Globalization and US Labor’s Falling Share Of National Output

As the Trump administration pushes ahead with its effort to renegotiate NAFTA, we must never miss an opportunity to remind people that the globalization of US economic activity has, by design, shifted the balance of class power away from working people.  A commonly cited indicator of class power is labor’s share of output (or income), which, as shown below, dramatically fell after the turn of the 21st century after decades of slow decline.

Michael W. L. Elsby, Bart Hobijn, and Aysegül Sahin, writing in the Fall 2013 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, tested several hypotheses about the cause of labor’s declining share of output.  They concluded, based on their econometric work, that “increases in the import exposure of U.S. businesses” was key, accounting for approximately 85 percent of the decline in the U.S. payroll share over the period 1987 to 2011.  This finding led them to suggest “that a particularly fruitful avenue for future research will be to delve further into the causal channels that underlie this statistical relationship, in particular the possibility that the decline in the U.S. labor share was driven by the offshoring of the labor-intensive component of the U.S. supply chain.”

Labor’s share of income

It is important to be clear about how the labor share is estimated and how well it captures class dynamics.  The starting point is simple: labor’s share of output is calculated by dividing the labor compensation earned during a given period by the economic output produced over the same period.  Things quickly get more complicated, however, because the labor compensation used in the calculation is actually the sum of the labor earnings of two different groups of workers: those who work for others and those who work for themselves.

The compensation of the first group includes the sum of all employee pay and benefits: wages and salaries; commissions; tips; bonuses; severance payments; early retirement buyout payments; exercised stock options; and employer contributions to employee pension and insurance funds, and to government social insurance.  Calculating the employee share of output, known as the payroll share, is relative straightforward thanks to employer fillings.

Things are not so simple when it comes to the second group, since their earnings reflect “both returns to their work effort and returns to the business property they invested in” and there is no simple way to separate their earnings into those two components.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) handles this problem by assuming that the self-employed receive an hourly labor compensation similar to that earned by employees who work in the same sector of the economy.

The figure below, from the Brookings Papers article, shows the division of the labor share into its two component parts, the payroll share and the self-employed share.  As we can see, the payroll share is significantly greater than the self-employed share.  In fact, the share of hours of the self-employed in total work hours “has declined steadily from about 14 percent in 1948 to 8.5 percent in 2012.”  However, as Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin point out, “In spite of the relatively small share of self-employment hours, the treatment of self-employment income plays an important role in the recent behavior of the evolution of the labor share.”

A number of economists have raised concerns about the methodology used by the BLS to divide the compensation of the self-employed into its labor and capital returns components.  One example: the BLS methodology ends up crediting the self-employed with more labor compensation than their total reported earnings for much of the 1980s and early 1990s, a highly unlikely outcome.

Alternative methodologies have been suggested, and the authors of the Brookings Papers article calculate labor’s share using the two most often cited.  The one they call the “asset basis” assumes that the return on self-employed capital is the same as the return on capital in the non-farm business sector, with the remaining earnings credited to labor.  The other, called the “economy-wide basis,” assumes that the division between labor compensation and capital income is the same for the self-employed as it is for the non-farm business sector.  As we see below, the two alternatives generally produce labor share trends that are relatively close together, and significantly lower than that published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the start of the series until the late 1990s, when all three series generally converge.

Because of its methodological shortcoming, Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin prefer either of the two alternative measures, which leads them to the conclusion that use of the BLS series overstates the actual decline in the labor share.  As they explain:

The upshot of these comparisons is that around one third of the decline in the headline measure of labor’s share appears to be a by-product of the methods employed by the BLS to impute the labor income of the self-employed. Alternative measures that have less extreme implications regarding the return to capital among proprietors are more consistent with one another and indicate a more modest decline.

The fact that the difference between the BLS and the alternative measures of labor’s share largely disappeared beginning in the late 1990s suggests that the average hourly earnings of the self-employed have grown much faster than that of the employed.  This, in turn, suggests a significant transformation in the make-up of the self-employed; in particular an increase in the number of individuals engaged in highly lucrative professional work.  In this regard it is important to recall that labor compensation includes not just wage and salary earnings but also things like bonuses and stock options, rewards that became increasingly popular for a select few starting in the late 1990s thanks to the run-up in the stock market.

