Officially our most recent recession began December 2007 and ended June 2009. The following chart provides an important perspective on the recovery period.
Stocks and profits have enjoyed a remarkable recovery. While income is slightly up over the period, it is critical to remember that this is average income and the increase largely reflects gains for those at the very top of the income distribution. Jobs and housing have yet to recover.
So, with returns to capital booming, it is easy to understand why business leaders are relatively content with current policies and, by extension, political leaders are reluctant to rock the boat.
Unfortunately, current policies are unlikely to do much to improve the job prospects or income of most workers. In fact, the rise in business profits owes much to our depressed labor conditions. Unless something dramatic happens, we can expect the next few years to look very much like the past few years.
The current economic recovery officially began June 2009 and is one of the weakest in the post-World War II period. This is true by almost every indicator, except growth in profits.
One reason it has offered working people so little is the contraction of government spending and employment. This may sound strange given the steady drumbeat of articles and speeches demanding a further retrenchment of government involvement in the economy, but the fact is that this drumbeat is masking the reality of the situation.
The figure shows the growth in real spending by federal, state, and local governments in the years before and after recessions. The black line shows the average change in public spending over the six business cycles between 1948 and 1980. Each blue line shows government spending for a different recent business cycle and the red line does the same for our current cycle. As you can see, this expansionary period stands out for having the slowest growth in public spending. In fact, in contrast to other recovery periods, public spending is actually declining.
…public spending following the Great Recession is the slowest on record, and as of the second quarter of 2013 stood roughly 15 percent below what it would have been had it simply matched historical averages… if public spending since 2009 had matched typical business cycles, this spending would be roughly $550 billion higher today, and more than 5 million additional people would have jobs (and most of these would be in the private sector).
The basic stagnation in government spending has actually translated into a significant contraction in public employment. This figure highlights just how serious the trend is by comparing public sector job growth in the current recovery to the three prior recovery periods.
…the public sector has shed 737,000 jobs since June 2009. However, this raw job-loss figure radically understates the drag of public-sector employment relative to how this sector has normally performed during economic recoveries… [P]ublic-sector employment should naturally grow as the overall population grows. Between 1989 and 2007, for example, the ratio of public employment to overall population was remarkably stable at roughly 7.3 public sector workers for each 100 members of the population. Today’s ratio is 6.9, and if it stood at the historic average of 7.3 instead, we would have 1.3 million more public sector jobs today.
In short, the challenge we face is not deciding between alternative ways to further shrink the public sector but rather of designing and building support for well financed public programs to restructure our economy and generate living wage jobs.
The dominant firms in the U.S. and other major capitalist counties are happily making profits, but they aren’t interested in investing them in new plants and equipment that increase productivity and create jobs. Rather they prefer to use their earnings to acquire other firms, reward their managers and shareholders, or increase their holdings of cash and other financial assets.
The chart below, taken from a Michael Burke post in the Irish Left Review, shows trends in both U.S profits and investment .
As you can see the increase in profits (in orange) has swamped the increase in investment (in blue) over the relevant time period; in fact, investment in current dollars has actually been falling.
Looking at the ratio between these two variables helps us see even more clearly the growth in firm reluctance to channel profits into investment. The investment ratio (investment/profits) was 62% in 1971, peaked at 69% in 1979, fell to 61% in 2000 and 56% in 2008, and dropped to an even lower 46% in 2012.
According to Burke, if U.S. firms were simply to invest at the level they did in 1979, not even the peak, the increase in investment in the American economy would exceed $1.5 trillion, close to 10% of GDP.
The same dynamic is observable in the other main capitalist economies:
In 1995 the investment ratio in the Euro Area was 51.7% and by 2008 it was 53.2%. It fell to 47.1% in 2012. In Britain the investment ratio peaked at 76% in 1975 but by 2008 had fallen to 53%. In 2012 it was just 42.9% (OECD data).
So what are firms doing with their money? As Burke explains:
The uninvested portion of firms’ surplus essentially has only two destinations, either as a return to the holders of capital (both bondholders and shareholders), or is hoarded in the form of financial assets. In the case of the U.S. and other leading capitalist economies both phenomena have been observed. The nominal returns to capital have risen (even while the investment ratio has fallen) and financial assets including cash balances have also risen.
So, with firms seeing no privately profitable outlet for their funds, despite great societal needs, their owners appear content to reward themselves and sock away the rest in the financial system. In many ways this turns out to be a self-reinforcing dynamic. No wonder things are so bad for so many.
The Federal Reserve Bank has said it will maintain its stimulus policy as long as the economy remains weak. One of its key indicators for the strength of the economy is the unemployment rate, which has been steadily falling for several years, from 10% in October 2009 to 7.3% in August 2013. However, this decline in the official unemployment rate gives a misleading picture of economic conditions, at least as far as the labor market is concerned.
The reason, as the Economy Policy Instituteexplains, is because of the large number of “missing workers.” These missing workers are…
…potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities, are neither employed nor actively seeking a job. In other words, these are people who would be either working or looking for work if job opportunities were significantly stronger. Because jobless workers are only counted as unemployed if they are actively seeking work, these “missing workers” are not reflected in the unemployment rate.
