Hiding the real number of unemployed

Your government believes that exhausting your unemployment benefits is a cause for celebration — because you are no longer unemployed!

Huh? Well, there is a slight of hand here. Only working people who are receiving unemployment benefits are counted as “unemployed” in official statistics issued by countries around the world. Thus the actual unemployment rates are much higher than the “official” rates, generally about twice as high. Most governments make it difficult to find the actual rate, and the corporate media does its part by reporting the official rate as if that includes everybody.

Then there is the matter of how much of a given national population is actually engaged in paid employment, another useful number difficult to discover. Finally, we can consider wages, both how fast they might be rising as compared to inflation and whether they are increasing in concert with increases in productivity.

To cut to the chase, things ain’t so hot. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

The Blue Mountains from the lookout in Blackheath, Australia (photo by Gemm347)

Let’s start our global survey with the United States, where, contrary to expectations, the real unemployment figure is easier to discover than most other places. Perhaps the Trump régime hasn’t gotten around to suppressing it, busy as it is hiding scientific evidence about global warming, pollution and other inconvenient facts. The official U.S. unemployment rate for May was reported as 3.8 percent, the lowest it has been in several years, and less than half of what it was during the post-2008 economic collapse. Predictably, the Trump administration was quick to take credit, although the trend of falling employment has carried on for eight years now.

Nonetheless, you might have noticed that happy days aren’t exactly here again. The real U.S. unemployment figure — all who are counted as unemployed in the “official” rate, plus discouraged workers, the total of those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work and all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up) — is 7.6 percent. (This is the “U-6” rate.) That total, too, is less than half of its 2010 peak and is the lowest in several years. But this still doesn’t mean the number of people actually working is increasing.

Fewer people at work and they are making less

A better indication of how many people have found work is the “civilian labor force participation rate.” By this measure, which includes all people age 16 or older who are not in prison or a mental institution, only 62.7 percent of the potential U.S. workforce was actually in the workforce in May, and that was slightly lower than the previous month. This is just about equal to the lowest this statistic has been since the breakdown of Keynesianism in the 1970s, and down significantly from the peak of 67.3 percent in May 2000. You have to go back to the mid-1970s to find a time when U.S. labor participation was lower. This number was consistently lower in the 1950s and 1960s, but in those days one income was sufficient to support a family. Now everybody works and still can’t make ends meet.

And that brings us to the topic of wages. After reaching a peak of 52 percent in 1969, the percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product going to wages has fallen to 43 percent, according to research by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. The amount of GDP going to wages during the past five years has been the lowest it has been since 1929, according to a New York Times report. And within the inequality of wages that don’t keep up with inflation or productivity gains, the worse-off are doing worse.

The Economic Policy Institute noted, “From 2000 to 2017, wage growth was strongest for the highest-wage workers, continuing the trend in rising wage inequality over the last four decades.” The strongest wage growth was for those in the top 10 percent of earnings, which skewed the results sufficiently that the median wage increase for 2017 was a paltry 0.2 percent, the EPI reports. Inflation may have been low, but it wasn’t as low as that — the typical U.S. worker thus suffered a de facto wage decrease last year.

What this sobering news tells us is that good-paying jobs are hard to come by. An EPI researcher, Elise Gould, wrote:

“Slow wage growth tells us that employers continue to hold the cards, and don’t have to offer higher wages to attract workers. In other words, workers have very little leverage to bid up their wages. Slow wage growth is evidence that employers and workers both know there are still workers waiting in the wings ready to take a job, even if they aren’t actively looking for one.”

The true unemployment rates in Canada and Europe

We find similar patterns elsewhere. In Canada, the official unemployment rate held at 5.8 percent in April, the lowest it has been since 1976, although there was a slight decrease in the number of people working in March, mainly due to job losses in wholesale and retail trade and construction. What is the actual unemployment rate? According to Statistics Canada’s R8 figure, it is 8.6 percent. The R8 counts counts people in part-time work, including those wanting full-time work, as “full-time equivalents,” thus underestimating the number of under-employed.

At the end of 2012, the R8 figure was 9.4 percent, but an analysis published by The Globe and Mail analyzing unemployment estimated the true unemployment rate for that year to be 14.2 percent. If the current statistical miscalculation is proportionate, then the true Canadian unemployment rate currently must be north of 13 percent. “[T]he narrow scope of the Canadian measure significantly understates labour underutilization,” the Globe and Mail analysis concludes.

Similar to its southern neighbor, Canada’s labor force participation rate has steadily declined, falling to 65.4 percent in April 2018 from a high of 67.7 percent in 2003.

Mount Meager volcanic complex, British Columbia (photo by Dave Steers)

The most recent official unemployment figure in Britain is 4.2 percent. The true figure is rather higher. How much higher is difficult to determine, but a September 2012 report by Sheffield Hallam University found that the total number of unemployed in Britain was more than 3.4 million in April of that year although the Labour Force Survey, from which official unemployment statistics are derived, reported only 2.5 million. So if we assume a similar ratio, then the true rate of unemployment across the United Kingdom is about 5.7 percent.

