Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Job Creation

Robots And Automation Are Not The Cause Of Our Labor Market Troubles

Employment growth remains weak in the United States.  Many in the media happily encourage us to blame the growing use of robots, or automation more generally, for this situation.  Their message is that we are just experiencing the consequences of technological progress and no one should want to fight that.  However, that is just misdirection; the numbers make clear that it is corporate financial “wheelings and dealings,” not robots and automation, that is the primary cause of our current employment woes.

Productivity Trends

If robots or automation were holding back employment growth we should see rapidly rising rates of output per labor hour or what economists call productivity.  In other words, the new technology would allow companies to greatly increase their production with the same number or even fewer hours of human labor.  And, as a consequence, the demand for labor would slow, leading to weak employment growth.

Here is how the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains productivity:

Labor productivity is a measure of economic performance that compares the amount of goods and services produced (output) with the number of labor hours used in producing those goods and services. It is defined mathematically as real output per labor hour, and growth occurs when output increases faster than labor hours. . . . Technological advances, greater investment in machinery and equipment by businesses, increases in worker skill and experience, and other improvements to production can all lead to labor productivity growth.

The problem for those who want to blame our labor market woes on robots and automation is that US productivity gains have been historically weak, not strong, during this economic expansion.

Chart 1 shows the growth in output, hours worked, and labor productivity (shown by the red bar) for the non-farm business sector over every business cycle starting in 1948, as well as for the average business cycle for the historical period.  Of course, our current cycle is not yet over, and the data in this chart only take us through the 3rd quarter of 2016.  But our current expansion is already the longest, and since productivity tends to fall the longer an expansion goes on, we are unlikely to see much of an improvement in the numbers over the rest of the cycle.

As we can see, the growth in labor productivity in the current business cycle, at 1.1 percent, is tied with the 1980-1981 cycle for the lowest rate of productivity growth for the entire historical period.  Labor productivity growth for the average cycle is 2.3 percent.  The current business cycle also has the second lowest rate of growth in output.

Chart 5 offers another way to appreciate how weak productivity growth has been during the current business cycle.  It compares the growth in labor productivity over this cycle with the growth in productivity over the previous cycle (2001 to 2007) and the longer period 1947 to 2007.

In the words of the BLS:

Through most of the Great Recession, labor productivity lagged behind historical growth rates, but then it achieved above-average gains coming out of the recession and into the early quarters of the recovery. The U.S. economy actually caught up to the long-term historical trend (the dashed red line) in the fourth quarter of 2009, although it was still slightly behind the trend from the last cycle (the dotted red line) at that point. However, after 2010, productivity growth stagnated and a substantial deficit relative to historical trends developed over the next 5 years. By the third quarter of 2016, labor productivity in the current business cycle had grown at an average rate of just 1.1 percent, well below the long-term average rate of 2.3 percent from 1947 to 2007 and even further behind the 2.7 percent average rate over the cycle from 2001 to 2007.

In short, if robots or automation were replacing workers this would be reflected in strong productivity growth.  In fact, we see quite the opposite: the weakest productivity growth for any business cycle in the post-1947 historical period.

While high productivity does not guarantee strong wage gains, workers normally find it easier to force business to boost wages when output per labor hour is significantly growing.  Low productivity gains, on the other hand, normally translate into weak wage growth.  And that is what we see today.

Chart 6 shows the growth in labor productivity, real hourly compensation, and the wage gap (difference between productivity and compensation) over the 1948 to 2016 period.

As we can see, the growth in real hourly compensation (shown by the gold bar) has been extremely weak this business cycle, growing by only 0.7 percent.  As the BLS notes:

[This] is low by historical standards. The rate is lower than the average real hourly compensation growth rate of 1.7 percent observed during other business cycles. The rate is also below the rates of all other cycles, except for a brief six-quarter cycle in the early 1980s. Note also that the low growth rate of the current business cycle is a near-continuation of the similarly low growth rate of the early-2000s cycle (0.8 percent).

 Behind The Scenes

For all the talk about technology, business investment has been weak, as illustrated in the following charts from the Economic Policy Institute.  Capital investment has been slow compared with past periods and the same is true for business investment in information technology equipment and software—the alleged drivers of technological innovation.

So, what are businesses doing with their ample profits?  The answer is that they are using them to repurchase their own stock in order to boost stock prices (and managerial salaries) and to pay large dividends to their stockholders.  In other words, engaging in financial transactions to enrich those at the top.

Figure 1, from Yardeni Research, shows the annual dollar value (in billions) of stock buybacks, which is the repurchase of shares by the company that initially issued them, for S&P 500 listed firms over the years 1999 to 2016.  Figure 2 shows annual dividend payouts for these same firms.   Each has been substantial since 2003, although the period of the Great Recession did produce a steep short term dip.

Figure 12,  by showing the value of S&P 500 buybacks and dividends as a percent of operating earnings, illustrates just how substantial this financial activity has become.  Operating earnings are a key measure of profitability and are calculated by subtracting direct business expenses–such as the cost of production, administration and marketing, depreciation, etc.–from revenues.  What we see is that business spending on buybacks and dividends has actually been greater than total operating earnings for several years since 2007, including 2016.

In short, S&P 500 listed businesses are shoveling almost all their profits, and then some in many years, into financial dealings.  No wonder real capital investment has been weak and productivity, wage, and employment growth slow.  Forget that stuff about robots and automation.

The US Economy Doesn’t Create Jobs Like It Used To

Business pursuit of private profit drives our economy.  Sadly, firm profit-maximizing activity increasingly appears to view job creation as a distraction.

The official US unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent in March 2017; that is the lowest unemployment rate since May 2007.  Many economists, and even more importantly members of the Federal Reserve Board, believe that this low rate indicates that the US economy is now operating at full employment.  As a result, they now advocate policies designed to slow economic activity so as to minimize the dangers of inflation.

Unfortunately, the unemployment rate is a poor indicator of the current state of the labor market.  For one thing, it fails to include as unemployed those who have given up looking for work.

An examination of recent trends in the employment/population ratio (EPOP) makes clear that our economy, even during periods of economic growth, is marked by ever weaker job creation.  It also appears that this is not a problem correctable by faster rates of growth.  Rather, we need to change the organization of our economy and reshape its patterns of income and wealth distribution.

The Employment/Population Ratio and the shortage of jobs

The employment/population ratio (EPOP) equals the share of the non-institutional population over 16 that works for money.  The non-institutional population includes everyone who is not in prison, a mental hospital, or a nursing home.

The figure below, from a LBO News blog post by Doug Henwood, shows the movement of the EPOP for all workers and separately for male and female workers.

As we can see, the participation rate of male workers fell steadily from the early 1950s through the early 1980s recession years.  It then slowed its decent over the next two decades until the 2008 Great Recession, which caused it to tumble.  Its post-recession rise has been weak.  The male EPOP was 66 percent in March 2017.

The female EPOP rose steadily from 30.9 percent in 1948 to a peak of 58 percent in 2000.  Thereafter, it drifted downward before falling significantly during the Great Recession.  Its post-recession rise has also been weak.  It was 54.7 percent in March 2017.

The overall EPOP, the “all” line, began at 56.6 percent in 1948, hit a peak of 64.7 percent in April 2000, and was 60.1 percent in March 2017.

The recent decline in the EPOP for all workers over 16 translates into hard times for millions of people. As Henwood explains:

If the same share of the population were employed today as was in December 2007, just as the Great Recession was taking hold, 4.3 million more people would have jobs.  If it were the same share as the all-time high in April 2000, 7.3 million more people would be working for pay.  Either one is a big number, even in a country where 153 million people are employed.

In other words, it is likely that there are many people who want and need work but cannot find it.  And it is important to remember that the EPOP only measures the share of the non-institutional population with paid employment.  It tells us nothing about the quality of the existing jobs.

