Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Unemployment

US Workers And Their Decades Of Lost Earnings

It happened gradually, but thanks to the US media, economic news has largely been reduced to stock market reporting.  Want to know how the economy is doing?  Check the S&P 500 Index.  Want to know whether the latest Trump proposal is good or bad?  Check the S&P 500 Index.

And perhaps even more amazingly, the media has also transformed the stock market into a new superhero.  In good times it roars or soars.  In bad time it weathers the storm, regroups, and battles back to defend our collective well-being.

Somehow real economic processes and even more importantly the actual economic well-being of people has largely been shoved to the background.  Largely lost from view is the fact that most workers have suffered lost decades of earnings.

The Stock Market

As we see below the stock market, represented by the S&P 500, has enjoyed quite a run over the last few decades.

Left out of the celebration is the fact that few Americans own stock; in fact more than half of all US households own no stock at all, even indirectly through pension plans or mutual funds.

According to NYU economist Edward N. Wolff, as shown below, the wealthiest 10 percent of US households owned 84 percent of all stocks, by value, in 2016.  That is up from 77 percent in 2001.  By contrast, the bottom 60 percent of households owned just 1.8 percent of total stock value.

As the Washington Post explains:

For the top 20 percent of households, the day-to-day movements of the Dow Jones reflect real changes in their net worth and financial health. Big shifts in the market might mean the difference between retiring today and retiring five years from now, or between buying that bungalow right on the beach and buying the one a few blocks away.

But for many of the remaining 80 percent of American families, who collectively own less than 7 percent of the stock market even when you factor in their retirement accounts, the Dow and the S&P 500 are little more than numeric abstractions.

Lost Decades

The stock market’s rise and our growing identification with it tends to hide what is really happening to people.  Here, at a ground level, the sad reality is that most workers have experienced lost decades of earnings.

The chart below, taken from an analysis by Jill Mislinski for Advisor Perspectives, shows the real average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees in the private sector, a category that includes close to 85 percent of all private sector employees.  As we can see, real average hourly earnings in January 2018 are about what they were in 1978, four decades earlier, and considerably below their 1973 peak, and that is after a sustained rise.  A lot of income was lost over that period.

The loss of income is even greater when we take into account the gradual, long term decline in average weekly hours, illustrated next.

Putting the two series together gives us the trend in average real weekly earnings.  As we can see, despite decades of growth in the economy and stock market, real average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees have a long way to go to compensate for decades of decline and stagnation.

Jill Mislinksi offers the following perspective on this trend in average weekly earnings:

If we multiply the hypothetical weekly earnings by 50, we get an annual figure of $37,531. That’s a 13.5% decline from the similarly calculated real peak in October 1972. In the charts above, we’ve highlighted the presidencies during this time frame. Our purpose is not necessarily to suggest political responsibility, but rather to offer some food for thought. We will point out that the so-called supply-side economics popularized during the Reagan administration (aka “trickle-down” economics), wasn’t very friendly to production and nonsupervisory employees.


One small way we can help speed needed change is to challenge the media embrace of the stock market as our representative economic indicator and demand that economic reporting focus on meaningful realities for the great majority.


Taxes, Inequality, And Class Power

No doubt about it, the recently passed tax bill is terrible for working people.  But as Lance Taylor states in a blog post titled “Why Stopping Tax ‘Reform’ Won’t Stop Inequality”: “Inequality isn’t driven by taxes—its driven by the power of capital in relation to workers.”  Said differently we need to concentrate our efforts on shifting the balance of class power.  And that means, among other things, putting more of our energy into workplace organizing and revitalizing the trade union movement.

The rich really are different

Taylor uses the Palma ratio to highlight the growth of income inequality.  The measure, proposed by the Cambridge University economist Jose Gabriel Palma, is defined as the ratio of the average income of a wealthy group relative to the average income of a poorer group.  Taylor calculates Palma ratios “for the top one percent vs. households between the 61st and 99th percentiles of the size distribution (the ‘middle class’) and the sixty percent at the bottom.”

The first figure looks at Palma ratios for pre-tax income.  The second figure uses disposable or after-tax income.

In both figures we see growing ratios, which means that the top 1 percent is increasing its income faster than the other two groups, although the gains are not quite as large in the case of after-tax income, suggesting that taxes and transfers do make a small but real difference.

