If the economy is so good, why are wages flat?

We are supposedly seven years into a “recovery” from the global economic collapse that commenced in 2008. The latest evidence offered to promote this oft-peddled mantra is that U.S. gross domestic product showed a strong uptick for the second quarter of 2018, an annualized rate of 4.1 percent, nearly double that of the first quarter.

Coupled with the ongoing decline in unemployment (although standard unemployment rates greatly underestimate the true rate of employment), orthodox economists, conservative propagandists and apologists for the Trump administration would have use believe happy days are here again.

So why aren’t our wages increasing?

In part, it is because the true unemployment rate is not nearly so low as the “official” unemployment rate used by governments around the world, and thus the ranks of unemployed and underemployed are sufficiently large that there is no upward pressure on wages. Orthodox economists, dedicated as they are to ignoring any evidence that doesn’t match their models designed to “prove” that all manners of capitalist excess are as natural as the tides of the ocean — and thus in practice the professional wing of conservative propagandists — have various excuses for stagnant wages and ever increasing inequality. A favorite among these is an alleged “skills mismatch” — too many unskilled workers and a shortage of skilled workers for the high-tech jobs of today.

Striking fast food workers were joined by university workers, students, janitors, retail workers and airport workers in an April 15 action in Minneapolis. (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The data tells a different story, however. A 2014 report by the National Employment Law Project found that low-wage jobs were created at a faster pace than higher-paid jobs were lost in the first years to that point. The Project reported this breakdown:

  • Lower-wage industries ($9.48 per hour to $13.33) constituted 22 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 44 percent of jobs gained since then.
  • Mid-wage industries ($13.73 to $20.00) constituted 37 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 26 percent of jobs gained since then.
  • Higher-wage industries ($20.03 to $32.62) constituted 41 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 30 percent of jobs gained since then.

Moreover, an Economic Policy Institute study at the time found that those among the two categories of “some college” and holders of four-year college degrees showed the highest increases in long-term unemployment.

Imbalance in power forces down wages

The situation has not changed significantly since. A July 2018 commentary by the Economic Policy Institute, written by Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, notes that wages remain stagnant even though more recently middle- and high-wage jobs are being added at strong proportions than low-wage jobs. This development means that there is now upward pressure on wages, they write.

Yet wages clearly are not rising. How to account for this disparity? Dr. Shierholz and Dr. Gould argue that the increasing power of employers over employees is counteracting that upward pressure to instead depresses wages:

“What is most likely happening is that worker leverage and bargaining power have been so decimated by policy choices—policy choices that have, for example, led to the erosion of union coverage and labor standards like the minimum wage—that for tight labor markets to spark upward wage pressure the economy requires a much lower unemployment rate now than it did in the past.”

If there really were a shortage of skilled workers, the two economists wrote in a separate commentary, there would be faster wage growth because employers would need to offer higher wages to attract the limited pool of candidates. Therefore,

“Since we continue to see anemic average wage growth, not just slow wage growth for select groups of workers, it’s clear that there is not a widespread shortage of the types of workers (i.e., those with the right skills) that employers need.”

Compounding this situation is that the ongoing merger mania means that fewer corporations control the labor market. In other words, there are more industries in which a small number of companies have “monopsony power.” (A single or very limited number of sellers possess a monopoly; a single or very limited number of buyers constitutes a monopsony.) Dr. Shierholz and Dr. Gould explain that monopsony employers are able to pay less. They wrote:

“When firms have monopsony power, they are able to pay workers less than what their work is ‘worth,’ i.e. less than their marginal product. But a key dynamic of monopsony power is that even though monopsonists would like to hire more workers, the low wages they offer mean they can’t attract more workers unless they pay more. That is, it is a normal state of affairs for a firm with monopsony power to wish they could hire more workers at the wages they are offering, but to be unable to attract additional workers because their wages are too low. So when a firm with the power to set wages below a workers’ marginal product complains about not being able to find workers at the wages they are offering, it’s useful to remember that they are choosing to keep wages low in order to increase profits—which remain high as a share of corporate sector income—and could get more workers by simply raising wages. And importantly, when firms with monopsony power complain about not being able to find workers, it is not adequate evidence of a skills shortage.”

The inadequacy of gross domestic product

A look at numbers beyond gross domestic product reveal the true state of the economy. GDP, defined as “the sum of private consumption and investment and government spending (with account taken for foreign trade),” is increasingly seen as an inadequate measure. Even one of the leading voices of British finance capital, The Economist, criticizes GDP as a relic designed to measure economic output during World War II, terming it “A measure created when survival was at stake [that] took little notice of things such as depreciation of assets, or pollution of the environment, let alone finer human accomplishments.”