And in fact, this transformation is confirmed by the authors, who disaggregated the structure of the labor share for employees and total earnings for the self-employed.  The results are illustrated in the following figure, which shows that “the share of income accounted for by both payroll wages and salaries and by proprietors’ income [the sum of their labor and nonlabor earnings] has been buoyed up since the 1980s by substantial rises in the shares accounted for by the very top fractiles of households in the United States.”

As the authors point out:

This rise in inequality is even more striking for proprietors’ income than it is for payroll income. In 1948 the bottom 90 percent of employees earned 75 percent of payroll compensation. By 2010 this had declined to 54 percent. For entrepreneurial income, however, this fraction declined from 42 percent in 1948 to 14 percent in 2010. Even more starkly, over the same period the share of proprietors’ income accounted for by the bottom 99 percent fell from 74 percent to 45 percent. This suggests that the sharp rise in the average hourly compensation of proprietors relative to the payroll-employed since the late 1980s is related to substantial increases in income inequality among proprietors that dominate even the considerable rise in inequality witnessed among the payroll-employed. Moreover, this has been driven by extreme rises in proprietors’ income at the very top of the income distribution—the top 1 percent in particular.

In short, there are a lot of moving parts to the calculation of and evaluation of trends in the labor share of income.  The BLS measure may have overstated the decline, but the explosion of inequality means that the measure’s two components mask an even greater fall in the share of income going to the great majority of working people.

Globalization and the decline in the payroll share of output

Although the labor share is the “headline” statistic, the authors decided to narrow their focus to the payroll share.  As we saw above, it is no simple matter to determine the labor compensation of the self-employed.  In contrast, the payroll share is relatively easy to measure and, as a bonus, can be disaggregated by industry.  Moreover, it is the largest component of the labor share, which means that its movement is most responsible for changes in the overall labor share.

Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin begin with a standard neoclassical aggregate production model and the most common neoclassical explanations for the decline, which rest on investment and technological change: the growth in the capital/labor ratio and skill-biased technical change.  The basic neoclassical argument is that growing investment shifts income away from labor in the first case and unskilled workers in the second.  However, in both cases the authors found that the movement in relevant variables was not consistent with the actual movement in the payroll share.

Recognizing the limitations inherent in a simple aggregate production function model of the economy, the authors decided to take advantage of their industry data to see whether a more micro/industry perspective yielded better results. More specifically, they econometrically tested whether investment specific technological change, declines in unionization, or increases in import competition can explain the decline in the payroll share.  They found that “Our data yield one robust correlation: that declines in payroll shares are more severe in industries that face larger increases in competitive pressures from imports.”

In the case of investment specific technical change, the authors looked to see whether those industries which enjoyed the lowest price increases for investment goods had the largest declines in payroll share, with the assumption being that these industries would be the most likely to replace workers with capital.  In fact, it turned out that there was a weak negative relationship between the change in equipment prices and the change in payroll shares across industries, the opposite of what was expected “if capital deepening due to the decline in price of equipment were the driving force of the decline in the payroll share.”  This result reinforced the conclusion from their aggregate analysis that investment activity does not explain the decline in the payroll share of output.

The test of unionization was more straight forward.  The authors looked to see if there was a positive relationship between changes in union density in an industry and changes in payroll shares.  While they did find “a positive correlation between the change in unionization and the change in payroll shares across industries,” the relationship was weak. “The weighted least squares regression indicates that cross-industry variation in changes in unionization rates explains less than 5 percent of the variation in changes in payroll shares across industries.”

Last was the test of globalization, or more specifically a test of whether the import-caused hollowing out of US industry was a primary cause of the decline in the payroll share.  Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin assumed two possible channels for a rise in imports to cause a fall in the payroll share.  The first involved trade-generated capital deepening.  In this case, the outsourcing of production by US firms would lead to a reduction in labor, a rise in the capital-labor ratio, and a decline in the payroll share of income.  However, as the authors noted, they had already tested capital deepening as a potential cause of the decline and found no support for the hypothesis.

The second trade channel relied on wage differentials rather than shifts in capital intensity.  Industries with high labor shares likely have high labor costs, making them vulnerable to import competition.  The greater the competition the more likely firms in these industries were to take actions to lower those costs, including offshoring segments of their production process, thereby producing a decline in their payroll share.

The authors pursued this possibility by computing the import exposure of each industry.  They did so by asking the following question:

If the United States were to produce domestically all the goods that it imports, how much additional value added would each industry have to produce? For example, if all U.S. imports of clothes were produced domestically, how much would value added increase in sectors like retail, textile manufacturing, and so on.

