Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Unions Fight Inequality

The decline in unionization is one of the most important factors promoting the concentration of income at the upper end of the income distribution.  The statement may not surprise you, but the fact that this was the conclusion of an IMF study of the causes of inequality might.

Here is how the authors of Inequality and Labor Market Institutions summarize their main findings:

The results indicate that the rise of inequality in the advanced economies included in this study has been driven by the upper part of the income distribution, owing largely to the increase in income shares of top 10 percent earners. We find evidence that the decline in union density—the fraction of union members in the workforce—is strongly associated with the rise of top income shares. . . . Our empirical results also indicate that unions can affect income redistribution through their influence on public policy. We further find that reductions in the minimum wage relative to the median wage are related to significant increases in inequality.

Of course, the authors of the study were quick to add: “These findings, however, should not be seen as a blanket recommendation for strengthening these labor market institutions.”

While we should never count on the IMF to promote progressive policies, the findings of the study do highlight the importance of a strong trade union movement if we want to build an economy that works for the great majority of working people.  The fact that unionization has been in decline in the great majority of the twenty advanced capitalist countries studied by the IMF researchers strongly suggests that elites know exactly what they want.

Trends in inequality and labor market institutions

Inequality has been on the rise in almost all advanced capitalist economies, with attention increasingly focused on the growing concentration of income at the top of the distribution.  Common explanations for this trend include globalization, skill-based technological change, financial deregulation, and the decline in top marginal personal tax rates.  In their study for the IMF, Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron investigate whether labor market institutions, in particular the degree of unionization and relative value of minimum wage, might also be responsible.

The authors examine inequality trends in twenty advanced capitalist countries over the period 1980 to 2010 using two main measures of inequality, the income share of the top 10 percent earners and the Gini coefficient (which ranges from 0 to 1 with higher numbers showing greater inequality).  The former is most useful for capturing changes at the top of the income distribution.  The latter, because of data limitations, is better at showing changes at the middle and bottom of the income distribution.  They therefore use Gini coefficients of gross and net income to test whether the strength of labor market institutions affects redistribution.

Figure 2 below illustrates the growth in inequality in the sample of advanced capitalist economies, and the importance of income concentration at the top of the income distribution.  As the authors explain:

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.

Figure 3 looks at trends in union density and relative minimum wage values, the authors’ proxies for the strength of labor market institutions.  As we can see, the degree of unionization has fallen steadily over the period, while the decline in the relative value of the minimum wage has been far more modest.  However, national experiences differ greatly.  In the case of union density, some countries actually registered an increase while in others density declined by almost 50 percent. Interestingly, the authors find no evidence of a relationship between changes in union density and changes in the minimum wage.

Union strength reduces inequality

The authors begin their test of the relationship between labor market institutions and inequality by running simple correlations between the two.  They find

a strong negative relation between the top 10 percent income share and union density, both within and across countries. The Gini of gross income is also negatively related with union density, but the relationship is somewhat weaker and mostly present within countries. The correlation coefficients for the minimum wage and the various inequality measures are more mixed. A similar exercise suggests a positive association between union density and redistribution: while the correlation between union density and the Gini coefficient of gross income is weak, its correlation with the Gini of net income is clearly negative.

While these correlation results suggest that greater union density helps workers claw back income from those at the top and improve the overall income distribution, simple correlations are far from conclusive because they do not hold other factors that might influence the variables constant.

Therefore, the authors use sophisticated econometric methods to try and isolate the importance of labor market institutions on inequality.  Among the factors they control for are:

technology (the share of information and communications technology capital in the total capital stock); globalization (the share of China in world exports interacted with the country’s lagged level of income per capita); financial reform (the index constructed by Abiad, Detragiache, and Tressel, 2008, which varies with changes in credit controls and reserve requirements, interest rate controls, entry barriers, state ownership, securities market policies, banking regulations, and capital account restrictions); the top marginal personal income tax rate; and a banking crisis dummy variable.

The authors find, consistent with the literature, that technology, globalization, financial liberalization, and tax reductions all increase inequality, with the latter two variables positively associated with an increase in top income shares.  But they also find a significant negative relationship between union strength and inequality and income concentration:

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.

At the other end of the income distribution, the minimum wage is closely associated with the Gini coefficient of gross income but not with the top income share. A 10 percentage point decline in the ratio of the minimum wage to the median wage is related to a 5 percent increase in the Gini coefficient of gross income.

The authors then test the robustness of their results by adding additional labor market, economic, and social variables, but with little change in outcome.  Their strong conclusion remains: an increase in union density reduces the share of income going to the top 10 percent and improves the overall distribution of income.

Magnitude of the effects

The authors illustrate the relative importance union density and the minimum wage to the growth in inequality in Figure 7, below. “The height of each bar measures the contribution of a variable to the rise in inequality over the period 1980–2010—calculated as the product of the change in the variable over the period and its coefficient—averaged across countries.”

More specifically, as the authors explain:

On average, the decline in union density explains about 40 percent of the 5 percentage point increase in the top 10 percent income share (top panel). . . . 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 (middle panel).