Flagging job creation  

It is easier to appreciate the growing inability of our economy to provide jobs by examining the movement of the EPOP over the business cycle.  Figure 1, from a note by Ron Baiman, a member of the Chicago Political Economy group, shows the number of quarters it takes for an economic expansion to return the EPOP to its pre-recession level.

As we can see, the expansion that started in November 2001, and which lasted for 73 months, ended with an EPOP that was 2.48 percent below where it had been before the start of the March 2001 recession.   This was the first post-war expansion that failed to restore the EPOP to its pre-recession level.  But, it is very likely not the last.  In particular, it appears that our current expansion will be the second expansion.

Our current expansion started June 2009 and as of October 2016 it was 88 months long.  Yet, it remains 4.78 percent below its pre-recession level, which as noted above, was already lower than the EPOP at the start of the March 2001 recession. Given that the EPOP is currently growing very slowly, it is doubtful that it will close that gap before the next recession begins.

Explanations

Many economists argue that the downward trend in the EPOP over the last business cycles is largely due to the aging of the population.  The EPOP of older workers is always lower than that of younger workers, so as their weight in the population grows, the overall EPOP falls.  However, as Baiman explains, and shows in Figure 2, this cannot fully explain what is happening:

Figure 2 below repeats the analysis of Figure 1, but does so within population cohorts of ages 16-24, 25- 54, and 55 and over, whose shares are held constant at October 2016 levels to remove the effects of changing demographics over the post-war period. For example, this eliminates the impact of an increased over 55 population share that is likely to reduce the overall employment/population ratio.

Thus, even with this correction, the current expansion seems very unlikely to recover its “demographically controlled pre-recession employment/population ratio.”

In fact, it is younger, not older workers that are suffering most from a declining EPOP.  As Henwood points out: “Those aged 35-44 and 45-54 have yet to return to their 2000 and 2007 peaks—but those aged 55-64 have, and those over 65 have surpassed them (though obviously a much smaller share of the 65+ population is working than the rest.”

In short, we can rule out an aging population as the primary cause of the growing inability of economic growth to ensure adequate job creation.

A look at the behavior of our dominant firms produces a far more likely explanation.  As Henwood notes:

despite copious profits, firms are shoveling vast pots of cash to their executives and shareholders rather than investing in capital equipment and hiring workers. From 1952 to 1982, nonfinancial corporations distributed 17 percent of their internal cash flow (profits plus depreciation allowances) to shareholders; that rose to about 30 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and to 48 percent since 2000. (In 2016, the average was an incredible 64 percent.)

This behavior certainly pays off handsomely for top managers and already wealthy stock holders.  But it is not so great for the rest of us, especially for those workers–and their families–who find paid employment increasingly difficult to obtain, even during an economic expansion.

College Education No Ticket To Financially Rewarding Job

For some time, some in the media have blamed workers themselves for their low and stagnate wages. We now have a technology intensive economy, they said, and to get ahead you need a college education. Well, the trends, as illustrated in the following two charts from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York are clear: college grads are also struggling.

The chart below shows underemployment rates for college graduates with a bachelor degree or higher.  A college graduate is considered underemployed if they work in a job that typically does not require a college degree.  The red line shows the percent of recent college graduates, 22 to 27 years of age, that are underemployed.  The blue line shows the percent of all college graduates, 22 to 65, that are underemployed.

As we can see, approximately 44 percent of all recent college graduates with a bachelor degree or higher are currently working in what the Federal Reserve Bank of New York calls “non-college” jobs.   The same is true for roughly one-third of all college graduates.

While the percentage of underemployed college graduates has largely remained unchanged, the same is not true about earnings trends for college graduates employed in non-college jobs.  The following chart highlights the share of college graduates in what the Federal Reserve Bank of New York calls good non-college jobs–those paying an annual salary of $45,000 or more–and low-wage jobs–those paying an annual salary of $25,000 or less.

As we can see, the percentage of college graduates employed in good non-college jobs has steadily declined since 2001.  For recent college graduates (dark red line), the rate fell from approximately 50 percent down to 35 percent.  The percentage with low-wage jobs rose, over the same period, from roughly 10 percent to 13 percent.

There are many good reasons to pursue a college education.  But there is little evidence that employers are now busily creating jobs that require high skill or that a bachelor’s degree or higher is some automatic ticket to a financially rewarding job.

As shown above, a significant share of college educated workers are unable to find jobs requiring a college education.  And those workers are finding it ever harder to land a “good” non-college job.  The problem is not with US workers—it is with the job creating strategies of most businesses operating in the US.

President Trump’s Hollow Job Promises

President Trump’s election success rested to a considerable degree on his pre-election attack on globalization and verbal pledge to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. However, as I argued in a previous post, there is no reason to believe that President Trump is serious about wanting to restrict corporate mobility or fashion new, more domestically-centered, worker-friendly trade relations.

In fact, several of his appointees to key economic policy positions are people whose past work was promoting the very globalization he criticized.

Still, there are some in the labor and progressive communities who continue to hold out hope that they can find common ground with the Trump administration on trade.  Unfortunately, it appears that these people are ignoring what we do know about the nature of existing manufacturing jobs in the globalized industries that President Trump claims he will target for restructuring.  Sadly, the experience of workers in many of those jobs reveals the hollowness of Trump’s promises to working people.

The Southern Strategy of the Automobile Industry

The automobile industry, one of the most globalized of US manufacturing industries, offers a powerful example of the dangers of thinking simply about employment numbers. As an Economic Policy Institute report describes:

Political and market pressure on Japanese and European (and later, Korean) manufacturers to reduce imports to the United States has led to a rising number of “transplants” supplying auto components and assembling autos.

Initially, the transplants operated in the Midwest, including assembly plants in Illinois (Mitsubishi), Michigan (Mazda), Ohio (Honda), and Pennsylvania (Volkswagen), along with California (Toyota’s joint venture with General Motors, now a Tesla facility). More recently, however, the growth has been in Southern states, including assembly plants in Alabama (Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz), Georgia (Kia), Kentucky (Toyota), Mississippi (Nissan and Toyota), South Carolina (BMW and Mercedes-Benz), Tennessee (Nissan and Volkswagen), and Texas (Toyota).

As a result of these trends, the weight of motor vehicle manufacturing employment (including parts suppliers) in the United States has shifted from the Midwest to the South.  And what kind of jobs has this investment brought?  The title of a Bloomberg Businessweek article – Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs – sums it up all too well.

As the article explains:

Alabama has been trying on the nickname “New Detroit.” Its burgeoning auto parts industry employs 26,000 workers, who last year earned $1.3 billion in wages. Georgia and Mississippi have similar, though smaller, auto parts sectors. This factory growth, after the long, painful demise of the region’s textile industry, would seem to be just the kind of manufacturing renaissance President Donald Trump and his supporters are looking for.

Except that it also epitomizes the global economy’s race to the bottom. Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.

“The supply chain isn’t going just to Bangladesh. It’s going to Alabama and Georgia,” says David Michaels, who ran OSHA for the last seven years of the Obama administration. Safety at the Southern car factories themselves is generally good, he says. The situation is much worse at parts suppliers, where workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)

In 2014, OSHA’s Atlanta office, after detecting a high number of safety violations at the region’s parts suppliers, launched a crackdown. The agency cited one year, 2010, when workers in Alabama parts plants had a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole. That gap has narrowed, but the incidence of traumatic injuries in Alabama’s auto parts plants remains 9 percent higher than in Michigan’s and 8 percent higher than in Ohio’s. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory was double the amputation risk nationally for the industry, 65 percent higher than in Michigan and 33 percent above the rate in Ohio.

