EPI is taking a much-needed break for the holidays. Working Economics will be back on January 2nd. Meanwhile, here’s what we read today:
- Senate Bill Would Lower Contractors’ Compensation Cap (Wall Street Journal)
- How America’s harshest immigration law failed (MSNBC)
- Victims of Misclassification (New York Times)
And don’t forget to check out the 13 Most Important Charts of 2013.
Today’s New York Times published one of the most important stories yet about the Detroit bankruptcy, a story that shines a harsh light on the financial institutions whose tricky deal-making helped tank the city’s finances. At the heart of the story is Detroit’s decision to enter into swap contracts that were spectacularly ill-advised. Mary Williams Walsh gives us the history:
“Detroit entered into the swap contracts back in 2005, when it tapped the municipal bond market for $1.4 billion to put into its workers’ pension funds. Much of the deal was structured with variable-rate debt, and the swaps were intended to work as a hedge, to protect Detroit if interest rates rose. But as things turned out, rates went down, and under those circumstances, the terms of the swaps called for Detroit to make regular payments to UBS and Merrill Lynch Capital Services, now part of Bank of America. Detroit has been doing so, even in bankruptcy. The swaps now cost it about $36 million a year.
“In retrospect, it seems clear that Detroit was already struggling in 2005 and was a poor candidate to borrow the $1.4 billion. The borrowing required an unusual structure to avoid violating the city’s legal debt limit. In 2009, the debt was downgraded to junk, putting the city out of compliance with the terms of the swaps. So Detroit restructured the swap obligations, offering the two banks the tax revenue that it received from local casinos as a backstop.”
I’m saddened because I wasn’t able to celebrate the passage of comprehensive immigration reform this year when commemorating International Migrants Day on December 18. Nevertheless, for people who care about immigration, 2013 was an intense and interesting year. Following is a quick wrap up of what happened this year, and what to be hopeful for in 2014.
To start, the lopsided share of the Latino vote won by President Obama in his reelection helped put a major federal immigration reform back on the table. Then at the end of 2012, eight members of the U.S. Senate began negotiating a bipartisan federal immigration reform bill. And in 2012 and 2013 anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama, which sought to make life so miserable for immigrants lacking formal legal status that they would “self-deport” back to their countries of origin, were defeated in the courts one by one.
In mid-2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill by a vote of 68 to 32. There is no question that the Senate bill is historic: Both political parties agreed to reform just about every aspect of the U.S. immigration system, and create a legalization program for the 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. Unauthorized immigrants live in constant fear of deportation and separation from their families, and the 8 million of them in the U.S. labor market go to work every day vulnerable to exploitation because employers can and do threaten them with deportation if they attempt to organize or join a union, or speak out about unfair, unsafe, or illegal working conditions. And we know that as a result, unauthorized immigrant workers suffer from wage theft (i.e., are not paid the wages they are owed under minimum wages and overtime laws) at an astonishingly high rate. Legalizing these workers would not only be just and humane, but would improve wages and working conditions for all low-wage workers and help counter the current race-to-the-bottom pursued by many employers in terms of labor standards.
I don’t usually associate the American Enterprise Institute with compassion for the unemployed or anything, really, other than pro-business, anti-government policy prescriptions and rhetoric. So I was surprised and heartened by a thoughtful post by AEI Money & Politics blogger James Pethokoukis, who skewers the notion that cutting unemployment benefits will spur job creation.
Pethokoukis analyzes the effect of reductions in weekly benefit levels and total weeks of unemployment compensation enacted in North Carolina this summer—cuts so draconian they led to the state being kicked out of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program that provides weekly benefits to long-term jobless workers. North Carolina Republicans claimed the cuts would force lazy workers to find jobs, thereby solving the state’s unemployment crisis.
Instead, as Pethokoukis shows, tens of thousands of North Carolinians stopped looking for jobs that weren’t there once they were cut off from weekly benefits (which are only paid to people who are actively seeking paid employment). The labor force participation rate fell nearly a full percentage point, as 42,656 workers gave up looking and dropped out of the labor force. If they hadn’t, according to Pethokoukis, “the state’s jobless rate would have increased to 9.1% rather than sharply declining.” University of California at Berkley economist Jesse Rothstein predicted this dropout effect in a 2011 paper he presented at EPI, which disputed the notion that unemployment insurance causes significant unemployment.