Contributions of changes in the minimum wage to inequality appear close to zero on average. However, averaging its contribution across countries hides the important role the minimum wage has played in driving inequality in some countries, as its evolution has been highly heterogenous. Bottom panel in Figure 7 shows the country-specific impact of changes in the minimum wage on the Gini of gross income. In countries where the minimum wage declined the most, it accounts for about 2 percentage points of the increase in the Gini coefficient. Conversely, where the minimum wage rose substantially, it appears to have contributed to reduce the Gini coefficient by 2 percentage points. Overall, these illustrative calculations suggest that changes in labor market institutions are key drivers of the evolution of inequality, alongside other determinants.

Next steps: Movement building

Living conditions have deteriorated for majorities in most advanced capitalist countries.  The rise in inequality, driven by the ever-increasing concentration of income at the top of the distribution, is one major reason.  The IMF has laid out a clear program of action to improve things: strengthen unions and boost minimum wages.  Of course, our fight against inequality would be greatly enhanced if we also intensified our efforts to stop the advance of capitalist globalization, reverse the financialization of economic activity, and raise taxes on the wealthy.

I am not sure that we needed IMF researchers to clarify our tasks, but thanks anyway IMF!

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Race and Ethnicity Discrimination in the US Labor Market

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sorry State Of The US Economy

Although reluctant to say it, a recent IMF report on the state of US economy makes clear that US policy makers have failed to protect majority living conditions.

When a country joins the IMF, it agrees to have its economic and financial policies evaluated, in most cases annually, by an IMF team of economists.  As the IMF explains:

The IMF’s regular monitoring of economies and associated provision of policy advice is intended to identify weaknesses that are causing or could lead to financial or economic instability. . . The consultations are known as “Article IV consultations” because they are required by Article IV of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement.

The IMF recently concluded and published a summary of its Article IV consultations with the United States.  While the IMF generally pulls no punches in criticizing the policies of most member governments if it determines that they threaten to slow capitalist globalization dynamics, it tends to tap dance around disagreements when it comes to the policies of its more powerful member countries, especially the United States.  As Adam Tooze points out in his commentary on the IMF statement:

With respect to the US, the stakes are particularly high. The US has the largest vote on the IMF’s board and Congress controls the largest part of the IMF’s budget.

Not surprisingly, then, the IMF went the extra mile in finding nice ways of talking about the state of the US economy and even more importantly the wisdom of Trump administration policies. Even so, US economic challenges could not be completely hidden.  For example, after noting that the “The U.S. economy is in its third longest expansion since 1850,” the IMF goes on to comment:

However, the outlook is clouded by important medium-term imbalances. The U.S. economic model is not working as well as it could in generating broadly shared income growth. It is burdened by a rising public debt. The U.S. dollar is moderately overvalued (by around 10-20 percent). The external position is moderately weaker than implied by medium term fundamentals and desirable policies. The current account deficit is expected to be around 3 percent of GDP over the medium-term and the net international investment position has deteriorated markedly in the past several years. Most critically, relative to historical performance, post-crisis growth has been too low and too unequal.

To address these shortcomings, the administration intends a wide-ranging overhaul of policies, although a fully articulated policy plan has yet to emerge. The administration’s budget proposes to reduce the fiscal deficit and debt, to reprioritize public spending, and to revamp the tax system. However, during the Article IV consultation it became evident that many details about these plans are still undecided. Given these policy uncertainties, the IMF’s macroeconomic forecast uses a baseline assumption of unchanged policies. Specifically, it neither builds in the effect of tax reform nor the expenditure reductions proposed in the administration’s budget. Under this forecast, growth is expected to rise modestly above 2 percent this year and next, driven by continued solid consumption growth and a cyclical rebound in private investment. Growth is forecast to subsequently converge to the underlying potential growth rate of 1.8 percent.

However, IMF concerns over an uncertain US economic outlook and an unclear Trump administration policy plan pale in importance compared to the decline in US living standards illustrated in the following chart that was also in the report.

In broad brush, the US ranking on most of the selected living standards indicators has declined, which means that the US economy is losing ground relative to the other OECD countries in the sample.  But what really cries out for notice is how low the US is on such key indicators as: life expectancy at birth, overall mortality rate, health coverage, poverty rate, and secondary school graduation.  On these indicators, the US is approaching the bottom of the group of 24.  And of course, Trump administration policies, which aim to reduce spending on Medicare and Medicaid, gut worker-protecting health and safety and labor laws, slash taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and weaken unions will only intensify downward trends.

The IMF could easily have pointed out that, because of competitiveness pressures, US policies harm the well-being of workers in other countries as well as in the US, and pressed the US government to reverse course.  But majority living standards are not the most important thing to the IMF or the US government, and that is not how consultations work.

If we want improved living conditions we are going to have to fight for them.  Perhaps greater awareness of just how bad things are in the United States will help speed the effort.

Secular Stagnation

Government policy makers, no matter the party in power, like to project a rosy future. However, claims of economic renewal, absent fundamental changes in the structure and workings of the US economy, should not be taken seriously.  The fundamental changes I would advocate are those that would: dramatically boost worker power; secure a progressive and growing funding base for a needed expansion of public housing and infrastructure and public spending on health care, education, and transportation; and end the production and use of fossil fuels and significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.