The article provides several stories of low paid workers forced to work in unsafe conditions who suffered devastating injuries.  “OSHA records obtained by Bloomberg document burning flesh, crushed limbs, dismembered body parts, and a flailing fall into a vat of acid. The files read like Upton Sinclair, or even Dickens.”

The Story of Reco Allen

Here is one story from the article: in 2013 Reco Allen, a 35 year old father of three, with a wife working at Walmart, took at $9 an hour job with Surge Staffing, a temp agency that provides workers to Matsu Alabama, a Honda parts supplier.  Allen sought and was given a janitorial position at Matsu.  But after six weeks on the job, he was pressured by a supervisor to finish his shift by working on a metal-stamping press.  Matsu was in danger of not meeting its parts quota and the company “could have been fined $20,000 by Honda for every minute its shortfall held up the company’s assembly line.”

Allen received no training on operating the machine.  Moreover, there were known problems with the vertical safety beam that was supposed to keep the machine from operating if a worker was in danger of being caught in the stamping process.  Tragically, Allen’s arm was indeed caught by the die that stamped the metal parts.  As Businessweek reports:

He stood there for an hour, his flesh burning inside the heated press. Someone brought a fan to cool him off. . . . When emergency crews finally freed him, his left hand was “flat like a pancake,” Allen says, and parts of three fingers were gone. His right hand was severed at the wrist, attached to his arm by a piece of skin. A paramedic cradled the gloved hand at Allen’s side all the way to the hospital. Surgeons removed it that morning and amputated the rest of his right forearm to avert gangrene several weeks later.

The company had been told by the plant’s safety committee several times that the machine needed horizontal as well as vertical safety beams. In fact, one year before Allen’s accident, another worker suffered a crushed hand on the same machine.  Moreover, the company’s treatment of Allen was far from unusual.  Matsu “provided no hands-on training, routinely ordered untrained temps to operate machines, sped up presses beyond manufacturers’ specifications, and allowed oil to leak onto the floor.”

And what happened to the company?  They received a $103,000 fine from an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

The Businessweek article includes several other stories of workers maimed because of unsafe work conditions at firms with long histories of safety violations.  And they all ended in much the same way: with corporations paying minimal fines.  And, apparently with little change in corporate behavior.

Known Knowns

We know that most employers will push production as hard as they can to cut costs, with little regard for worker safety.  We also know that union jobs are better than non-union jobs in terms of wages and benefits, and safety.

We also know that President Trump is taking steps to weaken labor laws and unions, as well as gut federal and state agencies charged with protecting worker health and safety and the environment.

Thus, even if President Trump does succeed in enticing some globalized corporations to shift parts of their respective production networks back to the US, the experience of the auto industry demonstrates that the resulting job creation is unlikely to satisfy worker demands for safe, living wage jobs.

In sum, no matter the campaign rhetoric, and no matter the twists and turns in policy, it should be clear to all that President Trump is committed to an anti-worker agenda.

Monopolization and Labor Exploitation

Those who advocate “freeing the market” claim that doing so will encourage competition and thereby increase majority well-being.  These advocates have certainly had their way shaping economic policies.  And the results?  According to several leading economists, the results include the growing monopolization of product markets and steady decline in labor’s share of national income.  Neither outcome desirable.

The economists—David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence F. Katz, Christina Patterson, and John Van Reenen—did not actually seek to examine the consequences of decades of neoliberal economic policies.  Rather they sought to understand why “there has been a decline in the U.S. labor share since the 1980s particularly in the 2000s.”  (See the figure below.)

What they found was evidence that sales have become increasingly concentrated in a small number of firms across many industries.  And, that “those industries where concentration rises the most have the sharpest falls in the labor share.”  Thus, “the [overall] fall in the labor share is mainly due to a reallocation of labor towards firms with lower (and declining) labor shares, rather than due to declining labor shares within most firms.”

The growing monopolization of the US economy

The authors calculated sales concentration in six large sectors—manufacturing, retail trade, wholesale trade, services, finance, and utilities and transportation—for the years 1982 to 2012.  They used two different measures of sales concentration: the fraction of sales in an “average industry” accounted for by its four largest firms (CR4 with Sales) and by its twenty largest firms (CR20 with Sales).  The results are illustrated in the figure below.

As the authors explain:

There is a remarkably consistent upward trend in concentration in each sector. In manufacturing, the sales concentration ratio among the top 4 increases from 38% to 43%; in finance, it rises from 24% to 35%; in services from 11% to 15%; in utilities from 29% to 37%; in retail trade from 15% to 30% and in wholesale trade from 22% to 28%. Over the same period, there were similar or larger increases in CR20 for sales.

The authors explain this growth in concentration by the rise of so-called “superstar” firms. These firms are characterized by rapid productivity growth and their dominance comes from the ways in which technological change has made most markets “winner take most.”  In other words, innovative firms are able to quickly assert market dominance thanks to “the diffusion of new competitive platforms (e.g. easier price/quality comparisons on the Internet), the proliferation of information-intensive goods that have high fixed and low-marginal costs (e.g., software platforms and online services), or increasing competition due to the rising international integration of product markets.”  And thanks to first mover advantages, this success builds upon itself, allowing superstar firms to further strengthening their market position.

Whatever the reason, clearly “market competition” has strengthened monopoly power, especially in manufacturing, finance, utilities, and retail trade, all sectors where the top four firms now account for at least 30 percent of average industry sales.

Labor’s declining share of national income

It is the rise of these superstar firms, according to the authors, that best explains the decline in labor’s share of national income.  They test and reject several other explanations.  For example, some economists argue that international trade is key.  But the authors point out that it is not just import-competing industries in which labor’s share is falling; it is also falling in non-traded sectors like retail trade, wholesale trade, and utilities.

Other economists point to the decline in capital costs, which they believe has encouraged firms to increase spending on capital goods, leading to falling labor shares in all industries.  But the authors find no support for this.  In fact, they find that “the unweighted mean labor share across firms has not increased much since 1982. Thus, the average firm shows little decline in its labor share.”

All of this points to the growth of superstar firms as the key to explaining labor’s declining share of national income.  According to the authors, superstar firms have a lower labor share than do most other firms.  One reason is that these firms tend to enjoy significant markup pricing power which allows them to boost their profits without adding labor.  Another is that they also tend to enjoy great economies of scale; with a relatively fixed amount of overhead labor, they are able to boost production without a commensurate increase in employment.

The authors calculated concentration measures for employment (CR4 with Employment, CR20 with Employment) much as they did for sales; see above figure.  As they note:

Again, we observe a rising concentration in all six sectors for 1982 to 2012, although employment concentration has grown notably more slowly than sales concentration in finance, services, and especially in manufacturing. The pattern suggests that firms may attain large market shares with a relatively small workforce, as exemplified by Facebook and Google.

And as these firms increase their market dominance, labor’s overall share tends to fall.  As the authors explain: “those industries where concentration rises the most have the sharpest falls in the labor share . . . [Thus] the fall in the labor share is mainly due to a reallocation of labor towards firms with lower (and declining) labor shares, rather than due to declining labor shares within most firms.”  In fact, the strength of this negative relationship between market concentration and labor’s share grew stronger over the period of study.

A look behind the curtain

These results are important, suggesting that capitalism’s motion itself is driving labor’s declining share.  However, I think that there is good reason to believe that the underlying dynamics at work are different from those highlighted above.  To state it bluntly, superstar firms are driving down labor’s share because they are increasingly using strategies of profit maximization that have them replace direct labor with contract labor, franchising, and supply chains.

Over most of the post-war period, until the late 1970s, large corporations tended to directly employ the workers needed to produce the goods or services they sold.  But starting in the 1980s, and especially in the 2000s, these firms began actively shedding employees and hiring smaller firms to carry out the tasks that were once done in-house.  This enabled these lead corporations to greatly expand production and boost profits with a minimal increase in direct employment.