Similar criticisms have been offered by the International Monetary Fund, certainly no friend of working people. An IMF commentary admitted:

“The limit of GDP as a measure of economic welfare is that it records, largely, monetary transactions at their market prices. This measure does not include, for example, environmental externalities such as pollution or damage to species, since nobody pays a price for them. Nor does it incorporate changes in the value of assets, such as the depletion of resources or loss of biodiversity: GDP does not net these off the flow of transactions during the period it covers.”

Left unsaid by these standard-bearers of the establishment is that GDP pays no attention to inequality. If there is more wealth, but all that wealth is concentrated in a small number of hands while all others suffer declining living standards, then GDP will rise even though working people are worse off. And, as alluded to by The Economist and the IMF, a degradation in the environment could cause a spike in GDP because some corporation will make money from a government contract to clean up the mess (paid for by taxpayers) at the same time that the corporation that caused the mess can offload that cost onto society, and thus enhance its profitability.

A one-time boost to GDP, such as the United States reported for the second quarter of 2018, doesn’t necessarily signify anything. That boost is likely the product of factors that won’t repeat, some observers have already said. A July 27 commentary published by the online financial news service MarketWatch had no trouble debunking the nonsense spewed by Trump administration advisers Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. For example, in countering the claim that the U.S. trade deficit has narrowed because Trump is “standing up for America,” the MarketWatch commentary noted:

“Exports of agricultural products like soybeans shot higher because farmers were racing to beat the imposition of Chinese tariffs. They already fell in June. There’s absolutely no evidence the U.S. is now trading on better terms than previously.”

It’s not only your wages that aren’t keeping up

If a better measure of economic well-being is wages, then there has been no improvement. Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the country’s average weekly wage was $930.81 for June 2018, a grand total of 47 cents better than June 2017. Considering that the rate of inflation was higher than the microscopic increase in wages over the past year, adjusted for inflation U.S. workers actually saw a slight decline over the past year. So happy days really aren’t here after all. It’s not only you.

This is a continuation of a decades-long pattern. Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s despite strong increases in worker productivity — the average U.S. household earns hundreds of dollars less than it would had wages kept pace with productivity. The same is true for Canadian households.

When adjusted for inflation, Statistics Canada reports that real wage growth for Canadian workers increased less than one percent per year from 2005 to 2015. That’s nothing new. “While Canada has undergone important economic, social and technological changes since the 1970s, the minimum wage and the average hourly wage are essentially unchanged,” Statistics Canada reports. Accounting for inflation, the Canadian minimum wage peaked in 1976 and average hourly earnings peaked in 1977. That is despite a consistent increase in Canadians earning degrees. So a “skills mismatch” would not seem to be a reality there, either.

The gap between labor productivity and median real hourly wages growth, 1986-2013 (percentage points per year)

Those trends are not limited to North America. British wages actually contracted between 2007 and 2015 despite a growing economy. Britain’s GDP is almost 10 percent higher now than at the bottom of the 2008 economic crash, yet wages have declined. Wages have not kept up with productivity across Europe, and in some countries haven’t kept up with inflation, meaning workers have seen de facto wage cuts. The most recent study on this topic, studying the balance between wages and productivity in 11 advanced-capitalist countries from 1986 to 2013, found that wages did not keep pace in eight of them, with the widest lag found in the United States. Germany was second.

Unfortunately these reports, although doing a fine job of quantifying how screwed we are, tend to conclude with pleas for better government policies. Surely there should be. But although positive reforms would be welcome, the problem is that reforms can, and are, taken away when mobilizations fade. The hyper-competitive nature of capitalism, under which our labor is a commodity, can’t be altered; at best through massive effort reforms can be achieved until the next wave of attacks commences. As long we continue to fail to question the world economic system, our conditions will only worsen.

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You are working harder and getting paid less

The bad news: Your wages are declining. The worse news: Surveys documenting falling wage actually under-estimate how much your wages are declining.

A recent entrant to this labor literature, a research paper titled “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus in Selected OECD Countries, 1986-2013,” studied 11 advanced-capitalist countries and found that in eight of them median wages have not kept pace with growth in labor productivity. To put the preceding sentence in clear language: You are producing more and getting paid less.

You likely did not need to read the above to know that. But there is nothing wrong with confirmation. The paper’s authors, Andrew Sharpe and James Uguccioni, publishing in the International Productivity Monitor, wrote:

“In eight of the 11 [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries examined in this article, median real wage growth since the mid-1980s has not kept pace with labour productivity growth. The size of the growth gap between labour productivity and median real wages differs across countries, but the qualitative pattern is consistent: workers are growing more productive, but those productivity gains are not being matched by growth in the typical worker’s wage.”

The 11 countries studied were Canada, the United States, Norway and eight members of the European Union — Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. Working people in the United States will not be surprised to find that the widest gap between pay and productivity growth occurred there, with Germany in second place. Spain, Norway and Ireland were the three exceptions, although in each the gain in wages over productivity is small.