Fundamental changes are needed because the United States is suffering from an extended period of slow and declining growth, what is known as secular stagnation.

The following figure, taken from a Financial Times blog post, shows the duration and average rate of growth of every economic expansion in the postwar period.  The current expansion, which started in the second quarter of 2009, is the third longest, although soon to become the second.  Among other things, that means that a new recession is likely not far off (especially with the Federal Reserve Board apparently committed to boosting interest rates).

As we can see, the current expansion has recorded the slowest rate of growth of any expansion.  Moreover, as Cardiff Garcia, the author of the blog post, points out: “Also worrying is the observation from the chart that every subsequent expansion since 1970 has grown at a slower pace than its predecessor, regardless of what caused the downturn from which it was recovering.”

Michalis Nikiforos and Gennaro Zezza begin their Levy Economics Institute report on current economic trends as follows:

From a macroeconomic point of view, 2016 was an ordinary year in the post–Great Recession period. As in prior years, the conventional forecasts predicted that this would be the year the economy would finally escape from the “new normal” of secular stagnation. But just as in every previous year, the forecasts were confounded by the actual result: lower-than-expected growth—just 1.6 percent.

The following figures illustrate the overall weakness of the current expansion.  Each figure shows, for every postwar expansion, a major macro indicator and its growth over time since the end of its preceding recession.  The three most recent expansions, including the current one, are color highlighted.

Figure 1A makes clear that growth has been slower in this expansion than in any previous expansion. Figure 1B shows that “real consumption has grown only about 18 percent compared to the trough of 2009—similar to the expansion of GDP—and also stands out as the slowest recovery of consumption growth in the postwar period.”

Perhaps most striking is the actual decrease in real government expenditure shown in figure 1D.  Real government expenditure is some 6 percent lower than it was eight years ago.  In no other expansion did real government expenditure fall.  Without doubt austerity is one of the main reasons for our current slow expansion.

Significantly, as we see in figure 7 below, the stock market has continued to boom in spite of the weak performance of the economy.  This figure shows that the total value of the stock market has risen sharply, regardless of whether compared to the growth in personal income or profits (measured by net operating surplus).   This rise has generally kept those at the top of the income pyramid happy despite the country’s weak overall economic performance.

No doubt, on-going wage stagnation, which has depressed consumption, and privatization, which has grown in concert with austerity, has helped to fuel this new stock market bubble.  One reason top income earners have been so favorable to the broad contours of Trump administration policy is that it is designed to strengthen both trends.

Recession will come.  In an era of secular stagnation that means the downturn will hit an already weak economy and struggling working class.  And the upturn that follows will likely be weaker than the current one.  Market forces will not save us.  Real improvements demand transformative policy changes.

Why Unions Matter

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

As the paper explains:

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

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

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

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

The attack on labor unions – and why they matter

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

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

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

The attack on unions 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The union difference 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why unions still matter 

Two widely respected labor economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the growth in the number of workers with so-called “alternative work arrangements,” which they “defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.” They found that the percentage of U.S. workers with such alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015. But their most startling finding was that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”

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

As the Wall Street Journal describes, “Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry.”

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

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

The Problem Of Hunger In The US

Food insecurity is a major problem in the US.   The food stamp program–renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008–helps, but that program is now threatened by the Trump administration.  An organization of the food insecure, echoing the Councils of the Unemployed of the 1930s, may well be needed if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing hunger.

The extent of food insecurity  

The federal government measures food insecurity using a yearly set of questions that are part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS).  The questions asked, as a Hamilton Project study on food insecurity and SNAP explains, are about:

households’ resources available for food and whether adults or children in the household adjusted their food intake—cutting meal size, skipping meals, or going for a day without food—because of lack of money for food. A household is considered to be “food insecure” if, due to a lack of resources, it had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of its members. The more-severe categorization of “very low food security” status describes those food-insecure households in which members’ food intake was reduced and their normal eating patterns disrupted at some point during the year because of a lack of resources for food. Food insecurity and very low food security are measured at the household level, though questions about adults and children are asked separately.

Officially, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure in 2015.  Five percent were very low food secure.

The extent of food insecurity is significantly greater in households with children under 18.  As we see below, 16.6 percent of all households with children suffered from food insecurity in 2015.  In more than half of those households, the adults were able to shelter their children.  However, both children and adults were food insecure in 7.8 percent of all households with children.

Food insecurity trends

Food insecurity is a problem in the United States even during periods of economic expansion.  As the following chart shows, more than one in ten households suffered from food insecurity during the growth years of 2001 to 2007.  The percentage of households experiencing food insecurity spiked with the start of the Great Recession and was slow to decline.  Although it is now falling, it is unclear whether it will return to pre-recession levels.

And, not surprisingly, non-white households are far more likely to experience food insecurity than white households.

It is also important to recognize that annual rates of food insecurity tend to minimize the true extent of the problem.  That is because households tend to move into and then out of food insecurity over time.  In other words, it is often a temporary problem.  Thus, many more families will experience food insecurity over a period of time than suggested by the annual numbers.  Of course, even one year of food insecurity can have serious health consequences.

