Wages are so stagnant even the Federal Reserve has begun to notice

You are working harder while not making more. It isn’t your imagination. The latest research demonstrating this comes, interestingly, from the St. Louis branch of the United States Federal Reserve.

Perhaps the researchers examining the relation between wages and productivity hoped this work wouldn’t be noticed by the public, as it was published in an obscure publication, Economic Synopses, produced by the St. Louis Fed. Regardless, it is of interest. The two authors, B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao, not only found a divergence between rising productivity and stagnant wages in the current “recovery” from last decade’s economic collapse, but that this has been a consistent pattern.

The Economic Synopses paper found that labor productivity for U.S. workers has increased six percent since 2009, while wages have declined 0.5 percent. (The authors measure labor productivity as real total output divided by total hours worked and labor compensation as real total labor compensation divided by total hours worked.)

Looking back to the previous officially designated recession in the U.S., declared to have ended in 2001, the authors found that over the following five years productivity increased about 13 percent, while wages increased by about five percent. Overall, the authors summarize by demonstrating that wages have lagged productivity by a wide margin since 1950, with the gap beginning to widen in the 1970s. Productivity in 2016 is 3.8 times higher than it was in 1950, while wages are only 2.7 times greater.

Wages and productivity in the United States since 1950 (Graphic by the St. Louis Fed, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

Wages and productivity in the United States since 1950 (Graphic by the St. Louis Fed, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

We are talking about the Federal Reserve here, so Dr. Ravikumar and Mr. Shao are not offering any analysis. In about a tepid a conclusion as possible, they write:

“In conclusion, labor compensation failed to catch up with labor productivity after the 2007-09 recession. However, the driving force behind it is not unique to the recent recession but is part of a long-term trend of a widening productivity-compensation gap.”

Ideology in the service of inequality

Hmm, something mysterious? Or as natural as the tides of the ocean? Well, no, if we think for even a moment about the asymmetric class warfare that has raged for decades. Yet neoclassic economic ideology (and not only its extreme Chicago School variant) continues to insist that we get what we deserve and that labor is compensated for what it produces.

Neoclassical economics is an ideologically driven belief system based on mathematical formulae, divorced from the conditions of the actual, physical world, and which seeks to put human beings at the service of markets rather than using markets to provide for human needs. Economic activity is treated as a simple exchange of freely acting, mutually benefitting, equal firms and households in a market that automatically, through an “invisible hand,” self-adjusts and self-regulates to equilibrium.

Households and firms are considered only as market agents, never as part of a social system, and because the system is assumed to consistently revert to equilibrium, there is no conflict. Production is alleged to be independent of all social factors, the employees who do the work of production are in their jobs due to personal choice, and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences.

The real world does not actually work this way — the executives and financiers who reap fortunes from the huge multi-national corporations they control and who can bend governments to their will have rather more power than you do. Neoclassical economics does not adjust to the real world because it is, at bottom, an ideological construct to justify massive inequality, which is why two other Federal Reserve researchers declared that the reason for economic difficulty in recent years is that wages have not fallen enough!

Productivity gains outstrip wages around the world

Stagnant or declining wages, however, are quite noticeable in the real world. Independent studies have found that the lag of wages as compared to productivity costs the average U.S. and Canadian employee hundreds of dollars per week. That is by no means a trend limited to North America — employees in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan have experienced differentials between wages and productivity, albeit not as severe as what is endured by U.S. workers.

Where is the extra money taken out of employees’ pockets going? Not necessarily to the bosses at the point of production — financiers are taking an increasingly large share of profits. Financialization is a response to declining rates of profits and that the one percent have more money flowing into their bank accounts than they can find useful outlets for investment. During periods of bubbles, financial speculation becomes more profitable than production, drawing still more money and thus increasing the already bloated size of the financial industry.

In turn, ultra-low interest rates help inflate stock-market bubbles, in effect acting as a subsidy for financial profits. The world’s central banks have flooded financial markets with more than US$6.5 trillion (€6 trillion) in “quantitative easing” programs, and all that has been accomplished is the inflation of a stock-market bubble because speculators have poured money into stock markets in the wake of low bond returns resulting from the quantitative easing. Concomitantly, corporate executives have borrowed money at low interest to fuel a binge of buying back stocks, adding to speculative fevers.

In an interesting article in the July-August 2016 issue of Monthly Review, “The Profits of Financialization,” Costas Lapavitsas and Ivan Mendieta-Muñoz calculate that the profits earned by the financial industry as a percentage of overall U.S. corporate profits increased steadily throughout the second half of the 20th century, more than tripling from 1950 to the early 2000s. Although now below the early 2000s peak, financial profits remain at historically high levels.

U.S. financial profits as percentage of corporate profits of domestic industries, 1955–2015 (Graphic by Monthly Review, based on U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data)

U.S. financial profits as percentage of corporate profits of domestic industries, 1955–2015 (Graphic by Monthly Review, based on U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data)

Because central banks have kept interest rates at extraordinarily low levels for years, the authors argue that high financial profits represent a “vast public subsidy to the financial system” and thus an “expropriation” that is “a hallmark of financialization.”

Federal Reserve researchers may have just discovered what has long been apparent to working people and “heterodox” economists, but aren’t going to offer any solutions, must less formulate critiques of the system that produces such results.

The harder you work, the richer the executives and bankers get. What if, instead, those who did the work reaped the rewards? That, however, will require a different system.


2 comments on “Wages are so stagnant even the Federal Reserve has begun to notice

  1. A pity so few people at the Federal Reserve have actually read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations – despite citing it incessantly. Smith explains quite eloquently that government must intervene to prevent rich people from diverting their profits into luxuries – or risk having their national economies collapse.

    • Adam Smith’s present-day fans cherry-pick from his writings, ignoring the parts that were favorable to labor. Nonetheless, Smith certainly admired the bourgeoisie and despised the aristocracy, and that the latter might be who he had in mind when he wrote the parts you referenced.

      Smith wanted accumulated capital to be invested, not hoarded, which is why he advocated large rewards for capitalists at the same time he argued for labor to be fairly compensated. We know which part of that equation gets promoted.

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