Labor Day Hope

The last several decades have been hard on working men and women in the United States. The decline of unions (which now represent just a little more than one sixteenth of private sector workers), job loss to Mexico, China, and other low wage countries, and a series of bad court decisions weakening the rights to effectively bargain a contract have left working Americans nearly defenseless, as wages stagnate or fall and traditional pension coverage disappears. The results are ugly: since 2000, 70 percent of Americans have seen no gain in wages, and wages have fallen for the bottom 40 percent. Traditional pensions are disappearing, to the point that less than 18 percent of workers still have this crucial benefit.

Despite that grim background, there is cause for hope, and three events this past week brought a big smile to my face and lifted my spirits. The biggest lift came from two court decisions in California and Oregon (I’m a lawyer, I can’t help it!), where a U.S. Court of Appeals struck down one of corporate America’s longest-running and most outrageous schemes to cheat workers and scam the government. FedEx, a giant in package delivery industry, has avoided payroll taxes, prevented union organizing, and escaped the laws that give workers meal breaks, overtime pay, sick leave, and family leave by entering into sham contracts with its 27,000 drivers in which it declares them to be independent contractors. Employees have employment rights, but independent contractors don’t.

An employer has to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for employees, as well as unemployment insurance taxes and worker’s compensation premiums—but not for independent contractors. So FedEx, while maintaining control over the minutest aspects of their working lives, called its drivers contractors—shifting all of the costs and risks off of FedEx and onto its employees. As described by Judge William Fletcher, FedEx “contracts with drivers to deliver packages to its customers. The drivers must wear FedEx uniforms, drive FedEx-approved vehicles, and groom themselves according to FedEx’s appearance standards. FedEx tells its drivers what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times. Although drivers may operate multiple delivery routes and hire third parties to help perform work on those routes, they may do so only with FedEx’s consent.”

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Why Young People Should Care About a Lame Labor Market

I am not as optimistic about my future as my peers tell pollsters they are. Relative to the two previous generations, Millennials have higher levels of student debt, poverty, and unemployment, and lower levels of personal income and wealth. All of this has been covered in depth by the media, but what doesn’t get nearly enough attention given its importance is how poorly the American labor market is performing for my generation.

At EPI, we talk a lot about how weak labor markets hurts workers and their families (something that even The Onion has picked up on). Heidi Shierholz has documented the impact that labor market policies have on workers in various sectors, like domestic workers, and Josh Bivens and I wrote a paper showing how the weak labor market is the main challenge for middle class families in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But it can be hard to understand how the labor market relates to readers my age. With this post, I’m going to try to make the case for why young people should care about what’s going on in the labor market, and why it makes sense for them work to make it better.

A weak labor market hurts the living standards of young people in two immediate ways. First, it disproportionately affects young people’s job opportunities. This is true in good and bad times: unemployment for younger workers is almost always about twice the overall unemployment rate. As of July 2014, the unemployment rate for young workers was 13.6 percent, while unemployment for workers ages 25-54 was 5.2 percent (relative to 10.5 percent and 3.7 percent in 2007, the last time we experienced a “strong” labor market). One of the reasons for this is obvious: young people are inexperienced relative to their older counterparts. In a time of labor market weakness, older, more experienced workers who are newly unemployed will apply to jobs they may be overqualified for, leaving young people to compete with not just their peers but also a larger pool of more experienced candidates. So even while the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, young people are currently facing one extremely competitive labor market.

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The Dog That Didn’t Bark, or, Why Wages at the Bottom of the Distribution Were the Only Ones That Didn’t Fall over the past Year

In writing my paper on the most recent wage trends released today, I came across an interesting finding: Wages at the bottom of the wage distribution were the only ones that didn’t fall between the first half of 2013 and first half of 2014. The figure below shows the change in real (inflation-adjusted) wages over this time at different points in the wage distribution. What is obvious from the figure is that wages have fallen for nearly every group. If I showed you the same trends by education, as I do in the paper (see Figure O), you’d see an even starker story: Wages over the past year have fallen for all education groups, including those with college or advanced degrees.

So, why didn’t the 10th percentile wage fall like all others? What is so special about that wage that sits below 90 percent and above 10 percent of workers (i.e., is not generally earned by particularly privileged workers)? Simple—several states raised their minimum wage over that period.

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Wages Have Fallen for Most Americans in 2014

Today, we released a report analyzing the most recent reliable data on wages by decile and by educational attainment. These data are illuminating because they look beneath the overall averages presented in the regular statistical series covered by the media. On the one hand, these recent data look quite a bit like the couple of years of data that come before it—but that is still very revealing of what’s going in the economy.

Overall, the trends over the last year—from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014—show that real, inflation-adjusted wages fell up and down the entire wage scale, with one revealing notable exception. The recovery has not been completely jobless for a while now, but it does continue to be pretty much wage-less, or at least wage-growth-less.

Let’s start at the top of the wage distribution: those workers with the most education and the highest wages. Over the last year, real wages at the top of the wage distribution fell, by 2.0 percent at the 90th percentile and 0.7 percent at the 95th percentile. Real wages also fell for workers with a 4-year college degree, and even for those workers with an advanced degree. This is important in particular because it sends a clear message to the Federal Reserve Board. If even these groups of highly educated workers facing the lowest unemployment are seeing outright wage declines, there is clearly lots of slack left in the American labor market, and policymakers—particularly the Federal Reserve—should not try to slow the recovery down in an effort to keep wage and price inflation in check: they’re both already firmly in check even for the most privileged workers.

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Job Growth in the Great Recession Has Not Been Equal Between Men and Women

While many strides have been made in the women’s equality movement, job growth among women and men in the aftermath of the Great Recession is not one. The solid lines in the figure below show job loss during and after the Great Recession by gender. Men lost far more jobs than women did in the Great Recession—over 6.0 million jobs, or 8.5 percent of their total December 2007 employment, compared to women who lost 2.7 million jobs, or 3.5 percent. Since the economy started regaining jobs, however, the gender dynamic in job growth has reversed—between February 2010 and the June 2014, men gained 5.5 million while women gained 3.6 million jobs.