Be that as it may, the ratio of the top group’s after-tax income relative to Taylor’s middle group grew 3.85 percent per year over the period 1986 to 2014, while the ratio with the bottom group grew 3.54 percent a year.  As Taylor comments, “Such rising inequality is unprecedented. These rates are a full percentage point higher than output growth, and are not sustainable in the long run.”

What is also noteworthy is that the Palma growth rates for both the middle and bottom groups are quite close.  This is important because it shows that inequality is largely driven by the top earners pulling income from the rest of the population, rather than a widening income gap between Taylor’s middle and bottom groups.

An IMF study of the relationship between income inequality and labor market institutions in twenty developed capitalist countries over the period 1980 to 2011 came to a similar conclusion, although it focused on the top 10 percent rather than the top 1 percent. As Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitro, the authors of the study, explain (and illustrate in the figure below):

As with measures of income inequality, changes in the distribution of earnings indicate that inequality has risen owing largely to a concentration of earnings at the top of the distribution. Gross earnings differentials between the 9th and 5th deciles of the distribution have increased over four times as much as the differential between the 5th and 1st deciles. Moreover, data from the Luxembourg Income Survey on net income shares indicate that income shares of the top 10 percent earners have increased at the expense of all other income groups. While there is some country heterogeneity, the increase in top income shares since the 1980s appears to be a pervasive phenomenon.  

Class power counts

As we can see in the first figure above, rich households, with a mean income of greater than $2 million a year, have “40 times the income of the bottom 60 percent and 13.5 times payments going to the middle class.” In the figure below, Taylor illustrates the source of that income.  One way or another, he finds that it comes from capital ownership and profits.

As we can see, labor compensation has grown rapidly over the last few years, and now exceeds $500,000 per year.  Still, it represents only roughly nine percent of the total, significantly less than either of the other two main income categories, proprietor’s income and interest and dividends.  Proprietor’s income, interest and dividends, and capital gains all flow from ownership.  So, in fact, does an important share of labor compensation which includes bonuses and stock options.

As Taylor explains:

Given that the bulk of income of the top one percent comes from profits through one channel or another, the obvious inference is that the rising Palma ratios in Figure 1 were fueled by an ongoing shift away from wages in the “functional” income distribution between labor and capital.

The question is why wages of ordinary households lagged.

After examining patterns and trends in business profits, Taylor concludes that the primary answer lies in the ability of firms to hold down wages.  Among the reasons for their success:

Changes in institutional norms (laws, unionization and other of the game) surely played a role. Robert Solow (2015) from MIT, the doyen of mainstream macroeconomics, observes that labor suffered for reasons including “the decay of unions and collective bargaining, the explicit hardening of business attitudes, the popularity of right-to-work laws, and the fact that the wage lag seems to have begun at about the same time as the Reagan presidency all point in the same direction: the share of wages in national value added may have fallen because the social bargaining power of labor has diminished.”

Divide-and-rule in a “fissuring” labor market, as described by David Weil (2014) is one aspect of this process. Globalization, which came to the forefront in the 2016 Presidential election, also played a role.

The IMF study again provides support for this conclusion. A simple correlation test of the relationship between labor market institutions and inequality produced “a strong negative relation between the top 10 percent income share and union density.”  Econometric tests that attempted to control for technology, globalization, financialization, tax rates and a host of other variables confirmed the relationship.  As the authors explain:

Our benchmark estimates of gross income inequality indicate that the weakening of unions is related to increases in the top 10 percent income share. A 10 percentage point decline in union density is associated with a 5 percent increase in the top 10 percent income share. The relation between union density and the Gini of gross income is also negative and significant.

On average, the decline in union density explains about 40 percent of the 5 percentage point increase in the top 10 percent income share . . . . By contrast, the decline in unionization contributes more modestly to the rise of the gross income Gini, reflecting the somewhat weaker relation between these variables. However, about half of the increase in the Gini of net income is explained by the decline in union density, evidencing the additional and statistically significant relation between this institution and redistribution. The decline in union density was a widespread phenomenon which, as our estimation results suggest, could be an important contributing factor to the rise in top income shares.

The takeaway

Taylor doesn’t minimize the significance of the ongoing tax changes.  But as he states:

it took 30 or 40 years for the present distributional mess to emerge. It may well take a similar span of time to clean it up.  Progressive tax changes of $100 billion here or $50 billion there are not going to impact overall inequality. The same is true of once-off interventions such as raising the minimum wage by a few dollars per hour.