As the Hamilton Institute study notes:

Annual rates of food insecurity mask the extent of the food insecurity problem. Using the Current Population Survey, we can follow large numbers of households across two consecutive years, allowing us to compare food security status over time. In consecutive years during the post-recession period 2008–14, over 24 percent of households with children experienced food insecurity in one or both years: 9 percent of household experienced food insecurity in consecutive years, and an additional 15 percent of households experienced food insecurity in only one of the two years.

SNAP 

SNAP is one of the most important federal responses to food insecurity. To qualify for food stamps, a household needs to earn at or below 130% of the poverty line—or about $26,000 or less a year for a family of three. As of May 2017, 42.3 million people were receiving food stamps. Without the SNAP program, many more people would be experiencing food insecurity.

The following figures show the rise in the number and percentage of people receiving food stamps, and the average monthly food stamp benefit.  The growth in the number of food stamp recipients over the 2001 to 2007 period of economic growth reflects the explosion in inequality and weak job growth.  And the need for food assistance exploded with the Great Recession and has remained high because of the weak economic recovery that has followed.

The challenge ahead

Determined to slash all non-military discretionary programs, President Trump’s proposed budget calls for cutting almost $200 billion over the next decade from the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program.  That is a cut of approximately 25 percent.

With weak job growth and stagnant wages likely in the years ahead, any cut to the SNAP budget will mean a new spike in hunger, especially for children.  One has to wonder when people will reach their limit and begin to organize and fight back.

Those struggling with food insecurity might well take inspiration from the work of the unemployed councils of the 1930s.  These councils provided a basis for the unemployed to resist rent increases and evictions, as well as fight for public assistance, unemployment insurance, and a public works program.  The councils also strongly supported union organizing efforts, ensuring that the unemployed respected union picket lines.  In return, many unions supported the work of the councils.

The unemployed in the 1930s eventually recognized that their situation was largely the result of the dysfunctional workings of the economic system of the time and they organized to defend their rights and change that system.  Households experiencing hunger today need to develop that same understanding about the root cause of their situation and respond accordingly.

We Should Demand Withdrawal From, Not Reform Of, Existing Trade Agreements

Many unions and progressive organizations hope to press President Trump to rework NAFTA and other trade agreements, such as the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement,  in ways that will strengthen worker rights in the US.  However, this effort is too limited and unlikely to succeed.  These agreements were designed to strengthen corporate rights and there is no way that they can be rehabilitated.  Our demand should be that the US government withdraw from all existing free trade and investment agreements.  Significantly, that is exactly what a number of countries have begun to do.

For example, as SouthNews reports:

Ecuador has unilaterally withdrawn from its remaining 16 bilateral investment treaties (BITs). With this decision, Ecuador has concluded the termination of 26 BITs signed by the country since 1968.

The 16 BITS which Ecuador is withdrawing from had been signed with the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, the United States, China, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile.

The Ecuadorian move is part of similar measures taken in recent years by a growing number of developing countries to withdraw from their bilateral investment treaties. These include South Africa, Bolivia, Indonesia and India.

Ecuador’s decision to withdrawal from its remaining BITs was driven in large part by the work of a 12 person government-civil society audit commission.  The Commission’s charge was to “verify the legality, legitimacy and lawfulness of investment treaties and other investment agreements signed by Ecuador, as well as to audit the validity and appropriateness of the awards, procedures, actions and decisions issued by Investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS) bodies and arbitral tribunals.”

The Commission’s 668 page report found that:

  1. The country’s BITs have not delivered the promised foreign direct investment
  2. The terms of the country’s BITs contradicted and undermined the country’s development objectives laid out in the country’s constitution and National Plan for Well-Being (Buen Vivir)
  3. The costs of the country’s BITs have far outweighed the benefits.

The Commission therefore recommended that the Ecuadorian government terminate all existing BITs and proposed that it negotiate entirely new investment instruments.  These new instruments, as reported by SouthNews:

should restrict the definition of investments, and strengthen the right of the State to regulate for the common good and sustainable development, including by recognizing the right of the State to impose obligations to foreign investors, apply performance requirements, secure the fiscal competence of the State, secure technology transfer, and force investors to respect international standards and human rights and the environment, among others.

The Commission also recommended the State not to include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in new BITs, and to strengthen the domestic jurisdiction in order to provide judicial guarantees for investors in national courts. These efforts should include the development of a comprehensive national policy on and specific rules for foreign investment, and the creation of one central agency to be in charge of the institutional governance of foreign investment.

Moreover, as the president of the Commission stated, “Fortunately Ecuador is not alone in denouncing these unjust investment agreements. It is joining a wave of countries around the world calling for a new international legal framework for investment which prioritizes public interest over corporate profits.”

In particular, South Africa, Indonesia, Bolivia and India are all taking steps to terminate their own investment agreements.  As SouthNews described:

Many countries in almost all regions have started to review their investment treaty regimes. . . . For example, South Africa initiated the termination of its existing BITs (when they expire) in recent years, with the objective of safeguarding its right to regulate investments and the right to establish development policies while at the same time protecting investor rights.   Bolivia has also withdrawn from its BITs.  India recently announced it would withdraw from 57 investment treaties with the objective of re-negotiating them based on its new model BIT.