The opening of the 2003 World Social Forum (photo by Feijaocomarroz from pt)

There is no one single factor accounting for these results, the authors write, looking to mainstream economics for explanation. They offer conventional causes for declining wages:

“The causes of labour’s deteriorating bargaining power are hotly debated. One of the most trumpeted causes is globalization. Proponents argue that capital is far more mobile than labour in an increasingly globalized world, which makes the threat of outsourcing and offshoring far more credible. Due to the threat of offshoring from countries with less strict labour regulations and lower labour costs, workers are increasingly forced to accept lower wages. Some argue that labour’s deteriorating bargaining power is less a matter of globalization and more a matter of technological change which is biased against labour. For example, the OECD [in its 2012 employment outlook] argues that the spread of information and communication technologies have led to major innovation and productivity gains over recent decades, but have also had the effect of replacing workers altogether. The result is an increase in capital’s bargaining power, and a decrease in labour’s — particularly for workers in highly repetitive jobs which naturally lend themselves to automation. Structural and institutional reforms may also have contributed to the reduction of labour’s bargaining power.”

Globalization, yes, but what is behind globalization?

Are these causes some natural phenomenon like the tides in the ocean? Or might there be reasons behind these explanations? To this we will return. But, first, it should be noted this report under-reports the extent that wages are falling behind, which the authors readily acknowledge.

This under-estimation is revealed when the differences between average and median real hourly earnings are reported. This matters because an average is the midpoint between highest and lowest, while median represents the earner at the point where half make more and half make less. When those at the top make more and the rest make the same, the average goes up while the median stays the same; thus examining median income as opposed to average gives a more accurate representation.

The gap between labor productivity and median real hourly wages growth, 1986-2013 (percentage points per year)

Of the 11 countries examined, the authors report that median hourly earnings fell further behind average hourly earnings in 10, with France the exception and there the change was minuscule. This finding represents fresh proof of increasing wage inequality. The biggest increasing in this measure of wage inequality is — surprise! — the United States, followed by Britain. OK, United Statesians or Britons reading these lines won’t be surprised.

The paper’s authors report:

“Empirically, earnings distributions within OECD countries are positively skewed; the mean is greater than the median because the mean is dragged upward by very high earners. … This would imply that the gains from labour productivity are flowing disproportionately to workers who were already high earners relative to the median worker.”

Only the wages of the top one per cent grew faster than productivity growth.

“[R]emoving the top one percent from labour income doubled the rate of decline of labour’s share of income in Canada and the United States. In fact, the removal of the top one percent from total labour income hastened the decline in labour’s share of income in all of the OECD countries they studied except Spain.”

There are plenty more studies where that one comes from. The International Labour Organization, in its 2014/2015 Global Wages Report, similarly found that wages are declining:

“In the group of developed economies, real wages were flat in 2012 and 2013, growing by 0.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent, respectively. In some cases — including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom—average real wages in 2013 were below their 2007 level. … Between 1999 and 2013, labour productivity growth in developed economies outstripped real wage growth, and labour’s share of national income – also a reflection of the link between wages and productivity – fell in the largest developed economies.”

Less income and fewer protections for labor

David Ruccio, in a brief post for the Real-World Economics Review Blog, reports that the labor share of income in the United States is the lowest it has ever been since the end of World War II. The tendency throughout the period has been for decline, but the decline has been much steeper since 2001 —  labor share of income in the U.S. is 15 percent lower than it was in 2001. Skewing those results is that the share of income going to the top one percent has doubled since the mid-1970s. So the income share of working people has actually worsened more than the overall statistic indicates.

Concurrent with the increasingly precarious state of working people are dwindling labor rights. No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights, the International Trade Union Confederation found in its 2017 Global Rights Index report. On a scale of one to five, with one representing the countries with the best ratings (merely “irregular violations of rights”) and five representing the worst (“no guarantee of rights”), Britain and the United States received rankings of four. Thus inequality being the most pronounced in those two countries, so fond of finger-wagging at the rest of the world, comes as little surprise.

(graphic by David Ruccio, Real-World Economics Review Blog)

And still less so considering the immense pressure financial capital puts on corporate executives to squeeze ever more out of employees, exemplified by Verizon Communications attacking its workforce to the point of forcing its employees to go on strike despite racking up $45 billion in profits over five years and Wall Street judging even merciless Wal-Mart as insufficiently ruthless in extracting billions of dollars in profits out of its employees.

The reasons behind these trends appear to be somewhat of a mystery to the two authors of “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus.” They disapprove of the decline in wages they document but seem to believe this is due to some unfortunately poor political decisions. They conclude their paper with these thoughts:

“The lack of inclusive growth we observe in many OECD countries has significant societal implications. There may be less political support for productivity-enhancing policies in the future if the benefits of productivity growth are not shared equitably. The incentives for employees to work hard may diminish if they believe that they are not receiving their ‘fair share’ of the firm’s productivity gains. Finally, the current taxes and transfers system may not be well equipped to offset the growing trend of wage inequality among workers if it was designed assuming labour productivity growth will lead to real wage growth for all workers.”

