Social Security: The attacks keep coming but the system remains strong

President Biden is winning praise for his State of the Union defense of social security.  But while he correctly called out Republicans for their machinations, it was not so long ago that Democratic Party leaders—for example, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—appeared willing to support plans for weakening the program.  Thus, we need to be vigilant and always prepared to defend the program, especially since, as the economist Paul Krugman commented:

I’ve seen numerous declarations from mainstream media that of course Medicare and Social Security can’t be sustained in their present form. And not just in the opinion pages: There’s been at least some reversion to the early 2010s practice of including anti-social-insurance editorializing in what are supposed to be straight news reports, with highly disputable claims about these programs’ futures presented as simple facts.

Don’t let the critics fool you. Our Social Security system remains sound.  Moreover, there are simple steps we can take to expand its benefits.

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U.S. Economic Planning in the Second World War and the Planetary Crisis

The February 2023 issue of Monthly Review includes an article of mine, “U.S. Economic Planning in the Second World War and the Planetary Crisis,” which is a revised version of a past blog post.  

The following is from the article’s introduction:

Not surprisingly, the consensus from those studying the wartime conversion experience is that a rapid and successful transformation requires aggressive state planning and direction of economic activity. This is indeed an important lesson for our movement to learn. But there is another lesson to be learned from that period, one that deserves more attention than it currently receives. It is that in a capitalist economy, capital’s ownership position greatly enhances its ability to mold state structures and their policies in ways favorable to its interests and to the detriment of workers. In other words, the planning process is a contested terrain, and one not usually favorable to working people.

I will show that, during the war years, corporate leaders were able to rebuff Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) planning proposals and successfully marginalize the participation of unions in the mobilization agencies that were formed, ensuring that labor would be forced into a defensive and ever weaker position relative to capital as the war progressed. Thus, if our aim is not simply a transformation to a somewhat less carbon consuming economy, but a complete and just transformation, we must prepare ourselves, and the movement that we hope to build, for an ongoing and complex struggle to overcome capital’s structural advantages. It is my hope that this article, which focuses on the class dynamics shaping the Second World War mobilization process, can help that preparation. The history it describes offers a useful primer on how the other side conducts its class war.

It’s past time for a $15 federal minimum wage

President Biden’s 2022 State of the Union Address included a call for a $15 federal minimum wage.  According to an Economic Policy Institute study, a phased increase to a $15 federal minimum wage by 2025 would raise the earnings of 32 million workers—21 percent of the workforce, no small thing. 

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25.  The federal minimum wage was established in 1938, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Congress has voted to raise it 9 times since then, the last time in 2007.  That last vote included a mandated three step increase that brought it to its current level in July 2009. 

It has been 13 years since the last increase in the federal minimum wage, the longest period since its establishment without an increase.  Taking inflation into account, workers paid the federal minimum wage in 2021 earned 21 percent less than what their counterparts earned in 2009, and prices keep rising.  Outrageously, this eroding federal minimum wage continues to set the wage floor in 20 states. Where is the justice in that?

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Once again austerity proponents tell it like it isn’t

There appears to be growing consensus among economists and policy makers that inflation is now the main threat to the US economy and the Federal Reserve Board needs to start ratcheting up interest rates to slow down economic activity.  While these so-called inflation-hawks are quick to highlight the cost of higher prices, they rarely, if ever, mention the costs associated with the higher interest rate policy they recommend, costs that include higher unemployment and lower wages for working people. 

The call for tightening monetary policy is often buttressed by claims that labor markets have now tightened to such an extent that continued expansion could set off a wage-price spiral.  However, the rapid decline in the unemployment rate to historically low levels, a development often cited in support of this call for austerity, is far from the best indicator of labor market conditions.  In fact, even leaving aside issues of job quality, the US employment situation, as we see below, remains problematic.  In short: the US economy continues to operate in ways that fall far short of what workers need. 

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Economic inequality means retirement insecurity for most US households

This is far from a “hot take”: financial wealth in the United States is highly concentrated, with most households, especially Black and Hispanic households, owning few financial assets.  One consequence is that many Americans are likely to face a very challenging retirement.  Sadly, if economic and social conditions remain as they are, we can expect to see an ever-growing number turn to for-profit crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe, for help in meeting expenses. 

The study

A recently published study by the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit research and education organization, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, paints a disturbing picture of the distribution of financial assets by generation, net worth and race. 

