The North American Free Trade Agreement (NATFA) was the door through which American workers were shoved into the neoliberal global labor market.
By establishing the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell back into the United States, NAFTA undercut the bargaining power of American workers, which had driven the expansion of the middle class since the end of World War II. The result has been 20 years of stagnant wages and the upward redistribution of income, wealth and political power.
NAFTA affected U.S. workers in four principal ways. First, it caused the loss of some 700,000 jobs as production moved to Mexico. Most of these losses came in California, Texas, Michigan, and other states where manufacturing is concentrated. To be sure, there were some job gains along the border in service and retail sectors resulting from increased trucking activity, but these gains are small in relation to the loses, and are in lower paying occupations. The vast majority of workers who lost jobs from NAFTA suffered a permanent loss of income.
Much of the focus last jobs day was on the government shutdown and its impact on the employment data for October. The November job numbers will likely show at least some reversal of October’s trends in the household survey data, including the increase in unemployment, decline in employment, and decline in labor force participation, as these movements were in part driven by the temporary furlough of government workers (while the BLS stated, and we reported, that the shutdown did not affect the labor force participation rate, further analysis suggests that it likely had some impact). Because of these distortions in the October household survey, the change from October to November will provide little information about the underlying labor market trend. Instead, it’s important to focus on shifts over longer time periods.
The talk about the government shutdown is largely a distraction from the larger issue, namely just how many jobs the economy needs to create to return to pre-recession levels of employment.
In addition to the economic ramifications of the 800,000 furloughed government employees in October, we still face a 1.43 million jobs shortfall in public sector employment. The graph below illustrates the public sector jobs gap from January 2000 through September 2013. In an effort to not overstate the jobs gap which may have temporarily occurred because of the government shutdown, we are omitting October’s numbers. On Friday, this will be updated through November 2013.
Overall, it’s clear that austerity driven job losses in the public sector have been an enormous drain on the recovery.
No one should be surprised that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the National Labor Relations Board’s decision in D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB and sided with the corporation against the interests of its employees. (The decision lets employers refuse to hire employees unless they agree to give up any right to file a lawsuit in court or to file a class action or joint grievance before an arbitrator when their employment rights are violated.)
By and large, that is what courts do when they are presented a choice between corporate interests and the rights of workers—especially their rights to unionize or act collectively. The history of American law is an almost unbroken train of cases where courts have trampled the rights of workers to organize against more powerful employers. Even when Congress or state governments act explicitly to protect working families and equalize the balance of power in the workplace, the courts usually take the side of the corporations (they’re people, too, after all). In the 19th century, the courts treated unions as conspiracies in restraint of trade and applied the anti-trust laws against them. When Congress amended the anti-trust laws in 1914 to free unions from anti-trust regulation, the courts nevertheless found ways to outlaw boycotts, strikes, and picketing. Congress had to pass a new law in 1932 that barred federal courts from issuing injunctions in peaceful labor disputes.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the centrist think tank Third Way’s Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler call economic populism a “dead end for Democrats,” pointing to one lonely data point—Coloradans’ vote against raising taxes to increase education funding—to call into question the entirety of progressives’ economic policy agenda.
Call me crazy, but I’m not prepared to cede the direction of American politics to the 1.3 million people who turned out to vote on a school-tax measure—just 36 percent of registered Colorado voters. For one thing, a similar school-tax measure was defeated by an almost identical margin in the state just two years ago, and yet this result didn’t portend doom to Democrats running state-wide in 2012. And for another, aside from living in a swing state, I’m not sure why these voters are more representative of America than the New Yorkers who on the same day as the Colorado vote elected Bill de Blasio mayor in a landslide, or the Californians who in 2012 voted to increase their income taxes to fund public education.
In any event, Colorado’s vote against a tax increase has very little to do with Americans’ attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, as Cowan and Kessler presume, and even less in common with the reality of these programs’ fiscal future.
