Making excuses for unemployment: The myth of a “skills gap”

It has taken ten years of expansion, but the US unemployment rate has finally fallen below 4 percent.  However, this low rate of unemployment presents a somewhat misleading picture of labor tightness.  For example, both the labor force participation rate and employment to population ratio remain significantly below previous highs, making clear that the economy is far from full employment.

The current labor force participation rate of prime age workers, those 25-54 years, is a case in point.  It remains below the previous peak rate in 2008, and even further below the peak rate at the turn of the century.  We would need an additional 1.2 million employed prime age workers to match the 2008 labor force participation rate and 2.5 million more to match the turn of the century rate.  Still it appears that at the present moment unemployment is no longer a major political issue.

That said, since we can be confident that this expansion will end and unemployment will once again become a serious problem, it is worth revisiting how mainstream economists and government policy makers treated the high rates of unemployment that marked the first five years of this expansion. In brief, and perhaps not surprisingly, most tended to explain away the slow decline in the unemployment rate by blaming workers themselves.  More specifically, they cited a “skills gap.”

As Matthew Yglesias describes:

Five or six years ago, everyone from the US Chamber of Commerce to the Obama White House was talking about a “skills gap.”

The theory here was that high unemployment reflected a structural shift in the labor market such that jobs were available, but workers simply didn’t have the right education or training for them. Harvard Business Review ran articles about this — including articles rebutting people who said the “skills gap” didn’t exist — and big companies like Siemens ran paid sponsor content in the Atlantic explaining how to fix the skills gap.

However, as Yglesias notes, the skills gap story doesn’t hold up.  Yes, business did complain for years that they found it hard to hire workers with the experience and skills they wanted.  But the fact is, as three economists demonstrate in their recently published paper, there was no real skills gap.  Rather, business just took advantage of the high rates of unemployment to jack up their skill requirements.  And as the unemployment rate gradually fell, they lowered them, which ended talk of the skills gap.  In short, employment problems are system generated, not worker caused.

The study

In “Upskilling: Do Employers Demand Greater Skill When Workers Are Plentiful?,” the economists Alicia Sasser Modestino, Daniel Shoag, and Joshua Ballancee used a proprietary dataset of 36.2 million online job postings aggregated by Burning Glass Technologies (BGT).  BGT “aggregates detailed information daily on more than 7 million online job openings from over 40,000 sources including job boards, newspapers, government agencies, and employer sites.” It also extracts details from the posted advertisements, allowing analysis according to 70 job characteristics, including job title, employer name, location, and the level of education and years of experience required. About half of the BGT postings include employer name.  The authors tapped the BGT dataset to carry out three different tests to determine whether employer job requirements, specifically education and experience requirements, changed in response to changes in the supply of available workers over the years 2007 to 2014.

They first tested whether education and experience requirements grew more in states and occupations that experienced greater increases in the supply of available workers, measured both by state unemployment rates and by state labor supply/labor demand ratios.  Then they carried out the same test, but this time looking at individual firms and their job requirements for specific job titles.

For both tests, the authors also used several control variables, including “the share of the state population with a bachelor’s degree in 2000 and the average age of the state population in 2000 to account for both heterogeneity in the pre-existing pool of skilled labor available to employers, as well as the initial share of openings requiring a particular skill in 2007 to account for heterogeneity across state × occupation cells.”

As a final check of their work, the authors made use of a “labor shock” that was uncorrelated with underlying economic trends: the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012. The authors examined “whether state × occupation cells receiving larger numbers of returning veterans correspondingly experienced a greater increase in their skill requirements.”

The results

In the first test the authors examined whether changing labor market conditions influenced “the share of postings requiring a bachelor’s degree or greater and the share of postings requiring at least four years of experience.”  And they found a strong relationship:

within a six-digit detailed occupation, a 1 percentage point increase in the state unemployment rate is associated with a 0.64 percentage point increase in the share of job postings requiring a bachelor’s degree and a 0.84 percentage point increase in the share of job postings requiring at least four years of experience. How large is the upskilling effect in terms of economic importance? In the context of the most recent downturn, our results imply that the nationwide increase in unemployment rates between 2007 and 2010 raised education requirements within occupations by 3.2 percentage points and raised experience requirements by 4.2 percentage points, respectively. Relative to the observed increases in skill requirements . . . during this period, our estimates suggest that changes in employer skill requirements due to the increased availability of workers during the business cycle can account for up to 30 percent of the total increase for education and nearly 50 percent of the total increase for experience.

Their findings of a strong relationship between labor slack and increased skill requirements are illustrated in the following two figures.

