What the New Deal can teach us about winning a Green New Deal: Part II—Movement Building

In Part I in this series on lessons to be learned from the New Deal, I described the enormous economic and social costs of the first years of the Great Depression and the reluctance of business and government leaders to pursue policies likely to threaten the status quo.  I did so to demonstrate that we should not assume that simply establishing the seriousness of our current multifaceted crisis, especially one that has yet to directly threaten capitalist profitability, will be enough to win elite consideration of a transformative Green New Deal.

I also argued that it was the growth of an increasingly militant political movement openly challenging the legitimacy of the police, courts, and other state institutions that finally transformed the national political environment and pushed Roosevelt to change course and introduce his early New Deal employment and relief programs.  In this post, I examine the driving force of this movement, the movement of unemployed.

The growth and effectiveness of the unemployed movement owes much to the organizing and strategic choices of the US Communist Party (CP).  While there is much to criticize about CP policies and activities, especially its sectarianism and aggressive antagonism towards other groups, there is also much we can learn about successful organizing from its work with the unemployed in the early years of the depression.

The party faced the challenge of building a mass movement powerful enough to force a change in government policy. Although its initial victory was limited, the policy breakthrough associated with the programs of the First New Deal led to new expectations and demands, culminating in Roosevelt’s adoption of far more extensive employment and relief policies as part of his Second New Deal, only two years later.

We face a similar challenge today; we need to build a mass movement capable of forcing the government to begin adopting policies that help advance a Green New Deal.  Therefore, it is well worth our time to study how party activists built a national organization of the unemployed that helped the unemployed see that their hard times were the result of structural rather than personal failure; encouraged local, collective, and direct action in defense of immediate shared basic needs; and connected local actions to a broader national campaign for government action.

The CP and the unemployed movement

The CP made its decision to organize the unemployed even before the start of the Great Depression.  In August 1929, two months before the stock market crash, the CP established the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) as an alternative to the AFL and called on that body to assist in the creation of a nation-wide organization of Unemployed Councils (UCs).

The CP was following the lead of the Communist International which had, in 1928, declared the start of the so-called Third Period, which was said to mark the beginning of capitalism’s terminal stage, and called on all communist parties to end their joint work with other organizations and prepare for the coming revolutionary struggle.  This stance meant that as unemployment exploded, those without work had the benefit of an existing organization to give them a voice and instrument of action.  Unfortunately, it also led to destructive attacks on other political tendencies and efforts to build organizations of the unemployed, thereby weakening the overall effort.

The CP’s first big effort directed towards the unemployed was the March 6, 1930 demonstrations against unemployment and for relief that drew some 500,000 people in twenty-five cities and was organized under the banner of “International Day for Struggle against Worldwide Unemployment.”  The New York City demonstration, the largest, was met by police repression, with many demonstrators beaten and arrested.  But another New York City protest by the unemployed in October produced a victory, with the city agreeing to boost relief spending by $1 million.  These actions created visibility for the CP’s fledgling national network of UCs and helped to build its membership.

The Unemployed Councils of the USA held its founding convention in early July.  The following month it issued a statement calling on Congress to adopt its “Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill.” The bill called for “payment of $35 per week for each unemployed worker plus an additional $5 per week per dependent and the creation of a ‘National Unemployment Insurance Fund’ to be generated through a tax on all property valued in excess of $25,000 and incomes of more than $5,000.” A new Workers’ Commission, to be elected by working people, was to control the distribution of funds.

To this point, the Unemployed Councils of the USA was dominated by the CP, and its general program and demands largely echoed those of the CP, often including foreign policy declarations expressing support for the Soviet Union.  However, in November, finally acknowledging that this dominance was limiting recruitment, the party agreed to give its organizers more independence and freedom to focus on the issues of most direct concern to the unemployed.  In the months that followed, “a wave of rent strikes, eviction fights, and hunger marches involving an estimated 250,000 workers in seventy-five cities and six states swept the country. The Unemployed Councils had become a force to be reckoned with.”

The party’s focus on building a confrontational movement operating both locally and nationally led it to reject a variety of other efforts embraced by some unemployed.  As Franklin Folsom describes:

Early in 1931, some leaders of Unemployed Councils had recommended setting up food kitchens, and Communists helped organize food collections. These were humane acts of assistance to people who needed something to eat immediately. In a few months, however, both the Communists and the Unemployed Councils abandoned the idea, saying it had nothing to do with solving the basic problems of the unemployed.  Similarly, Communist and council policy on the subject of looting varied depending on time and place.  In the early days of mass unemployment some Communists encouraged the direct appropriation of food.  Later the practice was frowned on because it solved no long-term problem and could provoke very costly counteraction.

Many unemployed also turned to self-help activities to survive.  The so-called “productive enterprise” movement, in which unemployed workers sought to create their own enterprises to produce either for the market or barter, spread rapidly.  According to one study, by the end of 1932 this movement was active in thirty-seven states, with the largest group in California.  The CP and UCs opposed this effort from the start, calling it a self-starvation movement.

The organization and activity of the UCs

Most UCs were neighborhood centered, since the unemployed generally spent most of their time in the neighborhoods where they lived. The basic unit of the UC was the block committee, which comprised all unemployed local residents and their family members.  Each block committee elected delegates to a neighborhood unemployed council, and these councils, in turn, elected delegates to county or city unemployed councils.

The block committee office served as a social center, where the unemployed could gather and build relationships.  Through conversation and even more importantly action they were also able to develop a new radical understanding of the cause of their unemployment as well as appreciation for collective power.  As Steve Nelson, a leader of the Chicago UC movement, explained, it was important for the unemployed to “see that unemployment was not the result of their own or someone else’s mistake, that it was a worldwide phenomenon and a natural product of the system.” Thus, “unemployed agitation was as much education as direct action.”

With time on their hands, the unemployed were generally eager to act in defense of their neighbors, especially around housing and relief.  Here is Christine Ellis, a UC organizer, talking about what happened at one UC meeting in a black neighborhood on the west side of Chicago:

We spoke simply, explained the platform, the demands and activities of the unemployed council. And then we said, “Are there any questions?”…. Finally an elderly Black man stood up and said, “What you folks figure on doing about that colored family that was thrown out of their house today?… They’re still out there with their furniture on the sidewalk.” So the man with me said, “Very simple. We’ll adjourn the meeting, go over there, and put the furniture back in the house. After that, anyone wishing to join the unemployed council and build an organization to fight evictions, return to this hall and we’ll talk about it some more.” That’s what we did…everybody else pitched in, began to haul in every last bit of furniture, fix up the beds…and when that was all done, went back to the hall. The hall was jammed!

