to high income earners, and towards possibly heated congressional debates over the possible loss of personal tax deductions enjoyed by middle income earners.

Business, at least for now, no longer cares about the deficit

It is the business community that is driving this push to slash corporate taxes.  As an article in Bloomberg Businesweek explains:

It was only about five years ago that powerful people in finance loved talking about the horrendous consequences for the U.S. if it didn’t get its finances under control. They warned that the federal debt—and the interest payments—could eventually get high enough to drag down the economy, burden future generations, and even threaten national security. Chief executive officers of five of the biggest U.S. banks joined a campaign called Fix the Debt, signing on with hedge fund billionaires, asset managers, and private equity executives, as well as former lawmakers and others.

It was not long after Trump’s election that everything changed.  From then on, the business community, including most of the leading members of Fix the Debt, embraced tax cuts without concern for the deficit:

Case in point: Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a Fix the Debt supporter who in 2012 told CNBC he’d be for higher taxes if they helped mend the fiscal gap. After the election, Blankfein told colleagues in a companywide voicemail that Trump’s proposals, including tax reform, “will be good for growth and, therefore, will be good for our clients and for our firm.”

He wasn’t alone. It’s “about capitalism,” JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon said in February, as he pushed Washington to lower corporate taxes. He suggested that if corporate rates fell, wages would come up. A few weeks earlier, Bank of America Corp. head Brian Moynihan said Trump should focus on cutting taxes. They were part of the antidebt campaign, too.

Dimon is right—it is about capitalism, which means that business leaders have one goal—maximize profits.  And if their desired tax cuts cause deficit problems down the road, well, these business leaders will effortlessly shift their message back to “fix the debt,” which translates into the need to slash critical social programs, all in the name of promoting a healthy capitalism.

Ideological cover

Of course, there is always an attempt to present policies designed to enrich the powerful as beneficial for all.  The argument has to be made and publicized, regardless of who really believes it.  And here it is: Kevin Hassett, the Chair of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, has announced that the corporate tax cuts being discussed could be expected to increase a typical American household’s income by $3000 to $7000 a year.

The argument made by Hassett and the rest of the Council of Economic Advisers is that high corporate taxes force companies to invest overseas and reduce hiring in the United States.  In contrast, lower corporate taxes ill lead corporations to invest and complete for workers, all of whom would be more productive thanks to the investment, thereby driving up growth and worker earnings.

There is, in fact, little support for this notion that tax cuts lead to higher wages.  As the New York Times reports:

Other research has cast doubt on the theory that businesses would pass tax savings on to their workers in the form of higher wages. A 2012 Treasury Department study, which Treasury recently removed from its website, found that less than a fifth of the corporate tax falls on workers. A Congressional Research Service report last month concluded that the effects of corporate taxes fell largely on high-income Americans, not average workers.

So, how did the Hassett and the Council get its result?  Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, examined the model used.  As he explains:

The interesting economics question is to why the model predicts such an unrealistic result for the US economy? Which of the assumptions most fail to comport with reality? To the extent that we want to train students to be useful practitioners as opposed to proficient, yet unrealistic, modelers, answering those questions would also provide some real educational value-added.

In this case, the model assumes that the US is a small, open economy such that capital inflows instantaneously fund more investment, such investment immediately boost productivity, and the benefits of faster productivity immediately accrue to paychecks. The simple model ignores the extent to which these inflows would raise the trade deficit as well as their impact on revenue losses and higher budget deficits.

The model assumes away imperfect competition, which is relevant today as a) monopolistic concentration is an increasing problem, and b) the one thing economists agree on in this space is that in these cases, the benefits of the corporate cut flows to profits and shareholders, not workers, other than maybe some “rent sharing” with high-end workers.

 

It may well be too late to stop this round of tax giveaways to business and the rich.  But it is not too late to use the moment to help working people develop a clearer picture of how capitalism works and a more critical understanding of the arguments used to defend its interests.  It wont be long before new economic tensions and difficulties present us with another opportunity to resist and hopefully, if we have used this time well, advance a meaningful movement for change.