David Weil calls this strategy “fissuring the workplace” and his book, The Fissured Workplace Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It, documents how this has become the preferred strategy of most of our major companies.  Here, from Weil’s book, are three examples of fissured workplaces:

A maid works at the San Francisco Marriott on Fisherman’s Wharf. The hotel property is owned by Host Hotels and Resorts Inc., a lodging real estate company. The maid, however, is evaluated and supervised daily and her hours and payroll managed by Crestline Hotels and Resorts Inc., a national third- party hotel management company. Yet she follows daily procedures (and risks losing her job for failure to accomplish them) regarding cleaning, room set- up, overall pace, and quality standards established by Marriott, whose name the property bears.

A cable installer in Dayton, Ohio, works as an independent contractor (in essence a self-employed business provider), paid on a job-by-job basis by Cascom Inc., a cable installation company. Cascom’s primary client is the international media giant Time Warner, which owns cable systems across the United States. The cable installer is paid solely on the basis of the job completed and is entitled to no protections normally afforded employees. Yet all installation contracts are supplied solely by Cascom, which also sets the price for jobs and collects payment for them. The installer must wear a shirt with the Cascom logo and can be removed as a contractor at will for not meeting minimum quotas or quality standards, or at the will of the company.

A member of a loading dock crew working in Southern California is paid by Premier Warehousing Ventures LLC (PWV)— a company providing temporary workers to other businesses— based on the total time it takes him and members of his crew to load a truck. PWV, in turn, is compensated for the number of trucks loaded by Schneider Logistics, a national logistics and trucking company that manages distribution centers for Walmart. Walmart sets the price, time requirements, and performance standards that are followed by Schneider. Schneider, in turn, structures its contracts with PWV and other labor brokers it uses to provide workers based on those prices and standards and its own profit objectives.

At one time, large corporations like Marriott, Time Warner, and Walmart directly employed the workers that labored on their behalf.  But no more.  Now, these large corporations are able to escape paying many of those who “work for them” the wages and benefits offered to their other employees.  Instead, their salaries are paid by other smaller firms, whether they be independent businesses, temporary work agencies, or franchise owners, or in more extreme cases so-called independent contractors.  And because these second-tier businesses operate in highly competitive markets, with substantially lower profit margins than the lead corporations they service, these workers now receive far lower salaries with few if any benefits and protections.

As Weil summarizes:

This [business strategy] creates downward pressure on wages and benefits, murkiness about who bears responsibility for work conditions, and increased likelihood that basic labor standards will be violated. In many cases, fissuring leads simultaneously to a rise in profitability for the lead companies who operate at the top of industries and increasingly precarious working conditions for workers at lower levels.

This strategy is the domestic counterpoint to the globalization strategies of the large multinationals like Dell Computers and Apple.  And it has come to dominate and structure US labor markets.  As the Wall Street Journal explains:

Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry. . . .

The contractor model is so prevalent that Google parent Alphabet Inc., ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place to work for seven of the past 10 years, has roughly equal numbers of outsourced workers and full-time employees, according to people familiar with the matter.

About 70,000 TVCs—an abbreviation for temps, vendors and contractors—test drive Google’s self-driving cars, review legal documents, make products easier and better to use, manage marketing and data projects, and do many other jobs. They wear red badges at work, while regular Alphabet employees wear white ones. . . .

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

Janitorial work and cafeteria services disappeared from most company payrolls long ago. A similar shift is under way for higher-paying, white-collar jobs such as research scientist, recruiter, operations manager and loan underwriter.

Two labor economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the rise of so-called alternative work arrangements, which they “defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.”

They found that the percentage of US workers with alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent [of all employed workers] in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015. (See the figure below).

That is a huge jump, especially since the percentage of workers with alternative work arrangements barely budged over the period February 1995 to February 2005; it was only 9.3 in 1995.  But their most startling finding is that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”

Looking behind the curtain shows that the decline in labor’s share is the result of a brutal process of work restructuring that affects a rapidly growing percentage of US workers.  Reversing the decline will require both a broader awareness of the negative social consequences of the private pursuit of profit and a far stronger labor movement than we have today.

Trump’s Economic Policies Are No Answer To Our Problems

President Trump has singled out unfair international trading relationships as a major cause of US worker hardship.  And he has promised to take decisive action to change those relationships by pressuring foreign governments to rework their trade agreements with the US and change their economic policies.

While international economic dynamics have indeed worked to the disadvantage of many US workers, Trump’s framing of the problem is highly misleading and his promised responses are unlikely to do much, if anything, to improve majority working and living conditions.

President Trump and his main advisers have aimed their strongest words at Mexico and China, pointing out that the US runs large trade deficits with each, leading to job losses in the US.  For example, Bloomberg News reports that Peter Navarro, the head of President Trump’s newly formed White House National Trade Council “has blamed Nafta and China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization for much, if not all, of a 15-year economic slowdown in the U.S.” In other words, poor negotiating skills on the part of past US administrations has allowed Mexico and China, and their workers, to gain at the expense of the US economy and its workers.

However, this nation-state framing of the origins of contemporary US economic problems is seriously flawed. It also serves to direct attention away from the root cause of those problems: the profit-maximizing strategies of large, especially US, multinational corporations.  It is the power of these corporations that must be confronted if current trends are to be reversed.

Capitalist Globalization Dynamics

Beginning in the late 1980s large multinational corporations, including those headquartered in the US, began a concerted effort to reverse declining profits by establishing cross border production networks (or global value chains).  This process knitted together highly segmented economic processes across national borders in ways that allowed these corporations to lower their labor costs as well as reduce their tax and regulatory obligations.   Their globalization strategy succeeded; corporate profits soared.  It is also no longer helpful to think about international trade in simple nation-state terms.

As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development explains:

Global trade and foreign direct investment have grown exponentially over the last decade as firms expanded international production networks, trading inputs and outputs between affiliates and partners in GVCs [Global Value Chains].

About 60 per cent of global trade, which today amounts to more than $20 trillion, consists of trade in intermediate goods and services that are incorporated at various stages in the production process of goods and services for final consumption. The fragmentation of production processes and the international dispersion of tasks and activities within them have led to the emergence of borderless production systems – which may be sequential chains or complex networks and which may be global, regional or span only two countries.

UNCTAD estimates (see the figure below) that some 80 percent of world trade “is linked to the international production networks of TNCs [transnational corporations], either as intra-firm trade, through NEMs [non-equity mechanisms of control] (which include, among others, contract manufacturing, licensing, and franchising), or through arm’s-length transactions involving at least one TNC.”

tnc-involvement

In other words, multinational corporations have connected and reshaped national economies along lines that best maximize their profit.  And that includes the US economy.  As we see in the figure below, taken from an article by Adam Hersh and Ethan Gurwitz, the share of all US merchandise imports that are intra-firm, meaning are sold by one unit of a multinational corporation to another unit of the same multinational, has slowly but steadily increased, reaching 50 percent in 2013.  The percentage is considerably higher for imports of manufactures, including in key sectors like electrical, machinery, transportation, and chemicals.

onea

The percentage is lower, but still significant for US exports.  As we see in the following figure, approximately one-third of all merchandise exports from the US are sold by one unit of a multinational corporation to another unit of the same company.

oneb

The percentage of intra-firm trade is far higher for services, as illustrated in the next figure.

services

As Hersh and Gurwitz comment,

The trend is clear: As offshoring practices increase, companies need to provide more wraparound services—the things needed to run a businesses besides direct production—to their offshore production and research and development activities. Rather than indicating the competitive strength of U.S. services businesses to expand abroad, the growth in services exports follows the pervasive offshoring of manufacturing and commercial research activities.