The second test also found a positive relationship between employer skill requirements and labor market slack even when limited to a consideration of the same job title at the same employer in the same state.  As the authors state:

Controlling for firm × job-title pairs within a state, we find that a one percentage point increase in the state unemployment rate raises the share of jobs postings requiring a bachelor’s degree by 0.505 percentage points and the share of job postings requiring at least four years of experience by 0.483 percentage points.

As for the labor shock of returning veterans, the authors again found “a strong, significant, and positive relationship between the sharp increase in the supply of returning veterans and the rise in employer skill requirements for both education and experience.”

The takeaway

The claim of a skills gap was widely embraced by those looking to deflect attention from capitalism’s growing inability to generate adequate employment even during years of economic expansion.  If the problem is a skills gap, then the responsibility for solving the problem rests on the shoulders of workers themselves, who will have to do a better job of keeping up with the times.  However, as Yglesias notes in his article summary, “the skills gap was the consequence of high unemployment rather than its cause. With workers plentiful, employers got choosier.”

Unemployment rates will rise again, and papers like “Upskilling: Do Employers Demand Greater Skill When Workers Are Plentiful?” are helpful for preparing us to challenge those whose arguments serve to defend a system that has grown ever more unresponsive to majority needs.

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They’re at it again: Selling the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement

The headlines once again misrepresent the aims and consequences of a US free trade agreement, in this case repeating the International Trade Commission’s claim that President Trump’s US-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) will boost US growth and employment.

The International Trade Commission is required by law to evaluate the economic consequences of the USMCA, which is supposed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), before Congress can debate whether to approve it.  According to its report, which was released on April 18, 2019, the agreement can be expected to “raise U.S. real GDP by $68.2 billion (0.35 percent) and U.S. employment by 176,000 jobs (0.12 percent)” and “would likely have a positive impact on U.S. trade, both with USMCA partners and with the rest of the world.”

While supporters of the agreement happily repeat the Committee’s conclusion “that, if fully implemented and enforced, USMCA would have a positive impact on U.S. real GDP and employment,” the fact is that the predicted gains are miniscule.  Moreover, given the flaws in the Commission’s admittedly sophisticated modeling, there is no reason to take the results seriously.  Finally, a careful examination of the many chapters in the proposed agreement makes clear that its real aim is to strengthen contemporary globalization dynamics, enhancing corporate power and profits at the expense of majority living and working conditions in all three countries.

Putting the projected “gains” in perspective

The Commission assumed that the US economy’s complete adjustment to the agreement would take six years.  It then used a computable general equilibrium model to simulate how the terms of the agreement would change US markets and compared the “equilibrium” outcome at the end of the adjustment period with baseline results that assumed no significant change in US economic policies or global agreements over the same period.

On the basis of such modeling, the Commission concluded that six years after the implementation of the agreement, the US economy would be $68.2 billion bigger than if the agreement had not been approved.  That is, as the Commission acknowledges, a one-time gain of 35/100 of one percent in real GDP.  Current US GDP is over $21 trillion; $68 billion is a rounding error in an economy of that size.

As for the projected growth in employment, the one-time gain of 176,000 jobs relative to the base line forecast translates into an increase in employment after six years of 12/100 of one percent.  That gain in employment is roughly equal to the number of new jobs added in a month of moderate economic growth.  The Commission’s model produced similar miniscule gains for other variables, including US wages.

In short, if we take these predictions seriously, the obvious conclusion is that there is little to gain from approving this agreement.  Of course, that is not the Commission’s position.  However, there is little reason to take these results seriously.

Dodgy methodology

It took a lot for the Commission to produce even these minimal games.  More specifically, it took a dodgy methodology that is biased towards policies that promote globalization.

The Commission organized its work as follows: it first sought to model the economic consequences of “eight groups of USMCA provisions: agriculture, automobiles, intellectual property rights (IPRs), e-commerce, labor, international data transfer, cross-border services, and investment.” Then, it took the provision specific results of each group and used them as modeling inputs for the economy-wide computable general equilibrium model it used to produce the overall estimates cited above.

Since not all the provisions changed current policies, the Commission divided the eight groups into two categories.  The first included the “set of provisions that would alter current policies or set new standards within the three member countries, and that would therefore be expected to modify current conditions after USMCA enters into effect.” This included provisions affecting agriculture, automobiles, IPRs, e-commerce, labor, and investment decisions related to the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

The second category included provisions that “would reduce policy uncertainty. These commitments would primarily serve to deter future trade and investment barriers, thus offering firms some assurance that current regulations and standards, which may or may not be expressly governed by current policies, will not become more restrictive.” Included in this category are provisions that would affect international data transfer, cross-border services trade, and investment decisions related to market access and nonconforming measures.