We are seeing many more missing workers now than in recent history. The chart below shows the Economic Policy Institute estimate for the number of missing workers.
The next chart compares the estimated unemployment rate including missing workers (in orange) with the official unemployment rate (in blue).
As you can see, while the official unemployment rate continues to decline, the corrected unemployment rate remains stuck at a rate above 10%. In other words labor market conditions remain dismal. And here we are only talking about employment. If we consider the quality of the jobs being created, things are even worse.
The great majority of Americans might find the post-recession expansion disappointing, but not the top earners.
The following table reveals that our economic system is operating much differently than in the recent past. The rightmost column shows that the top 1% captured 68% of all the new income generated over the period 1993 to 2012, but a full 95% of all the real income growth during the 2009-2012 recovery from the Great Recession. In contrast, the top 1% only captured 45% of the income growth during the Clinton expansion and 68% during the Bush expansion.
Of that weren’t enough, the next chart offers another perspective on how well top income earners are doing. In the words of the New York Timesarticle that included it:
…the top 10% of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago… The top 1% took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans, one of the highest levels on record since 1913 when the government instituted an income tax.
We have a big economy. Slow growth isn’t such a big deal if you are in the top 1% and 22.5% of the total national income is yours and you can capture 95% of any increase. As for the rest of us…
One question rarely raised by those reporting on income trends: What policies are responsible for these trends?
Four years into the economic recovery, U.S. workers’ pay still isn’t even keeping up with inflation. The average hourly pay for a nongovernment, non-supervisory worker, adjusted for price increases, declined to $8.77 last month from $8.85 at the end of the recession in June 2009, Labor Department data show.
In other words, as the chart below illustrates, the great majority of workers are experiencing real wage declines over this expansion”
Growth also remains sluggish, increasing “at a seasonally adjusted annual pace of less than 2% for three straight quarters — below the pre-recession average of 3.5%.” But by intensifying the pace of work and reducing the pay of their employees, corporations have been able to boost their profits despite the slow growth.
The following chart from an Economic Policy Institute study shows the continuing and growing disconnect between productivity and private sector worker compensation (which includes wages and benefits) using two different measures of compensation.
As the Economic Policy Institute study explains, “there has been no sustained growth in average compensation since 2004. The stagnation began even earlier, in 2003, when considering wages alone. Since 2003, wages as measured by both the ECI and the ECEC (not shown) have not grown at all — a lost decade for wages.”
The point then is that we need a real jobs program, one that is designed to create new meaningful jobs and boost the well-being of those employed. Government efforts to sustain the existing expansion have certainly been responsive to corporate interests. It should now be obvious that such efforts offer workers very little.
In the early 1990s, Bill Moyers began following two Milwaukee families, the Neumanns and the Stanleys, as they struggled to keep a foothold in the middle class in the face of economic changes that largely destroyed the city’s decently-paid, unionized manufacturing jobs. An earlier documentary, Surviving the Good Times, showcased the two incredibly hard-working families’ efforts to adapt to the new economic reality. Their stories highlight the difficulty of trying to achieve the American Dream on a series of jobs that rarely pay a living wage or offer any benefits.
And how about now? Twenty years after he first started following their lives, Moyers returned to Milwaukee to see how they had fared during the housing bubble and subsequent economic crisis. Two American Families shows the increasing economic precariousness each family experiences over two decades and the impacts this has on the opportunities they can provide their children. It’s a heartbreaking look at the effects of large-scale economic changes on individual families.
PBS has also posted interviews with a few of the family members about why they participated in the new film, as well as an update on how they’re doing since they were last filmed. And you can find a number of charts on the changing economy and its impacts on families here, and some data about Milwaukee specifically here.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Media and policy-makers seem anxious to convince us that the economy is in strong recovery mode, therefore, no further significant policy interventions are needed.
Their optimism appears to rest heavily on the recent acceleration in consumer spending. After all, there are strong reasons for concern with the other major sources of growth: government spending on all levels is being cut, exports face a weakening world economy, and business investment remains largely stagnate.
But there are also strong reasons to challenge this optimistic view of consumer spending as a growth engine. The charts below, from a Wall Street Journalarticle, highlight some of the most important.
As we see below, while consumption spending is indeed accelerating, after tax personal income is falling. In other words, there appears little reason to believe that there is a solid foundation for sustaining this trend.
Additionally, after four years of recovery we still have 2.4 million fewer jobs than we had at the start of the recession. Moreover, as we see below, there has been no real wage growth. In fact, real average wages have fallen for most of the so-called expansionary period.
Yes, housing values are finally starting to rise and household debt payments as a share of after-tax income are declining. But to a large extent the new burst in consumption spending has more to do with renewed borrowing than solid gains in job creation and income.
Unfortunately, there is little reason for us to have confidence that the economy is gathering strength in ways that will be sustainable or benefit the great majority of working people.