To be able to calculate this measure of import exposure we use the annual input-output matrices that are available for the years 1993 to 2010 from the BLS. Import exposure is expressed as the percentage increase in value added needed to satisfy U.S. final demand if the United States would produce all its imports domestically.

The figure below shows the relationship between changes in import exposure and changes in the payroll share for each industry.  As we can see, import exposure increased for almost all industries—reflecting the growing hollowing out of the US economy–and the larger the exposure the greater the decline in payroll share.  A simple regression showed that the import exposure variable was significant in explaining changes in the payroll share, with cross-industry variation in changes in import exposure explaining 22 percent of the variation in changes in payroll share.

The authors then ran a regression which included all three possible explanations for the decline in the payroll share.  The globalization variable remained highly significant and was the only variable to do so.  With the import exposure valuable included in the regression, the unionization variable became insignificant.  “This suggests that those sectors where deunionization was most prevalent are also sectors that saw the biggest increase in import exposure.”

Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin conclude:

our results indicate a cross industry link between the increases in import exposure and the decline in the labor share.  While this result cannot be interpreted as causal, it is worth noting that the statistical relationship between import exposure and payroll shares across industries is large enough to account for a substantial fraction of the aggregate trend decline in the labor share. In particular, aggregating the results of the weighted-least-squares regression across industries suggests that increases in the import exposure of U.S. businesses can account for 3.3 percentage points of the 3.9 percentage point decline in the U.S. payroll share over the past quarter century.

 

We know that trade agreements are about a lot more than lowering tariffs to promote trade.  Foremost, they are about strengthening corporate power and profitability.  And despite mainstream economic theorizing to the contrary, there is strong evidence that these corporate gains come, as designed, at the expense of majority well-being.

Studies of the effect on US workers from imports from China (see Autor, Dorn, and Hanson)  and Mexico (see Hakobyan and McLaren), most of which are produced within US transnational corporate-controlled production networks, show that US workers pay a steep price in terms of job loss and lost earnings from corporate driven globalization.  And, as we have seen, Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin’s work strongly suggests that this process is also the main factor behind the decline in the payroll share of output.  This is class power at work–unfortunately theirs, not ours.

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North Korea in the Age of Trump

On January 23, Hyun Lee, the managing editor of ZoominKorea, and I spoke at a UCLA Center for Korean Studies sponsored event titled “North Korea in the Age of Trump.”  I went first, offering a critical perspective on US foreign policy towards Korea, North and South.  Hyun Lee then talked about the importance of Science and Technology in North Korea.

Both presentations can be viewed here:

Tragically the US media and government appear more eager for war than peace on the Korean Peninsula.  This reality was underscored by their negative reactions to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s declaration, which included a call for talks between North Korea and South Korea and acceptance of South Korea’s invitation to participate in the Winter Olympics being held in South Korea.

Here are some examples:

Choe Sang-Hun and David Sanger, writing in the New York Times, quickly declared that Kim Jong-un’s welcoming of renewed contacts with South Korea represented little more than “a canny new strategy” designed to divide South Korea from the US and weaken the alliance.  They raised the “fear that if dialogue on the Korean Peninsula creates a temporary reprieve from tensions, the enforcement of sanctions could also be relaxed.

Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, struck a similar tone in an article published in the Atlantic magazine.  Considering the possibility of talks to be a trap for South Korea, he ended his article expressing fear that South Korean President Moon could be forced into concessions that “might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the US.”

A few days later, Robert Litwak, a senior vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “Washington and Seoul should not take Mr. Kim’s bait.  Instead, the North Korean offer should be put to the diplomatic test through a united Washington-Seoul front.”

A New York Times article quoted Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration, as saying: “It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the U.S. behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea. And if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.”

Heather Nauert, the US State Department’s spokesperson, made clear that the US is carefully watching South Korea.  “Our understanding,” she said, is that these talks…will be limited to conversations about the Olympics and perhaps some other domestic matters.”  South Korea isn’t “going to go off freelancing” she told the press.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told journalists at the UN that “We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea.”

And then, just as the talks were getting ready to begin on January 9, US officials let it be known to The Wall Street Journal that they were “quietly debating” the possibility of what they called a “bloody nose” tactic that would involve a “limited military strike” against North Korea’s nuclear and missiles sites without somehow setting off “an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.”