President Obama hit all the right notes in his speech today addressing income inequality. I was pretty tough on him last July in a similar speech where I said he was better at the diagnosis of the problem than in proposing solutions. In particular, I pointed out he failed to acknowledge that to generate expanded opportunity and a broader middle class requires broad-based wage growth. After all, a good working definition of the middle class is people and families that rely almost exclusively on the income from work—wages and benefits. They don’t have income from owning stocks or other financial assets and don’t receive much ‘transfer income’ from the government.
Today, the president did better; he said “growth alone does not guarantee higher wages and incomes” and said, “the third part of this middle-class economics is empowering our workers.” He followed this with recommendations to strengthen collective bargaining, achieve pay equity for women, rebuild manufacturing and raise the minimum wage. I appreciate that. He noted the need to continue to combat racial discrimination while also asserting the increased prominence of class as a determinant of well-being. Providing more skills and better education is always critical for social mobility and improved productivity. He urged a strengthening of our social safety net, including retirement savings and Social Security. He called for maintaining the unemployment benefits needed to protect the long-term unemployed. And, he said that the Affordable Care Act was an important cornerstone in providing economic security, which it surely is. These are the basic ingredients needed to generate a different set of outcomes than the disheartening ones produced over the last few decades. Bravo!
Sure, there are a few misguided distractions in the speech—more exports, but nothing about trade deficits which involves imports, the need for corporate tax reform—but no reason to dwell on those items at this moment. You always want to see improvement and this speech definitely improves on the July speech. It’s great that he said ”our number one priority is to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for all Americans” and an A+ speech would have inserted ‘wage’ before growth.
In his New York Times column this morning, David Brooks uses a garden metaphor to instruct us on the different functions of the public and private sector. He writes that the government is like the “stem,” providing us with the essential but rather uninteresting infrastructure to allow the “flower” of private life to bloom. Thus, we need parks, public transportation and public safety, but people can provide their own picnic.
Putting aside that there might be other things we need for a picnic—such as safe food and a job with a day off—Brooks’ division of responsibility is reasonable. But the political context of his column is nonsense. What we face today is not some theoretical ignorance of the right balance between things that are private and things that are public; all but the most libertarian understand the public’s role in providing “stem” functions. The reality is that everywhere we look, essential public functions are being undermined, if not destroyed, by privatization.
Apple’s ugly labor problems aren’t limited to its Foxconn factories, and they aren’t going away.
The labor rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) first exposed the wave of employee suicides at Apple’s Chinese contractor, Foxconn, and the grueling conditions in which hundreds of thousands of employees work. SACOM has regularly revealed Apple’s failure to abide by its so-called code of conduct, and along with another watchdog group, China Labor Watch, has monitored Apple’s failure to live up to its announced intention to clean up sweatshop conditions at its factories in China and to stop the use of indentured student labor.
In April, China Labor Watch reported that two more Apple/Foxconn workers had committed suicide by jumping from buildings to their death. China Labor Watch also found labor law violations at ten other Apple suppliers, including Pegatron.
Now SACOM has released a new report that details the serious labor rights violations at another Apple supplier, Biel Crystal, which reportedly makes 60 percent of Apple’s touch screens. SACOM reports that five Biel Crystal workers employed at its Huizhou factory have killed themselves since 2011. One possible cause is the stress of working horrific hours—11 hours a day, seven days a week, with only a day off in a month. This is a gross violation of Chinese labor law, which limits overtime to 39 hours a month. The Biel Crystal employees work more than twice as much overtime as the law allows.
When will American consumers wake up to Apple’s crushing exploitation of Chinese workers?
This year, EPI is delighted to join the growing ranks of nonprofits participating in Giving Tuesday.
While Americans have embraced the bargain-hunting possibilities of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday seeks to round out the week that follows Thanksgiving by returning to a theme of giving back. Giving Tuesday, which started last year—largely through the initiative of New York City’s 92nd St Y—is a day to support nonprofit organizations and kick off the season of annual giving by donating to a charity of your choice.