Hopefully, the North Carolina experience will help persuade House Republicans like Dave Camp to stop arguing that killing the EUC program will boost employment. As EPI and the CBO have shown, paying out $25 billion in EUC in 2014 will help the economy, not hurt it. Killing the program won’t help a single unemployed person find work, but will instead depress aggregate consumer demand and cost the economy 310,000 jobs.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released new employment projections for 2022. These projections are frequently misinterpreted, and the way BLS presents the data can certainly leave the uninitiated confounded. This analysis uses the occupation projections to discuss two issues: whether low-, middle- or high-wage occupations will grow disproportionately, and whether the occupation structure of 2022 relative to 2012 requires substantially more education and training. The answer to both questions is that the occupational structure of 2022 does not look dramatically different than what we have now. This means that the challenge we face is how to make occupations better paid rather than worry about whether the workforce we have is under-skilled or over-skilled for future work. That is, we have a job quality problem, and not a skills deficit problem. (Becky Thiess reached the same conclusions in an analysis of the prior set of projections.)
These projections get used in misleading ways. Some people look at the occupations that grow the fastest and draw conclusions, usually that we all need a lot more education. Others emphasize which occupations create the most number of jobs and find that a large expansion of low-wage work is looming. The BLS press release ricochets back and forth between both approaches, which obscures what one should conclude from the projections. Neither approach—looking solely at either the rate of employment growth or the absolute amount of employment growth—is correct. A fast growing occupation may be relatively small, and therefore inconsequential in the overall economy. A large occupation may generate a lot of absolute employment growth, but if it grew at the average of total employment growth (so its share of total employment did not change), then the overall character of employment (more skill, higher/lower wage) would not change.
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Since the start of the Great Recession in 2007, Native American employment has been lowest in the regions where white employment has been highest. In my research in 2009 and 2010, I found that while whites were doing relatively well in terms of employment in Alaska, the Northern Plains, and the Southwest, Native Americans were doing rather poorly in these very same regions. I also noted that these were the regions where the proportion of Native Americans was relatively high in relation to the proportion of non-Natives. These findings raised the question of whether racial discrimination might play a role in the high level of joblessness among Native Americans.
In a labor market free of racial discrimination, one would expect whites and Native Americans to have somewhat similar outcomes, not starkly divergent outcomes like we see in Alaska, the Northern Plains, and the Southwest. These divergent outcomes are the first suggestion that racial discrimination might be at play.
The Murray-Ryan budget deal that passed the House and will approved by the Senate as soon as today provides some marginal and temporary relief from planned spending cuts over the next two years. However, it does nothing to derail the disastrous longer-term march towards cutting discretionary spending to historically low rates over the next decade. And given that the large majority of all federally-financed public investments come out of discretionary spending, these spending cuts are completely inconsistent with any policy that claims to value public investment.
Let’s define “public investment,” as my colleague Josh Bivens did earlier this year, as spending that “builds the nation’s capital stock by devoting resources” to the basic physical infrastructure, innovative activity, green investments, and education “that leads to higher productivity and/or higher living standards.” This sort of spending has a great bang-per-buck ratio in the current economic environment, as it leads immediately toward more jobs by boosting demand, and also helps amp up productivity growth in ways more likely to be broadly distributed across the population.
In a swift reaction to ugly publicity about suicides, injuries, and mistreatment of workers, Biel Crystal, one of Apple’s most important suppliers of touchscreen cover glass for its iPhones, reached an agreement with the Chinese labor rights group, SACOM, to take three steps toward better conditions by January 2014:
- Clear work contracts for workers that include details on terms of contract, terms of probation, position, affiliated department. The company also will not ask workers to turn in the contract when work relation ends.
- Compensation and assistance for injured workers in accordance with China’s Regulation on Work, related injury insurance and adequate measures to protect workers from work injury.
- One day off every seven working days.
These very basic protections might seem like minimal progress, but in light of the appalling conditions at Biel Crystal’s plant, even providing limited basic protections is welcome.
The fact that the company has acknowledged such significant shortcomings in these fundamental areas of labor rights shows just how far Apple is from living up to its commitments to decent labor conditions throughout its supplier chain. It should be a reminder to all who follow Apple that the recent report by its hand-picked monitor, the Fair Labor Association, was little more than a whitewash that covered up the truly horrendous labor conditions in the factories that make Apple products. The FLA’s investigation also assessed conditions for less than one-fifth of the workers in Apple’s supply chain and thus missed gross violations at other factories, such as at the Biel Crystal plant.