Significantly, it was the Commission’s determination of the gains from those provisions that would reduce policy uncertainty, by restricting the possibility for future government regulation of corporate activity, that proved decisive.  As a Public Citizen Eyes on Trade blog post pointed out,

Most of the [overall gains reported by the Commission] are derived from a highly dubious new research methodology, which assigns an invented positive economic value to terms that reduce “policy uncertainty” by freezing in place environmental, consumer protection, financial and other safeguards. If the ITC had not done this, the report would have projected a negative outcome. All $68.2 billion of the deal’s supposed economic gains arise from simulating the impact of removing trade barriers that do not exist. In other words, the gains are generated not through the removal of trade barriers directly, but through the elimination of the possibility of new future regulatory policies, which are deemed to be potential trade barriers. Absent this fabrication, the revised NAFTA would have been projected to lower the United States’ GDP by $22.6 billion and reduce the number of jobs by 53,900.

The problems only multiply when these separate results are used as inputs in the Commission’s economy-wide model.  This model, as noted above, is a computable general equilibrium model.  As such, it seeks to process all the ways the changes generated by the agreement interact to change market behavior before eventually producing – over a six-year period in this case — a new equilibrium outcome for the economy.  As one might imagine, this kind of modeling is quite complex and to ensure a result it requires some very significant assumptions.  Among them are:

  • The assumption that product markets are “perfectly competitive (implying zero economic profit for the firm).”
  • The assumption that there is “full capacity utilization of capital.”
  • The assumption that there is no unemployment.
  • The assumption that “global trade balances remain constant.”

In other words, while we may want the Commission to investigate whether a new trade agreement might cause a worsening of trade balances, or unemployment, or deindustrialization, or monopolization, the Commission’s model, by assumption, asserts that these are non-problems.  As a result, the model has a clear pro-trade agreement bias.

Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses.  It is no wonder that mainstream economic studies, which rely on computable general equilibrium modeling, always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.  In light of this, it is striking how small the estimated gains were for this trade agreement.

The real winners

So, one might ask, what is really going on here?  Well, the agreement enjoys strong corporate support precisely because a number of its chapters include provisions responsive to the interests of leading US multinational corporations.  What follows are just a few examples drawn from the report.

The agreement includes provisions that require harmonization and thus a reduction in food safety standards, force governments to negotiate new standards with industry representatives, set deadlines for import checks, require that new standards be based on scientific principles, and that safety standards be applied “only to the extent necessary to achieve the appropriate level of protection” and “not [be] more trade restrictive than required.”

The agreement also includes a number of market access provisions to promote cross-border trade in services and financial services.  More specifically, the agreement’s market access provisions “are aimed at removing quotas and other barriers that impede the entry of services suppliers into foreign markets.” The Commission believes that “the broadcasting, telecommunications, and courier services sectors in the United States are estimated to gain the most, followed by the commercial banking sector in all three countries.”

The agreement also includes provisions “which would strengthen protections in major IPR categories such as trade secrets, regulatory data protection, patents, trademarks, copyrights, and civil, criminal, and administrative enforcement.”  The pharmaceutical industry will be one of the biggest beneficiaries.  For example, the agreement includes a “patent resolution mechanism that requires notice to patent holders, and an opportunity for relief, when a generic manufacturer seeks to rely on an originator’s test data for marketing approval without the patent holder’s consent.”

The USMCA would be the first U.S. free trade agreement with a chapter on digital trade.  Among other things, it would prevent governments “from restricting cross-border flows of financial data, which would require data to be stored or processed locally” and would “forbid them to adopt restrictive data measures in the future.”  This provision would be especially valuable to U.S. computer services and digital platform services firms. “Other key Digital Trade chapter provisions include a ban on import duties or other discriminatory customs measures on digital products (e.g., e-books, videos, music, software, and games), and prohibition of legal discrimination against digital products produced or created in other signatory countries.”

The agreement also includes a chapter that restricts the ability of governments to use state-owned enterprises to meet public needs by requiring that they be “regulated impartially, and do not benefit from special treatment and unfairly infringe upon the activities of private firms.”

The list goes on.  No wonder that major business associations are expressing strong support for the agreement. As the New York Times reports:

Industry groups called for the pact’s quick passage into law. Linda Dempsey, the vice president for international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, said that the deal was “a win for manufacturers.”

Jordan Haas, the director of trade policy at the Internet Association, said the report underlined that the deal’s digital trade provisions were “critical to America’s future economic success” and “mean jobs and opportunities in every state.”

