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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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.

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.

We all pay for low wages

When you are paid starvation wages, it’s up to public-assistance programs to make up the difference. That government assistance, costing treasuries billions of dollars per year, is part of the high cost of low wages.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour would save an estimated $17 billion per year for U.S. taxpayers, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. The EPI’s study, “Balancing paychecks and public assistance,” found that, not surprisingly, low wages equal government help. A majority of United Statesians who earn less than $10 an hour receive public assistance, either directly or through a family member.

The study’s author, David Cooper, examined participation in eight federal and state means-tested programs for low-income families — the earned income tax credit; the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be known as food stamps); the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC; Section 8 housing vouchers; Medicaid; and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and its state and local equivalents.

Protestors outside a McDonald's in Minneapolis demand a $15 hourly wage and paid sick days (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

Protestors outside a McDonald’s in Minneapolis demand a $15 hourly wage and paid sick days (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

Working people with low wages use these programs heavily. One-third of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients are full-time workers and one-half of WIC recipients are full-time workers.

Contrary to right-wing propaganda, most recipients of public assistance work, a large number of them full time. The EPI study reports:

  • Among families or individuals receiving public assistance, two-thirds (67 percent) work or are members of working families (families in which at least one adult works). When focusing on non-elderly recipient families and individuals under age 65, this percentage is 72 percent.
  • About 69 percent of all public-assistance benefits received by non-elderly families or individuals go to those who work.
  • About 47 percent of all working recipients of public assistance work full time (at least 1,990 hours per year).

Nearly $53 billion of public-assistance money is paid annually to people who work full time, the EPI study reports. And, full- or part-time, money going to working people is concentrated in specific industries. More than half goes to workers in three sectors: educational, health and social services; arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services; and retail trade.

Privatizing profits, socializing costs

Although not addressed in the EPI study, a big conclusion to be drawn from this data is that these billions of dollars of public-assistance money constitutes a massive subsidy of business. Often highly profitable businesses. Take War-Mart, for example. Wal-Mart reported net income of $14.7 billion for 2015 and nearly $80 billion for its last five fiscal years. Yet the company pays it employees so little that employees organize food drives for themselves while it dodges billions of dollars of taxes and receives further billions of dollars in government subsidies.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. minimum wage peaked in 1968 when the then $1.60 rate would be worth $10.95 in 2016 money. So although that peak total is itself low, the federal minimum wage has lost more than one-third of its value.

Or, to put this in another perspective, one of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.56 today. So today’s activists demanding a $15 minimum wage are simply asking for the same thing that was asked a half-century ago. Nothing outlandish.

It is no secret that wages have badly lagged productivity, nowhere more in the global North than in the United States. Wages for U.S. workers have fallen behind productivity gains since the 1970s, to the point that the average U.S. household receives $18,000 per year less than it would had wages kept pace. Canadian households are about $10,000 behind. Differentials between wages and productivity are also found, albeit in less drastic form, across Europe and in Japan.

We can’t order a return to Keynesianism

So what conclusion should we draw from all this? Unfortunately, the EPI study concludes with what can only be termed weak-tea liberalism. Wishing for a return to Keynesianism, the author writes:

“[W]e can raise wages by eliminating the lower subminimum wage for for tipped workers, updating overtime protections, strengthening workers’ ability to organize and negotiate with employers collectively, improving enforcement of labor laws, providing undocumented immigrant workers a path to citizenship, and ensuring monetary policy prioritizes full employment.”

There is nothing wrong with any of these prescriptions. Such reforms would be quite welcome. But these goals can not simply be conjured into existence. Nobody decreed we shall now have neoliberalism and nobody can decree we shall now go back to Keynesianism. We haven’t gotten to the disastrous state we are in by accident or simply because of the personal decisions of corporate executives and financiers.

Rather, the neoliberalism we experience today is the logical result of capitalist development; “logical” in the sense that the relentless scramble to survive competition eventually closed the brief window when rising wages were tolerated and government investment encouraged. The Keynesian policies of the mid-20th century were a product of a specific set of circumstances that no longer exist and can’t be replicated.

Intensified competition over private profits, and that “markets” should determine social outcomes, inexorably leads to a consolidation in which industries are dominated by a handful of giant corporations, and those corporations gain decisive power over governments and relentlessly reduce overhead (especially wages and benefits) in a scramble for survival.

Fighting back is surely what working people around the world need to do. But restoring a “golden age” of capitalism that never really existed (and definitely didn’t if you were a woman confined by limited options or an African-American facing officially sanctioned discrimination and/or state-endorsed terrorism) is a quixotic goal. Better to drive our energies into creating a better world, one in which the economy is geared toward human need rather than private profit.