Long-term improvement requires changes to the present situation that can cumulate over time.

And that requires rebuilding labor’s strength so as to secure meaningful wage increases and a transformation in economic institutions and dynamics.  As the IMF study makes clear, fighting for strong unions must be an important part of the process.

Tax Cuts: Its All About Capitalism

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

Proposed tax changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Recession On The Horizon

According to Bloomberg News, analysts at a number of major financial institutions see “mounting evidence” that a recession is not too far away.

In a way, their assessment is not surprising.  The current expansion, which started in June 2009, is now 99 months long, making it the third longest expansion in US history. Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  It is likely that this expansion will pass the 1960s expansion in length but fall short of the record.

Warning signs

The financial analysts cited by Bloomberg News did not base their warnings simply on longevity.  Rather it was the behavior of corporate profits, more specifically their downward trend, that concerned them.  Historically, expansions have come to an end because declining profits cause corporations to slash investment spending, which leads to a decline in employment and eventually consumption, and finally recession.

As the Bloomberg article explains, “The gross value-added of non-financial companies after inflation — a measure of the value of goods after adjusting for the costs of production — is now negative on a year-on-year basis.”  As an analyst for Oxford Economics Ltd. concludes, “The cycle of real corporate profits has turned enough to be a potential source of concern in the next four quarters.”

Real gross corporate value added is a proxy for profits.  Its recent decline, as shown in the figure above, means that corporate profitability is falling over time.  As long as it remained positive (the red line was above zero), corporate profits were continuing to grow, just not as fast as they did in the previous year. However, it has now become negative, which means that total profits are actually falling.  And, as we can see, whenever this happened in the past, a recession soon followed.

The primary reason recessions follow a decline in profits is that investment decisions are very sensitive to changes in profit. A decline in profit tends to produce a much larger decline in investment, leading to recession.  The investment connection to recession is is well illustrated in the following figure, taken from a blog post by the economist Michael Roberts. It shows the change in personal consumption and investment one year before the start of a recession.  As we can see, it is the decline in investment that leads the downturn, and the decline takes place more often than not while consumption is still growing.

The Bloomberg article highlights other studies that come to the same conclusion about the direction of profits and the growing likelihood of recession.  For example, as illustrated below, “The U.S. is in the mature stage of the cycle — 80 percent of completion since the last trough — based on margin patterns going back to the 1950s, according to Societe Generale SA.”

As we can see, the decline in profit margins in the current expansion mirrors the decline during other expansions as they neared their end.  It certainly appears that time is running out for this expansion.

Further evidence comes from the recent reduction in corporate buybacks. As the economist William Lazonick explains:

Buybacks have come to define the “investment” strategies of many of America’s biggest businesses. Figure 1 [below] shows net equity issues of U.S. corporations from 1946 to 2014. Net equity issues are new corporate stock issues minus outstanding stock retired through stock repurchases and M&A activity. Since the mid-1980s, in aggregate, corporations have funded the stock market rather than vice versa (as is conventionally assumed).  Over the decade 2005-2014 net equity issues of nonfinancial corporations averaged minus $399 billion per year.

In other words, corporations have been major players in the stock market, buying and retiring stock in order to drive up stock prices.  The process has, by design, enriched the top end of the income distribution.  It also helped to boost consumption spending, and by extension the expansion.  However, this corporate promotion of stock prices appears to have come to an end.  As a Fortune Magazine article reports:

The great stock buyback boom may be on the wane, undermined by falling company earnings.

U.S. company stock buybacks are down 21% in the first seven months of 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to TrimTabs Investment Research, a fall driven in part by five consecutive quarters of year-over-year earnings declines among S&P 500 stocks.

Buybacks, which cancel shares and thus increase per-share earnings, have played a crucial role in supporting the stock market since the financial crisis, flattering earnings even for companies with static or falling revenues.

They, along with dividends, return cash to shareholders, a process often facilitated by borrowed money.

A decline in market values can thus be expected, adding further downward pressure on economic activity.

Social consequences

The business cycle is an inherent feature of capitalist economies and the US economy has experienced many ups and downs. But expansions and recessions do not balance out, leaving the economy on a stable long-term economic trajectory. Unfortunately, while recent cycles have greatly enriched those at the top, working people have generally experienced deteriorating living and working conditions.  The trend in job creation is one example.