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Pandemic economic woes continue, but so do deep structural problems, especially the long-term growth in the share of low wage jobs

Many are understandably alarmed about what the September 4th termination of several special federal pandemic unemployment insurance programs will mean for millions of workers.  Twenty-five states ended their programs months earlier, with government and business leaders claiming that their termination would spur employment and economic activity.  However, several studies have disproved their claims.

One study, based on the experience of 19 of these states, found that for every 8 workers that lost benefits, only one found a new job.  Consumer spending in those states fell by $2 billion, with every lost $1 of benefits leading to a fall in spending of 52 cents.   It is hard to see how anything good can come from the federal government’s willingness to allow these programs to expire nationwide. 

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COVID-19 Economic Crisis Snapshot

 Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis.  Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.

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The pandemic, technology, and remote work: the corporate push for greater control over workers’ lives

The U.S. economy is undergoing a major transformation largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic.  One hallmark of that transformation is the explosion in what is called “remote” work.

In 2017, according to a Census Bureau study, only 3 percent of full-time workers in the United States reported that they primarily worked from home.  Today, in response to the pandemic, some 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is working from home—with only 26 percent still working on-site.

Corporate leaders appear to have embraced this shift to at-home work and are pursing the use of new technologies designed to increase managerial control over the remote work process. The response of workers to these changes is still evolving.

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The economy: we are still in big trouble

The announcement by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the federal unemployment rate declined to 13.3 percent in May, from 14.7 percent in April, took most analysts by surprise.  The economy added 2.5 million jobs in May, the first increase in employment since February.  Most economists had predicted further job losses and a rise in the unemployment rate to as high as 20 percent.

This employment gain has encouraged some analysts, especially those close to the Trump administration, to proclaim that their predicted V-shaped economic recovery had begun.  But there are strong reasons to believe that the US economy is far from recovery.

Long term trends and the coronavirus

Predictions for a V-shaped recovery rest to a considerable degree on the belief that our current economic collapse was caused by state mandated business closures to battle the coronavirus which unsurprisingly choked off our long expansion.  Now that a growing number of states are ending their forced lockdowns it is only natural that the economy would resume growing.  Certainly, the stock market’s recent rise suggests that many investors agree. 

However, there are many reasons to challenge this upbeat story of impending recovery.  One of the most important is that the pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  For example, the manufacturing sector spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Another reason is that the downturn in economic activity that marks the start of our current recession predates lockdown orders.  It was driven by health concerns.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano explain in their New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

In some states that have already begun that process, like Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska, the same daily economic data shows only meager signs so far that businesses, workers and consumers have returned to their old routines.

Thus, while some rebound in economic growth is to be expected given the severity of the downturn to this point, it is unlikely that the May employment jump signals the start of a powerful economic recovery.  Weak underlying economic conditions and health worries remain significant obstacles.

In fact, even the optimistic US Congressional Budget Office predicts at best a long, slow recovery.  As Michael Roberts describes:

It now expects US nominal GDP to fall 14.2% in the first half of 2020, from the trend it forecast in January before the COVID-19 pandemic broke. Then it expects the various fiscal and monetary injections by the authorities and the end of the lockdowns to reduce this loss from the January figure to 9.4% by end 2020. The CBO still expects a sort of V-shaped recovery in US GDP in 2021 but does not expect the pre-pandemic crisis trend in US economic growth (already reduced in the Long Depression since 2009) to be reached until 2029 and may not even return to the previous trend growth forecast until after 2030! So there will be a permanent loss of 5.3% in nominal GDP compared to pre-COVID forecasts – $16trn in value lost forever. In real GDP terms, the loss will be about 3% cumulatively, or $8trn in 2019 money.  And this assumes no second wave in the pandemic and no financial collapse as companies go bust.

Depression level unemployment

Although President Trump has celebrated the May employment gains, the fact is we continue to suffer depression level unemployment.  The following figure from the Washington Post provides some historical perspective.  The current official unemployment rate of 13.3 percent is more than a third higher than the highest level of unemployment reached during the Great Recession. 

But even the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that because of the unique nature of the current crisis the official announced unemployment rate for each of the last three months is flawed.  The unemployment rate is based on household surveys.  For the past three months, in an attempt to better understand the impact of the coronavirus, interviewers were supposed to classify people not working because of the virus as “unemployed on temporary layoff.” However, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges, many of those people were incorrectly classified as “employed but absent at work,” which is the classification used when a person isn’t coming to work because of vacation, illness, bad weather, a labor dispute, or other reasons.  People in this latter category are not counted as unemployed.