There is a lot at stake in this struggle.  We need to stop calling for progressive reform of the agreement, a call that only leads to popular confusion about what drives US government policy.  Instead we need to build a movement that simply says no to NAFTA in any form.

The Trump Administration: Lots of Noise But Nothing Changed For US TNCs

President Trump has long pointed to the US balance of payments deficit as a sign of US economic weakness. Of course, his nation-state focus, and claim that trade deficits with countries such as China and Mexico are the result of unfair trading practices that benefit foreign business and workers at the expense of US business and workers, is misleading.  These deficits owe much to the operation of US corporate controlled cross-border production networks, which have boosted US corporate power and profits largely at the expense of workers in all three countries.

Criticizing past administrations for selling out America, President Trump has pursued a series of policies—renegotiated trade agreements, tariff wars, public shaming of corporate disinvestment, and tax reform—all of which are supposed to help rebuild the US economy by encouraging US firms to modernize and expand their US operations. These policies have all failed to achieve their stated aim.  In fact, they have, largely by design, only served to strengthen existing corporate dominated patterns of international production and value capture.

As a result, there has been little change in US trade patterns.  The US trade deficit in goods, as shown below, has continued to grow every year of the Trump presidency.

Strengthening TNC power and profits

After first threatening to dissolve NAFTA, President Trump eventually pursued a rewrite of the NAFTA agreement.  However, his proposed changes to the agreement primarily speak to corporate needs, especially the new chapters that increase protection for intellectual property rights and promote greater cross-border freedom for electronic commerce and digital trade.  Similarly, the Trump tariff “war” against China appears primarily aimed at forcing the Chinese government to tighten regulations protecting US intellectual property rights and open new sectors of its economy to US foreign investment, especially the finance sector.

President Trump has also engaged in occasional twitter “wars” against corporate decisions to close or relocate abroad part of their operations.  Initially, corporate leaders felt pressure to modify or delay their decisions.  Now, no doubt reassured by the general policy direction of the Trump administration, they no longer appear worried about his periodic outbursts.  For example, both GM and Harley Davidson recently announced plans to shut domestic plants in favor of overseas production and have largely ignored Trump’s tweets critical of their globalization activities.

Much has been written about these efforts, but little about the consequences of the last policy, tax cuts, on US TNC decision-making.  The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” Act, signed into law on Dec. 22, 2017, was promoted as a way to encourage US transnational corporations to bring back funds held outside the country and boost their domestic investment.  However, as a Bank of France blog post by Cristina Jude and Francesco Pappadà makes clear, this initiative, like the others, has done nothing to change US corporate behavior, although the lower tax rates make it more profitable.

Jude and Pappadà focus on profit hording and profit shifting.  Profit hording refers to the accumulation of “non-repatriated earnings” by US TNCs.  Economists estimated that US firms held approximately $2.5 trillion outside the country at the end of 2017 and the Trump administration predicted that a large share would be brought back thanks to the one-time lower tax rate included in the 2017 act.  Apple alone is said to hold $252 billion in offshore accounts.

Although economists speak of corporate earnings held abroad, in fact most of those earnings are held in the US.  However, as long as those funds are not used for certain purposes, such as paying dividends to shareholders, financing domestic acquisitions, guaranteeing loans, or making investments in physical capital in the US, they can be invested in the US tax free.

As we can see in the chart below, US companies did respond to the one-time lower tax rate by “repatriating” some funds.  Dividend payouts went up, which resulted in a period of negative “reinvested earnings” in foreign affiliates.

However, as Jude and Pappadà explain:

Despite the permanent cut of the standard corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, the adjustment of repatriated dividends and reinvested earnings appears limited to the first and second quarters of 2018. Indeed, dividends decrease substantially in quarter three, whereas reinvested earnings return to positive as they were before the tax reform.

The response of US companies to the corporate tax reform mainly consisted in the partial repatriation of previously accumulated stocks of earnings (around 20 percent of the total) due to the temporary lower tax. This firms’ behavior is similar to the one observed in 2005 when another law granted US multinationals a one-year tax holiday to repatriate foreign profits at a 5.25 percent tax rate.

Thus, the tax change produced a one-time shift in a relatively small share of the non-repatriated earnings held by leading US TNCs, with stock owners the primary beneficiaries. Moreover, this shift did not change the overall size of income receipts from US foreign direct investment, as the increase in dividends was offset by the negative reinvested earnings.