The employment to population ratio is a commonly used measure of employment.  It is calculated by dividing the number of people employed by the total working-age population.  The figure below, from a report by the Chicago Political Economy Group, shows the relative employment or job creation strength of each post-World War II expansion.

As we can see, the November 2001 expansion ended without restoring the pre-recession employment to population ratio. The ratio was 2.48 percent below where it had been prior to the recession’s start.  That means the expansion was not strong enough or structured properly to ensure adequate job creation.  And, despite its length, the current expansion’s employment to population ratio remains nearly 5 percent below that lower starting point.  Moreover, this employment measure doesn’t take into account that a growing share of the jobs created during this expansion are low-paying and precarious.


In sum, there are strong reasons to expect a recession within the next year or so.  And it will likely hit an increasingly vulnerable working class hard.  Given trends, where the good times seem to pass most people by and the bad times punish those who gained the least the most, the need for a radical transformation of our economy seems clear.

Americans At Work: Not A Pretty Picture

What is work like for Americans?  The results of the Rand Corporation’s American Working Conditions Survey (AWCS) paint a troubling picture.

As the authors write in their summary:

The AWCS findings indicate that the American workplace is very physically and emotionally taxing, both for workers themselves and their families. Most Americans (two-thirds) frequently work at high speeds or under tight deadlines, and one in four perceives that they have too little time to do their job. More than one-half of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions, and nearly one in five American workers are exposed to a hostile or threatening social environment at work.

The authors do note more positive findings.  These include:

that workers appear to have a certain degree of autonomy, most feel confident about their skill set, and many receive social support on the job. Four out of five American workers report that their job met at least one definition of “meaningful” always or most of the time.

The findings

As the Survey’s introductory chapter points out, despite the importance of work to our emotional and physical well-being, social relations, and the development of our capacities to shape our world, little has been published about our experience of work:

Most Americans between the ages of 25 and 71 spend most of their available time in a given day, week, or year working. The characteristics of jobs and workplaces—including wages, hours worked, and benefits, as well as the physical demands and risk of injury, the pace of work, the degree of autonomy, prospects for advancement, and the social work environment, to name a few—are important determinants of American workers’ well-being. Some of these job characteristics also affect workers’ social and family lives. Beyond that, job attributes can affect individual workers’ productivity—and, thus, the well-being of their coworkers, their employer, and the economy at large.

Given the potential importance of working conditions, it is surprising that there is little systematic, representative, and publicly available data about the characteristics of American jobs today.

Here, then, is a more detailed look at some of the Survey’s findings:

The Hazardous Workplace

More specifically, the survey revealed that:

American workers are subject to substantial physical demands in the workplace. One-half of men and one-third of women have a job that involves lifting or moving people or carrying or moving heavy loads one-quarter of the time or more frequently. Forty-six percent of men and 35 percent of women have jobs involving tiring or painful positions one quarter of the time or more. Thirty-eight percent of men and 30 percent of women work in jobs that involve standing all or almost all the time. . . . Overall, these patterns indicate that an overwhelming fraction of Americans engage in intense physical exertion on the job—67 percent of men and 54 percent of women report at least one of the three intense physical demand measures (moving heavy loads or people, tiring or painful positions, and prolonged standing). . . .

In addition to physical demands, more than one-half of American workers (55 percent) are exposed to unpleasant or potentially dangerous working conditions. Sixty two percent of men and 46 percent of women are exposed to vibrations (from hand tools or machinery); loud noise (defined as “Noise so loud that you would have to raise your voice to talk to people”); extreme temperatures (high or low); smoke, fumes, powder, dust, or vapors (including tobacco smoke); or chemical products or infectious materials one-quarter of the time or more at work. The next–most-common exposures for men are noise (39 percent); breathing in smoke, fumes, powder, dust, or vapors (17 percent); and vibrations (9 percent). Overall, results show that an important fraction of Americans report exposure to unpleasant and potentially hazardous working conditions.