Writing a letter to your representative might not do the trick

Well, it’s all a misunderstanding then? If only we speak up, and point out the unfairness of this, somebody out there will do something about it. One imagines that members of parliaments and congresses are largely aware of growing inequality. But if political policies are doing what the sponsors of those policies expect them to do, just what should we expect those office holders to do? This sort of class warfare rages on because only one class is waging it, and that class has the means to dominate society through a mass of institutions paid to do their bidding, control of the mass media and ability to buy government and the legislative process.

Does anybody believe that Donald Trump, or Theresa May, or Emmanuel Macron, or Malcolm Turnbull, upon receiving a well-written letter explaining the problem, would then slap their heads to their forehead and exclaim, “I never realized this was happening!” Pigs, elephants and polar bears will all fly long before any such epiphanies. We can add leaders of the past, such as Gerhard Schröder, to the list. It was the former Social Democratic leader, when chancellor, who pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation to codify austerity on German workers, which, inter alia, cut business taxes while reducing unemployment pay and pensions. German wages have been suppressed since 2001 in relation to inflation or productivity gains — the prosperity of German manufacturers has come at the expense of German workers.

Globalization, pointed to by the two authors of “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus” as a culprit, doesn’t happen in a vacuum or because some capitalist somewhere woke up in an ornery mood. Globalization is the response of industrialists and financiers to the rigors of capitalist competition.

Once the limits of Keynesianism were reached in the 1970s, and the growth levels of the mid-20th century could no longer be sustained, capitalists ceased tolerating wage increases. Instead, from their perspective, they needed to force through wage cuts to maintain profit margins. Relocating production to places with lower wages and fewer regulations was the answer.

Mergers, with attendant layoffs, are another response to capitalist competition. Once one capitalist succeeds with such an “innovation,” the others must follow on pain of losing their competitive position. The need to move raw materials and finished products across borders, from the capitalists’ point of view, necessitates the lowering of barriers and borders to trade, and thus the increasing harshness of so-called “free trade” agreements that are promoted by multi-national corporations.

Globalization is not some natural process beyond human control, but rather is the result of capitalist competition — of allowing markets to decide ever more outcomes. When one side has so many more resources and weapons at its disposal, it’s no surprise that class warfare is such a one-sided affair. If we want the world to be otherwise, we’ll have to struggle for it. Everything of human creation can be changed by human effort, including the world’s failing economic system.

Eight people own as much as half the world

Just when it seemed we might be running out of superlatives to demonstrate the monstrous inequality of today’s capitalism, Oxfam has provided the most dramatic example yet: Eight individuals, all men, possess as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent of humanity.

Eight people have as much as 3.7 billion people.

How could this be? Oxfam calculated that 85 people had as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity in 2014, a staggering finding that researchers with the anti-poverty organization discovered through crunching numbers provided by Forbes magazine in its rich list and by the investment bank Credit Suisse in its global wealth distribution report. Oxfam found wealth distribution to be even more unequal than did Credit Suisse, which calculated that the top one percent equaled the bottom 50 percent. Oxfam, in its report, “An Economy for the 99%,” released this month, explains:

“This year we find that the wealth of the bottom 50% of the global population was lower than previously estimated, and it takes just eight individuals to equal their total wealth holdings. Every year, Credit Suisse acquires new and better data sources with which to estimate the global wealth distribution: its latest report shows both that there is more debt in the very poorest group and fewer assets in the 30–50% percentiles of the global population. Last year it was estimated that the cumulative share of wealth of the poorest 50% was 0.7%; this year it is 0.2%.” [page 11]

 

The "wealth pyramid" as calculated by Credit Suisse. Oxfam's findings are that even this is an under-estimation of inequality.

The “wealth pyramid” as calculated by Credit Suisse. Oxfam’s findings are that even this is an under-estimation of inequality.

Because Oxfam includes among the bottom 50 percent people in the advanced capitalist countries of the Global North who have a net worth of less than zero due to debt, some critics might argue that these people are nonetheless “income-rich” because they have credit available to them and thus distort the inequality outcome. Oxfam, however, says that almost three-quarters of those among the bottom 50 percent live in low-income countries, and excluding those from the North with negative wealth would make little difference in aggregate inequality. That total debt is equal to only 0.4 percent of overall global wealth. The Oxfam report says:

“At the very top, this year’s data finds that collectively the richest eight individuals have a net wealth of $426 bn, which is the same as the net wealth of the bottom half of humanity. …  [E]stimates from Credit Suisse find that collectively the poorest 50% of people have less than a quarter of 1% of global net wealth. Nine percent of the people in this group have negative wealth, and most of these people live in richer countries where student debt and other credit facilities are available. But even if we discount the debts of people living in Europe and North America, the total wealth of the bottom 50% is still less than 1%.” [page 10]