And as a measure of just how seriously the US is considering such an action, President Trump recently withdrew his support for Victor Cha’s nomination to be the US ambassador to South Korea.  Although Cha advocates the strongest possible sanctions on North Korea, he lost his position because he expressed reservations about the wisdom of such a military strike.

The fact that North Koreans and South Koreans walked together under one flag in the opening ceremony of the Olympics does not mean that the danger of war has passed.  But it is a good sign.  We in the US need to do what we can to ensure that US government actions, including a new round of war games, do not throw up roadblocks to a process that needs to be encouraged.

Signs Of Economic Trouble Ahead

The current expansion has gone on for 102 months.  Only the expansions from March 1991 to March 2001 (120 months) and from February 1961 to December 1969 (106 months) are longer.  Unfortunately, growth during this expansion has been slow and the gains have largely gone to a very few.  And there are signs of economic trouble ahead.

The figure below shows that the rate of growth of GDP per capita during this expansion has been significantly below those of past expansions.

Weak business investment, as illustrated below, is one reason for the disappointing economic performance. 

Corporations have certainly made money during this expansion.  It is just that they have been more interested in using it to pay dividends and buyback their stock to push up share prices rather than spend it on new plant and equipment.  As Nomi Prins explains, and as illustrated in the next figure, “companies have been on a spree of buying their own stock, establishing a return to 2007-level stock buybacks.”

Not surprisingly, then, growth, as the next chart shows, has recently been driven by private consumption.

However, as we see below, for the last two years that consumption has not been supported by earnings.

Moreover, despite the length of the current expansion, median nominal wage growth not only remains low, it has begun to turn down. Thus, we are unlikely to see any significant boost in median earnings.

There is another reason to doubt that consumption can continue to grow at its current rate.  As the Wall Street Journal Daily Shot Brief notes:

While economists expect consumption to remain strong this year (helped in part by the new tax bill), it’s hard to see the US consumer staying this enthusiastic for too long. That’s because the savings rate as a percentage of disposable income is at a decade low.

At some point over the next year or two, perhaps triggered by interest rate hikes or a fall in investment due to a decline in the rate of profit, the expansion will end.  Majority living and working conditions, already under pressure, will then further deteriorate.  We face big challenges ahead.

Too Many Whites Are In Denial About The Extent Of Race-Based Economic Inequality

A recently published paper by three Yale scholars reveals “that Americans, on average, systematically overestimate the extent to which society has progressed toward racial economic equality, driven largely by overestimates of current racial equality.”

The authors based their conclusion on the results of three different studies.  Participants in all three studies were asked to estimate differences between average Black and White Americans in five areas at a point in time in the past and the present.  The areas and time points were:

(i) employer provided health care benefits in 1979/2010; (ii) hourly wages of college graduates in 1973/2015; (iii) hourly wages of high school graduates in 1973/2015; (iv) annual income in 1947/2013; and (v), accumulated wealth in 1983/2010. Participants considered an average White individual or family earning $100 US and were asked to estimate how much an average Black individual or family would earn using a scale that ranged from $0–$200 US. For the health care item, the question was framed in terms of families with health coverage, and participants indicated how many Black families would be covered if 100 similarly employed White families had coverage. Participants were reminded that an answer of 100 meant equality between Whites and Blacks.

Two of the three studies included a sample of White and Black participants drawn from the top (over $100,000 yearly income) and bottom (below $40,001) of the income distribution.  The third study included just White participants, also drawn from the two ends of the income distribution.

The following figure, taken from a New York Times review of the study’s results, shows the views of participants about current racial differences for four of the five survey areas.

As noted above, participants were asked how much they thought an average Black family or individual held in wealth or earned in income or received in wages, if the average White family or individual had $100 in wealth or received $100 in income or in wages.  Their estimates are shown in grey while the reality is shown in red.  As we can see, the general perception is that discrimination exists, but is relatively small.  As we can also see, the reality, especially with regards to wealth and income, is far worse.

Because the authors asked participants to do this thought experiment for a period in the past as well as in the present, they were also able to draw some conclusions about people’s sense of progress in fighting discrimination.  Their results:

confirmed our hypothesis that Americans, on average, misperceive the extent to which society has made progress toward racial economic equality . . . Indeed, participants overestimated racial economic progress by more than 20 points across all studies and all domains of progress.

They also found, again in line with another of their hypotheses, that high-income White participants were more likely to overestimate racial equality than were low-income White participants or Black participants of either income group.  More specifically, high-income White participants overestimated past as well as current racial equality relative to the other three groups.  In fact, “high-income White participants were actually the only subgroup to overestimate the extent of racial equality in the past.”