The European Union reported an official unemployment rate of 7.1 percent (with Greece having the highest total at 20.8 percent). The EU’s Eurostat service doesn’t provide an equivalent of a U.S. U-6 or a Canadian R8, but does separately provide totals for under-employed part-time workers and “potential additional labour force”; adding these two would effectively double the true EU rate of unemployed and so the actual figure must be about 14 percent.

Australia’s official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, according to the country’s Bureau of Statistics. The statistic that would provide a more realistic measure, the “extended labour force under-utilisation” figure, seems to be well hidden. The most recent figure that could be found was for February 2017, when the rate was given as 15.4 percent. As the “official” unemployment rate at the time was 5.8 percent, it is reasonable to conclude that the real Australian unemployment rate is currently above 15 percent.

Mirroring the pattern in North America, global employment is on the decline. The International Labour Organization estimated the world labor force participation rate as 61.9 percent for 2017, a steadily decline from the 65.7 percent estimated for 1990.

Stagnant wages despite productivity growth around the world

Concomitant with the high numbers of people worldwide who don’t have proper employment is the stagnation of wages. Across North America and Europe, productivity is rising much faster than wages. A 2017 study found that across those regions median real wage growth since the mid-1980s has not kept pace with labor productivity growth.

Not surprisingly, the United States had the largest gap between wages and productivity. Germany was second in this category, perhaps not surprising, either, because German workers have suffered a long period of wage cuts (adjusted for inflation) since the Social Democratic Party codified austerity by instituting Gerhard Schröder’s “Agenda 2010” legislation. Despite this disparity, the U.S. Federal Reserve issued a report in 2015 declaring the problem of economic weakness is due to wages not falling enough. Yes, the Fed believes your wages are too high.

The lag of wages as compared to rising productivity is an ongoing global phenomenon. A separate statistical analysis from earlier this decade also demonstrated this pattern for working people in Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Workers in both Canada and the United States take home hundreds of dollars less per week than they would if wages had kept up with productivity gains.

In an era of runaway corporate globalization, there is ever more precarity. On a global scale, having regular employment is actually unusual. Using International Labour Organization figures as a starting point, John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army of labor” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) — totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion. Writing in their book The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China, they write:

“It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in poorer countries. Indeed, most of this reserve army is located in the underdeveloped countries of the world, though its growth can be seen today in the rich countries as well.” [page 145]

Having conquered virtually every corner of the globe and with nowhere left to expand into nor new markets to take, capitalists will continue to cut costs — in the first place, wages and benefits — in their ceaseless scrambles to sustain their accustomed profits. There is no reform that can permanently alter this relentless internal logic of capitalism. Although she was premature, Rosa Luxemburg’s forecast of socialism or barbarism draws nearer.

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Austerity never ends: Economists say wages are too high

No, you can’t really make this stuff up: Orthodox economists continue to tell us that the reason for ongoing economic stagnation is that wages and unemployment benefits are too high. Yes, that’s right. You haven’t suffered enough.

Given that orthodox economics (or “neoclassical” or Chicago School, if you prefer alternate labels) exists as a propaganda tool to justify all manner of capitalist excesses and inequality, it’s not actually surprising that such snake oil continues to be peddled with a straight face. Never mind the years of stagnant wages, the decades of wages trailing productivity ever further, housing costs rising far more sharply than inflation, and the increased use of debt just to stay afloat.

(Photo by Gargolla)

If you would just work for less, all would be well. The basic reason for that belief is an admission that, in a capitalist economy, wages are a commodity. (That really means human beings are commodities, but we can only expect so much truth here.) This underlying belief is succinctly summarized by this commentary offered by the conservative Library of Economics and Liberty:

“Unemployment is just a labor surplus; since wages are the price of labor, the fundamental cause of unemployment has to be excessive wages.”

But capitalism is supposed to be a perfect system, always moving toward equilibrium, according to capitalist dogma. So there should be no unemployment. There obviously is, so what’s the culprit? You’ve likely already guessed — it’s the government’s fault. The self-proclaimed capitalist tool, Forbes magazine, claims that wages aren’t increasing because “pent-up wage cuts didn’t happen” following the 2008 global economic meltdown and so poor downtrodden corporations have no choice but to keep wages from rising to make up for those cuts that should have been imposed. If only government policies wouldn’t interfere with the magic of the market, all would be well, Forbes asserts:

“To summarize, government regulation and policy are very much linked to the enduring presence of wage stickiness and slow wage growth since the Great Recession.”