How did men both lose and then gain more jobs than women? A lot can be explained by the industries men and women were in at the time of the Great Recession—men were in industries that would sustain the most dramatic job loss while women were concentrated in industries with less job loss. The industries with the largest overall job losses—manufacturing and construction—also employed a very large share of men. Meanwhile, the industries that employed the greatest shares of women in 2007—health care and state and local government—were not as hard-hit. However, men have gained more jobs than women because they’ve had stronger job growth within almost every industry. Women experienced a smaller share of net gains between 2007 and 2014  in 10 out of the 16 major industries: manufacturing, whole sale trade, retail trade, professional and business and health care to name a few. (To see how men and women fared in each of the 16 major industries, see my blog post in which I update the distribution of workers across industry by gender during and after the Great Recession.)

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A Brief but Sad History of Selected Corporate Inversions

Earlier this week, we were greeted with the news that Burger King, a U.S. fast-food giant, is in talks to merge with Tim Hortons, a much smaller Canadian fast-food chain, and become a Canadian firm. This proposed deal is interesting on many levels. First, it is another example of a corporate inversion in which, to use Edward Kleinbard’s description, a “foreign minnow swallows a domestic whale.”

Second and more importantly, this is a corporate inversion involving a large U.S. corporation and a much smaller foreign corporation that was once a U.S. corporation. Yes, you read that correctly: Tim Hortons was a U.S. corporation prior to its inversion to Canada in 2009. Though to be fair, Tim Hortons started as a Canadian company—it was founded in Hamilton, Ontario in 1964. Wendy’s restaurant chain purchased Tim Hortons in 1995 and then spun-off the company in 2006. Tim Hortons inverted to Canada in 2009 arguing that they had substantial business activity in Canada.

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Another Day, Another Corporate Inversion

In looking to merge with Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts icon Tim Hortons, Burger King is just the latest American multinational to buy a smaller foreign company and reincorporate abroad, lowering its tax bill in the process. This maneuver, called a “corporate inversion,” has picked up steam this year as Congress has stood idly by, twiddling its thumbs.

There is something unseemly about corporate inversions—that American companies would reap the benefits of American infrastructure, labor, customers, and local and federal tax incentives, and then move—just on paper—abroad, just to help their bottom lines. Executives of these now “foreign,” inverted companies don’t have to move and the companies can remain listed on American stock exchanges, but some (perfectly-legal) paper shuffling allows them to escape paying U.S. taxes. And while President Obama has appealed to corporations’ sense of “economic patriotism,” the companies—despite recent Supreme Court decisions—are not people; they don’t have emotions separate from their desire to maximize profits.

While both parties profess to disdain the practice of inversions, they disagree on what to do about them. Democrats have taken a sensible approach, writing bills that would prohibit inversions unless 50 percent of the value of the stock of the newly-merged company were held by foreigners (which makes a lot of intuitive sense), up from the current 20 percent as mandated by the most recent anti-inversion legislation, signed into law by George W. Bush. Other proposals would limit the potential benefits of corporate inversions, for example by withholding federal contracts from inverted corporations or by making it harder for a newly-foreign parent company to transfer loads of debt to its now American subsidiary and then write off the interest paid on that debt. (The Obama administration is looking to see if it can implement rule changes like this without Congress’s approval, but worries remain about whether such new rules would survive the inevitable legal challenges.)

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Back to School: A Useful Guide for Parents and Policymakers to Use School Quality Rankings

The Wallethub state school quality rankings that were released earlier this month add to a growing list of such guides. They join those of the Education Law Center, which has ranked state school systems since 2011 using a four-part funding equity model, Students First’s state report cards, and the Brookings Institution Brown Center’s Education Choice and Competition rankings of large urban districts. There are many others, but these four illustrate some of the diversity in both approaches to ranking schools and types of institutions that rank them.

All four suggest to parents and policymakers that their system identifies the highest quality schools. Yet they produce a very disparate set of “best” and “worst” states (and districts). Two of Wallethub’s top three—New Jersey and Massachusetts—are among two of the the three states that Education Law Center also ranks highest: New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In contrast, two of Students First’s top-ranked three, Louisiana and Florida, are among the lowest on Education Law Center’s sufficiency ranking. The Brown Center gives top billing to the New Orleans’ Recovery School District, New York City, and Washington, DC, and Students First also gives DC high marks, while Wallethub has it dead last, behind Mississippi. And Wallethub ranks Louisiana, Students First’s top-ranked state, 48th of 51.

As the new school year refocuses our attention on education and school quality, what are we to make of these conflicting numbers? Can we use the rankings to help us make good decisions, whether as parents or policymakers?

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The Obama Administration Moves to Protect U.S. Steel Industry from Unfair Trade Practices

Earlier this year, we showed that an increase in illegal steel dumping was putting up to half a million U.S. jobs at risk, in a study I co-authored with the law firm of Stewart and Stewart. On Friday, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) determined by a vote of 5-0 that companies from South Korea, along with five other countries (India, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Taiwan) are dumping Oil Country Tubular Goods (OCTG) into the U.S. steel market.  Countervailing duties will also be assessed on OCTG imports from Turkey and India. OCTG is a high-value steel product used in the rapidly growing U.S. oil and gas fracking industry. U.S. imports of OCTG products from the subject countries more than doubled between 2010 and 2013. South Korean imports, which represent more than half of all U.S. OCTG imports, were being shipped to the United States at prices far below fair value.

The USITC vote follows on the heels of a decision by the Commerce Department that it would impose punitive tariffs on manufacturers of OCTG from Korea and the other countries involved in this case. As I noted last month, Commerce’s decision (today endorsed by the USITC) to assess duties on OCTG imports from Korea and other countries is a victory for steel workers, U.S. steel producers, and the millions of people whose jobs depend on the U.S. steel industry.

