I was finishing up my dissertation in 2006.  The Great Recession was still two years away.  Nevertheless, there was talk about it being a tough job market for newly-minted sociologists and, like most everybody in my shoes, I was scared sh*tless about getting a job.

It’s obvious now that I was extremely lucky to get out of grad school when I did.  A few years later the American Sociological Association (ASA) would report that the number of jobs for new PhDs fell 40% from ’06/’07 to ’08/’09 (sociologists have a job “season” that straddles the New Year).

Neal Caren, a (gloriously employed) sociologist at UNC Chapel Hill, has been tracking the job market himself ever since.  His data, posted at Scatterplot, shows that the discipline has yet to recover from the Great Recession (if that’s the sole cause of the decline in job openings).  The yellow and green line represent the drop captured in the ASA report.  The purple line represents the devastating next year and the two blue-ish lines represent a slight recovery.

This year, however, the thick orange line, reveals that this year’s market is not signalling a recovery to the job market of my own debut.  It’s up 5% from last year, Caren explains,  15% from 2010, and “a whopping 73% from 2009.”  Extrapolating from the ASA data, we’re still down 33% from ’06/’07.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

In 2011 the U.S. birth rate dropped to the lowest ever recorded, according to preliminary data released by the National Center for Health Statistics and reported by Pew Social Trends:

The decline was led by foreign-born women, who’s birthrate dropped 14% between 2007 and 2010, compared to a 6% drop for U.S.-born women.

Considering the last two decades, birthrates for all racial/ethnic groups and both U.S.- and foreign-born women have been dropping, but the percent change is much larger among the foreign-born and all non-white groups.  The drop in the birthrate of foreign-born women is double that of U.S.-born and the drop in the birthrate of white women is often a fraction that of women of color.

It’s easy to forget that effective, reversible birth control was invented only about 50 years ago.  Birth control for married couples was illegal until 1965; legalization for single people would follow a few years later.  In the meantime, the second wave of feminism would give women the opportunity to enter well-paying, highly-regarded jobs, essentially giving women something rewarding to do other than/in addition to raise children.  The massive drop in the birthrate during the ’60s likely reflects these changes.

In addition to a drop in the number of children women are having, this data reflects a steady rise in the number of women deciding not to have children at all.  The decision to eschew parenting altogether is disproportionately high among highly educated women, suggesting that the there-are-now-other-things-in-life-to-do phenomenon might be at play.

Many European countries are facing less than replacement levels of fertility and scrambling to figure out what to do about it (the health of most economies in the developed world is predicated on population growth), the U.S. is likely not far behind.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

There are six (progressive) tax brackets for income.  The tax rate paid by earners is bumped up each time they reach a bracket threshold.  The threshholds are determined by type of household.  Here’s a handy chart for 2012 from Wikipedia:

U.S. politicians are now debating how these tax rates should change and they often focus on the “marginal” or “top” tax rate.  That’s the one that applies to the highest tax bracket, right now at 35%.

Dylan Matthews at the WonkBlog notes that the squabbling has been mostly over a percentage point or two.  Small beans, he asserts.  To put this in perspective, he includes this graph of fluctuations in the top tax rates throughout history (click to enlarge):

The green line labeled “income” correlates to the chart above.  You can see that especially income, but also corporate and capital gains top tax rates, have been shockingly variable since 1910.  They were about 25% right before the Great Depression, raised to about 95% during World War II, dropped to about 70% in the ’60s, and have been on the decline ever since.

Matthews refers to a pair of economists, Nobel laureate Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, who argue that the top tax rate should optimally be 73%.  Sociologist Jose Marichal, however, at ThickCulture, observes that tax policy has rarely been about what is optimal for society.  Instead, he writes:

What these wild shifts in tax policy suggest is that our determination of how much we should tax our wealthiest is not based on any pragmatic assessment of what would result in the best policy outcome, but is rather guided by foundational assumptions about what is fair.