There’s ideology, and then there’s the real world

You can even win a Nobel Prize for these beliefs. The Nobel Prize for economics isn’t actually a Nobel Prize (officially, it is an add-on called the “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”), but, still, it’s widely considered one and it’s the highest honor an economist can receive. It almost invariably goes to a conservative economist who upholds orthodox ideology. One recent recipient is Thomas Sargent. Although he formally received his prize for other work, Dr. Sargent is known for writings in which he argues that unemployment benefits are too generous, and if such benefits were reduced, there would be “incentive” for people to go back to work.

Here in the real world, there are many more candidates than jobs that pay a living wage, and unemployment benefits are insufficient to live on. Depending on the state, unemployment benefits amount to 30 to 50 percent of lost wages in the United States — hardly enough to live comfortably on, and it’s cut off after 26 weeks. British benefits are capped at £73.10, and it can be less if you have savings you have yet to tap. Nobody is living large on that amount.

Continental European unemployment coverage is better, and, interestingly, some of the countries with the highest levels of benefits, such as Denmark, Norway and Finland, have among the lowest unemployment rates, although those benefits have eroded in recent years. Nonetheless, social safety nets in general lead to unemployment, Dr. Sargent believes. In an interview with Swedish Television, he said workers ought to be prepared for having low unemployment compensation in order to get the right incentives to search for jobs.

“Sargent, with Swedish economist Lars Ljungqvist, found that high, long-lasting unemployment benefits in Europe have caused many European workers who lost their jobs to stay unemployed for years and, thereby, erode their human capital. This makes them less employable in the long run. The fact that the U.S. government extended unemployment benefits in many U.S. states to 99 weeks, said Sargent in the 2010 interview … ‘fills me with dread.’ ”

Those extended terms of unemployment have since been rescinded, so he can hopefully now sleep at night. Related to supposedly overly generous social safety nets, is the idea that working people stubbornly refuse to accept wage cuts. This is not entirely true, as the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement demonstrate. NAFTA has caused a persistent decline in wages for displaced workers and manufacturers routinely threaten to shut down and/or move their facilities in response to unionization drives since NAFTA came into force. But, remember, we’re dealing with ideology here, not practical reality. Two years ago, the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve issued a report that blamed ongoing economic weakness on wages not falling enough. The paper claimed:

“One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity.”

Cutting wages won’t be a panacea

Falling wages might provide a short-term boost to corporate profits, but the reduced purchasing power of working people would soon cause people to buy less. That is disastrous in advanced capitalist countries, where consumer spending generally accounts for anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product.

Lars Syll, a heterodox economist and self-described critic of market fundamentalism writing on the Real-World Economics Review Blog, put this plainly:

“The aggregate effects of wage cuts would, as shown by Keynes, be catastrophical. They would start a cumulative spiral of lower prices that would make the real debts of individuals and firms increase since the nominal debts wouldn’t be affected by the general price and wage decrease. In an economy that more and more has come to rest on increased debt and borrowing this would be the entrance-gate to a debt deflation crises with decreasing investments and higher unemployment. In short, it would make depression knock on the door.”

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn’t work out during the Great Depression.

Falling wages were a reality during the Great Depression, but that didn’t help matters. By 1933 in the United States, manufacturing wages fell 34 percent and unemployment rose to about 25 percent. The Canadian economy contracted by more than 40 percent and unemployment reached 30 percent in 1933. Collapses in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression.

Moreover, already existing low wages come at a high cost. A 2015 study by the researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that public benefits given to people who have jobs but can’t live on their meager wages cost the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States — more than half of total public-assistance spending by federal and state governments. Wal-Mart alone costs taxpayers an estimated $6 billion per year subsidizing the retailer’s low pay and paltry benefits at the same time it pays out similar amounts in dividends, half of which go to the Walton family.

Working harder for less

As all of you doing the jobs of two or three people at your place of employment have undoubtedly noticed, more work is not being rewarded with more pay. The average U.S. household earns about $18,000 less than it would had wages kept pace with productivity gains, and the average Canadian household is short at least $10,000 per year because of pay lagging productivity gains. Workers across Europe, including in Britain, Germany and Spain, have also seen pay lag productivity.

The upward flow of money not only causes more inequality but further concentrates power in the hands of plutocrats. As David Ruccio summarized in a separate Real-World Economics Review Blog post:

“If you put the two trends together—increased individual income inequality and increased corporate savings—what we’re witnessing then is increasing private control over the social surplus. Wealthy individuals and large corporations are able to capture and decide on their own what to do with the surplus, with all the social ramifications associated with their decisions to invest where and when they want—or not to invest, and thus to accumulate cash, repay debt, and repurchase their own equity shares.

And proposals to decrease tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations will only increase that private control.”

And that is the context to keep in mind when one reads fairy tales such as this from the far right Mises Institute:

“Ending poverty and giving people additional income are praiseworthy goals, but there are no free lunches in this world. And trying to force prosperity through a minimum wage simply creates a whole host of negative and unintended consequences especially for those who are the most vulnerable.”

