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.

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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?

The six-hour work day comes to Sweden

Why do we work so many hours? I mean beyond the obvious answer that the dictatorial employment relationships of capitalism force us to on pain of unemployment. Working hours declined from the inhuman work weeks of the industrial revolution until the mid-20th century, when the hours we work leveled off; in more recent years work hours have been increasing.

It certainly isn’t because productivity has plateaued. On the contrary, advances in machinery and computerization make us more productive than ever before. So why do we still work an eight-hour day after all these decades? (Or more than eight hours in many cases, and not necessarily with extra pay for office workers receiving a flat salary.) An eight-hour day was an outstanding achievement of social movements from the 19th century, when work days lasted 10 and 12 hours.

With the advancements in productivity over the years, we could certainly work fewer hours and still provide all that is necessary. Why not a six-hour day? Or less? In Sweden, there are ongoing experiments with six-hour work days, which so far have met with success. Not surprisingly, given the one-sidedness of workplace relations, these experiments are being done in the name of “greater productivity.” In other words, the standard is to be: Will this be good for the boss’ profits? That it might be good for the workers is part of the equation, but even this is commingled with the idea that rested workers will be more productive workers and thus more profitable for bosses.

Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg, Sweden

Let’s first examine six-hour work days on these capitalist terms. The issue of how much productivity can be extracted out of workers, interestingly, is more explicitly stated in a test case of public workers than it is for private employers, in part due to right-wing opposition. In Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, two groups of municipal workers are part of a test in which one set will work six-hour days with full pay and the other set continues to work a standard eight-hour day. The hope is that a shorter day will reduce sick leave, boost efficiency and ultimately save money, according to a report in the Stockholm newspaper The Local. A Gothenburg deputy mayor, Mats Pilhem of the Left Party, said:

“We’ll compare the two afterwards and see how they differ. We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days.”

One group of public workers on six-hour days are nurses at an elder-care facility. This experiment is to continue until the end of 2016. Fourteen new staff members were hired to cover the lost hours, but a consultant told The Guardian that the nurses “are less stressed and have more time for the residents.” The city government is closely monitoring the experiment to see if the quality of service is higher with the six-hour work day. Nurses report having more energy at work because they are no longer exhausted from longer days of work, and a Left Party member of the Gothenburg council said quality of life for the employees should also be a consideration. He said:

“Not everything is about making things cheaper and more efficient, but about making them better. Under the Conservative-led coalition government in Sweden from 2005 to 2014 we spoke only about working more, and more efficiently — but now we want to discuss how to survive a long working life so we don’t destroy our bodies by the time we are 60.”

Not an unreasonable thought.

Private employers see benefits to shorter day

In the private sector, a Toyota service center in Gothenburg switched to a six-hour work day in 2002, with no cut in pay, and reports that its profits are up thanks to more efficient use of the center’s machinery. The Swedish Internet company Brath reports strong growth in revenue and profits using a six-hour work day. The company’s chief executive officer, Maria Bråth, believes that employees with time for the rest of their lives are more productive employees:

“That we have shorter days is not the main reason people stay with us, they are the symptom of the reason. The reason is that we actually care about our employees, we care enough to prioritize their time with the family, cooking or doing something else they love doing. … Another big benefit is that our employees produce more than similar companies do. We obviously measure this. It hasn’t happened by itself, we’ve been working on this from the start. Today we get more done in 6 hours than comparable companies do in 8. We believe it comes with the high level of creativity demanded in this line of work. We believe nobody can be creative and productive in 8 hours straight. 6 hours is more reasonable, even though we too, of course, check Facebook or the news at times.”

At the other extreme, working more than 40 hours per week is detrimental to physical and mental health. A study published earlier this year in The Lancet found that people working 55 hours per week had a 33 percent greater risk of a stroke than those who worked 35 to 40 hours per week and a higher risk of heart disease. This study analyzed more than 600,000 individuals, through data drawn from 20 studies, in several countries.

