Archive for the ‘Inequality’ Category
The economist Ed Dolan sums up the current state of the U.S. economy in a recent blog post with the following headline: “Latest US GDP data show economy weak at year’s end but corporate profits near record high.”
The chart below, taken from that post, illustrates the steady rise in corporate profits. As Dolan comments, “both before-tax and after-tax profits, stated as a percentage of GDP, reached their second highest level ever recorded, falling just short of their all-time highs of Q4 2011.”
One reason for this trend has been the ability of corporations to squeeze labor. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster highlight this corporate success in their Monthly Review article “Class War and Labor’s Declining Share.”
The following four charts are taken from the article. The first chart looks at total labor compensation as a percent of GDP. The downward trend is visible but the extent of the attack on workers is somewhat masked since the data includes all workers and total benefits. The second chart looks just at wages and salaries, again for all workers.
Chart 3 looks just at production and nonsupervisory workers. These workers account for approximately 80 percent of all private sector workers. We can see that while their share of total employment has remained relatively constant, their share of payroll has dramatically fallen. Chart 4 compares wage and salary trends for production and nonsupervisory workers with trends for management, supervisory, and other nonproduction employees.
These last two charts make clear that the war on labor has been focused on production and nonsupervisory workers, and has been going on for decades. And it doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to connect these trends with the growing suffering of most working people, the explosion in income inequality, and the rise in corporate profits.
But what are corporations doing with their profits? As it turns out they are using their gains not to strengthen the economy but rather to reward their already wealthy stockholders (with dividends) and managers (with higher bonus boosting stock prices).
As the Wall Street Journal reports: “Firms Send Record Cash Back to Investors.” The article explains the headline as follows:
U.S. companies are showering investors with a record windfall in the form of dividends and share buybacks, helping to propel the stock market’s rally. Companies in the S&P 500 index are expected to pay at least $300 billion in dividends in 2013, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices, which would top last year’s $282 billion. . . .
American corporations also announced plans to buy back $117.8 billion of their own shares in February, the highest monthly total in records dating back to 1985, according to Birinyi Associates Inc. a Westport, Conn.-based market research firm. Home Depot Inc., General Electric Co. and PepsiCo Inc. are among a number of large companies that announced plans last month to scoop up large amounts of their own shares. . . .
In returning money to shareholders, companies by and large are tapping into cash piles they have accumulated in the past few years by cutting costs or taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow funds. . . .
“Corporations are flush with cash and that cash sitting in the corporate coffers is earning next to nothing,” said Rob Leiphart, an analyst at Birinyi. “Companies have to do something with it.”
Clearly, all is well for those at the top. And that is the problem for those of us opposing austerity.
While newspapers give a lot of ink to arguments about whether reducing the budget deficit will boost or reduce growth, they seem to have little interest in the related issue of whether economic growth really benefits the great majority.
David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize winning financial journalist, recently addressed this issue drawing on the work of economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty:
In 2011 entry into the top 10 percent . . . required an adjusted gross income of at least $110,651. The top 1 percent started at $366,623.
The top 1 percent enjoyed 81 percent of all the increased income since 2009. Just over half of the gains went to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and 39 percent of the gains went to the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.
Ponder that last fact for a moment — the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, those making at least $7.97 million in 2011, enjoyed 39 percent of all the income gains in America.
So, 81 percent of all the new income generated from 2009 to 2011 was captured by the top 1 percent income earners, where income is defined as adjusted gross income, which refers to income minus deductions or taxable income. In other words growth, even accelerated growth, is not going to do the majority much good if the economic structure remains the same.
Johnston highlights the problem with our existing economic model with perhaps an even more shocking example. He compares the average income growth of the bottom 90 percent with the average income growth of the top 10 percent, 1 percent, and top 1 percent of the top 1 percent over the period 1966 to 2011.
It turns out that the average income of the bottom 90 percent rose by a miniscule $59 over the period (as measured in 2011 dollars). By comparison, the average income of the top 10 percent rose by $116,071, the average income of the top 1 percent rose by $628,817, and the average income of the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent increased by a whopping $18,362,740. In short, growth alone means little if the great majority of people are structurally excluded from the benefits.