The Pressures of Work

The survey found that:

Approximately two-thirds of Americans have jobs that involve working at very high speed at least half the time; the same fraction works to tight deadlines at least half the time. The overlap is high, with 56 percent working in jobs that involve both working at high speed and to tight deadlines half the time or more. There are no significant gender differences in working at high speed or working to tight deadlines

The Long Work Day

According to the survey:

While presence at the work place during business hours is required for most Americans, many take work home. About one-half of American workers do some work in their free time to meet work demands. Approximately one in ten workers report working in their free time “nearly every day” over the last month, two in ten workers report working in their free time “once or twice a week,” and two in ten workers report working in their free time “once or twice a month.”

The Work Environment

The survey found that:

Nearly one in five American workers were subjected to some form of verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats, or humiliating behavior at work in the past month or to physical violence, bullying or harassment, or sexual harassment at work in the past 12 months. Among men, the most common adverse events were verbal abuse and threats (13 percent in the past month), humiliating behavior (10 percent in the past month), bullying or harassment (9 percent in the past year), physical violence (2 percent in the past year), and unwanted sexual attention (1 percent in the past month). Among women, the most common adverse events were verbal abuse and threats (12.1 percent in the past month), bullying or harassment (11 percent in the past year), humiliating behavior (8 percent in the past month), unwanted sexual attention (5 percent in the past month), and physical violence (1 percent in the past year).

At the same time, it is also true that:

While the workplace is a source of hostile social experiences for an important fraction of American workers, it is a source of supportive social experiences for many others. More than one-half of American workers agreed with the statement “I have very good friends at work,” with women more likely to report having very good friends at work than men (61 and 53 percent, respectively).


In sum, the survey’s results make clear that work in the United States is physically and emotionally demanding and dangerous for many workers. And with the government weakening many of the labor and employment regulations designed to protect worker rights and safety, it is likely that workplace conditions will worsen.

Worker organizing and workplace struggles for change need to be encouraged and supported. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed growing support for unions, especially among younger workers.  It is not hard to understand why.

False Promises: Trump And The Revitalization Of The US Economy

President Trump likes to talk up his success in promoting the reindustrialization of the United States and the return of good manufacturing jobs.  But there is little reason to take his talk seriously.

Microsoft closes shop

For example, as reported in a recent article in the Oregonian, Microsoft just decided to close its two year old Wilsonville factory, where it built its giant touch-screen computer, the Surface Hub.  As the article explains :

Just two years ago, Microsoft cast its Wilsonville factory as the harbinger of a new era in American technology manufacturing.

The tech giant stamped, “Manufactured in Portland, OR, USA” on each Surface Hub it made there. It invited The New York Times and Fast Company magazine to tour the plant in 2015, then hired more than 100 people to make the enormous, $22,000 touch-screen computer. . . .

“We looked at the economics of East Asia and electronics manufacturing,” Microsoft vice president Michael Angiulo told Fast Company in a fawning 2015 article that heaped praise on the Surface Hub and Microsoft’s Wilsonville factory.

“When you go through the math, (offshoring) doesn’t pencil out,” Angiulo said. “It favors things that are small and easy to ship, where the development processes and tools are a commodity. The machines that it takes to do that lamination? Those only exist in Wilsonville. There’s one set of them, and we designed them.” . . .

But last week Microsoft summoned its Wilsonville employees to an early-morning meeting and announced it will close the factory and lay off 124 employees – nearly everyone at the site – plus dozens of contract workers. . . .

Even as President Donald Trump heralds “Made in America” week, high-tech manufacturing remains an endangered species across the United States. Oregon has lost more than 14,000 electronics manufacturing jobs since 2001, according to state data, more than a quarter of the total job base.

Microsoft is moving production of its Surface Hub to China, which is where it makes all its other Surface products.  Apparently, the combination of China’s low-cost labor and extensive supplier networks is an unbeatable combination for most high-tech firms.  In fact, the Oregonian article goes on to quote a Yale economist as saying:

“Re-shoring” stories like the tale Microsoft peddled in 2015 are little more than public relations fakery,” [providing] “lip services or window-dressing to please politicians and the general public.”

Foxconn says it is investing

But now we have another bigger and bolder re-shoring story: The Taiwanese multinational Foxconn has announced it will spend $10 billion to build a new factory somewhere in Wisconsin (likely in Paul Ryan’s district), where it will produce flat-panel display screens for televisions and other consumer electronics.

As reported in the press, Foxconn is pledging to create 13,000 jobs in six years—but only 3000 at the start.  In return, the state of Wisconsin is offering the company $3 billion in subsidies.