Beliefs about what is fair are, of course, strongly influenced by cultural ideologies and group stereotypes.  Politicians both fall victim to their own biases and strategically invoke and create ideas and resentments.  We shouldn’t expect the current debate over how to change our tax code to be either rational or practical, then.  The debate will be political, but you already knew that.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

With the election over, the news is now focused, somewhat hysterically, on the threat of the fiscal cliff.

The fiscal cliff refers to the fact that at the end of this calendar year several temporary tax cuts are scheduled to expire (including those that lowered rates on income and capital gains as well as payroll taxes) and early in the next year spending cuts are scheduled for military and non-military federal programs.  See here for details on the taxes and programs.

Most analysts agree that if tax rates rise and federal spending is cut the result will be a significant contraction in aggregate demand, pushing the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.

The U.S. economy is already losing steam.  GDP growth in the second half of 2009, which marked the start of the recovery, averaged 2.7% on an annualized basis.  GDP growth in 2010 was a lower 2.4%.  GDP growth in 2011 averaged a still lower 2.0%.  And growth in the first half of this year declined again, to an annualized rate of 1.8%.

With banks unwilling to loan, businesses unwilling to invest or hire, and government spending already on the decline, there can be little doubt that a further fiscal tightening will indeed mean recession.

So, assuming we don’t want to go over the fiscal cliff, what are our choices?

Both Republicans and Democrats face this moment in agreement that our national deficits and debt are out of control and must be reduced regardless of the consequences for overall economic activity.  What they disagree on is how best to achieve the reduction.  Most Republicans argue that we should renew the existing tax cuts and protect the military budget.  Deficit reduction should come from slashing the non-military discretionary portion of the budget, which, as Ethan Pollack explains, includes:

…safety net programs like housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most of the funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.

The table below shows the various programs/budgets that make up the non-security discretionary budget and their relative size.  The chart that follows shows how spending on this part of the budget is already under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.

Unfortunately, the Democrat’s response to the fiscal cliff is only marginally better than that of the Republicans.  President Obama also wants to shrink the deficit and national debt, but in “a more balanced way.”  He wants both tax increases and spending cuts.  He is on record seeking $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten year period, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.

The additional revenue in his plan will come from allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, raising the tax rate on the top income tax bracket, and limiting the value of tax deductions.  While an important improvement, President Obama is also committed to significant cuts in non-military discretionary spending.  Although his cuts would not be as great as those advocated by the Republicans, reducing spending on most of the targeted programs makes little social or economic sense given current economic conditions.

So, how do we scale the fiscal cliff in a responsible way?

We need to start with the understanding that we do not face a serious national deficit or debt problem.  As Jamie Galbraith notes:

…is there a looming crisis of debt or deficits, such that sacrifices in general are necessary? No, there is not. Not in the short run — as almost everyone agrees. But also: not in the long run. What we have are computer projections, based on arbitrary — and in fact capricious — assumptions. But even the computer projections no longer show much of a crisis. CBO has adjusted its interest rate forecast, and even under its “alternative fiscal scenario” the debt/GDP ratio now stabilizes after a few years.

Actually, as the chart below shows, the deficit is already rapidly falling.  In fact, the decline in government spending over the last few years is likely one of the reasons why our economic growth is slowing so dramatically.

As Jed Graham points out:

From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the deficit shrank 3.1 percentage points, from 10.1% to 7.0% of GDP.  That’s just a bit faster than the 3.0 percentage point deficit improvement from 1995 to ’98, but at that point, the economy had everything going for it.

Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.

In short, we do not face a serious problem of growing government deficits.  Rather the problem is one of too fast a reduction in the deficit in light of our slowing economy.

As to the challenge of the fiscal cliff — here we have to recognize, as Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse explain, that:

…the budget impact and the economic impact are not necessarily the same. Some policies that are expensive in budgetary terms have only modest economic impacts (for example, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts aimed at high-income households are costly but do not have much economic impact). Conversely, other policies with small budgetary costs have big economic impacts (for example, extended unemployment insurance benefits).