The point is that the governments of these countries did not seek modification of their existing agreements, hoping to make them somewhat more supportive of national development objectives. Rather, they correctly understood that each agreement was composed of a complex interconnected set of standards, objectives, and regulations designed to promote corporate profit-making and as such were not reformable in a meaningful way.

Clearly, the US government is not interested in terminating its existing agreements.  To the extent that the Trump administration speaks about reform it is largely to blunt a growing popular movement against corporate designed globalization while it works to expand their reach to cover the digital economy, services, and financial services.  And that is precisely why we should not get into the reform game.  That is why we should sharpen the debate and make our own position clear: we support those governments that have decided to withdraw from their respective trade agreements and investment treaties and we want the US government to do the same.

 

The Need For A New US Foreign Policy Towards North Korea

US-North Korean relations remain very tense, although the threat of a new Korean War has thankfully receded.  Still the US government remains determined to tighten economic sanctions on North Korea and continues to plan for a military strike aimed at destroying the country’s nuclear infrastructure.  And the North for its part has made it clear that it would respond to any attack with its own strikes against US bases in the region and even the US itself.

This is not good, but it is important to realize that what is happening is not new.  The US began conducting war games with South Korean forces in 1976 and it was not long before those included simulated nuclear attacks against the North, and that was before North Korea had nuclear weapons.  In 1994, President Bill Clinton was close to launching a military attack on North Korea with the aim of destroying its nuclear facilities.  In 2002, President Bush talked about seizing North Korean ships as part of a blockade of the country, which is an act of war.  In 2013, the US conducted war games which involved planning for preemptive attacks on North Korean military targets and “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership and even a first strike nuclear attack.

I don’t think we are on the verge of a new Korean war, but the cycle of belligerency and threat making on both sides is intensifying.  And it is always possible that a miscalculation could in fact trigger a new war, with devastating consequences. The threat of war, perhaps a nuclear war, is nothing to play around with.  But – and this is important — even if a new war is averted, the ongoing embargo against North Korea and continual threats of war are themselves costly: they promote/legitimatize greater military spending and militarization more generally, at the expense of needed social programs, in Japan, China, the US, and the two Koreas.  They also create a situation that compromises democratic possibilities in both South and North Korea and worsen already difficult economic conditions in North Korea.

There is a choice for peace

We doesn’t have to go down this road—we have another option—but it is one that the US government is unwilling to consider, much less discuss.  That option is for the US to accept North Korean offers of direct negotiations between the two countries, with all issues on the table.

The US government and media dismiss this option as out of hand—we are told that (1) the North is a hermit kingdom and seeks only isolation, (2) the country is ruled by crazy people hell bent on war, and (3) the North Korean leadership cannot be trusted to follow through on its promises.  But none of this is true.

First: if being a hermit kingdom means never wanting to negotiate, then North Korea is not a hermit kingdom.  North Korea has been asking for direct talks with the United States since the early 1990s.  The reason is simple: this is when the USSR ended and Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries in central Europe moved to adopt capitalism.  The North was dependent on trade with these countries and their reorientation left the North Korean economy isolated and in crisis.

The North Korean leadership decided that they had to break out of this isolation and connect the North Korean economy to the global economy, and this required normalization of relations with the United States.  Since then, they have repeatedly asked for unconditional direct talks with the US in hopes of securing an end to the Korean War and a peace treaty as a first step towards their desired normalization of relations, but have been repeatedly rebuffed.  The US has always put preconditions on those talks, preconditions that always change whenever the North has taken steps to meet them.

The North has also tried to join the IMF and WB, but the US and Japan have blocked their membership.

The North has also tried to set up free trade zones to attract foreign investment, but the US and Japan have worked to block that investment.

So, it is not the North that is refusing to talk or broaden its engagement with the global economy; it is the US that seeks to keep North Korea isolated.

Second: the media portray North Korea as pursuing an out of control militarism that is the main cause of the current dangerous situation.  But it is important to recognize that South Korea has outspent North Korea on military spending every year since 1976.  International agencies currently estimate that North Korean annual military spending is $4 billion while South Korean annual military spending is $40 billion.  And then we have to add the US military build-up.

North Korea does spend a high percentage of its budget on the military, but that is because it has no reliable military ally and a weak economy.  However, it has largely responded to South Korean and US militarism and threats, not driven them.  As for the development of a nuclear weapons program: it was the US that brought nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula.  It did so in 1958 in violation of the Korean War armistice and threatened North Korea with nuclear attack years before the North even sought to develop nuclear weapons.

Third: North Korea has been a more reliable negotiating partner than the US. Here we have to take up the nuclear issue more directly.  The North has tested a nuclear weapon 5 times: 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016.

Critically, North Korean tests have largely been conducted in an effort to pull the US into negotiations or fulfill past promises.  And the country has made numerous offers to halt its testing and even freeze its nuclear weapons program if only the US would agree to talks.

North Korea was first accused of developing nuclear weapons in early 1990s.  Its leadership refused to confirm or deny that the country had succeeded in manufacturing nuclear weapons but said that it would open up its facilities for inspection if the US would enter talks to normalize relations.  As noted above, the North was desperate, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, to draw the US into negotiations.  In other words, it was ready to end the hostilities between the two countries.