According to the Trump administration, this is a sign that its efforts to bring back good manufacturing jobs is working.  The Guardian quotes a senior administration official “who said the announcement was ‘meaningful,’ because ‘it [represents] a milestone in bringing back advanced manufacturing, specifically in the electronics sector, to the United States.’”  President Trump followed with “If I didn’t get elected, [Foxconn] definitely would not be spending $10bn.”

However, there are warning signs.  For example, as an article in the Cap Times points out, Foxconn doesn’t always follow through on its promises:

  • Foxconn promised a $30 million factory employing 500 workers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2013. The plant was never built, not a single job was created.
  • That same year, the company signed a letter of intent to invest up to $1 billion in Indonesia. Nothing came of it.
  • Foxconn announced it would invest $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs over five years in India as part of an ambitious expansion in 2014. The investment amounted to a small fraction of that, according to The Washington Post’s Todd Frankel.
  • Foxconn committed to a $5 billion investment in Vietnam in 2007, and $10 billion in Brazil in 2011. The company made its first major foray in Vietnam only last year. In Brazil, Foxconn has an iPhone factory, but its investment has fallen far short of promises.
  • Foxconn recently laid off 60,000 workers, more than 50 percent of its workforce at its IPhone 6 factory in Kushan, China, replacing them with robots that Foxconn produces.

In fact, even the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau is worried that the state may be overselling the deal, promising billions for very little.  As a Verge article reported:

Wisconsin’s plan to treat Foxconn to $3 billion in tax breaks in exchange for a $10 billion factory is looking less and less like a good deal for the state. In a report issued this week, Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau said that the state wouldn’t break even on its investment until 2043 — and that’s in an absolute best-case scenario.

How many workers Foxconn actually hires, and where Foxconn hires them from, would have a significant impact on when the state’s investment pays off, the report says.

The current analysis assumes that “all of the construction-period and ongoing jobs associated with the project would be filled by Wisconsin residents.” But the report says it’s likely that some positions would go to Illinois residents, because the factory would be located so close to the border. That would lower tax revenue and delay when the state breaks even.

And that’s still assuming that Foxconn actually creates the 13,000 jobs it claimed it might create, at the average wage — just shy of $54,000 — it promised to create them at. In fact, the plant is only expected to start with 3,000 jobs; the 13,000 figure is the maximum potential positions it could eventually offer. If the factory offers closer to 3,000 positions, the report notes, “the break-even point would be well past 2044-45.”

The authors of the report even seem somewhat skeptical of the best-case scenario happening. Foxconn is already investing heavily in automation, and there’s no guarantee it won’t do the same thing in Wisconsin. Nor is there any guarantee that Foxconn will remain such a manufacturing powerhouse. (Its current success relies heavily on the success of the iPhone.)

It is because of concerns like these, that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the state’s Senate Majority Leader has said he doesn’t yet have the votes to pass the tax package Governor Scott Walker has promised.

Forget the new trade deals

President Trump has also spoken often about his determination to revisit past trade deals and restructure them in order to strengthen the economy and boost manufacturing employment.  However, it is now clear that the agreement restructuring he has in mind is what he calls “modernization” and that translates into expanding the terms of existing agreements to cover new issues of interest to leading US multinational corporations.

As Inside US Trade explains:

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday said “the easiest issues” to be addressed in North American Free Trade Agreement modernization talks “should be” those that were not part of the existing agreement, which entered into force in 1994.

“The easiest ones will be the ones that weren’t contained in the original agreement because that’s new territory; that’s not anybody giving up anything,” Ross said at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Institute on May 31. “And by and large, those should be the easiest issues to get done.”

Ross added that those new issues are important “because one of our objectives will be to try to incorporate in NAFTA kind of basic principles that we would like to have followed in subsequent free-trade agreements, rather than starting each one with a blank sheet of paper.”

Among those issues — which he called “big holes” in the old agreement — he listed the digital economy, services, and financial services. . . .

Ross reiterated the administration’s stance that the “guiding principle is do no harm” in redoing NAFTA, while the second “rule of thumb” is to view concessions made by Mexico and Canada in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations “as sort of a starting point” for NAFTA talks.

Asked whether the administration has set itself up for “unrealistic aspirations” on NAFTA — promising to return to the U.S. jobs that the president has often claimed were lost due to the agreement with Mexico and Canada — Ross cautioned against viewing a retooled deal as a “silver bullet.”