Carl Winder, another UC activist, describes the response of the councils in New York to attempted evictions for nonpayment of rent:

Squads of neighbors were organized to bar the way to the dispossessing offices.  Whole neighborhoods were frequently mobilized to take part in this mutual assistance.  Where superior police force prevailed, it became common practice for the Unemployed Councils to lead volunteer squads in carrying the displaced furniture and belongings back into the home after the police had departed.  Council organizers became adept in fashioning meter-jumps to restore disconnected electric service and gas.

Hosea Hudson, a UC activist in Alabama, tells how landlords in Birmingham would sometimes allow tenants to stay even without paying rent “because if they put a family out, the unemployed workers would wreck the house and take it away for fuel by night…. This was kind of a free-for-all, a share-the-wealth situation.”

No Work, No Rent! was the common chant at UC anti-eviction actions.  And because UCs were part of a national organization, successful strategies in one area were quickly shared with UCs in another, spurring new actions.  According to one account, UCs had practically stopped evictions in Detroit by March 1931.  It was estimated that in 1932, 77,000 New York City families were moved back into their homes by UCs.  At the same time, these were costly actions. The police would often arrest many of those involved as well as use force to end resistance, leading to serious injuries and in some cases deaths.

UCs also mobilized to help people who were turned down for relief assistance.  Normally, UC organizers would gather a large crowd outside the relief agency and send in an elected committee to demand a meeting to reverse the decision.  Here is Hosea Hudson again, explaining the approach of the Birmingham UC:

If someone get out of food and been down to the welfare two or three times and still ain’t got no grocery order…. We’d go to the house of the person that’s involved, the victim, let her tell her story. Then we’d ask all the people, “What do you all think could be done about it?” We wouldn’t just jump up and say what to do. We let the neighbors talk about it for a while, and then it would be some of us in the crowd, we going to say, “If the lady wants to go back down to the welfare, if she wants, I suggest we have a little committee to go with her and find out what the condition is.”

In New York, UC members would often organize sit-ins at the relief office and refuse to leave until the center reversed a negative decision.  Intimidated by the aggressive protests, local relief officials throughout the country increasingly gave ground and approved relief requests.

This kind of activism directly challenged business and elite claims that prosperity was just around the corner.  It also revealed a growing radical spark, as more and more people openly challenged the legitimacy of the police, the court system, and state institutions.

With demands for relief escalating, cash-strapped relief agencies began pressing city governments for additional funds.  But city budgets were also shrinking.    As Danny Lucia reports in his study of unemployed organizing, this was an explosive situation.  In 1932, with Chicago’s unemployment rate at 40 percent, “Mayor Anton Cermak told Congress to send $150 million today or federal troops in the future.”

Thus, the militancy of the unemployed movement was now pushing mayors and even some business leaders to also press for federal action.  This development served to amplify the UCs own state and national campaigns demanding direct job creation and a program of federal relief.  These campaigns, by design, also helped generate publicity and support for local UC actions.

For example, in January 1931, a gathering of the Unemployed Councils of America and the TUUL decided to launch a national petition drive aimed at forcing Congress to pass a Federal Unemployment Insurance bill.  The UCs then began door-to-door canvassing for signatures.  Approximately a month later a delegation of 140 people was sent to Washington DC to deliver the petition to Congress on National Unemployment Insurance Day.  Demonstrations in support of the petition, organized by UCs, were held in most major cities on the same day.

Not long after, the CP set up a new organization, the Unemployed Committee for the National Hunger March, to coordinate a national hunger march on Washington DC to demand federal unemployment insurance and “the granting of emergency winter relief for the unemployed in the form of a lump-sum payment of $150 per unemployed worker, with an additional $50 for each dependent” as well as “a 7-hour workday, establishment of a union wage pay scale for unemployed workers, payment of a soldiers’ bonus to veterans of World War I, and an end to discrimination against black American and foreign-born workers.”  Local conferences selected 1,670 delegates, who converged on Washington from four separate columns in December 1931.  Their trip across the country was supported by local UCs.

Not surprisingly, the delegates were denied entrance to the Capital to present their demands.  They stayed two days and then started back, holding mass meetings across the country on their return trip to talk about their demands and the need for mass action to win them.

Another National Hunger March took place the following year.  This time 3,000 delegates came to Washington DC to again present their demands for winter relief and unemployment insurance.  These marches not only helped to strengthen the movement of the unemployed, they also greatly increased the pressure on elected officials to take some action to restore popular confidence in the government.

Underpinning the strategic orientation of the work of the UCs was the CP’s determination to build solidarity between the labor movement and the unemployed and anti-racist unity.  The first is highlighted by struggles in Detroit, where most unemployment was the result of auto factory layoffs.  There, the UCs and the Young Communist League led several marches to auto plants to protest the inadequate benefits given to laid-off workers.  Organizers would also read statements aimed at the workers still employed in the plants, pledging that the unemployed would not scab if workers struck for improved conditions.

As for anti-racism work, the CP “made sure that all of its agitation in the unemployed councils included protests against racial discrimination by relief agencies, landlords, and local and federal government.  On a more individual level, the Communists’ emphasis on multiracial organizing created situations in which whites and Blacks worked together for a common purpose and created personal bonds.”

Other organizing efforts

The CP was not the only left organization working to build a movement of the unemployed.  Both the Socialist Party and the Conference of Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), led by A.J. Muste, also created unemployed organizations that mobilized hundreds of thousands of jobless workers in local and national protests.  The Socialist Party created affiliated committees in a number of cities, the largest in Chicago and New York.  These committees were, like the UCs, generally oriented towards direct action in response to local conditions but they also engaged in electoral efforts.

The CPLA organized a number of Unemployed Citizen Leagues (UCLs) following the model of the Seattle Unemployed Citizens League. Established in the summer of 1931, the Seattle UCL quickly grew to a membership of 80,000 by 1933.  The UCLs initially focused on self-help through barter and labor exchange.  For example, members of the Seattle league:

persuaded farmers to let them harvest the fruit and potatoes for which there was no market, and they borrowed trucks to transport this produce.  Women exchanged sewing for food.  Barbers cut hair for canned berries.  This practice of barter spread and was highly organized. . . . Some men collected firewood from cutover forested areas; in all, they cut, split, and hauled 11,000 cords.  The products of these labors were shared by UCL members.  Some members repaired houses or worked in shoe repair shops, while others did gardening.  There were also child welfare and legal aid projects in which lawyers contributed their services.