Thus, there is no simple way to change US trade patterns, and by extension domestic economic processes, without directly challenging the profit maximizing strategies of leading multinational corporations.  To demonstrate why this understanding is a direct challenge to President Trump’s claims that political pressure on major trading partners, especially Mexico and China, can succeed in boosting the fortunes of US workers, we look next at the forces shaping US trade relationships with these two countries.

The US-Mexican Trade Relationship

US corporations, taking advantage of NAFTA and the Mexican peso crisis that followed in 1994-95, poured billions of dollars into the country (see the figure below).  Their investment helped to dramatically expand a foreign-dominated export sector aimed at the US market that functions as part of a North American region-wide production system and operates independent of the stagnating domestic Mexican economy.

fdi-mexico

Some 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are sold to the US and the country runs a significant merchandise trade surplus with the US, as shown in the figure below.

trade-mexico

Leading Mexican exports to the US include motor vehicles, motor vehicle parts, computer equipment, audio and video equipment, communications equipment, and oil and gas.  However, with the exception of oil and gas, these are far from truly “Mexican” exports.  As a report from the US Congressional Research Service describes:

A significant portion of merchandise trade between the United States and Mexico occurs in the context of production sharing as manufacturers in each country work together to create goods. Trade expansion has resulted in the creation of vertical supply relationships, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. The flow of intermediate inputs produced in the United States and exported to Mexico and the return flow of finished products greatly increased the importance of the U.S.- Mexico border region as a production site. U.S. manufacturing industries, including automotive, electronics, appliances, and machinery, all rely on the assistance of Mexican [based] manufacturers. One report estimates that 40% of the content of U.S. imports of goods from Mexico consists of U.S. value added content.

Because foreign multinationals, many of which are US owned, produce most of Mexico’s exports of “advanced” manufactures using imported components, the country’s post-Nafta export expansion has done little for the overall health of the Mexican economy or the well-being of Mexican workers. As Mark Weisbrot points out:

If we look at the most basic measure of economic progress, the growth of gross domestic product, or income per person, Mexico, which signed on to NAFTA in 1994, has performed the 15th-best out of 20 Latin American countries.

Other measures show an even sadder picture. The poverty rate in 2014 was 55.1 percent, an increase from the 52.4 percent measurement in 1994.

Wages tell a similar story: There’s been almost no growth in real inflation-adjusted wages since 1994 — just about 4.1 percent over 21 years.

Representative Sander Levin and Harley Shaiken make clear that the gains have been nonexistent even for workers in the Mexican auto industry, the country’s leading export center:

Consider the auto industry, the flagship manufacturing industry across North America. The Mexican auto industry exports 80 percent of its output of which 86 percent is destined for the U.S. and Canada. If high productivity translated into higher wages in Mexico, the result would be a virtuous cycle of more purchasing power, stronger economic growth, and more imports from the U.S.

In contrast, depressed pay has become the “comparative advantage”. Mexican autoworker compensation is 14 percent of their unionized U.S. counterparts and auto parts workers earn even less–$2.40 an hour. Automation is not the driving force; its depressed wages and working conditions.

In other words, US workers aren’t the only workers to suffer from the globalization strategies of multinational corporations.  Mexican workers are also suffering, and resisting.

In sum, it is hard to square this reality with Trump’s claim that because of the way NAFTA was negotiated Mexico “has made us look foolish.” The truth is that NAFTA, as designed, helped further a corporate driven globalization process that has greatly benefited US corporations, as well as Mexican political and business elites, at the expense of workers on both sides of the border.  Blaming Mexico serves only to distract US workers from the real story.

The US-Chinese Trade Relationship

The Chinese economy also went through a major transformation in the mid-1990s which paved the way for a massive inflow of export-oriented foreign investment targeting the United States.  The process and outcome was different from what happened in Mexico, largely because of the legacy of Mao era policies.  The Chinese Communist Party’s post-1978 state-directed reform program greatly benefited from an absence of foreign debt; the existence of a broad, largely self-sufficient state-owned industrial base; little or no foreign investment or trade; and a relatively well-educated and healthy working class.  This starting point allowed the Chinese state to retain considerable control over the country’s economic transformation even as it took steps to marketize economic activity in the 1980s and privatize state production in the 1990s.

However, faced with growing popular resistance to privatization and balance of payments problems, the Chinese state decided, in the mid-1990s, to embrace a growing role for export-oriented foreign investment.  This interest in attracting foreign capital dovetailed with the desire of multinational corporations to globalize their production.  Over the decade of the 1990s and 2000s, multinational corporations built and expanded cross border production networks throughout Asia, and once China joined the WTO, the country became the region’s primary final assembly and export center.

As a result of this development, foreign produced exports became one of the most important drivers, if not the most important, of Chinese growth.  For example, according to Yılmaz Akyüz, former Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Globalization and Development Strategies:

despite a high import content ranging between 40 and 50 percent, approximately one-third of Chinese growth before the global crisis [of 2008] was a result of exports, due to their phenomenal growth of some 25 percent per annum. This figure increases to 50 percent if spillovers to consumption and investment are allowed for. The main reason for excessive dependence on foreign markets is under consumption. This is due not so much to a high share of household savings in GDP as to a low share of household income and a high share of profits

The figure below illustrates the phenomenal growth in Chinese exports.

china-exports

The US soon became the primary target of China’s exports (see the trade figures below).   The US now imports more goods from China than from any other country, approximately $480 billion in 2015, followed by Canada and Mexico (roughly $300 billion each).  The US also runs its largest merchandise trade deficit with China, $367 billion in 2015, equal to 48 percent of the overall US merchandise trade deficit.  In second place was Germany, at only $75 billion.

china-trade-us

Adding to China’s high profile is the fact that it is the primary supplier of many high technology consumer goods, like cell phones and laptops. More specifically:

(F)or 825 products, out of a total of about 5,000, adding up to nearly $300 billion, China supplies more than all our other trade partners combined. Of these products, the most important is cell phones, where $40 billion in imports from China account for more than three-quarters of the total value imported.

There are also 83 products where 90 percent or more of US imports come from China; together these accounted for a total of $56 billion in 2015. The most important individual product in this category is laptop computers, which alone have an import value of $37 billion from China, making up 93 percent of the total imported.

Of course, China is also a major supplier of many low-technology, low-cost goods as well, including clothing, toys, and furniture.

Not surprisingly, exports from China have had a significant effect on US labor market conditions. Economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson “conservatively estimate that Chinese import competition explains 16 percent of the U.S. manufacturing employment decline between 1990 and 2000, 26 percent of the decline between 2000 and 2007, and 21 percent of the decline over the full period.”  They also find that Chinese import competition “significantly reduces earnings in sectors outside manufacturing.”

President Trump has accused China of engaging in an undeclared trade war against the United States.   However, while Trump’s charges conjure up visions of a massive state-run export machine out to crush the United States economy for the benefit of Chinese workers, the reality is quite different.

First, although the Chinese state retains important levers of control over economic activity, especially the state-owned banking system, the great majority of industrial production and export activity is carried out by private firms.  In 2012, state-owned enterprises accounted for only 24 percent of Chinese industrial output and 18 percent of urban employment.  As for exports, by 2013 the share of state-owned enterprises was down to 11 percent.  Foreign-owned multinationals were responsible for 47 percent of all Chinese exports.  And, most importantly in terms of their effect on the US economy, multinational corporations produce approximately 82 percent of China’s high-technology exports.

Second, although these high-tech exports come from China, for the most part they are not really “Chinese” exports.  As noted above, China now functions as the primary assembly point for the region’s cross border production networks.  Thus, the majority of the parts and components used in Chinese-based production of high-technology goods come from firms operating in other Asian countries.  In many cases China’s only contribution is its low-paid labor.

