The economist and public lecturer, Richard Wolff, gave an address in Omaha NE last night, entitled “Capitalism in Crisis: How Lopsided Wealth Distribution Threatens Our Democracy”. His thesis is that after 150 years, from 1820 – 1970, of steadily increasing worker productivity and matching wage gains, a structural change has taken place in our economy. Since 1970 worker productivity has continued to increase at the same historical rate while the median wage level has been flat with no appreciable increase. This wage stagnation has been caused by an imbalance of supply and demand as follows:
Technology has eliminated lots of low skill and medium skill jobs in the U.S.
Globalization has made it less expensive for low skill jobs to be performed in the developing world at lower cost than in the U.S.
At the same time as jobs were being replaced by technology and disappearing overseas, millions of women entered the labor force.
A new wave of Hispanic immigration has caused even more competition for low skilled jobs.
In addition, stagnant wages for the low skilled and medium skilled worker have been accompanied by an increase in private debt through the advent of credit cards and subprime mortgage borrowing. This enormous increase of consumer debt led to the housing bubble, its bursting in 2007-2008, and the resulting Great Recession.
Five years after the end of the recession in June 2009, we still have an enormous mess on our hands: a stagnant economy, high unemployment, massive and increasing debt and a fractious political process. How in the world are we going to come together to address our perilous situation in a rational and timely manner?
Mr. Wolff believes that capitalism’s faults are too severe to be fixed with regulatory tweaks. He also agrees that socialism has proven to be unsuccessful where it has been tried. He proposes a new economic system of “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises” as an alternative.
I agree with Mr. Wolff that capitalism is in a crisis but I think that it can be repaired from within. The challenge is to simultaneously give our economy a sufficient boost to put millions of people back to work and to do this while dramatically shrinking our annual deficits in order to get our massive debt on a downward trajectory as a percent of GDP. How to do this is the main focus of my blog, day in and day out!
The Brookings Institution social economist, William Galston, has an interesting column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. Needs a New Social Contract”, deploring the fact that worker compensation (i.e. wages + benefits) has not kept up with gains in worker productivity since the 1970s. Here is a chart published by the Economic Policy Institute showing the divergence between productivity and compensation for a “typical” ( i.e. in the middle) worker beginning in the 1970s: The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk has addressed this same question in a recent report “Productivity and Compensation: Growing Together” and shows that the “average” compensation of an American worker does track productivity very closely as shown in the chart below: What is the explanation for this apparent discrepancy? In fact, it is the difference between the average earnings of U.S. workers and the earnings of the median or middle worker. The very high earnings of the top 10% and the even higher earnings of the top 1% raise average worker compensation way above the income level of the median worker. In other words it is the result of the skewed and unequal distribution of incomes which is heavily weighted toward those at the top of the scale. The typical or median worker is falling behind and is not benefitting from the steady rise in the overall productivity of the American economy. This is what income inequality is all about.
The question is what to do about it. Faster economic growth will create more opportunity by creating more jobs and better paying jobs. Raising high school graduation rates as well as creating high quality technical training programs will also help.
Mr. Galston insists that this is not enough. Too many workers will continue to lag farther and farther behind. We could raise the Earned Income Tax Credit for low income workers but this would be very expensive in our currently tight fiscal situation which is likely to continue indefinitely.
Do we need a new social contract? If so, what form will it take? How will we pay for it? These are indeed very difficult questions to answer!
Last week I summarized the latest economic report from the Congressional Budget Office which very clearly describes both the slow rate of growth of our economy since the end of the recession, the enormous buildup of our national debt in the past five years and also the likelihood that it will continue getting worse for the foreseeable future unless big changes are made. About a week ago the two economists Edward Prescott and Lee Ohanian had an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Productivity Growth Has Taken a Dive”, pointing out that the productivity of U.S. workers has grown at an average annual rate of only 1.1% since 2011, much lower than the average annual rate of about 2.5% since 1948 (see the above chart). They also point out that the rate of new business creation is 28% below where it was in the 1980s (see the chart just below). Growth of worker productivity and growth of new business formation are the two main forces which drive economic growth. “Why is the startup rate so low? The answer lies in Washington and the policies implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that were, ironically, intended to grow and stabilize the economy.” Mr. Prescott and Mr. Ohanian continue that it is the “explosion in federal regulation, intervention and subsidies (which) has retarded productivity growth by protecting incumbents at the expense of more efficient producers, including startups.”
It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects for change in the government policies which are retarding economic growth. Unfortunately, many political and social leaders have the point of view that it is income inequality which is “the defining issue of our time.”
The best response to this pervasive attitude is to shift the conversation towards equality of opportunity rather than dwelling on income inequality. By far the best way to increase opportunity for those who desire it and are willing to work for it is to grow the economy faster in order to create more and better jobs. If we are able to do this, we’ll all be much better off.