In the run-up to the decision, U.S. steelworkers mounted a “nationwide call to action” to “ensure that our trade laws are fully enforced.” This campaign featured rallies in six of the major steel-producing states, which were supported by bipartisan letters signed by more than 150 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and by 57 members of the U.S. Senate. As Steelworkers President Leo Girard pointed out, this national campaign “should not be necessary to ensure that our trade laws are enforced.” U.S. officials should enforce U.S. fair trade laws to the fullest extent allowable under U.S. and international law. And the time has come for a complete reassessment of U.S. trade laws to close loopholes and ensure that the law is promptly and effectively enforced to the full extent intended by Congress and the president.

A Salute to Jim Jeffords, a True Vermont Progressive

I was saddened to learn of the death of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont this week. He was the rare politician who combined intelligence, humility, and a sense of humor, with a deep love for his state and his country. Like Sen. Paul Wellstone, Jeffords never held himself above the congressional staff who worked for him and around him, and he certainly didn’t hold himself above the people he represented, despite his Harvard and Yale degrees and his elevated position, which ultimately included service as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

When I first met Jeffords in 1982, he was a senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, already exercising an independent streak by opposing Ronald Reagan’s efforts to eliminate any role for the federal government in employment and training programs. He supported the Job Training Partnership Act, and got involved in the bill’s minutiae, sitting late at night with mostly Democratic staffers as the formulas for distributing funds to the states and local entities were worked out. By pushing to give greater weight to factors like poverty, unemployment, long-term unemployment, or total population in the formulas, a state like Vermont could see its funding change dramatically, and Jeffords made sure the staff assigned to negotiate and draft the bill pushed the right buttons for his state. He was the only member of Congress in the room.

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Broadening Agreement That Job Polarization Wasn’t Present in the United States In 2000s

A common but erroneous theme in the media about recent labor market trends is that technology (the robots!) threatens job growth and is the cause of wage stagnation and inequality. Politicians, policymakers, and pundits echo this as well. These insights come from research on the “job polarization hypotheses”—the claim that computerization leads to the “simultaneous growth of high-education, high-wage and low-education, low-wages jobs at the expense of middle-wage, middle education jobs” and, correspondingly, to wage polarization. It is noteworthy, therefore, that MIT Professor David Autor, the leading intellectual architect of the job polarization hypothesis, has presented a paper at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s economic policy symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which finds that job polarization did not occur in the 2000s and that, in any case, job polarization is not necessarily connected to wage polarization.

This confirms the findings of others, such as Beaudry, Green, and Sand and my own research with Heidi Shierholz and John Schmitt. One can only applaud Autor for updating his analysis of employment and wage trends, and acknowledging the lack of occupational job polarization in the 2000s and its failure to be able to explain wage trends. One can only hope that the economics commentariat will follow suit and ramp up their exploration of other causes of stagnant and unequal wage growth. Immodestly, I would suggest our recent paper, Raising America’s Pay, as a starting point.

In 2010, Autor wrote the influential paper The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market: Implications for Employment and Earnings for the Center for American Progress and the Hamilton Project. This paper laid out what became the conventional wisdom: “the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs” and “this pattern of employment polarization has a counterpart in wage growth.”

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The Fed Should Continue Its Support for a Jobs Recovery

The following is a slightly edited version of remarks delivered on an Economic Policy Institute teleconference on Friday, July 25, 2014. 

Since the Great Recession began almost 7 years ago, the Fed has been the most proactive and the most effective macroeconomic policy-making institution both in attempting to end the recession and then subsequently trying to spur a full recovery. It’s been the most effective by far in the United States and almost certainly the most effective in the world. The Fed deserves a lot of praise for this stance and the economic evidence argues strongly that it should continue to prioritize boosting employment and spurring a full economic recovery. Specifically, this evidence indicates:

  • The economy continues to have enormous amounts of productive slack—including in the labor market.
  • Until this slack is taken up, wage-driven inflationary pressures just will not materialize.
  • Wage and compensation growth will have to more than double to put significant upward pressure on overall price-growth in coming years—meaning that the Fed should be fully comfortable with nominal compensation growth as high as 4 percent over the next couple of years. This follows from the fact that trend productivity growth is roughly 1.5 percent so that 2.0 to 2.5 percent nominal compensation growth above 1.5 percent implies rising unit labor costs corresponding to 2.0 percent inflation, allowing for an additional to 0.5 compensation growth at the expense of historically thick profit margins.

The Fed is commonly described as being tasked with targeting more rapid employment growth and economic activity until the point that such rapid growth begins to spur accelerating inflation. The U.S economy is nowhere near the point where growth is rapid enough to spark accelerating inflation. Instead, we remain far from fully recovered from the Great Recession, and because of this, inflationary pressures just aren’t in the data.

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What’s at Stake If the Fed Prematurely Raises Rates

The following is a slightly edited version of remarks delivered on an Economic Policy Institute teleconference on Friday, July 25, 2014. 

Any systematic look at the current data on the U.S. labor market says that the large costs of the incomplete recovery are quite apparent. We still have a labor market that faces three major ongoing problems. The first is that our very incomplete macroeconomic recovery means that we have continuing high cyclical non-employment and a lot of slack left in the labor market. Even if you look at prime-age workers, those 25 to 54 years old, we’re only one-third of the way back in terms of the employment rate to where we were before the Great Recession.

If you look at young workers, the situation is particularly dire. We still have close to record low employment rates for those less than 25 years old. For disadvantaged and minority young men, the fraction that are both out of school and out of work has increased enormously since 2007; for young black males aged 20 to 24 by almost 10 percentage points from about 23 percent to 32 percent. Over the last year, we are finally seeing some significant recovery in employment, but it’s not nearly enough yet to make people whole and create real opportunities for those in many low-income and working-class communities.

Second, even as we get back closer to full employment, from which we remain very far from, we will still have the scars of the Great Recession including huge increases in the long-term unemployed and in disconnected young workers who have not gotten the types of opportunities needed to jump start their careers and to be poised to move up the career ladder in a stronger economy. So we will need to run a tight labor market for longer than normal—possibly even allowing inflation to eventually overshoot the Fed’s target for a modest period as suggested in a recent paper by Glenn Rudebusch and San Francisco Fed President John Williams—just to help make many American families whole once again and to make enough progress in combating long-term unemployment.