The UCLs were also active in local elections, supporting candidates and legislation in favor of extended relief aid and unemployment insurance.  However, after a few years, most abandoned their focus on self-help, finding that “the needs of the jobless greatly exceeded the ability of a mutual aid program to meet them,” and turned instead to more direct-action protests similar to those of the UCs.  Although the CPLA failed to develop a national presence, their leagues were important in the Midwest, especially Ohio.

The CP was hostile to these organizations and their organizing efforts. In line with their Third Period strategy, the CP considered them to be a danger to the movement they were trying to build and their leaders to be “social-fascists.”  Party opposition went beyond denouncing these groups.  UC activists were encouraged to undermine their work, sometimes by physical force, other times by infiltrating and disrupting their meetings. This sectarianism clearly weakened the overall strength of the unemployed movement.  At the same time, local UC activists would sometimes ignore CP and UC leadership directives and find ways to build solidarity around joint actions on behalf of the unemployed.

The unemployed were not the only group whose organizing threatened the status quo.  As Steve Fraser pointed out: “Farmers took to the fields and roads in shocking displays of lawlessness. All across the corn belt, rebels banded together to forcibly prevent evictions of fellow farmers.” The Farm Holiday Association, an organization of midwestern farmers founded in 1932, not only mobilized its members to resist evictions, it also supported a progressive income tax, federal relief for the urban unemployed, and federal government control of the banks.  “In the South, tenants and sharecroppers unionized and conducted what a Department of Labor study called a ‘miniature civil war.’”

Veterans also organized.  World War I veterans from around the country, many with their families, traveled to Washington DC in summer 1932.  The call for a national Bonus March, although made by a largely anti-communist leadership, was inspired by the CP organized First National Hunger March. The veterans had been promised a bonus to compensate for their low war-time pay, but the Congress had delayed payment until 1945.  The veterans wanted their money now and set-up camps near the Capitol to pressure Congress to act.  Their camps were destroyed and the veterans violently dispersed by troops led by Douglas McArthur and Dwight Eisenhower.

In short, the political trajectory was one that concerned a growing number of political and business leaders.  Working people, largely anchored by a left-promoted, mass-based movement of unemployed, were becoming increasingly militant and dismissive of establishment calls for patience.  Continued federal inaction was becoming ever more dangerous.  Recognizing the need for action to preserve existing structures of power, it took Roosevelt only three months to drop his commitment to balanced budget orthodoxy in favor of New Deal experimentation.

Lessons

The multifaceted crisis we face today is significantly different from the crisis activists faced in the first years of the Great Depression.  But there is no question that, much like then, we will need to build a powerful, mass-movement for change if we hope to harness state power to advance a Green New Deal.

The First New Deal was not the result of administration concerns over the economic and social costs of the Great Depression.  Rather, it was political pressure that forced Roosevelt to begin experimenting with programs responsive to the concerns of working people.  And, not surprisingly, these experiments were, as will be discussed in the next post in this series, quite limited. It took new organizing to push Roosevelt to implement more progressive programs as part of his Second New Deal.

There are also lessons to be learned from the period about movement building itself, specifically the CPs organizing and strategic choices in targeting the unemployed and building a national movement of the unemployed anchored by a network of UCs.   The UCs helped transform how people understood the cause of their hard times.  They also created a local, collective, and direct outlet for action in defense of immediate shared basic needs.  The CP also emphasized the importance of organizing those actions in ways designed to overcome important divisions among working people.  Finally, the party and the UCs created broader campaigns for public policies on the national level that were directly responsive to local concerns and actions. Thus, organizing helped create a momentum that built political awareness, leadership capacity, class unity, and national weight around demands for new public initiatives.

The call for a Green New Deal speaks to a variety of crises and the need for change in many different sectors, including food production, energy generation, transportation, manufacturing, social and physical infrastructure, housing, health care, and employment creation.  It also projects a vision of a new more sustainable, egalitarian, and democratic society.  While it would be a mistake to equate the organizing work in the early years of the depression, which focused on employment and relief, with what is required today given the multifaceted nature of our crisis, we would do well to keep the organizing experience highlighted above in mind as we seek to advance the movement building process needed to win a Green New Deal.  It offers important insights into some of the organizational and political challenges we can expect to face and helpful criteria for deciding how best to respond to them.

For example, it challenges us to think carefully about how to ensure that our organizing work both illuminates the roots of our current multifaceted crises, building anti-capitalist consciousness, and challenges existing racial, ethnic, and gender divisions, strengthening working class unity.  It also challenges us to think about how to ensure that that our efforts in different geographic areas and around different issues will connect to build a national presence and organizational form that strengthens and unites our various efforts and also projects our overall vision of a restructured society.  And it also challenges us to think about how we should engage the state itself, envisioning and preparing for the ways it can be expected to seek to undermine whatever reforms are won.

What the New Deal can teach us about winning a Green New Deal: Part I–Confronting Crisis

The New Deal has recently become a touchstone for many progressive efforts, illustrated by Bernie Sanders’ recent embrace of its aims and accomplishments and the popularity of calls for a Green New Deal.  The reasons are not hard to understand. Once again, growing numbers of people have come to the conclusion that our problems are too big to be solved by individual or local efforts alone, that they are structural and thus innovative and transformative state-led actions will be needed to solve them.

The New Deal was indeed a big deal and, given contemporary conditions, it is not surprising that people are looking back to that period for inspiration and hope that meaningful change is possible.  However, inspiration, while important, is not the same as seeking and drawing useful organizing and strategic lessons from a study of the dynamics of that period.

This is the first of a series of posts in which I will try to illuminate some of those lessons.  In this first post I start with the importance of crisis as a motivator of change.  What the experience of the Great Depression shows is that years of major economic decline and social devastation are not themselves sufficient to motivate business and government elites to pursue policies likely to threaten the status quo.  It was only after three and a half years of organizing had also created a political crisis, that the government began taking halting steps at serious change, marked by the policies associated with the First New Deal.  In terms of contemporary lessons, this history should serve to dispel any illusions that simply establishing the seriousness of our current multifaceted crisis will be enough to win elite consideration of a transformative Green New Deal.