In an effort to highlight this extreme disparity in adjusted income growth rates, Johnston suggests plotting the numbers on a chart, with $59, the amount gained by the bottom 90 percent, represented by a bar one inch high. As the chart below shows, the bar representing average gains for the top 10 percent would be 163 feet high, that for the top 1 percent would be 884 feet high, and that for the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent would be 4.9 miles high.
In sum, the real challenge facing the great majority of Americans is not figuring out how to make the economy growth faster. Rather, it is figuring out how to create space for a real debate about how to transform our economy so that growth will actually satisfy majority needs.
Many expected that the severity of the Great Recession, recognition that the prior expansion was largely based on unsustainable bubbles, and an anemic post-crisis recovery, would lead to serious discussion about the need to transform our economy. Yet, it hasn’t happened.
One important reason is that not everyone has experienced the Great Recession and its aftermath the same. Jordan Weissmann, writing in the Atlantic, published the following figure from the work of Edward Wolff. As of 2010, median household net worth was back to levels last seen in the early 1960s. In contrast, mean household net worth had only retreated some ten years.
The great disparity between median and mean wealth declines is a reflection of the ability of those at the top of the wealth distribution to maintain most of their past gains. And the lack of discussion about the need for change in our economic system is largely a reflection of the ability of those very same people to influence our political leaders and shape our policy choices.
One of the subthemes of current discussions about how best to reduce our national debt is that we must reign in out-of-control spending on federal safety net programs. The reality is quite different.
The chart below shows spending trends in terms of GDP for the ten major needs-tested benefit programs that make-up our federal social safety net. The programs, in the order listed on the chart, are:
- The refundable portion of the health insurance tax credit enacted in the 2010 health care reform law
- Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Financial assistance for post-secondary students (Pell Grants)
- Compensatory Education Grants to school districts
- Assisted Housing
- The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- The Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Family Support Payments
As Jared Bernstein explains:
for all the popular wisdom that programs to help low-income people are swallowing the economy, the truth is that like so much else that plagues our fiscal future, it’s all about health care spending. The figure shows that as a share of GDP, prior to the Great Recession, non-health care spending was cruising along at around 1.5% for decades. It was Medicaid/CHIP (Medicaid expansion for kids) that did most of the growing.
Regardless, the recent explosion in the ratio of Medicare/CHIP spending to GDP is largely due to the severity of the Great Recession, not the generosity of the programs. The recession increased poverty and thus eligibility for the programs, thereby pushing up the numerator, while simultaneously lowering GDP, the denominator. Moreover, spending on all non-health care safety net programs is on course to dramatically decline as a share of GDP. Even Medicare/Chip spending is projected to stabilize as a share of GDP.
These programs are essential given the poor performance of the economy and in most cases poorly funded. Cutting their budgets will not only deny people access to health care, housing, education, and food, it will also further weaken the economy, in both the short and long run.
The good economic news, which got plenty of attention, is that the U.S. economy added over 170,000 new jobs in October. The largely unreported negative news is that average real hourly wages in the private sector declined that month, and have been in decline for most of the past year.
It is hard to remember that the economy has been in expansion since June 2009.
Jeffrey Sparshott, in a Wall Street Journal blog post, offered the following chart of the trend in hourly earnings in private industry, with each point showing the change from a year earlier.
Citing a Labor Department report, Sparshott noted that:
hours worked were flat [in October] for the fourth straight month. Meanwhile, average hourly earnings for all employees on private payrolls fell by 1 cent to $23.58 in October. Over the past 12 months, earnings have risen a scant 1.6%. That’s not enough to keep up with inflation. The consumer price index was up 2% in September from a year earlier.
It’s even worse for blue-collar workers. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees edged down by 1 cent to $19.79, only a 1.1% increase over the past year.
The blog post quoted the HSBC’s chief U.S. economist who said:
This is the smallest increase in wages on record for the data going back to 1964. The persistently high level of unemployment over the past few years is clearly restraining wage gains and suppressing any inflationary pressures that might have possibly emanated from the labor market.
It also quoted the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase who said:
This pace of labor income growth may be quite acceptable for corporate profits, but it does pose headwinds for consumer spending growth.
Consumer spending did rise last quarter, helping to boost third quarter U.S. GDP, but this was largely because of a decline in the personal savings rate, which fell from 4.0% in the second quarter to 3.7% in the third.