A Washington Post article uses the Apple iPhone 4, a product that shows up in trade data as a Chinese export, to illustrate the country’s limited participation in the production of its high technology exports:

In a widely cited study, researchers found that Apple created most of the product’s value through its product design, software development and marketing operations, most of which happen in the United States. Apple ended up keeping about 58 percent of the iPhone 4’s sales price. The gross profits of Korean companies LG and Samsung, which provided the phone’s display and memory chips, captured another 5 percent of the sales price. Less than 2 percent of the sales price went to pay for Chinese labor.

“We estimate that only $10 or less in direct labor wages that go into an iPhone or iPad is paid to China workers. So while each unit sold in the U.S. adds from $229 to $275 to the U.S.-China trade deficit (the estimated factory costs of an iPhone or iPad), the portion retained in China’s economy is a tiny fraction of that amount,” the researchers wrote.

The same situation exists with laptop computers, which are assembled by Chinese workers under the direction of Taiwanese companies using imported components and then exported as Chinese exports.  Economists have estimated that the US-Chinese trade balance would be reduced by some 40 percent if the value of these imported components were subtracted from Chinese exports.  Thus, it is not Chinese state enterprises, or even Chinese private enterprises, that are driving China’s exports to the US.  Rather it is foreign multinationals, many of which are headquartered in the US, including Apple, Dell, and Walmart.

And much like in Mexico, Chinese workers enjoy few if any benefits from their work producing their country’s exports.  The figure below highlights the steady fall in labor compensation as a share of China’s GDP.

china-labor

Approximately 80 percent of Chinese manufacturing workers are internal migrants with a rural household registration.  This means they are not entitled to access the free or subsidized public health care, education, or other social services available in the urban areas where they now work; the same is true for their children even if they are born in urban areas.  Moreover, most migrants receive little protection from Chinese labor laws.

For example, as the China Labor Bulletin reports:

In 2015, seven years after the implementation of the Labor Contract Law, only 36 percent of migrant workers had signed a formal employment contract with their employer, as required by law. In fact the percentage of migrant workers with formal contracts actually declined last year by 1.8 percent from 38 percent. For short-distance migrants, the proportion was even lower, standing at just 32 percent, suggesting that the enforcement of labor laws is even less rigid in China’s inland provinces and smaller cities.

According to the [2014] migrant worker survey . . . the proportion of migrant workers with a pension or any form of social security remained at a very low level, around half the national average. In 2014, only 16.4 percent of long-distance migrants had a pension and 18.2 percent had medical insurance.

Despite worker struggles, which did succeed in pushing up wages over the last 7 years, most migrant workers continue to struggle to make ends meet.   Moreover, with Chinese growth rates now slipping, and the government eager to restart the export growth machine, many local governments have decided, with central government approval, to freeze minimum wages for the next two to four years.

In short, it is not China, or its workers, that threaten US jobs and well-being.  It is the logic of capitalist globalization.  Thus, Trump’s call-to-arms against China obfuscates the real cause of current US economic problems and encourages working people to pursue a strategy of nationalism that can only prove counterproductive.

The Political Challenge Facing US Workers

The globalization process highlighted above was strongly supported by all major governments, especially by successive US administrations.  In contrast to Trump claims of a weak US governmental effort in support of US economic interests, US administrations used their considerable global power to secure the creation of the WTO and approval of a host of other multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, all of which provided an important infrastructure for capital mobility, thereby supporting the globalizing efforts of leading US multinational corporations.

President Trump has posed as a critic of existing international arrangements, claiming that they have allowed other countries, such as Mexico and China, to prosper at US expense.  He has stated that he will pursue new bilateral agreements rather than multilateral ones because they will better serve US interests and he has demanded that US multinational corporations shift their investment and production back to the US.

Such statements have led some to believe that the Trump administration is serious about challenging globalization dynamics in order to rebuild the US economy in ways that will benefit working people.  But there are strong reasons to doubt this.  Most importantly, he seems content to threaten other governments rather than challenge the profit-maximizing logic of dominant US companies, which as we have seen is what needs to happen.

One indicator: an administration serious about challenging the dynamics of globalization would have halted US participation in all ongoing negotiations for new multilateral agreements, such as the Trade in Services Agreement which is designed to encourage the privatization and deregulation of services for the benefit of multinational corporations.  This has not happened.

Such an administration would also renounce support for existing and future bilateral agreements that contain chapters that strengthen the ability of multinational corporations to dominate key sectors of foreign economies and sue their governments in supranational secret courts.  This has not happened.

Another indicator: an administration serious about creating a healthy, sustainable, and equitable domestic economy would strengthen and expand key public services and programs; rework our tax system to make it more progressive; tighten and increase enforcement of health and safety and environmental regulations; strengthen labor laws that protect the rights of workers, including to unionize; and boost the national minimum wage.  The Trump administration appears determined to do the opposite.

Such an administration would also begin to develop the state capacities necessary to redirect existing production and investment activity along lines necessary to rebuild our cities and infrastructure, modernize our public transportation system, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  The Trump administration appears committed to the exact opposite.

In short, if we take Trump’s statements seriously, that he actually wants to shift trading relationships, then it appears that his primary strategy is to make domestic conditions so profitable for big business, that some of the most globally organized corporations will shift some of their production back to the United States.  However, even if he succeeds, it is very unlikely that this will contribute to an improvement in majority living and working conditions.

The main reason is that US corporations, having battered organized labor with the assistance of successive administrations, have largely stopped creating jobs that provide the basis for economic security and well-being.  Economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger examined the growth  from 2005 to 2015 in “alternative work arrangements,” which they defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.

They found that the percentage of workers employed in such arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.  But their most startling finding is the following:

A striking implication of these estimates is that all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements. Total employment according to the CPS increased by 9.1 million (6.5 percent) over the decade, from 140.4 million in February 2005 to 149.4 in November 2015. The increase in the share of workers in alternative work arrangements from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015 implies that the number of workers employed in alternative arrangement increased by 9.4 million (66.5 percent), from 14.2 million in February 2005 to 23.6 million in November 2015. Thus, these figures imply that employment in traditional jobs (standard employment arrangements) slightly declined by 0.4 million (0.3 percent) from 126.2 million in February 2005 to 125.8 million in November 2015.

A further increase in employment in such “alternative work arrangements,” which means jobs with no benefits or security, during a period of Trump administration-directed attacks on our social services, labor laws, and health and safety and environmental standards is no answer to our problems. Despite what President Trump says, our problems are not caused by other governments or workers in other countries.  Instead, they are the result of the logic of capitalism. The Trump administration, really no US administration, is going to willingly challenge that. That is up to us.

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

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

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

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

google

As Vanneman explains:

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

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

sociology

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

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

The Devastating Transformation Of Work In The US

Two of the best-known labor economists in the US,  Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the rise of so-called alternative work arrangements.

Here is what they found:

The percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements – defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers – rose from 10.1 percent [of all employed workers] in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.

That is a huge jump, especially since the percentage of workers with alternative work arrangements barely budged over the period February 1995 to February 2005; it was only 9.3 in 1995.

But their most startling finding is the following:

A striking implication of these estimates is that all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements. Total employment according to the CPS increased by 9.1 million (6.5 percent) over the decade, from 140.4 million in February 2005 to 149.4 in November 2015. The increase in the share of workers in alternative work arrangements from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015 implies that the number of workers employed in alternative arrangement increased by 9.4 million (66.5 percent), from 14.2 million in February 2005 to 23.6 million in November 2015. Thus, these figures imply that employment in traditional jobs (standard employment arrangements) slightly declined by 0.4 million (0.3 percent) from 126.2 million in February 2005 to 125.8 million in November 2015.

Take a moment to let that sink in—and think about what that tells us about the operation of the US economy and the future for working people.  Employment in so-called traditional jobs is actually shrinking. The only types of jobs that have been growing in net terms are ones in which workers have little or no security and minimal social benefits.