The Great Depression

The US economy expanded rapidly throughout the 1920s, a period dubbed the Roaring Twenties. It was a time of rapid technological change, business consolidation, and wealth concentration.  It was also a decade when many traditional industries struggled, such as agriculture, textiles, coal, and shipbuilding, as did most of those who worked in them.  Growth was increasingly sustained by consumer demand underpinned by stock market speculation and debt.

The economy suffered a major downturn in 1920-21, and then mild recessions in 1924 and 1927.  And there were growing signs of the start of another recession in summer 1929, months before the October 1929 stock market collapse, which triggered the beginning of the Great Depression.  The collapse quickly led to the unraveling of the US economy.

The Dow Jones average dropped from 381 in September 1929 to forty-one at the start of 1932.  Manufacturing output fell by roughly 40 percent between 1929 and 1933.  The number of full-time workers at United States Steel went from 25,000 in 1929 to zero in 1933.  Five thousand banks failed over the same period.  Steve Frazer captured the extent and depth of the decline as follows: “In early 1933, thirty-six of forty key economic indicators had arrived at the lowest point they were to reach during the whole eleven grim years of the Great Depression.”

The resulting crisis hit working people hard.   Between 1930 and 1932, the number of unemployed grew from 3 million to 15 million, or approximately 25 percent of the workforce.  The unemployment rate for those outside the agricultural sector was close to 37 percent.  As Danny Lucia describes:

Workers who managed to hold onto their jobs faced increased exploitation and reduction in wages and hours, which made it harder for them to help out jobless family and friends. The social fabric of America was ripped by the crisis: One-quarter of children suffered malnutrition, birth rates dropped, suicide rates rose. Many families were torn apart. In New York City alone, 20,000 children were placed in institutions because their parents couldn’t support them. Homeless armies wandered the country on freight trains; one railroad official testified that the number of train-hoppers caught by his company ballooned from 14,000 in 1929 to 186,000 in 1931.

“Not altogether a bad thing”

Strikingly, despite the severity of the economic and social crisis, business leaders and the federal government were in no hurry to act.  There was certainly no support for any meaningful federal relief effort.  In fact, business leaders initially tended to downplay the seriousness of the crisis and were generally optimistic about a quick recovery.

As the authors of Who Built America (volume 2) noted:

when the business leaders who made up the National Economic League were asked in January 1930 what the country’s ‘paramount economic problems’ were, they listed first, ‘administration of justice,’ second, ‘Prohibition,” and third, ‘lawlessness.’ Unemployment was eighteenth on their list!

Some members of the Hoover administration tended to agree. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon thought the crisis was “not altogether a bad thing.”  “People,” he argued, “will work harder, live a more moral life.  Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”

President Hoover repeatedly stated that the economy was “on a sound and prosperous basis.”  The solution to the crisis, he believed, was to be found in restoring business confidence and that was best achieved through maintaining a balanced budget.  When it came to relief for those unemployed or in need, Hoover believed that the federal government’s main role was to encourage local government and private efforts, not initiate programs of its own.

At time of stock market crash, relief for the poor was primarily provided by private charities, which relied on donations from charitable and religious organizations.  Only 8 states had any type of unemployment insurance.  Not surprisingly, this system was inadequate to meet popular needs.  As the authors of Who Built America explained:

by 1931 most local governments and many private agencies were running out of money for relief.  Sometimes needy people were simply removed from the relief rolls.  According to one survey, in 1932 only about one-quarter of the jobless were receiving aid.  Many cities discriminated against nonwhites.  In Dallas and Houston, African-Americans and Mexican-Americans were denied any assistances.

It was not until January 1932 that Congress made its first move to strengthen the economy, establishing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to provide support to financial institutions, corporations, and railroads.  Six months later, in July, it approved the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which broadened the scope of the RFC, allowing it to provide loans to state and local governments for both public works and relief.  However, the Act was structured in ways that undermined its effectiveness. For example, the $322 million allocated for public works could only be used for projects that would generate revenue sufficient to pay back the loans, such as toll bridges and public housing.  The $300 million allocated for relief also had to be repaid.  Already worried about debt, many local governments refused to apply for the funds.

Finally, as 1932 came to a close, some business leaders began considering the desirability of a significant federal recovery program, but only for business.  Most of their suggestions were modeled on World War I programs and involved government-business partnerships designed to regulate and stabilize markets.  There was still no interest in any program involving sustained and direct federal relief to the millions needing jobs, food, and housing.

By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933, the economy, as noted above, had fallen to its lowest point of the entire depression.  Roosevelt had won the presidency promising “a new deal for the American people,” yet his first initiatives were very much in line with the policies of the previous administration. Two days after his inauguration he declared a national bank holiday, which shut down the entire banking system for four days and ended a month-long run on the banks. The “holiday” gave Congress time to approve a new law which empowered the Federal Reserve Board to supply unlimited currency to reopened banks, which reassured the public about the safety of their accounts.

Six days after his inauguration, Roosevelt, who had campaigned for the Presidency, in part, on a pledge to balance the federal budget, submitted legislation to Congress which would have cut $500 million from the $3.6 billion federal budget.  He proposed eliminating government agencies, reducing the pay of civilian and military federal workers (including members of Congress), and slashing veterans’ benefits by 50 percent.  Facing Congressional opposition, the final bill cut spending by “only” $243 million.

Lessons

It is striking that some 3 ½ years after the start of the Great Depression, despite the steep decline in economic activity and incredible pain and suffering felt by working people, business and government leaders were still not ready to support any serious federal program of economic restructuring or direct relief.  That history certainly suggests that even a deep economic and social crisis cannot be counted on to encourage elites to explore policies that might upset existing structures of production or relations of power, an important insight for those hoping that recognition of the seriousness of our current environmental crisis might encourage business or government receptivity to new transformative policies.

Of course, we do know that in May 1933 Roosevelt finally began introducing relief and job creation programs as part of his First New Deal.  And while many factors might have contributed to such a dramatic change in government policy, one of the most important was the growing movement of unemployed and their increasingly militant and collective action in defense of their interests.  Their activism was a clear refutation of business and elite claims that prosperity was just around the corner.  It also revealed a growing radical spark, as more and more people openly challenged the legitimacy of the police, courts, and other state institutions.  As a result, what was an economic and social crisis also became a political crisis.  As Adolf Berle, an important member of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” wrote, “we may have anything on our hands from a recovery to a revolution.”

In Part II, I will discuss the rise and strategic orientation of the unemployment movement, highlighting the ways it was able to transform the political environment and thus encourage government experimentation.  And I will attempt to draw out some of the lessons from this experience for our own contemporary movement building efforts.