The BLS has determined that correcting the classification error would boost the official April unemployment rate to 19.7 percent and the May rate to 16.3 percent.  And, it is important to note that this unemployment rate does not include those workers who have stopped looking for work and those who are involuntarily working part-time.  Including them would push the May rate close to 25 percent.  

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to President Trump, has stated that the May job numbers take “a lot of the wind out of the sails of any phase 4 [stimulus bill] — we don’t need it now. There’s no reason to have a major spending bill. The sense of urgent crisis is very greatly dissipated by the report.”  This is crazy.

Danger signs ahead

There are three reasons to fear that without substantial new federal action May employment gains will be short-lived. 

First, it has been relatively low-wage production and nonsupervisory workers who have suffered the greatest number of job losses.  That has left many businesses relatively top-heavy with managers and high-income professionals. A number of business analysts are now predicting a new wave of layoffs or firings of higher-income and management personal to bring staffing levels back into pre-coronavirus balance.

The following figure shows that almost 90 percent of the jobs lost from mid-February to mid-April were in the six lowest paid supersectors as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The May employment gains were also in these six sectors.

Economists with Bloomberg Economics are now warning of a second wave of job losses that will include “higher-paid supervisors in sectors where frontline workers were hit first, such as restaurants and hotels. It also includes the knock on-effects to connected industries such as professional services, finance and real estate.”

As Bloomberg explains:

The pandemic isn’t finished with the U.S. labor market, threatening a second wave of job cuts—this time among white-collar workers. . . .

For the analysis, [Bloomberg Economics economists] looked at job losses by sector in March and April—with affected industries dominated by blue-collar, hospitality and production workers—and determined how those layoffs would move to supervisory positions, since management cuts tend to lag the frontline workers.

The economists then took government data on relations between industries to compute the ones most reliant on demand from the most-affected sectors. Combining that information with the hit to employment in the most affected sectors they extrapolated to other jobs at risk, most of which were higher-skilled, white-collar roles.

The second reason to downplay the significance of the May employment gains is that critically important stimulus measures–in particular the one-time grant of $1200 for individuals and the $600 a week additional unemployment benefit (which expires at the end of July)–appear unlikely to be renewed.  If that boost to earnings is withdrawn, economic demand and employment will likely fall again.

As Ben Casselman, writing in the New York Times, points out:

Research routinely finds that unemployment insurance is one of the most effective parts of the safety net, both in cushioning the effects of job loss on families and in lifting the economy. In economists’ parlance, the program is “well targeted” — it goes to people who need the money and who will spend it. Various studies have found that in the last recession, the system helped prevent 1.4 million foreclosures, saved two million jobs and kept five million people out of poverty.

The impact could be greater in this crisis because the program is reaching more people and giving them more money. The government paid $48 billion in benefits in April and has reached $86 billion in May, according to the Treasury Department.

As the following figure shows, almost all workers have suffered significant declines in employment income with low income workers taking the biggest hit.

Yet, the increase in food insecurity has been relatively small, especially for low income workers.

It is, as highlighted in the next figure, the massive individual benefit boosts included in the March stimulus package that has so far kept the decline in employment income from translating into dramatic spikes in food insecurity. If Congress refuses to pass a new stimulus that includes direct aid to the unemployed, the odds are great that the economic recovery will stall and unemployment will grow again.

The last reason for pessimism is the likely further contraction in state and local government spending and, by extension, employment and services, as a result of declining revenue.  State and local government employment fell by 1 million from February to April, and by an additional 600 million in May.  Looking just at state budgets, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a shortfall in state budgets of $765 billion over fiscal years 2020-22, “much deeper than in the Great Recession of about a decade ago” (see the figure below).

And unfortunately, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also notes, the federal government has, up to now, been unwilling to do much to help state governments manage their ballooning deficits:

Federal aid that policymakers provided in earlier COVID-19 packages isn’t nearly enough. Only about $65 billion is readily available to narrow state budget shortfalls. Treasury Department guidance now says that states may use some of the aid in the CARES Act of March to cover payroll costs for public safety and public health workers, but it’s unclear how much of state shortfalls that might cover; existing aid likely won’t cover much more than $100 billion of state shortfalls, leaving nearly $665 billion unaddressed. States hold $75 billion in their rainy-day funds, a historically high amount but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenge they face. And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that still leaves them about $600 billion short.

States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without substantial federal help during this crisis, they very likely will deeply cut areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in large numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses. . . . That would worsen the recession, delay the recovery, and further harm families and communities.

Without a new stimulus measure that also includes support for state and local governments, their forced reduction in spending and cuts in employment can only add to the existing pressures working against recovery.