Figure 2 from their study shows the percentage of workers in different industries that have alternative employment arrangements.  The share has grown substantially over the last ten years in almost all of them.  In Construction, Professional and Business Services, and Other Services (excluding Public Services) approximately one quarter of all workers are employed using alternative work arrangements.

distribution

The study

Because the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not updated its Contingent Work Survey (CWS), the authors contracted with the RAND institute to do their own study.  Thus, Rand expanded its own American Life Panel (ALP) surveys in October and November 2015 to include questions similar to those asked in the CWS.   They surveys only collected information about the surveyed individual’s main job.  And, to maintain compatibility with the CWS surveys, day laborers were not included in the results.  Finally, the authors only included information from individuals who had worked in the survey reference week.

People were said to be employed under alternative work arrangements if they were “independent contractors,” “on-call workers,” “temporary help agency workers,” or “workers provided by contract firms.  The authors defined these terms as follows:

“Independent Contractors” are individuals who report they obtain customers on their own to provide a product or service as an independent contractor, independent consultant, or freelance worker. “On-Call Workers” report having certain days or hours in which they are not at work but are on standby until called to work. “Temporary Help Agency Workers” are paid by a temporary help agency. “Workers Provided by Contract Firms” are individuals who worked for a company that contracted out their services during the reference week.

The results in more detail

All four categories of nonstandard work recorded increases:

Independent contractors continue to be the largest group (8.9 percent in 2015), but the share of workers in the three other categories more than doubled from 3.2 percent in 2005 to 7.3 percent in 2015. The fastest growing category of nonstandard work involves contracted workers. The percentage of workers who report that they worked for a company that contracted out their services in the preceding week rose from 0.6 percent in 2005 to 3.1 percent in 2015.

Table 4 shows the percentage of workers in different categories that are employed for their main job in one of the four nonstandard work arrangements.  The relevant comparisons over time are with the two CPS studies and the Alternative Weighted results from the Rand study.

4b

Here are some of the main findings:

There is a clear age gradient that has grown stronger, with older workers more likely to have nonstandard employment than younger workers.  In 2015, 6.4 percent of those aged 16 to 24 were employed in an alternative work arrangement, while 14.3 percent of those aged 25-54 and 23.9 percent of those aged 55-74 had nonstandard work arrangements.

The percentage of women with nonstandard work arrangements grew dramatically from 2005 to 2015, from 8.3 percent to 17 percent.  Women are now more likely to be employed under these conditions than men.

Workers in all educational levels experienced a jump in nonstandard work, with the increase greatest for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  “Occupational groups experiencing particularly large increases in the nonstandard work from 2005 to 2015 include computer and mathematical, community and social services, education, health care, legal, protective services, personal care, and transportation jobs.”

The authors also tested to determine “whether alternative work is growing in higher or lower wage sectors of the labor market.”  They found that “workers with attributes and jobs that are associated with higher wages are more likely to have their services contracted out than are those with attributes and jobs that are associated with lower wages. Indeed, the lowest predicted quintile-wage group did not experience a rise in contract work.”

The take-away

The take-away is pretty clear.  Corporate profits and income inequality have grown in large part because US firms have successfully taken advantage of the weak state of unions and labor organizing more generally, to transform work relations.  Increasingly workers, regardless of their educational level, find themselves forced to take jobs with few if any benefits and no long-term or ongoing relationship with their employer.  Only a rejuvenated labor movement, one able to build strong democratic unions and press for radically new economic policies will be able to reverse existing trends.

Capitalism and Inequality

Defenders of capitalism in the United States often choose not to use that term when naming our system, preferring instead the phrase “market system.”  Market system sounds so much better, evoking notions of fair and mutually beneficial trades, equality, and so on.  The use of that term draws attention away from the actual workings of our system.

In brief, capitalism is a system structured by the private ownership of productive assets and driven by the actions of those who seek to maximize the private profits of the owners.  Such an understanding immediately raises questions about how some people and not others come to own productive wealth and the broader social consequences of their pursuit of profit.

Those are important questions because it is increasingly apparent that while capitalism continues to produce substantial benefits for the largest asset owners, those benefits have increasingly been secured through the promotion of policies – globalization, financialization, privatization of state services, tax cuts, attacks on social programs and unions–that have both lowered overall growth and left large numbers of people barely holding the line, if not actually worse off.

The following two figures come from a Washington Post article by Jared Bernstein, in which he summarizes the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The first figure shows the significant decline in US pre-tax income growth.  In the first period (1946-1980), pre-tax income grew by 95 percent.  In the second (1980-2014), it grew by only 61 percent.

income-trends

This figure also shows that this slower pre-tax income growth has not been a problem for those at the top of the income distribution.  Those at the top more than compensated for the decline by capturing a far greater share of income growth than in the past.  In fact, those in the bottom 50 percent of the population gained almost nothing over the period 1980 to 2014.

The next figure helps us see that the growth in inequality has been far more damaging to the well-being of the bottom half than the slowdown in overall income growth.  As Bernstein explains:

The bottom [blue] line in the next figure shows actual pretax income for adults in the bottom half of the income scale. The top [red] line asks how these folks would have done if their income had grown at the average rate from the earlier, faster-growth period. The middle [green] line asks how they would have done if they experienced the slower, average growth of the post-1980 period.

The difference between the top two lines is the price these bottom-half adults paid because of slower growth. The larger gap between the middle and bottom line shows the price they paid from doing much worse than average, i.e., inequality (aging demographics are also in play, but the researchers show that they do not explain the extent of the slowdown in income growth). That explains about two-thirds of the difference in endpoints. Slower growth hurt these families’ income gains, but inequality hurt them more.

inequality-versus-growth

A New York Times analysis of pre-tax income distribution over the period 1974 to 2014 reinforces this conclusion about the importance of inequality.  As we can see in the figure below, the top 1 percent and bottom 50 percent have basically changed places in terms of their relative shares of national income.

changing-places

The steady ratcheting down in majority well-being is perhaps best captured by studies designed to estimate the probability of children making more money than their parents, an outcome that was the expectation for many decades and that underpinned the notion of “the American dream.”

Such research is quite challenging, as David Leonhardt explains in a New York Times article, “because it requires tracking individual families over time rather than (as most economic statistics do) taking one-time snapshots of the country.”  However, thanks to newly accessible tax records that go back decades, economists have been able to estimate this probability and how it has changed over time.

Leonhardt summarizes the work of one of the most important recent studies, that done by economists associated with the Equality of Opportunity Project.   In summary terms, those economists found that a child born into the average American household in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of making more than their parents.  This falls to 79 percent for a child born in 1950, 62 percent for a child born in 1960, 61 percent for a child born in 1970, and only 50 percent for a child born in 1980.

The figure below provides a more detailed look at the declining fortunes of most Americans.   The horizontal access shows the income percentile a child is born into and the vertical access shows the probability of that child earning more than their parents.   The drop-off for children born in 1960 and 1970 compared to the earlier decade is significant and is likely the result of the beginning effects of the changes in capitalist economic dynamics that started gathering force in the late 1970s, for example globalization, privatization, tax cuts, union busting, etc.  The further drop-off for children born in 1980 speaks to the strengthening and consolidation of those dynamics.

american-dream

The income trends highlighted in the figures above are clear and significant, and they point to the conclusion that unless we radically transform our capitalist system, which will require building a movement capable of challenging and overcoming the power of those who own and direct our economic processes, working people in the United States face the likelihood of an ever-worsening future.

Confronting Capitalist Globalization

Trade agreements were a major issue in the US presidential election.  Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both made opposition to the Transpacific Partnership a central part of their respective campaigns, and the popularity of this position eventually forced Hillary Clinton to also oppose it.  A number of mainstream economists even began to acknowledge that many working people actually had reason to be critical of globalization dynamics.  These economists still held that globalization brought positive benefits to the country.  The problem, in their opinion, was that the gains had not been equally distributed, with many workers, especially in manufacturing, suffering wage and employment losses.  Of course, few offered meaningful suggestions for correcting the problem.