The 1933 programs, although important for breaking new ground, were exceedingly modest.  And, as I will discuss in a future post, it was only the rejuvenated labor movement that pushed Roosevelt to implement significantly more labor friendly policies in the Second New Deal starting in 1935.  Another post will focus more directly on the development and range of New Deal policies in order to shed light on the forces driving state policy as well as the structural dynamics which tend to limit its progressive possibilities, topics of direct relevance to contemporary efforts to envision and advance a Green New Deal agenda.

Growing Old in America: Baby Boomer Nightmare

Despite its reputation as the wealthiest generation, baby boomers (generally considered to be those born between 1946 and 1964) are facing a retirement nightmare.  A 2016 St. Louis Federal Reserve study of the retirement readiness of U.S. families came to the same conclusion but put it more gently: “It could be worrisome that, for many American households, the total balances of their retirement accounts may not be sufficient to ensure a solid life in retirement.”

The investment industry, always ready to deflect blame, argues that the problem is the result of the fact that Americans just don’t save enough.  But even Barron’s, a sister publication of the Wall Street Journal that specializes in financial news, understands what is really happening.  As a recent article in the magazine points out:

Too few Americans are saving for retirement. Those who do save are putting away too little. It is only a matter of time before this sparks an economic and political crisis. . . .

But America’s retirement crisis wasn’t created because of character flaws or personal irresponsibility. Nor can it realistically be fixed by technocratic fixes.

The ugly, unspoken truth is that many people are just not earning enough money. They barely have enough to cover their daily expenses; they don’t have enough left over to be able to save.

The promised golden years are out of reach for most boomers.

Baby boomers are moving rapidly towards retirement.  Those born in 1946 are now 73, those born in 1964 are now 55.  Despite being celebrated for their good economic fortune, especially in contrast to millennials, most boomers face a future that doesn’t include retirement with dignity or, in the words of the St. Louis Fed, a solid life.

Although labeled the wealthiest generation, a Stanford Center on Longevity examination of retirement preparedness found that “baby boomers are in a financially weaker position than earlier generations of retirees, in terms of home equity accumulation, financial wealth, and total wealth.”

The Stanford Center study divided the boomer generation into two groups, the early boomers (born 1948-1953) and mid-boomers (1954-1959), and compared them to early (before 1942) and later born (1942-47) members of the previous “silent generation.”  The following are some of its key findings:

  • Holding age fixed, mid-boomers age around 55-60 years old had saved less than previous generations at the same age.

  • Holding age fixed, a 50-year old mid-boomer had saved less in any retirement plans, including workplace plans and Individual Retirement Account plans, than a 50-year old from prior generations.

  • Holding age fixed, boomers age 55-60 had a higher debt burden than prior generations at the same age, evidenced in a higher debt-to-net worth ratio, a lower liquid-asset to all asset ratio, and a higher loan-to-value ratio.

But boomer problems are not just comparative.  For example, the Stanford study also found that approximately 30 percent of baby boomers had no money saved in retirement plans in 2014, when they were age 58, on average, “leaving them little time to start saving for retirement.”  And, the median balance for those who held a retirement account was only $200,000, far too small an amount to generate the income needed to carry a person through a 20- to 30-year retirement.

Looking just at retirement age boomers, a 2018 PBS News Hour report noted that:

Nearly half of Americans nearing retirement age (65 years old) have less than $25,000 put away, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s annual survey. One in four don’t even have $1,000 saved.

Adding to the retirement nightmare is the fact that many boomers also remain deep in debt.  A CNBC story reports that:

One-third of homeowners over the age of 65 were still paying off a mortgage in 2012, compared with less than a quarter of people in 1998 — and the median amount they owed nearly doubled to $82,000 from $44,000.

Meanwhile, the number of people aged 60 and older with student debt quadrupled between 2005 and 2015, to 2.8 million from 700,000.

One reason for low boomer financial balances is that this generation was hit hard by the Great Recession and the following years of low interest rates, and has yet to recover. Boomer median household net worth was $224,100 in 2007 and only $184,200 in 2016.

African American and Latinx baby boomers face even greater problems, earning less money and having far less retirement savings than white Americans.  According to Forbes, “The average white family had more than $130,000 in liquid retirement savings (cash in accounts such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s and IRAs) vs. $19,000 for the average African American in 2013, the most recent data available.”

Latinx retirement savings also trails that of whites.  For example, in 2014, among working individuals age 55 to 64, only 32.2 percent of Latinx had money in a retirement account compared with 58.5 percent of whites. The average Latinx account held $42,335 while the average white account held $103,526.

With private pensions and personal savings inadequate to fund a secure retirement, it is no wonder that so many boomers strongly defend Social Security, the so-called third leg (in addition to private pensions and personal savings) of the retirement “stool.”  But, as important as it is, the average Social Security check in 2018 was only $1,422 a month or $17,064 a year.

It should therefore come as no surprise that research by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy finds that one-third of seniors have no money left over at the end of the month or are in debt after meeting necessary expenses.  Or that growing numbers of seniors are making the decision to forego retirement altogether, by either continuing to work to returning to the labor force.

Saying goodbye to retirement

According to the 2019 report titled Boomer Expectations for Retirement, one-third of boomers plan to retire at age 70 or not at all.  And one-third of employed boomers ages 67-72 postponed retirement.

Thus, while labor force participation rates are declining for many age cohorts, they are growing for boomers and older workers. In fact, between April 2000 and January 2018, “there has been essentially no net growth of employment for workers under age 55. Over that same time, employment for workers over age 55 has doubled.”

The figure below shows labor force participation rates for six age 50-plus cohorts since the turn of the century. As Jill Mislinski states: “The pattern is clear: The older the cohort, the greater the growth.”

Sadly, many of these older workers have had little choice but to accept low-paid, physically demanding work at some of America’s richest companies (e.g., Walmart and Amazon) who are delighted to take advantage of their desperation.

Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, Nomadland: Survival in Twenty First Century America, describes mostly white baby boomers who, strapped for money, decide to buy used RVs and travel.  We learn about the friendships they make, and also the minimum wage seasonal jobs they are forced to take to survive. Zhandarka Kurti draws on Bruder’s work to highlight their experience with Amazon:

With its motivational slogan of “work hard, have fun, make history,” Amazon recruits seasonal workers at various “nomad friendly events” including “RV shows and rallies—in more than a dozen states across America.” Older workers are drawn to the opportunity to make good money in a relatively short time. . . . Also ironically, Walmart and Amazon, the two competing retail giants and also the country’s largest employers, allow their workers to park overnight, an attractive perk for many older nomads who struggle with food security let alone rent. . . .