The value of the minimum wage in the U.S. is about two-thirds of what it was when it reached its inflation-adjusted peak in 1968. The Canadian minimum wage is worth about a dollar less than its peak in 1976. Australia’s minimum wage is well below what it was worth in 1985.

Even in these bare bottom-line terms, a higher minimum wage is hardly a “free lunch.” It is still less so when we realize that jobs don’t come from the great benevolence of bosses nor are profits conjured out of thin air by the genius of capitalists. Employers generate profits by paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. Increased exploitation through work speedups, increased workloads and benefits reductions mean that capitalists are taking a bigger share of the value of what you produce.

And here we come to the real meaning of “freedom” that capitalists and their publicists so love to extol. “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists. The world’s central banks have printed and spent $8 trillion (€7.4 trillion) to buy bonds, mostly those issued by their own governments. Imagine what that spending could have done if that money had been given to people or used for productive social spending instead of a free lunch for financial speculators.

More unemployment and less security

The bad news is that the world’s number of unemployed workers and those with precarious employment is expected to rise during 2016 and 2017. The worse news is that the true number of those in these categories are probably significantly undercounted.

The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that just issued its “World Employment Social Outlook,” predicts that 200 million people will be unemployed in 2016, three million more than last year. This will be most acute in middle-income and poor countries, where unemployment is forecast by the ILO to increase by 2.4 million with a slight decrease in unemployment in the most developed countries. Brazil and China alone are expected to add 1.5 million to the unemployment rolls in the next two years.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Not that having employment is necessarily a marker of stability. The ILO report says that nearly half of the world’s workers — 1.5 billion people — hold “vulnerable employment.” This total includes subsistence and informal workers, and unpaid family workers. This vast cohort (the “reserve army of labor” although the ILO never uses such direct terminology) will not be getting smaller in the foreseeable future. All these factors add up to more inequality. Nor is it limited to any one part of the world, the ILO report says:

“The improvement in the labour market situation in developed economies is limited and uneven, and in some countries the middle class has been shrinking, according to various measures. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has risen significantly in most advanced G20 countries. Since the start of the global crisis, top incomes have continued to increase while the poorest 40 per cent of households have tended to fall behind.” [page 4]

In one-third of the world’s countries, the “precariat” constitutes at least two-thirds of the total workforce. The percentages of those with precarious employment is much higher in developing countries than in the advanced capitalist countries, but in all parts of the world the labor force participation rate — that is, the percentage of those of working age who are employed — is slowly shrinking and is forecast by the ILO to continue to do so through the rest of the decade. Here it is the developed countries that have the lowest participation rate (60.5 percent in 2015), more than two percentage points lower than the global average.

The massive size of the precariat

A gloomy picture, indeed. A picture, however, that does not fully capture the bleakness of stagnation. The number of precarious workers is likely higher than what the ILO calculates. In their book The Endless Crisis, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney estimate that the true size of the precariat is actually significantly larger than those with regular employment. They write:

“If we take the categories of the unemployed, the vulnerably employed, and the economically inactive population in prime working ages (25-54) and add them together, we come up with what might be called the maximum size of the global reserve army in 2011: some 2.4 billion people, compared to 1.4 billion in the active labor army. It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in the poorer countries.” [page 143]

Capitalism is unable to create sufficient employment, and thus considers such people to be “excess population.” Mass migrations from Latin America to the United States, or from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, are consequences. In the 19th century, industrializing European countries had a safety valve in massive emigration (not so good for Indigenous peoples in the target countries of course), but there are no longer large areas into which capitalism can expand. Professors Foster and McChesney put this in stark terms:

“While such mass emigration was a possibility for the early capitalist powers, which moved out to seize large parts of the planet, it is not possible for countries of the global South today. Consequently, the kind of reduction in peasant population currently pushed by the system points, if it were effected fully, to mass genocide. An unimaginable 7 percent annual rate of growth for fifty years across the entire global South, [economist Samir] Amin points out, could not absorb even a third of this vast surplus agricultural population. …

“Aside from the direct benefits of enormously high rates of exploitation, which feed the economic surplus flowing into the advanced capitalist counties, the introduction of low-cost imports from ‘feeder economies’ in Asia and other parts of the global South by multinational corporations has a deflationary effect. This protects the value of money, particularly the dollar as the hegemonic currency, and thus the financial assets of the capitalist class. The existence of an enormous global reserve army of labor thus forces income deflation on the world’s workers, beginning in the global South, but also affecting the workers of the global North, who are increasingly subject to neoliberal ‘labour market flexibility.’ ” [pages 147, 149]

These trends become more acute as high unemployment persists. The true level of unemployment is approximately double official numbers across North America, Europe and Australia. The reason for this is that all those countries do not include discouraged workers, those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work nor all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up).

Less pay to go with less security

With all these factors working against them, wages for working people are stagnant while productivity continues to increase — the one percent is grabbing all the wealth created. This is a global phenomenon. Employees in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Britain and Japan have seen their pay lag behind productivity gains and income inequality widen.