Profiting from cheap labor and forced labor

We are accustomed to hearing that chief executive officers in U.S.-based corporations earn hundreds of times more than their average employee, but this dynamic can be found in the developing world as well. No matter where the CEO lives, brutal and relenting exploitation of working people is the motor force of inequality. Oxfam reports:

“The CEO of India’s top information firm earns 416 times the salary of a typical employee in his company. In the 1980s, cocoa farmers received 18% of the value of a chocolate bar — today they get just 6%. In extreme cases, forced labour or slavery can be used to keep corporate costs down. The International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people are forced labourers, generating an estimated $150 bn in profits each year. The world’s largest garment companies have all been linked to cotton-spinning mills in India, which routinely use the forced labour of girls.” [page 3]

appleoxfam-graphicPeople become sweatshop workers out of desperation; often these are men and women driven off the land their families had farmed for generations. Land, even small plots that provide only subsistence for those who work it, represents wealth taken away when those subsistence farmers are forced into migrating into urban slums. Displacement from global warming is also a factor.

“[M]any people experiencing poverty around the world are seeing an erosion of their main source of wealth — namely land, natural resources and homes — as a consequence of insecure land rights, land grabbing, land fragmentation and erosion, climate change, urban eviction and forced displacement. While total farmland has increased globally, small family farms operate a declining share of this land. Ownership of land among the poorest wealth quintile fell by 7.3% between the 1990s and 2000s. Change in land ownership in developing countries is commonly driven by large-scale acquisitions, which see the transfer of land from small-scale farmers to large investors and the conversion of land from subsistence to commercial use. Up to 59% of land deals cover communal lands claimed by indigenous peoples and small communities, which translates to the potential displacement of millions of people. Yet only 14% of deals have involved a proper process to obtain ‘free prior and informed consent.’ Distribution of land is most unequal in Latin America, where 64% of the total wealth is related to non-financial assets like land and housing and 1% of ‘super farms’ in Latin America now control more productive land than the other 99%.” [page 10]

As entire areas of the world like Latin America have been plundered for the benefit of multi-national corporations based in the Global North, with those benefits flowing to the executives and financiers who control those corporations, it is no surprise that most of the wealth remains concentrated in the advanced capitalist countries. Although steering well clear of so much as a hint of the imperial nature of uneven development, the Credit Suisse report that Oxfam drew upon does note that North America and Europe together account for 65% of total household wealth with only 18% of the world’s adult population.

The sociologist James Petras estimates that the corporations and banks of the North took US$950 billion of wealth out of Latin America for the period 1975 to 2005. Thus it is no surprise that global inequality, when measured by the standard statistical measure of income distribution, the gini coefficient, is greater than inequality in any single country.

More programs on the way to make inequality still worse

Few countries of the Global North are more unequal than the United States, the imperial center of the world capitalist system that seeks to impose its ways and culture on the rest of the world. The new Trump administration is determined to make U.S. inequality even more extreme. Not only through intentions of cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations, but via many less obvious routes.

For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the repeal of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a process already in motion, would result in tax cuts of $2.8 billion per year for the country’s 400 highest-income taxpayers. Special Medicare taxes that fund subsidies for low-income United Statesians to buy insurance under the act are assessed only on those with annual incomes higher than $200,000. Conversely, the loss of tax credits to buy health insurance would lead to a tax increase for about seven million low- and moderate-income families.

Through the end of 2016, the central banks of Britain, the European Union, Japan and the United States have shoveled a colossal total of US$8 trillion (€7.4 trillion) into their “quantitative easing” programs — that is, programs that buy government bonds and other debt in an effort to boost the economy but in reality does little other than fuel stock-market bubbles and, secondarily, real estate bubbles. Vast rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure — a program that would actually put people to work — would have cost less.

CEO-to-worker ratioStandard economic ideology insists that the real problem is that wages have not fallen enough! Consistent with that, the Federal Reserve released a paper in 2015 claiming that “rigidities” “prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like” during economic downturns.

Oh yes, falling wages instead of stagnant wages will bring happy times! Never mind that productivity has soared over the past four decades, while wages have consistently not kept pace. The average Canadian and U.S. household would earn hundreds of dollars per week more if wages had kept up with rising productivity, while wages in Britain and many other countries are also lagging.

What to do? The Oxfam report, in its conclusions, advocates a switch to a “human economy,” one in which governments are “accountable to the 99%,” businesses would be oriented toward policies that “increase prosperity for all,” and sustainability and equality would be paramount.

“Oxfam firmly believes humanity can do better,” its report concludes. Surely we can do better. But not under capitalism. Does anyone believe that the world’s elites, who profit so enormously and believe they can build a wall high enough to keep the world’s environmental and social problems away, are going to suddenly accept business as usual can no longer go on and willingly give up their enormous privileges?