While most of the nomads are made aware of the physical aspects of the job [working in Amazon fulfillment centers] during the training seminars, they are nonetheless surprised by just how much pain they are in after a day’s work. . . . Older workers constantly complain of chronic pain from work and Amazon’s solution is to offer free over-the-counter pain killers. . . . Amazon leaves older workers so physically tired that they have little occasion to enjoy their leisure time. Instead they spent the remainder of their “free” time nursing themselves back to health to survive another workday. . . .

In many ways older workers are Amazon’s dream labor force. “They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up and work hard, and are basically slave labor” one 78 year-old workamper who previously worked as a teacher in California’s community colleges confides in Bruder. Older workers are what Bruder calls “plug-and-play labor” in that they are only around for a short time, are often too tired to complain about the non-existent benefits and are generally appreciative of the jobs regardless of the pain they endure. . . . Amazon also receives federal tax credits to hire older disadvantaged workers and the company predicts that by 2020 one in every four workampers in the US would have worked for Amazon.

It is clear that leading American businesses do not favor bringing back pensions, or boosting wages, or paying higher taxes to strengthen and expand social security and other social services.  Thus, if existing trends are not challenged and reversed, the boomer generation (or at least a significant minority) may well be the last to experience some sort of satisfactory retirement. This development is yet another sign of a failed system.  Boomers need to find ways to help younger generations keep the goal of a satisfying retirement alive, and join in a common fight for the structural changes required to realize it.

Portrait of the 2009-2019 US expansion

June 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the current US economic expansion.  If it makes it through July it will surpass the 1991-2001 expansion as the longest on record.  But while expansions are to be preferred over recessions, there are many reasons to view this record-breaking expansion critically.  In fact, the nature of this expansion, hopefully captured in the following portrait, highlights the growing inability of the US economic system, even when performing “well,” to meet majority needs.

Weak Growth

This has been a weak expansion in terms of growth.  By way of comparison, GDP grew by 43 percent over the first 39 quarters of the 1991-2001 expansion (which was the previous record holder).   In the first 39 quarters of this expansion, through March 2019, GDP grew by only 22 percent.

At its current pace, the current expansion would have to run six more years to equal the aggregate growth of the 1991-2001 expansion, and nine more years to match the 54 percent aggregate GDP growth recorded over the 1961-69 expansion.  The figure below illustrates the relative weakness of the current expansion in terms of growth.

Strong corporate profits

At the same time, weak growth did little to dampen corporate earnings.  As we can see in the following figure, corporate earnings have been on the rise since 2001, reaching their maximum in 2015.  While pre-tax profits have leveled off, after tax profits, thanks to the recent Trump tax cut, have resumed their upward march.

We see a similar trend in the figure below which shows corporate profits as a share of GDP.

After-tax corporate profits will likely turn down again soon, as the effects of the tax cut are already weakening, indicating the end to this expansion is not far off.

Weak wage growth

The suppression of wages is one of the main reasons that corporations were able to enjoy such strong profits despite weak growth.  The figure below shows the collapse of labor’s share of corporate income.  The trend began during the 2001-2009 expansion but accelerated during this expansion.  Even more striking, the share has remained low despite the many years of expansion.

The wage stagnation underlying this trend is illustrated more directly in the next figure.

As we can see, there have been only two recent periods when workers (outside those in the 95th percentile) enjoyed real gains: 1997-2001 and 2015-2017.  Both periods were marked by very low rates of unemployment and followed long periods of expansion during which wages remained largely unchanged.  It is worth noting that both periods were also marked by a decline in corporate profits, suggesting that corporations cannot long tolerate any kind of upward movement in majority earnings.

For reasons that remain unclear, wage growth in 2019 has slowed.  The Federal Reserve Board, always keen to make sure that wages remain low to ensure profitability, began pushing up interest rates in late 2015 in response to the rising wage levels noted above.  The recent wage slowdown has, at least temporarily, caused the Fed to halt its interest rate hikes, which will likely help extend the expansion.

Employment struggles

The dramatic decline in unemployment is perhaps the most celebrated achievement of this expansion.  As we can see in the figure below, the unemployment rate steadily fell over the expansion, from a high of 10 percent down to a low of 3.6 percent as of May 2019.  Such a low level suggests a very tight labor market, which makes the wage stagnation difficult to explain.  The likely answer is that the current low level of unemployment is a poor measure of labor tightness.

A better measure appears to be the labor force participation rate, which is calculated as the civilian labor force (i.e., those employed and those unemployed and actively looking for work) divided by the civilian noninstitutional population (i.e., those not in the military or institutionalized). The figure below also shows the labor force participation rate for those 16 years and older.

As we can see, the current labor force participation rate of 62.8 percent remains significantly below its 2008 peak and even further below the even higher peak reached at the turn of the century.  The decline in the labor force participation rate means that millions of workers have yet to return to the labor force, either to hold a job or to look for one.

The seriousness of this problem is highlighted by the labor force participation rate of the prime age cohort, those 25-54 years of age.  Their core status stems from the fact that, as Jill Mislinski explains,

This cohort leaves out the employment volatility of the high-school and college years, the lower employment of the retirement years and also the age 55-64 decade when many in the workforce begin transitioning to retirement … for example, two-income households that downsize into one-income households.

In the figure below we can see that the labor force participation rate of the prime age cohort remains significantly below its two previous peaks.  The fact that millions of prime age workers have yet to return to the labor market is a strong indicator that labor market conditions remain far from ideal despite years of economic expansion.

Weak Investment

One reason for the slow growth and associated weak job creation is that business has been reluctant to invest.  Instead, they have been content to use a growing share of their earnings to fund dividend payments and stock buybacks.  The following chart, taken from a Federal Reserve Board study of the relationship between corporate capital investment and net stock buybacks, shows a post-2000 downward trend in business investment as a share of GDP and a rise in the value of dividend payments and stock buybacks as a share of GDP.

While the Federal Reserve study concludes that it is difficult to determine whether “corporations are actively reducing investment in order to finance share repurchases and dividend payments . . . [or] pessimism about future demand and economic growth is leading corporations to defer capital spending, and companies are simply returning cash to their shareholders for want of attractive investment opportunities,” there can be no question that there has been a noticeable change in business behavior.