If the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” is to have a long-lasting effect on the US trade balance, it needs to stop the corporate practice of tax shifting, which is how TNCs generated the huge sum of money held as non-repatriated earnings.  Profit shifting refers to the corporate strategy of using various means such as transfer pricing, often achieved using intellectual property rights over patents and trademarks, to book profits generated from US activities in a lower-tax jurisdiction.  As Jude and Pappadà point out, “six small jurisdictions (Bermuda, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Singapore and Switzerland), which count for less than 1 percent of the world’s population, hold 63 percent of the overall profits earned abroad by US multinationals.”

Google is, as Tim Hyde explains, one of the firms that makes good use of this strategy:

it is able to claim billions of profits in Bermuda each year (corporate tax rate: 0 percent) even though it has no office building there and not even any employees on the island. . . . this is legitimate because the rights to Google’s search and advertising technologies are technically owned by a subsidiary called Google Holdings housed in Bermuda, thanks in part to a trick called the Double Irish Dutch Sandwich. Other Google subsidiaries pay billions in royalties to the Bermudian company Google Holdings for the rights to use its technology, which was originally invented by Google employees in California and sold to Google Holdings in 2001. Those billions of profits are reclassified as Bermudian rather than American or Irish and thus not taxed.

If US firms booked their earnings in the US, rather than in a foreign tax haven, foreign direct investment receipts would decline, net US service exports would increase, and the overall trade deficit would narrow.

An Oxfam study of profit shifting by leading pharmaceutical companies shows just how important this strategy is to US TNCs and how much we lose from it:

Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Pfizer—systematically stash their profits in overseas tax havens. As a result, these four corporate giants appear to deprive the United States of $2.3 billion annually and deny other advanced economies of $1.4 billion. And they appear to deprive the cash-strapped governments of developing countries of an estimated $112 million every year—money that could be spent on vaccines, midwives, or rural clinics.

Pharma corporations’ “profit-shifting” may take the form of “domiciling” a patent or rights to its brand not where the drug was actually developed or where the firm is headquartered, but in a tax haven, where a company’s presence may be as little as a mailbox. That tax haven subsidiary then charges hefty licensing fees to subsidiaries in other countries. The fees are a tax-deductible expense in the jurisdictions where taxes are standard, while the fee income accrues to the subsidiary in the tax haven, where it is taxed lightly or not at all. Loans from tax-haven subsidiaries and fees for their “services” are other common strategies to avoid taxes. . . .

Further opportunities for avoiding taxes involve locating corporate brand or patents in tax havens, and fees for marketing, finance, or management services. For example, a pharmaceutical corporation may bill much of its R&D costs on products consumed around the globe to a subsidiary in a tax haven where R&D rights are registered, even though not a single researcher is based there. That immediately creates a cost in the country where the product is consumed, which minimizes the tax bill, and an artificial profit in the tax havens, where almost no taxes are paid in return.

As a result of this practice:

Pfizer posted losses on US operations of 8 percent in 2013, 25 percent in 2014, and 31 percent in 2015. The pattern has continued, with Pfizer posting losses of 32 percent in 2016 and 26 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, Pfizer’s international operations earned 56–58 percent in 2013–2015 and even more in the two years since (64 and 72 percent). The story is similar though less extreme for Abbott and Johnson & Johnson.

The pharmaceutical industry is no outlier.  According to a study by three economists, Thomas Tørsløv, Ludvig Wier, and Gabriel Zucman, “close to 40 percent of multinational profits were artificially shifted to tax havens in 2015.”

And, as the chart below reveals, there is no sign that passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has produced any change in US TNC profit-shifting activities.  As Jude and Pappadà discuss:

in Chart 2, we observe a change in the composition of foreign direct investment income, but the balance remains stable at its pre-reform level. Moreover, this is not associated with an increase in net exports of services. In particular, the decomposition of the services trade balance in Chart 3 shows that there has not been any increase in intellectual property charges, for which profit shifting is more relevant. At the moment, it is too soon to assess the full impact of the reform as US multinationals may take time to adjust the location of their assets and activities. However, the profit shifting decisions of multinational firms do not seem to be affected so far.

In sum, for all of Trump’s bluster, his administration has done nothing to produce a change in TNC business practices or improve the health of the US economy.  In fact, quite the opposite is true, as almost his initiatives have been designed, above all, to expand the reach and profitability of leading US corporations.

China Has An Unemployment Problem

China has an unemployment problem.  There are lots of articles and commentary about the Chinese economy, especially recently with attention focused on China’s declining rate of growth.  But have you noticed that there is rarely any mention of China’s unemployment rate?