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What You Need to Know about the President’s Legal Authority to Expand Deferred Action for Unauthorized Immigrants

President Obama is reportedly considering “deferring” (temporarily suspending) the deportation of up to five million unauthorized immigrants, which would expand and be modeled after his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. This has led to a stimulating and lively public discussion regarding the extent of the president’s legal authority under U.S. immigration law. Understanding the basics of what the president may or may not do under existing law, his constitutional authority and responsibilities, and what Congress can do about it if it disapproves of the president’s course of action, is essential for evaluating the various policy arguments and should help non-lawyers follow the many nuances of this substantive debate.

Here are four questions and answers to get you up to speed:

1. Does the president have legal authority to defer the deportation of all unauthorized immigrants?

No. The president cannot refuse to enforce immigration laws, or enforce an immigration law in a way that is contrary to the aims of the law, or change immigration policy on his own. This requirement comes from the “Take Care” clause in the U.S. Constitution, which requires the president to ensure “that the Laws be faithfully executed” (Article II, Section 3). The Immigration and Nationality Act, the United States’ main set of immigration laws, contains many provisions specifying who is a “removable” (i.e., deportable) migrant (the term the law uses is “alien”). Right now there are an estimated 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, who are deportable unless they can prove that they deserve to remain in the country because they are entitled to a legal status under U.S. law.

Congress provides the executive branch the funds to enforce the immigration laws, but it has not provided nearly enough funding to deport all 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) believes that the amount Congress has appropriated is enough to deport approximately 400,000 unauthorized immigrants per year (3.4 percent of the total) and that is how many people the Obama administration has been deporting. If the president were to refuse to deport any unauthorized immigrants, such action would violate his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws and amount to a de facto legalization in direct contradiction of what Congress has required of the president.

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A Step in the Right Direction: OMB Will Not Implement Plan to Include “Factoryless Goods Producers” In Manufacturing

Last week, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that it was cancelling plans to reclassify factoryless goods producers (FGPs) such as Apple and Nike—most of which are now in wholesaling or management of companies (both service industries)—into manufacturing. The FGP proposal is part of a broader set of changes to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) that were scheduled to take effect in 2017. The FGP plan would have also required government agencies to move trade in goods made by manufacturing service providers (MSPs), such as China’s Foxconn (which builds Apple products) into services. The OMB proposal was highly controversial, and more than 26,000 comments were submitted for the record. In addition, more than 40 members of the House and Senate signed letters to the OMB raising objections and requesting clarification on a number of unresolved issues regarding the proposal.

In a recent policy memo, I noted that the proposal would artificially inflate manufacturing output and employment by treating outsourced production as part of domestic manufactured output, while artificially suppressing the reported U.S. goods trade deficit, with offsetting reductions in the services trade surplus. The proposal would also require manufacturing firms to begin reporting trade and manufacturing activities on a value-added basis, which would introduce a new level of distortion in U.S. international trade statistics that would undermine enforcement of U.S. fair trade laws. Finally, adoption of the FGP proposal, as initially formulated, could undermine U.S. Buy American Laws and U.S. Export-Import Bank policies.

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The Top 10 Myths About Social Security

In honor of Social Security’s 79th birthday, here’s an update to a 2011 blog post refuting Social Security myths spread by critics of the program.

  1. Social Security costs are escalating out of control. No. Costs are projected to rise from roughly five to six percent of GDP before leveling off.
  2. Americans want benefits but aren’t willing to pay for them. Wrong again. Americans across political and demographic lines support paying Social Security taxes and prefer raising taxes over cutting benefits as a way to close the projected shortfall. A popular option is raising taxes on high earners, since earnings above $117,000 aren’t taxed. But Americans prefer to close the gap on the revenue side even if they’re asked to pay more themselves.
  3. Our children and grandchildren will drown in debt if we don’t cut the social safety net. No, future generations will drown in debt if we don’t address health cost inflation. Though the Affordable Care Act and other factors have slowed costs considerably, this isn’t enough—we need to get costs closer in line with those in Europe and Canada. Cutting Medicare or Medicaid benefits just pushes costs onto the private sector. And there’s no reason to lump Social Security in with other programs since it’s funded through dedicated taxes and prohibited by law from borrowing.
  4. The Baby Boomers will sink us. On the contrary. We saw them coming. Social Security began building up a trust fund in the early 1980s in anticipation of the Boomer retirement. The trust fund is projected to keep growing for another five years to almost $3 trillion, not quite enough to get us through the peak Boomer retirement years (the Great Recession took a bite).  (more…)

What’s Lost in the Market Basket Stories

The saga that has unfolded at the New England grocery store Market Basket over the past few weeks has struck a nerve, and rightly so. As many others have pointed out, the story of a corporate board taking steps to squeeze customers and employees in order to generate ever-higher profits feels far too representative of the way most businesses operate today. What fewer have come out and said: it doesn’t have to be this way.

For the uninitiated in this story, Market Basket is a supermarket chain with 71 stores in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. The company employs about 25,000 people throughout the region and had $4.6 billion in revenue in 2013. The chain is an unabashed success, having grown from a small family store to a regional powerhouse. And they have succeeded by taking a distinctly high-road approach: the company takes care of its workers, paying decent wages, offering benefits to full- and part-time staff, and providing employees with a profit-sharing plan. At the same time, Market Basket still offers prices lower than its competitors, Walmart included.

This take-care-of-your-customers and value-your-workers philosophy has given Market Basket an intensely dedicated following, both from employees and regular shoppers. Thus, it should not be surprising that when the controlling members of the chain’s board fired the company’s beloved CEO, allegedly so that they could cut back on compensation, maximize payouts to shareholders, and potentially liquidate the company, the Market Basket faithful revolted, with workers walking off the job and customers boycotting.

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I Can’t Tolerate the Nonsense on Corporate Tax Reform Any More

Corporations are adopting a new tactic to lower their taxes—renouncing their U.S. “citizenship” and adopting headquarters where there are lower tax rates. These are called “inversions.” Nothing changes in the corporations’ operations, but the “paper changes” result in lower taxes. Inversions are threatening to erode corporate taxation even further than has already occurred, which is a lot.