The New York Times article concludes:

Why would people get these questions so wrong — and consistently in the direction of too much optimism? (This study was also conducted after the 2016 election.) Blacks overestimated equality, too, but the biggest effects were among wealthy whites.

The researchers suspect that the answer in part has to do with how little exposure Americans have to people who are unlike them. Given how economically and racially segregated the country remains, many Americans, and especially wealthy whites, have little direct knowledge of what life looks like for families in other demographic groups.

We’re inclined, as well, to believe that society is fairer than it really is. The reality that it’s not — that even college-educated black workers earn about 20 percent less than college-educated white ones, for example — is uncomfortable for both blacks who’ve been harmed by that unfairness and whites who’ve benefited from it. . . .

The researchers found in some additional surveys that whites answer these questions more accurately when they’re first asked to consider an America where discrimination persists. If we want people to have a better understanding of racial inequality, this implies that the solution isn’t simply to parrot these statistics more widely. It’s to get Americans thinking more about the forces that underlie them, like continued discrimination in hiring, or disparities in mortgage lending.

Sadly, as this paper makes clear, too many people continue to believe the myth of American social progress.  It is a myth that needs to be challenged if we hope to build a powerful working class-based movement for social change.  This means we must continue to work to paint an accurate picture of the reality of racial discrimination and its terrible social consequences for Blacks and other people of color.  But, as noted above, we will greatly increase the effectiveness of this effort if we also help White workers understand the underlying class-driven economic dynamics that encourage racial divisions and, even more importantly, in whose interests they work.

Class, Race, and US Wealth Inequality

People tend to have a distorted picture of US capitalism’s operation, believing that the great majority of Americans are doing well, benefiting from the system’s long-term growth and profit generation.  Unfortunately, this is not true.  Median wealth has been declining, leaving growing numbers of working people increasingly vulnerable to the ups and downs of economic activity and poorly positioned to enjoy a secure retirement.  Moreover, this general trend masks a profound racial wealth divide, with people of color disproportionally suffering from a loss of wealth and insecurity.

A distorted picture of wealth inequality

In a 2011 article, based on 2005 national survey data, Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely demonstrate how little Americans know about the extent of wealth inequality.  The figure below (labeled Fig. 2) shows the actual distribution of wealth in that year compared to what survey respondents thought it was, as well as their ideal wealth distribution.  As the authors explain:

respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%. More interesting, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution, reporting a desire for the top quintile to own just 32% of the wealth. These desires for more equal distributions of wealth took the form of moving money from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles, while leaving the second quintile unchanged, evincing a greater concern for the less fortunate than the more fortunate.

The next figure reveals that respondents tended to have remarkably similar perceptions of wealth distribution regardless of their income, political affiliation, or gender.  Moreover, all the groups embraced remarkably similar ideal distributions that were far more egalitarian than their estimated ones.

Capitalist wealth dynamics

Wealth inequality has only grown worse since 2005.  As I previously posted, in 2016, the top 10 percent of the population owned 77.1 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 10 percent owned -0.5 percent (they are net debtors).  Even these numbers understate the degree of wealth concentration: the top 1 percent actually owned 38.5 percent of the wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent combined. This was a sharp rise from the 29.9 percent share they held in 1989.

Perhaps more importantly, median household wealth is not only quite small–not nearly enough to provide financial stability and security–but is actually growing smaller over time.  In fact, median household wealth in 2016 was 8 percent below what it had been in 1998.

 

The racial wealth divide

Of course, not all families receive equal treatment or are given similar opportunities for advancement.  While US capitalism works to transfer wealth upwards to the very rich, it has disproportionately exploited families of color.  This is made clear by the results of a 2017 study titled The Road to Zero Wealth by Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, Chuck Collins, Josh Hoxie, and Emanuel Nieves.

As we saw above, median household wealth has been on the decline since 2007, despite the growth in overall economic activity and corporate profits.  The figure below shows median wealth trends for White, Black, and Latino households.

As of 2013, median White household wealth was less than it had been in 1989. However, the wealth decline has been far worse for Black and Latino families.  More specifically, as the authors write:

Since 1983, the respective wealth of Black and Latino families has plunged from $6,800 and $4,000 in 1983 to $1,700 and $2,000 in 2013. These figures exclude durable goods like automobiles and electronics, as these items depreciate quickly in value and do not hold the same liquidity, stability or appreciation of other financial assets like a savings account, a treasury bond or a home.