Chinese growth is falling

China’s fourth-quarter 2018 GDP growth fell to 6.4 percent year-on-year, the slowest rate of growth since the global financial crisis. It brought full-year growth down to 6.6 percent, the slowest yearly rate of growth since 1990.  And predictions are for a significantly slower rate of growth in 2019, perhaps down to 6.3 percent.

The government has certainly pursued a number of policies over the last decade in an attempt to keep growth robust.  This includes the massive post-crisis, investment-heavy stimulus program; the more recent Belt and Road Initiative, and on-going highly expansionary monetary policy. But, the growth-generating effects of these and other government policies has steadily diminished.  As Victor Shih points out in a recent New Left Review interview:

In 2016, China needed three times as much credit to call forth the same amount of growth as in 2008. The scale of debt creation required to keep the economy moving forward has increased massively, and People’s Bank of China loans to domestic financial institutions rocketed from 4 trillion ren­minbi at the end of 2010 to 14 trillion renminbi by November 2017, a three-and-a-half-fold increase in the space of seven years. Total debt has grown from 163 per cent of GDP around 2009 to 328 per cent of GDP today, and this figure will likely continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Strikingly few discussions of China’s declining growth trajectory include mention of the country’s unemployment rate.  One possible reason is that China’s official unemployment rate has been remarkably stable at roughly 4 percent for decades, seemingly unaffected by the economy’s ups and downs.  Unfortunately, this official rate is worthless as an indicator of the China’s labor market conditions.  In reality, China likely has a serious and growing unemployment problem.

China’s faulty measure of unemployment

As we can see from the chart below, taken from a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) report on trends in unemployment in China, the country’s unemployment rate has been low and quite stable.  It rose gradually from the early 1990s to the early 2000, as the government pursued a program of privatization and marketization, and then remained largely unchanged, hovering around 4 percent, from the early 2000s to 2013.

In fact, the official rate has remained much the same over the following years. In April 2018, the government introduced a new measure of unemployment, one that it said would be more accurate. According to the new measure, the country’s unemployment rate fell to 3.82 per cent at the end of September, from 3.83 per cent at the end of June.

This stability is rather startling, considering that over the period 2002 to 2018 China’s growth rate has fluctuated considerably.  It is why Christopher Balding, in a Bloomberg article, captured the opinion of most analysts when he said:

China has long been criticized both for its obsession with GDP statistics and their quality: Pressuring cadres to meet growth targets has encouraged a risky buildup of debt and, at times, the outright fabrication of numbers. If anything, though, the quality of China’s official employment data is even worse — and the inaccuracies could have equally dangerous repercussions.

There are many problems with the government’s past and current measure of unemployment.  Perhaps the most important is that it is a really an “urban registered jobless rate.”  The urban designation is significant because of China’s household registration system (Hukou), which identifies a person by their place of birth.  Migrant workers who come to an urban area in search of work do not have an urban registration and are thus denied the benefits enjoyed by the urban Hukou population, including subsidized housing, health insurance, unemployment insurance, and minimum living standard subsidies.  China’s unemployment rate only measures the rate of unemployment of those with an urban registration.

Another problem with the official measure is that until the April 2018 revision, an unemployed urban worker had to register with their local employment service agency to be counted as unemployed.  Unemployed workers often skipped registering because the process is time consuming and the benefits small and time limited to a maximum of two years.  The revised measure is said to be based on government surveys rather than registration, but the reliability of the surveys is in doubt.

In addition, as the authors of the NBER report point out:

the total labor force, which is the denominator in the calculation of unemployment rate, is also subject to error for many reasons. One recent article that reviewed the quality of Chinese labor statistics claimed that the official unemployment rate is “almost useless.” Another important and related labor market indicator – the labor force participation rate – is not even reported in official statistics.

Accepting the urban Hukou framework, the authors made their own calculation of urban unemployment using China’s Urban Household Survey (UHS) which covers all of urban China and has been administered by China’s National Bureau of Statistics since the 1980s.  Their calculations yield, as shown by the sold dark line in the following figure, an urban rate of unemployment that is far higher than the government’s official measure (dotted black line).

The authors summarize their results as follows:

The rate averaged 3.9 percent in 1988-1995, when the labor market was highly regulated and dominated by state-owned enterprises, but rose sharply during the period of mass layoff from 1995- 2002, reaching an average of 10.9 percent in the subperiod from 2002 to 2009.

What is striking is that the high rates of unemployment from 2002 to 2009 occurred in years when official GDP growth was over 9 percent a year.