In other words, we should indeed allow the temporary tax rate deductions for the wealthy to expire, on both income and capital gains taxes.  These deductions cost us dearly on the budget side without adding much on the economic side.  As shown here and here, the evidence is strong that the only thing produced by lowering taxes on the wealthy is greater income inequality.

Letting existing tax rates rise for individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000 a year, raising the top income tax bracket for both couples and singles that make more than $388,350, and limiting tax deductions will generate close to $1.5 trillion dollars over ten years as highlighted below in a Wall Street Journal graphic .

However, in contrast to President Obama’s proposal, we should also support the planned $500 billion in cuts to the military budget.  We don’t need the new weapons and studies are clear that spending on the military (as well as tax cuts) is a poor way to generate jobs.  For example, the table below shows the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on education, health care, clean energy, or tax cuts.

defense.jpg

And, we should also oppose any cuts in our non-security discretionary budget. Instead, we should take at least half the savings from the higher tax revenues and military spending cuts — that would be a minimum of $1 trillion — and spend it on programs designed to boost our physical and social infrastructure.  Here I have in mind retrofitting buildings, improving our mass transit systems, increasing our development and use of safe and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and expanding and strengthening our social services, including education, health care, libraries, and the like.

Our goal should be a strong and accountable public sector, good jobs for all, and healthy communities, not debt reduction.  The above policy begins to move us in the right direction.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

In the five minute video below, U.C. Santa Barbara sociologist Richard Appelbaum discusses the global changes that are driving our uncertain economic future.  While economists have rightly focused on many proximate factors, he says, sociologists have emphasized “changing nature of the economy in the world today.”  He offers a quick history of economic transformations throughout human history and then focuses on the ongoing changes that we call “globalization.”  This includes lightning speed communication and extremely fast movement of goods from one part of the world to another.

Globalization, he goes on, has caused a migration of work out of wealthy and into poor countries.  Meanwhile, businesses that have no national boundaries are increasingly independent. Not beholden to any given country, it has become more difficult to regulate industries in ways that benefit any given state and its citizens.

Appelbaum finishes with a quick discussion of what all this means for young people who are educating themselves today with the hopes of a bright future tomorrow.

Video by Norton Sociology.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

There is growing talk that the economy is finally on its way to recovery — “A Steady, Slo-Mo Recovery” — in the words of Businessweek.

Here is how Peter Coy, writing in Businessweek, explains the growing consensus:

Job growth is poised to continue increasing tax revenue, which will make it easier to shrink the budget deficit while keeping taxes low and preserving essential spending. All this will occur without any magic emanating from the Oval Office. It would have occurred if Mitt Romney had been elected president. “The economy’s operating well below potential, and there’s a lot of room for growth” regardless of who’s in office, says Mark Zandi, chief economist of forecaster Moody’s Analytics.

Something could still go wrong, but the median prediction of 37 economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators is that during the next four years, economic growth will gather momentum as jobless people go back to work and unused machinery is put back into service. “The self-correcting forces in the economy will prevail,” predicts Ben Herzon, senior economist at Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm in St. Louis.

Before we get lulled to sleep, we need some perspective about the challenges ahead.  How about this: we face a 9 million jobs gap between the number of jobs we have and the number we need, and this doesn’t even address the low quality of the jobs being created.

The chart below, taken from an Economic Policy Institute blog post, illustrates the gap.

As Heidi Shierholz, the author of the post, explains:

The labor market has added nearly 5 million jobs since the post-Great Recession low in Feb. 2010. Because of the historic job loss of the Great Recession, however, the labor market still has 3.8 million fewer jobs than it had before the recession began in Dec. 2007. Furthermore, because the potential labor force grows as the population expands, in the nearly five years since the recession started we should have added 5.2 million jobs just to keep the unemployment rate stable. Putting these numbers together means the current gap in the labor market is 9.0 million jobs. To put that number in context: filling the 9 million jobs gap in three years — by fall 2015 — while still keeping up with the growth in the potential labor force, would require adding around 330,000 jobs every single month between now and then.

Unfortunately, our “job creators” only created 171,000 net jobs in October. And that was considered a relatively good month.   The chart below, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,  gives a sense of what we are up against.