Thus it comes as no surprise that labor rights are under attack everywhere. How bad? In a 2014 study, the International Trade Union Confederation determined the degree to which five basic rights — fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike — are upheld, and then assigned a numerical grade. Every country in the world had a ranking of below 50 percent. In other words, every country flunked when graded on respect for labor rights.

What to do about all this? The ILO offers these conclusions as part of its call for a “shift in economic and employment policies”:

“It is particularly important to strengthen labour market institutions and ensure that social protection systems are well designed, in order to prevent further increases in long-term unemployment, underemployment and working poverty. A rebalancing in reform efforts is also needed. In particular, financial reforms need to ensure that banks perform their role of channelling resources into the real economy and into investment for sustainable enterprise expansion and job creation.” [page 5]

We should be long past the time when it was possible to believe we could wag our fingers at bad policy-makers and expect they will see the light of day. The unceasing competition of capitalism, its relentless drive to enclose ever more human activity within its logic of profit at any cost, mandates the world we now live in. Drastic imbalances in power are inherent in capitalism; these can’t be legislated away. Thus the ILO’s prescriptions are meaningless. Reforms are possible with enough movement organization, but reforms are eventually taken back, as the past four decades has amply demonstrated.

Desires by industrialists and financiers to press their offensive against working people are behind “free trade” agreements that eliminate barriers to the movement of capital, encourage shifting of production to places with ever lower wages, and impose restrictions on the ability of governments to implement, or even maintain, laws safeguarding health, safety, labor rights and the environment. These are simply the expected outcomes under the logic of capitalism. No regulation can change that. Only a change of economic system can achieve that.

Real unemployment is double the ‘official’ unemployment rate

How many people are really out of work? The answer is surprisingly difficult to ascertain. For reasons that are likely ideological at least in part, official unemployment figures greatly under-report the true number of people lacking necessary full-time work.

That the “reserve army of labor” is quite large goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of stagnant wages in an era of increasing productivity.

How large? Across North America, Europe and Australia, the real unemployment rate is approximately double the “official” unemployment rate.

The “official” unemployment rate in the United States, for example, was 5.5 percent for February 2015. That is the figure that is widely reported. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of various other unemployment rates, the most pertinent being its “U-6” figure. The U-6 unemployment rate includes all who are counted as unemployed in the “official” rate, plus discouraged workers, the total of those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work and all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up). The actual U.S. unemployment rate for February 2015, therefore, is 11 percent.

Share of wages, 1950-2014Canada makes it much more difficult to know its real unemployment rate. The official Canadian unemployment rate for February was 6.8 percent, a slight increase from January that Statistics Canada attributes to “more people search[ing] for work.” The official measurement in Canada, as in the U.S., European Union and Australia, mirrors the official standard for measuring employment defined by the International Labour Organization — those not working at all and who are “actively looking for work.” (The ILO is an agency of the United Nations.)

Statistics Canada’s closest measure toward counting full unemployment is its R8 statistic, but the R8 counts people in part-time work, including those wanting full-time work, as “full-time equivalents,” thus underestimating the number of under-employed by hundreds of thousands, according to an analysis by The Globe and Mail. There are further hundreds of thousands not counted because they do not meet the criteria for “looking for work.” Thus The Globe and Mail analysis estimates Canada’s real unemployment rate for 2012 was 14.2 percent rather than the official 7.2 percent. Thus Canada’s true current unemployment rate today is likely about 14 percent.

Everywhere you look, more are out of work

The gap is nearly as large in Europe as in North America. The official European Union unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in January 2015. The European Union’s Eurostat service requires some digging to find out the actual unemployment rate, requiring adding up different parameters. Under-employed workers and discouraged workers comprise four percent of the E.U. workforce each, and if we add the one percent of those seeking work but not immediately available, that pushes the actual unemployment rate to about 19 percent.

The same pattern holds for Australia. The Australia Bureau of Statistics revealed that its measure of “extended labour force under-utilisation” — this includes “discouraged” jobseekers, the “underemployed” and those who want to start work within a month, but cannot begin immediately — was 13.1 percent in August 2012 (the latest for which I can find), in contrast to the “official,” and far more widely reported, unemployment rate of five percent at the time.

Concomitant with these sobering statistics is the length of time people are out of work. In the European Union, for example, the long-term unemployment rate — defined as the number of people out of work for at least 12 months — doubled from 2008 to 2013. The number of U.S. workers unemployed for six months or longer more than tripled from 2007 to 2013.

Thanks to the specter of chronic high unemployment, and capitalists’ ability to transfer jobs overseas as “free trade” rules become more draconian, it comes as little surprise that the share of gross domestic income going to wages has declined steadily. In the U.S., the share has declined from 51.5 percent in 1970 to about 42 percent. But even that decline likely understates the amount of compensation going to working people because almost all gains in recent decades has gone to the top one percent.