Of course we hope you will consider a donation to EPI. But the bigger message here is to take time to give back in some way. You can share who you’re giving to and help promote the nonprofits near and dear to your heart using the hashtag #GivingTuesday.
We are deeply grateful for the contributions from supporters we receive throughout the year that fund our research and activities, including this blog. We wish you safe travels and happy holidays, from the EPI family to yours.
National average scores of students on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will be released Tuesday, and we urge commentators and education policymakers to avoid jumping to quick conclusions from a superficial “horse race” examination of these scores.
Typically, The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is given an advance look at test score data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and issues press releases with conclusions based on its preliminary review of the results. The OECD itself also provides a publicized interpretation of the results. This year, ED and the OECD are planning a highly orchestrated event, “PISA Day,” to manipulate coverage of this release.
It is usual practice for research organizations (and in some cases, the government) to provide advance copies of their reports to objective journalists. That way, journalists have an opportunity to review the data and can write about them in a more informed fashion. Sometimes, journalists are permitted to share this embargoed information with diverse experts who can help the journalists understand possibly alternative interpretations.
In this case, however, the OECD and ED have instead given their PISA report to selected advocacy groups that can be counted on, for the most part, to echo official interpretations and participate as a chorus in the official release.1 These are groups whose interpretation of the data has typically been aligned with that of the OECD and ED—that American schools are in decline and that international test scores portend an economic disaster for the United States, unless the school reform programs favored by the administration are followed.
Last year, EPI fiscal policy analyst Ethan Pollack released a report showing that a number of revenue increases called for in the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s (CPC) annual budget could support truly significant job-creation programs. Ethan specifically estimated job gains stemming from using the revenue to support infrastructure projects.
Besides national numbers, he also broke down job-gains by every state. We decided to update these numbers with revenue estimates the last CPC budget, just to remind people that even if it is decided (mistakenly) that the budget deficit is too large and cannot be allowed to rise to support job creation programs, these programs can still be funded with progressive tax increases and create jobs (less efficiently than if funded by deficits, but still significant job creators on net).
Our call for financing deficit neutral job programs with progressive tax increases is not simply an ideological preference. Rather, progressive tax increases (i.e., raising money from high-income households and corporations) impose a much smaller drag on economic recovery than broader based increases, allowing for the greatest job gains when paired with infrastructure spending. This is an extremely well documented piece of empirical economics.
Below we have replicated the tables for revenue and job creation using updated numbers. We only show numbers for 2014 through 2016, as the job creation numbers depend on the assumption that the economy is not at full employment. Beyond 2016 it’s impossible to assess this assumption one way or the other.
The post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
The deeper you are in the inner sanctums of power, the slower you are to get disturbing news from the rest of the world. So, I suppose it should be no surprise that it has taken so long for a prominent member of the American policy elite to suggest openly to his colleagues that the core assumption upon which they have been managing the economic crisis might be dead wrong.
Four and a half years after the current “recovery” began, economic pain remains widespread. Wages and incomes are still falling, the share of jobless working age people has not declined, and hunger and homelessness are rising.
Yet the Washington/Wall Street message to the rest of America remains: Have patience.
True, acknowledges the official story, we’re in the slowest recovery since the 1930s. But capitalist markets always fluctuate around a long-term trend of expansion at full employment. It follows that what goes down must come up. So, after previously assuring us that a deep recession would mean a strong recovery, they now tell us the deep recession is the reason for the weak one. Anyway, the accepted wisdom continues; as long as the Federal Reserve keeps the cost of capital (i.e., interest rates) low, sooner or later the natural workings of the market will return us to pre-2008 prosperity.