Studies conducted in the early 20th century, as the working day was progressively shortening toward the eight-hour norm, that productivity was actually greater with a shorter day. For example, the 1913 book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency by Hugo Münsterberg, regarded as a pioneer in applied psychology, summarizing the results of various factory studies, stated:

“It was found that everywhere, even abstracting from all other cultural and social interests, a moderate shortening of the working day did not involve loss, but brought a direct gain. The German pioneer in the movement for the shortening of the workingman’s day, Ernst Abbé, the head of one of the greatest German factories, wrote many years ago that the shortening from nine to eight hours, that is, a cutting-down of more than 10 per cent, did not involve a reduction of the day’s product, but an increase, and that this increase did not result from any supplementary efforts by which the intensity of the work would be reinforced in an unhygienic way. This conviction of Abbé still seems to hold true after millions of experiments over the whole globe.”

It is hardly a revelation that a tired workforce is going to make more mistakes and be subject to more accidents. The common belief by bosses that it is cheaper to force overtime on current workers, even in those cases where it must be paid when employment laws or union contracts can’t be evaded, than to hire new workers to handle increasing workloads isn’t necessarily true. Beyond the benefits to productivity or employer satisfaction, working fewer hours would be a partial compensation for pay that has badly lagged increases in productivity since the 1970s.

We produce more but don’t earn more

This pattern is persistent throughout the world. It has been in place since the early 1970s in the United States and although a more recent phenomenon elsewhere in the world’s advanced capitalist countries, workers everywhere suffer from stagnant wages while producing more. U.S. workers on average earn nearly 12 dollars per hour less than they would if wages had kept pace with productivity gains since 1973. Canadian workers earn on average 11,000 dollars per year less then they would if if wages had kept pace with productivity gains since 1980. Other studies demonstrate lags in wages versus productivity in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The bottom line is that we work more hours because bosses can extract more from us, even if they don’t extract as much as they believe they do when we are pushed beyond an eight-hour day. That a handful of bosses have the foresight to see that more profits can come from shorter work days does nothing to change that basic capitalist equation. Profits ultimately derive from the difference between what we are paid and the value of what we produce — the drive to increase this difference underlies both the stagnant pay of recent decades and the accelerating shifting of production, both manual and office work, to locations with ever lower wages and weaker regulations.

Graphic courtesy of Economic Policy Institute

Graphic courtesy of Economic Policy Institute

What if we worked for ourselves instead? If shorter work days are beneficial to working people — and reduce unemployment by requiring more workers to carry out necessary work — why shouldn’t this be widely implemented? So far, the discussion around the length of the working day has centered around what is best for bosses, as would be expected under capitalism. (And, make no mistake, Sweden is a capitalist country, albeit one that ameliorates some of capitalism’s harshness more than most others countries.) What if the workers ran the company themselves, or managed a public enterprise themselves?

A cooperative enterprise could similarly reduce the work day or possibly even more since it wouldn’t have to generate a large profit for a boss or, in the case of larger enterprises, for the top executives and shareholders. The steady increase in inequality, the immense fortunes held by the world’s billionaires that are far beyond any reasonable possibility of useful investment, the trillions of dollars stockpiled by multi-national corporations, and the immense waste of advertising and planned obsolescence attest to the fact that we work beyond what is necessary to meet human need.

If the economy were organized on the basis of an economic democracy — in which production is oriented toward human, community and social need rather than private accumulation of capital — the work day could reasonably be well less than eight hours. Economic democracy can be defined as where everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs, and that pricing and other decisions are not made outside the community or without input from suppliers, distributors and buyers.

By no means is anything written in this article intended to be an argument against shorter, more humane working hours or higher pay today. But as such struggles intensify, as they must, they can help us move beyond reforms that somewhat lessen our exploitation to ending exploitation. If a six-hour work day is better for us, why not have more of the benefits accrue to those who do the work and to the community that supports that work?