Corporate spokespeople would have you believe that the real problem is our corporate tax code, which they claim is in real need of “reform.” This is a total distraction, and also total nonsense.

Here’s what John Engler of the Business Roundtable said about the wave of corporations renouncing their citizenship, similar to many other quotes from business folks readily available (you can hear that same mantra from the Washington Post editorial team):

“We’re seeing one more manifestation of why the business tax structure needs to be fixed. We’re the proverbial frog that’s being boiled, and a few frogs have decided to jump out.”

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The Neoliberal Mind at Work: Brad DeLong’s Muddled Defense of NAFTA

Brad DeLong recently criticized an op-ed I wrote about the negative impact of the twenty-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement on American workers.

The stakes here are higher and more immediate than the rehash of an old ideological dispute. This is not so much about the past as about the future. Corporate lobbyists are pushing President Obama and congressional Republicans to pass the NAFTA-like eleven-country Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP)—right after the November election.

Since it took effect in 1994, NAFTA has been the template for the subsequent series of trade agreements that have accelerated the globalization of the U.S. economy. But its failure to deliver as promised has soured the public and many in Congress on so-called “free trade.” Getting lawmakers to swallow the TPP will be easier if its promoters can somehow make lemonade out of the NAFTA lemon.

To start with, DeLong fails to tell the reader that he is evaluating a law he helped to produce. He worked on NAFTA when he was a deputy assistant secretary in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department.

There are two parts to DeLong’s critique. One is his attempt to prove NAFTA was a success. The other is a series of gratuitous remarks about me and what he calls the “American left” that he sprinkles from his lofty pinnacle of ignorance about both.

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Brad Delong’s Case for NAFTA: Based on Assumptions, Not on Data

Writing at the Equitable Growth blog, Brad DeLong takes on Jeff Faux’s assessment of NAFTA. DeLong tries to make a “cosmopolitan” argument for NAFTA; he claims that NAFTA cost the United States fewer than 350,000 jobs, and says that Faux got “the analysis wrong” when he reported that NAFTA resulted in a net loss of 700,000 jobs. But DeLong’s “analysis” is based on faulty data. He then goes on to assert that the jobs gained through increased exports pay more than the jobs lost due to growing imports, which also turns out to be wrong. Lastly, he ignores the larger and much more important negative impact of growing trade with low-wage countries on the wages of all U.S. workers without a college degree.

President Bill Clinton and the economists he relied on built their case for NAFTA on the assertion that the United States would gain jobs as a direct result of the agreement. He claimed that NAFTA would create an “export boom to Mexico” that would create 200,000 jobs in two years and a million jobs in five years, “many more jobs than will be lost” due to rising imports. This is the central argument used to justify NAFTA by its proponents, so it’s entirely appropriate to evaluate its impact by examining its net impacts on U.S. employment.

The economic logic behind Clinton’s argument was clear: Trade creates new jobs in exporting industries and destroys jobs when imports replace the output of domestic firms. Exports support domestic jobs and production, and imports displace domestically produced goods, displacing existing jobs and preventing new job creation. Clinton assumed, without much evidence, that the net employment effect would be positive. But unfortunately, it wasn’t.

DeLong begins his jobs analysis by noting that trade would have grown with or without NAFTA. But this ignores the status quo ante. U.S.-Mexico trade was roughly balanced in the pre-NAFTA period. If exports and imports had both doubled, our bilateral trade would still have been balanced. Instead, imports grew faster than exports, so the United States developed a significant, job destroying trade deficit with Mexico. We differ over the size of this effect, which I’ll get to in a moment, but the key question is why that trade deficit developed. As I’ve shown elsewhere, the growth of outsourcing, and a near-tripling of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Mexico, were the principle causes. NAFTA created a unique set of investor protections that encouraged multinationals to shift production from the United States to Mexico. The growth of FDI in Mexico overshadowed any impact of tariff cuts (which were larger in Mexico than the United States).

DeLong develops ballpark estimates of the numbers of jobs gained and displaced by U.S. trade with Mexico after NAFTA, using gross trade data from the St. Louis Fed for total U.S. exports and imports of goods to and from Mexico. I have estimated that trade deficits with Mexico displaced 682,900 U.S. jobs in 2010 (the United States had a small trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, before NAFTA took effect, so our best estimate is that growing trade deficits displaced about 700,000 U.S. jobs between 1993 and 2010, as noted by Faux). Our analysis is based on trade data from the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and an employment requirement matrix from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

My estimates of the jobs supported by U.S. exports are based only on U.S. domestic exports to Mexico—goods produced in the United States with U.S. labor. Total exports also include a growing share of transshipments, or foreign exports (aka re-exports), goods produced in other countries (e.g., China) that are imported into the United States and re-exported to other countries (e.g., Mexico). Foreign exports do not support domestic employment. Data on transshipments are almost always excluded from analyses of the impacts of trade and trade agreements, such as those prepared by the USITC, as noted by agency economists. And the exclusion of transshipments makes a big difference in NAFTA trade, as shown in the graph below (my jobs analysis is also based on imports for consumption rather than general imports, but this distinction has no significant impact on job loss estimates).

U.S. exports to Mexico, both total and domestic, have increased since NAFTA took effect, but the gap between them (i.e., foreign exports) has increased much more rapidly. Imports (not shown) have also increased faster than exports, and as a result, the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has increased steadily since NAFTA took effect.

The U.S.-Mexico trade deficit in 2013 (and hence the jobs displaced by trade) when properly calculated, using domestic exports, was $96.2 billion, nearly twice as large as the deficit estimated with total U.S. exports ($54.4 billion). The difference in estimated trade balances largely explains why my estimate of the jobs displaced by NAFTA (700,000) is twice as large as DeLong’s (350,000). The centerpiece of his critique of Faux’s analysis is based on faulty data, but that’s just where the problems begin.