The US government refused talks and began to mobilize for a strike on North Korean nuclear facilities.  A war was averted only because Jimmy Carter, against the wishes of the Clinton administration, went to the North, met Kim Il Sung, and negotiated an agreement that froze the North Korean nuclear program.

The North Korean government agreed to end their country’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and normalization.  And from 1994 to 2002 the North froze its plutonium program and had all nuclear fuel observed by international inspectors to assure the US that it was not engaged in making any nuclear weapons.   Unfortunately, the US did not live up to its side of the bargain; it did not deliver the aid it promised or take meaningful steps towards normalization.

In 2001 President Bush declared North Korea to be part of the axis of evil and the following year unilaterally canceled the agreement.  In response, the North restarted its nuclear program.

In 2003, the Chinese government, worried about growing tensions between the US and North Korea, convened multiparty talks to bring the two countries back to negotiations.  Finally, in 2005, under Chinese pressure, the US agreed to a new agreement, in which each North Korean step towards ending its weapons program would be matched by a new US step towards ending the embargo and normalizing relations.  But exactly one day after signing the agreement, the US asserted, without evidence, that North Korea was engaged in a program of counterfeiting US dollars and tightened its sanctions policy against North Korea.

The North Korean response was to test its first nuclear bomb in 2006.  And shortly afterwards, the US agreed to drop its counterfeiting charge and comply with the agreement it had previously signed.

In 2007 North Korea shut down its nuclear program and even began dismantling its nuclear facilities—but the US again didn’t follow through on the terms of the agreement, falling behind on its promised aid and sanction reductions.  In fact, the US kept escalating its demands on North Korea, calling for an end to North Korea’s missile program and improvement in human rights in addition to the agreed upon steps to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  And so, frustrated, North Korea tested another nuclear weapon in 2009.

And the US responded by tightening sanctions.

In 2012 the North launched two satellites.  The first failed, the second succeeded.  Before each launch the US threatened to go to the UN and secure new sanctions on North Korea.  But the North asserted its right to launch satellites and went ahead.  After the December 2012 launch, the UN agreed to further sanctions and the North responded with its third nuclear test in 2013.

This period marks a major change in North Korean policy. The North now changed its public stance: it declared itself a nuclear state—and announced that it was no longer willing to give up its nuclear weapons.  However, the North Korean government made clear that it would freeze its nuclear weapons program if the US would cancel its future war games.  The US refused and its March 2013 war games included practice runs of nuclear equipped bombers and planning for occupying North Korea.  The North has therefore continued to test and develop its nuclear weapons capability.

Here is the point: whenever the US shows willingness to negotiate, the North responds.  And when agreements are signed, it is the US that has abandoned them.  The North has pushed forward with its nuclear weapons program largely in an attempt to force the US to seriously engage with the North because it believes that this program is its only bargaining chip.  And it is desperate to end the US embargo on its economy.

We lost the opportunity to negotiate with a non-nuclear North Korea when we cut off negotiations in 2001, before the country had a nuclear arsenal. Things have changed.  Now, the most we can reasonably expect is an agreement that freezes that arsenal.  However, if relations between the two countries truly improve it may well be possible to achieve a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, an outcome both countries profess to seek.

New possibilities and our responsibilities

So, why does US refuse direct negotiations and risk war?  The most logical reason is that there are powerful forces opposing them.  Sadly, the tension is useful to the US military industrial complex, which needs enemies to support the ongoing build-up of the military budget.  The tension also allows the US military to maintain troops on the Asian mainland and forces in Japan.  It also helps to isolate China and boost right-wing political tendencies in Japan and South Korea.  And now, after decades of demonizing North Korea, it is difficult for the US political establishment to change course.

However, the outcome of the recent presidential election in South Korea might open possibilities to force a change in US policy. Moon Jae-in, the winner, has repudiated the hard-line policies of his impeached predecessor Park Guen-Hye, and declared his commitment to re-engage with the North.  The US government was not happy about his victory, but it cannot easily ignore Moon’s call for a change in South Korean policy towards North Korea, especially since US actions against the North are usually presented as necessary to protect South Korea. Thus, if Moon follows through on his promises, the US may well be forced to moderate its own policy towards the North.

What is clear is that we in the US have a responsibility to become better educated about US policy towards both Koreas, to support popular movements in South Korea that seek peaceful relations with North Korea and progress towards reunification, and to work for a US policy that promotes the demilitarization and normalization of US-North Korean relations.

I discuss this history of US-North Korean relations and current developments in South Korea in a May 8 interview on KBOO radio; you can hear the interview here: http://kboo.fm/media/57730-how-us-has-provoked-north-korea

To keep up on developments I encourage you to visit the following two websites:

Korea Policy Institute: kpolicy.org

ZoominKorea: zoominkorea.org

The Fading American Dream

A recently published study in Science Magazine by six scholars, “The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940,” makes clear that the workings of the contemporary US economy have largely destroyed one of the core tenets of the so-called American dream–that children can expect to enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents.

In particular, the authors found that rates of “absolute income mobility”– the fraction of children who earn more than their parents—“have fallen from approximately 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s.”