Not even Wal-Mart is ruthless enough for Wall Street

As ruthless as Wal-Mart is, Wall Street has decided the retailer is not ruthless enough. Incredible though it might seem, financiers have been punishing Wal-Mart in part because the company has raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Plans to increase slightly abysmally low pay and invest more money on Internet operations have Wall Street in an ornery mood because profits might be hurt. Is Wal-Mart Stores Inc. about to cease being a going concern? Hardly. For the first three quarters of this year, Wal-Mart has racked up a net income of US$11.8 billion — and the holiday season isn’t here yet. For the five previous fiscal years, the retailer reported a composite net income of $80.2 billion.

Alas, this isn’t good enough for Wall Street and its “what did you do for me this quarter” mentality. Traders have driven down the price of Wal-Mart stock by more than one-third in 2015, and a public statement on October 14 by the company that its earnings might be a little lower next year prompted the biggest one-day fall in its stock in 25 years.

Wal-Mart employees are joined at a rally by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in Vallejo, California (photo via Brave New Films)

Wal-Mart employees are joined at a rally by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in Vallejo, California (photo via Brave New Films)

Wal-Mart did attempt to offset that news by also announcing a new $20 billion buyback of shares, but not even blowing that kiss to financiers served to lift their moods. (A stock buyback is when a company buys its stock from shareholders at a premium to the trading price, which gives an immediate bonus to the seller and reduces the number of shares that divvy up the profits; news of this sort ordinarily sends financiers into paroxysms of ecstasy.)

This is the company that is the most ruthless in accelerating the trend of moving manufacturing to the locations with the lowest wages, legendary for its relentless pressure on its suppliers to manufacture at such low cost that they have no choice but to move their production to China, or Bangladesh, or Vietnam, because the suppliers can’t pay more than starvation wages and remain in business.

This is a company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

We live under an economic system that is so insane that this has now been deemed by financiers to be insufficiently brutal.

The stack of billions is never high enough

How much further down can people be pushed? And when has so much money been amassed that even the most greedy are satiated? The answer to the first question has yet to be answered, but the answer to the second question seems to be “never.”

The four heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune are collectively worth $161 billion — they are the world’s richest family, richer even than the Koch brothers. The four are each, individually, among the 12 richest people on Earth. The Walton family pocket billions every year just from dividends — their company paid nearly $6.4 billion in dividends in 2014 alone, and the Walton family owns half the shares. The company spent another $6.1 billion in 2014 on buying back its stock. That’s $12.5 billion in one year handed out to financiers and the Walton family.

So it would seem that Wal-Mart could afford to pay its employees more.

Although the company said part of the pressure on profits will come from investments in building a larger Internet presence, it largely blamed its expected dip in profits on two planned boosts in pay, first to $9 an hour this year and then to $10 an hour in 2016. Reuters reported it this way:

“Wal-Mart Chief Executive Doug McMillon said a $1.5 billion investment in wages and training, including raising the minimum store wage to $10 an hour from $9, were needed to improve customer service and would account for three-quarters of the expected 6 percent to 12 percent drop in earnings per share next year.”

One and a half billion in wages and training for an unspecified period of time. Remember, this is a company that averages $16 billion in net profit per year. And in almost half the states of the U.S., mandatory minimum-wage raises would have forced stores in those states to raise the wage anyway.

Or to put this another way, the raises to $10 per hour — assuming the stated cost to the company is real — could be fully funded by cutting what the company spends on stock buybacks by one-quarter.

But it’s never Wall Street’s turn to cut back, is it?

No toleration of employee defense

Jess Levin, communications director for Making Change At Walmart, a campaign to advocate for Wal-Mart employees backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers, noted that pay raises could easily be offset by cutting hours:

“Walmart should be ashamed for trying to blame its failures on the so-called wage increases. The truth is that hard-working Walmart employees all across the country began seeing their hours cut soon after the new wages were announced. The idea that this truly drove down Walmart’s profits is a fairytale.”

What isn’t a fairy tale is Wal-Mart’s attacks on any attempt at organizing its stores. An In These Times report noted:

“A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).”

There are real-world consequences to these developments. A 2007 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that Wal-Mart alone was responsible for the loss of 200,000 U.S. jobs to China for the years 2001 to 2006, with Wal-Mart accounting for two-thirds of all U.S. manufacturing jobs lost during that period. Wal-Mart more recently has begun shifting manufacturing to countries like Bangladesh that are low-cost alternatives to China.

The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reports that garment workers in Bangladesh earn between 33 and 42 cents per hour, or up to $20 for a six-day, 48-hour work week. On the backs of those super-exploited workers, and on the backs of exploited store and warehouse employees, arise the fabulous wealth of the Walton family, Wal-Mart executives and financiers. Doug McMillion, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer, was paid $25.6 million for 2014 — or 24,500 times more than a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker working for a Wal-Mart subcontractor earns.

More is never enough — Wall Street is cracking its whip, demanding no letup in this massive upward flow of money. No slack is allowed. When do we stop believing this machine can be reformed?