Yesterday’s NYT column by David Carr about internships doesn’t just bury the lede, it takes it hostage and heads off in the opposite direction before revealing that Carr thinks businesses ought to pay their interns and will be rewarded for it. Carr starts out by seeming to make fun of young people who think they’re too good to get someone else’s coffee and drycleaning and seems in particular to have no patience for an intern who moved to New York to work for Vogue only to find herself being abused and undervalued—and crying into her pillow at night. He argues that lawsuits enforcing interns’ right to be paid might be ill-conceived.
But the column takes an abrupt turn when Carr describes the experience of The Atlantic Media, which ended its practice of hiring unpaid interns soon after the Labor Department issued a Fact Sheet declaring most unpaid internships at for-profit companies illegal. The Atlantic began paying its interns (Carr doesn’t mention that it provided backpay to previous interns who had been unpaid) rather than doing away with internships altogether. It created year-long fellowships involving mentoring and education, substantive work, and honest compensation. Far from suffering financially, the company has thrived. The fellows are diverse, smart, creative, and bring new energy to the company.
In Debate Over ”Secular Stagnation,” Don’t Let Legitimate Concerns Over Inequality Let Austerity Off the Hook
The debate over “secular stagnation” started by Larry Summers and Paul Krugman continues on. Contributions from Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker, and Daniel Davies are worth reading (as are plenty I’m missing, for sure).
The root question being discussed is whether or not the shortfall in aggregate demand that drove the Great Recession and continues to depress the U.S. economy (and other advanced economies) is something that will afflict us for a long time, and if so what to do about it.
Historically, the prospect of demand shortfalls lasting a decade is not something that worried macroeconomists. The general assumption was that economies were pretty resilient, and so long as the Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates as downturns loomed, recessions would be short and recoveries rapid. And for recessions in the U.S. before 1990, that seemed borne out by the data. Yet the last three recoveries have been slow—and each one slower than the last. And the recovery following the 2001 recession really only happened when an enormous asset bubble in housing pumped hundreds of billions of dollars of demand into the economy, and even with this enormous (and ephemeral) boost, the recovery was still anemic. Hence the concerns over “secular stagnation,” or, demand shortfalls that linger on for a long time.
Yesterday’s addition to all of this, from the BBC, discusses an implicit debate between Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz about whether or not the inequality is a key influence depressing demand and making recovery so hard.
Earlier this year, we published an analysis of international test score data in which we showed that these data hide many complex issues, and that glib conclusions regarding the meaning and policy implications of international test data should be avoided. We showed that it is more appropriate to compare student performance across countries by comparing students with similar social class backgrounds, and we showed that comparative information is more useful if it includes test data trends over time as well as levels in the current year. We also presented apparent anomalies in test data (for example, periods in which performance on one international test goes up but performance on another international test, purporting to measure the same subject, goes down, or carelessness in sampling methodology) that should caution analysts from relying too heavily on test score data.
Upon the release of our report, we were attacked by several promoters of the conventional idea that international test data show that American schools are in collapse and are threatening our economic security. Prominent among these was Marc Tucker, president of one of the leading education-scold organizations, the National Center on Education and the Economy. Tucker attacked our report without having bothered to read it, and was subsequently forced to issue an apology for misrepresenting our findings (“We misstated the conclusions presented by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein in the report described in this newsletter. We believe we have stated those conclusions accurately here, and apologize to the authors for the error”).
He apparently didn’t learn anything from this embarrassing episode, because now, two weeks before release of new international test score data, he has again attacked our earlier report, again based on his own misrepresentations of what the report actually says. The occasion of his current critique is Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post.
Yesterday, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released a report entitled “Our Debt Problems Are Very Far from Solved,” which implicitly argues that—despite dramatic drops in our near-term deficits and vast improvements in the medium-term outlook of the federal government’s balance sheets—long-term deficit reduction should remain our top economic policy priority for now.