For example, as can see below, whereas in the past nonfinancial corporations invested up to 40 percent of their cash flow back into their business, that share has fallen below 20 percent for most of the current expansion.  In other words, the lack of investment has nothing to do with a shortage of funds.

As the Federal Reserve study points out, business has been funneling ever more of its earnings, through dividends and stock buybacks, to its top managers and stockholders.  According to the New York Times, “From 2008 to 2017, 466 S.&P. 500 companies distributed $4 trillion to shareholders as buybacks, equal to 53 percent of profits, along with $3.1 trillion as dividends.”  Beyond slowing growth and job creation, such a policy has helped to drive income and wealth inequality to record levels, ensuring that those at the top remain content with the economy’s performance despite the problems faced by most working people.

The following figure, from another Federal Reserve Board study, this one titled A Wealthless Recovery?, highlights the extremely uneven distribution of rewards during this expansion.  The authors of the report grouped working-age households into four different groups according to their reported “usual income.”  As we can see from the blue bars, the Great Recession left all groups with substantially less wealth.  However, as we can see from the green bars, which extend the period under analysis to 2016,  (which includes many years of expansion), only the top income group enjoys a gain in wealth.  In other words, the expansion has done little to help the bottom 90 percent of working-age households recover the wealth they lost during the Great Recession.

Austerity

Sustained fiscal austerity is another reason for the slow growth during this expansion. The figure below shows the cumulative growth in per capita spending by federal, state, and local governments following the troughs of the 11 recessions since World War II.  As Josh Bivens explains:

Astoundingly, per capita government spending in the first quarter of 2016—twenty-seven quarters into the recovery—was nearly 4.9 percent lower than at the trough of the Great Recession. By contrast, 27 quarters into the early 1990s recovery, per capita government spending was 3.6 percent higher than at the trough; 24 quarters after the early 2000s recession (a shorter recovery that did not last a full 27 quarters), it was almost 10 percent higher; and 27 quarters into the early 1980s recovery, it was more than 17 percent higher.

If government spending in this expansion had followed the pattern of previous recoveries, public spending would have been far greater, not only boosting demand and employment but ensuring provision of needed public services.  As Bivens points out,

If government spending following the Great Recession’s end had tracked the spending that followed the early 1980s recession—the only other postwar recession of similar magnitude—governments in 2016 would have been spending almost a trillion dollars more in that year alone.

State and local governments are primarily responsible for this austerity.  In many cases, their actions were the result of tax cuts enacted to benefit the wealthy and leading corporations that left state and local governments short of revenue.  Limited by balanced budget requirements, most ended up slashing spending on social services.  As a consequence, the brunt of austerity has been borne by working people.

Summing up 

This is far from a complete portrait of the current expansion.  Yet, it still clearly reveals how the logic of capitalism works against the interests of the great majority of working people, even during a long period of profitable economic activity.  A recession awaits, and then our troubles will intensify.  Key to our ability to build a popular democratic response in defense of majority interests may well be how people evaluate the benefits of remaining committed to an economic system that that undermines their well-being in multiple ways even when it is functioning well.

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.

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.

Foxconn: Playing Fast and Loose in Wisconsin

When state and local governments bid for corporate investment, working people lose.  It is as simple as that.  And Foxconn’s on-again, off-again, and on-again shrinking investment in Wisconsin is a case in point.

In July 2017 Foxconn announced, at the White House, its agreement to spend $10 billion to build a factory in Wisconsin to produce flat-panel display screens for televisions and other consumer electronics, creating 13,000 manufacturing jobs within six years.  In return, the state of Wisconsin offered the company $3 billion in subsidies.  The agreement was celebrated by then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and, of course, lauded by President Trump.

However, in January 2019, the special assistant to the president of Foxconn announced that “In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment.” The reason, according to the special assistant, was that Foxconn decided that it couldn’t compete in the US TV market using US labor to build LCD panels.

As for jobs, the company has already fallen short on its employment promises.  It pledged to create 260 jobs in 2018 but added only 178.  It also promised to employ 5,200 workers by the end of 2020, but now estimates that the total will likely be closer to 1,000. And most of the future hires will be engaged in research and development, not manufacturing.

And the cost to Wisconsin’s communities?  The size of the subsidy quickly grew by over a billion dollars from its initial figure.  As the Verge reports:

By December 2017, the public cost had grown to include $764 million in new tax incentives from local governments in Racine County, which is just 40 minutes south of Milwaukee where the plant was to be located. Other additions included $164 million for road and highway connections built to service the plant, plus $140 million for a new electric transmission line to Foxconn that would be paid for by all 5 million ratepayers of the public utility We Energies. With other small costs added, the total Foxconn subsidy hit $4.1 billion — a stunning $1,774 per household in Wisconsin.

The original plan specified that the subsidy would be given out in increments as investments were made and jobs created.  It remains to be seen how the state will respond to Foxconn’s retrenchment.  But the additional $1.1 billion highlighted above will cost the public regardless of what Foxconn does, since local governments have already begun building the infrastructure that Foxconn wanted.  Those are real outlays that will come at the expense of other, far more critical social programs. And then there are the families who lost their homes when eminent domain was used to seize their properties to prepare the land for Foxconn’s proposed factory.

Not surprisingly, Foxconn’s announcement that it was walking back its commitment has generated a lot of anger in Wisconsin.  And bad press for President Trump.  And so, after a January 2019 phone exchange between President Trump and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, the company announced that it will indeed build a factory in Wisconsin, just a smaller one than originally promised.

I think we all know how this will work out.

The Deal 

Foxconn’s proposed investment was seen as a significant win for both Governor Walker and President Trump. The Guardian quoted 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.”

But Foxconn was always an unreliable investor. As the Cap Times pointed out, Foxconn had a track record of broken 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.

Even more importantly, the deal was a stinker for working people in Wisconsin.  Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, after examining the initial agreement, concluded that that the state wouldn’t break even on its investment until 2043 — and that was an absolute best-case scenario.

Playing fast and loose

The agreement was announced in July 2017.  Less than one year later, in June 2018, Foxconn announced a change to its plan.  Instead of a Generation 10.5 plant producing 10-foot by 11-foot panels for 75-inch TV screens, Foxconn said it would build a Generation 6 plant that only produced 5-foot by 6-foot panels.  The smaller plant would require only about one-third the initially promised investment.