Around the world, worker productivity has risen over the past four decades while wages have been nearly flat. Simply put, we’d all be making much more money if wages had merely kept pace with increased productivity.

Insecure work is the global norm

The increased ability of capital to move at will around the world has done much to exacerbate these trends. The desire of capitalists to depress wages to buoy profitability is a driving force behind their push for governments to adopt “free trade” deals that accelerate the movement of production to low-wage, regulation-free countries. On a global basis, those with steady employment are actually a minority of the world’s workers.

Using International Labour Organization figures as a starting point, professors John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army of labor” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) — totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion — far less! Writing in their book The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China, they write:

“It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in poorer countries. Indeed, most of this reserve army is located in the underdeveloped countries of the world, though its growth can be seen today in the rich countries as well.” [page 145]

The earliest countries that adopted capitalism could “export” their “excess” population though mass emigration. From 1820 to 1915, Professors Foster and McChesney write, more than 50 million people left Europe for the “new world.” But there are no longer such places for developing countries to send the people for whom capitalism at home can not supply employment. Not even a seven percent growth rate for 50 years across the entire global South could absorb more than a third of the peasantry leaving the countryside for cities, they write. Such a sustained growth rate is extremely unlikely.

As with the growing environmental crisis, these mounting economic problems are functions of the need for ceaseless growth. Once again, infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet, especially one that is approaching its limits. Worse, to keep the system functioning at all, the planned obsolescence of consumer products necessary to continually stimulate household spending accelerates the exploitation of natural resources at unsustainable rates and all this unnecessary consumption produces pollution increasingly stressing the environment.

Humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths, according to the non-profit group Global Footprint Network. A separate report by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, calculates that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity.

We have only one Earth. And that one Earth is in the grips of a system that takes at a pace that, unless reversed, will leave it a wrecked hulk while throwing ever more people into poverty and immiseration. That this can go on indefinitely is the biggest fantasy.

Federal Reserve says your wages are too high

The Federal Reserve has declared that the reason for ongoing economic weakness is because wages have not fallen enough. Wages have been stagnant for four decades while productivity has soared, but nonetheless orthodox economists believe the collapse of 2008 has been a missed opportunity.

A paper prepared by two senior researchers with the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank attempts to explain the lack of wage growth experienced as unemployment has fallen over the past couple of years this way:

“One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity.”

The two Federal Reserve researchers, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, based their argument on the standard ideology of orthodox economists, writing:

“Downward rigidities prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like following a negative shock to the economy. This keeps wages from falling, but it also further reduces the demand for workers, contributing to the rise in unemployment. Accordingly, the higher wages come with more unemployment than would occur if wages were flexible and could be fully reduced.”

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn't work out during the Great Depression.

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn’t work out during the Great Depression.

The “problem” of wages stubbornly refusing to drop as much as corporate executives and financiers would like is referred to as the “sticky wages” problem in orthodox economics. Simply put, this “problem” is one that orthodox economists, themselves not necessarily subject to the market forces they wish to impose on others, have long struggled to “solve.” You perhaps will not be surprised to hear that “government” is the problem. Consider this remarkable passage published on the web site of the Mises Institute, an advocate of the Austrian school of economics:

“Much of the alleged ‘stickiness’ of wages is due to government policies. … [T]he trouble stems from workers not being willing to take pay cuts. When the demand from employers drops, at the old wage rate there is now surplus labor — a.k.a. unemployment. Only when market wages drop to a lower level, so that demand once again matches supply, will equilibrium be restored in the labor market.”

Collapsing wages in the Great Depression didn’t help

According to this author, Robert P. Murphy, an “associated scholar” of the Mises Institute, failing to drive down wages is such a big mistake that it caused the Great Depression. He writes:

“After the 1929 crash, Herbert Hoover gathered the nation’s leading businessmen for a conference in Washington and urged them to allow profits and dividends to take the hit, but to spare workers’ paychecks. Rather than cut wages, businesses were supposed to implement spread-the-work schemes where workers would cut back their hours. The rationale for Hoover’s high-wage policy was that the worker supposedly needed to be paid ‘enough to buy back the product.’ … The idea was that wage cuts would just cause workers to cut their spending, which would in turn lead to another round of wage cuts in a vicious downward spiral.”