We clearly don’t have a foundation for a sustained economic recovery, certainly not one that brings benefits to the majority of workers. Instead of talk about austerity we need a real debate about the best way to strength worker bargaining power.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s low federal tax rate—14.1%—has called attention to the fact that our tax code favors people who make their money from investments rather than labor. According to the conventional wisdom, this is as it should be. It encourages people, like our job creators, to invest their money, thereby boosting growth and the well-being of all working people. Sounds plausible but the facts don’t support the policy.
BusinessWeek lays out the background and political context for our current low taxation rates on investment income as follows:
Since 1950 capital gains have generally been taxed at a lower rate than income, to spur investment. The rate under President George W. Bush went from 20 percent to 15—the lowest ever—and was billed as a way to stimulate the economy. (If nothing’s done by Jan. 1 to change tax and budget provisions already passed by Congress, the rate will snap back to 20 percent, a scenario both parties hope to avoid.) Mitt Romney wants to ditch capital gains tax altogether for people earning less than $250,000. President Barack Obama, in his Affordable Care Act, increased the rate by 3.8 percent for high earners beginning in 2013, and has proposed the so-called Buffett Rule, which would among other things end an accounting interpretation that allows private equity and hedge fund managers (and Romney) to save money by paying tax on their earnings at the capital gains rate. Neither candidate, though, contests the Bush administration’s basic logic: that a lower capital gains rate encourages investment, which creates jobs and helps the economy grow. That doesn’t mean they’re right.
Leonard E. Burman, a tax expert, took on this issue in recent testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance. A good place to start is with who benefits from lower capital gains taxes.
Not surprisingly, as the figure below (which is taken from Burman’s testimony) shows, the benefits are extremely concentrated. As Burman noted:
In 2010, the highest-income 20 percent realized more than 90 percent of long-term capital gains according to the TaxPolicyCenter. The top 1 percent realized almost 70 percent of gains and the richest 1 in 1,000 households accrued about 47 percent. It is hard to think of another form of income that is more concentrated by income.
Moreover, as the next figure shows, the concentration of capital gains has grown over time. Given that the rich fund political campaigns, this certainly helps to explain why both political parties are so determined to keep the rate low.
But, to the main question—do lower capital gains taxes actually boost growth? This is what Burman had to say in his testimony:
The heated rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no obvious relationship between tax rates on capital gains and economic growth. Figure 4 [below] shows top tax rates on long-term capital gains and real economic growth (measured as the percentage change in real GDP) from 1950 to 2011. If low capital gains tax rates catalyzed economic growth, we’d expect to see a negative relationship–high gains rates, low growth, and vice versa–but there is no apparent relationship between the two time series. The correlation is 0.12, the opposite sign from what capital gains tax cut advocates would expect, and not statistically different from zero. Although not shown, I’ve tried lags up to five years and using moving averages, but there is never a larger or statistically significant relationship.
Burman notes that he posted this figure on his blog and offered the data to anyone interested, challenging readers to find support for lower rates. “A half dozen or so people, including at least one outspoken critic of taxing capital gains, took me up on the offer, but nobody to my knowledge has been able to tease a meaningful relationship between capital gains tax rates and the GDP out of the data.”
As reported in a previous post, Thomes L. Hungerford, writing for the Congressional Research Service, came to the same conclusion about the lack of any relationship between the capital gains tax and GDP. In fact, he concluded raising the top income and capital gains tax rates would likely reduce income inequality without causing harm to the economy.
So, if we are really concerned with the budget deficit, rather than slashing spending on social programs lets raise the top tax rates. Wonder if this will come up during our presidential debates?
The stock market looms large in our understanding of the economy. The business news is often little more than a report on the movement of the market. High school economics classes often introduce the study of the economy to students by encouraging them to pick and follow a favorite stock. Managers of corporations are judged by how well their actions result in higher stock prices.
All this could easily lead one to think that the great majority of Americans are stockholders. In fact, as the chart below shows, very few Americans own significant shares of stock and therefore directly benefit from the market’s rise.
It is easy to understand why the top earners are happy with this identification of the economy with the stock market. It ensures that economic activity is largely organized and outcomes evaluated with their interests in mind. What is not so easy to understand is why the great majority of working people continue to accept this identification.