Then, in late August, Foxconn announced yet another change, when its spokesperson, Louis Woo, told the Journal Times that even the Gen 6 panels might not be manufactured in Racine for long.  “We are not really interested in television,” Woo told the newspaper.

And then in January 2019, Foxconn announced it might not ever build a factory in Wisconsin or have need for manufacturing workers.  As Reuters explained, the company:

is reconsidering plans to make advanced liquid crystal display panels at a $10 billion Wisconsin campus, and said it intends to hire mostly engineers and researchers rather than the manufacturing workforce the project originally promised.

Rather than a focus on LCD manufacturing, Foxconn wants to create a “technology hub” in Wisconsin that would largely consist of research facilities along with packaging and assembly operations, Woo said. It would also produce specialized tech products for industrial, healthcare, and professional applications, he added.

“In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment,” Woo said.”

Finally, as noted above, after a phone conversation between President Trump and Chairman Gou, some kind of factory is back in Foxconn’s plans.  But for how long?

Foxconn failed to earn its 2018 tax credits because it fell short of its employment target.  As Reuters reports: “The company may be prepared to walk away from future incentives if it is unable to meet Wisconsin’s job creation and capital investment requirements, according to the source familiar with the matter.”

Lessons

Governor Walker went all in to get Foxconn, giving the company far more than he needed to do. As the Verge explains:

In retrospect, it’s clear that Walker had a strong hand to play in negotiations with Foxconn. The company had to locate in a Great Lakes state because of the huge amount of water needed to clean the glass used in manufacturing LCD screens. And no other Great Lakes state came close to offering the $4.1 billion Foxconn is getting. Michigan came the closest, offering $2.3 billion, but it was partly a tax subsidy rather than cash.

The Walker administration also gave Foxconn an exemption for the state’s environmental rules, “allowing it to discharge materials into wetlands and reroute streams during construction and operation.” And it “also agreed to allow Foxconn to draw massive amounts of water from Lake Michigan” in violation of “the provisions of the Great Lake Compact signed by the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces to protect the lakes.”

And of course, the production of LCD screens requires the use of a number of hazardous materials, such as benzene, chromium, cadmium, mercury, zinc, and copper. Foxconn’s track record in handling such materials is far from good, even if it promised to build a Zero Liquid Discharge system, “which will go beyond any local, state and federal requirements relating to industrial water discharge.”

When the Legislative Fiscal Bureau did its evaluation of the deal, it concluded, as noted above, that it would take until 2043 for taxpayers to recoup the subsidy. But that was based on a $3 billion subsidy. At $4.1 billion, the current amount, the date gets pushed back to 2050.  And again, that assumes that all goes according to the initial plan.

In short, there is no good outcome here for the people of Wisconsin. Given the enormous social and environmental costs associated with this project, Wisconsin is probably better off if it can cancel the deal the previous governor made with Foxconn. Most importantly, one hopes that the Foxconn fiasco will solidify popular understandings that it never pays to compete for corporate investment with tax cuts and public subsidies.

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.

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.

Forgotten Workers And The US Expansion

There is a lot of celebrating going on in mainstream policy circles.  The economy is said to be running at full steam with the unemployment rate now below 4 percent.  As Clive Crook puts it in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The U.S. expansion has put millions of people back to work and economists agree that the economy is now at or close to full employment.”

Forgotten in all this celebration is the fact that wages remain stagnant.  Also forgotten are the millions of workers who are no longer counted as part of the labor force and thus not counted as unemployed.

Forgotten workers

One of the best indicators of the weakness of the current recovery is the labor market status of what is called the core workforce, those ages 25-54.  Their core status stems from the fact that, as Jill Mislinski explains, “This cohort leaves out the employment volatility of the high-school and college years, the lower employment of the retirement years and also the age 55-64 decade when many in the workforce begin transitioning to retirement … for example, two-income households that downsize into one-income households.”

The unemployment rate of those 25-54 reached a peak of 9 percent in 2009 before falling steadily to a low of 3.2 percent as of July 2018.  However, the unemployment rate alone can be a very misleading indicator of labor market conditions.  That is certainly true when it comes to the labor market status of today’s core workforce.

A more revealing measure is the Labor Force Participation Rate, which is defined as the Civilian Labor Force (i.e. the sum of those employed and unemployed) divided by the Civilian Noninstitutional Population (i.e. those of working age who are not in the military or institutionalized). Because there can be significant monthly swings in both the numerator and denominator of this measure, the Labor Force Participation Rate shown in the chart below is calculated using a 12-month moving average.

As we can see, the Labor Force Participation Rate for the 25-54 core cohort has sharply declined, from a mid-2000 high of 84.2 percent, down to a low of 81.9 percent in July 2018. Mislinski calculates that:

Based on the moving average, today’s age 25-54 cohort would require 1.6 million additional people in the labor force to match its interim peak participation rate in 2008 and 2.9 million to match the peak rate around the turn of the century.

A related measure of labor market conditions is the Employment-to-Population Ratio, which is defined as the Civilian Employed divided by the Civilian Noninstitutional Population.  As we can see in the next chart, the Employment-to-Population Ratio of our core cohort has also declined from its mid-2000 peak.

Again, according to Mislinski,

First the good news: This metric began to rebound from its post-recession trough in late 2012. However, the more disturbing news is that the current age 25-54 cohort would require an increase of 1.2 million employed prime-age participants to match its ratio peak in 2007. To match its mid-2000 peak would require a 3.1 million participant increase.

The takeaway

Both the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Employment-to-Population Ratio are useful measures of the employment intensity of the economy.  And in a healthy economy we should expect to see high values for both measures for the 25-54 age cohort. That is especially true for a country like the United States, where the non-market public provision of education, health care, and housing is quite limited, and an adequate retirement depends upon private savings.  In other words, people need paid employment to live and these are prime work years.

The decline, over the business cycle, in both the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Employment-to-Population Ratio for our core cohort strongly suggests that our economy is undergoing a profound structural change, with business increasingly organizing its activities in ways that require fewer workers. More specifically, the lower values in these measures mean that millions of prime age workers are being sidelined, left outside the labor market.

It is hard to know what will become of these workers and by extension their families and communities.  Moreover, this is not a problem only of the moment.  This cohort is still relatively young, and the social costs of being sidelined from employment—and here we are not even considering the quality of that employment—will only grow with age.  We can only hope that workers of all ages will eventually recognize that our growing employment problems are the result, not of individual failings, but an increasingly problematic economic system, and begin pushing for its structural transformation.