It is time for audacity: demand the termination of NAFTA and KORUS.

Unfortunately, progressive forces appear content to harp on Trump policies rather than provide leadership in building a class-based movement for real change.  Exhibit A: the unwillingness of key US progressive groups to call for the termination of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

President Trump has demanded changes to both agreements and threatened to cancel them if he doesn’t get the changes he wants.  He declared NAFTA the worst trade agreement in American history.  He called KORUS a “horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.” Progressives fought hard to stop approval of both NAFTA and KORUS when they were being negotiated, but now that Trump has raised the possibility of their termination, they seem reluctant to take up the demand.   In my opinion, that is a big mistake.

The costs of holding back

Take the current NAFTA negotiations.  Progressives seem content to criticize Trump’s negotiating process for being nontransparent and negotiating agenda for being too restricted, in particular avoiding change to the Investor-State Dispute System (ISDS). Both true criticisms.  But where is the call for actual withdrawal from the agreement?

For example, here is the AFL-CIO’s trade and globalization policy expert on the current NAFTA negotiations:

On Sept. 5, the United States, Canada and Mexico finished the second round of talks on renegotiating a new North American Free Trade Agreement. The AFL-CIO laid out 17 ways that NAFTA needs to be improved so that we can have a North American economy that works for families, not just global corporations. So how well are the U.S. negotiators doing at creating a better deal for workers? Not well.

Granted, it is early in the process, and we don’t know a lot yet, but that’s part of the problem.

Our number one recommendation was that negotiators should be more transparent, most importantly by making public the rules they’re proposing for the new NAFTA. So far, the U.S. negotiators are failing. There has been no improvement in making the process open to the general public. As working people know, if we are not at the table, we are on the menu, so this grade is crucial.

In some important areas, the United States has not made proposals, including on labor and tax dodging. In other important areas, such as rules of origin or Buy American, the U.S. proposals are incomplete. Basically, this progress report has a lot of incomplete grades.

Is the U.S. team doing well in any areas at all? Well…the positions on enforcement and state-owned enterprises are a good starting point but need to go much further.

In sum, the U.S. negotiators need to up their game. If I were still a teacher and the U.S. negotiators were in my class, I’d be calling the parents tonight to work out an improvement plan to make sure they could pass my class. Of course, there is still plenty of time left to bring the grade up, but the question is whether the U.S. negotiators are motivated to improve or whether they just want to keep recycling failed trade ideas that will add up to another pro-corporate, anti-worker deal.

Another example: a coalition of major progressive groups has united around the demand to remove the ISDS from the NAFTA agreement.  Here is the text of their call to supporters:

If you live in North America, we need you to make sure your government representative stops a corporate power grab in the new NAFTA renegotiations.

NAFTA gave vast new powers for corporations that make it easier to offshore jobs and attack the environmental and health laws on which we all rely.

Deals like NAFTA give multinational corporations the power to sue governments in front of a tribunal of three corporate lawyers. These lawyers can order taxpayers to pay the corporations unlimited sums of money, including for the loss of expected future profits.

The multinational corporations only need to convince the lawyers that a law protecting public health, digital rights or the environment violates their special NAFTA rights. The corporate lawyers’ decisions are not subject to appeal.

This corporate power grab is formally called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

END ISDS: Add your name to demand that any North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiation removes the corporate power grab known as ISDS.

If You Live In the U.S., Canada or Mexico:

Add your name to tell your government representative (in the U.S., your member of Congress) to commit to oppose any North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiation or any other agreement that includes Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

This focus on the limitations of the process and agenda is problematic for many reasons.  One is that the call for reform can quickly become muddied as people struggle to understand the complex legal and technical nature of the agreement’s various chapters and evaluate whether changes that might be proposed will actually improve or worsen the agreement.

In this regard, it is possible that a renegotiated NAFTA agreement will actually include changes to the ISDS, ones that were proposed by the Obama administration for the Transpacific Partnership agreement.  If that happens, the progressive movement may well find itself divided and unable to communicate a clear position on the agreement’s renewal.