Job losses are just the tip of the iceberg for domestic workers

DeLong asserts that even if NAFTA did result in job losses, some workers gained because the jobs gained through increased exports are “better jobs with higher pay” than the jobs lost due to higher imports. But this assertion is not backed up with any data. I have compared jobs created and displaced by NAFTA and found that the facts do not support this assumption. In a 2006 report I showed that jobs displaced by imports from Mexico paid $813 per week, while jobs supported by exports to Mexico paid only $799 per week, 1.8% percent less. More importantly, with respect to the 700,000 net jobs lost, even when re-employed in non-traded industries, workers earned only $683 per week, 19 percent less than the jobs displaced by imports. Wage losses associated with trading good jobs in import-competing industries for lower paying jobs in exporting and non-traded goods industries cost U.S. workers $7.6 billion in 2004.

My results for Mexico trade are not anomalous. I found similar and even stronger results for U.S.-China trade. Average weekly wages of jobs displaced by imports from China between 2001 and 2011 were 17.0 percent higher than average wages in jobs supported by exports to China. Workers in non-traded industries earned 9.4% less than workers in exporting industries. Growing trade deficits with China cost 2.7 million jobs between 2001 (which China entered the WTO) and 2011, resulting in $37 billion in lost wages in 2011 alone.

The analysis of wages paid to workers in import, export and non-traded industries holds everything else constant. It does not reflect the much more important, economy-wide impacts of trade on the wages of working Americans, the well-known Stolper-Samuelson effects. Direct wage losses for workers displaced by NAFTA and China trade are just indicative of the larger impact of trade on wages for working Americans. Most traded goods are manufactured products, production of which disproportionately employs non-college-educated workers. Trade with low-wage countries like Mexico and China puts manufacturing workers, and everyone with a similar skill set, into competition with low-wage workers abroad.

Josh Bivens has shown that growing trade with less developed countries (LDCs) has been responsible for large shares of the rapidly growing college–non-college wage gap. That overall wage gap increased 22.0 percentage points between 1979 and 2011. Bivens’ model estimates the broad impacts of trade on all non-college educated workers in the United States, who number about 100 million. His study shows that growing LDC trade “lowered wages in 2011 by 5.5 percent—or by roughly $1,800—for a full-time, full-year worker earning the average wage” for such workers. Trade with low-wage countries can explain roughly a third of the overall rise since 1979 in the wage premium earned by workers with at least a four-year college degree relative to those without one. However, trade with low-wage countries explains more than 90 percent of the rise in this premium since 1995. China and Mexico are the United States’ two largest low-wage trade partners.

It’s important to note that trade was not the only cause of growing inequality over the past three decades or so (since the late 1970s). Growing inequality in this era was the result of policy choices on behalf of corporate interests including macroeconomic policy (e.g., too-tight monetary policy leading to an increase in average unemployment levels), trade agreements, deregulation of the financial sector, attacks on the legal foundations of organized labor, declines in the real minimum wage, deregulation of many industries and privatization of the public sector, and other policies that have helped some workers and hurt others. Many economists and policy makers blame technology instead (more specifically, skill biased technical change), but there is mounting evidence against this view. Rapid technological progress has been a hallmark of the American economy for generations, but massive growth in inequality began only in the late 1970s, and is strongly correlated with the policy choices noted above.

DeLong argues that the United States, as a “hyperpower,” has a “strong moral obligation to the world” as a whole to support trade and investment deals like NAFTA. We can certainly agree that NAFTA was a much bigger deal for Mexico than it was for the United States. But it was a bad deal for Mexico. DeLong asserts that NAFTA “boosted employment in Mexico by 1.5 million” (3 percent of the Mexican labor force). But most of the jobs gained must have been in manufacturing, since about 80% of Mexico’s exports are manufactured products. However, Mexico only added about 400,000 manufacturing jobs between 1993 and 2013, and this is probably an overestimate of the employment gains from trade because it doesn’t take into account job losses in Mexican agriculture due to opening of grain trade.  Furthermore, rates of growth in per capita GDP in Mexico fell from 3 percent per year in the period between the 1940s and the 1970s to 1 percent after it liberalized trade in the late 1980s and then joined NAFTA. Again, the data conflict with DeLong’s theoretical assumptions. If NAFTA was a bad deal for workers in Mexico, why should policymakers in the United States support trade and investment deals that cost jobs and reduce wages for most working Americans?

DeLong expresses consternation at the “energy the American left poured and pours into the anti-NAFTA cause.” He, of course, is energetically still trying to defend policies that he supported while serving as a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury between 1993 and 1995, when NAFTA (and the WTO) were created. But it’s clear that NAFTA failed to measure up to the claims on which it was sold to the American people and to Congress and has been a significant contributor to growing inequality, one of the most pernicious problems of the past two decades. Furthermore, DeLong does not dispute the fact that NAFTA cost jobs in the United States, and only quibbles about the numbers. This only raises the question, if trade hurts the domestic economy, why should we supercharge it?

DeLong also argues that if NAFTA increased unemployment and lowered wages, then we should just fix our macroeconomic policies, including “exchange rate policies” to change them. But this illustrates just how flawed NAFTA was—a two thousand page document that allowed corporations to sue host governments over any laws that might possibly threaten their profits, without regard to national interest. Somehow, nothing was included in the NAFTA, WTO, or other major, U.S. trade and investment deals about exchange rate policy, perhaps the single most important determinant of trade balances (and imbalances), resulting in the loss of millions of jobs due to growing trade deficits with Mexico and China, alone.

The continued opposition of “the American left” to NAFTA and similar deals is easily explained. It’s because the self-styled technocratic center insists on shoving these agreements through the system every chance they get. In 2009 and 2010, in the absolute teeth of the Great Recession (or as DeLong calls it, the Lesser Depression) we got the Korea, Panama and Columbia trade and investment deals shoved down the throats of Congress and “the left.” And it’s well to recall that in 1993, Clinton decided to make NAFTA, rather than health care, the centerpiece of his policy agenda for what became a notably unproductive 8-year term. Despite the well-known failures of past trade and investment deals like NAFTA, the Obama Administration has made negotiating new, job killing agreements like the U.S. Korea Free Trade Agreement Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership a centerpiece of its economic policies, based on its claim that such deals will create tens of thousands of “American jobs through increased exports alone.”