Concentrating on deficit reduction above all else would be a mistake for a number of reasons: such a focus ignores recent changes in facts about our fiscal outlook; it calls for painful and unnecessary policy changes; and it sets aside the issues that should be our focus, namely returning to a broadly-shared economic growth. To be clear, there are policies that would reduce long-term deficits while helping to meet these other challenges, but there are also policies that would reduce long-term deficits while making these challenges even worse. It matters, a lot, which set of policies we choose. Prioritizing deficit reduction, in and of itself, as the pre-eminent policy goal going forward makes for a much worse debate.
Admittedly, I don’t read the American Enterprise Institute’s blog very much. Today, however, someone alerted me that they published this post suggesting that minimum wage laws are at least partially to blame for Europe’s employment woes. In it, Dr. Mark Perry presents a table of countries in Western Europe, their country-wide statutory minimum wage, if they have one, and their respective “jobless rates.”1 He then asserts:
“[M]inimum wage proponents… argue that other countries have minimum wage laws apparently without any adverse consequences on employment levels or jobless rates. The empirical evidence from Western Europe seems to suggest otherwise. Labor markets in the group of countries with no minimum wage laws are much healthier and doing much better than the group of countries with minimum wage legislation, measured by the jobless rates in Western Europe.”
To paraphrase, “Look: minimum wage, higher joblessness; no minimum wage, lower joblessness… just saying.” Although this argument has something of a timeless quality to it (pdf), it’s wrong, tissue-paper thin, and not something we would expect from any serious researcher.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus released his international business tax reform discussion draft yesterday. This is an ambitious and fairly thorough proposal and the Senator is to be commended on offering such a detailed draft with legislative language.
But from the start it fails in one crucial area—revenue. Senator Baucus apparently is looking for additional revenue for short-term deficit reduction, but the international tax reform discussion draft is intended to be long-term revenue neutral (more on this below). Corporate taxes already provide too little revenue; corporate tax revenue, which was about 4 percent of GDP in the 1950s, is equal to about 1.5 percent of GDP today. If corporate tax revenue as a percent of GDP had been at its 60-year average last year, corporate tax revenues would have been 43 percent higher, or about $120 billion. Meanwhile, corporate profits are currently at an all-time high.
Revenue aside (and it’s a big aside), it is difficult to fully assess the policy merits of a discussion draft that offers two options and is necessarily incomplete until the rest of the corporate income tax proposal is released. Nonetheless, I have a few comments, based on what has been released and my reading between the lines.
In an article in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association), Uwe Reinhardt writes about the improbability of “more skin in the game” as a solution to our health care spending woes. Increasing “cost-sharing” or creating “more skin in the game” are different ways to say that patients can/will/should pay more when they go to the doctor or hospital. It means that patients bear a higher share of medical costs, through higher deductibles, higher co-pays, higher so-insurance, and the like. And, it’s often argued that patients with “more skin in the game” will spend their health dollars more wisely. This was the rationale behind the excise tax on high-priced health insurance plans, a tax to not only raise revenue to pay for health reform but also as a way to thin out health plans, making patients pay more for care.
Reinhardt suggests that inducing patients to shop around for cost-effective health care is “about as sensible as blindfolding shoppers entering a department store in the hope that inside they can and will then shop smartly for the merchandise they seek.” The problem, he argues, is that health care has been historically “delivered behind the secure walls of a fortress that kept information on the prices charged for health care and the quality of that care opaque from public view.”
At today’s confirmation hearing for prospective Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) asked Yellen about how Fed policy contributes to inequality, and specifically worried that recent Fed policies (ie, quantitative easing) have helped asset owners without doing much to help low- and moderate-income Americans.
There are a couple of things to note about this. For one, Yellen’s answer that faster growth and a better job-market recovery would do a lot to ease inequality was spot-on. The short version is that the Fed can do the most to address inequality by quickly getting unemployment down to very low levels. She specifically noted the episode of the late 1990s when very tight labor markets led to across-the-board wage growth. This is exactly right, and too often under-appreciated.
