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.

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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.

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.