Of course, weak job growth in the past doesn’t mean that we cannot have strong job growth in the future.  On the other hand, such a change would require consensus on radically different policies than those currently being discussed and debated by those in power.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

 

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Market advocates have had their way for years now and one of the consequences has been the growing dominance of industry after industry by a select few powerful corporations.  In short, unchecked competition can and does produce its opposite: monopoly.

As John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna explain:

This [development] is anything but an academic concern. The economic defense of capitalism is premised on the ubiquity of competitive markets, providing for the rational allocation of scarce resources and justifying the existing distribution of incomes. The political defense of capitalism is that economic power is diffuse and cannot be aggregated in such a manner as to have undue influence over the democratic state. Both of these core claims for capitalism are demolished if monopoly, rather than competition, is the rule.

The chart below highlights the rise, especially since the 1980s, in both the number and percentage of U.S. manufacturing industries in which four firms account for more than 50% of sales.

Number and Percentage of U.S. Manufacturing Industries in which Largest Four Companies Accounted for at Least 50 Percent of Shipment Value in Their Industries, 1947-2007:

As the table below shows, the concentration of market power is not confined to manufacturing.

Percentage of Sales for Four Largest Firms in Selected U.S. Retail Industries:

Industry (NAICS code)  1992    1997    2002    2007
Food & beverage stores (445)  15.4    18.3    28.2    27.7
Health & personal care stores (446)  24.7    39.1    45.7    54.4
General merchandise stores (452)  47.3    55.9    65.6    73.2
Supermarkets (44511)  18.0    20.8    32.5    32.0
Book stores (451211)  41.3    54.1    65.6    71.0
Computer & software stores (443120)  26.2    34.9    52.5    73.1

As impressive as these concentration trends may be, they actually understate the market power exercised by leading U.S. firms because many of these firms are conglomerates and active in more than one industry.  The next chart provides some flavor for overall concentration trends by showing the growing share of total business revenue captured by the top two hundred U.S. corporations.  Notice the sharp rise since the 1990s.

Revenue of Top 200 U.S. Corporations as Percentage of Total Business Revenue, U.S. Economy, 1950–2008:

These are general trends.  Here, thanks to Zocalo (which draws on the work of Barry Lynn), we get a picture of the market dominance of just one corporation–Procter and Gamble.  This corporation controls:

  • More than 75 percent of men’s razors
  • About 60 percent of laundry detergent
  • Nearly 60 percent of dishwasher detergent
  • More than 50 percent of feminine pads
  • About 50 percent of toothbrushes
  • Nearly 50 percent of batteries
  • Nearly 45 percent of paper towels, just through the Bounty brand
  • Nearly 40 percent of toothpaste
  • Nearly 40 percent of over-the-counter heartburn medicines
  • Nearly 40 percent of diapers.
  • About 33 percent of shampoo, coffee, and toilet paper

A recent Huffington Post blog post, which includes the following infographic from the French blog Convergence Alimentaire, makes clear that Procter and Gamble, as big as it is, is just one member of a small but powerful group of multinationals that dominate many consumer markets.   The blog post states: “A ginormous number of brands are controlled by just 10 multinationals… Now we can see just how many products are owned by Kraft, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, P&G and Nestlé. ”   See here for a bigger version of the infographic.

And, it is not just the consumer goods industry that’s highly concentrated.  As the Huffington Post also noted: “Ninety percent of the media is now controlled by just six companies, down from 50 in 1983…. Likewise, 37 banks merged to become JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and CitiGroup in a little over two decades, as seen in this 2010 graphic from Mother Jones.”

Not surprisingly, there are complex interactions and struggles between these dominant companies.  Unfortunately, most end up strengthening monopoly power at the public expense.  For example, as Zocalo reports, Wal-Mart, Target, and other major retailers have adopted a new control strategy in which:

…these retailers name a single supplier to serve as a category captain. This supplier is expected to manage all the shelving and marketing decisions for an entire family of products, such as dental care.

