Tag Archives: economics: great recession

The U.S. is Replacing Good Jobs with Bad Ones

In a fancy bit of marketing, U.S. capitalists have been reborn as “job creators.”  As such, they were rewarded with lower taxes, weaker labor laws, and relaxed government regulation. However, despite record profits, their job creation performance leaves a lot to be desired.

According to the official data the last U.S. recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. Thus, we have officially been in economic expansion for almost five years.  The gains from the expansion should be strong and broad-based enough to ensure real progress for the majority over the course of the business cycle.  If not, it’s a sign that we need a change in our basic economic structure.  In other words, it would be foolish to work to sustain an economic structure that was incapable of satisfying majority needs even when it was performing well according to its own logic.

A recent study by the National Employment Law Project titled The Low-Wage Recovery provides one indicator that it is time for us to pursue a change.  It shows that the current economic expansion is transitioning the U.S. into a low wage economy.

The figure below shows the net private sector job loss by industries classified according to their medium wage from January 2008 to February 2010 and the net private sector job gain using the same classification from March 2010 to March 2014. As we can see, the net job loss in the first period was greatest in high wage industries and the net job creation in the second period was greatest in low wage industries.

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As the study explains:

 The food services and drinking places, administrative and support services (includes temporary help), and retail trade industries are leading private sector job growth during the recent recovery phase. These industries, which pay relatively low wages, accounted for 39 percent of the private sector employment increase over the past four years.

If the hard times of recession disproportionately eliminate high wage jobs and the “so called” good times of recovery bring primarily low wage jobs, it is time to move beyond our current focus on the business cycle and initiate a critical assessment of the way our economy operates and in whose interest.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

On the False Idea that Money is a Resource

I am so pleased to have stumbled across a short excerpt from a talk by Alan Watts, forwarded by a Twitter follower.  Watts makes a truly profound argument about what money really is.  I’ll summarize it here and you can watch the full three-and-a-half minute video below if you like.

Watts notes that we like to talk about “laws of nature,” or “observed regularities” in the world.  In order to observe these regularities, he points out, we have to invent something regular against which to compare nature. Clocks and rulers are these kinds of things.

All this is fine but, all too often, the clocks and the rulers come to seem more real than the nature that is being measured.  For example, he says, we might think that the sun is rising because it’s 6AM when, of course, the sun will rise independently of our measures.  It’s as if our clocks rule the universe instead of vice versa.

He uses these observations to make a comment about wealth and poverty. Money, he reminds us, isn’t real. It’s an invented measure.  A dollar is no different than a minute or an inch.  It is used to measure prosperity, but it doesn’t create prosperity any more than 6AM makes the sun rise or a ruler gives things inches.

When there is a crisis — an economic depression or a natural disaster, for example — we may want to fix it, but end up asking ourselves “Where’s the money going to come from?”  This is exactly the same mistake that we make, Watts argues, when we think that the sun rises because it’s 6AM.  He says:

They think money makes prosperity. It’s the other way around, it’s physical prosperity which has money as a way of measuring it.  But people think money has to come from somewhere… and it doesn’t. Money is something we have to invent, like inches.

So, you remember the Great Depression when there was a slump?  And what did we have a slump of?  Money.  There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. But it’s like you came to work on building a house one day and they said, “Sorry, you can’t build this house today, no inches.”

“What do you mean no inches?”

“Just inches!  We don’t mean that… we’ve got inches of lumber, yes, we’ve got inches of metal, we’ve even got tape measures, but there’s a slump in inches as such.”

And people are that crazy!

This is backward thinking, he says.  It is allowing money to rule things when, in reality, it’s just a measure.

I encourage you to watch:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Businesses are Swimming in Money”: More Profit Protection Will Not End the Recession

One conventional explanation for our economic problems seems to be that our businesses are strapped for funds.  Greater business earnings, it is said, will translate into needed investment, employment, consumption and, finally, sustained economic recovery.  Thus, the preferred policy response: provide business with greater regulatory freedom and relief from high taxes and wages.

It is this view that underpins current business and government support for new corporate tax cuts and trade agreements designed to reduce government regulation of business activity, attacks on unions, and opposition to extending unemployment benefits and increasing the minimum wage.

One problem with this story is that businesses are already swimming in money and they haven’t shown the slightest inclination to use their funds for investment or employment.

The first chart below highlights the trend in free cash flow as a percentage of GDP.  Free cash flow is one way to represent business profits.  More specifically, it is a pretax measure of the money firms have after spending on wages and salaries, depreciation charges, amortization of past loans, and new investment.  As you can see that ratio remains at historic highs.  In short, business is certainly not short of money.

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So what are businesses doing with their funds?  The next chart looks at the ratio of net private nonresidential fixed investment to net domestic product (I use “net” rather than “gross” variables in order to focus on investment that goes beyond simply replacing worn out plant and equipment).  The ratio makes clear that one reason for the large cash flow is that businesses are not committed to new investment.  Indeed quite the opposite is true.

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Rather than invest in plant and equipment, businesses are primarily using their funds to repurchase their own stocks in order to boost management earnings and ward off hostile take-overs, pay dividends to stockholders, and accumulate large cash and bond holdings.

Cutting taxes, deregulation, attacking unions and slashing social programs will only intensify these very trends.  Time for a new understanding of our problems and a very new response to them.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Whose Economic Recovery Is It?

Officially our most recent recession began December 2007 and ended June 2009.  The following chart provides an important perspective on the recovery period.

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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.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front and Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

The Weakest Economic Recovery Since World War II

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.

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According to Josh Bivens:

…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.

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As Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz explain:

…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.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

U.S. Corporations are Hoarding Wealth at Highest Rate Since 1971

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 .

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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.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

The Striking Rise in “Missing Workers”

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 Institute explains, 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.

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 The next chart compares the estimated unemployment rate including missing workers (in orange) with the official unemployment rate (in blue).

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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.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Welcome to an Economy for the 1%

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.

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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 Times article 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?

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.