Chinese stock bubble no panacea for low wages

China increasingly finds its journey to capitalism to be difficult, all the more so since the government’s strategy of inflating a stock-market bubble has not worked better than it does elsewhere.

Although, thanks to increasing worker militancy, wages are rising in China, it does not appear that China’s leaders have made any real progress in tackling over-reliance on investment and a low level of consumption, while inequality continues to rise. Encouraging working people to throw money into Chinese stock markets — much of which was borrowed — isn’t a substitute for a strong social safety net and living wages.

The corporate media is grumbling that measures Beijing has taken to stabilize its stock markets amount to a backtracking on its commitments to capitalist markets, but China’s integration into the global economic system is hardly at risk. The ruling Communist Party made its goal of increasing integration quite clear two years ago, when it set its economic goals at the 18th Party Congress’ Third Plenum.

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

The recently built, empty Chinese city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia (photo by Uday Phalgun)

At the time, corporate-media writers were disappointed the party did not choose to become a pet of the International Monetary Fund, evidently unable to read beyond the self-congratulatory slogans the party issued about its leadership. The party stated firmly its continuing commitment to capitalism, but also that its ongoing adoption of markets would be gradual.

This was clear enough at the time: The party’s communiqué following the Plenum stated it “must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources” and would “accelerate the construction of free trade zones.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stressed that “The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda.” Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping reiterated this commitment:

“An important goal for China’s current economic reform is to enable the market to play the decisive role in resource allocation and make the government better play its role. That means we need to make good use of both the invisible hand and the visible hand. … To develop the capital market is a key goal of China’s reform, which will not change just because of current market fluctuations.”

When real estate cools, inflate a stock bubble

A rapid increase in debt and the petering out of a long real estate boom are two reasons said to be behind the inflation of a Chinese stock-market bubble. (A reversal of the order in the U.S., where a real estate bubble was inflated to counteract the burst of the 1990s stock bubble.) A McKinsey Global Institute study found that China’s total debt (corporate and all levels of government) quadrupled in seven years, reaching $28 trillion in mid-2014, a total nearly triple the country’s gross domestic product. The study says:

“Three developments are potentially worrisome: half of all loans are linked, directly or indirectly, to China’s overheated real-estate market; unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending; and the debt of many local governments is probably unsustainable.”

Arguing that the stock-market rally was “clearly sponsored by the Chinese government,” economist Alicia García-Herrero said the bubble was inflated to provide local banks and corporations with new sources of capital. But what goes up eventually comes down, a turn compounded by the high rate of borrowing that fueled stock purchases. There were two proximate causes of the crash, Ms. García-Herrero writes:

“First, there was a wave of profit taking after the Shanghai benchmark index broke through 5,000 in early June and doubts emerged about further easing from the [Chinese central bank]. At that very same moment, China’s securities regulator announced measures to cool down the market, which amounted to banning brokerage firms from providing unregulated margin funding to investors. This was more of a shock to the system than one might imagine, as margin financing in China is much larger than in other stock markets.”

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index reached its peak on June 12 and has fallen by more than one-third since, wiping out about US$3.3 trillion of value. Apologists argue that the Shanghai Stock Market is still well above where it was as recently as mid-2014, which is true, but the current value of Chinese stocks aren’t so impressive when looked at in a longer time frame — the Shanghai Composite Index is today where it was in November 2010.

Beijing has taken a series of steps to stabilize Chinese stock markets, including halting initial public offerings, cuts to interest rates, directing national pension funds to buy stocks, and instituting a new rule that large shareholders and managers must not reduce their holdings for six months. Alleviating the stock-market crash appears to be seen by the party leadership as a necessity to dampen potential social unrest due to the massive borrowing by mom-and-pop investors encouraged by the government. A ninefold increase in margin lending by brokerage firms over the past two years fueled the bubble, according to The New York Times.