Herbert Hoover was not vicious enough! Although it was Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who advocated the government “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate” so as to “purge the rottenness out of the system,” and not Hoover himself, the president did take hard-line right-wing positions. Michael Parenti, in discussing Hoover in his book History as Mystery, wrote:

“Like so many conservatives then and now, Hoover preached the virtues of self-reliance, opposed the taxation of overseas corporate earnings, sought to reduce income taxes for the highest brackets, and was against a veterans’ bonus and aid to drought sufferers. He repeatedly warned that public assistance programs were the beginning of ‘state socialism.’ Toward business, however, he suffered from no such ‘inflexibility’ and could spend generously. He supported multimillion-dollar federal subsidies to shipping interests and agribusiness, and his Reconstruction Finance Corporation doled out about $2 billion to banks and corporations.” [page 261]

Hoover’s concern for working people was demonstrated when his troops fired on veterans demanding payments owed to them and burned their camps. His laissez-faire policies led to manufacturing wages falling 34 percent and unemployment rising to about 25 percent by 1933. That collapse in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression. Such wage declines, in the real world, actually make the economy worse, argues Keynesian economist Paul Krugman:

“[Y]ou could argue that a sufficiently large fall in wages could restore full employment now — but it would have to be a very large wage decline, and the positive effects would kick in only after deflation had first driven just about every debtor in the economy into bankruptcy.”

How many formulae can be written on the head of a pin?

Although orthodox economics is often nothing more than ideology in the service of capitalist elites, its practitioners like to believe themselves scientific because they base their theories on mathematical models. Unfortunately, these formulae are divorced from the real, physical world; the economy and the human behavior that animates it are not reducible to mathematics.

Robert Kuttner, a heterodox economist, explored these shortcomings in an article originally published in Atlantic Monthly. He wrote:

“The [prevailing] method of practicing economic science creates a professional ethic of studied myopia. Apprentice economists are relieved of the need to learn much about the complexities of human motivation, the messy universe of economic institutions, or the real dynamics of technological change. Those who have real empirical curiosity and insight about the workings of banks, corporations, production technologies, trade unions, economic history or individual behavior are dismissed as casual empiricists, literary historians or sociologists, and marginalized within the profession. In their place departments are graduating a generation of idiots savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of  actual economic life.”

That was written in 1985; little if anything has changed since and arguably has gotten worse. Professor Kuttner points out that the very fact of persistent unemployment contradicts the basic theses of orthodox neoclassical economics. If the belief that markets automatically reach equilibrium were true, then wages would automatically fall until everybody had a job. Rather than acknowledge the real world, orthodox economists simply declare involuntary unemployment an “illusion,” or claim “government interference” with the market is the culprit. “Business cycles were around long before trade unions or big-spending governments were,” Professor Kuttner noted.

Wages are not as flexible as orthodox ideology suggests because within an enterprise preference is ordinarily given to existing workers to fill job openings, thereby buffering wages from external market forces, writes another heterodox economist, Herbert Gintis. In an essay originally appearing in Review of Radical Political Economics, he wrote:

“In particular, there is a tendency for the number of individuals qualified for a position to exceed the number of jobs available, in which case seniority and other administrative rules are used to determine promotion. Hardly do workers compete for the job by bidding down its wage.”

In almost all cases, employees do not even know what wages their co-workers are earning. This top-down secrecy facilitates the disparity in wages, whereby, for example, women earn less than men. If everybody earned what they were worth, there would no such wage disparity. The very fact of disparities between the genders or among races and ethnicities demonstrates the ideological basis of orthodox economics, which assumes that 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.

You produce more but don’t earn more

Back in the real world, wages have significantly lagged productivity for four decades; thus, wages, examined against this benchmark, have significantly declined for those four decades. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by heterodox economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

Middle-class U.S. households earn $18,000 less than they would had wages kept pace with productivity, Dr. Gould calculates. Nor is that unique to the U.S.: Wages in Canada, Europe and Japan have also fallen well short of productivity gains. Canadian workers, for example, are paid at least $15,000 per year less than they would be had their wages kept pace.

To circle back to the San Francisco Federal Reserve paper that began this discussion, the authors claim that wage stagnation will persist until markets “return to normal.” They assert:

“[T]he accumulated stockpile of pent-up wage cuts remains and must be worked off to put the labor market back in balance. In response, businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired level.”

But as we can plainly see, and as those of us living in the real world experience, wages cuts have been the norm for a long time. The caveat at the end of the paper that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the Fed board of governors should be noted, but the paper was issued as part of a regular series by the San Francisco Fed and the authors are senior members of it, so it is not likely to be at variance with opinions there. It certainly does reflect orthodox economic ideology. Similarly, the argument by the Austrian School’s Mises Institute, stripped of its academic-sounding veneer, is a call to eliminate the minimum wage.

Stagnation, declining wages and the ability of capitalists to shift production around the globe in a search for the lowest wages and lowest safety standards — completely ignored in the orthodox hunt for economic scapegoats — are the norm. Our need to sell our labor, the resulting reduction of human beings’ labor power to a commodity, and the endless competitive pressures on capitalists to boost profits underlie the present economic difficulties.

Collective bargaining through unions and the needs of capitalists to retain their employees can be brakes against the race to the bottom — what the orthodox economists at the Fed and elsewhere are arguing is that these remaining brakes be removed and wages driven down to starvation levels. That is what global capitalism has to offer.