The bottom line charts actual household income for the middle income fifth—it’s the average income of households between the 40th and 60th income percentiles. So, it’s households that are richer than forty percent of households as well as poorer than 40 percent of households. Think of it as a representative, if narrow, slice of the middle class.
This income rose by 19.1 percent in the 28 years before the Great Recession (1979-2007), or 0.6 percent per year. Better than zero growth for sure, but, could it have been higher?
The top line shows household incomes that start with middle-fifth incomes in 1979, but then are allowed to grow as fast as the overall average growth rate of household incomes. And since the very rich saw extraordinarily fast growth over this period (241 percent cumulative growth for the top 1 percent over this period!), this made overall average growth run much faster than growth for the middle-fifth—which is why that top line pulls progressively farther and farther away from the bottom line over time.
By 2007, if middle-fifth incomes had grown simply as fast as overall average incomes, then they would be 27 percent higher (about $19,000). This is big money for moderate-income families.
Inequality: Not Really a Distraction, and Unambiguously Bad for
Average Growth for the Vast Majority
Ezra Klein’s recent piece arguing that inequality is not the defining challenge of our time has attracted plenty of attention by now, so this might be getting old for people, but a couple of more thoughts.
First, I actually think he has a fair point in worrying that inequality could displace failure to fully recover from the Great Recession as a focal point for policymakers (I’ve actually worried a bit about that myself in the past—see here). And while there are plenty of ways that these issues are entangled, there are plenty of ways they’re not, and caring about acting aggressively on inequality is not actually a precondition to agreeing that we should push the U.S. economy back to full-employment (see pieces by economists like Ken Rogoff and Martin Feldstein, who have not shown any real interest in the inequality problem but who argue for boosting demand to complete the recovery).
On the other hand, it’s not like engineering a full recovery from the Great Recession has actually been a pressing focal point for policymakers (outside of the Fed) for a long time now. They really gave up focusing on this around 2011, and rising concerns about inequality are not why they gave up (for the record, the reason they did is simple: Republicans, especially in the House, have been determined to throttle government spending, and the resulting austerity is why the economy is nowhere near full recovery). Another reason to not worry too much about the alleged distraction of inequality is that acting to stem its rise often dovetails pretty nicely with boosting demand and helping recovery. For example, a substantial increase in the minimum wage would actually provide a moderate demand boost. Not a game-changing one, but it moves in the right direction, for sure. And if arguments to return more quickly to full employment are buttressed by invoking issues of inequality rather than “stimulus versus austerity” (a debate that has not borne fruit in the policy realm), that’d be great.
Ezra Klein has kicked off an expansive and useful conversation about whether reducing inequality or increasing growth (meaning a stronger recovery and driving down unemployment, not longer-term growth, as Matt Yglesias usefully points out), should be the top priority of policymakers. Klein uses my good buddy and former colleague Jared Bernstein’s recent WCEG paper as the starting point. This is good conversation to have, and is no doubt spurred by the founding of CAP’s new WCEG, headed by another former EPI colleague, Heather Boushey. Props also to Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, Matt Yglesias, Dean Baker, Ezra Klein, Jared Bernstein, Tim Noah, Steve Waldman for their thoughts.
I’d like to add a few thoughts to this discussion.
- There’s a danger to dwelling on the question of ‘does inequality hurt growth?’ if it establishes a litmus test that means addressing inequality requires a firm yes. Some lesser lights from the Manhattan Institute are already using this logic. If inequality has no effect on growth it is certainly still worth working towards more equitable growth because it would mean the vast majority—the 99 percent, you might say—would do far better. My colleague Josh Bivens (in the State of Working America) used the CBO’s comprehensive income data to calculate the middle fifth’s income was lower in 2007 by roughly $19,000 compared to a scenario where there had been equitable growth from 1979 to 2007. Josh refers to this as the inequality tax. I think this is the type of calculation that Krugman was looking for in his most recent post, when he illustrates that inequality matters. (more…)
Beginning in 2011, policymakers—particularly Republicans in the House of Representatives— embraced the idea that austerity somehow fosters economic growth. They used the leverage provided by the need to raise the statutory debt ceiling to force steep cuts in spending under the Budget Control Act (BCA). Since then, discretionary spending has been falling, even before inflation adjustments. This austerity has been the primary drag on economic recovery, and has also squeezed spending on education, infrastructure investment, scientific research, and the federal workforce, which will lead to slower future growth and less efficient government. And there appears to be no end in sight even though it has been shown that austerity does not increase economic growth.