In short, it is foolish and costly to believe the promises made to working people by leading corporations and the Trump administration.  Hopefully, growing numbers of people are getting wise to the game being played, making it easier for us to more effectively organize and advance our own interests.

The Popularity Of Unions Is Growing, Especially Among Younger People

The Pew Research Center recently surveyed Americans about their views of labor unions and corporations.

As the chart below shows, a growing percentage of Americans view both unions and corporations favorably.  The favorable rating for unions, at 60 percent, is near its 2001 high.  The favorable rating for corporations still remains significantly below its 2001 high.

Favorable ratings for corporations are no doubt boosted by the steady drumbeat of media celebrations of corporate leaders as American heroes and “job creators.”  Unions, on the other hand, rarely get positive press.  In fact, they are being attacked across most of the country by state legislators eager to curry corporate favor by passing new laws designed to weaken worker and unions rights.  Thus, it seems likely that their growing popularity is the result of a growing awareness that organized resistance is needed to reverse the decline in majority living and working conditions, and that unions are one of the most important instruments to help organize that resistance.

As we see next, there is broad support for unions.  Dividing the population by age, with the exception of those over 65 years of age, the favorable view of unions is greater than the favorable view of corporations.  The strong support by those 18-29 is especially striking; three out of four have a favorable view of labor unions.  Dividing the population by family income, only those with an income of $75,000 or more view corporations more favorably than unions.

Looking at political party registration shows that “Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more favorable toward labor unions than business corporations, while the inverse is true for Republicans and Republican leaners.”

However, while “There are no significant demographic differences among Democrats in views of labor unions, . . . Republicans are divided along age, educational and ideological lines.”  In particular, as we see below, among Republican and Republican leaners 18 to 49 years of age, the percent with a favorable view of unions is far greater than the percent with an unfavorable view.

In sum, the Pew survey points to the growth of an increasingly fertile environment for the rebirth of a strong union movement, especially among younger people.

Race and Ethnicity Discrimination in the US Labor Market

The US labor market, much like US society, is marked by discrimination.  The following charts, taken from two Economic Policy Institute blog posts, highlight some of the labor market consequences of racial and ethnic discrimination.

The following chart makes clear that Blacks suffer far higher rates of unemployment than do Whites, at all levels of educational achievement.  In fact, the Black unemployment rate for those with a BA and higher was identical to the White unemployment rate for those with some college but no degree, both at 3.7 percent in June 2017.  The chart also shows the general rise in unemployment since 2000.

The next chart illustrates how unemployment and underemployment rates differ by age and race/ethnicity.    The underemployment rate, officially known as the U-6 rate by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “includes not only unemployed workers but also those who are working part time because they can’t find full-time work (i.e., part time for economic reasons) and those who are marginally attached to the labor force.”

As we can see, while all young workers suffer high levels of unemployment and underemployment, the rates for Black youth (more than 1 in 4 underemployed) and Hispanic youth (approximately 1 in 5 underemployed) are significantly higher than for White youth.

These racial/ethnic differences mean that our general push for more and better jobs must be accompanied by policies designed to overcome the discriminatory and segmented nature of the US labor market.


Why Unions Matter

I write an occasional column for Street Roots, a wonderful Portland, Oregon weekly newspaper that is sold on the streets by homeless vendors, who keep 75 percent of the dollar cost of each Friday issue.

As the paper explains:

Street Roots creates income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty by producing a newspaper and other media that are catalysts for individual and social change.

In addition to income and an opportunity for meaningful street conversations, Street Roots also provides venders, who number in the hundreds, a safe place with “access to computers, a mailing address, hygiene items, socks, fresh water, coffee, and public restrooms.”  It also maintains “a vendor health fund to support vendors when they are sick or in an extreme crisis.”

The paper does outstanding reporting on local, national, and even international issues; it has 20,000 readers throughout the region.  Check it out.

Here is my latest piece, published June 9, 2017.

The attack on labor unions – and why they matter

Fewer workers are in unions now than in 1983, the earliest year in the Bureau of Labor Statistics series on union membership. In 1983 there were 17.7 million, 20.1 percent of the workforce. In 2016 the number had fallen to 14.6 million, or 10.7 percent of the workforce. While union membership rates in Oregon have been above the U.S. average, they have also followed the national trend, falling to 13.5 percent in 2016.