The study

The authors baseline study used data from the U.S. Census, Current Population Surveys, and tax records to determine the percentage of children with pretax measured earnings greater than those of their parents at a comparable age.  More specifically, “child income is measured at age 30 . . . as the sum of individual and spousal income, excluding immigrants after 1994. Parent income is measured . . . as the sum of the spouses’ incomes for families in which the highest earner is between ages 25 and 35.”

The following two figures show the results of their base line study.  Figure A shows the fraction of children earning more than their parents by parent income percentile for selected birth cohorts. Figure B shows the same for the average of all children in the given birth cohort.  Both charts make clear that the American dream is fading, and fading fast.

The authors summarize the results displayed in Figure A as follows:

In the 1940 birth cohort, nearly all children grew up to earn more than their parents, regardless of their parents’ income. Naturally, rates of absolute mobility were lower at the highest parent income levels, as children have less scope to do better than their parents if their parents had very high incomes.

Rates of absolute mobility have fallen substantially since 1940, especially for families in the middle and upper class. At the 10th percentile of the parent income distribution, children born in 1940 had a 94% chance of earning more than their parents, compared with 70% for children born in 1980. At the 50th percentile, rates of absolute mobility fell from 93% for children born in 1940 to 45% for those born in 1980. And at the 90th percentile, rates of absolute mobility fell from 88% to 33% over the same period.

As for Figure B:

Absolute mobility declined starkly across birth cohorts: On average, 92% of children born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents. In contrast, only 50% of children born in 1984 grew up to earn more than their parents. The downward trend in absolute mobility was especially sharp between the 1940 and 1964 cohorts. The decline paused for children born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whose incomes at age 30 were measured in the midst of the economic boom of the late 1990s. Absolute mobility then continued to fall steadily in the remaining birth cohorts.

The following two figures show how trends in absolute mobility vary by state.  Figure A shows absolute mobility by birth cohort for four states while Figure B does the same for all states.  As the authors explain:

Absolute mobility fell substantially in all 50 states between the 1940 and 1980 birth cohorts. Absolute mobility fell particularly sharply in the industrial Midwest, where rates of absolute mobility fell by 48 percentage points in Michigan and about 45 percentage points in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. The smallest declines occurred in states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Montana, where absolute mobility fell by about 35 percentage points.

The authors tested the robustness of their results by changing some of their baseline assumptions.

  • They redid their analysis using net income after taxes and transfers, rather than pretax earnings. They then adjusted the income variable to account for the growing use of fringe benefits.

 

  • They also reran their study with new target ages, measuring child income at 40 and parent income at ages 35 to 45, in recognition that social changes may have lengthened the time before children reached their peak earnings years.

 

  • They also tested to see if their results were sensitive to changes in marriage patterns and family size. And finally, they also carried out their study using individual rather than household earnings, looking at sons and fathers and then daughters and fathers.

 

None of these adjustments changed their conclusion that absolute mobility has fallen substantially since 1940.

Explanations

The authors examined two different explanations for the dramatic decline in absolute mobility since 1940: slowing rates of economic growth and increasing income inequality.

They tested these explanations using two counterfactual scenarios.  In the first, they asked what would have happened to absolute mobility for the 1980 birth cohort if the rate of growth was faster, similar to what it had been in the mid-20th century.   In the second, they asked what would have happened to absolute mobility for the same birth cohort if the rate of growth remained unchanged but income was distributed more equitably, as it was for the 1940 birth cohort.

Here is what they found:

Under the higher-growth counterfactual, the mean rate of absolute mobility [for the 1980 birth cohort] is 62%. This rate is 12 percentage points higher than the empirically observed value of 50% in 1980, but closes only 29% of the decline relative to the 92% rate of absolute mobility in the 1940 cohort. The increase in absolute mobility is especially modest, given the magnitude of the change in the aggregate economy: A growth rate of 2.5% per working-age family from 1980 to 2010 would have led to GDP of $20 trillion in 2010, $5 trillion (35%) higher than the actual level.

The more broadly shared growth scenario increases the average rate of absolute mobility to 80%, closing 71% of the gap in absolute mobility between the 1940 and 1980 cohorts.

In other words, most of the decline in absolute mobility is due to the rise in inequality, not the slowdown in growth.  Thus, efforts to speed up growth are unlikely to do much to reverse current trends.  As the authors say:

With the current distribution of income, higher GDP growth rates alone are insufficient to restore absolute mobility to the levels experienced by children in the 1940s and 1950s. If one wants to revive the “American dream” of high rates of absolute mobility, then one must have an interest in growth that is spread more broadly across the income distribution.

Unfortunately, left unexamined are the causes of this growth in inequality.  And this takes us to the workings of the contemporary US economy and more importantly, the core strategies embraced by corporations in their pursuit of profit: globalization, financialization, privatization, the gutting of social programs, the destruction of unions, and the restructuring of work.  Said differently, the enormous growth in inequality over the last decades is the result of policies, many of them promoted by government, that were designed to boost the power and profits of a small group of people. Thus, “spreading growth more broadly across the income distribution” is going to require nothing less than the creation of a powerful social movement willing and able to challenge and change those policies.