We noted in The State of Working America, 12th Edition that even relatively rosy estimates of unemployment reductions imply that the Great Recession and the weak recovery that preceded it could well lead to typical Americans seeing essentially no wage and income growth for two full decades before all is said and done. This is an underappreciated policy catastrophe.
The uproar over people having their insurance plans cancelled just as the ACA “exchanges” for purchasing insurance are being set up has been amplified—probably enormously—by the failure of healthcare.gov. It is understandably anxiety-inducing to lose the insurance you have without receiving proper information on an available alternative.
Research done before the exchanges were set-up provided ample evidence that while some young, healthy, higher income people may face higher premiums (for now—but will get a better deal if they make it to the “not so young and healthy” phase of life—yah social insurance!), the vast majority of those in the individual market (and remember the uninsured!) will find better deals in the new system. So, while we have some clear evidence of that fact from states that are operating their own exchanges, people who live in states that refused to set up their own exchanges and free-rode on the federal government’s site don’t have the information yet. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a useful brief on health premiums in the federally facilitated exchanges for a set of individuals, with factors that could be used to adjust them to all family types. Unfortunately, interpreting the results are out of reach for most Americans and listing the plan features with the premiums would be far more useful. The Kaiser Family Foundation created a handy calculator, which gets closer by incorporating all ages and family types, but doesn’t provide nearly the breadth of information that could be made available.
Yesterday’s Economic Snapshot showed how women’s and men’s employment prospects have fared in the Great Recession and its aftermath. Women have regained 2.9 million jobs, bringing them back to pre-recession levels, and men have gained 2.7 million jobs, still falling short 1.7 million jobs of their pre-December 2007 levels.
At first glance, it may appear that women are doing better than men. Men lost 3.4 million more jobs in the Great Recession and its aftermath than women—employment among men dropped 8.7% while women only saw a 4.0% drop in employment. By mid-2009, men had lost so many jobs that women’s payroll employment was 50% of the work force for the first time in history. In the recovery, men reversed the trend and gained more jobs than women (4.4 compared to 2.9) but, women still have a smaller jobs gap, 3.6 million compared to 4.4 million for men.
So what’s really going on here? To understand the gender dynamics of employment, it’s crucial to look at the gender breakdowns within industries. The table (an updated version of Table 5.8 from the State of Working America) below shows the distribution of male and female workers across industries and the relative change in male and female employment within their industries since 2007. The industries that have taken the biggest employment hits since 2007—construction and manufacturing, which dropped 22.3% and 12.9%, respectively—also have a disproportionately larger share of male workers than in other industries. Industries that have a larger share of female workers, such as health care and social assistance government, fared considerably better: health care and social assistance employment increased 11.5 percent since December 2007. One story of the Great Recession shows that women fared better than men, as they were disproportionately employed in industries that sustained less dramatic employment drops during Great Recession than industries that were male dominated.
The Obama administration has been rushing to complete a trade agreement with a dozen Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Canada, Malaysia and Vietnam, with key negotiations set to start next week in Salt Lake City. A bi-partisan group of more than 170 Democrats and Republicans sent letters to the president this week signaling their intent to oppose so-called “Fast Track” procedures (also known as Trade Promotion Authority) which would allow the White House to submit trade agreements to Congress without the opportunity to amend the deals.
Congress is wise to pause before giving the president carte blanche to negotiate new trade deals and wise to demand fuller consultation with Congress on the content of those deals. Fast track authority was first developed by the Nixon administration to rush trade agreements through Congress without threat of amendment. But deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the recently ratified Korea-U.S. trade agreement (KORUS) have failed to live up to expectations precisely because they are much more than simple trade agreements. These agreements are concerned with stimulating foreign investment and remaking a host of regulatory policies covering labor law, patents and copyrights, food safety standards, and state owned enterprises, as well as financial, healthcare, energy, telecommunications, and other service industries, as noted in a letter this week from 151 Democratic members of Congress to the president. KORUS and dozens of other trade and investment deals have resulted in a huge surge in outsourcing and have eliminated millions of jobs, especially in U.S. manufacturing.