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, with higher levels of education translating into more income, and then wealth.  But as we see in the figure below, the combination of class policies on top of a history of discrimination and exclusion has left families of color at a significant disadvantage. For example, the median wealth of a family of color with a head of household with 4 year degree is far less than the median wealth of a White family with a head of household with only a high school diploma/GED.

The authors have created their own measure of “middle class wealth,” which they define:

using median White household wealth since it encompasses the full potential of the nation’s wealth-building policies, which have historically excluded households of color. More specifically, we use median White wealth in 1983 ($102,200 in 2013 dollars) as the basis for developing an index that would encompass “middle-class wealth” because it establishes a baseline prior to when increases in wealth were concentrated in a small number of households. Using this approach and applying Pew Research Center’s broad definition of the middle class, this study defines “middle class wealth” as ranging from $68,000 to $204,000.

As we can see in the figure above, only Black and Latino households with an advanced degree make it into that range. Moreover, trends suggest that, without major changes in policy, we can expect further declines in median wealth for households of color.  In fact,

By 2020, if current trends continue as they have been, Black and Latino households at the median are on track to see their wealth decline by 17% and 12% from where they respectively stood in 2013. By then, median White households would see their wealth rise by an additional three percent over today’s levels. In other words, at a time when it’s projected that children of color will make up most of the children in the country, median White households are on track to own 86 and 68 times more wealth, respectively, than Black and Latino households. . . .

Looking beyond 2043, the situation for households of color looks even worse. . . .If unattended, trends at the median suggest Black household wealth will hit zero by 2053. In that same period, median White household wealth is expected to climb to $137,000. The situation isn’t much brighter for Latino households, whose median wealth is expected to reach zero by 2073, just two decades after Black wealth is projected to hit zero. . . . Wealth is an intergenerational asset—its benefits passed down from one generation to the next— and the consequences of these losses will reverberate deeply in the lives of the children and grandchildren of today’s people of color.

Of course, knowledge of the fact that capitalism’s growth largely benefits capitalists, and that people of color pay some of the greatest costs to sustain its forward motion, does not automatically lead to class solidarity and popular opposition to existing accumulation dynamics.  Still, such knowledge does, at a minimum, help people understand that the forces pressing down on them are not the result of individual failure or lack of effort, but rather have systemic roots.  And that is an important step in the right direction.

Taxes, Inequality, And Class Power

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

The rich really are different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class power counts

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

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

As Taylor explains:

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

The question is why wages of ordinary households lagged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The takeaway

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

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

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

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

The 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances paints a grim picture of working class finances

The Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) is a triennial survey of U.S. families that is sponsored by the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) and carried out by the NORC at the University of Chicago.  It includes information on families’ balance sheets, pensions, income, and demographics. As the Fed notes, “No other study for the country collects comparable information.”

Sadly, as we see below, the wealth data from the 2016 survey paints a grim picture of working class finances, reinforcing what many people already know, that US capitalism works to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

The following figure and table from the 2016 survey shows trends in the median net worth for all families, measured in 2016 dollars.  Strikingly, the median in 2016 was 8 percent below what it had been in 1998.

Of course, while the median value is useful for capturing broad trends, the next figure and table, also from the 2016 survey, makes clear that capitalism’s motion does not treat all families equally.  More specifically, the bottom fifth of families saw their net worth fall by 24 percent over the period 1998 to 2016, while the next lowest income tier experienced an even greater decline, 34 percent.  Those in the next two higher income tiers basically treaded water.  In sharp contrast, the top ten percent enjoyed a net worth increase of 146 percent over the same period.

Matt Bruenig, drawing on data from the survey, provides an even clearer picture of wealth inequality in the following figure.  As he explains:

[it] shows what percent of wealth is owned by each wealth decile.  The way this reads is as follows: the bottom 10 percent owns -0.5 percent of the wealth in the country (they are net debtors) while the top 10 percent owns 77.1 percent of the wealth in the country.

In fact, wealth is even more concentrated than it appears in this figure.  In 2016 the top 1 percent owned 38.5 percent of the wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent combined. This was a sharp rise from the 29.9 percent share they held in 1989.

So, the next time you hear media analysts celebrate US capitalism as a great wealth creating machine, remember that they are celebrating a social system that largely works for the benefit of a very few.