This decline in unionization is largely the result of a sustained corporate directed and, in many ways, government-aided attack on unions. Its success is one important reason why corporate profits have soared and most people have experienced deteriorating working and living conditions over the past decades.

Improving our quality of life will require rebuilding union strength. And, although rarely mentioned by the media, things are starting to happen in Portland. Over the last few years new unions were formed and/or new contracts signed by workers at our airport, zoo, K-12 public schools, colleges and universities, parks and recreation centers, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and office buildings.

The attack on unions 

Not long after President Reagan declared the 1981 air traffic controllers strike illegal and fired 11,000 air traffic controllers, corporations began illegally opposing union organizing efforts by aggressively firing union organizers.

According to studies based on NLRB records, the probability of a union activist being illegally fired during a union organizing campaign rose from about 10 percent in the 1970s to 27 percent over the first half of the 1980s. Since then it has remained around 20 percent. Illegal firings occurred in approximately 12 percent of all union election campaigns in the 1970s and in roughly one out of every three union election campaigns over the first half of the 1980s. They now occur in approximately 25 percent of all union election campaigns.

It is a violation of U.S. labor law for an employer to “interfere with, restrain or coerce” employees who seek to exercise their right to unionize. However, the law is so weak that many employers willingly disregard it and accept the consequences in order to stymie union organizing efforts.

Many companies also try to undermine union organizing campaigns by illegally threatening to shut down or move operations if workers vote to unionize. One mid-1990s study found that more than 50 percent of all private employers made such a threat. The acceleration of globalization in the following decades, thanks to government support, has made growing numbers of workers fearful of pursuing unionization, even without an explicit threat by management.

Although not the most important factor, unions also have some responsibility for their decline. Union leaders have often been reluctant to aggressively organize new sectors; encourage new leadership from people of color, women, and other marginalized groups; promote rank and file democracy in decision-making and organizing; and vigorously defend the rights of their members to live in healthy communities as well as work in safe workplaces.

Taking all this into account, it is no wonder that the share of workers in unions has declined.

The union difference 

The decline in union strength matters. Here are a few examples of what unions still deliver:

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the union wage premium – the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargaining contract, adjusted for workers’ education, age and other characteristics – is 13.6 percent overall.”

Unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.

Working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men, compared to non-union working women who receive only 78 cents on the dollar for every dollar paid to non-union working men. This union wage premium is significant for unionized working women regardless of race and ethnicity.

Looking just at Oregon, the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that “union representation boosts the wages of Oregon’s lowest paid workers by about 21 percent, while middle-wage workers enjoy an increase of about 17 percent. Even the highest paid workers benefit from unionizing, with a 6 percent increase to their wages.”

Studies also show that strong unions force non-union employers to lift up the wages and improve the working conditions of their own employees for fear of losing them or encouraging unionization.

More generally, unions provide workers with voice and the means to use their collective strength to gain job security and say over key aspects of their conditions of employment, including scheduling and safety. These gains are significant in our “employment at will” economy where, without a union, employers can fire a worker whenever they want and for whatever reason, subject to the weak protections afforded by our labor laws.

Why unions still matter 

Two widely respected labor economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the growth in the number of workers with 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 U.S. workers with such alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015. But their most startling finding was that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”

Large corporations are driving this explosion in irregular and precarious work by applying the same strategy here in the U.S. that they have long used in the third world. They are increasingly outsourcing to smaller non-unionized firms the jobs that were once done by their own in-house workers. This allows these large corporations to escape paying many of those who “work for them” the wages and benefits offered to their remaining employees. Instead, their salaries are paid by 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 smaller businesses operate in highly competitive markets, with substantially lower profit margins than the corporations they service, these outsourced workers now receive far lower salaries with few if any benefits and protections.

As the Wall Street Journal describes, “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.”

At most large firms, 20 percent to 50 percent of the total workforce is now outsourced. This includes big and profitable U.S. companies like Google, Bank of America, Verizon, Procter & Gamble and FedEx.

In sum, companies aren’t going to willingly offer us jobs that pay a living wage, provide opportunities for skill development, and afford the security necessary to plan for the future. We are going to have to fight for them. And the strength of unions will be critical in that effort. So, the next time you hear about a unionization campaign or union organized workplace action— support it. You will be helping yourself.

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.