Politicians always seem to be talking about the middle class. They need some new focus groups. According to the Pew Research Center, over the past four years the percentage of adult Americans that say they are in the lower class has risen significantly, from a quarter to almost one-third (see chart below).
Pew also found that the demographic profile of the self-defined lower class has also changed. Young people, according to Pew, “are disproportionately swelling the ranks of the self-defined lower classes.” More specifically some 40% of those between 18 to 29 years of age now identify as being in the lower classs compared to only 25% in 2008.
Strikingly the percentage of whites and blacks that see themselves in the lower class is now basically equal. The percentage of whites who consider themselves in the lower class rose from less than a quarter in 2008 to 31% in 2012. This brought them in line with blacks, whose percentage remained at a third. The percentage of Latinos describing themselves as lower class rose to 40%, a ten percentage point increase from 2008.
And not surprisingly, as the chart below shows, many who self-identify as being in the lower class are experiencing great hardships. In fact, one in three faced four or all five of the problem addressed in the survey.
In short, there is a lot of hurting in our economy.
The media has focused on the lack of jobs as a major election issue. But the concern needs to go beyond jobs to the quality of those jobs.
As a report by the National Employment Law Project makes clear, we are experiencing a low wage employment recovery. This trend, the result of an ongoing restructuring of economic activity, has profound consequences for issues of poverty, inequality, and community stability.
The authors of the report examined 366 occupations and divided them into three equally sized groups by wage. The lower-wage group included occupations which paid median hourly wages ranging from $7.69 to $13.83. The mid-wage group range was from $13.84 to $21.13. The higher-wage group range was from $21.14 to $54.55.
The figure below shows net employment changes in each of these groups during the recession period (2008Q1 to 2010Q1) and the current recovery (2010Q1 to 2012Q1). Specifically:
- Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
- Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
- Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.
The next figure shows the lower-wage occupations with the fastest growth and their median hourly wages. According to the report, three low-wage industries (food services, retail, and employment services) added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years, 43 percent of net employment growth. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections these are precisely the occupations that can be expected to provide the greatest number of new jobs over the next 5-10 years.
As the final figure shows, the decline in mid-wage occupations predates the recession. Since the first quarter of 2001, employment has grown by 8.7 percent in lower-wage occupations and by 6.6 percent in higher-wage occupations. By contrast, employment in mid-wage occupations has fallen by 7.3.
Significantly, as the report also notes, “the wages paid by these occupations has changed. Between the first quarters of 2001 and 2012, median real wages for lower-wage and mid-wage occupations declined (by 2.1 and 0.2 percent, respectively), but increased for higher-wage occupations (by 4.1 percent).”
A New York Times article commenting on this report included the following:
This “polarization” of skills and wages has been documented meticulously by David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A recent study found that this polarization accelerated in the last three recessions, particularly the last one, as financial pressures forced companies to reorganize more quickly.
“This is not just a nice, smooth process,” said Henry E. Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, who helped write the recent study about polarization and the business cycle. “A lot of these jobs were suddenly wiped out during recession and are not coming back.”
Steady as she goes is just not going to do it and changes in taxes and spending programs, regardless of how significant, cannot compensate for the increasingly negative trends generated by private sector decisions about the organization and location of, as well as compensation for production.
Mainstream economics is largely built on theories that assume that people are best understood as highly competitive and individualistic maximizing agents. In fact, capitalism is said to be the most desirable economic system ever constructed precisely because its laws of motion are in sync with these traits. Capitalism’s desirability is easily called into question, however, if people highly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity. After all, capitalist imperatives tend to work against the development of social conditions and institutions that promote these values.
Many supporters of capitalism draw upon studies of non-human animal behavior to defend their assumptions about human nature. But, as the Ted Talk by Frans de Waal found here (and below) demonstrates, non-human animals also greatly value fairness, cooperation, and relations of solidarity.
After watching the video take a few moments to imagine an economic system that builds upon these attractive values, then compare the policies that would be helpful to create it with the policies we currently promote to strengthen our existing economic system. For example, how would this foundational shift influence our thinking about how best to organize production, relate production decisions to social and community needs, structure the ownership of society’s productive assets, and so on.