NAFTA has had real and significant costs for the vast majority of working Americans, and it never delivered the promised benefits for Mexico. Working Americans and “the left” have very good reasons for opposing such deals and should continue to do so.

EPI and AEI Agree: Cutting Jobless Benefits Did Not Boost Employment

Perhaps Hell has not frozen over, but it appears that someone down there may have leaned on the thermostat. That’s right, the Economic Policy Institute and the American Enterprise Institute are in lock-step agreement on an important fiscal policy matter.

During the Great Recession and its aftermath, the federal government acted to help victims of the severe downturn by funding programs that extended unemployment benefits—to up to 99 weeks in some cases, up from the standard 26 weeks. As the economic recovery continued, weak as it was for many in the working class, many lawmakers on the right began to believe that these extended benefits were a drag on employment—the theory being that government checks reduced the incentive for recipients to find a job, and that cutting off this lifeline would compel unemployed workers to look harder for work and perhaps take jobs they may not have accepted if the benefits had continued. Relying on this premise, Congress allowed the federally-funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to lapse last December.

Now, more than seven months later, data are available to test this idea. Coming from perspectives that diverge greatly along the ideological spectrum, scholars at both AEI and EPI have come to the conclusion that this “bootstraps” theory is incorrect—curtailing jobless benefits did not boost employment. Because unemployment benefits are contingent upon the people who receive them proving that they are looking for a job, receiving jobless benefits appears to make recipients at least just as likely, and certainly not less likely, to rejoin the ranks of the employed.

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American Caesar? Not Even Close: The president has the statutory authority he needs to expand deferred action

Since a major reform of the immigration system is dead politically for the foreseeable future—and also in light of the debacle last week in Congress, where our legislative branch was unable to pass a law to fund managing the flow of Central American child migrants arriving at the southwest U.S. border—President Obama is reportedly considering a number of reforms he can implement under his executive authority, and he briefly addressed his willingness to do so last night. The most important action being considered is the granting of deferred action—i.e., placing potentially millions of unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States at the bottom of the priority list for deportation. According to multiple reports, the most likely beneficiaries will be those who can show they have not committed any crimes, have close family ties to U.S. citizens, and have resided in the United States for a minimum length of time. The size of this population is likely to be in the range of 4 to 5 million.

The debate about the legality of such a move by President Obama, which would (importantly) also include granting work authorization (issuing an employment authorization document or “EAD”) to unauthorized immigrants receiving deferred action, is heating up on the right and the left. But most of the commentary has missed one important fact, namely that President Obama has broad statutory legal authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to grant employment authorization to anyone he chooses. Thus, while the authority to grant deferred action to unauthorized immigrants rests on the president’s prosecutorial discretion, which allows him to decide who he will enforce the law against, the authority to grant an EAD is plainly and clearly set out in the law.

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Another Reminder About the Stupidity of Austerity

Neil Irwin has a good piece up on the NYT Upshot blog aiming to demonstrate why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so weak. He rightly highlights the drag of government spending, but I’d argue that if one narrows down on the question of how big a role has austerity played in slowing recovery, even Irwin’s numbers don’t quite capture it.

Irwin’s method is to look at the various components of gross domestic product and calculates the average share of total GDP that they accounted for between 1993 and 2013. Then, he multiplies this average share by the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of 2014 potential GDP to get the level that each of these components “should be” today. The difference between today’s actual level and what that level “should be” is then the contribution of the sector to today’s economic weakness. Using this method, he comes up with government spending accounting for 40 percent of the gap between today’s actual versus potential GDP.

This is definitely a useful exercise, but I have three quick thoughts on why this might understate the actual effect of policy-induced austerity. Irwin is not trying to estimate an austerity effect, but I just want to be clear that if one wanted to isolate the effect of policy-induced austerity, his numbers might be too low.

First, there are multiplier effects, so if actual federal government spending was $118 billion higher today (that’s the gap between actual and “should be” spending identified by Irwin), then overall GDP would be roughly $180 billion higher. So, the policy decision to pursue austerity is costlier (in GDP terms) than just the difference between government spending levels.

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What I Learned as an EPI Intern

As my summer internship draws to a close at EPI, I thought I’d reflect on some of the things I’ve learned.

1. Time-and-a-half may not be standard for many today, but it should be.

Current overtime rules provide nowhere near enough protection for workers. The salary threshold of $455 a week, set by the Fair Labor Standards Act, is actually below the poverty line for a family of four. Further, the “primary duty” test to classify an employee as an executive, professional, or administrator who is exempt from overtime is easily manipulated by employers—unless you actually believe that lots of workers officially classified as managers and supervisors make a lot of organizational decisions while mopping floors and stocking shelves.

 The impact on millions of workers and their families is stark. I spoke with “managers” with no control over their own schedules who were forced to work grueling 80 hour weeks with salaries of $35,000 and no overtime pay. Some went months on end without a single day off. Their lives are riddled with stress and anxiety. The time they can spend with family and friends has eroded. One store manager was even prevented from seeing her dying niece—called into work despite having scheduled the day off. These stories, unfortunately, go on and on for far too many American workers.

Thankfully, President Obama has directed the Department of Labor to update its overtime rule. Hopefully this new rule (scheduled to be proposed in November) will at the very least raise the salary threshold to $984 a week and index it to inflation, as proposed by Ross Eisenbrey and Jared Bernstein. Such a change would benefit 5 – 10 million workers. While this would be a modest step forward, ideally the salary test would be raised even higher—Heidi Shierholz found that a $1,122 threshold would be consistent with historic levels.

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Should Race-Based Affirmative Action be Replaced by Race-Neutral Preferences for Low-Income Students? The Discussion Continues

The Supreme Court has nearly abolished the obligation of selective colleges and universities to give an advantage in admissions to African Americans, as a way to compensate for centuries of racially discriminatory public policy. According to the Court, such “affirmative action” violates the Constitution, which requires public universities to be “colorblind”—equally resistant to discriminating against African Americans as to favoring them to undo the effects of past discrimination.