Any way you calculate it, income inequality is getting worse

A flurry of new reports have provided yet more data demonstrating that inequality is getting worse. All right, this does not qualify as a shock. But it really isn’t your imagination.

The economic crisis, nearly a decade on now, has been global in scope — working people most everywhere continue to suffer while the one percent are doing just fine. One measure of this is wages. A newly released report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that median wages in the OECD’s 35 member countries are still below where they were in 2007. For the bottom 10 percent of wage earners, the news is worse; wages for this bottom decile have declined 3.6 percent since 2007. But wages have risen for the top 10 percent.

Graphic via the Institute for Policy Studies

Graphic via the Institute for Policy Studies

The report on wage inequality by the OECD, the club of the world’s advanced capitalist countries and a few of the biggest developing countries, also found that inequality has increased in most of those countries. No part of the world has been immune. The report, “Income inequality remains high in the face of weak recovery,” states:

“The crisis has not only heavily affected the number of jobs but also their quality. … Even in countries where labour market slack has been re-absorbed, low-quality jobs and high disparities among workers in terms of work contracts or job security weigh heavily on low-earning households and contribute to maintaining high levels of income inequality. Wages have stalled in most countries, including those that were largely spared by the recession (e.g. Japan) and fallen in those hard hit (e.g. Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom).”

Chile and Mexico are the most unequal countries among the OECD members, followed by the United States, as measured by the gini coefficient. Iceland, Norway and Denmark are the least unequal. (The gini coefficient, the standard statistical measure of income distribution, is equal to zero if everybody has the same income and to one if a single person takes all income.) To put that scale into some tangible form, Iceland’s gini coefficient is 0.24 and Chile’s is 0.46.

Global inequality worse than any country’s

The world’s most unequal country is South Africa at 0.65. Calculating this scale on a global basis gives a better idea of the scale of inequality but is a difficult statistic to find. One measure, as calculated for a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization paper, estimates the world gini coefficient in 2005 was 0.68, significantly higher than in the 19th century but a bit lower than it had been in 1981. That’s higher than South Africa. The Economist, crunching data from several sources, estimates a global gini coefficient of 0.65 in 2008, a very slight dip from the 1980s peak.

Global inequality has very likely worsened since but no more recent statistics appear to be available.

Rising inequality has been particularly acute in the global center of world capitalism, the United States, and a quick examination of trends there are useful as capitalists elsewhere seek to emulate the new U.S. gilded age. Those at the top of the pyramid are grabbing ever more. The Economist reports:

“Including capital gains, the share of national income going to the richest 1% of Americans has doubled since 1980, from 10% to 20%, roughly where it was a century ago. Even more striking, the share going to the top 0.01%—some 16,000 families with an average income of $24m—has quadrupled, from just over 1% to almost 5%. That is a bigger slice of the national pie than the top 0.01% received 100 years ago.”

Another new study, by economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, found that the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of U.S. adults is flat since 1980 in inflation-adjusted dollars — and this includes government transfers, other public spending and the value of job-derived fringe benefits — and thus the share of national income going to the bottom half of United Statesians declined to 12 percent in 2014 from 20 percent in 1980. The top one percent, meanwhile, hauled in 20 percent of income in 2014. Another way of looking at this inequality, the authors write, is that the top one percent of U.S. adults earned on average 81 times more than an adult in the bottom 50 percent. This ratio was 27 times in 1980.

The top of the pyramid does well around the world

To zero in on the tip of the pyramid, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service released a report this month on the 400 tax returns showing the highest incomes reported to it. Those 400 taxpayers reported an aggregate income of $127 billion in 2014 — a fourfold increase in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1980. Those 400 taxpayers by themselves accounted for 6 percent of all interest income and 11 percent of all capital gains (profits from financial assets such as stocks and bonds). To put that in perspective, 149 million tax returns were filed in the U.S. in 2014. Stock-market bubbles and other forms of financial speculation truly are the province of the super-wealthy.

In Canada, Statistics Canada reports that, in 2013, the top one percent grabbed 10.3 percent of income; the average Canadian in this grouping received $450,000 that year. In Britain, the top one percent have doubled their income since 2005, collectively adding another £250 billion to their wealth. Meanwhile, a fifth of Britons live below the poverty line and life expectancy in some areas is lower than in many developing countries, The Independent reports. Australian inequality has not yet reached the above levels, but is getting wider — the percentage of total Australian income grabbed by the top 0.1 percent there has more than doubled since 1980.

Again, nothing here is going to make you fall off your chair in shock. The question becomes: What will we do about all this? This is the internally logical result of the development of capitalism — the upward distribution of income as exploitation accelerates through work speedups, layoffs, movement of production to low-wage havens and the panoply of deregulatory measures resulting from corporate capture of governments.