Now that Trump has been elected, economists again appear to be downplaying the negative consequences of globalization, arguing that it is technology, rather than globalization, that best explains the growth in inequality and worker insecurity.  No doubt this stems from their concern that popular dissatisfaction with current economic conditions might grow from opposition to trade agreements into an actual challenge to contemporary globalization dynamics, which means capitalism itself.

Contemporary globalization dynamics are an expression of capitalism’s logic.  Faced with profit pressures, leading firms in core countries began to internationalize their operations in the mid-1980s by shifting production to the third world.  This internationalization process was shaped by the creation of cross border production networks or value chains.  Firms would divide the production of their goods into multiple segments and then locate the individual segments in different third world countries.

Sometimes, these leading firms built and operated their own overseas production facilities, directly controlling the entire production process.  More often, especially in electronics and telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, textiles and clothing, and automobiles, leading firms relied on “independent” partner firms to organize production under terms which still allowed them to direct operations and capture the majority of profits from sale of the final goods.

In broad brush, Japanese transnational corporations centered their product chains in China and several East Asian countries.  US transnational corporations centered theirs in China, Mexico and several Caribbean countries.  German transnational corporations centered theirs in China and several Central and Eastern European countries.   China’s role in the global economy grew explosively because it was a favorite location for production and final assembly for transnational corporations from all three core countries.

One consequence of this development was that both the US trade deficit, especially with China, and the Chinese trade surplus, especially with the US, grew large.  The chart below highlights this development, showing changes in size of the US and Chinese current account balances relative to their respective GDP.

us-and-china

The following chart looks just at the US trade balance and shows its dramatic decline beginning in the late 1990s.

us_trade_balance_1980_2014-svg

US manufacturers were not alone in benefiting from the shift in production to lower cost third world countries.  US retailers also gained as the lower costs allowed them to boost sales and profits.  And the US financial industry also gained.  The large deficits meant large dollar flows abroad which were returned for investment in financial instruments such as stocks and bonds.  Moreover, as conditions worsened for growing numbers of working people in the US (more on that below), many were forced to borrow to maintain their life style which further expanded financial activity and profits.  In addition, globalization has enabled many transnational corporations to shift profits to those countries with the lowest tax requirements, thereby further boosting their profitability and that of the financial sector.

Not surprisingly, the expansion of international production by US and other transnational corporations took its toll on US manufacturing workers.  As Dean Baker explains:

As can be seen (in the chart below), manufacturing employment stayed close to 17.5 million from the early 1970s to 2000. We had plenty of productivity growth over these three decades, but little net change in manufacturing employment, in spite of cyclical ups and downs. It was declining as a share of total employment, which almost doubled over this period. Then, as the trade deficit explodes, we see manufacturing employment plummet. Note that most of the drop is before the Great Recession in 2008.

jobs

In other words, while it is true that manufacturing employment as a share of total US employment had been falling for some time, the dramatic decline in the number of workers employed in manufacturing dates to the period of rapid expansion of third world-centered international production networks.

Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker summarize the results of two studies that examine some of the costs paid by US workers for this global restructuring:

Trade deficits, even in times of strong growth, have negative, concentrated impacts on the quantity and quality of jobs in parts of the country where manufacturing employment diminishes. . . . There is, for example, a lot of research confirming that deindustrialization in the Rust Belt is partly a result of the fact that America meets its domestic demand for manufactured goods by importing more than it exports. One oft-cited academic study found that imbalanced trade with China led to the loss of more than 2 million U.S. jobs between 1991 and 2011, about half of which were in manufacturing (which worked out to 17 percent of manufacturing jobs overall during that time).  Further, the economist Josh Bivens found that in 2011 the cost of imbalanced trade with low-wage countries cost workers without college degrees 5.5 percent of their annual earnings (about $1,800). Far from a small, isolated group, these workers represent two-thirds of the American workforce.

Unfortunately, many US workers have viewed globalization from a nation-state perspective, believing that third world workers, especially those in China and Mexico, are stealing their jobs.  In reality, few workers employed in these product chains have enjoyed meaningful gains.  For example, the number of manufacturing workers in China has also been falling.  And growing numbers of them are forced to work long hours, in unsafe conditions, for extremely low wages.  Firms operating in China as subcontractors for foreign multinational corporations are squeezed by these corporations to lower costs.  They in turn employ a variety of tricks to lower worker wages and intensify the work process.  And they do this with the approval of local government officials who want to maintain the production in their jurisdiction.

One common trick is to use employment agencies to provide them with students under so-called internship programs.  As students, they are not considered workers under Chinese labor law and thus are not covered by such things as minimum wage laws, overtime benefit laws, and pensions.  A recent study by China Labor Watch provides one example:

University students who worked summer jobs at one of China’s leading small-appliance factories were forced to live in cramped, ill-equipped dorm rooms, made to sweat through 12-hour days in a hot factory and then were stiffed on pay, according to a report by China Labor Watch and confirmed via interviews with students and the agents who hired them.

The 8,000-employee Cuori factory in Ningbo, south of Shanghai on China’s east coast, manufactures kitchen appliances, irons, heaters and vacuum cleaners under its own name and for such multinational firms as Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach and George Foreman. Stores in the U.S. carrying items made there include Walmart and Home Depot.

More often, the students are from technical schools and forced to accept jobs as part of their curriculum.  This is just one way that firms operating within international production networks seek to push down wages to maximize their own profits and satisfy the demands of transnational corporations for low cost production.

Seen from this perspective the problem facing US workers, and those in Japan and Germany who face similar competitive pressures and downward movement in their living and working conditions, is not job theft by workers in the third world, but the working of contemporary capitalism.   And this is the perspective needed to judge the likely policies of newly elected US president Donald Trump.

We already have two indicators that the Trump administration will do little to threaten contemporary globalization dynamics.  During the campaign, Trump made big news when he told Carrier, an air-conditioning and furnace manufacturer, that the company would “pay a damn tax” if it carried out its plan to lay off some 1400 workers and close one of its factories in Indianapolis and move its production to Mexico.  Later he said that if Carrier moved its Indianapolis production to Mexico he would, if President, levy a steep 35 percent tariff on any of its products coming back to the US from off-shore factories.

Well, on December 1, 2016, Trump announced the terms of the deal he worked out with Carrier.  Carrier would “keep” 800 workers in its Indianapolis factory.  But approximately 600 workers would still be laid off as the factory’s fan coil assembly line would still be moved to Mexico.  And in exchange, the state of Indiana would provide Carrier with a $7 million subsidy including tax breaks and training grants.  This is no attack on capitalist globalization.  And when the president of the union at the factory voiced his disapproval of the agreement, Trump tweeted out that the union needed to “Spend more time working-less time talking. Reduce dues.”

As for Trump’s claim that we will look carefully at NAFTA to see if it should be rewritten, the US Chamber of Commerce has already gone on record in defense of NAFTA but welcoming its revision to incorporate issues like e-commerce that were not included at the time of its approval. In line with the Chamber’s confidence, a former Chamber lobbyist who has publicly defended NAFTA and outsourcing more generally has just been appointed to Trump’s transition team dealing with trade policy.

In short, if we are going to build a strong economy that works for the great majority of US workers we need to build a movement that is critical not just of the Transpacific Partnership but the entire process of capitalist globalization.  Moreover, that movement needs to be built in ways that strengthen relations of solidarity with workers in and from other countries.  And, it is critical to start the needed educational process now, before the new administration has a chance to trumpet new misleading initiatives and confuse people about the real threat to our well-being.