The Budget Conference agreement announced earlier this week by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which the House overwhelmingly passed last night, sets discretionary budget authority limits for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. In the press release announcing the deal, the two co-chairs pointed out that the bipartisan deal for fiscal year 2014—at $1.012 trillion—is midway between the House budget level of $967 billion and the Senate budget level of $1.058 trillion. The agreed upon level is 8 percent less than the fiscal year 2010 discretionary budget authority and 5 percent less than the fiscal year 2011 level (all in nominal terms).
One key question is just how much relief this deal actually provides from austerity’s grip, and what could have happened if there was bipartisan support for active policies to get the economy and labor market back on track? I examine three scenarios.
The Murray-Ryan budget deal is marginally better than nothing; it prevents another federal government shutdown in January and provides a slight boost to discretionary spending over the next two years, relative to where we’d be absent this deal.
However, the deal demonstrates yet again that U.S. fiscal policy is a mess. Instead of dealing with the economic challenges of today—a sputtering economy, a jobs gap of nearly 8 million separating us from a pre-Great Recession labor market, long-term unemployment still at crisis levels, and nearly three job seekers for every job opening—policymakers are still acting as if future deficits are the single greatest threat to American living standards. No single fact exemplifies Congress’s preoccupation with deficit reduction than this: The Murray-Ryan deal will cut the ten-year deficit by about $23 billion—roughly the same amount as it would cost to extend federal emergency unemployment insurance for another year, a policy that would save 310,000 jobs in 2014.
It has indeed come to this. Given a clear choice, Congress would rather make symbolic gestures toward reducing the medium-term deficit—which is by no means a dire concern—than take on today’s economic challenges and help the most vulnerable among us.
Apple Fails to Deliver on Key Labor Rights Promises, but the Company’s Chosen Labor Rights Monitor Finds Little Fault
The third and final verification assessment by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) of remediation steps at three Foxconn factories making Apple products led to a raft of stories with headlines touting the progress on worker rights at Apple’s largest supplier Foxconn. While some reforms reported – such as reducing work weeks somewhat (though not to levels in accordance with Chinese law) and certain safety and health improvements – do represent steps forward, progress has been scant in fundamental areas and critical promises have apparently gone unfulfilled. Unfortunately, it is still accurate to describe Apple’s supply chain as rife with labor rights abuses.
The FLA ignores crucial reforms promised by Apple and Foxconn, including increasing wages enough to offset reductions in work hours, providing back pay for uncompensated work time, and making progress towards a livable wage standard. On March 29, 2012, the FLA described the basic remedial actions to be undertaken by Foxconn and Apple, including the promises that compensation at Foxconn factories would increase enough to offset any reduction in overtime hours; that Foxconn and Apple would provide retroactive pay for the many circumstances in which workers had not been compensated for all their overtime hours; and that a study would be undertaken to determine the amount of compensation necessary to provide for basic needs (according to the FLA’s own survey, nearly two-thirds of workers said their compensation did not provide them enough to meet their basic needs).
The FLA has not reported progress regarding any of these critical promises; indeed, the final report does not mention them at all.
Farmworker Justice, the tiny but tireless organization that advocates for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, held a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act (AWPA), a federal law designed to help farmworkers get paid and obtain safe transportation to the fields without fear of retaliation. I worked on the legislation and the implementing regulations 30 years ago as a staffer for Rep. Bill Ford, so I listened with mixed emotions as lawyers familiar with the Act outlined both how the law has helped and where it has fallen short.
AWPA did not change the basic powerlessness of migrant farmworkers, especially the undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America who do most of the farm work in the West and Southwest. As Hector Sanchez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Mary Bauer, a legal aid attorney from Virginia, put it, farmworkers still live and work in Third World conditions here in the U.S., the richest country on earth. They are often housed in shacks, trailers, cars, or even chicken coops with no plumbing.