An even more important reason that the call for NAFTA reform is problematic is that it encourages people to believe that the US government is capable of representing something called the “national interest” and that it is possible for a “good” agreement to somehow emerge from the negotiations.  But really, these are corporate agreements negotiated by a captured state to advance a corporate agenda.

In point of fact, if you have a domestic economic agenda that is designed to weaken unions, privatize public services, slash taxes, and deregulate economic activity, like that of the US over the last several decades, then it is almost impossible to have a progressive international economic policy.  International policy flows out of domestic policy.  Said differently, you can’t have anti-worker domestic policies and hope to tack on a progressive international policy.

This means that the progressive movement, anchored by the trade union movement, needs to attack on all fronts in a consistent way, demanding wholesale change in US economic policy by highlighting the integrated and destructive nature of both domestic and international economic policy.  Until that happens, we will remain as we are now, in a situation where international economic issues are largely seen as an add on or set of separate issues that are highly technical and largely divorced from what are considered to be the more important domestic challenges.

Unfortunately, there has been almost no discussion by the progressive community of the KORUS renegotiation.  Public Citizen has been one of the few groups to take the issue on, and it has called for the agreement’s termination, although largely because of the exploding trade imbalance between Korea and the US.  It also correctly points out that most Koreans also oppose the agreement.

The odds are overwhelming that Trump will not terminate NAFTA or KORUS.  Rather it is more likely that the negotiations will end up producing a few minor improvements and several major extensions that will expand corporate power.   If we continue to call for reform rather than termination we will again find ourselves on the political sidelines, with working people turning to the mainstream media for analysis and evaluation, where they will receive misleading information on what was negotiated and the consequences of the renegotiated agreements.

If we want to build a class movement it is time for us to show leadership.  We need to do more than challenge Trump to improve these agreements.  We need to demand that he terminate them; we should call his bluff.

What is holding us back?

So, what is holding us back?  Three reasons come to mind.  The first is that the progressive movement in the US fears being tainted with Trump nationalistic rhetoric.  Some activists have told me that the termination of NAFTA to defend US interests will leave Mexico in a bad situation.  This belief highlights the desperate need within our movements for more class analysis.  The demand for termination is not a demand to defend US interests at the expense of Mexican interests, it is a demand that asserts the rights of workers in the US, Canada, and Mexico against the interests of big capital in all three countries.

A second reason is the fear of being labeled a protectionist.  Most of the progressive movement has always mistakenly accepted the notion that these agreements are primarily about trade. They are clearly about far more than that.  Actually, one could say that one is for fair trade, as most progressive movements like to do, and demonstrate that we could have fairer trade without these agreements.  Having allowed successive administrations to cleverly identify these agreements with trade, the progressive movement has undermined its ability to highlight and take-on the broader neoliberal economic agenda that drives and shapes them.

These agreements are above all designed to boost capitalist mobility, power, and profits.  By making that clear, we can show that our demand for termination is not based on a simple objection to trade, and thus does not represent for a call for protectionism as commonly understood.  Rather, our demand is motivated by a determination to refashion our economy and help workers in other countries do the same; demanding an end to NAFTA and KORUS allows us to stand with workers in Canada, Mexico, and Korea who have also suffered as their economies have become more globalized and dominated by global capitalist accumulation dynamics.

The final reason, and one rarely voiced, is the fear of the unknown.  The media drums into our heads that existing agreements are all that stand in the way of chaos.  We are told that the world economy might spiral into depression if NAFTA and KORUS are terminated.  That is hooey.  If we end these agreements the world will not end.  We still have the WTO after all; trade will continue. But we will terminate chapters that encourage deregulation, privatization, monopolization, capital mobility, competition between workers, and union busting.

Clearly, we need to strengthen our confidence in the belief that there can be life after capitalism, that we can build movements that have the capacity to restructure economic relationships and patterns of economic activity along more sustainable, solidaristic, egalitarian, and democratic lines.  This will never happen if we fear mounting a direct challenge to capitalist imperatives.

Trump has given us an incredible opportunity.  He has put the issue of termination of existing trade agreements on the political agenda.  We need the audacity to seize the moment.

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.

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.