Of course, any meaningful measure of unemployment has to include all urban workers, not just the ones with an urban registration classification.  China’s migrant workforce tops 280 million according to official estimates.  The country’s four megacities, each with a population of over 10 million – Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen — have huge migrant populations. For example, migrants make up more than 40 percent of Shanghai’s population, 37 percent of Beijing’s population, 38 percent of Guangzhou’s population, and 67 percent of Shenzhen’s population.

While not all migrant workers are in the labor force, most are since their migration was, more often than not, motivated by a search for employment.  And as the Chinese economy transitioned away from one anchored by state production for domestic use into one rooted in private production, increasingly for export, migrant workers became central to its operation.  For example, migrant workers dominate the manufacturing workforce at most foreign-owned export firms. They also comprise the majority of urban construction workers.

While it is true that the period of privatization was harder on state workers than migrant workers, the more recent years, marked by the country’s post-crisis slowdown in growth and exports, have definitely taken their toll on the migrant workforce.  In light of the high NBER unemployment estimates for urban Hukou workers highlighted above, it is not unreasonable to imagine an overall urban unemployment rate close to 15 percent if we include migrant workers.

It’s getting worse

As noted above, Chinese growth is slowing.  Adding to policymakers’ worries is the fact that export growth has also been trending down; exports in December 2018 fell 4.4 percent from a year earlier, with demand in most major markets weakening.  And these trends are definitely reflected in changes in company payrolls and hiring plans.

According to a report in The South China Morning Post,

Demand for labor at China’s importers, exporters, and related manufacturers fell by 40 per cent in the last quarter of 2018 from a year earlier, showing the trade war with the US has taken its toll, a survey released on Friday revealed.

The China Institute for Employment Research (CIER) at the Renmin University of China in Beijing found jobs in export-oriented regions, including Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta and Suzhou in the Yangtze River Delta, were hit hard.

A CNBC story highlights survey results showing planned layoffs in manufacturing but goes on to add:

The job losses don’t appear to be relegated to just the manufacturing sector.

“We haven’t seen this degree of jobs weakness since the (stock) market panic of Q1 2016,” Leland Miller, chief executive officer of China Beige Book, said in an email. The firm publishes a quarterly review of the Chinese economy based on a survey of more than 3,300 Chinese firms.

“In Q4 employment growth weakened across every major sector, with the ‘new economy’ — retail and services — seeing the most substantial deterioration,” Miller said. “To call it broad-based is an understatement: job growth slowed in every region we track except the Northeast.”

Regardless of official unemployment figures showing stable and even declining rates of unemployment, all signs point to the fact that unemployment is high and trending upwards.  And, that, certainly from a worker perspective, means that China has a serious unemployment problem.  Whether Chinese leaders have the commitment or capacity to offer a meaningful response, given the interests they represent and the constraints within which they operate, remains to be seen.

Millennials: Hit Hard And Fighting Back

A lot has been written and said critical of millennials. The business press has been tough on their spending habits.  As a recent Federal Reserve Board study of millennial economic well-being explained:

In the fields of business and economics, the unique tastes and preferences of millennials have been cited as reasons why new-car sales were lackluster during the early years of the recovery from the 2007–09 recession, why many brick-and-mortar retail chains have run into financial trouble (through lower brand loyalty and goods spending), why the recoveries in home sales and construction have remained slow, and why the indebtedness of the working-age population has increased.

Politicians, even some Democratic Party leaders, have tended to write them off as complainers. For example, while on a book tour, former Vice President Joe Biden told a Los Angeles Times interviewer that “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. I have no empathy for it. Give me a break.” Biden went on to say that things were much tougher for young people in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, quite the opposite is true.  For better or worse, the authors of the Federal Reserve Board study found that there is “little evidence that millennial households have tastes and preference for consumption that are lower than those of earlier generations, once the effects of age, income, and a wide range of demographic characteristics are taken into account.”  More importantly, millennials are far poorer than past generations were at a similar age, and are becoming a significant force in revitalizing the labor movement.

Economic hard times for millennials

The Federal Reserve Board study leaves no doubt that millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were equally young. They have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.  All despite being better educated.

The study compares the financial standing of three different cohorts: millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997), Generation Xers (those born between 1965 and 1980), and baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).  Table 1, below, shows inflation adjusted income in three different time periods for all households with a full-time worker and for all households headed by a worker younger than 33 years.

The median figures, which best represent the earnings of the typical member of the group, are shown in brackets.  Comparing the median annual earnings of young male heads of households and of young female heads of household across the three time periods shows the millennial earnings disadvantage.  For example, while the median boomer male head of household earned $53,400, the median millennial male head of household earned only $40,600.  Millennial female heads of household suffered a similar decline, although not nearly as steep.