Devaluation in response to export slowdown

The summer’s stock-market crash coincides with signs that China’s economic growth may be slowing. Chinese exports and imports were both down sharply for July and August, and in response, Beijing intervened in foreign-exchange markets to force a small decline in the value of the renminbi. But that devaluation appears to have backfired as market pressure would have forced the value of the renminbi to continue falling, below China’s target, causing Chinese financial officials to further intervene to prop up the value of their currency.

Although right-wing politicians apparently believe China’s government sets the value of its currency by decree, in fact China (as do many other countries) has to spend considerable money to maintain its value to counter the force of currency speculators. The yen, euro, U.S. dollar and Swiss franc are among the currencies whose values have been pushed down at various times due to government spending. Countries that do not possess the reserves to do this are completely at the mercy of speculators.

China does have reserves, due to its large trade surpluses, and is believed by Bloomberg Business to have spent US$315 billion in the past 12 months propping up the renminbi. In August alone, China spent $94 billion to keep its currency from falling further in value.

OK, what does all this mean? The idea that China has built a wall that keeps out the world capitalist system simply isn’t so. China, in contrast to other developing countries, is big enough to set some of its own rules and push back against U.S. domination. But its integration into world markets means it is ultimately subject to the whims of those markets. Those are very real forces: Markets are not impartial, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily in the clouds — they represent the aggregate collective interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers.

It is those interests that are behind the massive transfer of production to China and other low-wage countries. No enterprise is more responsible for this transfer than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which leverages its size, innovation in computerizing its inventory and tight management of its suppliers to squeeze those suppliers. If a manufacturer wants to continue to have contracts to supply Wal-Mart, then it has no choice but to ship its operations overseas because it has no other way to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for ever lower prices.

Wal-Mart, although the most ruthless, is far from alone in this business practice. Apple Inc. accrues massive profits by contracting out its manufacturing to subcontractors. A 2010 paper by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that Chinese workers are paid so little that they accounted for only $6.50 of the $168 total manufacturing cost of an iPhone. Of course iPhones cost a lot more than $168 — an extraordinary profit is generated for Apple executives and shareholders on the backs of Chinese workers.

By now, those Chinese workers earn more, although they still represent a minuscule cost against a gigantic profit. Wages have been increasing in China in recent years fast enough that wages doubled from 2009 to 2015. Yet inequality is rising in China; as measured by the gini co-efficient, the standard measure of inequality, the income gap has grown more there in the past two decades than in any other Asian country.

Chinese labor share of economy remains small

Thus, when measured against the overall economy, China’s workers are not really doing better. By one measure, a study by two University of Chicago business professors, the labor share of China’s gross domestic product was a woeful 36 percent in 2010, compared to 58 to 60 percent for Japan, the United States and Germany. That share was above 50 percent in the 1980s. (The trend of those percentages in each country is down.)

Another way of analyzing this is in household consumption: The share of household consumption in China’s gross domestic product in 2013 was 36 percent (this was the latest figure available), representing a continual decline from 47 percent in 2000. Household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP. Finally, China’s capital investment remains extraordinarily large, accounting for 48 percent of GDP, far above what other countries spend and as high as it has been in the past.

China’s growth is still overly dependent on building infrastructure and exports, and despite still low wages production is already being transferred to other countries with still lower wages. The average factory worker in China earns $27.50 per day — pitiful by Northern standards, but much higher with the $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam. But higher wages are not distributed evenly in China. The minimum wage varies considerably among provinces and in six of the most important cities, the minimum wage is less than 30 percent of the average local wage even though Chinese law prescribes it should be at least 40 percent.

Although Chinese authorities often meet worker unrest with repression, concessions are also offered, enabling the increases in wages. Such unrest is growing more widespread: China Labour Bulletin reports that 1,642 strikes have taken place in China in 2015, more than all of last year. Strike totals are as follows:

  • 1,642 strikes in 2015 (total reported as of September 22)
  • 1,379 strikes in 2014
  • 656 strikes in 2013
  • 382 strikes in 2012
  • 185 strikes in 2011

Alternative organizations are leading many of these struggles due to the lack of effective trade unions, the Bulletin reports:

“Labour rights groups, especially those in Guangdong, emerged to play the role a union should be playing, supporting workers in their struggle with management, helping them to conduct collective bargaining and maintaining unity and solidarity.”