In the last week, we’ve paid great attention to Nelson Mandela’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation between South Africa’s former white rulers and its exploited black majority. But we’ve paid less attention to the condition that Mandela insisted must underlie reconciliation—truth. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela established, and that Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired, was designed to contribute to cleansing wounds of the country’s racist history by exposing it to a disinfecting bright light. As for those Afrikaners who committed even the worst acts of violence against blacks, they could be forgiven and move on only if they acknowledged the full details of their crimes.
In the current issue of the School Administrator, I write that we do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality. We have many celebrations of the civil rights movement and its heroes, but we do very little to explain to young people why that movement was so necessary. Earlier this week, the New York Times described how the Alabama Historical Association has placed many commemorative markers around Montgomery to commemorate civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, but declined—because of “the potential for controversy”—to call attention to the city’s slave markets and their role in the spread of slavery before the Civil War. Throughout our nation, this fear of confronting the past makes it more difficult to address and remedy the ongoing existence of urban ghettos, the persistence of the black-white achievement gap, and the continued under-representation of African Americans in higher education and better-paying jobs.
Tax increases were considered a dead issue in the discussions leading up to the recent budget deal negotiated by Sen. Murray and Rep. Ryan. The main justification for this position was that tax reform is imminent, and changes to the tax system could be better handled by the experts on the Ways and Means Committee. This argument has been repeated over and over, but it is meaningless. To begin with, the House GOP leadership has made it clear that tax reform will have to be revenue neutral—that is, no revenue increases—so waiting for a tax reform bill in the context of a budget deal makes no sense. Second, the House GOP leadership has made it clear that tax reform will not be considered, let alone introduced, this year. The prospects for tax reform in the next year or the next Congress are, at best, dim. So there was no serious excuse for not increasing tax revenues in the budget deal.
Wholesale tax reform, however, is not needed to increase tax revenues; just a few tweaks to the tax system could raise enough revenue to extend unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed and provide substantial relief from the sequester over the next 10 years. The table below lists six tax changes, with revenue estimates, courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. The six changes, which would increase taxes on those taxpayers most able to pay, are:
Reactions to last night’s budget deal epitomize what’s wrong with American tax and budget policy these days. On the one hand, policymakers are given a pat on the back for simply keeping the government from grinding to a shuddering halt. This is a low bar indeed. On the other hand, the criticisms lobbed against the deal are completely backwards—claiming that the deal is insufficiently ambitious in closing long-run budget deficits.
The deal is indeed insufficiently ambitious, especially when held up against all of the ways intelligent fiscal policy could help American living standards. I recently tried to provide some detail on what fiscal policy would look like if the living standards of low- and moderate-income families actually entered into policymakers’ calculations. For anybody interested in seeing just how far short the deal brokered yesterday was in meeting the economic needs of American families, take a look at that paper, Taking “Middle-Out” Economics Seriously in this Fall’s Fiscal Debates.
The very short version of how yesterday’s deal fell short is as follows:
On Monday, Paul Krugman dissected the Republican view that emergency unemployment insurance should be ended, throwing 1.3 million jobless workers into immediate financial crisis. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for example, claims that unemployment compensation keeps workers from taking jobs and that people should be cut off from unemployment benefits after six months to keep them from becoming dependent. The fact is, as Krugman points out, there are far more people looking for work than there are job openings, and for two out of three unemployed workers it is literally impossible to find a job, no matter how hard they work or how small a paycheck they are willing to work for.
The notion that people would rather get unemployment compensation than a job ignores how low weekly benefits actually are. In many states with unemployment rates above the national average, the average pay replacement rate is far lower than the national average. Mississippi, for example, has 8.5% unemployment and a UI pay replacement rate of 28.6%. Tennessee’s unemployment rate is 8.4% and its UI pay replacement rate is 28.2%. And Arizona’s unemployment is 8.2%, while its UI pay replacement rate is a near-rock bottom 24.9%. It’s hard to argue that such stingy benefits are keeping anyone from taking a job. The average weekly benefit in Mississippi in 2013 was $194, which works out to less than $5 an hour for a 40-hour work week.
The budget deal announced last night by conference chairs Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is better than another government shutdown, but nicer words than this are hard to find to say about it.
By far the worst aspect of it is the failure to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (EUC) in 2014. Without these extensions, 1.3 million workers will have their benefits cut off at the end of 2013, and another 850,000 workers will exhaust normal UI benefits over the first quarter of 2014.