The retailer then requires all the other producers of this class of products — these days, usually no more than one or two other firms — to cooperate with the captain. The consciously intended result of this tight cartelization is a growing specialization of production and pricing among the few big suppliers who are still in business…

It’s not that Wal-Mart and category copycats like Target cede all control over shelving and hence production decisions to these captains. The trading firms use the process mainly to gain more insight into the operations of the manufacturers and hence more leverage over them, their suppliers, and even their other clients… Wal-Mart, for instance, has told Coca-Cola what artificial sweetener to use in a diet soda, it has told Disney what scenes to cut from a DVD, it has told Levi’s what grade of cotton to use in its jeans, and it has told lawn mower makers what grade of steel to buy.

And don’t think that such consolidation within the Wal-Mart system makes it easier for new small manufacturers and retailers to rise up and compete. The exact opposite tends to be true. . . . This [system] boils down to presenting the owners of midsized and smaller companies, like Oakley or Tom’s of Maine, with the “option” of selling their business to the monopolist in exchange for a “reasonable” sum determined by the monopolist.

This was the message delivered to many of the companies that in recent decades managed to develop big businesses seemingly outside the reach of the Procter & Gambles, Krafts, and Gillettes of the world. Consider the following:

  • Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream company that reshaped the industry, was swallowed by Unilever in 2000.
  • Cascadian Farm, one of the most successful organic food companies, sold out to General Mills and was promptly transformed into what its founder calls a “PR farm.”
  • Stonyfield Farm and Brown Cow, organic dairy companies from New Hampshire and California, respectively, separately sold con-trol to the French food giant Groupe Danone in February 2003 and were blended into a single operation.
  • Glaceau, the company behind the brightly colored Vitamin Water and one of the last independent success stories, sold out to Coca-Cola in 2007.

The practical result is a hierarchy of power in which a few immense trading companies — in control of and to some degree in cahoots with a few dominant supply conglomerates — govern almost all the industrial activities on which we depend, and they back their efforts with what amounts to police power. This tiny confederation of private corporate governments determines who wins and who loses in this country, at least within our consumer economy.

Of course the growing concentration nationally is matched by a growing concentration of power globally, with large transnational corporations from different nations battling each other and, in many cases, uniting through mergers and acquisitions.  We cannot hope to understand and overcome our current problems and the structural pressures limiting our responses to them without first acknowledging the extent of corporate dominance over our economic lives.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

The good economic news, which got plenty of attention, is that the U.S. economy added over 170,000 new jobs in October.  The largely unreported negative news is that average real hourly wages in the private sector declined that month, and have been in decline for most of the past year.

It is hard to remember that the economy has been in expansion since June 2009.

Jeffrey Sparshott, in a Wall Street Journal blog post, offered the following chart of the trend in hourly earnings in private industry, with each point showing the change from a year earlier.

Citing a Labor Department report, Sparshott noted that:

…hours worked were flat [in October] for the fourth straight month. Meanwhile, average hourly earnings for all employees on private payrolls fell by 1 cent to $23.58 in October. Over the past 12 months, earnings have risen a scant 1.6%. That’s not enough to keep up with inflation. The consumer price index was up 2% in September from a year earlier.

It’s even worse for blue-collar workers. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees edged down by 1 cent to $19.79, only a 1.1% increase over the past year.

The blog post quoted the HSBC’s chief U.S. economist who said:

This is the smallest increase in wages on record for the data going back to 1964. The persistently high level of unemployment over the past few years is clearly restraining wage gains and suppressing any inflationary pressures that might have possibly emanated from the labor market.

It also quoted the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase who said:

This pace of labor income growth may be quite acceptable for corporate profits, but it does pose headwinds for consumer spending growth.

Consumer spending did rise last quarter, helping to boost third quarter U.S. GDP, but this was largely because of a decline in the personal savings rate, which fell from 4.0% in the second quarter to 3.7% in the third.

We clearly don’t have a foundation for a sustained economic recovery, certainly not one that brings benefits to the majority of workers.  Instead of talk about austerity we need a real debate about the best way to strength worker bargaining power.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.