So-called “free trade” agreements, with their use of clauses enabling multi-national corporations to use secret private tribunals controlled by their lawyers to overturn laws they don’t like, are an exemplary example of the processes used to ratchet up inequality, even if but one of many manifestations. Capital is international and our resistance to it must be international as well. The rise of far right and even fascist movements across Europe and in the United States, decked in the cloaks of nationalism and fake populism, is all the more dangerous because the scapegoating that is always front and center in such movements deflects attention from the real problems.

If the beginning of the end of capitalism is upon us — admittedly something that none of us can yet be certain of — then the need to build movements that can move societies toward a better world is all the more a necessity. Even if the final decay of capitalism has arrived, that decay is likely to unfold over decades unless a global Left movement, uniting the variety of social and environmental movements and struggles across borders, can speed up the process. The only alternative is for inequality to get worse and the repression necessary to impose that inequality to get still more severe.

Work harder so speculators can get more

Class warfare is poised to reach a new milestone as this year’s combined total of dividends and stock buybacks by 500 of the world’s largest corporations will exceed US$1 trillion.

So large is that figure that, for the second year in a row, the companies comprising the S&P 500 Index (a list of many of the world’s biggest corporations) will pay out more money in dividends and stock buybacks than the total of their profits. Yes, times are indeed good for speculators. Not so good for employees — you know, the people who do the actual work — whose pay is stagnant or declining so that those at the top can scoop up still more.

Although dividends, a quarterly payment to holders of stock, are steadily increasing, the increase in stock buybacks has been steeper. The total of these has tripled since 2009 as financiers and industrialists feverishly extract as much wealth as they can. This is part of why the “recovery” since the 2008 economic collapse has been a recovery only for those at the top.

Times have not changed as much as we think they have ("Baskaks" by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov)

Times have not changed as much as we think they have (“Baskaks” by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov)

In short, a buyback is when a corporation buys its own stock from its shareholders at a premium to the current price. Speculators love buybacks because it means extra profits for them. Corporate executives love them because, with fewer shares outstanding following a buyback program, their company’s “earnings per share” figure will rise for the same net income, making them look good in the eyes of Wall Street. Remaining shareholders love buybacks because the profits will now be shared among fewer shareholders.

Wall Street and corporate executives both win! Hurrah! Who could by hurt by this? Oh, yes, the employees. They’ll have to suffer through pay freezes, work speedups and layoffs because the money shoveled into executive pay and financial industry profits has to come from somewhere. This sort of activity helps buoy stock prices. So does the trillions of dollars the world’s central banks have printed to sustain their “quantitative easing” programs.

We’re not talking loose change here. The U.S. Federal Reserve pumped $4.1 trillion into its three rounds of quantitative easing; the Bank of England spent £375 billion; the European Central Bank has spent about €1.34 trillion; and the Bank of Japan has spent ¥220 trillion so far. That’s a total of US$8 trillion or €7.4 trillion. And the last two programs are ongoing.

Encouraging investment or inflating bubbles?

The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because a central bank buying bonds in bulk significantly increases demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

The practical effects of all this is to re-distribute income upward. That is the raison d’être of the financial industry.

What else could be done with the vast sums of money thrown at the financial industry? In the U.S. alone, home to a steadily crumbling infrastructure, the money needed to eliminate all student debt, fix all schools, rebuild aging water and sewer systems, clean up contaminated industrial sites and repair dams is estimated to be $3.4 trillion — in other words, $700 billion less than the Federal Reserve spent on its quantitative-easing program.

The British think tank Policy Exchange estimates Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion, or less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its QE scheme.

Borrowing to give more to speculators

To return to the $1 trillion in dividends and buybacks, a research report by Barclays estimates that those payouts by S&P 500 corporations will total about $115 billion more than their combined net income. As a Zero Hedge analysis puts it:

“[C]ompanies will promptly send every single dollar in cash they create back to their shareholders, and then use up an additional $115 billion from cash on the balance sheet, sell equity or issue new debt, to fund the difference.”

Near-zero interest rates, another central bank policy that favors the financial industry, have enabled this accumulation of debt. Debt not for investment, but simply to shovel more money into the pockets of financiers and executives. But debt can’t increase forever, and someday, perhaps in the not too distant future, central banks will raise interest rates, making debt much less attractive. The Barclays report calculates that 2015 also saw buybacks and dividends total more than net income; the last time there was consecutive years in which this happened were 2007 and 2008.

payouts-of-divdends-and-buybacksIt would of course be too simplistic to interpret this metric as a signal that an economic collapse on the scale of 2008 is imminent, but is perhaps a sign that the latest stock market bubble may be close to bursting.

Another signal that trouble may be looming is that money is now being shoveled into bonds, a sign that confidence in the stock market is waning. A New York Times report suggests that European and Asian investors (the Times of course is much too genteel to use the word “speculator”) are pouring so much capital into U.S. bond markets that a bubble is being inflated there as well. These speculators are seeking higher returns from bonds floated by U.S. corporations than they can get at home. The Times reports:

“The surge in flows echoes a wave of investment in the years right before the financial crisis, when mostly European investors snapped up billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities before the American housing market imploded.