The share of long-term unemployed workers in the total labor force was 2.6 percent in November—double the share of June 2008, when President Bush first signed the UI extensions into law.
Besides cutting off a vital lifeline to millions of Americans, cutting these extensions also continues the disastrous march towards budget austerity; a march that has been by far the primary contributor to our failure to recover from the Great Recession. Cutting these UI extensions in 2014 will create a fiscal drag on the U.S. economy that will reduce job growth by more than 300,000 over the year.
When my daughter was in sixth grade she was shocked—SHOCKED—that there were so few women in powerful places, either in the private sector or the public sector. She thought that half of all the top jobs should go to women: half the Senate, half the House, half the CEOs, just like the student council at her school, where there was one boy and one girl for each grade.
I assured her that things were getting better and that by the time she grew up there would be women at the top of every enterprise. She is 22 now, and about to enter the workforce full time. Are we there yet? There are more women in the Senate and in the House, but a new study confirms that women are still not making progress on corporate boards.
In 1995, I worked on the release of the “Glass Ceiling” report (pdf) at the U.S. Department of Labor. Reviewing the report today, it’s clear that we’ve made shockingly little progress since then. I can find some hope in the fact that the recently named CEO of General Motors is Mary Barra. She is not just any old new CEO—she busted through the glass ceiling in one of the most male-dominated industries. But overall, there are so few women in corporate boardrooms that it’s hard to even argue for the need for a ladies room.
The Job Openings and Labor Turnover data released this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the ratio of job seekers to job openings remained unchanged in October at 2.9-to-1, which is equal to the worst month of the early 2000s downturn. A ratio of 2.9-to-1 means that for nearly two out of every three job seekers, there are no jobs available, no matter what they do.
The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which has provided support to millions of Americans who lost their job through no fault of their own during the Great Recession and its aftermath, should not be allowed to expire on December 28, 2013, as it is set to do. Allowing these benefits to expire would cut a crucial lifeline to millions of unemployed workers and their families at a time when job opportunities remain historically weak.
A blog post by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in the Wall Street Journal highlights findings from a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia that much of the shrinking of the U.S. workforce has been due to workers retiring early, and that given that people who retire early are less likely to reenter the labor force when job opportunities improve, improving economic conditions may not draw these workers back in.
I’ve looked at the breakdown by age of the 5.6 million “missing workers”—potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities in the aftermath of the Great Recession, are neither employed nor actively seeking work. More than three-quarters of missing workers are under age 55 and are therefore unlikely to be early retirees. That means that even if all of the missing workers age 55 and over are early retirees who will never reenter the labor force no matter how strong job opportunities are (a very strong assumption), that still leaves 4.3 million missing workers under the age of 55 who are likely to re-enter the labor force when job opportunities strengthen. In other words, weak labor force participation rate remains a key component of the total slack in the labor market.
Roughly half of missing workers are of prime working age: Missing workers,* by age and gender, June 2014
|Men under 25||780,000|
|Women under 25||460,000|
* Potential workers who, due to weak job opportunities, are neither employed nor actively seeking work
Source: EPI analysis of Mitra Toossi, “Labor Force Projections to 2016: More Workers in Their Golden Years,” Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review, November 2007; and Current Population Survey public data series
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.
The American Benefits Council, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the Investment Company Institute released a study this week entitled (no joke): Our Strong Retirement System: An American Success Story (pdf). College professors may want to bookmark this study for textbook examples of cherry-picked data, outdated findings, and hypothetical scenarios contradicted by real-world outcomes. To cite one example: the authors tout the fact that 401(k) participants with at least 30 years’ tenure with the same employer (an unrepresentative group to say the least) have significant savings in their accounts. The authors devote a later section of the report to the unsubstantiated claim that “the 401(k) is a good fit for America’s mobile workforce.”
Mostly, though, the report simply ignores the biggest economic challenge of our time: inequality. As Natalie Sabadish and I note in our Retirement Inequality Chartbook, it doesn’t matter if the “average” household has $86,000 saved in retirement accounts (pdf) if the median (50th percentile) household has only $2,500 while the 99th percentile household has $1.3 million (pdf). Simply put, Mitt Romney’s gargantuan IRA doesn’t make up for the fact that most families have virtually nothing saved for retirement, any more than Romney’s lavish Bain Capital compensation made up for the fact that most workers haven’t seen a real raise in years.
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.