The only race-conscious admissions programs the Court continues to permit is the pursuit of “diversity.”  Universities may seek to ensure that their entering classes include a few violinists, jai-alai players, modern dancers, chess whizzes, computer nerds and, oh yes, some African Americans as well. This is a very small hoop through which admissions officers can jump.

In response, many liberals have attempted to develop a proxy for affirmative action—policy to increase the admission of African Americans by selecting characteristics that are not specifically black, but that in practice heavily favor blacks. The most common proxy is favoring the admission of low-income students of all races, or the admission of students of all races who live in low-income communities. As Justice Ginsburg has observed, “only an ostrich” can pretend that such policy is colorblind, because everyone knows that its true purpose is to evade the Court’s prohibition of affirmative action for African Americans.

But so far, the subterfuge has worked. The academic top-tier public universities in Texas, California, and Florida have guaranteed admission to graduates with the best grade-point averages from each high school in their states. Because large numbers of African Americans in these states are trapped in segregated low-income neighborhoods, the top students from ghetto high schools are guaranteed university admission, even if their academic qualifications are weaker than those of students who are not guaranteed admission but who attend high schools in middle class communities. Some private colleges have also developed policies that favor low-income students and these, too, necessarily enroll a disproportionate number of African Americans.

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A Primer: What’s Going on with Part-time Work?

Part-time work—by definition, working less than 35 hours in a week—rose fairly steeply in the recession, but has remained roughly flat for the last five years. Currently, part-time employment makes up 19 percent of total employment, compared to 17 percent before the recession began.

To understand what’s driving those trends, it’s important to distinguish between two kinds of part-timers:

  1. People who work part time for “noneconomic reasons.” These are workers who work part time by their own preference, because they want or need a part-time schedule given other interests or obligations. This is often referred to as “voluntary” part-time work. Most part-time work is voluntary. Before the recession, 82 percent of part-time work was voluntary. Due to trends discussed below, that dropped to 66 percent in the immediate aftermath of the recession, and has since been recovering. Currently, 72 percent of part-time work is voluntary.
  2. People who work part time for “economic reasons.” These are workers who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule, because their employer doesn’t give them enough hours or because they can only find a part-time job. This is often referred to as “involuntary” part-time work.

The figure below shows trends in full-time, voluntary part-time, and involuntary part-time work in the recession and recovery (specifically, it shows the growth rate in each type of job since December 2007, the official start of the Great Recession).

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Tagged

Thinking Like an RA, Jobs Day Edition: What I’ve learned in the last three years

In a month, I’ll be leaving EPI to begin graduate school in Seattle, which makes this my last jobs day. I’ve learned a lot in my three years at EPI, and I thought it might be useful to write a series of posts explaining how the work we do has shifted the way I think about economics.

Of all the tasks at EPI, frantically gathering and analyzing new employment data on the first Friday of every month has been one of the most formative. Jobs day is like monthly report card on how the labor market is doing for workers. While almost every news station covers the unemployment rate and jobs numbers, the full report contains a wealth of indicators and information that take a bit more analysis to understand.

My first jobs day reported the release of June 2011 data: a month that, like the months prior, showed painfully slow growth in the recovery of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate was undeniably high (9 percent), payroll employment had added an average of only 115,000 jobs per month over the last year, and both real wages and average weekly hours—two measures of how workers with jobs were faring—had fallen from the month before. We were in the beginning stages of the severe public-sector austerity that would strangle growth in coming years—governments (mostly state and local) had laid off an additional 130,000 workers within the last six months, adding to a cumulative half a million public sector jobs cut between 2007-2011. These indicators reflected a truly terrible economy. Two years out from the height of the Great Recession, many economists and policy makers were still arguing for another stimulus act, and the Fed had already launched two rounds of “quantitative easing.”

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Remember the Last Time the Fed Tightened After a Recession? I Didn’t Either, So…

[Updated - somehow didn't get the GDP row in previous table to come along—should be fixed now]

Ten years ago (July 2004) was the last time the Fed started raising the effective Federal Funds Rate to provide less support to an economic recovery. Many observers—even presidents of regional Fed banks—think the Fed should start tightening today. I thought I’d just take a quick look at some measures of slack and inflationary pressures to see if the economy does indeed look at least as tight as it did in July 2004. Indicators are in the table below.

 

First, the unemployment rate—it was 5.6 percent in the second quarter of 2004 (i.e., right before tightening began) and it’s 6.2 percent today.

Next, we look at the employment to population ratio for prime-age adults—simply the share of prime-age (25-54) adults with a job. This was 79 percent in July 2004 and is 76.5 percent today.

Third, we examine the output gap, as measured by the Congressional Budget Office. This is a measure of how much of the economy’s productive potential is being unused—the most direct attempt to measure economic slack. In the second quarter of 2004 this measure indicated that 0.9 percent of potential output being unused, while today this number is 4.5 percent—and this even after the CBO has made very large downward revisions in the unobserved “potential” measure.

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I So Want to See Accelerating Job Growth, and It Is So Not Happening

Second quarter job growth was delightfully strong—277,000 jobs added per month on average—and even I got excited that maybe the pace of job growth was meaningfully accelerating. But July’s job growth of 209,000 certainly dampens those hopes. Over the 12 months from July 2013–June 2014, job growth averaged, yes, 209,000 per month. Sigh. At this pace, it will take nearly four years to get back to health in the labor market.

jobs_M-o-M payroll change

Tightening Labor Market Will at Some Point Strengthen Wage Growth, but No Sign of That Today

The weak labor market of the last seven years has put enormous downward pressure on wages. Employers just don’t have to offer big wage increases to get and keep the workers they need when their workers don’t have anywhere else to go. As the labor market continues to tighten, at some point wage growth will accelerate and workers will see real wage growth, which will be a very good thing. But as the figure shows, there is no sign of that yet in today’s jobs report.

Jobs_nominal hourly earnings of all and production.xlsx