In sum, the crisis is real.  A new stimulus that included a renewal of special unemployment payments as well as direct support for state and local governments and other critical services like the postal service could help stabilize the economy.  But real progress will require a major effort on the part of the federal government to ensure adequate production of COVID-19 test kits and PPE as well as nationwide testing and contact tracing programs and then, most importantly, a fundamental reorganization of our economy.

The 1930s and Now: Looking Back to Move Forward

My article What the New Deal Can Teach Us About Winning a Green New Deal is in the latest issue of the journal Class, Race and Corporate Power.  As I say in the abstract,

While there are great differences between the crises and political movements and possibilities of the 1930s and now, there are also important lessons that can be learned from the efforts of activists to build mass movements for social transformation during the Great Depression. My aim in this paper is to illuminate the challenges faced and choices made by these activists and draw out some of the relevant lessons for contemporary activists seeking to advance a Green New Deal.

Advocates of a Green New Deal often point to the New Deal and its government programs to demonstrate the possibility of a progressive state-directed process of economic change.  I wrote my article to show that the New Deal was a response to growing mass activity that threatened the legitimacy and stability of the existing economic and political order rather than elite good-will, and to examine the movement building process that generated that activity.

Depression-era activists were forced to organize in a period of economic crisis, mass unemployment and desperation, and state intransigence. While they fell short of achieving their goal of social transformation, they did build a movement of the unemployed and spark a wave of militant labor activism that was powerful enough to force state policy-makers to embrace significant, although limited, social reforms, including the creation of programs of public employment and systems of social security and unemployment insurance.

Differences between that time period and this one are shrinking and the lessons we can learn from studying the organizing strategies and tactics of those activists are becoming ever more relevant.  The US economy is now in a deep recession, one that will be more devastating than the Great Recession.  US GDP shrank at a 4.8 percent annualized rate in the first quarter of this year and will likely contract at a far greater 25 percent annualized rate in the second quarter.  While most analysts believe the economy will begin growing again in the third quarter, their predictions are for an overall yearly decline in the 6-8 percent range.   As for the years ahead—no one can really say.  The Economist, for example, is talking about a 90 percent economy for years after the current lockdown ends.  In other words, life will remain hard for most working people for some time.

Not surprisingly, given the size of the economic contraction, unemployment has also exploded. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “In the past six weeks, nearly 28 million, or one in six, workers applied for unemployment insurance benefits across the country.”  More than a quarter of the workforce in the following states have filed for benefits: Hawaii, Kentucky, Georgia, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Nevada.  And tragically, millions of other workers have been prevented from applying because of outdated state computer systems and punitive regulations as well as overworked employment department staff.  Even at its best, the US unemployment system, established in 1935 as part of the New Deal reforms, was problematic, paying too little, for too short a time period, and with too many eligibility restrictions.  Now, it is collapsing under the weight of the crisis.

Yet, at the same time, worker organizing and militancy is growing. Payday Report has a strike tracker that has already identified over 150 strikes, walkouts, and sickouts since early March across a range of sectors and industries, including retail, fast food, food processing, warehousing, manufacturing, public sector, health care, and the gig economy.  As an Associated Press story points out:

Across the country, the unexpected front-line workers of the pandemic — grocery store workers, Instacart shoppers and Uber drivers, among them — are taking action to protect themselves. Rolling job actions have raced through what’s left of the economy, including Pittsburgh sanitation workers who walked off their jobs in the first weeks of lockdown and dozens of fast-food workers in California who left restaurants last week to perform socially distant protests in their cars.

Rather than defending workers, governments are now becoming directly involved in suppressing their struggles. For example, after meatpacker walkouts closed at least 22 meat plans and threatened the operation of many others, triggered by an alarming rise in the number of workers testing positive for the virus, President Trump signed an executive order requiring companies to remain open and fully staffed. It remains to be seen how workers will respond.  In Pennsylvania, the Governor responded to nurse walkouts at nursing homes and long-term care facilities to protest a lack of protective equipment by sending national guard members to replace them.

Activists throughout the country are now creatively exploring ways to support those struggling to survive the loss of employment and those engaged in workplace actions to defend their health and well-being.  Many are also seeking ways to weave the many struggles and current expressions of social solidarity together into a mass movement for radical transformation.  Despite important differences in political and economic conditions, activists today are increasingly confronting challenges that are similar to ones faced by activists in the 1930s and there is much we can learn from a critical examination of their efforts.  My article highlights what I believe are some of the most important lessons.