Robots And Automation Are Not The Cause Of Our Labor Market Troubles

Employment growth remains weak in the United States.  Many in the media happily encourage us to blame the growing use of robots, or automation more generally, for this situation.  Their message is that we are just experiencing the consequences of technological progress and no one should want to fight that.  However, that is just misdirection; the numbers make clear that it is corporate financial “wheelings and dealings,” not robots and automation, that is the primary cause of our current employment woes.

Productivity Trends

If robots or automation were holding back employment growth we should see rapidly rising rates of output per labor hour or what economists call productivity.  In other words, the new technology would allow companies to greatly increase their production with the same number or even fewer hours of human labor.  And, as a consequence, the demand for labor would slow, leading to weak employment growth.

Here is how the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains productivity:

Labor productivity is a measure of economic performance that compares the amount of goods and services produced (output) with the number of labor hours used in producing those goods and services. It is defined mathematically as real output per labor hour, and growth occurs when output increases faster than labor hours. . . . Technological advances, greater investment in machinery and equipment by businesses, increases in worker skill and experience, and other improvements to production can all lead to labor productivity growth.

The problem for those who want to blame our labor market woes on robots and automation is that US productivity gains have been historically weak, not strong, during this economic expansion.

Chart 1 shows the growth in output, hours worked, and labor productivity (shown by the red bar) for the non-farm business sector over every business cycle starting in 1948, as well as for the average business cycle for the historical period.  Of course, our current cycle is not yet over, and the data in this chart only take us through the 3rd quarter of 2016.  But our current expansion is already the longest, and since productivity tends to fall the longer an expansion goes on, we are unlikely to see much of an improvement in the numbers over the rest of the cycle.

As we can see, the growth in labor productivity in the current business cycle, at 1.1 percent, is tied with the 1980-1981 cycle for the lowest rate of productivity growth for the entire historical period.  Labor productivity growth for the average cycle is 2.3 percent.  The current business cycle also has the second lowest rate of growth in output.

Chart 5 offers another way to appreciate how weak productivity growth has been during the current business cycle.  It compares the growth in labor productivity over this cycle with the growth in productivity over the previous cycle (2001 to 2007) and the longer period 1947 to 2007.

In the words of the BLS:

Through most of the Great Recession, labor productivity lagged behind historical growth rates, but then it achieved above-average gains coming out of the recession and into the early quarters of the recovery. The U.S. economy actually caught up to the long-term historical trend (the dashed red line) in the fourth quarter of 2009, although it was still slightly behind the trend from the last cycle (the dotted red line) at that point. However, after 2010, productivity growth stagnated and a substantial deficit relative to historical trends developed over the next 5 years. By the third quarter of 2016, labor productivity in the current business cycle had grown at an average rate of just 1.1 percent, well below the long-term average rate of 2.3 percent from 1947 to 2007 and even further behind the 2.7 percent average rate over the cycle from 2001 to 2007.

In short, if robots or automation were replacing workers this would be reflected in strong productivity growth.  In fact, we see quite the opposite: the weakest productivity growth for any business cycle in the post-1947 historical period.

While high productivity does not guarantee strong wage gains, workers normally find it easier to force business to boost wages when output per labor hour is significantly growing.  Low productivity gains, on the other hand, normally translate into weak wage growth.  And that is what we see today.

Chart 6 shows the growth in labor productivity, real hourly compensation, and the wage gap (difference between productivity and compensation) over the 1948 to 2016 period.

As we can see, the growth in real hourly compensation (shown by the gold bar) has been extremely weak this business cycle, growing by only 0.7 percent.  As the BLS notes:

[This] is low by historical standards. The rate is lower than the average real hourly compensation growth rate of 1.7 percent observed during other business cycles. The rate is also below the rates of all other cycles, except for a brief six-quarter cycle in the early 1980s. Note also that the low growth rate of the current business cycle is a near-continuation of the similarly low growth rate of the early-2000s cycle (0.8 percent).

 Behind The Scenes

For all the talk about technology, business investment has been weak, as illustrated in the following charts from the Economic Policy Institute.  Capital investment has been slow compared with past periods and the same is true for business investment in information technology equipment and software—the alleged drivers of technological innovation.

So, what are businesses doing with their ample profits?  The answer is that they are using them to repurchase their own stock in order to boost stock prices (and managerial salaries) and to pay large dividends to their stockholders.  In other words, engaging in financial transactions to enrich those at the top.

Figure 1, from Yardeni Research, shows the annual dollar value (in billions) of stock buybacks, which is the repurchase of shares by the company that initially issued them, for S&P 500 listed firms over the years 1999 to 2016.  Figure 2 shows annual dividend payouts for these same firms.   Each has been substantial since 2003, although the period of the Great Recession did produce a steep short term dip.

Figure 12,  by showing the value of S&P 500 buybacks and dividends as a percent of operating earnings, illustrates just how substantial this financial activity has become.  Operating earnings are a key measure of profitability and are calculated by subtracting direct business expenses–such as the cost of production, administration and marketing, depreciation, etc.–from revenues.  What we see is that business spending on buybacks and dividends has actually been greater than total operating earnings for several years since 2007, including 2016.

In short, S&P 500 listed businesses are shoveling almost all their profits, and then some in many years, into financial dealings.  No wonder real capital investment has been weak and productivity, wage, and employment growth slow.  Forget that stuff about robots and automation.