Last week, I wrote that Congress has been tying the hands of the Postal Service by limiting its ability to develop new products or to price its services competitively. Worse, Congress filled the Postal Service’s pockets with weights to drag them down financially, adding tens of billions in costs for retiree health insurance on a schedule no other corporation has to live with, while charging it more than $50 billion for pensions earned before the Postal Service was incorporated in 1971—costs that the federal government should bear, not the Postal Service.
It’s a recipe for killing the Postal Service, and postal management has sometimes seemed like a willing victim. Most notoriously, they’ve pushed to end six-day delivery of mail, even though customers love it.
But this weekend brought good news. Recognizing the strength their unparalleled, universal delivery system represents, postal management has negotiated something new: not subtracting, but adding a day of package delivery on Sunday. For now it’s limited to delivering packages for Amazon in New York and Los Angeles, but once these deliveries have been extended to the rest of the nation, who knows what other customers will decide to take advantage of this new opportunity?
I firmly believe that if the Postal Service is freed to compete more fairly, without having obstacles strewn in its path by a hostile Congress, it can rise to the challenge of maintaining universal delivery at a price that customers can afford. The Postal Service and its hundreds of thousands of employees deserve the chance.
The next time you read in the newspaper or hear on TV that there is a shortage of construction workers and we have to import tens of thousands of workers from abroad in order to have enough construction labor, remember this memo from Jason Furman, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers:
“Construction employment rose by 11,000 in October and is up 185,000 over the past year, but remains 1.9 million jobs below its previous peak, underscoring the importance of continued strengthening in housing markets and investments in infrastructure. Of the 185,000 increase in construction employment over the past year, the bulk (104,000) is in residential construction, while 65,000 are in non-residential construction, and 16,000 are in heavy and civil engineering construction. The gains in residential construction are consistent with the recovery we have seen unfolding in the housing sector, but additional steps still must be taken to create a more durable and fair system that promotes responsible homeownership. Moreover, the fact that employment in non-residential and heavy and civil engineering construction has grown slowly is an important reminder that we should also be looking for opportunities to invest in America’s roads, bridges, and schoolhouses.”
The lengths to which businesses will go to get cheap labor are boundless. Tech firms, despite their luster, are no better in this regard than landscaping firms, hotels, or construction companies. Most tech firms want to reduce their labor costs (except for their executives), and a surprising number seem to treat the law as an obstacle to get around. I’ve written about the Justice Department’s settlement with 6 of the most famous information technology (IT) companies in America over anti-trust charges involving a conspiracy to suppress wage demands, and a subsequent lawsuit filed by the employees who would have been harmed by the conspiracy.
A newer case came into the spotlight last week. The Justice Department’s $35 million settlement of civil fraud charges against Infosys, a firm whose business model is largely based on the outsourcing and offshoring of IT work to India, facilitated by using the H-1B guestworker visa, exposed a pervasive scheme of visa abuse in the H-1B and B-1 “business visitor” visa categories. This scandal lends support to the efforts of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to put new limits on IT outsourcing firms.
There is a lot of talk about robots these days, as if technological change has led to weak job creation, caused wage inequality, and even caused the profit share of the economy to increase as workers’ share (compensation) falls. We have definitely had problems with employment growth and growing wage inequality, alongside a profit boom not just during the Great Recession and its aftermath but since 2000—and for wage inequality, for two decades prior. Is technology driving all this? I think not.
This post tackles the issue of whether robots slowed job growth in the 2000s (my colleague Josh Bivens has addressed this previously, but for the recovery). In the near future I will be addressing whether robots are responsible for our current wage inequality. Spoiler alert: they aren’t.
MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson wrote the influential book Race Against The Machine, which has driven much of this conversation. They label the disconnect between employment growth and productivity growth in the 2000s the “Great Decoupling.” Moreover, they argue that there has been an “acceleration of technology” that has “hurt wages and jobs for millions of people” even as “digital progress grows the overall economic pie.” Brynjolfsson and McAfee know a lot more about technology and its impact on firms and work than I do, but attributing the job slowdown in the 2000s to robots or digitalization overlooks a simple alternative answer: slow aggregate output growth caused by the bursting of asset bubbles. In fact, they do not offer much evidence to connect the technological trends (robots and digitalization) they document to the aggregate job, wage and inequality trends they, and I, care about.
The non-elderly population across the country relies on employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI) as their primary form of health coverage. In eleven of the last twelve years, however, ESI coverage has declined. Across the country, on average, ESI coverage for the under-65 population fell 10.8 percentage points from 2000 to 2012. Translated into raw numbers, if the ESI coverage rate had not declined over this period, 29 million more Americans would be covered today by their employers. Twenty-two states experienced losses in excess of 10 percentage points over the period. The largest declines in coverage occurred in Nevada, Michigan, Georgia, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana, each with losses of at least 13 percentage points.
As a result of these losses, the average coverage rate in 2012 was down to 58.4 percent. The map below compares ESI coverage for the entire under-65 population across states in 2011/2012.1 Massachusetts has the highest rate of ESI coverage at 70.8 percent. It is followed by New Hampshire (70.0 percent), Connecticut (69.7 percent), Minnesota (69.0 percent), North Dakota (67.6 percent), and Maryland (67.3 percent). In contrast, less than half of New Mexico’s non-elderly population has ESI, at 47.2 percent.
Employer-sponsored health insurance coverage by state, population under 65 years old, 2011–2012
|District of Columbia||57.6%|
Source: Author's analysis of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement microdata
These huge losses almost surely explain the increasing demand for health reform that characterized the years leading up to the passage of the ACA, and highlight why health reform was so important. The fact is the employer-based health insurance system was fraying rapidly in the decade before health reform was implemented. Even before the ACA’s implementation, many of those losing ESI found shelter in public insurance, which disguised the precipitous drop in employer coverage. Indeed, from 2000 to 2012, public insurance, primarily in the form of Medicaid and CHIP, helped counteract the erosion in employment-based coverage and is the only reason why the uninsured rate did not rise one-for-one with the fall in ESI. However, many Americans, particularly those of working age, are still falling through the cracks. Fortunately, once the (admittedly too large) kinks are worked out, the health insurance exchanges created under the ACA will make it easier and more affordable for Americans to secure and maintain health insurance coverage, even if ESI continues the decline that has characterized the last decade.
1. Because of sample size requirements, I combined two years of data 2011 and 2012.
Five days a week, I receive the Cal-OSHA Reporter News Digest, which compiles reports of deaths and injuries in California as well as other states. It’s a regular reminder that I am a lucky man to have worked my entire life in think tanks, government offices, and law firms. Every issue is filled with grim stories of workers mangled by machinery, suffocated by corn in a silo, killed in falls or struck by a careless driver as they worked on the highway, or sometimes, killed in ways so horrible that it beggars the imagination. On any given day, dozens of people are killed in the workplace, and the Cal-OSHA reporter captures only a few of these stories. It does not, and cannot, begin to capture the extent of workplace injuries, since for every one death there are a thousand injuries. And the toll from occupational illness is too slow and insidious to capture, though silicosis, black lung, asbestos disease, and cancer from hundreds of toxic chemicals kill an estimated 50,000 workers every year. Today’s Cal-OSHA Reporter was typical—a perfect reminder that American workers are not sufficiently protected from harm, that OSHA and its sister agencies in the states face an overwhelming challenge with far too few resources, and that employers that put their employees’ lives at risk and take them from their families forever are rarely punished in a way that meets the enormity of what they did or allowed to happen.