Table 4 compares the asset and wealth holdings of the three generations, and again highlights the deteriorating economic position of millennials.  As we can see, the median total assets held by millennials in 2016 is significantly lower than that held by baby boomers and only half as large as that held by Generation Xers.  Moreover, millennials suffered a decrease in asset holdings across most asset categories.

Finally, we also see that millennials have substantially lower real net worth than earlier cohorts. In 2016, the average real net worth of millennial households was $91,700, some 20 percent less than baby boomer households and almost 40 percent less than Generation X households.

Fighting back

Millennials have good reason to be concerned about their economic situation.  What is encouraging is that there are signs that growing numbers see structural failings in the operation of capitalism as the cause of their problems and collective action as the best response.  A recent Gallup poll offers one sign.  It found a sharp fall in support for capitalism among those 18 to 29 years, from 68 percent positive in 2010 down to 45 percent positive in 2018.  Support for socialism remained unchanged at 51 percent.

A recent Pew Research poll offers another, as shown below. Young people registered the strongest support for unions and the weakest support for corporations.

Of course, what millennials do rather than say is what counts. And millennials are now boosting the ranks of unions.  Union membership grew in 2017 for the first time in years, by 262,000.  And three in four of those new members was under 35.  Figures for 2018 are not yet available, but given the strong and successful organizing work among education, health care, hotel, and restaurant workers, the positive trend is likely to continue.

Millennials are now the largest generation in the United States, having surpassed the baby boomers in 2015.  Hopefully, self-interest will encourage them to play a leading role in building the movement necessary to transform the US political-economy, improving working and living conditions for everyone.

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

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

The misinformed views of those running for state office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s no better at the federal level

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a visual summary of their results.

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

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

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

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

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

The US Economy: Monopolized Product Markets And Precarious Work

Most economists and politicians sing the praises of competition.  It is supposed to keep firms on their toes for the benefit of consumers and workers.  Well, competition is certainly alive and well in the US, but the results are far from positive for working people.

Monopolized product markets

The Open Markets Institute recently issued a report that looks at recent changes in industry concentration in 32 different product markets.  It framed its work as follows:

while it may appear as though there are endless brands to choose from online and on the shelf, most are owned by a few large parent companies, the array of labels a mere façade creating the illusion of abundant options.

Locating data on how few companies control individual markets, though, has long been difficult, and not by accident. Although Americans used anti-monopoly policies throughout much of the 20th century to preserve competition, a shift in ideology in the late 1970s allowed increased monopolization across the economy. To shield this pro-corporate turn from the public, the Federal Trade Commission halted the collection and publication of industry concentration data in 1981.

To remedy this gap in public knowledge, Open Markets purchased extensive, up-to-date industry intelligence from IBISWorld, a team of analysts who collect economic and market data, with the intention of releasing the information regarding industry concentration to the public.

David Leonhardt, in his New York Times commentary on the report, includes the following summary chart:

And as Leonhardt notes, “If anything, the chart here understates consolidation, because it doesn’t yet cover energy, telecommunications and some other areas.”

These trends paint a picture of an economy in which a growing number of industries are dominated by a few powerful corporations, one that belies the conventional view that since our economy is subject to ever stronger competitive pressures, fears of monopoly domination are unjustified. This is not a new insight. For example, John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna made the same point in a 2011 Monthly Review article:

A striking paradox animates political economy in our times. On the one hand, mainstream economics and much of left economics discuss our era as one of intense and increased competition among businesses, now on a global scale. It is a matter so self-evident as no longer to require empirical verification or scholarly examination. On the other hand, wherever one looks, it seems that nearly every industry is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

The following chart, taken from the article, illustrates their point about growing industry concentration.

Foster, McChesney, and Jonna explain this “striking paradox” by showing how the competition that captures our attention is increasingly driven by, and largely takes place between, powerful, globally-organized corporations.  And, they also discuss the ways in which mainstream economic theory has worked to minimize public awareness of the resulting monopolization of economic processes and its negative consequences for the stability and vibrancy of the economy.

Precarious work

One negative consequence of these competitive battles is worth highlighting here: the transformation of labor relations which is making work, by design, more precarious.  As Lauren Weber, in a Wall Street Journal article titled “The End of Employees,” explains:

Never before have big employers tried so hard to hand over chunks of their business to contractors. From Google to Wal-Mart, the strategy prunes costs for firms and job security for millions of workers. . . .

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 shift is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted. . . .

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.

Is it any wonder that income inequality has exploded in the US and even a record-breaking economic expansion in terms of longevity brings few benefits to working people?  Clearly, we need some new words, if not an entirely new song, if we are going to keep singing about competition.