Scapegoating the unemployed for being at the mercy of a global phenomenon

People are out of work longer and the jobs that become available pay less. These developments of the past several years of economic downturn are not your imagination, no matter how many times individualist ideology is invoked to falsely point fingers at the “downsized.”

A flurry of studies and papers demonstrate these patterns are found across the mature capitalist economies. The latest of these, “The Low-Wage Recovery” issued by the National Employment Law Project, found that nearly half of the jobs created in the United States since unemployment peaked in February 2010 are low-wage jobs.

March against inflation and unemployment, Chicago 1973 (Photo by John H. White)

March against inflation and unemployment, Chicago 1973 (Photo by John H. White)

Two million more low-wage jobs, defined as those paying $13.33 per hour or less, have been created in the past four years than were lost between January 2008 and February 2010. By contrast, the deficit in jobs paying more is about two million. Although the number of jobs in the U.S. has rebounded to what it was at the end of 2007, that means more people are unemployed since the population has grown. The Employment Project’s 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.

The National Employment Law Project notes that:

“Job growth is still heavily concentrated in lower-wage industries. As a result of unbalanced employment growth, the types of jobs available to unemployed workers, new labor market entrants, and individuals looking to move up the career ladder are distinctly different today than they were prior to the recession.”

More people are out of work for longer periods

At the same time, the Economic Policy Institute reports, the number of long-term unemployed in the United States has risen sharply. This is true for all age, education, occupation, industry, gender, and racial and ethnic groups. The author of the EPI report, Heidi Shierholz, wrote:

“Today’s long-term unemployment crisis is not at all confined to unlucky or inflexible workers who happen to be looking for work in specific occupations or industries where jobs aren’t available. Long-term unemployment is elevated in every group, in every occupation, in every industry, at all levels of education.”

The overall rate of those who were unemployed for six months or longer in 2013 was 3.4 times the rate in 2007. There is little variation in this ratio based on educational attainment. In fact, the two categories of “some college” and holders of four-year college degrees showed the highest increases in long-term unemployment. That pattern has been persistent, rendering nonsense the frequent claims of right-wing economists and those intellectually dependent on them that higher or longer-term unemployment is a result of a supposed “mismatch” between worker skills and job requirements.

The picture is not different when we look at other countries. In Canada, the number of people who have been unemployed for 27 to 51 weeks, although down from its peak, is nonetheless close to double what it was in 2008. The number of Canadians who today have been out of work for at least one year is more than double those in the same position in 2008.

In the European Union, where total unemployment has barely declined from its 2013 peak, the number of long-term unemployed has yet to retreat. The long-term unemployment rate, defined by the European Commission as those out of work 12 months or longer, was about two-thirds higher in the third quarter of 2013 than it was in the first quarter of 2009. (The third quarter of 2013 is the latest for which figures are available.) The commission reports that:

“[O]ver the last five years, full-time employment has decreased dramatically — by 9.8 million (–5.4%). On the other hand, at EU aggregate level, the number of employees working part-time has grown by 1.2% (or 480,000 part-timers) in the year to 2013 Q3. There has been steady growth in this type of work in recent years, with 2.9 million more part-time jobs since the third quarter of 2008, a rise of 7.8%. Consequently, the share of part-time workers (of total EU employees) has risen consistently in recent years, reaching 19.3% in the third quarter of 2013.”

Less work, and less of it for those who do have it. The E.U.’s unemployment rate of 10.8 percent climbs to almost 20 percent when the underemployed and discouraged are added to the officially unemployed.

So it is elsewhere. The percentage of Australians unemployed for more than 52 weeks constituted 21 percent of the country’s unemployed in February 2014, in comparison to 13 percent in February 2009. Similarly, New Zealand’s long-term unemployed have more than doubled since 2009.

The race to the bottom

What we have here is something much bigger than any individual or single country. Market forces are at work, which undergirds the “race to the bottom” capitalism has foisted on the world. It is demand that creates jobs and if wages are declining and more are unemployed, demand will naturally decline, leaving less incentive to hire. Eventually, corporate profit margins will be squeezed, with the result that production is moved to locations with ever lower wage, safety and environmental standards.

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

Although the future will see occasional periods of growth, with temporary rises in employment and wages, the trend toward more austerity, lower wages and more inequality — concomitant with increasing concentration of power in corporate hands as more money leads to more coercive power over governments — is not only firmly in place but accelerating. This is the inevitable result of allowing “market forces” to make ever more social decisions.

Market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Blaming sacked employees for being caught in this flow as lacking adequate personal characteristics is not simply an abuse of individualist ideology but is scapegoating.

Capitalism is a system that produces for the private profit of a few by paying employees far less than the value of what they produce. Meeting human need, when it does occur, is an accident of this system. The only long-term escape is the imposition of a different system designed to meet human needs that provides work for all who need it under democratic control.

Ask yourself: Why is is that massive numbers of people are unemployed at the same time that factories and offices sit empty in large numbers? Is it really true that a system that produces such results is the best the world can do?