What the future for China will largely depends on its working class’ ability to organize, a difficult task in the face of tightened repression. To what extent President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign really is an effort to root out corrupt “tigers and fleas” and to what extent it is a continuing purge — the “tigers” thus far are primarily associated with former President Hu Jintao — is difficult to know given the opacity of the party and the factions that contend within it. That the politically connected and coastal elites within China have become wealthy signals there is a powerful bloc within the party committed to the path it has taken since the Deng Xiaoping era.

Northern, and especially U.S., capitalists have profited well from China’s policies, too. Thus it behooves U.S. and Chinese working people, Northern and Southern workers, to recognize their common interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world are united in their neoliberal drive; we can only defend ourselves on an international basis.

High-tech exploitation is still exploitation

In the so-called “sharing economy,” it isn’t the profits that are being shared. What is being shared are ways of putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

“Sharing economy” enterprises designating employees as “independent contractors” so that workers are left without legal protections, and undercutting competition through insisting that laws and regulations don’t apply to them, really aren’t new or “innovative.” But it’s Silicon Valley companies that are doing this — so, hurray!, it’s now exciting and, oh yes, disruptive! Quaint, archaic standards such as minimum wages and labor- and consumer-law protections are so old-fashioned that Silicon Valley billionaires are doing us all a favor by disrupting our ability to keep them.

That “sharing economy” enterprises are focal points of a new technology-stock bubble is another reason to question the hype surrounding them. While waiting for the right moment for an initial public offering, the poster child for the “sharing economy,” Uber Technologies Inc., has had no trouble attracting investors, and is now valued at US$51 billion. Not bad for a company that claims to be nothing but an app — except for when it claims to be hiring drivers when its interests dictate. (More on that below.) To put that valuation in perspective, it is higher than 80 percent of S&P 500 companies — an index selected from among the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. This for a company founded in 2009.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

How Uber’s valuation matches up with its income is impossible to say as the company does not reveal its financial results. A report in TechCrunch says that Uber may be pulling in more than $1 billion in gross receipts per year, and estimates Uber’s cut of that revenue to be about $213 million. (Uber takes a 20 percent cut from its drivers, but some drivers say it takes an additional cut for “fees”) Between its revenue and the $5 billion in funding it has received, the company could afford to hire its drivers as employees, but instead spends its money on attack advertising.

The company launched a multi-media fusillade of attack ads last month when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dared suggest regulations observed by others might apply to it, including a bombardment of television ads and robo-calls. (I received two. They didn’t work.) True to form, Mayor de Blasio, the Obama of New York City who is carrying out former billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term, backed down.

Uber vehemently opposed a proposed one-year cap of one percent growth in its drivers (which would have applied to all companies) despite already having more registered cars than all of the city’s yellow-cab companies combined, and in contrast to the hard cap that exists on the number of yellow-cab permits. When not attacking the mayor, Uber’s attacks were concentrated on yellow-cab companies and drivers.

Driving down wages for low-wage taxi drivers

Who are the taxi drivers whom Uber wishes you to believe are privileged and should be subjected to more competition? A New York City yellow cab driver pays the company that owns the cab $100 or more at the start of a 12-hour shift, pays for gas and is subject to consumer regulations. The driver spends the first hours of his or her shift covering these daily expenses. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance summarizes the situation for taxi drivers this way:

“Drivers are earning less and working longer, some days earning below the minimum wage. Right now, after 12-hour shifts, with no overtime pay, taxi drivers make $10-12 an hour in take home pay. More traffic and more cars competing for the same fares will drive incomes deeper into poverty levels. … In its ‘disruption’ playbook, meanwhile, Uber tells drivers to pick up illegally as a way to overwhelm local enforcement and break down regulators, and promises to pay the fines. Drivers desperate for work risk time in jail and for immigrants, loss of naturalized citizenship, while brand Uber claims innovation. Drivers are used and discarded. …

Uber seeks to decimate the regulated taxi industry and replace it with a transportation monopoly of no consumer protections and no full-time work for drivers. For Uber, drivers aren’t just Independent Contractors, they, quite frankly, are not workers at all. Why tip, or require commercial insurance or registration, or comply under federal or state transportation or labor laws when this is ‘just a side thing.’ Low Uber fares — when they are not price surging — are aimed at out-competing taxis and justified by calling the income supplemental. Taxis aren’t the only target, as they also aim their sights on dismantling public transportation, by proclaiming to be cheaper than buses in Chicago and LA and faster than an ambulance. If they gain a monopoly, the purpose of low fares will have been served and price surging will be the norm.”

The “disruption” or “innovation” that this promises is the Wal-Martization of transportation. In fact, the corporate law firm that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. used to successfully defeat a discrimination class action (Wal-Mart v. Dukes) by women employees, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, has been hired by Uber to fight its California drivers who say they are improperly classified as independent contractors instead of as employees. Not exactly the defender of working-class drivers Uber claims to be in its propaganda.

A San Francisco federal judge and the California Labor Commission separately ruled earlier this year that Uber drivers are employees, rulings the company continues to contest. But when it was sued for alleged text spamming, Uber claimed the messages were legal because they were hiring solicitations. But how can Uber “recruit” if it is nothing more than a software provider as it claims?

The degradation of working conditions through the “sharing economy” is of course not limited to one company. A provider of home-cleaning services, Homejoy, has closed itself rather than contest lawsuits seeking to have its “independent contractors” be re-classified as employees. Grocery-delivery service Instacart and courier Shyp have reclassified some of their workers as employees in the face of lawsuits.

A lottery economy facilitates inequality

The founders of these companies and the speculators who sink millions into them hope to be the winners in what has become a lottery economy. Only a minuscule percentage of inventions become commercially successful — a director of public affairs for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office said a decade ago that 99.8 percent of issued patents are not commercially viable. A small number of those commercially viable ideas are worth millions or billions to its creators. This is similar to the art world, where a minuscule number of artists sell works for millions while the overwhelming majority of artists earn little or nothing.

But are the entrepreneurs who win the lottery really worth so much more than everybody else? None of these corporate lottery winners created their successful company on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies that create the demand for the product. Then there is the social structure that enabled the millionaire to become wealthy through an invention or the creation of a popular product or through rising to the top of a large corporation or simply through being a popular entertainer or athlete (although most inherited their money through luck of birth).

The mythology of the solo genius justifies massive inequality because the “solo genius” single-handedly created a popular product and thus single-handedly brought prosperity upon the land. For such selfless services, the solo genius must be compensated with fantastic wealth. But why should Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg amass $18 billion and so many others get nothing? Why should Apple Inc. accumulate unprecedented wealth while conditions in the sweatshops that produce its gadgets are sufficiently grim to cause a wave of suicides?

Why should those who stand to make gigantic fortunes from whatever “sharing economy” enterprise is the one that wins the lottery make fortunes on the backs of working people struggling to survive?

At the end of the day, what computers and apps do is shift consumer spending from one merchant to another. The rider who uses an Uber black car is substituting that service for a taxi; the shopper who buys online is substituting for a local store. Just as Wal-Mart seeks to monopolize low-end retail, thereby sending money into the bulging wallets of the multi-billionaire Walton family instead of re-circulating the money through local spending, “sharing economy” enterprises are seeking to vacuum up as much money as possible, with speculators salivating over the potential profits.

Billionaire Silicon Valley libertarians are attempting to become wealthier at the expense of working people. That’s not disruption, that’s capitalism as usual.