The current numbers are also arresting. According to [former Treasury Department official Brad W.] Setser’s figures, about $750 billion of private money has poured into the United States in the last two years alone.”

Starved for investment

Setting aside the touch of xenophobia in it, the Times report does at least broach the subject of under-investment. And wealthy investors possessing far more money than can possibly be invested is hardly an unknown phenomenon. As an example, let us examine Wal-Mart, which racked up more than $16 billion in net income for 2015 and seems poised to better that this year.

The Walton family, heirs to founder Sam Walton, owns about half of Wal-Mart’s stock and receive a corresponding share of the billions of dollars in dividends the company pays yearly. It also spends billions more buying back stock annually, an indirect help to the Waltons. This is a company notorious for dodging taxes while paying its employees so little they require government assistance, and is the recipient of vast amounts of government handouts.

The Waltons make tens of thousands times what their ill-paid employees earn. They certainly don’t work tens of thousands harder — or even work at all, as the billions roll in just for being born into the right family. Wal-Mart is far from alone, but does provide an exemplary example of class warfare. An estimated $1 trillion a year goes to corporate profits that once went to wages, according to a PBS Newshour report.

The harder you work, the more the boss, and financiers, make. What sort of system is this?

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.

Millions for the boss, cuts for you

More is never enough. By now we really don’t need yet another statement of inequality, but here goes anyway: The average ratio of chief executive pay to employee pay has reached 335-to-1 in the United States.

And some of the highest paid CEOs were at the companies that stash the most money in overseas tax havens. Among the giant corporations that comprise the Standard & Poor’s 500, the 25 at the companies with the most unrepatriated profits hauled in 79 percent more than other S&P 500 chief executive officers, reports the AFL-CIO union federation’s Paywatch 2016 report. Just 10 corporations — Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, General Electric, IBM, Merck, Cisco Systems, Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil, and Hewlett-Packard successor HP Inc.  — are believed to be holding about $948 billion in accounts outside the reach of tax authorities.

Being at the top of the corporate pyramid certainly pays — the average S&P 500 chief executive officer hauled in $12.4 million in 2015, while the average non-supervisory worker earned $36,875. That average worker would have to work 335 hours to earn what the CEO makes in one hour. For a worker earning the federal minimum wage, the pay ratio is 819-to-1.

CEO-to-worker ratioThe Paywatch 2016 report illustrated this stark inequality with the example of Mondelez International Inc., where Chief Executive Officer Irene Rosenfeld earned close to $20 million last year, or 534 times the average worker’s pay. At the same time, Mondelez asked workers at a Nabisco cookie and cracker plant in Chicago to take a permanent 60 percent cut in wages and benefits, or their jobs would be moved to Mexico. As nobody could agree to such conditions, hundreds of people were laid off. Ms. Rosenfeld, incidentally, received a $7 million raise for her troubles, likely comparable to the combined pay of the laid-off workers.

Lest we fret that Mondelez may be undergoing tough times, please don’t lose any sleep — the company reported net income of $7.3 billion in 2015 and $15 billion for the past five years. Nor should sleep be lost worrying about Mondelez’s tax “burden” as it paid all of $49 million in U.S. taxes in 2015. That’s a tax rate of less than one percent.

That company is not unique, of course. Workers at Verizon Communications Inc. have been on strike since April 13 as Verizon seeks to move call-center jobs overseas, outsource instillation work to low-wage, non-unionized contractors, and reduce benefits. Verizon wants to stick it to its workers despite racking up $45 billion in net income over the past five years, at the same time paid no taxes and has stashed $1.3 billion in offshore accounts.

Avoiding taxes has become an art form for U.S. corporations, especially those who operate as multi-nationals. Dodging taxes is simply another “capitalist innovation,” and so common that a single small building in the Cayman Islands (where the corporate tax rate is zero percent) is the registered address for almost 19,000 corporations. Tax dodging also means higher pay for top executives — yet another corporate subsidy.

tax burden chartThis goes beyond simple unfairness, although corporate tax collection in the U.S. has declined drastically, falling from about one-third of U.S. government tax receipts in the 1950s to 10 percent in 2015; it was as low as 6.6 percent in 2009. Nor is it simply that less taxes collected reduces the ability of governments to effectively provide an adequate social safety net. Higher taxes actually lead to more jobs. Countries that provide more subsidies toward services that are complementary to work — such as child care, elder care and transportation — have higher workforce participation rates. Yes, contrary to orthodox economics, higher rates of taxation lead to more employment.

Let’s not reduce all this to simply greed. The relentless competition endemic to capitalism mandates that corporations engage in an endless race to the bottom. “Grow or die” is an inescapable mandate — if you don’t grow, your competitor will and put you out of business.

That’s a war that working people can never win. Class warfare rages hotter than ever, but there is only one class that is waging it.